oh yes, Vermont.
I was on my way to Vermont, but it was becoming hard to believe I was ever going to get there. NY Route 7 just refused to yield a sign that told me I was no longer in New York State and entering the great state of Vermont. I was losing sunlight fast, I called my hostess, "Maybe I've taken a wrong turn, where is Vermont?" Her voice was calm, she said she would pour me a glass of wine and run me a hot bath. Vermont was close, so close.
Did I ever tell you that when I was growing up in Connecticut, Vermont was this place that everyone packed up their Volvos with skis and god-knows-what-else to disappear to on winter weekends? Vermont was represented in lift tickets still attached to school chums' down jacket zippers. Vermont was not a place I went to. It was a place pictured in our yearbook - it was a place for ski teams, not for a kid like me, I could barely balance on a pair of ice skates on the local frozen ponds.
So here I am, half way through life, living far below the Mason Dixon Line and I meet a new friend on Facebook, and she lives in Vermont and says, "Hey, you wanna take a welding class with me this summer?" I've never welded or skied or been to Vermont, so of course I replied, "Yes!"
She told me her village had no stoplights - we judge the size of towns in North Carolina by the number of stoplights. A no-stoplight town is practically unheard of, and with the sun practically gone, I thought I am going to blow right by this place. But she also told me if I got to the big cemetery, I would know I had gone too far. Well, I went too far. I swung into the cemetery, and paused, because you know, I had been on the road for 13 and a half hours and the disorientation of travel had completely settled in my mind. I barely knew who I was anymore.
I dialed my husband on the cell phone - "Are you there?" he asked, I had called him so many times that day.
"No, I'm at the bottom of this mountain road, it's her road, but you know what?"
"It's damn dark and uninhabited here. I want you to stay on the phone with me til I get to her house. I mean, what if this is some kind of crazy Facebook plot? I've been lured here by upstate bikers who are going to sell me on the black market and keep the car for parts?"
"This is just occurring to you now?"
"Yeah, well, I'm slow."
But I made the turn and I climbed and climbed, up past meadows and clapboard houses and my husband breathed quietly on the other end of the phone, and when I made the last turn, there she was, my hostess JR and her dog Pip - the Meunsterlander - yes, isn't that something? Of all things to have faithfully walk by your side, a silky chocolate and white bird dog, practically in feathers herself, a Meunsterlander!
"It's okay, I'm here!"
"Do you see her?"
"Yes! And she looks exactly like she does on Facebook!And so does her dog! I would know that dog anywhere!"
. . .
I came-to late the next day and found myself playing with puppies in the cool green grass of JR's parents' farm -- they live just a mountain away from her and they are living the life that more Americans should be living these days. They have a fully restored farm house that runs almost 75% on solar panels. There's a brilliant garden - the kind of garden some people only dream of. There's an apple orchard, a pond to swim in, two young sheep fattening up for slaughter, and a woodpile readying for winter. We played in the shade of a neatly kept barn that acts as the kennels for JR's father's bird dogs. The puppies ran and rolled and gallumped and the sky was brilliant with late northern summer light. A breeze blew and I thought to myself, "I haven't sat bare-legged in the grass since last summer in Connecticut." Nobody sits bare-legged in the grass in North Carolina, even in the winter - it's too full of danger.
We swam in the pond , while the Setters and Pip the Meunsterlander hunted frogs in the cattails - all I could see while I treaded water was furious feathered tails and above me, blue mountains. Was I dreaming? I'm still not quite sure.
That evening we drove the unpaved roads of western Vermont and crossed back into New York State with no fanfare to attend a party on a hill.
This is where the dance begins . . .
time was sliding
a stone pizza oven blazed like a Utopian Furnace
offerings were made
bottles of wine kept appearing from nowhere
a woman with an auburn face sat next to me holding an equally auburn baby, "I have horses!" she proclaimed, and I replied, "I have a horse"
and then she told me of her two Morgans and her baby quietly squeezed a beer bottle and I looked out over the blue hills and someone was lighting the stars and the pizza oven roared.
We were pulled down the hill into a barn where a ping pong table called.
But the music got louder and louder and the stars rang on and there were no lights in the distance.
A man whispered to me, "Don't tell anyone about us, don't tell them we are here. We are the Utopians!" And yes, they were and then I imagined this place in Winter, and I didn't think that to be Utopia at all, but the Auburn girl with the Auburn baby who was drinking wine now told me she was just looking at her wool sweaters with sadness the other day, she missed them, all packed away in a trunk for the summer, she couldn't wait to put them back on, and her snow shoes, and to make STEW.
A musician quoted Jackson Pollock and I knew I wasn't on solid ground any more, or was I? I rallied with a comment about Patti Smith's book Just Kids. He'd just finished reading it too, and we confessed to eachother that we cried when the book ended. This led to a long conversation about Jesse Helms . . . or did the conversation about Helms lead to the revelation that we both loved Smith's book about Mapplethorpe? I can't remember, but the point is that I was able to mind meld with a Utopian.
The music got louder.
And a muse came in like a moth and the funky dance turned to a very organized interpretation of five or so dancers, they undulated and froze, and then undulated and froze . . . a chair was carried, and then they froze, a man stood on the chair and the women bent down to him and froze, the music stopped and then it started again, and I heard the ping pong ball back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and points were called out and the dance froze and undulated and froze finally and the dancers layed on the floor for just a moment and then they began shooting hoops! We were playing H-O-R-S-E and the ping pong ball went ba da bump ba da bump ba da bump ba da bump . . . this is the sound of the Utopians.
. . .
The next morning I was standing in the welding yard of Salem Art Works in Salem, NY. Our teacher Gary was trying to find a way to begin - it was as though he had only found out minutes before that he would be teaching a group of fifteen people who had never welded before how to weld. He had no idea what we were doing there, and frankly, I think most of us had no idea either. His safety speech lasted all of five minutes and he admitted at the end of it that it wasn't much of a safety speech at all, and that he would try to reconcile that as the day progressed.
I drifted in and out. I was barely there. The night before had only ended minutes before and while I had watched the Utopians drink all the wine, I was the one who ended up with a migraine headache at 4 a.m. Which seemed incredibly unfair, but there it was. So Gary's safety speech could have been more comprehensive, but I don't know how much I would have benefitted, no matter the content.
When it comes to being an artist, I'm a dabbler. My mother is a painter. My father a photographer. I can draw, sort of. I can paint, sort of. I can take a good picture, now and then. Oh and I can make collages - but I don't make a habit of it. My collages are one thing, that I suppose if I applied myself, could really be significant. But I don't apply myself.
So I had in mind all summer that I would make a collage of metal in this welding class. But Gary had no idea. In fact, he had no idea what any of us wanted to do. And he didn't ask us. His stream of consciousness curriculum took us from one welding machine to another for demonstration and for hands-on attempt. All the equipment looked like something out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil or an apocolyptic garage in Road Warrior. Big black boxes held together with duct tape, electrical tape, TAPE, and mysterious unmarked switches and dials, as though if you hit the wrong one you might be blown to Kingdom Come, or at least to another Time.
There was a vague explanation that many of these welding machines would emit a blue light, UV, that could sunburn your retinas in a matter of a second - and this would put you in the ER where they could do nothing for you, and your would be plagued with a headache (not something I wanted to hear after shaking the migraine) and at worst, you might be scuttled to a dark room for several weeks where you would wait in the black to recover your eyesight, MAYBE.
Being a hypochondriac, this idea of a blue light flashing across the workshop and attacking my retinas rendering me blind put me in a bit of a tizzy. I thought, What the hell am I doing here? We donned our welding shields, which made you unable to see a thing, and then you'd hear the torch go ZWIT . . . yes, ZWIT , and then all you could see was this sharp blue light, and you could hear Gary rambling on about Laying a Bead and something about flox or drawing with the heat. I was completely LOST.
But I knew what I wanted to make. I had been looking at Toulouse Lautrec's circus drawings, and old photos of circus horses and acrobats in preposterous tutus balanced on draft horses so immmense, so heavy, that they seemed to be made of concrete and steel, not flesh and blood.
Toward the end of the day, Gary asked me to draw a bead with the MIG - look it up - I was horrified. It was tantamount to taking a cobra by the neck and squeezing venom out of it as far as I was concerned. It wasn't just flame, it was electricity, blue electricity and you were forced to hold on to it while blinded by an ill-fitting welding shield. There you are in the black, feeling for a seam, pressing an antiquated button, ZWIT, ZWIT, and everyone, including the boy JR and I had declared The Prodigy, because he was going to obviously be the next welding sensation who would take MOMA by storm, watching! The old men, who it turned out, had welded, were watching me, the frail blond, gripping the MIG, and laying a really BAD bead. When I was finished, I flipped up my masked, and saw that I had not layed a bead, but a discordent series of molten droplets, an embarrassment really. Gary, said, "Well, since yer having the most trouble, I don't think you have to try again." What! Oh! I had told him I didn't even want to attempt to use the MIG and when I did, and did it badly, he points out I failed? Ugh.
What Gary didn't know was this - I had other plans and the MIG was not part of my plan. I was interested in far more delicate methodologies to create what I wanted to create. That's okay. He would figure it out.
We were turned loose upon the junk metal pile to rummage for material to build our projects on the next day. I knew exactly what I needed. I wasn't sure how I was going to meet my goal, but I somehow knew where to begin. I found large pieces of flat square sheet metal, rusted to perfection - these I would cut my horses and circus ladies from. I found a two foot long coil, this I would cut into shorter lengths to create crazy horse tails and head dresses. Bonus! I found a discarded base of a hanging sign. Bonus Number Two: a stage!
I also found this fabulous thing in the image of a pilot's wing emblem. Turns out it was a Bung Hole! Gary told me that. I thought he was being rude when he said, "Oh, you're using a bung hole!" But when I accused him of being rude, he told me I was ignorant of the original meaning of Bung Hole. Google it - really, it's not as dirty as you think.
So we had two interns assisting with the class, and I was adopted by a very knowledgeable girl, an artist, a master welder (in my opinion), and an angel named Sam. Sam asked me what I wanted to make and when I told her a "wall hanging with circus horses and acrobats" she took my hand and showed me the way to the Plasma Cutter!