These are the stories of Peter K. Wensleydale,
an aging American male person coming to the
realization that there is no such thing.
“Stop this car!” Anna shouted, furiously, “I’m getting out!”
“With pleasure,” Peter snarled, every bit as angry. With that, he stomped on the brakes, bringing the car to an abrupt halt. Fortunately, there was no traffic immediately behind them, or there would surely have been a collision.
Without a word, Anna got out of the car, slamming the door behind her as forcefully as she could.
“Jerk,” Peter growled, as he shifted into first gear, and popped the clutch. The car lurched forward, tires squealing.
It was late November, 1974. The beginning of winter. More to the point, the beginning of Maine’s winter. Peter and Anna Wensleydale had been in the state several months, looking for a place to live. They had visited one real estate office after another, seemingly endlessly, and been shown very nearly every property on the market. They had even driven north, into Canada, looked there, and then come back again into Maine. Whatever they liked, they could not afford. Whatever they could afford, they did not like. Now, they were tired, confused, and frustrated, and they were taking it out on each other.
This is not the way it was supposed to be. When Peter and Anna chose to resign Peter’s commission in the US Foreign Service [Editor’s Note: Please see the first episode], while they were still at the American Embassy in Gazinga, the plan had been to return to Washington, DC, there to find work in some other federal agency. Indeed, a friend of Peter’s had already suggested a staff opening on Capitol Hill. Thus, as Peter and Anna saw it then, they were changing jobs, not lives. But somewhere between that fateful decision and their arrival in the United States, everything had changed, and even now, Peter and Anna cannot fully explain it.
The reader may recall the Wensleydale’s meetings and experiences with Swami Tonami and Sarada not long before their departure from Gazinga [Editor’s Note: Please see the preceding episode]. Well, after that event, but not because of it, at least not consciously, Peter and Anna decided to return to the US by freighter rather than by airplane, as they had originally intended and as would have been the normal procedure. The change had been mostly Peter’s idea, for he loved the sea, but both had agreed the ocean voyage might offer a welcome vacation, and in fact it did; that is, if you discount the facts that their cabin was located directly over what sounded like a jackhammer testing facility, the captain disliked Americans, and the ship’s menu consisted of cod, more cod, and cod again — boiled, broiled, baked, fried, poached — however cod could be done, this vessel’s chef, to stretch a term, did it. (“Oh, look, Peter,” Anna came eventually to exclaim at each meal, feigning surprise and delight as the waiter placed their main course plates before them, “cod!”)
But something more occurred during those long days at sea, because, by the time Peter and Anna disembarked onto American soil, they had completely forgotten their original plan, and instead had decided to start their lives anew in Maine, she as an artist, and he, well, they had not fully worked out that part yet, except that he was determined he would never work in a 9-to-5 office environment again. Somehow, their intentions and their outlook had changed radically, and, what is perhaps most extraordinary of all, neither of them seemed to take any real notice of the fact that they had completely altered course. Indeed, the change seemed perfectly normal and natural to them, and it was not until years later, as they looked back from their sanctuary in the Maine woods, that they sort of said to themselves, “How’d we get here?”
Presumably, the answer to that question harks back to the encounters with Swami Tonami and Sarada. Given the metaphysics of reality on which all spiritual traditions seem to agree — that there is only One Life, One Mind, One Being, and we are That, and there exists nothing other than That — it is of course not only possible but inevitable that, when we are in the presence of a Realized Teacher, an untarnished reflection of that Being, our lives are going to be impacted. If you go out into the sun, you will get a tan; what’s more, you may get burned. You don’t even have to try, just being there is enough. Evidently, Peter and Anna ventured close enough to the sun that it altered their reality. They were still Peter and Anna Wensleydale; they still dressed and talked and looked the same, but somewhere in a place even they did not yet recognize, they were not the same. Maybe it was a kind of miracle, an apparently ordinary event effected extraordinarily, even covertly, by an unexpected cause. Or, maybe there’s a mind-altering substance in cod. Whatever the case, as soon as they were clear of the Department of State in Washington, D.C., Peter and Anna Wensleydale set out for Maine, where they immediately and enthusiastically undertook to finding a place to purchase. They knew exactly what they wanted, and they spelled it out in detail for the real estate agents: a large, comfortable house in good condition, with a barn, surrounded by woods and fields, with a pond or a stream, near the ocean.
“We can show you that,” one realtor after another promised, and, sure enough, they did. And the Wensleydales could not afford a single one of them. So, bit by bit, they whittled away at their expectations. “Forget the ocean,” Peter and Anna agreed, “it’s too cold up here to swim in it, anyway.” Then, “Forget the pond and the stream, they only breed mosquitoes.” Finally, “What do we need a barn for? We don’t have any horses.” In time, they found themselves in a neighborhood they could afford. And, of course, they didn’t like it.
Finally, at the end of another long day looking at houses neither of them wanted to live in, Anna asked the question they were both thinking, but neither of them dared voice. “You don’t suppose we’ve made a terrible mistake, do you?”
For a few moments, neither spoke. Then, Peter recalled a phenomenon they had encountered in the Foreign Service, by which those who are moving from one country to another, however actually nice the latter may be, almost always feel uncomfortable, disappointed, and sometimes even threatened on first arrival. “Maybe we’re just suffering from cultural shock,” he said, voicing the thought. “Maybe it’s not the houses themselves so much as it is the fact that Maine is so different from everything either of us has ever known. From a diplomatic lifestyle in cultured environments to backwoods rural Maine is a big change. Maybe we’re just struggling against that.”
Anna shrugged. She was not convinced.
“Tell you what,” Peter offered, “We’ve been running ourselves ragged here for too long. What we need to do is step back, and let the dust settle a little. How about we drive down to Washington, and join Miriam and Gaetano for Thanksgiving this Thursday. Every time I call them, they ask me whether we’re coming. Let’s do it. It’ll get us completely out of Maine, and give our minds a chance to clear. Then, next week, we’ll drive back up here, and start over.”
Although still not convinced, Anna agreed.
So, the next morning, the Wensleydales left Maine and drove back down Interstate 95 to Washington to join his parents for Thanksgiving dinner. And what a dinner it was: there were celery stalks and olives, roast turkey with stuffing, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, a couple of vegetables, assorted pies and cakes and candy, two different wines as well as brandy, and last but certainly not least, an unexpected, uninvited, surprise guest, one Salvatore Monella by name, or, to those who have come to know him too well, Sal Monella or, more correctly, salmonellosis, a particularly noxious member of the Enterobacteriaceae intestinal crime family!
Thus, late, very late, that Thursday night, Thanksgiving Thursday, Peter awoke with a groan. He felt awful: chilled and hot and damp. Worse, he felt Thanksgiving dinner coming back up. He leapt out of bed, and rushed into the bathroom. There, sitting on the toilet, his head hanging into the sink, Peter K. Wensleydale spent what was left of that night and part of the following morning, ridding himself of everything he had ever eaten and then some.
“I’m pretty sure I’m dying,” he said to Anna, as he crawled, beaten and exhausted, across the floor to rejoin her in the bedroom.
“You’re not going to die,” Anna assured him, “but you’re not driving back to Maine for a while, either. For the next few days, we’re stuck here.”
So, that day, while Peter lay abed dying (or so he insisted), Anna went shopping. “When you get back,” he moaned as she left, “I’ll almost certainly be dead. Just remember, it was very nice knowing you.”
When Anna returned to the house late in the afternoon, she proceeded directly to their room, and dropped onto the bed a heavily laden shopping bag.
“What’s this?” Peter asked, awakening. He had been asleep for hours, and he felt better. Not great, but at least not dead.
“Take a look,” Anna said, with great enthusiasm.
Peter emptied the bag onto his lap. Out tumbled a dozen books; big ones and little ones, paperbacks and hardbacks. They were all how-to books about building a home.
“I don’t get it,” Peter said.
Anna sat down at the foot of the bed. “While I was wandering around the mall today,” she said, beaming as if she’d just discovered oxygen, “it suddenly hit me. The mistake we’re making in Maine is, we’re looking for houses. What we’ve got to do is buy a piece of unimproved land, and build a house on it ourselves.”
Now, one of the things Peter has always liked and simultaneously disliked about Anna is her tendency to burst forth with absurd, impractical suggestions, and to offer them as if they were practical and plausible, and to expect others to react to them as such. Sometimes, of course, it works out that they actually are perfectly practical and plausible, but sometimes they aren’t, and finding and drawing that fine line has been the cause of many arguments between these two good friends. Thus, on the one hand, Anna is often outrageously impetuous, even rash, and it can drive Peter nuts; but, on the other, Peter knows that he can be inordinately, even cripplingly cautious. In this sense, these two make a healthy, if volatile, mix.
“Anna,” Peter said, expressing the obvious, “you and I don’t know anything about building a house.”
“But these books do,” she insisted, undaunted, “and, according to them, we can, too.”
So, stuck in bed, Peter read the books. He read them, and he reread them. He underlined them, cross referenced them, and made notes in them. And when he was done, he was convinced.
“We can do this, Anna,” he said some days later, as she maneuvered their car back onto Interstate 95, heading north, leaving Washington behind them once again. But this time it was different. This time, they were in search of land on which to build, an undertaking they had never considered before and almost certainly never would have considered had it not been for Peter’s encounter with salmonella, an encounter which, as it turned out, changed everything. Building their own house themselves, doing all of the carpentry, the plumbing, the wiring, and the masonry work, ultimately had the effect of demystifying the universe for the Wensleydales in a profound and fundamental way, wiping away many of their middle class values, fears, and hesitations, and clearing the way for all that lay beyond. Thus, if there’s a moral here, and isn’t there always, it must surely be about learning to welcome uninvited guests into our lives.
“This is ridiculous,” Peter thought to himself, as he drove north along the coast road, having left Anna fuming on the sidewalk in a small village in rural Cranberry County, Maine. Checking the rearview mirror this time, he slowed the car, turned around, and, retracing his tracks, drove back, until he saw her standing on the curb, near where they had parted. As soon as Anna spotted Peter returning, she crossed the street to meet him.
