Sunday, October 6, 2013

New York Mills

It’s a bit strange, but I’m getting used to it. A three-hour drive through the drizzle, which I extended by taking a few back roads between Little Falls and Motley. I was rewarded during that detour by the sight of three kestrels on the telephone wires and a trio of sandhill cranes flying by overhead, squawking. I passed two tractors pulling trailers full of some ochre material—like a cross between wood chips and wheat germ. I have no idea what it was. Chicken feed? Kernels of corn?

The countryside near Randall and Cushing is somewhat hilly but it flattens out soon enough. Motley is notable mostly for the Morey’s Smoked Fish plant on the edge of town. I bought some chunks of whitefish and salmon, though the prices are the same as they are in Minneapolis—maybe higher!

When I arrived in New York Mills I stopped at the cultural center on Main Street to pick up the keys to the house.

“Are you Lynn?” I asked.


“I’m John Toren. I’m your artist in residence.”

Her already cheerful eyes brightened further. “Oh! Welcome! We’re glad you’re here.” She pulled a set of keys from a drawer and handed them across the counter. “What knd of artist are you?” she asked unabashedly. (Hemlock? Maple?)

I’m a writer.”

“Then I’m wondering if you’ll be needing the studio space upstairs.”

“I don’t know. I might as well take a look at it.”

“There’s a stairway by the window right behind you.”

A couple was standing near the door, looking idly at some Swedish blown glass—the gift shop extends from the door halfway back into the gallery. The woman came up to me and said, “Did I hear you say you’re a writer? That has always seemed like such a romantic profession to me.”

“It’s really kind of boring,” I replied, suddenly conjuring the image of two long weeks alone in a house I hadn’t seen yet, out in the middle of nowhere. “Actually, I make my living mostly by editing books. And designing books.”

“Oh, I love the center for book arts in Minneapolis,” she said enthusiastically.

“So do I,” I replied. “But I don’t design that kind of book. They tend to be one-of-a-kind works of art. I work on a computer, making books like the ones you see for sale over there on the shelf.”

I told them a little bit about my Minnesota travel book, and added a little sheepishly: "I don’t have anything about New York Mills in it. It’s sort of between regions."

The woman said, “Oh. You should put in something about the B & B we stayed in last night. The rooms are refurbished train cars. They’re so imaginatively decorated! And when the trains come roaring by in the middle of the night, it really adds to the atmosphere.”

Her husband nodded silently in agreement.

Turning back to Lynn, I asked: “So how does it happen that there’s an art center way out here?”

“A man named John Davis created it,” she said, and went on to explain that the building was vacant; they were going to tear it down and Davis said, “Instead of spending thirty thousand dollars to demolish this building, why not give me the money to make an art center out of it?” And they did.

Davis had been painting barns for local farmers for several years and was well-known and liked in the community. (I read this later online.) His experience of rural life had convinced him that there was both intelligence and interest to spare in the vicinity to support such a project. He was right. In 1994 New York Mills was named one of "Top 5 Culturally Cool Towns" by USA Today Weekend Magazine.

Twenty years later, looking down Main Street on a misty Saturday afternoon in October, you’d never guess it. No doubt in summer, when the Great American Think Off takes place here, the place is jumping. But as I drove through town most of the activity seemed to be at the bowling alley. Aside from the couple I was chatting with, there was no one in the gallery.

Well, I know there’s at least one artist in town, and he’ll be staying in a one-bedroom bungalow, across the tracks and two blocks down from the cultural center.

“Do you know where the house is?” Lynn asked.

“Just down the street?”

“Yup. On the right hand side, across from the bait shop. It's the same color as the trim on the façade of this building. Go in the back door—the front door doesn’t lock.”

I thought I knew what the place looked like, having done some research on Google Maps, but as I pulled slowly down the street none of the buildings fit the image their roving camera had taken of a house enshrowded in cedars. I remembered the number as 224 Main Street but it turns out such an address doesn’t exist. I suddenly wished I’d looked at the color of the trim on the Cultural Center more closely, or better yet, brought the fact sheet from home. I was a little concerned about fumbling with a big set of keys at the back door of some stranger’s house. I could see the headlines in the Wadena Pioneer Journal:

City Man Shot Attempting to Burgle House

Maybe with the subhead—elitist thief had 120 books on ancient Greek philosophy and a case of fine French wine in trunk.

I finally chose the house with the most distinctive color—a blazing cadmium yellow, not unlike the chicken feed I’d seen earlier in those trailers. It was next door to the house directly across from the bait shop, which I’d already ruled out—the garden was too elaborate, too well-maintained. As I stepped around the back I looked over the fence in that direction and saw several elaborate, hand-crafted metal wind-chimes hanging from the laundry pole. Maybe an artist lives there, too?

