It is 82 degrees in Louisville, Kentucky.

It is 82 degrees and sunny today in Louisville, Kentucky. The leaves are changing colors and falling off the trees, crunching underfoot, right on cue, and yet the air is neither crisp nor brisk. As a consequence, both my body and my mind are confused. I cannot believe, under the circumstances, that it is really fall, that summer is well over, that September – September! – is coming to a close. My eyes see the leaves, my body sweats through my t-shirt, and my mind concludes, “Well-orchestrated kamikaze mission on the part of nature in protest of something I cannot identify or understand.” It is the only explanation. My conscious mind knows that winter is indeed coming and that these leaves are responding naturally, not politically, but my body understandably refuses to believe it. My roommate is running the air-conditioner, for chrissakes, and I can’t even be mad. I cannot even, as the kids say, front. It’s hot outside and our apartment gets no cross-breeze, not even in a hurricane with every window open.

Today marks the start of my last month of my first year in Kentucky, which means I’m running out of standard firsts altogether. There will be other firsts, unique ones – first visit to a particular museum or restaurant or event or part of the state – but the easily identifiable demarcates of time marching inexorably on should be well plotted out soon: what fall feels like, what summer feels like, what usually happens in the months of February and March. (Nothing. Nothing happens in the months of February and March. Not anywhere in the world. Go on, check. I’ll wait.)

I was here last year for the end of October and I remember it being cold enough for a thin cardigan to leave me chilly, and my roommate assures me that by mid-October mind and body will be in agreement on the season. But then, to be fair, it is 78 degrees in Boston today and the same 82 in Sunapee, New Hampshire, where fall has always arrived precisely and chillingly on time on September 1 like clockwork, so maybe this is the new climate-change reality to which we will all, North and South, grow begrudgingly accustomed together.

The Church Across From The Rite-Aid

My friend’s mother passed away. She was adored by all who knew her in a way that is rare and precious, and I liked her very much. More than that, I have loved her son for fifteen years, so I did a stupid, too-long drive up to New Hampshire over a weekend to attend services. My parents came up as well, my father demonstrating the esteem he held the woman in by taking a Saturday off from work, something I can recall him doing less than a handful of times in twenty years.

“It’s at the church across from the Rite-Aid, right?” I said as we grabbed our keys.

“Yes,” said mom. The last time I had been there was for this same friend’s wedding, perhaps five years ago. “What’s it called? Do you know the name of it?”

I shrugged and and seeing it she said with me in unison, “The church across from the Rite-Aid.”

“Right,” she nodded, and we left.

The church across from the Rite-Aid is a quintessential small, small-town, little white church. Country songs are written about little white churches but across Louisville all I have seen are bricks and the SouthEast Christian mega church, which is infamously huge, big enough to qualify as a stadium. This little church has a steeple that is one of the last remaining artifacts from the original settlement of the town of Newport, NH, most of which was wiped out in a flood in the 1800s. Brian snuck me up there to see the bell when we were teenagers, and then sang to me as we sat in a pew high in the balcony, so that the sound echoed all through the chamber.

We were twenty minutes early for the services and the church was full. I sat in the back against the wall and my parents went upstairs.

Picture the churches you have seen in movies. Picture a church from a movie about pilgrims or puritans; one room, with an aisle down the center leading to the altar, and to the right and left of that aisle, hard wooden pews all along. A balcony runs above, looking down on it. Once, the wealthiest people in Newport had those seats to themselves, reserved to keep them away from the masses, on an overlook befitting their stature, where they could watch and pass judgment over the comings and goings. Those balconies would have been sweltering. To this day, like much of small-town New England, the church has no air conditioning. Behind the front room where services are held is another, larger, emptier room meant to be filled with people and food, off of which is a small kitchen to aid in this endeavor. The big room in the back has high ceilings and long, high windows, and aside from a small room here and there, added at odd and confusing angles, that is the entirety of The Church Across From The Rite-Aid.

