Life Happens

“It was amazing how you could get so far from where you’d planned, and yet find it was exactly were you needed to be.” (Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye)

What we won't remember

What we won’t remember

If things had been going according to plan, I’d be writing this post from Switzerland, on the last leg of a three-week trip that was to begin with a flight into Zurich, take us through the Alps and into Italy before ending in Geneva.

It was a trip planned with love and care by a husband who can stretch airline miles, find the best deals, and uncover the splurges that make for the kind of memories that shine through the years like slivers of gold at the bottom of a creek.

The kind of trip very fortunate people can plan.

Then, as some like to say, life happened, or as others put it, shit happened. Within forty-eight hours of our departure, a stomach virus hit us both, a loved one was in a frightening car accident, and even though we told ourselves we’d be fine and our kids told us they’d be fine, my husband looked at me hours before we were to board the plane and said, “I just don’t think this feels right.”

We canceled. Our Cairn terrier, who had been watching the packing with growing concern, relaxed. So, for a few days, did we.

Then another loved one got some troubling news and we planned a new trip, one that took us to Burbank where we spent time with him in doctor’s waiting rooms, labs, and keeping him company while he waited for the results of scans and biopsies. The results came. They weren’t what any of us wanted to hear.

When we look back at this time, we will probably remember the shock, and the pain that followed, but we will also remember how we all gathered the night of the day we got the bad news. We will see the meal our kids, still recovering from the car accident, prepared for their uncle and us. We will see the loved faces around the table as we passed the food, poured the wine, shared old familiar stories. We will drink in the laughter that bubbled through our uncertainty and both anchored and lifted us. We will remember how grateful we felt to have each other and to be with each other instead of thousands of miles away.

It is the kind of moment, and memory, that truly fortunate people can have.

The Gift of Found Time

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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
― Annie Dillard

A  little over eight years ago my father’s heart stopped. One minute he was clutching his tennis racquet and waiting for the other doubles team to serve. The next, he was on the floor. His wife, an ex-firefighter and an amazing human being, resuscitated him with the help of friends and a defibrillator installed on the wall of the gym.

Some years before that, my husband took me to Paris. We bought a seven-day metro pass and rode all over the city to see sights and eat food we’d been talking about for months. Then, on the seventh day, the pass expired. After dinner, we took our last ride back to our hotel, packed our bags and wistfully said good night.

The next morning my husband looked at our itinerary and then looked at me. A smile lit up his face.

“We don’t leave until tomorrow.”

For my father, a little more than 2,300 “found” days. For us, one.

I learned as a kid about the concept of “found” fortune. It’s that five-dollar bill in the pocket of last winter’s coat, discovered this winter as you reach for a plastic bag to clean up after the dog. It’s a coin glistening on the asphalt parking lot, a check tucked inside a birthday card from a relative. Unearned, unexpected, a gift.

The question of course is what to do with the windfall.

My husband and I danced down to the metro station, bought a one-day pass each and set out on a completely unscripted day. We got off wherever we wanted. We ate deli in the Jewish section, wandered through the Picasso museum, negotiated the return of my husband’s stolen sunglasses, ate ice cream, walked one more time along the Seine at night. No single thing was particularly romantic or dazzling. Each one added up to a day we’ve never forgotten. The thing we remember most is how time moved slowly, like a river in August. Each minute drifted up to us, sank in, and then passed without urgency. We had no expectations or plans.

Then we came home. Our days rushed at us full of tasks, expectations, plans set in motion, worries, people to care for, deadlines, milestones. The “found” day is a story we tell. It is something we try to recapture when we travel and we do a pretty good job of it, although planning an open day is not quite the same as waking up to the surprise of one. We’ve never managed to stumble on a “found” day at home or work. As I write these words, I wonder why this is.

As for my dad?

I asked him recently how he views the “extra innings” he was granted. We chatted over the phone. His voice in my ear was clear, strong and, as always, a little musical. He always sounds decades younger than the eighty-seven he will turn next month.

