Heartland

Last Friday, I got home from what turned out to be a whirlwind tour of the American midwest. I was gone for only about a week and a half and in that time managed Dayton (sort of), Chicago, the Iron Range, Minneapolis, Madison, and Indianapolis (kind of).

We drove a lot. I drove a lot. On the days when it wasn’t just me in the car, and I had a back up driver roster one or more family members deep, I spent a lot of time staring at my dad’s big road atlas. I’ve always done this. From the time I was probably seven or eight I spent a lot of time on family trips leaning forward from the cramped back seat of our little minivan and asking for the atlas. It was the way we all avoided “Are we there yet?” Look–here–see for yourself–then you tell me.

For me this habit grew into a love of knowing where I am, of placing myself. I look at the map of where I am, where I’m headed, where I came from, and I trace the blue interstates that connect them like arteries, but once I’ve done that, I still don’t put the atlas down. I’ve learned to go farther afield. And this time around, beginning with British Columbia, of course, I ran my fingers over Canada: the heavy pockets of civilization in the south, thinning out into the stark ranges of the north. (Did you know that not only does Nunavut have no road access in from other provinces, but there is no reliable system of roads between its towns and settlements? Most of it is above the timber line, and you have no choice but to fly in.)

Looking at Canada for very long scared me, though. In a month and a half I am moving to the other side of a notably large continent. The bed I will be sleeping in is just under three thousand miles from the one I’m sleeping in now. I checked. And all that space scares me.

But of course the land that lies between is not just some unknowable, disembodied thing. I can know it–I do know it.

Last Thursday I left friends in Madison to head towards more friends (and my sister) just north of Indianapolis. I spent the first hour or so winding around on back roads in southern Wisconsin, and then glanced down at my phone and realized I had it set on “avoid tolls.” (Despite all my talk about the atlas, Google Maps is just easier when I’m alone.) But I didn’t mind. I accepted my fate even though it would take more gas and more time and once or twice included a gravel road. It was a hot day and the sky was very blue and the cornfields were very green.  For that first stretch, I rarely saw another car and drove on highways with letters for names. The houses and shining metal outbuildings I passed seemed settled in the soil, basking in the sun.

A few times recently I’ve found myself fancifully telling some patient listener that the British countryside (particularly what we walked through in Wales last summer) is the landscape of my soul. But as I drove those summer midwest roads I kept thinking of the commercials I used to see when my Missouri grandma would turn on the news as she cooked dinner, commercials for regional chains like Menards, boomingly announcing their home as America’s Heartland, and I know this seems silly, but for me it is. The midwest is the land of my heart. (I don’t know what this makes North Carolina–the land of my skin, the largest organ, the place I surround myself with? But I digress…)

Of course, the vast majority of my time in the midwest was spent in north central Missouri when my grandparents were still alive, and at no point on this trip did I set foot on its poor-cousin-of-Iowa soil. Instead I wandered through states which I mostly don’t know very well for themselves. But it all felt familiar.

Outside of Dayton my mom and Mary and I took a walk near our hotel and when everything dissolved to rain, we cut back through the parking lot single file, along one curb after another like children, our umbrellas held out for balance under the wide grey sky.

In Chicago we walked around U of C, trying to find the room where my parents first met. We never did find it, which perhaps made poetic sense, because it was called the Nonesuch Room.

The highways we drove were sporadically flanked with those monstrous, calm white windmills, and chains like Culver’s and A&W’s where my grandpa liked to stop to have a chocolate malted for dinner. I had never been down these particular roads before, but they tasted like home and my heart beat to the rhythm of tires on asphalt.

Of course I don’t mean to idealize the Midwest too much. After all, it was at a rest stop in Kansas when I was ten or eleven that I saw a Wanted poster for a sex offender who had escaped from state prison in the area, and then barely slept for the next few nights because I was fearfully processing the existence of human evil, perhaps for the first time. I could still give you a description of the tattoo on his chest. But the presence of wickedness does not negate the perseverance of good, and the heart beats on, yearning–sometimes self-consciously–for redemption.

After I walked out of my classroom for the last time in early June, I went downstairs with my last boxful of papers and books and told my friend that I felt a bit naked. I was leaving behind the teacher, the Miss Hodgkins, in the corner on the floor, and was stepping back out as only Alice. That’s how I left for the Midwest, stripped and small. The original point of the trip was my cousin’s wedding up way north of Duluth and the first night we got there, Mary and I went to the last evening campfire program of teen camp. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and we stayed for the whole thing as dusk slowly set in. Along with lots of laborious prize-giving for verses memorized and games won, we sang worship songs, and one in particular, which is notably not a favorite, stuck to my ribs. Every chorus ended with the line “Look to the sky!” And when I looked to the sky my uncomfortable nakedness and exposure, my unsteady weakness made sense. I fit, a small child in an immense and well-worn palm. I was at peace. The next night, I danced barefoot in the grass alongside my siblings and cousins because Joe and Becky were married and the sky was great above us.

