Thursday, September 19, 2013

Lessons from Hillsdale, No. 2

Hillsdale is a quiet campus. It's small. It's isolated. It's beautiful.

Today is a grey day; everything's quieter, muffled by the mists. On my walk back to the dorm after my only Thursday class (an 8 o'clock) to return to sleep, I paused in the Barber House garden, as I often do. It's a remarkably lovely place, set between the two freshman girls' dorms: a little stone cottage housing the office of the park ranger for the Arboretum, suitably surrounded by sublimely lovely gardens. I'd never ventured into this particular nook of it, but my heart leaped within me when I saw a stone bench and remembered the book of poems I'd stowed in my bag that morning, perhaps out of a sort of impulse to keep my econ textbook company. It was a Billy Collins kind of moment.

Billy Collins' poems are matter-of-fact and impressionistic. I hear them in a lethargic, vaguely self-deprecating voice, a melange of absent-minded self-consciousness, whimsy with a measured tread. They usually begin in a weather-discussing sort of tone, and more often than not you're about to flip to the next page when the quiet violence of the last words, sometimes caustic, sometimes sweet, makes your eyelids fly open and you pause, sucking in your breath and glancing around at

the small plants singing
with lifted faces            


The town of Hillsdale has more life in it than most of us were expecting. I've ventured in a few times now (it's not a long walk, through campus and past old houses with small, overgrown yards; across railroad tracks). One outing was to the Farmer's Market, a small affair but wholesome. The outing before that was a broader exploration. We started with lunch at the Sahara Deli on the edge of town.
Lo and behold, what we had been told by upperclassmen was true: within the unpretentious confines of the local Grab N Go is a world-class Mediterranean deli, owned by a Manhattan native named Mohammed Ali, selling shawarma wraps and feta by the pint. We picnicked next to the parking lot, in a field of course grass behind a red complex of buildings that looked like a cross between a farm and a rail station. The air was thick and warm, and our wraps were warm and spicy.

It was a strange meal, we all remarked. To me, it typified the difference between "metropolitan" and "urban". The place is unpolished, far from the high street, but it felt like home to me, full of the quirky, cobbled-together, real-life vivacity of life in the city.

We continued on into the historical center of town.
First, the bookstore Volume One, with its cat, its Buddhas, its plethora of books from the 1800s that wouldn't have lasted the night in a Minneapolis shop, and its time machine (1950s refrigerator?).

I took note of the FOR SALE OR LEASE sign in the window of the Keefer House, a broad-stepped old building with a hefty lantern hanging above a front door of glass and wood, wide windows and an entanglement of metal steps and railings running around and beneath it. This, I dream, is the first future home of The Brimming Quill Coffee House (and performance venue, bookstore, artist market, gallery, community center... the whole bit). It could be the culture hub this town is yearning for! It could be a place of education and beauty, good coffee and fresh air, connected to craftsmen and creators around the world, the first plant of what could become a wide-reaching Brimming Quill cooperative, with sister hubs around the country and the world...

Hillsdale is a quiet town. It's small. It's isolated.

It gives us room to breathe. To create the space. To find things and decide how to order them in our imaginations. The whole story isn't given; it doesn't course over me with the pungent force of the Mississippi River cities that I'm from, cities that are always singing, shouting out from many lungs their colors and their loves.

Here I listen to clock tower toll and stroke a lamb's ear leaf growing in the garden of the Barber House. And I wonder what it means.

It's beautiful.

