going to Georgia, coming home

Driving home from Georgia on Friday, we listened to my “wanderlust” cd - a mix of songs I made a decade ago when I was writing my senior thesis on the idea of the open road in American pop culture in the 1950s-60s. I guess I still empathize with that idea that freedom is in getting out and going - but I don’t dream of it in the same way.  In highschool, I used to daydream about being a truck driver - yes, a truck driver - because then I could see the country, clear my mind, and listen to my own cassettes.  My life plan at eighteen included a year spent touring the country in a VW van, and another year backpacking across Europe.  I managed to do shortened versions of those trips in my twenties. Backpacking in Europe was the freest I’ve ever felt.

But it could never be that way again.  Now, when I travel, I’m never footloose and fancy free. At least part of me is always thinking about my home and my children and my responsibilities. At least part of me is always ready to go home.

The first place we visited in Georgia was Ed's Lake Rd, where Jack’s grandparents live.  It’s this kind of magical place, hidden back in a tangle of woods, and named for Jack’s great-grandfather.  That makes us the fifth generation to be there, and even after so many years, it’s quiet and isolated. Jack’s grandparents keep bees and have Fox News on high volume all day. His great aunt Mary Alice collects local antiques and plays the harmonica. She baited the fishing lines for Rosie down at the dock behind her house, and the fish practically jumped out of the water to our poles.

How many years have they lived there?  We brought one of their extra hives back for bees on our land, too, and I wondered how long this new house will be ours.

Jack’s parents have lived in their home in Macon, where we went next, for about seventeen years. The house was newly built when they moved in, and they said the yard felt like it needed trees.  Now, the house is surrounded trees so that when you sit on the back porch and look out, you think you’re in a small clearing in the middle of a forest.  Our acres in Indiana are more field than forest, but I wonder - will we be here for seventeen years?  Will we grow a forest, too?

In Macon, we did the things we do; with seven cousins six and under, that means mostly that we eat and play, but we also visited a peach orchard and the Georgia Aquarium.

Rosie wanted to have a princess party.  When she didn't smile for the pictures, I asked why. She said she was not supposed to smile: she was supposed to look regal. This is her most regal look:

You can see how excited Jack was about taking care of the boys during the princess party.

Sometimes it makes me sad - this sense that my wanderlust has quieted, that my possessions have weighed me down. My life had been rippling out and out: to Memphis and Austin and Gulf Shores, to Nashville and Mankato and Chicago, to Scotland and Paris and Haiti, to Italy and Vietnam and Cambodia, to LA and Seattle and now, Indiana. The ripples have stopped, the stone has sunken into the riverbed here. I’d still go, if I could, if I could still capture that feeling of freedom, but I know I can’t. Without becoming narrow-minded - I still want to keep the wide world in my mind, to settle in to this specific place without losing awareness of the beautiful variety of cultures and perspectives out there, without forgetting that though I am living comfortably, many people in the world are not - Now is the time for staying, for abiding, for following Wendell Berry’s instructions and knowing my place.

Now is the time for learning the name of every plant on our property, for walking it enough that I know just where the ground slopes, for growing the slow compost that will soften this clay into garden soil.

I was anxious to get back to our house (still so many things to do here before we are settled in!). But I was also surprisingly ready to get back to Indiana. I remember the first time we left Indiana after moving here.  We started driving south for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and as soon as we hit southern Indiana, a spot that was a bit hilly, I almost gasped with relief, like I’d been underwater until then, like the flat cornfields for miles and miles had been starving my soul.  I hadn’t even realized until that moment how much I’d missed the Olympic range, the Ozarks, the Rockies. But I had.

But Friday when we drove up through Indiana, cornfields on one side, soybeans on the other, the sky enormous above us, I felt peace settle in my soul, like I could breathe easy again. On 1000, the orange daylilies had faded, and something yellow bloomed with them that hadn’t been there when we left. The sunset glowed like cotton candy across our driveway, and on the back porch, its light hit my neighbor’s barn and soybean fields in just the way the sunset used to hit Twin Sisters when I stood on the back porch of the lodge in Estes Park. The hayfield next door, recently baled, called to mind a spot in the Ozarks where once, hiking by myself, I heard the voice of the lord in a frog’s mysterious croak. Inside the house, the saints of California gazed down on our suitcases and the girls in ao dai rode their bikes ceaselessly through the living room. We unloaded the bee hives we brought from Ed’s Lake Road and watched an episode of Veronica Mars with my brother.

Every place I've been is still with me now, and I'm home.

art and hospitality

Last week Anna Broadway wrote this delightful piece for Books and Culture about composing haikus at work.  As web editor for a company, much of her cubicle work involves writing short emails, and one day she began sending them in haiku form. 

Broadway admits that many of her poems might make real poets shudder, but she keeps at them anyway.  Her explanation resonated with me: 

"...while I want more really good poems to be written, I can't shake the notion that any art form—in order to thrive—must exist at all levels of society, even if quality of execution ranges widely."

Removing fear and the pressure to be perfect allows you to play with art forms, at any level, and recognize that you are honoring the imago dei as you do what you were created to do. 

That's part of why our family attended the Blackford County Arts Center Open House and Dedication over the weekend.  Our friend Dan has been instrumental in turning a hundred year old storefront in the next town over into a community space for art, music, and writing classes and events. On the morning after the school shooting in Connecticut, Dan and Jack spent several hours clearing debris out of the space, preparing it for renovation. In an email promoting the Arts Center, Dan wrote:

"During that time, many debated gun control and mental health awareness and other issues. I felt that the best thing I could be doing where I live is working to provide a place made for the appropriate expression of anger, frustration, alienation, and more--a place where a person could come and transform his or her pain into something positive: pottery, music, painting, poetry. I believe that our communities need these places as much as ever."

Investing in local community doesn't always come naturally to me - I live inside my own mind far too much, and I'm not a very social person - but I am trying to be more intentionally involved where I can.

Anyway, this is a long introduction to the fact that I've written an essay about creating and fostering the spirit of creativity - about how hospitality makes art possible.  It's about my experience visiting Paris at sixteen, and about my life in Indiana now.  The essay, "Barefoot Places," is up at the Art House America blog today, and I do hope you'll read it

 (PS - There you will see a picture of teenage me, wearing a beret, wishing to be a bohemian.)

i fell in love again (all things go)

Lately I've been revisiting places which have strong nostalgic holds over me.

Like Denver. For three summers during college I spent time living at the base of Long's Peak, watching the sun set on Twin Sisters, soaking in beauty and living an undistracted, singleminded, physically present life. Driving from Denver towards the mountains last month just made me sad. I wanted to be 19 again, hiker, camp counselor, unencumbered.

At first, Chicago made me sad too. Chicago was where I had always imagined myself moving after graduation: working for a publisher, living in an apartment in the city with Mollie and our spiky-collared cat Beowulf, going to jazz clubs and basically becoming sitcom characters. Clearly, that never happened, but Chicago did become a special place of deep richness for me during the three summers I spent taking grad classes at Wheaton.

Coming back to America after the somewhat stark, spiritually barren, monocultural landscape of Vinh, it felt luxurious to be in green parks, hearing live banjo music, surrounded by the beauty of ethnic diversity. For the first time in months, I could go out anonymously, rather than being stared at as the one obvious foreigner in the city. I could go into a bookstore and browse titles in my native language. And at Wheaton my soul rested in the presence of friends who understood - because they had experienced it too - where I had been, what my life had been. I felt known and nourished by them. They let me talk, or they let me spend hours reading alone. I was flooded with gratitude.

The following summer, after I came home from Cambodia, Jack visited me at Wheaton, and we spent a week in Chicago when we were just five or six months into our dating relationship (see picture in sidebar, taken at Millenium Park!). We saw Andrew Bird play at the first ever Pitchfork Music Festival. We went to the Art Indtitute, and we did go to that jazz club, with Derek and Mollie, and I drank one glass too much. We got lost (this was before smartphones), and Jack saw me do my crazy walk for the first time.

I have always loved Chicago, and as we drove into town Friday night, accompanying our ESL students from Taylor, I started to feel sad. You can never go home again; and you can never go to Chicago again, or Estes, or Florence, or Taize, or Chiang Mai, or anywhere, can you? There are so many places I have loved, and I can never return to any of them. Even if the city is unchanged (it won't be), I am changed.

What I have loved about these places is partly imaginary, as all memories are, and even if it once existed, it never will again. What I loved is lost.

But by Saturday I realized that even if you can never step into the same river twice, you can still love the river every time, because I still love Chicago, in its earnest, unpretentious, midwestern big city-ness, and I also love sharing it with the coolest kids of all time.