The Cracked-Open Heart

On nearly a daily basis, I have moments when I ask myself a series of questions: “Why am I here in Western North Carolina?  Why did I leave my old life behind?  Is this the right thing to do?  How will I know when I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing if I don’t even know what that is just yet?”

A series of serendipities this weekend delivered me a piece of the mysterious puzzle I have been trying to solve.

On Saturday, at the suggestion of my new neighbor, I went to the literary festival in Burnsville, NC.  The drive to Burnsville was thirty minutes of glorious scenery of undulating two lane highways towards a soft, rolling, layered backdrop of gentle mountains.  The trees are beginning to yellow and already there is some type of brush that has turned a fiery orange and yellow.

img_2642I walked up to the old brick building of Yancey County Public Library at 8:45 a.m. and watched the last of the fog peel away from the distant mountains and reveal a glowing sunlight on the tops of the trees.  I was there to attend a writing workshop hosted by local writer and teacher, Jennifer McGaha.  She is a lovely woman with a sense of humor and really challenging and interesting writing prompts.  By the time the nearly three hour session was over, I was fighting back tears of tenderness I had unlocked in my writing, most of which I didn’t share with a single soul but my composition notebook.

Across the room at another table facing me was a beautiful woman who had snow white hair, a sweet face, and the cutest red shoes that I coveted all morning long.  She shared a piece of writing with the group that was so descriptive and emotionally moving that I knew I had to talk to her afterwards.  I felt so drawn to her (and I wanted to know where she got her shoes).  She invited me to lunch with her and Jennifer.

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Through their kind words, listening ears, and probing questions, they validated me as a writer and as a teacher of writing.  I soaked up everything they said and internally I was fighting back tears.  Not of sadness but of sheer gratitude.  Here before me were two women gently mentoring me and holding me accountable to my dreams.

fullsizerenderLater that evening, I attended the ending lecture of the three day festival.  The speaker was David George Haskell, biologist and writer who is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his beautiful book The Forest Unseen.  I had only read two pages of his book the day before when I purchased it and my ticket.  Something inside of me told me to forgo my cheapness and spend the money to listen to him talk about the natural world.  He spent one entire year observing a square meter of forest in Tennessee.  What he learned and what he shared resonated so deeply within me that I cannot even begin to articulate it.  Just imagine Charles Darwin meets Charles Dickens meets Mary Oliver.  This man has the mind of a scientist, the master craftsmanship of a novelist, and the heart and soul of a poet.  He reminded us that the beings in the natural world are relational not to just one another but to us as well (they’re our “blood kin” literally if we believe in evolution).  His message was that we must pay attention to the particular so as to be able to see our part in the universal.  Through this practice, he learned:  1.)  that there is an opening for everyone to experience the unspeakable beauty in this world; 2.)  that there is a sense of the fathomless brokenness in things – from a sense of feeling so lonely to trying to understand the universe and humans inability to communicate with their natural kin; 3.)  that the pain in just one square meter of forest is extraordinary and we must learn to live and appreciate the duality of the beauty and the suffering and not try to create a resolution between the two.  (See?  My words are incapable to do his justice.  I mean, we gave the man two standing ovations, for God’s sake.)

At the end of the lecture, I noticed no one was clamoring around him to bend his ear or have him sign their book (I realized later I missed the pre-lecture book signing).  My knees shook and my heart fluttered.  I knew I must go over to him and thank him for being my teacher this evening.  When I spoke, tears alighted to my eyes.  My heart was overflowing with so much gratitude and incomprehensible desire to know more about myself through the natural world and his understanding of it.  Why did I uproot myself and plant myself hundreds of miles away from the rippling cornfields and blue skies of my Midwestern world?  Why am I in these mountains, sometimes alone and lonely, overstimulated and confused, or peaceful and laid back?  Why was I almost crying in front of a stranger who spoke his truth and his beauty not more than 10 minutes earlier?

I collected myself and he was so moved by my tenderness that I saw him put his hand over his heart.  He pursed his lips into a smile and he lowered his shoulders and became very humble when I asked him to sign my book.  Another impulse came over me and I told him about my time last year spent in Colorado where I “attuned to the particular to see myself in the unversal.”  He became very excited and he noted down the name of the psychologist (Bill Plotkin) and his foundation (Animas Valley Institute).  He assured me his work was now on his radar.  We both discussed how it is important to start re-wilding ourselves as a society and learn again how to talk to nature and let nature talk to us.

Which leads me to today.  My two new yoga friends suggested I go to Warren Wilson college so I could spend some time in nature and write and attune to the particulars of my chosen world and path.

I spread my blanket in the shade of the glorious meadow that was covered on all sides by these divine, feminine, graceful mountains.  I began to write, hoping to capture some sense of beauty and inspiration.  What happened instead was that I became agitated and annoyed.  Out of nowhere, tiny insects began biting me and buzzing my head.  A big black ant came marching towards my thighs.  A tiny green spider crawled over my foot.  My dog strayed too far away from our sitting area and I had to stop writing and call her over.  I held on to her leash and she pulled and strained and walked around me as I tried to balance my composition notebook on my lap.  She spilled her drinking water and frustration welled up inside of me.  Birds started to pick up on my frustration and they became noisy.  I was ready to call it quits, when I heard myself ask, “Why must you always try to orchestrate everything with your mind?  What if you just sat here and tuned in to what is happening in and on your body, in your surroundings?”img_2663

 

I put my pen and notebook down.  I closed my eyes.  I took a breath.  Then another.  And then another.

A gentle breeze picked up and evaporated the sweat off of my upper lip, my armpits, and behind my knees.  The breeze acted like a balm and suddenly all of my itching went away.

I focused my attention on the particular area of my heart.  The breeze picked up and blew steadily against me.

I said a prayer of gratitude for all of the goodness that has been happening to me.  And without warning, I began to cry.  And more than cry, I started to sob.  My mind wanted to start to rationalize why I was sobbing, but my body stopped it and asked it to be silent and just let this wave of sadness pour over me.

That’s when I felt a lot of compassion, more than I have ever felt in all my life.  Compassion for my dog who was hot and tired.  Compassion for the ant that I had chased away.  Compassion for the birds that were searching for food.  Compassion for my friends and family who have their own fears and obstacles to overcome.  Compassion for the constant struggle we all have to just stay alive and thrive.  Compassion for these mountains that are ancient and weary but ready to nurture and give more life to their space on this planet.

