Trick or Tradition

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(My best friend Jack and I. I was about four years old)

This weekend I will be lucky enough to be spending time with family. It is Halloween weekend, meaning there will be pumpkin carving, costume making, trick or treating and passing out candy! This is without exception, my favorite holiday of the year!

Over the last couple of years we have made it a point to share Halloween with Kim’s sister Chantee and her children, and it is a highlight of the season for me, for all of us really, and it is evolving into a tradition. We arrive a day, sometimes two days before and get the Jacks carved, get the costumes for the kids all sorted out and then Kim, Chantee, Erych, Kira, Haley and Marcus head out to skulk the neighborhoods for vast amounts of chocolate and goodness while I sit on the porch, surrounded by beautiful, blazing Jack O’Lanterns and pass out candy! We are very popular on the route because Chantee gives out FULL-SIZED candy bars!

I grew up poor. I wasn’t by any means the poorest kid in town but we had our moments, times when meals weren’t guaranteed, but there was something that never changed, our participation in the celebration and tradition of Halloween.

People tend to both gravitate toward and flinch away from the word Tradition. It is as if the rebel in us (and face it, if you are reading my blog, you are likely a rebel at heart) has this need to buck against tradition, to try and escape from the orbit around the predictable, even as our souls are crying out for certain comforts that only traditions can provide.

When I was a child, our Halloween traditions began in early to mid-October when dad and I would venture forth to one or as many as four farms looking for the perfect Jack pumpkins. Dad almost always had a shape in mind, you see he had been sketching faces on notebook paper since early August and so by the time we went “Pickin’” as dad called it, he knew what he needed. The one constant was that he always chose designs that worked best on squat, fat round pumpkins. In all the years we did this together, I cannot recall a single tall skinny one carved by dad.

Never did we ever have just one Jack. Usually there were three to five and sometimes as many as a dozen depending on finances and the size of the car dad owned at the time. (we only made one trip out for anything, ever.) So on some years there were three or four thirty to forty pounders and on one memorable year there was a pumpkin of about one hundred pounds and a smaller ten pounder. I was allowed to begin carving my own Jacks at about age six so from then on there was always one that I got to choose just for me. I was a monkey of instinct, and so I ventured forth with no plan, no shape or design in mind, I wanted the one that “felt” like it was mine!

Wrapped in chamois cloths in the tool drawer in our kitchen were two bundles, and those bundles contained the jack tools, each of us had our own bundle. Knives, markers, and a fine quality broad spoon for scooping. I found out many years later that dad had bought the two spoons at yard sales and mine was actually a real silver antique. I no longer have it, but that isn’t a story for this post.

We carved depending on weather on a weeknight somewhere between October 20 and 25. The warmer the year, the later we carved. There was nothing worse than Jacks that had begun to collapse by Halloween.

The kitchen table was cleared, newspapers were spread out, we each got our own big stock pot to throw “the guts” into and we went to work. Dad was meticulous about it. He hand drew, sometimes a dozen times, his designs on the skin of the pumpkin with his ballpoint pen. Dad was a pretty amazing artist with such a simple tool. He would draw, get up, walk around it, sit down, make adjustments, sometimes for two hours before ever picking up the knife. His designs were elegant, scary, whimsical, and sometimes just beautiful but they were always faces, never landscapes or haunted houses or full body ghosts, something he insisted was tradition and is one I still adhere to.

I preferred to create with the knife, and I know that will come as no surprise to some of you, but I got so much more satisfaction out of it that way. Dad was also a carve first, gut after guy, and I was of the cap and gut then carve school, but we always, ALWAYS shared the event. Mom never carved, but she shared the room offering opinions, making tea from the herbs she had grown that summer, laughing at pumpkin jokes (isn’t it gourd-eous mom?) and roasting pumpkin seeds that she coated in a variety of goodies from salt and paprika to cinnamon, sugar and nutmeg.