“I’m glad you came back,” she said, warmly, after she was in the car again, and he had parked it.
“Where was I going to go?” he replied, equally warmly. “You have my heart.”
She took his hand, and nodded. “Me, too.”
For a long time, they sat there, together, silently. Both of them knew, challenging as this process of relocation and transformation might ultimately turn out to be, and as trying as it would inevitably be on their relationship, they did not want to turn back. This was the right thing for them to do, and it was going to work; and they were going to do it, like everything else they had done since they were married, together. Finally, releasing Peter’s hand, Anna spoke again.
“Listen to what happened to me,” she said, with enthusiasm. “As you drove off, I turned to walk away, angry enough to kick something, and then, staring me in the face, I noticed a real estate office.” Here, she indicated a small, white building across the street, set back a bit from the sidewalk. “The funny thing is, I know we’ve driven past this spot a dozen times, maybe more, but I can’t remember ever having seen their sign. Anyway, there’s just one fellow working there, a little guy with a Scottish accent, and, when I walked in and told him our situation, he said he had just gotten off the phone with a man who was just then putting on the market a piece of property. He said the man’s an old-timer, the sort who ordinarily never sells land, but evidently one of his sons is getting married, and needs some money to purchase a home himself.”
Anna paused to give Peter a chance to digest her report to that point. Then, she continued, “The agent hasn’t even had a chance to look at it himself, of course, and isn’t free to go out with us today. But he gave me directions, and said we could go out on our own if we want. What do you think? Shall we take a look?”
The land to which the little Scottish man sent the Wensleydales had — has — none of the things Peter and Anna were looking for, or thought they were looking for. It wasn’t what they wanted, and it wasn’t where they wanted to be. There are no rolling fields, no streams, no ponds. Fully wooded, there are no natural clearings. The ocean’s not even close. Nearly at the end of a dead-end, rarely paved road, it’s far off the beaten track. The town it’s in is hardly a town, in the sense of buildings and facilities and a community; it’s really little more than a crossroads, and if you blink driving by, you’ll miss that. It doesn’t even have its own post office.
But when Peter and Anna got to the land, and parked the car to the side of the road, and walked twenty feet or so into the woods, they knew they were home.
“This is it,” they said, simultaneously.
Then, after going in deeper a few more feet, rubbing against some branches, touching a few rocks, they sat down on the forest floor, in the midst of the trees, and they listened.
“Do you hear that?” Peter asked.
“I don’t hear anything,” Anna replied.
“Me neither,” Peter said.
Other than the myriad, magnificent sounds of the forest, sounds which at that point in their lives Peter and Anna Wensleydale were not really able to hear yet, there wasn’t a noise to be heard. Not a voice, not an engine, not a thing. But it was more than the silence. There was something about the place that felt right. It fit. They fit the land, and the land fit them. Perhaps it was about being in the right place at the right time, being at the head of the dragon, as the Chinese might put it, or being open and receptive to whatever lay in store for this particular combination of people and place and circumstances. Whatever it was, whatever it is, it was real, and it was palpable, and thank God for it.
“This is it,” they both said again.
Now, the question was, could they afford it? They decided not to wonder about that, but instead simply to make an offer, the very best offer they could afford, and see what happened. And they insisted on delivering it themselves. They explained that to the real estate agent, and, the following day, the three of them drove out to the owners’ home.
Once there, the Wensleydales kept it simple. “We have seen the land you are selling, and we love it. We want to buy it, and build our home on it, and live there. The offer we are making to you today is not a negotiating position that we expect to adjust to your counter offer, or anything else of that kind. It is simply all that we can afford. We wish it could be more, but there it is.”
The owners, husband and wife, Mainers both by several generations, disappeared into the kitchen, their agent in tow. For a long while, the Wensleydales waited in the living room, their fingers crossed. Finally, the three returned. “It is enough,” they announced.
The next morning, beneath a clear, blue sky, Peter and Anna drove out to the land for a picnic. Since then, there have been sunny days, and there have been rainy days, but the picnic goes on, uninterrupted.
Towards the end of that week, the fellow from whom Peter and Anna would purchase the lumber for their new home, a mill owner in northern Maine, a man who remains in Peter’s and Anna’s estimation as one of the wisest, friendliest, most precious Mainers they have ever come across, advised them strongly, even warned them, not to try to build the house over the winter months.
“Believe me, the two of you can build this house,” he said with so much assurance and such infectious confidence that he strengthened their own conviction immeasurably, “but you’d be foolish to try it during the Maine winter just ahead. You’ve found your land. Now, go away to somewhere warm, and don’t come back until the beginning of April. The land’ll still be here, and I’ll have your lumber waiting for you.”
So, once again, Peter and Anna left the state, just as the snow began to fly. But they felt a lot better about it this time. They had a home now, or at least an address. Even if they had to run from their first Maine winter, they would be back. Maine was where they lived now, and, far more significantly, even though they did not know it yet, Maine was where, in the years ahead, Peter and Anna Wensleydale would learn how to live, not to mention a few other open secrets.
I didn’t come here of my
own accord, and I can’t leave that way.
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.
Jalaluddin Rumi Q
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“A Continuing Fiction” is fiction.
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