In that moment, the wind enveloped me.  The birds began to sing even louder.  And right before I pushed through the other side of some type of release, I remembered to include myself in this chain of compassion too.

I do not need to know the answers as to why I am here.  If I only came here for this pure moment of utter gratitude and compassion that cracked open my heart and allowed my tenderness to pour out with no shame or embarrassment attached to it and no need to withhold it, then that was enough.  A piece of the mystery was revealed in that moment when I chose to give my tenderness and practice a second of compassion here in this world where I am a tiny leaf on this great tree of life.

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Heart Center

The white windmills on highway 47 north cut through the deep blue Midwestern sky.  I turned onto a side road and got out of my car to take in the sweeping panoramic views that included waving cornfields, blue wild asters, and a stoic barn in the distance.

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When I arrived at the conference center in North Lake, Illinois, I didn’t know what to expect.  I was there to attend a weekend yoga retreat called BhaktiFest Midwest.  I have practiced bhakti (the yoga path of love and devotion) with Saul David Raye (an internationally known teacher) whenever he comes to the St. Louis area, but this time around I was going to immerse myself in the ancient traditions of kirtan, chanting (mantra), and breathwork (pranyama) as well as yoga poses (asana), and whatever other types of classes were offered.  I was curious to know if I would come away with a “blissed out” experience or if I was fooling myself into thinking that I could let go of conventions and old ways of being and allow my wild self to be present in the sessions.

I hesitated as I pulled in the parking lot next to a hippy van painted with a rainbow cosmic scene of Saturn and a guy on a surfboard.   A sense of loneliness and self-consciousness came over me as one of the volunteers wrapped the green band around my wrist and welcomed me.  Guys with man buns and lots of jewelry and women covered in tattoos and hairy armpits intermingled with men in kahki pants and Birkenstocks and women in all white with scarves around their foreheads.  Were “these people” part of my tribe now?  Did I fit in with hippies, love gurus, and mystics?  There were vendors selling their wares of mala beads, scarves, tie-dye, loose-fitting tops and pants, statues, and even cosmic readings.  I pulled my yoga mat closer to my chest and searched for the yoga room.  I wanted familiarity.  I wanted to distance myself from people who smelled like patchouli and rose water and roll out my mat and go through the motions of poses I’ve been doing for 15 years.  Thankfully, I didn’t get what I was asking for.  FullSizeRender

By the time I got to my second session of the day I had chastised myself for being so judgmental and dared myself to be more open-minded and open-hearted.  These people were fellow seekers of the heart.  People wanting to experience more than the ordinary and to be touched by the sublime.  And isn’t that what I’m doing too on this new journey?  Seeking a place where I can creatively express my emotions and experiences.  Seeking a way of being that is different than my traditional role as a mainstream English teacher, good and responsible daughter and sister, wild aunt, and single woman in a big house.  All roles I upheld by determination and default.

As I laid down on my back, preparing to be guided through a 2 hour session focused solely on the breath, I realized I don’t know that much about life or love as I pretended to know when I got to the conference. As Michael Brain Baker (the teacher, who was dressed in all white, had dreadlocks, and smelled of some heavenly rose watered scent) played cosmic sounds and chanted lullabies in Portuguese, Sanskrit, Hindi, and some other exotic languages, my body became awakened by my deep breathing (two deep inhales through the mouth and one long exhale through the mouth for 7 minute increments that were followed by periods of rest and then breath retention).  The breathing mimicked a buildup to a good cry.  The effect in the room was that of a wounded child sobbing for her mother.  I heard others wailing, crying, and moaning in anguish while my eyes were closed and we were all covered in darkness.  Anger and frustration awakened inside of me.  I wanted them to be quiet so I could have a peaceful, blissful experience.  I focused on Michael’s voice and directions.  I kept breathing, deeper and more fully, willing others to quiet themselves.  The more intense I became with my breath, the more my feet tingled, and then my hands and arms began tingling as well.  I got worried when my scalp tightened and my mouth started to go numb as well, but still I kept breathing faster and more intense.  One of the helpers in the room must have sensed my intensity and she came over and I felt some warm drop of rose scented liquid on my forehead.  Then, I heard her breathing, softly, sweetly, and calmly.  I took her cue and my short-circuited nervous system stopped going haywire.  She stayed with me for what felt like a long time.  Her presence at the crown of my head.  Cool air from the central air spread across my chest and I shivered then breathed, shivered then breathed.  I kept hearing her rhythmic breath and she was never far away from me, even as others cried and giggled and eventually burst into wild laughter and howling.  Next came pure silence as we rested our controlled breathing.  I felt like I was floating due to the fact that we had been oxygenating areas of our body that rarely get the deep benefits from our shallow daily breathing.  Peace flooded the room.  And silence.  And then it happened.  My heart cracked and I began crying.  The man who was moaning in sheer agony and pain across the room suddenly became my brother and I cried for him, imagining I was holding him in my arms, cradling him and rocking him through his pain.  Tears flowed from my eyes, and the man eventually quieted.

IMG_1464In the morning, I went to a nondescript workshop conducted by a 60 year old man with a scruffy white beard.  He was wearing jeans, a buttoned down long sleeve shirt, and tennis shoes.  He played the dulcimer and talked in a meditative voice.  The topic was on freedom and liberation of the soul.  We all have attachments and deep fears and the yogis and mystics say all attachments and fears stem from the greatest fear of all:  death.  He strummed the dulcimer that was in harmony with the pulsating, warping sound coming out of an amplifier.  This grandfather of a man told us we were all safe and that we had been in this cycle of birth and re-death for thousands of years, and would continue until we learned to face our own mortality and welcome it fully and with great love.

He instructed us to close our eyes and take an inhale through our nose, saying to ourselves, “Thank you, Great Spirit.”  And as we exhaled, he said, “I’m coming home.”  It sounded too simplistic for me to see how it could be a profound experience.  Yet, I listened to my intuition and allowed myself to be guided.  Eyes closed, I began to shed my inhibitions.  I tuned in to his voice, his words, his wisdom and guidance.  For awhile, my thoughts and breaths were mechanical and methodical.  The man literally struck a chord on his dulcimer right as I inhaled and said to myself, “Thank you for this breath, Great Spirit.”  I retained my breath for a few seconds; as he struck another reverberating chord, I gently exhaled and said whole-heartedly, “I’m coming home.”  A tenderness and warmth spread over my heart center and I started crying heavy tears that ran down my face and dropped onto my chest.  I kept my eyes closed, but I cried, and I kept the mantra and breath work going.  More tenderness, more tears.  Until after maybe a half an hour the breath became seamless and the words became truth.  A clarity came over me and it excited and frightened me at the same time.  I broke the moment by opening my eyes and looking at the teacher at the front of the room.  Too much to handle all at once I suppose.  Life turned back to the ordinary matrix we function in.  I had caught a glimpse of the sublime, however, and it was no other place but at the center of my heart.

