A Helianthus Morning by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Out in Fairlee, my friend Smokey annually exchanges a wide swath of his corn crop for a patch of helianthus—sunflowers. It’s a calculated economic exchange: there assuredly will be some loss of income from the value of the corn crop, but hopefully, that will be more than offset by the income derived by hunters. Wait: hunters like sunflowers? Yes, they do; at least indirectly. You see, sunflowers produce seeds which are prized by doves and hunters like to shoot doves so they (the hunters, not the doves) pay Smokey a fee to hunt that portion of his farm and everyone is happy. Well, not everyone: I guess the doves aren’t happy, but then that’s life: not everyone can be happy all the time. To know happiness is to know sadness…

But hunting season doesn’t begin until September so on this particular unseasonably cool morning in June, the sunflower field is quiet, seemingly asleep under a soft quilt of silver mist. The tall, gangly flowers are dozing, their heads drooping in the pre-dawn stillness. But as light begins to gather in the east, one senses an awakening: like congregants coming out of prayer, the sunflowers begin to stretch their necks and lift their heads, searching out the source of their being, that orb that animates their existence, same as us.

I said it was quiet, but that’s not really true. The stalks are gently rustling in a faint breeze which produces (in my mind at least) a soundtrack to this early morning scene: it’s the first few bars of Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” the tone poem inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s novel of the same name. (You and I know it better as the haunting opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The film premiered in 1968 and to this day, the opening scene and accompanying score still give me goosebumps.) Fortunately, out among the sunflowers, my mind mercifully changes its tune and now I’m hearing “Here Comes the Sun,” the Beatles much brighter ditty from Abbey Road which makes me feel that everything will indeed be all right. Whew!

By now, the sun is almost over the tops of the trees on the eastern border of the field. It’s early in the growing season, so the sunflowers in Smokey’s patch still tilt their yellow heads in the sun’s direction. This sun-tracking phenomenon—heliotropism for the botanists among us—lasts for two-to-three months or until the flowers reach their mature height of six-to-ten feet at which point they have decided that east is their direction of preference—no surprise there.

It just so happens that in addition to botanists, mathematicians love sunflowers because the florets, the tiny flowers that make up the disc of the large sunflower, are arranged in a natural spiral that forms a Fibonacci sequence, a sequence of numbers (beginning with zero) in which each number—or in this case, each tiny floret—is the sum of the two numbers (florets) preceding it. This natural phenomenon can even lead a real mathematician to the ecstasy of the golden ratio, but that is way beyond my ken so I’ll just leave it at that. (You can Google www.mathisfun.com if you’re really interested.)

As my friend Key so often asks me, “Is this going somewhere?” Yes; well, sort of. This week, I’ll be going over to the Western Shore to work with a group of rising high school seniors who are all facing in a similar direction—a direction called “College.” We’re specifically working on composing the dreaded college essay—now more euphemistically called the “personal statement”—a composition intended to distinguish the personal qualities and interests of one highly qualified applicant from another. It’s a tricky business because these college applicants, like sunflowers, are at once inherently beautiful and intricately complex.

College admissions? Again? Oh dear! I think I hear the opening strains of “Thus Spake Zarathustra.”

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Where There’s Smoke by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Another Tea party is in the books and what a spectacular one it was! The weather did more than cooperate; it made the bands sound better, the musketry and cannon fire louder, and the raft race zanier than ever. Which is how it should be. I must admit that I rue all those prickly insurance regulations which apparently were not in effect here in 1774 but now preclude flinging redcoats into the Chester, but nevertheless Tea Party is still a jolly good show and damn good business for the town, too.

Which brings me to the subject of this week’s Musing: the Mueller Report. Wait; what? That’s right: the kafkaesque saga, two years in the making, that was recently published by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and Company exploring (among other things) Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, allegations of conspiracy between Team Putin and Team Trump, and the possibility (probability?) that the “winner” of that election conspired to obstruct justice by covering up various nefarious deeds he and his cohorts have committed in the months (now years, sigh!) since. I admit I have not read the 400+ pages of Mr. Mueller’s opus, but by now it seems pretty clear that a) Putin and friends did (successfully) seek to influence the outcome of the 2016 election and b) there are clouds and clouds of smoke obscuring the issue of obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump and his shipmates aboard the USS Fools.

