Sunday, June 23, 2013

culture shock in a hockey arena during a rainy week in june, or why did the turtle cross the road?

I woke twice to Elliott’s strange yowl-meow that indicates he is at the door, usually with a snack. Both times I got up to check, opening the door a crack and peering out. The first time, the mouse was half eaten. Elliott gave me a long, expectant look. I said “good boy, eat up” and went back to bed. It was still light out, though barely. The second time I got up the mouse was whole. Elliott gave me the look, I responded accordingly, closed the door. As I stood at the kitchen sink with a glass of water I noticed twinkling lights in the field. Hundreds of little lights blinking on and off low over the grass and flowers and around the shrubby trees. Fireflies. It was dark, though not completely. Maybe somehow the near full moon was shining through this cloud that took us in a few days ago, this cloud that has rained upon us over and over ever since.

I was bone tired after standing in the cool damp all day at the Marquette Farmers Market. No rain, just penetrating dampness, rolls of moisture billowing about, and the Great Lake of Superior keeping it cold. I was also bone tired from two consecutive days of setting up and selling candles—the physical labor of lugging things around and the mental labor of interacting with gobs of people. Most of the week I am alone, seeing no one except the occasional neighbor, whoever’s at the grocery, the post office, or the bank, and then, this week, two days in a row of streaming people. I become this slightly different person who yaks and yaks with customers and by the end of the day I’m thinking “who was that person? Was that me?”

Friday’s fair was in a hockey arena in L’Anse. It was to be outdoors, along the Keweenaw Bay, a beautiful spot, but it was raining and had been raining and was to keep on raining so it was moved inside the arena. It was an afternoon event, and all morning I had spun my web alone in my cabin, a small fire going to ward off the damp, all the candles made and packed up, ready to go. I was writing, describing the rain, “ … there is darkness, not like the night, but like a thunderstorm, and lamps are on, and I can see raindrops bouncing on the roof of the garage. A great morning for washing one’s hair in the rain, which I won’t do, but will remember doing … ” and the very last thing I wanted to do was to leave this world to go sell beeswax candles in some other world.
Now heavier rain, lightening, thunder gets closer. And this, in my cabin on a rainy morn with a little thunder and a purring cat, hot tea, a blanket, a notebook, a pen, a fire, feeling immersed in all that is close yet a step apart from “the world,” is fine.
I know I have learned something, perhaps matured a bit in my life, because there was a time … well, I bitched about loading the van in the rain and having to battle mosquitoes to do so, and then driving and dealing with the mosquitoes that had joined me for the ride to L’Anse, but I did it, and there was a point in my life when I might not have. When I might have just stayed home.

Once at the arena—the “ugly building behind the football field” is how it was described to me—I was peeved because there was just one large doorway at the end of the building for us all to use to haul our stuff in. A curtain of rain run-off fell in front of the doorway and there was a doormat of mud. To get on the rink itself (concrete, not ice) just a narrow little door. The arena was abustle with people setting up their tables of craft work and baked goods, and in the middle of the rink folding chairs arced around a dance floor fronted by an area for musicians. My head was all amutter about not wanting be there, about how I should not be there, and about how this was not the place for me. It is, indeed, embarrassing now to admit it. I was feeling snobbish.

My spot was close to the entry so I hauled things in, all the while telling myself to do this only so as to remember, in no uncertain terms, to never do this again. I knew it was a bit irrational, that if it were not raining, I’d be fine, yet my thoughts yammered on. My table and display were up and I was about to start putting out the candles when I realized I had forgotten the box with my change money in it. Crap. Every opportunity, it seemed, to just go home, back to my nest, and it would be totally justified. But would it look terribly stupid if I packed up and left now? Did I care? And here’s one part of this—who in this arena did I know? Hmmm … It gives one great freedom to know no one, but it also constrains one to relying on oneself or to relying on strangers.

L’Anse is a small town of about 2,000 people. Two blocks from the arena is a bank, and it just happens to be the bank I use, so I drove over and told the teller I needed five dollars in quarters, twenty-five dollars in ones, and thirty dollars in fives. I signed the withdrawal slip, got my money, headed back by to the rink, dripping rain all the way.

