I can’t exactly remember where the town of Wilton falls on the map.
It’s somewhere in the middle of the state of Maine or west of the middle, and you get there by following a long and winding ribbon of a two lane highway with hardly anyone else on the road. From the more populated Maine Coast, it can take about two hours to reach this tiny dot on the map, and those were the days when we still navigated using maps that we dug out of the glove compartment of the car. Even if you have no special place you’re going, the trip is worth it because of the spectacular scenery in the fall, spring, and summer. However in the winter months, only the trees sticking up through snowdrifts relieve the monotony of white fields and gray/white skies. The only reason to travel on these roads at that time of year is because you’re waiting to get somewhere you want to go.
This story happened 40 years ago, but I’m sure that nothing much has changed in the backwoods of Maine since then, and I can testify that with all its natural beauty, there’s almost nothing more lonely than those backwoods where people live sometimes miles from each other. Add to that a degree of poverty that I had never seen before. I saw it firsthand when I stayed with a pleasant young couple and their baby when I was sent by the state arts commission to Aroostook County, deep in potato growing country, to teach for one week in February as a poet-in-the-schools.
I ate my meals with the family at their bare kitchen table.
The meal consisted mostly of starch—either noodles or potatoes—and hardly anything else. I was freezing most of the time since there was no central heating which made it about as cold inside the house as it was outside. On the night before my last day of teaching in Aroostook County, I came down with a high fever and lay in bed in the middle of that inhuman chill thinking I might just die there. My feverish thoughts led me to consider the possibility that the frozen earth would resist all attempts to loosen its clods and receive me.
Luckily, I survived that night and was able to drive myself home on the road back to the coast which tunneled through glassy, white fields that had long forgotten their potatoes.
What got me to Maine in the first place can only be described as “destiny.”
But if you’re looking for an explanation of why that particular geographical location appealed to me, it had something do with my father who had passed away two years before I sold most of my worldly belongings and moved there.
My father was always a mystery to me even though we lived in the same house. I was born when he was already 53, and he was more like a grandfatherly figure in my life. We hardly ever spent time alone together because he was immersed in travel books which he read in his office room in the basement and where he also had a primitive blueprint machine and a drafting table for inventing improvements in the machinery used in his business. Besides being a regular at the public library, he was a familiar face at the local Howard Johnson’s where he always sat at the counter with his black coffee and book. He kept his sugar cubes in a small box that had seen better days as the packaging for some extra part for the insides of one of his machines.
Before taking the first sip of his coffee, he would lodge one of those sugar cubes between his teeth to sweeten the brew. If he had taken off his suit jacket to get more comfortable, you would have seen the holes in the elbows of his navy blue sweater unless my mother had caught him before that happened and sent him to the store to buy a new sweater.
His was a family business which he ran with his brother Oscar. At the end of the century before this last one, his father came to the American shores from a shtetl in Belarussia, a 14 year old boy who had come alone to the New World to build his life.
It was my grandfather who started the bag business by scavenging for torn burlap bags which had held 50 pounds of Maine potatoes in their better days.
He mended them by hand and then resold them so that they could be used again. He was the original recycling genius and very enterprising so that he grew his business to the point where he was actually manufacturing those giant burlap bags which were shipped up north to the farmers in Maine. It was my father’s idea to switch the plant over from manufacturing with burlap to using the cheaper but durable plastic.
The only time I can remember spending real quality time with my father was when I was 13 and he took me with him on a business trip to visit his customers in Maine. We drove up from New Jersey and stayed overnight in one of those little family-run motels. It was an early summer’s day when we stood together between rows of potato plants while a farmer discussed state-of-the-art agricultural methods with my father.
Even while it was happening, I knew that I would always remember those moments with my father in the farmer’s fields.
My father was so much more relaxed than usual as if he were in his element, and I was receiving all of his benevolence. I didn’t know that it was my father’s dream to buy a farm, retire from the business, and live a more rustic life. My older sister only told me years later after he had passed from this world.
I had been living on the Maine Coast for five years and was even in the finishing stages of building my house on the last plot of land on Atlantic Avenue which must have got its name because it ended on the rocky shore of the Atlantic Ocean. My three room house actually faced east to the open sea. It had been my dream to build my own house, and I was able to do it when I was still in my 20s after taking a crash course at Shelter Institute.
You need to understand something, but if you haven’t experienced it in your own flesh and bones, then it’s probably not in your radar to pick up.
I was bankrupt even though my bank account had a healthy amount thanks to the inheritance from my father. Nothing gave me pleasure any more, not the cheese Danish slathered in honey at the funky Old Towne restaurant, not my flourishing organic garden plot, and not the cozy house with skylights in the blue shingle roof I was building. As for my personal relationships, I kept feeling more and more isolated by the nature of my perceptions which seemed so different from everyone else’s.
I believed in the impact of my work teaching children of all ages to write their own poems—that it opened them up to their feelings, built their self-esteem, and taught them the value and thrill of self-expression.
But if one of those high schools students had asked me the question “What’s it all for?” I would have swallowed hard.
I felt as if I had covered all the known land mass and all five dimensions and hadn’t found “it” which was what would finally tip the scales in favor of life when there’s a hefty serving of existential anguish on the other side. In my circles, life had so far been measured in vegan, vegetarian, or carnivore, amount of monthly income (expose the number for all to see so that self-worth can be tallied up), survival skills (as in car maintenance and ability to manage a wood burning stove, grow your own food, and sew your own clothes), and methods for transcendence (as in Zen meditation, yoga, Tarot cards, astrology, and drugs).
Have you ever seen an ant farm?
It’s a whole micro-world under glass where ants go about their business and can be observed and manipulated by the curious child who owns one of them. The ants carry their loads of leaf fragments many times their size, have their social interactions, reproduce, grow up, and die in these controlled environments. The ants go about their lives probably unaware that they are trapped and completely at the mercy of the child peering down on them. An ant farm is a perfect description for the way I viewed human existence. I felt as if I were an ant in one of those ant farms.
I believed in G-d, but I thought He was up there looking at me through the glass.
I was subject to His whims, and He could be deciding at any minute that it was time for me to get squashed by a little rock that was as big as a boulder from my perspective. He might just get tired of playing with me as one of his expendable creatures and destroy me and my whole world between His thumb and forefinger. Or I could suddenly be injected by a fatal disease in my blood, the kind my father had before he was snuffed out.
It was still early winter and not as cold and snowy as it could get when I headed for Wilton to visit an old friend who was now living in a primitive wood cabin without running water some miles from town. It was now fast coming to be the end of my life as I had always known it, and the names were anyway being written in vanishing ink so that I don’t remember her name. Like me, she had some good reasons for leaving behind her successful career in advertising and was now working as a librarian in the town of Wilton.
With some time on my hands until my friend came home from work, I parked my car near her cabin and set out on a very, very long trek along Highway 27, that appeared on the map as a thin black line, as thin as they get. If my purpose was to reach Wilton because there was something I needed to buy in the hardware store or a letter to mail at the post office, I would have driven in my car, but I had no purpose in mind except that the movement helped to dull the pain I was feeling. If I kept moving, kept putting one foot in front of the other, then I wasn’t hurting myself or anyone else.
Does it really need any explanation, this six or seven mile hike along the highway, starting out in the afternoon and ending several hours later? Those who understand from their own experience will understand the desperate mood I was in as I focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
It felt as if moving was all I could do to stay alive.
It started out as a distraction from the pain. Then I began to feel that I was being pursued by some supernatural powers that were nasty. Or maybe I was pushing back on an incoming nervous breakdown or deep, deep depression, the kind that people don’t return from, and moving seemed to be the only strategy. It was cold and got colder as the sun went down, but I was wearing my feather down parka and insulated mittens so that the cold was bearable as long as I kept on moving.
I had been having dreams of my father during the years since he passed. Those dreams were basically always the same though the details were variable. He would appear wearing the black suit they had put on him for his funeral. He always wore a black suit, but this one was his best—the one he wore to weddings or bar mitzvahs. He would stand wearing that black suit on the periphery of the dream landscape and just look at me silently. The dreams were like movies where he always made his starring appearance, never saying a word and always wearing that black suit.
He was trying to tell me something, but apparently, he hadn’t been given permission to speak.
During the time we had shared together here on earth, he had never opened up to me about what kept him going in life, and I desperately needed to hear from him now. It wasn’t about being thrifty, being honest in business, raising a family, being a good, faithful husband and breadwinner, and keeping things simple, even though he was the original minimalist and everyone agreed he was one in a million with his sterling character.
With all that, he would have stayed a good ant in the ant farm with the same dreary prospects as the other ants.
By appearing to me in my dreams, standing solemnly and silently in that black suit, he had a mission that he wasn’t going to disclose in the usual way. I was spooked out by these nocturnal visitations, but I was also grateful that he had a continuing presence in my life as if his love for me could transcend even the impermeable borders that separated us.
I wish I could say that a figure in a black suit looking more and more like my father steadily approached me from the opposite direction on Highway 27. My father showing up from the Next World would make a good story, but nothing like that happened. Late afternoon turned into evening, and I just kept walking without having any startling revelations or seeing any sudden apparitions.
The temperature was falling.
I stopped for a second to pull down my thick, woolen hat and wrap my scarf up around my nose. And then I resumed the rhythm of one foot following the other over that dreary terrain. Now and then I was blinded by the lights of on-coming cars, but that only lasted a second until the night settled in around me once again. As long as I kept moving, I felt a modicum of safety; my feet only temporarily left the earth and then returned. I was sure that if I stood still for any longer than was necessary, my thoughts might carry me off as if I were simply a puff of smoke slowly disappearing in the wind over the empty fields. So I kept moving.
I had been walking on the side of the road with the potato fields and every now and then, a house would appear on the other side of the road with snow piled up as high as the first floor windows. Besides those occasional homesteads, there was nothing for all those miles until a large hulk of a building showed up with a flashing red sign saying “Bar and Grill.” What caused me to stop, cross the road, go inside, and find a pay telephone?
A voice had whispered inside me: “Stop moving. It’s enough for now.”
I once read a Holocaust memoir by a woman who had hid from the Nazis in the city of Warsaw after she escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Overcome by exhaustion, she had fallen asleep in the shadows of a doorway. Suddenly, she was startled by her mother’s voice telling her to wake up. It turns out that her mother had saved her because a troop of Nazi soldiers were coming in the direction of that doorway while she slept, and it was hearing this miraculous voice that saved her from being discovered. This woman had been separated from her mother months before, and it was only now that she realized that her mother had died and was speaking to her from the Next World.
My long, lonely march down the highway was the last I would take in that cold, forbidding landscape. It also marked the end of those dreams where I saw my father standing silently because it was soon after that epic trek on Highway 27 that I discovered what he was trying to tell me to save my life.
Sometimes a person just needs to keep moving down the road, doggedly moving even when there’s no hope in sight. Eventually, you bump into your destiny.