Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hail, Hail, Flatonia!

March 28, 2013 – Hail, Hail Flatonia 

Phinehas and I go back in time. First to the 1800s and then to our childhoods. This all happens as a result of our reading Richard Zelade’s splendid book Hill Country - Completely Revised 2nd Edition - Discovering the Secrets of the Texas Hill Country and planning adventures. Phinehas got the book for Christmas and has been suggesting a trip to the “Devil’s Playground” since he moved here. Somehow we haven’t gotten there yet.

For now, it’s the weekend and the book is out on the table. I’m being lazy. Phinehas is making eggs for his breakfast. Ben is washing dishes with Shea, and Marie is outside watering plants. For something to do I’m reading snippets out loud from the Shiner-Lockhart section because this is the part of the country we live in.

“This is such a great book!” I say over the sound of the running water. “Check this out.” Then I read to them about the local circuit-riding preacher Andrew J. “Andy” Potter.

Parson Pastor Preacher Potter (as Phinehas and I later dub him) was “warned not to come to Red Rock on the next Sabbath. Potter replied that he would most certainly be there and that furthermore he expected a fine chicken dinner afterward. When he arrived at the meetinghouse the following Sunday, Potter laid his shootin’ irons on the rude pulpit table in front of him and announced, ‘Now I sent word that I was coming to Red Rock to preach and I’m gonna preach. But I can shoot too. And if anyone wants a fight and starts one, we’ll shoot it out.’ Potter preached his service and got his chicken dinner.” (Hill Country 346-347).

It’s any number of Old West tales—preaching, shooting, traveling around on horseback—and is as familiar as the characters and scenes we, my siblings and I, came to love from the Louis L’amour books we all read. It’s history and rattlesnakes, it’s not staring into the firelight so as to keep your night vision clear and looking over your shoulder so that you’ll know your way back. It’s tracking and surviving. It’s the late 1800s before Texas was tamed. It’s the time when Lockhart “enjoyed a reputation as a tough town” and people were killed on the very town square that’s less than a mile from the house inside which I’m calmly reading. Fighting Parson Potter even died in a Tall-Tale type of way in the church I walk past nearly every day on my way to the library.  

This is how Zelade tells it: “It was the year of our Lord 1895, on a Sunday evening in a little country church just outside of Lockhart, and ‘as Fighting Parson Potter raised his hands in a closing prayer, the lights of the little church were suddenly blown out by a strong gust of wind, and when the lamp were relighted the audience gasped to see the preacher lying dead in the pulpit. As the lights had gone out, so had gone out the life of Texas’ most picturesque preacher. Fighting Parson Potter’s wish – that he might die in his pulpit – had been granted.’” (ibid 382).

What a difference a century makes.

I ferret out more stories to read aloud and towards the end of the book stumble across the section on Flatonia. This town has such wonderful draws as Friendly Tavern which is “short on d├ęcor (except for the domino tables) but long on local color” (Hill Country 442) and Grumpy’s Restaurant which Zelade says “is about the only place in town to get a sit-down meal” (ibid 442).

“Where’s Flatonia?” Phinehas asks me.

I do a quick online check. “It’s only forty-nine miles from here.”

“We should go,” Phinehas says.

So a few days later we do. Because the internet says that Grumpy’s is permanently closed we eat a hardy breakfast to sustain us, and pack water and tea to drink along the way. It’s a good day for a drive. The clouds add texture to the sky and there’s enough of a chill to warrant the wearing of a jacket. We accidently leave Hill Country the book at the house, but we already know what Flatonia is doing out in the middle of Hill Country. The name has nothing to do with the flatness of the country (which is a slightly disappointing fact. I would have liked the irony).

The town was named after F.W. Flato who came to Texas in the 1840s and did brisk business having something to do with shipping and the railroad.

We leave Lockhart then Luling behind us.

Our first stop is the Oak Hill Cemetery.

As we turn off of Highway I-10 onto TX-95 I spot the tall trees and the looming monuments to the dead. I say something like, “Cool cemetery.”

“You want to stop?” Phinehas asks.

“Yeah,” I say. 

