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Entries in melancholy (4)


Blue Highways: Valleyfork, Wallback and Left Hand, West Virginia

Unfolding the Map

As we wind our way through the mountains of West Virginia, past the tiny towns in the small river valleys, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) has a sense of going back in time.  How often have we all felt that sense, in one way or another, and how often have we brushed aside the thrill and the melancholy of it all as we charge ahead into the future.  I have, but then again, I've also allowed myself to bathe in it, soak it in, and breathe it.  It's easy to commune with the past and its ghosts, if you are willing to let yourself.  Go to the map to learn where to find Valleyfork, Wallback and Left Hand.  And look at the lovely monarch butterfly to the right, West Virginia's state butterfly.

Book Quote

"State 4 followed the Elk River, an occluded green thickness that might have been split pea puree.  The Elk provided a narrow bench, the only level land, and on it people had built homes, although the river lay between them and the road and necessitated hundreds of little handmade bridges - many of them suspension footbridges, the emblem of Appalachia.  From rock ledges broken open by the highway cut, where seeps dripped, hung five-gallon galvanized buckets to collect the spring water.

"Again came the feeling I'd had all morning, that somehow I'd made a turn in time rather than in space and driven into the thirties.  The only things that showed a later decade were the pickup trucks: clean and new, unlike the rattling, broken automobiles.

"West Virginia 36, a quirk of a road, went into even more remote land, the highway so narrow my right tires repeately dropped off the pavement.  Towns: Valleyfork, Wallback, and Left Hand (a school, church, post office, and large hole once the Exxon station)."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 3

Mountain scene near Wallback, West Virginia. Photo by SHAMROCKSUE and hosted at Panoramio. Click on photo to go to host site.Valleyfork, Wallback and Left Hand

I'm in a melancholy mood as I write this post, Littourati.  I'm listening to melancholy music, and LHM's quote also has the feeling of melancholia about it.  I've always found the past to be melancholy anyway - times gone by that sit in our memories and resurface in the present, like shadows in a mist, and then disappear again have a tinge of sadness and wistfulness associated with them.

In the book Shoeless Joe (made into the movie Field of Dreams), a farmer by the name of Ray is filled with melancholy over the lost opportunities of his life.  Ray hears a call to build a baseball field, which he does.  Then he hears another call, one commanding him to "ease his pain."  By a process of investigation, he comes to believe that he must ease the pain of the reclusive writer JD Salinger.  After contacting and kidnapping (sort of) Salinger and attending a Boston Red Sox game with him, Ray sees the name of "Moonlight Graham" on an apparently malfunctioning Red Sox scoreboard.  He and Salinger track down Graham to his hometown of Chisolm, Minnesota, only to find that he died some years before after a lifetime as a physician.  Graham had played in one game in the major leagues, but only got 2 innings in the field and never got an at-bat.  That night in Chisolm, Ray can't sleep and gets up to go for a walk, leaving the sleeping Salinger in the hotel.  As he wanders outside into a cold, foggy night, he sees a figure carrying a bag moving slowly in an empty street of a Chisolm of yesteryear.  He follows him and discovers the halting figure is Moonlight Graham, returning late at night from a house call, who invites Ray home.  Graham tells Ray his story, and reveals that despite a full and fulfilling life, that he always missed baseball and his regret over missing that one chance at bat.

I won't spoil the rest of the novel, which is wonderful, as is the movie adaptation.  I bring the novel up because it almost makes real the feeling of turning a corner, and finding oneself in the past, or a different era, and the delicious melancholy that accompanies those feelings.  We've all experienced such feelings, I imagine, even if we might not have recognized it.

