Yesterday, I shared with you my visit to New Harmony, a small town in southwest Indiana. It is where, in the 1800s, there were two failed attempts at communal living. Today, the town is exclusive, but picturesque. The grass was neat, trimmed, green, lush. Porches were bedecked with chairs and swings, potted plants and fresh paint. There were gardens, bricks walls, iron fences, tributes to nature. I would, of course, like to visit again--and perhaps I would use an entire roll of film there.
The Sunday of my weekend in Evansville was perhaps the busiest of my days there. After waking up at nearly noon, I found my friend on the patio outside the kitchen, coffee mug and cigarette in hand.
"Why am I waking up at 11:00?" I asked sleepily and accusatively, closing the kitchen door behind me.
"Oh, you know, I figured you could use the sleep," he said, taking a swig of coffee.
Inwardly, I thanked him, thinking FROM ONE INSOMNIAC TO ANOTHER YES YES YES I DID. Outwardly, I teased him. "Perhaps." I hopped up and into one of the chairs. "But that also cuts into the HEY, I AM HERE LET'S HAVE FUN time, too."
Ty chuckled, shook his head with airy resonations. "Well, have you ever been to New Harmony?"
My brows furrowed. "No," I squeaked in high-pitched sarcasm.
Ty laughed again, unfazed by my response. "Well," he tried again, unfolding his hand from his chin, "I was thinking that we could go to New Harmony and eat there and then wander around a bit."
I blinked a few times, acted unamused and uninterested. Gave him the opportunity to air pretension.
He took it. "You know," he said, bobbing his head and shoulders in mock impatience. "New Harmony. Go walk around. Live it. See it. Tour the failed commune of southern Indiana." The angle of his head paralleled that of his outstretched palm.
I began to laugh, my face in my palms. Ty continued breaking down what history he knew of the small town. I shook my head out of hands, holding one of them up. "Ty! We'll go. WE'LL GO," I laughed.
Since I had never heard of New Harmony before my weekend getaway, Ty (and, later, Wikipedia) would inform me of the town's history. As the historical marker toward the center of town says, New Harmony is the location of "two attempts at communal living: The Harmonists under Reverend George Rapp, 1814-1825, and the Owenites under philanthropist Robert Owen, 1825-1826. New Harmony remained an important cultural center for many years thereafter."
Today, New Harmony (which is the same size as my hometown, at about 1,000 residents) still resonates bits and pieces of its failed utopias. There are no commercial businesses--no fast food restaurants, no chains. Of all the businesses in town, there is only one bank and one gas station that are not locally owned. Ty informed me that the locals are very exclusive, and that cash--rather than check or credit--is practically the only form of payment accepted.
The town itself is built along the Wabash River and is very picturesque; I regret not taking more photos of the walls, the fences, the original wooden buildings, the brick homes with wrap-around porches. It still looked ideal, really, and it was almost fantastical, given that the town's resort/inn/hotel guests zoomed around the borough in golf carts.
You could sense that the community was entirely close-knit, forever influenced by both nature and the Owen descendants. I was fascinated by it, and--rather than keep my eye behind a lens--preferred to take in what old-world charm I could. The whole town, especially that around said resort/inn/hotel was very lush, and the only building that did not resemble any other was the visitors center, a progressively modern building.
We ate lunch at a Route 66-themed cafe, one decorated with hubcaps, a jukebox, 1950s memorabilia. A young girl, seven or eight, perhaps, took our order. I told Ty that she reminded me a little of myself; when I had been her age, my mother also managed a restaurant.
"She let me do the orders, the drinks," I said. "That's also how I learned to make change."
After lunch, we wandered over to the Working Men's Institute, which is part library, part museum. It was established in 1838 by William McClure, who came to New Harmony in 1826 (during the Owen utopian experiment). McClure said the institute "should be solely and only applied to the diffusion of useful knowledge by mutual instruction amongst the producing classes who labor with their hands, and gain their bread by the sweat of their brow." (In other words, the Institute was an example of self-education for laborers.) It was also held in various areas of the town until 1894, when the current building (seen in the first photo of this post) was built.
The library itself was quite small, and taking up only half of the downstairs. The other half housed archives (and the labeling of said archives intrigued me, a typography nerd).
Upstairs, the museum housed commissioned copies of 19th-century Italian art, as well as New Harmony artifacts. There was also a great deal of natural history items, including a prized freshwater mussel collection. Ty and I repeatedly stared at the bird skulls, however, as well as the fish heads and preserved frogs. The most morbid of the displays (and yet the most interesting) were the complete horse skeleton of "Old Fly" and the taxidermied Siamese calves.
