The Waterfall Project: Roaring Brook Falls

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“The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”

“I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

Dear S,

You chose this trail with confidence on a day I felt uneasy.

Roaring Brook Falls was on a list we found online while waiting to see the chiropractor. This hike was just the two of us, on the Thursday that was actually your first day of summer vacation. The trail head is in a residential neighborhood, and the hike appeared to be short, based on the very vintage looking map a few feet from the spot where we parked our car.IMG_2274

I felt weird that morning because I had had one of those incredibly vivid dreams that happen right before you wake up. The dream was about your dad, and in it he needed help, and in it, you were grown and he was a child. I wrote the details down in a note on my phone; they seem incoherent right now, and the specifics will stay locked away until I can think them through.

We ate a small lunch in the car before we started our hike. You finished quickly and ran out to read the sign and decipher the map, while I ate celery sticks and Baby Bell cheese. (This is Day Four of my sugar free/ gluten free cleanse. I am a bit grumpy and I miss bread, ice cream, and doughnuts.)

We walked over a concrete bridge that cut across a pond (a reservoir, maybe?) and took pictures of the calm water. We looped around an abandoned tennis court- the vines creeping through the net and the weeds sprouting up from the cracks in the pavement seem like a too-perfect metaphor for leaving the residential and entering the woods.

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Rebecca Solnit has an incredible collection of essays called As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art and I read a bunch of them at the beginning of the summer. The first essay in the collection, “The Bomb: Lise Meitner’s Walking Shoes,” opens with the line, “A sentence, or a story, is a kind of path,” and that feels like an epigraph for this waterfall project.* Solnit goes on to write about Thoreau’s famous talk-then-essay “Walking,” which describes Nature as a holy place, and walking as a way of “being somewhere, but not necessarily getting anywhere,” because walking is great for thinking. She points out that there is shift, though, in Thoreau’s words. In his praise of wilderness and celebration of the West, he is, contrarily, also applauding man’s technological progress, which, of course, is synonymous with destruction. “I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progresses from east to west.” And here we are, you and I, walking through the forests of New England, not praising advances, but, in some ways, escaping the modern. Except that we aren’t. You play games on a handheld Nintendo while I drive our car to these trails. We have cameras and an iPhone in our pockets. And I am writing here, on a blog, from my laptop.

I feel a little like I am searching for Emerson’s transcendental moment, that old transparent eyeball that absorbs rather than reflects. I want to hike these trails and be fully with you, in the woods, exploring. And yet, as we’re walking I wonder- is it possible to absorb without reflection? It seems to me that Emerson must have reflected on all that he took in from nature in order to write his book. Perhaps then, like Thoreau, this waterfall project, or rather the writing about this waterfall project, is a looking back while moving forward. So far, we have been climbing up to look down.

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Our red dot trail took a sharp right turn and the hill was right there, daunting, maybe taunting. We stopped a lot. I worried for a moment that we didn’t have enough water. There were more than a few times that we asked each other whether we should go back or keep climbing. I was grateful I stuffed extra cheese in my front pocket and jammed the bug spray in my back pocket.IMG_2285
There was a rest area marked on the map. A spot near a tree where the grass has been flattened and where you can hear more than see the falls. We rested there for a bit and left our walking sticks leaned against a big rock. It almost looks like it could be the end of the trail, but I knew that it wasn’t and we went on. And then we found it. It was dark and quiet, the falls tumbled cold and soft onto some flat rocks. We took pictures. You seemed anxious. You said you were ready to go home.IMG_2296

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There are spots peppering the trail that whisper of youth. A massive stone fireplace near the base of the trail filled with charred logs, larger stumps in a half-circle in front, a few crushed cans of light beer on the ground. A narrow path that drops dramatically down to the water, where we heard the echoes of people laughing and splashing. And at the top of the path, where the falls begin to spill, a burnt-out circle, more ashes, a pair of underwear stuffed beneath a rock, a bottle cap.

