composting the details

While avoiding writing today, I found a book on my shelf from the eighties called “Writing Down the Bones.” My copy is yellowed and studded with bookmarks–receipts, clothing tags, and the business card of a Californian sculptor. It’s not really my copy, but my grandma’s, and the book’s history only adds to its mystique.

Hundreds of books are around that tell how to avoid bad writing. Here is one that tells how to create good writing. What a pleasant surprise.

The quiet of nap time is precious. When my baby sinks into solid afternoon sleep, I often freeze, unsure which venture to pursue. Today I resolved to write, but when no subject sprang to mind, I started flipping through “Writing Down the Bones.” I liked its cursive script and cover image showing a black pool of spilled ink dotted with stars.

I know this approach rarely works. It’s far too easy to spend an hour casting about for writing wisdom in lieu of actually writing. This time, however, I read something that helped make sense of my scribblings.

In the section titled “Composting,” Natalie Goldberg writes:

It takes a while for our experience to sift through our consciousness. For instance, it is hard to write about being in love in the midst of a mad love affair. We have no perspective. All we can say is, “I’m madly in love,” over and over again. It is also hard to write about a city we just moved to; it’s not yet in our body. We don’t know our new home, even if we can drive to the drugstore without getting lost. We have not lived through three winters there or seen the ducks leave in fall and return to the lakes in spring.

Hemingway wrote about Michigan while sitting in a café in Paris. “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.”

This is true of writing about new motherhood while in the midst of it. Everything is fresh, compelling, but there is no perspective. I’m rarely more than a room away from Clara. I yearn to write about this baby, source of great inspirationjoywonder, but as soon as she’s asleep, the coffee’s hot, and the room is quiet–I have nothing to say. I don’t know what it all means. I’m trying to write about Paris in Paris.

Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this “composting.”

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

It’s not just new motherhood. When I try to write about anything that friends say belongs in a book, the obvious writing material, I sit intimidated and wordless before the page. I write differently; I write scared, leaning on clichés to parse big emotions. After a few painful minutes or hours, I delete everything, annoyed at the vast gulf between what I want to say and what I can say.

I’m better off sticking to details. Like that old joke: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Tiny sensory details have always seemed both accessible and vital to me, as if my life in some way depended upon this collecting of a few of the moments that make up a day or a few of the characteristics that make up a person.

I can’t ignore that tug, to get something on the page. Each moment, especially on these precious baby-full days, is as flighty and ephemeral as the monarchs I’ve seen fluttering high outside my window, gone before I’ve had time to really look. With a notebook and pen I can trap something of these days under glass, examine them more closely.

“Often I will stab many times at something I want to say,” Goldberg writes. She spent months attempting to write of her father’s death. One day, finally, “all the disparate things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy and unity– a bright red tulip shot out of the compost.”

I can’t write about “motherhood,” full stop, right now. It’s perfectly sufficient to record something of my daughter’s sticky, chubby hands, something of her delight at crawling in the grass, something about the strains and surprises and messes that make up these days.

I can take ten minutes a day. Over months or years, I can stab many times in the general vicinity of what I want to say. In time, surely, disparate details will fuse and something bright and lovely will rise out of this compost.

a modest proposal

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Photo by French Grey Photography

When I told people I was getting married, the first question was usually the same. After squeals of delight or a delay of stunned silence (the most common reactions), friends asked, so how did he propose?!, setting me up to recount a juicy story.

But I didn’t have one. Victor hadn’t proposed, not officially. The reality of living thousands of miles apart from May to September meant that many important conversations had been conducted through screens, hindered by poor Wifi signals. “Will you marry me” was to be postponed for a time we could make actual eye contact, seal the deal with a ring.

Though there was nothing official about our engagement, I did possess a physical symbol of my commitment: the new wedding dress hanging from my closet door. Mom and I had found a boutique in Kansas City–her idea–and rushed out to see what we could find. I was grateful for the enthusiasm and support. I thought the news might be greeted with some hesitation, but as far as I could tell, Mom was nothing but thrilled.