The strongest moment I can think of where I experienced such a feeling was in Istanbul, Turkey.  I was walking through a market bazaar when one of the five daily Islamic call to prayers began.  I suddenly felt like I was in a different time, which in itself was strange because the call was being sent through speakers at the nearby Blue Mosque.  Yet I was transfixed in a moment that, even though I noted that I was in the present, seemed like it could have been from any time in the past 1000 years.  I've felt this in other places also.  At Ephesus, again in Turkey, there were plenty of tourists milling around, but when I went around the corner of a ruin and into an area where I was alone for a few minutes, I could almost feel the Greek and Roman ghosts brushing softly past me.  In a really interesting twist, as I marveled at the engineering in the latrines, I could imagine Roman men, almost as if they were really there, sitting on those toilet seats conducting lofty conversations in politics, business, philosophy and science while taking care of far more earthy needs.  While people milled around in the base of the ancient Ephesian theater, I went to the top of the seats and while the wind softly blew and I looked out over the fields that once were the Aegean Sea, now two miles distant, I could feel the Greek and Roman patrons sit next to me, watching a tragedy by Sophocles or a comedy by Aristophanes on the stage below.

In Chaco Canyon, I felt the shoulders and feet of many generations of ancestral pueblo forebears bringing stone after stone to build the great complexes and kivas that served as the center of their religious rites.  In Rome, I could see the crowd roaring in the Colosseum as gladiators fought for freedom, money and the adulation of crowd and emperor, and I saw chariots racing around the Circus Maximus, even though all that was left was a flat oval.  I've also, in my mind's ear, heard the angelic voice of Hildegard von Bingen rising in a lovely and challenging counterpoint to the monks choirs in the 12th century monastery where she entered holy orders near Odernheim, Germany.

But the feeling of walking into a different era is not just confined to the spectacular places of history, but wherever one makes a connection with the past.  I've felt it on the site of the former lumber mill in the Irmulco Valley, which hosted a surrounding town of workers in the early 1900s, but which is only marked by some crumbling brick foundations today.  I've even felt it on trails in the redwood forest, when a shiver goes up my spine as I realize that people have trod the same paths for generations.  And always, along with the thrill of being one the past in a connection through time, is the melancholy when I realize that one day I too will be one of those ghosts, or simply a faded memory, that lightly tugs at the sleeve or thoughts of a wandering passerby as he or she stops in a moment of reverie, and then moves on.

Musical Interlude

I wrote above that I was melancholy, and I'm going to share the playlist that I've entitled Melancholia with you.  It features a variety of music styles and artists, and for 2½ hours you can wallow in some sweet sadness.

Melancholia from mhessnm on 8tracks Radio.

If you want to know more about Valleyfork, Wallback and Left Hand

Wikipedia: Left Hand
Wikipedia: Valley Fork
Wikipedia: Wallback

Next up: Spencer, West Virginia


Blue Highways: Stanardsville, Virginia

Unfolding the Map

At the close of 2012, I will use this post to reflect on the past year.  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), toward the end of his trip and as he traveled through Stanardsville, reflected on what his trip had accomplished.  Usually we accomplish quite a lot that we don't give ourselves credit for, and overemphasize our failures and shortcomings.  Not this time, Littourati.  Not this time.  To the right is the Virginia State Seal, found on Wikimedia Commons.  To see where Stanardsville awaits the New Year, go to the map.

Book Quote

"I went up U.S. 33 until the rumple of hills became a long, bluish wall across the western sky.  On the other side of Stanardsville in the the Blue Ridge Mountains, I stopped in a glen and hiked along Swift Run, a fine rill of whirligigs and shiners, until I found a cool place for lunch.  Summer was a few days away, but the heat wasn't....

"....In a season on the blue roads, what had I accomplished?  I hadn't sailed the Atlantic in a washtub, or crossed the Gobi by goat cart, or bicycled to Cape Horn.  In my own country, I had gone out, had met, had shared.  I had stood as witness."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 2

Greene County Courthouse in Stanardsville, Virginia. Photo by Calvin Beale and posted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.

Stanardsville, Virginia

As I write this post, it is New Year's Eve 2012.  The time of year often entails a look forward at the coming year, and even resolutions for what one hopes to accomplish.  However, on New Year's Eve media often spends time looking back at the year's accomplishments, failures, events, and the people that have passed on.  We can see from the quote above that as LHM is the end of his own journey, he also takes a look behind him to tally up his own accomplishments on his travels.