Every teacher of English I know abhors the double negative but nevertheless, Mr. Mueller got away with one: “If we had confidence that the President did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” That’s barely a decent sentence let alone a ringing endorsement of Presidential innocence. To my ear, that sounds more like “this room is full of smoke, but sorry, I’m not allowed to call the fire department.”

To make matters worse, our owlishly bespectacled, jowly, and saturnine Attorney General, one of the President’s lawyerly wagon masters that now has a team of conestogas encircling the White House, has interpreted Mr. Mueller’s statement to mean that smoke is just smoke; “Move along people, no flames here.” In other words, Mr. Mueller not only can’t call the fire department, but also the fire chief has just turned off the water.

According to Mr. Mueller’s interpretation of Department of Justice policy, a sitting President cannot be indicted or prosecuted because a) the wheels of government would come off the rails (they aren’t already?) and b) because the Constitution provides another method for investigating Presidential iniquity, i.e. impeachment.

Which means that Mr. Mueller’s all-smoke-no-fire report now passes the whole sorry investigation along to Congress like a hot potato. If impeachment is the means by which we must determine whether or not the house is on fire, we might as well set out our lawn chairs and watch the fireworks. As every elementary school kid and Speaker Pelosi knows, while it’s the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives that would bring the charges or articles of impeachment against the President, it’s the Republican-controlled Senate that would try the case and determine its outcome. Good luck with that jury!

As Stan might say to Ollie, “What a sorry mess you’ve gotten us into!” Unfortunately, this is tragedy, not comedy. I’d like to think that impeachment would bring more facts to light so that we, the American people, could clearly see if there is any fire or if it’s indeed all smoke, but alas, I doubt there will be much, if any, clarity in the months to come.

It seems to me the only way out of this mess is a clear and honest outcome to the 2020 election. Given the likelihood of ongoing interference in our democratic process and the eye-watering haze generated by all the smoke out there, that’s a lot to hope for. it’s going to be a smoldering seventeen months.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

The Weight of Small Things by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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A few days ago, on a magical Chesapeake evening, I watched a small tug pull a heavy barge up the bay. It noiselessly made its slow but steady way northward, probably heading for the canal and then maybe on to Wilmington or Philadelphia, Day was almost done; our hosts called us to dinner.

All things have weight, substance. And, like that tug, we haul them along behind us through all the days of our lives. Maybe it’s the weight of the past: the toiling of our ancestors or, more recently, the demands and expectations of our parents, or our place in the family birth order, or episodes and people that have indelibly shaped our character and being. Or maybe it’s the weight of the future: the anxiety of all the tomorrows to come or even the existential dread imposed upon us by that extremely stable genius and his motley crew that have a disproportionate influence on our lives these days. But rarely is there the serenity of a present moment, an inhalation and exhalation of the now, detached from everything that was or will be. (No, Eggman, I’m not smoking anything.)

A friend came to visit us for Chestertown’s Tea Party. He brought with him chocolate chip cookies, a bourbon cake fat with butter, and a bottle of Hendricks gin and all the necessary accompaniments. (Needless to say, he is welcome anytime.) Early on Sunday morning, as is our wont, we were sitting on the porch, discussing whatever came to mind. I mentioned to him my thoughts on that little tug, the barge, and the weight of things—the past, the present, and the future. “21 grams,” he said.

I looked at him blankly.

“It’s the weight of our souls,” he said. “The difference in weight between a body pre-death and immediately post-death is just a bit over 21 grams. It must be what animates us, makes us human.”

