Ghost Towns

There’s been a promo for a radio documentary lately on WBUR. With the sort of mystical music they often play for backgrounds, it starts, “There used to be four more towns in Massachusetts than there are today…” and goes on to explain how four towns were drowned to create the Quabbin Resevoir.

My studied reply is: big deal.

OK, that’s not quite true. See, where I grew up, we were surrounded by ghost towns and towns drowned to make way for hyroelectric lakes created from glacial melt. On my way to Youth Symphoney/piano lessons/trumpet lessons/Seattle/the nearest grocery store, we would drive past Alder lake — one of the created lakes. In the fall, when they let the water levels get really, really low, you could look out into the middle of the lake and see where a tiny village had once stood. There were still telephone poles and train tracks. They basically cut down all the trees, moved the people and houses out, build a dam, and that was it. It could be eerie — even years and years later, you can still see all the stumps in their perfection. They assumed they’d rot pretty quickly but it turns out an excellent way to prevent the decomposition of fir stumps is to make it so they spend 50% of their time in water and 50% of the time out. By the time the water decomposers get started, they get killed by the dry. And vice versa.

I don’t know the name of that ghost town. Rather, I know it, but it’s forgotten. But there are other, even closer ghost towns to us. There is a transience to human habitation in the Northwest that doesn’t exist out here in New England, where everything has a storied past. Towns were built on railways, thrived as they logged the nearby timber, and left when all that was left was a yawning wasteland of stumps. My own town, the one I grew up in, was both on a lake and on the rail line. There was a time when it was a thriving place, with over 2000 residents. It’s not a sleepy quasi-retirement, quasi-logging community of 400. At the end of the road, known as Flynn Road to the local residents, no matter that on county maps it’s the blander “Mineral Creek Road”, there is the lost town of Flynn. One house sits there. There was a tragic death there once. A pastor committed suicide. Scandal.

Out deep into the woods, if you head towards Llad Pass, you will journey near what was once the town of Llad. If you didn’t know from stories, you would never know. The forests of the Northwest were populated and worked by whole immigrant communties — from the dying coal mines of West Virginia, to the stalwart miners of Wales. This town was Welsh. There was born there one Blodwyn Truitt, who had improbably red hair until the day she died. There is no more Welsh name than Blodwyn. (It pleases me that her grandchildren carry the Welsh tradition — Owen and Rhiannon? I can’t remember the girl’s name.) We once took Blodwyn’s directions to see the town. There were a few artifacts, but even those are probably not visible now.

If you spend enough time in the Northwest, you understand the frailty of the changes we make to the Earth. On Mt. Rainier there is a road called the West Side road. It was built during the depression, and goes from the Longmire entrance nearly to Mowich (it stops maybe 10 miles short?) The West Side road is subject to violent mud-bursts called Yokiloips (no way do I remember how to spell that), and after it was wiped out at Fish Creek a few times, they stopped rebuilding it. I remember driving up it with my parents after the last repair made. We were some of the last.

My mom and I hiked the West Side 4 times before we finally made it. We had to bug out three, and all three of those times, we ended up walking the long abandoned roads back to the West Side entrance. By long abandoned, I mean maybe 40 or 50 years. It was as though man had never build there. There were narrow paths in the underbrush, unusually flat. A strange flat area surrounded you. It took a long time and a little digging to unearth that underneath the moss and plants was the crumbling remnant of concrete road. In another 20 year, I bet it will be hard to see even that.

How frail humanity! If we were to disappear off the face of the earth, in the verdant Northwest our mark would be nearly gone in 100 years. Perhaps future archeologists would find traces of us, or maybe even those would be erased by the awesome power of living things. Perhaps a great civilization was built in the towering and rich mountains I so love, to disappear without a trace as we may someday.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Unless you happen to live half in the water, and half out.

This time of year

I hate this time of year. Don’t we all? It’s cold. It’s after Christmas. There’s little to look forward to in the near future, other than your hands cracking in dryness of the winter air. The credit card bills are big. The heating bills are big. And you know that no matter what, you’re in for a good long spell of non-great weather.

I was thinking about that this morning as I drove it. It was beautiful this morning. It’s been very cold, and then we got 3 inches of snow. The snow clung to the trees, and lay undisturbed on the surface of a frozen lake I pass in the morning. The sky was blue — the light blue somewhere between Robin’s egg and sky blue in your Crayola 64 colors set. The white of the snow, the blue of the sky, the dark green of the pine below, all brightly lit in the cold sunlight.

