Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Little Texas

Travel -- how I enjoy that word. Six letters have the ability to captivate and transport the speaker (and listener) to someplace other than where one currently stands. The state of transformation, from one place to another, from one existence to the next, is a marvel of across all the years of history. This week took me on a business trip that passed through Dallas Fort Worth airport, a place I have made airplane connections many times. DFW is a comfortable airport to me. I know my way around; it does not frighten me. I always schedule a long layover there because it affords me the time to absorb as much Texas as I can before I depart. And I enjoy all that is Texas. 

My affection for the Lone Star State began some years ago when I accepted an educational opportunity that allowed me to live in Dallas for two weeks every summer for three years. Those collective six weeks gave me the pleasure of drinking in as much Texas culture as possible from 'yes ma'ams' to salsa to cowboy boots. All were well received. Whenever I pass through Texas, I feel a bit Texan, like I just slipped on a worn pair of Wranglers and scuffed my heels through the Texas dirt. But mine is a temporary citizenship, gained when I cross the Red River and surrendered as I depart. Even if only for a few hours, there will be TexMex and my southern accent will get a little thicker.

But in this airport, as with all airports, it's the people-watching that brings the most enjoyment. Here, it is noticing the gentle mix of business woman and cowboy, all mingling about as the scurry from gate to gate. The blending of corporate and country is seamless and intriguing. Social classes are blended in airports, these bastions of transportation, mixing all into the class known only as 'traveler.' The only indication of their lives outside this airport is their choice of shoes. 

Boots, sneakers, flip-flops, sky-high heels -- all are seen in this mix of travelers and often leave me wondering why that particular choice of footwear was chosen. Personally, I would not wear shoes that would leave me barefooted as I passed through security -- socks are a must for me -- but each person has their own level of acceptance. Quick movement is necessary (especially in DFW where last minute gate-changes are standard) so low heels make my steps quicker. Something with a grip to the sole makes those rushed steps between gates more assured than slick-soled choices. But, each traveler makes their own list of must-haves.

No matter the journey, nor the destination, it is important for me to find small pleasures along the way -- comfortable shoes, an interesting view, a TexMex burrito with an amazing queso blanco. It makes any road traveled a more tolerable, and if practiced diligently, the journey becomes equally as enjoyable than the destination. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Observer

Photo from Harrison Convention and  Visitors 
Bureau website at
I sat in the historic Lyric Theater in Harrison, Arkansas, one afternoon as the seats filled with exuberant patrons waiting for the matinee performance. This small community was filing in to see the local theater troop perform the comedy Red Velvet Cake Wars. People waved to each other across the aisles and mingled to discuss the who's and what's of the past week. It was indeed a community atmosphere. I sat in the back of the hall in a quiet seat on an empty row, far from the chatter of the crowd. The world seemed to swirl just beyond my reach while I took my non-participatory station, out of the action. This station is familiar to me, and one I take in most events -- the observer.

I watch the crowd from a short distance and wonder what it is like to be amid the conversation, shoulder pats, friendly laughs, and half-hugs. It is a feeling I have only rarely known and yet quickly realized was one of discomfort for me. I am better suited as the observer, silently watching the parade, noting its characters and plot twists, but never enveloped by the noise. And when the swirl of action proves enough, my station gives me smooth access to the side exit where I can take my leave into the stillness.

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Friday, September 12, 2014


Earlier this week, I dusted off some old thoughts after receiving a writing prompt in an email. The prompt, which is intended to get the creative juices flowing, simply said, "Home is . . . " with the instruction to complete the thought. The moment I read it, I wrote without hesitation:

Home is not a place on a map or a spot to keep our bed. It is that one peaceful place where we are most ourselves and our spirit comes alive. 

The thought of home had been on my mind the previous week as my heart missed the Wisconsin Northwoods, a place of peace, comfort, lakes, and pine. I have never lived in Wisconsin, but childhood family vacations took me there often, so often that I have a familiarity with the area as if it were my hometown. But it is not. It is a place of childhood vacations, carefree days, and a sense of belonging. 

