Behind the wheel, I’d been putting miles between us and our cameos in that timeless bittersweet holiday love story; the laughter and tears of parents and children. We’d had the joy of loving those in need and receiving their blessings in return. Needed warmth in the oft-desolate wasteland of the heart. Suddenly, I am shaken from my journey in the land of existential (“dust storms may exist”; “zero visibility possible”*). Deep in the heart of Texas,** the temperature gauge spiked. Oh, shit! Was our good luck running thin? Ahead the two-lane road came to a rise. We pulled off the road feeling small and alone amidst the vast sparse plains and endless blue sky. Prickly pair cactus for miles around and a little Armadillo road kill on the side. Nearby, a hawk perched hungrily watching a meadowlark dart across the road. Mockingbirds and ravens settled on the mesquite trees as if taking their seats for the show. Feeling a little like the wilderness comic, I bowed to the audience and lifted the hood dreading the voice of doom. Somewhere in the midst of that fine German engineering the car sizzled. I knew then we wouldn’t be sleeping that night in New Mexico. Under my breath I hummed the Grateful Dead lyrics “Casey Jones you better watch your speed…trouble ahead, trouble behind.”
The miles of country behind – cotton fields, pecan trees, goats, and the occasional steer – had been punctuated with cell towers. We might feel a bit lost out here in the desert, but we could be found; GPS and handhelds with bars serving as a strong substitute for a bright guiding star. Seconds later Google maps located the nearest VW dealer some 150 miles northwest. Plan B began to take shape. Later that night in an Abilene Best Western, that had room for us, we mused about our best-laid plans and what a roll of the dice can bring. Our luck never really ran thin. It was quite the opposite. Bearing gifts they came to us one following the other. John, our Abilene VW service manager, although miles away inspired confidence as we collaborated via cell phone to diagnose the problem and how to resolve it; Mrs. Wise, a local rancher, stopped and offered comfort making sure we had water and a way forward; and Sergeant-Major, twenty-year career soldier and medic, gave us command over the problem all the while laughing and sharing stories of his life in the army as he towed us west towards the stable, excuse me, garage managed by Donna (where they affectionately called her Ma). We will never forget the Texas magi and their gifts.
* Actual road signs in New Mexico, Land of Enchantment
** In 1923, Brady, Texas was officially designated as the “heart of Texas.”
On Christmas Eve morning we began our journey heading southeast past the fields of plowed-under cornhusks and bales of cotton standing ready at the gin. At the small towns of Little River, Bartlett and Granger I slow the car. Out the corner of my eye, I see the bustling cotton towns of the 1920s. Now I quickly glance at a few farmers and ranchers, their wives and children, topping off the tank and buying a quart of milk at the convenience store before settling-in for the coming day of celebration, rest, and reflection. Desolate and empty towns transformed by the shift from local to global economy. From the north and west comes a great cold front. From the vantage point of a small rise the change of weather is visible for a great distance in the hill country. Still hours away, the dark gray storm clouds will bring a hard driving rain that floods the road and challenges visibility. In Taylor, we pilgrims stop to rest and replenish our minds and bodies with conversation and good Texas barbeque with pinto beans, slaw, pickles and onions. The years of rich smoky air browning the walls will stick to our clothes leaving a sweet reminder of time past. Refreshed we continue our pilgrimage on state route 79 to the cemetery to pay our respects to my grandfather, grandmother and mother. In 1946 the year he passed, my Grandfather Eph asked my father to bury him with a view of the road heading east to Thorndale, the town where he raised his children and supervised the cotton gin. We stand on the hillock, the cold wind blowing rain in our faces, and pay our respects to our loved ones. All around a world of grey: sky and two-lane highway. I think of Desolate Angel – Dennis McNalley’s biography of Jack Kerouac – and the words “the great walking saint would be a pilgrim who would traverse until his death America’s streets and roads as penance for its sins, loving all its creatures – inhabitants, asking the cars as they hurtled by ‘whither goest thou?’ “
With the coming of the cross-quarter, winter begins. Leaves in artful decay proclaim the changing season. Gone are summer’s limbs heavy with ripened apricot and plum. From the corner of my eye, the persimmon, branches nearly bare, adorned with amarillo bangles and arancia hearts. Floating. Breathtaking in the fading light. I paint; a deep sense of connection between myself and everything. For the moment, I fade away, lost in the act. Later, steady cold rains: the kind we welcome to keep the drought years at bay. Mugs of hot matcha take the edge from chilled hands. In the oven, persimmon cookies bake, the golden taste of connection. (San Francisco) California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.
Legends tell us the heart-shaped Hachiya fondly called kaki was introduced to Japan from China in the 8th century by a wandering Buddhist. The monk traveled Japan subsisting on persimmons spreading seeds “Johnny Appleseed-like” throughout the land. Masaoka Shiki a 19th century Japanese author helped revive waka and haiku poetry and introduced the concept of nature sketching or shashei honored the fruit’s place in Japanese culture with this poem composed while stopped at Nara on his journey to Tokyo:
I bite a persimmon
the bell tolls
In her book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Jane Hirshfield writes that “every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections….it begins…in the body and mind of concentration….true concentration appears paradoxically at the moment willed effort drops away….the self disappears ….we seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.” Echoing Jane Hirshfield, Phil Lesh lovingly described his life with the Grateful Dead in Searching for the Sound . “We were in the music and the music was playing us. To loose oneself completely in a spontaneous flow of music is one of the great human joys: one is creating, but being created. In fact, one no longer exists. At the same time, there’s a give-and-take a handing off of ideas that mimics the process of thought itself….Bobby and I left holes for each other’s notes, creating an interlocking constantly changing rhythm.”