by Nancy Humphreys
Maya del Mar didn’t just write astrology. Astrology was her primary language. Ask Maya how any of her children or grandchildren were doing and you’d get a long astrological litany peppered with planets, squares, conjunctions and trines, along with an occasional oddity like “Chiron the wounded healer” or “black hole Pele.”
“What,” I’d ask Susan when I first met her, “did your mom just say?”
“Oh, astrology is how she understands everything.” replied Susan, “You’ll get used to it.”
I did get used to it, and I’m afraid I’ve begun doing the same thing, only using the I Ching.
The 8 trigram images in the I Ching are features of our natural environment: the heavens, thunder, clouds or mist, mountains, earth, wind or wood, fire, and lakes. Each of these natural entities signifies a specific human emotional energy: creativity, shock, mystification and danger, contemplative stillness, receptivity, gentle penetration, clarity of vision, and great joy.
While on a visit with relatives in my hometown, I asked Susan for two natural images/emotions similar to I Ching trigrams to describe the place.
Here I should confess (for the first time in public print) that I’m from Erie, Pennsylvania. While standing down at the local dock in Erie with Susan and my stepsister who now lives in Pittsburgh, a car stopped, and a man leaned out to ask us a question.
“Are any of you from Erie?”
Susan had a hard time hiding her laughter as she noticed that my stepsister instantly turned away, and I looked down at my feet. Neither of us could bear to admit that yes, indeed, we were born and raised in Erie.
The man asked another question, “Do you know where the freeway up the street goes?”
Susan conferred with us, and since the freeway was a new thing, told him none of us had any idea where it went.
People from Erie tend to hate it. And many of us are ashamed of being from there. I was in Erie when the “pizza man” was deterred from his pizza deliveries in order to rob a bank. He did so with a collar around his neck that contained a bomb that blew him up while he was chained to a police car bumper.
“Just the kind of thing that happens in Erie,” I groaned when I saw the sad event on the local TV channel.
When I was young, Erie was home to many flying saucer sightings and mysterious large round landing spots in the sand of the peninsula along Lake Erie. We often joked that our town should be spelled “Eerie.”
Not many celebrities have come from Erie. While I grew up there, the only Erieites close to being celebrities included Ann B. Davis, the comic “Shultzie” on the Bob Cummings show and later “Alice” on the Brady Bunch. Ann got her start in Erie theaters. There was also a girl around the corner from where I grew up who married the carrot-topped newscaster John Cameron Swayze’s son. Swayze was famous for his Timex watch commercial phrase “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”
If you’re thinking, “Oh, but Sharon Stone…,” forget it! Sharon is actually from Meadville, a very nice college town forty miles south of Erie. She also spent time in Saegertown and Edinboro, two other nearby small towns. But perhaps that was close enough to Erie to make her a bit of an odd personality.
And yes, the Bilitnikoff family of football fame are from Erie. In Erie Mrs. Bilitnikoff and I ran into each other once—literally. I was 17 when she ran into my dad’s car while picking up her son, Sammy, from a swim meet against my boyfriend’s team. I jumped out of the car, frantic, sure that she, and then my father, would blame me for the accident.
But Mrs. Bilitnikoff was a gracious lady who quickly and calmly took responsibility for the damage. I’m sure her older son Fred gained many of his successful traits from her. Unfortunately the brutal murder of his daughter here in California and the disappearance of my own two oldest nephews on Puget Sound in Washington state many years ago just reminds me we’re both from Erie, the original site of unusual and sometimes tragic events.
I’ve often wondered, “Does everyone feel so miserable about being from their hometown?”
Susan didn’t particularly like Erie either, but she gave my request a shot. She said Erie evoked images of dense, damp, intertwined roots down under the surface along with a feeling of heavy stillness in the air above the ground.
I had to admit the abundance of trees in Erie was the thing I loved most about it. Many of the streets were named for the trees on them; I lived on Cherry and Poplar streets, for example. We even had three fan-shaped leaved ginko trees in town, trees I was told came all the way from a country called China.
When I put her two images (Ken, the still mountain, and Sun, wood and penetrating wind) together to form an I Ching hexagram, Susan and I were greatly amused. The hexagram was number 18, “Work on What is Spoiled” or “Removing Decay.”
The irony is that Erie has done just that.
When I first arrived I noticed a tiny ship icon in the corner of a local TV channel.
“What’s that?” I asked my stepmom.
“It’s the Niagara,” she replied, “Don’t you remember?”
Yes, I did remember the Niagara from my childhood. It was a rotting, ugly, pathetic pile of wood floating desolately near the deserted North side of the dock. I recalled too the monument to its commander in the War of 1812, Oliver Perry, out at the bleak, windswept end of the peninsula near the channel from the bay out to the Lake, where the Niagara was sunk in a battle with the British.
But the ship on the TV was a tall sailing ship of the majestic kind like the hundreds of tall ships that Maya, Susan and I had recently watched in awe from the bluff above the Golden Gate Bridge as they paraded, sails and sailors on the decks billowing proudly, into the San Francisco Bay on their journey across the world’s oceans. I was stunned by the Niagara’s change into one of those magnificent vessels.
The USS Niagara Photo by John Baker
Later I learned from my childhood neighbor, John Baker, about the things he and the hundreds of other volunteers did over the years to resurrect the sunken ship Niagara and restore its decayed wood. Now, they sail the grand vessel around the Great Lakes every other summer.
The Erie dock too has changed. Lined with new custom-carved bricks with messages from thousands of donors, the dock has been restored with tour boats, and a new maritime museum, library, and restaurants along the Bay front. It even has an “art fish,” one of many new colorful fish sculptures commissioned and installed around town.
Erie still struggles with economic stagnation and the mysteriously untraceable pollution of the bay and its beaches along the Lake. And then there are things like the pizza man murder. But the Niagara and other improvements are a perfect symbol of its “place” hexagram, “Work on What is Spoiled.”
No, when I left I wasn’t ready to buy an “Eriesistable” t-shirt from the stand at the entrance to the Peninsula (a.k.a. Presque Isle State Park), but thanks to some of the folks who stayed in Erie, Susan’s sense of place, and the I Ching, I finally was ready to feel far less ashamed of my hometown “roots.”
Copyright © 2008, Nancy K. Humphreys.
Nancy Humphreys is a writer currently in the midst of exploring lost wisdom of the I Ching based on the work of King Wen.