Monday, December 8, 2014

South Central Rain

We drove on through darkness, very dark, along an interstate into Kentucky. Two symbols of the New South, side by side, illuminated by headlights as Layne tried to keep straight on a road full of the usual construction, amidst impatient (people don't drive nicely down here) trucks and cars all around us. An abandoned barn and farm. A sign for Allison's Adult Superstore, open from 6 a.m. to midnight. I wondered, drowsily if briefly, who stopped there so early, and who had to work there, and what they sold.

Figuring Louisville brought us that much more west than would have Cincinnati, we opted for it. We got a dim sense of Louisville when we went a few blocks to find a short strip of neon. Walking down streets full of construction sites, we passed two city plaques noting the slave markets which had met around Market Street. Most of the sturdy buildings, true to urban fashions we'd seen, remained dilapidated, but gentrification encroached.

A few hipper restaurants, near the convention center, beckoned, and Layne chose Doc Crowe's. Jammed with lots of kids from the university, that sports powerhouse with pro-sized stadiums. I supposed a big game had happened, as we saw Stanford shirts here and there. A giant, restored distillery, it had dozens of bourbon types and loads of oysters. We contented ourselves with fried food. I had a Founder's stout, same brand as I enjoyed in Grand Rapids. Nothing overwhelming, but a popular place. The table next to us had a slew of conventioneers, well-fed and well-earning types, all white men chuckling except for one suited Japanese fellow who appeared to be sampling Southern fare for the first time. I thought of the Babbitt radio dramatization we'd been enjoying, as if updated.

We could not find a cheap room downtown, settling for a not-bargain Econo Lodge. It was central. At least it had (despite the warning in the lobby) free parking. But it was dismal. Even the breakfast was skimpier than in other such motels. All I could scrounge up was oatmeal in a packet and Raisin Bran. Around us, the workers waited for their 9 a.m. shift, and construction was happening as we tried to check out, the elevator full of laundry carts and the corridors full of hammering and hewing. We got out of there nearly as fast as we had Ann's Motel in Wall SD; these two were the low points so far.

Backtracking a bit, as the presence of Bardstown Road in Louisville led me to believe the next destination was just outside that small town and adjacent, we drove instead a lovely hour or so back into the Bluegrass State's heartland. I wanted to see, as we were not far anyhow, the Abbey of Gethsemani. When I was in junior high, the two books I read that left a lifetime impression on me were Tolkien's trilogy and Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain. I credit my medievalist path in college and grad school to these influences. Merton made famous the monastery he entered at 27 and lived, more or less, at until his death nearly 27 years ago to the day, if far from the Kentucky knobs, the wooded hills on the two-thousand acres the order of Trappists have farmed since 1848.

Leaving another interstate, we entered lovely terrain. Fall still glowed. A sign for Boston ahead meant only a settlement overlooking fields and railroad tracks. The sun shone. Little country roads kept diverting us, and a large set of factories in the middle of grass proved to be Jim Beam's distillery #5. I have no idea how blue bluegrass is, but the meadows and tidy farms and small houses we kept viewing kept us attentive. The route took us into New Haven, whose sign welcomed us to the "gateway" to the Abbey. A large Catholic church attested in that village to the presence around there.

We got sidetracked on Google in a field, near the Merton Retreat Center, but a few hundred yards in the other direction, a sign pointing us at a crossroads fork to "Trappist" on Monks Road said it all. The road curves into the verdant knolls, and Layne understandably asked if the prominent if still indefinite figure on the statue crowning a hill was of Merton. I think it's St. Joseph. Michael Mott's The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, which I am re-reading now, states early on for Merton the worst sin was idolatry. I admire his sticking it out at a place where, once the honeymoon wore off for a very recent convert, tested him. He broke silence to praise it, as Mott avers. Many of his seventy books are sold in the gift shop. The ancillary Merton line of souvenirs and tributes echo his predicament. An extrovert and wit who chose a cloister, he wanted to be left alone, he rankled at the community he praised, he courted a worldwide audience despite the Order's aim of anonymity. I found out recently from our dear friend Bob, son of a Free Methodist minister who spoke at our wedding, that the reverend had met Merton way back when he lived in Kentucky. I confess I am delighted to be two degrees of separation (as I am from Pope John Paul #2 and President #44) away.

