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Monday, August 22, 2016

Tillman Ravine, A Sign from Antoinette, a Dangerous Animal!!! And the Requisite Whine

Photo by Stephen Vecchiotti Source
Eft by National Geographic source
July, 2016 was the hottest summer on record, ever, in the history of humanity. And not just in my apartment. I live in a refurbished silk mill. Ceiling 25 feet high; 49 square feet of window facing south. No cross ventilation. No air conditioning. (A neighbor spends $200 monthly air conditioning his loft. I can't do that.)

My apartment grabs on to heat and won't let it go. I wilt.

And this summer has been episodic.

"You need surgery. You need tests before surgery. The tests reveal you may have cancer again."

And so I had to switch gears back to "Time to update my will, not buy the economy-size laundry detergent because I won't be around to use it; time to watch subtitled movies in smelly theaters with audiences all dressed in black. Time to gaze at the sunset and ponder the innocence of children and the impermanence of life. And I can eat all the chocolate I want because who cares if my corpse is fat."

"Test results are in. You don't have cancer."

Put that chocolate down!

The other episodes were hope and despair. Four national publishers looked at my book God through Binoculars. Two top editors called it "captivating."

And so I hoped. I can get out of the slum. I can afford to buy any food item in the supermarket. I can get health care when I need it. People will read my writing.

Sitting by the computer, waiting for word.

I really wanted to get away this summer, even just a weekend at Cape May, but the episodicity prevented that. Needed to be on hand for the next medical test, the next jerking around by a publisher.

So I've been taking small trips.

I have long wanted to return to Tillman Ravine. The very name is magic.

Antoinette and I went there when we were girls.

She knew more about the world than I did. She introduced me to Ringwood Manor and Skylands, with its botanical garden. She somehow heard of Tillman Ravine and one day we drove there. Just the two of us, intimate, sharing, sisters. Because I've been there only that one time, Tillman Ravine's magic, for me, will always be encapsulated in a glistening caul of that first time, with my sister.

When I returned to New Jersey after years in Indiana, my sister's daughter was showing to me photographs she had taken that she had stored on her computer. One was of Tillman Ravine. "This is a special place," she told me. "You and my mom went there when you were girls. She told me about it and she took me there."

I smiled. I didn't let the feelings out. I wanted to sob. Antoinette and I had spent the previous decade and a half not talking to each other. The split had given me nightmares that I'd waken from in a cold sweat. My niece's photo and caption of her trip to Tillman Ravine with Antoinette alerted me that my sister spent at least some of those years missing her little sister, whom she had pushed away with shocking cruelty. My heart broke.

Last night, I decided. My two medical appointments this week could wait. I knew I'd be getting news from publishers soon; they could wait, too.

It was time to return to Tillman Ravine.

But, I thought, what if Tillman Ravine's magic eludes me? What if it was only wonderful because it was Antoinette and me and we were friends that day and both agiggle with girlhood and secrets and promises and hope? The promise: we loved to bake. Someday we'd leave NJ and go live in Vermont and open a bakery.

The hope: love. Hot, sexy guys who were also astoundingly sensitive; they all talked like Billy Wilder scripts, because really all we knew of love was what we saw in the Golden-Age Hollywood movies we watched over and over on TV till we had the dialogue by heart and repeated it to each other as part of our secret, shared language. We also hoped for publication. We both wrote, and told each other novels we composed spontaneously during long car rides.

And maybe I shouldn't go to Tillman Ravine because 2012's Hurricane Sandy did such a number on it. It was closed for months afterward.

The New York New Jersey Trail Conference reported:

"Crew Chiefs Monica and David Day's crews built a stone staircase up a very steep embankment created when a huge tree was blown over; redefined several trail sections; cut up two huge blowdowns that blocked a bridge and used a highline to lift the tree pieces out of the streambed; rebuilt the bridge's footings on a temporary basis and hoisted it back into a new alignment; and freed another bridge from a massive blowdown."

So maybe I shouldn't go to Tillman Ravine at all.

But, then I thought, maybe Antoinette will send me a sign. And then it will all be okay.