This is the only time of year when I’m not trying to hang on to the moment. During spring, the changes happen so fast that you know what you saw today may be gone and past by tomorrow. In summer, the very warmth of the humid air reminds you that it’s fleeting, and will be gone soon. Autumn is hardest. The momentum is turning so quickly towards winter, and yet it’s the most beautiful time of year for me. The harder I grasp the seasons, the faster they slip from me. But this mid-winter I let go my hold on time. This is the time of year I have been dreading, and it is here. And it will be here, for what seems like an eternity. When this time of year is beautiful — which it certainly can be — I do not feel the poignancy of eventual loss. I can simply relax into the beauty without fear. There is a freedom to that.

Every night, especially during the winter, I put a lotion on my face. In part because the dryness robs me of moisture, but in part to prevent the inevitable wrinkles aging will bring me. I think of my own mortality for 45 seconds. I will never be younger than I am now. I will never be more beautiful. I will never be freer, with more options. I will never be more slender. I have long passed the time where I might be a ballerina, or an ice skating champion. I have passed the time where I might be precocious. I have settled into a job and a career and a marriage which are good, but not glamorous. I might never be glamorous.

I’m young enough that I haven’t started holding onto my own time, like I do to the spring. My life is in June, passing into July. Winter will come. I know it. But I hope that I may move gracefully through my time, without clenching it in my fists, enjoying the beauty of the moments. And I hope that when my winter comes, I may relax into it, knowing with a Christian hope that the Spring that follows is even more wonderful than the crocuses and daffodils of our world in Spring

Longing for New Albion

Today is the kind of rainy day that makes me remember the home of my soul is the Northwest. It’s gotten less intense in the 8 years I’ve lived in New England, but it used to be going too long without rain created sort of an itch, a discomfort. Now I don’t notice the lack as much, but when a true rain comes, I still feel the relief of the world as it should be.

I’ve started to wonder, really, if we’ll ever return to the place I call home. I haven’t been to the Northwest since a very quick training trip early last spring. I haven’t spent considerable time there since the August before last, when we went hiking and missed the big New England blackout.

I still walk the woods of the Northwest in my mind. I see the bracken fern tall in the bright light against blue skies. In the dark secret parts of the forest, I see the trillian, the vanilla leaf, the sorrel, the salal. In my mind’s eye, I see Northwest horizons — tall mountains that still hold the wildness of a world without us.

But it’s all fading. The lines are not as sharp.

Truly, I envy those of you who live there. I wonder if you see it with the same eyes I do — if you feel the pull of the hills upward and onward. You speak of living there so casually, and I yearn for it. But yet every month I pass here, I put down another root. It would be painful, very painful, to pull up here and leave.

Will it ever happen?

Music

Getting an iPod sent me on a frenzy of music-buying. I got the iPod Christmas last year, and I think I’ve bought more music in the intervening year than in the three years prior. With the portability and convenience of the iPod, I listen to music more. And I like that.

That said, my CD collection had far outstripped the system I had for displaying an organizing it — not too surprising since that system was one CD display purchased for me in high school. Mid high school.

So I bought a new CD organizer, and just spent a happy hour moving stuff around and reorganizing.

Some thoughts.

How the heck did I get that much opera? Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE listening to opera. But recorded opera is like remembering an vacation… it’s nice, but it’s so far away from the real thing as to be a different creature. I very rarely seek opera out to listen to, as much as I love it in the flesh. For one thing, opera is often really bad background music. For another, I just don’t like it that well in recording.

I’ve made some good music purchases this year.

I keep listening to one kind of music, and keep buying another. I should buy more of the music I find myself going back to again and again.

The Death of Arthur

I have my degree in Medieval Studies. That said, my husband probably knows more about the Middle Ages than I do. Why? He reads about it in his free time. I’ve lost the gift of reading in my free time. One of my new years resolutions is to regain that gift.

And not just re-reading Anne McCaffrey and Tamora Pierce, either. I need to read things that feed my mind and make me think. The work I’m doing creating a curriculum is really good for that, but if I’m going to be the person I want to be, I need more.

So I’ve started reading L’Morte D’Arthur (or however those apostraphes go). For those of you who don’t know, Sir Thomas Malory’s book is the quintessential Arthur. It’s not the first (Chretien de Troyes was earlier). But what you know about Arthur and Merlin and Morgan Le Fay all starts with Malory. The book is a prose chronical of Arthur and his court. It has a lot more in common, stylistically, with medieval history books than novels or even poems. Malory is acting as though he’s simply compiling a historical text about a historical Arthur.

