I am finishing my first essay collection, by which I mean, I'm completing a run of revisions and I will send this to somebody this week. The book is called Glue God: Essays (and Tips) for Repairing a Broken Self. Timely for our age, no? All of the broken people out there. For this is the age of the broken person. And who better to instruct and inspire others in how to make those repairs? This is from the final essay in the volume.
The last time I’d been at Russell Orchards, my wife had gone into this 200-year old converted barn structure that now served as a store, all drafty and smelling of pine and oak, such that you’re reticent to use a word like “store” in describing it. “Shoppe,” maybe. A place where you expect to hear a blacksmith’s hammer ringing out in the back.
It was past Halloween, that last time with her, and the farm would be closing for the season. This would be our final visit of the year, even if everything in our joint lives proceeded hunky dory. While she got the donuts and scones, I visited with two little pigs who had a pen jutting off the barn house back deeper on the grounds.
These pigs were not long for the world. I knelt down beside them. The sun was very low in the sky. I could see my breath, their breath. One of them munched a carrot. He was charcoal-colored, the other pinkish. My wife had named them, despite my warnings not to get attached to these guys. A warning she never heeded any year, suggesting later, in the spring, when we returned and the pigs were gone, that maybe they had been adopted. I didn’t add, yes, adopted by Stop and Shop. I’d just smile and make my best, “well, maybe,” face.
Dennis was the carrot-chomper. He eyed me, peacefully, as he crunched away at his treat. “Enjoy it, my friend,” I said, scratching the top of his head, thinking, “ah, you’re lucky you don’t know what’s coming for you.”
It was some months later, after Dennis, presumably, had been dispatched, when it occurred to me that he could have conveyed much the same sentiment to me, and been even more in the right.
There are no sidewalks, after you get past those first few homes, on what is called Arugula Road in Ipswich. I decided to walk with the cars at my back. That’s the way you’re supposed to, legally, I think, but I also wasn’t against getting dispatched myself, especially if I didn’t see it coming, like Dennis probably never saw it coming. The cars whip past you, this whir of sound that makes your shirt billow a touch with every vehicle.
I made it to the marsh portion of the journey and was decently pleased with myself, because I didn’t expect to see this beautiful eyeful of nature again. At the least, a moral victory.
A painter like Fitz Henry Lane, that wonderful nineteenth center seascape master, who was my favorite painter, would have set up his easel here straight away and, I imagine, do for these reeds and rushes and the winding saltwater rivulets, what Monet had done for water lilies and pond water, but with heightened possibilities. There was simply more here. The horizon, which ran to impossible distances, seemed to bolster that idea and make it into something else, the symbiotic scope of water underfoot and clouds sloping away past the field of vision, turning mere fact—this is land, this is sea, this is sky, this flora, this is fauna—into ceaseless truth.
Here is where I first experienced, during my reclamation efforts, what would be a fairly regular occurrence going forward: one of those speeding cars pulling up beside me, asking if I wanted a ride, because no one walked here.
Maybe if you broke down yourself, and there was a gas station off this way. There wasn’t. Women stopped more than men. Three to one ratio. It’d made me think about all of the film noirs I’d seen that had started this way, but film noirs never happened in the sun-spangled setting of a coastal spring, though I worried that I was some anti-hero, with some unavoidable bad ending awaiting, regardless of my intentions.
I’d thank the person who had shown me some concern, adding that I was good, and really, thanks again. And on I walked.
Garter snakes rustled in the vegetation on the road’s right hand side, but it was the brown snakes who slithered onto the pavement for warmth. I’d seen a number of them squashed by cars on the first couple miles, so when I encountered any others, still living, I’d pick them up, carry them twenty yards into the forest, leaving them on a rock in a spot where the sun broke through the the density of the oak canopy.
This felt good, even as I dreaded seeing Russell Orchards again, which had started to feel like a possibility. The past would rear up like a horse you couldn’t break, kicking at anyone who sought to gain some command over it. I worried that I’d vomit. True, a farm was probably a decent spot to do so if you had to pick one. Dennis, surely, wouldn’t be there, but I had another Dennis on my mind.
I’d read about a St. Dennis, this guy from something like 250 A.D. I guess he had some strong beliefs, for which his head was chopped off.
Now, getting your head lopped off wasn’t that uncommon, once upon a time. Suffer this form of slicing, and chances were you became known as a cephalophore, which basically means, “dude without a head who gets painted holding said head.” Entire sub-genre of painting. Gist was you picked up your head as some sort of symbolic gesture.
I liked the idea of resiliency on display. But St. Dennis went several steps further. Quite literally, so far as his legend goes. For having been dispossessed, bodily, of his head, he picked his up, and like my old buddy in Dante, refused to do anything but what he wanted and believed in. Carrying that head, he was said to have walked six miles. That’s commitment.
I thought of Dennis the saint and Dennis the pig, and how the latter chomped at his carrot—maybe his last carrot, maybe his best carrot for all I knew, the carrot that made having arrived at that moment worth it—and I dangled a carrot of sorts in front of my head, my still attached head, even if it felt like my heart, and parts of my mind, had flown the barn.
I was pretty sure that being back at Russell Orchards was going to suck, but I knew I had to go back, then go back again, and again. Because each time it would suck a little less, I would be wresting some things back my way, and if I ever had a life in the future, a place such as this would be more than mere geographical spot of bucolic largess and ah-that-hit-the-spot cold apple cider.
It would be an extension of who I was, another patch of me, and one from which I could reflect, learn, grow.
When you walk on the sides of roads most people do not walk on, to get to a place you must get to—because of who you are, what you have been through, what you are fighting for and to be—you learn what place really means, better than any master vacationer, visitor, or even lifelong resident, ever could. The place isn’t really the place when it matters most, and the place is not the place.
The place is you.