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Domestic Bliss

Autumn in Louisville


We had been in Louisville for a week before we ventured into the city's downtown. Assembled at an intensive residency for a graduate school program, we were a bunch of writers who'd barely left the three-block area that enclosed our classrooms, administrative offices and place of lodging over eight days of gorgeous fall weather. The leaves scattered across the sidewalks we walked daily were colored in shades of red, orange and yellow so vivid there are no standard names to describe them.

Finally, on Friday, we were cut loose to attend the screening of a film in a basement jazz club, to hear some music and to wander the downtown streets for Louisville's monthly gallery hop.

A strong breeze at our backs pushed us northward, toward the Ohio River and the arts district. Above the jazz club, a glassmaking factory and its exposed showroom glittered in the afternoon sun.

We watched a documentary, New York in the Fifties, about the literary scene in 1950s Greenwich Village, where The Village Voice was just getting its voice, and young people (most of them men) were indulging in a heady devotion to literature that rivaled Paris in the '20s and '30s. They'd come from Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, casting off their orderly Midwestern lives for the chaos and stimulation of America's biggest city.

The day before, we'd heard Indiana essayist Scott Russell Sanders speak about the ethos that drives his work -- the need to stay put, to plant roots in a place and let them grow deep.

An Indiana jazz musician, Steve Ali, performed a set after the film. He'd scored and recorded the musical soundtrack and wanted to talk about and illustrate the process. His influences included many of New York's jazz greats of the '50s, musicians whose records he'd listened to as a corn-fed kid of the heartland.

We left the jazz club and walked down Main Street, on a block paralleling the river. Finally, we came to an opening in the concrete landscape, a series of steps leading up to a statue of a Kentucky pioneer and an overlook point. The closer we got to the top of the walk and the river, the louder a strange music played -- calliope music, the toodly kind that accompanies a spinning carousel.

My friends and I laughed at the contrasting songs, with "Money" from Cabaret followed by "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

Below us, atop a docked paddle-wheel steamboat, a man played a mighty contraption powered by steam, the glowing fire feeding the boiler visible from above. It was an honest-to-God calliope, a "steam organ" or "steam piano," one of the few left in the country, and one of the fewer still that's played regularly.

As we gazed across the wide, slow river, muddy brown, its banks flecked with the colors of autumn, we felt as if we'd happened upon something magical. The music, loud in our ears, was as comforting as a nursery lullaby.

We left as the sun went down and hopped a trolley to the gallery district, where revelers drank warm apple cider, crowded the sidewalks and wandered from one artist's place to another.

My favorite gallery featured the works of a local woman who took cast-off quilts, worn practically to rags, repaired them, then dyed and hand-painted them. The stitches and the intricate original patterns stood out beneath an overlay of stencils and newly applied color. The quilts hung on walls and in windows, spectacular tributes to homespun craft and functionality. They were both old and new, homely and beautiful.

We walked back later that night, refreshed by the sojourn out of our familiar comfort zone in a city that was strange to most of us. We agreed that an occasional night out helped clear our heads.

Two days later, we boarded planes or loaded up cars and headed to our homes in Kansas, Colorado, Baltimore, San Francisco and Toronto. We said our goodbyes, promising to stay in touch until we meet again in Louisville in May, for another residency.

Flying over the vast Midwest toward Chicago, I wondered where Sanders' Bloomington lay. In the Chicago airport, I did a Google search for 'calliope' and found that in Greek mythology, Calliope (Greek: Kallioph, beautiful-voiced) was the muse of heroic poetry. She is often seen holding a writing tablet in hand and crowned in gold.

I thought of my kids, two of them, living in New York, broke and happy. I wondered what I would find back home.


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