21 grams is about three-quarters of an ounce. Just think: all our individual human histories, all the experiences of our lives, all our hopes and fears, our expectations and dreams…all weighed and measured at a bit more than 21 grams. No way…

So I did a little research. The concept that the soul has mass and therefore weight is derived from an experiment conducted in 1907 by Duncan MacDougall, a Massachusetts physician who weighed six patients at the moment of death and found one lost 21.3 grams. But even MacDougall was skeptical: he knew his sample was small, that only one of his six subjects showed a measurable loss of weight at death, and that his methodology was likely flawed and his results were selectively reported. He hoped to do more experiments and to even photograph the human soul, but he died in 1920 before publishing any new work. Nevertheless, the idea that human soul is 21 measurable ounces took hold in the popular mind and persists to this day. Now it has even made its way onto our porch. Ergo, it must be true.

I must admit that I like the notion that there is something measurable that adds individuality and personality to common existence; something that makes us, us. And it’s all the more remarkable if the difference between you and me, between a long, well-lived life and a life cut tragically short, between a male life and a female life, between everything that separates us one from another, is a common little 21 grams.

Quite a load and a long haul for one beating human heart.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Indigenous Indignities by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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A couple weeks ago, I watched a segment on 60 Minutes about an Inuit throat singer. Before that, I had never heard of Inuit throat singing, and to be honest, I’m not about to download some Inuit throat singing and add it to my favorite playlist. But that’s not the point. Embedded in the 60 Minutes story was the sad saga of Inuit mistreatment by the Canadian government: the forced assimilation and marginalization of a distinct native culture into a non-native, white society. It sounded almost as heinous as the mistreatment of Native Americans by our own government.

Indigenous indignities are, sad to say, common phenomena. The histories of Mexico, Central America, and South America are rife with indigenous indignities. The African slave trade is a horrific chapter in the still unfolding saga of the human and economic exploitation of the New World. Immigrant Australians have pushed the native Aboriginal culture of their island continent almost to the point of extinction. Canadians, whom I have always thought to be fair, inclusive, and open-minded people, have not been so fair, inclusive, and open-minded when it comes to their own Inuit population. And here in the United States, the legacies of Thomas Jefferson’s Manifest Destiny, Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears, the Bosque Redondo (the federal internment facility for Navajos and Mescalero Apaches), and the forced relocation of countless other Native Americans have left not just a scar but an open wound on our own landscape.

Tell me: why is it that a predominantly white culture feels it has the right to exert dominance over another indigenous, non-white culture? Is it lust for territory? Natural resources? Wealth? Or is it an unquenchable feeling of cultural or religious superiority—what the French colonizers of West and North Africa called their “civilizing mission” or what Rudyard Kipling labeled the “white man’s burden?” Moreover, isn’t it ironic that Christian missionaries were often the agents—unwitting or otherwise—of cultural assimilation and even annihilation, but then those missionaries were, more often than not, simply using their particular order’s interpretation of a divine plan to justify a more demonic one.

The perpetrators of past indigenous indignities are certainly the revered ancestors of today’s white supremacists.These people should have become extinct along with the dinosaurs, but somehow their misguided notion of superiority seems to have been reborn and is making a new and even more hateful resurgence these days. Whether driven by political tolerance from on high or by fear of economic or social displacement below, the current crop of white supremacy practitioners have all-too-boldly reclaimed space in our national discourse. Their claptrap should have been silenced at the first syllable, but when that didn’t happen, they grew emboldened and shouted louder. Now the genie is out of the bottle. It’s hard to imagine anything remotely resembling a silver lining to this phenomenon unless it’s now that white supremacy is out in the open, it should be easier to wipe out once and for all. How I wish!

The roots of white supremacy run deep; the soil of indigenous indignities has historically been all too fertile. Empires have been built upon it. The irony, of course, is that the morally erosive influence of these indignities makes for a house, a nation, or even an empire built on shifting sand. If we are to withstand the storms that are sure to come, we have to shore up our foundation and exterminate all notions of white supremacy.

