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Posts Tagged ‘Ohio’

It’s 1975, late afternoon on Christmas Day in Aurora, Ohio at the Frenches’.  Linda and I have braved the West Virginia Turnpike in winter (Our Motto: Under Construction unto Eternity) to drive up from Durham.  My folks still live in Aurora, too (we’ll divide our time with a microtome), but right now we’re sitting in the living room with Mom and Dad French, Skip, Jill, Sue, Becky, Annie, Jodi, and several imposing snowdrifts of torn wrapping paper, eating another delicious something, and waiting.

There’s the knock.  John is here!  Hugs galore, then he sets up his screen and fiddles with the old Super-8 projector and little reel-to-reel tape player, frame by frame and inch by inch so they’ll sync when he throws the switch.  Dim the lights.  Action, sound!  Grazini Christmas.  A new tradition is born.

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How many years, John, did you make that pilgrimage to the Frenches’ to set up your projector?  Your audience gradually shrank as the sibs moved on – Minnesota, New Mexico, West Virginia.  Some years I had to work on Christmas and we didn’t make it north.  A few years ago you sent us a Grazini DVD and man, did those memories come rushing back!  Now this season I’ve watched GC twice already, once when you sent me the YouTube link and once with my Mom after showing her how to add it to her Favorites Bar.  Margaret may be getting tired of me going on and on about the amazing story boarding and cinematography accomplished by two teenagers learning on the fly.  Linda has reminded us how she had to trail you guys around downtown Cleveland all day until it was time for her thirty-second scene.  But most important, John, is the lump in my throat – I still get it during that closing scene.  Every darn time.  I know what’s coming, I can recite the dialogue, one might say the message is so simple as to be obvious, but I still choke up.

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Readers, it’s time for you to watch Grazini Christmas.  In 1972 two high school seniors, John Mlinek and Dave Prittie, made a movie with a handheld Super-8 camera, a portable tape recorder, and scissors and tape.  A hero for our time, Grazini-Man searches for the true meaning of Christmas.  The film is literally a family tradition – watch for Linda as the little old lady and her brother Skip as the blind scam artist.  Much of it is shot on location in Cleveland; that’s the real Higbees Department Store Santa (the store security guard chased them out once he figured out what they were up to).  The closing scene is set in The Church in Aurora, where Linda and I were in the high school youth group, just a block from Linda’s parents’ home.  Tradition.

How is it possible to “make” something a tradition?  The word means that which is handed down  – doesn’t that imply that a tradition must seep into you from the past, that it requires years and years of gestation before its birth?  Maybe John hadn’t created a tradition the first time he knocked on Linda’s door with his projector, but I’m willing to say that by the second time he had indeed.  I think the secret is more than the family context, the predictable jokes, the backstory.  I think this little film connects with something primal – at some level we are all of us always searching for meaning, whether we can articulate it or not.

Thanks, John.  Got to go now.  Getting ready to premier Grazini Christmas on the big flat screen.  Linda says, “Hi.”

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And there were in the same country shepherds
abiding in the field, keeping watch
over their flock by night. And, lo,
the angel of the Lord came upon them,
and the glory of the Lord shone round about them:
and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not:
for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David
a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you;
Ye shall find the babe
wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude
of the heavenly host praising God,
and saying, Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Luke 2:8-15 KJV

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Click to watch Grazini Christmas, written produced and directed by John Mlinek.

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Keep close to Nature’s heart, yourself;
and break clear away 
once in a while,
and climb a mountain
or spend a week in the woods.
Wash your spirit clean.
John Muir

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Why have they come?  Why have they driven hundreds of miles of highway and another twenty of Forest Service gravel to this Deep Gap?  Why have they tracked down my friend Mike Barnett and persuaded him to share with them everything they will need to know to spend a few nights on the trail? Why forsake comfort for mist, rain, steep switchbacks, cold nights, hard ground?  Why have they come here?

Now they huddle at the trail head – Judy, Nora, Cathy, Gloria, Joan, Nancy – median age 65 (just a wild guess, Ladies!).  They pull on fleece and rain gear because we’re already above 3,000 feet and it’s mid-October.  Mist condenses on the leaves and drips like rain.  The plan is to hike the AT for three days with everything we need to survive on our backs: food, stove, water & filter, tent, mummy bags, and lots of layers for nights just above freezing.  We’ll reward ourselves the third night with a short side hike to Albert Mountain and hope to catch the sunset and sunrise from the 5,280 foot summit and fire tower.