In some ways the book seems unreadable. There is almost no description — Malory’s vocabulary seems highly limited. A knight is either worshipful or recreant. A lady is fair and gentle, but you have no idea if she’s blonde, brunette, has a great nose, or a figure that won’t quit. You get no motivation for the actions people take. There’s not really any meaningful dialogue. It’s almost entirely plot.

But yet it inspired and excited generations of writers. In fact, I was reading some C.S. Lewis last night, and Lewis uses Morte D’Arthur as an example of something that excited him. You can see the fingerprint of the historical chronicle of a mostly-fictitious character all through Western literature. Why? Because into that framework of actions, lacking so many critical components, the imagination runs wild. Why did Gawain sleep with Elaine when he’d made a vow (plighted his troth, amusingly enough) to Pellinore? Was it because he was weak? Was it part of his plan? Did he think Pellinore was in the wrong? What was he going to do in the first place? Mallory gives you none of it, so you have to make it up. You get the sense that before you is the outline for a fabulous story, and your mind rushes to fill in the detail. I cast back on the Arthurian stories I read, and think about how others have done so, and marvel that they got it from this sparse text. And it’s fun — to wonder, to imagine, to ponder what lies behind the chronicle.

It’s the perfect book for small children with wild imaginations. If you’re going to enjoy it as a grownup, you have to put yourself back into the mindset of a small child, delighted by the sparkling knight on the charger — anonymous without his shield. But you know, that’s a place I’m happy to be.

A busy person

My husband told me something yesterday that really brought me up short. I tend to be a busy person. I gravitate towards commitments. Towards doing stuff. Towards being really busy. That isn’t necessarily what makes me happy, but there you have it. I’m always doing stuff. Important stuff. That needs doing.

Well, it makes my husband unhappy.

I had five days off this last week. I spent Friday baking and doing last minute Christmasy things and updating the church website. Saturday was, well, Christmas and full of Christmas-type-stuff. Sunday we had church and then I came home and I managed to be busy again. I don’t even remember what I was busy doing. Monday I cleaned house and got sucked into work. Tuesday I spent the whole day reviewing our finances and rebalancing our portfolio.

I did not, in those five days, make cards with my stamps. I read one book, but that took only about two hours. I spent insufficient time on the couch snuggling my husband. I didn’t relax. And even given another three days off, I bet I still wouldn’t relax. I’ve forgotten how — if I ever knew.

My husband looked at me yesterday with some desperation in his eyes. In the hopes of clearing enough time for me to relax, he took Justice to the vet. He dropped off the kids at the T stop. He went grocery shopping. He did the dishes. And still, I was too busy to have time for him or for myself.

What am I doing, friends, that I have no time to savor? How is it that my time slips through my fingers, plowed into a neverending litany of things I should do? (And moreover, how can there be so much I still need to do?) If this is a pathology of mine, what can I do to stop it? What do I do now that I can stop doing, and not have the world cease to circle on its axis? Do I spend my time frivolously, or is there really that much I need to do?

I’ve taken one or two steps. I have quit deacons — which was the church commitment I find least fun. I’m hoping not to replace it with a new commitment. I doubt my work load will really diminish, but maybe I could be better about claiming back time — you know, leaving after 8 hours on days that aren’t so busy or something.

But it’s really important for me to remember. When I stress myself out, I don’t just stress *myself* out. I make my husband unhappy. And that’s not ok for me.

As we over our sorry state of affairs last night, he also reminded me that it’s winter. This is the tough time. Things always look worse this time of year.

What I spent my day doing

I was off from work today. But I had A Plan for today. If you get upset when people talk about money, you should stop reading now.

I spent the day managing our money. If you think about how much time we spend earning or money versus how much time we spend taking care of our money… well, on the former it’s usually at least 40 hours a week. On the latter, if you don’t count paying bills, it’s probably less than an hour a month.

When all was said and done, my husband owes me dinner because we had met my financial goals for the year — goals which I had set at about this time last year.

So why do you care? You probably don’t care about what I’m doing, honestly, but I want to put a call out to remind you to spent some time at the end of the year doing some financial housekeeping. Financial education sucks in our country. Do you know how much your parents make? Whether they owe any money? What their retirement account balances are? If your parents weren’t teaching you by example how to deal with finances, how did you learn? Or did you ever learn? Our society doesn’t really teach you the stuff you should know to stay out of debt and build up savings. And we have this huge tabboo about talking about it. Many people don’t get any real education at all. And so here are Oriana’s year end tips for a better fiscal 2005:

1) Know your status. Find out a way to answer the following questions:

*How much do you owe, in total?
*How much do you have saved, in total?
*How much do your basics cost every month? (Rent, food, gas, heat, insurance, car payments)
*How much do you earn every month?
*Assuming you earn more than you need to live, what do you do with that money? (If the answer is “I don’t know”, keep track for a month or two. Credit card statements can be a real help if you use plastic regularly.)
*Assuming you earn less than you need, that’s not sustainable, obviously. What are your plans to change that? Are you going to cut costs, increase your income, or both? (You get a bye on this one if you’re still in school.)