“I’m so grateful you’re supportive,” I told her. “Some people would say it’s too soon; I didn’t know how you would feel.”

Mom said it kind of made sense. My relationship, though quick if judged by the calendar, lacked nothing in depth. It consisted of a lot of travel and a lot of long-distance communication, both highly-effective ways to get to know someone quickly.

“Anyway,” said Mom, “you met in, November, was it? That’s not unheard of.”

“Uh. April, actually. Mid-April.”

“Oh my… For some reason I had it in my head as the fall. Wow, that is quick.”

“Mom!” I laughed, hoping it was too late for her to change her mind.

She’s right, of course. About 7 months past the day we met, Victor and I will be standing at the city hall of his hometown (a village of about 4,000 outside Paris) proclaiming our commitment.

I can say that because we actually have a date! This wasn’t the case at the bridal boutique, where I sheepishly tossed out some idea of a wedding date and startled when the lovely owner referred to Victor as my fiancé. I have a fiancé? I felt like I was acting, like Mom and I were doing undercover research for an exposé on the bridal industry. We weren’t going to actually leave with one of these brilliant gowns…

And then I was zipped into some of the most beautiful creations I’ve ever seen, confections of silk and lace in every subtle shade between eggshell and cream. After just a few try-ons, I wiggled into the dress of my dreams, modern and sophisticated and undeniably romantic. Just like that, I was holding a glass of champagne and smiling for pictures.

I was the bride.

As the weeks passed, my dress hid in my closet like a secret, shrouded in its white zip-up bag. I let my family and friends in on the news slowly, one at a time. I still didn’t have anything resembling details.

I’m engaged, I’m not kidding, I’m returning to France, and this will happen…soon.

For such a big life change, it had really come out of the blue. It wasn’t until later that I remembered how this whole discussion of marriage had come about in the first place.

A job application.

Yep, a job application. Sent by my fiancé–an engineer who makes his living hiring other  engineers for an electronic systems company–to me.

I’d been floundering in the job search. Never my idea of a good time on the best of days, my current task was even more challenging than usual: find a good job in the South of France from my parents’ living room in Clinton, Missouri. What’s more, I needed to find a business willing to undergo the complicated and taxing process of hiring an étrangère. 

Yeah right.

As I’m not an in-demand tech guru or a genius engineer, my options were limited. I was cold-emailing schools before they let out for the summer. I even considered au-pairing, unsure if it would be a good way to find my way or a step backwards.

One afternoon–frustrated, tired, scheming–I opened my messages to discover there was a man in the South of France in want of a wife. Curiously, the right candidate needed to possess an amalgam of qualities that seemed to refer specifically to my personality, appearance, and experiences. Suspicious.

The job search continued (and was successful!). But the threat that I’d be compromising our young relationship if I couldn’t soon find something on the same continent did not.

 

I’m getting married!!!

half a mile of the american dream: a glimpse of route 66

Experiencing my own country with a foreigner is maybe as close to really traveling in it as I’ve ever gotten. Here with Victor, I delight in the little quirks that may surprise him. I explain why we always tip, and how much to plan on. I smile as he fumbles with the standard American how are you?, which tends to startle Europeans.

“What do I say? Do they really want to know how I’m doing?”

You can just say, ‘fine, thanks,’ ” I tell him. I fall back on nearly two decades of reading, of soaking up facts like a sponge, and tell him about presidents and steamboats, Disneyland and peanut butter on hamburgers. He has never seen an armadillo. We laugh about the oddness of them, positively prehistoric, little aliens on the side of the highway.

Missouri summer: typically, I am mired in humidity. Mosquito splat on my sweaty shoulder. Shimmering mirage pools on the highway. Dreaming of my next plane ticket.