One of the last things we visited in New Harmony was the Roofless Church. It was commissioned by Jane Owen and designed by Philip Johnson, the same architect who, among many other works, designed the Seagram Building (New York City) and the Crystal Cathedral. According to this article, "Johnson and Owen envisioned a church where only the roof large enough to encompass a world of worshippers was the sky." The mushroom-like structure is the centerpiece of the courtyard, which is surrounded by brick walls. The grass was very green, and a small garden (with some religious avant-garde art) humbles one corner. Again--like most of New Harmony--the importance and dependence upon nature is prominent. Even the "balcony," the one with several tall columns, overlooks the corn, the trees, the river behind them.
Near the garden, there was a fountain, a small one with tossed coins and well wishes. I read the inscription, dipped my fingers in the water. Cool. Smooth.
I watched as Ty fished a penny from his pocket, dropped it accidentally. The quiet ting of the fallen coin was the only sound in the courtyard; we were alone. He picked it up, paused, casually flung it into the flowing water. It floated to the bottom, shiny, reflective of both water and wishes. I looked at it, then at Ty. Again, his hand dug, rattled currency. Again, a penny; this time, for me.
I rubbed it a few times between my thumb and forefinger, contemplative. It could've been a minute, it could've been a second--I did not want to keep Ty waiting. I looked at the quarters and the nickels, the thoughts worth more than my own. In one breathless thought, I flicked my penny into the pool.
Wisdom, wisdom, wisdom.
As I mentioned in my last post, one of my good friends lives next to/in a Jewish cemetery. In truth, it is not as creepy as is sounds. It was rather quiet there, and almost peaceful. You focus more on the junipers, the flowers, the brick wall dividing the cemetery from the country club. You forget about what's in the ground and more about what's on the stones themselves--the names of people, the names and lives of those who passed centuries before. (The oldest stones in the cemetery are illegible for two reasons; first, they are written in Hebrew, and, second, the limestone has been rubbed smooth, rendering any language unreadable.)
When I asked my friend if there were any gravestones that resonated with him more than others, he brought me to a tall pillar, one several feet high. The resting places of family members were arranged around the monument, which is what my friend drew my attention to.
"Wow. This girl was only fifteen," I said. "And this one only seven! And they died in Denver on the way out west ... wow. Can you imagine, in the mid-1800s, having to transport the bodies all the way back here? Without any way to preserve the body? Wow. It reminds me of As I Lay Dying."
As we continued touring the cemetery, my friend pointed out other various elements.
"This one here," he said, as he brought me to another monument, "is also Indiana limestone. But if you look closely, you can see all the little fossils and sea shells and such from eons ago."
"And over here," he continued, "is where the parents, brother, and brother's wife of Jack Weil are interred. Jack Weil founded Rockmount Ranch Wear in Denver. He was born in Evansville in 1901 and he was the CEO of his company until 2008. He was 107 when he died. Oldest CEO in the world. Anyway, he designed western wear for Clark Gable, and for Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain."
The history of this person, this person's family, is why I found the cemetery interesting and reflective. These gravestones, all of them, especially the older ones, are a community of ancestors. These people were real; they ate, drank, laughed, cried, hugged, loved. They had hardships I will never know, lives to which I cannot relate. It's humbling, given that the only thing I can share with those lost to the ages is the cemetery itself--the grass, the trees, the flowers, the sunset.
Two weeks after returning from our Canada road trip, I went to visit one of my traveling companions at his house in Evansville. I had never spent any amount of quality time in southern Indiana, and had certainly never been to my friend's home. I had heard about it, though; heard about its inclusion in the Jewish cemetery, about how he and his family were sextons. I had a rough expectation of what it looked like (from pictures and prior descriptions) and was not disappointed. And his dog was a wonderful, fluffy, sweetheart of a dog.
When not traipsing across the city or across state borders, we spent a lot of time talking about books. Favorites, likes, dislikes, Hemingway. Talked about what books were good guides on how to write (On Writing), and which ones weren't (Bird by Bird). We watched Midnight in Paris, spoke about rhinoceroses at the zoo the following day. We shared and devoured a heavy meal at a German restaurant (indeed, the salty goulash filled us for the rest of the afternoon and evening). We listened and spoke to a 90-year-old accordion player at a restaurant Friday evening. We grilled out Sunday night, went and listened to live blues music. And, like most introverted, former college journalists, we knocked back some drinks.
On Saturday, we headed south to John James Audubon State Park, which is in Henderson, Kentucky. (John James Audubon was a naturalist and painter who created Birds of America.) The museum, which was actually decorated for a wedding that day, had niches everywhere, small holes for birds and other creatures. The tower provided lovely views of the garden area (as well as the upward construction of the tower itself). With steeply slanting roofs, curving stairs, thick masonry, columns and balconies, this place would be an excellent location for a Gatsby party.