Merton strove to live apart on the property, yet he, knowing his unreadiness, first asked to be made Novice Master. He chafed against the discipline imposed on him by an abbot, but he realized his vow of stability had to keep him there. He found his calling, but a complicated one and not a sinecure. After his autobiography with no promotion soared to the bestseller list in 1949, he brought necessary income to the struggling monastery, as well as so many applicants they had to live in a circus tent. Postwar trauma had already been attracting postulants and novices looking for renewal. Merton's book made him the most famous monk of modern times, even as he longed early on to be a hermit.

He got his wish, finally, but we had probably no permission to venture so far into the enclosure, and we had to content ourselves with examining the informative display outside the gift shop. A video showed us more, and I heard many East Coast and what regional and blue-collar accents as some monks in voiceover (one looked very Jewish and may have been once) explained their venerable routine. One reasoned bluntly, contrary to the naysayers like my dad who scoffed at a bunch of unproductive men getting room and board for nothing but praying all day, that such a demanding life (up in the middle of the night, hard work, scant food, and a regimen devoted to "ora et labora" first), that the monastic vocation required one to serve others, or else, what was this life good for, anyhow?

On a humdrum errand for the monastery, Merton found himself transformed. "In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers." A plaque marks this 1958 epiphany, which moved Merton towards pursuing social justice. (Walnut St has been renamed for Muhammad Ali!)

Merton hated the "Cheese Factory" and its grubbing for greenbacks, but of course, if not for the royalties from his books, popular from the 1950s ever since, would the Abbey have survived? Its boom came and went. As the placards tell, vocations have dropped now. The 40 or so monks number about the same as when Merton entered a few days after Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941. Most heads are grey and or bald, and as with other foundations I've read about, the future of Catholic monasticism appears to wane. Although as a letter posted from a retreat-goer with a Jewish surname suggests, many find the chance to share Benedictine hospitality appealing. Intriguingly, rather early in the postwar era, Merton popularized Zen presciently. Catholic institutions have been sold to other faiths more and more. Many monks rationalize that this decline speaks to a pattern only God knows.

Peter Owen Jones' BBC series Around the World in 80 Faiths featured a visit to the monastery of Subiaco in Italy, where St. Benedict prayed in a cave. A few tottering residents remain in that storied setting, amid medieval frescoes. New Age retreats buy out Jesuit seminaries. Burning Man creates its own annual ritual. Outside these walls, yoga may beckon more than Sunday obligations. Meanwhile, cheese is sold and fruitcake assembled, both by hand, and you can order both (we liked the garlic and chives cheese and the bourbon fudge) online at Gethsemani Farms. Layne also bought a Nicaraguan vase; the shop sells products made by Cistercian communities and far-flung fair-trade cooperatives.

I wonder, if Merton had use of the Net, what his vocation would be like? Could he have kept his solitude, so longed for? Layne contrasted the despair of prisoners in Canon City and Jackson compared with the contentment of the monks in cells nearly as spartan. We entered the guests' glassed-off portion to look down on the stark white chapel. We spent a few minutes standing there. Time stopped. I thought about Merton and all who had prayed below. It was absolutely silent.

I wish we had more time to walk around, even if the day was very blustery. But we had to make it back around south and head east as planned. We found ourselves, at Google's prompt, on a pretty road. Suddenly we passed a sign of Lincoln's first school, then another for his boyhood home at Knob Creek (closed for construction). The center of the modest town of Hodgenville has its own memorial at a roundabout, in a fittingly humble setting. You can watch more about Lincoln's birthplace here.

