Todays Walk: It Begins

It begins when I know that silence will hurt me and those I love, when the comfort of my life will not insulate me from the damage that will afflict millions for years to come if I am silent.

It begins with a 4 a.m. ride to the airport on Inauguration Day to catch a 6:30 a.m. flight to Baltimore. It begins with the bleary eyes and determined smiles of enough marchers, many of them march-virgins like me, to fill a Southwest Boeing 737 plane. It begins with smiles and shouts of encouragement as we all stream off the plane four and a half hours later to wherever we have cadged housing for the weekend.

It begins the next morning when we start the way we start any walk. Boots on, coats zipped, uncertainty about what we will find. There are the last-minute pocket checks with husband and friends who are sharing their apartment with us so we can all march together today. It begins with a step, then another, and then the four of us melt into twenty, fifty, then hundreds who have abandoned the metro and are walking the two miles down to the place where we all intend to walk some more.

It begins with cutting across a park where mostly men and a few women who normally gather their to wait out one more homeless day watch our warmly-dressed selves flocking with other warmly-dressed people bearing signs, wearing smiles, not quite looking back at those who are watching.

It begins with sense we are close now, as we approach 7th street which is not far from the start, and is to be one of the places that, if all else, fails, will open and let us onto the march path when it is time. We feel the sense of arrival. Any minute now.

It begins with the press of bodies, the faces of children grinning from parental shoulders as they dodge signs toted by all those around them. We are body to body and more bodies keep coming as if the land itself is giving rise to them, birthing them in fertile bursts from all corners of the mall and beyond. I am minuscule cells in this giant swelling, sinuous, powerful muscle of humanity. Yet I am here. I am held up by the bodies around me. None of us can move single foot in any direction unless the others help us.

It begins with the understanding that we have, in fact, arrived. The official starting point is no longer reachable. The streets cannot contain us all and we’ve spilled out onto the mall, the side streets, the steps of stately buildings, lamp posts, the tops of rented vehicles used the previous day. When there is space, more bodies fill it. We must begin where we are. We must begin not knowing where it will lead. We must begin not knowing how long it will take, only knowing that to be here today is to commit to what is needed tomorrow, then the day after that, then the day after that.

It begins.

A Reader Reminds Me Why I’m Doing This

“May I just say thank you for caring about a really big issue. My son has his own story to tell about his re-entry and his attempt at suicide…we still have him. For this I am eternally grateful. And now I have a book to share with other single moms who are looking at re-entry.”
–A Veteran’s Mother

Dear Friends,

Those of you who are subscribers to my newsletter will have already seen this in your inbox (or soon will depending on how eager you are to open email!). I wanted to share it here too because it feels so important to share those moments when we all really connect. I won’t do this regularly but when there is something I think you’ll like, I’ll give it a try.

Here goes:

The lines above came to me a recent Sunday night in an email. I was about to shut down my computer and head to bed, my thoughts already focused on the week ahead with its to-do’s,  anxieties, and promises to myself to just focus on the writing and not worry about reviews or sales or my future as a writer.

Then I saw it. The subject line read, “Your book is helping yet another military Mom.” I opened it. I learned that the sender had not only finished Casualties but had lent it to a friend whose son was due home from San Diego after serving four years in the Marines.  She wrote:

“It made her rethink the times she was planning to spend with him and listen to the things she would normally dismiss.” 

Then she shared with me a bit of her own story: the return of her son, his attempt at suicide, the long road he is still walking. With tears in my eyes, I wrote back and told her how much her note meant to me and how glad I was that she and her son still had each other. In a second note she shared more of her story. With her permission, I share excerpts below because they give us all something to think about:

“We, (family and loved ones) somehow think that things will resort back to “normal” when they return. NEVER will normal have the same definition it had before they left.”

“The person returned to us from deployment is not the same one who left with dreams for making a difference…”

“They come home feeling guilty that they got to come home.”

There were times when I wasn’t sure I was the right person to write this novel. It took so long to finish. When I finally did publish, the triumph of the moment came with ever-growing worries I’d never anticipated. Then I began to hear from readers — not reviews actual letters from actual readers. I heard from members of book clubs who have shared their surprise, their concern, their sympathy and, ultimately, their empathy for families that may not have looked much like their own. Some readers have lost children in all kinds of ways and relived that loss with me. Some simply fell into the story and simply told me they couldn’t put it down. Some have not loved the book, or all of it, but were still glad they read it. And they took the time to tell me this.