“I think about it a lot and how lucky I’ve been. I’m still above the daisies. I am grateful for that.”

We don’t talk about how he has spent his days since “the event.” There are the things I know about: staying engaged in the company he founded with my brother, adopting with his wife two lab-doodles from a rescue organization, walking a few miles every day or working out on a rowing machine in his basement, chopping wood, driving to the dump, practicing jazz on his guitar, swearing at his computer, cooking and eating meals that keep him trim, healthy, and the poster image of the healthy, compliant cardiac patient. He spends time with men who have served in the Marines, as he has. He continues to read as he always has. He has attended funerals of friends and acquaintances. I know there is a boat under construction in his shed, unfinished. I know it bothers him. A lot of things, it turns out, bother him about how he is spending his time.

“I have so many things out there that I have started and haven’t been able to finish and I feel pressured by that and I keep asking myself how I’m going to deal with this.”

“I’m having a huge dialog with myself about some of the things i’ve done since then and not totally happy with myself.”

“I’m taking some time now to sit down and go through all of it in my mind. I am going to be trying to make better decisions.”

A few hours after talking with my father, I am talking to K. who is in tears. The past has got her in its grip and is shaking her in its wolf teeth.

“I’ve made so many bad decisions.” The rest of the thought goes unexpressed: so little time left to alter course.

At 52 she is trying to find her way to the kinds of days she imagines other people enjoy. She wants to work, to love and be loved, to be included in a world that seems closed off to her because of mistakes she has made or decisions she is afraid to make.

The woman who can make me weep with laughter, who can both embarrass and enthrall me with her ability to walk up to total strangers and talk to them as though she’s known them all her life, who has been a rock for others in the face of death, is afraid on this day. She copes with chronic illness. Money is scarce. Too many of the people she has loved or passed significant chunks of time with are dead.

She wants time back. She wants it to wait for her to catch up. She wants to find time.

We talk about my father. We talk about the day my husband and I found in Paris. We talk about the trap of believing that we’ve screwed up so badly that we can’t or don’t deserve to live fully in the day that is right here in front of us. There is the maddening idea that by “saving” time, we can squirrel it away for later.

Then we talk about those brief flashes of insight that come to us when some event that happens in the space of time it takes to hit the brakes and avoid an accident, or find out that we’ve tucked an extra day in Paris, or when some arbitrary set of circumstances — marrying the right woman, playing tennis in one of the few gyms with an AED attached to the wall — forces our eyes open. We discover that time is both precious and unremarkable. It is now. We understand, if only for a little while, that it was there all along, waiting for us to find it.

Hitting Bottom and Calling it Home

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Photo by Jim Mastro

Thirty one years ago, Jim Mastro applied for a job as a seal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. He didn’t get it so he went to work in Antarctica. For a year.

When I met Jim earlier this year at the Southern California Writer’s Conference, I knew none of this. If I had, I would have abandoned what I was there to do and hounded him for details. Luckily, I found out later that he provided them in his book, “A Year at the Bottom of the World.”

I didn’t know there was such a thing as ice envy until I read this book. There is, and I have it. It’s Jim Mastro’s fault. His writing and his photographs (all of those that appear in this post are his) capture the ferocity, the isolation, and the beauty of Antarctica. As Tina Fey says, “I want to go to there.”

A quick word here about Jim: he is the author of the Children of Hathor Trilogy, a gripping series of novels for people in the “middle grades” of school and for all others who love an inventive and well-written sci-fi adventure story. In the first book,“The Talisman of Elam,” hero Jason Hunter boards a space ship in his backyard and nothing is the same for him, his friends, or the planet, again. I’m not a kid (by a long shot) but I loved “Talisman” and I urge you to check it out along with its just-published sequel, “The Hand of Osiris,” here. Both books have been reviewed by librarian Ardis Francoeur and you can read what she thinks here:

Children of Hathor Review by Ardis Francoeur

Jim knows a bit about life-changing moments. One July Day, he’s boarding a jumbo jet in Los Angeles. Two days later, he’s in Christchurch, New Zealand climbing up the steps of a Hercules LC-130 with 34 other passengers. Which wasn’t easy since all of them were wearing three layers of clothing including a thick red parka and “bunny” boots, the equivalent of wearing giant and very sturdy marshmallows for shoes.