The services were lovely. They should have been; Karen designed them herself, leaving a binder of instructions that included the hymns to be sung and the prayers to be said. People told stories about the endless kind things Karen had done, the sweet and thoughtful gifts she had made and given them. One of the two Reverends who presided over the service held up his tie. “I didn’t know there was a Clergy tartan,” he said, “but Karen did, and she felt I should have a tie of clergy tartan. Along with a hat and a scarf.” There are so few people in this world like that, so thoughtful, so relentlessly devoted to love.

After the service her three sons and husband welcomed a receiving line that stretched for more than an hour and the big room in the back was so full people spilled out the side door and onto the sidewalk for the cooler air. Five tables sagged under the weight of all the food and coffee and tea people had brought or made that day in the tiny kitchen to show their regard. For every one person who said something about Karen that day, twenty more brought something to share or did something to make it easier without saying a word. New Englanders are known for our little white churches and straight narrow wooden pews and lack of air conditioning, but let it never be said we are known for saying a thing when doing it would work just as well. There are plenty of ways to say I love you, and more of them don’t offend our cold and stand-offish tendencies than do.

They Came From The Skies, and We Said Nothing.

Since moving out to the middle, I travel two routes with fair regularity to see my family. The long trip takes me to New Hampshire, some nine hundred miles. The short trip takes me to Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

I call friends during the first hour or so of the drive and leave a message. “Hello, I am in the car all day, give me a call, we will catch up, bonjour.” When she called back, my friend Erica asked where I was driving. “Virginia,” I told her. “Isn’t that a little far?” she asked reasonably.

When I moved to Kentucky, my aunt in VA gave me a key to the house. I would be “so close,” it just made sense for me to be able to let myself in any time I pleased. That’s what distance means to my family. Excuse the pun, but it’s all relative.

The drive to Virginia is an improvement over the drive to New Hampshire. First, it is much shorter. Second, at no point does it take me through Ohio. Third, it’s quite lovely. Mist hovering silently over green mountains, bucolic farmhouse scenes with lakes, and sometimes cows. But like every trip through this part of the country, it’s the signs that tell you everything. Not so much as a mile marker through West Virginia, but hit the state that borders our nation’s capitol, and you see this everywhere:

speed limit enforced 1

I’ll take it over Ohio’s hellfire-and-brimstone proclamations any day of the week and twice on Sunday, but it makes a girl in a sportscar nervous, and no mistake.

Highway Companion

I worked at a coffee shop situated just off I-264, Louisville’s “inner loop,” for a few months. Life outside New York, DC or LA doesn’t have to be small, but I made the conscious choice when moving here to let life get smaller in the hope of creating bigger things in that space. Working at the coffee shop was small: small job, small shop, small circle of co-workers and regulars to see each day. I liked it, but sometimes I felt lost in it. Every night at dusk I would take a small coffee and sit outside on the patio and watch the cars and trucks drive by and remind myself that road would take me anywhere I wanted to go, eventually, if I just hopped on it. If I just turned right and headed west instead of east, I wouldn’t even go by my exit; I could keep driving until I hit Boston. I could drive to Manhattan and take a flight to China and no one would figure it out for days. I had the option, but I didn’t take it. I just finished my coffee and nodded to the road not traveled by and went back inside, grateful for the choices available.

If you took 264 to 64 W, you could be on 70 W in five to ten minutes, depending on traffic. From there it’s a straight shot to Ferguson, MO, about 280 miles and four hours away.

Louisville, like every major city, small town, and square inch of this country, has it’s own blighted history of riots, “racial tensions,” and the killing of unarmed black men by police officers. While the worst and most violently institutionalized racism I have yet encountered was certainly in New York City, the South as a whole, its history as written, its shared trauma and memory, its structure and systems, are fundamentally different from the east coast where I grew up, and many of those fundamental differences come back, at the root, to the slavery and racism that are at our country’s foundation. Where I grew up, we talk about the Revolutionary War. It was fought on our shores and in our cities, and some of the major battlegrounds are in and around Boston. But here, when I pass an old cannon or a fort, the story of its making is the story of the Civil War. Even the consuming college basketball rivalries, which take up every moment of fall and spring here and which were meaningless to me growing up, have something – sometimes quite a bit – to do with the city and its institutions histories of racism.

