Monday, August 19, 2013
The road did not always have a name. It was just a road, barely wide enough for two cars to pass in some places, dusty in dry times, slippery in wet. It connected two county-maintained highways, both of which had names but no road signs. People didn’t often need directions out that way, but when they did they were given and received by landmark.
When we moved there in January, 1974, becoming the only human residents on that three-mile stretch, Daddy went to see Mr. Fred Darley about buying insurance for the house. The insurance company wanted an address, a real address, something other than Route 1, Register. “We need a name for that road,” Mr. Fred told Daddy. “How about Bradley Road?”
Daddy wasn’t about to be that presumptuous and quickly demurred. He didn’t need a road named after himself. “So let’s call it Settlement Road then,” Mr. Fred suggested and Settlement Road it became.
Our first mailbox was up at the paved road, two miles from the house. Something about the postal service not extending its route for an initial period. Eventually it got moved to the crossroads, only a mile away. At some point the USPS decided we were there to stay and let us dig a hole and plant a box at the edge of the road right outside the front door. The mailman leaned out his window, stuffed the bills and magazines and sale papers inside the mailbox, and then turned around in our driveway to head back to civilization. It was a big day.
Our cars and trucks and tractors were pretty much the only traffic, except for the mailman, and the sound of an approaching vehicle always prompted Keith to the living room window to see who it was. Mama complained that her drapes got dirty from all the pulling back and peaking.
That was a really long time ago. The road is still dirt, dusty when dry and slippery when wet, but no one flinches at the sound of a pick-up or a four-wheeler. We don’t recognize every vehicle and, sadly enough, the drivers of some of them don’t even wave when they pass by. Just the other morning I had to wait at the end of my driveway (Wait at the end of my driveway? What’s with that?) for two cars to pass, neither of which was driven by someone related to me, before I could pull out into the road.
Along with my surprise came another feeling, one that lasted less than a moment, but which I could describe only in ridiculously inappropriate terms: I felt trespassed, violated, even victimized. When had this road, this path for vehicular traffic, become so, well, public? When had my little piece of creation become so open to the rest of the world? How could I have missed it?
I did not pay a lot of attention to the surveyors who plotted out the tracts where other people now live. I did not really notice the distant sounds of the well-drilling equipment or the backhoes. I never really looked all that far past the bend where the palmetto scrubs begin growing.
Change is never sudden, there is no single second in which the metamorphosis takes place, no twitching of Samantha Stephens’s nose to blame. Not really. It is just the realization of change that is sudden. And sudden is painful.
To avoid that pain, one must pay attention. Be it weight gain or sunburn or the disintegration of a relationship, it is neglect and distraction and failure of concentration that are at fault. To ward off the extra ten pounds, the burning red skin, the visceral ache of a broken heart, one must watch and listen, one must choose deliberately, one must do nothing by rote. That, if we want to eliminate the regret and sadness and panic that accompany every occurrence of sudden, is the challenge.
I am more careful now at the end of my driveway. I take my time in looking both ways up and down the road that did not always have a name.
Sunday, August 04, 2013
As a child regularly nourished by television Westerns, I did not realize that I was absorbing centuries-old literary motifs and archetypes. I did not yet have the vocabulary to recognize the heroic quest in the wanderings of various cowboys, but, like every human that ever sat around a fire inside a cave or a hearth inside a hut, I came to find comfort in the repetitive story lines and stock characters. That sooner or later one of the main characters would find him or herself delivering a baby with no prior experience or being the vehicle of redemption for some rotten scoundrel exhibited not a lack of creativity on the part of the Westerns’ writers, but, rather, an understanding of the need to be reminded that no problem exists that has not been faced and solved before.
The other day I came across a contemporary poem, brief and pointed like a quick refusal, centered around the image of a snow rope. Reading the words – snow rope – sent my mind careening away from the poem to a montage of remembered images from all those Westerns I’d watched as a child. All of them, as I think of it now, whether set in Nebraska or Wyoming or Texas, eventually included an episode involving a horrible blizzard, an isolated homestead, and a snow rope, a rope whose one end was tied to a post on the cabin and whose other end was tied to the barn, a way to reach the animals without getting lost in the blizzard.
Inevitably, of course, the homesteader’s hands get pulled away from the rope by the fierceness of the blizzard or a child, wanting to be helpful, decides to go to the barn and can’t reach the rope. Someone always gets lost in the blizzard.
At eight or ten my only concern was what providential occurrence would save the hapless homesteader, the foolish child. Would Rowdy Yates and his horse stumble into the corral, drawn through the blizzard by the dim light in the window of the cabin, just in time to calm the hysterical wife and mother and charge back out into the snow, one rugged hand on the rope, the other reaching down to pull the frost-bitten and nearly dead loved one from snow? Of course he would.
It had never occurred to me, before reading that poem, that we all have snow ropes. We all have practices, philosophies, people that we trust to keep us alive as we venture out into the inevitable blizzards of life. The rope is sound, the knots are tight. We test them in the sunshine and we go on about our business.
And then it snows. Heavily. Unrelentingly. And, after a while, sitting inside around the fire becomes untenable, so we open the door and face the stinging cold and slapping wind, putting all our confidence in the snow rope. What we forget is that the snow rope is only as good as the grip on the hand that holds it.
I have survived blizzards, my faith and my family and my friends braided into a cord not quickly broken, plaited into a snow rope stretched taut across an impenetrable landscape, but, in the end, I was the one who reached out, who grasped, who gripped with strength I didn’t know I had and moved step by tenuous step through the blinding white. It was my choice to hold on.
Some stories end with the calvary appearing on the horizon, with the cowboy showing up in the nick of time, with the marshal out-drawing the bad guy. But most of them end much less dramatically. Most of them end with the hero, or the heroine, realizing for the very first time that that is exactly what he or she is.