When I was twenty-one I went cross-country with your dad. We had two-months worth of supplies crammed into the backseat of a Pontiac Sunfire, an atlas, and National Geographic’s Guide to National Parks. Your dad rode shotgun and I drove. We hiked The Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, Capital Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion in Utah, The Grand Canyon in Arizona, and the Redwoods in California. We were very young, perhaps reckless, and searching. There are pictures in a box in the attic and someday I will show them to you.

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The hike back down was harder than the hike up. I taught you to walk sideways, so your feet and the trail are perpendicular. You held onto my elbow for stability, white knuckled, and I guided you as best I could down the dry dust and skidding pebbles. It was both exhilarating and scary, I think.

Once we skidded back down to the tree line and righted our feet, you relaxed. The trees were dropping seeds so furiously that it sounded like it was raining. The noise was distracting, or maybe it was attracting, because at that moment we were solely and acutely aware of nature. That’s when I noticed that our trail ran parallel to an overgrown gulch. A scar on the land created, maybe, by a glacier or running water that no longer flows. It was a deep cavern filled with tall grass and tangled weeds- evidence that something massive and perhaps destructive, had shaped the land.

When we got home we ate strawberries in the hammock. I asked you what you thought about our hike, worried that the tricky terrain might have deterred you from wanting to try any more trails. You swung your arm over the side, absent-mindedly plucking at the bits of grass that grow under there, and said, “It was kinda tough, but the reward was beautiful.”

 

*Solnit, Rebecca. “The Bomb: Lise Meitner’s Walking Shoes.” As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Athens, GA: U of Georgia, 2003. Print.

The Waterfall Project

Southford Falls

The idea to write about these adventures was probably rolling around in my head when I first mentioned the idea of hiking waterfall trails to S earlier this spring. However, writing about our adventures in this space didn’t occur to me until last week, after we picked up his first set of photographs from the camera shop down the street.

S and I are on a mission to find and hike as many waterfall trails as we can this summer. He is nine. Nine, I am learning, is magical. Last weekend we talked about books for an hour while he got ready for bed. He tells us jokes that are for-real funny. He has grown wonderfully independent. And yet, he still grabs my hand instinctively when we cross the street, and he still looks to me when he needs reassurance or a hug. He also still thinks I’m cool. I want to hold on to nine for as long as I can.

I will have to backtrack my posts, because we’ve done two hikes already. The first one was at a park near where I grew up, a place I’ve hiked countless times and is filled with memories. M had taken the day off, so all three of us went, and the weather was incredible. Before we left we bought S one of those disposable film cameras. He took a whole roll of pictures and we dropped them off the next day. A week later we walked downtown and picked up the developed photos and took them with us to the café across the street so we could flip through them.

Twenty-five out of twenty-seven are blurry, most likely because he moved before the camera’s shutter was done closing its cheap, disposable eye. He was bummed- disheartened that his photos weren’t accurate representations of his memories, disappointed that his art didn’t align with his vision. We talked about ways he might hone his new craft, and we bought another camera so he can try again. I promised to find a photo album so he can catalog his photos and see how his skills improve.

Art. Nature. Motherhood.

I have decided to write about these trips so I can capture and consider all of the ways these three vital parts of my life intersect. I intend to write after each hike, so that perhaps my art can represent my vision.

I have decided to write about these trips in this space so that I will hold myself accountable for archiving our adventures, and so that S can have a written record of this summer, too.

And I have realized that by writing about these trips, I have found the way for me to hold on to nine for as long as I can.

“Let a body finally venture out of its shelter, expose itself in meaning beneath a veil of words. WORD FLESH. From one to the other, eternally, fragmented visions, metaphors of the invisible.” Julia Kristeva  

The Beautiful and the Grotesque

I have not written in this space in months. Weeks flew by, filled with teaching, reading, writing elsewhere, preparing, planning, parenting, thinking. And now, on the precipice of a new year, I have this small swarm of thoughts. As I wait for the moment where I can change the date, as if turning the page on the calendar really propels us away from the things we want to forget, I write to make sense of things, and share them here to make them real.