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(Mom & Dad dressed up as Jack O’Lanterns about 1977)

In the beginning my Jacks, as you can imagine a six year old knife wielding maniac’s would be, were bad, really bad, but mom and dad never said any such thing. They were probably pretty frightening anyway because they looked like plastic surgery junkies whose stitches, tucks and lifts all let go at once. But I got better, probably because I practiced all year. I used paring knives on apples, peelers on potatoes, sticks in balls of clay, I plotted and honed my skill and each year I got better until by the time I was twelve, people from all over town would drive down our dead end street to see just what dad and I had been up to.

I could go on and on about this and tell you how I once won a pumpkin carving contest with a half-pound pumpkin about the size of a grapefruit that I carved seventy two tiny faces in with an x-acto knife, or how I and some friends once carved 60 of them in one day for a party given for kids with down’s syndrome, or how one of the first times I ever got arrested was for beating the crap out of someone for smashing Jack O’lanterns.

But I would rather talk to you about traditions. The building or maintaining of them is something that can change the dynamic of a family, a group of friends and it without doubt can give a sense of being and belonging to a child that is almost impossible to replicate in any other way.

I have friends who always put up their Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. Their parents did the same thing, and they build it into their schedules so that nothing else gets into the way. I have other friends who put up their tree on the morning of Christmas eve and that has always been their way.

Certain meals on certain holidays or a certain dish that would ruin Christmas dinner if it wasn’t there. I am a trained chef and restaurant line cook with history and I make a pretty amazing cranberry mint relish that is to die for, but I can’t make it through a Thanksgiving without a can of jellied cranberry sauce. Why? Tradition…

Holiday comes from the phrase Holy Day and whatever your religious proclivities, holidays are about togetherness, family, love and traditions and that is as holy as it gets. Birthdays, Halloween, Independence day, even odd ones like April Fool’s day all hold deep meaning in certain people’s hearts and we learn more about the souls of those we love when we discover what traditions give them comfort and ask them to share the stories that are attached to them.

You don’t have traditions? Ask around, use the awesome power of the interwebs, hell, ask me, and you may just find one, or a dozen that appeal to you.

Share yours here if you would care to, it is one of the most beautiful things that you can do. It requires a certain amount of trust, you are sharing something that means the world to you and trusting the other person not to mock you for it, to not tarnish or taint it in any way, because traditions are members of the family and we can be very protective of them.

Happy Halloween Guys!!!

Tiny Windows ~ Part 2

Sunday dawned considerably warmer and as we showered, we discussed where we wanted to eat breakfast. I did a quick web search and found that a lot of locals liked a place called the Knotty Pine Restaurant and it was only a half mile or so down the street. So once we were ready, we packed the car and headed out.

The Knotty Pine was everything that is great about the American road trip. It was homey, the waitress (there was only the one) knew almost everyone that came through the front door, and the menu was simple, inexpensive and had everything you could want for a good breakfast. Plus they had apple butter on the table and that alone was enough reason to love the place, but the food was good and exactly as ordered. Listening to the locals banter about everything from politics to lawn tractors turned out to be phenomenal morning entertainment.

With our bellies full, it was time to head back up onto the mountain, and while the line was not as long to get through the gates, we found the same masses crowded into nearly every overlook and pull-off up the entire first leg of the Drive. Because we had agreed to do it the day before, we stopped at the Dickey Ridge visitor center and looked around through the displays and purchased a couple of small items at the gift shop, including a wonderful little book for identifying trees and fallen leaves in the autumn.

As we wandered out to the observation area behind the center, we were again struck by the number of people shooting pictures of themselves and each other while completely ignoring quite magnificent natural vistas all around them. The tiniest children and the elderly seemed to be the only ones other than us to be staring off into the mountains as the clouds dragged their shadows across the forests and the farmlands far below, or squatting to look closely at the few remaining wildflowers holding on this late into the year.

We decided to journey on to Jewel Hollow overlook where my parents and I had spent many fond hours crawling around in the woods and down on the outcrops looking for spring wildflowers and the occasional animal discovery. The lower lot at Jewel Hollow was impassible because of the crowd but the upper lot was half empty, so we parked, grabbed our cameras and hiked back along the rocky trail to see what we might see.

