the journey through Westchester, Dutchess, and Columbia counties, out of the city and into the midsection of New York state, has little in the way of landmark or distraction. nothing but shades of green in the height of summer – everything at full flush, a blinding monochrome of grass and weeds and leaves. i had never driven it before, but i knew it – it might sound strange, but even with no distinguishing characteristics for miles, i still could have told you where i was. i could have told you where I was headed.
i rolled up and over hills, around wide curving turns flickering in deep shade, past the exits signs for town names: Yorktown, Cold Spring, Peekskill, Fishkill.
we all have our origin stories. each of us, on our own little odyssey, each of us always racing forwards and tracing backwards simultaneously. there is no logic, no continuity in life without it, the origin story. they are at once vastly complex and stunningly simple – beginnings usually are that way. i suppose that’s because beginnings are rarely ever just a moment, but an unfolding series of moments and parts and contexts – a thing, constructed, and then set in motion.
my grandparents lived in Pawling when i was born until i was five or six – then they moved across the Massachusetts border to Great Barrington, where they lived for the next ten years until their deaths. Pawling and Great Barrington are, in a way, of the same place – the Berkshire mountains, the great stretch of hills and woods and valleys between New England and the mid-Atlantic. since i was so young, the two are largely entwined in my mind – both generative spaces, full of so many things that pierced my mind clearly, twenty years later, as i drove past the exit for Route 55.
this origin story has so many moving parts, so many slippery images – i kept seeing them out of the corner of my eye as i sped along, northward, towards the Massachusetts border. long gravel driveways, low stone walls, saint statues. stray cats. foxes in the night, shotguns. sheds. barns. carved wooden mirrors, carved wooden signs: Mostly View. snow-laden pine trees, acres of lawn and forest dulled to shimmering yellow by the setting sun. oriental rugs, basement doors, birdseed kept in big metal tins. cereal with sugar in white and blue plastic bowls. wading pools, motorized trainsets, sandboxes, back decks. bedrooms behind bathrooms, steep wooden stairs painted blue. tv carts, china cabinets, rolltop desks with metal keyholes. canvas gardening gloves, tire swings, tennis balls. creaking wooden doors, windows scraped by tree branches. mahogany. silver. ceramic. wood. alberta spruce. green, green grass.
sometimes, it seems to me, we look in the wrong direction for answers. the future, though it holds many things, usually does not reveal solutions. it just creates more questions. why is it, then, that we don’t turn around, that we don’t reach back into the past? why do we so rarely even consider it? perhaps it is too frightening to acknowledge just how much is contained there. perhaps we would rather be without knowledge than be overwhelmed by it.
and so i was moving in two directions as i passed under the sign that said “Great Barrington – 10 miles.” forwards and backwards, ahead and behind, towards both what has past and what is to come.
when i reached downtown – the intersection of route 23 and route 7 – for a moment i was disoriented. i should have known where i was, but i didn’t recognize the surroundings. i felt, to be honest, a moment of rising panic – if i’m in a place that i know, but i don’t know this place, well…where am i?
the light changed, and i turned left, where a large white house loomed on the hill. a carved wooden sign: Finnerty and Stevens funeral home. one building, but it was all i needed to gain my bearings – the town spread out in front of me in my mind’s eye, and the reality of my arrival – my re-entry – punched me in the chest as i drove down main street. the wake would start in an hour.
in the high heat of summer, the mid-afternoon light in the Berkshires has a sharp quality about it – it clarifies the edges, brings the foreground into relief. in a few hours time, the opposite effect will take hold, a golden hour blurring of the scene, but in these moments, everything is clear and present. i begin to remember it even before i stop seeing it.
which doesn’t matter, really, because here – for me – they are always the same thing.