I'll have you know that I took the photo below while waiting for Ty. I had gone outside, into the back courtyard. I was hoping to get a photo of the various architecture in the building. However, when I turned around, I realized that--despite the signs that said USE THIS DOOR--I was locked out. I had my forehead pressed to the glass, my eyes downward in humorous embarrassment, when Ty came back from the restroom. He smirked as he let me in.
"Don't. Say. A word," I said, my palm to his face. I shook my index finger silently and shook my head. "I should not be allowed in public."
Back inside, we saw several birds from the viewing area--bluejays, mockingbirds, finches, wrenches, cardinals.
"Hey, look, a gold finch," Ty said, pointing through one of the room's several windows. "Iowa's state bird."
"Yes, I am well aware of that, thank you," I said, matter-of-factly.
Ty chuckled. "And you've killed how many now?"
"Three," I said immediately. "Death by car." I paused, watched yet another gold finch flutter around the feeders. "But, you know, it's nice to see birds that I can't destroy with my car's windshield."
We flipped through some of the signage, questioning each other with bird-related facts. Ty, unsurprisingly, knew most of the answers.
"Because you've looked at them before," I accused him.
"So, what I've learned so far is that the cardinal is the state bird for seven states and that you're a pretentious bastard."
We kidded each other until we got to the room that concerned even more natural affairs, such as taxidermied deer and preserved eggs.
"Hey, check this out," Ty said, pointing to a large, mock nest intended for the education of children. "See, kids can climb into the nest aaaaand..." he drew my attention to the four-foot-tall bird statue.
I sniggered, attempted to compose my laughter. "What the fuck is this?" I asked, stepping into the nest. "I mean, this is a bean bag with a head." I hugged the bird, shook it a bit. "And it's made of denim. What kind of bird is made from casual day pants?" I flipped through some of the informative boards built into the nest. "Oooooh, look, and the young ones can learn about bird poop while sitting here, in this 'nest.'" I pointed to a model of bird poop on the edge of the nest, and we laughed again. "Mock feces," I said. "Not what I was expecting today."
We also visited the zoo one afternoon. It was a small zoo, yes, but quite delightful given its size. My favorite part about the zoo was "Amazonia," a building that featured various jungle creatures. It reminded me a great deal of the Lied Jungle at the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo, with its thick vines, large trees, humid temperature, waterfall, ferns. It hosted several of the same animals, and we spent several moments spying on the catatonic capybaras.
On my last night there, we stayed up until three or four in the morning, talking. Talking books, like always. Movies. Short stories. A&P. Sonny's Blues. Smoke Signals. Casablanca. The Sun Also Rises. Death of a Salesman. A Moveable Feast. I sat on the guest room bed, cradling one of the four posts.
"The store in A&P always reminds me of the grocery store in my dad's hometown. The floor tiles, the lights. It is that story. I always think of that every time I drive past it."
Eventually, I threw one of the bed's pillows at Ty, who mistakenly thought I was attacking him for being pedantic.
I laughed. "Actually, no. See, this time, I was legitimately giving you a pillow because I thought you wouldn't want your head on the floor." He had been reclined on his side for some time, one arm behind his head, the other stretched to the dog, who would lick and nuzzle his fingers every few minutes.
"I love your dog," I said. "And I typically hate dogs. Especially small ones. But Bear is just ... such a sweetheart. And he's fluffy. Senile, perhaps, but he makes a good guard dog. I know he's been sleeping in here because this is "his room," but I like to believe he stays here just because I'm in here."
"If that's true, then I'm not pretentious at all," Ty responded, the operative sarcasm falling on the last two words.
More teasing. More jokes. More books. More wishful thinking.
"Ideally," I said, "I think we need to go on vacations or road trips annually. At least once a year."
"Ideally," Ty said, "I think we need to go on vacations or road trips like, four times a year."
"We need to start working on winning the lottery."
Today is my brother and sister-in-law's first wedding anniversary. It reminds me of how fleeting time is; how fast it brushes past us with moments of happiness, with highs and lows, with challenges of growth. It has been a year since they swore their love to each other, swore to faithfulness and an unbreakable commitment. They are Buttercup and Westley, two people whose devotion cannot be broken by a thousand swords. They are the ones who, at first, somewhat nauseate you with their gazes. But later, you see and learn and crave and want for the attention they give each other. It is admirable and enviable, and I congratulate them on their first anniversary.
I love you both.
For photos from their wedding, and to read about their day, go here.