Sunday, August 28, 2005


Home. For many years that was a very difficult word for me to define. In my 26 years, I've lived in some 20 different buildings in eight different cities and towns of three different states. At one point, I even spent two months living out of a Ford pickup on a cross-country ramble. There have been few constants in my life, but one of them is a modest two-story house on a quiet street of old homes and older residents in St. Albans, West Virginia.

The house is that of my grandparents', and it's been theirs for over 50 years. It's three blocks from the Kanawha River and just two from the C&O mainline. As a boy, I would run to the corner with the whistle of every passing train. Even now, sometimes I still do. I've lived in that house, and for years it was my second home as Mom and I bounced around the Kanawha Valley. I did a lot of growing up in that house, those endless days of long-gone youth with Nickelodean on the cabinet television, Legos on the floor, Grandma busy in the kitchen, and the endless wonders of Grandpa's shop just steps away, always waiting to be discovered when he got home from work.

But that was 20 years ago, and while there are days that I long to go back to it, all that remains is the snapshot in my mind. Grandpa's retired, and his shop isn't quite as big, nor quite as mysterious, as it was then. The Legos are long packed away, there's a new TV and it rarely lingers on Nickelodean, and the room where I sat with them has been remodeled. Grandma is still busy in the kitchen, although she has Grandpa to help her now. When I can find the time to stop, to let my body and mind come ever-so-briefly to rest on the couch in the den, when my breath comes slowly and the room begins to fade away, that's when I again find something that's always been there.

At Grandma's and Grandpa's, it doesn't matter if we get that month's issue out on time. It doesn't matter how well I do on the GRE or how well my words go together on the page. It doesn't matter whether I get the job, sell the story or get the shot. There, what the rest of the world thinks of me ceases to matter. I am safe, content, and comfortable. There, I am loved unconditionally simply for being who I am. The constancy of the place and the people in it help make those feelings real to me.

I went home this weekend, my last trip before leaving the country. It was all there. I hadn't been there more than five minutes, and it was all still there: the comfort, the security, the peace. Grandma fussing to get me something to eat before Grandpa had even made it in from the den to shake my hand. We had the same sumptutious meals that I've been having there all my life, the same mountains of food and cooler full of leftovers. The same card game, hot showers and soft bed with crisp, clean sheets. Timeless.

There were the same difficulties, too. When I was younger, I used to brag about all the different Christmases and birthdays I got to have with all my different families. As the novelty of that wore with age, I came to realize that I could never have all my loved ones around me at the same time, and in the same place. Always there was somewhere else to go, someone else to see.

Dad has lived in St. Albans for a while now, too, along with his wife Jane, and her daughter and family just across the street. I haven't lived with Dad since I was six months old, and he's moved often, so his house doesn't call me home like Grandma's and Grandpa's does. But he's my dad, and I want to be at home with him, too. But the weekend visits are never long enough to pack everything in, and I always I feel like I'm taking time away from one house to be at the other.

Dad had to work late on Saturday, so it was eight o'clock in the evening before I got to see him. He was with Jane and their two granddaughters, eating a late dinner at Shoney's. Earlier, I had taken photos of Jane's bluegrass band for the cover of their upcoming CD. In the interim, I got to visit another place in St. Albans that calls me home almost as strongly as Grandma's house.

I learned to count on the 100-car coal trains passing through St. Albans everyday on the C&O mainline. Along it my boyhood sense of wonder was born, and to it I always return when I am home. It's home, too. There, I can always have that sense of wonder rekindled, even if just for that fleeting moment when the first flicker of headlight appears on the horizon. Staring down those tracks that I've been staring down all my life, I wondered how long it would be before I stared down them again. A season? A year? Longer? What will have changed? What will still be the same?

If I could, I'd stop it all. I'd stop it and hold it and make it just the same for whenever I return. How I wish I could! But to be is to be witness to change, and we can only do that in one place at a time. My path will take me far from home, and it will change while I am gone, just as I will change while I am away from it. Even now, we both change between my visits, but the time and distance before us make it all the more poignant. The goodbyes were long today, first at Dad's, then at Grandma's and Grandpa's. I was glad my uncle Steve and aunt Kim had joined us for Sunday dinner. Leaving was still hard, though.