We edged back to the interstate, leaving Kentucky soon behind but wanting to go back to see more. We stopped at a K-Mart in Franklin, the same as any, but as it did not have sunglasses for Layne, we went to a mall across the street, as anywhere. Yet the people at Sunglass Hut helped, directing her to the kiosk selling a pair at a fifth of the price they did. On a sunny day, after avoiding most of Nashville, we headed west across some of the Volunteer State. We passed the site for Shiloh but already, the day lengthened. So, we stayed at an Air B'n'B find, a restored collection of Southern rural buildings and a two-story cotton gin, the rebirth of the roadside settlement where Alamo and Bells and two big highways merge. Dr. John Freeman has spent his retirement in this labor of love. We stayed in a moonshiner's cabin, diligently moved and rebuilt. We lit a fire and smelled the smoke.

I walked the 30-odd acres and learned about the different structures. You can too at this site for Green Frog. The sunset over the pines was brilliantly hued, and I tried to take pictures on my phone which inevitably fail to do it justice. That night, I tried to shut out the rumbling traffic and imagine life once. Next morning, we walked about the place more, and visited the gin as it was being worked on by an older man who told us of how he and his smaller sister tried to pick hundreds of pounds of cotton (one big bag filled can tote 200 lbs.) in an hour. That gin was amazingly designed, ingeniously so. What I figured vaguely was a contraption the size of a crate was an intricate, immense construction.

The tribute to a vanished way of life, with hardships perhaps outnumbered or balanced by such memories, stands as a reminder of what we today never know. Talking to the man who made his retirement a time spent caring for the cotton gin, he connected me with hardship, but also with a rooted sense of belonging on a farm, committed to a task. My Angeleno commute, my keyboard tasks, my mindset tired of "outrage" this and to-do task that, such trivia: one advantage of a monastery or rural surroundings is that they force you (or can or did) to listen. The highways never stopped whirring, but I tried there to hear the sense of life and how to live it (I had to fit in R.E.M. somehow), if not in a way I could ever do. As the Badlands showed, you have to go a very long time to hear the wind on the prairie, or look out over a clear vista to thirty miles away. As Layne did some work back in the cabin, I lingered to take photos, some on my stomach in the long grass, as I strove to find perspectives before the clouds let loose, and taking in the feel of the place. A woman leaving the front lot urged me to come back when the cafe was open, as the sandwiches were worth the visit.

The weather threatened rain, and by the time we headed south again, it hit. Layne and I reckoned we could dip into the Magnolia State, and she found a worthwhile byway taking us past to me oddly placed subdivisions, each on "wooded lots" if often cleared of such, an acre per lonely house, unlovely and awkward, which speckled the space we passed as red dirt took over and pines and scrubland receded. We were on the Cotton Trail in Tennessee, and all around, it dusted white as if snow had fallen. We took a weird off-ramp that failed to get us on the interstate but did take us on a mile that dazzled with beauty. Half cotton fields, half leaves golden or scarlet falling in the drizzle. 

Entering Holly Springs, you pass from the interstate (and another is coming, I-269, a north-south one bringing more subdivisions, Wal-Mart Superstores, maybe fracking) and endless construction maddening at the state border and thereabouts, worsened by rain and closed-off exits and ramps into a calmer South. Rust College, one of the first black institutions founded in Reconstruction, stands. Across, the brick and stone ruins of a state industrial academy loom. In the center, as if Santa Fe's adobe had been converted into humbler lumber structures two centuries later, a square of stores and a wooden awning and boardwalk remind one of what it might have been like, when the war came to the middle of the town, part of the strategies that drew in Shiloh and Corinth, into hatred and bloodshed.

A few blocks away, at a converted girls' school, the crammed three stories of 40,000 artifacts collected from the families who have lived there long make the Marshall County Historical Museum a must-see. Our guide, as we were surrounded by uniforms from wars then and since, and swords and buttons, bullets and badges, spoils and plaques, noted how the South had the unfair disadvantage of rifles taking a lot longer to load, half a minute, compared to the rapidly firing rounds of Union men, who hunched down in trenches while the rebels charged, much more exposed. I thought of how this must have been horrifying; at Corinth, the battle raged at the depot's rail tracks at point-blank range.