We park and make our way onto the memorial grounds reading names and dates and inscriptions as we go. Some of the people were born as early as 1822, others not until after the turn of the twentieth century. Some died as recently as last year. Phinehas and I remark on plot sizes, names, years gone by, and the monuments themselves. The grave markers tell such incomplete stories in their brevity: a baby who lived nine days, a man named Richter who was a veteran of the Spanish American war, a woman who lived to be nearly one hundred years old, and James C. Doggett who died in 1902 when he was only 24 years, 4 months and 26 days old because God loved him best and called him home. 

Being here among the dead is sad and it’s not. Cemeteries are beautiful for keeping names, not alive, but rather unforgotten. Our being here gives these ones a kind of immortality. Because living forever might just be others knowing that you once lived.

It’s with this on my mind that we get in the car and drive into Flatonia and back into a long ago time. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a horse drawn carriage. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pastor Parson Preacher Potter swaggering down the street with his pistols on his hips and a bible in his hand. The town is quiet. Most of the shops look closed. There’s not much to do, but we knew this coming in. It was part of the appeal. We venture into an Antique store.

“Where are y’all coming from?” the friendly shop owner asks us, knowing immediately that we’re not from around these parts.

We chat about nothing in particular, the shop owner recommends that we visit the Saddle Shop around the corner and to not miss out on the antique shops ten miles away in Schulenburg, and Phinehas buys Shea a toy cow.

This is small town living, this is old America where there’s no such thing as chain stores and I imagine that people still order things out of a Sears and Roebucks catalog. This is farm country, the place where people know their neighbors and talk kindly about the weather and health with the out-of-town strangers.

We visit the Saddle Shop and chat with the owner about business and where we’re from, where we’re going. Phinehas buys a wooden frog and fox for Shea. “Y’all enjoy your stay and come back and see us again next time you’re here!” the Saddle Shop owner says when we leave.

“Take care,” I say.

“We will,” Phinehas says.

We go around the corner and walk past Friendly Tavern. It looks closed, lonely, well-used. It feels like a ghost tavern. We don’t even try the door. But we do go inside The Flatonia Argus building. It’s the local paper.

“You want to go inside?”

“No,” I say.

“Are you scared?” Phinehas asks, his hand on the door handle.

“Kind of.”

We step inside. It’s an old building, long and narrow. There are old front pages in color and framed hanging on the walls. The girl who comes from the back room at the sound of the door looks surprised to see people inside the building. We make friendly small talk with her to justify our intrusion and are both disappointed to discover that they use computers instead of type setting. There’s no thick clicking of keys or whirring of machines. No smell of ink leftover from the past. Only the long, narrow building and a movement into the present—everything is computerized.

Outside again and we’ve seen what there is to see in Flatonia. At least in the daytime.

So we pack ourselves into the car and decide to head, not to Schulenburg as the antique shop owner suggested, but to Shiner which is home to the Spoetzl Brewery and maker of Shiner beer.  

It’s a twenty mile drive and we’re there in no time at all.

We’ve arrived too late to get a tour of the brewery and settle for the free beer samples that are given there in the gift shop (Zelade calls it the “hospitality room” (341)) and content ourselves in watching people, checking out the gifts, and critiquing the tastes of the different beers on tap. We’re given four wooden tokens to use to redeem our samples, four is the limit. The cups are small.

“Now what?” Phinehas asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe we can drive through the rest of Shiner and see what’s here and then head back?”

That’s what we do. I’m scanning streets as we go and see an old opera house down off to the right. “An opera house! That looks interesting, turn at the next street,” I say.

Phinehas does and that’s when we pass the park.

It’s a park like the ones we played at as children. With a skyscraping slide made out of metal and not plastic. With swings that go so high we can almost touch the sky with our feet, we just have to go a little bit higher. We almost touch the sky. With a merry-go-round, an old school merry-go-round. I haven’t seen one of these since I was a kid. We get on the merry-go-round. We have to. I have to. It’s as fantastic as it ever was. 

“This is better than an amusement park,” I say. I’m transported back decades to summer days and laughter and running and spinning dizzy play.

“Faster! Faster! Faster!”  

This is immortality; the remembrance of youth, the taste of childhood in my mouth, the breeze of the past on my face, the rush of centrifugal force pulling me to joy, a brother there to share in the fun.

This is adventure.

This is living.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Survival of the Fittest

March 16, 2013 – Survival of the Fittest

“Ben, Amanda, come here!” Phinehas calls in through the open back door. I leave off what I’m doing and follow Ben outside. Phinehas is crouched down in the dark peering under the truck bed at something large and shadowy on the cement. “Check out this moth!”

