How We Reached Metéora
. . . sometimes, searching for the imaginary can accidentally lead one to
find a bit of useful reality. Those searching for the Northwest Passage,
for example, mapped an awful lot of terrain.
—Thomas Wiloch on the work of Evan S. Connell
In Greece [985 AD] the hermit Barnabas moved into a cave at the turret-top
of a sandstone pinnacle, one man alone with God & thousands of finger-stone
formations in the untilled wilds of Metéora: the soaring rocks.
Other hermits followed. After fifty years of living in high caves, the monks began
precarious monasteries, twenty-three in all, until monastic compounds
perched everywhere, ornate thimbles on the weathered fingertips of Metéora.
Historical details catch in my spam filter. My strings get all tangled up
imagining hermits who abandoned the surface world to dwell in fossilized
tree houses & pray among vultures — & how it took only fifty years of living aloft,
holy cavemen in high exile, before they begin reinventing civilization.
I have no statistics regarding the number of hermits returning to caves these days.
I’m sure it’s hard for statisticians to track that sort of trend.
* * *
Wouldn’t you prefer descent? Last night, I dream-composed a goodbye letter
to the world: Dear friends, I am going down to live in the Caving Grounds —
—— I found a tunnel mouth the mine company forgot to dynamite. Habitable.
Adit. Please, do not worry — as Rilke said, the soul descends, it prefers low places.
Caves. Not sure how long I’ll be down. Please feed the cats til I come back.
I woke, heart on fire, & wrote it down exactly as I wrote it in the dream.
By daylight, of course, our dreams read like a joke, but the wind throws its powerful
shoulder against the cabin, at night, & the mind slips sideways without warning.
We suddenly remember God —— how long it’s been since we stopped at the old house
for a visit! Though sipping coffee with our parents brings us down: the home-place
needs so much work! New shingles, new siding, an energy-efficient furnace,
silicone caulk around the kitchen sink, and special glue for the linoleum —
— there’s a floorboard loose under the table & whenever-we-find-the-time
some advice would be nice: what computer should they buy, & does the wiring
need upgrading? We open the screen door just wide enough to say I love you & leave
with long to-do lists, a month of work to add to our own. The part you can’t
mention is how the old home place isn’t worth putting so much money into, anymore
—— or maybe it’s fine, Mom, but the whole neighborhood is falling down
bringing everybody’s asking price down. A buyers’ market, they agreed, stubbornly
optimistic the last time you raised the subject — speaking of which, I keep trying to
shake the memory of that odd birdhouse I stumbled onto earlier this summer
— there I was, minding my own business, lurching down one of those endless
buckled sidewalks that give Negaunee her earthquakish charm, when I noticed the
FOR SALE sign, jutting at a 45° angle from the embankment — & I looked up.
I never reached for my wallet, really, but it had a certain fairy-tale charm, something the
Seven Dwarves would design if they mined iron in Negaunee: cottage perched
like a stuffed songbird on a rocky ledge some thirty steps above Gold Street — charming,
even though a pine tree had sprouted from the mossy eaves-trough, quaint
even though the cracked foundation slab dropped in opposite directions from the porch,
giving the whole low-hipped roofline the look of a wishbone.
About to be wished into halves. What I can’t forget is the lot: a narrow acre
of unmowed grass, wormy apple trees & an old fence topped by a single strand
of barbed wire, running the northern lot-line, then turning & fleeing across the back.
No neighbors — Nothing. Everything beyond the fence was razed to meadow,
groves of trees — but wired along the fence in a half a dozen spots
was the familiar warning sign: DANGER, CAVING GROUND.
The fence was only twenty feet from the kitchen window. I had to sink against the rusty
swing set until I could breathe again. More & more, wherever you go,
it seems there are two Negaunees — one creating an annoying glow in the night sky, out
along the edge of the highway — the other, broken as a nest found underneath
the tree, dislodged by years of economic shaking. For every SuperAmerica, Burger King
Wal-Mart springing up like fingers with their fingerprints carefully removed
there’s still an old garage on a sinking street, filled to the rafter beams by the debris
of somebody’s life — a tiny museum — a fire hazard — a time capsule just itching
to be buried somewhere, just in case there are archeologists a thousand years from now,
there were at Metéora, trying to piece together a picture of how we lived:
North America’s Rust Belt Culture — 1910–1999 AD. It only took a few weeks
without internet or phone & already I’m tempted to stay.
The fantasy: growing permanently hard to reach, perched on
a rocky finger, a road north — out of touch with the surface. There are islands
out there, in Lake Superior, lighthouses where the light-keeper is gone
& only the light remains, a shooting star far out over the water, telling the ore boats
where to go. Lately, I get this precarious, unbalanced look when I speak of islands
solitary as any iron mine, or monastery. Imagine what a mind might accomplish,
alone out there! Through caves of solitude & suffering, the monks of Metéora
believed they were atoning for their sins & the sins of others — they believed
in a God with sharp talons — but hoped, as our ancestors hoped, boarding boats
for the unseen shores of North America, that a life of labor & loneliness
might open the door for us, the ones yet to come. Some remained underground
so long we must use our fingers now, to count the generations of descent.
Five, six, seven. Bent and twisted. Brokebacked. Working tin-mines in Cornwall, or:
back in Macedonia, like badgers, they followed meandering veins of silver.
How many spent their best years underground? How many times a day & in how many
languages was the prayer uttered: we work like this, that our sons
& daughters might live in God’s Country someday— & here we are!
500 channels on the satellite dish (Amen!), a 3-car garage, 2 phone lines — & debt.
* * *
If you only learn a few words of another language, I think it’s best to start by learning
apologize: “Με συγχωρειτε” (me syn-cho-ree the): I’m sorry.