Not too long ago, I spent a week in the Navajo nation writing a profile of a doctor friend of mine who works the night shift at the Fort Defiance Indian Hospital near Window Rock, Arizona. My friend leads an upside-down existence, sleeping by day, treating patients by night. A traditionally trained and highly skilled emergency room physician, he is known locally as “Big Daddy Medicine Man.” Every night, he sees a little of everything—diseases and injuries that seem out of place in the 21st Century. He has also bumped into traditional Navajo healing rituals— sand paintings and sings that address the emotional and spiritual roots of sickness and disease. He has learned an important lesson. “Who knows what really works,” he told me with a shrug one dawn, “what really heals?”

From all the indigenous indignities that have been inflicted on one culture by another, I hope we all might learn a similar lesson. We need all the healing we can get.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Boom by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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I arrived on my family’s doorstep three years after the end of World War II. My parents and my three older—much older!—siblings were undoubtedly surprised. I didn’t really understand why; I was just one tiny drop in that flood of natural immigration now known as the “baby boom.” The war was over and won: let the good times roll!

If you want to get technical about it, a baby boom is simply a period marked by a significant increase in the birth rate of a particular geographic area. In my case, that increase was caused by several factors: all those veterans returning from the war, victorious and grateful to be alive; the passage of the G.I. Bill which encouraged home ownership and higher levels of education; a strong post-war economy; and perhaps most important of all, a renewed sense of optimism in the American Dream. The soundtrack of that dream had decreased in volume to a mere whisper during the Great Depression but in the wake of the war, it got turned back up to a full-throated roar…or maybe that was the sound of all those wailing babies.

The Baby Boom in the United States lasted for about 17 years. During that time, 65 million babies arrived on other doorsteps around the country—that’s one about every seven seconds. If the Great Depression and the World War had put a temporary halt to making babies, peace and prosperity more than made up for lost time. The world looked like it was going to be a safer place and the suburbs beckoned with lots of room for bigger families. Rosie the Riveter didn’t need to go to work anymore and we all thought father knew best. It was a time of great blessing made possible by lots of corny advertising on television and a new-fangled invention known as the credit card. Just look at all those happy little Mouseketeers on their way to becoming happy consumers!

Of course a shadow lay across the land but we refused to see it. I guess we didn’t want to think about the day when all those boomed babies would have babies of their own before they became old enough to retire and collect social security checks. I mean, why buy an umbrella when the sun is shining? A ‘Dependency Ratio?’ What’s that?

I’ll tell you what it is: it’s a stretch mark on the belly of the segment of the productive part of the population that is still going to work every day. Simply put, there are now a lot more of us boomers who are no longer working than there are Millennials or Gen Xers who are, and that ratio is only going to increase in the next couple of decades. According to the Census Bureau, the dependency ratio will reach a record-breaking high in 2020 and will continue to rise in the years beyond. Cue all those Malthusian economists who warn of dire times ahead when overcrowding, food shortages, and an overtaxed healthcare system lead us all down the dismal road that leads to Dystopia.

Sorry; I didn’t mean to go all doom and gloom on you. There are solutions available but they will require a measure of sacrifice and a larger portion of bipartisanship than what we’ve seen on the dinner table for quite some time. I’ve yet to be convinced that capitalism is endemically equipped to resolve the riddle because wealth just doesn’t seem to trickle down like it’s supposed to. And as for progressive socialism, that ideology just doesn’t seem all that compatible with our optimistic and hard-working old friend, the American Dream. You know which dream I mean, the one all of us Boomers lapped up like mothers’ milk.

So what is the solution? I’m listening…

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Wonder by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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I have a friend who is, among other things, a very fine magician. He performs illusions—I don’t like to think of them as “tricks”—that leave me wondering. Period. I’ve given up asking “how did you that?” because I don’t really want to know. I can live with wonder; in fact, I’m not sure I could live without it.

Close observation of the world around us is another very fine thing. Along with a million other people, I’m currently reading a novel by Delia Owens called “Where the Crawdads Sings.” It is, among other things, the story of a “marsh girl,” first a young girl and then a young woman who spends her life largely alone in the marshlands of the Carolina low country. She fills her days with the close observation of nature: the flora and fauna of the marsh, tiny jewel-like feathers, sea shells, bird nests—all the mostly forgotten or overlooked creations that surround us everyday. There is more to the story, of course, because the business of life does have a way of intruding upon the stillness of nature. It’s a sad truth, one that makes folk understandably suspect of those among us who choose to live in wonder.

Now I don’t want to give too much of the plot of the novel away, but the unschooled marsh girl learns to read and introduces her sense of wonder to the intricacies of a rational universe. She begins her self-directed path of discovery with Aldo Leopold’s masterpiece “A Sand County Almanac” and eventually makes her way to Einstein’s space-time continuum, which, like my friend’s magic, leaves me pondering existence and reeling with wonder. To begin to wrap my mind around Einstein’s theory, I googled “space-time continuum for dummies” and came up with this definition: “Einstein’s theory of special relativity created a fundamental link between space and time. The universe can be viewed as having three space dimensions — up/down, left/right, forward/backward — and one time dimension. This 4-dimensional space is referred to as the spacetime continuum.” I stopped right there. Going any farther would have been like asking my magician friend “how the hell did you do that?” I’m content to live without complete understanding, to remain in wonder. I’m ok with things beyond my ken.

Now don’t mistake my acceptance of wonder in the world for rejection of reality in that same world. I accept that I live in a rational world in which I need to know some pretty basic stuff. I usually know how to get to the bus stop and which bus to take. I’m ok with these transactions—they’re what we all need to get through our days and live fulfilled lives. But I try not to let the realities of my life snuff out the sense of wonder that lies beneath. I’m not always successful, but there’s bravery in the attempt.

One reason, among many, that I love living on this side of the Bay is that I feel I’m that much closer to wonder over here. The natural world is more observable, more accessible on this side of the bridge. It’s easier to wonder where the pace is slower, the friendships deeper, the stars that much brighter. I spent a lot of years over there. As I wind down now, moments are more luminous over here.

A couple of months ago, I went to watch the Super Bowl at my magician’s friend’s house with a few other friends. Before the game, he showed us a locked box in which there was another box. One of us was told to guard the box and to make sure it was not touched. At half time, my friend had one of the guests unlock the box, open the inner box and extract a piece of paper. Three things were written on the paper inside: the prediction of a card selected by someone in the audience before the game; the total of three random numbers written down by three different people; and the score of the game at halftime. My friend the magician had someone open the locked box. He did not touch the locked box, the box inside the locked box, or the paper inside that box. The selected card: correct. The total of the three numbers: correct. The halftime score, 3-0, Patriots: correct.

Now how the hell did he do that?

I wonder.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

 

 

A Trout in Wine Country by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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My wife and I just returned from the left coast. California, to be exact. The Bay Area to be even more exact and San Francisco, to be exactly exact. Oh: and a few extra days in wine country—Sonoma and Napa—if you’re expecting the unredacted version of this report.

We were in San Francisco as wedding guests. We were in wine country doing research. I say “research” but I’m guessing you know what I really mean.

The legendary California valleys and their equally legendary wineries are a world unto themselves. I didn’t pretend or presume to understand much about wine before we went out to the wine country and I’m not sure I understand much more after having sampled so much of their product. But I did lean a few things. There is, for example, an entire language devoted to wine. I learned a few new words, but I’m far from fluent. Palette problems, I guess. I also learned that there is a business side to the wine industry that is completely separate from the drinking side of the wine industry. It’s a little like fly fishing; I know because I watched a friend of mine get hooked like a trout. He now owns a few cases of current vintages, a few cases of future vintages, an empty barrel of wine, and some measure of a share in a winery that bears a passing resemblance to his surname. That kind of thing can happen when one is in the throes of a good tasting. The next day, I thought his cheek looked a little sore from where he took the hook.

But that flesh wound will heal soon enough. All those bottles and barrels will arrive on his doorstep long before his credit card bill and we’ll relive the experience—the pleasure and the pain.