I have three siblings and all we all of have children, so we have collectively decided that Christmas gifts are to be given to kids only. Every year, one of my siblings breaks that rule and I feel like a jerk.

We always chip in on a gift for my mom. This year we got her a record player. Her boyfriend is a wonderful man, and also a talented musician, so she is spending more and more time going to concerts and listening to music.

Before the record player idea happened, I was sitting in our newly finished office thinking about my family and holiday gifts. Our office is a room we have been converting for a little over a year. We knocked the shelves out of the closet in the tiny bedroom next to ours, took down its folding doors, sheet-rocked (for the first time ever), and built recessed shelves and side-by-side desks. We repainted every wall and bit of trim, covered the peeling brown ceiling with layer after layer of white paint, stacked my books on the shelves on the left and arranged M’s pop culture sculptures on the shelves on the right, hung some art on the walls and a new roman shade on the window. It’s beautiful and sturdy and we are still swollen with pride because we created this space with our own hands.

An old painting of my mother’s hung in this room when it was still brown-ceilinged and wallpapered. She painted it when she was in high school– two blonde-haired fairies standing atop a huge spotted mushroom. The grass is vividly green, the fairies’ dresses are pink and blue and sweeping, their facial features vague. I don’t know how I came to own it. It hung in the kitchen at my old house, and it’s in the attic now, and for a brief moment I considered gifting it to my brother or one of my sisters or maybe giving it back to my mother for Christmas. I thought it might be funny to start a tradition between us now that we are grown; perhaps we could rotate it. Every Christmas it would get wrapped and passed along, the receiver would display it for a year, and then give it to another one of us. Then I thought about how my mother would laugh, but probably secretly hate it.

Before school let out for winter break, S finished an art project he’d been working on for weeks. He nearly burst through the front door of the school with it clutched tightly in his gloved hand. His eyes were shining as he carried it to the car. The way he confidently yet delicately placed it into my ungloved hand reminded me of how a nurse hands surgical tools to a doctor. I examined it closely, the glaze still a little tacky, as he explained to me every step of his artistic process.

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It’s an incense holder in the shape of a hotdog. I have it displayed on the coffee table, protected from the new kitten by two large, heavy vases. Every time I look at it I get a little teary. It fills me with pride. Love. And reminds me of the beauty in creation.

My mother and her boyfriend came over for dinner on Tuesday night. It was odd and wonderful to have her as a guest, because so often it’s just her and S and me, a quick dinner of spaghetti while watching cartoons. But this night, with the holiday air still spinning magically, we set out a cheese plate and had wine, played music, lit candles. I made homemade split pea soup, M made salad with marinated artichokes and sliced olives, and we baked the kind of buttermilk biscuits that have to be popped out of a cardboard tube by pressing on the seam with the back of a spoon.

When we finished dinner, my mom helped us clear the table. She stood next to me at the sink, flushed from her second glass of pinot, and put her head on my shoulder.

“I wanted to have dinner like this for a reason. And there’s no easy way to say this, so I am just going to say it. My mammogram came back abnormal. I have Stage One breast cancer. I am going to see the surgeon on the third. Frank is taking good care of me. I am going to be fine.”

And then she hugged me around my waist and we blinked away the wells in our eyes.

After the table was cleared, we set up Apples to Apples and played with S until almost ten o’clock. We laughed, hard and often, and I never wanted them to leave. But S had to get to bed and the kitchen was still a mess and I needed to talk to my husband and I wanted to cry huge tears into the sink, so I waved them away into the cold December night.

As I write this out now, hushed, like a secret, I wonder if art and motherhood and love and fear and life and death and creation and destruction are always this tangled, simultaneously beautiful and grotesque, concrete and ephemeral, and delivered in a silent punch from a gnarled and knotty fist.

Photographic Memory

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My paternal grandparents on their wedding day, 1950.