Over the next two hours, we walked, climbed, paused to check out fungi growing from fallen trees, to watch ravens, vultures and at one point a Pileated Woodpecker fly over and to generally enjoy the experience of being there. We crossed paths with other hikers, exchanged pleasantries and now and then glanced up to catch people above us on the overlook, peering out at the distance through the windows of their phones and tablets.

We began to realize at about two o’clock that our time on the mountain was running out, and so we made our way, a little sadly back to the car. On the way, we made friends with a member of the park’s maintenance crew, an older gentleman with an epic beard, great hat and musical Virginia accent named John Tucker. We reminisced about how things used to be and he shared with us how each day, people who had tried camping for the first time were leaving the campground and throwing their tents, sleeping bags, backpacks and equipment in the dumpsters on the way out.

He said that they chose the wrong time of year, didn’t do their research and assumed that it was going to be just a simple matter of setting up their gear and they would be warm, safe and dry. He shook his head with an air of sadness but then quickly smiled and said, “What can you do?” before launching into another story. Our encounter with him made an amazing trip into something extra special!

After saying our goodbyes to John, we once more made the journey out to Crescent Rock overlook to have a ceremonial lunch on the rock where my parents and I always dined. We laughed, communed with the ghosts of my parents and of my younger self and perhaps with a dog or two and then we bid goodbye to that sacred place and made our way down into the world below again.

I want to address the people with the phones and tablets, or at least their habit of viewing the entire world through tiny windows. There was a world out there, one of absolute and breathtaking wonder, and though I understand the draw of taking memories home with you, after all, I spent the weekend with a dslr camera around my neck, as did Kim, the difference is, that we photographed things for their lasting beauty, but did not fill our every minute with it.

We saw people near absolutely stunning scenic backdrops posing their lovers and their kids against their cars for pictures. We passed a grove where the light was simply beautiful but you couldn’t park anywhere near it because there were dozens, if not hundreds of people standing around in the trees, with selfie sticks, pointing their phones at themselves.

I want to find these people, at home, weeks from now and ask them, “What did you see?” and when they go for their phones, take their hands and say, “No, tell me what you saw, what you felt and what did it mean to you?”

The same thing goes for people at concerts, plays and other magical events, we seem to be so obsessed with cramming all of life into these tiny windows that we forget that for a while at least, we aren’t trapped inside of four walls. We are out where stories can happen to us, where we can meet our fellow travelers, where we can see creatures that do not venture into our cities and just for a short time where we can breathe in something so vast that it can remind us of where we fit in the scheme of things.

We have since looked at our pictures from the trip, but we have also spent a couple of days talking about the food, the wind, the sunset on Saturday, how wonderful John Tucker was and what we want to see next time.

We will go back in the spring I think, close to my parents’ anniversary and perhaps there will be smaller crowds and perhaps we will meet some of them on the trail or on one of the lookouts and talk to them in real life, not through tiny windows.

 

Go easy until next time…

Tiny Windows ~ Part 1

Kim and I spent our weekend chasing the ghosts of my childhood.

In May of 1969, my dad and my third trimester mother spent their honeymoon on Skyline Drive, in the Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. I was born less than two months later and the journey that led me to this moment began.

Each year that followed, on the weekend closest to the 20th of May, we as a family would journey back to that place and spend a weekend, exploring, hiking, learning, relaxing and being amazingly alive in the wilds of the Appalachians, and I believe that it is one of the things that kept us together when so many other things seemed to be going so wrong.

During those journeys, we always stayed in the same hotel, ate the same meals at the same restaurant and our itinerary was nearly identical for each trip up the mountain. My father’s open hostility toward any variation of theme was a constant on those trips and we accepted it and thrived as best as we could within those parameters.

That is not to say that we didn’t enjoy those weekends, because they were often the highlight of our year. The four of us, mom, dad, myself and there was always a dog, first Tris, the Siberian Husky that was my brother from birth on, then McDuff, and finally Rowdy both West Highland White terriers, would disappear into the woods and emerge hours later with stories to tell, photographs to share and dirt marking our skins. I think we were more at home on “The Drive.” as we called it, than we were in our little two bedroom bungalow in Aliquippa Pennsylvania.

