Thursday, April 16, 2009

LIFE OFF THE ASSEMBLY LINE

Sunday was a drive through the countryside. Had it been warmer perhaps a hunt for arrowheads or other artifacts. In my state one can find arrowheads made out of Obsidian, which is one of the more common gemstones found here.

Obsidian is used in cardiac surgery and in other medical endeavors where a finely honed blade is vital, as well-crafted obsidian blades have a cutting edge many times sharper than high-quality steel surgical scalpels. Even the sharpest metal knife has a jagged, irregular blade when viewed under a strong enough microscope. When examined under an electron microscope an obsidian blade is still smooth and even.

As a gemstone it possesses the peculiar property of presenting a different appearance according to the manner in which it is cut. When cut in one direction it is a beautiful jet black; when cut across another direction it is glistening gray.

How it is cut reveals its use. How our souls are cut, shapes ours. Everything we experience in our life, in some way, chisels and shapes what is left, making it sharper, or grinding it to bits.

Visiting family last week, we went through some old photo albums and memories to share, the comment made that I had saved so many pieces of things of the past, of my family. I'm not sure why. I think it's because the past has been such a tumbling series of changes that having the artifacts of memory helps me remember how each piece shaped my life. The grade cards from school, a picture of a model rocket built in junior high. My Mom's badge from the Sheriff's department. A petal from a wedding bouquet, that unwittingly survived every other keepsake of that decade being burned in a fire. A notice of an estate sale. Things that touch the memory.

I grew up in a small logging town, nestled at the base of beautiful, forested mountains. Ever present was the noticeable rotten egg smell of the pulp mill that I never noticed as a child, but is as constant as death and taxes. There were no malls, simply a main street, a roller rink, a movie theater and only two fast food restaurants. It was a town where my best friend and I could ride our bikes over streets unconfined and unhurried, until darkness or hunger for family dinner around the table brought us home. It was a town where you could raise your family in relative comfort and safety. Life was routine, life was predictable. You graduated high school, married the first or second person you ever slept with. Had several kids, a mortgage, a dog, a cat. You retired and got a gold watch and watched the next generation take over the positions in the mills. The mountains notwithstanding, it was a flat landscape of life, and one that I knew, probably by the age of 12, that I had to escape from.

At the time, and still today, the biggest employers were the lumber mills, and the majority of my graduating class, attracted by pay an 18 year old can only dream of, were working the green chain or in the pulp rooms right after high school. Like most assembly and factory jobs, it's honest work, hard work, sometimes exacting and dangerous work. If you were on the green chain, it paid the most and stole the most. It stole the youth from your bones and the hope from your horizon, for by the time you were 25, you have a modest home, kids, a bass boat and the prerequisite four wheel drive and college and a distant city are beyond thought. And the pay that was incredible at 18, required more and more shift work and overtime to provide for your family, leaving you no time for the boat, let alone a life.

Life might have it's moments of fun, watching your kid play softball where you once played, watching the sun come up over the river. But it's not what you dreamed of when you were 12 and the spaces between your dreams, once lined up like pickets on a fence, get farther and further apart. All you have to fill those spaces were a few beers with friends on Friday, or an hour or two hiking the woods, striding further and further away from yourself. Simply existing, one or two parents struggling, as the daily repetition of just breathing, eating, and paying a growing pile of bills in an economy gone sour, hammered you into an attenuation of wasted hope and frustrated longings as dull and pale as spiritless ashes.

I visit regularly, as my folks still live there, Dad settling there after he retired from the military after the war, lured by the mountains and the fishing. Dad enjoys it there. I don't think he will ever leave, and though I enjoy being at home with him, I don't look forward to revisiting what my future could have been.

For when I step away from his house, I don't really belong. After 8 years of college and a substantial career, I am a stranger in my hometown. I'm one of the few who left, as soon as I was old enough to go further West and fill my life with books, music, thoughts and questions. I wasn't the only one that went, we heard about them in bits and pieces, a scholarship notice here, a medical school graduation there. But those kids and myself soon drifted away from peoples thoughts and faded away, until we return for a visit and people look at us long and hard, as if they might remember us from a grainy photograph somewhere. No one knows exactly what to say. It's as we stepped over some invisible line in the sand when we left, and are never seen quite the same way.

