Conversations on a Sense of Place I have loved Italy since I first set foot on its soil at the age of twenty, in the mid-sixties, and that love affair has influenced everything since. Heading off to southern France to … Continue reading
Jean-Pierre Luminet, the cosmologist, proposed that data hint at a finite universe. He compares the universe to a volleyball, a dodecahedron, the union of twelve pentagons that results in wrap-around movements of the objects within it.
Can infinity exist within a finite housing? Maybe so if I conceive of infinity as the power of passing on the capacity for love, knowledge, understanding, curiosity, and creativity. Unfortunately, some darker qualities, too. It is in this way infinite in its power and infinite to the degree one receives, embraces and lives these elements and passes them on. Therefore, they are potentially infinite, but exist for a time in the finite housing we inhabit, this body, this mind, this volleyball. The dodecahedron. An enclosed kind of infinity.
Max Tegmark, cited in the article about Luminet’s volleyball cosmos (Dan Vergano 2003), suggests that most evidence favors an infinite universe rather than one with limits. That is a notion too big for my mind, but I can grasp the idea that most of us build walls and define spaces to move within, and I come back comfortably to the volleyball.
Like Pac-Man, as Tegmark says, the Volleyball Universe suggests that we disappear from one edge only to appear again entering from another side, ever passing by. I find this concept disturbingly familiar as I see, thumbing through through years of my journals, poems, and essays, the same themes appearing in different guises, while surely I thought I had been exploring new images for new thoughts every time. Maybe all of us live in our own individual world of themes, chewing on them one way or another, hoping to figure them out eventually. Maybe we pass them on, for better or for worse. Maybe they stay infinitely in space for others to grab and use as stimulus for their own thinking, imagining them entirely unique.
I began writing Fell Street Footnotes in order to keep in touch with friends, acquaintances, family, and other writers during our November, 2014-November 2015 sojourn in Baltimore. Now we’re settled back in our home in Nashville where rich soil and green grass, tall trees and gardens and the songs of crickets and tree frogs surround us in place of harbor waters and boats, the deep horns of freighters in the night, cobblestones, taverns, and the busy soup of city life. I wrote about my observations of a new city then. Now I live in a city I’ve been a part of since childhood–with a hiatus or two–but a city that changed greatly while we were away and is changing even more radically before our eyes. It’s more challenging to write about a place one has always known, but as vibrant as this one has become, there should be plenty of stimulus if I wish to observe from new eyes and write what I see and hear, and the textures I rub up against. More likely, I’ll write from within the volleyball of my own themes, bounced around as they may be by the experiences, people, books, conflicts, and joys I encounter. I hope you will join me every couple of weeks to see what’s passing from one edge to the other.
I have made my way across water to this garden where a tall mast memorializes The Pride of Baltimore, an ambassador ship lost at sea in 1986. The city stands ghostlike across the harbor, Federal Hill behind me, the day a pointillism of gray light brightened by the outrageous red of burning-bushes, the poplars and birches and maples thinned now. Everything has quieted. Birds scratch and chatter just around my bench. A car bumps along the road. It’s all noise but not noise, the way a city inures or urges one into an insulating capsule even while present and a part of it with breath and commerce, gravel-shift underfoot on shared paths and sidewalks and roads, the murmurings of couples, a foghorn, a swinging door.
Here’s what I want to record, though: how I find my hand reaching out to shake another’s with whom I’ve had a passing conversation, like the waterman who taxied me over, my Baltimore Charon giving me back to my other life, even as we die in a way to this one; how I want to touch the shoulder of a friend I’ve met here, only an acquaintance, to be honest–to keep her, to pull her along to the realization of that potential friendship; the near-tears brought by a simple gift—or a big one like the art my photography tutor gave us—that are an expression of connection. I like to think it means something when lives converge, even briefly. I know some enhancement, some broadening of vision occurs. And the new and deepened and enduring friendships: these will follow wherever we go. These friends have given me in many ways the spirit of this town—geography and culture and food and character and shared presence.
