I’ve learned I love as poets love – to dream –
And in that dreaming lose all hope to act.
For acting is all prose – or baser seems;
Where song is all imagined, love is fact.
Did Petrarch more than dream of Laura’s kisses?
Or Dante, Beatrice chase and wed?
Would Muses, of the wandering Ulysses,
Let Homer spy his flawless lover’s bed?
For this is in the balance of our art,
That thought should capture us; and in that snare
Retain us, kept from luck and love apart,
Held back from rocky paths where lovers dare.
So never fear your love is false or true:
Fear only that you love as poets do.
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I’ve learned I love as poets love – to dream –
I am not a theater critic. I believe I am qualified to criticize a few things in this world – films, political arguments and myself, mostly – but theater is not anywhere near the list. But today, I think, I am willing to make the attempt. After all, I’ve been in a few. So I think I might have just enough qualifications to say something about the one play that just premiered in Keene tonight, and will have three more showings over the course of the weekend.
Steel Magnolias simply has no place in the pantheon of English-Language theater. It is, if anything, merely promising: four acts that manage to disastrously misplace the ending. Written by Robert Harling, a theater director from the agonizingly unpronounceable town of Natchitoches, Louisiana (trust me, I’ve tried, and it didn’t end well), it is a tableau of characters that are pleasant enough to watch, and a plot that isn’t in any way difficult. But it not only isn’t satisfying; it isn’t confusing enough to get away with it.
I have to ask here if these characters are stereotypes. Do real women understand and identify with them? I watched the play with a woman who was decidedly unmoved by them. Are they really as overdrawn as I thought they were, or do I just not understand southerners? The play confirmed for me that Texans, after all, are very different indeed from our fellow ex-confederates. Especially South Texans. Ironic for being so much farther south than The South is.
All of that being said, I believe it was performed admirably. Anne-Marie Jacobs cut an early lead and held it for two hours, pushing everyone else to stay in the moment and remain deeply southern. Alex Avila was transparent and perfectly readable the entire time she was on stage. And Chelsea Evans managed a particularly scalding emotional breakdown that gave the play the climax it didn’t deserve. I was particularly impressed by how much hair was actually being done on stage while I watched, and that they continued to act while doing it, or at least having it done.
But in the end, I have to admit that I belong almost entirely to things like Hemingway and Spaghetti Westerns, so I am probably not well placed to see the play as it is meant to be seen. But then, I like Sophie’s Choice and Billie Holiday, too, so I’m not completely blind to this sort of thing. I have to conclude no landmark in the repertoire of American Theater could ever end with a group hug.
I hope that most of you know that Keene is a college town. Or, at least, what a college town used to be – temporary. Its life flows away when school is out, leaving behind little but the true natives. It becomes truly quiet in a way that a real town can never be; it is because the gods love Persephone that they mourn her when she’s gone.
Well, Persephone is gone, in my metaphorical sense and in the original Greek idea. Keene is both empty and cold.
Now, anyone with a connection to Keene knows by now that it snowed on Christmas eve, and the stuff was still down on Christmas morning. But here’s the thing: I have this terrible feeling that I did it. Not in the “I accidentally mixed too much eye-of-newt in with my dragon’s-tongue” sort of way, but in the “I always kind of really, really wanted a white Christmas” sort of way.
Western Civilization has come to us by way of some terribly cold countries. It may have learned to walk in sunny Athens and Rome, but it had to spend an awful lot of time huddled over fires in Stockholm and Edinburgh. The houses we tend to build are built for warmth – sturdy squares with vaulted roofs to let the snow shuffle off. Our dress clothes are variations on the warm, layered suits of the 18th century. But Christmas is our civilization’s greatest cultural link to the true cold of Europe. It was only ever nominally about Christ’s birth; it was always about keeping your sanity in the worst of it, a little bit of light in the irreconcilable dark of late December.
All of this is maddeningly out of place in Texas. The worst thing is that for the most part, we maintain the illusion, still feel the phantom limb of snow and cold. We have moved on in someways, of course. Texans pioneered a new sort of dress that shed the heavy vests and coats that the Victorians – and most Americans – still wore. They built flat-roofed houses with open spaces that let the breeze in. But even in such a hot country, no fair-weather reform ever became universal. Houston oil executives can wear three-piece wool suits in July, and our mass-produced houses are more often vault-topped Nordic boxes than flat prairie dog-runs. And somebody will always have an inflatable snowman on their front lawn at Christmas time.
I hope you have some idea of how frustrating all of this was for me growing up in San Antonio. I have always been a sucker for the trappings of civilization: I hadn’t yet read Homer and Shakespeare, but I loved them all the same. And I felt that I was the only one being left out in the warm, while the rest of the world had snowball fights and skated on frozen ponds. I loved the movies, the cartoons, the songs, all of which showed me pristine whitened worlds in which snow was a sacrament of Secular Christmas.
I yearned for a White Christmas. I could have done without Santa Clause and the decorations if it would just, for once, oh please, oh please, if only it would snow. It got close a couple of times, but the persistent failure of the dry, Texan grass and chilled Cacti to transform into a winter wonderland produced what may well have been the one searing resentment of my childhood.
Well, it couldn’t last. I got older, and I made my peace with Texas’ stubborn warm shoulder. I got an idea of winter in other places – Colorado, Britain – and moved on with my life. Soon I’d forgotten I had ever dreamed of a white Christmas.
And then – this is the strangest thing, I still can’t believe it – it happened. I heard another cold front was coming. Bad weather too – probably most of it to the east. And then strange words were thrown around, words that almost cracked through the ice that all those years had formed around my childish hope – snow, winter storm, one to two inches. My subconscious kept it mostly hidden underneath, but I was fighting the old battles somewhere.
And then I woke up. It was Christmas Eve. And it was confirmed – a lot of snow, coming right for us. It snowed all day, and I could just sit at the window and watch as it slowly began to pile up – first on the roofs, then trees and bushes, finally covering up the grass. So I did what I had to, to save my sanity. I didn’t respond as a child. I responded as a man of the Internet, trained in the basics of Journalism. I grabbed a camera. And I went out into it, to see the things I knew were there, but see how they had changed. I went to see the places I knew, and not know them; because Keene would be white, I would be visiting it for the first time. Keene would belong to the imagined northern homeland of Christmas.
I had never seen Christmas decorations in the snow before. It was a revelation. Suddenly, they seemed to fall into place – everything had been there but the canvas, the background. And now, it was a complete picture. I found a wire frame of Texas on some one’s lawn, lit up with the words, “Merry Christmas, Y’all”. And it was standing in the perfect white of the snow. It was so beautiful I could hardly stand to look at it. Another person had written, “Happy B-day, Jesus” in the gathered ice on the back of their car. Perfect.
And then something else happened, something I hadn’t expected, and wasn’t prepared for. It became normal. I became bored with it. There wasn’t anything particularly odd or interesting about snow. It just was. It’s a fact of life, of weather, of the world. And it wasn’t long before I thought that it was better, after all, to live in a mostly warm place – perhaps even a very hot place – than to live under snow for half the year. But perhaps that was merely a reaction.
It’s all gone now, although little clumps in shaded gullies stayed for quite a while. But that doesn’t change the fact – we, we Texans, we who have to weather such vicious summers, and never see the snow – we had a white Christmas. And in case you were wondering why, I think it was me. So be careful what you wish for.
Keene, Texas may not be very large – it was pegged in 2006 with a population of just slightly more than 6,000 – but it has a sort of regional importance for a variety of reasons. The University, for instance, is the beating heart of Adventism in Texas, and draws Adventist students and visitors from all over the world. It’s connection with the church, however, has given it a reputation for being slightly backward within the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. It’s often whispered, for instance, that cigarettes (or meat, or alcohol, depending on whose whispering) are illegal in Keene. And indeed, some of these rumors are based in fact, or at least, caricatures of fact; for instance, at the turn of the century, girls and boys were instructed to walk on opposite sides of the street from each other. Smoking and eating meat are certainly not illegal in Keene, but, if only to maintain an old-fashioned Protestant face, prohibition of alcohol is still in effect. And its not for lack of trying – a ballot initiative intended to allow for the sale of beer and wine within city limits was voted down by a stunning 70% in 2008.
But Keene stands out from its neighbors in another, far more hidden way. It is a haven for Geocaching.
A small handful of locals have turned Keene into an invisible treasure trove of caches – meant to be found only by those who have noted their GPS coordinates online, and set out to find them with hand-held GPS systems. They are placed all over – a fence post might be hiding one, or a bird house, or even branches lying on the ground. But the one thing they all have in common is that they are, indeed, hidden – meant not to be found by anyone who isn’t looking. And some, even by those who are.
Keene has hundreds of caches, blanketing the city, when other, nearby towns might only have a couple dozen. Similar coverage is usually only achieved in the parks of larger cities, but Keene is carpeted by caches, which are required to be a tenth of a mile separate from all other caches, in all directions. And,to top it all off, this achievement is largely due to a single man.
Michael England (Ph.D., by the way) teaches Physical Education at Southwestern Adventist University. He has placed 117 of these geocaches – not all in Keene, but still close. We spoke with him recently, as he showed us how he has come to hide them. Quite a few are fairly rudimentary: a pill bottle, for instance, painted in camouflage, placed in the nook of a tree. But they quickly become diabolical – a fake patch of moss, with a small container underneath, to be placed on the ground, or a small metal cannister placed in a specially drilled hole in a log, that would become invisible when placed beneath a tree. He picked up a fake leaf, intending to show me where the cache would be placed. For a moment, he couldn’t find it.
“So, you manage to hide them even from yourself?” I asked, incredulously.
His laconian reply – “Yeah” – was given immediately before he found it.
But this is certainly not common: Keene’s several geocachers continue to visit the scenes of their crimes, checking on who has been there, and making sure their carefully hidden treasures haven’t been stolen – or muggled, in geocache parlance. And it is then that it becomes a form of communication. One of the chief joys of geocaching is to see the list of adventurers who have found what you have hidden, especially online, where they comment on the cashes, and where the sheer enormity of the endeaver becomes clear. Because it is online that you can see who it was who found a cache, where they are from, and where they have been. Keene’s caches have been searched for and found by people from not only the metroplex, but from across Texas, and the world.
Among geocachers, it’s good manners to keep up the appearance that they aren’t geocachers at all. That is why it is called the silent sport – Keene is constantly being visited by practitioners of a nearly invisible sport, whose actions are completely unknown to the uninitiated. And now, one of Keene’s greatest hidden treasures is its newfound position on the map – or rather, its position on the GPS.
…And we’re here to stay. Today, we are just a little blog, adrift among the endless flotsam of The Internet. But we hope, in time, to become a means of cultural expression for those who are connected, however tenuously, to Southwestern Adventist University. For we intend to be the Blog that institution could never make for itself; unedited, without a careful eye gazing backward on its own appearance. And that is why we exist: we are commenting on the world around us, and holding nothing back. So, to this small piece of world that we now call home – Keene – we say, merely, that we are here. And we intend to stick around.