“My feet looked like they belonged to a cartoon character,” he writes.

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Photo by Jim Mastro

Six hours later, he realizes they are past the PSR point or the point of safe return. This means that the Herc has to make it to McMurdo Station in two to three hours or it will run out of gas somewhere over the icy ocean. They don’t issue life jackets on the planes that fly to McMurdo Station. They provide “exposure suits.”

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Photo by Jim Mastro

The Herc, equipped with skis, lands on the Ross Ice Shelf. Jim emerges into a world carved out of ice, surrounded by air so dry and cold it seemed like a “living thing that disliked people.” But it was also beautiful.

“The sky, the vast field of snow on which I was standing, even the ice crystals flickering in the air — all of it was blue. Blue in a million hues. In the distance, jagged, snow-covered mountains glowed pink and purple from a still-hidden sun. The sky was cloudless, the air dead calm, and the whole world encased in ice. It was more strange and beautiful than I could have imagined.”

From there, Jim takes us through a year at the bottom of the world season by season. The book is informed not just by that first year but also by his subsequent stints that, combined, add up to more than six years at the bottom of the world. In those six years he has:

  • Dived under the Antarctic ice and come face to face with seals who spend much of their time breathing through holes in the thick layer of frozen water above them
  • Held a baby skua and placed it back in its nest
  • Stroked the neck of a Wandering Albatross, a bird that stands three feet tall and has a twelve-foot wingspan
  • Defended himself against a bug-eyed seal, the name the researchers gave adolescent male seals whose hormonal surges produce the same unpredictable behavior common to teenagers of all species
  • Ordered a pizza – and got it delivered
  • Fallenl in love with the woman who is became his wife
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Photo by Jim Mastro

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Photo by Jim Mastro

He learned that in summer it is hard to get a minute alone on the most isolated continent in the world. That is when researchers from all over the world flood into McMurdo and work around the clock to take advantage of the fleeting season.

He also learned first hand what winter anger is, why “winter-overs” — those who spend the winter at McMurdo and the South Pole station — look a little wild-eyed when confronted with the arrival of spring and new faces. I’ve often wondered if I could handle day after day of darkness, not to mention the cold and storms that rush over the ice in winter.

“My sleep/wake rhythms were free-cycling. Periods of alertness and periods of extreme drowsiness would strike at any time, and the forced rhythm of meals and work had no noticeable effect. There was no day/night cycle to act as a cue, and my brain was improvising.”

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Photo by Jim Mastro

Sensory deprivation took its toll. He learned about “Big Eye” — sleeplessness. His dreams went wild and became a source of fascination. He spent time with colleagues talking about fresh fruit or fresh anything.

Reading this book was like traveling vicariously through the seasons. I fell into Jim’s account and the photographs which display the harshness and beauty of the environment while also giving a good idea of the people and daily life at McMurdo when he worked there. Things have changed since then and he writes about that too. In fact, he shared some insights with me in an interview which you can find by clicking the link below.

Interview With Jim Mastro

Learn why no one killed the spider they found in some lettuce. Jim also talks about how his experiences may have influenced the characters or stories in his trilogy. “A Year at the Bottom of the World,” can still be found at Amazon and at BetterWorldBooks.com among other sources. I’d like to say I’d lend you mine but I’m never giving it up.

The drawing for Jim’s books has been done and two lucky readers now have their copies. If you’d like copies for yourself or for a friend here is where you can find them http://www.amazon.com/Jim-Mastro/e/B001IYZB1K. Thank you for stopping by!  

