Friday, July 23, 2004

JUNE 13, 2004

7:30 a.m. It's a foggy morning - fog, or another kind of hanging moisture. I think of the plains of Africa. The sun is trying to burn through, as if the sky's on fire. What water is not in the air is pooled in the low spots in the fields.
The crops will never recover entirely.

You don't know if it's going to rain or shine. It's a roll of the die, it's luck of the draw.

I'm headed to Smith Center, Kansas, for a week. That's by design.

You have to imagine what it means, because it doesn't know. A fellow walks from his house to the corner of his lawn. His shirt seems dirty, his hair is mussed. He is not walking square to the world. He pushes and the world pushes back. I don't know why he's walking across the lawn, perhaps with a cup of coffee in his hand. It is Sunday morning; the morning lays on him like fog; he carries it; he goes on. As do we all.

The air grows heavy. Rain hits the windshield like darkness. One pushes into it. These things we do, some of them we do by choice.

The sun breaks through the haze, a temporary victory. I am going to put on 830 miles today making this drive. I could see any weather, every weather, between here and Smith Center. There were tornadoes in Iowa and Kansas yesterday. To the southwest, the sky is still dark.

Today, on this long grey drive, I'm thinking that anybody could tell these stories. I'm nothing special for trying to tell them; anybody could do it. Yet the question would be - if I don't tell them, who will? What may be special is my desire to tell them. My doggedness. It's a strange mixture - my interest, the requisite poetry in these lives, my adequate prose for the telling. One does not choose such work so much as the work chooses him.

9:10 a.m. Seventeen miles from Dodgeville, Wisconsin. A spatter of rain. A car from Kansas passes me. We are headed in the same rough direction. We move for different purposes, at different speeds. I drive not hard, but steady. I am a dogged traveler, the determined vagabond. Who else would enjoy an 830 miles trek?

The drive from Fairwater to Smith Center is a diagonal across the heart of the middle west. What I see today, that is what we are, isn't it? Now it is greenness, now greyness. Tree and ditches and fields. Haze and rain and water standing. Southwestern Wisconsin is so pretty in this light, it could be any tourist's destination.

I am not particularly interested in pretty, yet I am not put off by it. Rather, I think we learn more by observing the ordinary, the plain, the mundane. To find the story in the ordinary is to find the real story. Yet the ordinary story does not tell itself; you must seduce it. You have to tease it out as it teases you.

11:00 a.m. West of Dubuque on Highway 151. Bare sky is showing. The day has brightened. I've had another cup of coffee; I'm wired for a few hundred miles more. Heavy coffee, I call it: a cup of black coffee from a convenience store, spiked with a few spoonsful of instant coffee from the jar I keep in the glove compartment. It works its caffeine magic.

A rich odor of manure at Cascade, Iowa. There is a large pen of cattle here; they're being fattened for the slaughterhouse. This is where your steak comes from. The smell of the cattle pen is as large as the sky.

The Iowa corn is ten inches to a foot tall already.

12 Noon. I'm south of Cedar Rapids on I-380, headed for I-80, headed for Des Moines, Omaha, Lincoln. Driving the long miles west.

On I-80 a hundred and four miles east of Des Moines. Such a brimming greenness. Beans and corn, ditches and trees. Greenness on the heavy breeze.

12:30 p.m. I've passed the North English-Marengo exit. The sky is mostly blue now. A long cloud is stretched across the western sky as if something ends and begins at that place. Puffs of clouds to this side of it, to the other side.

2:00 p.m. I'm west of Des Moines. I've got less than a quarter tank of gas left. I'd like to find a little bit of something to eat. I'll stop in Van Meter, Iowa, at the convenience store. Van Meter is home of the Bob Fuller Museum. It is home of the 2003 1-A state baseball champs. The community is a mile from the interstate. The lights and bell on the railroad crossing are malfunctioning, stuck constantly on - clang, clang, clang, clang. I'm in town only long enough to fill the car with gasoline and get some orange juice and an ice cream sandwich, and already the racket has given me a headache.

It is getting hot out. The sky is absolutely blue.

About eighty miles east of Council Bluffs the land rolls about like a restless sleeper, up and down, up and down. It's like a green machine, pumping.
To be continued....

JULY 17, 1998

Last night two of our cats went through the screen on the dining room door, out onto the patio, to show a stray cat - the stray cat? - just whose place this is. Obviously, our two cats think it is theirs. The discussion, I'm told - since I was asleep - was long and loud. When it was over, my wife found the larger, male cat lounging on the front porch, surveying his kingdom. We'll have to repair the screen, but the rest of the house seems well protected. The stray is not in our driveway today.

Human beings are just as territorial of their space, their place, just as protective, aren't they? Stepping onto my property is trespass; the discussion will take place in court. Sometimes we think we are superior to the animals, when in reality the principles we find there apply to us as well. We ignore those principles at our own peril.

Is that my hawk half-hidden in the leaves of the big tree out in the middle of the field? Will my wishing make it so?

The green of all the fields shines today, really shines!

A farmer in his striped overalls and a baseball cap, an older man, walks out to the road to check his mailbox. He has a five quart plastic bucket in his hand. He is really on his way to pick berries, isn't he, in the cool of the morning.

Long shadows in Ripon - houses in their morning shade.


JULY 20, 1998
We try to make things make sense, don't we? Because we can understand, we tell ourselves that things can be understood. If only we can unlock the meaning, if only we can cipher sense into a random occurrence of events, a random smashing of molecules, then we can quiet our restless heart which wants to know "Why."

We are human because we can ask "Why." But we are foolish humans to think that every time we ask, there will or should be an answer. Sometimes we are simply the piece of straw picked up and driven into the telephone pole - there is no "meaning" in that. It just is. Not even God will tell you why that happened here, now. It makes sense on the level of simple physics; it does not seem to make sense when we look at it through the lens of the question "Why." Random shards of pottery do not make a whole pot, no matter how much we wish them to.

There was a little rain during the night, at 3:00 a.m., say. I could hear it behind the whirr of the fan pulling cool air into the house, I could see its sheen in the street light. The world refreshed itself. This is not a desert, no matter how much some of the village youngsters might think it is. They want to get the hell out of Fairwater. Someday they will want to come back and they will not be able to. I have been able to choose the village, and Mary has, and it fits us. It does not fit our daughters - one of them is working in the city now, the other is in school in Montana. We have lost at least one of them to the mountains. Isn't that the flatlander's greatest sadness, to lose a daughter to the mountains? And - having rejected the city - to lose another daughter to the city?

A mourning dove takes off from the driveway. Dew condensed on the windshield of the pick-up. Sun and blue sky. July is perfect, just perfect. Leave me here, let me be.

Perhaps that was not the hawk I saw in the tree last week. That spot of coloration is in the same place again today, exactly.

At Sina's pig farm, the smell of money, the acrid smell of pig manure cutting the blue air.

A skunk dead on the road. We could wish it were not so, but to make it not so we'd have to get rid of some of our roads, wouldn't we?

The goat at Five Corners has dug himself a fox hole. At the intersection itself, the flowers are in full dress uniform - so much beauty, unsung at a rural crossroad.

In Ripon, a woman stands at the fence in front of the motel. She is drinking her morning coffee. She must be on vacation, for she is as bright as the day, enjoying the morning, watching the traffic pass, the sun on her, the wind wrapping itself around the soft folds of her clothes, playing with her hair. She takes another sip of coffee.

And I go on, go to work. Dammit. Dammit on a fine day.

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