I’ve heard it said that racism in Boston is worse than racism in various southern cities, name-dropped by visitors, but my friends in Boston, of African-American and Jamaican and Haitian descent, usually disagreed, saying that they had encountered worse below the Mason-Dixon line. I’m convinced now that there’s just the devil you know and the devil you’re getting uncomfortably familiar with. Cops shot unarmed black men in New York City and cops shot an unarmed black man in Ferguson. Louisville had riots in 1968 over the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Boston had them some years later over school busing practices. Boston is one of the most segregated cities in the world for housing. Louisville residents know exactly when colleges integrated their basketball programs, and they have a lot of feelings about the naming of Rupp Arena. It carries over. This is where I live now and it’s different, but where we need to get to is the same.

The Weather Aboveground

Weather predictions are an old New Hampshire joke. Start talking about weather predictions, and everyone has a story. The time when we were kids that the weather channel, for weeks, ran a picture of a sun with a raincloud over it and snow falling (this was in August). The time the weather station accidentally predicted tornadoes for a week of what turned out to be sunshine (no one was even the slightest bit alarmed and the locals generally went about their daily business undisturbed). My dad says that when they were kids, every other state finally got its own weather channel, while New Hampshire got an old grumpy man on the television who kept insisting that, “if you want to know the weather, look outside.” And – my father adds – he was right.

If the weather channel is stubborn and obstinate in the face of New Hampshire, it is hopeless in the face of Kentucky in a way that verges on tragic. It wants so badly to help here, you see. It is so sure that it can help, and it is here, every day, clipboards and utterly useless advice at the ready. It insists it will rain for a week straight, whereupon it is ceaselessly, relentlessly sunny, and there I am carrying around a bright yellow umbrella. It predicts sun, and my day by the pool is ruined by intermittent rain. The best course of action on any given day is to plan to stay inside, while being simultaneously prepared at any moment to dash into the great outdoors and enjoy the good weather while it lasts, in increments ranging from 30 seconds to 4 days at a time, generally, before the next unpredictable shift.

I thought of this last night particularly because the predictions called for thunderstorms. I love sleeping to the sound of rain, and have always loved night storms. As a kid, they downed trees and sometimes took out the power, but they were gentle giants, scary in the same delicious way as reading a ghost story with friends in the tent you made in the living room out of blankets and pillows. Here, less so. That storm a few weeks ago that shook the entire building is a good metric for the experiential shift along the coast. Storms rage here. They threaten. They shake their fists violently not at the sky, but from it; not with human fragility and futility, but with a scope and scale that successfully reminds us how small we are. At home in New England, when a big storm was coming, we stocked up on candles. Here, I simply make sure to be home long before it may start, and wait by the phone in case Ben should still be driving.

Yesterday, the predictions were fantastically wrong, as is their wont. I went grocery shopping early so I could get home, and overhead, the sky was mostly blue, and the clouds were huge and wet and stacked atop one another, creating oblong shapes with no geometric name, and would have been white, but where the sun was setting, and the light shining through, they were pink in some places, peach and orange in others. And those clouds – those big, bizarre, bumbling, oversized structures – those clouds contained lightning.

As soon as I realized what was happening, I froze in the parking lot, gaping. Every few seconds the clouds would light up from within, flashing and burning, and then fade out just as quickly. No lightning ever emerged, none ever touched down, and the clouds moved on and with them, the threat of the storm. As a researcher, I’m tempted to learn all about them – what clouds like that are called, whether it is really possible for the One Cloud to Rule Them All to contain, within itself, an entire storm, and how or why such a thing would work – but between tornadoes and flash floods and other threats that suggest to me, for the first time, that I am out in the middle and very much at the mercy of nature, I am opting for now to just remain, respectfully, in awe.

