Lounging on the Lawn of the Loony Bin

When my older daughter was a babe-in-arms and all through her toddlerhood and young childhood, she and I delivered tiny bottles of maple syrup for wedding favors, usually tied up with ribbon or raffia, with a small slip of colored paper with the couple’s names and wedding date, and a cheery phrase, like Eat, drink & be merry! Or A Sweet Beginning.

With my little kid, goldfish crackers and the Vermont Gazetteer, we met people in  Price Chopper’s parking lot, tony lakeside resorts, or – one of my favorites – outside the Vermont State Asylum for the Insane in Waterbury. The hospital then had locked wards, and the purchaser of maple syrup bottles came down and met us on the grass. She was on her lunch break and had time to chat. I offered that my mother is a RN, and had amused us as children with her nursing school stories of the woman in the state asylum who swallowed spoons.

My daughter, who was four, looked up at me, completely puzzled. Why?

The woman and I laughed.

Of all the people who bought my wedding favors, this woman is the one I wonder about. We lingered on the grass that day, the sheer expanse of tended lawn a novelty for my child and I. This woman was happily getting married in a few days, and I took my child to a playground that afternoon. There were not enough playground trips in that girl’s childhood. Maybe that’s one of my few pieces of advice to young parents: more playgrounds. Linger barefoot on the grass. The strangeness of people who devour spoons doesn’t disappear.

The American way of life has failed – to make people happier or to make them better. We do not want to admit this, and we do not admit it. We persist in believing that the empty and criminal among our children are the result of some miscalculation in the formula (which can be corrected), that the bottomless and aimless hostility which makes our cities among the most dangerous in the world is created, and felt, by a handful of aberrants, that the lack, yawning everywhere in this country, of passionate conviction, of personal authority, proves only our rather appealing tendency to be gregarious and democratic. We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be, and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame and so ugly.

– James Baldwin


Waterbury, Vermont

One thought on “Lounging on the Lawn of the Loony Bin

  1. A friend of mine grew up visiting her Dad there; he was in the Vermont State Hospital most of her childhood and he died there when she was a teen. She said it was always great when he recognized her. To me a child going again and again to visit a parent because sometimes they might be seen was a powerful testament to love and a tragedy. Now I have come to see all love as ultimately tragic but no less beautiful. Even the greatest love will someday be severed in death, so love now because tomorrow is not a promise.

    Reading your blog always gets me thinking. But the pigs need to be pastured and the chickens set free.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s