Tuesday Morning at the Old Asylum, Part 1

It’s probably not okay to call it the insane asylum. It’s officially the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a mixed-use development with a brick-oven bakery, a coffee roaster, farm-to-table restaurants, a nature school and a place to buy ethically sourced yoga pants.

But there’s something satisfyingly shocking about calling it the insane asylum. It seems right to acknowledge why this place of luxury goods and services looks like the setting for A Series of Unfortunate Events, why it’s so beautiful and so obviously, poignantly, haunted.

It’s the word insane that’s the problem, for who could dislike the word asylum, which connotes protection, refuge and safety?

I love the idea that we used to shelter not only the criminally dangerous but the sick in the soul, the depressed, exhausted and nervous of the world. Not just for our sakes, but for theirs. The words insane asylum speak to me of what the Victorian-era psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride—the designer of these buildings—described as “respectable decorum.”

Traverse City has some of the last standing Kirkbride buildings in America, and as I walk the grounds I feel perhaps a little too much sympathy with the former residents.

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A Feast of Love

It’s nineteen degrees today, the lakes are frozen solid, and the snowdrifts are twice my height, but the sun is shining, and last night, it streamed through the kitchen window as I cooked dinner. My friends in Virginia say the daffodils are coming up. Meanwhile I’m positively giddy to have made it almost halfway through my first winter up north.

We moved to Northern Michigan in time for the worst winter in twenty years, the natives tell me. I don’t know any better, so I figured subzero temperatures and snow that hasn’t stopped falling since November—about one hundred inches so far—was just our lot. Everyone asks how I’m holding up. I’m okay. Nobody is more surprised by that than I am.

By Christmas break I was ready to flee. I had the car packed before Dave walked home from teaching his last class. I was worn out from two months of rib-wrecking bronchitis, early frigid cold, and terrible, wrenching homesickness. I couldn’t wait to see my family. For the first time since childhood, we’d all be together on Christmas Eve.

The ice and snow chased us all the way to Kansas. Our soft Thule car topper was frozen hard when we pulled into my sister’s driveway in Wichita, a day later than planned. We’d gotten stuck in Missouri overnight, and later ran out of gas less than twenty minutes from her house. We were exhausted and our car looked like Doc’s DeLorean after a round of time travel.

I had no intention of going to Christmas Mass. When our family of Catholic and Episcopalian children and ex-Catholic, fundamentalist evangelical protestant parents comes together, the Reformation happens all over again, and at this point in my life I will do anything I can to avoid the drama—including skipping a holy day of obligation. Besides, the weather was terrible.

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Blow on the Coal of the Heart

candlesI light the first candle of Advent. We have no wreath. This is our first Christmas in the evergreen forests of Northern Michigan, and bringing branches inside seems redundant. Besides, there hasn’t been time. I’ve been coughing and wheezing since I caught a late September cold I can’t shake.

We have to wake before the weak winter sun rises to get our daughter to school. The roads are slick and icy and the commute into town takes twice as long as usual. There are parties and performances to attend and presents to buy and three family birthdays to observe.

The candle is an ordinary white candle, not purple or pink. I don’t know where to buy Advent supplies in town and I ran out of time to order online. [Read more...]

My Soul Thirsts

My children’s Michigan fact book says you can’t go more than eight miles without hitting water in this state, but it must be less this far north. I imagine the land shifting and disappearing beneath my feet as it does at the shoreline, except I’m standing in my kitchen.

“You’re basically living on a big dune,” a woman says when I mention my back pain. I thought I’d pulled something lifting moving boxes, but she says transplants often complain of chronic pain. We go rigid trying to find our sea legs.

Today I imagine the strain in my back isn’t from bracing myself against water but from shouldering a cross in the form of a giant clock, the old-fashioned kind that ticks loudly all night until it sounds a shattering alarm. I want to carry it into the woods and leave it, take it to the lake and sink it, to float home weightless and free from an unhealthy obsession with time, from circling thoughts of finitude that have kept me awake since before my mother died young. They never leave, not even with my lips against the warm cheek of a toddler so full of life he can barely stand still for a kiss.

These are the thoughts that drive me to the page, and they used to drive me to the pews too, where I could escape for a moment into that ethereal world of hot wax and flickering light and melt into years of other people’s faith in a place where death has no sting. But the churches up here don’t seem any more set apart from the flow of time than their social halls do. They smell of musty carpet and HVAC systems and food.

A couple of weeks ago a parish priest thoroughly shocked and horrified me when he described stained glass and art—both lacking here—as distractions. My dear man, my inner Chesterton bristled, that’s exactly why I’m here.

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You Can’t Hide from Winter

Winter is coming. All of northern Michigan seems to whisper the warning. The sun is slower to rise each day, and the mist clings to the lakes when I drive my children to school in the darkness. It’s not yet Halloween, but our neighbors have been anticipating the first snowfall since we arrived here in August, when it was ninety-two degrees and sunny. They look stern and offer advice (much-needed) on snow tires and Vitamin D supplements.

I can’t help but think of the residents of Winterfell in Game of Thrones. If the threat of such a long, hard winter wasn’t terrifying to me, a homesick Southerner who has never owned a proper coat, I might find it funny.

When I open my checking account, the bank teller raises her eyebrows when I say we’ve come from Virginia. “Have much winter there?” she asks, knowing the answer. The lady at the shoe store tells me I need four pairs of boots, not one, “for the four types of winter days: wet, icy, snowy, and it’s-May-and-if-I-wear-boots-another-day-I’ll-cry.” I suspect she’s taking advantage of me, but later a real rugged Northwoods type confirms her advice.

“And don’t get cheap boots either,” he warns, “or you’ll cry like a baby.”

Our new doctor recommends a high-quality multivitamin and a ski pass. Skiing and snowshoeing and even ice-skating are all as foreign to me as a moonwalk, but I smile and nod and try not to look worried.

“You can’t hide from winter here,” she says. “You have to embrace it.”

[Read more...]


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