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(P.S., I added this last picture in because it’s true and it’s also a reminder not to take myself too seriously either.  Ha ha!)

The Uprooting

If you ask me about my roots, I would show you the silver-white streaks cascading from my scalp and tumbling over my curls.  I could take you out into the garden and show you my iris that my mom and I planted 2 years ago and how their rhizomes are exposed to the sun so they don’t rot away.  I could give you some family history and heritage on both my parents’ side and you would find it mildly interesting as we have still yet to discover any really salacious details of ancestors who were thieves, ladies of the night, or gypsy fortune-tellers who barely escaped a ravenous mob.   I can discuss with  you my hometown and talk to you about my adopted town I’ve lived in for 16 years.  I could list all the pros and cons of each.  I can even tell you in detail the love of my Midwestern roots and why I love Garrison Keillor and his show “Prairie Home Companion” and the nostalgia it creates when he sing-song talks about the moving mountainous clouds over the rolling prairie and tells the quaint stories of hardworking and honest to goodness good Midwesterners out there.

I’m avoiding talking about the sale of my house and the roots I failed to fully establish in that space.  I’ve lived in 3 places since I moved to this area.  The first was a small apartment across from a park.  The second was the place I stayed at the longest (10 years to be exact):  a duplex with a manageable yard in a middle-class neighborhood.  I loved it immensely, but there was a yearning to grow bigger and try something new.  That’s how I awkwardly found myself in a gorgeous cottage-style 2100 sq foot ranch home with a large yard, vaulted ceilings, open concept, 3 bedroom, 2 bath, all brick home in a really nice neighborhood, complete with a private lake within walking distance.  A  lake I was only privy to in glances among fence rows, past the neighbors’ large homes whose backyards include said lake.

A few days before I moved out, one of my neighbors, a retired teacher in her 70s, was on her morning walk.  My dog and I joined her.  She talked at me the whole entire time – projecting on to me her worries and desires about my move, and her life.  She fretted about me leaving my teaching position and worried about my pension.  She told me I should go and teach school in North Carolina where it’s not as bad as this area.  I questioned her on that, and she said, “You know.  Minorities here.  I’m sure it’s hard to teach.  Move somewhere and teach where it’s not as bad as here.”  I almost started an argument with her, but she then switched subjects and talked about her second lake home that is 50 miles away in a  “non-minority” town.  She was fussing about how she had to clean her lake house here and then go there to mow the lawn of her other lake house.  My dog and I parted ways without a goodbye.  Two weeks prior to that, another neighbor asked me if the couple moving in to my home are black or white.  When I snapped, “I don’t know.  What does it matter?”  He smiled knowingly and said, “Oh it matters.”  I walked away without even a goodbye.  It was time to leave, and not just the conversation; time to leave this neighborhood where some of the inhabitants live in isolation and fear of what is beyond their island of supposed safety and security of brick walls, nice lawns, a man-made lake that has wintering geese and egrets that spike its shoreline.

As I spent the last few days packing boxes and shipping things off to storage, I heard the spray of the broken pipe in the leaky bathroom and heard the sump pump kick in.  I shuddered to think that this home is falling apart from the inside out.  The sound only revealed itself too me after the buyers made an offer and then got their home inspection a month afterward.  The subflooring in that bathroom is rotting out and one day the toilet will be in the crawl space.  The inspection also revealed that the roof in the garage had a leak in it that caused black mold to form in the attic.  I replaced the entire roof for the new owners with the support of my insurance company.  The wiring throughout the home is shoddy and a friend who replaced light fixtures for me found that the original wires to the light fixtures were ungrounded and so he fixed them.  I went back to my own original home inspection and discovered truths I was too naive to understand at the time.  One section stated:  “If leaks are apparent, they seem to be hidden cosmetically.”  In a nutshell, the previous owner (and probably the previous owners before him) just lived in the home.  They didn’t maintain, they covered up or ignored.

I had done many repairs during the 3 years I lived there, and now the new owners will be inheriting more money pit issues because of someone else’s laziness or my oversight or lack of awareness of these issues their home inspection revealed.  Through conversations with my realtor, I sensed that this young couple were still in love with this home and wanted it so badly they could taste it.  I did whatever it took to help them realize their dream. Even lying and crying to the county inspector who was trying to tick off more items to repair on the second re-inspection after I had made all of the repairs he wanted on the first inspection.  I just wanted out.  I was not in love with the home and I was already deep into my commitment to my new life that I fought for it with not just my tiny white lies to the county inspector, but with additional repair money to the new owners, hasty packing, numerous trips to the storage unit or the Salvation Army, electronically signed forms sent from my realtor,  etc., just so I could leave faster.  In my fierce fight and flight, I forgot to mourn my loss.  I forgot to take a moment to say goodbye to all that has been good.  I forgot or ignored the parts of my body that were holding in stress.

I did finally take some time to clean the house and sit in meditation after a solid yoga practice.  I did an old Native American ritual where you burn sage and smudge every room of the house as a way to symbolically clear the energy and open the space for the new owners that would build their life here.  It felt good to actively participate in my departing, but still no real wave of emotion came to me.  I supposed that was a good sign and an indication that some part of me had already left this all behind and that the goodbyes were over with.  And so it came as a little of a surprise when I found myself crying at the kennel on the last day I picked up my dog from daycare.  Here were the sweet people who have loved us for so long and they were sad to see us go.  And I found myself crying when I stood in the Chick-fil-A parking lot one hot afternoon after eating lunch with my best friend Katie and her three kids.  I had just hugged them all deeply and kissed the 6 and 3 year old boys’ cheeks as they told me, “We love ya, bro!  We’re coming to visit you, bro!  Be good bro!”