The city wears a veil of fog today. Majestic and stocky and tough and kind. Not so secretive. Busy. Available. City of contradictions. My thanks, I say aloud to it like a prayer, for taking care of me, for inviting me in many ways to be a part of it, a happy borrower as I’ve wandered these old shores.
No one would have named a pub Penny Black in 1840, when it was first built to offer lodging, food, and drink to sailors and dock workers in Baltimore’s Fells Point. Memories of the British invasion during the War of 1812 embittered the residents of the time toward anything smacking of the British, even though Thames Street, Fleet Street, Bond Street, Pratt, and so on attest to the area’s English heritage. Subtle resistance exists even now, though. Baltimoreans do not say “Tims” Street; they insist on pronouncing the TH and say the word with a long A.
Penny Black was the first adhesive stamp to be issued, created in 1840 in England. Charles Doering, a stamp collector, has owned the pub with his wife, Melissa, since 1976. In addition, their daughter and son, Eliza and John Doering, have a band called Eliza Doering and the Penny Black. After 200 years, the name evokes Old World charm, as does the interior of the tavern at 1800 Thames Street.
The building has hosted travelers and the just plain thirsty under several identities over the years. Norwegian seamen slept in it as The Holmes Hotel. Later, it became Zeppi’s 5-Point Tavern. In 1976 it became John Steven Ltd. (named for a Teddy Bear) under the Doering family’s ownership and enjoyed such a strong reputation that when its doors closed because of a lessee’s poor management, many in the neighborhood began to clamor for its reopening. “John Steven is a Fell’s Point icon,” they complained. The Doerings decided to reopen it, and, watching, waiting, eager, and I suppose nosey, John and I stopped by often while they were refurbishing. At last, ready for business, they gave it a new name for its new start. Once again, the corner of Thames and South Ann Street is lively, popular, and serving delicious fare that goes way beyond most bar food.
We feel good just walking in the door. The atmosphere, polished and cozy in the old style, upbeat and friendly, pulls us in, as do the stories Charles and Melissa Doering tell about the history of the place. The mahogany bar, they said, came from a German ocean liner decommissioned in Fell’s Point and was installed in 1910. The man behind the bar, Jeff Bejma, is a magician with drinks and a great storyteller in his own right. He possesses a deep knowledge of spirits: their origins and properties and just how they might be manipulated for a patron’s pleasurable drinking experience. I love a person with a passion for his or her craft. Sometimes his rises to the standard of art.
Penny Black will continue to grow. A beautiful dining room with a fireplace gave us comfort and the feel of a special occasion one stormy night when our family gathered there and shifted in from the patio. The breeze and aroma of rain through the window, the candles on dark wooden tables, great food for all tastes, and servers and proprietors who treated us like close friends—it was perfect. Upstairs, on the second floor, the Doerings are preparing a music lounge. The family occupies parts of the second and third floors, where there are ten rooms and from which, I imagine, one can see the harbor as well as all the activity along Thames Street.
We’ll be sad to say good-bye to Charles, Melissa, Eliza, John, and bar master Jeff, as well as to Chef Amos Estes, who continues to develop a menu featuring thoughtfully prepared offerings. Imagine an appetizer plate of tasty escargots, scallops in ratatouille, velvet-on-the-tongue gnocchi, the best burger anywhere, mussels that will make you sing, and more. Melissa’s poppyseed cake with Chef’s caramel sauce is big enough to share, but might cause a feud: best to have my own piece.
Penny Black has been a good place to drop in for a light—or sometimes not so light—supper. Everyone should know their name.
Summer is dessert, temporary as whipped cream,
while winter’s permanence
breathes out and in the core of us,
laying down fat and the protein
of sustenance. Look how
the deck chairs lounge at angles,
like lazy guests, ready to go
when the signs turn.
We bring them out for light chitchat,
pliant to fold and put away.