I woke up at five hoping to get an early start but my walls were strobing red and blue, a frequent occurrence. I looked out the window and saw several police cars, an ambulance, and a fire truck. I googled it later; yet another attempted killing right in front of the building.

I need to get out of Paterson.

Maybe if I can find a publisher for God through Binoculars.

The drive to beauty and sanity took me up over a thousand feet. I lost the New York station on the car radio and had to settle for country music. Made sense; I was passing farm stands, woods and fields. I watched the numbers go down on the car thermometer. As I left the city's heat island and gained altitude, digits decreased all the way to 64. I knew I had died and gone to heaven. Other people look for departed loved ones; I will look for cool air. It was August 22, but I would wear the twelve-year-old Orvis down vest I keep in the trunk of the car for the first hour of the hike.

My first footfall on the trail landed next to a bright red eft. I immediately knew: Tillman Ravine is every bit as magic as I remembered it. Life was everywhere: puddles hopped with copper-eyed and copper-backed frogs with lime green smiles, hemlock branches sifting the clouds high overhead bobbed from the weight of black-and-white warblers.

I hiked for five and a half hours. Never sat down. Moved. Down Tillman Ravine, which is every bit as beautiful as the Grand Canyon, but not quite as large. Through a meadow burgeoning with queen Anne's lace, goldenrod, chicory, thistle, rattlebox, brown-eyed Susan. A ring-necked pheasant trotted along the overgrown path head of me. I found three of his feathers. My legs bled from thorns.

To a cemetery: husband's birth date and death; wife's birth date and death. Then: Gladys: 1800-1802. Another girl: 1802-1804. No other children listed. Another stone, merely the word: "Babies." Oh, the heartbreak those stones communicated.

Walking back toward the car, I saw something I'd never seen before in the wild. A porcupine. He had his back, bristling with worlds of hurt, to me. His head appeared to be poked into the angle created by two fallen logs. I left the trail, crossed over Tillman Brook, and tread carefully.

I got back to Paterson and received the final rejection notices on God through Binoculars. All at once. That's never happened before. They all seemed so torn. One was signed "regretfully." Another said the book is too hard to pigeonhole.

I feel as if I was just crushed by an anvil. I've been through this too many times before. I'll be in this slum forever. No more than a couple dozen people will ever read my writing.

I'm in pain … and so I'm writing this inconsequential little blog post. Because writing is my crucifixion, and my solace.

Finally … Antoinette.

I've been birdwatching for forty years and more. Except for the most recent years, I had seen only one bald eagle.

I didn't have a car to get to wild places, and bald eagles, stricken by DDT and habitat loss, were on a steep decline. In recent years, though, bald eagles have been bouncing back, and I now have wheels.

During our last trip, to Lake George, Antoinette, her daughter and I took a long boat ride. Outside our window we saw a bald eagle perched on a pine. He never flew off and we gazed at him as long as he was in eyeshot.  

Later, Dominick Dabrowski and I were driving in New York state. We stopped at a rest stop and I began to cry. I realized that it was one I had stopped at during that Lake George trip with Antoinette. As we were driving away from the rest stop, I tried to explain to Dominick why I was crying, and we saw a bald eagle perched prominently on a tree on the exit ramp. I took it as a sign from Antoinette.

One day some months back I was headed up to Garret Mountain, a wooded area completely surrounded by Paterson and West Paterson. My "little voice" said that I would see a bald eagle, and that that would be a hello from Antoinette. A bald eagle flew low and leisurely right over my head in urban Paterson, NJ. It's been a while since anything like that has happened.

This morning, just as I was turning off the main road to the wooded one-lane that would take me to Tillman Ravine, I saw a large bird flying over my car. Birdwatchers don't much care about traffic when a bird that size flies overhead. The bird had a white tail. I surrendered the car to whatever autopilot my brain can muster when I am staring at a bird. It was a bald eagle, right over my car, just as I was turning toward Tillman Ravine.

A sign? I think so.

You can read brief excerpts of God through Binoculars at Julie Davis' Happy Catholic blog here. You can read a couple of longer excerpts at FrontPage Magazine here and here

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