My mother has been gone since 1995, dad since 2010 and the dogs as well have crossed over, perhaps to be reunited, or perhaps they have returned to begin the journey anew.

Mother’s ashes, as well as some of my father’s are up on Skyline Drive. They are not in the same place, but that is another story.

Kim & I had been talking about making this journey for years, but one thing or another prevented it, money, time, or other commitments and then there was my prolonged illness that pretty much negated any travel from 2011 until 2014. But finally about two months ago we made a decision that we wanted to see the Drive together for the first time in Autumn, the season of fire.

We did not really make a plan beyond departure and return dates and basic lodging hopes (cheap & clean), but having made that bare bones plan, we departed on Saturday morning, with the GPS set to guide us, avoiding all toll roads and all highways.

The journey down was spectacular, the colors of Autumn in rich blaze, the weather was at last October-like after weeks of higher than normal temperatures and we were in the mood for adventure. We laughed, talked and meditated as we glided along the Gypsy ribbons of grey asphalt between Pennsylvania and Virginia, passing through West Virginia and Maryland on the way.

Kim shot hundreds of pictures through the windows of the car and we slowed down on more rural roads to marvel at old barns, beautiful gardens and we made an awesome little side trip to photograph a wonderful little single lane covered bridge in Napier Township. The Calvin/Colvin Bridge was built in the 1880’s but who built it is unknown. It is one of only a couple of bridges in Bedford county that used the barn red color scheme and though it was lightly raining we spent an amazing hour wandering around, taking pictures and exploring above and below like good Trolls should.

With a couple of brief stops for fresh cups of tea or to have a sandwich or some fruit, the miles slid by easy and beautiful.

Once we arrived in Front Royal, we decided to maintain my parents’ tradition and get a room at the Front Royal Motel. If you ever read reviews for it on the internet, you will never stay there, but I am convinced that most people know nothing of the true nature of travelling and so I suggest ignoring them. We paid for our lodging, a staggering sum of $38.00 plus taxes, and we ended up with #105, a room that my parents and I had often stayed in. Except for the linens and the newness of the electronics, the room was pretty much unchanged since my last visit there in 1996 to scatter my mom’s ashes. The door still open with a metal key and still have a chain lock on the inside. By today’s standards the room would be called rustic or even rundown, but it was clean, there was a bed, a shower and a toilet. We weren’t there for the room, we were there for the adventure.

Once we had our basic luggage moved in, we hustled back to the car and made our way to the entrance of the park. The line to get in was approximately half an hour and nearly a mile long. I had never experienced this as we always went up pre-memorial day and had many of the overlooks and trails to ourselves, this was going to be a wholly different experience.

Two things made Saturday such a departure from what I was used to from previous visits. The first was the aforementioned crowds, but the second and more significant was the storm. For twenty four hours, the Blue Ridge Mountains had been battered by a windstorm such as I have never seen up on the mountain.

The wind was a beast, blowing a steady twenty to twenty five miles per hour, with gusts in the fifty to seventy mile per hour range, it was “wild and wooly” as my mom used to say.

I longed to share the breathtaking vistas with Kim as she had never been on Skyline before but I was dismayed to find that each of the first several overlooks were completely packed with dozens of cars, parked at all manner of crazy angles with people everywhere and so we drove on.

The visitors center had so many people at it that cars were double parking along the grass near the exit and blocking roads as they sat, hoping for a space I suppose, and so again, we drove on.

About 30 miles along the Drive, we began to encounter a lessening of the crowds, but where we found them, they were almost all doing the same things, they were peering off into the distance through the screens of their cellphones or they were taking selfies with a staggering array of electronic devices.

We had to avoid people who had moved out into the middle of roadways to photograph themselves and each other while all around them this magnificent storm was throwing clouds, like white horses across a perfect blue sky. If you paused, you could see the wind run in currents up the mountainsides through the yellow, red and orange treetops, but the people weren’t watching.

Black Vultures, Ravens and Red tailed hawks were circling on the thermals and riding the storm winds over everyone’s head but we seemed to be the only ones who noticed. It seemed odd to both of us but we explored on, watching, observing, and commenting on one amazing sight after another.

