Unfolding the Map
We pass through Palmyra, New York and then past mobile homes. William Leat Heat-Moon (LHM) remarks on the permanence and impermanence encapsulated in these uniquely American creations, and that gets me writing on a subject which seems to be very close to me right now. Fortunately, Palmyra sits permanently for now on the map - though the ancient city in Syria from which it took its name evidently could be moved at a moment's notice to escape a Roman invasion sent by Mark Antony. Talk about impermanence!
"Palmyra was a clean town of three-story brick buildings where I turned east on New York 31 and went down along the route of the Erie Canal, through villages, over fields of deep green, under blooming locust trees, and past barns collapsing next to mobile homes that looked depressingly immobile yet also impermanent."
Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 5
This photo of Main Street in Palmyra, New York is courtesy of TripAdvisor.
Palmyra, New York
Permanence and impermanence is on my mind this a lot as I write this post. The image that LHM conjures up - the "mobile" homes that look "depressingly immobile" and also "impermanent" is a really wonderful metaphor.
I'm going to digress first on mobile homes. I've always wondered why we call them mobile when usually they are just parked somewhere on a lot or in a trailer park. Yes, they seem to serve as housing and some of them are quite nice inside. Recently, my wife and I stayed in a mobile home at an affordable spa called Riverbend Hot Springs in Truth or Consequences. The inside was quite nice and comfortable though, to be fair, it was housing just her, me and our dog for an overnight. Fitting a family of four or more in there might be a different story.
However, most of these mobile homes sit, in their permanent impermanence, like fiberglass magnets for tornadoes during the spring and summer weather seasons. (I joke, but it seems like every summer the media reports on a mobile home park that has been decimated by a tornado. I realize that tornadoes aren't really attracted to mobile home parks. Media tends to report on these instances because the damage is usually extensive and the casualties can be high. Yet mobile homes, however stationary, are cheap alternative housing for those who cannot afford to buy a more substantial home.)
Once my father and I were leaving our property near Irmulco, California and heading back up the dirt logging road to the highway near the ridge of the mountain. About a third of the way, we were delayed for two or three hours as a group of men tried to figure out how to maneuver a large mobile home around a sharp corner. The bank of the roadway eventually had to be dug out in order to create enough clearance for the mobile home. I was young at the time, but even then it occurred to me that this mobile home wasn't that mobile, and that by going down into the Irmulco Valley, it was heading to its final resting place. And, because it is made of flimsier materials than a regular home, I wonder if it is still there, some 30 years or more later, or whether it has crumbled into a ruin.
We tend to get involved in things with the illusion that they are permanent and fixed. Yet most of what we do takes action and attention to remain functional. An amazing show on the history channel explores Life After People. There isn't really much hope that what we build will last very long. I seem to recall that within 50,000 years or so, a period of time that barely even registers in the entire history of the universe and only a blink of an eye in the evolution of the earth, all visible traces of humanity would be gone except to the most discerning eye. Our bones would last 150 million years or so, but our buildings will crumble in less than 50 years years, though some of our bridges might last for 1000 years if extremely well built. If you think that the thousand year civilization of the Romans has only left crumbling ruins, or that the Mayan civilization is buried under jungle, and that is only after 2000 years or less, there really isn't much permanence to what we create and erect.
But, that's not the only reason that permanence and impermanence is on my mind. Even things that we don't physically construct, but build in other ways, are subject to forces of decay and change. Take marriage, for instance. Most couples say "I do" with thoughts of building a marriage that will last each partner's lifetime. Yet in the United States, a large number of marriages end in divorce. Even with care, cracks and strains can show in relationships. These can be patched up, but the underlying weaknesses, unless addressed, will undermine the whole structure. Or, perhaps one partner or the other is neglectful, and weeds will begin to grow. My wife and I have been working on an essential element of relationships, communication, because we had neglected that aspect in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives and work and eventually, that neglect mushroomed into difficulties. We are trying to address those issues now, and it's hard work to maintain not only the edifice of a marriage, but also its foundations.
Jobs, also, are fleeting. One might take a new job that one likes very much, only to find in two years that everything about it has changed. A supervisor leaves and another takes her place, and suddenly everything is affected. Sometimes the change is for the better, a lot of times it can be for the worse. Soon, that job that you thought you'd be at for 10 years or more, or even until you retire, becomes intolerable and your whole life is thrown into flux. My wife is in the middle of this. Her career landscape, once so full of opportunity and very clear paths, has become muddled and frightening. Yet even in the midst of uncertainty, there is hope that she can open new pathways and build new bridges and roadways to a modified or even new career.
Civilization, as Life After People tells us, needs attention if its structures and institutions are to be maintained. So do our own structures - those constructs of relationships and identities that we build. We put a lot of emphasis on the physical things - our mighty architecture and our creations in arts and sciences. Ultimately, though, we are nothing if we cannot maintain our own internal constructs that define our identities - our sense of purpose, our knowledge of ourselves and our needs, and our self-esteem. Collectively, each persons attention or lack of attention to our internal identities work on a micro and macro level to either fight or hasten . We can give the illusion of permanence to those things we want and care about. I write "illusion" because eventually, all things will fade and go but the illusion allows us to feel, to know, that in this time and place we matter. Just like we build bridges, roads, skyscrapers, institutions, and countries with the expectation that they will last, we must constantly maintaining the structure and meaning of our lives. Our lives are all we have and, if we, like all other things, are impermanent in an unforgiving universe, we can still construct our temporary mobile homes where we are and turn them into shelter and our own stationary place where we can feel safe and secure in time and space.
A double shot for this post. I love the idea of Airstreams, and I'd love to own an Airstream - they seem to tap into the impermanence that is part and parcel of our lives, for those who are willing to accept it. Miranda Lambert, in Airstream Song, wishes to be a gypsy moving from place to place and never putting down roots. Fastball, in Airstream, wants to "leave the world behind." Impermanence isn't a bad thing - one just needs to embrace it because ultimately, we're always fighting against it and it's a losing battle. Sometimes it's good to just give into it.
If you want to know more about Palmyra
Next up: Savannah, New York