A Journey To Now

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In May I was feeling the loss of an old friend very deeply. It was his birthday month and a year since the last time I’d seen him. May was the time he’d normally be wrapping up his training for the Mount Washington Road Race in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. Unable to run last year, he and I made breakfast for his fellow runners after their training run. He died of cancer last November.

His absence was palpable, like a deep bruise that throbbed every day. I was conscious that my grief was not only for my friend but for myself. This appalled me. Here I was, surrounded by more love than I ever thought would be mine, a family that is large, multi-faceted and very much alive, and a chance to do what I’ve always dreamed of doing. I was, and remain, grateful for all of it.

But struggle and confusion persisted. How is it possible to hold loss and grief and joy and gratitude in one heart all at the same time?

Around this time, I started to read Katrina Kenison’s memoir, “Magical Journey”, one of two books I’d given myself for Mother’s Day. Within, I found a fellow traveler grieving for her own old friend. “She’s been gone three months and I’m still not used to the world without Marie in it.” A few pages later I realized I had tears in my eyes as I read about Katrina’s loss as if I were reading about my own.

“The stark, absolute absence of her— of her life, her face, her hello on the other end of the phone, her name popping up in my e-mail box, her presence here on earth— has begun to grow, as Sylvia Plath put it, “beside me like a tree.” I live in the dark shadow of that loss, the shape and color of my own life changed by the too-early end of hers. And I know now, in a way I never quite did before, that time is contingent and that anything can happen.”

I lost myself for a few days in the story of Katrina’s journey. It was triggered by a convergence of events that unfold for all of us in one form or another: the unexpectedly premature flight of her youngest son from the nest, the loss of her friend, the end of a job she had loved, the approach of menopause, and the impending arrival of her 50th birthday. Among other things.

When these events are listed like this, it is perhaps tempting to say, “that’s life isn’t it?” Children grow, friends die or leave, our bodies change, and we get older. I’ve said this to myself, usually when I am feeling anxious or worried or unbearably sad. I see it now as an attempt to sidestep the emotions that come with loss and the unrelenting reminders that nothing, absolutely nothing, is permanent. I am learning the long, slow, hard way that the key to growth and peace lies in how I respond to that single, incontrovertible fact.

In “Magical Journey,” Kenison is a pilgrim in the land of impermanence. As I read her book, I felt as though I were taking each step with her, sometimes forward, sometimes back, and sometimes into familiar territory. When she described finding herself suddenly untethered to the daily routines of childcare, I remembered the first year after my son went away to school. when coming home from work meant coming home to a lonely silence and a strange, unsettling feeling that I often tried to ignore by throwing myself into work or hitting the gym. Like Katrina, I came to understand that the crack in what she calls the container we’ve built for ourselves represents both an ending and the beginning of whatever is next.

“Sitting here alone in my slowly brightening kitchen, I wonder if my early-morning restlessness could be preparing me for an awakening of my own. And if perhaps what has felt so much like an ending might also be a beginning.”

What I came to appreciate most about “Magical Journey,” however, is that  there were no discussions of “bucket lists” or developing action plans and strategies for the second half of life. In fact, Katrina spends a lot of time being still and grappling with not knowing exactly what is coming.

“Instead of continually wondering, “What’s next?” we can bring a spirit of inquiry into the present moment. We can be still, and more considerate toward ourselves. When it is too dark to see, we can listen instead. We can ask, “What is my experience of this moment?”

In the stark new silence of dawn in her once-noisy home, she writes her way to understanding and starts to pay attention to her inner guide. Her journey takes her from that kitchen, to immersing herself in yoga and learning to teach it, to a marriage counselor with her husband, to old friends, new friends, and then to helping others through healing practices and leading memoir workshops. Those are the stops that are easy to describe and are, indeed, rich and very powerful experiences but she didn’t get to them though by following her old expectations or the expectations of others.

“It seems that an honest answer to “What now?” isn’t going to have much to do with my youthful aspirations or definitions of success. It will rise from deep within, … My real task is not to try to reinvent myself or to transcend my life after all, but to inhabit it more fully, to appreciate it, and to thoughtfully tend what’s already here.”

We learn from each other’s stories. This is one of the oldest ways that humans have helped each other navigate the years between birth and death. Mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, friends, perfect strangers – they can come along at exactly the right moment with the right words or just the simple companionship that makes you realize you while you must make your own journey through life, you are not alone.

In writing about this stage of her life, Katrina touches on the changes that come to all of us. Loss. Love. Children. Letting Go. Hanging on. Not knowing. Learning to trust and live in a world where nothing is permanent and time seems short. Reading “Magical Journey” helped me to remember that ultimately the place we’ve been headed all our lives, the place we must truly learn to inhabit, is now.

One final note. As I sat down to write this, I visited Katrina Kenison’s blog only to find that she has encountered yet another reminder of life’s fragility and the need to let the current moment guide our actions. She had been planning to write many blog posts and ask that readers consider buying a hard copy in the books stores while they remain. The death of a young friend has led to a period of silence and I would like, because I feel so strongly about this book and know many of you will find it a beautiful piece of writing, to ask you to consider buying a copy if you do not win the copy signed by Katrina Kenison that I have waiting for the winner of my drawing on August 8. See below for more details on that. And thank you.

With this post, I wrapped up a month-long celebration of journeys and books. Each post focused on a particular journey and the book that either took me or came along for the ride. Because this month also encompassed my birthday, always a milestone in life’s journey, I wanted to celebrate by sharing the books I mentioned here. Beth of I Didn’t Have My Glasses On won a SIGNED copy of “Magical Journey” by Katrina Kenison, by being among those who left her thoughts or “Liked” this post. Congratulations! By the way, the winner of the drawing for “Stranger in a Strange Land” is “Fat Bottom Girl Said What?.” Her blog is lively and sometimes heartbreaking. Check it out at http://fatbottomgirlsaidwhat.wordpress.com.

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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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

Lost in Plain Sight

It's the small things that make the big picture for Oliver Gray

It’s the small things that make the big picture for Oliver Gray

Taking a walk with Oliver Gray isn’t easy. He lives 2,300 miles and three time zones away. But I’ve taken seven walks with him to date and plan to take another on Friday when he posts the latest in his series, “Forgotten Fridays.”

Here’s how it all started. One night last week, I took an amble through his blog, Literature and Libation. Although tempted by articles grouped under “How to,” “Writing,” and very tempted by the photos that appear in the “Libation” department, I headed for the “Other” category, the one that captures all those musings that refuse to be neatly categorized.

I found gold.

I read a letter he’d written to his bone marrow on the eve before donating some of it to his father who, a short while earlier had gone to the hospital with what he thought was the flu. His dad was diagnosed with leukemia instead.

I came upon a zen-like piece inspired by the ability of water to overcome just about any obstacle in its path:

“If I can flow and adapt like water, nothing but the most dense situations can contain me, and none but the driest and least pore-laden of of people can hold me back. After some practice, it makes the worst events seem like brief obstacles in the river of your life. You’re never stuck dwelling on or seething over something, as you’ve floated on long since.”

Then I followed Gray through the front doors of the fitness room in the office complex where he works and found myself feeling sorry for it. As I followed  my guide around the room, I saw the place as if I were right there with him and it wasn’t just because he took a few photographs to go along with the piece.

“In this building is a single room that is sadder than the others. A room that from outward appearance once perspired with potential, but has fallen into a state of lonely abandonment.”

He evokes the sense of yearning that fuels those who seek out the fitness room as well as the hollowness of dreams abandoned. Were they ever as real as we felt they might be when the endorphins coursed through our veins in the gray weeks of an East Coast winter?

“Directly in front of the center treadmill is a tiny picture, pinned to the wall. This piece of paper has been on the wall for about three years now; it appeared as if by magic sometime in early 2010. Sometimes I wonder who took the time to so carefully cut out this picture and so intentionally place it where it is the only thing you can focus on while running. Were they aiming to one day conquer the seventh, using the idea of playing this hole as motivation to get back into shape? Did they ever make it to Pebble Beach? Did their time in this room, on this very treadmill, start a journey that ended with a little white ball dropping quietly into a hole as West-Coast waves crashed on nearby rocks?”

This piece is part of an ongoing series that focuses on what Gray describes “modern archeology, or things that have gotten lost in plain sight.” In each piece, Gray takes us to a place that thousands pass by daily but never really see. He shows us the Dream Roller Rink and a drive-in theater located along a stretch of road he has driven since he was a child. He shows without a trace of sentimentality the remains of the Go-Kart track he also loved when he was young. In “Bridge Over Landover,” he shares the discovery of an overgrown pillar which turns out to be the remains of a bridge that once carried cars and people but outlived its usefulness.

In one of my favorites, we come upon a mystery posed by a stone railway marker,  a solid hunk of granite carved with the information that Baltimore is  23 miles in one direction and Washington is 17 miles in the other.  But the information is wrong.

“… upon Google-mapping, I found that this marker is not 23 miles from Baltimore, nor 17 miles from Washington. It’s almost as if it was picked up and moved here, either by a human’s will or by the slow ebbing flow of nature, growth, and dirt.”

In an attempt to restore it to its purpose, Gray tries to move the marker but it is too heavy to lift.

“So instead, I lay down on the tracks for a second, ear to the rail, listening for the ghosts of the trains that used this marker rumbling miles and memories away.”

I got in touch with Gray to find out more about this person who, in a few blog pieces, got me thinking about how much I was seeing and how much I was missing as a writer or as a citizen of this world.  I half-expected to learn that he was a yogi or had somehow tapped into the well of stillness that so many say gives rise to heightened awareness of one’s self and others.

He laughs at the notion of being still. “For most of this conversation, I’ve been walking around. I’m awful at being still. I can’t think of anything worse than spending a minute doing nothing.”

This explains why, in addition writing, and studying writing at Johns Hopkins, he also takes mandolin lessons, brews his own beer, plays soccer, lifts weights and runs (activities to which he is returning after recovering from the bone marrow transplant). Oh, and he holds down a day job as a technical writer because he is an IT guy, like his dad. He celebrates a life that has been blessed with a large measure of good fortune.

Looking closely at life is something that comes naturally and is consistent with his tendency to engage every chance he can. “I tend to remember everything that seems important, even if it really isn’t. I hate being passive.” With that comes a fascination with scale and perspective reflected in the Forgotten Friday pieces.

“Little details tell the story of the larger thing that catches your eye. Let’s say there is a tanker in port. You can look at the side and see a lot of black paint or you can see how much of the sky it blocks, the shape and size of the people you can see on the deck, the rivets in the side that hold it together and the people who put them there.”

He adds, “I get that most people don’t notice what I notice and in some ways I’m not sure they should. It’s an incredibly distracting way to live your life.” But, he says, “I think a writer is a type of archeologist. We’re often finding, collecting, examining, and then presenting information in ways that people can understand. We connect ideas, places, times, people.”

The full interview can be read here: Oliver follow up 6-5-13.

As we wound up our talk, I asked Gray where he would take me if I were close enough to accompany him on a real walk.

“I’m a woods dweller, always have been. I’d probably take you to Seneca Creek Park or Patapsco or Greenbrier. We’d hike. I’d show you the macro photography I’d like to take [ see the two photos that accompany this post]. We’d eat hummus and talk about spiders and types of oak trees — white oak, red oak, broad leaf oak. It’d be fun. Then we’d hike too far and get tired, because I have a terrible sense of distance and time. Our legs would be really sore the next day.”

"They only bloomed in the spots where the sun cut through the canopy and made it to the forest floor. They smelled great, sort of like summer honeysuckle."

“They only bloomed in the spots where the sun cut through the canopy and made it to the forest floor. They smelled great, sort of like summer honeysuckle.”

Sounds nice and from the photos he sent me of what we’d see along the way, it would be beautiful. But as I’ve been reminded by the pieces in “Forgotten Fridays,” there are walks I can take right here and right now that would reveal stories aching to be told.

What about you? What deserves a closer look in your world?

Re-entry

IMG_0444You know that half groan, half-shriek the gears make when you thought you were shifting your car into second and you hit reverse instead? Or, forgot to punch the clutch all the way to the floor before trying to go forward?

Oh, you never did that? Fine. I bet you still know what I’m talking about.

It’s the sound you want to make when you come home after being away. That’s when the after-glow of encounters with family, fellow travelers, and desert vistas dissolves in the face of the laundry, the lingering odor of the mouse that died in your wall, along with every leaky toilet, burned-out light bulb, and squeaky door you completely forgot about until it greeted you upon arrival.

And somehow the chair that used to welcome your butt every morning right after breakfast feels foreign, uncomfortable, like it wants you to feel the rejection it has endured in the nearly four weeks you’ve been gone.

Even if you can bring yourself to sit still it doesn’t do any good. All those words that came to you with such clarity in the car as you hurtled west on I-70 while the dog slept or when your son invited you to follow him around his burgeoning garden have gone underground. The notes you took look like the scribblings of an exhausted four-year-old.

A sense of failure descends and is compounded when you pick up the mail which has been held at the post office. In the bundle of envelopes bound by rubber bands is a large white one fat with the detailed critiques of the judges who have found your submission to a writing contest wanting.

This doesn’t make sitting in the chair any easier.

Instead of writing, instead of doing anything productive, you find yourself thinking you never should have left while simultaneously deciding that you never should have come home.

Your mate makes soothing sounds and tells you that you know what this is, it happens every time you leave and come back again: re-entry.

He pauses and in that pause, you realize that he is reminding you that it is your great good fortune to be able to go see people you love and let them stir emotions that are sometimes easier to leave sleeping. It is great luck to be able to have seen the desert at dawn and to sip margaritas poolside in Las Vegas with your mother and sisters while you are all healthy. If you had stayed home, you would not have climbed onto a tractor and made everyone laugh as you drove it a short distance on the “farm” your son, The Distiller, and his beautiful partner bought last winter. You wouldn’t have sprung for a birthday pedicure with your stepdaughter who lent you some sparkly aqua flip flops to wear afterwards.

As you begin to remember all the things you would have missed if you had never interrupted your routine, the gears stop grinding a bit. A feeling of peace nudges frustration and the sense of failure to the fringes where, hopefully, they will plummet to their death.

You give yourself one task, one of those writing exercises Anne Lamott calls a “short assignment.” And it’s not great but it helps. It works. It brings you the rest of the way home.

Learning to Walk, Learning to See

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We’re two friends walking along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. For one of us the walk is preparation for a 200-mile pilgrimage, for the other, it is a chance to taste a part of the adventure vicariously.

Patty is training. I am tasting.

Later this month, she’ll fly to Spain and walk two-fifths of the 500-mile journey from France to Santiago de Compostela, a path trekked by thousands of pilgrims over nearly two thousand years. I’m going to be right here waiting for her to come back and tell me all about it.

Patty isn’t religious. She just wants to walk that road, sleep with strangers in hostels, sip coffee in the company of pilgrims and taste the food she will find along the way. Although she has logged thousands of miles on planes, trains and automobiles, walking or biking is her favorite way to travel. She will leave laptop and cell phone behind as she always does. She will leave her husband behind this time too, although he has put almost as many miles on his feet and bike as she has. The trip will find its way unfiltered into her soul and her memory.

I am not exactly jealous but I feel something, a kind of longing. I have always been fascinated by long-distance walking. Theoretically, anyway. It held no fascination for me when I was in college with an infant and no car. As a kid, I used to hide when my mother organized multi-family hikes up one of the hundreds of mountains surrounding our house in northern New Hampshire. For a long time, I thought people who walked by choice were a little insane, sort of like the robot police car thought Leonard Meade was in Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian.”

Now that I don’t have to walk and in fact spend most of my time sitting in front of a computer screen, I am fascinated by the idea of covering great distances by foot. I follow blogs or news reports of cross-country walkers. I order catalogs for walking tours in Europe, Africa, and Asia. I like to imagine myself seeing a place up close for the first time, feeling it in the fatigue of my muscles and the contours of the road beneath my feet. In my mind I’ve walked thousands of miles which is a little like saying that I’ve written ten novels without typing a single sentence.

Patty, on the other hand, is the real deal. She’s packed her fourteen-pound backpack and is training by taking long walks around San Diego. Not that she needs much training. This is a woman who makes a business out of walking the neighborhoods of the city and bringing them alive to tourists and natives alike. She bikes around town as often as she drives. She has logged thousands of miles visiting nearly 80 countries and has tried to spend at least some time walking or biking in each. Not long ago, she walked across the English countryside with her husband, Rusty and in the eighties, they spent two and a half years circling the globe by air, boat, train, car but as much as possible by foot and bike.

“When you’re walking or riding a bike, you’re living the way people always have lived,” she says. “You wake up, head in the direction you’ve picked out and find food and shelter as you go. We do these things home at home too but we don’t think about it. So much is already done for us.”

For Patty, traveling is defined simply as, “going someplace new.” She adds, “I don’t care if it is pretty or not or if the food is good. I want to know what it is like to live in a place.” This doesn’t mean that no one has been there before her. It simply means she has not been there and when she does go, she wants to take it all in, warts and all. She understands that seeing a place, really seeing it, makes it new.

As we make our way along the edge of the ocean, I find myself thinking how differently we travel but also about the similarities in our work and lives. We are both pilgrims in a way.

We both come from small towns miles from anywhere “exciting.” Patty is driven to explore a place she has never seen. I am driven to explore the terrain of the heart and mind. She is always searching for something new to see even in places she knows by heart. I am searching for a new way to express ideas so old they have no age. She likes waking up in the morning, setting out in the direction she has picked and finding what she needs along the way. I get up in the morning with a plan, a direction and then, along the way must forage for material, for ideas, for words. Sometimes they come just exactly the way I thought they would.

Most times, though, they surprise me and alter my course. And this Patty understands too. The surprise is the thing that pilgrims are most in search of whether they realize it or not: that serendipitous moment, a flash of insight, a family that lets you pitch a tent on their farm and then invites you in for dinner, a glimpse of a rare bird or a view that no photograph can ever capture.

There is art to it, discipline and joy. I am thinking that this is why writers like Dickens, Twain used to walk ten miles or more a day and why, more recently writers like Cheryl Strayed have chosen to make one spectacular journey with nothing between them and their goal. Their physical journeys feed their journeys as writers.

I wanted to tag along with Patty on her training walk to see if I could get a little of her journey to rub off on me – to make it mine. But that’s not how it works in walking or writing. To really see something new, even in a place you have lived for years, you have to do it yourself.

A view of Santiago de Compostela awaiting Patty at the end of her pilgrimage (Source: By Alejandro Moreno Calvo from Madrid, Spain [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

A view of Santiago de Compostela awaiting Patty at the end of her pilgrimage (Source: By Alejandro Moreno Calvo from Madrid, Spain [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Bonus links:

If you are or will be in San Diego, you can take a walk with Patty. Check out her website here: Urban Safaris

Another bonus link I found for Bradbury fans. It is in German but even if you do not speak that language, the story comes through loud and clear and the images are perfect.

The Pedestrian – German live action short.