Tuesday, March 8, 2011


A few nights ago we had an old friend from high school, Emily Sweeney, and her husband Bilwa for dinner. Emily is a talented dancer and choreographer who has lived and worked, since we graduated in 1997, in many places other than Southern Vermont, most recently Philadelphia, Vienna, and Berlin. But this past summer Emily and Bilwa moved back here for a teaching job, and so we found ourselves sitting around the fire drinking wine and talking about what Ty and I always talk about with old friends who grew up here with us; the push and pull towards and against this place we still, at some level, all consider home.

I have stopped questioning whether or not this is the place I should be. I’m planning on sticking around, at least for a while. But Emily isn’t. She talked about how the place has changed for her since coming back, how the hazy romanticism of memory has fallen away, and what she’s found here isn’t, in fact, a place she feels at home or wants to be for long. I asked her what she thought it would be like before she came, and she said she thought it would be like it was in high school: “Train bridges and fields and bonfires.” She smiled. “Like it is in Red Heart the Ticker songs.”

She asked what it’s like for me, and I said that we wrote most of the previous songs on our first two RHTT albums while living other places: Philadelphia and New York. I talked about how our yearning for this place created those songs (as yearning informs, in my book, all art). And I talked about how different it is to write about this place from within its landscape, as opposed to from away, and how I keep writing in order to keep that vision of this place alive.

Bilwa is an electronic musician who grew up in North Philly and has, like Emily, lived all over the world living amidst circuits of avant-garde artists and musicians. He doesn’t pussyfoot around the fact that as much as he likes to visit Brattleboro, he doesn’t ever want to live here again. He wants to live places where there is motion, movement, dialogue, and constant opportunities for connectivity. Berlin is his favorite place in the whole world. He wants to be able to see shows any night of the week, meet people to collaborate with every day, and have more streets to walk down.

We poured more glasses of wine and talked about the various archetypes of the artist. I said I have always imagined being the loner in the cabin in the woods, the Emily Dickenson type, who finds a place so quiet and still she hear her own original and authentic and true voice. But now that I’m here, I’m discovering that’s not all I want. I want dialogue and communication and collaboration, too. Emily said it’s the same for her. Vermont and Berlin. Isolation and connectivity. She talked about this landscape and how it shapes our community and the art we make; how the rolling hills make for pockets of thought and creativity rather than flee-flowing lines. She talked about how green things will grow up between any two spaces if you let them, immediately thwarting direct and open dialogue.

It got late, the wine got drunk, and Emily and Bilwa said goodbye and stumbled down our ice-covered path towards their car. After turning off the lights I lay in bed feeling inspired by the conversation, thrilled to have had it, but wistful, too. Emily and Bilwa will move back to Berlin, or somewhere else, at the end of 2011. We will be staying here in our cabin in the woods amidst small rolling hills, extended family and close-knit trees. It’s hard on us when people like this move away.

But my insomniac wistfulness led me to think about different planes of connectivity, too. Of how we live here in a house we built ourselves made out of trees cleared from this land. About the fact that my daughter is growing up on the same land that I grew up on, which is the same land my dad grew up on, and how she will learn to see landscape as interwoven with story and history and artifact, just like I did. (This is the place the barn burned; this is the section of creek your great-uncle named “Towering Beauty Falls;” this is where the pot plants grew.) Of how well my daughter knows her grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, great-aunts, and the roads that lead between them. Of how she knows, intimately, where her food comes from and how the milk we drink comes from the teats of the cows down the road. It reminded me how shocked I was at eighteen to find myself living in a dorm in a city where no one knew where their electricity or heat or water came from, or where their shit went, or cared, and how that made me feel physically strange and sad and alone. It made me think of these trees outside my windows, and how much peace they bring me, and how there are sometimes birds in them, and how I am learning to identify the songs those birds sing. It’s not the intellectual or artistic kind of connectivity we have chosen for ourselves here, but the natural and familial.

If I have to choose (and I think, to some extent, I do,) I’ll choose this one, for now, because it’s the kind of connectivity I want my daughter to know in her bones. She can go looking for all sorts of other kinds later, but this is the kind I want her to know beyond the terrain of doubt. Because I believe (hope) it will teach her about humility, and responsibility, and belonging, and the expansive world beyond the human.
Emily said, in a later conversation, “I am still grateful to the landscape here for giving me clear eyes and wakeful skin.” I hope it will give my daughter such clear eyes and wakeful skin, teach her about quiet and sublimity and the true song of herself. And then she can go out into the world, and do what she will, and feel the electricity, and hear the noise. But still have this place, and this kind of knowing, like all my old high school friends, whether in body or in mind, for short periods or long, to return to.