It was one in the afternoon, but the carnival was still in the stages of opening for the day. Only fifty or so people milled around on the circular midway. The managers of the food concessions were discussing strategies for coping with a breeze that had kicked up. Lowering the panels on the south side of each stand, they decided, would keep the dust from settling over their hot dogs, pizza, and tacos.
It had been seven or eight years since I had been to the Back Mountain Fair. This year I thought I’d bring my two-year-old daughter and see if the fair was still as much fun as it had been back then. I was disappointed, though. Things had changed. I was not disappointed so much in the fair itself as in the loss of something personal. It was as if the changes the fair had gone through were signs of how I too had changed. I have never been in control of my past, and the fair, so changed from how I remember it, made me feel the loss deeply.
As soon as I saw that the Nickle Toss had been inflated to the Dime Toss, I knew the world had changed. We walked past the local boys hired to run the game booths, all of them looking tough and above it all. One of the first I noticed was draped over the front of his stall, a novelty tee-shirt stand, and smoking as if he were trying to re-invent Brando. A bright yellow tee-shirt hung from a coathanger near him and was painted in fluorescent pink with an inscription that read “Disco Sucks.”
A chunky man in his late fifties wearing a clean white tee-shirt and worn-out bib overalls led ponies one by one to the pony ride (seven tickets). He chained each pony to an armature of a large octopus-shaped contraption made of steel piping that revolved on a central post. Once all eight ponies were attached, he led them around for a few practice laps. One of them, black with brown patches and a grey mane that looked shampooed, seemed hungry and would stop every few feet, bow its head, and begin to chew on a tuft of grass. This angered the man in the overalls so much that he ran over to the pony each time and slapped it on the rump with the flat of his hand until it started up again. “Come on, get moving, Dusty,” he’d yell, and Dusty would pick up his slow pace around the ring until his hunger stopped him again.
A sign painted on a recreational vehicle near the horseshow grounds read, “Lipko’s Amazing Chimps!” We sat with some people who had gathered on the old wooden bleachers laid out along one side of the arena. There were probably no more than twenty of us, and it soon became clear that we had gathered to see nothing more than a rehearsal for the evening performance. A man in blue overalls had placed one of Lipko’s Amazing Chimps on a three-wheeled motorcycle and buckled it there to make sure it wouldn’t fall off. When he started up the motor, the chimp rolled off in the direction the motorcycle had been pointing. After it had rolled a few feet, the trainer stepped quickly forward and turned the handlebar slightly to the left until the motorcycle had taken the chimp in a circle with a diameter of about fifteen feet. The chimp sat impassively on the motorcycle through it all and did nothing.
A small boy sitting near stopped trying to eat a pink burst of cotton candy clinging to a paper wand and asked his father why the chimp was wearing a diaper. “He’s a baby chimp, I guess, son,” his father answered.
There were other attractions at the fair, all of which could be easily packed onto large flatbedded tractor trailers: a merry-go-round, a dodgems rink and ten cars, a huge plastic sliding board, a Tilt-A-Whirl. Some of the rides used the tractor trailer as part of their foundation. The wheels on the trailer that supported “Bizarre Wonders of the Natural World” were masked with pieces of plywood painted with scenes of the unnatural wonders to be found behind the canvas curtain. A recording tempted those outside to come in and be amazed at the freaks of nature: the two-headed calf, the six-legged cow, the hippie chicken, the albino skunk, the elephant-skinned dog, the Chinese buck-toothed dog, the rat-faced rabbits, the What-is-it? — all for fifty cents, “cash no tickets.”
