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August 12, 2005

A Place Called Paradise

Another random photo moment (previous vacation essays here)

a place called paradise

When we drove past this place - the sign says it's called Paradise Lake - I actually saw it in black and white.

When I have my camera in tow, I tend to view everything as a potential photograph and whatever I'm looking at in that moment is seen through not just my eyes, but my photographer mind. I see sepia tones, blurred visions, soft focus. In the instant it takes to scan, say, a field of flowers, my mind runs through the myriad options, like there's a copy of Photoshop in my head, and I see modes and colors that aren't there for anyone else. Very rarely does a photograph come out exactly as I viewed it in my mind. That's the beauty of digital photography, though. You can try, try, try again without wasting money or film.

So we drove past Paradise and I stuck my head out the window, snapped the camera and a rush of thoughts erupted with the one click. Black and white. This looks almost like a ghost town. No, a post-Armageddon town. No, something more desperate and bleak. Not so much the setting, but the juxtaposition of the word PARADISE with scenery that consisted of a battered barn-like building, a trailer, a dirt road and some cars.

Of course, all those things just might be someone's idea of paradise. Who's to say? What's bleak and depressing to me might be someone's escape from the things they find bleak and depressing. Maybe there's a guy - let's call him Larry - who lives just down the road apiece from Paradise Lake. He lives in a battered house that needs a new roof and better insulation. The yard is nothing more than dried hunks of brown grass growing between patches of rock and dirt. There are bills spread out on his kitchen table; utility, Exxon credit car, pharmacy. The phone's already been turned off. Electricity is next. On the wall is a picture of his wife Martha, who died last year from lung cancer. He's got a kid, a daughter, but she's off living with her grandparents, who give her things that he can't, like heat in the winter and a hot breakfast and new shoes.

So he doesn't want to look at the bills and his wife anymore. He doesn't want to stare at the thin walls that make him think of freezing winters even though right now it's summer, hot as hell summer, and the flies are coming in through the holes in the screen, gathering on the counter that hasn't been wiped clean in a week at least. He walks out the door - doesn't bother locking it because there's nothing worth stealing in the house - grabs his fishing pole and starts walking down to Paradise Lake.

Paradise Lake is stocked with trout. It's surrounded by mountains lush with greenery, bordered with wildflowers and dotted with water lilies. Larry finds his favorite place, where the water-beaten rocks, softened and smoothed by nature, jut out into the lake. He sits on the rock, casts his line and waits. He doesn't care if he catches a fish or not. In fact, he'll probably throw back whatever he catches. He just wants to sit there with the sun beating down on his shoulders, enveloping him in a warmth that seeps deep within his soul. He just wants to stare at the clouds that move across the sky, huge, pregnant clouds that remind him of childhood summers, and sometimes the sun will burst forth from behind those clouds, throwing spears of light rays towards the heavens and Larry thinks that Martha is talking to him then, saying hi from above, smiling at him even though he fucked things up so bad.

He smiles back.

A trout bites. A bullfrog leaps into the water, lands on a lily pad. From across the lake comes the shout of a young boy who has caught his first fish. The sun caresses his face. Paradise, indeed.

August 11, 2005

House of Miracles

house of miracles
click for bigger

Roscoe, NY

The sign in front used to say House of Miracles. Apparently the miracles ran out, and the retreat is closed.

Over the course of the past 35 years or so, we were told that the retreat was:

A home for unwed mothers
A place for troubled teens to get themselves together
A hideaway for serial killers who liked to prey on children while wearing clown suits
A home for members of a Mooni-type cult
A home for parents who didn't want to be parents anymore
A religious indoctrination camp
A real, honest to goodness House of Miracles, where evangelists and charismatic preachers came to practice their healing/embezzelment skills

Whatever it was, it is no more. It's a beautiful place, too, in an idyllic setting. Now, with the empty parking lot and bare sign and a lakefront that looks like a ghost town, it just seem sad and forlorn.

Across the street is a camp for Hasidic Jews. People mill about all day and into the evening; the place is bustling with business all the time. But it's like no one dares cross the street. On one side, a vibrant retreat filled with life. On the other, just lingering ghosts of past miracles and/or evil clown serial killers.

August 10, 2005

Mountains and Molehills: A Vacation Diary
Part III: Cemetery Gates

[Excerpts (and additions) from the (handwritten!) diary I kept on vacation. All links to go photos taken on said vacation. This will probably be five or six parts, so if you're not interested you might want to skip the next 24 hours or so around here. Part 1 here, part II here.]

crooked-cemetery-17The Roscoe Cemetery is located on a steep hill. You have to literally drive off the beaten path to get there; a gravel road that traverses over a single lane bridge takes you up a winding path to a parking area. There's a newer section of the cemetery, with fresh graves, smooth headstones that shine like glass, replete with mementos lined up like museum displays.. We walk to the other side of the cemetery, the part that rolls up and down with the terrain, where the birth dates are in the 1800s, the graves are laid out haphazardly and the headstones are splayed out like loose, crooked teeth.