We ended up at Crescent Rock Overlook. Crescent Rock was known to my family as “The garden” or “Our place.” and it was. Every trip to Skyline ended up with us eating lunch on the same lichen covered stone in the parking lot and then spending four or five hours at a minimum crawling over that rough outcrop of rock to see what was in bloom, what birds were nesting, what reptiles and amphibians might be out and about and just generally immersing ourselves in that wild, rambling garden 3558 feet above sea level.

We loved that place so much that my mother’s ashes reside there, now grown into the flora she adored so much, she has become even more of a part of that place than she was when she was alive.

So Kim and I clambered out into the hurricane force of that wind, onto that shelf of primordial rock and I showed her mom’s resting place and we had a long quiet moment as the winds howled around us.

We lingered for as long as we could but the wind was dropping the temperature into the mid-thirties and we had a long journey back to the north end of the park, it had been a spectacular day.

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On the journey down, we paused to observe the single most beautiful sunset I had ever observed from Skyline Drive, it seems somehow appropriate as we had come to find the ghosts of my past, but to also kindle a new set of traditions for ourselves and hopefully someday, our family.

Once we were back down into Front Royal, we decided to have dinner, as we often do, at a locally owned (mom & pop) kind of place and we ended up choosing Melting Pot Pizza on West 14th Street and it turned out to be a brilliant choice! They make a tremendous super-thin crust pizza, awesome toppings, the pizza cut into manageable square-ish chunks instead of traditional slices, their staff is awesome and proud of what they do, and the locals? The locals love the place and that is often all the recommendation I need.

After dinner we retired to our room, off loaded pictures from the day onto our laptops and shared them with each other. We talked and reminisced about what the place meant and what we had seen and felt, and ended the night excited about what Sunday might offer up.

End Part One. Continued tomorrow.

Welcome to Born of Lightning

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For many of you, at least initially, this will seem like something that is a long time coming. Some of you have been reading my ramblings, thoughts, rants and poetry for more years than I can remember and have been gently (and not so gently) nudging me to launch a real site where most of what I do can be centralized and reach a larger audience. And so, here it is.

Born of Lightning has several meanings and I want to thank Kim (Gypsy) for suggesting that I use it. The first reference is to my actual birth. I was born during the worst thunderstorm during the summer of 1969. The lights in Sewickley Hospital even flickered a couple of times while my mother was in labor. It was such an intense storm that my mother actually suggested that they name me Thor, but my dad would have none of it.

Secondly, a long time ago, I was in a severe automobile accident that nearly killed me, and in fact did for a period of time and it is only thanks to a very talented medic with a defibrillator that I am here at all. So while I was not born of lightning that time, I was perhaps reborn of it.

Because of my extensive injuries, for a while, I was hideous to look at, but still had my poet’s soul which led my surgeon and my dad to both draw parallels between me and the Frankenstein monster, who I became mildly obsessed with.

Thirdly, I am a bit of an electrical anomaly. Battery powered watches can survive maybe an hour on my wrist. If I try to use the self-checkout in the grocers, it will nine times out of ten involve the computer freezing, things unable to scan and multiple visits by a store employee who can never seem to understand why these things are happening. I am also often invisible to automatic doors. I have walked into them when they refused to open and sometimes need to let someone else go first so I can get through them.

Lastly, I once wrote a supernatural erotic novel called Born of Lightning that outlines a rather steamy affair between a vampire outcast and the Frankenstein creature, named Grigori in the story. The book has not yet been published but I am hopeful.

But beyond all of these reasons, I am hoping that you too will find an awakening with me. I believe that here in the stories, observances, challenges and experiences that I share that you may find something missing in yourselves and may be able to live bigger, louder and more fulfilling lives. I am making no claims, no promises, no predictions, but I am going on instinct here.

Born of Lightning will thrive on interaction, we will trade ideas, stories, experiences and we will above all be kind to each other. There is enough cruelty, callousness and ignorance out there already. So I am inviting you in, grab a cup of tea, relax and let the lightning touch you for a while.

 

 

Photo compliments and copyright Kim McClellan 2016