Tag Archives: Woodstock

Woodstocks Nation, Part 3: Vermont

welcomeHere’s a free-association test: Say “Woodstock,” and people with money will reply “Vermont,” while those with ‘60s cred will point to the music fest in New York. Of the Woodstocks we’ve visited so far on our thematic trek – first in Connecticut, then New Hampshire – Woodstock, Vermont, is the one that sits at the grownups’ table.

street

The village was invented, it seems, so that the word “picturesque” would have something to refer to, and it is so formally self-aware of this and of its tourist-attracting saleable past that it has a historical marker with so much written on it, it has to continue on the back side. It is the village of a mere 900 or so residents that we speak of here; it sits within the town of Woodstock, which contains about four times that population and a South Woodstock, too.

sign

As we drive into the village core, park and walk around, in the summer sun (although ski season is among its chief raisons d’etre), the place seems to be gleaming white (in more ways than one), with spotless sidewalks, many old and idiosyncratic storefronts, pretty picket-fenced houses, a stately and gorgeous (inside and out) public library … god, there’s even a covered bridge, and a big village green where, when we visited, a huge annual book sale was in full swing. Wholesome values, in aspic.

green

You want New England, this place is perfectly lousy with it. And that’s the drawback, as we see it, from a placeness, arslocii perspective – it is too perfect, and, though a creature of centuries of urban evolution, seemingly too much a creation of intelligent design. Some of that has to do, we’re sure, with the nature of tourist allure – presenting visitors with what they expect to see – and some of it with Disney-ish Main Street-ification. At times, we thought that the only things missing were crowd-mingling reenactors dressed as Paul Revere and an easel-toting Norman Rockwell.

house

There is money here, and much of it came from Rockefeller wallets, and while that family has made startlingly wonderful efforts to preserve art and land, their participation often leans to the development of a more studied, more fashioned, more cleaned-up/dressed-up artificiality – a shaping more than a tending, and a slight soullessness in its immaculate artistry. The feel of that stewardship circulates down Woodstock’s quaint streets and byways.

Don’t get us wrong: It is an attractive village with surprising amenities and photo-worthy views, and, if you find yourself in the neighborhood you owe yourself a stroll. But, when you are there, thereness might not be your walking companion.

bridge

Next time: Woodstock, New York

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Woodstocks Nation, Part 2: New Hampshire

crossroadsIf you can swing it, come in from the north. Shooting down the highway, eye-opening mountains and “notches” rising on either side, angry and dark clouds massed above and ahead as if ready to pounce or knock you into nonexistence with a nonchalant flick of a paw – you then quickly exit the fast road and empty into the small, slow town.

As with our last stop on this thematic tour – Connecticut’s Woodstock – were it not for the signs informing you that you were someplace special, you would not know you were anyplace in particular. For us, placeness is a compelling concept, and the search for and luxuriating in locations that exude it are part of our life’s work, so to be here was to experience a sensation as if standing out in a field while holding a Geiger counter and not picking up a single click.

plow

This Woodstock is a traveler’s draw, a crossroads, a spot for White Mountains tourists to stay a night or two, and/or find a place to eat familiar food on the way between here and there, in the center of beauty if not beautiful itself. Being that there are only a little over a thousand permanent residents spread over nearly 60 square miles, the tourists in season easily outnumber the locals, but the locals, who operate b&bs and run or work in the restaurants and shops, are happy to be overrun. It is not, however, really Woodstock that is the center of activity, but rather the contiguous North Woodstock, which, confusingly, suddenly changes into Lincoln before you can apply the brakes. There are lovely and old parts of the town – is it Woodstock? North Woodstock? – like the Soldiers Park, with its memorials to the area’s fallen in various wars, and longstanding classic-form churches, even the huge snowplow with the town’s name on it that serves as the welcome sign, all informing us of the centuries’-old American values of the place: what was important, what was held dear, what constitute the acknowledged and accepted cycles of life. These are the spots in town, few and far between now, that feel most like the classic New England village, that resonate with, if not placeness, then certainly a heartfelt and long-held identity. But it is up the road a piece where most of the visitors are, where things widen out, parking lots spread from the expanding road, boxy commercial buildings have opened up shop, where a once vital train line is now a short-haul theme restaurant, and a new kind of American value is honored.

park

Oh, and there are, along this stretch, tours that guarantee, for a price, that you will see a moose. Given that moose are notoriously shy creatures, and that they tend to stand in the leafy groves beside roadways, in the shadows, it seems peculiar that a jaunt to see them would, first, take place at an evening hour when all is dark and, second, that there could be a guarantee. When we ask an employee of the company how they can be so certain that moose will be spied, that person replies that the little vehicles with paying customers inside go toodling off to where they know moose often can be found and then throw high-intensity spotlight beams into the forest, catching a poor moose unawares and scaring the bejesus out of it. Had much of their habitat not been cleared away and paved over, moose would be all over the place, and you’d need a bus to go somewhere where you could not see them. (As it happened, we missed the tour, saved our money, and the next day, as we made our way to the next state and the next Woodstock, we saw a moose by the side of the road, staring at it as it looked, disinterested, back at us, and not one watt of artificial light was required for this meeting of the minds. The joy of seeing it was greater because serendipity was involved. Sometimes the old ways of doing things are best.

town

Next stop: Woodstock, Vermont.

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Woodstocks Nation

When we vacation, we tend to overpack the car, point it in the direction of compelling, sometimes overlooked places and make our way with a stack of printouts as our guide. That is how we found one place we keep going back to – a place that so immediately and completely and naturally became “our place”  that it was like discovering that you‘d been adopted and now you’ve met your biological family and, from the get-go, in some weird pheromone-ish way, simply “know”” them; it is our Brigadoon, arising out of the heather mist, periodically, in our time but of its own; a spot that lies nestled at the foot of mountains named Guardian and Overlook – how can you not love the protective hug of that? It is Woodstock, New York.

There is, for us, only one Woodstock, but, we have found out that there are, indeed, other Woodstocks – a bunch of them: two in Canada, at least five in the U.S. alone, three clustered in the northeastern portion of the country. Having visited none of the others, we wondered what they were like, and how they compared to our/”the” Woodstock: Was there another Woodstock that we would prefer or be more enchanted by than the one we’d come to hold close to our hearts? Would the others be home to the same kinds of characters and outliers and land’s-enders as the New York Woodstock? Would any or all be a colony of the arts, as ours was? Might there be something common to all, and if so, what – besides the name? And by these wonderings, and with a bit of vacation window open in front of us, we hatched a plan and devised a route, a circuitous trail of mostly back roads, a few highways, mountains and valleys, inns and b&bs, sculpture parks and natural wonders, but all with a central purpose: to arrive at our Woodstock, eventually, by way of other Woodstocks, the ones we could reach in our allotted time. What would we find in our quest of Woodstocks?

Woodstock(s), Conn.

Connecticut, like New Jersey, can be seen by outsiders as a pass-through DMZ, a bedroom-community corridor between New York City and New England, a freeway ramp to Boston. Really: What pops into your mind when you hear the word “Connecticut”? It has a reputation for insurance (Hartford) and the first native-American casinos (Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods). For us, in Bridgeport, is one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the country: Bloodroot. The fifth state in the union has no major-league professional ball teams. There is no love song written to it. It has a Woodstock, though – actually, six of them. And, coincidentally, we have a good friend in the town in New York who grew up near (if not in) this town, having attended the Woodstock Academy, in Woodstock, Conn.

But wait, six Woodstocks? The way we understand this is that six villages –  South Woodstock, Woodstock Hill, North Woodstock, East Woodstock, West Woodstock and Woodstock Valley – make up the town of Woodstock. Just as an aside, the New York version is a town made up of twelve hamlets. But with New York, the other hamlets don’t have variations on the same moniker.

country

They call the northeasterly part of Connecticut the “Quiet Corner,” especially in contrast to the roaring and belching interstates and the denser urban pockets to its south, and it is here where Woodstock is. And Woodstock is, as the regionalized name indicates, quiet. Farms and vineyards, antiques and b&bs (we stayed in a sweet and quaint place, Taylor’s Corner B & B, along a country road, although, truth be told, every road there is a country road, really). There is not, to the underinformed visitor, much or any of a town, but rather just rolling green acres and homes and occasional shops.

fair signWoodstock is a rural enclave and the people have fought hard to keep it from being over-developed. In this town you are more likely to find frogs and fireflies than lattes – and that is a good thing. It celebrates its history, with one of the original town homes now housing its historical society – and behind it is a nice arboretum/garden with a strolling path – and its agriculture, evident in the large millstone standing upright at the town center and its annual fair.

millstoneBut it also has a notable landmark in Roseland Cottage, a pink-painted Victorian gem that once hosted the rich and famous, and is now a tourist attraction. It was influenced by the designs of Andrew Jackson Downing, has a lovely formal garden, and sticks up like a shard of gingerbreaded coral by the road.

roseland

(It would seem that if you want a town with more commerce and centrality, you need to make the brief slide over to Putnam or Pomfret. An eatery called the Vanilla Bean, in Pomfret, appears to be the popular populist gathering place for the area, and provides a bit of local color – you’re as likely to find biker gangs as suburban families there.)

With Woodstock flowing into Pomfret, and with not much of a town center to Woodstock at all, it is often difficult to know just where you are (of course, there a lot of people in the New York Woodstock who aren’t quite sure where they are, either), and this is compounded by the fact that it is a divided Woodstock, with its six sections, each flowing one into the other, with occasional signs but without definitive borders. We tried, as best we could, to visit all its parts – we may have, but couldn’t quite tell for sure. Like many New England towns, it is cute and historic, and this one is a good reminder of our early American roots. It is its own Woodstock, albeit, to our eyes, with nothing like the placeness of ours, but an original nonetheless.

sign & house

Next installment: Another state, another Woodstock, and scaring moose.

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Singing to the Sun

Since about a hundred years ago, with the formation of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony and the offshoot Maverick Art Colony’s performance festivals, the eastern Catskills have been resounding with art and music. In the 1960s, the folk and rock scene gathered for Sound-Outs, concerts presented on a farmer’s land situated between Saugerties and Woodstock, in rural Ulster County. This musical staging style built to a crescendo in 1969 when the Woodstock Festival’s organizers decided to put together a blowout musical happening that echoed throughout the land. It still does, decades later. But it never happened in Woodstock. What did happen, though, was that it drew musicians to this place, to share and play in a nurturing environment, surrounded by sensuous natural beauty. Many of those early musicians stayed and made their homes in the Catskills. The history of this place is rich in the arts, as rich as in its soil, water resources and contoured mountains.

wintersolstice

Currently, there is a decadelong tradition of some of these young upstart musicians, now gray of beard, getting together annually to jam and entertain themselves and the crowd, for the purpose of coaxing or welcoming the sun at the winter solstice. If I were the sun, I would be readily recalled by these true artists-in-residence. The quantity of talent that gathers on the stage each year is a bit of a crowd, and you can’t help but wonder how they will avoid stomping on each other’s musical toes. Happy Traum & Friends: Happy, once part of a folk duo with his brother Artie, is the dynamo who puts this event together; John Sebastian, of the Lovin’ Spoonful – who performed at the 1969 concert and is as fresh today; Larry Campbell, a musical machine (just hand him any instrument and watch him make it sing) with a track record that reads like a Who’s Who of rock, country and pop music;  Amy Helm, daughter of Woodstock’s own Levon, but a musician in her own right as co-founder of Ollabelle; Teresa Williams, a powerful country singer; and guests Paul Rishell & Annie Raines – two musical blues magicians, he on guitar, she on harmonica.

Rishell & Raines

The performers are so comfortable in the venue and in their abilities that there is a special casual give and take that occurs, and we the audience are privy to it. There is no fourth wall here. Just some neighbors, gathered together to be amazed and amused. The sounds are beautiful. The musicians are pros, but there are no airs, no pretense of them being there as paid pipers playing. Their faces tell us that they are enjoying this annual event as much as we are, and relishing the interaction with each other. It is a thing to behold. And the music, always at a high level, can overwhelm you with its emotional content and real feeling, like shockwaves bouncing through the auditorium. You are completely in the moment and the music fills you as you disappear into the sound. Arslocii.

The night and the performances are intertwined, just as are the multitude of guitars and voices. These musicians breathe music, it exudes from their pores. There is nothing contrived, no trickery. Just music, flowing in through your ears, hovering like a puffy cloud around your brain, teasing and fleeing, diving down into your toes, then soaring back up into your lungs and filling them to the point of gasping, and settling around your heart – the place where the sound will reside forever … or at least until the next year’s concert. This special musical event is the return of the light just at the darkest moment, when you need it the most. It is the alchemy of turning sound into light.

Solstice Concert

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Knowing My Place

How do you know when you have found your place, that particular spot on Earth where you want to spend, perhaps, maybe, the rest of your life? Is it an art, or a craft, to know this; is it a sixth sense, or a veiled precognition, or a tapping into the preordained? Or is it just a bit of luck, one in which making the right choice – strong feelings of kismet and deja vu notwithstanding – is pretty much a 50-50 proposition?

We live, currently, in a house that we knew, instantly, upon first viewing, was The One, and over the years we have made it a place we love. The neighborhood around it … not so much; but this house – it is us, a three-dimensional exploded diagram of our souls and psyches. Being in this house – what we’ve made this old building-with-improbable-histories into – is, for us, like slipping into a pool of body-temperature water: We don’t know where we end and it begins, and we lose ourselves, and we are one. And let’s not even talk about the memories and the ghosts of loved ones who dwell in the spaces within. They alone would be deal-breakers to any thoughts of leaving here.

Yet, “would be” is the key phrase here because, despite being fortunate enough to have already found The One, we have also found another One – this time a town, not yet a house in it – and it is calling us so strongly, and we are so susceptible to its call, that we feel like Odysseus hearing the Sirens, but hiding the ropes so that he can’t be lashed to the mast; we want to be drawn to this new place, to submit ourselves to its thrall. We don’t need convincing (although we do wonder if it’s a running to and not a fleeing from)  but, rather, a plan. Also, guts and some dough. Despite rightness, change is tough.

This new One, if you have read earlier postings here and have been paying attention, is Woodstock, N.Y., which draws us like a magnet and appeals so strongly to our better natures that we would think we were intoxicated or pixilated, bewitched or possibly even a bit mad … if it weren’t for the evidence. Over and over, time and again, just as we – many miles and four hours away from it – stop and start to sober up, wondering if we are just being silly (are we nuts to give up the conveniences a big city offers and exchange them for the more limited commercial and cultural offerings of a small town tucked away in a rural and mountainous area?) – it is at that very moment of cold-feet-dom when something happens to remind us why Woodstock has to be, needs to be, our next home – indeed, The One we’ve always wanted, The One that’s been waiting for us.

The current evidence? It came in an article in the August 11 issue of the unflaggingly excellent Woodstock Times – an always-terrific read that reflects the personality and ethos of its turf and readership as well as any newspaper in America. The piece, by reporter George Pattison, looks to be nothing more nor less than a fairly typical covering of a town zoning-board meeting – just the sort of thing you would expect to see in the columns of a publication determined to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity.

But there is a difference. This, after all is Woodstock – the anti-“Chinatown,” where, Jake, good things happen. About midway through the article, writer Pattison informs us of a bit of off-the-agenda, out-of-left-field business:

The meeting got a dollop of liveliness at its outset, as local musician Journey Blue Heaven provided an impromptu, only-in-Woodstock musical interlude following remarks to the board by resident Jay Cohen, whose dog JoJo has mounted a write-in campaign for town supervisor in the fall election.

Cohen, noting that Woodstock was barely mentioned in a recent New York Times article extolling the hipness of the Hudson Valley, advised board members to make the town attractive to visitors and would-be settlers by making its property assessments and tax rates competitive with those of neighboring communities. Journey Blue Heaven, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, endorsed Jay Cohen’s views and JoJo Cohen’s candidacy via a brief, three-song set: “Tax Cap” (to the tune of the Beatles’ “Get Back”), “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and “We Shall Overcome.”

The town assessor, Marc Plate, sustained the musical motif by blowing a chord or two on a harmonica before recommending that the town hire Goldman Appraisal Service, a Kingston firm, to evaluate the town’s assessment of approximately a dozen properties.

And then the story continued on to more standard, civic-meeting stuff. But, let us parse the three paragraphs above to help understand why Woodstock beckons to us.

1. The meeting itself. Woodstock takes its town politics seriously. One might even say that politics is the town sport, played rough and without pads. The convergence of Sixties free-thinkers, self-exiled Manhattanite expatriates and descendants of the artists who made the town a creative mecca in the early 20th century, when brought together in a governmental context, in one room, creates a situation that would make a room full of Talmudic scholars seem like a gathering of shy schoolgirls. People in Woodstock dive into politics without looking to see if there’s water in the pool (and don’t get them started about the town water); it’s a contentious, high-stakes, high-emotion scene. It’s glorious. Every place should care about itself the way Woodstock does.

2. Letters to the Woodstock Times (one of the greatest letter sections since the Daily Forward’s bintel briefs) are running 100 percent in favor of JoJo’s candidacy. Sure, it’s a protest goof … but JoJo could win. And, if elected, would serve. Possibly two terms.

3. That a singer, even one named Journey Blue Heaven, would show up and ask to perform could happen anywhere. That the zoning board would permit her to do so says something. That they paused the business of the meeting to let her do three numbers gets closer to the heart of Woodstockian gestalt. But what tips the scales is Marc Plate (of a many-generationed Woodstock family and who, by the way, sold us our cemetery plot in the Artists Cemetery) – not only did he, the town assessor, join in with Ms. Heaven, but he apparently carries around a harmonica, even to board meetings, should such spontaneous musical occurrences erupt … which, in Woodstock, they do.

I ask you: How can you not love a place like that? How can you not want to live there? How can this kooky Camelot, this locale that so effortlessly blends art and place, intensity and whimsy, strong history and equally strong possibilities, change and changelessness and anti-change, heart, humor and Muses in the mountain-air molecules … how, I ask you, can this not be The One?

Journey Blue Heaven will now sing the response.

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The Deer: A Solstice Tale

Staying in a wooded cottage in upstate New York for the winter solstice, surrounded by the serenity and beauty of nature, one expects all of life’s dramas to fade into a perfect cosmic balance. Fewer humans per square foot = harmonious, bucolic calm, right?

Our first morning there, we awoke to deer just outside our door and, had the door been open, it seemed that they would have come in to greet us. They appeared to be a family group, or a herd; obviously a large male, a few less bulky females and several gangly offspring. They were cautious, alert, but also familiar with their surroundings. Some were absolutely breathtaking; all were whitetail. They had come from the hillside above our cabin and were making what we soon learned was their twice-daily pilgrimage to the house at the foot of the hill below us: the large domicile was their deer diner, where a well-meaning citizen fed them some sort of grain mix. And these poor, hungry creatures arrived like clockwork for designated feeding times, much like any domesticated animal does. As we all know, deer are starving not only because winter takes away the grass and leaves of their diet, but also because their ability to roam and get food is impinged by human development and the disappearance of their habitat. They still reproduce no matter how little space or food they have. I don’t know if feeding them is the right-headed thing to do, but I understand the urge to assist these beleaguered fellow creatures.

One of the group, we noticed, arrived with the rest and then settled into the hillside. This one did not continue on to the feeding site about thirty yards below. She curled up like a cat on the ground, camouflaged in the brown leaves and resembling one of the frost-stricken shrub mounds that pepper the woodland floor. When the rest of the herd had eaten their handout, the caravan moved in a retrace of their steps, back to wherever it is that they spend their days and nights. But she stayed, coiled, head down. Much after the rest had gone, we saw her get up and move unsteadily and slowly, we hoped, to rejoin the group. But she hadn’t eaten, never reaching the destination but participating as well as she could in an established habit, though stopping short of the goal.

The next day, the same thing: the herd moving down the slope to the eating spot and the one deer arriving late and settling into the same position and location. Oh no, she must be sick, we thought. And if she doesn’t eat, she will die. She stayed longer in her coiled repose each day that we watched her. It was heartwrenching. What was wrong: Was she aged, was she injured, was she dying? I couldn’t stand to witness this. I am a big believer in all things natural, and I understand that nature is very practical and not at all sentimental; but I am sentimental – a cruel irony for this observer of natural wonder.

Here we were, in this exquisite setting, views from every window, and our most meaningful prospect of the descending woodland had this poor, hapless deer right smack in the center. I found myself not wanting to look out, thankful for the short days so that I couldn’t see the tragedy playing out before me; on the other hand, I was compelled to look, hoping that she had gone back with the herd. I was despising this beautiful place, all of the joy drained out like the life I was witnessing. I was sobbing every day, to the point where my partner said that I was not allowed to look out the windows anymore. Our car was parked down the slope, not far from the deer’s site, so we had to pass it every time we were going out; I was eventually forbidden to look in that direction at all as we passed, since the tears would start flowing again. And when we turned our car around to exit the property, our headlights would scour the landscape like searchlights, and I couldn’t look because I was afraid I would see her still sitting. It was so distressing; I longed to be back in the familiar daily stresses of the too-dense city.

We mentioned this terrible situation to a local friend who came over one day and was willing to look from a distance, even if we weren’t. She didn’t see the deer, dead or alive. The next day, the day of the lunar eclipse, I was looking out at the woods, feeling a little easier, when a huge bird arrived and sat in a tall tree above the site. It was a bright, sunny day, and the giant creature opened its wings, a span of many feet. As the sun shone through the massive feather spread, much like a hang-glider or kite but more beautiful than any you could imagine, glowing orange and black – it dawned on me: a vulture. Oh no, oh no. The sobbing began again, but it was different this time.

Strangely and suddenly, I started thinking that the worst was over, and whatever pain and suffering that may have been happening there in the woods had ended. I was relieved, somehow, that the deathwatch was over. I knew that there would be more vultures coming soon to do what they do so well in ridding the world of dead animals. And then, just as quickly as it had arrived, the vulture flew away and no others came. Now I was confused, but I had just been through the whole gamut of emotions: terror, sorrow, resignation, relief, acceptance – and I was starting to feel less anxious about the landscape. I began looking anew out the windows and, when I walked by the site, I scanned the ground for the deer. I became emboldened and walked closer to the wooded parcel, not entering it because it was a drop-off from the path, carefully studying the ground and all the frost-stricken shrub mounds that lay about. No deer. My partner, too, looked hard for the deer and did not find it. My spirits lifted. The woods became friendly and attractive once again.

We will never know the fate of that deer, but we are, in our insular citified way, happy that we didn’t have to know. Bambi’s mother wasn’t really killed by that hunter – we all hope that. We had said, over the course of our visit, many pagan prayers for the deer. What we want to believe is that she was healed by the lunar eclipse and the winter solstice happening simultaneously, a seasonal natural miracle – an occurrence of mythic proportions in a place in nature. We like to think that nature is full of miraculous events – all of us living things are evidence enough – but sometimes you just need a twist of fate to reinforce your sense of hope and magic.

 

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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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