Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Ghosts of Gettysburg

The cars start showing up at camp site 254 around noon. Trucks and vans packed to overflowing with gear: tents, cots, sleeping bags, grills, tables, propane bottles, sacks of food, and various implements designed for making an October weekend outdoors tolerable to American kids (and adults) spoiled by decades of central heating and Big Screen television.

There is room for about half a dozen cars to unload at a time, and then they need to be moved to "official" parking areas. Our hero arrives and finds out where his family's tent will go, then presses his four children into toting things from the van. His oldest is a Girl Scout, and she's probably got more camping experience than he does, so he lets her help as much as she is willing. They get the tent up, and toss in all the sleeping gear, then he drives up the hill and parks.

On the way back to site 254, he crosses a field where the monthly battlefield re-enactments of the famous Battle take place. It's about 3/4 acre of well-kept grass bordered on two sides by deceptively makeshift pole fences and strategically place piles of boulders. In the summer of 1863, he supposes, it wasn't likely this tidy. In the summer of 1863, there would have been Union (or Confederate) troops hiding out of sight in those boulders, waiting for a Confederate (or Union) unit to walk into their line of fire so they could blast them into oblivion. In autumn of 2008, there are children clambering noisily from boulder to boulder, waving stick-rifles (and a few log-bazookas) and making Star Wars sound effects as they blast their playmates into imaginary oblivion.

Cars continue to arrive, tents are erected, fires are started, food is prepared. Temperatures drop and people - some old friends, some strangers - begin huddling around, sharing their resources and stories. After two days, everyone will be equally covered in camp smoke and dirt, and the mood will begin to wane from warm eagerness into tired coldness, but this first night is marked by laughter and stories.

Several of the dads are well-read on the American Civil War, and try to impress the children with tales of the Battle, and what it meant. But to the children they aren't adventure stories as much as they are lists of odd names and ancient dates. They listen while they eat, but it is obvious they want to edge away, until someone mentions ghosts.

"You know, there's a story you don't often hear about the glowing Ghost of Nectar," he says. "Before the big Battle, this area was kind of 'up for grabs', and there was a small Union unit camping right in this area where we are now in October 1862. They claimed they were sitting around, hungry and out of water, and were thinking about going down to one of the farms to beg or steal something, when there was a blast of light in the clearing, and a strange figure appeared to them.

"I read this in a book written by the minister they told the story to, and the minister said they described a kind of angel; he had a dark halo, and a scruffy beard, he wore light colored robes with a hood, and had the Greek word for 'Love' on his chest. The minister guessed at the word, because the boys were illiterate, but they saw three of the letters, and he figured it out from there.

"They told the minister they cried out and all but one of them threw their guns down and fell on the ground. The last boy panicked and took a shot. The angel said to them, 'Hark, do not shoot the messenger of the Lord, for behold, I bear sustenance.' Then he dropped a box that contained pouches of heavenly nectar, which the soldiers shared amongst themselves."

It was an odd little tale, but it sparked a fever of ghost-hunting in the Cub Scouts. They began sharing stupid old campfire stories ("The Ruby Red Lips" and variations of "The Dark, Dark House") or running out to the edge of the campfire light and then running, screaming, back to report strange glowing orbs or fanged creatures grunting in the dark. The littlest ones simply sidled up to a warm, reassuring adult and sat wide-eyed and quiet in the safety of the firelight.

The Little Girl asks our hero for some juice just then. He turns to their tent, and digs around for a minute before realizing that not everything made it out of the car. Which is parked several hundred yards away, up the hill, across the Battlefield. In the dark. The Little Girl informs him, too, that she can't find her baseball. He sighs. "I told you not to bring your baseball," he tells her, then he makes sure that all of the children are accounted for and being watched by someone responsible before heading out into the night.

It is colder this weekend than it has been throughout the warm September, but he is comfortable in his "camping costume". He's got his light tan Gap hoodie and his khaki cargo pants. He's got warm socks and his camo boonie cap. He wanders up the unlit roads between campsites bearing his lantern; fresh batteries and a compact fluorescent bulb mean a reassuringly bright light.

He makes the van and retrieves the case of foil juice bags without incident. The case is four boxes wrapped in plastic; the plastic is torn, because one of the children was thirsty on their drive from Baltimore, and he had to pull out a juice for everyone. He tucks the unruly box in his left arm, clutches the lantern in his right, and heads back.

He gets lost.

Not a big deal, of course, in our day and age. The paths are clear, and they all loop back in on each other, so he's in no danger. He has his light, but no map, and wanders around looking for the way back to site 254. Then, he recognizes the bath house, and the reenactment field, and spots the fires and lights of the Cub Scouts directly across it. He is starting to get cold, and the box of juice is getting heavy, so he decides to cut straight across the field.

He is not watching his step; he is looking up at the stars, and thinking about soldiers in the woods without all of his modern conveniences. The grass is wet. When he slips, his light drops, and there is a flash. He is dazed, and when he looks around, the world is slightly brighter; the moon is more full, and a little behind him. There are about a dozen young, dirty men in period costume in front of him, gaping.

There is a long moment of gaping before anyone does anything. All but one of the boys throw down their weapons, and flop down, covering their heads with their hands. The one boy whips up his rifle, and takes a shot at our hero's head, but his body is more interested in joining his comrades on the ground than in taking aim, and he drops to his knees before the report even stops echoing in the night.

Our hero shouts out a rude word - it might sound a bit like "Hark" - and yells, "Don't shoot! For the love of God!" He bends to snatch up his lantern, which has dimmed, but not gone out. He punches the on/off button: once, to turn it off, then again, and it flares to life. He holds it up and away from his head, thinking that if anyone else wants to send a round his way, they might aim for the light instead of him. Then something clicks, and he puts all of the details together.

He looks down at his sweater, with its great, dark "G", "A", and "P" standing out against the pale tan of the material, and remembers that one Greek word for love was "agape". He realizes that holding the lantern up, and behind his head, creates a halo on the rim of his round, floppy hat. He realizes that his baggy cargo pants probably look like flowing robes thanks to the shadows and unnatural light.

He also realizes that he has dropped one of the boxes full of juice pouches out of his case in the confusion.

But before he can say or do anything else, his light goes out again. When his eyes adjust, he realizes that he's no longer in a dark wood with twelve armed, frightened young men; he can make out the lines of the bath house roof, and hear the laughter from his camp. So, he takes the boxes of juice and his broken lantern, and goes back to his kids.

When he crawls into his sleeping bag that night, he struggles to find comfort in his plush micro-fiber atop his over-filled air mattress. Something is bothering him; something hard, cold, and uncomfortable in the back of his mind. Or in his back. He is so cold, tired, and half-asleep, he can't tell whether it's a physical discomfort or just the thought of those boys in their soldier costumes, cold and terrified and hungry as they tried to survive an October night more than a century and a half before.

He dreams about their fears, and about them fumbling with juice bags - are they any better at jamming that little straw through the hole than his kids are, or do they just lop the tops off the bags with their knives and pour them into their mugs? What do 19th century taste buds think of "Very Berry Splash" or "Pacific Cooler"?

Somewhere in the middle of the dreams, and the tossing and turning, he decides not to tell anyone what happened. He decides just to be glad that he could help - however accidentally - and to be grateful that boys in soldier costumes do their best to do what they think is right, regardless of the doubt and discomfort involved.

And in the morning, when he awakes on his depleted air mattress and discovers the baseball under his left kidney, he laughs, and is grateful that the greatest of his problems is only a self-imposed kind of discomfort.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Everyone I Love Is Here

We all cruise along through life at various levels of awareness. Some of us are acutely aware of every nuance of every situation, and some are clueless about the signals they send out and that they receive in return. I've always leaned more toward the latter category. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that my world was not working the way I thought it was.
When your world is suddenly not where you expected, you start looking around for it. It's a painful and scary experience, not knowing what's real and what's just a self-imposed delusion, but I'm lucky, because I have people around me who aren't afraid to tell me the truth. They anchor me, and help me fix the problems I create.

And in the midst of all of this, there's music. (As if you expected me to write about travel or architecture...)

One dangerous, yet thrilling, thing about a personal crisis is the new meaning that old familiar songs take on. Suddenly, So Much To Say has a depth I never recognized before; the sassy humor of Ben Folds becomes a defiant rallying cry in Philosophy.

Because the emotions can be so volatile and unpredictable, I actually avoid most of my music during times like these. A few years ago, a line from Cool, Cool River hit me so hard, I had to pull to the side of an English fen road and weep while tractors and little, annoyed cars swerved around me. This week, though, I found a special gift in my collection. The Finn Brothers Everyone Is Here, a 2004 CD I picked up at the library last year.What does it mean when
you promise someone
no matter how hard
or whatever may come

It means that I won't give in,
Won't give in...
Won't give in...
'Cause everyone I love is here,
Say it once, and disappear.
Won't Give In
They have my number; the heart of my problem and the solution wrapped together in less than a stanza. But they go further, too, and in six lines, they manage to describe the root of what I'm feeling:Homesick
For the people that I live with
For the spirit I'm missing
For the country that I'm living in
The hardest problems to see are the ones that are right in front of you. The missed opportunities to show, not tell, someone how you feel. The conclusions they draw when they compare your actions to your words. I've been so busy wallowing in my own Homesickness, I haven't seen what has been happening in my own best friend's heart.
I've never had the time before
Leaving things where they fell
I was going door to door
Always thinking I was somewhere else

You saw me
And what I could be
And now I know what love is for
It's the only thing sets you free
Must be the luckiest man alive
Luckiest Man Alive
So now I know all of this. I know what I've done wrong, and how to fix it. I know I'm better off than it seems, and how to make it better. But life is hard, and the road ahead is treacherous. There are no guarantees, only faith in each other.

What am I going to do about it?And I will take my chances
'Cos anything can happen
Don't believe it's over
'Cos anything can happen
Anything Can Happen
That thought cuts both ways; if anything can happen, that means good or bad. But she deserves my faith; and she's hurting, too. She feels guilty for hurting me, but she had to hurt me to get my attention. I don't imagine it's easy to watch someone grapple with a pain that you think you caused, even if you know that it's no one's fault. It's too easy to waste energy blaming yourself. Fortunately, there's some wisdom here for her, too:
All the mud in this town
All the dirt in this world
None of it sticks on you
(You shake it off)
Cause you're better than that
And you don't need it
No, you don't believe it
Nothing Wrong With You
In case there is any doubt about it, the Brothers will say it for me: "I walk along with you/There's nothing wrong with you."

There are a lot of things in this world that are insurmountable. Most people don't come back from the dead, and very few can fly or shoot heat beams from their eyes. But there is no reason to give up, not when there is love like ours in the world, and musicians to remind us.A chance is made
A chance is lost
I carry myself to the edge of the earth.
Won't Give In

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Peaks and Valleys

It's not easy being a human.

Anoak hadn't been human for long, and he could already tell that this was going to be a lot worse than he had first thought. When the new gods came and banished the old ones, including Anoak, to this frozen waste at the top of the world, he had known it would be different and strange. But he hadn't appreciated just how HARD it would be.

He had once known all, and been all powerful; now he was bound by weakness, and lacked all the answers he'd once held so easily in his head. Intelligence is something we don't understand, but it's like any other tool it can both help and hurt, depending on how it is used. Having the capacity for reason and being self-aware are great tools for solving the problems of survival. But the ability to reason also leads humans to ask questions that can't be answered.

Like, "why does it ultimately matter whether I'm eaten by predators, and is it really worth the effort to gather wood and build a shelter if I'm just going to die in a few seasons anyway?"

At first, Anoak had struggled alone with that question. He saw that others hated the obvious answers enough to devise complicated explanations for the way of things; they found reasons to pretend that there was some Higher Purpose, or Greater Plan. Like most, he tried to pretend he had the answers, but when those answers proved weak and false, he tried to simply ignore the problem. Then Anoak met Vula, and he thought he had found something that made the question irrelevant.

Among all the other old gods and new people, Anoak and Vula had something special; a bond that made them feel strong again. No, it did not bring back their magic. There would be no reclaiming of what they had been and had as gods. But now, they felt strong enough to tackle the journey that all mere humans must face.

When they began, they had a small shelter on skids, which they both pulled across the snowy wastes. They had friends in a loose group, all traveling the same roads. But then those friends began to peel off from the group, and the roads forked in ways they hadn't expected. Some left their side, and came back. Others drifted away forever.

Along the way, the children came, and Vula could not pull as she had before. She took on other duties; feeding, tending, nurturing. And as the road tilted horribly Anoak tried to adjust.

They came, though, to a rising plateau. It ascended a foggy mountainside, and they couldn't see the top. They were scared, but Anoak told Vula, "I will pull. It is not too much for me, but there is no better way to go."

It was hard work. Anoak and Vula became weary of their duties. Though they tried to remain cheerful, there were times when the food or firewood was scarce, or it seemed the shelter had been damaged by the rugged terrain. Their friends were more scattered than ever. Some drifted by alone, carrying stories of pitfalls and cliffs along the way that had claimed their partners. Some were still headed up; some down. None really stayed.

Anoak grew tired and afraid, but he put his head down and pulled. He made mistakes, stumbled over rocks on the way; he and Vula grew cross with each other and lost their tempers. The children grew, and resisted helping, wanting only to play. They would climb out and pick up a line to pull, but couldn't pull for long before losing interest and collapsing back in the shelter.

Finally, Vula was able to get down and take up a line again. They stood on a wide part of the plateau, with a steady, daunting slope ahead. It was very foggy, and Anoak warned her, "We must take care to pull in the same direction. We should not grow apart." He didn't see her roll her eyes, or realize how far away she already was.

The fog grew thick, and the children were loud and unruly. Keeping them fed and safe, while pulling the shelter uphill through the thick fog became almost unbearably hard, and Anoak and Vula could not hear each other. Sometimes one thought the other was calling out a warning, or for help, and sometimes they got turned around.

Anoak kept having trouble hearing Vula. He strained at his task, telling himself, I am doing well. I am taking care of them. Other things don't matter, if I can just keep going.

Then he heard her voice in the fog. "I'm going to help someone else, Anoak."

He felt her line slacken, and at the same time, his ankle turned, and he found himself on his knees, staring down into a yawning crack. He screamed in agony, "Please, no! Don't go!"

"I will come back. You'll be fine," she said. "This journey has been too hard on me, and I need to go try something else for a time. Someone else needs my help, and our burdens have weighed on me for too long." He saw her shape, through the fog as she moved away. He was afraid, and hurt, and felt the tug of the shelter pulling him down one way, as fear and gravity pulled him the other. And in his weariness and fear, that Question began to come back: Does it matter what you do? Will your effort lead to anything beyond more effort?

He heard others moving in the fog; friends, maybe. Predators, perhaps. Some who would help, some who would harm; almost all with false answers to that question. He knew he had to protect the children, but didn't know if he could alone. He didn't know if Vula would come back, or if she did, if she would be able to help again. Or if she would stay.

Anoak sat weeping, clutching the line, and trying to decide whether to cry out for help in the cold, dark fog.