Visiting Dad, I ran into someone at the neighborhood grocers with whom I played with as a child. She's been working the register as long as I remember, and although she is as pretty as she always was, there's a roughness to her, like a piece of beautiful fabric that's become worn and frayed over time. "How've you been" she asks, but the question doesn't reach her eyes - eyes fragile and the color of tea, the color only deepened by the deep wrinkles I already see around them. She asks what I do for a living, and when I tell her, I might as well be telling her I was just abducted by aliens and returned, my life so foreign to the life she leads. "Well you have a nice day" she says and I nod and take the receipt for Dad, not knowing what else to say. We're strangers, and though as children we shared bike rides and ice cream and secrets, now we are looking at the world from completely different places.

It's not the State, it's not the town, both are as beautiful as you might ever find. But I can't live my life that way, in a sepia toned existence of just eating and breathing and going to a factory or job I hate to pay the bills for people who care as little for my dreams as I soon will myself. Waking up each and every day with tastes dulled by the grind of life with no flavor; skies cloudy with the dark reassurance that living life far back from the edge gives. Comfortable, safe, and as stale, bland and artificial as a Twinkie.

I left that life, as quickly as I could. Left in a trail of exhaust from a small airplane that would as soon kill me as carry me forward; leaving it perhaps a bit worse for wear, but alive. Flying out into a night as black as obsidian, senses sharp, and ready to jab at whatever life threw my way. Yes, it's been a life of changes, of mistakes, of tears, but it's brought me to this spot, here today.

Here where I keep small snippets of memory in a drawer in my desk drawer to remember why it was all worth it. Pieces of fabric, of bone, of obsidian, a rock from Donner lake, a trip with someone I loved long ago. For memory feels before knowing remembers. It feels stronger than knowing recognizes. Memory feels with nerves sharpened by pain, and aged like wine, until every nuance of life is clear. Every choice you have made, laid out on the table.

In the town I've lived in for a while, I'm mostly a stranger as I keep to myself, but it doesn't bother me, as those who meet me and include me in their circles do so for who I am now, and not what they expected me to be. And those that are with me are because they share that same elemental feeling of living that seems to have escaped so many.

Last time I was back home I couldn't help but notice that the huge field back behind my Dad's home, where once we hunted for shiny black arrowheads, is now the parking lot of a Walgreens, and the forested hills behind me are crowded with homes, hills I could still see if not for the large Burger King sign that blocks the view. As I walked back from the store to my Dad's house I searched the once familiar sky for the clouds that fueled my flying dreams and strained my ears to hear the beloved sound of a log train. But the train no longer runs along that route and I only hear the clatter of traffic.I don't really belong here any more. Somehow today, I don't belong anywhere but here in this place, now, but here I am at home.

Would I change my past, even the most profoundly painful parts of it, knowing I would not be the person I am today, in this moment of time, in this place? A past that, had it been less stressful, might only have ended diminished and foreshortened in it's outcome. For without all of those tears and struggles and changes in landscapes, I would not have ended up in just this one spot, in just this one moment, walking the land I own, hunting for food I will put on my own table, quickened breath as I cover land teeming with promise. Against my arm, the feel of my shotgun, smooth as obsidian, yet strong as steel. Up ahead, Barkley flushing out a covey of quail, muscles taut with the excitement of just being alive.

I wouldn't change a thing.

27 comments:

  1. Brigid,

    Great stuff.
    As usual.

    And as usual, I can only wonder how you do it!

    Regards,
    Albert
    The Rasch Outdoor ChroniclesThe Range Reviews: Tactical

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  2. It's been nearly 10 years since I left the home I grew up in and this resonates with me. I could have moved back after college and didn't...I'm really glad I didn't, too.

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  3. I know this feeling well.

    When I was graduating college and getting ready to leave Indiana for a job in Missouri, someone told me that going home would never be the same. I dismissed that thought, as I had every intention of moving back in 5 years. That was 13 years ago.

    It's taken me a while to get over the idea that I'm probably not moving back, and for several years didn't feel like I belonged in either place. But now, I can't imagine my life away from here, and I can't imagine my life there.

    I still enjoy going back and wandering the roads of my youth, and visiting my family that I still miss more than anything. But at the end of the trip, it's always good to be back in my home, in Missouri.