Με συγχωρειτε, you say to the monk whose solitude you disrupt by being a tourist
Με συγχωρειτε, you tell the mine museum curator whose lawn caved in
Με συγχωρειτε, for the Ishpeming man whose yard kept collapsing until a pipe was
installed, to equalize the mine’s air pressure — Με συγχωρειτε.
Prayers for the town, which sacrificed its only park for a pit mine — Με συγχωρειτε!
The mind leaps like this, pinnacle to peak, calmed only by the surface world’s hourglass,
where each grain of sand has been replaced by an oak leaf, releasing
its brilliant grip on the blackened fingertips of the trees, a falling meteor shower
while I reread the letter an Ishpeming woman sent me: in the next few weeks,
(she’s keeping the precise moment a mystery), I am going down into our location
(illegally) one last time. I’d like pictures of the Jackson mine
and our old street. By street, she means Michigan St., which headed north,
once upon a time, into Cornishtown, an undermined section. These days, it dies young:
two blocks amputated at a locked gate and a cluster of rusted warnings:
danger ——— it is a crime to damage this (illegible) — no trespassing, no hunting
——— this property patrolled. No dumping. DANGER: CAVING GROUND.
Today, while thousands of leaves parachute (illegally) into the Caving Grounds,
I read the Eyewitness Guide to Greece, practicing a few words that might be handy
when exploring old ruins, such as “Ελενθερη” (e-lef-the-ree) — is it vacant?
or “Δεν καταλαβαινω” (then ka-ta-la-ve-no) — I don’t understand.
Outside, the trees are simplifying their lives, forgetting one leaf at a time,
like Lila, the mine widow I met earlier this summer who remembered so little
of her husband’s life underground: I’m sorry, she said, I never really asked him.
Με συγχωρειτε. But she remembered another story: how tramping men,
homeless in the Great Depression, inhabited a certain area on the edge of Ishpeming
— we forgot it was down there, she said, meaning respectable folk had no reason
to remember it, but the tramps found it. Perhaps it was the remnant of a pit mine, she
thinks, or maybe a shallow level had collapsed there —
Ελενθερη? Lila can’t recall, precisely, but she remembers openings in the earth,
the homeless men who lived there undisturbed during the worst years.
They lived in the Caving Grounds? I asked, scribbling wildly, incredulous.
I mistrust my own memories. According to something I heard on Public Radio,
we remember accurately only 5% of an experience as it actually occurred; we fill
the enormous (95%) gaps with our own history, details borrowed from previous
experiences. Yes, Lila nodded, Caving Grounds, that’s what we called it,
but those poor men called it home — that sinking place on the edge
of town. Marginal. Hobos developed a language of private symbols all their own
by which they marked their routes: kind woman lives here, mean dogs,
safe bed to sleep, crude arrow. Food. Eggs. Cops. Is it vacant? Eyes closed, Lila sees
smoke still curling skyward from fire barrels, their lean-to shanties.
Suddenly all smiles. I show you! There’s a walnut knickknack shelf
subdivided into tiny squares, a dovecote built for miniature doves.
Each square housing an antique thimble, tiny metal helmets for an army of fingers,
vulnerable to puncture as they did their needlework by dim light, grew numb
with cold or weariness. My father bought that shelf for me — made
by hand by tramps who lived in the Caving Grounds!
Lila crawls on her knees to the attic bedroom and lifts an afghan to reveal
the story quilt underneath, a dozen scenes embroidered by her own fingers:
that’s every house I’ve ever lived in — pointing out how she cheated, maybe:
by embroidering one garage. If you tell the story of your life, and someone only half-
believes, you might as well erase every other word, or rip out half of Lila’s stitches.
— I am sorry, friends, if I ever doubted. Με συγχωρειτε.
Cornishtown’s refrain: All the houses gone (but) you can’t erase memories —
Let Lila reach what she’s seeking, once the leaves are fallen.
It is illegal, but let her see the fruit trees her father planted survived;
Let her touch, under decades of leaves, the outline of her own foundation,
her childhood home, the reason her father worked so damn hard.
(Basho’s barn burned down — now Lila can see the moon.)
While she can still crawl under fences, she wants to see Jackson Mine,
a pit where the road turned down the hill towards Iron, she wants to see
where she began. I called her. I had just learned the Greek word for descent —
κατω (ka-to) — down. I offered to accompany her, Virgil, into sinking
Cornishtown. My friend declined, politely. Sorry.
* * *
(κατω…) Wasn’t it cold last night? she asked, switching topics as if our line
was tapped. Δεν καταλαβαινω. I agreed, explained that I built a fire,
how constellations glittered like frost crystals in the darkness. This far north,
the stars seem closer, as if we were all living on the top of a great mountain.
I want to tell her it’s okay, I want her to know about that galaxy of monasteries,
the buildings balanced high above the meadows of Metéora.
* * *
No one knows exactly how hermits and building materials reached the top
of these vertical rock-faces — historians suggest they built elaborate kites and pulley
systems, folklore claims miracoli! — they were lifted by the hand of God
— these days, we say, well, maybe they were really good rock climbers.
But we know this for certain: of all the Metéora monasteries, only six remain.
By studying ruins, we know they caved in, fell into ruin, by the late 1700’s.
By studying bones, we’ve learned there used to be dogs as big as Ford Escorts,
fish long as ore boats, N. American birds with the wingspan of two-bedroom bungalows.
After we’re gone, archeologists will be sifting through the Caving Grounds for our
rusty nails, thimbles, smashed mixing bowls, vinyl record shards. I’d tell them:
we’re a hopeful species, but it happens. We tremble. The foundation shifts sideways
stone, and down we go — down, κατω, to the ordinary world below.