Category Archives: Shenandoah Valley

Reflections on Shade and Tone as Day Turns to Night in the Valley

Photograph by Jose Padua
We were heading up Route 11 just north of Winchester—me, my wife and my kids—when we found ourselves crossing into West Virginia. Now, there are places where when you see the sign saying Welcome to West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful, things look pretty nice. Usually that’s during the day, when the sun highlights all the green that seems to be approaching you from the distance. This time, though, it was nearly dusk, at that point when the only thing you can see clearly is the landscape that’s close to you. It’s also when, for better or worse, that landscape and whatever buildings and signs and moving objects it includes are bathed in a beautiful yet unflattering light.

That’s when we came across Piggy’s Club—a restaurant, bar, and nightclub with a big sign out front to let you know that you could stay or get your “COLD BEER TO GO.” In the bright sunlight it might have seemed like a fair enough place to get something to eat, and in my drinking days it might have even seemed a reasonable enough place to have a few beers. It was, after all, Saturday night—and on a Saturday night, say, thirty years ago, Piggy’s might have even looked like an oasis of sorts. But then again, maybe not.

In my less hopeful moments, my mind tends to be overrun by feelings of powerlessness and insignificance. Other times I feel fully prepared for whatever form of Apocalypse might lie ahead. On this night, I felt somewhere between these two extremes—which meant that although I was a little nervous about where I might be taking us, I continued to take us there. All I knew for sure was that on this night Piggy’s gravel parking lot was a decent enough place for us to pull over.

Driving slowly to avoid potholes and any other hidden booby traps in Piggy’s parking lot, I turned the car back toward the highway. When I saw that the road was clear, I headed back in the other direction, in search of a place where we might want to spend some time. As fog settled over the valley and a slow drizzle started coming down, that’s what we did. And as the skies turned completely dark, what was once unflattered became beautiful once again, and we drove through it until we found a place where we wanted to be.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Helltown

Photograph by Jose Padua
Back in the familiar wilderness
of tattoo parlors and auto parts
stores, the cheap motels where
there’s always a vacancy, the streets
so dry and sunny you can almost feel
the dirt and grime with your eyes
when you blink, and the teenagers
with their stained shirts and the random
fucks and shits and blow jobs that spill
from their mouths as a substitute for
speech. It’s the quiet boredom of the
normal, non-existential, nothingness
that kills them, that kills me. The boy
who’s the scared misfit with a lisp
and gawking eyes when he talks to us,
when he asks us questions, turns down
the corners of his mouth, squints his eyes
even in the shade and says nothing as he
looks to the ground in an effort to fit in
with the fucks and shits and blow jobs.
This is not bravery nor is it cowardice,
this is neither infamy nor avarice, but
might there be a word for it other than
survival? A sense of accomplishment,
more and other, than that of being alive?
So I look at them looking at me, wide-eyed
like first rides on a roller coaster, thirsty
like summer afternoons with no prospects,
their arms by their sides, their hands empty;
because what tears us down creates us,
and what we tear down creates the stones
we throw, each morning, into the dirty
winding river, ready to shine, ready
to walk the jagged, gravel road home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

In That Spring When Stars Are Made

Photograph by Jose Padua
Though we don’t turn them on at night,
the strings of Christmas lights are still up,
hanging in a line from the porch roof.
The red and white candy cane lights, pulled up from the ground,
lie at the top of the front steps
next to the all-season Dutch gnome.
Plastic Santa we managed to take to the back porch;
we’ll eventually carry him to the garage
where he will stand in silence
like a bored security guard
until next year. So go
the small things
we never have time to do,
the arbitrary ordering of our lives and times
into four seasons and various rooms
and days that pass so swiftly,
so invisibly
when nothing that’s considered
productive is being done.
But oh, all the tiny victories
not worth mentioning,
I will mention them anyway:
sitting on a rocking chair
when it’s warm and
I am in a blue-green, almost noisy funk,
talking about what was once the recent past;
an evening when dark objects in the sky
collide and fall to earth
as brilliant points of light.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Self-Portrait as a Being of Sound and Motion on the Northern Edge of the Southern States