It really hit me that I was leaving my old life and old ways the night before I left town.   I was saying goodbye to my friend Jenn and her two little children.  We were outside in her front yard, standing near their maple tree that was dappled with the light from the summer’s first full moon.  I pointed out that a young mockingbird was playing in the tree and the grass hours before when I arrived.  We all could hear him singing but couldn’t see him.  We chit-chatted a little more, and Jenn stood with her 1 year old on her hip while her 6 year old daughter danced back and forth between us.  I was feeling just fine and it didn’t resonate with me when she said to me, “You’re off on your new adventure.  I’m so proud of you, Meg.  It takes so much guts to follow your heart.  You’ll do well, and I can’t wait to see what life has in store for you.”  It wasn’t until I hugged her that I felt her strong arms hold me close to her and not let me go.  I heard a sniffle and realized she was crying.

When I finally stepped back, I saw tears running down her cheeks.  “Why are you crying?” I asked. “I’m a Virgo.  We’re loyal as hell and we don’t let go of friendships that are important to us.”  I laughed a little at my silly astronomy talk that I don’t believe in, minus the loyalty part.  She finally collected herself when her daughter hugged us and laughed, “Oh mommy.  Turn off the waterworks.  You’re Ok.”  I smiled and gave one last hug before getting in my car.  As I began to pull away, I looked up and saw my friend’s tear-streaked face as fresh new tears fell in the tracks.  My heart broke in that moment.  Here were my roots.  Here was my nourishment and my tending and my loving care support system.  In the eyes of my friend.  Of all my friends and family who love me.  The roof over my head and the walls supporting it and the neighborhood around it were very beautiful indeed, but it did not fill me up with so much love as in that moment of my friend’s heartbreak.  And I now see all of the emotions displayed by the ones I love, whether it be practical concerns, words of encouragement, or displays of hurt, sadness, worry, confusion, frustration, elation, and celebration.  They are what anchor me to my heart and allow me to stay rooted to them, no matter where I am.

Where Do They Go?

A colleague and I talked this afternoon at lunch about recycling, composting, gardening, walking barefoot at work on our breaks, and our love for avocados and that sweet, short time they are ripe enough to eat.  As she was deliberating what in our office could get recycled, she shared with me the fact that maybe 30% of plastics get recycled, although we who recycle believe it all goes to the magical recycling factory nearby and gets put to good use as someone’s new water bottle, birdhouse, or even fancy, light-weight tennis shoes.  That bummed me out, but she said there’s hope.  There are scientists and inventors out there thinking outside of the box trying to figure out our waste and consumption problem and what to create out of recycled materials such as hard plastics.

After seeing the documentary, Dirt, about our use and abuse of this green earth, I have been trying hard to become a little more conscientious of my daily treatment of mother Gaia.  I started a compost pile (that is now too hard for me to turn and I better invest in a pitchfork or a fancy rolling bin), kept up my recycling, and started picking up trash in my neighborhood as I walk my dog.  And there’s always stuff to pick up and recycle, throw away, or compost:  milk jugs, McDonald’s containers, rubber bands, soda cans, cereal boxes, cardboard egg cartons, rotting apples, peach pits, plastic bags, and tampons with dispensers (I admit, I left that one in the street for about 3 days before I finally got brave and picked it up with paper towels and a leftover sandwich bag I found on the ground).

It’s very easy, and quite understandable, to ignore the little things we see around us because we’re so focused on running here and there and doing this and that.  And I put myself in the category of doing the ecologically sound thing out of convenience and cost for me.  We say to ourselves:  My life seems fairly clean and orderly enough.  How can the world be in such a mess and in pain when my home, my car, my job, my neighborhood are functioning fairly decently, minus a few bits of trash, bills, annoyances and mini-dramas along the way?  The problems are out there in other parts of the world.  Nothing has changed too much here, and though that either comforts me, frustrates me, or confuses me, at least my life has some consistency and order.  But, I can no longer fully go back into that hazy state of thinking.  And here’s why:  I have been feeling disconnected to others and my surroundings lately.  That worries me because there’s nothing more that I long for than a sense of feeling connected, grounded, and a part of this world.

I walk my dog in the evening and I try to listen to the breeze blowing through the whispering pines and instead I hear the sirens of police cars, fire trucks or ambulances.  I look up into the sky to admire the moon and stars and get fixated on the numerous planes that fly over my neighborhood to and from the airport or the Air Force base nearby.  I try to look at the wild geese that have gathered on the frozen lake and my view is blocked by 2 story houses with three car garages that have wooden fences surrounding them.  I tear up when I see the carcasses of raccoons, squirrels, and the occasional deer scattered and smashed on the busy streets as we drive over or around them.  My heart gets heavy when I see deer foraging in the muddied farmer’s field that is soon to be stripped away by yet another QuikTrip or Circle K gas station to compete with the BP or MotoMart gas station across the street.  Where do all the wild things go as we quickly and aggressively encroach on their land to build more Walgreens, Targets, Ikeas, bike shops, hiking shops, restaurants, bars and wine stores and more new stuff to divert us from simply being?

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Where do the birds go when the oaks, the maples, the pines, the hickories, the sycamores, the walnuts, and all the brushes and vines are torn down to make way for the new chiropractic office, the Center for Fecal Incontinence or the Kidney Dialysis of Southern Illinois take their place?  We think we are ill because there’s more stress in this world, but we are stressing ourselves out because there is less of the natural world out there to help us connect to the natural world inside ourselves.

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Where do the worms, the daddy-long legs, the garden spiders, the fish, the frogs, the butterflies, and the bees go when we rip up the ground and dig up native grasses and plants to put in field upon field of annual wheats and corns that strip the land of nutrients, are sprayed with chemicals that get into our water system, and lead to soil erosion?  We eat our processed food from a package and forget that food actually comes from the land.  We stop tasting and keep consuming in hopes that we will one day be full enough and happy enough and unstressed enough to enjoy a moment of sunshine on our faces or a bite of a juicy peach.

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In the meantime, our very guides and teachers of the natural world who can lead us to that mysterious and elusive point of soul within us are leaving us as quickly as we are leaving them.

What, then, can we do to help ourselves reconnect to our very essence that is natural and soulful?  I think the answer lies in going outside to get inside ourselves.  Be in nature and really start listening, seeing, feeling, tasting, touching all that is around us.  Go past the strip malls and search for a beautiful clearing of the meadow and woodlands that are still there and are lit up by the setting sun.  Listen deeper to the whispering pine and the playful breeze as they have a conversation above the competing sirens and mufflers.  Buy a piece of fruit or vegetable from the farmer’s stand or grocery store and eat it with great attention and reverence.  While you’re at the stoplight, watch as a hawk swiftly and gracefully dives from a telephone pole and circles the nearby field in search of prey.

And if we’re really bold and brave, we will wake up from our dream (or is it a nightmare?) and stay awake long enough to do the small things that can help the world.  Build the community garden you’ve been talking about.  Enroll in a local gardening club or nature course.  Save your money and buy that big churning compost bin off of Amazon.  Continue to pick up trash around your neighborhood.  Feed the birds in your backyard and keep the native trees and shrubs and perennials around your perimeter instead of opting for a fancy fence.  Buy more food that is locally sourced.  Contact your local government and find out information on city ordinances on using prairie grass in your yard’s landscape.  For if we all do small things to take care of our wild nature (both within and without ourselves), we will start building up enough consciousness, mindfulness, self-healing and love to build a less disconnected community of bored and emotionally unfulfilled people to a more heart-centered, unique and creative collective of individuals who feel more like a family that is willing to take care of our ailing Mother Earth.

 

Go for the “Gusto” in Life

There is a lot to be said about living a life full of zeal and soaking up the life that you’re given.  This past weekend, I was at Lake of the Ozarks (aka the “Redneck Riviera”) with my friend Mary and her 8 year old son Zane.  We stayed with her in-laws, Gary and Judy, at their home.  We took the train on Friday morning and by noon we were hopping off the train and being ushered in to Gary’s and Judy’s car in a whirlwind of excitement.  Omaw and PawPaw were happy to see their only grandchild and Mary and I were happy to have a weekend of friend time together.  She’s an artist and their house is under construction (her hubby stayed behind to deal with the construction) so she was in need of a place to get some “head space”.  I am a teacher and this weekend was my “calm before the storm” because school starts in less than 2 weeks.

The boat dock
The boat dock

Judy and Gary are very kind, charming people who are full of life and energy.  Judy is a retired middle school teacher and Gary is retired from owning his own company (and I later found out he was once in the Army as well).  Gary has Parkinson’s disease, but that doesn’t stop him from doing what he wants to do.  Although his body is misshapen from the disease and he has trouble getting around and is on a lot of medication, he still has this larger than life charisma and charm to him.  He gets out on his boat dock every day and can drive his speed boat and give you an hour long tour of the mansion laden lakeside (I dubbed the tour “The Great Gatsby on the Lake”).  He rides his jet ski, fishes with his grandson and grills a mean chicken, onion, pineapple kabob.  I was surprised by his agility this weekend when I asked him where I could find a plate for my toast.  I was standing behind him and he was near the cabinet.  Before I finished my sentence, he threw open the cabinet, grabbed  the heavy Fiesta-ware plate, lifted it with both hands behind his head and over to me.  I wasn’t expecting that at all and said, “Uh, thanks,” as he stood there laughing.

Judy is equally as charismatic and charming and as spry as someone half her age.  While Gary messed around on the boat or the jet ski, Judy was in her kayak (she kayaks every day) pulling Zane and a neighbor kid on a raft behind her.  She and Gary hung out on the boat dock with the kids for hours, zipping in and out of the kayaks, the jet ski, the floats and also scheduling a winter to Australia using their iPad.  Later that evening, they took the kids to play a round of 9 holes of golf and then out to dinner.  On the other hand, Mary and I were drained and had headaches and upset stomachs and fell asleep in our rooms for 2 hours after a fattening meal of potato skins and pizza.  Around 8:30, Judy, Gary & Zane came back home and got us up and going and we played Uno and chatted away as Judy led Gary through his yoga and stretching exercises for the night before they went to bed.  Mary, Zane and I again crashed into our beds and slept in late the next morning, unable to keep up with the 2 of them.

In our youth obsessed culture, we tend to overlook people who have lived longer than us have more experience and (hopefully) more wisdom, guidance and interesting stories to share.  We don’t expect people who are in the winter season of their lives to have so much excitement and enthusiasm for their lives.  We get so wrapped up in the petty dramas of daily life and try to control their outcomes that we forget there should always be a space in our lives to play and to explore and to travel and to laugh.  I think these positive behaviors are a benefit of aging that for whatever reason we are afraid to look into as a culture because we don’t want to think of the final outcome of our physical bodies.  Judy’s and Gary’s intensity may seem overwhelming, and maybe to some out there it is, but for whatever reason this weekend their zeal for entertaining us while also letting us go on 2 hour long walks or reading books or taking us on a tour of the countryside really grounded me.  I’ve had a full but hectic summer and there are things that are stressing me out like a tight budget, trying to sell my old house and preparing for school to name a few.  But now, I’m reenergized by their energy and sense of play.

But for me personally, too much zeal can be an overkill, and I’m one who appreciates a little bit of solitude on a regular basis.  So, it was nice when I had a “zen” moment where I got a little bit of alone time to read and to write while the rest of them went on a bike ride.  I sat in the sun and listened to the waves break on the shoreline.  It felt like I had a moment to hit the “pause button” and allow in the ebb to the flow of that vital energy.

The Lake
The Lake

And just when I was “ebbing,” the flow came back in the form of Mary and Zane coming up to me with a 1970s Cher cover album.  They were laughing and asking me if I could hear the music blaring from the garage into the street.  Zane smiled and said, “C’mon, Megan, you gotta hear it!” and I started laughing and obediently followed.  Sure enough, Cher was singing away, her voice being pumped out of a circa 1980s record player with a dual cassette player underneath.  Old records from Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” to Henry Mancini were stacked on a shelf.  Mary shrugged her shoulder and laughed and said that this is what her in-laws do whenever the moment feels right.  Judy and Gary were nowhere in sight and Zane switched the LP to fast track and Cher’s smooth, alto voice morphed into Alvin and the Chipmunks.  Our laughter filled the garage and Z switched it back to normal play and then he and Mary hopped on their bikes and took off down the long drive while I was left behind wondering what had just happened.  How did getting left behind in a garage listening to 1970s Cher songs and smiling become part of my weekend?

And the Beat Goes On. . .
And the Beat Goes On. . .

Even in the mundane moments of life zest and zeal can enter in at an unexpected time, making you laugh and appreciate right where you are.

On the suspension bridge out in the country
On the suspension bridge out in the country

This post is Day 27 in the 100 Day Creative Writing Challenge.  Topic:  Zeal.

This April Fool

Spring time is finally here in the Midwest.  Today it was 70 degrees and sunny.  That could change seeing how just last week we had a foot of heavy, wet snow with overcast skies and biting wind.  However, mud puddles and small pools of water are all that remain today.  I will take the murky pools and squishy grass even though walking and being outside is still a bit of an inconvenience.  Just the whisper of what is to come is enough to keep my hopes of a new beginning alive.   I fall for it every time.

A moment along the path
A moment along the path

At times, it feels as if life is merely a series of highways, bi-ways, country lanes and ruts in the road.  Right now, my life seems to be bumping along down a meandering two lane highway in an unknown part of the country.  It’s beautiful, exciting, a bit intimidating, and confusing.  One wrong turn onto an intersecting, unmarked lane seems to throw me off course and then I have to retrace my steps and figure where I’m going all over again.  Occasionally I get sidetracked and at other times I get afraid and begin to lose my faith on this journey of mine.  Sometimes I feel like I can’t put my life on cruise control and let the road take me where it will.  Instead, I try to arrange my dreams and goals in life in an orderly, linear, precise fashion:  trying to dictate to the road how and where it will turn and wind and arrive at the end destination I had in mind.

Spring's promise
Spring’s promise

Like any seasoned traveler, I should know by now that the journey is what matters, not the destination.  But, my brain isn’t always wired to think like that.  It seems I have to train and retrain myself every couple hundred miles or so.  I fall for the false advertisements of an easy life in which I should conform to the societal pressures and assumptions someone my age, my status and my position/role in life dictates.  I want to buck the system and find an empty, deserted and inviting road to travel down and explore my dreams, my wishes, my fantasies, and my ideas, but I am afraid sometimes to go down that path alone; and so I exit off the ramp and idle myself until I get brave again.   Occasionally, I cave to the external pressures that are out there in our world and let friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers somehow latch onto my dreams and try to tell me what I could or should do to the point that I become confused on what I want to do (or not do).  There are times I let my neurotic thoughts and own personal pressures get to me and I even try and talk myself out of what I truly want and need in my life because I don’t fully believe in myself or have been conditioned by past experiences to not trust my own intuition.  Those are dark days where traveling the open road seems arduous at best, and impossible at worst.

Then, a day like today comes along and breaks through the cloudless, gray skies and shines a light upon my path and restores my faith in myself and my dreams and desires.  That’s when my load becomes a bit easier to carry and I feel like I can keep going on this journey that will deliver me to another crossroads at another time.  Wanderlust kicks in, and I pick up my things and go on with my life and follow my path.  Call me a fool, but it’s the only way I know how to travel in this world.

Down the path I must go
Down this path I must go

Snow Days

It’s the end of March and I’ve been holed up in my house all day, clearing snow from my driveway, eating leftovers, and staring idly out the window wishing that I could see the sun.  Just yesterday it was 55 degrees and sunny.  I was even so bold as to open up my windows as I was cleaning my house.  Now, winter is back with a vengeance and it’s taking a toll on my brain.

The path I cleared in today's surprise snow.
The path I cleared in today’s surprise snow.

I don’t do well being idle.  It’s just not my nature.  When I got the phone call this evening informing me that the school I teach at is cancelled for tomorrow (which I had already assumed seeing how we have a foot of wet, heavy snow on the ground and it’s still snowing), I got upset.  Normally I love snow days.  Normally I would be grateful to have some time to do things around the house, to clean, to grade all those damn papers that I somehow keep assigning.  But not today.  Today I have been in a funk, trying to shut my chitter chatter of a brain off and stay in the moment.  It’s not working.  I’m letting my mind take me to wild, high anxiety places and not even yoga, a long nap, nor an hour’s worth of snow-shoveling has totally worked the anxiety out of my brain.  So, I’ve turned to writing, which is always my “go to” therapy.  There’s something about putting a pen in my hand and moving it across my blank paged moleskin notebook that is soothing to me.  Or in this particular case, hearing the keys click on my laptop as my fingers tap out the words that are swimming around in my brain.  Like walking or playing my guitar, writing is my “moving meditation”.  It soothes me for the time that I am doing it and allows me to get ahold of myself and reel my mind back in to a normal state of activity.

The upside to anxiety is that I know how to channel it into creative endeavors.  Today alone I have written a small story, worked on my “Valencia & Verona” collaboration, written this blog post, and am now thinking of going outside with my dog and building a snowman at 9 p.m. on a Sunday.  (That’s a bit of a downside of anxiety-fueled creative endeavors:  you sometimes get a “wild hair” up your ass and have to follow it all the way through, and the next thing you know it’s 5:30 a.m. the next morning and you’re tired as hell because you stayed up until the wee hours of the morning building snowmen or writing stories, or drinking coffee and telling yourself that you’ll calm down as soon as you just work through this one idea.)

I think I will take the risk and go outside and build that snowman.  It beats the alternative, which is an overactive mind and a body surging full of nervous energy.  My small, cozy townhome can’t contain either of them right now.  The roads are too slick to drive anywhere or do anything.  And come to think of it, I think playing in the snow was the only answer to dealing with this restless type of energy when I was a kid as well (I’m sure it’s the same for all of us who lived in a place that has all the four seasons in less than a week).  My dog, Sancho, won’t complain if I take him outside, even though he’ll sink all the way up to his shoulders in this late season Winter Wonderland.  Sancho is an old guy (14 to be exact), but there is something about snow that energizes him.  I might as well learn a little from him and seize the day (or the night to be exact) and since I can’t go on a walk, I can go outside and get some fresh air.  Maybe there is a snow angel in my future too?

Sancho romping in the snow this afternoon.
Sancho romping in the snow this afternoon.
Sancho running like he was 4 again!
Sancho running like he was 4 again!

 

Keep The Change

Ever have one of those weeks when every day is a comedy of errors?  That’s been my week.

It started last Sunday.  In my defense, I had been awake since 4:30 that morning; so everything that came out of my mouth didn’t always pass through the in-brain edit button first.  And, my friends Jamie, Mary and I had just hiked 3 miles up a river bluff and down under a train trestle at Castlewood State Park outside of St. Louis, MO.  So, when the waiter brought us our check as we sipped our iced teas at the quaint restaurant “Home” in Maplewood, MO, it didn’t register that I really didn’t pay enough for my meal (which cost $14, but we all had added a large cup of $6 soup to our order as well).  All I heard was Mary saying, “It’s $20 for us each.”  I delicately repressed a  yawn after having loaded up on carbs, and thought to myself, “Geez, that’s a lot for a tip.”  But, I was having fun and thought I would just spend my cash instead of having to figure out a tip on my debit card.  I tossed my $20 bill onto the tray and told the waiter, “Keep the change.”

