Sunday, April 26, 2009

Read "The Land of the False Houses"--chapter One

The Land of the false Houses

This must be the land of the false houses. Here I am walking into the sun with Cheena my dog down the alleyway, the better to get the vitamin D, the better to feel the pleasure of sun on skin, though Marcus Aurelius would say you shouldn't seek after pleasure, only a just and useful life. But I am living in Milwaukee in a suburb, and no one is around. It's the proverbial ghost town. Obama talks about it in his books. People sleep here and live here after work, but there is no community here. Above all he considers communities and seeks after the mystery of what it is that makes them alive. This is, I know, suburban. But long ago I lived in what my mother then referred to as a suburbia, though I didn't notice much her saying it then. It was a neighborhood cut out of the woods not far from the University and Rugby Rd. in Charlottesville, Virginia. Greenleaf Lane--it was very alive! Every day it teemed with children in the streets and on the lawns and running in and out of their own and other people's houses. The first day I got there I went out on the road in front of my house and with at least twenty other children rode my bike--which I had just learned to ride--up and down the little hill that led away from the circle of houses which was called Greenleaf Lane. I had just moved from Morrisville, Pennsylvania, which was nothing like this, swarming with children. It had been a much quieter street, and we had moved when I was five in the Fall to Charlottesville so my mother could go to the University of Virginia. It was 1949. Anyway, that first day I rode my bike proudly up the hill and down, as well as any of them could. And every time I saw another kid I didn't know and who didn't know me I would say or he would say "What's your name?" And I would say "Mimi. What's yours?" It went on and on like that, and I had to be dragged in for supper. I made all the friends I would ever need that day. That was a community. Of course I didn't have a name for it then, I just enjoyed it. It was not like this, this suburb of Milwaukee where I was walking the alleyway in the sun. It was deadly quiet, as the expression goes. The false houses popped into my mind. Maybe these were the false houses.

Every summer from Charlottesville, as we had before from Morrisville I suppose though I can't remember that so well, we'd all get in the car with our stuff and drive to Maine, back to Parsonsfield, and for part of the summer to Orono, where my mother would go to the University of Maine Summer School, and then back to Parsonsfield, and then back to Charlottesville for the school year--hers and mine--while my Grandmother stayed at home and my brother was off at Christchurch school on the Rappahanock River. This went on for years, but one year when I was visiting my Aunt Clara in Duxbury, Massachusetts--I must have been about nine--I stayed with Aunt Clara at her house and went to St. Margaret's Camp for Girls as a day camper for a few weeks. And I so wanted to stay overnight with the other campers that they let me go to camp the next summer.

That summer was wonderful, because we had Sister Marion in charge of us. But the next Summer it was another sister--a really bad, mean one who you could tell didn't like us. At this camp, which was a high Episcopal camp at a convent, the campers had to pray and cross themselves and go to chapel and have Bible study classes, and in between we played. We prayed and played--we went swimming in the ocean and had some organized games, but mostly we just ran around entertaining ourselves until the next prayer session. We prayed after we got out of bed, before breakfast and after breakfast--ditto lunch and supper. And we prayed at the chapel and genuflected twice coming and going at the vesper services every evening. And I think we prayed, mid-morning, at our Bible study too, maybe to start and end the session. All of this involved kneeling, and crossing ourselves and, when appropriate, as in approaching an altar or the Mother Superior (who smiled at us beatifically) genuflecting. All three of these things had to be taught to me, as I had been raised as a Unitarian and knew nothing but the Lord's prayer. I did learn how to do them all, though the crossing of myself I invariably got wrong.

Nevertheless, I did like the Bible study, because in those days they didn't have print-out sheets as they would today to fill in. Instead we would all sit in a circle and the sister would read from passage of scripture and then ask us what we thought it meant. With Sister Marion the first summer I had no trouble--I can't even remember what we studied, only that I was happy enough. But when the other sister, whose name I can't for the life of me remember, led the session I instantly got into trouble. I must have been eleven by then. Instead of scripture she started reading us other religious stuff. One thing was about the trinity. It was like this three leaf clover here she said, the father, son, and holy ghost. I had been raised in a very scientific family who didn't believe in ghosts and didn't allow me to believe in them either ("Nonsense!" said my grandmother. "Hocus pocus!" said my mother.) But I did not say anything to the sister about that. Instead I suddenly had an idea! And raised my hand. "What about a four-leaf clover?" I asked. Immediately the sister got very annoyed with me! And I felt quite betrayed and embarrassed because not only did she not answer me and went on as though I had said something wrong, but it was a new experience for me. Every thing I ever said, or question I asked, in my family, was always responded to with great interest--my opinions were honored!--and always discussions went on about ideas and things I had said or done or had observed--never was I simply made to be quiet while my question went unanswered. School of course you had to be quiet but this was different--we weren't in school--and I did wonder about a four leaf clover! Now, today, I might say well, the fourth leaf is the element of luck or circumstance which even in the great process of evolution works as strongly as, or along with natural selection to affect change. But back then I just felt humiliated. And then the Sister went on to read us some story about "hell" or somewhere, where there were "false houses" with "false flowers" and "false trees." Now I had been raised in a family which did not believe in hell, and did not allow me to believe in it either ("just a metaphor for suffering" my mother said; "only holy-rollers believe in that!" my grandmother sniffed. "No such thing!) But I did not say anything about that to the sister. I had another idea! I raised my hand. "What are they made of if they are false?" I asked. This time she was clearly angry, and told me to stop asking questions. (!!!)

I did tell my mother about this last encounter and the first, the false houses and the fourth leaf of the clover. She laughed as she always did, and dismissed the behavior of the sister as humorous (though I didn't see the humor) and sympathized with me--she always sympathized with me. She understood what I meant. If they were "false" what were they made of?? What isn't real in other words? What could a false flower or tree or house be made of? It didn't make sense.

So here in the ghost town (though I am not allowed still to believe in ghosts, though string theory tempts me now and then) of Milwaukee, walking my dog in a long straight alleyway between endless rows of garages behind houses, I am wondering if these are the false houses she was referring to--it could be hell here. The houses are all empty, or if anyone is in them, no one comes out of them. All the house are large enough, not too large, and each is a little different from the rest, but all look somehow the same, and they are all in endless, endless rows, squished together a little too closely. The trees are the same too, all the same species--what is it? Some midwestern breed I dare not guess at. My grandfather would know, botanist. Though I never knew him, I know of him so deeply I know he would know what kind, and would approve of my stating my ignorance rather than pronouncing something something without really knowing what it really was. The trees are all the same height, as the houses are the same height, and they must all be the same age, the trees and the houses, all dating back to the Golden Age of Suburbia, when the streets were teeming with children, and grown-ups and teenagers came out to shovel and talk, and old people hobbled around or yelled at you to get out of their yard, or invited you into their houses, and kids went sledding or built forts of snow and threw snowballs at each other and yelled, and were, as all children then were, unsupervised. Where have all the people gone, long time passing?

Like the Weaver's song, the houses were all made of ticky-tacky and they are all in a row. All I can hear now is dogs barking distantly. Sometimes, but rarely, birds? There is no community here, only sleepers who must wake early and go to jobs someplace else. And children go to school at this time of day (noon), but later they still won't be out and about playing. There is no community here. Is the only kind of community left the kind someone else organizes and you join? Where is the kind you find yourself in, and it is you and the others in it that organize it? The only kind of trees here are the ones someone has planted all equi-distant endlessly along the straight sidewalks down the straight or slightly curving level street--and I think of how my father, a landscape architect whose trees the Statue of Liberty stands in, would always tell me that trees and houses should not be symmetrically set out, that they must somehow come to look almost as good as nature would arrange it, in fractals he meant, though he didn't say that and I learned about fractals much later myself. Someone has laid out these houses and these trees--trees with no older ones and no younger ones all about them, but all of a generation--symmetrically. Not as they would not be found in nature; not, perhaps therefore, beautiful. Is it how they are laid out that is false? false trees, false houses--nobody home, everyone at work or school, not working or learning or playing where they live, as they might in a real community. Hmmm....this could be hell. I wonder if the shades (ghosts?) of my mother and grandmother are hearing me say that? Would they agree? I think they might. Especially if I explain that the lives of the people who sleep in these houses experience a kind of suffering because they have no community. Isn't everyone born to enjoy a community like the one I found myself in suddenly in 1949? Such places are heavenly; such places as this are hellish--what is this ghost town? This slightly run-down, apart at the seams, too symmetrical ghost town?

Obama was saying something like that reflecting on the isolated lives of the very wealthy. One of the people he wrote about mourned the loss of his childhood community too, remembering the carts the unsupervised (free) children made with old crates and discarded roller skates. Why does it have to be like this now, here, the land of the false trees and false houses and suffering, lonely lives, lacking community. What makes them lack it? Where does it go and how does it turn into something like this? Like him, I want to get at what makes a community thrive. I want to find out what the false houses, and trees, and flowers are made of --and get rid of it.


  1. I felt like a puppy lying on my back with someone rubbing my belly. I had forgotten that you (or anyone) could just sit down and write like this.

  2. It's the women - I grew up in those days, pretty much, and the Moms were not working outside the home, or if they were there was a coalition of women who cared for the children. Female eyes were always on us, whether we registered them or not. They kept the gates of the interconnecting backyard fences well lubricated so our tiny hands could open and close them with ease. I never appreciated them as much as I have reading this piece. Thank you.