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Driving to Winchester
the other day
Stravinsky’s Symphonies
of Wind Instruments

comes on the stereo
as we head west
into the sunset
on 66 ready
for the curve at the end
of the highway that
changes our direction
and sends us North.
Yesterday on West Main Street
in Front Royal
heading back to my house
I hear Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s
“Gueule d’amour” and
I roll down the window
an inch to let just
the right amount of cold
inside so I can breathe
and feel the air
move around me like
a spirit drinking whisky
when I haven’t had
a drop to drink.
Today on Route 11 South
of Harrisonburg it’s
Al Green singing
“Loving You”
from The Belle Album
as we ride up and down
the hills in the early winter’s
late afternoon light
past farmland that’s dry
and bare between seasons.
And each time I am
entranced, bedazzled, amazed
by music I’ve heard
hundreds of times,
and comforted
to know that as
we travel through
the various frequencies
of light and dark
there is a pure constant sound
stirring within me
whether I am rising
or falling
heading east or west
and that whether I am
dust or flesh
I will be here
standing on the continents
spinning on this Earth
and moving through the universe
at great speed.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

P-Funk Reshapes the Landscape of the Redneck Town I Live In and Other Acts of Reformation and Reconstruction

Photograph by Jose Padua
Behind the wheel listening to P-Funk in my new neighborhood
the blank stare of the shirtless Larry the Cable Guy lookalike sharpens
to crystal clarity as his lazy slouch straightens up into a confident
strut and the words Git-R-Done are banished forever from his lips.

The colors start to run on the confederate flag bumper sticker
on the pickup truck ahead of me, its starry X melting like
the Wicked Witch of the West turning into a smelly puddle of scum.
Having freed my mind from the “Our God is an Awesome God” sounds

that limp through the streets from the doorway of the Heaven Sent Shoppe
downtown until it oozes like toxic waste into the Shenandoah River, having
been lifted from the list of endangered species by a bop gun blast,
I am ready to stand tall in my off-white glory and the knowledge that

God does not appreciate those lame-ass Christian pop songs. I step
out of my minivan, open the back door and take my daughter
by the hand. “Who sang that song?” I ask and right away she
answers “P-Funk” because I’m trying to teach her what’s well

and what’s real and we glance at our house, stop and wave to
our neighbors, then together we turn to walk towards the future.

– Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Reflections on a Sign on a Country Road and Other Failures of the Imagination

Photograph by Jose Padua
We were in Washington County, just a few miles west of the river that keeps Ohio separate from Wild Wonderful West Virginia to the east. It’s a county that’s even less diverse than the one where we live in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. When we were on this rural Ohio road a year earlier, the sign at this house said, “Obama Mohammed Camel Dung.” What it said a year ago was “Imagine There’s No Islam.”

Driving past it around ten o’clock that morning on the way to meet family, I held up my middle finger. Passing by it again a couple of hours later, I stopped and rolled down the window. That’s when I took the picture. Right after I took it, I started to hear dogs barking. If it were just me in the car, I would have stayed. I guess it’s sort of like what happens in my poem that goes, “Poetry is giving the finger to the biggest guy in the room just to see what happens.” But since it wasn’t just me in the car, I drove off.

In a couple of minutes, a song by the Syrian musician Omar Souleyman came up in the random mix on the car stereo. If his music had come up just a little bit earlier, while I had the window rolled down, I imagine I wouldn’t have been able to resist turning the volume up to eleven—and waiting to see what happened. What I prefer not to imagine are what someone who would display signs like these would do if he saw me and my family hovering on the side of the road by his house. We weren’t on his property, but people like him tend to blur the line between public and property, with property being anyplace where they think people who are different from them shouldn’t be allowed to set foot.

Another thing that’s not hard to imagine is that today, when Donald Trump was sworn in as the forty-fifth President of the United States, was a day of celebration for him. I could easily see him and his family among the people who came to DC today wearing their Make America Great Again hats and asking how to get to the mall. And, later, cheering upon hearing Trump declare, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.” That is, after all, among the things he imagines, with one problem being that for a lot of folks like him, there is no difference between Islam and “radical Islam.”

This morning I took my daughter to an Occupy rally in Malcolm X Park, just a few blocks down from the neighborhood where I grew up in DC. Although my old neighborhood has gone through a lot of gentrification, there’s still a wide variety of people there. It’s always a nice break, going to a place where I feel welcome simply as another member of the human race. Where I live now isn’t like that and having a person like Donald Trump setting the tone as president sure as hell ain’t going to make things better there. Indeed, this is a presidency for those who want to imagine me and a whole lot of other kinds of people gone.

But tonight, I’m here, in my old family home, where I grew up from about the age of six until I left for New York. It’s a period of time during which I went from knowing little to knowing a few things. And during which I went from wanting simply to fit in to wanting unequivocably to be whatever the hell it is I am.

I’m writing this while sitting at the wobbly dining room table where my family would eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My father and my mother are gone now, but one of my brothers still lives here in this house, and my other brother is only about twenty minutes away. I’m listening to an old Taj Mahal record, The Real Thing, that includes this old tune I love called, “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie (Any Mo’)” which feature Taj on his guitar and whistling a tune that definitely isn’t “Dixie.” And as I listen to it I’m doing my best, in the face of coming hard times and whatever variety of obscene obstacles may be in store for us, to imagine better days.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua taken in Malcolm X Park on January 20. 2017

Half-Life

Photograph by Jose Padua
This is my autobiography
at mid-life, assuming that
at 51 years of age I will
live another 51 years and
die at 102. That’s not very
likely, but I wasn’t ready
to write this at 30, and
with the way I was living
then I wouldn’t have made it
to 60, meaning that at 30
it was too late to discuss
the middle of my life as
it was happening because
the middle was already
long gone. Somehow
I survived. Now I have
a heart condition that’s
under control, but which
in more severe cases can
kill a man or a woman
as quickly as the villain
in a gory, stupid, horror
film; I also have what’s called
chronic obstructive pulmo-
nary disease, which means
I can’t run a marathon
or hold my breath without
turning purple at least half
a minute before everyone
else. I have Tourette Syn-
drome, which makes it so
people don’t even need to
know me to know that
there’s something wrong
with me, taking away my
ability to make a smooth,
natural progression from
eccentric to weird. Still,
my existence seems to
surprise some people
who would rather not
see me even though
I have been here for
over half a century,
not tall, not very strong,
but with a significance
that refuses to be denied.
Indeed, where would I
be if I couldn’t shock
you into submission?
If I couldn’t gain
strength from your
frailty, your quest for
meaning, addiction,
obligation? So I stand
here now, apart from
most of the world, an
odd, almost alien being.
Who can say with con-
fidence that I, in my
distance, am not
speaking for you?

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua. The poem, from about eight years ago, is presented here for the first time. The photograph was taken yesterday.

New Year’s Resolutions Written While Listening to Albert Ayler’s ‘Truth Is Marching In’

Photograph by Jose Padua
This coming year I will try to take everything
personally and to cultivate lengthier states
of hysteria in the course of my day to day living.
I will do everything in my power to gain more
weight, to feel the blood rushing through my veins
upon hearing of the latest absurdity, upon being
at the receiving end of a significant snub or slight,
upon peeing on my shoes when I go to the bathroom
and am in too much of a hurry to watch what
I am doing not that I ever do that anyhow.
I will write a hit song that’s total bullshit.
I will sit on my ass completely still until some-
thing starts to feel sore or I start to bleed inside.
I will learn what it means to be proactive.
I will drive around my small town until I am lost
or am so bored and tired I have no choice but
to park and take a nap, whichever comes first.
I will drown whatever sorrows I may have by
drinking glass after glass of cold water and
pretend that it is fine wine from the south
of France. I will drink fine wine from the south
of France and pretend I am the late Bob Ross,
painting my latest masterpiece that includes
a landscape of green trees, blue birds, and
clouds, so many beautiful clouds. I will walk
along these streets, I will think about the books
that could be filled with stories about the things
that happened here, and I will believe in nothing.
Not the things that happen only on television,
not the useless distractions that take me away
from the history of mountains and trees and
the steady power of slow-moving rivers;
not the world of diamonds and hard gold
because above all else I am a human, walking
on solid ground under multi-colored skies through
an atmosphere riding its planet through space,
born with a powerful yearning to breathe.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

In the Valley of the Bobs

Photograph by Jose Padua
There’s nothing more frightening
than a man named Bob. Not a day
goes by when I don’t think, Bob is
coming to get me
. Not a motion passes
before my tired eyes when I don’t think,
Bob Bob Bob. I hear the sound of Bob’s
footsteps two blocks away, walking
up my street, going up to my front
porch, knowing that when he gets
to my door he won’t bother to knock.
When I was a kid there were menacing
Bobs in my neighborhood, guys who
I knew had knives in their back pockets
or guns in their Bob-sized boots. Bob X.
was not my friend, nor was Bob Y, nor
was Bob Z, and I’m not talking about Bob
Dylan who was always really a Robert
not a Bob. But those Bobs couldn’t get
close to me the way the Bobs can today.
It wasn’t me who ripped Bob off,
but that doesn’t matter to Bob. He
doesn’t care who did what or where
or why because this is Bob’s world now
and the hills are alive with the sound
of Bob’s pissed-offness. I see those hills
bouncing as if they were bulls in the rodeo,
tossing cowboys off their backs. I see them
bobbing for Bob against the bold blue sky
while he eats his morning bacon. It is summer
and the Bobs are taking back the country.
It is summer and the Bobs are just around
the corner, singing their horrible songs,
holding out their hands as I look straight ahead
holding my head up like a statue, walking
a line like a robot watching his step. This is
how I live here in the valley of the shadow,
in the valley of the Bobs, staring at the Bobs
as they look away, as they stop to ask questions,
as the robins stretch their wings, and rise
from the ground like malevolent angels
because everyone and everything is afraid
and the next Bob is around the corner,
counting fingers, eyes, hands, souls.

-Jose Padua

First published at Truck.

Joy and Comfort

Photograph by Jose Padua
Whenever I see the word Joy
stitched into the bright red
cloth of the Christmas towel
hanging in the bathroom
what I hear in my head
isn’t “Joy to the World,”
a song I learned to play
on guitar by listening to
John Fahey’s version
when I was fourteen,
but “Joy,” a song sung by
Teddy Pendergrass in
1988 when I was 30
years old. For a few years
I could sort of play guitar
like John Fahey, sort of
re-create his sting and
drone when I plucked the steel
strings but my voice could
never come close to the smoky
sweetness of Teddy Pendergrass.
And in the several years after
I turned 31 I took the train
back from New York
to DC then back again
every year at Christmas,
coming home and going
back again like a sentimental
song in a major key that
sounds so much sadder
than you think it should.
I went back to the Lower
East Side where “crackhead”
wasn’t another word for an
asshole or a loser and was
only used when you were
talking about your friend
who was addicted to crack,
and art was created by
the people for the people
and product was what was
left on the floor and swept
into the trash or flushed
down the toilet once we
thought we’d made sense
of everything. Sometimes
we were wrong. Now I live
in a small town away from
the big city and I rarely
ever take the train or even
the bus and I’m rarely ever
away from home. Now joy
is like a bird on a sidewalk
somewhere off Main Street,
flapping its wings briefly
before deciding there’s no
hurry, no reason to rush or
leave the warm, calm comfort
of the middle of things.
John Fahey died in 2001,
Teddy Pendergrass in 2010,
and whenever I hear their
music in my head or in
the world I am reminded
of days gone by, and I turn
away from the bright red
of the cloth that hangs
against the deep green of
the bathroom wall and walk
out into the shadowing yellow
and slow, lowering blue of
this beautiful, young morning.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua