The News Up North
“I’ve left the city behind, that rabid, morbid, obsequious other obsession.”
We are “downtown” in our little town off the Hudson shopping for an outdoor grill—charcoal or gas? this was the first question that presented itself, who knew!—when a man in the kitchen aisle at the True Value starts musing aloud over a steam-powered grill scraper.
“Now what do you think powers this?” he asks, holding up a strange instrument and turning it end over end looking for a plug.
Not being much versed in these things, I smile and say, “Maybe it works like an iron?”
“True,” he says. “But where does the steam come from?”
This same man is found running after me outside of a café several days later. I had left with some chagrin. There wasn’t a three-pronged plug for my laptop. (There is no cell or internet service in these hills where I now live. Somehow I’d forgotten that the word “Catskills” denoted a mountain range, despite the uninterrupted view that peeks out from between the hanging wisteria bunches climbing the veranda. In order to speak on the phone you need a “booster,” which took three days for the cable company to install. (Every time they attempted to come they tried to call us first. Despite knowing that we didn’t have service—and indeed that was why they were coming.)
“Have you tried the upstairs at Joshua’s?” the man from True Value says, running from the door of the café and catching me on the street. “They have a three-pronged there.”
“I’ll try them,” I say. Not knowing what Joshua’s is.
Every hamlet here has its own post office. You often pass several small house-like structures within a few miles of each other on the same road. The first several days our move here engaged us in trying to install a box in which the world might deliver us the news. At the end of our dirt lane an old mailbox— 4061,with the first two numbers rubbed off—no longer stands its stead. Margaret, introduced by her first name, in the Lake Hill order of post office houses has sent Marlon out to inspect the area to see if it might be suitable for a new box. We await his reply and look for the sign of his car tires in the road.
The locals are easy to identify. We refer to them as “the specials.” A term of envy. My favorite is the steel-haired dame who frequents the juice bar down the road which remains unnamed except for a sign outside that simply reads FISH. It turns out the store is actually a plant nursery and organic grocery store. At a small “bar” on the side they sell wheatgrass which they press with an old metal handle. I have yet to approach this woman—her long graying ponytail and butterfly glasses are too self-assured and I’m too shy yet. One day she is seated next to an elderly gentleman in brightly colored pants covered with the moon. They talk about a bear that had been frequenting these parts.
“Dan told me,” he says.
“Well, he didn’t tell me,” she says.
“Good thing.” Her gentleman companion in the moon pants laughs.
Upon arriving home, we are greeted by Michael Senior, the elder statesman and landlord across the way. His wife is a doctor. They live up the hill. Michael is about to mow our grass. “Have you met the pet turkey yet?” he asks. “My wife feeds him out of her hand.” Indeed the next morning our turkey wonders down the hill past the big red barn out back and strolls up to our porch where three baby robins were roosting in the rafters above our doorway. Our cat watches them from the other side of the screened door. Occasionally the robins peak their beaks up to the sky in unison. “Had to put that metal post into the ground in front of the garbage,” Michael says, motioning to a crow bar dug into the door of the tool shed. “Your bear was trying to get in.” I look at the tool shed and the door to our kitchen and note the proximity.
That same afternoon Steve comes to tune my piano. The keys have shifted some during transit. He take the body apart and shows me how my instrument works. “If I were you,” he’d told me on the phone—I’d called from the juice bar in town where the woman was telling the story about the bear—“I’d wait three weeks to tune it. I can fix it now. But an instrument really needs three weeks to acclimate to a place. To settle in.”
I call him out anyway. I moved here to play music. “This Is Life,” I think. I’ve left the city behind, that rabid, morbid, obsequious other obsession. I am intent to settle in quickly.
One evening when the snow has just found its way to our porch—“Look! Someone came in the night and dropped that white stuff in our yard,” I say to my partner and run to the window—I sit by the glow of our illuminated gas fire. We wanted to convert the stove back to wood-burning—to reclaim it as our own—but the owners had balked. “You’ll need to bring the inspector out!” they’d warned. Inspector who? we’d wondered. From what department?
In the glow of the fake yellow flames, I come across an essay by Annie Dillard: “This Is Life.” “Any culture tells you how to live your one and only life: to wit as everyone else does,” she begins. “Probably most cultures prize, as ours rightly does, making a contribution by working hard at work that you love; being in the know, and intelligent; gathering a surplus; and loving your family above all, and your dog, your boat, bird-watching. Beyond those things our culture might specialize in money, and celebrity, and natural beauty. These are not universal.”
Well, I don’t yet have a dog or a boat. I read further: “Another contemporary consensus might be: You wear the best shoes you can afford, you seek to know Rome's best restaurants and their staffs, drive the best car, and vacation on Tenerife. And what a cook you are!”
“Ah, yes!” I think, feigning recognition in her second description—I have not been to Tenerife but I once swam along the coves of Majorca with a friend after visiting her in architecture college in London. We went topless for days!
I scan the news from the world: The Pope has invited Patti Smith to play the Vatican. My sister has confirmed that she is not coming home for Christmas from Europe where she lives in her new stylish flat on the mews. I still don’t know what a mews is but I pretend I do when she describes it. Amuse. The word is all I can think of when she says it. I know that’s not exactly what she means.
In the mornings in the shower I beat on my chest and wash my face with Ayurvedic mud. The last psychic I saw in LA had told me that I had mother energy trapped in my lower left kidney. “Sing,” she’d said, drawing some notes on a piece of paper, which I find in my wallet after moving north.
My partner flies to LA during the Ebola crisis. He’d been so nervous that he considered driving across country, but that would have meant he’d have to leave a week early and arrive a week late and he didn’t want to be away from our new home in the north that long. We split up our anxiety medication. Down to two and half unlabeled pills, we look up which might be which on the internet. My first novel is under consideration with editors. He might be flying next to an airborne illness. It is hard to say who needed what pill more.
The woman next to him on the plane wears a mask. Halfway through the flight the stewardess walks by and asks, “No more mask?”
“He doesn’t have Ebola,” the woman says, looking at my partner.
My ex-gay boyfriend who lives in LA where my current partner is flying sees a photograph of our fireplace up north in a post I make on what people are calling a social network. The ex does not not like the post but comments, “Looks cozy! Must be cold outside.”
I text the ex one night while putting together a syllabus for a course called “Confessions of Passion and Murder.” “Read this excerpt from Susan Sontag’s diary,” the text reads. “GOD how I love this book. It reminds me so of you and our youth and that kind of unbridled freedom. Hope all’s glorious, Devil!” I take a photograph of the page in her diary to send him: “I know now a little of my capacity. . . I know what I want to do with my life, all of this being so simple, but so difficult for me in the past to know. I want to sleep with many people—I want to live and hate to die.”
The news in one day: Governor Cuomo banned fracking in New York. The U.S. opens diplomatic discussions with Cuba; within minutes at least one Facebook friend has posted: CUBAAAAA?! on his profile. I text my friend who is headed to Nicaragua for a month to write a book about how she’s never grieved her dead parents: “Cuba?! February vacation. Let’s go?!” Shiloh Jolie Pitt wears a tux to the premiere of “Unbroken.” Jolie abstains from attending but says in an article for Daily Life, “She wants to be a boy. So we had to cut her hair. She likes to wear boys everything. She thinks she’s one of the brothers.” Elizabeth Warren is heralded as the next democratic nominee, in a headline from HuffPo which reads, “The Speech That Could Make Elizabeth Warren The Next President.” The same day Vanity Fair calls her “The Woman Who Knew Too Much.” One Fox news correspondent counters, “Without Question, Elizabeth Warren Is The Devil.” Warren still says she’s not running for president. The FDA issues a warning to pregnant mothers not to take sonograms in malls in order to publish them on Instagram as these are not operated by “industry professionals.” A “punk rock” snail is named after The Clash’s Joe Strummer. Monofonus Press decides to publish the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding the CIA’s use of torture during the Gulf War. The Sony emails are leaked and North Korea threatens military opposition. Gays are banned from donating blood. The New Republic folds under the impending threat of new media and “The Rise of The Silicon Valley.” The Pakistani Taliban kills 132 children. Jeb Bush throws his name in 2016 ring. The New Republic runs a headline titled “Don’t Let ‘Black Lives Matter’ Become Another Ice Bucket Challenge.” Two Prominent Ferguson Protesters Get Engaged. They are both women. This year’s flu shot doesn’t cover this year’s flu. In order “To Avoid the Common Cold, Hug as Many People as Possible.” Russia’s currency crashes. Niagara Bottling Company, a multi-million dollar water bottling conglomerate located in Irvine, California, is threatening to drain Cooper Lake, a massive public water supply in upstate New York near the city’s largest water supply source in my backyard. Bill Cosby’s wife, Camille Cosby, cites the meltdown of the UVA rape case publicized by Rolling Stone as her reasoning behind the need for public “vetting” of stories and asks, “None of us would ever want to be in the position of attacking a victim. But the question is, who is the victim?” So far nine women have come forward and said Cosby drugged and rapped them.
Obama DJs an intimate dance party with close friends in the Yellow Oval which starts with “Rock Steady” and ends on Al Green.
As I scan the day’s headlines, I am reminded of an essay I wrote while living on an organic farm in high school on Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” “These are the voices which we hear in solitude,” Emerson says. “But they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most requests is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”
He goes on: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”
I’d been attracted to it then based on its reverence for non-conformity. A reverence I seem to have reclaimed now in this Move North. I remember writing feverishly into the night from my place on the grassy knoll atop Garden Hill. The teacher gave me an A- on the essay—my ideas were good but I’d put too much into the soup.
Now, an adult relegated once again to the mountain, it strikes me that in truth perhaps the core of Emerson’s essay is rather simple: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
This, I think, is the thing that drew me here to this rented farmhouse on the Hudson. Here, I hear my heart vibrate amidst the great guffaw of the other woodland introverts: owls, bear, fox, woodchucks, rabbits, woodpeckers, turkeys, innumerable deer. And yet too that iron string is the thing that haunts me. Removed from the city’s ticker tapes , I exist now in the country’s camouflaged ruminations. I have missed openings and readings and book parties. Though I mark “Going,” to all the social media invites I receive, as if to say, “I’m still there in spirit.” Because I am. There is an auditory play called Philadelphia which I want to see and another performance called All Our Happy Days Are Stupid. Perhaps I will crash in the city with friends.
