I think they were maroon colored, upright soldiers standing at attention in a uniform line on one of the lower shelves of the bookcase my father had built for our living room. Looking back, they were a bit of democracy, readily available for all if the inclination was there. Everyone in my community had a set of encyclopedias back then. Their quality varied by class, from the richly bound Brittanica to the buy-by-the- piece set I grew up with. Maybe they were so cherished in my family because they came slowing, week by week from our chain grocery store. If at the end of a weekly shopping visit the bill was at least $29.99, the next Funk and Wagnall volume could be obtained for 29 cents. And so, our collection grew. I loved the freedom they offered unlike school where knowledge was prescribed and forced. I could leaf through the pages and stop wherever I wanted or find the background to things that piqued my interest. I was mesmerized by the glossy page that lined up all the national flags of the world in vivid color. And in those volumes were facts about the human body that were not readily arrival in the whispered world of the 1950’s. The Funk and Wagnall germinated the seeds of my curiosity that still plagues me to this day.
My chronic state of questioning has taken an acute turn during these years of pandemic. I haven’t taken any far-reaching trips, I have been confined to a radius of several hundred miles regulated by the Covid restrictions. The maroon Funk and Wagnall is long gone, replaced by other sources of information providing energized fuel to the curious longing so deeply etched in my aging soul. I now have the worldwide range of Google and also YouTube that provides me with lovely lectures and information bites on any subject. I can hear about an author and a book and immediately have it in my hands by way of my Kindle. I can even purchase ancient out of print books from eBay at discount prices.
Even from my home in rural America I can speed through the world of knowledge and gather fascinating insights. But I’m soon troubled to find out how little I know, distressed to know my education was so limited. I read1876 by Gore Vidal and find out there was another election marked by the political frenzy of doubt. I watched “The Gilded Age” on one of my streaming services and I’m appalled by the opulence of those who were selfishly in power in our country before antitrust laws were enacted in the early 1900’s. And I’m able to read an old unabridged copy of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, not for its socialist proclamations but to understand the lives of my immigrant ancestors who were taken advantage during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s by big business. And if that isn’t enough, reality comes across all my screens causing me, as all Americans, to cry with pain and ask why things like the war in Ukraine , the Tops Super Markets deaths and The Ross Elementary School shootings are happening.
In April 2022, I had to get away, to travel, to see new territories in real life not on a screen or on printed pages. I needed to connect with people who lived in troubled times like mine and persevered. I decided to take a few days and visit some places I hadn’t visited in a while. I decided to head for the Finger Lakes in New York State.
I stopped in Auburn and found the statue of Harriet Tubman, the women who led countless slaves to freedom before The Civil War. I decided to walk to the site of her house and was disappointed to see how far it was beyond the houses once owned by the Antebellum white population of the town. I noted that her residence was further segregated from town by a wooded area. The historical site was the place where she opened a rest home for the elderly African Americans.
I went to Seneca Falls to connect with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the suffragettes who worked tirelessly to get the vote for women. They started a long struggle in 1848 that didn’t end until 1920 when the 19th amendment was finally passed.
Planning my route home, something quite obvious revealed itself, Seneca Fall is on Seneca Lake. I had done research on The St Lawrence State Hospital and read a wonderful book, The Lives They Left Behind, Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny. It gave me a valuable look into the lives of the patients at The Willard State Hospital and insights into the how they were treated. Since I was nearby, I decided to make a pilgrimage to the ruins of this asylum to get a further sense of the story told there. I go to places like this with respect and compassion. I always want to see things for myself with a hope to discover context and gain a deeper understanding.
The hospital has long been abandoned, shut down in 1995.
But finding a sign, the story continued.
Even in death people were sorted, labeled and segregated.
Almost 6000 patients remain at their final resting place in this cemetery, their existence signified with cruel indifference, by a number on a disc almost hidden from sight.
Sometimes I see my curiosity, my continuous quest to find the reasons behind things, as a curse, During the pandemic, I’ve explored my own area and breaking through my own oblivious familiarity, I found many stories and cause and effect tales. There is so much history that is dark, locked away in secrecy, forgotten by a society that finds history old fashion and is too busy to care about the patterns from days gone by that reach into our lives today and have the potential to strangle us.
What I see in the past and in today’s world upsets me and makes me angry. I care as we all do. We all wish things could be different. I have become an activist, settling on one issue, I use my writing skills to convince others. But I am just an elderly woman from rural America. It is hard to get people to listen. Should I give up? Should we all give up and accept these things we might not be able to change?
I always have the luxury of going home to the trees and the rock ledges of my woods, to be alone in peace of the natural world. A place to hide from the chaos of the world. I find comfort there. I read the poems of a new Facebook and Instagram friend, Valari Brainerd. Her words are beautiful, and I ordered a copy of one of her writings to frame, to always keep near to remind me.
As human beings we are all forced to live in a world of our own making filled inconsistencies and frightening pressure. But we are also offered so many lovely natural places and moments for renewal.
I am who I am. I know I will never stop roaming and questioning and caring. But I also know that from time to time I need to take the time to shut out all the noise and find peace in quiet places. I can do both. I can be both. I need to and It’s okay.
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