Nowhere to Stop | a short essay on place

I prefer the road to the left after crossing the Kanawha River. Today a spiral staircase appears out of the rock face, and the last step drops just in front of my car.

My eyes have seen these delicate tiers, must have seen them, thousands of times. I was conceived in these hills. Only now on this autumn afternoon do the little elevations register.

Gorgeous golden sandstone, sculpted beyond pure function into art, I realize I have missed them all of my life because they are nearly one with the rock, tight to the white line of the road.

One has to have distance to see them.

I promise myself I will return, slow down, but when I go back I can’t pause. There are people behind me. They are pushing me along.

Next time, I will make it happen.

Next time, I will look for a place to pull over and take a photograph, but next time I realize there is no place to stop. One side is rock and one side is guard rail. There is no margin.

Who built you?

I drive this Appalachian road up from downtown Charleston because I can. There are other ways but I choose this one every time. It winds in unsurpassed beauty each season across water, over railroad tracks, gently up and up into layers of gracious homes and luscious trees. Every yard travelled pulls me more deeply into a sensed but barely visible past. At one turn there is a tiny set of graves. I must stop, unless turning right. If I turn right I may miss the dead, so focused I am on the Children’s Consignment Fair sign or the Old Colony Real Estate sign.

I promise myself this time, this time, I will focus. I will see those stairs to the top. I am sure they must no longer connect to anything, the mansion they once served long gone. I am certain the stairway’s connection has dissolved.

As I pass, unable to stop – there is nowhere to stop – I see where they lead.

They still climb to a house. I see young, contemporary dark wood in shocking contrast to the one hundred year old organic mineral steps; this is not their builder’s home, but I recognize this place. It is the home where my father’s friend lay dying for years, unable to live in this world and unable to find purchase in the next.

When I passed on the road above I would avert my eyes from this place. The pain was alternately dull and ripping to be outside looking in. I stopped looking. I stopped seeing. I stopped passing on the road above.

The road below brought me the staircase. I drive as carefully as I can, the visual distractions now equal between the captivating winding stairs and the dangers of looking too long.

There are others behind me, and nowhere to stop.

Of Disability & Dreams

I have done something awful to my back.

It feels familiar, like the resurrection of an injury from 20 years ago when I was a very physical gardener. I remember my huge front yard in North Carolina, and my youthful zeal to conquer it and all of the stones just under the surface of the grass. I worked hours on end, hacking at the rocky soil so I could transform the flowerless landscape into something beautiful.

Then, it happened. I knew it the instant my foot hit the spade. I did something irrevocable.

In my egotistical desire to demonstrate that I could do all of this hard labor myself, I slammed my right leg down as hard as I could onto the shovel blade, thinking of nothing but defeating a large stone lodged in the concrete-like clay earth.

My lower back tightened into the stone I was trying to best. Fire-like aches shot down my left leg. I fell down and had to drag myself to a tree to try to stand again. I ended up in physical therapy, and managed to restore myself to basic functionality, but I knew. I knew what I had done would never be fully undone.

Today as I hobble about my house and try to remember all of my old therapy exercises, I remember a woman I met the same year I hurt my back. She ran the most beautiful garden center I have ever known, and I secretly wanted her life for my own. She had acres of family property that she had transformed into ponds, herb gardens, sculpture gardens, and sheep pens. Visiting her land was a spiritual retreat for me and many others in the community, and I coveted her lifestyle. I’ll call her Linda.

One day, someone told me that Linda had been a very successful CEO-type in New York in a financial services company. It turned out her property was her father’s land. She lived with him in a large old house, just the two of them. Such a dramatic U-turn in life begged to be explained, and eventually it was.

On a typical afternoon in the city, Linda walked into a telephone booth. (Remember those?) She was on the phone when a truck speeding out of control plowed into the glass box that housed her body.

And that was all anyone could say.

I never knew how severely she was injured. I never knew how long she was in the hospital, how many surgeries she endured, or how close she came to death. What I did learn was that she could not be vanquished. She put all of her strength into her recovery, looked around and apparently said, “OK, what’s next?” She rebuilt her body and her life. She created a place of beautiful dreams from a blood-spattered nightmare.

There is so much we can never know about other people, what they want, why they are where they are, who they will become when they have to look at the death of their first dreams. It comes to us all, that realization that we have to let some things go. The question is, can we take up new dreams, and fight just as hard for them as we did for our first-borns?

I like to think the answer is yes.