A simple dock and a quiet lake in northern Wisconsin.
I have spent the better part of 20 years searching for a place that felt like home. Many places have given me that serene feeling at my core that sure felt like home, felt like I could stay forever, though oddly few of those places were ones where I actually lived. Most vacations spots had me daydreaming by Day 3 of the possibilities of moving to ______ (enter vacation spot here) and living the life I always dreamed. It seemed easier to picture myself somewhere else rather than in whichever town held my mailing address. Likely the repetitive days in the familiar were not nearly as captivating as the spontaneous days in the fleeting.

Last week I thought about a little town in the Northwoods of Wisconsin where my family vacationed when we were children. It is a small town about an hour south of Lake Superior and nestled into the sweet-smelling pine trees of the area. The town is not large, and other than being perched on an island in a small lake, it is rather nondescript. It is a small town like so many others which should not hold any special powers unique to its city limits. And yet it does to me. What sets that town apart from thousands of others is the simple fact that it holds my childhood memories. It holds those moments of freedom, when life had no boundaries farther than where your little legs could take you, and where the world stopped turning for those few days a year you spent there. The older I get, the sweeter the memory.

Looking down Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, New York.
But I've felt this unusual pull toward several places in my life, though it is no surprise that each of these were felt on vacation. I remember standing in the early morning in Townsend, Tennessee, looking out over the Smoky Mountains layered with mist and solidly believing in that moment I wanted to live there. My first visit to Destin, Florida, was after my college graduation, and we spent the last two days gathering real estate guides and employment bulletins, determined we were going to move. I stood below a train platform in Brooklyn, New York, and looked down the street thinking that I had never felt more comfortable than that moment, right there. 

I have never felt that much passion about any place I actually lived.

Back in 1946, my father's family moved from the south side of Chicago to that small town in Wisconsin I described earlier. The change was quite an adjustment for my father, only a teenager at the time, moving from one of the largest cities in the United States to a town of less than 500 people. In the decades since then, that area of Wisconsin saw many families from Chicago move to the area, hoping to escape the trappings of big-city life.

"They think they can get away from their problems by moving, but they just bring their problems with them," my father once said. His words come back to me anytime I have these wild ideas on vacation of packing my stuff to move to whichever place I am visiting. But whatever unease I may feel at the time in my daily life would inevitably come with me, making any new place just as uneasy as the former.

While I thought of the Northwoods last week, I did indeed wonder what it would be like to live there. The old habit of wishing to move to the vacation spot is a tough one to shake. Yet as the years click off, I find more truth to my father's words, and realize that that sense of home I have searched all my life is not a place on a map, but rather is a spot of contentment within me. Perhaps that is why completion of the writing prompt came so quickly to me -- I am finding my way to that home.

Years ago, Jim Harrison wrote of the special draw of childhood vacation spots in an article where he cautions parents to choose vacation destinations carefully because that is where the children will likely chose to live as adults. The memories of their youthful happiness often draws children back to those places, and the parents will follow in their waning years. This, he describes, is the reason he and his wife now live in Montana, having moved from Michigan. They took their kids to Montana for vacations, then the memories summoned the kids to move there as adults. Jim and his wife soon followed. Apparently my occasionally inkling to move to my vacation spot is reality for others.

The definition of home can have many variations, perhaps as many as there are people. The only thing I know for sure is that home should be a place where one is free to be their most authentic self, where no masks are worn to shield from judging eyes, and where the spirit awakens. A place such as this may only reside deep within the mind, but as long as it exists, we always have a spot to call home.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

September 10

September 10, 2001: I just put my boyfriend on a plane from Tulsa to San Francisco. The next morning I drove my usual 75-mile commute to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I had a day full of classes at the University. I normally arrived on campus early and spent the morning at Mullens Library, catching up on reading before Tax Accounting began at 9 a.m. About 8:40 a.m. I began my walk to the business building under a clear blue sky, my steps light and quick, while my thoughts were transitioning from the last few days with Frank and into the next few hours with Tax. It was a Tuesday.

Only a few years prior, the Walton Family (yes, that Walton Family of Wal-Mart), made a $50 million donation to the University of Arkansas business college. At the time, it was the largest single gift to a University in history, and the building was soon renamed the Walton College of Business. The next years saw a tremendous improvement in the facilities, primarily in technology, with many classrooms receiving upgrades to presentation systems. The new systems were pretty great, I must say, projecting computer screens, videos, television, and documents onto an enormous screen across the front of the room. At the time, it was the cutting edge. 

When I entered my first classroom, a handful of students were scattered among the seats. The normally blank big screen was filled with a television broadcast from CNN, reporting on an unusual occurrence on the New York skyline. A plane had hit a skyscraper in what was believed at the moment to be a terrible accident.

As subsequent students arrived, each announced a new bit of information gleaned from an outside source, and the truth of the day began to take shape. The classroom was full and the teacher had arrived, but rather than beginning class at the scheduled 9 a.m., we continued to watch the news, all eyes fixed on the enormous screen.

The New York skyline, prior to 2001
At 9:03 a.m. we watched the second plane hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. The room let out a pronounced gasp, and I remember tears rolling down my face as I, and everyone else, realized this was no accident. Someone from my left handed me a tissue, and I collected myself quickly. 

I was 34 at the time and surrounded by a sea of 20-year-olds in this college classroom. A wave of panic began to fill the room and fell from their lips. I knew I had to remain calm. As the older student in the group, a maternal instinct kicked into gear and I felt a responsibility to remain stable and strong for them. Their youthful innocence about the world had just died before their eyes. So had mine.

After tax class was dismissed, I found a quiet place at the end of the hall and called Frank. He was still sleeping, and after he turned on the television, we tried to keep each other calm in the midst of wondering what all this meant.

Yet in all the reflection that this anniversary brings -- where you were, how you felt, what you saw -- I will never forget the way we, as a society, were in the aftermath. In our collective shock and grieving, we were kinder to each other. In the days and weeks that followed, we hugged more. We listened. We patted each other on the shoulder and asked with all sincerity, "How are you doing?" The preciousness of life had played out on television right before us, as we watched and waited for the answer to our one big question, "Why?" But no real answers came. Not ones that eased our pain.

In the 13 years that have passed, the sting has faded, and I find myself trying to focus on how kind we were to one another in the weeks that followed, though an aptly timed photograph or news report can quickly transport me back to that very moment in tax class. That memory will never leave me, but I would rather remember how we treated each other in the aftermath. We were connected in our grief and bonded in our healing. We were, for a few brief moments in the fabric of time, family.

I fear as the sharpness of the tragedy fades, our shared comforting in the aftermath may fade as well. The explosion of the internet has made brave souls out of cowards, as long as they have the shield of anonymity behind a computer screen. Just look at the comments section to, well, nearly anything posted online to see the demise of human conversation. Families in restaurants are sure to clear plates out of the way so each party has a spot for their smart phone to rest on the table, just in case that emergency tweet or status update arrives. Heck, some do not wait for updates to arrive and choose to actively post on the internet during conversations. (I am continually dumbstruck at the number of people who brush off a conversation with the real people in front of them in exchange for the digital people in their hands.) I'd like to think that this type of scenario would not have played out in the days following September 11, even if the technology were available at the time, because we would have been too busy hugging each other. (I'm likely wrong there, but it's nice to think.)

All in all, I chose to remember the kindness we showed each other in the days that followed the attacks. To me, that feeling is worth revisiting. The empathy in those days is worth pursuing. That, and a time machine to take us back to September 10, 2001.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Chapter 48

On my short list of favorite books, you will find Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert near the top. My softcover copy is worn and pliable, a sign of several late night scrambles to its pages to find a quote or scene for reference. I love the feel of my copy, soft and comfortable like a favorite pair of jeans worn to the perfect point of contentment. It smells of hope and healing, and always reminds me of how far I've come since the first time I read it. My first encounter with the book was when my personal life shared similarities with the author's, leaving each word to resonate within me like a tuning fork.

If asked my favorite part of the book, I would quickly answer, "Chapter 48." Period. I learned more from that four-page chapter than from any other written work in my life. Whereas some people can quote religious scripture by chapter and verse, I have that ability with this one. (I can quote religious scriptures too, don't worry, but this is the modern-era book of which I can do the same.) Admittedly, my recitation practice has been centered on this one chapter, but with words so striking, I find it is all I need. When old friends  of the past begin to haunt my present, I rush to page 149 and read the words of Richard from Texas, as told by the author, Liz, during the beginnings of their friendship in India. At this point, Liz is pining over a failed romantic relationship and having trouble letting go. 

"Problem is, [Liz], you can't accept that this relationship had a real short shelf life. You're like a dog at the dump, baby -- you're just lickin' at an empty can, trying to get more nutrition out of it. And if you're not careful, that can's gonna get stuck on your snout forever and make your life miserable." -- Richard from Texas (Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert)

I often wonder if Richard from Texas had any idea that his words would spread across the world, healing more than just Liz, but also me, and assuredly thousands of others who have read his words in her book. Wise words come in many forms and can be found in unexpected places, but when they are uttered -- and better yet, heard -- they have the potential to bridge a gaping chasm in the earth, as well as hearts. Richard built the bridge, and Liz published the map so people could find it. 

And I thank both of them frequently because I found it. I got it. The words make sense to me and pull me back to reality when I need a good stern verbal kick-in-the-butt. In the chapter, Richard explains how some people are not meant to be in our lives forever, no matter how much we may wish they were. We fight and tug and strain to keep them with us, but they go. They go by way of choice or circumstance, but they indeed go, and we are left standing in the memories. At the moment of the separation of our lives, we wonder what went wrong, what did we do? But we didn't do anything but live in this world where things happen when they need to happen, whether we like the result or not.

As I rushed to get out of the house on time this morning, I sped down the highway on my seven mile drive to work. Traffic was soon slowed by what I assumed was a school bus, since I knew when I left the house that I had left too late to get ahead of the bus that travels that road. I peered into the distance ahead and could not see the yellow bus on the horizon, but only saw dozens of cars moving at a glacial pace. After a few moments, I approached the vehicle causing the bottleneck and smiled at the sight of our local and legendary farmer, Mule*, hauling a pick-up truck full of pumpkins to town. The truck was laden with so many melons, it rolled at a pronounced angle, the rear bumper only inches from the pavement. I immediately smiled upon identifying the obstruction and my ire dissipated.

You see, Mule impedes the flow of traffic a few times a year but as any resident will tell you, it is worth it. In early summer, he hauls his locally-grown watermelons to town where they are sold at several markets. In late summer and early fall, it's pumpkins, like today. Occasionally, he simply pulls his truck into a parking lot while people nearly fall over themselves trying to get to him to purchase melons. He is part of our vernacular here. He is part of our culture and history. At certain times of the year his movements on the highway signal the changing of the season. Everything happens in its season, including the transport of melons.

It's the only time I see Mule, even though he lives in my part of the county. He's there at the changing of the seasons and then he is gone. But when it is time for him to come around again, when the time is right, he will appear. Much like everyone else in our lives.

Some people are not meant to be in our lives forever. Their purpose is to be a mirror back to us, showing us what we need to see in ourselves before moving along. At times, folks may enter, exit, and reenter our lives numerous times, always leaving us wondering why they left in the first place. But, you see, they were not meant to stay. People stay in our lives for as long as we continue to learn from them, whether that learning comes from being shown what to do or what not to do. All of life is learning, and all people in our lives are teachers.

Our hearts are better served realizing the fragility of relationships and being comfortable in recognizing our temporary connections are as ever-changing as the seasons. Everything happens in its season, and though we may pine for spring to emerge to save us from our winter chill, it is spring that decides when the time is right. And until that moment, we can only remember the beauty of springs-gone-by with a smile and a momentary word of appreciation spoken on the wind.

*Oh yes, that is his name. Well, nickname, but like the one-name celebrities of Cher or Madonna, Mule is famous in these hills both for his produce and his storytelling. 

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