Adirondacks grace the lawn
like ladies in gauze
and white portrait hats.
The chairs seem grounded, dug-in,
but with the first breath of hearth-smoke
one October afternoon,
we nestle them in the shed.
And anyway the ladies after a month
have gone back to the city
and tightened their days,
stitching their lives to order and plan,
stitching their speech to matter.
Summer offers recess.
In winter we live up to our chins
in all that is expected or hoped,
our shoes in line on a shelf,
dinner at six, chairs
upholstered in geometrics
or stylized flowers remembered
but held in brocaded place.
Here we build countries
and laws and philosophies,
and poems about impermanence,
the garden’s death and the solid
grounding of winter days
holding deep surprise
and what we’ve always known.
A glass holds one rose on the kitchen shelf.
It begins to grow soft and yet I keep it.
A girl carrying two gave it on impulse
to me, an oldish woman on a bench
with only an ice cream in my hand.
She knew, I’m guessing,
that one rose was enough for her,
one hand in her lover’s hand,
and that perhaps
I could use a single flower
kissed by young blood,
young dreams of how life will be.
I buried my face in its scent
and took the hand of my husband,
procurer of deep chocolate in a waffle cone.
Some call them snake birds
the way they swim with their heads up,
a long twisty neck just visible beneath.
But when they become birds again
drying outstretched wings
I call them something else—
dark angels maybe.
Yesterday when one stood like that
on a piling barely submerged
it seemed to stand on water,
like Jesus, and with those
angel wings fluttering like fingers.
I stand like that, I thought,
to dry my underarms,
flapping and cooling myself
as Jesus must have done, too,
in that hot middle-eastern land.
The Christ in me, the One
in a cormorant: we greet each other,
one tick, all of us, from a reptile
I finally met a friend of mine—whose truck I’ve been photographing for a year. A blue kayak sits bound to the roof of his silver Tahoe. Sometimes I find it in front of a blue door, sometimes across the cobblestone street in front of the red door, usually on Fell Street, occasionally on South Ann or even Wolfe, depending upon traffic so near Thames where tourists and tavern-hoppers cruise for a parking spot. But he’s clearly a resident, and I’ve bet on the blue door, deeper blue than the hopeful sky –blue kayak—deeper, more anchored for the spirit of a man who still keeps a wild-river rapid in a safe place in his mind.
I have snapped it in snow, in the steely sun of winter, in the season that at last brought out geraniums potted with potato vine spilling over rowhouse railings, although his house—I’ve thought it was his house—has no railing, only two steps to raise its main room above the level of land and harbor—just an honest door, a step up to enter, against an old harbor home rising three floors. Honest like the truck with tis kayak on its sleeve, like love and hope and yearning and keeping.
His name is Van, a vagabond’s name, in a way, I thought, smiling when he told me. Children ready for a birthday party were spilling out of the silver truck; they had crazy hats on their heads, some having become pirates, some firemen, some outright princesses. He was corralling them, a little flustered, and I parted the sea of them and stuck out my hand and told him I’d known him for a year, though he didn’t know me, and that my affection for his truck and his kayak (transferred of course to the ghost-owner of these) had led to a series of photographs at every season. He seemed not to mind, seemed shifted a little, there in the midst of his duties with the small children, and we exchanged first names, and I crossed the street in front of his truck and blue kayak and wandered home on down Fell Street toward the sun and wind of the harbor’s rim.
Near Flint Hill, Virginia, which is to say also near Little Washington and Sperryville, in Rappahannock County
Indigo mountains scallop the horizon, green meadows undulating here to there, mountain creeks ripple and wind among stones with a music nearly as loud as the fevered crickets, the tree frogs, all the crazy, drunk insects. Tiger Swallowtails with their great flappy wings are in love with the purple flounces of butterfly bushes—as we all must be.