    Thanks again for sharing your talent with us.

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  4. Thomas Wolfe wrote, "You can't go home again." The threads of common experience have been sundered; some horizons have been broadened, while others have not. Indeed, some seem to have shrunk over time.

    The world I left to enter the Navy did not seem to be the same when I got out. The country had changed, due to Watergate, and I had changed due to war.

    My core values are unchanged, but the world is a much bigger place, and the horizon beckons. We cannot wait for others to catch up; our destiny calls.

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  5. So, what does Barkley think when you get all introspective like this? :)

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  6. I simply love your writting.Thank you for sharing.

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  7. Grew up on 12,000 acres near a town with 365 people. Some people are still there and they look at me like a stranger when I talk of overseas and bio warfare and stuff that seems nothing to me. I would like to return the complement and envy them their peace and quiet of the hometown... but like you say, it's not there. Their eyes are dull and the colors muted.

    You really can't go home again.

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  8. For me, the challenge has been to mix what you've been seeking (I'll call it "more from life") with my love of place and my love for and loyalty to family and friends. I don't live in the town I grew up in, (none of us in my circle does, really) but I live close by, still among family and friends.

    It's a constant balancing act on the beam, and occasionally I slip and fall, with some of the landing being quite painful as I wind up straddling the thing. (O-ww-ie!)

    It's good to know that, despite your own owies, you've met your version of the challenge and won. I think that doing so successfully is what makes one "good people", and I'm always happy to know (or know of the existence of) good people. It helps me keep some semblance of a positive outlook, and I thank your for that gift.

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  9. When I got laid off four months ago, one thing I was adamant about was that I didn't want to take a job "just to get by" and find myself still there 10 years later. It's to the point where if a job comes along, I'll take it -- but I won't stop looking until I find something I can feel challenged by. Something with more than promotion to middle management to look forward to.

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  10. Home is where the Heart is. Cliché perhaps but true nonetheless.

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  11. While I share most if not all the emotions and thoughts expressed in your post, I also feel a very keen sense of nastalgic comfort when I go to visit my folks who yet reside in my childhood home. The sense of time recaptured and momentarily relived often sweeps across my peripheral awareness leaving a wake of drifting memories that sooth and massage my soul. I have no regrets about leaving to find more but the comfortable familiarity and sameness that resonate from streets unchanged and landmarks intact serves as a beacon that grounds my sense of history, tying me forever to family and friends that have shared so much. For me to return, even as a stranger, nearly always serves to uplift my spirits and edify my sense of identity.

    Once again, thank you for shareing!

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  12. Once again your writing .......I can't even come up with words to describe how I feel. Thanks for sharing

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  13. I hate it when I get weepy in the office.

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  14. What a beautiful post. It is odd to go back to where you grew up. I feel like I'm such a different person now from what I was then, there almost is no connection between the two.

    I'm with you on the not wanting to change anything either. Everything I went through made me what I am and that's worth something.

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  15. "Memory feels with nerves sharpened by pain, and aged like wine, until every nuance of life is clear."

    How to you just sit down and write stuff like that?

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  16. How our souls are cut, shapes ours. Everything we experience in our life, in some way, chisels and shapes what is left, making it sharper, or grinding it to bits.BOOK BOOK BOOK !

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  17. When I was young I spoke like a child, and I saw with a child's eyes
    And an open door was to a girl like the stars are to the sky
    It's funny how the world lives up to all your expectations
    With adventures for the stout of heart, and the lure of the open spaces

    There's 2 lanes running down this road, whichever side you're on
    Accounts for where you want to go, or what you're running from
    Back when darkness overtook me on a blind man's curve

    I relied upon the moon, I relied upon the moon
    I relied upon the moon and Saint Christopher

    Now I've paid my dues 'cause I have owed them, but I've paid a price sometimes
    For being such a stubborn woman in such stubborn times
    Now I have run from the arms of lovers, I've run from the eyes of friends
    I have run from the hands of kindness, I've run just because I can

    But now I'm grown and I speak like a woman and I see with a woman's eyes
    And an open door is to me now like the saddest of goodbyes
    It's too late for turning back, I pray for the heart and the nerve

    And I rely upon the moon, I rely upon the moon
    I rely upon the moon and Saint Christopher

    - Mary Chapin Carpenter
    "The Moon and St. Christopher"

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  18. Yes, how do you just sit down and write stuff like this?