Jamie left the table to use the restroom.  Mary politely said, “It’s your birthday celebration.  I’ve got the tip.”  

I was confused.  “What?” I said.  I couldn’t understand why she was going to leave more money to an already generous tip from each of us.

Mary asserted that it was “OK”.  She wanted to do a nice thing for me.  “It’s really no problem,” she smiled and began writing out her bill.

“What?” I asked again.

Again, Mary delicately said, “We ordered soup.”

I leaned back in my chair and quickly recollected the tasty, warm white bean soup with squash and spices.  “Yeah,” I sighed.  “That was good.”

Then it dawned on me.  I had short-changed the waiter and with a cocky attitude I had told him, “Keep the change.”  My friend was trying to save face and not hurt my feelings.  I began to freak out.  I insisted I pay her back.  I volunteered to walk over to the cash register and ask the waiter to stop the transaction. Mary laughed.  I even debated going over to the waiter and apologizing for my gaffe.  I was embarrassed.  Jamie came back to the table and I told her what happened.  She laughed and said, “I wondered if you would figure it out.”  I hung my head in shame.  Mary started laughing and said, “It’s OK.  I still like you, even if you are an asshole.”

That was Sunday.

On Monday, I walked my dog in the wee hours of a rainy morning.  When we got inside, my house immediately smelled like wet dog.  I tried to Febreze away the odor, and even added a few extra pumps of expensive perfume on my clothes.  It was to no avail because when I dropped my dog off at the kennel, the lobby area smelled like wet dogs, and that smell soaked into my clothes.  I got back in my car and noticed my meticulously straightened hair had been frizzed at the roots from the humidity, and the ends had been burned and split by the straightening iron.  By the time I walked into work, my heels had been rubbed raw from my cute, new flats I had purchased the evening before, and my hair looked like Monica from the Caribbean trip “Friends” episode.  

After a long day of teaching high school students, my friend and fellow English teacher, Andy, stopped by my classroom to vent about his truly horrible day.  I tried to sympathize with him but I had a blister on my foot from my flesh-eating flats.  I didn’t want to interrupt his story, and so I wheeled myself in my chair and scooted to the trash can near my desk.  I realized that the band-aid was all gooey and bloody and so I didn’t want him to see it.  I leaned over delicately and tried with stealth-like skills to drop it into the waste can.  In slow motion, I began to lean a little too far to the left.  I tried to correct myself, but my foot slid out from under me (damn flats), and down I went, with my chair toppling over me.

I stood up and couldn’t look my friend in the eye.  I could see that his shoulders were hunched up, and he sat motionless.  He did manage to ask, “Are you alright?”  While picking up the chair, I continued to look at the floor so as to avoid eye contact.  “Yep,” I said.  “I’m a moron.”  I sat back down pretending like nothing happened, and my friend acted the gentleman and did likewise.  He continued on with his story.  I giggled a little bit, and he said, “You don’t have to be embarrassed around me.  We’re friends.”  I shook my head and put on my poker face.  He then continued on with his rant about dumbass kids who can’t even complete a simple, dumbass quiz correctly.  Humiliated, I was on the verge of tears.  I started laughing some more.  I barely could contain the laughter, and this seemed to pull Andy out of his story and he asked, “What’s so funny?”  I laughed harder and loudly said, “I fell out of my f—ing chair, dude!”

That was Monday.

On Tuesday, my mom (who was staying with me for the week because she had a doctor’s appt. in St. Louis) needed my car.  She had to drop me off at work.  She dropped me off at the circle drive, and at the end of the day, she picked me up there as well.  I had to stand out in front of the school for 15 minutes waiting on my mom to come and pick up her 37 year old daughter from school.  My high school students honked and waved at me as they drove by, and the cross country track team whizzed past me as I heard a few say, “Hi, Ms. H.  What are you doing out here?  Waiting for the bus?”

That was Tuesday.

On Wednesday, my mom needed my car again, so she dropped me off at the circle drive.  As I walked down the long corridor to the mail room, I realized I had forgotten my purse which had my classroom keys in it.  The English department chair had to let me in my classroom, and other colleagues had to unlock and lock the English computer lab for me when I took my 2 writing classes in there.  Not too bad of a day thus far until my friends asked me if I wanted to go to lunch with them.  I thought being out in the sunshine and fresh air would do me good, so I said “Yes.”  As we were walking out to the parking lot, I asked if my friend Katie wouldn’t mind driving me.  She agreed.  When we got in her car, I asked shame-faced, “Would you mind buying my lunch?”  I explained to her my dilemma, but I promised her I would gladly pay her tomorrow for a chicken quesadilla today.

That was Wednesday.

On Thursday, my mom needed my car again, so she dropped me off at the circle drive, again.  In the afternoon, I was on lunch hall duty near the cafeteria.  I had to stand guard by the double doors so students wouldn’t try to leave early and roam the halls. A group of them had gathered near me the last few minutes so they could make a mad dash to their lockers at the passing period.  As I was instructing them to move back, two students flung open the door from behind, and I was smacked in the shoulder by the heavy wooden door.   I was tossed into the throng of hormonally-challenged teenagers who had tried to warn me to move out of the way.

At the end of the day, my mom picked me up at the circle drive and we drove into St. Louis to go to the hotel where she was going to meet my Dad and nephew so they could go to my nephew’s doctor’s appointment early the next morning.  My mom was “starving,” and hadn’t eaten anything all day except my dark chocolate M & Ms and Wavy Lay’s potato chips. As we crossed over the Eads Bridge, mom suggested we eat at the buffet at the Casino Queen in East St. Louis.  It wasn’t my first, second, or third choice, but she insisted on buying, so I decided to not pass up a free meal.  One greasy chicken breast, a platter of bean salad and romaine lettuce, 3 crispy and dry crab rangoons, and a tart lemon square later, we waddled out of there.  Mom said, “Well, there, I fed ya.”  Like her good little ducky, I followed her out to the car.

When I finally left to go home, I drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic for over an hour, and had to detour onto another interstate to get back to my home sweet home where I prepared for my final day of the work week.  I let my dog out to use the restroom, and had to chase after him because he caught scent of a skunk that was obviously nearby.

That was Thursday.

