flyover country

ACS_1155.JPG

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.

from newlywed to retiree: on places, and what it means to love them

acs_0701It’s a gray day, gloom and drizzle. I am with Victor and we are driving from La Spezia to Pisa, a long stretch of straight highway. Strada statale.

I am content to chat and dee-jay. And sightsee? There isn’t much to see. Once the mountains are out of sight, we aren’t in Italy, but Highway Land.

img_5206

It’s funny. This could almost be the well-traveled route between Clinton and Kansas City on family shopping Saturdays growing up. How quickly we have gone from the iconic colors of Cinque Terre to all this non-cultured sameness. We could be anywhere.

It’s interesting what we block out when we dream of or anticipate a place.

acs_0699

For example, for you or for me, Italy might be: gelato in every conceivable flavor, glossy Vespas, shining white marble, carafes of wine… but to maintain an impression like this, we must block out so much ‘normal.’

We must ignore the great unspooled ribbon of mind-numbing highway. The ugly big-box stores. The cloud cover that renders a day as colorless as a lump of pizza dough.

Sometimes I think we reserve those kinds of stringent observations for home: to criticize what we are used to and tired of.

But, it’s good to remember, every place has this real life aspect. If we approached daily life like we do travel, all highlights and funny stories, maybe seeing the beauty in say…Missouri, would be easier.

No one, I don’t think, has ever sighed and thought, oh Italy… and dreamed of the stretch of highway between La Spezia and Pisa. And so we edit.

Italy contains the beauty I’ve been filling my notebook and camera with, but it’s so much more than that. What, though? I don’t pretend to know. Not yet. I take it on faith, because though I’m still in the dreamy stage with Italy, I’ve already cycled through the stages of a romantic relationship with France.

img_5209

It’s gone from a first crush, starry-eyed infatuation to a comfortable familiarity to seeing flaws and resenting them all the way to, finally, a deeper kind of love.

Newlywed to retiree.

Disillusioned is the word. France is more, for me, than sparkling city lights and rose macarons and espressos enjoyed at cafe tables. On a three-day visit, this country of cheese and trains, baguettes and bicycles, might be able to retain this kind of glamor.

The casual visitor can leave with a photo album and a slew of good memories. But when you live someplace, you have to give up the dream, to a certain extent. img_5210

For me, France is a home, the place I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life once I’ve been free to choose, the place I work and write and grocery shop and wait for the bus and cry and sweat and dance and listen to podcasts and make lists. The place I practice all the verbs that make up a life. (The place I practice all the verbs that make up French, for that matter).

And that is why, I think, it feels so good to be away for a bit, to a place that once again lets me dream freely. For the time being.


Photos taken in Portovenere, Italy

On a similar note, check out: Less-Than-Thrilled: When You Don’t Want Your Dream

chez moi: a room with a view

I had been in Cannes for a month without a home.

That sounds dramatic.

I had the essential–a place to sleep–for which I was grateful, but the two-week AirBnb stay I’d planned had stretched into a month as I waited to move in to my studio. The host, (one of the nicest people I’ve met in France or otherwise), hooked me up with the place, rented out by an acquaintance. When we found out it wouldn’t be ready until mid-November, he graciously agreed to led me stay until that date.

I was comfortable there, but it felt a bit like sharing a hostel, with various people coming and going, bumping elbows in the kitchen and waiting for the bathroom. For the good of everyone, I was ready to get out of there and give the family some privacy before the next AirBnb guest surely showed up.

Last Friday night, my new landlord came to pick me up. She helped me drag my suitcases, several bags of damp laundry, my teaching supplies, and a box of food out to her car. It seemed like a lot and I wondered how I had ever maneuvered it all by myself. I do find that as soon as I unpack, my stuff has a tendency to multiply exponentially.

I popped back into the house to grab one last load, the fragile stuff: my carton of eggs, a llama-shaped mug, and a bottle of chilled rosé I propped between my feet. It was then that I apologized, sheepish, for the bazar that was my packing job.

She laughed and told me not to worry: she remembered being in my shoes.

But she was concerned: “aren’t you cold?”

I was wearing shorts and sandals. It was fifty degrees and raining. But I’d spent the day cleaning and packing, and anyway, I was nothing but relieved.

It had been weeks since I’d seen my new place, and that was only a glimpse, but it didn’t really matter what it looked like. I was looking forward to the solitude: my first time ever living completely alone. Long showers. My own kitchen. Phone calls late into the night. I wanted to fill the fridge with kale and cover the countertops with fresh fruit and buy a bouquet of flowers every week, especially during the winter.

We dragged my luggage up the stairs and into my new chez moi. Wood furniture, floor-to-ceiling wardrobe, a comfy bed, and a cheerfully-tiled kitchen with all the necessities.

The landlord pointed out a small window in the bathroom. It overlooked the adjoining roof.

“You’ll want to remember to close this,” she said.

“Oh?”

Gravely she warned me that I could come home to cats in my room. Apparently there exists a neighborhood gang of furry friends that lack respect for personal property. img_3425

All technicalities taken care of, the first thing I did was FaceTime my mom for a tour. The second thing I did was organize my closet, finally assigning coats and dresses a permanent space: a luxury.

The next morning, I awoke to soft sunlight streaming through the windows. I opened them and could hear Disneyish birdsong. The sun lit up the cozy whites and browns of the studio but even better was the view, which I hadn’t yet seen. There was the Mediterranean. Just glimpses, but enough to tell. It glittered silver under the sun, framed by the magenta bougainvillea climbing around the shutters.

It felt good to be home.

a room of one’s own

The house in France hid behind a tall gate in a suburb of Lyon: Champagne-au-Mont-d’Or. With a name that promised champagne and gold mountains, I hadn’t known what to expect. Fresh flowers and gilded windows? Really, the house was modest, modern French. It was small and white and square and very clean. Everything in its place, and so on. I had never before lived that way.

Stuff was a comfort, always had been. I’d amassed nests of books, notebooks, sweaters–one in every color. I had never lived simply. Up until then I had had two rooms, a bright aqua childhood bedroom and a dorm room filled with colorful paraphernalia. The constant clutter, piled in boxes and pushed behind doors, meant I had always had choices: what to read, what to wear, what to look at.

Now I had a third bedroom, sparse and scrubbed clean, bright white with a small skylight. I had a yellow lamp, a twin bed, a small bookshelf that held, I noticed, a French translation of 50 Shades of Grey. I had a large suitcase that lay on the floor, stuffed with dresses and skirts I’d bought at the summer soldes, weighted down with a heavy leather-bound copy of Anna Karenina.

The room was not much of a solace. It was always too hot. I never got used to the absence of air conditioning, and would wake early most nights in a tangle of sweaty sheets. For another, I wasn’t to eat in my room. This wasn’t an instruction my host family felt they needed to impart, but something I intuited. At particularly stressful times throughout my stay, I wanted nothing more than to lounge in my small bed with a filched baguette and the jar of Nutella from the pantry. I knew, though, that my crumbs would find me out. I managed just a couple of covert summer apricots, wrapping the stones in old receipts from Carrefour.

The room and I developed a complicated relationship. It was where I fled to scribble madly about the day’s events, to cry when necessary, to stare up through the skylight, paralyzed with pain from the headaches the heat gave me. Where I went, in short, to cope with the occasional frustrations and troubles of being an exchange student.

But it was a last resort. Most days, I rather resented this little room, which on moody days I would compare to Jean Valjean’s cell.

Luckily, a house is more than a room; a family more than a house. The more time I spent with my host family, the less time I needed the escape. I stopped missing the piles of stuff I’d always had at my disposal. A rich freedom: to instead begin collecting moments, new words, photographs.

A camera, a battered notebook, a comfy pair of jeans. The objects I began to truly treasure had something in common now: they took me out, away from a world of introspection and solitude trapped between four walls. Home became portable. For the first time, I understood that.

neon future: thoughts on life in the liminal stage

Hello from the other side of the ocean. I’m back in Columbia, Missouri, beloved little college town, experiencing less culture shock than I expected to.

There was the initial whoa of the Baltimore airport: large people clutching super-large fountain drinks, families dressed in matching tee-shirts, the informality with which strangers spoke to each other.

But it’s not exactly difficult to acclimate myself to all this comfort, a lifestyle as squishy as my dream foam mattress topper. There is water everywhere. Bathrooms. Late-night food, clothing dryers, Wi-Fi. The strangest and best change is having my car back. I no longer have to plan my day around how far my tired feet or broken bike will be able to carry me.

I appreciate things more. Driving makes me giddy. Libraries a wealth of stories and information, all free and in English. Baths the perfect cure to a long day. Friendsimg_5168

My friend Josephine came to visit for a few days, and it was so much fun to see Kansas City again, on my own, as an adult with a car. While she went to a wedding, I explored the Power and Light District, went to the art museum, took some pictures and took the free tram around town. We went to my parents’ house in Clinton and hung out with them and the new puppy for awhile, lingering over long meals, making failed macarons, reading the Atlantic, talking law and politics and life choices.

On that end, it’s really good to be back.

But there’s a certain strangeness, too. The path I’m currently on, a path of uncertainty and last-minute decisions, doesn’t exactly invite stress-free living.

I keep thinking about my English Capstone course the last semester of college, The Black Bildungsroman. It was my first experience considering the coming-of-age genre as a form. We talked about Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther,” then focused on African literature (Camara Laye, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie…). We talked about the advent of the teenager and about the elements of growing up: leaving the parents, embarking on a quest, taking an apprenticeship. We talked about liminal stages: the limbo transition period between childhood and adulthood. They can also exist between countries or cultures, and it’s a good place to get lost.

Maybe it’s a little silly, but my stint in France has me thinking liminal stage all the time. Here (the States, Missouri, the anglophone world, whatever) doesn’t feel completely like home anymore. It’s lovely and it’s comforting, but it’s missing something now. Some people assume that my time there has been just for fun, that I’ll come back to the States and stay and be a French teacher. But I don’t think I want that. I’ve worked so hard to integrate to a new culture, new life, new language. I don’t want to just forget that. But France certainly isn’t completely home either. Is that what you give up when you leave, ever having a home?

When I think of my future, my actual future, I see static, the black fuzzing of an old TV screen. The best I can do is conjure a vision of myself as I’d like to be: elegant and glamorous with great hair and a classic trench coat, working at a successful career in Paris, Chicago, or NYC, something somehow both stable and creative. In my free time, I’m going to shows and working on a cookbook and talking to interesting people from all over the world in two languages. Writing.

How do I get there, and where is it I want to go? I don’t have a real clue. My choices are endless, and that’s both a blessing and a curse.

I think that’s the mal du siècle of my generation in this century. We are paralyzed with possibility.

Already, I feel old. Laughable: I’m 23. But half of my peers (or so it seems) are marrying, moving, having children. The other half are working on careers. I am scrounging for a job at a sandwich chain.

I’m eager to start work on my own elusive career, but…I have decided to return to France in the fall. I have a contract renewal for the same crazy, fun, stressful, organizational nightmare of a job, this time somewhere in the south of France. That was what did it, the promise of so much sun. And I’m young enough and career-less enough and unattached enough to just go.

But sometimes here, lounging on a pool chair where I’m crashing at my brother’s place for a month, filling out applications for temporary jobs that fill me with dread, I feel like I’m hiding out from real life.

I have to remember, though, that this is real life. Mine. It’s just a bit different from what I ever expected. Messy. But it’s not like I’ve been wasting my time. My dad said something that helped me.

“I’m going to bet you learned more during your time in France than you could possibly learn in a year of college,” he said.

He was right. I thought out loud.

I learned how to teach. That was no small thing.

I read about 45 books, from classic thriller Silence of the Lambs to Gatsby to a nonfiction exploration of French cheese.

I learned how to stand up for myself, argue, and solve my own problems…en français.

I started learning Turkish, visited dozens of French cities, and mastered the metro.

I gave my cooking skills a real workout, talked to hundreds of strangers, applied and was accepted to a Masters program, and learned how to ride a bike in busy city traffic. The list goes on.

Now I’m spending the summer chasing around a toddler and a little boy (they are both so big now; it’s amazing) and I’m looking for another job. Fingers crossed it has some character. Like the coffee shop I’m in right now, Tom Petty on the radio and crowds of old men and hipsters smoking outside. I could be making Greek omelets and lattés and saving for that unknowable and glorious future.