Retrospective Reluctance

Retrospective Reluctance

Now that 2011 is behind us, I’d like to skip the retrospective and forget that there ever was a fire or a murder  or a flood; But the stores are still closed on Main Street, and Michael Martin’s sister just posted on my blog, and MacArthur is not the road it once was.

I search on the internet and the find that the only thing new about Richard is my own writing on this blog. What’s happening? It’s been almost half a year. Wouldn’t it be convenient to imagine Richard never existed?

But then I think about the Martins. How are they moving forward? How important is the trial to them? When is the trial?

(I was just called for jury duty; but not for a criminal case–Thank God.)

Yesterday, I came upon a poem about being in prison. My son was home sick and asked if I’d read to him while he ate his soup. I picked up the book that I found at the Marlboro Book Swap last year, and blew off the dust. I had intended to read excerpts from A Call to Character on a regular basis, but the practice died long ago.

“Let’s find something about kindness,”I say.

My son smirks with embarrassment.  Just a moment earlier he snapped at me in that sardonic “tween-age” fashion.  In my best NVC, I let him know it stung. With his big heart, it pains him to know that he’s hurt me, even if he can’t help himself.

“Darn, there’s no section on Kindness, only Compassion” I say. “But you’ve got plenty of that.”

“Read anything,” he says, delighted to have me seated beside him all day.

I flip through the stories and plays and fables, and a poem catches my eye in the Self-discipline category. I begin reading… to myself.

“Read aloud,” my son begs.

“This one is about being in jail; I don’t think you’ll like it.”

“Read it,” he says; and so I proceed:

Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison

...To wait for letters inside,
to sing sad songs,
or to lie awake all night staring at the ceiling
                              is sweet but dangerous.
Look at your face from shave to shave,
forget your age,
watch out for lice
                       and for spring nights,
       and always remember
              to eat every last piece of bread--
also, don't forget to laugh heartily.
And who knows,
the woman you love may stop loving you.
Don't say it's no big thing:
it's like the snapping of a green branch
                                             to the man inside.
To think of roses and gardens inside is bad,
to think of seas and mountains is good.
Read and write without rest,
and I also advise weaving
and making mirrors.
I mean, it's not that you can't pass
        ten or fifteen years inside
                                       and more--
               you can,
               as long as the jewel
               on the left side of your chest doesn't lose its luster!

(Nazim Hikmet)

Kelly Salasin, January 2012

ps. My apologies to those of you who clicked the link to MacArthur Rd above. I couldn’t help myself. That song won’t leave my mind today, especially as it rains on top of our long-awaited snow.

The Road Half Taken

The Road Half Taken

Route 9, after Irene; Marlboro, VT; Kelly Salasin, all rights reserved

Yesterday I drove down my hobbled road, snow encrusted, and turned onto Route 9 for the morning commute to Brattleboro–and didn’t give it a second thought when the flow of traffic stopped, and became single lane, as if it was as natural an occurrence as the mindless speed.

I was surprised to find myself relieved rather than annoyed by the delay.

“They haven’t abandoned us,”  I said to my empty car.

In this post-Irene world, road work had become the norm, and we’ve appreciated every moment of it; but then they were gone, leaving our roads were delightfully “passable,” and eerily unfinished.

Last week over a foot of snow arrived before the plow poles were anchored along the dirt roads or the guard rails finished on Route 9.

I don’t need to explain the significance of guard rails, but here’s the thing about plow poles–they show us where there is and isn’t a road.  When everything is white, it’s hard to tell, particularly when what was once road, no longer is, because it was half-eaten away by water, and restored, but never fully so.

The lower half of my road is one of those. A few weeks back when they put in the temporary bridge at Neringa, someone dropped a lot of rubble on the sides of MacArthur so that the truck filled with dirt could  make it to the site without toppling over. I bet the rubble is fun in a truck. Not so much in a Honda Civic.

When I can’t stomach the bumps, I take the back way to Brattleboro. It’s all dirt, and it’s slower, but it’s predictable, though the potholes are propagating and the ruts where one road meets another are deepening.

Though it’s been two months since Irene, I find myself having flashbacks on this particular day–hauntings from the night we drove home after the flood.

I can see the ghost of a car dangling into a crater near Robb Family Farm. I can see Ames Hill strewn with rocks. I can feel the fear that we might not make it.

So many roads were taken by Irene and so many still hobble. Some friends have only just had their roads repaired, while others have had repairs washed away by the rain. Stopping for a work crew, in the middle of the morning commute, is a comfort now instead of an annoyance; something I once took for granted; like the permanence of highways and country roads.

Kelly Salasin, November 2011

For more on Irene & Vermont roads, click here.

Occupy Brattleboro

Occupy Brattleboro

Occupy Brattleboro, October 15, 2011, Kelly Salasin

On Saturday I joined the Occupy Movement in the comfort of my own town park in Brattleboro, Vermont. “What are we doing here?” my eleven-year old asked, “This isn’t Wall Street.”