2) Never, ever let your credit suffer because of a cash-flow issue.
You know the story. Your bills are due the same day every month. You have an unexpected expense. Or one of your payments gets lost in the mail. A check gets misplaced by the bank. It takes longer to clear than you expect. There are a hundred gazillion ways this can happen — many of which you have no control over. If the bank messes up your deposit, it doesn’t affect them at all. If you miss a bill payment, though, it can negatively affect your credit score — your ability to buy a house, a car, get a credit card, get a job — for 7 years.

So here’s what you should do:

Everyone: Build a financial savings cushion. Put a little aside every month — you can have amounts auto-debited by most banks, so you never even notice it. If you do not have enough money to put $10, $20 or $50 aside every month, you need to evaluate either your costs or your income.

People with good credit: Assuming you haven’t quite saved enough to cover yourself in case of a shortfall, a credit card and/or line of credit on your checking account is a good temporary measure. I particularly like the line of credit offered on the “bottom” of a checking account. Basically, you have a credit line on your checking account — say $1000 at 12.9%. If you have a balance of $100 and you write a check that clears for $120, you borrow $20 at that credit amount. When your $200 check hits, you pay back that $20 first, so you have a balance of $180. It’s way, way cheaper than bounced check fees, and tremendously convenient. Most banks have this service, although few advertise it. If you’re doing the credit card route, save a few of the checks they constantly send you to cover any cash-flow gap that comes up. But be sure you pay it off when that check DOES clear.

People with bad credit: You’re like, “Yeah right. Works for people with great credit, but that’s not me.” Don’t be embarrassed. Lots and lots of people have pretty crappy credit right now. There are a few options you have to cover cash-flow issues.

1) Save enough of a cushion. “They” say you should have 6 months worth of cash on hand. I’d love to know what fantasy world “they” live in. I suggest, though, that even if it takes sacrifices, if you’re making enough, you should try to have at least one paycheck on hand, in case something bad happens.
2) Grit your teeth and sign up for one of those high credit cards. I hesitate to suggest this if credit cards were what got you into trouble in the first place, but assuming you can keep yourself from buying those snazzy shoes just because you have credit, these can really get you out of a tight spot. You do not have credit that is too bad. I swear, these guys would lend to Enron. The key here is that you HAVE TO PAY IT OFF every time it comes due. This isn’t a way to get extra money, it’s a way to make sure that the timing of the money you have doesn’t screw you. Here’s a link to some credit cards that are offered to people with bad credit. The best part of this is that if you use this only as I describe, you’ll actually start rebuilding your credit.

3) If you have a balance on your credit card, pay off more each month than you charge each month.
Um, that’s it.

4) If you are not in debt, or have only “good” debt (mortgages, low interest car loans, student loans), save money. You should first focus on having that cushion I spoke about. Once you’re comfortable you could weather a missed check or two, start saving in a retirement plan. 401Ks are best, but IRAs have lots of good options. That’s a bigger discussion than I feel like having right now.

5) So far I’ve failed to address the really big issue.
What happens if it simply costs you more to live than you earn? I think there are a lot of people in that situation. There are only two sustainable options.

a) Earn more. Get a better paying job. Or a second job. Or maybe your SO needs to earn more. This can suck, especially if you’re in a low-paying job you really like. But I think there are some of you out there who are in low-paying jobs you don’t need to be in — you’re more talented and capable than that. You’re just hooked on the security of your current job. Obviously, that’s not universally true. That’s just true of many of my friends.

b) Spend less. The diet method. Do you need cable or a cell phone? Can you get a roommate? Do you need a car? How much would cooking at home save you? Do you buy clothes you don’t actually need?

c) There are people who are just trapped in this. There are people who, through no fault of their own just can’t cover that gap. If that describes you, consider whether you’d rather be getting further into a hole just living, or whether you could go to college or learn a trade, so that while you’re getting into a hole now, there’s light at the end of the tunnel to get out. But it’s a sickness of our world that so many who work so hard do not earn enough to live a decent life.

On the next “Brenda Pontificates”… the importance of disability insurance to younger workers