The first key that I tried worked. Hallelujah! I stepped into a large mudroom, took a half-flight of wooden stairs up to a frame door, opened it, and stepped into my little four-room, two-week, coenobitic cell. It was only 50 degrees inside, but I liked it immediately.  

So, what am I going to read? I have everything here from Virgil’s Georgics to Carol Bly’s Letters from the Country. John Berger’s King to Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice. Early Greek philosophy to Paul Ricoeur; Ernst Cassirer and Seamus Heaney; Glenway Westcott's Wisconsin novel, The Grandmothers, and Charles A. Eastman's Indian Boyhood. I even brought up a short biography of James J. Hill.

So, let me repeat: what am I going to read?

Looking at the clock on the computer screen, I see it’s 5:47. Hilary has been home for an hour. I wonder how her day went? I’m making vegetable soup, though the refrigerator is so small, I doubt I’ll be able to get the leftovers into it. I’m listening to Remede de Fortune by Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1340). Rather haunting and atmospheric, like today.

I’m slowly getting used to the idea of typing ephemeral comments onto a computer, rather than writing them out in a journal.

I actually brought up some of my old journals, thinking it might be a good idea to copy some things out of them before throwing them away. In a journal of 1986, the first noteworthy remarks I find are roughly halfway through the book. It’s a series of quotations from Thomas Merton:

 “After all, if our salvation consists in finding ourselves in God, it means finding ourselves as God is.”

 “Who can comprehend or explain the mystery of what it means to awaken to one’s own reality as an existential consequence of the fact that we are loved by reality itself?”

 “Some of the Fathers stress the idea that ‘the true image of God is the man who does good.’…Others…are absorbed in the thought that the divine image in man is especially constituted by man’s freedom.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve taken an interest in ideas framed by such terminology. For example, what does it mean to be “loved by reality itself”?  If, as Merton suggests, you can’t comprehend, much less explain such a “mystery,” then how does it present itself to you? What form does it take?

I’m not feeling “loved by reality” right now, I can tell you that. I’m feeling a little closed in by the rain and the house and the strange new neighborhood, which I don’t know anything about. I’m not feeling scared, exactly, but there’s a hint of apprehension in the air. I’m in unfamiliar territory with nothing pressing—no assignment, no commitments—to keep me moving ahead.

Well, you know what they say: familiarity breeds affection. Perhaps we feel “loved by reality” to the degree that it has become familiar to us, that we've become a part of its family.

I wrote those quotes out at a retreat—three days of silence during which I had a lot of time to spin theories. During that time I also wrote an essay asking the question: Who or what is God?

Before long (this back in 1986) I’m remarking, “For my part, I am a great lover of vegetables. It is not only the flavor of the carrot, a potato, a green bean or a turnip that excites my interest. The very presence of one of these products of seed and soil consumes me with love. Everything honest, simple, enriching and content with itself is to be found in a potato, everything bright, sweet, and elegant in a carrot; while a fresh green bean both smells and tastes of rich and exotic earth.”

The gist of the ensuing argument is that vegetables are not my god, nor is my wife my god, nor my own pleasure in thinking about such things. These are all aspects of the dynamic force that animates my affections and draws me outside of and beyond myself.

I’m eating my vegetable soup as I write these words. It’s good.  

I just took a walk downtown through the night and the drizzle. Not many people out. A few cars passing in the rain. Lots of them parked down by the municipal liquor store, which I’m guessing is also a bar. It reminds me a little of walking the night-time streets of Mahtomedi.

Now I’m in for the night. In the morning everything will look different.


Hilary called. It was nice to hear her voice. She said I sounded a little strange. (I think it's the phone, a feather-weight princess phone that runs through a satelite connection.) She’ll enjoy her time alone in the house, though she’s got a fairly busy day tomorrow.

Reading Carol Bly’s Letters. She complains a lot about other people, but she can also write:
“…farming is truly absorbing. It has the best quality of work: nothing else seems real. And everyone doing it, even the cheapest helpers like me, can see the layout of the whole—from spring work, the cultivating, to small grain harvest, to cornpicking, to fall plowing.” (p. 10)
She describes how the rural Scandinavians are reluctant to feel things; they don’t feel like discussing the Vietnam War and chide their children for crying during Charlotte’s Web. I see elements of myself in that description. I’m not in the habit of forming vigorous opinions about foreign policy and then speaking out about them. On the other hand, I have no difficulty showing enthusiasm for things. I cry in movies. I misted up a little just the other day, reading Caddie Woodlawn.

I’ve had the music off for quite a while now. It’s nice just to hear the gentle rain and the occasional swish of a passing car. I did get the soup into the refrigerator. It’s turning into a pleasant evening. 

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