I explained that this was our way of showing our support for what started in NYC. My son looked around the small park and noticed his school nurse, some younger classmates, and our neighbors from up the road. I introduced him to the midwife who assisted us with his older brother’s birth. “Helena came from across the state to be here,” I said, as she and I shared a sweet embrace.

Some of our South Pond friends were gathered too. Sparrow was there with her new baby, and Ted and his wife were there with their colleague from Nicaragua. Charlie and Kate told us that both of their sons, in different parts of the country, were gathering today. Students and teaching colleagues of my husband were also well represented.

“There are Occupy Movements in Rome and London this weekend as well,” he added.

“They’re happening over the world,” Kate echoed.

While we talked, young people led chants, while others of all ages stood by the road with signs. The thumbs up and solidarity honking was non-stop. People rolled down their windows to cheer. A local lawyer. Truck drivers. Teenagers. Old guys. BMW’s. Beaters. Delivery vans. NY plates, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts.

After an hour, my son walked into town to spend his pocket change, while my husband and I occupied a blanket apart from the crowd. A man from New Hampshire dropped down beside us, saying that he needed to soak up my “peace” vibe.  I chuckled to myself, imagining an entire movement of people lying in the grass under the sun.

This guy had been in Boston for the rallies there, where it was much more intense, and he said that he preferred the energy here. After a few moments of silence, he was up again, off to talk with Health Care activists and 350-ers and some young men shouting about Ron Paul.

“If Ron Paul were running this country, those kids would never have gotten to this rally,” my husband said. “Our roads would still be missing.

After 3 hours, I was ready to go. I wanted to get a bite to eat before the literary event with Ken Burns and David Blistein at the museum. There was no specific mention of Occupy Brattleboro at this large gathering, not even by the local organizer, but she did reference the fire and the floods and the murders. I appreciated that.

I also appreciated Ken’s message that we have to see ourselves in each other, that it’s our arrogance that makes us think that our views are uniquely right or that our times are special or that we are living our lives more fully than the generations before us.  We each have our individual stories, he said; we each contain generosity and greed, sincerity and hypocrisy.

His friend David Blistein echoed these thoughts, saying that our righteousness prevented us from truly “feeling” our history, or seeing the other side. It doesn’t allow something new to happen, he said.

I couldn’t wait to get into the discussion during the Q& A, but there was more. David read from his new book, Real Time, with the voice of Harriet Tubman who had this to say to our self-absorbed generation:

At least those people knew they were slaves… (unlike the)people in the so-called ‘free’
world today. Because they plainly are not aware of their chains…
 Getting up at dawn to travel in a little metal box just so you  can spend the whole day in another little box? That’s slavery. Having to look at the words on your computer before even saying hello to your children? That’s slavery. Sitting in front of your TV for hours at a time? That’s slavery. Thinking that the wealth in your bank account is more important than the wealth in your heart. That’s slavery. Living with a husband or wife whom you’ve forgotten how to love. That’s slavery.

It occurred to me that although “our times” seem so divided and alternately so “enlightened,” there is an arrogance in distinguishing ourselves from the past.  It’s what Ken Burn’s calls, “the tyranny of the present.” But I didn’t whole-heartedly agree with either man’s view, and so when it was time, I shot my hand into the air.

“As a memoirist,” I said,  “I do see the same history repeat itself in my family with the most uncanny details; But I’ve also seen it evolve. Each generation may pick up the same story, but they also make it a little better. I see the same evolution with Occupy Wall Street.  They’ve created the space for something new to emerge–from the people.”

I could have wrestled these thoughts into the wee hours of the night with these two, but hundreds of people were ready to descend upon them, and I had a husband waiting across town with a glass of chardonnay and a late night burger.

It had been a good day in Brattleboro, made up of everything I love and admired about her.  She had survived the fire, the murders, the floods and was still doing what she does best–engaging people in what matters to them.

It wasn’t just the Literary Festival, or the Occupation at Wells Fountain Park. It was the general hum of the town–among the staff behind the Co-op’s deli line or Amy’s bakery; in the arm chairs of the library; on the lawn of Brattleboro Savings and Loan with Fish from WKVT; at the newly restored Latchis with the broken marquee, still offering up opera and jazz; and down the street at the youth theater (NEYT) exploring homophobia with their  latest play.

Past, present and future, the people in Brattleboro examine the chains, on all of us, and creatively endeavor to sing and read and gather to set us free.

(p.s. sometimes I think a little arrogance is in order to claim the change we want to see, especially if when its balanced by compassion and humility in the face of so much pain.)

Kelly Salasin, October 2011

The previous post on the Occupy Movement was: Occupy WHAT?

