Monday, December 13, 2010

Home Place

For all the almost five months I have worked at my new job, which happens to take me so close to the streets I grew up on, I have had posts cogitating and fermenting slowly in my little brain. "I grew up in a swamp" many of them start, and go on into how long it was before I saw water in the wetlands, or how archetypal this place still is for me.

The thing is, it's all perfectly true, but it's all really a load of dingoes' kidneys as far as my specific actual awareness of it went. My swamp was backfilled and suburbanized, smoothed over with lawns and little explored by me. I knew what lay behind the houses just across the street - and, because of that, I never went beyond those backyards. The most interesting frontier was the drive in backing up to our neighborhood; the legends about sitting on Havenwood, watching forbidden movies without any sound. I think "Saturday Night Fever" played there and some middle school kids saw it, at a distance, through the trees.

The lowlands surrounding us - that was my brother's deal, exploring them, knowing them. I scarcely saw them.

For me, the geography of childhood was all about the Avenue - the longest road in the world, I thought. Still a remarkable expanse, a perfectly-straight stretch of four lanes (then, as now) underscoring my entire understanding of the universe. It was the south end of my experience. Everything sprouted off it, just a hair to its north, for the first few years of my self-aware existence. When I was very young, the trip to the grocery down in that sunken parking lot - now, it seems so close to my old home - was the limit of life itself. When they built a grocery store closer to home, it was New and Exciting - and still manages to carry that feeling somehow.

I am a Virginian. What can you do. What is thirty-five is fresh; innovation.

When I was first learning to understand the world, I built a cosmology as incoherently formed on the line of the Avenue as my physical experience and geogrophy were. If you took that road over its straight hills toward the country - toward the west, as it happens - eventually, you would find Old Time ... and kings and things ... Jesus ... and ancient things. Guys in white wigs and velvet breeches - that's where they lived. West on the Avenue.

Eastward now; was it coincidence - some pediatric intuition - that east led perhaps to the future? I had no concept of the future, but if the past were physically available, as of course it was to someone with no concept of "time", certainly what was yet to come must be as well.

Yet to come I could not have conceived of, beyond - "I want to get big" and knowing life consisted of waiting, that magic thing taking forever, they called growing up.

I still have no conception of yet-to-come. And in some ways, I can still reach for the past in a physical way.

Of course, I started reaching east, when I took Clovis for my text.

But I have always been affectionately fascinated by the cosmology I built for myself before having one intentionally taught to me. I can still see, in my imagination, the way those hills gave over ... to sunlight ... to heat ... past Buckingham, past the end even of the Avenue, into some mythical desert where Bible people lived. Where Jesus was breathing, just little, just like me. How he could be a man too I never cared to comprehend. He was small. In a manger. He was on the same line as I was, and so many at once, too. It didn't all have to coalesce, back then. Trinity was just a word churches used. And the nature of things wasn't something I had to consider.

I still prefer not to, frankly.

But my swamp - that is Christmas. My icy, wide, expansive swamps. Rich in water now; and in ice I can REMEMBER; the black crystalline chips glinting in wide fields of lumpy soil. Beautiful mud. I can see the patterns of the freeze; in those puddles. In the feathers on our car. In the tiny snowflakes my eyes once could see, even naked.

I said I didn't look; wasn't conscious. That doesn't mean my swamps aren't still in my DNA.

I recognize them every day.

I love them. I love the way these places have - miraculously - little changed. I love Virginia, its low places, its country, bordered by suburbs - and, yes, even its suburbes, bordered by country.

Once, long ago, Dr. C., our pastor back then, said, "The color of Christmas is black" and he explained about the night. About the cold. About the uncertainty, and the void into which light shone.

The color of Christmas is the color of a puddle, frozen crystalline into the soil of my swamps.

It's the white of the snow and the grey of those trees, today.

It's the white of the tree we used to decorate our front door; lights buried in chicken wire, glowing in hundreds of tufted tissues, forming a triangle on the front door of a little ranch house in the burbs.

It's the color of my dad's gloves.

It's the black of early nights.


I grew up in a swamp.

And the swamp still, somehow, grows with and within me.