I Hear You. I See You.

Here’s what I learned from the Women’s March:

1. Everyone has a story to tell.

2. We should listen.

I went to the women’s march in little ol’ Topeka, KS, last Saturday, along with over 3,000 men, women and children. We were a small portion of the total Women’s March attendees worldwide, but we were there. As I scanned the signs in the crowd I got a sense of each person’s motivation for attending. Some people were clearly angry. Some were more sad. Some were there to support a specific cause or people group. And surely some were all three. I was conflicted about going, not because I was against the march, but because I didn’t think this type of event fit me. I am hyper conscious about keeping my word – letting my yes be yes and my no be no. In the things I promise and the things I merely say. And a lot is said by one’s actions. By showing up, or not.

In going to the march, was I supporting everything this crowd was supporting? I knew I wasn’t, so was going a lie? Was it a falsehood to be a body in that place on that day? Those were questions I asked myself before I decided to hitch a ride with my friend, her daughter, and her mother. I had no sign. I had no specific agenda. I went as an observer, a witness, a supporter of equal rights in general.

I’m going to show my hand here: I am pro-life in that I wish abortion wasn’t a thing at all. I am pro-choice in that I think the answer to the problem is much more complicated than making laws. I am conflicted about legislating morality, on either side of the aisle. Because both sides are doing it. Because we all have a set of values from which we move in the world. From which our political stances arise. The Republicans are not the only ones with a moral standard. The Democrats are not the only ones with compassion for the marginalized. Trying to make our society work for both types of people (and for those who don’t fit in either camp) is a complicated task, necessitating compromise. I sit in between the parties as an independent, and marches don’t always speak for those of us on the fence. “Yes, but…” was my most common internal response to the speeches I heard. Or “Yes, and…”

The very best sign I have seen from any march was made by a friend of mine. She was at the same event as me, though I didn’t see here there – only caught a photo of her sign on social media that evening.

It said simply:

I Hear You.

I See You.

I asked her later about the meaning of her sign, and she said it was up for interpretation. My takeaway was that it perfectly summed up why I went to the march – what it was all about it my view – and the attitude which if everyone adopted, no matter his or her political views, would solve so many of our problems. I hear you. I see you.

When my husband and I have an argument, what it almost always comes down to is one or both of us feeling we haven’t been heard. That one or both of our points of view has been passed over as unimportant or wrong. And the best way to diffuse a disagreement is for us to communicate that we’ve taken in the other’s words and considered them. That what was said wasn’t worthless or silly. Eye contact is key. Body language that communicates empathy instead of disgust.

For me, going to the march was saying with my presence, “I hear and see you” to all the people who feel left out. I, myself, don’t feel that way. I have had it pretty easy as a white, straight, middle class girl/woman in America. I am not particularly angry for me. But as another sign said “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it is not a problem for you personally.” That’s where listening comes in.

The whole idea of a march is to be heard. To be a squeaky wheel for a people or a cause. The problem right now is that so many groups of people were belittled during the campaign that the squeaky wheels are all over the road. The list of speakers at Saturday’s event was long, because numerous groups were being represented. So many people felt blatantly attacked by the man who is now the President that the anger and fear is widespread. And to just say “hush” to all those people is both unkind and foolish. Just as preaching to the choir does little to help further a cause, shushing the other side does a lot to embolden it.

This goes both ways. The conservatives need to hear what the liberals are saying/the liberals need to hear what the conservatives are saying. And both sides should say things in a positive way – not just because it’s kind, but because it’s smart. I doubt a single conservative was moved to a new understanding by the sign “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Translation = Bitches Be Crazy!” Nor would a left-leaning person be swayed by the Facebook post on the Women’s March page that read “You guys are a joke.”

As soon as one side won’t listen it feels foolish to listen in return. It’s hard to answer disrespect, condescension, and outright hate with respect and love. Our nature cries “Hey now! Get off my back!” But it is possible. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t move from a place of hate. He moved from anger and frustration, but not from a desire to see harm done to anyone else. He moved from an understanding that God made everyone, and therefore everyone had value.

