Tuesday, October 5, 2010

woodstock altar

in the late 80s I lived in my car while working at sunflower health food store in woodstock (yes, that woodstock), but I went inside when winter came. I took up an offer by my friend rich to live in the upstairs rooms he never used of the house he rented about 4 miles out of town, from which I'd commute by riding my bike or walking.

rich was tall and gawky, skinny as the most stereotypical vegan, with long, frizzy hair that trailed midway down his back in a single solid braid. he wore thick glasses and spoke in a thin falsetto that sounded fake when you first heard it, but soon you'd realize that really was his speaking voice. he'd lived for a years alone on the first floor of an old farmhouse located at the end of a short road on which the only other house was that of his landlord, a retired bachelor farmer who'd built his own home there himself over the course of decades. when I was eventually asked to leave 6 months later--at this period of my life I never chose to leave someplace, I was always asked--it was because the farmer observed that since I'd moved in there'd been a decided pickup of people visiting and driving that lonely road that had only known his own and rich's cars. (this was true: many people came to visit me there, but generally only one at a time. rachayl my orthodox sabra actually lived with me in those rooms for about 2 months, although she didn't have her own car).

rich had created what probably began as a small memorial but had grown over the years into a huge shrine to a woman he had dated for a short time before she died from leukemia. it was on the first floor: the whole floor was one large room and where he slept (and where the shrine was located) was adjacent to the entrance to the kitchen, so it wasn't unusual to pass the shrine 3 or 4 times a day. rich had darkened the whole first floor by tacking blankets over the doors and windows and the shrine was lit by candles and little electric lights. it was kind of creepy: there were pictures of the 2 of them together, of course, and her journal and books that had been important to her; there were locks of her hair which is somewhat cresting the creepy zone; but there were also things like unused tampax that had been in her purse when she was ill and a dirty fork from the last meal they ate out together (everything was labeled [!]). when I saw rich last about 12 years ago he had married and moved. I did not ask if his wife had allowed the shrine to travel with them.

for years I've taken rich's obsession as unusual and unhealthy, but it may be that with age comes wisdom or it may be that with distance comes acceptance of some kind, but I think I have found in my reading of woodruff some way to touch on rich's shrine in a respectful way. woodruff quotes approvingly of oliver wendell holmes' poem "the chambered nautilus" in relation to reverence and the home and says of it:

"a shellfish hangs no pictures on its walls, and we cannot imagine a mollusk standing in reverent awe of the wholeness that families seek when they make a home. still, the image of the nautilus is powerful. the chambers grow smoothly, each out of the smaller one that is left behind, and the whole history of the animal is carried in the shining spiral of its home. the things we do to make a home out of a shelter may form a linked succession as we outgrow our old quarters and stretch into new ones. in this image, there is nothing confining about home; it is not a prison or a cage...home is a place to expand, or to expand in, and to expand smoothly..."

rich was alone, at least partly by choice, and I suspect that even married he has remained in some senses alone. to hear him talk of this woman was to hear him talk as if she'd been his soul mate, cruelly taken from him, and maybe that's the way he sees it. but I think in constructing that ever-accumulating shrine he was trying to build a shelter for the way he thought he should navigate the world: connected, a mixture of the profound and the trivial, encompassing every act of life and unafraid of proclaiming the personal as, if not political, then public.

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