That sunrise seems a long way off as we hunker down for the first night half-way up Standing Indian Mountain.  It’s pitch dark , a “hunter moon,” first new moon after equinox, but what does absent moon matter when we are engulfed in cloud with thunder echoing ridge to ridge as lightning strikes the summit?  Kids, I just want to let you know that your grandmothers are some tough-ass mountain women – they wake up the next morning joking that the howl of wind and rain had caused them to miss George Clooney’s surprise midnight visit.  And the only complaint I hear is when Joan comes back from digging a cat hole just as the mist lifts to reveal a nice rainproof privy not twenty yards from our camp site.

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Our second night we stop at Beech Gap, a saddle between peaks with a good spring and level tent sites.  The stars burn cold as diamond just above our shoulders; we are wearing every layer of clothing we’ve carried.  I ask, “Why?  Why did you go to so much trouble to put this trek together?”

Judy was the instigator.  She told Nora she wanted to hike at least one stretch of the Appalachian Trail before she died.  Nora replied, “Gee, I know someone who’s been taking kids on high adventure hikes in the mountains for twenty years, and his sister-in-law Carol is my good friend.”  Nora called Carol, Carol called Mike, and Mike said, “OK.”  (I still haven’t asked him why he said yes!)  Wheels began to turn.  It began to look like Judy’s promise to herself that she’d have something big to to tell her grandchildren would be fulfilled.

Nora invited others, and Mike’s wife Nancy makes six.  One had hiked with her family as a child and wanted to recapture that feeling.  One walked miles every day and wondered if she could handle the challenge of doing it uphill with a pack.  Another had become concerned about her stamina and embarked on a course to improve her fitness; now she wanted to kick it up a notch. One had never experienced mountain wilderness.  All of the women had come with a frank openness to experiencing something new.  Something challenging.

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There are plenty of obvious physical challenges to spending a night on a mountain.  Just deciding what you’re willing to carry vs. what you’re willing to live without can become a metaphysical exercise.  Then there’s the trail itself.  Where will I find water?  Will the spring be dry?  How many uphill miles before my buns turn to steel?  How much huffing and puffing before I have a heart attack?

Physical challenges are obvious, but they are illusory.  I may be thirsty now, but I will drink later.  When the trail is steep, I walk more slowly.  I stop and rest.  Tired and sore?  Leaves are falling that I may scrape together for a bower.  Strange noises in the night?  My companions are close by.

I’m guessing there are still more reasons we’ve come to these mountains that none of us have yet spoken.  I’m certain there are reasons we couldn’t even have named until after we took this walk together.  There are reasons we’ll discover only with days and weeks of contemplation to come.  A taste of wildness – remote, unforgiving, pristine, elemental.  An assurance of self – I made it, I persevered.  Connection, unvarnished and unabashed – each one of us making our small offering to the survival, and the joy, of the group.  And a much larger connection – wind, trees, slopes, stars . . .  we are part of this living realm and can’t exist without it.

Why have we come here?  That’s exactly what we’re still discovering.

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Final question: Why did Mike ask me if I’d like to come and lend a hand as general schlepper, filter pumper, water boiler, story teller?  Because he knew as soon as the word “mountains” left his lips I would be saying, “YES!”

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Forever Mountain
Fred Chappell

for J.T.Chappell, 1912-1978

Now a lofty smoke has cleansed my vision.

I see my father has gone to climb
Lightly the Pisgah slope, taking the time
He’s got a world of, making spry headway
In the fresh green mornings, stretching out
Noontimes in the groves of beech and maple.
He has cut a walking stick of second-growth hickory
And through the amber afternoon he measures
Its shadow and his own shadow on a sunny rock.
Not marking the hour, but observing
The quality of light come over him.
He is alone, except what voices out of time
Swarm to his head like bees to the bee-tree crown,
The voices of former life as indistinct as heat.

By the clear trout pool he builds his fire at twilight,
And in the night a granary of stars
Rises in the water and spreads from edge to edge.
He sleeps, to dream the tossing dream
Of the horses of pine trees, their shoulders
Twisting like silk ribbon in the breeze.

He rises glad and early and goes his way,
Taking by plateaus the mountain that possesses him.