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With Victor, I feel my curiosity restored. We’ve spent time in Italy together–both of us lost–and in France, where my accent exposes me. Now in the US, though missing for me that intoxicating hint of the exotic, I realize it is truly worth exploring with the same enthusiasm I’d have anywhere.

I try to examine everywhere we go with my traveler’s eyes, my traveler’s mind, to see it all the way Victor might. USA: size staggering, possibilities intoxicating, the freedom of the open road.

Appropriately, a few hours past Chicago, I saw a sign promising a “historic Route 66 museum.”

“Take the exit!” I said. Victor had expressed interest in the famous highway the whole time we were planning the trip. Ah, Chicago. Route 66, non? Trop bien! His enthusiasm made me realize my own knowledge about Route 66 stopped at song lyrics.

After the turn, a modest sign declared “You are driving the historic Route 66.” I pointed it out to Victor. Here it was, the real thing, the American dream.

For about a half mile.

We turned off into Pontiac, Illinois, a town of 12,000. It was also Victor’s first stop in small town America. A good one, I thought. Pontiac has saved itself from ghost-town fate by capitalizing on its Route 66 history. You can’t walk far without spying a vintage mural: Coca-Cola and Victrola and the “Palace of Sweets.” The grand courthouse sits on a verdant lawn. We spent just a quick, quiet hour here. Sunlight rendered the sidewalks blinding; the sky was bright blue and cloud-studded, a Route 66 postcard of a day.

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After parking near a fire station, shiny red trucks on display, we walked down the main street in search of coffee. We stopped at the kind of bakery that could be anywhere in small town America: apple strudel, shellacked sugar cookies, typically bad coffee in styrofoam cups.

Old farmers in overalls and baseball caps came and went, the thin wooden door thwacking shut behind them, the ceiling fan whirring softly. The bulletin board was messy with local news: lost dog: reward!, spaghetti dinner, quilt show.

As we paid for coffee, I thought about how even something as banal as counting out change could carry a whiff of novelty. Victor, unaccustomed to American currency, was fine with bills, but tended to drop any change he received into my palm, until my bag was heavy with dozens of quarters.

At the museum, we met a kind woman who gave us Route 66 buttons and asked us to sign the guest book. The family who arrived just before us was from Barcelona. A quick look through the pages revealed a plethora of foreign visitors. China, Germany. I was shocked, but later learned that in the summer, up to fifty percent of travelers on the decommissioned highway are from Europe and Asia.

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The museum is small. The bulk of the Route 66 memorabilia is displayed in one large room, wallpapered with a dizzying array of vintage road, diner, and motel signs. There are a few photo ops: booths from the world’s first Steak & Shake and a yellow VW hippie van driven by one Bob Waldmire, an artist and wandering soul known by some as the Johnny Appleseed of Route 66. The van was the inspiration for character Fillmore in the movie “Cars,” and is largely how Waldmire left it. You can even see the boxes where Waldmire kept his pot stash. Apparently, he dissuaded curious police officers by telling them the boxes were home to his snakes.

The museum seemed the kind of place serious Route 66 buffs would appreciate, but our quick stop didn’t answer all of my questions. Namely: just what is so important about this road? What is keeping this nostalgia alive for people around the globe? acs_1054

Once I started reading into it, I had a hit-you-over-the-head revelation. Embarrassing in its obviousness. Though I drive on the highway every day, I’d never thought much about how important roads are. Not just the ease with which they get you to Starbucks, but how they determine the character of a country, determine what is possible. How fast can you get from here to there, and where will you stop for a burger and a rest along the way? Route 66 shot through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and California, fostering industry and possibility everywhere it passed through. Its nickname, the “Mother Road,” comes from John Steinbeck, who in Grapes of Wrath described the road’s importance as an escape route: hosting westward-bound migrants as they fled the disaster of the Dust Bowl.

When times were better, Route 66 equaled fun and freedom. “Get your kicks.” Families packed up their 2.4 children and set out on the open road just for fun, ushering in a new prosperity for the myriad diners, motels, and entire towns along Route 66. Some people even made a living managing ‘motor courts’: motels featuring an adjacent garage for each guest.

When the route was replaced by I-44 and eventually fully decommissioned in 1985, it took with it entire economies. Serious fans can still drive sections of the old highway, but parts of it are impassable. Route 66 today would read like a map of ghost towns if not for the odd community, such as Pontiac, appealing to popular nostalgia. Some are committing to restoring and revitalizing the classic route, but the job is not without its perils: put up a new Route 66 sign and someone is bound to steal it. Route 66 is just too iconic for its own good. Learning from this inevitable outcome, some towns are painting the words “Route 66” right onto the road.

I don’t imagine the enthusiasm will die down anytime soon. Disney-Pixar’s “Cars” movies, funnily enough, fostered an increase in activity on the road. And to reference my own recent road trip experience–standing in long lines in Memphis to see Elvis’s Graceland more than forty years after his death–I am convinced that Americans (and others) have enough reverence for the past to keep this particular American dream alive quite awhile longer.

 

PBS Video: A Resurgence for the ‘Mother Road’: Revitalizing Route 66

“make no little plans”: in chicago, the road trip begins

When Victor came to visit for two weeks in July, our travel plans were quite literally a rough sketch. The napkin on which I had scribbled ideas during a phone call became the backbone of our road trip.

As the day of Victor’s flight approached, we had little more than city names, a few reserved AirBnbs, and a lot of anticipation.

Trepidation, too. Victor, aviation enthusiast, happens to hate flying. Cold sweat, shaking hands, “I need a cigarette” kind of fear. This Boeing 747-8 would be the biggest plane he’d ever taken. It would be his longest flight to date and his first time in the United States.

I was anxious too–seeking job opportunities with no answers; hoping with all I had that our young relationship would translate from Facetime back into real time after a month apart.

We met in Chicago at the airport. I called him: I’m in your terminal, next to the McDonald’s. Welcome to the USA.

Despite his rumpled, post-flight appearance–expression equal parts fatigue and joy–Victor had that shimmering quality to be found in loved ones you haven’t seen for awhile. Be it friendship or romance, you can’t stop staring. A state of happy shock: it’s the one you love, no longer tinny-voiced, pixelated, stuffed into a screen. The heart rejoices, always with some degree of relief. They’re real. I knew it. The anxiety of absence dissipates instantly like they never left, or you never did.

We proceeded to the rental agency to pick up our noble white steed for the duration of the trip: a little Mustang convertible. Despite having just staggered off the plane, Victor drove us into the city. It was too hot to have the top down, but we did anyway, shouting over wind and music. Semi trucks and billboards didn’t make for the prettiest tableau, but something about it felt exotic to Victor. I just can’t believe I’m here, he kept saying. J’arrive pas à le croire. It’s just like a movie.

When the smoky skyline popped into view, I took a picture for him, which I would do for much of the trip as co-pilot. The green-and-white signs announcing nearby cities, signs warning to watch for Amish horse-and-buggies, a fleet of police officers on Harley Davidsons…all of it was fair game.

In Chicago I pointed out the Midwestern friendliness I find striking for such a big city. We were unabashed tourists–posing with the Bean, taking the riverboat architectural tour to learn what percentage of Chicago burned to the ground in 1871, riding a wheezing double-decker bus in a lurching path around the city.

We ate hotdogs with mustard and drank huge lemonades from the stands by the lake. In an attempt to show Victor American breakfast culture, I took him to a donut place where we ordered chocolate pastries the size of our heads. He gawked at the deep-dish pizza at Giordano’s.

It felt appropriate to introduce Victor to my country with such a city. A big one. With tall buildings and endless pizza and a lake you could mistake for a sea.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.

-architect Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912)

flyover country

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I remember reading once that there is more life in a one-square-foot patch of earth than in an entire city block. I may be off on the specifics. The point is just how much life there is–from microscopic to tiny–everywhere you go. The point is what you can see when you stop and look. I remember being floored by that colorful fact, probably encountered in National Geographic Kids, and crouching in the grass for several minutes. Sure enough, there were more bugs than I knew how to name. Everything was moving, when you really looked at it. Everywhere things were crawling and seething and hiding.

I’ve had lots of time to look, home in Missouri, waiting on paperwork to process for a teaching job in France. My room overlooks fields, a garden, a lawn of browning grass. I count the surprises viewable from the windows: Deer in the field. A sudden rainstorm, sweeping in with bruise-colored clouds. A few bats in frenetic flight, just blacker than the matte night sky. The wind carving paths through the knee-high soybeans. ACS_1184 2

It’s less than exhilarating, my existence here. Friends have moved on, to engagements and new cities. My old jobs are positively vintage, inaccessible: I spent sweaty afternoons at the local pool completing the teenage rite-of-passage known as lifeguarding. What’s left is family and this old house where each creak of the floorboards is familiar.

In a world so full of noise, this kind of quiet feels almost radical. In a time of life where I am expected to be always striving, always carpe diem, this time to just be feels like a revelation. It affords the kind of clarity that I realize comes from simply paying attention to things.

For maybe the first time, slowing down hasn’t tortured me, overwhelmed me with immediate existential crises or urges to make unwise impulsive decisions. Free from the childhood distractions of summer camp and swim team and general growing up, I have a whole lotta time to think. It’s not so bad once you get used to it.

Plus, there’s more time to read. I’ve been enjoying what I think of as “rural novels” or “Midwest novels,” marked for me by a matter-of-fact tone, no artifice. Characters largely stay put, but compensate for a lack of mobility with rich appreciation and description of their surroundings. Two such examples are Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning Gilead and companion novel Home. These novels follow two aging Iowan pastors and their families in rural Gilead in the fifties. The books are subtle and true, imbued with melancholy and sunlight. Robinson manages to write about faith and family without bowing to the sentimental. These books are slow, meditative. Not at all boring. This time at home feels like that.

All this practice slowing down–like a temporary life of retirement at 24–had me eager for the road trip I took in July with Victor. We saw a lot and just like with that fabled square-foot of earth, it brought me to a few realizations. First, once again, this earth is teeming with life. There are stories and things of interest everywhere, often very subtle. Everywhere were curiosities. Even at the rest stops. Even in the odd ghost town in Arkansas. Just a matter of paying attention. ACS_1185

Second was the melancholy acknowledgement that I will never see everything, know everything. The more I learn, the more I am humbled by all there is to know. Our trip made me think, and say: I know nothing. Or very little. 

It reminds me of when I was 15, working on Rosetta Stone French, able to recite a few phrases from memory. A friend asked me, without irony, “so are you like fluent now?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty close,” I responded. It would be years before the assertion of fluency was accurate. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

I feel that now, just with life. A full acknowledgement of how small I am, now that the sparkle and arrogance of the college days has faded. Time felt endless. Now it doesn’t. The reality paralyzes for awhile, and then you move forward, conscious of your place. I am, I think, a raindrop in a sea.

Home is where you go to entertain these true, hard thoughts. Absence of distraction. Marilynne Robinson wrote “Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?”

On the road trip, there is again much time to think. Companionable quiet as we drive, all corn fields and cloudless skies. I become well-acquainted with the right side of Victor’s face. I grit my teeth when semi-trucks seem not to see us or when a storm rolls in and slicks the highway. I am scared of car wrecks. Not in any inhibiting way, just with an acknowledgement that floats hazy on the edge of my consciousness. It’s such a common way to die. Every time we leave the house we surrender to the possibility of falling victim to another person’s inattention. I’m surprised we don’t consider it quite a bit more often, our own mortality.