This is no ordinary moth. It’s the size of a small bird or a bat. Its wingspan is the length of my brother’s hand. We crowd down near the tailgate and gaze. It’s impressive. Wings fluttering and antennae sniffing the air it seems lost, or perhaps it’s testing out the feel of the place to see about moving in.

Vulture Eggs
I give it an appreciative amount of attention and then get back to what I was working on. Distractions are endless here. There are always interesting things to see; vultures flying overhead, doodlebugs multi-legging it under the cover of rocks, lizards scurrying over tree trunks or across fence rails, squirrels taunting the dogs, airplanes, trucks, rocks, snails, sticks. We’re all caught up in a little girl’s world and have child-sized eyes fixed on over our adult lenses.

In the morning we discover that the moth has moved away from the truck and found a new spot under one of the rocking chairs. While I’m dumping fresh grains in the French Press and boiling water, and Ben’s gone off to work, Phinehas and Marie show the moth to Shea and tell her to be careful, to not touch, to only look, to leave it alone. “Moff,” she says.

I bring my cup and a book outside. Phin and I are enjoying the sunshine while watching Shea, the dogs, and the moth. Marie has gone to get her coffee and to check her email. I’m sipping up some caffeine and contemplating life when Phinehas says, “It’s a giant silk moth.” A Cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) to be exact. He continues on, reading from his phone, “One of our native giant silk moths. Has no working mouth parts as an adult moth, instead it lives about a week on stored body fat it obtained as a caterpillar.”

“A giant silk moth,” I repeat looking down at the winged giant. 

“Mom knows a butterfly guy,” he explains. Phinehas, knowing my mom loves butterflies and moths, had sent her a picture the night before. She’s got connections in the nature realm and had immediately forwarded the picture along with an email that said: My son in Austin found this in their yard. Wingspan about the size of his hand. Do you recognize it?

I follow Shea’s movement as she runs after Phinehas’s dog Loca and think, It’s all about who you know. Loca plops down next to the car and Shea sits by her and puts an arm around her. Puppy and little girl. It’s a precious picture that neither Phinehas nor I are quick enough to capture by camera. The yard gets back into motion, Shea chasing Loca, Loca chasing squirrels, Phinehas and I, at times, chasing Shea. “Marie is going to love that it’s going to die,” Phinehas says, knowing Marie’s love of the morbid. He goes inside to tell her the moth news update and I hear the excited chatter coming down the hall. They’re already talking about mounting it on a board and framing it once it’s dead.

While we yet live, I think. Suddenly I’m consumed with grief. Everything dies. Life is hard. Nothing is the way it should be. You’re a caterpillar dreaming of being a butterfly. You’re ready to fly. You think these glorious butterfly thoughts. Yeah, you go ahead and make that transformation only to find that once you’ve shed everything, left it all behind and there’s no going back you don’t have a fucking mouth. Butterfly glory is short lived and full of hunger.

Anger flashes through me. I’m mad at this world, at the harshness of nature, at the things that just don’t seem fair. Of course, to be honest, this has less to do with the moth than it does with me. I’ve had a rough month. I want to fly. And with the freedom I thought that came with being a butterfly, I’ve discovered that I don’t have a mouth.

That I’m just a giant silk moth living off the nutrients I acquired in my life as a caterpillar and there’s not a lot left to feed off of.

Since autumn, my hands have been getting worse. I’d woken up several nights in a row feeling as if my joints were burning from the inside out. Pushing the bedcovers off my shoulders hurt, turning a door knob took effort, lifting a dinner plate took the strength of both fragile wrists. Knowing the dangers of letting this arthritis get out of control and not wanting to go back down that way of pain, I left off my usual avoidance of drugs and went to a clinic and got cortisone injections in both wrist joints. I spent every dime I’d earned and put in my Canada fund for this. Although the benefits of waking up free of pain are worth every last penny, I’m distraught at having to start all over with saving, upset by the irregularity of a life with a two year old, by the needs I have--and try hard to suppress--to be solitary, of the impotent feeling that comes with not bringing in a steady income, not being able to contribute to the grocery bill, or not having the freedom to get up and go anywhere in the world I want to go at any moment I wish.

