April 30, 2010

The County

I have never been on the island in April, and I am just amazed. A month ago there wasn't a speck of green, and now the forest has erupted. The azalea bushes all over the island have turned out amazing displays of hot pink, peach, and red on plants so large that the look like clouds. Being in London got me thinking about the reasons I love Virginia, or rather, one reason: that it has a real sense of history. Not to say that California doesn't have history; it surely does. But more so that history is more evident here. In California the land is so valuable that things don't linger the same way they do here; old buildings are mowed down and new stucco atrocities spring up. There isn't much sentiment. Or at least it always seemed that way to me.

There are a great number of old, old houses in Mathews County. Not old compared to the houses you walk by on every street in London, but old by American standards. Many of them are pretty run down, or even uninhabitable at this point. Salt and water and forest can be hard on timber homes, and there's an abundance of all three in Mathews. The County, as from-heres often refer to it, was established in 1791 after it split off from the larger Gloucester County (there's still a healthy amount of mud-slinging between the two neighboring counties, and things apparently come to a head every time the high schools' teams face off). What's interesting about Mathews County, among other things, is that while it has a total area of 252 square miles (which isn't much), 166 square miles of that is water. That's just about 67%. My grandfather likes to say that there isn't a place in Mathews over a mile from the water, and he's most likely correct.

After the collapse of the steamship industry and the decline of the fishing industry, Mathews went into an economic decline that seems to have persisted through to this day. This economic decline is probably the reason that Mathews remains largely untouched by the quick-changing technological and social aspects of American society, for good or ill. On the lovely side of this, Mathews boasts no Walmart or Starbucks--no chains at all, really, besides one Hardees on Main Street. The shops in the courthouse are all locally owned and run, and the restaurants that manage to stay open (Southwind Cafe, White Dog Inn, Lynne's Diner, etc) are definitely more interesting than a Chilis, Chevy's, or TGI Fridays. People buy shrimp, scallops, jumbo lump crabmeat, and (in the right season) watermelons, tomatoes, and cucumbers off the back of pick-up trucks parked up and down Main Street. The manager of the local grocery store greets you by name and your postmistress knows your entire family. There are no traffic lights in the entire county.

Of course, a lack of modernity comes with its negative aspects. Mathews can be a little prickly towards outsiders, particularly the Obama-sticker-sporting-Prius-driving-come-heres that own riverfront and bayfront property all over the county. This prickliness, which is born of a fierce local pride, has helped preserve Mathews County's identity while Gloucester County got its Walmart, Starbucks, and traffic lights. It has also preserved some of the regrettable prejudices that Obama-sticker-sporting-Prius-driving-come-heres associate with the South. It was interesting to be in California when Virginia's governor declared Confederate History month, much to the shock and indignation of a lot of people. I could only shrug. You see a lot of Confederate flags around here, Confederate History month or not. You see a lot of bumper stickers (often on pick-up trucks, for whatever reason). I barely notice anymore. The rebel flag is as common here as those offensive lawn jockeys, and almost as common as the American flag. Racial prejudice is still very much alive, especially among the older generations, so it's of no great surprise that the racial slur that comes with flying a Confederate flag isn't much of a deterrent, even if the implication is meant to be more southern pride than anything. Gwynn's Island, despite the large come-here population, is no different. It's probably worse. You can't help but be a little shocked and dismayed to discover that the postmistress who keeps you in Netflix and dumdums is an old-school racist, who ever-so ironically sneers, in reference to Dorothy Height, that she guesses "now we'll have to lower the flag for every colored person that dies." The island has had a purely white population since the early 1900s for a reason. Of course, that is not to say that everyone who lives in Mathews, or on Gwynn's Island, thinks this way--it's most likely a vocal minority. But it's there, and it's common, and people don't seem very surprised by it.

It's difficult to reconcile the unpleasant undercurrents of this place with the sheer beauty of it. They occasionally break across the surface, reminding me that I am a come-here and that some of my political and religious beliefs would undoubtedly be met with fury by the people whose paths I cross on a daily basis. I sometimes appreciate it, the overtness of it. It isn't hidden and no one pretends it isn't there. Just because you rarely see a rebel flag in suburban California does not indicate a total absence of racism, or hate. I am trying to take this place as it is and understand it, even when I absolutely despair at what I see and hear. It reminds me that this isn't paradise--that this is a place like any other, despite my love for it.

April 20, 2010


I am in London, caught in this limbo. The circumstances are peculiar; on still days the ash hands low on the horizon, a gray curtain over the city. Foreigners listlessly wander; at a tavern outside of the British Museum, we met two other groups of Americans stranded by the volcanic ash. Everyone talks, sharing hearsay and legitimate news. We discuss contingency plans: Frankfurt by Parisian train? An overnight to Madrid? Days revolve around evening and morning airport announcements. Heathrow, it sounds, reopened tonight. Now the waiting game, as thousands of limbo citizens attempt to escape to the continent, or the States. The sense here is that of a blackout, when the bets are off and everyone aimlessly wanders from their homes, unsure of what to do in their lightless houses. I always loved that as a child, and later, in Santa Cruz. Neighbors who never spoke spoke, sharing speculation about downed trees or failed grids, clustered on the cement corners of my suburban neighborhood. And in Santa Cruz, we gathered on the front porch, drinks and tea lights in hand, to chat with our neighbors and watch the people gather. It's all very odd, really. We haven't been detained for very long yet, and London is a pretty ideal place to be marooned. We see Billy Elliot the musical, which we wouldn't have had time to do before, and become all too familiar with our underground station, Lancaster Gate. My parents do laundry at the laundromat and I return to my room every night to find the blankets turned down and the curtains pulled tight shut. I buy a red Marc Jacobs wallet and wander through the Egyptian wing of the British museum, examining cat mummies and taking pictures of a flock of elderly Chinese tourists gawking over the sand-leathered body of a young Eqyptian woman, body curled with skeletal hands over her face. It is all a dream, anxious and surreal.