My vision blurs blue with distance,
I see no more.
Forever Mountain has become a cloud
That light turns gold, that wind dislimns.

This is continually a prayer.

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from The Fred Chappell Reader, St. Martin’s Press, (c) 1987 by Fred Chappell

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A brief postscript: Mike has told me several times of his instructions to Nancy that his ashes are to be strewn from the top of Standing Indian Mountain.  By noon on our second day the mist had lifted, and we ate lunch at that summit with glorious views of the autumn-hued ridges extending to an infinite horizon.  Mike, I hope it’s years in our future, but I can’t think of a better spot to lend the flora a little potash and calcium for all eternity.

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Our true home lies outside, deep in the wilderness of forest and mountain, river and desert and sea, the source of our being and the destiny of our great meandering blundering dreaming journey through time. Like Odysseus in his wanderings, we are homeward bound whether we know it or not.
Edward Abbey

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Linda and I take walks.

Take?  The walking gives itself to us.  We talk, catch up on the hours, days sometimes.  We list things that need to get done, places that must be gone, eroding detritus of stuff that clamors to be fixed.  We laugh at the last cute thing Saul did, the cute thing he said that we’ve smiled at twenty times already.  We discover small things along the path – what is the name of that little blue flower? – and rediscover things that have brought us small delights in the past.  And we hope we burn up some calories and coax some blood to run its circuit a little faster.

Throughout the breeding season American Avocet pairs greet each other by rubbing along the length of their long recurved bills while the male drapes a wing over the female’s back.  Cozy.  Most birds that form lasting pairs, for a season or for life, have some sort of bonding display – preening, mock-feeding, a dance, aerobatics.  Evolutionary biologists conjecture that these instinctive behaviors strengthen the pair-bond and increase the chance of reproductive success.  More eggs, more chicks, more offspring successfully fledged.  Survival.

Linda and I take walks.

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Yesterday afternoon Linda and I walked Old Man’s Gorge in the Hocking Hills of southern Ohio.  Over thirty years ago Linda’s Mom and Dad bought a little farm in the woods near there.   It’s been close to twenty years since we last visited Old Man’s Cave.  During that time the new trail markers, new bridges, steps, railings, everything has a moist green fuzz of moss, as if the three-hundred million year old blackhand sandstone has invited all things in the Gorge to appear as old is it does.  Linda and I keep remarking to each other, “Was this here last time we came?  I don’t recognize this stone wall, but it looks ancient.”

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Overcast, damp, ten degrees cooler than its summit, the basin of Old Man Gorge just feels like Ohio.  Maples have begun to turn color along the rim, but in the shade of the grand overhangs all hues become muted.  The eroded walls are a hundred variations of gray and rock-green, a lichen wash of winter sky. The shades of our Ohio roots:

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 Twenty‑Three Grays

The first is crossing the Ohio into Marietta,
not the green river yearning west
but each of its scalloped reflections
like scales on a crappy, and at each ripple’s
lip a premonition of ice.

Next: passing the first car southbound
salt‑encrusted with two hundred miles
of I‑77 — what color is it really?  A casual visitor
to this state still our home may claim
there is no color here, but doesn’t gray
enfold the possibility of every color?
Sky layered in bands dark and darker
preserving as in a comforter some memory,
warm purple; fingery hawthorn
and buckeye almost yellow; cattails
coyly pink; dark earth chocolate
between cream snowcrests —
all of them holding everything within.

In Canton the window eyes of Mercy
Hospital passing no judgement.
In Akron, the stone walls of Rockne’s,
frost like stale beer foam; peeling letters
at the exit sign: Peninsula/Hudson.
Geese in the ditch beside a Cape Cod;
rust‑gray girders where we drive beneath
tank cars, coal cars, and then the Turnpike
overpass.  And as we reach your driveway,
rime, old tears the wipers can’t beat back.

Those who’ve never left here, do they notice?
And we who return, can we name
what comforts us?  Only in his eighties
did your Dad’s hair surrender to the shades
of sky and winter fields, and now when I hold
you this close full of days recalled, stories
we=re sharing as if for the first time,
the good full color of Dad’s life now passed
fully into our hearts, I see in your hair thin streams
coalescing, bands of evening sky and highway,
winters we will hold together, and the springs.

© Bill Griffin.  First appeared online in John Hoppenthaler’s Congeries at Connotation Press, June, 2011.

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American Avocet — Recurvirostra americana

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