American Hauntings, Part 1

I’m in New Hampshire with my family for a long weekend. My aunt and mother just showed me an email on my aunt’s iPhone. It says, “No Subject,” and “Sender Unknown.” The date sent is 12/31/69. “Isn’t that weird?” my mother exclaimed. We went to look at it again and it is, of course, gone. Now we’re all wracking our brains trying to figure out what the hell happened on New Year’s Eve, 1969, and why someone is waving at us from all the way back there and then just to say hi.

“The Marriage Dispute”

The front page of the Courier-Journal today had an article, above the fold, on “the marriage dispute” and the well-regarded lawyers on both sides who have taken it upon themselves to argue the case. “The marriage dispute” – cute little title for a fight for marriage equality that will have seismic impacts on people’s lives, health, well-being, families. Pithy. A Noel-Coward-esque way of referencing one of the greatest civil rights movements our nation has ever seen. Cute, Louisville. Cute.

Literally, A Sign.

I drove to Chicago to visit a friend yesterday. There’s very little between cities in the Midwest, so every road – the one and only road that leads in and out of each city in either direction – has specific landmarks, known to all who travel it. I made this drive once before, and in the between time, someone has added a road-side attraction.

“Did you see the giant new billboard?” I asked Rei. “It says ‘God Is Real’ on your way into Illinois…”

“And ‘Hell Is Real’ on your way out,” she nodded. I was a little insulted on behalf of the residents of my new state until Rei pointed out the obvious: the sign doesn’t read “Hell Is Real” on the road into Kentucky. The sign reads “Hell Is Real” on the road into Indiana.

Welcome to Kentucky; Here There Be Dragons.

Saturday night there was a storm so violent the entire building shook and woke us all. The humidity had been terrible, and when we woke to sunshine the next day and stepped out of the air-conditioning people here keep running seven months out of the year, it was no better. It finally broke today for no apparent reason. I was informed it had no correlation to the previous rain.

Too much humidity in New England means a storm is coming; too much humidity in Kentucky means you are here between the months of March and October. A cool day in a New England summer is nature’s way of reminding you that the season is short, and fall is coming, and winter is long and full of terrors. A cool summer day in Kentucky is confusing and unnatural. The poor locals. They seem offended.

There is so much space in the midwest and the south. While there are long and unpopulated stretches of Massachusetts, New York, and the east coast, they are stretches, outliers and aberrations, disruptions in otherwise crowded landscapes, deliberate room to breath. Here, there just is space, as though everyone simply has enough room, and if you don’t, move a few minutes out of town; space, and plenty more where that came from. The grocery stores are enormous, the size of several city blocks in Manhattan, every one of them. For less than what I paid in New York City for a bedroom and shared bath, we have a two bedroom condo with two bathrooms, a living room, an office, and a kitchen big enough to hold a full-size table. The greater complex has a two pools and a tennis court. I can’t make sense of it. I have been here since October and every time I sit on my balcony – balcony! are you kidding me! – I can’t help but think I’m on vacation, travelling from Point A to Point B and staying at one of those nondescript motels between, a Best Western or a Holiday Inn. But no. People really live like this. I – I – I really live like this.

To most people who grew up North of the Mason-Dixon Line – to me, even now, if I’m being honest – everything in the middle of the map, those fly-over states ranging ruggedly and mysteriously from West Virginia to Tennessee to Arkansas to Kansas, might as well be labelled, “Here There Be Dragons.” And even if people are about the same everywhere – rude, if on different topics; loving, if having different socially ingrained ways of expressing it; considerate and difficult and grouchy before their coffee and sometimes after their coffee by turns – even if people really are pretty much the same everywhere, and even if the busy road running by my place here isn’t terribly unlike Route 1 through Dedham, Mass, even if Target and Walmart and Starbucks and McDonald’s have the same menu in every state in the Union, yes, still, it’s true; everything is different and Here There Be Dragons. I will study them at length and send detailed notes. It will not be difficult. In addition to steady internet access and the services of the United States Postal Service, both FedEx and UPS, as well as Amazon and eBay, call Kentucky home for their largest shipping centers. Did you know it is fastest to get anywhere in the US from Kentucky? Now you know. It’s travel by dragon. Fastest way to fly.