A more peaceful setting surrounded Holly Springs, even if one sensed decay. We scrutinized a taxidermy panorama, a must-see for its less accomplished examples.The museum documented the Coca-Cola bottler, the maker of novelty candy, the factories once supporting the town, but I had no sense that they continued today--despite the region's demands for sugary sweets. Segregation was apparent in the photos of long gone senior classes of the local high schools. Not until 1970 were two black students at the white school; the other one, named after Rust, was all black. The square seemed about half and half, from the people we saw scurrying about. Stars and Stripes still flew on small sticks, as Veterans' Day had been celebrated at the memorial stone with the names of the dead from wars since the Civil one. We left the town as rain fell, and soon got sucked into the rush hour snarl of the southeast section of Memphis, which looked forlorn. At night, not much to report, and we forced ourselves on until we could go no further, at another if better Econo Lodge in Brinkley, Arkansas. Signs indicated both a Lewis + Clark site not far south, and a Trail of Tears one for the natives forced out of their southern homelands by settlement in the wake of millions of Lewises and Clarkses, plantations and slaves, cotton pickers and red-dirt farmers, candy makers and now all pop guzzlers.

Layne's eagerness to try the Southern icon Waffle House, whose yellow logo I liked, faded soon after ordering from the limited (especially for non-meat eaters) menu. Our waitress was nice, however, named after one of the three cardinal virtues, and we tipped her well. The other patrons were loutish: one wore a red Chadron NE polka band t-shirt (despite the freezing temperature, as a polar storm plagued the region), and he and his young pals jeered at a family coming in. Our polka boy cued up on the jukebox some teen-pop songstress and CCR's "Down on the Corner." These preceded "There's a Special Lady at the Waffle House," which earned by its annoying presence whatever tip we left the staff who had to hear this ode to their employer. Corporate, sepia-toned enlarged photos of WH's postwar pair of owners and subsequently dutifully smiling contemporary staff surrounded the diner. A whiteboard encouraged patrons to add their own snapshots taken there to a display; few had. My portion was tiny, as if a kid's meal. The waitress had to invent a grilled cheese option, the hashbrowns lacked the onions I paid 40 cents for, and I was still hungry when I finished a few scant minutes later.

The clientele next room to us was also loutish, hanging out next to our car in the cold, and we left soon after we awoke. News was still lingering about the election, but Ebola had receded; Kim's derriere was unmentioned. We faced chilly weather as we crossed Arkansas, but the day brightened. We admired the Ozarks and their red, brown, and golden colors mingled in hues I lack adjectives for. Even from the comparative sameness of the interstate, the vistas rewarded. I can only imagine what back roads and panoramic outlooks reveal. We headed up to the northwest corner to visit the Wal-Mart funded museum of American art in the corporation's hometown of Bentonville. The entire region, from Fayetteville on, had all the sameness of, say, Irvine or any post-1970s suburban sprawl. Lingering fields lay fallow, for they were planted with real estate signs, one for a development called "The Farms." Whatever small-town ambiance as in Holly Springs the towns once had was gone, but at least the dogwoods and creek over which the museum is built do cling to a dignity of their own.

Crystal Bridges had fine colonial and 19-c. paintings, too. Karl Bodmer's Mandan bleak death scene, an eerie circle of human skulls overlooking a solemn vista, captivated me (if neither Layne nor anybody else at least on the Net, as I cannot find an image of it). I missed my meddlesome cat Gary, as I contemplated Thomas Eakin's "Portrait of Professor Benjamin Rand," the scientist stroking his black cat as it kept his place in an open book on his desk. The next century had an impressive if not astonishing selection. I liked a painter, co-founder of Synchromism, whom I had first seen in Chicago. I'd never heard of him but he lived in Santa Monica a century ago, Stanton Macdonald-Wright. His paintings hint at Buddhism and he mingles Cubism with a bold overlay of bright shapes.

Downstairs, a "State of the Art" installation featured a hundred supposedly cutting-edge artists. My attention failed to be halted by 98 of them, but Dan Witz' mural "Vision of Disorder: Frieze Triptych" in hyper-realistic detail of a moshpit caught my attention, and many other viewers. Layne was also not wowed, regarding the Crystal Bridge holdings as lacking substance. I concurred as I sat nearest the mural, but stuck in front of a display of half a dozen floor fans stacked up the wall, each blowing so to keep levitated a giant sombrero. Louis CK has an episode (can't find it all on YouTube as I tried when teaching an art course last summer) where he is stuck in a post-modern art gallery. I can relate.