I try to walk between the graves, to show some respect to the dead by not stepping on their burial place, but this cemetery is laid out so that's impossible and I nearly tiptoe across the grass, as if my footsteps would disturb the endless sleep of the dead.

There are simple stones carved with just names and dates. I stare at these stones, finger the letters carved within and wonder about Louisa and Elizabeth- who were they, how did they die, where they mothers, wives? Perhaps Louisa was poor, which is why her headstone is so plain, so non descriptive, unlike the Cages, whose burial place is adorned with a tree carved from stone, sitting among the simpler headstones like a welcome sign to a summer retreat. I try to clear some moss off of Russell's grave and I find myself saying out loud, though in a whisper "was that your first or last name?" The moss is embedded in the letters and tell Russell I'm sorry I couldn't fix his bed up for him.

Many of the graves are those of children, babies and teenagers who died in a time when it was common to lose a child. Still, that doesn't make it any easier to read the dates on a headstone and realize that below the ground lies the remains of an infant who never saw her first birthday, or a mother buried alongside her five year old son.

There are monuments and statues among the tumbled stones and flat, simple plates. Angels and chess pieces and the Cage tree stand tall, if a little tilted, like sentries overlooking the highway below.

The quiet is overwhelming. Even with the rush of a few cars and trucks below and the distant sound of water rushing over rocks, the quiet within the cemetery is heavy and reverent. Even a whispered "look at this one!" seems out of place and disrespectful. We trod back up the hill again, wending our way around William and Marinda, past the part where the ground sinks and rises, behind a thoughtful Jesus, pondering the mountain range, back to our car and the living, leaving behind that feeling of complete peace I always feel within cemetery gates.

I think about the cemetery now, hours later, sitting once again cross legged on the bed, staring out the window at mountains and lush trees and ducks moving slowly across the lake. I think I've change my mind about being cremated. I think about the relatives of Mildred, who still take care of her grave and bring her flowers and have a place to go to talk to her. I think of my own grandmother (also Mildred) and grandfather, lying next to each other in Holy Rood Cemetery and how, every time I drive down Old Country Road, past the cemetery, I wave to them, silly as that may seem. It gives me peace to know they, in some small way, still exist. When I go to their graves and see fresh flowers and plants and mementos of love, I know that people still think of them. They are here, in a way. Would I deny my own children or the rest of my family that just because I have a fear of being buried? I'll be dead. What difference would it make to me then? None. So if my family wants a place to talk to me after I'm gone, to feel like they are visiting me, I can give that to them, I suppose. I just hope they don't come too often. I like my alone time.

[All cemetery photos here, all vacation phots (thus far) here]

August 09, 2005

Mountains and Molehills: A Vacation Diary
Part II

[Excerpts (and additions) from the (handwritten!) diary I kept on vacation. All links to go photos taken on said vacation. This will probably be five or six parts, so if you're not interested you might want to skip the next 24 hours or so around here. Part 1 here.]

It's a bit strange for a claustrophobic to hate open spaces, isn't it? But I do. Put me in a boat in the middle of the ocean or a field that seems to go on forever and I'll be in deep panic mode within seconds. I just hate not being able to see the end of something. It's why long car rides find me anxious towards the end of the ride; I know the finish line is up ahead, but until I can see it, it's almost like I can't breathe until I get there.

greenery on the goThis lake isn't exactly wide open space; I can look ahead or behind me and see either side, both dotted with homes and docks and boats. To the left is the closer end that tightens up with a beaver damn (though in all my years coming to this lake I've never seen a beaver and I'm starting to think that they only existed in the minds of my older cousins), which narrows into a tiny patch of land, that opens up into a tangle of streams, leading out to Trout Brook Road (which is nothing more than dirt and gravel carved out of the mountain). It is in this spot that I tread soft ground, marveling at the way the bed of moss springs up and down as I press my feet upon it and then suddenly I am sinking, my right foot being sucked downward into muck and mud and who knows what else and as I panic (quicksand! death!) I move my left foot back and find refuge on a thick tree root. My daughter grabs one hand, my husband the other and they pull. My foot and leg come out of the swampy dirt with a puckering sound, leaving my sneaker behind. The phrase "nature abhors a vacuum" runs through my mind as the space where my foot was fills with spongy, wet dirt. My husband manages to tug my sneaker to safety and we collapse in fits of laughter in the nearby, dry field; me, laughing at myself and the way I screamed "Help, I'm going doooooooooown!" and the other two laughing more at me than with me, which was ok as I'm sure it looked funny from their point of view.

Our laughter echoes through the mountains and I remember being seven or eight years old, standing in almost the same spot, shouting out "Hello!" just to hear my voice reverberate through the woods and over the lake.

Anyhow, back to the lake. To the right, the lake opens up and stretches out far enough so you can't see the end. I know it's there, I know that the end is made to look like a beach, with a sandy shore and deck chairs, and there's a dock just bobbing up and down in the middle of the lake "beach" and it all gathers and rides out under a wooden bridge, where a waterfall spills the remains of the lake out into a wide, rock-strewn stream.

