home as a purgatory of remembrance

oil and rust iii

Here I am sitting in the belly of it: the thick floor to ceiling windows that guard from the outside world line the container. The winds that ruffle the floating plastic across the runway don't hit me, I just watch from within. The windows that allow the sun in to warm my face, my swollen and tear stained cheeks, eyes red. The belly of the beast is an airport that jets us across mountains, too fast past fields of the plants and rocks that can tell us their stories. Productivity, access, interconnectedness. The irony of being able to visit, see, vision and move. Often I think interconnectedness is a good thing. It is, and and it isn't. Rushing too fast past. I thought I learned this lesson on the camino, where, it all hit me as my grandmother was on her deathbed thousands of miles away. The pain of my feet was the pain of the earth necessary to feel. Feeling it heavy as the cars moved too fast avoiding the connection required to really witness a place in all its subtleties, for the sake of unending productivity.

I sit here in deep heart sadness as I leave 'home.' The place I grew up. To do what, I ask myself in these moments. Time is so fast out there. Wander across distant and wild lands in search of greater truth? What is more true than the heart, I sit here and wonder, as my chest is achey and vulnerable. A space I rarely really let out and spread all over me like a uniform, seemingly aloof and distant a suit I wear on the regular. Yet my heart resides in so many places, its an overwhelming lot to make any sense of it all. At least it is feeling. It is acknowledgement of the value of places, things, people, the air.

To observe myself now is strange, after all the years of what I went through being a weirdo from the south, a complicated place. This newfound attachment to sense of place here is the most overwhelming pull of heartstrings. I feel it in so many lands. The irony of so much travel, is the upheaval of what you thought you always knew: to the point where home seems like a calm respite or an undramatic boring field of corn compared to the epic landscapes and cultures of other places. I feel the land's story deeply, and for the characters that play on that land, I have empathy and love. But what is it about home that pulls me the most? The humid thick air and buggy ditches of elder, bidens, oxe-eye daisy? The undramatic rows of soil destroying GMO crops. What is it about those shapes on the land that pull me? I feel the land crying, and I cry. The layers of memory laid down on this soil and the ghosts of my genetic past, however joyful and shameful, are imbedded here and I feel them everywhere. 

Driving the familiar country roads, enjoying the quiet hills of tall green grass and young native persimmons trying to grow up in the crowd. The sweet gum balls on the forest floor. The red clay soil between your toes as you walk into Kerr lake, sand and clay mixed, always a familiar and squeamish sensation. The insects with their cadence on loud evenings you can barely speak on the back porch, with an evening beer in a rocking chair.

My family are these characters that live in a different time and place, it seems. Cooper, a highly intelligent black herding dog would love you if you threw him sticks all day. He loves the land too, and my dad. My dad, loves the land, the trees, the flowers, the fresh vegetables. He'd grow things just to see them grow. He loves it even more when he can give away the food to people. He secretly still enjoys the old ladies that live alone outliving their husbands that call him up asking for advice on how to save their ancient boxwoods in front of their big white houses. Or maybe he planted them 20 years ago and still feels a sense of responsibility to keep them alive. He is usually outside all day. Despite all of his bad habits, the fresh air and hard work keeps him stout, leathered and vibrant. He always said that he felt better outside, that he wanted to make the world a more beautiful place with plants. He spent many back breaking years shoveling mulch, planting non-fruiting cherries in front of banks, cutting grass, pruning forsythia into those english garden box shapes, potting annual flower baskets, driving to the mountains to buy Christmas trees and spraying the crab grass in those neat beds with roundup so he wouldn't have to bend over at each job week after week pulling. Now, he grows food. He doesn't spray things as much. He uses organic amendments. He retired a couple years ago. He seems happier. He always grew food but now that's his main focus.  He planted his fruit trees over 10 years ago after going to Monticello on a whim and getting these heirloom varieties that Thomas Jefferson planted. He doesn't think these things out sometimes. 30 were planted back then and they sure do get cedar rust easily. His farm is covered in Juniperus virginiana, the Eastern Red Cedar, it would be hard to avoid. His farm, our farm really, as he always tells me its mine too.

For awhile now, we've connected over our love of the land. It is a bittersweet agony, as his bad habits cause me pain I decide to hold and take on. I worry about the shadow of death that follows his stock around, creeping being the hot peppers, the worn old tractor with scratched red paint, the rusty shovels. The realization of that ever present and haunting shadow, keeps me in the now, keeps me practicing patience, compassion and reveling in the joy of getting my hands dirty with him. I mess up and get mad at the bad things, can't help but get triggered and try to sit with it, learn from it and enjoy the moments of connection. 

This past week, together, we did one of my favorite things. Working in the garden. Bent over in the field, dirt on the hands, back sore and achey. Sun burning the shoulders. We pulled up my dad's garlic crop. I got him to start it by bringing him seed over the years and he has exploded it into a full fledged collection. A seed planted is so powerful. I remind myself of this when every day feels slow like molasses making the changes in myself I want to make. And, the changes I want to reverberate into the world don't happen overnight and the way you imagine them ever. Being easy on myself, on ourselves, on my dad I tell him as he stresses over not being able to quit his smoking habit via hypnotism. Be easy, things don't happen in the straight rows we imagine, like we see in the soybean and tobacco fields. Its much less linear than that. I learn this from travel. I learn this from my garlic harvest with my dad, as we for hours tell stories bent over and pulling grass as we go. The seed I planted has grown to this beautiful thing, a ritual of beauty. My dad has been a source of lesson after lesson in the things I need to learn most about patience, healing and trust. These moments I cherish the most, I will always remember. Tending the land together. The times I have loved the most in my life have been when I tend the land with others. 

I think about the pain that must have been made when my ancestors had to leave their parents and start anew here. Colonizing, coming here and taking land from the natives, but running away, seeking something better than what they could get, venturing into unknown, scary and totally new territory. I get the English gardens now, the neat square lines and trimmed boxwoods. To place a garden around the home, the center of the universe, the farm spiraling out. The farm, a source of income and support needed for survival. To have the garden of order in the land of the new, was something of magic. A balm on the trauma. The rejection of the wild in part is a response to the uprooting from homeland. Is there a connection between the trauma of upheaval and the ability to cause trauma to others? I think about the humanitarian crisis' around the world, the refugees, the displaced people everywhere. The trauma that is being caused by war, the reverberations that will be felt for generations. As it has here.

My papa is getting to where he really can't walk. It's hard to see. I feel conflicted. Should I go back home? I spent the last three summers in a kind of purgatory, not making commitments elsewhere, heading back home in the summers, to be around to spend time with my papa, to consider living at home again. To be spit out and realize that it can't happen, at least right now. But this time, I go back to visit, and he is considerably deteriorated. Needing constant assistance, when he used to be so independent. Yet, he still contains his stories, he still references the war, the days of old. He remembers all those things. I have recordings but, it still doesn't feel like enough. There's so much that will be lost when he goes. I have to be okay with that project potentially collapsing at any moment, as he is fragile and could fall and break something. That would be incredibly hard to recover from at his 93 years of age. His incredible will to live, is amazing. His funny quirks, the need for order in his home, the way things are done, where they are placed, we are all discovering is more intense that we realized. Maybe it has something to do with the war, and being in a German prison camp, and not having control over your life and death, over your body or food. 

But some humor for a moment, please.

On the side of every melancholy coin is some humor. The other day, my uncle, mom and I were talking late at my Papa's house, after a long day. We talked about what it was like to have one bathroom in a multi-generational house, on a tobacco farm. My great grandma Smith lived with my grandparents, even when I was a kid. She would spend an hour in the bathroom at a time, and the house only had one bathroom. People would complain about how long it took her, but she was in her 90's, just like my papa is slow now, my great-grandma was slow. Things take awhile when you're old. My uncle said that there were many a time he had to go so bad that he had to venture into the horse barn and use the bathroom with the cow patties, or go out hidden in the tobacco fields and try to cover it up with the dusty dirt so no one would see it, smell it or step on it. I mean, with how much tobacco growing takes from the soil, the fertilization can't hurt. We take for granted the ability to have multiple bathrooms in homes, much less bathrooms without dirt floors or a hole in the ground. Now my Papa takes an hour in there, but that's age and elder hood, its never really graceful for anyone, and we have to accept the reality of that part of life. It takes some humility and humor to watch your parents need you like a child does, it takes humility and humor to get old and accept the help.  My papa and uncle have always been jokesters. My papa would do funny things with his false teeth in front of me as a kid to make me laugh. My uncle would play jokes on us. In moments where things feel hard, we have to tell these stories to lighten our spirits. 

So now, the journey back, the mixed feelings, the realization that every day is irreplaceable. Home is always home. It will always be there, even though things will change, people will pass, time is the ever mover. Attachment is suffering, but its okay to be attached and feel the feelings, but also learn from those feelings and  pour them out into the world. What to do with it all?

I'm about to embark on more months of travel, and as much as I want to curl in a ball of regularity sometimes, I must take it all on with grace and appreciation. And also realize, at any moment, it may be best for me to go back home and help my family out with papa as he gets more unable to help himself. 


All photographs taken by me in Mecklenburg and Lunenburg counties, south-central Virginia. June 2017.