    Your loyal readers are thankful for the present person forged by your life experience and the thoughtful, introspective essays you share with us.

    Don't change a thing.

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  19. I would change some things, if I could go back. A lot of things, perhaps. I wouldn't go to the fundamentalist concentration camp when I was 16 and volunteer my time to work 7 or 8 hours a day washing dishes. Also, since I didn't go, I wouldn't be in an accident there and have huge scar on my side today.

    I would logically, politely, and calmly refuse to buy into the religious and other BS my parent forced down me.

    I would refuse to allow myself to be abused.

    I would have started taking care of myself at a much younger age instead of waiting until I was 19 to get in shape.

    I wouldn't get involved with, and then marry, a woman who finally discovered she was a lesbian. After she left me. After sleeping with my best friends.

    I could go on, but why, really? I'm glad you wouldn't change anything.

    I would.
    ----

    A friend of mine, years ago, had some obsidian surgical scalpel seconds. I was handling one, when I got that sick, cold feeling you get when you cut yourself. I looked, but the cut was so fine I was never able to find it...

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  20. Could things be other than they are?

    All's in its place, from mote to star.

    The thistledown that flits and flies

    Could drift no hair-breadth otherwise.

    What is, must be; with rhythmic laws

    All Nature chimes, Effect and Cause.

    The sand-grain and the sun obey --

    What ho! the World's all right, I say.
    from: THe World's All Right by Robert Service

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  21. Brigid,

    First we get a short ,but scholarly treatment of Obsidian, what it is, what it does,and how it differs from steel, and then, as if in the same breath we are whisked away to a heart felt journey of your past, painted with the brightly colored brush of a youthful memory, now tempered by the trials of life, heralded by the voice of experience, and laced with a dose of nostalgia, with an underlying hint of melancholy. Your imagery is both powerful, and pleasing, leaving me with the feeling that your story ended too quickly, and a longing for more.

    "Memory feels with nerves sharpened by pain, and aged like wine, until every nuance of life is clear. Every choice you have made, laid out on the table." Two sentences that I read more than once. Each time I read them, their depth, and meaning became more manifest. They embodied my feelings, but were put forth with a grace and beauty,that I never could have expressed. Your piece awakened feelings that have laid dormant, for years, not by volition, but by command. Right now, I am not sure whether that is good, or bad. I will have to let them live, and, see the light of day for a while to know. Thank you for the "magic carpet ride."

    Be safe,and happy,

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  22. Excellent write up as usual.

    As a geologist, I immediately clued in on the obsidian and that brought back a flood of memories about all of my obsidian samples I have picked up over the world. I did my Masters on a form of obsidian and the growth rate of the magnetite whiskers which is why obsidian is black. Really quenched volcanic glass tends to be more tan and white but that is an aside.

    I agree you cannot go home, but it does offer you the insight to know why you left. Working here in small town wyoming it sure convinces me that I need to get out of the big city as soon as I can retire!

    Take care, and keep up the great writing!

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  23. Beautiful post.

    My home town in Colorado is overrun by people from the Peoples Republic of California...ugh! Not the same place anymore. I have to go north or south of it to get to areas where it is the way it used to be. Very sad. Ayn Rand would have to put Gault's Gulch in Wyoming or Montana now.

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  24. I don't know anyone (and I read an awful lot) who writes as well as you do, Ma'm.

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  25. I can definitely relate to that - especially apt given where I am at the moment - staying with my folks in Cornwall.

    I left home 20 years ago never wanting to return. I spent 10 years in London, 10 years in Bermuda and the States and have just returned home to the UK after my US work permit expired (yes there are a few of us honest legal immigrants left). I'm heading out again in a couple of months to take a admin job in Saudi .... hmmmm should prove interesting and definitely in for some culture shock :0)

    I love the scenery and long walks along the coastline where my parents live and the views are breathtaking. But I'm feeling the usual claustrophobia at being back. Am counting the days before I can leave.

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I started this blog for family that lives far away. Now that they are gone, it continues on to share those memories.

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