All the same, an end room featuring Jawshing Arthur Liou's "Kora" moved me. He undertook a pilgrimage to the holy site of Mount Kailash in Tibet after his young daughter's death. Thirteen minutes, it gave me time for action as contemplation and Layne a seat to catch up on e-mails on her phone. The invitation to integrate duty and reflection, in ways inevitably dissimilar in substance if not entirely in form to monks who mingle "ora et labora," prayer and work, at Gethsemani, includes us. As our journey went on, thanks to Kindle, I began Robin Kirkpatrick's recent translation, musing (as Merton had), if and how one might find meaning in the Commedia, in another century full of doubt.

We headed to a Country Inn in the identical faceless suburb of Rogers. Compared to Brinkley and Louisville, it was palatial. Checking in we were frustrated by a computer being down, but the room was comfortable, and even if we had to settle for takeout pizza and beer (a local, Core Octoberfest Lager; licensing laws prevented the kind of takeout pairings we are used to), we were so tired and it was so cold outside we were content. The next morning, all eyes in the breakfast room turned to the weather segment. It was 28 in Fayetteville, but the polar storm luckily had drifted off. I had yogurt, fruit, granola, and oatmeal, for once not having to eat the Raisin Bran from its twirling dispenser.

A pause at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History taught us a lot about the region. "Aux Ark" comes from a French tendency to chop off the first syllable of a tribe's name, so "of the Arkansas" warped into the name we all know. The museum was not piled high or haphazard, yet this detracted from its impact for us after Holly Springs. But clean and orderly, it appealed doubtless to those less enchanted by clutter. A group of schoolchildren visited in a room as a woman in pioneer dress let them try out a toy gun to shoot bears. We were the only other visitors, as usual. The sufferings of ordinary people, black and white, both poor, were made deftly evident in a short video and display about the Civil War. Armies and bushwackers (I think of ISIS headlines) forced many to join them or be killed, and many families in this remote area found their farms burned and their possessions looted. The war swept across this contested territory along the Missouri border, and no celebration of the terror it unleashed was found on display. We watched a 1940 video about a fryer chicken contest, attracting tens of thousands to what was once a land of berry farms, egg ranches, and poultry production, albeit I bet pre-Tyson, whose big rigs we often found in front of us, and who accounted indirectly for the  museum's captions, and many of the local signs and businesses in Rogers, as translated into Spanish.

The video chortled that "the only journey of the chickens was to the frying pan," more or less. We watched as eggs hatched, chicks were sexed and sorted, and as fried chicken dinners resulted. A WPA mural of Springdale celebrated this agricultural heyday, but as with the region where we live in Southern California, only vintage postcards and histories preserve the vanished farmland or orchard.

Outside, a few cabins and structures were moved onto the lot. One was an outhouse, moon for women, star for men. Another was a cabin, each wall with its own door, but we could not enter, as it was all boarded up. A third was the original house from a century ago and more. The guide who showed us around pointed to the library, full of hardbacks from the 1940s, and observed "that was when people read books." A radio and comfy chairs stood for pre-WiFi, pre-TV, and pre-Wal-Mart. That company is ubiquitous, as you'd expect. Institutes for Workplace Management pop up next to chain motels, and whatever lure this corner of the Razorback State held, it must lurk in football now.

Siloam Springs was the last town before Oklahoma. It reminded me of Hot Springs SD, if more girt by the usual logos. According to the State Tourism website, "Food choices range from chain restaurants to sandwich shops to coffee shops to home cooked meals." A municipal page, with only one image of the city center's faded turn-of-century resort heritage, warns: "Tornados, straight-line winds, train derailments, natural disasters and civil unrest are all possible in Siloam Springs."

Photo: chapel + cemetery of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani's gallery via its website

No comments: