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March 2016

E.B. White in the Car Park

It all began well enough. While my wife and daughter were shopping, I propped myself up in the car, in a rectangular space touched by the spare shadow of a tree, and began to read. The book, Poems & Sketches of E.B. White, was a somewhat shelf-worn hardback, one I was delighted to find for $4.50 the other evening, plucked off the shelf where it would no doubt languish for months in the dusty poetry section. It is not, after all, Stuart Little.

First up was a sketch by White entitled "The Hotel of the Total Stranger," a languid tale of a traveler, a Mr. Volente, checking into an unairconditoned Manhattan hotel. My eyes grew heavy. The sounds of traffic wafted in. A desert breeze teased. I lost my place, re-read a few paragraphs, repositioned myself, and read: "New York lay stretched in midsummer languor under her trees in her thinnest dress, idly and beautifully. . . . The trucks and the sudden acceleration and the flippant horn and the rustle of countless affairs somewhat retarded by the middle-of-summer pause in everything, these were the sounds of her normal breathing. . . ." Ah, metaphor.

A bird just flew into the grill of a Ford Explorer, parked catty-cornered to me, reconsidered, and flew off. I looked away, embarrassed for him. I dove back in.

Mr. Volente is remembering, his cab ride from Penn Station to his hotel a revisiting of personal history: the Child's restaurant where the waitress had spilled a glass of buttermilk on his blue suit, a catastrophe he had spun into a magazine article, the square where a small dog had been struck by a cab and killed, a cafe off Washington place where he and his wife dined the night they married, the room above the fire escape where the air was recycled: "In those days, he thought, there was no air conditioning: the same air remained in the small rooms and moved about, distributed by a fan, from table to table with the drifting smoke, until the whole place gathered over a period of months and years an accumulation of ardor and love and adventure and hope, a fine natural patina on floors and walls, as a church accumulates piety and sorrow and holiness."

I had to pause there and look out over the cars toward the mountains and consider the church, walls caked with piety, layered with sorrows, enobled by prayers, aged like fine wine to holiness. I closed my eyes. The book fell closed. . .

"Mr. West?"

"Um. . . What? What was that?"

"Mr. West, we are here. Your hotel?"

I looked up to see a short stub of a man peering at me from an open door, a streetscape out the window, a city.

"My hotel?"

"Yes sir."

I closed my eyes and wished it away. A dream. Rubbing my eyes I opened them on the book, picking up where I left off. Outside, a baby chattered, his mother fussily stowing him in the car. Birds twittered, decorated cars, and made off to laugh at their work. An aging biker revved his bike on Skyline, as if to hold off aging. Seventy-five year old words float in the shiny new of suburbia, seemed alien to a parking lot of late model cars.

Mr. Volente. Mr. Volente is remembering. There is something here about the "lean and tortured years," about mornings alone spent in the apartment straightening up after the others had left for work, rinsing the dirty cereal-encrusted bowls, taking the percolator apart and putting it together again, and then "sinking down on the lumpy old couch in the terrible loneliness of midmorning, sometimes giving way to tears of doubt and misgiving (his own salt rivers of doubt), and in the back room the compensatory window box with the brave and grimy seedlings struggling, and the view of the naked fat lady across the yard."

Mr. Volente, I say, I did not need that last image.

I flip over to the last page of the book, because if nothing else a book, particularly one assembled with deliberation as was this, should begin well and end well, and because I need another image for my mind, and I land on "The Crack of Doom," which seems promising if foreboding.

I glance at my watch. Will I have time to traverse the crack of doom before my wife and daughter finish their spree? I decide to go for it and plunge in.

Earth is experiencing atmospheric disturbances. Elm trees die, a "loss considered unfortunate but not significant." Tropical storms increase. Sleeping sickness breaks out. Scientists figure out that a new disease, which affects people's necks in middle age, came from the habit of feeding orange juice to very young babies, in vogue around 1910. A man named Elias Gott discovers that all the trouble is due to radio waves. Eventually, the radio waves threw the earth off orbit, where it crashed into a fixed star, going up in "brilliant flame," a flash "noticed on Mars, where it brought a moment of pleasure to young lovers; for on Mars it is the custom to kiss one's beloved when a star falls."

But what this apocalypse has to do with the crack of doom is unknown. Yet I want to flip back to the beginning, tell Mr. Volente that it doesn't matter anyway, that it will end in one "brilliant flame." But I don't. Why ruin his melancholy? Somewhere in this story is an inside joke, I imagine, yet it is outside to all, its contemporary readers all dead.

The end flap says White is "witty, wise and pensive." Yet I am put off, as whoever wrote it never knew the man. The author of The Elements of Style would never have left off a comma after "wise" lest he be haunted by William Strunk. I take my pen out and edit it, insert the comma, and restore order to the world.

I shut the book and settle back into my lumpy seat, my mid-day rest, let Mr. Volente remember, turn the radio on, and prepare for the end of the world.


An Eno Walk

IMG_4660About 200 feet into the park, down a rutted trail that skirted the ridge above the river, she spotted a yellow flower just inside the guard rail, its glory ephemeral and slight, bowing as if apologetic for interrupting what was still winter. “I think it’s a trillium,” she said, stooping for a photo, composing the flower as would one engaged in portraiture. It was alone, a promise of more, over-eager for Spring.

I kept the word.

We crossed the Eno on the suspension bridge, jostled by a pack of scouts, swaying over the rapid flow below. On the far bank, we began the ascent of Cox Mountain; the namer, we thought, prone to exaggeration. The trail does lead nearly straight up for a 270 foot climb in elevation, as if to insist on its claim of height — a slight mountain, if in fact it is, or a large hill, yet enough to wind us. That there are no switchbacks is a giveaway: it is a pretend mountain, after all, yet we went along, believing.

“I think we have been here before,” I said.

“I told you.” She had told me, yet I thought it was another trail that day, some five years ago now. Then, we entered from another side, nearly alone, an electric buzz in the background, amorous cicadas a clearly excited amateur entomologist told us, migrants passing through, held up by love. We thought it the sound of the high tension electrical lines over the clearing, yet it was of another tension.

Overhead, squirrels chatter and play chase. One sits on a branch above our heads gnawing noisily on a pine cone. As she approaches, it scrambles father up to a slender promontory from which it peers down, the cone still attached.

Down, down we go until we stand on the alluvial banks of the river, the sun dancing on the water. I lean against a gnarled hickory tree, peer at the river’s run through an eyelet between its twin trunks. I snap a photo of her there by the water, taking a photo of the water’s play on rocks, and then turn to go when the stillness is interrupted by strangers.

I need her along, as I have trouble slowing my gait enough to observe. This is not about destination but journey, about slowing down to let the world seep in. And I need it.

Returning, at one point we follow the old track of the Hillsborough Coach Road, and I imagine the horses and wagons of farmers and grist and saw mill owners traversing it. They were not the first. According to Adam Morgan, whose North Carolina’s Wild Piedmont: A Natural History is a wealth of cogent insight, in 1701 English naturalist John Lawson met up with a group of Native Americans in the area headed by a one named Enoe Hill. The Indians were pushed out, the land logged, and over 30 gristmills built, the ruins of some of which still remain. So, the landscape has been altered.

According to Morgan, the steep ravines and high bluffs that seem so natural did not exist before the Europeans came. Rather, what they saw was a valley of meandering streams and wetlands, the etched out valley bottoms the product of mill dam sedimentation. And then the forests are constantly changing, the pines pushed out by hardwoods. Still, altered or not, it’s beautifully dressed with oak, hickory, mountain laurel, and rhododendron. Some type of fungi, a parasite, juts from the bark of one hardwood I rested my hand on, the tiny shelves catching raindrops which birds then harvest.

It wasn’t trillium after all but yellow trout-lily, all of which I later learn thanks to Audubon. Trout because the mottled leaves reminded someone of brook trout, though their aroma is far better. I learn that they live in colonies, some near 300 years old, like a communion of the saints, their sagging posture a precursor for asexual reproduction: a “dropper,” a tubular stem that grows out of a corm, penetrates deep into the soil before another corm is formed at its tip and the stem connecting the daughter and parent corm dies, an umbilical cord no longer needed.

The cicadas have a better time of it. Apparently.


The Remedy for Amnesia

"The well of your incompleteness runs deep, but make the effort to look away from yourself and to look toward Him."

(Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest)

If you are anything like me (and I suspect you are), there are many things about life or about yourself that you can't seem to change or that simply don't change. Perhaps it is a person who you desire to see come to faith, or a habit you wish to break or adopt. Maybe it is writ large yet elusive, like peace in the Middle East or the end of ISIS. You have reached down into the well of your being, summoned all your resources, done all you can, and yet nothing. No lasting weight loss. No coming to faith of that friend. Not a glimmer of peace. Then, a seed of doubt or distrust is planted. Can God do anything? Will He do anything? There is a chipping away of trust.

Chambers says "look away from yourself and look toward Him." He has the living water. He has what we need. How? I tell myself these truths regularly: First, I affirm that He is God Almighty not just God my friend, that He can do anything. Second, I affirm that He desires my good and that He has a good plan for the universe and will bring it to fruition in His good time. Third, I remind myself of what He has already done and is already doing, cultivating a posture of thankfulness. Fourth, I persist in praying for the thing I desire over and over and over again, like the widow before the judge, not because He is hard of hearing or too busy but because He desires that I come, until He either answers my prayer or reorders my desires. And fifth, I read scripture, the record of his dealings with the likes of me, to remind myself that every kind of plea I may make is the kind already answered by God.

No, honestly, I am not regular enough at these things. I offer suffer temporary amnesia. I forget the truth. It's likely for that reason that forgetful Israelites repeated the stories of deliverance to themselves so often, stories of exodus and victory. It's the reason God began so many conversations with "Remember." It's why the Psalmist, after verse upon verse of woe and complaint comes round to a chorus of God's enduring love, faithfulness, and redemption.

Across nearly a century, Oswald Chambers' voice echoes: "The thing that approaches the very limits of His power is the very thing that we as disciples of Jesus ought to believe He will do." He can do anything, and He will. Look to Jesus, Chambers says. Look to Jesus.