To Utopia and Back Again…

The problem with Utopia is the impossibility of it ever becoming a permanent state. Luckily, I am privileged enough to be a sometimes traveler to the mystical world, the delicious idea known as Utopia.

We (hubby and I) just returned from a four day stay at my family cottage in Northern Wisconsin. The North Woods. Up North. Way Up. We went to learn the ropes, so to speak, on how to close up for the winter the fragile little house known to all in my family as The Cottage.

With the help of my family, including an Uncle, Aunt, Cousins (1st, 2nd and 4th,) husbands of cousins and children of husbands of cousins, we managed to suck every last dead bug out of the place. This was the King Tut Tomb of dead bugs. Our “to do” list was longer than the amount of time we had to accomplish everything, but as Gen. Douglas MacArthur said on March 11, 1942: “I shall return!”

How, you may ask, does this “working vacation” translate into Utopia? For starters, the information vacuum. In other words, there is no information, except that which can be gleaned from conversation sitting around a dinner table. Ah! The lost art of long, family dinners or the quiet discussion between two people who have been married 25+ years as they sit in two ancient rockers facing the fire, as opposed to listening to the talking heads facing a T.V. It is easy to list the characteristics of this particular Utopia; the woods, the clear cold mornings and evenings, the mist on the lake in the morning. No roaring boats; sublime, simply sublime.

Except for the late night crackle of distant radio stations, you can’t find much information. In fact, we kind of felt like we were in the Twilight Zone, since the clearest station we could locate on the dial only seemed to be playing old Phillip Marlow Mystery Radio Programs from the 40’s. This seemed to be a distant Canadian radio station and for the hour or two we were able to rock in front of the fire and listen, I felt like a time traveler. I could easily imagine that the same show could have been heard over the airwaves by a relative or unknown tourist staying at the cottage when it served as a resort all those many years ago. It was comforting, like receiving a postcard from the cosmos.

The good, hard physical work served as anthropological research of sorts into the past. It is no wonder (according to my Uncle) my great, greats (grandfathers, uncles, ancestors, ancients, etc.) were able to pour pure bacon fat over their pancakes each morning. Chopping wood, scrubbing floors, and sweeping the roof will burn up inordinate amounts of such ingested fuel. No, we didn’t pour bacon fat on OUR pancakes, nor do I suggest that this is a taste temptation I would recommend to anyone except the dog. I guess we have evolved somewhat, but still… you can understand why they were able to consume such… such… or, maybe not. Okay, let’s move on from bacon fat.

It is hard to leave Utopia. For a millisecond, your brain starts to churn with fantastic plans on how you can stay forever. You think how being a waitress in a homey café and writing in between shifts sounds kind of fun. Or, how about applying to become the church secretary at the darling Episcopal Church? Think about the fun you would have designing the bulletin each week! It would be far less stressful than sweating bullets as you rapidly enter short puts on the SPX. And then reality kicks in, the gas starts to sputter in the cottage’s wall heater and the truths of modern day survival start to intrude. Things like: the job you have worked at for a quarter of a century to provide health insurance for your family, the college loans lurking like a lump of dough stuck in your throat, the house, the bills, the animals…

Suddenly, your mind whirling like the baton of a 50’s beauty queen, it hits you. You don’t need to figure out a way to stay in Utopia, because you are already there! Like Dorothy in Kansas, you have had the key to Utopia the entire time! This mini Utopia, this cottage in the woods, you realize, is merely a small sliver of the giant pie that is your Utopian American Life. Utopia is all around you! It is the job God threw in your path, complete with health insurance as well as proof that trickle down economics works, at least for you. Or, the healthy child you have raised, complete with good grades and the smarts to tough it out at a college reputed to have a tougher homework load than Harvard. College loans? Pffhtgt… nothing! A mere trifle! A substitute for a shiny car, a good choice and again possible only because of the job you have held on to for 25 years. Then there’s the husband you can’t so without, who keeps all the edges neat and tidy, glue man, sticky boy, call him what you want, he is integral to holding the whole ball of wax together.

Of course, there is also your mom, the little bird, who has loved every word that ever came out of your mouth or off your pen forever. And finally, your beautiful girls, older sis, Uncle and Aunt, Cousins (1st, 2nd, 4th) and the husbands of your cousins and the children of the husbands of your cousins but most especially your little sister who ranks up there with the saints… In other words, UTOPIA.

What Would I Pay For All I want?

I just spent the day driving my mom half way to Augusta, Ga. I always meet my bestest sister in the middle of nowhere, South Carolina. Once there, (the middle of NOWERE) we make the hand off: that is she gets mom and I drive back home again, alone. Mom hasn’t been back to Augusta in a while and the visit will be good for her spirits.

It’s funny, but every time I do this, I always feel a little blue. Sort of like I have just seen my kid off to summer camp or the first day of kindergarten. It’s so true, we trade places with our parents……

I switched on NPR for company and listened to American Weekend. I mostly love NPR. They do the best job of human interest stories and if they could just leave out the political jabs, it truly would be a National Public Radio. Today, however, I just let it all roll over me. For some reason, I was feeling big spirited and overwhelmingly American. I listened to a marvelous story about the original indigenous meanings behind place names. Words like Connecticut and Illinois and Chicago and I felt fortunate to be a part of this vast expanse we call America. (Strange and slightly prophetic, Chicago essentially means big stinky place, was it karma that pre-ordained the stock yards?)

Anyway, during the next story they were discussing Radio Head’s decision to allow the download of their newest CD. Apparently, this past week, Radio Head made the decision to leave it up to their fans to pay whatever they think their music is worth. This gives new meaning to having a free market society.

But this eventually segued into the following question: What would a favorite song be worth to you in treasure, in dollars and cents? What, the hosts pondered, would you be willing to pay for your favorite song? What if it meant the difference between hearing the song or never hearing it again?

The host named Desiree made the startlingly beautiful statement that essentially, songs are only as good as the memories they are wrapped in. How true that is! The segment focused on the really moving stories of various listeners, each telling a story about the value they attach to their favorite song. American Weekend posited: how much you would pay for your favorite song, what is that memory worth to you? Would you be willing to purchase it, like a rare painting?

For me, it has to be All I Want by Joni Mitchell on her Blue Album. I inherited my Blue Album from my brother. He was killed when he was eighteen and I ended up with his albums. I remember his girlfriend telling me he would have wanted it that way. At the time, it felt solemn and deliberate; like the reading of a will in a Dickens novel. He had been listening to Joni Mitchell for about a year before he died and somehow the bequest felt spiritual to me in a way I have never felt since. Inheriting a person’s record album is sort of like retaining the key to their soul.

I submerged myself in this album for months after he died. I can still sing every song in order, side one and then side two. I am almost fifty years old and the songs still manage to shape my emotional landscape. When I am down, I still wish I had a river I could skate away on and if I love you, you are in my blood like holy wine, tastes so bitter and so sweet…In fact, I could drink a case of you…

Blue and All I want connect me to my brother like a strand of spider silk across eternity.

My first download from itunes was All I Want. It seemed inconceivable to me to start with anything else. It only cost 99 cents. But I am sure I would pay more if it came down to it. I suppose you could say I have already spent at least $18 on this song. When I couldn’t play the album anymore, I bought the CD. I made certian my daughter knew about Joni Mitchell and Blue. It is a touchstone; a shard of light breaking from underneath the door of my psyche.

How much is your favorite song worth? What memory does it enshrine? Think about it and be transported back to that moment…