I imagine that what I’m about to say next is either heresy or blasphemy or both to an oenophile, but I’ve come to the conclusion that apart from the different productions and different vintages and the different vistas or views, the game at one winery is pretty much the same as the game at every other winery: make the tasting last just long enough in order for the taster to select several bottles of wine for purchase or better yet, to join that particular winery’s club. That’s when the fly is taken and the hook gets set.

I understand that each vintner or winemaker grows slightly different types of grapes and produces completely different varieties of wine and that a few extra feet of elevation here, or the amount of clay in the soil on a given hillside over there, or a barely distinguishable micro-climate on the other side of the valley can account for subtle variations in the color, texture, or taste of the finished product. Furthermore, it makes sense to me that one year is never exactly like the next and that variations of a few degrees of temperature or the amount or timing of rainfall can affect all those grapes clinging to all those vines and that as a result, the vintages that those grapes are destined to become are more like kissing cousins or maybe even distant relatives than identical twins. But here is my personal in vino veritas truth: I may like some wines better than others but they’re all awfully good.

I know that variety is supposed to be the spice of life and I’m guessing the same is probably true for wine. But now that I can parse the lingo of my own wine appreciation probably at the level of a first grader, I know I prefer red to white, but I really prefer rosé to both. Drier is better than sweeter. Age matters and price does make a difference. I probably won’t ever buy a $100+ bottle of wine (the wine I do buy is less, not more, in case you were wondering), but those pricey bottles are smoother, richer, have a more pleasant nose, and can make you feel like a king.

Or a pauper.

Or a trout. I should know: my cheek is a little sore, too.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Taos Pueblo by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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There is one more thin place I want to revisit with you. It’s not in Mother Africa like Kilimanjaro, nor in Old Europe like the Piazza Navona. It’s here in what some of us mistakenly refer to as the ‘New World,’ but don’t be fooled: this, too, is a very old place, much older, in fact, than the first white men who came to this remote corner of the world seeking refuge and riches, power and position. Like other thin places—places where heaven and earth almost gently touch—it is both suspended in time and very much alive, a place of stillness that nevertheless buzzes with ancient energy. It is both dreamlike and real, a museum-like window into the past but also a place that is still very present in the lives of the 150 people who live there.

In 1992, the United Nations (UNESCO) designated the Taos Pueblo a “World Heritage Site.” By then, the pueblo was already almost a thousand years old. Sited amid the Taos Mountains in the Sangre de Cristo Range in northern New Mexico, it is one of the eight Northern Pueblos inhabited by people who speak variants of the Tanoan language. (There are also ten Southern Pueblo communities in New Mexico, linked to the northern pueblos by culture but not by language.) Perhaps because it is the northernmost and most remote pueblo, Taos is distinct. It is by far the most conservative, private, and secretive of all the Pueblo communities; the rituals and rites of the kivas—the underground ceremonial chambers used by all of the Pueblo People—are rarely, if ever, shared with outsiders.

It has always been this way. A few years ago, I spent several months in the region researching an event known as the Pueblo Revolt. Also known as Popé’s Rebellion, the revolt took place in 1680 and in many ways, it was the first truly American revolution, an uprising of indigenous people against a colonizing power, in this case, the Spanish settlers and missionaries in the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, present day New Mexico. The uprising began in the Taos Pueblo and was guided by Popé (pronounced po-PAY), a mystical holy man who ingeniously planned and orchestrated the revolt which left over 400 Spaniards dead and expelled the remaining 2,000 settlers from the province. Popé promised the people of the pueblos that once the Spanish were gone from the land, their ancient gods would return them to health and prosperity. That mystical belief empowered the revolt and you can still feel its shrouded legacy today.

(Historical footnote: in the rotunda of the US Capitol, each state is entitled to two statues of historical import. For years, there were only 99 statues in the Rotunda; New Mexico had only one. Its second statues was finally added in 2005; it depicts Popé, his back scarred by Spanish lashes and in his left hand, he holds the knotted cord he used as a secret way of timing and initiating the revolt among all the distant peoples of the southern and northern Pueblos.)

Today, there are two sprawling apartment-like dwellings in Taos Pueblo, North House and South House, as well as a maze of dead-end alleys that wind through the village. Built of adobe and two, sometimes three, stories tall, the great houses face each other across a expansive, open plaza that is bisected by Red Willow Creek, a thin band of water flowing out of the sacred Blue Lake up in the mountains, the ancestral home of the Taos people. On many days, the Pueblo is open to visitors but on Feast Days or, for that matter, on any other day deemed important by its current inhabitants, it is off-limits to the outside world.

I’ve spent many hours in the Pueblo, sitting quietly by the creek, sketching the interplay of light and shadow emanating from the high cumulus clouds that hover over the backdrop of mountains, or just wandering where I am permitted. People are polite but not necessarily welcoming; I understand their wariness. They have been bruised by the world around them but yet they remain willing to share their thin place with us…up to a point, but no further.

According to legend, Taos women used to rub mica into the adobe walls of the Pueblo to make them shine. Some think that maybe it was this trick of light that caused early Spanish explorers to first come to the pueblo in their search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. Whatever the reason, that first encounter set in motion a chain of events that are still moving forward today. But, to me, the true power of the Taos Pueblo lies in its natural splendor, its spiritual peace, and the mysterious pulsating energies of heaven and earth that delineate a truly thin place.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Piazza Navona by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Long before Dan Brown made it a crime scene in one of his grisly thrillers, I had come to the conclusion that the Piazza Navona in Rome was a very “thin place.” In fact, I had even gone so far in my young (mind you, this was fifty years ago!) brain to think it was the really the center of the known universe, so perfect was it in concept, design, symmetry, and aesthetic harmony that everything else in the world must revolve around its sublime axis. Even now, all these years later, I think maybe I was privy to some cosmic secret.

I was lucky. I stumbled on the Piazza Navona one summer day having wandered through a warren of streets in a workingman’s neighborhood in Rome. Suddenly, in early morning light, the space just seemed to magically appear out of thin air. It was still a quiet time of day: no streams of gawking tourists, no caricature artists, just a pair of blue-habited nuns walking out of the old convent that used to overlook the square. I sat down to take it all in—the play of light and water and granite—lost in that ephemeral suspended moment of time that is the hallmark of a truly thin place.

Today’s piazza is an ancient place. Built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian in the first Century AD, it follows the oblong form of an open arena where ancient Romans used to congregate to watch games. It was officially designated a public space in the 15th Century. Today, art historians acknowledge the piazza as a superb example of Baroque Roman architecture, but I’m sticking with my own new-age designation: it’s a superbly thin place.

If God is in the details, then the Piazza Navona must surely be a part of heaven. In the center, the Fountain of Four Rivers (the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges, Asia, and the Rio de la Plata, the Americas) dominates the space. Designed by Lorenzo Bernini in 1651, the fountain adds a rather base human emotion to an otherwise divine vision. One of its stone gods faces the church of Sant’Agnese, designed and built by Francesco Borromini, a contemporary and rival of Signor Bernini. Apparently Signor Bernini didn’t think much of Borromini’s architectural acumen because the god of Bernini’s fountain has his hand raised in a cowering gesture as though one of Borromini’s Adam-and-Eve towers is about to topple over on his stone head. Today, that demeaning message would probably be delivered in a tweet.

There are two other fountains in the Piazza. The Fontana del Moro (the Moorish Fountain) is located at the southern end of the Piazza while the Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune’s Fountain) provides balance at the northern end. On a hot summer day, the splash and spray of the three fountains add a refreshing note to the cobblestones of the Piazza and the graceful facades of the surrounding buildings.

Be that as it may, it’s the life around and within the Piazza Navona that gives it a beating heart. There are bars and cafés, gelateria, ristoranti; people eating, drinking, talking, laughing, gesturing—after all, this is Italy. And yet, for all the buzz of the place (especially on a warm summer evening), there is a pervading sense of serenity and heavenly peace hovering over all the earthly activity in the Piazza. Even the jealousy and rivalry of some of the hands that created certain elements of the space seem to join in celebration of the gift they bequeathed to us. They must have had God whispering in their ears.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

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