Friday, September 6, 2013

this painting is a proposal

Last night as I lay on my bed, my extra-long college dorm twin-sized mattress, with its patterned Target furnishings, my head (despite the extra length) nearly snug against the honey-colored standard issue bed frame, I could see the stars. The hotel-room-like curtains over our generously sized and sparsely metal-framed windows hang out a little bit, and between the undulations of their nondescript, grey-brown folds one can catch a glimpse of the sky. (It comes in handy in the mornings, when the sole spot of sunlight in the room is on my closed eyelids. But even if untimely woken, I open my eyes to blue sky.)
       But tonight it was dark out there, and as I lay on my bed in quiet meditation before sleep, with my grey, metal, $8 Target lamp glowing gently beside my head, I idly noticed a very white speck directly above my eyes, roughly twelve gazillion miles away. After lying in stillness a few moments more, I flicked off the light. A few more specks leaped into view.* I was praying and pondering, laying the current matter of my life in the open air of God's truth and the light of his presence, a habit I've neglected of late (to the detriment of my sanity). As I lay there tangent to the curve of the earth for once, instead of my customary perpendicularity, things became clearer in my mind. The earth as a playing field beneath the heavens, beneath heavens that are far from void, heavens from whose depths come forth our light and even our salvation, from which we await the eschaton, an upward vista brushed with mists and distant lights, the earth quiet and lowdown and heaving in the night all around me. The ancients cared much more for the stars than we, I often think to myself when those lights catch my eyes. And I think they are right.
        I was thinking of friends in faraway places: those back home in Minnesota, my classmates scattered abroad at their colleges and universities and mission projects, those dear ones I met across the pond this summer in Kilkeel. It was less bewildering to think of them than it often is. Spatially, it just all made more sense. We're all of us beneath the heavens, just a ways to the left or right, in full sight of the stars and their Liege.
         And time, too. I've been thinking of memory a lot, realizing that I tend to horde memories in the back of my mind like roses in vases, brooding over them until their dying aromas turn sickly. We're stewards of memory, we time-marching creatures. I heard a professor describe it thus: "The human mind is a complex interplay of anticipation, experience, and memory." Our spirits are less bounded by time than our bodies. We aren't stuck in the present. But when weaving the connections between past, present, and future, we have a responsibility to structural integrity, to connect in ways consistent with the true nature of things.
          The memory of the painting above drifted into my star-gazing mind. This painting is a proposal. I propose we meet once a year every year until one of us can't or won't. I grabbed a pen from beside my bed and scrawled "BLOG / proposition" in the dark on my wrist, to remind me to write this post. When I'd seen the painting at the Walker, it had struck me enough for me to take a picture of it, but just with its novelty. I couldn't see where it was contributing to the story I've been constructing my whole life to tell myself about reality. But on this night of peeping behind the curtain upwards, in the place in my mind beneath conscious thought where poetry lives, the painting snapped into place intuitively. It is people and times and places brought together. The painting is telling a story about living with and apart from people, the way in which our threads diverge and converge, the fact that memory and place live in the sacred space between us and aren't solely in our heads. That it's possible to go away and come back and be okay. You'll still be you and I'll still be me. That even though you can't step in the same river twice, there's still a thing called a river and there's still a you to do the stepping.**
          I got a letter this week. (From Karli :) ). And I wrote her one back. We're weaving from farther apart now, but we're still tossing threads back and forth, and it never was my tapestry to begin with. I guess that's what I'm realizing. The not-now and the not-here are out of my view, but the weaver's still weaving and nothing is lost.

*As an aside, ponder with me something I have often thought of when outside on a sunny day when a delicate green leaf casts shade over my eyes. This sunlight, this rolling golden force, has traversed the heavens at literally the speed of light for several minutes from a source a fraction of whose total power has been sustaining the growth of every green thing on our planet for millennia. The beam of light shoots out, zipping past Mercury and Venus, dodging satellites and asteroids and cyber junk, penetrates the atmosphere of the planet, zooms toward my face--and is deflected by a leaf. I don't know what that says about this cosmos of ours, but this and the fact that my piddling little lamp can douse the power of a star with its faint glow by virtue of its proximity to my eyes, I find intriguing and mildly outrageous.
** take a leaf from my philosophy class's book. I'm making a concession to Heraclitus but stopping short of Cratylus.

Postscript: I'm stilling mulling over the dead-rose memories metaphor. I can't figure out how to let go without forgetting. How do you throw out the dead roses without losing them forever?

Perhaps a compost pile...