The self-pity is bad enough. With it so strong in my mind I can hardly stand my own thoughts or my own company. I pull myself in for the proverbial Come To Jesus Meetin’. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, I say, Knock it off. Get to work. Quit your whining. Nobody likes it, least of all me. Besides, what’s wrong with you anyways? You have a roof over your head. You have food to eat. You have family who loves you and is kind enough to open up their home to you as a friend. Get your act together. Change your attitude. Be happy.

It sounds easy enough and I should be this Zen. I want to be this Zen. But I’m not.

And yet, the cortisone shots do their magic and with the easing of my physical pain, my mental angst eases as well. For the first time in months I find myself humming.

Is happiness as simple as living with less pain?

Maybe it is.

Before the moth arrived, I’d had plenty of time, too much time, to think about what’s been bothering me, and I realized that my real worry is in the thought that I’ll become a Has Been and stop being an Am Being. I want to live forward. I want to be in charge of my own fate. I don’t want my life to only be stories about what has happened in my past. I want to do more than survive. I want to do more than just avoid pain. I want to live – with a capital L.

See, I’ve got these delusions of grandeur. I’ve got this idea that life is something wonderful. That we can, all of us, realize our dreams, that we don’t have to settle for what’s easy or sink back into the status quo. That, sappy as it is, the words in the song I sing with my niece are true and that I can:

have faith in [my] dreams and someday
[My] rainbow will come smiling thru
No matter how [my] heart is grieving
If [I] keep on believing
the dream that [I] wish will come true

A day goes by. And another. I go outside and visit with the moth. We’ve moved it under the patio’s overhang to try and keep the dogs from trampling it or the wind from blowing it away from us. Marie and I’ve both brought it twigs and rocks and leaves to try and make its week of moth life the most comfortable one we can. “You’re really beautiful,” I tell it.

The fact that it’s dying still bothers me. The fact that evolution hasn’t fitted it with a mouth still angers me. Then I laugh at myself. What do I know about being a Lepidoptera? What do I know about having wings? What do I know about the glory of changing from a caterpillar to a moth? How do I know that this time of this creature’s life isn’t its most glorious? Who am I to judge? Am I not dying too? Am I not also living?

On Friday, I met up with one of the local ladies to talk with her about how she’d gotten into freelance writing. Wanting to refill my piggy bank, I’m looking for part time work to supplement my writing habit. I’m looking to find some kind of income that isn’t a soul draining chore and that lets the fiction I love stay the focus of my working life. I’m looking for a get-rich-quick-scheme. She says, “There’s nothing wrong with working a traditional job. What about going after an MFA? What about teaching? Have you considered temp work? What about technical writing? Have you thought about going back to school to get a librarian’s degree?” 

She’s full of sound advice. She’s helpful and kind. I have a feeling she thinks I’m younger than I am. That I haven’t discovered my niche yet. That I don’t know that success takes tenacity and perseverance. I don’t hold any of this against her, she doesn’t know me, we’ve only just met. I’m not opposed to hard work, but I know what I want. I know too much what I don’t want.

We say “See you later” and I go to the library and work until my vision blurs. Then I walk home. The back door is locked and I let myself inside to the delight of the two dogs. Marie and Shea are visiting Marie’s sister. My brothers are out somewhere together. I sit in one of the rocking chairs and let my head clear in this seldom gotten alone time, listen to the sound of the birds, the barking of the squirrels, feel the air shift from pleasant to chill. The moth is behind me, a silent and friendly companion.

Can’t life be easy?

My brothers get back from playing basketball at the nearby park. Phinehas mixes up margaritas for the two of them and then comes to join me on the patio. A bit later Ben ventures out. We tell stories, pull out the main events from our day, share a bit of our individual lives with each other. 

“There’s got to be a way to do what you want to do. To not settle,” I say, summing up my lunch date conversation. I stand up and go look at the moth. It’s got its legs wrapped around a twig, it’s leaning up against a rock. “I really love this moth,” I tell my brothers.

Maybe there’s a metaphor for life here. Maybe there’s not.

Maybe all I know is that this experience of being alive--with or without a mouth, with one week or one hundred years to live, with or without pain--is still a spectacular and amazing thing. There’s always a way. This life is what I make of it. Life can be lived, not just survived. And, also, I want to fly.