It all made for a very melancholy 4-1/2 hour drive home, which finished fittingly with one of those vibrant, lingering, make-you-cry Ohio sunsets just as I got back to Cleveland. When I walked into the apartment, though, there was an email from Mo waiting, and my downcast heart turned back toward the sky. She reminded me of why goodbyes are such important parts of relationships. "Good-byes only help you to appreciate those you love and remind you how important they are to you. This way, you never take advantage of them because time with them is so precious." Looking back at the weekend, I remembered how much I tried to drink in every conversation, every movement, every look, word, touch, smell and taste, trying to savor and save up every bit to carry me through until I can return.

The long goodbyes will continue next week with a good friend, with my stepdad and his family, and most of all with Mom. Tonight I've found a little peace, though. It's not unlike the peace I found ever so briefly last night, when, driving along the tracks between Dad's and Grandma's with the windows down on a warm, foggy, mountain summer night, I caught something in the air that whispered how both of those places are home for me. How home is anywhere I can find what I love. How it's there for me in those tracks stretching through St. Albans. How it's there for me at Grandma's, and at Dad's, too. How it's out there waiting to be discovered across China, and how, more than any place else, it waits for me in an apartment I've never seen in a small city on the Pacific Coast of northern Japan.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Of the Land, and Those Who Work It

We had a taste of fall earlier this week, but summer weather has returned. The air was hot and thick above the lake this midday as I sat under a big oak tree eating my lunch and reading.

I finished The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck, in the shade beneath the late summer sun today. The Good Earth is the story of a poor but shrewd Chinese farmer, who, over the course of his life, builds up a great family dynasty. As the farmer becomes landowner and grows old and rich, his greatest desire is for peace in his life, but of peace he has little. His family quarrels amongst itself, anxious to get at his money, and only when he wanders out from the town to walk the fields where he was born, does he truly find peace.

". . . and he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand he sat thus and held it in his hands, and it seemed full of life between his fingers. And he was content, holding it thus . . ."

Yet he would not allow himself the pleasure of going out to his land very often in his old age, fearful of what the villagers might say if they saw a wealthy landowner barefoot and bending over in the dirt.

This morning I was listening to NPR before work, and I heard a report stating that China will not levy a harvest tax on its farmers this year. The centuries-old tax required one fourth of a farmer's crops to go to the government, and in the past has been a great source of civil unrest that has spurred revolutions. Its lifting represents the greatest aid the Chinese government has administered to its rural peoples in some two decades. There are those in Beijing and around the world, however, that are fearful it will encourage too much farming. China is the fastest developing country in the world, and it is not fitting for a country of its stature to encourage farming so. Job growth should be directed towards manufacturing, technology and other, more refined markets, while agriculture should be left to less developed countries. So they say.

Earlier this week, I heard a report on a proposal to bring casino gambling to Ohio. "Casinos will add $300 million to the state's economy!" came the claims of the supporters. "Where will this money come from?" is what I wanted to know. As far as I can tell, about all that casinos can do is serve as a mechanism for the transfer of wealth.

To me, it seems that farming is one of the few industries in the world to create that which can sustain life. Even manufacturing and technology, at their very best, can rarely do more than create tools for making life easier. But farming . . . from out of the ground a seed sprouts and brings forth food to feed a planet. Why then do societies look down their noses, look down across ages and continents, at those who work the land?

Sunday, August 21, 2005


For the first time since June, I spent a weekend in Cleveland. It was a welcomed relief from so many consecutive weekends on the road, although it came about as much by necessity as by choice. I will leave Cleveland in four weeks, most likely never to live here again. In just three weeks, I will move all but the bare essentials of my apartment to Maureen's mother's house in Wisconsin. There are two more weekends before that trip, and I won't be in Cleveland for them, either. I needed a weekend to start packing.

After purging or packing as much clothing, and packing as many plates, glasses and appliances, as is possible three weeks before the move, I turned today toward smaller tasks. One of these was my desk, that great wooden pit where so much of my life gets filed away, often never to be seen again until the next move. Among the folders of old bills, pay stubs and instructions for electronics long ago sold or given away, were scattered memories of my past life. I always get a little nostalgic when I come across the old report cards, high school pictures and letters that for some reason or another I just haven't been able to throw away.

Why is it so hard to part with the note from Grandma telling about her trip to the grocery store, the peaches she just canned, and Grandpa's upcoming doctor's appointment? There's no information of any historical value worth saving there. And yet there is, for in that letter is a snapshot of a life, and the snapshot is more poignant because it is a self-portrait, both depicting and made by a person who is very important to me.

In another folder I found cards, letters and postcards from Maureen. Of course I would save these. Nearby, I also found a handmade Valentine card from a high school crush who I felt at one time was the only possible hope for all my romantic desires. Beside it was the letter her best friend had sent me, shortly after I had told my crush how I felt about her. "Oh Scott, I just want to be your friend," is how she had responded. And she has been. She still is, although it's been much too long since I've seen her. But on that October day of nearly eight years ago, those words were enough to smash the hopes and dreams of a college freshman trying to find his way in a big, new, intimdating world. Her best friend, who was also a good friend of mine, understood my plight, and was caring enough to send me a letter after she found out, commiserating.

"Why am still holding on to these?" I wondered, and added them to the recycling heap.

I found more letters a few folders later, although these were from the Center for Railroad Photography and Art ( Most were form letters and were duelly added to the recycling heap, but two that began "Dear Mr. Lothes" caught my eye. One congratulated me for winning third place in their 2005 Creative Photography Award. The other expressed their regrets that my entry was not selected among the winners of the 2004 Award. It seemed like an easy enough choice: keep the winner and toss the loser. But something made my hand waver above the ever-growing mound of papers for the recycling bin.

I pulled back the letter of regrets, and returned it to the file right beside the congratulatory note. To live is to fail, at least some days. One truth that I believe very strongly is that every event from our past lives shapes us into the people we become. If I am to accept the person that I am today, I must accept my failures right beside my triumphs. To save only the success and happiness in my own folder of memories would be taking an inaccurate snapshot, the kind of contrived self-portrait that would never win a photography contest. I began sifting through the recycle pile for that Valentine from my old crush, and that letter her best friend had sent me.

Monday, August 15, 2005


I used to dread trips to the grocery store. It was such a hassle, such an ordeal. I would wait as long as I could, until dinners became those emergency fish sticks buried in the back of the freezer "just in case," and lunches were peanut butter slapped on whatever bread-looking substance was available. Then I'd make a crazed trip to the store and fill a gigantic shopping cart with what I hoped would last me for at least two weeks. At home I'd cram it all in the fridge until the doors would barely close and try not to think about the next trip to the store. But that was back when I had to drive there. Now that I can walk to it, I don't mind going several times each week, often for just one or two items. It's become my excuse to get out in the evenings.

I hadn't planned on walking to the lake today. I thought I might walk south, down to Franklin, then over to Bunts, up to the Giant Eagle store and back to my apartment. But when I stepped outside the sky was clearing, the moon was out, the sun was setting and turning everything in the west to crimson-gold. So I headed for the more open vistas by the lake.

My life has become lonelier since Maureen left for Japan 2-1/2 weeks ago. I'm feeling hug-deprived, and moments of real intimacy are quite rare.

On the way, I came up behind a young woman about my age taking her two dogs for a walk, going along as briskly as I was. The sunset was turning more vibrant and I hoped to make the lake before it peaked and burned out. Just after crossing Clifton, one of her dogs stopped and so did she. She flashed a smile and said "hi" as I passed, and I returned the greetings.

I made it to the lake in time. There was a thin veil of wispy clouds all across the sky, and the already-set sun still fed them its radiance. I went to the fence and stood up on the guard rail to get a better view, lingering for several minutes. The colors slowly receded towards the horizon, but intensified as they went. Several boats were out in the calm waters, which glowed in their reflection of the sky.

The woman stopped with her dogs across the street and a few houses down from me, sitting on a big rock and also enjoying the sunset. Many other people were out enjoying the evening, walking, jogging and driving, but we were the only two standing still. She left just before I did, and we didn't exchange any more words, yet in those moments by the lake, even separated as we were, we shared an unspoken intimacy as the only two people who put their lives on hold to look up and marvel at the glowing sky.

Next month I'll travel to a place where no one speaks my language. Maureen is already there. Moments like this one give me hope for finding the intimacy that I so crave. Sometimes the language barrier isn't really a barrier at all.


Welcome to my blog, a place where I hope to share my thoughts, experiences and photographs on at least a semi-regular basis. My life is entering an eventful period, so I should have plenty of subject matter. The irony is that as I have more to post about, the less time I will have to post it. I make no promises about the regularity of my blogging.

Case in point: over the next five weeks, I will have almost daily access to this site. While there's going to be quite a bit happening over that time, most of it will involve the logistical challenges of preparing to move out of the country. That's only going to provide interesting stories if unexpected "challenges" arise, and I'm rather hoping none will.

After that, the adventures begin, first to China and then Japan. With them come a host of uncertainties, including how often I will have access to the 'net. When I do, my first priority will be keeping in touch with my fiance, Maureen Muldoon, who is teaching English in Muroran, Hokkaido, Japan through the JET Program. My second priority will be updating this site.