When I was asked to make a presentation for the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers on my stories and photos of the Great Barrington Fairgrounds, I did not know that exactly six weeks before the event date my Dad would die. And those of you who have lost someone so close understand how the very foundation that kept my feet touching the earth was fractured. So for 5 of the 6 weeks before the event I doubted I could do it.
The week before this event I had gone to hear Angelique Kidjo in concert. Early in her set she said she was going to dedicate a song to her Dad, whom she lost 5 years ago (a tear). She said, "People tell you it gets easier... but it doesn't."... She continued to talk about her Dad and his influence and love for her and her siblings... (my tear ducts quietly unplugged and flowed). I wasn't sure I could stay... She continued, "Our happiness is our responsibility. Our misery is our responsibility. We just have to keep moving and put goodness into the world every second, every minute, every hour, every day." Dad had a quiet strength, an abundance of love, and he unassumingly put a lot of goodness into the world in many ways of his own. Angelique said, “This microphone is my instrument of mass love.” With her weapon of choice armed and loaded she had a theater full of people on their feet dancing and singing for more than an hour. I was one of them. I went home and started writing.
Dad and I had talked about this presentation. He knew I was nervous and not comfortable speaking in public. He encouraged me that I could do it because the Fairgrounds is something I feel passionate about. He offered to help me select and organize images to share with you. The week prior to my presentation, as I sat alone sifting through photos and 5 years of journals and pages of notes and drafts of my Fairgrounds story, I felt not an inkling of capacity to write anything that anyone would want to hear. Truth be told 48 hours before showtime, I was convinced I could not.
With the supposed ingredients of my story scattered lifelessly around an equally lifeless me, I said out loud, “How am I going to do this?” To my surprise I got an immediate response. Suddenly I was back in the hospital room having the very last conversation I had with Dad before machines and masks took away his freedom of speech... forever. It was me and Dad and a friend of his. He was telling his friend about some of the projects I am involved with; how meaningful and inspirational my work is. His face and his words and his eyes and his tone were shining with love and with pride...
I know he would have been sitting right there next to my Mom the night of my presentation. And I think he was. So, with images and words as my instruments of choice, I kept calm and carried on…
It was late autumn in 2008 and I was on the verge of…. Well, whatever it is one can be on the verge of for 9 years.
Back then I had taken a leap… a big, scary, hopeful, cleansing leap toward… I don’t know, I guess I had hoped… toward myself.
I had abandoned the path I thought I was on… certain that something better, truer, and sustaining was just ahead. My son was grown, I got a divorce, quit my career in Human Services. It was my time. So, I had packed up and made the big move south…
from Pittsfield to Great Barrington. New digs, new dog, new friends, new experiences.
I took my video camera and my new Masters degree and traveled… in the US, in India, West Africa… telling stories of the work and impact of non-profit organizations. It was exciting, it was rewarding, it was inspiring… Surely I was on the verge of something…
But I still wondered… what exactly was I on the verge of… and how would I know when I stepped off the fringe and over that elusive line? Truth be told I had no idea what I was doing and I just knew I would soon be outed for the fraud that I was. I was as afraid and insecure and uncertain as I had always been… And, I was broke. I felt broken.
But whether stubborn or stupid, I also dared to feel hope, opportunity, and vision. So rather than let paralyses keep me standing still, I kept myself moving… Well, that’s not entirely true. I had an exuberant, bouncing, precocious 3 year old pit bull that kept me moving whether I wanted to or not.
Walking is moving, so we walked… here and there and there with no direction or destination. We just walked never knowing where we would land.
On a rainy autumn day in 2008 we landed in the driveway near the old Great Barrington Fairgrounds. Dutifully obeying the sign on the fence that warned wayward walkers like us to “Keep Out” of the Fairgrounds Proper, we followed the driveway down to the little structure on the little hill in the back. The empty fields on both sides seemed suitable stomping grounds for a dog who couldn’t stand still.
Madison romped in the wet and matted grass. I thought about ticks and snakes. She looked with diligence for the ball I had flung into the weeds. I looked with wonder at the open blue sky and at the mountain of trees… and a scar. I began to remember this place has a history… I glanced over the fence and remembered more. Curious.
Of all the things Madison loves, nothing is more compelling to her than water. That rainy fall she quickly discovered the plentitude of muddy bath opportunities on the fringe of the Fairgrounds.
So, into the swamp the doggy did romp.
As my dog freely leaped and bounded and dipped, only occasionally emerging unrecognizable, her golden red coat now slick with watery black mud and a great big dog-toothed smile, I walked and sang and danced my way up and down the driveway like nobody was watching, confident that I was hidden in plain sight.
This became my daily meditation practice… time to think and not think, to reflect, to find clarity. To look inside. Some traditions even say this is how to get unbroken.
The more time I spent wandering outside the fence of Fairgrounds Proper, the more I recalled back in the day when there actually was a fair here. If memory served, these fields were the site of a ferris wheel, a carousel, the spider, and tilt-a-whirl. The empty grassy fields suddenly came alive with bells and screeches and lights and balloons…
My curiosity began to grow. What else had happened here? What of its history had remained to be told? What had been forgotten? What was inside on the forbidden ground, beyond the verge. I began to imagine and my perspective began to shift – if there was more to the story it was to be found inside. But, being a “good girl” I remained on the outside looking in.
The irony - that this was the story of my life… on the verge of something, on the outside looking in – did not go unnoted. For months I remained on the fringe of the fairgrounds. I didn’t dare to step over the boundary.
However, my dog is more daring than discerning. In the Spring, unable to resist the grand opening of all the new mud spas and ignoring the invisible security guard, as well as the highly visible sign warning us to keep out… Madison bolted straight inside the fence to romp in the mud on Fairgrounds Proper!!
With blind disregard for my “good girl” instincts, rather than wave my arms and scream in my mean mommy voice, as a few of you have had the misfortune of witnessing in action… I followed.
In an instant my curiosity turned to intrigue. With one audacious step over the line, I felt like Alice down the rabbit hole. The past became more present than the still and abandoned ground I was standing upon.
I smelled popcorn and cow poop. I heard voices and bells and whinnies. I walked toward jockeys and beer and kids with fluffy, sticky pink and blue cotton candy faces. Much like the Cheshire Cat… one by one parts of me disappeared until all that was left of me was a great big grin. I had found my Wonderland.
Having been on the verge of that elusive something I thought I was headed toward for 9 years, and then stepping across the Fairgrounds fringe I had danced on for months, I began to realize there was a reason I landed here. This rabbit hole was precisely where I needed to be – on the inside.
For years there has been speculation and pontification on the Great Barrington Fairgrounds. Developers, politicians, neighbors, and random passers-by have had a lot to say and write about it.
"What a waste."
"Tear it down."
"Build it up."
"So much potential."
"It’s an eyesore."
Judgment. Expectation. Uncertainty.
Amid all this, I could only think… “No, leave it alone… this place is speaking and I am listening”… I have been listening ever since, on many days in every season.
As winters and springs and summers and autumns came and went, I explored deeper, looked closer, and lingered longer… There were stories. Stories of winning and losing, of relationships, of fortitude, of sorrow, greed, and pride… and the scars of all that were here, too in the form of broken things, decay, rubble, and untamed weeds. And now I was here with my own vivid memories of its history, real or imagined, which were both illuminated by scar stories right here in the present and clouded by the random proposals for it’s future.
It was a time warp… I wandered among the past, the present and the future… all contradicting and crashing into each other. I all but set up tea waiting for the Mad Hatter to show up and explain this nonsensical perspective of time. The past was shriveling away, the present was standing still, and who knows what its future will be?
All that time I spent thinking and not thinking and dancing, I had vivid memories of my own come to life… my life’s greatest blessing - my son, my parents and 5 siblings, education, travel, friendships… I had given and received a lot of goodness and a lot of love. I had much to feel proud of and to be grateful for. So why was it that the regrets and failures and disappointments still made me feel broken… like an eyesore? No wonder I loved this place. We were kindred spirits… vulnerable to judgments, expectations, and uncertainties. We were both suffering a classic identity crisis.
Madison was more than a willing participant in our new ritual. She led the way like a tour guide, eager that I not miss a thing. She dared to venture even further in and up and under and around. She’d disappear and emerge like the White Rabbit… directing me where to go. By this time, it didn’t occur to me not to follow.
As we explored buildings and fields and towers and hidden places, her skilled nose alerted us that we weren’t alone. It was clear that our sacred ground had other human guests… partying, painting, and even living here. Things were littered and removed and broken and upturned. Being there as often as we were, we saw stories being silently rewritten, new chapters with riddles and mysteries, with no logical conclusion in sight.
Each Spring, I watched as the earth quietly set about to reclaim her space. The trees, the grass, the weeds, the bugs didn’t complain or resist. They didn’t seem to be judging our invasion. Nor did they outwardly condemn the restless humans that were stomping, peeing, and dancing on them. Nature takes its time, patiently adapting.
In the summer trees bloomed and vines expanded into complex patterns and flowers painted the landscape, I witnessed a perpetual reshaping as the present integrated with the past. Beneath the mess, I saw strength and endurance. I began to see more beauty that destruction. There was an energy, a spirit in this place, sustaining even through all that life and man relentlessly imparts. Without fear, defenses or feelings of inadequacy this space endures and trusts in its own right to be here. I found that concept intoxicating.
Only on 3 occasions over all these years have I left Madison at home and invited friends to explore the Fairgrounds with me. I’d proudly hold a private viewing of my exclusive Wonderland, sharing it as I had come to see and know it. With one of those friends we crossed more lines, exploring even more hidden and secret places inside. He recognized its truth and integrity and potential. As we slowly walked out and back onto the fringe and felt the magical effect begin to fade, he asked, “Is that place real?” I looked back at Fairgrounds Proper – the Rabbit Hole from which we had just emerged, and said, “It’s a Fleeting Reality”. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to believe it could just be reality.
So, as word and rumor and speculation on the future of the fairgrounds escalated, I felt a personal connection to the propositions about what it’s future would look like. I had come to know this place deeply and intimately. I felt defensive of it. I wanted it to remain just as it is. To protect it from would be developers who didn’t understand or appreciate its beauty as I had come to do by looking so closely inside. My connection and conversations were incomplete, my passion unfulfilled. It felt safe to continue mingling past and present in hopes of some distant enlightenment for a happy ending.
Still broke, I fantasized schemes to buy the Fairgrounds. In vivid contrast to the broken eyesore it has been labeled, I envisioned concerts and gardens and bicycles, and of course a dog park with mud baths. I mapped out in my mind how it could be brought back to life in a way that would honor it’s history, respect its natural strength and beauty, and offer the community some of the gifts it had given me… perspective, patience, harmony, and most importantly the realization that beneath the past and all its broken things and the present with all its scars, is a spirit than can adapt and endure and trust in its own right to be here.
Though less conspicuously than Madison, whose very existence is in anticipation of the next great adventure, we’re all on the verge of something, aren’t we? That I am sharing this story with you is evidence that with the audacity to step off the fringe and look inside we will discover something better, truer, sustaining… and not broken.
Great Barrington Fairgrounds Presentation Photos
Please visit Great Barrington Fairgrounds on Facebook to learn more about the redevelopment project.
Many refer to it as an eyesore... to me it is 57 acres of a living story.... the site's history is holding fast as the earth gradually reclaims the land. This is sacred place for me - to wander, photograph, dance, dream, and imagine what was and what can be...
Slideshow with Music
In addition to sharing random musings, Beansprouts Blog will offer ideas, tips, strategies, and reflections on multimedia production, social media, and other insights.