Maine to Pittsburgh, Beauty

Went to Maine for a lightning fast trip. It was great.   Part of it was re entering the northern New England Survival Gestalt. I got in at midnight at Manchester NH. It had been 87 (unseasonable thank God) in Pittsburgh the day before. In NH, it was 40 degrees,  very dark and pouring rain at the airport.

Wearing only a light jacket I trudged over in the rain also sans umbrella (I’ve become a very light packer) to the rental car company.  But, I thought, this is good. Good to be challenged when you’re older. Otherwise you fall into decrepitude.

I have always been quite courageous; I grew up in a very tough environment and I was forced to rely on myself. There are bad parts to this but also a lot of good.  In addition, in New England there is a suffering and redemption philosophy to the weather and life in general. So I was proud to endure an exhausting trip and push myself to pick  up the car as I had to in order to accomplish my work.

At the Thrifty counter I  had a nice chat with the lady who was about to close up. She was an immigrant and told me I was courageous.

The next day I drove 3+ hours to western  Maine to a meeting. It was beautiful. Clear and sunny, the rivers overflowing.  The hills looked like fall—all the colors. I would venture that Maine’s bloom is 2 weeks behind Pittsburgh. The lilacs, which I always associate with New England, are just out. (In PGH they and the azaleas—it’s all very lush—are long gone).

It was coldish in the north country, which was great.  Above the hills a fine mist floated.

I listened to classical music on the fine radio. It was entrancing and my pleasure evidenced a basic life truth: when you do not have something and then you have it you appreciate it more. This has been a truism my entire life, but especially since I left my nightmarish family at 18.  I have always appreciated my life although there has been a lot of suffering and in my younger years drama.

My car radio has not worked in some years so the SUV stereo—yowzah!–was a delight. I loved hearing classic rock and wonderful Chopin, Haydn, etc. All of which I have an enhanced interest in since leaving Maine nine months ago and beginning to go to concerts at Heinz Hall and the Benedum Center.

Heinz Hall , home of the Pittsburgh Symphony (one of the best in the country), is just a treasure.  Wonderful acoustics. I dress up and sit in nosebleed seats. Below are galleries and lounges and exquisite halls and grand staircases. It’s just lovely.  They are great musicians. The sense of civilization is entrancing—that all these people are there, intent on beauty, something seemingly worthless in this age of the utilitarian, but  priceless and true.

Again that sense of coming into an oasis in the desert. I know nothing really about music. I had no childhood lessons, my family had no interest in music or the arts except literature. That was only my mother, who read, but was too depressed to be active in the world. She was not much of a mother.

I’ve always liked classical music but to hear it in a lovely old hall…it’s magnificent. How I wish my mother could be with me. In this life she would not be deaf as she grew in older age, and she would be happy.  We would be happy sitting together and she would be a girl again, alight.

The opera, which I also attend, brings tears to my eyes, tears of joy.  Mostly I attend the Met broadcasts in movie theaters, but I went to the Pittsburgh opera once, for “Turandot”.  It was just lovely. Opera is so sumptuous.  More, it is elemental with its great storylines, deep emotion, eternal truths which we seem to be losing.  But maybe I’m just an old bag saying this, as older people say this in every generation.

Anyway, what a gift. I have such a sense of that about my whole life these days and it is because I was so brave in making this transition. In my old life in Maine–which has many gifts– I did not have much access to the greater world, the new, and I now realize its lack was difficult.

It is not that I now dislike nature, because I am much at tune with the natural world. I still notice a lot. At night I listen to the birds’ night chorus and look at the new leaves on the trees in amazement. Behind the seemingly omnipresent police helicopters I see the stars.

I do miss the sea, wildness. That New England landscape is absolutely my native country, I now know. In some ways I even miss spending much of my life on surviving, as I did in Maine—on maintenance, preparation against the elements, gathering wood, carting things back and forth.  Even the culture—when I heard those harsh New England voices barking on radio commercials–my heart sung.

