Here’s one of the pictures I see when I look for the people I’ve been. A long line of tents, lean-tos, forts and tree-houses out to the west. There’s a creaky fortress made out of books (a teenage self), an ivory tower (a self I lived in the first two years of grad school), different houses of worship, several porta-potties.
Seeing this is not self-alienating. It’s beautiful. I love the richness of this line of experience. It decays so well, becoming translucent but oddly clear. The past is in its place. The Editor’s been talking about what he calls rejoicing in the free fall of life. This life we’re in: we get so much of it if we just relentlessly love the phase we’re in.
Anyway. Every summer feels like a big round tent. I inhabit it and simmer inside. Fourth of July is the central axis. My favorite holiday because it’s a nothing day. People don’t alter their lives to celebrate it: they celebrate it with and through whatever life they’ve got going. They satisfice. The ways we “make do” say everything about the real life we’re living.
So if all I remembered was the tent-poles of all the last Fourths of July, I could remember around them the lives they expressed. The whole tents. Ritual isn’t about getting out of who we are. It’s the most simple expression of who we are.
I was a kid in Montana. We lived on a Ranch, where we grew a hundred people’s worth of vegetables and fruits, and fifty head of cattle, and boys. Yes, what happened there was that boys grew up. Two hundred acres of fields, outbuildings, lodges and giant gathering spaces for a hundred orphans and delinquents: refugees from the Crow Reservation, victims of the horrible things that happen in farm families, and the tenderest, heart-breakingest gangsters, who a Cook County judge thought could be saved from the Chicago Crips-Bloods war. So much sadness, anger and abandonment, but multiply that by a hundred childhoods in Montana summer and what we had was a party.
On the 4th, my dad would climb the water tower, up its pitch-black inside tube, and hang the biggest flag ever from its water spout. Then we’d drive the fire truck at the head of a parade around the Ranch while my mom made Orange Crush ice cream for everyone. We had a bike race, a three-legged race, a jump-in-the-potato-sack race, and toy boat race down the irrigation ditch.
Then we’d turn the fire hoses on the big hill above the Canyon Creek, and have a slip-‘n’-slide on the grass for hours, careening down the hill, charging up to the top again covered in grass stains, diving to avoid the heavy spray of the hose, or pushing someone else in front of it. Then, sitting on square hay bales outside the dining hall, we’d down 25 watermelons from the garden, 100 ears of early platinum lady on the cob, and 99 hamburgers that used to be someone I knew.
Yesterday, Exxon Mobil dumped a black slick of crude into the Yellowstone River 8 miles from the Ranch. The town there is called Laurel. In the 1980s, it had the highest alcoholism rate per capita, a Burlington-Northern rail yard, and the Exxon refinery. The NYT photos of the spill wrench my insides like a tourniquet, the solar plexus half-collapsing to a black hole, sucking my heart inside.
Not heart-break, but rather heart-drain… that’s the feel of oil killing the river. And it only feels like this because the more I practice the ashtanga yoga, the less the body lies, the less it hides, the more translucent it becomes. Today the huge ganglia in my belly and chest are held together, and held apart, by what’s left of a six-year-old girl in braids. She’s drinking that river from a fire hose, stretching out her little body on the hill she loves and sliding/flying down it to the creek bank.
The creek keeps sliding, winding through friends’ cornfields and past the elementary school, meeting the Yellowstone a half mile below the Exxon spill. The girl, the river in the girl, me in them. I wish I could throw up; the oil spill is so draining.
Tonight Laurel will shine. It’s never better than on the Fourth. If you park at the edge of the cemetery above the hill over the high school (the cemetery was just improved with a Federal grant, because it houses dozens of new dead bodies from the Iraq War), you can still hear the chorus (and who needs to hear the lyrics, anyway) of Born in the USA when it plays for the finale of the fireworks show down at the high school.
The emcee will be drunk, and before every explosion, he will announce which local business or family donated each particular pyrotechnic. The night will be warm in a way that sinks deep into the skin without making you sweat. It’ll smell like black earth, grass, sex, silage, gasoline and gunpowder.
Everyone will be holding each other, pressed close, sexy and loving, grateful, so high on the emotion of freedom and the beauty of the falling lights, and (except for the dogs and six-year-olds) a little drunk. The drive back to the Ranch, on an untraveled back route, will be the beautiful. Headlights for ten miles out Laurel Airport Road, flowing, marking the base of the sandstone bluffs we call The Rims. The light-stream will pass the one little cairn that marks the Nez Perce’s flight through these fields in 1877. Other days, nobody drives this way.
Here, 2011's modal Summer Monday. Practice; three privates that fill me with inspiration the method channels away from words and into raw energy for even more teaching; and the only evening of the week I’m home with the Editor and the Meepers. And tonight, a fire pit around the corner on (yes) Hiscock street, a hot tub, winecoolers nobody will drink, S’mores and sparklers. Room for ten around the embers makes five ashtangis, four people from my grad program, seven professors, and nine residents of the Upper West Side. Of Ann Arbor. Hari OM.