Car Talk

stickers for blog 004 white outSome of you know that I grew up in a small Maine village. This village only had one place of worship and almost everybody attended it. There wasn’t a lot to do in such a small town, and teenagers’ activities, if not part of school events, were often connected to the church . In New England, the Congregational Church is a fairly liberal Protestant denomination (although the Unitarians are a breakaway sect because the Congregationalists weren’t liberal enough).  As a consequence of the small size of the village congregation and its social philosophy, members tried very hard to be democratic and follow the ‘all men are created equal’ view of life. This meant that anyone who wanted could sing in the choir and that meant that even I was allowed to be in that choir. The problem was that I can hardly carry a tune. I was what was euphemistically referred to as a ‘second soprano’, which meant I have about a 4-note range and can’t always hit the right note of the four. That did not disqualify me from being a chorister.  I was ‘created equal’, after all, even if not in musical talent, and that lack was not reason enough to ban me. So, the wise choir mistress solved her problem by putting me between my two very talented and loud cousins and telling me to sing softly. I got the message about my musical abilities, but continued to contribute my four notes to the social event.

The result of my early awakening to my limited vocal abilities is that I never sing in the shower; I hardly ever sing. I live alone and don’t talk to myself, either, although when I have cats I talk to them. No singing.  Now, if you like music, you might think that I lead a limited and sorrowful life when it comes to participating in musical events (I don’t really play an instrument, either, except for those early piano lessons we all took). Not true…I have a wonderful musical space where I can and do sing loud, off-key 60s and 70s popular music, especially folk-songs and the songs of all of the rock groups of that era. My studio is my car.  It is the only place where I let loose with my voice and I love it.  I put in a CD and my voice echoes throughout, and nobody cares. I can try harmony, or the melody, I can try changing the beat a little; I can nod my head, make up my own words, even whistle.  I keep the windows rolled up and I sing.  I encourage whatever artist I’m listening to: Go John! Let’s croon Leonard! Joan I hear you! Then I can pretend I’m one of them: cool, talented, and speaking to all of my generation. I can engage in social protest with all of those antiwar songs. I can pretend to partake of illegal chemical substances with the Beatles, the Airplane, and CCRevival. I can get as soppy as I’d like with love songs, and I can cry aloud at the mini-tales of tragedy  of the ballads.  I can indulge in nostalgia, and feel only a little embarrassed when someone in another car looks at me as though I’m nuts. My car is my safe-place.

My car is also a safe place for venting. I have to admit to mild episodes of road rage. I can swear at home (but what at?), and try not to in public places. But in my car, my whole vocabulary can get a great workout (windows still rolled up), and I can even practice some new expressions. What can pull me away from my singing? Just be in front of me and don’t signal a turn: I have some special words for you, buster.  Tailgate me and I have some more. Don’t lower your high beams, or be in one of those over-sized trucks whose dims are still too high…you have a special spot in my lexicon. If you are bicyclist who thinks that the road rules don’t apply to you, or you ride several abreast down my narrow road, oblivious to everything else, you have my full attention and are the object of a set of words that would make my Congregationalist brethren gasp.  However, if you are especially aware of others on the road, pull aside if needed, stop at stop lights, then I have a special smile and wave and nod that goes your way. You benefit from the less-used but equally sincere vocabulary of praise and love.

My car is not always noisy. I have quiet time in it, too.  It is a great place to think, and my ideas for writing and lines for what I write often come when I’m in the car. I rehearse bits over in my mind and mull topics that I want to pursue at some time. It is also a good place to try to solve the weekly Car Talk puzzle after a great session of laughing with The Car Guys and hearing my Massachusetts cousins’ accents, taking me home on a Saturday morning.  I have also wrestled with many a linguistic question while driving to town or from town, wondering why language worked that way, who says it and when and why.  I practice bits of other languages that I have studied, challenging myself to remember how to say certain things (not rage vocabulary, though), thinking about how syntax  works and why word order is so fascinating.

I like to keep things in my car. I grew up having the ‘you never know when you’re going to need it’ approach to life drummed into me. It’s the New England version of the Boy Scout motto. In the winter, I was taught to always have certain things in the car in case of snow storms. That includes a scraper; a small shovel; a bucket of sand (or, nowadays, cat litter) for getting out of snowy or icy places; a warm blanket in case the shovel and sand don’t get you out; a flashlight; maps (no GPS for me); an extra pair of mittens or gloves; an extra hat;  an extra scarf;  a cross-word puzzle book; a travel Scrabble game (largely replaced these days by my iPhone). Then there are the other essentials which are not seasonal: tire-pressure gauge; two umbrellas (in case one gets left somewhere); rain poncho (in case both umbrellas get lost); change for parking meters; packets of Kleenex; cloth grocery bags (which I always forget to bring into the store with me); a bottle of water. You never know when you’re going to need them. I have friends whose cars don’t seem to have anything in them and I have never figured out how that is even possible: what if we’re suddenly required to evacuate? What would they do? I’d survive quite well. Guess I’d have to share.

I have a long driveway (about 1/10th of a mile) and have to haul the trash out every week, so while the barrels don’t live in the car, they ride in it every week. Needless to say, I don’t own sedans, but, rather, station wagons. My friends with their barren sedans and no cargo room are always calling me to take them  to Target to pick up something they’ve purchased that won’t fit into their silly four-door little cars. I snicker and gloat. My car is a perfect size, they also convinced me, for hauling the Meals on Wheels chests, so I was the designated driver for the longest route in Monroe County…someday it might be me that needs that food.

I have never named any of my cars, but they do take on a life-with-me patina. Once I get used to a new car (that takes about a year), I’m very reluctant to let it go. We’ve shared so many songs! I kept one of my cars, a Honda wagon, from 1995 to 2009, and it was four years old when I bought it, and was the first automatic drive that I ever bought.(I needed it because I had broken my left foot and couldn’t clutch ). It was just getting broken in. Now I have had two new ones, both Honda Fits (I got one in April 2009, and after a herd of deer smashed up the passenger side as I was tooling down Bethel Lane, traded for a 2016 model). The 2009 model never did fully settle in, and the 2016 isn’t out of diapers yet. I did sell my old wagon to my neighbor, so I saw it frequently until it finally went to car heaven. It had wonderful bumper stickers on it and she left them on, because, as she said: “You and I agree on all of the important things, Bev; your radio is even tuned to the right station.” My new car didn’t have any stickers on for a while, and I worried that people wouldn’t know that I voted for Obama, or that I support the ACLU, and the Sierra Club, as well as have Buddha eyes watching for good deeds.  The car hadn’t earned its props, and so remained pristine while I remained anonymous. It now has its own stickers to define me: anti-guns; anti-cancer; anti-tailgating; and pro-Sanders, so people now have an idea or two about who I am.

I suppose my life in my car is a bit of a paradox: inside, it is my freest space, yet outside it is my most regulated space. Along with the road rules, I even need governmental permission to drive it, yet can say whatever I like about said government while doing so. I have made it a comfortable ‘home’, yet its job is to take me away from home or back to home: it is not ‘home’ at home. I can decide at any moment to overthrow a plan of travel and take off for somewhere else by a simple  turn of the wheel, yet it is what gets me routinely from place-to-place with great reliability. It gives me my greatest freedom and independence, yet it needs care and relies on me for maintenance; it requires responsibility on my part.  And, finally, while I have always been fascinated by the inner workings of the vehicle of language, I have never been slightly interested in the inner workings of the car. I may no longer be a Congregationalist, but even atheists need some Mystery in life.

Bev Hartford

There Are No Words

There have been times in my life where I could not bear silence, where I swear I heard it ringing relentlessly in my ears, compounding my sense of isolation, making me feel as though the whole world was happily in community while I sat alone, panicking, unable to quiet my monkey mind, my pounding heart. My first postgraduate semester in Oxford, perched above the noisy intersection of Longwall and High in a sterile bedsit, was too much of this.

Other times I have been able to tune in to silence, feeling both drawn out into the vastness of landscape while simultaneously breathing deep into my essential self (a frigid, starlit winter night at home in South Dakota feels this way), or caught up in the vastness and variety, yet essential commonality, of human experience. I have felt this most readily in New York City, or Chicago, while walking or taking a train to work, feeling part of the flow of a local population commuting to the work that sustains us and those we love.

I am trying to cultivate a heightened, meditative mindfulness in order to access this experience more deeply and more often, more independently of circumstances, yet it is not something that comes easily or naturally to me.

But oh, in this week of so much hatred and divisiveness, pain and violence in our human family, I am griefstricken, wanting both to scream at the top of my lungs and to go silent, deep within, at what we have all borne witness to, virtually or all too close. It takes my breath away that anyone could experience other fellow travelers on this planet as so “other” as to wish to eradicate them, as individuals or groups, from this world we all belong to. There are no words, and yet we struggle to bring them forth.


Mary Peckham, for The Poplar Grove Muse

The Gift of Story

The hospital bed, one of two in the middle of the dining room, creaked and shook, just a little, as I climbed up to sit next to my grandmother. Grammie, I called her, and she was every bit of her name. Always in a blouse and ironed slacks, she wore thick brown stockings and a curly gray wig to cover the white wisps of hair she had left. My father, who thought himself quite funny, would tell me, when his mother wasn’t present, that the gene pool for hair loss was determined by the father’s mother and I too would be a baldino. Later, I’d secretly try on Grammie’s wigs. Other than my friend Cheryl, who died when I was nine, Grammie was the only person I knew who wore a wig. Itchy and odd, I’d hope he wasn’t right. Without her wigs though, my grandmother looked nothing like herself, and I never wished them away. Grammie’s hair was just a fraction of what I remember making her special. Little aprons always tied around her waist, tight hugs, “Good Morning Sunshine” and other songs constantly sung perfectly off key, quotes from Shirley Temple and old movies I’d never see, made her, bald or not, one of my most favorite people.

Once or twice a year we’d visit the white house on Jensen Road where my father was born. We’d enter through the side door that led right into the kitchen. Grammie, no matter how late we arrived, held the screen door open, dimpled smile ear to ear. I knew there would be a moment when I walked into the house, where embraced in hug, I couldn’t breathe. Despite the long drive from Virginia to Connecticut and the fact that my sister and I mostly watched MTV, I loved our visits. I loved the way Grammie double fried hot dogs in real butter and always had Florida Orange Juice, something Mom would never buy. I loved how she’d cover my face in kisses for no reason other than to just love on me, and how she’d spend hours, year after year, sitting with me on the hospital bed, reliving old Christmas cards and letters. She’d saved every one she’d ever received. The ones with pictures inserted were always my favorite, and later we’d go through the dozen or so albums she had in Grandpa’s study. The cards, though, they felt secretive. I was a part of a story written for her.

Somewhere in her storytelling, Grandpa would ring his bell and she’d smile and go off to help him eat or go to the bathroom. My grandfather was paralyzed from the neck down, and after more than a decade of being so, my grandparents were in a rhythm that could not be disturbed. I would sit, sometimes for many minutes if the room divider, telling us Grandpa needed privacy, was put up. I’d look through the cards, but it wasn’t the same without her narration.

I don’t remember the specific stories, and while a part of me wishes I did or had the cards and pictures, I’d need her and the hospital bed and the hope that the bell wouldn’t interrupt our time.

What I do have are my stories, about a woman who used to tell me often while patting down her apron that when she was young she had a sixteen-inch waist, who’d introduce me to singing loudly off key and always ended every letter to me, and there were many, with a different scripture about love. I can tell about a woman who for seventeen years took care of her paralyzed husband and sang every day, even when she was cranking his six foot frame up in a wheel chair contraption to bathe him or being ordered, sometimes harshly, to find this or get that. Who when she was finished, always returned to a little girl, patiently waiting on the white hospital bed, to tell her more about the life she used to live and the relatives she could no longer travel to see. I wonder now if I asked too much of her all those times or if somehow we were giving each other the gift of story.