Testimony to our State

Testimony to our State

Rutland Herald
Letter to the Editor:

Thank you Vermont:

I am a Virginia National Guard soldier. I have been in Vermont for three weeks. I have driven hundreds of miles through your state and seen first-hand the devastation caused by Tropical Storm Irene.

First off, my condolences go out to all those affected by the storm. But what affected me most were the people. From the first day and… the first plate of brownies, the local community has been so supportive, thankful and generous that we were all in awe.
We are accustomed to “Southern hospitality,” but the people of Vermont have taken it to a new level. Everywhere we go the locals stop and thank us, but I really just want to thank you.

This gratitude goes out to the hundreds of thumbs-up we have received, and especially the little girl who gave me that great smile at a stoplight and a little boy that hugged one of our guys and said, “Thank you, Army man.”

To the people at the Spartan Arena that graciously allowed us lodging and the servers at the Armed Forces Reserve Center that fed us morning and evening meals, we thank you. To Mark, Jen, Tim and the rest of the volunteers, we thank you. For all the plates of cookies, brownies and boxes of personal items — and those tasty Vermont apples — we thank you.

But most of all, thank you, Vermont, for showing how people can pull together in times of need. You were all so generous, gracious and hospitable. I can only hope that if this ever happens in Virginia, or anywhere else in this great country, the people would act the same way. When I leave here in a few days, I will take with me a piece of Vermont and know that Vermont will be just fine thanks to her people.

157th Engineer Platoon
Virginia Army National Guard
labor of love

labor of love

Route 9 reopened

I can’t drive Route 9 without a swell of love for the labor that has restored our world in the past few weeks since Irene hijacked our streams. At each turn of the highway, I see orange cones where the guard rail once stood, and I know that a section of road was washed away there too.

To say that a “section was washed away” doesn’t do justice to the calamity of Irene. Entire segments of Route 9 simply vanished, roots and all, leaving cavernous holes in their place. The span of each missing stretch of road can be measured by the new pavement–ten to 100 foot stretches–sobering, if nothing else.

I’ve only been back on Route 9 as a driver for a week, but it’s been repaired enough for passage for at least two. That first week it opened was rough going, with dirt patches along the way, and road crews littered about.

On the few occasions where I was a passenger in someone else’s vehicle (due to a post-flood carpool), my stomach churned with each new turn of devastation–a bridge missing, a hillside vacant, a stream bed ten times its original size.

I worried aloud for the safety of drivers–those who didn’t know to slow down, and those who might be hurt because of that. I worried about rain, and new wash outs, and dampened spirits.

I kept to the backroads. They were familiar. And dependable. Some had been destroyed, but their repair seemed simpler, more straightforward;  and I knew how to drive their earthy contours; and felt safer because of their realness.

And still, I was drawn back to the nightmare of Route 9, to its curves and climbs and horrors, just as I was tonight. At 6:00 pm, the road crews were gone, and the setting sun made purple mountain majesty of the sky, transforming everything, even the mangled roads, into… beauty.

Rubble strewn highway at MacArthur and Route 9

As I approached my turn at Route 9 and MacArthur, I saw that most of the rubble which has defined it has been cleared away; and I almost miss it.

My sister comes Friday and I want her to see what pain has been inflicted upon us.  And yet, I’m equally afraid for her safety as she drives up my half-eaten dirt road at night. It’s narrower than ever and there’s no room for cars to pass in both directions at once. And what if it rains?

Tonight, I climb MacArthur without another driver in sight, and notice new gravel poured into the stream side of the road. I wonder where it came from, and how long it will take before they finish the job that overwhelms me just thinking about it.

There’s a large yellow truck at the top of the hill, and I slow down to take a look at the work that began yesterday at Neringa. Three weeks ago, a hundred wedding guests were stranded there when the bridge across the Whetstone collapsed.

Neringa wedding guests lining up for transport out of Vermont.

Rumor has it that the dam at the pond was the cause of the flooding down MacArthur and onto Route 9 and down into Bratttleboro, but I’m here to tell you, that dam is still intact. It’s how the guests crossed the pond and secured passage home to Canada or California or Massachusetts and Lithuania. It’s how the caretaker and his family get access to the car that’s parked in our driveway across the road. (Their truck is still stranded on the other side.)

There’s no sign of a bridge yet, but Bennett and the operator of that huge yellow excavator are talking, like men do, figuring out what’s what.

The trees that fell across the bridge were removed yesterday morning, and the monstrous culverts that ended up downstream were retrieved in the afternoon; so perhaps replacing them is next.

I’ve never thought too much about road making and bridge fashioning until now. I never thought too much about watersheds and erosion and stream redirection either. But for the past three weeks, I’ve been intrigued by every bit of it. Every bit.

When it doesn’t make me cry or cringe, driving on these roads makes my heart swell with every labor of love.

Kelly Salasin, Marlboro, Vermont

For more on Irene in Vermont, click here.