However, to be in city that is so vibrant, diverse, full of energy and the new…God it’s wonderful. A city which is much kinder than many New England cities, like Providence, where I grew up, and Boston, where I lived in young adulthood.

Pittsburgh is not boring at all. While I frequently visit Maine, I’m also very happy here. Grateful for coming in courage 10 months ago. I came back to my apartment and opened Pittsburgh magazine. I bought tickets for a number of things, was in touch with friends. I’m delirious at 62, almost 63.

Travel, Surprise, Forgiveness

Yesterday I reviewed my passport application, regretted some of the past, looked forward to the future.
My last passport was issued in 1982. My father was taking me to Ireland on one of those awful package tours where Irish Americans travel in clumps to see Jury’s Cabaret (if that still exists—it was full of heavily made-up colleens singing “Danny Boy” in a faux Irish castle) and to kiss the Blarney Stone.
The whole thing was awful. Most of the people on the tour were from a huge family from West Warwick; they wore Kelly green at all times. The young people my age were mean spirited. They cared little about Ireland; much of the trip revolved around shopping.
My father was a very damaged man who irritated the others by his loud fake Irish BS. He embarrassed me many times. My father was dishonest—he needed to cover his own failures. On the trip he lied in front of me consistently, bragging about his happy marriage and saying that my two old brothers were prospering. (Both of my brothers had experienced serious mental illness and were in and out of the state hospital.)
This was the early 80s. I had been out of the house for a number of years and was in a PhD program. That was located about 50 miles up Rt. 95 from Rhode Island, where I grew up, and I had come lived in a different world from the blue collar, narrow RI universe.
I was miserable. At the end of the trip I pointed out how much my father lied.
He responded by saying, “If you talk back to me one more time, I’ll slap your face.” I was 27 or 28.
That was pretty much the end of things with him.
The strange thing is about travel is that it can be both internal and external. Over the years I have come to understand Daddy much better and I now feel a deep compassion for him. My brother Terry had committed suicide a few years before the Ireland trip. It’s a cliché, but my father was broken.
With the trip, I now see, Daddy, in his coarse and inarticulate way, was trying to form a connection with me. He had been distant and emotionally brutal when I was growing up and now he was trying to make up for it.
It was too late—too late for a lot of things. He had also asked my mother to go to Ireland with him, but she refused. They were a bad match and the marriage had broken down years before. I think he was courageous, trying that.
He could not help but be himself on the trip—insincere, covering up failure after failure–which he knew.
Forgiveness can take a long time. I’ve never been a big fan of people lecturing about the subject. I see it as coming through a process of erosion of one’s hard heart, releasing the stone you carry.
This has come as a relief to me. I’m reading Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run autobiography and there is a great deal of forgiveness in it. Bruce grew up in a world much like mine–very harsh, but structured and full of beauty. It was also a world that valued history and memory.
To travel also takes courage, but it can remake the world. I think there is a great deal of conformity in American society. We want to be comfortable and every social group has its mores. At my age, there are still many constraints about how you’re supposed to be, including how to travel. The focus is on being a tourist, not leaving safety, not leaving the American.
I’ve been reading Andrew Solomon’s Far and Away about travel. Like Bruce’s book, it’s very good, perhaps because they are writers who grew up on the margins; when you’re on the margins, you see better.
I read the introduction to Far and Away and was stunned at my blinders, since I have not left the country in so long and lived a truncated life in a small Maine town for 25 years. (Although there are aspects of Maine life that are adventurous, especially the emphasis on the simple, nonconsumerist life).
Solomon points out that austerity can richly develop the life of the imagination; which is abundantly apparent in his chapters in, for example, contemporary Russian artists and folk healing of depression in Zambia (this is not a book that explores the usual tropes). I wouldn’t be disengenous about this, but I think there is often a deep loneliness and spiritual hollowness in our society that can detracts from the creative life.
I rescued myself from my Maine town and have been surprised by many things since moving away. When I read Solomon, I was stunned and overjoyed at the prospect of the new ahead of me. I want more of that—wonder, having my perceptions upended and perhaps coming back to some of the daily surprise that I had as a child.