Monday, May 25, 2009

Ithaca, NY

From spending the summer of 1990 at Cornell, I remember Ithaca as being a vibrant place, even in summer. The university is on top of the hill, the town is in the valley—actually, it cascades down the hill below the university like a waterfall of houses—at the foot of Cayuga Lake. I don't recall there being much of a town-gown rivalry or competition, but then, I was there in summer.

I spent a bit of free time on the Ithaca Commons. Today I pulled in and parked and walked around the Commons, did a little sightseeing, a little bit of shopping, and just wandered around. After last night's heavy rain, it was hot and sunny today, and people were out walking, just to take in the spring sunlight.

The Commons is also a place for public sculpture, such as this bronze café-goer. There is also a scale-model representation of the solar system in the Commons, with a central obelisk where the sun would be, and the planets placed as circles in the paving, to scale. The obelisk is also a memorial to Carl Sagan, who was professor of astronomy at Cornell, and made Ithaca his home. I remember driving by his home, once, which I recall seeing as a modern brick/stone wall and verdant doorway, the house beyond, all on the edge of the cliff above the town, with a magnificent view of the Cayuga Valley.

I stopped in at this excellent used book store on the Commons, and found a couple of things. One was a museum exhibition catalog of a late Ansel Adams photography show, titled The Unknown Ansel Adams. There are photos in here that you've never seen before, unknown because rarely exhibited, and not as well known as his most famous images.

The main attraction of this little book for me is that it contains Adams major artistic statement about his own photography, "A Personal Credo;" for this 1982 edition, he updated and added to the original Credo which he had first penned some 40 years previous. Adams gets a little pithy in this revised Credo, responding in part to some of the trends in photography he observed from late in his career and life.

It's hard now to remember that what Adams and Weston and their peers created, artistic sharp-focus landscape photography, was radical at its time. It has now become the mainstream, thanks to their influence. What they began, has continued. I have frequently felt Adams' spirit looking over my shoulder into my viewfinder over the past year, since I've begun making black-and-white landscape photos again. This feeling was particularly strong when I was out West last fall, including stops at Yosemite, Big Sur, Yellowstone, and the Tetons. But the feeling continues on this current roadtrip Down East, especially at Acadia National Park in Maine.

Meanwhile, wandering around Ithaca meant seeing what has changed, and what has not. I recognize many of the buildings along the Commons, although the stores in them have changed names and purposes. Driving around town, I see some familiar landmarks, and remember where to turn off the main road, to go up the hill towards Cornell. It comes back to me quickly, and I found myself lost only once.

Ithaca is renowned for its used book stores. There are regular Book Fairs in town. I could spend too much time here wandering from book store to book store, lost amongst the titles, lusting over rare volumes, always thinking about rebuilding my own library. No doubt I would have spent far too much of my travel funds, had this visit overlapped with one of the Book Fairs.

Ithaca was for me in 1990 also a place of escape from the pressures of the language intensive program I was enrolled in. I came down the hill for respite. At that time, there was an ice cream store on the Commons that received a lot of my custom. Nearby, there was a book store, semi-underground, down some steps into a basement. In there, I found several books on homosexuality that were part of my personal awakening. The summer I spent in Ithaca I was not a good student; I did not do well at the language intensive, as I was distracted by a cluster of personal problems that needed to be sorted out that year, and also by a deeply existential personal crisis. On New Year's Eve 1990, I had had a vision of the Void, in which everything I believed in, that had meaning in my life, had been stripped away, leaving me struggling with a major existential crisis in my life: struggling not only with life's sudden barrenness of purpose and meaning, but also if I should bother going on at all. As I drove alone out to Ithaca, there were times when the highway passed through Pennsylvania and upstate New York, the Alleghenies, for example, when I had to struggle as if my life depended on it against turning the wheel of the car to go over some cliff, or off the edge of some bridge or overpass. It was a struggle that gripped me to the core, and I could barely focus on life, much less on 4 hours of language lessons per weekday. I know now that this was part of a spiritual crisis, the dark night of the senses. Oddly, I can give you the exact dates this crisis began, ended. It began with a vision of the Void, and ended with an entirely different vision, that brought a new sense of meaning and purpose back into my life. (I've written about all of this before; including as one of the central poems in my unpublished book of poetically-written spiritual narratives, the Sutras.) It's strange what one can remember, when the rest is a blur of suffering. I was in some kind of spiritual or emotional pain that entire summer at Cornell—so I did not do well at the language institute, nor later during graduate school.

Returning to Ithaca this spring brings back all these memories. Of wandering over to the waterfalls in the state parks. Of wandering around the Commons; which I might add are mostly pleasant and joyous memories. of finding a music store east of the Commons, near the Moosewood restaurant, where I bought for myself a small mbira made in Africa. Of driving alone in the region, exploring, discovering that driving and photographing could give me solace. Of going alone to the river gorges that run through the Cornell campus, and spending time in the cooling waters on a hot afternoon. Of struggling to find a reason to go on living; and enduring when I could not. Of finding a selection of gay oral history books in that basement bookstore, which I bought and still own, full of personal narratives of gay men of all ages and types, places and times; discovering in these oral histories some recognition and affirmation, a balm for my growing confusion and growth. I now know that that bookstore, what I found there, and that summer I spent at Cornell, were important and essential parts of my coming-out process. It was difficult and turbulent, but I no longer feel anything but good about it.

So, Ithaca was a place of mixed feelings. A lot of this personal history came up again, during this brief visit. But only to be examined, and in many cases, finally laid to rest, cleared and released, settled in my mind and heart. My summer in Ithaca was an important turning point in my life, and I now feel mostly gratitude.

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