Maria Montessori said that a person will never feel so at home as when in her native place. Northwestern Virginia is not my birthplace or my old homeplace, but its thick green, its vine-laden August woods of poplar, beech, and maple, sumac and walnut, its Queen Ann’s lace and bachelor’s buttons, hawkweed, and black-eyed Susans, its swat of gnats and hover of morning dew-rise–all welcomed me into its element this past weekend, and I recognized in my bones a familiarity and I slept like a baby born in these arms.
In addition to Middle-Tennessee-like terrain, those blue mountains etching the distance reminded me of my old love of trails and the rich gifts of panoramas they offer, the thrill of being witness to something grand and gifted. I felt away on vacation as well as very much at home, and that is a very particular satisfaction. Four fanciful yellow metal yard chairs circled a fire pit. I could almost hear the children playing tag and chasing lightning bugs around them while their parents talked and stared at flames and let their weekday bustle dissolve into the night. Blessings on these adult children of our hosts for letting us be in this place!
We walked down the road and across a pasture through a curious herd of Angus cows and their young, on over thin soil and rock-strewn paths to the swimming hole. The large fish-stocked pond teased with warmth the first two inches, then startled with cold spots beneath. Perfect. Sunlight on our faces. Frogs calling. Floating on a summer Saturday afternoon. The creek that feeds it rippled nearby, gurgling through child-built dams and falls.
How hungry I must have been for this element after almost a year of bricks, stones, and concrete. I am enjoying the city, my bold negotiation of its driving culture and its one-ways and arteries, its alleys and highways. I like the city’s neighborhoods, its people and their particular ways of being and seeing, its hardness, its heart and heartiness, its art culture. Few negatives come to mind about our year here on this historic harbor and our own zone of eighteenth century homes and old warehouses repurposed, its cobblestones and stories of town founders and their industries around ships and fishing and trade. I sense a different energy here—not New York, not Nashville, not San Francisco—but uniquely a Baltimore vibe. It is not my element, but it’s an element that infuses me with a new attentiveness, a stimulus to explore places and people in my sphere of walks and shopping and visiting historic sites, galleries, markets, museums, festivals, and harbor activities. I’ve gained something new under the skin I was born in. I’ll take that home in November, where I’ll slide back into the Middle-Tennessee soul of me.
It’s the clang and flap of halyards
and flip of lines in the morning’s stir
and their present silence at night
on dark water where the lighted shore
shimmies on silk waves
when I return inland.
Now I bring to mind
the green shaft of slanted lawn,
sun tickling still damp trees
towering like these masts, rustling
above firm ground.
It’s the cheer and clutter of these colored streets
spilling masses of beer-soaked
voices and the stories I overhear bits of
corner to corner I’ll miss:
young men working on sidewalks in spattered aprons
and cracking colored glass to make art
and shopkeepers, tavern workers, and loiterers
and young girls with skimpy tops
talking about boys and guys talking
about Orioles and Ravens, their tee shirts
speaking the news of sports or beer,
politics or anatomy, eyes darting.
I’ll miss the age: cobblestones and rowhouses
with their improbable vertical arrangement
of space, with their flowerboxes spilling
petunias and potato vines and their doors
bright and alleyways intriguing—our dog
peeks down every narrow gated space between them,
where sometimes a cat crouches, sometimes
the back garden is visible or maybe
just imaginable and enticing to us both—
and all the shouting history along wharves
where brackish water joins the salt,
then all the world. The tugs, the giant ships
gray like enormous specters,
coming and going in the night.
Yet side by side the missing,
I find ahead
the comfort of quiet that waits
where deer graze on the yard
and ground softens underfoot,
where soil spins the miracle
of flowers and herbs
and a piliated comes to feed.
The dog will be unleashed to chase
the wind and all its scents.
There’s where we will kneel and plant
for the tens of years of sun allotted:
those loves of children and friends
and our own stars guiding
our private translocations.
From each I will open windows
to sight across the distances,
and, as now, reach from here to there,
and gather from there to where I bide.