I am still anxious when I think of August when I will get on a plane alone and spend a day suspended in the air between two places, but if I look down at those first flyover states I will see a place that has the power to make me calm. A place of ice cream and gravel, of dry bones and rich soil, of green-brown openness fading grey in the twilight, where they look their dead hard in the face before they bury them. It’s a place I know as well as my own breathing, that’s as close to me as the thumping chambers of my own heart.

Die before you die. There is no chance after.

Fairy Lights

Billy and Ashley got married this weekend. It was a sweet haphazard wedding, we ate lots of pie, Ashley forgot to throw the bouquet, I hugged cousins, and neither of my grandparents fell on the ice that coated northern Minnesota, so really the whole thing was a roaring success.

Last night my mom and I had a connecting flight from Chicago coming home. Now, I am not a city person. Three days has always been more than enough for me, and on top of that there is a nagging voice in my head which tells me I should love nature best. You know, #creation and all that. But we had a long, clear descent into Chicago at about seven-thirty their time. Seven-thirty when everyone is home and eating dinner and doing homework and watching TV and making plans and finishing laundry. Seven-thirty when all the lights are on, and dim little headlights reach out in front of sojourning cars, and streetlights duck behind trees and back out again as you pass ten thousand feet above them. There are patterns in the street plans, you know; they wind and gloam, stretching themselves into the darkness. Floodlights cast their own drops of gold, and downtown blocks form complex, glittering mountains that wink and beckon. And it is all so very vast. Forgive me if I ignore that preachy voice in my head, and tell you that is the view I love the best. I could be one of those people who live in a suspended glass box for weeks on end, just so long as mine was particularly high.

I don’t have any real metaphor to draw. I’ll leave that up to you if you’re so inclined. I’m just coming to terms with the fact that my imagination is usually wrong, because often Reality won’t fit inside of it at all. So I simply want to tell you how much I love heights and fairy lights and grandeur and distance, things endowed with impossible grace.

College’s Best-Kept Secret and How to Overcome It (I think)

Here are some reasons that I haven’t written in a while:

1) The next “favorite” on my list was favorite people, and when one really comes down to it, how does one write that entry? Could get a bit touchy, you know?

2) I’ve been working. Mopping floors and filing papers—quite enviable.

3) I’ve been writing. A little story for the new Mr. and Mrs. Upper along with the beginnings of something much longer.

4) I’ve been watching Good Mythical Morning.

5) I’ve been reading Suri’s Burn Book.

6) I’ve been slacklining. (Excuses are wearing thin at this point…)

7) Mainly, I just haven’t.

Before college the inhabitants of every corner of the earth converge to give you conflicting and vehement advice, but there’s one thing no one ever tells you. Unless you’re one of those mission driven people who gets an internship or works at a camp (and if you are, that’s fine, I still love you) then here’s college’s best kept secret: SUMMERS ARE WEIRD.

It goes like this. You come home and you think “Oh! I’m home! It’s summer!” and then you do nice home things and you go to work and you come home at the end of the day and you think “Oh! I’m home… Where is everyone? Oh. It’s summer.”

And that’s when it hits: you thought summer was going to be like partying inside of instagram, but it’s really more like sitting in your messy room looking at everyone else’s instagram, which you’re pretty sure (but not positive) that they’re all inside of partying without you.

So here’s some suggestions for my fellow weird-summer enthusiasts (or not so enthusiasts):

1) Read your summer books aloud: to your friend, to your cousin, to your teddy bear, to yourself.

2) Look up all those quotes whose origin you’ve never actually known, for that satisfying feeling of I-once-was-wrong-but-now-I’m-right.

3) Dry your laundry on the clothesline.

4) Go for a run in the heat, come home and say, “Welp, I did THAT.”

5) Turn halfway down the stairs into your regular hang-out spot.

6) Paint a room alone. Write secret messages in large letters then cover them up and giggle.

7) Try on old clothes and sit around in them for an embarrassingly long time.

8) Drive. Be loud in the car in whatever way you can think of.

9) Go to the farmers’ market on week days to make the venders feel loved.

10) Make lists. Surprisingly easy and surprisingly fun.

Do this and you will be left with a sore throat, extraneous knowledge, nice smelling clothes, a bunch of lists and no pictures or gas. Summer well spent.

Colors

My junior year of high school I was in a creative writing class, and in my journal I always told my teacher what color my day had been–a linoleum green, aubergine, festive red, or a warm, linty grey. The bad days, the gag into a corner days, were always tan. I hate tan.

Recently, though I haven’t been paying a great deal of attention, my days have been mostly the same color. Not quite sure what color that is–not tan–(okay, maybe kind of tan…) This is why I haven’t been writing. I actually have a list of possible topics living on my desktop, but it takes at least a tiny bit of Walt Whitman’s “urge, urge, urge” to make myself write, and the urge only lives in color.

But I have been thinking about some nice things today. I picked up a copy of the Quad, because my poem is in it with a whole page to itself (!!!) and then I started thinking about the book review I’m going to write on academic tenure, and that made me very happy, and then I remembered Christmas and cousins, and I watched this video. Then I felt just a little bit like I’d found my feet, and I started writing to you.

And now for some more things which have the potential to make the days change color. Classes are over and finals are coming, and I’m looking forward to them just a tad. I’m good test-taker. I’m comfortable there. At some point Heidi and I are going to go to the library, find a T.S. Eliot anthology, and I’m going to read her “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” sitting there in the stacks. I’ll drive to Missouri with my family, and Scrooge and the Grinch will probably come with. Over break I plan on reading The Hunger GamesHuck Finn and John Green’s new novel, if I can get a hold of it, along with some of those tenure books. And Hannah’s getting married–in January. A few sparks of pigment there, don’t you think?

One of my favorite lines of poetry from this semester is in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese  about the “gold and purple of thine heart.” She’s talking about an innate, unfaltering royalty. A nobility that lives behind the plainest faces, and beneath the flattest places–rich and deep and velvet. The color, perhaps, of peace, of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “dearest freshness deep down things.” Fresh, warm, patient, Princely peace.

So here’s to gold and purple days, friend. Happy Christmastime.

In Other News

I haven’t written in a long time. Sorry about that. There hasn’t been a lack of material, just more of a lack in interest in said material. But I’m gonna muster up some interest, okay? Here goes.

– I got into the Raleigh airport at eleven p.m. and three of my very best friends picked me up and we went to Waffle House, acted obnoxious, and gave the nice waitress a large tip consisting mostly of change.

-My family had a staycation (Hooray, Mom!) which included a visit to Blandwood  Mansion (which I didn’t know existed), a trip to the art museum in Raleigh (where the Rodin was lovely), a voyage to Staunton to see the ASC (The Tempest was wonderful-wonderful), and a drive up to Hanging Rock (where I discovered that sometime in the last ten years I have become a very bad hiker. Awful, actually.)

-I have gone on four runs,  and now own my first-ever sports bra and real running shoes. I have yet to make it a half mile without stopping to die and walk.

-I am addicted to Hulu. Arrested Development, The Glee Project, How I Met Your Mother, Merlin, Project Runway… It really needs to end.

-Last week I had a little Tres Amigas reunion at the lake with Kinsley and Ruth. We watched some weird movies, ate pizza from the grill, and had a mysterious (but casualty-free) accident while tubing. Just like old times.

Downton Abbey is lovely. Go watch it.

-Mary and I (and Karen [not Hannah]) painted our bedroom, which desparately needed it. I had been subjecting the walls to duct tape for years. It is now ballerina pink and looks like a hotel room. I kind of love it…

-I found out the names of my freshman little sisters, sent them an exuberant email, friended them on facebook, and burnt my fingers making them the best welcome posters ever.

-Everybody got engaged. (And by everybody I mean Beth and Tim, Hannah and Nathan, and Alyssa and John. ) Weddings! Huzzah! In other life-changing news, Emily and Casey will very soon have their new boys home from Ethiopia. Huzzah again!

-Additional highlights of being home have included finally seeing Harry Potter with Abby, making very oily Ravioli with Karen, buying an excellent leather skirt from Goodwill with Hannah, and discovering a diary of a long ago trip to Grandma’s with Mary. Also, that night Hannah, Karen, Patrick and I went to Walmart and put name tags on everything. That was good, too.

On Friday I go back to school. Between now and then I will snap out of myself. I will go see The Help with Annie, I will visit Mrs. Liebmann, I will look up fall fashion and get excited,  I will pack, I will plan, I will smile, I will get of bed the moment I wake up. In a week, I will be hugging so many people so much. It’s gonna feel good.