It is curious that he begins with a list of those things that he didn't accomplish, and one could read this as his admission that his trip wasn't important.  After all, instead of crossing "the Gobi by goat cart," he went out.  Instead of bicycling "to Cape Horn," he met.  Rather than sailing "the Atlantic in a washtub," he shared.  Above all, he had "stood as witness."  To what?  To his country certainly, but also to himself.

As I look back at my own journey in this past year, not necessarily through space but definitely through time in the form of days that make up a year, I can ask myself the same questions.  What did I do?  And my list isn't that exciting.  I worked.  I made a trip or two.  I hung out with friends sometimes, and I spent a lot of time alone.  The three major accomplishments that I can list are the following: With a colleague, I got a paper published in a major political science journal; I wrote roughly 118 posts in Littourati for a word count of around 120,000 words; I made great strides in my own personal development through a combination of therapy and self-reflection.  I watched all the episodes of the old Star Trek.

I am currently reading a memoir of Istanbul by the great Turkish writer and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.  He identifies a melancholy, which he labels with the Turkish word huzun, that Turks collectively have when they consider Istanbul.  All around them are the reminders of the glories of the Ottoman Empire, in particular the crumbling houses and palaces of Ottoman princes.  Turks, after the last political remnants of the Ottoman Empire had been swept away under the Westernizing zeal of Ataturk, could not simply forget that they had once been a great civilization.  The reminders were there to see.  Sure, they could look forward to the accomplishments of a modern, Western and dynamic society.  Indeed, Turkey has positioned itself as an economic and political player in the 21st century.  But Pamuk points out that the melancholy weight of the past still hangs on the coattails of Turkish society.

As I look back on my last year, I could look at it with the same melancholic air, and in keeping with Pamuk's concept of huzun, I'm most likely not the only person who does this.  There were so many things I could have done.  What about those things that I might have accomplished.  I wanted, for example, to take up some sort of hobby, to learn how to bead necklaces and earrings for example, as a reflective and creative enterprise.  That didn't happen.  I had hoped to begin running again and didn't even begin.  I wished to even do some mundane activity, but very necessary, like organizing and cleaning our house.  I couldn't get a handle on it, and didn't even know where to begin.  I wanted to write more in my field of political science.  The list could go on and on if I let it.  And like Pamuk's Turkey, the weight of my past accomplishments as well as the expectations I had for myself weigh down my thoughts and create a thin veil that blurs the good that I did accomplish this past year.

It's very easy to get caught up in the "would haves," "should haves," and "could haves."  Doing so tempers the thoughts about the new year.  I have ceased making New Year's resolutions because I find that I just disappoint myself if I do so because I never complete them or give up on them.

As I close 2012, and get very close to finishing Blue Highways, it's easy to reflect back on the year and see the things that I didn't do that I wished I had.  It's easy to look back on my life and regret some things I've done, other things that I didn't do, and certainly all of those things that I could have done better.  At the same time, we often give short shrift to that which we accomplished, and those things we accomplished well.  I suppose that's human nature.  We often regret choices and actions taken, and pile up the dead weight of past glories and should-have-beens behind us.

It's true that I didn't achieve a lot of the goals that I set for myself.  But it's also true that I achieved other goals.  As I look back upon my 2012 journey, I realize that the most important thing is that I participated in the process of living.  I lived, not in the sense that I stayed alive but in the sense that I actively participated in life.  That participated included both the joys and the disappointments, the achievements and the failures.  Given the alternatives, I think my year went pretty well.

On this New Year's Eve, 2012, my wish for you, dear Littourati readers, is that you also truly lived in 2012, and will continue to do so in 2013 and beyond.  A very happy New Year to all of you!

Musical Interlude

Even though it's from 1988, and references that year, this song by Abba, Happy New Year, has lyrics that fit the post.  Enjoy!