When we were small, we chased each other out to the dock and took turns diving off into the murk of the lake. I was braver then than I am now; even though I've always had a fear of water, I made a show of not being afraid back then. What would my cousins think if I refused to swim or jump or dive? So I swam with the fish and salamanders, my legs often getting tangled up in underwater vines or caught up in lily pads and I would scream as if snakes were wrapping themselves around me. Back by the house, where the water wasn't as clear as it was by the beach, I would don my red canvas tennis sneakers before stepping into the lake. Just gently putting your foot into the water, lightly stepping on the muddy bottom, would cause a smoky uproot of whatever dreck lay on the bottom of Lake Muskoday. How did I ever swim in that? Where is that bravery now? Now, I look at the lake and see a monster ready to swallow me up. I see water without end. I see depths unknown, dark, dangerous waters filled with, what? Trout? Newts? It doesn't matter. It's water and it's dark and when I'm out there in the paddle boat, holding on for dear life, my family nearly in tears laughing at my abject terror of a freaking lake, it may as well be a five headed, forked tongue, fire-breathing dragon. That's what an open space is, in my mind. That's what the depth of water is, a never ending lake or ocean, a giant field, a road with exits far and few between all are. How odd is that it is the same monster as a closed, dark closet, a crowded elevator or any tight, confined space? The mind is a mysterious thing.

All photos (uploaded so far, I took 555) here.

[more to come]

Mountains and Molehills: A Vacation Diary
Part I

[Excerpts (and additions) from the (handwritten!) diary I kept on vacation. All links to go photos taken on said vacation. This will probably be five or six parts, so if you're not interested you might want to skip the next 24 hours or so around here]

sunset 3We set out at 5am, an ungodly hour for most people, but prime time for a morning person like myself. There are very few cars on the road at that time of the morning, and we made pretty quick work of the trip to Roscoe.

The farther we got from home, the more I realized how conflicted I am about the need for routine and familiarity and the feeling of having a cocoon of safety and comfort built around you.

I wanted to detach, to separate myself from civilization, technology, traffic, ringing phones and copy machines and computer screens and screaming neighbors and blaring horns. Yet as the signs of departure from home loomed - the crossing of the bridges, the narrowing of roads, the mountains rising up from the ground - I became nervous about the detachment. It's not that I would miss the internet or cell phone service or air conditioning; it's more like I would miss what those things represent: the confines of home. How strange to want to slip out of confinement, to be afraid of confinement, even emotional or mental confinement to the point of a mental sort of claustrophobia, and then to feel afraid because you are not confined.

Once we turned off Route 17 and into the town of Roscoe, I felt better. Roscoe is back-of-the-hand familiar. You turn into town, which consists of a small group of stores, some of which have been standing since I was a small child. Raimondo's restuarant, the grocery store, the fish supply store and, of course, the Roscoe train and museum.

From there it's a ten minute ride to the house in the woods. There's something about the ride from here to there that is almost magical in its ability to wipe out everything you left behind. It's like coming into a clearing and seeing only what's in front of you - sky, trees, grass - and hearing only what's around you - insects, wind, moving water - and knowing nothing else but the pure beauty of nature. Every stress, every worry, every minute detail of life is swept away and that feeling that we all get too often, that life is just whooshing by us at 100mph, it's all gone. You're at a standstill, a weird place where time and calendars and dollars, for a few moments anyhow, mean nothing.

You're driving on smooth curves cut into mountains, Johnny Cash on the stereo, the double yellow line uncoiling before you in a slithering series of ups and downs that make your stomach jump. On your left is the glassy surface of an enormous lake , the sky a deep shade of blue that you thought existed only in crayon boxes. On your right, a crop of wildflowers emerge in a blurred splash of blue and yellow and orange and behind the flowers the land rises up and centuries old trees tower above, the sun glittering through leaves and branches that have existed through hundreds of years of storms and changing landscape.

When you drive the same roads at night, they take on such a different shape and color. Even at dusk, the roads are washed in shadows; still black shadows of trees and flitting, gray shadows of bats that swoop and circle. The bumps in the road seem larger, the hills steeper, the woods menancing. The slow cadence of Queens of the Stone Age's Mosquito Song performs a fitting tribute to the sounds that play over the music - a constant buzz that is not just one bug, but thousands and thousands of all different breeds of insects waiting for a body to pounce on, a dead animal to feast on. They come in from the waters when the lights go down, hiding from the bats that have come out for dinner. You roll up the car windows to drown out the sound, and to keep out anything that might be lurking in the woods because we all know that things lurk out here at night.

Fat and soft, pink and weak
Foot and thigh, tongue and cheek
You know I'm told they swallow you whole
Skin and bone
Cutting boards and hanging hooks
Bloody knives, cooking books
Promising you won't feel a thing
At all

All photos (uploaded so far, I took 555) here.

[more to come]