April 12, 2010

Family Trip

I am leaving for London tomorrow morning on the first real family trip the Whites have taken since Laura died. We used to take family trips yearly, and usually more than one. Yellowstone, Santa Fe, Mesa Verde, Yosemite, Hawaii, Amsterdam. We visited Homagin every summer, usually in August, which by no small accident came to be my favorite month of the year. My father had plenty of vacation time, and so we traveled. We also took trips with the extended White family, usually to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries. Alaska, Hawaii, Florida. I saw a lot of this country before I was really old enough to appreciate it. The memories are a bit faded and fuzzy, little specific events punctuating lost time. On Maui, I told my Great Aunt Margaret that there were geckos in her bed, terrifying her. In the Alaskan rainforest, a wilderness guide tells our tour group that the bogs are so deep bicyclists get lost in them, and shows us a tiny carnivorous plant that looks like a little orange gummy candy. At Mesa Verde, Laura and I climb through the sandy windows of ancient plateau homes, where the Anasazi tried their hands at agriculture. In Santa Fe, my mother buys me a turquoise and silver bracelet, which I still regret the later loss of. At Yellowstone, Laura is terrified of the geysers and boiling springs, and is miserable. On our cruise ship on the western coast of Canada, we run up the escalator the wrong way, and I fall and bruise my knee. On Gwynn's Island we play bicycle tag with our cousins, the whole island our playground as we tear through the thick woods on secret roads. In Amsterdam Laura is sad and we stay in our hotel room and eat bowls of asparagus soup; she doesn't want to go outside.

We spent hours in the backseats of cars, many of them white and rented. The family traveled together, but Laura was my partner; where she went, I went. We explored London together, hopping on the underground as if the whole city was an amusement park--the tube its pastel-painted gondola or plastic-seated tram. We groaned through family photos, stealing dignity from ruins at Yorktown, Bruge, and the Valley of the Ancients with our silly faces. The last trip I took with her was such a long time ago, now. I think it may have been to Homagin. I feel like I am leaving her here, which is nonsensical. I will have a good time, and try to celebrate my birthday and the good things that have happened. But I will know that she is not with me when driving through the Costwolds, I find the seat next to me empty.

April 6, 2010

Fake Summer

It is officially fake summer here. Fake summer is my favorite time of year. It is better than actual summer because it is unexpected, and seems portentous. It's like stolen french fries. For me, anyway. Significant life events always seem to come calling as soon as that balmy, rare spring/summer rolls in. This fake summer has been no different. But before I get into that, I'd like to include this. I wrote this in an online journal entry on March 10, 2004. I am including this because it is what I think of every time a string of eighty-some-degree days punctuate the tepid spring weather. It may seem silly, but the day I wrote this, I realized that I wanted to write.

March 10, 2004

This is our life. We are driving down Palm with the windows down and music blaring wearing our skirts, and the hot fake summer air is whipping our hair in our eyes, and we don't mind. We are crying in each others' arms because someone else's life conflicted with our dreams, bursting the bubbles we guarded in our hearts. It's those bubbles we're dreaming of when we are driving down those many streets, hot air whipping our hair in our eyes.

and they don't love you like i love you

We are listening to the lyrics of another song and it makes us cry but we hide our tears from each other, terrified of revealing our inherent weakness. There are seconds, there are days, and they are all once in a lifetime days and seconds and every time we blink we lose another once in a lifetime sight. We are looking at those things we have seen so many times before but we'll never see them the same way again. We are growing up. Second by second, day by day, until it's over.

and they don't love you like i love you
oh say say say

We are wishing we could get those seconds and days back, because they held our dreams intact, before they were burst and the tears wouldn't stop. But they're gone gone behind us and today is a once in a lifetime day and this second is a once in a lifetime second. We will never get it back. And in 10 years, we won't remember this day or second, because in 10 years it'll be a once in a lifetime day and second. And we're hoping it'll be a good one.

In late August I will be moving to DC. On April 1st I was rejected from UVa's creative writing MFA program, and had a moment of crisis in which I declared to my mother that I was going to give up and live in a trailer and make bird houses for the rest of my life. Luckily, I then got a call from American University, and they're offering me a merit based fellowship, meaning that two years of graduate study will be covered by the university. So, rather than fulfilling my lifelong dream of bird-house-building, I think I'll go to American University to get an MFA in fiction writing, live in DC, and rejoin the world. Fake summer never fails to deliver. I am very excited, and nervous, and confident that this is the right thing. I am also sad, because I will be so sad to leave this place. Luckily, that won't happen until I've had my fill of humid Virginia summer, which I'm getting my first taste of right now.

It smells like summer here, which means that it smells like my childhood. The island is hot and wet, wild ramps and onions lining the ditches and turtles and rabbits emerging from their winter hideouts. The water around the island is still winter-cool, and the breeze sweeps cold, cold salt-smelling air across the land, a sensation akin to a sip from a sweating glass of lemonade on an afternoon in July. At night, when it is windy and hot like this, I walk out across the lawn and down the dock and dangle my bare feet above the water of Barn Creek. The stars here are bright and crowded, and I think of the comets and meteor showers when I was a child. My father would wake me in the middle of the night to go stand in a field with him, and we would watch, and then he would carry me home. A stolen time. Sometimes I woke with no memory of it. How strange it is to grow up, and how strange to remember your childhood as a kind of adult. The smell of Gwynn's Island in summer is like lawn clippings and wet pine and salt water and rotting leaves--it never changes. I am breathing deep and trying to remember all of this, every second, to sustain me in the time after I have left this place.