If you want to know more about Stanardsville

Wikipedia: Stanardsville

Next up: Franklin, West Virginia


Blue Highways: Newport, Rhode Island

Unfolding the Map

As we pull into Newport, Rhode Island with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), do you feel a bit of nostalgia?  Do you have some melancholy associated with a place that was, but now feels different?  As I come home again, I feel it keenly, and will share some thoughts with you on the subject.  If you wish to visit the years gone by, you'll only be able to do that in your memories.  But if you want to see where Newport is located, navigate to the map.

Book Quote

"....I went on toward Quonset Point, the homeport of the ship I had been assigned to."

"....At the end of the road, a mile in, the big pier was empty.  Nothing but rusting stanchions and bollards, and weeds along the railroad tracks.  The whole bay stood open and vacant.  The Champ, the Essex, the Wasp used to fill the sky with gray masses of hull, gun, and antennas.  The great carriers were gone, and also tugs, tenders, big naval cranes, helicopters, jets; the shouts and hubbub and confusion of sailors and machines and aircraft, all gone.

"....I had lived and died walking off and on this pier and many times had dreamed of the day I'd come back as a civilian, free of the tyranny of the boatswain's pipe and his curses, free of working in a one-hundred-twenty-five-degree steel box.  I felt cheated.

"Where the hell was the diesel oil of yesteryear?  Where the drawn faces when we left, the cockahoop faces when we returned, the sailors kissing girls and lugging seabags, mahogany statues, brass platters, straw hats, and black velvet paintings of bulls and naked native women; trucks honking, the sailors on duty cursing down from the deck and offering services to the women, the sea wind snapping the flag from the jackstaff, the last smoke blowing grit on us from the tall stacks?...Christ.  I knew you couldn't go home again, but nobody had said anything about not getting back to your old Navy base."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 5

Downtown Newport, Rhode Island. Photo by Daniel Case and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Newport, Rhode Island

It's often jarring when you go back to someplace that you frequented after an absence of a number of years.

While my absence from my home town hasn't spanned as many year as LHM's absence from Newport, Rhode Island, it still astounds me every time I go back and something has changed, landmarks have disappeared, and I am left sometimes with a profound sense of loss.

Of course, time moves forward whether we want it or not.  But when one wants to capture something of the past, some marker that reconnects us to previous eras of our lives, and it is no longer there or has changed in some unalterable way, it can be a shock to the psyche.

LHM goes to Newport expecting to see something of the old Navy base out of which he served.  When he gets there, what was once a huge industrial facility for maintaining ships of the fleet, including the big aircraft carriers, is now gone.  All he is left with are the memories of the base and Newport as it once was.  His reaction is one of shock and annoyance: why are there lobster fisherman where there once were the finest of the Navy.  He even references Thomas Wolfe.

It may be that one can't go home again.  I often say now that I'm "going home" to visit my mom, or to see old friends.  In reality, home as it was in Fort Bragg, California has really ceased to exist for me.  The house where I grew up has changed too much.  Gone is the horrible brown carpeting, replaced with a durable wood floor.  My room has become a guest room, with nothing left to mark my years of passage there.  An acre of our big yard, where I used to play football with friends and where I constructed two holes of a six hole golf course, has been sold to the neighbor and now there is a shop and a bunch of his equipment on it.

The lumber mill where my father worked, and where I spent four summers as a worker and a security guard, is gone.  When I drive down Oak Street toward what used to be the main gate, it still shocks me to see the ocean rather than the huge sawmill building that rose higher than any building in the town.  Along the whole of the downtown, in fact, the only thing that separates the town from the sea is a vast tract of silent oceanfront property that once housed mills, drying sheds and what seemed like endless stacks of cut lumber stretching far away north and endless decks of newly cut logs that stretched far away south.  Now, the steam-powered rattle and noise of the mill machinery, the revving motors of the forklifts and carriers, and the signature noon whistle that could be heard all over town are all ghosts on the ocean breeze.

All this is coming back to me now because it is the advent of my 30th high school reunion.  Recently, on the trip home to attend that event, I learned that an old college friend had come out to California for a conference and decided to stay with some friends in the wine country.  We talked a little about old times, but mostly we looked at each other and, at least for me, a certain wistfulness about the time that had passed and the changes in us.  While much change has been good - for him, a debilitating disease in remission, a stable relationship, and a good job in Maine - one still cannot be unaware that time is marching and we've gotten older.

At my high school reunion, as I walked into the room I saw some people who I've kept in semi-regular contact with over the years, either by seeing them when I come home or through media like Facebook.  Despite that, I saw a couple of people that I hadn't seen for those 30 years.  A number of people I didn't recognize through the changes that time and experience had wrought.  A number had trouble remembering my name.  High school seemed to be such a huge part of our lives that it has grown out of proportion to many of our other experiences.  A classmate that I spoke with put it in perspective.  I went to school in a small town and was with most of my classmates all through my school years.  He reminded me that all of my classmates, at the age I now am, were a part of only about a third of my life.  Yet that period, and especially the three years of high school I attended, seem like such a huge thing.  All of the successes, and all of the failures, have been magnified.  All of the slights and praises from classmates, while hidden under the veneer of my adulthood, still rattle around in there if I choose to go back and remember them.  I suspect that a small few of our alumni don't come back to the reunions because of the trauma they faced in high school from an equally small number of cruel classmates.

That's where I would modify Thomas Hardy and LHM.  One can come home again, but sometimes one might not wish to.  Home is in the past, and home can connote much that might be painful to relive.  When I think of what was home to me thirty years ago, it consisted of a dysfunctional family, a tortured and negative sense of self, and a longing for something different.  When I think of what is home now, it consists of a more positive sense of self, many accomplishments, and different family dynamics albeit with echoes of the past.  The nostalgia of the past is often best left as a place to visit, at a time of our choosing, and not as a place to dwell in.

Musical Interlude

The song that best encapsulates the melancholy of the past, at least for me, is Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days.

I'm not sure why, but I get a melancholy homesick feeling when I listen to America's Ventura Highway off of their aptly named Homecoming album.  And I didn't even live in southern California...

If you want to know more about Newport

City of Newport
Discover Newport
Newport's Cliff Walk
Newport Daily News (newspaper)
Newport Mansions
Wikipedia: Newport

Next up: Westerly, Rhode Island


Blue Highways: Springvale, Sanford and Kennebunk, Maine

Unfolding the Map

We cross into Maine with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and head toward the farthest easternmost point of our journey.  As we part the fog in Ghost Dancing, I'll reflect on fog and what it has meant to me.  To find yourself in the grayness, trudge through the mist to the map.

Book Quote

"Although I was still miles from the ocean, a heavy sea fog came in to the muffle the obscure woods and lie over the land like a sheet of dirty muslin.  I saw no cars or people, few lights in the houses.  The windshield wipers, brushing at the fog, switched back and forth like cats' tails.  I lost myself to the monotonous rhythm and darkness as past and present fused and dim things came and went in a staccato of moments separated by miles of darkness.  On the road, where change is continuous and visible, time is not; rather it is something the rider only infers.  Time is not the traveler's fourth dimension - change is.

"The towns - Springvale, Sanford, Kennebunk - watery globs of blue light, washed across the windows in the cold downpour that came on...."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 1

Sanford, Maine town hall and annex. Photo by ShazBat73 and found at Click on photo to go to host site.Springvale, Sanford and Kennebunk, Maine

Carl Sandburg wrote in a famous short poem that "fog comes, on little cat feet," or something of the sort.  I am not sure that I ever saw fog as a cat, though it does slip in silently and disappear just as fast.

One of the things I miss most after living in the desert for 8 years is fog, or really, any air moisture at all.  As LHM discovers driving into Maine, fog can be intense and thick.  Growing up along the Pacific Ocean, fog was a regular part of my life.  Sometimes it lay offshore, a silent presence reminding you that your beautiful day could be fleeting.  Sometimes it enveloped the area in a cold blanket of gray, turning everything but the nearest objects into indistinct, ghostly replicas of themselves.

I used to love those times. I can very easily slip into reverie when the fog rolls in, almost as if the mists serve as a melding of time and space and everything, past, present and future, converges in that spot.  Fog can serve as a metaphor for many things.  My wife still remembers and never fails to embarrass me about how I used a fog metaphor to sum up my indecision on our budding relationship.

Within the fog, everything becomes silent.  At one and the same time, sounds nearest you become more distinct, even as sounds farther away become more muffled.  Yet even that does not become a universal law. In the midst of fog, I have heard the offshore buoys cry their mournful moaning sound, like the sound of lost souls at sea, almost as if they were right beside me, even though I might be a mile away from the ocean, and maybe two miles away from them.

The most beautiful thing to experience in fog are the forests, particularly the coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest.  Only the part of the forest right around you is apparent. If you look up, often the tops of the trees are shrouded with mist, and only the spatter of large, falling drops of water remind you that there are indeed leaves and tree crowns above condensing water and sending it earthward.

There is something about the fog that seems to calm everything.  The ocean that was raging just the day before now lies gray and placid beneath the feathery light yet implacably dense and heavy blanket of moisture.  There are barely even waves, as the mighty Pacific appears to settle into a period of quiet restfulness.

There is something about fog that alters reality.  It changes our view of time and space.  I'm not sure that I necessarily agree with LHM's assertion that change, rather than time, is the fourth dimension.  I still feel the passage of time in fog, though it seems different, perhaps slower.  I have driven, like LHM, down the fog shrouded coastline, sometimes in fog so thick that on roads that I would usually travel 40-50 miles per hour I have to slow to 20-30 miles per hour because of visibility.  The fog stretches out the length of the drive, leaving me more time to myself, to reflect, to think.  That reflection and thinking, time that I wouldn't necessarily have to engage in such activity otherwise, is a boon, for it's in that extra time that the seeds for change is laid.

It is on a foggy night, when the fog is extra thick, that one really gets a true measure of themselves.  The inky blackness gets inkier.  The lights from houses shine wanly, barely penetrating the blackness.  In driving one's headlights, especially on high, hit the wall of water in the air which might as well be bricks as far as the light is concerned.  It is at these times, especially along the coastlines, that one can feel alone, wrapped in a cocoon of cold dampness.  One might wonder if he or she is part of the world at all, or if somehow in travel one has slipped into an alternate and lonely universe of monocolor - a muted, sepia-toned world of light and dark and all measures of gray in between.

I love when the fog breaks in the daytime.  It is not a glorious infusion of sunlight, splintering the grayness and suddenly bringing color into the world.  Instead, the fog breaks slowly.  One notices, at first, a lightening of the sky above.  A hint of blue appears in what had been grayness overhead.  Around one, flowers, trees and plant hues go from muted or even drab to a hint of the glorious color that they possess.  As the fog gradually lifts, the colors emerge more brightly, until suddenly one realizes that the fog is gone.  It has slipped out like a master thief, having stolen time and reality, color and sound, but in the end leaving just a brief memory of its presence and nothing else to mark its passage save, perhaps, a few rapidly disappearing droplets on the leaves.

You'd think I'd be satisfied living in a place that gets an average of 320 days of sunshine a year.  But you can't take the coast out of the boy that has been raised there, and sometimes, I miss the fog.

Musical Interlude

I couldn't find a song that really captures what fog is to me.  There are pieces of what I want in a few things, so I will put them here.  The first is Fog by Hiroyuki Eto.  I don't know anything about this artist, but the song sort of captures the laziness and calmness which which I associate with fog.

The next is by Mnongo Neb, another artist that I don't know about but whose tune, Road in Fog, captures some of the melancholy that comes with fog.


If you want to know more about Springvale, Sanford and Kennebunk

Sanford-Springvale Chamber of Commerce
Town of Kennebunk
Town of Sanford
Wikipedia: Kennebunk
Wikipedia: Sanford
Wikipedia: Springvale

Next up: Kennebunkport, Maine