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People taking pictures of barges
Sometimes we forget that we are all living in a wonderland
Sometimes I take it for granted, living in a river town. Not a town that happens to be on the river. A town that exists because of the river. For thousands of years, people have been arriving in Madison by river. First Native American groups like the Shawnee and later white settlers coming across the river from Kentucky.
Still today, people pull their boats up to the dock for festivals. Riverboat cruises come up-river all the way from New Orleans or down-river from Pittsburgh to stop in Madison for the day. On those days, I look up when I’m walking to the library or the coffee shop and am surprised to see a riverboat, stacks and all, parked at the end of the street, like I have time-traveled back a hundred years.
Sometimes I take all that for granted and then I see people stop their car along our river walk. They get out, smiling and pointing, to take a picture of a barge headed up or down the river, chugging along. They smile at me as I walk by, as if they want to say, “Did you see that?”
Or other times they’re taking pictures of the bridge, which is a beauty. Or, if they’re observant, they’ve spotted the two great blue herons fighting down on the shore. Or one of the riverboats as it’s parked along the shore. Or just the river itself, where it bends three times, supposedly the only place along the Ohio where this happens.
I’m always happy to see people taking pictures of barges, if also a little smug. “Yes, I do see the barge,” I want to say. “I see them every day.” But what kind of answer is that? A barge is delightful every single time, especially when the river is up and the barge glides by at the end of the street as if it’s just cruising through town, taking in the sights.
When people say things like, “People are attracted to Madison’s natural beauty,” it takes me a moment to remember what they’re talking about. The landscape around me is the landscape of home and so I’m programmed to take it for granted. The river. The tree-covered hills on either side. Roads that wind down into the valley, spilling new views of the river laid out before you with each twisting curve.
Primary socialization is the idea that the things you’re taught as a child have a special power because you have nothing else to compare them to. The values and norms of primary socialization become Truth, with a capital T, which makes it harder (but not impossible) to un-do primary socialization.
The same thing has to be true of the landscapes into which we’re born. They’re not just familiar. They’re our vision of the way the world looks. The way the world should look. They’re the original against which everything else is measured.
I like looking at mountains, but I prefer the more rounded surface of a gentle hill. Completely flat landscapes creep me out. Deserts and grassy plains and deep mountain valleys are all beautiful. But maybe they’ll never resonate quite the same way for me. They’re not home.
This is how life is sometimes. We become so numb to our lives that we stop seeing. We stop noticing the shower of tiny, yellow leaves on a windy fall day. Or the way the river looks different every single day. Flat like a dull mirror on Monday. Twinkling like a thousand diamonds on Tuesday.
Sometimes, we forget that we are all living in a wonderland. Maybe your wonderland is the last blooming rose before winter arrives. Maybe it’s the glimpse you catch through the salon window of the stylist guiding an elderly customer into her chair, smiling and gentle. Maybe it’s clouds or the pattern on a fallen leaf or laughing until you snort with people you love. Maybe it’s remembering that you live in the type of place where people stop their cars to take a picture of a barge.
Thanks for reading, lovelies. I thought we needed some happy thoughts this week. I do, at least. And I was inspired by just the first page of Ross Gay’s new book, Inciting Joy, where he describes a woman saying to him at a book event, tears in her eyes, “I didn’t know you could write about joy.” And, oh my god, she’s right, isn’t she? We have this crazy idea that joy and delight aren’t the stuff of “serious” art and how crazy is that? Or that somehow it’s wrong to write about joy in the face of all the sorrow of the world, but it’s exactly the sorrow of the world that makes the joy SO important. At least, that’s what I think. So keep on leaning into joy. That’s my plan.
In TWO WEEKS I’ll be turning on paid subscriptions. For real, this time, but don’t panic. Everything you get now, you’ll keep on getting. There will be new stuff added for paid subscribers, as well as some perks (like getting mentioned in the acknowledgements for my next book). More details later this week.
This week I read this fascinating take on how holidays are sprawling into week-long, time and money-intensive affairs at Culture Study. Like, now there’s a leprechaun thing for St. Patrick’s Day? What? So glad I don’t have small children.
Also, I discovered some amazing new music and had a great time at Madhop Music Festival, which you should totally check out if you’re in the area, including Jeremy Pinnell who is a Northern Kentucky guy and has a shout-out to Bobby Mackey’s in one of his songs, where I have been, but not ridden the mechanical bull (is it still there?).
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