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.” 

Fences, Fear, and Friendship Park

The border wall that separates the US from Tijuana

There is a fence and beyond it, the wall, that separates the US from Tijuana

I live about 25 miles from the border crossing between California and Mexico and except for a ride to Rosarito Beach back in the eighties, I’ve never been there.

I live about 125 miles from Los Angeles and I go there, or through there, five to ten times a year. In fact, I just returned from my most recent trip to spend Father’s Day with my stepdaughter and her husband, a trip colored by laughs, hugs and a chance to share a few meals together without encountering any obstacle other than a little bit of traffic.

I thought about this a lot more deeply after a field trip I took on Flag Day to Friendship Park in San Ysidro with my friends Mary Anne and Kay. Our goal: to go see Sister Simone Campbell and the other amazing women who crossed the country with her on the “Nuns on the Bus” tour. Their mission was to focus attention on the need for immigration reform. We, it must be said, were motivated in large part to see the nuns who are the equivalent of rock stars in progressive Catholic circles. Sister Simone has been on the Colbert show for goodness’ sake.

You don’t have to be Catholic to admire these women, though. They look the powers-that-be in the eye and they do not back down when it comes to doing the right thing. They lobby Washington for budgets that are humane and, in recent weeks, for the immigration reform bill now moving through the Senate. They’ve been known to politely but steadfastly agree to disagree with the men who profess to lead the Catholic church. They are the kind of people that make me look more deeply at what I’ve been doing lately for anyone who is not me, related to me, or in my direct line of vision. They don’t preach, they act. In doing so, they ask me to act on my faith, not just file it in that stuffed folder within my heart labeled “Good Intentions.”

All of this makes me glad we persisted last Friday, June 14 when all three of us piled into Mary Anne’s Toyota Corolla and headed down to Friendship Park to see and hear the nuns and others speak in front of the wall that divides the US from Mexico, or at least as much as it can before it descends into the Pacific Ocean. It did take persistence. Let’s just say that we were the first to get there but the last to arrive. We were the first to pull into the parking lot in front of a locked chain separating us from our destination. No nuns or bus, just a collection of hardy souls pulling in behind us and emerging from their cars mystified yet hopeful.

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Mary Anne and Kay trek through the morning marine layer to Friendship Park

We walked nearly two miles from the parking lot almost to Friendship Park, our trek through the gentle mists of the marine layer fueled by faith that the nuns would eventually show up even though the park was all but deserted except for hundreds of birds, a lone bicyclist, and a few helicopters that circled above apparently uninterested in why a group of middle-aged women were walking to the border. Just as we neared the final bend, news came: the nuns were on their way but would speak in the parking lot. We doubled back and were approaching our car once again when suddenly a stream of vehicles bearing cheerful determined women, news cameras, and all those who had waited in the lot while we ventured out streamed past us. We ran for our car, or at least moved as quickly as our sandals and trick knees would allow.

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The nuns arrive! They gather at the gate with Dan Watman (red shirt) of Friendship Park and others who shared the stories that take place here at the wall

But in the end, we got there and as we listened to the nuns and the other speakers, we realized that our inconvenience was laughably insignificant compared to what the usual park visitors must go through just to see the faces of those they love for minutes at a time. Here, at the park, on weekends and on holidays, a gate in the wall opens for a few hours and people on both sides of the border may get a chance to share a meal, some news, a few prayers, or simply to hug each other. We heard that very recently, a man had driven down from San Francisco so he could hug his daughter. He had fifteen minutes with her before he had to retreat back to the US side of the wall.

Others, of course, pay a far higher price. A hush fell over the small crowd at the gate when Sister Simone shared an account she’d heard in Tuscon of a mother found curved around the body of her infant in the desert, both dead. The sisters, Dan Watman of Friendship Park, Enriques Morones, founder of Border Angels are well-versed in all the aspects of the immigration issue — business, political, ideological, even the fears generated by the drug wars that cross the border — but they ask us to consider above all the human side.

The entire purpose of Friendship Park itself, Watman explained, was to provide a way for people on opposite sides of the border to meet and learn about each other, to share, to become friends. The wall did not change that mission but it has made it immeasurably more difficult.

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Beyond the fence lies Mexico. Here is where families come to visit sometimes through the bars, other times, briefly, face to face

As I type these words, I am certain that there is a woman my age maybe within a few miles who has has not seen her children since they were babies. I have probably walked past a mother who gave birth to her children in this country and lives in fear of being separated from them. Conversely, I have neighbors whose life companions are immigrants who entered the country legally; an open door and a pathway to citizenship has allowed them to contribute to our community and to fall in love.

The speakers on Friday (Flag Day by the way), listed many reasons to support the immigration reform bill that the Senate has just finished debating. I am sure there are many reasons that those opposed to it can offer or seek amendments rooted in fear. Fear abounds these days. Fear, I realize, is at the heart of my reluctance to venture across the border. Fear is a fence in my heart. People are dying in the desert and families are torn apart because of fear like mine.

I stood at the fence last Friday and imagined Friendship Park as it must be on weekends when people speak through the bars or, for those brief few hours, find an opportunity to embrace. The fence looms now in my memory as a challenge, to come back, at least this far, to look, listen, and learn.

And to act.

To follow the progress of immigration reform and to stay in touch with your Senators or Representatives, here’s a one-stop link: Contact Legislators 

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Kay, Mary Anne, Sister Simone Campbell, and me

Letter to an Unknown Soldier

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Dear One,

I may have seen you a few years ago in the months before you left for war, walking with a child in your arms or crowded into a small fast car with others like you, music blaring, tattoos fresh. I may see you this week as we both wait for our food orders at the local Baja Fresh.

I have probably been close enough to shake your hand but I never have.

I see your face reflected in the photographs lined up in the obituary pages of our newspaper each week.

I see your eyes looking out of each one but you remain unknown to me.

I may have seen your mother’s face yesterday in the grocery store as she shopped for one less mouth to feed at the family gathering, or your sister’s face when she placed a vase of flowers at your grave in the national cemetery near my home.

I saw them but never knew.

When I was a 21-year-old newspaper reporter, my first job assignment was to cover the Memorial Day Parade in Rockport, Massachusetts. I snapped photographs of men with creased faces in uniforms brushed clean as they placed wreaths, spoke words and then went silent as they remembered you.

I saw all this too and could not know what was in their memories or their hearts.

I can never know. I only know a life that comes with never having had to face the choices you have made or that were made for you.

It has been all too easy not to know you.

I have lived all my life behind the shield created for me by my age, luck, family, timing, the country into which I was born. In this country now, there are those who go to war and those who can remain behind. Those who know what it costs and those of us who believe we know, who try to imagine but can’t. We’ve never been there. We’ve never lost a child or a husband or a mother or a sister or a brother or a friend to enemy fire. There are those who, inspired by attacks like the ones on 9/11, rushed to join and to help and put their lives at risk. There are those of us who, made afraid by these same attacks, let you. We asked it, maybe not out loud but with our actions, or our inaction.

In every generation, in every country of the world, there have been people like you and people like me. There have been warriors who die instantly from their wounds on the battlefield and those who die years later of injuries no one can see or understand. There have been families who have had to face sudden and devastating loss and those who witness the loss of their loved one as it plays out over months and years. There are those who never know what happened to the ones they have lost.

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And then there are people like me who lose sight of all these casualties simply because we can. We can lose ourselves in our dreams, our plans, in Memorial Day sales, and food and in the families who have not been altered forever by war.

I learned this week that a moment of silence has long been part of a the right way to observe Memorial Day. At  3 p.m., all across the country, people will be silent and will acknowledge you and honor you or simply fall silent and let themselves feel that your death is our loss. Today, at 3 p.m. Pacific time, I will be thinking of you and I will be thinking of those you faced and fought who have also suffered and died.

I still won’t know you but I will wish I had. And I hope that taking that moment will lead me to a deeper acknowledgment of what I ask of you and to give more to you and to those who love you.

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The photos above were taken yesterday at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego where thousands of military men and women and their families have been buried for more than a hundred years.

Here is a link to some numbers that I will be thinking about when I am silent today at  3 p.m: US War Deaths

Naked on a Plane

I woke this morning to the rumble of jets overhead, one of the sounds that marks the start of a new day here. It’s one of the perks of living a few miles from the airport but I didn’t think about the noise. I thought about some friends I got naked with for a few hours and never saw again.

And by naked, I mean as revealing as one person can be to another without removing a stitch of clothing.

There was the woman beside me who showed me her post-mastectomy, reconstructed breast and asked, “Would you like to feel it?”

There was the man behind me who told the story of how he walked away from his wife and daughter and never saw them again.

There was the man in first class who loved his wife and still desired her so much after twenty two years and three children he would sit on the floor outside their bathroom so he could see her emerge naked from the shower.

They were strangers on planes. I encountered them only once and in the time we shared, we were as intimate as only strangers could be.

If you are lucky, these moments can and do happen anywhere but I am struck by the number of times I’ve stumbled into these brief intimacies on airplanes. Perhaps when you pack people tightly enough together, the friction rubs some of that protective veneer away whether you want it to or not. There you are, shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-midback, sharing an armrest, breathing the scent of each other’s breath until you know what your rowmate ate for breakfast and how her stomach feels about it. For an hour or twelve or more, you occupy a village enclosed in metal, surrounded by nothing but clouds and sky. I can’t help thinking that I may die with these people. I check the hand of the person next to me and wonder whether it would be the kind of hand I’d want to hold on the way down or if the owner would want to hold mine.

Once I’m airborne, I understand in a visceral way that I control nothing. No one in my plane village does either. We are all in the hands of the pilot, upheld by the laws of physics and engineering and the grace of whatever diety controls the weather. All we can control is what we give and receive.

Like most of my fellow passengers, I work hard to avoid the burden of connection. I burrow into the book I’ve brought, the game on my phone, or the movie in front of me. Sometimes I try to sleep away the hours so that the time folds like a napkin and it feels as though I’ve stepped directly from departure to arrival.

Other times, though, I’ve been ambushed and then seduced by a stranger with something to share. Maybe they are picking up a signal I don’t even know I’m emitting. They may need to talk but more than I realize, I need something too.

When Mary invited me to feel her new breast, right there on the plane somewhere between Greensville, South Carolina and Newark, New Jersey, she taught me something about resilience, fearlessness and joy. (I did and you can read about that moment here).

John, the man who loved and desired his wife was unselfconsciously in love. The cynic in me initially thought that he was reminding himself of his obligations before he got swept up in a mid-flight flirtation. As we chatted, though, it became apparent that he was simply and unselfconsciously sharing, as though he wanted the last words that filled his mouth to be ones of love. As we talked, my own feelings of love and desire for my mate stirred and stretched like children let out to play.

I never knew the name of the man who left his family years before but his dead, matter-of-fact tone echoes now. He had no intention of returning. Ever. In fact, he  was about to leave his current girlfriend; by telling me his story he seemed to be saying, “This is who I am.” I had always wondered what it would be like to just walk out a door and never return. He showed me one reason I am glad I never tried to find out.

With each encounter I fell in love with life a little bit more deeply. Something in me that was closed had opened. I loved these people for giving that to me.

What are your most memorable encounters on a plane or anywhere else? Do you think you made them happen or were they pure serendipity?

God, Love, and Dog Poop

Chloe

Chloe

I took Chloe for a walk not long ago and ran smack into a lesson on boundaries, dog poop, and the love of God.

We had only gone a few steps when my ears picked up the voices of two women who regularly walk by, usually in the late afternoon. They stride down the middle of our street as though it is the yellow brick road and they and their two small dogs are twin versions of Dorothy and Toto. Their laughter precedes them and lingers in the air after they sweep past.

They weren’t laughing on this day though. One of the women peeled off from her companion, words spewing furiously. I caught the words, “he,” “job,” “asshole”  and watched, stunned, as she marched up our driveway to the garbage can against our house’s wall and threw a a loaded bag right into it.

“Hi,” I said, or something like that. Her companion looked at me and smiled so I went on in what I thought was my calm, reasonable, “adult” voice. “Normally, people ask first.”

By this time the poop-tosser was already back down on the road, charging past us. Her friend, made of softer material, hesitated. “I’m sorry, we didn’t know it was your house.”

The tosser, now well ahead, turned and yelled, “For the love of God, it’s a GARBAGE CAN!”

The friend shrugged apologetically and she and her dog scurried to catch up.

I seethed. Chloe tugged on the leash but I was immobilized by astonishment, resentment, embarassment, fury, righteous indignation, a sense of violation and, of all things, denial: Even as I seethed, I was telling myself that this was nothing. It didn’t matter now and wouldn’t even come close to mattering in 100 years when all of us would be dead.

I thought that denial was my maturity showing but really, it was just a ramrod I was using to stuff down all the discomfort that kept churning its way back up. The fact is, I felt trespassed against, ignored, run over by a sleeker, more powerful train.

Then Chloe tugged again and I began to move. The women were out of sight. For the first few steps, I wanted to chase them down to explain just exactly how wrong they were and how right I was. There’s a code, unwritten but nevertheless followed by most of us, involving reciprocity, proximity of garbage can to curb, whether or not the owner of the can is a dog owner and other provisions that my inner lawyer cited with force to my inner judge and jury while my ego clapped and the small sane person inside me rolled her eyes.

But as my small dog kept nosing her way forward, lost in the richness of my neighbor’s lawn – enjoying it fully even though it was not hers or mine – I became aware of my own breath. It was out of sync, pent up. It wanted to get out and just escape all that toxicity. Suddenly, so did I.

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I tried this thing I’ve been practicing for a long time now without consistent success: being mindful of my own breathing. I tried really hard to focus on each breath and let the anger do whatever it wanted to do. Turns out, when I wasn’t stoking my fury with one angry thought after another, it settled down. My chest relaxed and I almost laughed out loud at the thought of myself chasing her down. Perspective returned like grace. Something like forgiveness filled me but also gratitude – grudging perhaps but gratitude nevertheless – for the encounter.

The cans weren’t mine. Taxes pay for them and they are given to us by the city when we move in or are passed on by previous owners when we buy the house. We all pay for them. And those of us who believe in God would probably agree that she does not worry much about whose garbage can receives the poop. Those of us who don’t believe in God probably still believe in love with all its gentleness, strength, excitement, renewal, and demands. For still others of us, God and love are virtually the same and sharing is part of the deal we make no matter where our belief lies.

Whose trash can is it anyway?

Whose trash can is it anyway?

The poop tosser may have been rude but she was probably also suffering that day too judging by the heat of her diatribe and the need she had to spill out her frustration to her friend and to me. In the end, she was a fellow traveler who without realizing it asked me a tough question and then left me alone to wrestle with it:

If I can’t share my garbage can, just what am I prepared to share?