Most of the animals were too far away or too sleepy for us to be very much impressed once we got inside. The hippie chicken was a normal chicken covered with down instead of feathers. The elephant-skinned dog was a hairless grey mongrel that had recently given birth to a litter of puppies, which would certainly be advertised as the “incredible elephant-skinned puppies” as soon as a new recording could be made. The rat-faced rabbits were all asleep in their cage, their rat faces out of sight, burrowed deep into each other’s sides for warmth. The Whatisit?, also asleep, looked a great deal like a groundhog. The two most obvious of the unnatural wonders were also disappointments. The two-headed calf turned out to be a wonder of taxidermy. An otherwise ordinary-looking stuffed calf had a second face coming out of its left cheek and looking to its rear. It looked like one of the animals in the old cartoons doing a double-take when it finds its tail on fire. Very much alive, though, was the six-legged cow, nervously eating hay. Its extra two legs were vague leg-like appendages hanging along with its tail. A Pekinese was sitting near us on a bale of hay. The Chinese Buck-toothed Dog’s lower row of teeth slightly poked out over its upper lip. “What’s supposed to be wrong with him?” a girl, the only other person in the exhibit with us, asked me. “His teeth,” I said, “I think it’s supposed to be his teeth.”
My daughter began to fall asleep as soon as I buckled her into her carseat. It was her first fair and we both had enjoyed ourselves. But I could not shake the sadness that the fair had given me. Changed so much from how I remembered it, the fair made me feel how impossible it is to recover, even in memory, whatever was simple and pure in my past. As we pulled out onto Route 118 and began the drive up the hill, away from the fair, I could see in my rearview mirror the prefabricated rides and booths squatting on their heavy rubber tires, ready to roll on to some other town when their time here is up. It looked like nothing more than a shabby mobile home park, except for the lighted arc of the portable ferris wheel rising above the dusty arena of the horseshow grounds.
Happy intense absorption in any work, which is to be brought as near to perfection as possible, this is a state of being with God and those who have known it have missed life itself.
The thing about simple pleasures is that they are not necessarily simple. Nor is the so-called simple life — the land of milk and honey and no artificial anything out of which they supposedly flow — all that simple either. Not many of us find ourselves in Walden, and even if we ever do, we usually find that we spend more time cutting trees for firewood than contemplating their reflections in the pond. The idea of simple pleasures frequently creates an illusion, an endless pursuit of some easier version of living, of non-doing, of lazily mulling over the meaning of the navel. Simpler is not easier, not where pleasures are concerned. Simple pleasures ought best, in fact, to include more work rather than more ease, but work done consciously, with a contemplative sense of working.
I have been living in a Catholic contemplative community of families and single people for the past six months. Set in the knobs of Kentucky near Gethsemani Abbey, we share voluntary poverty and a modified monastic schedule. We heat with wood, have only basic electricity in common, share a small scale bit of agriculture — bees, cow, garden, etc. Our lives are less cluttered. They are not easier. The wisdom of the Cisterician tradition of ora et labora (“praise and work”) has had an immediate impact on my daily life. I have few moments beside the pond to study the progress of the tadpoles, and fewer moments still to contemplate my navel. What I do have is an understanding of the phrase, Age quod agis (“Do what you do”). It is this awareness that is the missing ingredient in the modern age. It is this lack that makes humanity yearn for another age. An easier age. Less frantic, or so humanity supposes. No deadlines, no push, no rush. Well, wrong.
There are few deadlines more pressing when one heats by wood than the first heavy snow, the advent of sub-zero weather. There is, however, a vivid awareness of basic needs; an awareness missing from a centrally heated, and easier, world.
The real beauty, the aesthetic, the pleasing element of simple pleasure is to be found in experiencing the everyday tasks with a keen awareness of their peculiar sanctity. It is a matter of maintenance work done with a love of the sheer grace of doing it well. Part of working well, of simple pleasure, is seeing the beauty in the chore itself, in its purpose, in the motions involved.
I often find myself thinking of life here in terms of baskets or buckets full of things: laundry, food, kindling, milk, water from the spring. Perhaps the view is born of frequently carrying a load of such around the hillsides. It’s not easy; it is pleasing if I set about to do it well.
A basket full of laundry, clean and ready to be hung up, is quite a simple pleasure: the weight of the basket riding against my hip, left hand on the outside handle, right hand holding the inside one, serving to steady it across the top. The weight counterbalanced by my body’s pull to the other side, I walk up the hill to the clothesline and set it down in a rustle of brown leaves. The faint smell of pond water and soap, the cool dampness covers my fingers as I reach in, pulling out a towel to hang up, then a sheet, some socks. I set them in order, each hung neatly, deliberately, and then given over to the breeze and the last of the fall sun. How much more work than a dryer. How much more pleasure; simple pleasure.
Consider the dance of the hand reaching for a piece of kindling in a pile — fingers extended, flesh recognizing cold wood, knuckles encircling it, lifting and releasing, the small thud of the sound of wood on wood in the basket beside the pile. Those same hands will be warmed over the stove that holds the crackling kindling. Simple pleasure.
It would be an easier task to buy milk at the store, but we bought Susie, and Susie must be milked twice a day. Twice a day someone carries a pail with warm water down to splash on her udder before milking and comes back with a heavier pail full of warm creamy milk that froths up and tends to splash out if carried in a rush. Four times a week or better this is my job and in between this light-weight going and more productive return I sit enclosed in part by a three-sided cow shed, my head against Susie’s side, my hair braided and dangling down my side tied at the end with a ribbon the color of the night sky. I rock slightly in rhythm with the milking, the cat purring on the straw with his hopes for some handout riding high. I whistle a tune of the blues, quietly, with all the corny emotion allowed one’s self when alone, with pleasure.
This is not to ignore the cow pies that inevitably find their way underfoot, the rains that fall with a chill ten minutes after hanging wash, and black soot and burns on the hands from the stove. All that erases delusions of grand ease with great rapidity.
Still, it is part of the simplicity. And when all is measured out, and I set down the weight of the basket or the pail and do have time to count the tadpoles or engage in contemplation of the woods’ reflection in the pond, then the sky’s own tone of blue is sharper and the hawks circle gently, float more freely, and with greater grace.
Families of St. Benedict
New Hope, Kentucky
My wife and I have recently taken up kite-flying. This isn’t the easiest sport to make a go of in central Pennsylvania. But this year we’ve had some particularly fine days when the wind rattled the Linden trees outside our house and even the chipmunks had to dodge the leaves swirling down the sidewalk. So after a few guilty glances at the typewriter and a not-so-reluctant look at a pile of dirty underwear, we pack our kites in the car, corral some apples for snacks, and make our escape.
Usually we fly our kites out by the football stadium, which sits on the highest point in the valley surrounded by acres of trimmed fields that turn into makeshift parking lots on football Saturdays. From here you can see the entire valley. To the right and left the low profiles of the Alleghenies, stippled with pine and oak, sweep in converging parallels towards the county seat, Bellefonte, ten miles away. On a good day, the wind rushes down the worn slopes and provides a nice updraft as it hits the crest of our hill. We never intend to bring much equipment. But after a few rope burns, sore spines, and frayed nerves, we’ve learned to travel just light enough to please the soul and heavy enough to ease the body. Somewhere in the back of our station wagon we can usually count on finding reinforced strapping tape, a pocket knife, four winders made from old dowels, a couple of thousand feet of 20-, 30-, and 50-lb. test line, leaders, swivels, sun glasses, hats, folding chairs, toys to entertain our 2½-year-old daughter — and, a few kites.
About a month ago, a perfect 12-knot breeze brought out a flurry of kites. Against one of those pale skies — the color of new ice near the edge of a pond — the kites rose like wind gods asserting their dominion over the kingdom below: Cambodian snake kites, 20-foot tails snapping in the stiff breeze, dancing a ritual greeting; a lavender tetra kite, motionless and aloof from the antics around it; bowed Malaysian kites, their gossamer fabric offering little resistance to the pull of string — like Zen masters meditating their koan and only tenuously bound to the affairs of the earth; a revolving kite, looking like a madcap escapee from a very tired science fiction movie; diamond kites sporting all types of logos; and several keel kites, black, with burning cardboard eyes, hurling their defiance at us on the ground. There’s something infectious about kites. I guess people respond to them the same way they instinctively smile at banners or sequined costumes in a parade. Whenever we spot a brace of kites, we find ourselves irresistibly drawn to contribute our splash of color. That day we quickly sent up two of our kites: a home-made, cloth-over-bamboo snake kite and a silver-mylar, winged box-kite. Both protested noisily as we tried to get them back in harness after a season’s rest; but they were soon spinning the line out of our hands in their rush upward and making our eyes ache as we tried to follow their path against the brilliance of the sun.
Kite-flying is a strange activity. The whole purpose of the sport, at least the way we see and practice it, is to reach a point where nothing much more is required of you than to give a few reassuring tugs and holds on tight. We’re not into dual-control, fighting kites, or anything else that smacks of a lot of fiddling and tinkering. We’re content just to watch our kites hang and swivel in the sky, subject to mysterious currents we below may never feel. Of course, we’re not exactly passive. Though I may intend just to sit and read, or maybe chat with a friend, I soon find myself keenly interested in what’s on above. What fascinates me most about kites, I guess, is their ability to weather any problem. Kites have a way of defying your earth-bound expectations. For example, one of my favorite articles on kite-flying, which appeared in a British popular science journal, tried to explain the aerodynamic principles of kites. It had no trouble with delta kites, sled kites, parafoils, tetrahedrals — all relatively modern designs. But the article finally had to admit that no one as yet has satisfactorily explained why or how a diamond kite flies. By all theories, you see, it shouldn’t. It seems the laws of aerodynamics don’t apply to something as unflightworthy and inefficient as a simple kite. I like that idea. It’s very reassuring in these times to find something that’s so inefficient it’s successful. I’m also amazed at a kite’s balance. I marvel at the sudden swoops and dives, the way a kite seems fated for a long, tragic plunge, only to pull up short with a self-righting maneuver, an instinctive double-take that turns potential disaster into splendid success. I envy that balance, and work hard to bestow it on my kites. It’s the subtle and magical quality that has me dangling fragile slices of bamboo on a knife’s edge, patiently seeking the point of perfect equilibrium, the dead center of a stick, so I can make my mark. When a kite’s well-balanced, it will survive the worst excesses of a playful breeze. That’s generally a lot more than I can say for myself.
A kite has as many moods as there are wind conditions. Sometimes a kite will just hold steady, fiercely resisting an equally fierce blast. When the wind starts peaking, I’ll feel the iron grip from above and watch helplessly as the line begins to vibrate with deadly intentions. On sultry days, with only a light breeze or a few uneven puffs, a kite will gently drift with the flow, reluctant to leave the freedom of the skies. until suddenly it pulls free for a moment and soars to its destined height, lazily enjoying its time in the sun, before once more sluggishly responding to the inevitable pull earthward. But then there are the times when care and attention pay off. Sometimes, when the breeze is just and the kite perfectly balanced; sometimes, in addition to the sharp cracking of the tail and the whine of the wind cutting the edges of the frame; sometimes, you can just catch the faint, sympathetic vibration of fabric and string — a universal OM in perfect harmony with the elements. Then you know the kite is no longer a foreign object you’ve introduced, a brash intruder into this sacred and airy realm, but a part of the very medium it breasts — submitting to the breeze, and yet in that way mastering it. At times like that I’ve often felt, if only for a moment, as though I were connected by a living nerve to a far larger, far more subtle and pervasive force than I could ever hope to contact down here.
A kite is my spiritual lifeline, putting me in touch with a rhythm and harmony that easily goes out of kilter back at home and school. Last week, I called a friend and asked him whether he wanted to go kite-flying. I heard a long sigh at the other end, and I could almost catch his look of wistful longing — a sort of involuntary skyward glance — as he thought it over. “I guess I need to go kite-flying,” he finally replied. I think he put it nicely. There are times, I’ve often thought, when we all need to do some kite-flying.
Paul A. Lizotte
University Park, Pennsylvania
How can one compare the simple pleasures — walking down a country road, looking at the stars, fucking a white elephant, marble cake with chocolate icing, Celestial Seasonings’ Sleepytime Tea, no bills, no nukes, SEX!!!!!?
But of all the simple pleasures, for me spaghetti is the greatest. Spaghetti is the greatest food known to man.
Although I’m a vegetarian (eating mainly spaghetti and Szechuan shrimp — very hot) I can, in fact, not refuse meatballs and spaghetti when it is put in front of me, or even nearby.
Sag Harbor, New York
Staring at the rows of magazines, recently straightened, carefully overlapping one another, revealing half-faces, half-words. All colorful and glossy, waiting to be chosen, each cunningly designed to be coveted, to be jealously grabbed from its shelf, tucked under an arm, and carried away to some private place, to have its insides touched, looked at, used, ignored, to its owner’s desires. I want that little bit of fantasy, to look and read and look again at some inexperienced and unknown vision, wanting to know and learn about places and people I have never seen.
A tapping at my knee, a pulling at my pocket.
“Mommy, can I have a treat?”
“What kind of treat?”
“Oh, honey. Anything with honey. I love honey.”
“OK, let’s see what they have.”
We leave the magazines. My little daughter stands on tiptoe, reaching over the table, touching, squeezing, questioning every gaily-wrapped sweet, her eyes hypnotized, her fingers agitated at the thought of her treat.
“How about this one?” I suggest.
“No, no, I’ll find it myself!” she announces loudly. And then, picking one up, she brings it close to her face, smelling, staring. “This one?” she says softly, almost embarrassed, standing close to me. For the next step is to receive my affirmation, and my money.
“OK,” I say. I give her some coins, and remind her that she will be given change. She can’t see the top of the counter. She looks into the clerk’s face and pushes the money and candy onto the counter, then abruptly turns to look at me. I nod, and she looks around the store, snapping her fingers and swaying unevenly from side to side, feeling nervous about accepting the change. The clerk, unamused, leans over the counter, impatiently waiting, holding out her hand, and says finally, “Here’s your change!”
My little girl jumps, and reaches over her head to accept it. She quickly presses it into my hand, grabs her treat triumphantly, and smiling, takes my hand to leave.
Once outside, she walks purposefully to the nearest store-front step, and excitedly tearing open her candy, sits down and begins to eat.
“Mmm, this is good, Mommy. Want to share with me?”
“Sure.” I settle down beside her, resisting the urge to put her on my lap. I stare at her concentrated little form, hunched over her treat, knees up against her chest. The sun lights up the down on her brown cheek. Her hair is still baby hair, sprouting from a spiral at the top of her head. People look down at her and smile. My heart beats uncertainly, feeling proud and humble at the same time. I imagine myself the chosen protector of a golden chameleon, an animal blessed in its simplicity, extravagant in its beauty, clever and watchful. What am I to her?
“This is like a movie, Mommy.”
I agree. With her, fantasy and reality are gently and surprisingly interwoven, like a plain cotton dress, embroidered in a rainbow of colon, with stars sewn in the hem.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Meteor shower on a cold, clear night/ Thunderheads over ocean/ Swimming naked/ Smelling coffee beans/ Leaves in Spring and Fall/ Indian names of the moon for time of year/ Foggy mornings/ Hyacinths and jonquils/ Sound of moving water/ Flocks of birds/ Geese V’ed across grey November sky/ Smoking hashish/ Laughing/ Sucking toes/ Skating on ice/ Nipples/ Watching waves/ Eating ripe papaya and mangoes/ Peacocks/ Open flames/ Coral/ Shape of trees/ Moon rising through evergreens/ Parrot fish/ Bouganevilleas /Skipping stones/ When your bread rises/ Drinking smooth bourbon or scotch/ Undressing your lover/ Crayons/ Sunbathing/ Wheat in the wind/ Lightning and thunder/ Venus at sunset/ Looking through a telescope at star clusters 18,000 light years away/ Flute and harpsichord music/ Peeling bananas/ Growing azaleas/ Eating fresh fish/ A letter from a long lost friend/ Having a poem accepted for publication.
William D. Timmerman