Then we are buried in a near foot of snow and the temperatures hover near minus 20. I finish a novel and start another. Compile a story collection. Endeavor to work on a series of difficult essays about life, of which this is one misguided example. I write to friends, long letters over email. “I thought perhaps you’d let yourself go,” one unwitting correspondent remarks. “But no! It seems you’ve been so productive.” I think too of that first acceptance letter in the mail. “Why now?” I ask myself, from beneath the pile of wool which surrounds me and my one good sock without holes. I can’t help but feel that we are refugees of something.
I start to refer to our time in Brooklyn as the“Lost Years.” Despite all the parties and openings and invitations, those four and half years in our rented second-floor Brooklyn brownstone seemed to go by in the space of a month. I remember going braless it was so hot the night we moved in. I remember the white shoes I was wearing. I remember trying to play “River,” softly on the piano so as not to wake the neighbors. I’m sure I remember other things, but they escape me.
I don’t know how to account for the Lost Years. I worked hard in them. Often getting up at five in the morning with the crack addicts from the needle exchange program near Nostrand to commute three trains into the city where I adjunct-taught at the two or three schools where I cobbled together what I’d like to call a “living.” One year I kept a full-time job on top of that. I got an agent. I left that agent and got another whom I trusted. I left love. Found love. Screamed down hallways. Somewhere in between I adopted two cats. Once there’d been a break-in in my apartment where my landlord was shot. A local gang who had raped a girl a few blocks over while her boyfriend watched. I’d been the one in the closet who called the cops. “Faster! He’s got a gun!” I’d heard it go off in the bedroom below us. We didn’t leave afterward because where would we go? Where does an artist live but in Brooklyn?
I’d eaten pizza at Roberta’s. Drunk beers outside at the Fulton Grand. Had Mexican at the new Chavela’s and old Chavella’s. Done a cleanse at the yoga studio up the block. Friends had gotten married and then divorced. I’d thrown Thanksgiving once in our rented floor-through in that old Brooklyn brownstone on Lefferts. My mother called me afterward and said I’d “found my people.” I looked around and wondered who they were. I knew where every good slice of pizza under $4 was in the city. I had a hairdresser at fancy salon who would still do my highlights for under a hundred dollars, charging me the “men's wage.” I’d given innumerable art students tours of the Highline. I’d heard people have sex through the wall. They too had heard me in turn. I’d once returned to my little seven-foot-wide studio on the Upper West Side to find the door had been kicked down. It turned out the Fire Department had broken in to fix a leak in the bathroom above mine. They’d left a note on the toilet. There was a river of brackish water in the hall.
I’d found an analyst who went by the initials H.H. near Columbus Circle where I’d lived with my ex-gay boyfriend when I’d first moved to the city. H.H. asked me now what my first memory of my mother was. “Oh!” she’d said.
I’d gone several times to California, stayed in a hut in Topanga and swore I’d never come back again. I’d eaten haddock at Froggies and had fish tacos at Neptune’s Net on the PCH. Swum in too-high waves at Little Dume. Laid in sound machines in the desert and counted dolphins on the Santa Monica pier.
Once, I’d gone to Berlin by myself and taken photographs of Modernist architecture.
Each time, I’d come back.
As I jot down the day’s headlines for an essay about moving north, I wonder if I’ve come any closer to that self-reliance at which I’d once grasped during my youth on Garden Hill. There is a fire in the wood stove. The generator is covered in six inches of snow on the porch. We’ve got a thick plastic sheet with which to line the tub in case the electricity goes down and we need to preserve drinking water. My mother has given us two kerosene lamps.
As Emerson says, my days now mostly look like this: “What I must do is all that concerns me.” Those mornings I don’t teach, I drive an hour south to ride a half-blind ex-racehorse named Joe. This makes me immeasurably happy. The woman who owns the barn says he is a descendant of Secretariat. “You know, the horse with the eighteen-pound heart.” I read an article called the “X-Factor.” It turns out it’s a term used to describes the “dominant female X chromosome.” “If the mare is bred to a large-hearted sire, she will always produce large-hearted foals. Her daughters will then be double copy mares. Double copy mares frequently produce winners.”
At night I lie awake and wonder, am I winning? Emerson says that “it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
My hair several days unwashed, my feet ever more accustomed to the lining of field boots than the pinched toes and high heels in which I once cavorted, I think: perhaps I’ll try and make my way down from these hills to the city this week. I go outside to the car and find the oil pan broken so I drive the car to Eric, the friendly mechanic in the nearby town of Willow. He’s got cancer and is only in on odd days, but I’ve caught him on a fine morning. “Where would you want to go on a day like this anyways?” he says, pointing at the snow in the mountains. The Catskill Forest looms white in the background. My hands are bleeding, chapped in the cold. I say, “No place but this.”