Planting Seeds

We arrived home at midnight and it felt like another dimension.  The house seemed strangely familiar, like something I’d seen before but of which I didn’t have an actual relationship.  As in a dream I walked from room to room, remembering what our couch looked like, recognizing the kids in the picture frames as my own, realizing that our kitchen table doesn’t match our kitchen at all.  And we were only gone a month.

31 days to be exact.

During the last days we wished so hard to be home, in our own beds, eating homemade food, pulling clothes from drawers instead of packing up our bags every morning.  And then we were there.  And it was weird. Like “I don’t think I live here.  I’m pretty sure I live in my car.”  And I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in my house, in Lawrence, KS, in the middle of the country.  I felt pulled toward the coast.  For obvious the-west-coast-is-beautiful reasons, but also due to a mysterious tug of the heart.

Like it just fit.

Those who know me will find this ironic.  And possibly infuriating.  When I moved to L.A. in 1999 with my new husband, solely because that is where he wanted and needed to live for his work (movie-making), I hated it.  Truly, I did.  I dreamt of Lawrence constantly for two years, longing for the familiar place I understood – its seasons, its trees, its small-ness.  L.A. was foreign and crowded and hectic and enormous.  It took me several more years to really think of it as home, or one of my homes, and be glad about it.  I was happy when we moved back to my roots after having our first baby.  We took a collective sigh of relief for the slower pace, the bike-able/walk-ableness, the non-existent traffic.  I had been overwhelmed for years and was ready to settle the hell down.  Lawrence was the perfect place for having babies.

But (if you read my earlier post My Old Friend, you’ll know) when I reached Los Angeles and the central California coast on our trip, I was shocked to realize that this felt home-like, too.  After all those years of struggling to enjoy life there, I found myself pulled toward it.  Suddenly it felt familiar.  Which is such a funny turn of events it proves you never know what’s coming.  No one would have pegged me as headed to the West Coast when I was younger, and no one would suspect I would want to go back.

So why the inconsistency?  Why the fickle hatred-to-longing feeling?  Is it The-Grass-is-Greener Syndrome?  Is it because I’m (cross my fingers) done having babies and don’t need as much settling down as I did before?  Is it a legitimate pull toward something, or a restless running away?  Is this a problematic theme in my life – discontent – or a stages-of-life reality?  I do not know that answer to any of these.  I’m pondering.  And the pondering will continue as home prices in L.A. are well beyond our means for now.  But the seed has been planted.  We’ll see how it grows, or if it dies in the dirt of settling back in.

If you have a freakishly inexpensive home in South Pasadena you’d like to rent out for part of the year, specifically during the months of February and August, let me know.  In the meantime, here’s to pondering, and the idea of home, and awesome road trips that might just change the course of your life.


My Old Friend

We haven’t lived in Los Angeles for almost nine years.  I only lived there for eight.  So really, I should feel less at home there than I do in Lawrence, Kansas where I’ve spent the greater part of my life.  And mostly, I do.  But on this trip back to the land of my twenties, my young newly-married self, the landscape has felt surprisingly familiar.  The landmarks have seemed less like famous places to visit than old friends I haven’t seen in a while.  The magnolia trees and neatly trimmed bushes, the tropical flowers, even the bermuda grass bring nostalgia.  Not that my twenties were so great – they weren’t (marriage was hard, I felt awful, I didn’t know yet who I was).  But this place has clearly carved a place in my heart I didn’t know the depth of until this trip.

We drove north from Calabasas along the coast today.  Stopped in Santa Barbara for lunch (hello, sunshine and delicious grilled veggie sandwich), past countless rvs parked on the side of Highway 1, grabbing a slice of ocean view for themselves.  Past surfers and surf to the left, parched hills and shrubs to the right.  The drought has made the landscape different, like a friend who has gone gray and wrinkled with age, whom it takes a minute to recognize.  But as you stare you see that familiar face, beneath the wear and tear, and smile.  As we turned inland toward San Luis Obispo, our destination for the night, a rush of “Oh yeah…I know this,” hit me like the waves I had just been watching.  I remembered this exact drive from many trips to the Central Coast for wine tasting and fabulous, frivolous wandering.  The high hills that rise into mountains in the distance.  The curve of their backs lit up by the sun.  They welcomed me like a relative coming home for a family reunion.  “It’s so good to see you.”  Hug.  Kiss on the cheek.

“This could be the Flint Hills,” Marc said as we drove north of Morro Bay.  Perhaps why this place has always felt so familiar.  Like a taller version of my beloved, treeless rolling scape in Eastern Kansas.  With an ocean to one side.  Enough sameness to be instantly comforting when I first glimpsed the area at twenty-five, but different enough to be new and completely alive.  And on this July afternoon in my 40th year, happier in almost every way than when I was twenty-five, the Central Coast of California feels like a worn, nubby blanket from my youth.

The next phase of Highway 1 rises in elevation, craggy and majestic above the Pacific.  It’s a bit more foreign to me.  Grand and romantic.  Flashier and louder in it’s “look at me” popularity.  I’ll enjoy the drive along it’s cliffs, taking in the scenic views.  But my heart belongs to it’s lowly neighbor to the south.  Less dramatic, but dearer to my heart.  Quietly beautiful.  Full of air and sunlight and space.  I’m even more at home in crowded, crazy Los Angeles, where I spent a good chunk of my younger years peeling back it’s layers.  Southern California and the Central Coast are my second home, I was surprised to realize on this trip.  More a part of me than I knew.  Surely willing to welcome me back like an old friend the next time I get to visit.



I live across the street from fraternities.  Several of them.  And the house next door is (illegally) full of college guys as well.  Yes, it’s like the movie with Seth Rogen, except not at all really.  I get that a lot.

We live right next to the University of Kansas campus, at the top of a hill that students and professors (and the guy who sings along with what sound like pirate shanteys on his headphones) climb to go to class, feeling both exhausted and relieved when they reach our spot, the hard part of their walk being complete.  Each day, as my kids throw on backpacks, put on shoes and head out for school, countless college students are criss-crossing in front of our house.  Up and down the hill, crossing the street, zipping around the corner in their SUVs.   There’s an electric feeling when we step out the door, part of all that activity.  That movement and energy – the feelings of anticipation or dread for classes that each of those people carry with them.  We like it.  We like that buzz.

And then there’s the summer, when all the students have gone home.  The fraternities put their couches (inexplicably) in large shipping containers in the parking lots and head out.  Only a trickle of students climb our hill for summer school, with less enthusiasm, knowing they’re missing all the fun.  The mood is more calm, fitting the lazy days of sleeping in and wearing pjs til noon.  Riding bikes in the empty parking lot across the street.  Heading to the pool when the heat sets in and staying up late because we can.  The buzz is gone.  Mellow has taken it’s place, and we breathe it in.  We like it, too.  The buzz and the calm, both good in turn.  When the time is right and the mood in the air fits our own.

There’s a theme I’ve noticed in my writing, and my life.  Both/and.  I like a mix.  I like to travel, and I like coming home.  I like time with my kids and I like time to myself.  I like the difference of each season (although winter could end in January if you asked me) and welcome them when they arrive.  All traveling or staying put, all together or apart, all any one season and I’d freak out.  Get antsy for the other and ill at ease in my own skin.  I’d get grumpy (i.e. when February hits), and nobody wants that.  So I’m glad for both/and.  The electric buzz of college students in the fall, the lazy calm of summer, and the mix of all good things: escaping Kansas in February and traveling with my family.  Yay.  It’s a recipe for happiness in my world.  And I’m thankful for all the ingredients.

I think today, as the students head home with the joy and relief of a Friday afternoon, the frat boys play a game of pick up in the now full parking lot, and the pirate shantey guy belts out his odd-but-happy tunes, I’ll sit out front and soak it in.  Have a beer in their honor.  Thank them silently for their uplift, even if cans of Natty Light aren’t my preferred yard art.  They have their good points.  Namely being gone for the summer and back for the fall, making the atmosphere alive and fun and full of life.  I might not like the “buzz” of living near a college at 2:00 AM, but overall I’m glad for both/and.  Cheers, frat boys.

Wander Lust

Part 3 in a series on traveling…

There’s a mental dichotomy I experience each summer.  Between the love of getting away and the love of coming home.  I was so happy when we pulled up to the house after our road trip to Florida last month.  Two weeks of fun was just the right amount, and I was ready for some “regular old stuff.”  Sleeping in my own bed, reading the paper, even doing laundry.  I couldn’t imagine wanting to travel for a very long time.

But two weeks later I found myself browsing Groupon for getaways to Europe and the Bahamas.  Dreaming of an even bigger and longer amount of adventure far from home.  I have this tendency.  A wander lust that is temporarily quenched when I do travel, and sometimes squashed, but only for a time.  Until the desire to see some place new, or just different than Kansas (insert Kansas-is-lame joke here), pops back up, and searching rental houses on becomes a nightly past-time.  I can’t help it.  I want to see the world.

This is what makes living in the very middle of the United States ok with me.  The knowledge that I can occasionally go elsewhere.  I love my life here – my neighborhood, my kids’ school, the college-town atmosphere and Lawrence, Kansas’ perfect size.  But I also know there are other places to explore.  Different (cultures) to experience and try to understand.  Cultural geography was one of my favorite college courses, and traveling, to me, is a natural continuation of that study.  (As well as enjoying a mojito on a beach – that’s like prepping for mid-terms, right?)  It quenches my curiosity, gets me away from the mundane, helps me understand the world better, and gives me an excuse to eat whatever I want.  And I get to do it with the people I love.  There’s just not much better.

Until I’m ready to be home.  When I long for the mundane again – the comfortable familiarity of daily routines and my own house.  Of lying on the couch watching a movie covered in my favorite throw blanket eating a bowl of frozen berries from Costco on a Tuesday night.  Just “regular old stuff.”

We left for Colorado two and a half weeks after we got back from Florida.  Not nearly as long of a drive, but another road trip just the same, and I was ready.  I couldn’t believe it.  Even after all the exploratory driving we’d done on our southern trip, I was pumped to do some more.  To see some mountains and do some hiking and need to wear a sweatshirt at night.  As before, we added on some extra sight-seeing at the end, not having had enough.  And as before we were ready to call it quits the day we drove home.  (Five people in one hotel room helps bring about the ok-we’re-done-now feeling).  The travel-home-travel-home cycle continues.  I guess the good news is I can have them both: the getting away from home and the coming back.  Thank goodness for cars and airplanes and Southwest Rapid Rewards.  And for a fascinating world, with a great big America to explore, and good old Lawrence, KS at its center.  Where you can find me doing the same old stuff until I get the itch again.  Or Groupon has a deal to Rome.


This weekend we had a house full of people.  A party for about 30.  Good food, kids playing, a beautiful night, jazz, old fashioneds, a fire in the fire pit.  It was a lot of work, a mess afterward, and so much fun.

We moved into our new house in November with a huge sigh of relief over the space upgrade.  Exactly five people (one in a high chair, in the corner) fit into our old dining room.  In the warmer months we could host more outside, but heat and bugs made that less than ideal in late summer.  Which left us with about three months, maybe, of having-people-over possibilities.  Which sucked.  People are our thing.  Not just seeing them, or knowing them in an acquaintance way, but hearing their stories, sharing a good meal, hanging for hours on end.  That’s what we dig.

We were really good at it in our twenties.  Late nights of food and drink and talk when we lived in L.A. With good friends who we still treasure.  Then we had kids – we all did – and the parties changed.  Diaper duty, bedtimes to keep, kid disputes to diffuse – not as much hanging as grabbing snippets of conversation and connection.  It was a new kind of wonderful – family created and developed and shared with other families.  Deeper in some ways.  But certainly not as relaxing.

But now.  Yes.  There’s a glimmer of hope of hearing a full story again.  Of chillin.  While the kids get filthy running barefoot in the yard, sneak cookies, get out all the princess dolls upstairs, we can talk.  Have a glass of wine and discuss movies.  Or music.  Or politics.  Or laugh profusely.  It may seem a small matter, but those with kids will understand the significant shift.  The sudden combination of our children getting older and having more space.  We can gather people again.  We can create an inviting place for friends to get to know each other, and be known after that.  Like Cheers.  But at our house.  And with less alcoholics.

The party on Saturday helped me feel this switch, and I’m so glad.  I love my family.  Love movie nights with pizza – just us.  And weeknight dinners with third grade jokes, and our highs and lows of the day, and hearing only our stories.  That’s the meat of life.  The main, best part.  But I’m glad to know we can have the other, too.  Happy for a chance to be with family and friends at the same time, and get to experience it in full.

So yay for a larger house.  And the ability to gather.  And for people, who we dig.

It’s about time.

Celebrating that cute couple in the front.

From the Outside In

          My first couple of years living in L.A. I found I had nothing to say.  It was hard for me to write in that city.  Part of it was due to my surroundings – buildings all around don’t start the creative juices flowing in me.  Views have always been a part of writing for me.  Being able to see a long way off, especially if the scenery is green and lush and sweeping, has always prompted words.  Certain trees, or stretches of the sky, or images in a photo have jump-started many stories and essays and poems in my brain.  Finding  the meaningful in the beautiful motivates me.  Mid-century architecture, in pastel, doesn’t.
          It also takes a while – years – for a person to know a place enough to write about it.  “Write what you know” is common writing advice, and I didn’t know L.A. enough my first several years there to say anything worthwhile.  It’s a complicated city; It takes a while to absorb.  I also struggled with liking it at first – that didn’t help.  I moved to Los Angeles a new bride, to a teaching job I wasn’t trained for, to a city my husband had already lived in for two years.  From Kansas.  It was culture shock, marriage shock, career shock and lack-of-friends shock all at once.  In a apartment in Alhambra with decades-old shag carpeting and no phone.  It seems like it should have been fodder for a lot of good writing, but instead it left me speechless – quietly taking in all the new, all the different, trying to understand my changed life.  There was no room left in my brain for processing.  For overflowing.
          Four or five years in to my time in L.A. I enrolled in a writing class through UCLA Extension.  It was the first time since college that I felt a twinge of being able to throw some words down on paper that weren’t inner ramblings.  It felt great.  I wrote some decent sentences in my classes there, but more importantly, I wrote.  Pieces with structure and craft involved.  I remember driving home from class one night, which I went to in the evening after a full day of work, feeling more alive and awake than I had in years.  And more connected to my city and the people in it than ever.  I had something to say for the first time in a long time.  Hallelujah.
          A couple of years later, when I had my first child – my son – my heart broke open with all sorts of new feelings and met yearnings – longings I didn’t know the depth of until they were realized in my baby boy.  I knew I wanted to be a mother, but I didn’t know what a primal need would be met in having a child.  That it would open up another valve and pump new blood into my life.  That it would answer an unanswerable question in my soul.  I spilled over with things to say, things to write, about becoming a mother.  The floodgates opened.  I wrote a love letter of sorts to my son about nursing him – the labor of love that it was.  It is probably horribly written – cheesy beyond forgiveness – but I still can’t see past the utter passion I felt at the time.  It still makes me cry.
          I’m beginning to be able to write in any kind of room these days, with any kind of view.  Even at a desk in the basement, with the computer and dirty laundry looking back at me.  Sitting in my dining room full of windows, looking into my back yard with kids’ toys, a swing set, bushes I’ve neglected trimming and the silly-looking pear tree I planted when we bought our house is my new writing spot of choice.  I could write there for hours.  I’m not sure why I don’t need sweeping views anymore.  Figuring that one out will be another essay some years down the road, I assume.  I wonder, though, if it has something to do with settling into myself.  Having three children made me take a step back and see myself differently, from a different angle.  From a more distant view, I suppose.  I was filled up by giving myself to my kids, and I witnessed that happen.  I still like sitting on top of a hill and seeing what thoughts pop into my head.  It’s magic for me.  But the empty screen and a few things to say are enough these days.  My family is my muse.  For now, watching them from the outside in is as good a view as any.


     Looking back at E.B. White’s collection of essays the other night I was reminded of his genius, inspired by his simple yet profound style, and once again brought to my writing knees with the connection I feel to this man who is gone from the earth but still alive to me in his writing.  E.B. White wrote Charlotte’s Webb and Stuart Little, but I only realized this after reading his personal essays and feeling like I’d come home.
Here’s a bit from one of my favorites, about moving from his apartment in New York City:
…As I sit here this afternoon in this disheveled room, surrounded by the boxes and bales that hold my undisposable treasure, I feel the onset of melancholy.  I look out onto Forty-eighth Street; one out of every ten passers-by is familiar to me.  After a dozen years of gazing idly at the passing show, I have assembled, quite unbeknownst to them, a cast of characters that I depend on.  They are the nameless actors who have a daily walk-on part in my play – the greatest of dramas.  I shall miss them all, them and their dogs.  Even more, I think, I shall miss the garden out back – the wolf whistle of the starling, the summer-night murmur of the fountain; the cat, the vine, the sky, the willow.  And the visiting birds of spring and fall – the small, shy birds that drop in for one drink and stay for two weeks.  Over a period of thirty years, I have occupied eight caves in New York, eight digs – four in the Village, one in Murray Hill, three in Turtle Bay.  In New York, a citizen is likely to keep on the move, shopping for the perfect arrangement of rooms and vistas, changing his habitation according to fortune, whim, and need.  And in every place he abandons he leaves something vital, it seems to me, and starts his new life somewhat less encrusted, like a lobster that has shed its skin and is for a time soft and vulnerable.  (Goodbye to Forty-Eighth Street)
     I feel it, I see it, I am completely taken into that world by his words.  And I don’t want to leave.
     There is a theme among White’s essays of his delight in familiar things.  Coming home felt good, leaving it was hard.  He rejoiced in the comfort of a recognizable landscape, a worn-in rocking chair, animals he knew well and those he merely viewed often from a window.  I have the same affinity toward the familiar.  When I moved from Kansas to L.A. after I got married, it took years to shake off the longing for home.  For the recognizable landscape of Pin Oaks and Sugar Maples, the rolling, rocky Flint Hills that offer a grassy view for miles, the older-than-the-sixties architecture, the seasons.  And in fact, the longing never left.  It calmed down and laid low, allowing me to learn to enjoy my new home for what it was, but it never died.  The Flint Hills called to me from the middle of the country, tempting me with room to breathe, and think, and write.  So when we moved back eight years after I left, there was a sigh of relief in my gut when I sat on the porch, silently watching the Sycamore’s swaying leaves shimmer in the sunlight, seeing the Cottonwood tufts float past in summer, or the fat snowflakes fall in winter.  Being back home made me calm.  Made me happy.  Made me sit still for a bit.
     But E.B. White had two “homes,” one New York City, one rural Maine.  He loved them both.  Saw the goodness and beauty in each place.  They became familiar over time.  After living in L.A. for nearly a decade it also became a part of me.  I was happy to move back to the midwest as I raised my children, but there are parts of that city which became players in my story, and I am happy to see them again at our semi-annual reunions.  The Magnolia and Palm trees lining Orange Grove Ave, the wild parrots that nested outside my bedroom window, the birds of paradise and poppies that bloomed year-round, the dependable sunshine, the absence of bugs.  I learned from living in such a different place that change is hard, but in the end it’s good.  It expands your repertoire of normal, which makes you more at home in the world.  It helps me know that wherever I live, if given time it can become home, or a home.  Perhaps no place will ever be as much a part of me as Kansas, but it’s ok to leave, to be reminded of why I love it so very much.  And then I can return and give a sigh of relief at the place I know so well.
     White writes about returning to Maine at Christmastime:
What happens to me when I cross the Piscataqua and plunge rapidly into Maine at the cost of seventy-five cents in tolls?  I cannot describe it.  I do not ordinarily spy a partridge in a pear tree, or three french hens, but I do have the sensation of having received a gift from a true love.  And when, five hours later, I dip down across the Narramissic and look back at the tiny town of Orland, the white spires of its church against the pale-red sky stirs me in a way that Chartres could never do.  It was the Narramissic that once received as fine a lyrical tribute as was ever paid to a river – a line in a poem by a schoolboy, who wrote of it, “It flows through Orland every day.”  I never cross that mild stream without thinking of his testimonial to the consistency, the dependability of small, familiar rivers.  (Coming Home)
      I once took the StrengthsFinder personality test, and one of my top five strengths was Past.  In their terms that means I “like to think about the past” and I “learn by studying and researching the past”.  No surprise there.  One of my two majors in college was history, and I have always appreciated a look backward to see the present more clearly.  My love of the familiar fits right in with this Past strength – until something has a past with me, it is not familiar and therefore not as precious.
     That isn’t to say that I don’t love exploring the new – I love to travel to new places, for a chance to unwrap a different culture and see what the world holds.  I lived in Taiwan for a summer just after college, and it was a crash course in all-new-all-the-time, even though I had studied East Asian culture quite a bit in school.  It was short, but there were elements of it that became normal as I lived in Taichung.  I latched on to anything that became commonplace: the route I walked to work, the scooter ride to the village for fried rice, the nightly boba I bought in broken Mandarin.  I instinctively held tight to anything that felt typical.  Living in such a different place than I had known was exhilarating, and hard, and fascinating, and lonely and so very good for me.  It was a summer of exploration, of Taiwan and of myself.  I’m glad for the experience.  But the return, even just walking off the plane into the United States, which looked, and felt and smelled familiar, made my shoulders drop from their two-month hike up to my ears.  My body physically reacted to what I knew so well.  I was home.
     Before I moved to L.A. I could never imagine living anywhere else but Kansas (northeast Kansas to be specific), but now when I go someplace new I picture myself living there, wondering if I would enjoy it, thinking about whether this place could be another home to me.  In many places it’s possible.  (Syria, Siberia, and Branson, Missouri are a few it’s not.)  E.B. White had more than one place he called home.  He valued those places like a member of his family, or more so, the solid base beneath it.  So far I have two as well, but I imagine someday I will have more.  And perhaps, dream of dreams, someday I will write as eloquently of them as E.B. White did of his.