Even if someone doesn’t believe that basic tenet of human decency, we should ask why. And then we should listen to the answer. Even if the answer makes our skin crawl. Because until we know why, we can’t address the core issue; we can only address the symptoms. Assumptions are no good here. They are the enemy. Not the other political party. Not those who marched or those who didn’t.

If someone is pro-choice, we should ask why. I have friends whose bodies were assaulted in the past, so attempts to legislate their bodies feels violating. I have relatives who likely don’t know a single Muslim person, so they fear what they don’t understand, as we all tend to do. I have friends who came to America, illegally, from Mexico (and Guatemala, and El Salvador) because they or their parents wanted to give their children a chance to escape poverty, or worse. I have friends who are rich, friends who are poor, some who have been both in one lifetime. And I care what each of them has to say. Empathy does not have to mean agreement. It merely says…

I hear you. I see you.


What Our Souls Absorb

I recently worked on a timeline for our elementary school’s 100th anniversary celebration, sifting through old photos, searching online for newspaper articles, discovering historic treasures at the university’s research library. It was a lot of work, but fascinating and enlightening and worth the effort, if only to learn about one particular man who has enriched my view of the world – the namesake of our school. He died in 1904, but the impact he had on our community and on countless personal lives is inspiring and incredible. His story is worth sharing. His legacy is worth expanding.

Bear with me, here.  A bit of historical background. Just make it through the next paragraph and we’ll get to the good stuff:

Richard Cordley was born in England in 1829 but came to America at the age of four and settled in Michigan. He grew up in a log cabin, went to the school his father started when he was nine, lost an eye at the age of 10 in an accident involving an ox’s horn (pioneers were no wusses). He attended college and seminary and eventually came to Lawrence, Kansas as an abolitionist preacher in 1857, with the distinct purpose of opposing slavery in a territory still undecided on the issue. In fact, he and his wife harbored a fugitive slave escaping to Canada on the underground railroad. In 1863, a man named William Quantrill rode into town with a group of pro-slavery Missourians, killing 20% of the male population and burning the majority of the town. (Hence, Kansas’s deep-seeded grudge against Missouri, particularly in sporting events. No joke.) As an abolitionist, Richard Cordley was marked as a target in Quantrill’s raid but avoided death by escaping across the river. He went on to serve as the school board president, helped found Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, wrote two books on the history of our state, and served as pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church for nearly 40 years.

Whew. Thanks for sticking with me.

So, Richard Cordley did some stuff while he was alive. He made significant contributions to society. He was a prominent local figure in the community. But in the end, that’s not what struck me; his accomplishments weren’t his greatest feat. Here’s a quote I came across about Cordley’s true impact on the world:

“The greatest thing about Dr. Cordley was himself. The beauty of his character was reflected everywhere…(He)helped all who heard him speak because he spoke from his heart…He believed in men and loved them…”

–  Dr. William L. Burdick, former dean of Kansas University Law School and a member of Plymouth Congregational Church

It’s hard to imagine a more lovely description of a person’s years on earth. His life was the greatest thing about his life. His love of people. The way he helped others. The beauty of his character. In reading through his sermons I found him to be a fabulous writer. He should be famous. But, aside from the blessing people would receive by reading his work, I doubt he would care to be well-known outside of our small town. He was humble, he was kind, he was love-in-action personified. I feel as though I discovered a hidden treasure in learning about Richard Cordley. His helpful hand and the beauty of his character have reached all the way through history to me, over a century after he died. I’m so thankful to know him in some small way. And I’m proud to have my children’s school named after such a man.

Now to pass on the treasure I found. Here’s an excerpt from a sermon he wrote about pondering the end of another year (don’t know which, but the book of sermons was published in 1912) titled The Days of our Years. I used pieces of it to highlight the historical timeline I made for the school celebration – it seemed appropriate. It seems equally appropriate in remembering Dr. Cordley’s life itself, and in considering how I want to spend my own…

The “Days of Our Years” have passed very gently. They made no sound as they went by, but they changed the face of all the things they touched. They fell like snowflakes, silent and soft, but like the snowflakes they change the face of all the earth. Every year gives another touch, and before we note what is going on, the whole scene is changed. Time moves on without a sound, building up the limbs of childhood, strengthening the arms of manhood, and fulfilling the counsels of manhood. So quietly have they borne us along that we were hardly aware of the moving, yet here we are looking back over the long line of our journey. As we note the shifting scene it seems almost like a dream…Few as the days of our years have been, what marvelous transformations they have wrought. They seemed trifles to those who looked on, but they meant everything to those involved. The days of our years have flitted by like shadows on the hillside. Joy and sorrow, light and darkness, have chased each other across our sky. We have had reason ‘To bless the favoring gale’ when we have sailed through unruffled seas; and we have waited for light ‘In the midnight of the soul.’ Yet the days of our years have left something with us as they flitted by. They passed 

‘Like snowflakes on the river,

A moment white, then gone forever.’

But even the snowflakes increase the volume of the stream. They days of our years are gone before we know they are here, but they add to the volume of our life. They leave with us what our souls absorb, and we shall be in the coming days what our past has made us. We may accumulate wisdom and knowledge and character, and be enriched in life or we may let it all flow by us while we remain paupers in our spirits…Everything is the richer for what it has passed through.

Richard Cordley knew his days mattered. That time passed without notice if one didn’t stop and look sometimes. This sermon was a moment of looking back to look ahead. Of plumbing the depths and noticing what the soul had absorbed. I write for the very same reason and feel connected to this man from so long ago. May the days of my years be half the blessing of his.


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.


Vacation Expectation

Our expectations were low, but as per usual on vacation, expectations have little to do with actual outcomes.  I suppose if we had been determined to have a bad day, we would have had a bad day.  But we only assumed we would.  For our second day of travel we braced ourselves for bickering, for one billion potty stops, for three meltdowns, minimum.  It was our longest planned travel day – 10 hours without kids, 12+ with.  And none of us had slept well, including the one who had already had a massive fit our first night in.  We were girding our loins.  But we underestimated the power of beauty.

The Flint Hills of Kansas are lovely – one of my favorite places in fact – but they are the normal for us.  We’ve seen them a lot.  And further west is just hot and flat.  Not awe-inspiring, unless there’s a storm brewing or you travel at night and witness the expanse of sky bursting with stars.  But mountains?  “Ooooh,” and “Wow” aren’t uncommon to hear on a drive through them.  Their blue hue and sheer size invite deep thoughts.  A good soundtrack.  Frequent stops to enjoy the view.  And all of this brings down the crabby quotient.  At least it did on this day, which was such a pleasant surprise.

Here’s to the plethora of surprises to come on this trip.  There will be the opposite kind – the ones that make me sprout another patch of gray hair and curse under my breath.  So goes a family road trip.  But I’ll take today’s unexpected joy.  Road Trip 2015, Day 2, is in the books.  And I’m so thankful it didn’t go as planned.

* Update: the only meltdown that occurred was my own.  Realizing we still had four hours to go, the unexpected, unplanned part of our day didn’t look so fun anymore.  It looked stupid.  We rolled in to Flagstaff at 2:00 AM and woke up to little girls making a fort out of the hotel pull-out couch four and a half hours later.  I’m leaving my expectations wide open for Day 3.

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 vrbo.com 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.

Our Last Goodbye

The fields were black from being burned, or burning as we drove.  The wind was whipping that day, jiggling the back of the minivan so much that the kids began to feel sick.  We were headed to Nebraska for the viewing of my Grandmother’s body.  The funeral the next day.  The older kids tried to read, then lay on the seat moaning.  I reminded them that I felt that way for three straight months when they were in my belly.  Eyes wide, they imagined the horror and became distracted from their own misery for a moment.

I didn’t appreciate my grandma when I was a kid.  To be honest, I thought she was my boring grandma.  The one who bought me fake pearls from Wal-Mart for my birthday, who wore polyester pants, who didn’t care who Michael Jackson was.  I thought she was out of touch and uninteresting.  Bo-ring.  I, on the other hand, was with it, trying hard to be cool and caring very much about MJ.  Meanwhile she was mattering in people’s lives all around her.  She cared who they were.  And who I was.

I was an idiot.

As I got older I appreciated my grandma more.  When I had my first child I somehow felt a deeper connection to this woman who had done the same.  She’d had four – and one when she was forty, before that was a normal, “L.A.” thing to do.  And she’d gone back to school after that, getting her undergrad at 49.  She’d grown up in the depression, poor, on a farm in the middle of Kansas.  She was a preacher’s wife, with all the sacrifices and casseroles that entailed, and she put up with a lot from him.  As a grown-up I could see her as a person, a whole character with a backstory who’d faced obstacles I never would and had kept her sweet spirit.  Her giggles that bubbled up easily.

Grandma’s service was beautiful.  Full of anecdotes from her kids, songs sung by people who loved her, stories of the lives she impacted.  The summary of a life lived with gratitude and without expectation, full of quiet ambition and strength.  She mattered in the world.  This woman who loved people well and gave herself for others.  She lived a long, full life and remained humble and happy til the end.  Giggling even on her last day.  I want to be like that.  A Jenea version of the same character and hope.  I want to be like Orpha Hooge.

The drive home from Nebraska was less windy, but otherwise it felt the same.  No anxiety.  No sorrow.  No “oh poor Grandma”.  We were glad for her and proud to be part of her family.  I’d cried some tears, yes, but not really out of sadness.  More out of thankfulness for who she was.  But for her all was well.  She was free from a body that wouldn’t work and a mind whose synapses weren’t always firing.  Free from the loneliness of a nursing home.  Seeing the result of the hope she’d professed for so long.  We saw the same blackened fields, burned to allow  new grass to grow.  The same hills Grandma knew as a child.  And it made perfect sense.  The bookends of our last goodbye to my lovely grandmother.

These Clouds That Lie

         I wrote this one in college, but I still kinda dig it…
          It’s a chilly March afternoon, and the clouds seem to have settled into the piece of sky outside this library window.  They do not want to leave.  They are weary from travel and deem this a fine spot to rest their airy bones, so they have stopped and now hang in stillness over the city.  The wind has made them thin against the sky, carrying away the weaker members and leaving the most defiant ones to nap where they are.  The clouds have halted time, forbidding it to march on it its typical, pitiless manner, and this disturbs me.    It bothers me because it cannot be true.  As much as I long for a pause in the passage of time, a period to inhale and exhale at a casual speed, knowing I will end up right where I left off, i know that it cannot happen.  Time never stops, not even for a moment.  That is the reality.  These clouds are liars.
          I much prefer the honest, cumulous clouds–the fat, white billows of precipitation that grow and expand as they move.  They carry sunlight on their backs, and their bellies bulge with the possibility of rain.  These clouds tell the truth about time.  As they travel across the stratosphere, they depict the way life moves, constantly changing, looking lighter one moment and darker the next, depending on the atmospheric pressure and their position in the sky.  I respect their honesty.  When I was a child, I had a tendency to restrict my imagination to what I perceived to be “real life.”  When playing house with my brother, I denied his request to be a magician by trade, as that did not qualify as a real job.  And the few times that I convinced him to play Barbies with me, I fumed when he prompted them to do triple flips off my Barbie mansion, because that would not happen in the real world.  Perhaps this stole some of the fun of pretending out of my childhood, and from my brother’s as well, but perhaps it also prepared me for growing up and watching clouds, and knowing the difference between those that lie and those that tell the truth.
          A friend of mine who studied meteorology in college once educated me about clouds.  We lay on the grass near the pond on campus and he explained the different types.  I failed to retain the information, save that of the cumulous clouds I admire so much.  They are the clouds we watched that day, the ones that traveled over our heads slowly and put us in a nostalgic mood.  The end of another academic year approached, and we were relishing an afternoon in the slightly warm sun, avoiding our homework and loving it.  The clouds were alive and on the move.  They held the promise of the future in their gleaming crowns and the melancholy of another year gone in their dark tummies.  We knew time, and life, were passing as we watched the clouds leave.
          Today the clouds deceive.  They appear to have quit their journey, but in reality they have crept through the sky all along.  I took my eyes away for a few minutes, and now a completely different pattern covers the sky.  A moment ago there was a gap in the blanket of white to the far right side, but now that gap sits far off to the left, its shape contorted from what it was before.  The persistence of the wind has made the clouds look like the thinning, grey hair on an old man’s head.  A new portrait has been painted and I missed the process.  Time passed, but the clouds pretended it stopped.  This is their duplicity.
          My problem, then, is not the passage of time itself, but the tricks that time plays on us who live, to make us believe that life is not slipping away.  My heart stops when I think of how much older my grandparents seem now than they did five years ago, and how I didn’t notice their decline.  I hate that when I was ten I thought twenty would never come, and now I know that forty will come before I know it.  I ran through the sprinkler in summer with bare feet while cumulous clouds dotted the sky overhead.  I didn’t notice them then.  I knew only the cool washing on a hot day, when time was measured by supper and when the pool opened.  Now, suddenly, I am twenty-three, about to face “real life” and wondering where the time has gone.
          That’s what I despise about time — that it sneaks up on you.  Living in a place without seasons would be awful for me.  In Kansas you know when spring and fall have arrived, by the look of the trees and the feel of the air.  But in a seasonless place, like Honolulu or L.A., the years can slip by without a hint of their travel, and you are fooled into thinking that everything is the same.  The lazy clouds outside this library window enjoy their lies.  They crawl so slowly that you don’t recognize they’ve moved until the scene has changed.
          I have watched clouds from many windows.  I remember the sunsets I could see from my dorm room, coloring the clouds with flaming pinks and reds from dust.  I have gazed out of car windows at low, brooding clouds just before a storm in the western ends of Kansas.  Clouds of all sorts roll over the tops of the trees in my back yard, revealing the weather forecast to me before the rest of the city knows, and surprising me with their mood swings.  And now I sit in the library, surveying these flat, deceitful clouds and wishing they would be honest and hurry up.
          In two months I will have a college degree.  It will feel good to be finished after all the papers, and tests, and the mononucleosis.  But it seems that I just moved into my freshman-year dorm room, with the pink walls and the heater that knew no moderation.  I was just getting used to the lay of the campus, and mid-afternoon naps, and the blessing of late-night pizza delivery.  The college experience was mine, and it seemed timeless, wrapped in a protective saran from reality.  But now I am sitting before a wide-open range of possibilities, none of which include naps, and I am bewildered that five years have passed and I didn’t think to prepare myself for what comes next.
          I blame time with its quiet speed.  It blindsided me.  I should have learned from the clouds I saw that day with my friend.  They warned us.  But time’s deceit made me a fool.  I suppose all we can hope for in the passage of time is to find some sort of comfort in the steady hands of reality.  And when we look at clouds such as the liars in the sky today, we can call their bluff and anticipate that life will move and change, like fat, bright cumulous clouds that tell it like it is.

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.

Obile Ravelin’

           I love a good road trip.  We took one each summer when I was a kid.  My parents made it a priority to create memories with my brother and me, and to expose us to different parts of the country.  Driving wasn’t as exciting as flying as a child, but I’m glad now that I learned the art of the road trip from an early age.
Driving makes you look around to see how the landscape shifts as you go.  You notice that the flatlands of western Kansas turn into the low foothills of Colorado, which turn into the jagged, towering Rockies.  That North Dakota is somehow flatter than Kansas and that the Badlands of South Dakota surprise you with color bursting out of the deep canyons. The Northwest is cool, and lush and full of mystery; the seaweed on the coast of Maine is endless and the water is never warm; the sand dunes of northern Indiana are as exciting as the Sahara to a ten year old, and great to slide down in bare feet.
          I learned how to see things on our road trips.  From a plane you see things from above, which is amazing and beautiful, but it’s from a distance.  It’s the Cliff’s Notes of the real thing.  When you have to wait and wait for those mountains to come into view, you really feel the joy of them.  When you know you’ll be crossing the Mississippi in several hours instead of twenty minutes, the rising tension is greater and the river astounds you with it’s width.  You’re a part of the scenery rather than a distant observer.  You and the river, and the sky, and the mountains are in it together.
          We drove from Kansas to the panhandle of Florida this summer for a family vacation.  Two and a half days on the way there, two longer days back.  Surely that sounds horrendous to many people, but to us it was wonderful.  Besides the fact that I’d always rather drive than fly for packing reasons alone, it’s also nice to stop and stretch, to pee when the need arises instead of when the seatbelt light goes off, to hop in and go instead of waiting in line after line.  There’s freedom in a road trip.  A plane ride is all rules and regulations, and large men snoring in the next row.  But Marc and I also like to make our kids see the world around them.  And we like to make them bored.
          Really.  Boredom has it’s benefits.
          I was bored a lot on our vacations as a kid.  Driving through Wyoming is bound to bore a nine-year-old.  But it made me think about things.  About the landscape, the people who might have lived on it as settlers, the animals and buildings and people I saw.  It forced me to play car games with my parents and Boggle with my brother.  Read books.  Look at maps.  Think about life and what it all means.  Give a kid a chance and she’ll have deep thoughts that would put a philosopher to shame.  Being bored spawned thoughts and ideas that would never have happened if I’d had a DVD player or a DS.  Luckily, they didn’t exist.
          There is actually a DVD player in our new minivan.  We didn’t want one, but the best car for the money, with the least amount of miles, happened to have one and we decided we’d compromise.  It was “broken” until our trip to Florida.  “Oh, look at that!  It works!”  Even I knew that a three day trip could use a show or two to break up the monotony.  But the kids missed Montgomery, Alabama while they watched Tangled, and I felt like I was making them idiots.  Turning around and seeing that “I am a zombie.  Whatever crap you show, tv in the ceiling, I’ll watch” look on their faces made me want to make it “break” again.
          When I was little we traveled by car – a red VW station wagon at first, then a brown Chrysler, to be exact.  By the time I was in junior high we had an R.V. we called the Obile Raveler (the M and T had long-since worn off by the time we bought it from a neighbor).  It was old and a little decrepit, but it got us all over the country, with our food and beds and car all in one handy mobile traveling unit.  In spring we would ready it for summer: air it out, clean the counters and bathroom, spray a bajillion ants with bug killer, and air it out again.  Then we’d load it up with our vacation supplies and take off.  A new destination each time.  My brother and I complained about the long hours in the O.R., and the frequent stops at historical markers which my dad had to read out loud, and the pull-overs so my mom could take photos.  Our trips were more discovery than getting from place to place.  It drove me nuts at times as a child, but now I see the value of our slow-motion adventures.
          Driving through western Kansas is best done at night, when you’re wrapped in stars and a pitch black sky, skimming the crust of the earth with nothing to block your view of the heavens.  That’s another thing I learned from my road trips.  Another thing I wouldn’t know if we had traveled a different way.  The Obile Raveler is gone, but the memories of driving it across the country will likely stay with me for the long-haul.  And Marc and I are going to do our best to create the same boredom, force the same self-reflection and daydreaming, and leave the DVD player off for most of our trips.  When the kids are going crazy from the long hours of looking out the window, and driving us crazy too, we can pop in a show.  But for the most part, I’m going old-school with our road trips and making memories that my kids will appreciate one day.  Even if they don’t now.


     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.