It took a while, but I finally settled in and the damn muttering in my head stopped. I saw a neighbor or two and others I’ve met briefly here or there. The music was great, and I marveled at the purity of the voice of the young woman who sang in Finnish. I learned that she is a town favorite, that as a little girl she won hearts by singing in nursing homes.

I noticed a few people in Native American dress—women in outfits strung with fluted tin bells that jingled when they walked and men in leather and feathers. They were members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Native American Dance Troupe, and when they performed I was quite simply blown away. The firm and loud drum beats backed by singing (though I hesitate to call it “singing” as it is something quite other, I know not what) wrapped around me thrilling me down to the gut. The dancers flowed in a circle, performing different dances, all symbolic of some aspect of life as interpreted by people for whom this land is home in a way so few of us know. I have seen many great live performances in my time, including ballet, opera, Broadway musicals, legends such as Ella Fitzgerald and superstars such as Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, but never before had I seen a live performance of Native American dance and music. The fact that I was seeing it not by choice but by happenstance made me realize my great good fortune to be exactly where I was, despite myself.

At some point I had a conversation with two people in which I rambled. Reading my little handout about beeswax and Pea Pickle Farm, one commented that moving here from Chicago must have entailed quite a bit of culture shock. I have never much explored that because I am here specifically for the lack of people, and I have had no problem adjusting to the wide open spaces. Yet of course there are people here, and the U.P. is steeped in culture—or should I say cultures—like no place I’ve ever known. There are the Finnish traditions and words and jokes about Toivo and Eino, there is the hunting culture, the mining culture, the lumberjack culture, the living-off-the-land culture, and there is the country culture and farm culture and the culture of isolation. The culture of canning and preserving and fresh eggs and goat’s milk. There is a culture of dancing to fiddles and accordions and there is a culture of art and music that feeds off the culture of the woods and lakes and rivers. None of these are cultures I was brought up with or exposed to in any way until I moved here nine years ago. And the move was to be a joint venture, a shared experience with my husband at the time, but he left and the culture shock of being suddenly single, of having to experience my life alone, let alone this place alone, was the predominant shock, the one I had to deal with every day in every way. For a while everything else that happened, no matter what it was, including my father’s death, was background. And then of course two years ago, I moved again, to this part of the U.P.

Now, there is still a part of me that is shocked when I find myself muddy and wet on a Friday afternoon setting up at a craft fair taking place in a hockey arena in a little far northern town because that is where I live and because making and selling beeswax candles is how I earn a living.

The half-wall of the ice rink was white dashed all over with the black marks of the hockey pucks that have hit it over and over again. And the things that are, in essence, culture shock are the very things that bring me back to earth, that ground me. The candles. The Finnish folk songs. The drums and dancing of the Ojibwa. The very old gentleman who, after the dancers, sat in a metal folding chair playing “lumberjack” harmonica (no hands) with another man on the bones and spoons, weaving together tunes that were nothing I had ever heard but were hauntingly familiar. And the babbling I did was about coyotes and the Northern Lights and how the first time I saw twinkling lights out in the fields on a summer night I had no idea what was going on, even though I grew up catching fireflies in a glass jar.

Just north of Michigamme driving to the Marquette market in yesterday’s early morning fog, I spotted a dark blob ahead in the road. My first thought was “turtle,” but I knew it could be any dead animal or any thing. It was in the northbound lane, I was in the south. As I approached I slowed, saw it was a turtle, a huge turtle with a shell no less than 12 inches across. The turtle was heading west, but had stopped in the middle of the lane, seemingly mid-step, head and tail and feet all stretched out, poised, ready to go. It was probably a snapping turtle, but I can’t say for sure. I made a U-turn, pulled off the road, put on the flashers, got out of the van and stood behind the turtle, herding it along. There were no other cars, then headlights appeared to the south. By the time the car passed, we were out of its way, and the turtle made it safely to the other side of the road. I got back in the van, made another U-turn, saw the turtle was heading down the embankment, and went on to the market.

It is not like seeing or hearing it live and this is a different event, but enjoy.