Every time I connect with a reader I understand all over again why I wanted to write a story in the first place. Every time someone shares his or her own story with me, I understand even more why I wanted to write this one. They make me want to keep going. I am grateful every day for their gift.

Two new novels for two new winners

With gratitude in mind – and knowing what it means for an author to know her book is out there connecting — I’d like to share the work of two authors who have written novels full of life, conflict, adventure and the opportunity to consider questions that compel attention long after the last page.

First though, congratulations to Jodi and to Cyn who won copies of The Nest and The Forgetting Time after responding to the last newsletter.

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond.  I gobbled this book down in two nights. I loved the story. Loved the protagonist and loved her first love: the continent of Antarctica and the penquins who live there. The premise is frightening: what would happen something like Italy’s Concordia cruise ship accident happened in remote, unforgiving, yet increasingly fragile Antarctica. Bonus: this copy is signed by the author!

Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. This wonderful novel just came out a couple of weeks ago but back in the spring, I was lucky enough to leave a writers conference with two advance copies. I’m reading one (and loving it) and I want to share the other one. “Dreamers” is the story of a Jende, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem who imagines a brighter future for his family after taking a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy couple. This future is threatened by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and forces Jende and his wife to make an impossible choice. Here is what the New York Times book review has to say: “Mbue writes with great confidence and warmth. . . . There are a lot of spinning plates and Mbue balances them skillfully, keeping everything in motion. . . . Behold the Dreamers is a capacious, big-hearted novel.”

To enter, just respond to this email before midnight PST on Thursday, September 8. I will use an app from Random.org to draw two winners. If you’d like to check out all the official rules, just click here: giveaway rules.

Feel free to let your friends know and join us as subscribers.  Here’s the link to sign up: http://elizabethmarro.com/subscribe/

And if you are in a book club, let’s talk!

Thank you! So good to know you are out there!

Betsy

P.S. And now, here’s your moment of Zen courtesy of…Mr. Beans?

Weights and Measures

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Since January 1, I’ve walked 153 miles, more or less. I’ve lost ten pounds. I’ve consumed an average of 55 grams of fat a day that account for roughly  30% of 1,440 calories net, per day. I’ve lost the tips of three different fingers on my left hand to knives wielded by my right.

I lost a friend.

I’ve caught a single cold that lasted for 10 days, driven 262 miles to the UCLA campus in Los Angeles by myself to spend two days with over 200 women writers at BinderCon. I’ve read seven books and bought or borrowed 10 more.

I didn’t lose my friend, she died. Every time I look across the yard separating ours from hers, I expect to see her shoving her walker along the edge of her retaining wall where she planted fennel, a plant that was supposed to be a yellow tomato, and ran her hands through the dirt which anchored blooms planted by her daughter-in-law.

I am not walking to lose weight and I am not restricting fat in order to fit into a pair of jeans. The walking project was planned before an unexplained, out-of-the-blue bout of pancreatitis in December altered my dietary habits. The kitchen accidents, one every ten days over the past thirty days leave me mystified and make it really hard to wash the dog. And my hair.

Once, I watched through the window over my kitchen sink while my friend stepped out onto her upstairs porch and bowed to the morning sun. Her long wet hair spilled forward in a shimmer of white gold.

Counting does not come easily to me. I tend to think in round numbers, approximations. I never know how many gallons of gas our car holds, or how many people live in our city, or any of the other numbers that many people note and retrieve.

I don’t remember how many minutes I stood at my sink, watching my friend shake her hair, then brush it, then twist it into the bun she wore every day that I knew her.

When I set the goal for my walking project — 800 miles for the year or a bit more than 15 miles a week — it dawned on me that I had no idea how many steps it took to get from my house to the cliffs or from the cliffs to town. I had even less idea of how many miles I could walk in an hour. I needed tools. I started with the pedometer I gave my husband a couple of Christmases ago. Now I have two apps on my iPod Touch that help me track my steps and miles. I have another app that tracks my caloric intake. We returned from our last trip to Costco with a sleek scale that is see-through and flashes my weight to the tenth of a pound in brilliant blue digits. The old scale, it turns out, was fine but that needle wavered too much. We were constantly fiddling with it to make sure it read “0” before stepping on.

I count with the fervor of a convert. I count everything, even when I know the numbers will tell me I failed to meet my objective. My weekly mileage is closer to ten miles and most of the miles I have walked have been in January, February, and March. I count with optimism. The year is only one quarter over and I’ve already walked far more than I ever would have if I hadn’t set the goal in the first place. I count the fat grams convinced that keeping the count low will ward off a recurrence of the pancreatitis and a return to the far more restrictive diet of boullion, tea, water, and other see-through liquids.

When I first started drinking tea with my friend, I had two dogs and she had one husband. After she became a widow, we visited more often. I would walk over at “the usual time” once or twice a month with my  terriers and we would sit in her backyard or at her dining room table, sip, and talk. We talked about our gardens, our children, her frustrations with the insurance industry, and we took turns tossing a ball for the dogs. Then the dog who loved the ball the best died. My friend gave me tea. She held my hand. We sat in her backyard sometimes not saying much of anything.

No matter how closely I believe I am keeping track, some numbers slip away from me. I can never remember how many steps equals a mile according to these apps I have. I can never be sure they are telling me the truth because they each say something a little different. Sometimes I guess at the calories and fat of the various foods I am eating because the app I use for that doesn’t have the exact thing its database. More and more, I test the limits of my tolerance. After all, the pancreatitis didn’t kill me and more and more it appears to be a fluke that will not repeat itself.

It’s becoming clear that recalling the numbers is not the same as remembering the sights that greet me as I walk, or the laughter over a meal I shared with my family without obsessing about what might happen. The number of books by my bed is meaningless when I am deep inside the world of each one.

I forget when my friend stopped making stars at Christmas. I forget when she started to let me make the tea for us. I forget how many times I meant to call her but let the moment pass.

I remember her laugh. I remember being enfolded in her large, welcoming arms. I remember the warmth of her cheek against mine each time we greeted each other and each time we said goodbye.

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His Mission Now

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Then.

His story, he tells me, is not so different from the stories of other veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. He doesn’t know if he can come up with the right words, words that are “profound” enough for the post I’ve asked him to help me write.

He knows that talking can unleash a storm of thoughts, feelings, memories and anxiety that take days to settle down. And the last thing he wants is attention for himself.

He tells me later that he almost didn’t show.

There he is though, a little before noon on a November Friday full of blue skies, rolling surf, and people packing the sidewalks of Ocean Beach. He’s surrounded by shouts, laughter, and the cell-phone chatter of people already giddy about the upcoming weekend. From the outside, he fits right in. Jeans. Black tee-shirt. Sunglasses under the bill of a blue cap with the words “True Religion” sewn in front.

Three and a half hours later, I understand that civilian life often seems more foreign to him than Iraq where he served three tours as a Marine. His mission now is to try to live in this world even though he often wishes he could go back.

“I’d go in a minute,” he says more than once, looking at me from across the table where we are eating lunch, or at least I am. He has barely touched his salad. He still wears the sunglasses and the hat because the light streaming through the windows can trigger migraines that have gotten worse since the blasts that caused his first concussion.

The sense of purpose that got him and his fellow Marines through 18 or 20-hour days on the small base near the Syrian border, is gone. That sense of purpose took root the day he saw the towers fall on television.

“This was our generation’s fight, the way Vietnam was another generation’s fight.”

His life then was just taking shape. He was twenty. He had a steady girlfriend, a job, went to community college. Worked on his Mustang, went to the races at night. As the fallout from 9/11 sank in, he knew he wanted to do his part. In June 2003 he graduated from boot camp at Parris Island. By February 2004 he was in Iraq.

That sense of purpose motivated him to want a career with the Marines. It carried him through two more deployments. He carried it with him on 200 patrols, on guard duty, all the jobs he did in addition to his own job as a Supply Administration and Operations Specialist because that is what everyone in his unit did.

“We were all cross trained. We all had to be able to do each other’s job.”

That sense of purpose kept him and his fellow Marines alert during the crushing hours of boredom that come with every deployment. He held onto it after mortars screamed into two contractor trailers at the wall of the base and fell inches from where he’d been standing moments before. The sense of purpose did not desert him after a rocket propelled grenade knocked him to the ground, or when a female suicide bomber exploded an SUV sending a down a rain of car and body parts onto the base.

He was not alone in that purpose.

“I believe that most of us were there for the right reasons. We believed in America. We were there to help the Iraqis.”

They were also there for each other. He forged bonds with fellow Marines that he will always feel even though some of them — too many of them — are gone. Around his wrist he wears a black metal band engraved with 8 names. Two died in Iraq, two in Afghanistan. The remaining four — and five whose names are not on the bracelet — died after they got home, where they should have been safe.

He learned early on how much could change at home. He’d married his fiancee before deploying. The marriage was over by the time he got back. He found out that his mother, from whom he’d been estranged, had died. When he wasn’t on duty, he drank. He met a woman who cared about him. “She told me to get help. But I didn’t have time for that. I needed to be there for my guys.”

He “doubled down” – more training. Two deployments back to back. In the space between them, his daughter was conceived. He came home to El Cajon from the last deployment in April 2008, four days before her birth.

By then he was a Senior Sergeant stationed in Monterey. As long as he was at work, he could handle things. After hours, the headaches came. The panic attacks. His relationship with his daughter’s mom ended. Then his career with the Marines ended.

“There is no instruction manual for coming home,” he says with a sad smile.

He’s been figuring it out one day at a time. First there was asking for help, something that came hard, something that comes hard for a lot of vets, he says. “We are supposed to tough it out. We are used to looking out for the other guy, not ourselves.”

Even now, he says, “I will get in line behind the amputees and older vets. They deserve every bit of help they can get.”

He struggles with short-term memory loss, the migraines, panic attacks and thoughts that ambush him. If he’s lucky he can sleep four hours a night. He has been diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. There are days when he wonders if he will ever feel better. There are days when he thinks about friends who haven’t made it this far. A year ago last month one of his closest friends who served with him committed suicide.

“I talked to him two nights before he died,” he says in a low voice. The words come haltingly and behind the sunglasses I see him blinking. “He didn’t say anything. I think he didn’t want to burden me.”

When he struggles the most, he thinks of his daughter. He lives near her now and spends time with her regularly. “She’s my saving grace.”

She’s one of the reasons he takes a full course load at a nearby college and is working to figure out a career path. She’s the reason he continues to get the help he can from the VA. When he talks about his daughter, his voice steadies and I see a father, a student, a caring human being whose shoulders straighten under his his tee shirt when he talks about the mission he has now.

I ask him, “What would you like most from people who have never been to war?”

“Most of us don’t want anything but a little respect because they don’t really know what we’ve done or been through other than the media. That’s not always accurate. Talk to us.”

How, I ask, do we get started?

“Just talk like we are people. Isn’t that how everyone should be? Human beings. We’re just trying to make it like everyone else.”

Here are three sites that are dedicated to helping Veterans to tell their stories. They offer Veterans the chance to tell their stories in ways they may not have thought of. They offer ways for those of us who have never served to listen, learn, and bridge the distance we imagine exists between us and those who have gone to war.

Paving The Road Back

When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home

The Veterans Book Project

 

 

A Moment of Silence

Fort Rosecrans Cemetery, photograph by Charles Hansen

Fort Rosecrans Cemetery in San Diego. Photograph by Charles Hansen

On Monday, May 26th, the clock will strike 3 p.m. one time zone at a time. Everywhere across the U.S. people will fall silent, together or alone, to remember those who died at war.

A moment of silence can be powerful. I recall this very clearly when the day after the towers fell, my husband and I were in Italy, trying and failing to get home.

The clock struck noon.

All of Milan came to a complete halt to honor those who had died and to offer whatever thoughts and prayers bubble up in that moment of silence. Traffic stopped. The sounds of horns stopped. Computers stopped. Phones were allowed to ring. A woman helping us in a busy office said, “Excuse me.” She stood with all of her colleagues for five minutes saying nothing. Some closed their eyes. Others said a prayer. We were strangers in that room. The thousands below us were strangers. Yet all of us were bound together in that silence filled with awareness and all our hopes, prayers, fears. We were not alone.

Until last year, I never knew about observing Memorial Day with a moment of silence. I knew parades, picnics, sales. I did it. I want to do it again. I would like to do it this year with others even if we are all in our own homes, yards, cars when we join together in a moment of silence to remember those we loved, lost, or never knew but still lost and should have known.

If you are so moved, please leave names or families we can keep in mind as we fall silent tomorrow. If you have a prayer or a thought to share, please go ahead – you may provide the words that another is looking for and needs at this time.

Here is a link to a list of the casualties of two of our most recent wars. Faces, numbers, names: Faces of the Fallen.

Soon enough, it will be time to leave the silence and return to our days, our weeks, our lives. We can still remember, though. We need to.

Here are some links to organizations that help families left behind.

USO: Families of the Fallen 

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (T.A.P.S) 

List of Charities Supporting Soldiers and their Families (compiled by the US Army)

Strangers in a Strange Land

Port Angeles seemed like one of the prettiest and wettest places on earth

Port Angeles seemed like one of the prettiest and wettest places on earth

Michael Valentine Smith may have prevented a murder back in the summer of 1974 when my brother and I were stranded in Port Angeles, Washington for nearly ten days. In a Pinto station wagon. In the rain.

It was day five or six. I remember the relentless drumming of water against the car roof. I remember waiting to take my shower in the campground’s bathroom, hoping someone would leave her soap or shampoo behind because I was out. I remember, in a what-the-hell moment, that we spent our last few dollars in an expensive touristy restaurant where my brother and I inhaled giant roast beef sandwiches that came with crisp pickles, french fries, and one little plastic cup of horseradish. I confess to leaving the ramekin of horseradish untouched and waiting for my brother to do what I knew he would do scoop up the cup of horseradish, ask “what’s this?” then, without waiting for an answer, squeeze the entire contents of the cup into his mouth.

We knew each other well, my brother and I. We should have. He’s less than a year younger than me and I have no childhood memories that don’t include him. And, after three and a half weeks of traveling together in the 80-cubic-foot confines of my mother’s green 1974 Pinto station wagon, we’d absorbed knowledge of each other the way our sleeping bags absorbed the water dripping in through the window. Since our — okay, my — second fender bender we had not been able to close it all the way. I knew he’d eat that horseradish because at that point there wasn’t much we wouldn’t eat.

After that meal, we were officially out of money. We had a few more days paid at the campground, a dozen packets of instant oatmeal, some tea, and a can of beans. That would be it until my mother could send a money order from the savings I’d left behind in New Hampshire. Our plan to pick up odd jobs failed when employers realized we were too young to serve liquor and not likely to stay through the summer into the fall. Besides, we smelled like wet socks left to rot in a gym bag for months.

It was in Port Angeles that two events occurred. We had a huge fight and we met Michael Valentine Smith. The argument cleared the air, metaphorically speaking anyway. Michael V. Smith guided us back to each other.

This looks just like the cover of our copy of "Stranger"

This looks just like the cover of our copy of “Stranger”

Want your own free copy to read or re-read? Scroll to the end of this post.

The argument, in hindsight, was long overdue. Friction began to erode our bravado our fist day on the road when I rammed the Pinto into a car in front of us on the Tappan Zee bridge. Other sources: our rapidly dwindling money supply, the question of whose idea this trip was anyway (mostly mine with an unexpected assist from our mother who urged me to take her car, and my brother), and the tyranny of AM radio which alternated between The Hues’ Corporation’s “Don’t Rock the Boat,” and Diamond Earring’s, “Radar Love” until we were ready to gouge the radio out of the dashboard.

Just a week or so earlier, he had turned 17 and I had turned 18. I was old enough to buy beer legally in Denver, a moment I had thought would stamp me as an adult. It didn’t work. Our inherent shyness, acute self-consciousness, and naive lack of planning exposed us for the kids we were. The country had turned out to be so much bigger than I imagined; a thousand miles on a map was a matter of inches. Driving that same distance on strange highways that took us further and further from the familiar mountains of home thrilled me on the one hand and, on the other, dissolved my vague and romantic notions that all we would have to do is get going and adventure would find us. I was embarrassed by the time we reached Port Angeles. Nothing was more painful than confronting my own incompleteness and there was my brother, every morning, every afternoon, every night, a witness to my failures.

It added up to a combustible combination that seemed powerful enough that day to blow the doors off the Pinto.

When we couldn’t trust ourselves to say another word, we reached for our books. Books were our refuge, our allies, and a source of confidence since we’d been little because we’d both learned young, at four and five, during nightly lessons at my father’s drafting table.

After a while, the air stopped vibrating with tension and I remember being aware of the rain, the turn of pages, and my brother’s breathing. And then he laughed.

“What?” I asked him, seizing this as an olive branch, or at least a sign that the storm had passed.

I don’t remember the page he was on or what made him laugh but I saw that he was reading Stranger in a Strange Land, one of three Heinlein novels in a set he’d been given before we left. I’d already started it and wanted to keep going but it was, after all, his book. We started talking about the parts we had both read and then one of us, I don’t remember who, started reading it out loud. We took turns and kept taking turns until we finished it.

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” 
― Robert A. HeinleinStranger in a Strange Land

Here was a character who, like us, was thrown into the deep end of an experience without any understanding of the people, history, culture, or landscape. Without preconceived notions and no self-consciousness, this character’s journey offered a few lessons about what it takes to really see, hear, and learn. I’m not sure we absorbed them though. It was enough to have found a way to talk with each other, to provide comfort and connection in the form of a great story and a trusted voice.

Very little evidence of our road trip remains. The Pinto is long gone. So are the photographs of the waves crashing off the cliffs of northern California, the giant Sequoias, Ben and Ricky Sue who picked us up on the two days we hitchhiked around Vancouver Island and showered us with hospitality in the form of beer and a guided tour, icy blue Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, and many, many campgrounds in the US and Canada. The copy of “Stranger” is gone along with the books that followed, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” and “Time Enough for Love.” Along the routes we took, we lost our fear of driving in cities and some of our shyness. We discovered that the world may be smaller than if feels sometimes when we found a car in Lake Louise bearing license plates from our Coos County in New Hampshire. We learned that fender-benders don’t define the success or failure of a journey and neither does running out of money in places like Port Angeles or, later, Medicine Hat, Alberta.

When I think of this trip from a distance of thirty-nine years, I can see more clearly that when we left on our trip, my brother and I were strangers to ourselves and strangers to adulthood. We wanted to grow up, see life outside the White Mountains which had both shielded and imprisoned us. We were teenagers seesawing between seizing life and wanting life to leave us alone. When we came home, we had a lot of road left to travel but more confidence to do it.

Since then, though, we have never had that much time together and we have never read aloud to one another. If I could get one moment of that trip back, I think I would ask for a stretch of highway somewhere out of the rain. I would be driving to the sound of my brother’s still-breaking teenage voice telling me the story of Michael Valentine Smith and taking comfort in being strangers together.

My brother and me long before our road trip began

My brother and me long before our road trip began

Congratulations to http://fatbottomgirlsaidwhat.wordpress.com! FBGSW commented on this post and that put her in a drawing for a copy of “Stranger in a Strange Land.” With this post, I continue a month-long celebration of journeys and books. Each post will focus on a particular journey and the book that either took me or came along for the ride. Because this month also encompasses my birthday, always a milestone in life’s journey, I want to celebrate by sharing the books I mention here. Each post will come with an invitation to leave your own thoughts and, by doing so, enter a drawing to win a copy of the book or books in that post. It’s a way of saying thank you for the wonderful welcome during my first six months of blogging here. I’ve learned so much and look forward to learning more.  My next post focuses on an internal journey with Katrina Kenison as my guide in “Magical Journey.” 

Road Trip, One Page at a Time

With this post, I begin a month-long celebration of journeys and books. Each post will focus on a particular journey and the book that either took me or came along for the ride. Because this month also encompasses my birthday, always a milestone in life’s journey, I want to celebrate by sharing the books I mention here. Each post will come with an invitation to leave your own thoughts and, by doing so, enter a drawing to win a copy of the book or books in that post. It’s a way of saying thank you for the wonderful welcome during my first six months of blogging here. I’ve learned so much and look forward to learning more.  Let me hear from you! Happy travels and happy reading. Congratulations to Camille at Wine and History Visited who won the drawing for “State by State, a Panoramic Portrait of America.” Next post: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein!

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I was late to discover the book, State by State, a Panoramic Portrait of America. It was published in 2009 but it turns out that it came to me at the perfect moment, the way the best books always do.

It took me a little while to realize just why the red, white, and blue volume beckoned to me from the “Librarian Picks” shelf at the local library. Then it hit me. It’s July, the anniversary month of my first road trip ever. Thirty nine years ago this month, my barely-younger brother (we are the same age for three days which makes us Irish twins), and I wedged ourselves into my mother’s green Pinto station wagon, drove down the dirt driveway to US Route 2 and turned right. We came back six weeks later. In between, we saw 18 states and 5 Canadian provinces, celebrated my 18th birthday and his 17th with our first legally-purchased beer in Denver, and never thought about the world the same way again.

Lots happened on that trip that we wished hadn’t. Lots didn’t happen that we wished had. In other words, it unfolded the way most journeys do. It challenged us. It drained us. It thrilled us. It left us wanting more.

My brother went back on the road a year later and began a series of trips that took him to every state but Alaska by the time he turned 26. It took me longer. Nevertheless, that first road trip became a reference point for all future trips. Once, I found myself driving a rented car from Oakland to Sacramento for work and as I motored through orchards and past acres of green leafy things, I was seized by the freedom that comes with being alone in a car, in a new place, in motion. I was single then, my son was already launched on his own journey and lived two thousand miles from where I’d raised him. The sense of discovery born on that first trip with my brother came back to me and I stopped the car near a town, found a phone booth (yes, a phone booth) and called him at work.

“Let’s do it again,” I said. “Let’s take two weeks and pick a place to drive and just do it again.”

He laughed. In the background I could hear the sounds of machines shaping the wood that he and his crew made into furniture. In his laugh, I heard the “no” already forming. He was a dad now. He was working with my father to build the furniture business. He couldn’t just pick up and go.

The moment passed but a new realization lingered. Once a journey is over, it can be recalled, never re-lived.

Still, echoes of that first trip and all those I’ve taken since grew louder in my ears as I read each of the fifty essays in State by State. Although inspired by the Federal Writers’ Project state guides, editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, did not set out to recreate them. Instead they asked “a mix of novelists, reporters, cartoonists, a cook, a playwright, a filmmaker, and a musician” to show us around.

Jonathan Franzen “interviews” the state of New York, Ha Jin paints a portrait of the Georgia town where he bought his first house and started his family. Dave Eggers gives us all the reasons that Illinois is the best state out of the fifty, and John Hodgman earnestly explains the importance of being Massachusetts.

Some of the writers write as native sons or daughters, others as outsiders. In every case, the perspective is personal and piercing, and, as in Franzen’s interview and Hodgman’s essays, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

The pieces also struck old chords for me. Heidi Julavits opens her piece on Maine with, “By the time this essay is published, I will already be in hiding…” She understands that calling herself a “Mainer” requires a string of qualifiers and explanations that add up to this: you may have a birth certificate proving you were born there but there are degrees of “native” and it doesn’t do to overstep by claiming any authority over what a Mainer is or isn’t.

That made me laugh and sparked a rueful sense of identification.  I grew up in neighboring New Hampshire where my family has lived for nearly 50 years, a drop in the bucket that nowhere near assures us “native” status.

This kind of thing will happen for any reader, though. Many of us came from one of the fifty states. Others of us found our way to one or more for work, love, school, or just curiosity. Part of the fun is seeing if the essayist got “your” state right. For example, Will Blythe does a beautiful job of being a New Yorker traveling the roads of New Hampshire but, like most visitors and the swarms of media types who cover elections every four years, never ventures into the upper third of the state. He missed the heart of it. And I say this from the completely unbiased viewpoint of one who came of age there.

Of course, the minute I opened the front cover and saw the definitely not-to-scale map of the country inside, I did what anyone would do: I counted how many states I had set foot in. The answer, I was happily surprised to discover, is 48.

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I started to read the essays about states I already felt some connection with and then I stopped, went to the beginning and went through alphabetically. You’d never plan a real road trip that way but was a wonderful way to sink into the diversity and also to find the common threads that run through the tapestry that is the country. In every case I was in the hands of a guide whose unique voice and experience left me completely satisfied, and also wanting more.

I loved this book so much that I bought two used copies after I returned my library copy. I’m keeping one but would really love to share this book with another intrepid reader and traveler. If you’d like it, write a comment and let me know how many states you’ve visited, or your favorite state and why, or an adventure you had while traveling through the U.S. I’ll add your name to a list and on Tuesday, July 16, I’ll use Randomizer to pick a winner. Then I’ll get in touch to make shipping arrangements.

Thanks and, selfishly, I’m looking forward to learning from all you fellow travelers.

Right after I found this book, I came across this truck parked along one of my regular walks. This is one way of logging the miles and places one travels on life’s journey:

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