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Hearts and Minds

Every town has its center, and every place has its heart. They sometimes are the same, but not always – maybe even not usually. Which is odd. And we’re not talking about a geographical center, but rather that spot, that square or plaza or district that one would say defines a city or town, or where crowds mass to celebrate events or to protest actions or to search out one another during emergencies – that public place that says, “This is the locale of civic identity, all are welcome here, this is where you know where you are.”

A place’s heart is different; in fact, a place is a complex animal that can and often does have multiple hearts. They can be established based on common consensus (although such voting-for-heart seldom “takes” or, if it does, rarely has long life), they can be created based on events (no one ever would have called the World Trade Center towers a heart of New York, but Ground Zero now is) … and, occasionally, there is just an inexplicable, almost magical “something” to a place that gives it a placeness, a life vibration, a field of empathy that, to a group, not only is impossible to resist but has a goodness that no one would willingly desire to avoid. A place that not only draws you in but draws you out – and, as an artist would, draws you. A place of heart – a place of art. And it provides you, simply by being there, with a portrait of yourself – and a flattering one, too. A place of heart says, “This is the locale of your inner identity, all who are looking for this place (even if you didn’t know that you were) are welcome here, this is where you know who you are.”

What comes to mind, in this discussion, is Woodstock, New York, a place we visit and love and, as you may remember reading in a previous arslocii installment, a place where we have bought a slice of what these days passes for eternity. Woodstock – as congenial, insanely sane and out-of-touch in-touch a spot as one will find on this hard and contentious Earth – has as its center the village green. It sits at the point where Route 212 changes its name from Tinker Street to Mill Hill Road, and, at the same time, changes its direction, as if it were a long iron bar that has been fired red-hot in its middle and expertly but lazily hand-bent by the town smithy into a loosely curving L. (Appropriately, it is at that very spot that a little drizzle of a byway called Old Forge Road shoots off the main drag.)

The village green: It is here that demonstrators come to espouse their causes or rail against others’; it is here that on Sundays, in good weather, you can find the drum circle, which ought to be an eye-rolling bit of ‘60s retro silliness but which instead turns out to be a stirring bit of participatory rhythmic fun; it is here where one is bound to spy the age-indefinite, gnomish figure of Father Woodstock standing at the corner beside his message-and-photo festooned bicycle/cart, offering up a gnarly-fingered peace sign to all passing cars, and accompanied by his disturbingly bearded and similarly weathered and anachronistic female companion. Woodstock may be a place of polar opposites, but the center – the village green – does hold.

But it is no more than 20 feet from this center that the town’s true heart beats. It is the Garden Cafe on the Green, a restaurant that is more than a restaurant. And why it is the heart of things has less to do with chef Pam Brown’s wondrous food – there is none better in town, and, as health-conscious eateries go, possibly none better anywhere – as it does the community that has made this tiny establishment a second home, and the warmth and energy that glows within even as the village green’s activities thrum just beyond the windows. Like theater, there is here exemplified the difference between movement and action: the former, represented by the village green, motivates bodies through space on a stage, in a superficial though eye-pleasing pageant; the latter, action, is based on, explains and alters character and lives, in which things happen because they are meant to happen, cannot happen any other way. Not to put too ponderous a point on it: the village green is about liveliness, the Garden Cafe is about life.

It just feels good … no, it feels right to be in the Garden Cafe, and that is why people, occasionally lines of them, are drawn to it, over and over, and for the first time. It is more than some alternative-lifestyle “Cheers” – that place where everybody knows your name. The Garden Cafe is a magnet: of thinkers, of artists, of the most interesting people who dwell in or visit this most interesting town. Look through the window anytime, and you will see people you might want to join, or at least eavesdrop on. Look through the window during the week of the Woodstock Film Festival and you’ll see some very big names there – not because it is the place to be but because it is the place where you can be you. Not trendy – essential. Not a restaurant, or not just a restaurant – a gathering. Not cynically designed to be this, but overtaken by its honesty to be nothing less. Go in, take a spot at a table, or at the counter or outside in the garden, and you’ll see.

If you are lucky, there is a place like this in your town. Or you will find one – that vibrates on your wavelength, that beats to your beat – in the town where you are supposed to be. And you will know you are supposed to be in that town because of this spot. It is part of the magic of finding yourself while you believe you are looking for something else.

Heart. Home. Placeness. Peace.

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Rest in Peace

We came up to Woodstock this week to buy property. Actually, two properties: one for the next chapter in our lives, and one for the last. Not much luck, yet, on that first mission. But, as for the other … well, let’s just say that we can check “take care of eternity” off our to-do list. We just staked our claim to a three-and-a-half by ten foot bit of it.

Cemeteries, at least the old ones, by their very nature are repositories of placeness. They are fields of stories, untold, hinted at, of lives lived and lives snatched away, of fulfillment and mortal theft, of the luck of the draw and the final act of field-leveling and shared fate. These days, though, cemeteries are gated communities for the dead, with rigid rules of corporate bloodlessness that rival those of New York high-end co-ops: size of stone, type of shrub, adornment of gravesite – all spelled out and enforced. In this way, they are not only places for the dead but dead places; in terms of placeness, dead zones. Cold uniformity that robs the deceased of their individuality.

But old cemeteries? They are like walking in libraries, among giant, upright books that tell the simplest of tales, engaging the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks, to ride that dash between birth and death dates. There is no greater exercise of narrative imagination than standing before a tombstone and trying to reassemble the life and death it announces. And there is no odder yet more comforting act, nothing more soothing, nothing more frightening and shiver-inducing, than to walk among an old cemetery’s tall and short, upright or tilted, clean or moss-covered monuments, stepping about the now-and-again suddenly too-soft earth, and hearing the whisper of an invitation, one for which you can do nothing but return your R.S.V.P.

The plot we bought – and on one of our birthdays, no less; talk about symbolism or circularity! – is in the Woodstock Artists Cemetery, just off Rock City Road. How can you not love a town that sees its duty to be an artists’ colony from cradle to grave, that honors the act of art-making and those who do it by designating a lovely rise near town to keep the recorders of beauty and shapers of thought close by and attended to? How can anyone who feels himself to be an artist not want to be, forever, in a field among others, equal among equals, the best-known name and the least sharing, finally, that same table at that same cafe, egotism a thing of the past.

We’ve written about the Artists Cemetery on our website, and instead of being gauche and quoting ourselves, we direct you there, where we think we captured some of its spirit and placeness, its sophistication yet innocence, its sadness yet celebration, its sweetness and, in a way, its victory. If, in its strong placeness – far stronger than at the traditional cemetery across the road – one feels there are ghosts afoot, they are triumphal spirits: artists become art.

Come visit us at plot K-12, up the hill, a little to the right of the tree, just down from the Wilsons. But no hurry. We’re not quite done the art of living. But when our time comes, we will be vapor once more, and vapor among vapors of brethren.

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Musings, Nature/Nurture, Small & Great