My paternal grandmother was in a car accident before I was born, or shortly after, which is why she had braces on her legs and walked with a crutch. Her maroon Buick was outfitted with a device that allowed her to drive using only her hands. She had been married two or three times, so her last name was different from ours, and every August she would take us, one at a time, back-to-school shoe shopping at a local shoe store called The Little Red School House. It was a squat building and dark inside, and although it was little, it was neither red nor a schoolhouse. Inside, a man with thick, nicotine-stained fingers that looked like my dad’s would press my socked foot into a cold metal cradle lined with black hatch marks to determine my shoe size. He always gave me a piece of hard Bazooka gum after ringing us up and then I would climb into the back seat of her modified car, sucking on the gum and then scraping the left-behind sugar from the Bazooka Joe comic strips with my teeth. We would go to Duchess for lunch, eat plain hot dogs and salty crinkle fries dipped in room temperature ketchup and my grandmother would ash her long Newports into the silver foil ashtray on the table.

I remember very little about the concrete facts of her life. I know she was from Rhode Island but I don’t know how she came to live in Connecticut. I don’t know how she met my grandfather or when they divorced. I do know she had three children and that my father was the youngest. I can’t recall where she worked or what her favorite food was. I can conjure up the image of the brick apartment building she lived in when we were small, that her couch was covered with a plastic slipcover, and that she collected bells and kept parakeets as pets.

I have a photograph of her and my grandfather, taken on their wedding day. It is one of those retouched old pictures, lightly painted, so it becomes something in-between a black-and-white photo and a color one. The hues are all pastel. Their teeth are very white. Nothing about it seems real, because the paint covers any natural lines and creases on their faces. When I look at it I see two young people I only knew as old people, people with traits that are familiar because they are mine, and foreign because they aren’t. As I stare at it longer I notice my grandmother’s left hand is curled, her fingers are pressing into her thigh. Why is she doing this? Was she nervous? What was she thinking about? This small pose makes me see the whole picture in a different way.

“A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

My grandmother slept over our house every Christmas Eve and would read us The Night Before Christmas before bed. She bought us red fleece one-piece “feetie-pajamas” and we would zipper ourselves in and line up neatly on the sofa. From far away, we probably looked like a holiday card. On Christmas morning my grandmother would watch us open gifts and then she would join us for Christmas dinner at my maternal grandparents’ house. She would follow us up their front stairs, one arm’s tricep cradled in the upper part of her crutch, her gait balanced by the weight of the overstuffed handbag slung over her other shoulder, where inside a dozen other cousins also called her Grandma Peggy, even though they weren’t related.

“The dominant ideology of the family, in whatever shapes it takes within a specific social context, superposes itself as an overlay over our more located, mutual, and vulnerable individual looks, looks which always exist in relation to [the]“familial gaze”—the powerful gaze of familiarity which imposes and perpetuates certain conventional images of the familial and which “frames” the family in both senses of the term.” –Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory

As time wore on and we grew up, I saw her less and less. I went several years or maybe a decade without visiting her at all. I don’t remember her at my father’s funeral, although I am sure she was there. I can’t recall whether we mailed each other holiday cards or if she ever called me on the phone. I do know that she developed emphysema but still smoked. That she had a stroke. That she had dementia. I also remember that she loved “Danny Boy” and I can still recall the sound of her laugh.

My mother is the one who called to let me know when my grandmother was in a nursing home not far from where I lived and that she was dying. I visited her on a chilly autumn evening. She was lying in a hospital bed with a corded remote. Her hands were in splints to prevent atrophy and she had tubes in her nose to help her breathe. Her skin was oddly smooth. She looked small and far away. I stood next to her bed and leaned over to kiss her forehead and say hello, my chubby infant resting on my hip, balancing my tilted frame. She looked up at me and smiled and called me by her daughter’s name and told me I had a pretty baby. He grabbed at her fingers and laughed.

 “Thus the life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History.” –Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography