Places in the World

“I  had a farm in Africa…” Wait! This is not that, but I do belong to a book group in England. I joined in 2006 after an out of hand rejection to my inquiry about membership in a certain local reader’s group. Belonging to the group in England has been a great thing, and in a few weeks I’ll be traveling there to meet up with several of the members as we gather for a few days in Barnard Castle, a small town near Durham. This will be our last real get together as a group. The energies have shifted and participation is ever so slowly dying on the vine. Parts of the trip won’t be easy –  the saying of goodbyes, my fervent wishing that the laughter and conversation could last forever in the face of all obstacles. It is painful in the way of visiting a seriously ill person; the reality is that the fresh ideas and inquisitive spirit of the group are squelched in the shadow of those behemoths of immediacy, Facebook and Twitter. It’s been a spectacular run for an online discussion group, ten years now for the founding members, and there are many lives enriched and changed by dusting up against thoughts about reading and cinema, explorations of The Apprentice and the schlock of B-horror, all for the most part peacefully. There just isn’t a downside to this, other than its sputtering out.

Getting ready to travel lifts me into that state of pleasurable anticipation where thinking about the whole experience comes to the forefront and the mundane gets pushed aside to make way for excitement and wonder. The others in the group are far and away better read than I am; not for one second has this put me off chasing after them in an intellectual sense. I am the pesky American, the one asking questions, drinking it in, feeling excited about the newness of all the different directions to discover in reading and experience. In a sense I’ve been birthed again as a reader and thinker through membership in such a diverse and interesting group.

And yet on a long walk tonight, I thought not only about what a fortunate circumstance it is to travel, but what a happy thing it is to come home. The desk at my new job affords me a window onto the lovely city park here where Abraham Lincoln once debated. There’s a beauty and simplicity about my chosen home town that can make my heart flutter from thousands of miles away. It’s a good place to live, to dwell in what some days feels like an international station for connection with people who are down the street, across town, even across the continent and ocean. Not to mention the one most dear to me who sleeps down the hall and who is like me in his ability to make and keep close ties.

My son is getting to know teens from other places, and I’m amazed at how varied and strong these relationships can be. Last December, one of his closest friends visited here for a week. As I drove the boys home from the airport, somewhere between St Louis and Hannibal I learned for the first time that the boy’s father is prominent within NBC. In all of my exchanges with his mother it hadn’t come up because it wasn’t important. What could have been an awkward chasm of class division never opened, thanks to the graciousness of the boy’s family and my son and his friend. I was pleased to show the young man a Sinclair station with its ceramic dinosaur décor, wild turkeys flocking in a snowy Missouri field, and the lights of Kansas City as we drove in to spend a couple of days celebrating the New Year. My son looks forward to visiting his friend at some point when they can ride the subway and explore city life.

As the big world gets smaller and more navigable, I think more and more about Martin Buber’s philosophy of being open to each experience, each person, as an I-Thou relationship. When I’m available to the complex, indescribable melding that is the chance lying within almost every encounter, I’m open to the Eternal Thou. This is not pie in the sky, nor is it a dreamy state of willful ignorance to problems or conundrums such as class division and out of hand rejection. Rather it is at the heart of solutions small and ultimately larger. It’s the way of reaching out and then returning home to live more fully. I’d like to think that Martin Buber would never acknowledge any notion of mobility as simply “up” or “down.” Truly there is no such thing. There is really only out and back.  Buber wrote, “One who truly meets the world goes out also to God.” Out into the world, back into place.

9 o’clock somewhere

Bodies of Water

Last month, I crossed the Atlantic twice. The outbound darkness hardly endures the trip; inevitably a curious passenger will open the shades shortly after midnight Central time to look at the water and wake everyone up by chasing the dawn to Europe. It can’t be helped. Returning, the ocean 40,000 feet below seems to sustain the plane, pulling it home like tide, and there is only one view for the afternoon window gazer. The water orchestrates it all, bringing Londoners to Chicago and wandering Midwesterners home, mixing and matching us in a continental card shuffle that separates and unites lives. It all seems so easy from above, riding tons of fuel and engineering into effortless transit, napping and drinking wine while heading both towards and away from worlds we love. The ocean is the only constant, roiling and fathoming in its changeless way. There is no way to fight this force, well, not since the Concorde was parked.

Since last Thursday, I’ve been engaged in a different battle with waters, only these are brown, shitty floodwaters. There is nothing romantic about a flood, no poems for gazing there with longing, no blue. Flooding here is strangely utilitarian. The Mississippi takes in way too much from rivers and streams to the north. It expands greatly not far from where I live, and, like the proverbially unlucky rabbit in the snake, pushes outwards and eases itself until it’s comfortable and safe in its own skin once more. Leaving nothing behind. Except, of course, mud and crushed things, whether houses or corn stalks or lives.

My role in all of this is a simple one. I’m a public health nurse, and, in flooding like this, there is a great demand for public health nurses to give tetanus vaccinations. Very basic stuff. I’ve now asked hundreds of arms to please roll up their sleeves. The phrase, ”Have you ever had an allergic reaction to a shot?” will speed from my lips in any guise I wish – playfully, hastily, wrapped in a smile – but mostly automatically. We are giving lots of shots, and moving hither and yon near a major levee where I cast an occasional glance just to make sure there is nothing massively wet headed my way. So far the levee is holding. The sandbags and earth movers provide extra fortification to ensure relative safety. It’s a fragile balance, a community exercise in breath-holding until the crest hour passes, a reminder that water can call the shots.

Sketches so far

Thursday night, Paris, France, 15 May 2008

There are some people I want to remember by jotting them down before taking a first nap in Paris. First, the woman on the train to Chicago who is 73, has lived in the same house her entire life and considers Frank Sinatra the love of her life. Eek. Then, the sparkling grandmother traveling cross country on Amtrak, returning home to Washington state where her husband works for Microsoft and where she is a college junior, trying to pass algebra. She knows she has my heartfelt sympathies and support. On the flight to London, my seatmate was a lovely (and lovely) German man who was a fascinating conversationalist and also knew just when to be quiet. And, how could I forget?! The very kindly doctor’s widow from Lincoln, England, who visited with me on the Eurostar, gave me a banana to snack on, and was not offended when I fell asleep across the table from her while we were talking. It was a long trip and I enjoyed almost every moment.

Friday, Paris, France 16 May

Went to the Pompidou museum today and saw the Louise Bourgeois exhibit. Walked all the way from our hôtel, my friend trying to drag me into numerous boutiques along the way and me pulling her out of store doorways. Ever it was thus. She called me late Tuesday night and wanted to know if I was still coming over. So she hopped a flight Thursday evening from Edinburgh and here we are, the introvert and the fashionista. Had we not met and been friends since the age of ten, we might not even get along, so striking are the differences. But we know one another inside and out and she’s the first to hold me accountable and the first to encourage me in pursuing good things. So, I’m thrilled to have her here.

Saturday, Paris, France 17 May

Slept in this morning after a night of listening to some street gangs fighting in the alleyway outside the hôtel. Thankfully there was no killing, but they were incredibly loud and we both were awakened and unable to go back to sleep for hearing them. Took a leisurely brunch and headed back into town. Today we walked even further, all the way into the Opera district for our one afternoon of fashion. I can only take so much oooing and ahhing over clothing before I turn into a truculent bitch who will do anything to get out of the store. I almost got there, just after the one hundredth entreaty to look at a blouse I wouldn’t be caught dead in. So, I have paid my dues to the Paris fashion world.


Time for a road trip! It will be so good to get away from the daily grind, even though I’ll start missing my son intensely the moment I step out the door. It’s good for him to see Mom happy and engaged in something unrelated to his activities or homework! Yesterday, I was mowing the lawn and stupidly tangled with the push mower to an extent that could have made the trip less enjoyable. I pinched one of my fingers greatly while messing with the self-propel going around some trees. Then, leaning down to tie a shoelace, I fairly smashed my entire lip on the handbar, so much that I saw stars and felt for blood and swelling. Thankfully there was none. Two hours later, filthy, drenched in sweat and grass splatters, I staggered back into the house to fix dinner for son and a friend. It’s a wonder they let me prepare their food. Even after cleaning up a bit, I remained a creature. Now, only a few last minute errands, an attempt at a decent meal for my son and his grandmother tonight, and morning will be here with it’s call to the 6am Chicago train. Sweet escape!