A Letter Home | Eric Francis | Planet Waves Digital Media


A Letter Home
The Planet Waves local edition for Chronogram magazine in New Paltz, New York, where this column originates

By Eric Francis

ONE DAY I WAS IN ATHENS talking to a pharmacist about how much I loved Greece. He said to me, "No place is paradise."

.......Neither the 20th Century nor the Hudson Valley qualify as such. But the more I think about the era in which I've lived so far, the more I think about the place that I've called home for so long, and often do out of habit. Lately I have been meditating on this business of home, and I decided it has to do first with family and second with a relationship to the land. One historical fact we're living with is that the whole notion of family is being rearranged. Industrialism, technology, transportation and now microtechnology are redefining the shapes of human existence so fast we never have time to get accustomed to one change before another has emerged. This is hard on relationships. In some places, the ideas of family and community are being dismantled and not put back together.

.......These days in America, we often end up working in cubicles, and being known and loved by more people as our email address than our name. During the past five years, many people have left their bodies and moved out to the astral plane, otherwise known as the Internet. Other places are more fortunate, and there is still family; but it is no longer a group of people related by blood, but rather those who have chosen one another as long-term companions on the journey through time. The official term from psychology is "family of choice."

.......Everybody may know this, but environments tend to be invisible, and they tend to be lived in unconsciously. Today I have the advantage of writing about the Hudson Valley from Miami; I can see it more clearly. This is an old trick writers have used for a long time. Leave, and you will finally know a place. When I was visiting the Northeast last week, I didn't have a chance to get to High Falls, which after ten years wound up as my official favorite place in the region. I was really disappointed. I wanted to visit trees I recognized, and the waterfall where I've had so many watery experiences. And I wanted to see the people who remember me all the way back to the days when I showed up here and, on cue, started writing investigations about the cops and getting arrested for covering PCBs at SUNY New Paltz. Not exactly my childhood, but a version of it. And this is not just nostalgia; as the currents of time whip past us, the past and its people are becoming a kind of treasure that's constantly plundered by progress.

.......Family is a matter of time, I think. It is the people who are stuck with one another. I grew up in New York City, where, once you leave your family of origin (a modern ritual), you're never really stuck with anyone. Live somewhere 25 years, then move three blocks away and you can be utterly anonymous. In the Hudson Valley, one of the sociological facts that I observed is that, despite not liking one another all the time, people still have to get along. We have to do so because we want to keep living here, and most of us like it to be more or less pleasant. There is a standard of tolerance that has developed in this community in which a level of individualism is acceptable because it's easier than not being acceptable. Rosendale, my second favorite place but only by a shade, is a great example of this. It has the people who have been there as long as the mines, plus a variety of artists, freaks, punks, corporate people, moms, gay politicians, lesbian artists, jeds and rednecks, whom you can all find cavorting in Stuarts each morning.

.......One of my favorite things about the neighborhood here was getting along with the very people I didn't like so much; with the meter lady who had my car towed about six times; being truly happy to see the newspaper publisher whom I know I annoy greatly, but who printed scores of my articles despite it. It may sound strange, but that, more than anything, reminded me I was really in a community.

.......Living together for so long, and often so intensely, it was inevitable that differences had to be patched up or overlooked. Sooner or later I would end up working with, working for, working near, or being involved with people who had rubbed me the wrong way at one time or another, and there was no point holding grudges. Forgiveness became a practical necessity rather than a nice spiritual thing. I suggest you remember this quality of life here, assuming you've discovered how great it is; it is something we have now, in the last remnants of Old Earth, and here, in a tidal lagoon called the Hudson Valley, where high tide happens about once every six or ten years.

.......Another historical fact is that our relationship to the Earth is changing. I travel a lot, and what I've noticed is that everywhere I go in America it pretty much seems the same. There are exceptions. There are places where there is still character and texture that you don't have to go diligently searching for. But where there are people, there are corporations taking over, non-people from far away who now own everything from local laundromats to "community" newspapers that are part of national chains. But we need real laundromats. These things matter. They are not just details of life, or rather, they are the details that make up life. At the Rosendale laundromat, the ladies returned my credit card no less than seven times, and would deduct the money for wash-and-fold service out of what they collected in my pockets. One decided she liked my Great Gazoo tee-shirt and borrowed it for a few weeks. These were not my close friends; these were, really and truly, the people I knew from the laundromat.

.......In many ways, the landscape defines the Hudson Valley community. There are natural limits on where people can live, economic limits on how many people can live here, and both the climate and the terrain shape consciousness. Economic realities keep the onslaught of time and the smash of progress down to a reasonable pace. Corporate downsizing by IBM in the early 90s reversed a process that is killing most other places with prosperity, and the interesting thing is that the quality of life was not seriously impacted for the worse. The community did not become an impoverished wasteland like Flint, Michigan after GM pulled out. People just learned how to survive, and many took the change as an excuse to do what they wanted to do all along. Everybody became a Reiki master.

.......Much of who I am today was defined by the land that surrounds New Paltz, High Falls and Rosendale. For the record, I lived in New Paltz three years before I knew what Split Rock was. That one discovery pretty much changed everything, and my primary relationship to the area (besides those six contaminated buildings at SUNY New Paltz that I am still not through with) became the mountains. The woods are not a natural place for a city boy. But I started venturing in, and making discoveries; soon after, I was studying astrology, which is the art of understanding the relationships between the cycles of nature.

.......Being in forests and caves, and studying astrology, became one thing to me. As I made fire, drummed in mines and roamed around the woods behind Williams Lake at three in the morning collecting wood, I began watching and feeling the moon and the planets, and in the process, something I can only describe as my modern-ness started to break down; I got in touch with much older things. Whereas most astrologers study the phases of the moon in books, I remember being in the bottom of a mine with my friend Nikki during a new moon, and we sat there in amazement as the dimensions of space-time opened up all around us at the exact moment of the moon-sun conjunction, then vanished as fast as they had appeared. One day, I climbed up to the top of a mountain right before the first quarter moon. The air was still and languid. But as the aspect became exact, the wind picked up into a little fury, and then as the aspect passed, it settled down and was still again.

.......But, you see, this is nothing that the modern world supports very well, though it is something that you have available, and this works whether you know it or not. The environment shapes your mind and feelngs, and in many ways defines the terms of your relationship to life. Perhaps you came here for that reason. This is a reminder. There is something distinctly un-modern about the Hudson Valley. It's not exactly provincial, but it's not exactly Los Angeles. Yet you may not live here the rest of your life, and though the currents of time seem to be less swift here, this place, too, will change as we leave Old Earth behind. And even living around forests, many of us suffer from many forms of modern alienation, lack of time to be together with people, and breakdowns in very useful forms of community that, if we want to keep them alive, we will need to use daily.

.......Perhaps you know that Jan. 1, 2000 is not the beginning of the 21st Century; it's the last year of the 20th Century. This is a mathematical fact. But the social facts are different, and we all seem eager to take the leap forward at the end of this year. We will soon find out that there is only so far it's possible to jump, but we will also find out what a difference certain small intervals of time can make, largely owing to natural cycles that for most people function invisibly. And even if you are fortunate enough to use the land and natural cycles as your primary makers of time, our whole perception of time, as an experience of consciousness, is changing, and the past seems to recede ever-faster, and our view of it becomes less clear. We emphazize what is new rather than what is old, and in the process, we miss what is now.

.......So before this century ends, I suggest you take a look at where you are and who you are with. Put some pictures in a scrap book, save a few leaves from this autumn, and invite some people you've known for a while over for a meal. Follow your cat out into the woods. Take a walk at night, and look up at the sky. Jupiter and Saturn are easy to see now; they are close together, but not as close as they'll be in May, when they form their once-per-generation conjunction, and we're reminded, once again, that we are going forward and we're not coming back.++

I want to thank Jason and Brian everyone else at Chronogram magazine in New Paltz for another year of publishing Planet Waves and the great creative freedom they encourage me to take with the column. And I wish health, prosperity, love and lust to my friends and mentors in the Hudson Valley who met me in the waking world, where we pieced together the nature of reality, bit by bit, piece by piece.

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