On Friday, I drove myself to work.  I jammed out to my favorite tunes on my iPhone, and I was looking forward to an easy-going day.  When I got out of my car, my sunglasses fell and the lens broke.  I bent down to pick them up and was knocked in the butt by my car door.  By third hour, I had been berated by a belligerent student who swore I lost her final draft of her paper (which I did not, and which I later found, unfinished by her).  After hall duty, I saw my friend Andy standing outside his classroom door.  We chatted for a few minutes.  I briefed him on my crazy week, and vented about how upset I was that a student felt the need to humiliate me because she was embarrassed about her own error.  He smiled and patted me on the back and said, “Well, at least you’ve been upright the rest of this week.  That’s an accomplishment.”

What a full week of blunders, bloopers, gaffes, falls, fails and faux pas.  Someone please pass the egg.  I’ll rub it all over my face and save myself and everyone else the trouble.

Just A Closer Walk With Thee


I am not a religious person.  I never have been, and I really don’t see myself becoming religious in the near future.  I would describe myself as a spiritual person, however.  I’ve felt that way ever since I was 10 years old and began writing poetry.  Anything in nature that heightened my sensitivity really stuck with me, and I either had to capture it in writing, in drawing, or in some type of artistic expression.  Now that I’m older, that creative urge has come back, but I delve into it less than I used to do.  I question it more often as well.  My words get edited before I ever type them, and I rethink them continuously.  Thinking is my “thing” I guess you could say.  It helps me solve problems creatively, and it allows me to process my world systematically.  It also trips up my “creative flow” and I notice that when I over-think something that is going on in my life, I usually set up more mental road blocks than there are actual obstacles to whatever is bothering me at the moment.

This morning, I woke up later than usual (6:45 a.m. to be exact).  I walked my dog, drank my coffee, and graded a lot of my students’ essays.  I hit a point late in the morning when I didn’t know how I would structure my day.  This thinking led me down the path to start analyzing my life and what I want, what I lack, what I think I need, etc.  Before I started on that treadmill of thinking, I heard my inner voice calmly say, “Just breathe.  Just sit here in your recliner, close your eyes, and breathe.”  I did.  And then something lovely happened, I started to get relaxed and my mind, while still very active, cleared a little space, a little breathing room for me so to speak.  Next, I started telling myself, “Trust God,” and began repeating that mentally in my mind.  Sometimes it varied from that phrase to “Trust in the Universe,” but in my mind and in my spirit it is one in the same.  Some would say I was praying.  Others would say I was meditating.  Maybe others would say I was just being lazy and should get up off my butt and go do something.  But I just sat there.  And it felt good.  It felt right.  I didn’t make a decision, and I didn’t pass judgment on myself on all the weird and random thoughts and images that popped into my brain.  I just tapped into my mantra so to speak, and waited.

I thought, “Surely I will have an epiphany if I sit here long enough.”

I sat there for about 10 minutes.  The only thing that came to me after I opened my eyes was that I should go on a walk.

A bit disappointed in not having had some type of revelation or insight into my life, I climbed my stairs and went in my bedroom and changed into my workout clothes.  As I was climbing the stairs, I heard a rendition of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” by The Avett Brothers in my mind.  An early morning dream I had came back to me, and I do remember that it was accompanied by that song.  “Interesting,” I thought, but really didn’t overanalyze why it was there (unusual for me not to analyze, by the way).  I guess I didn’t think much of it because I always wake up with songs in my head, and they can be as random as this one, or as pop-lyric punched as Rihanna’s latest dance hall hit.

When I got to Longacre Park, I began the mile and a half walk that takes you over small hills, around a pond, and in between pine and oak trees.  The sky was overcast and a gentle mist of rain was falling.  The humidity was high, and it took no time for me to work up a sweat.  I slowed down when I saw a slow moving car being followed by a gaggle of geese who were looking for a handout of bread crumbs.  They made me laugh.  They also reminded me to look out for their droppings that littered the gravel trail.  I watched as one mother took pictures of her little child on the swing-set, and I laughed as two geese intercepted me at the little bridge.  They trumpeted at me, and I smiled and talked back to one of them saying, “Hey little dude, you gotta move.”  He didn’t and I had to walk around it and its fresh deposit on our trail.

Halfway around the pond, I began to wonder if I was ever going to have some type of “aha” moment or feel a strong connection with my greater spiritual side.  I recently watched a documentary on the Apollo moon missions.  All of the astronauts talked about how the vastness and silence of space along with the beauty of seeing the earth at a distance revealed to them how everything and everyone is connected not just molecularly but by a strong universal power that is not a man made creation of religion, politics, or even basic science.  I wondered if I would ever feel that way or recognize that our lives, our emotions, our minds, ebb and flow like the tides that are pulled by the moon, which in turn is pulled by some unknown spiritual being or entity.

At the 1 mile mark, I had forgotten that I was even worried about those thoughts, and I had forgotten that I was worried about how I would structure my day or how I would work on trying to achieve my future goals.  I simply started listening to the gravel crunch beneath my tennis shoes.  I looked up and saw a beautiful stretch of pine trees neatly placed in a row and following a white gravel path that wound around a bend.  I heard my morning song, and I realized that this was my moment of revelation.  And just like that, it was gone, but I was one step closer. . .

Searching for the Ghost of Mark Twain. . .

One of the mannequin displays in Mrs. Thatcher’s Attic, an antique store in Hannibal, MO

It’s been years since my sister, Katy, and I got the chance to go on a mini-road trip, but we finally made it happen this past weekend.  Destination?  Hannibal, Missouri.  Why not?  Don’t laugh.  It was as far as we could go in the time given.  Katy wanted to junk shop, and I wanted to be an English teacher / nerd and find out more about our nation’s teller of tall tales, Samuel Clemens.  Mark Twain to you.  So, after looking up our destination on the map and our iPhones’ GPS systems, we headed out.  Oh, and Katy, being the radio DJ, had me listen to old school Michael Jackson songs as we pulled out of her driveway.  (Don’t judge.  You know if you heard “Billie Jean” and “P.Y.T.” you would be singing along too.)

Me (left) and Katy (right, in her heart-shaped glasses) on the 1st leg of our 2 day road trip.

We didn’t make it too far (only 3 songs in) before we stopped about 20 miles down the road to get coffee in the small town of Monticello, Illinois.  A little gem of a town, really.  It has a beautiful downtown with small shops on main street, and a sweet coffee shop that once was an old, small  church.  They serve great cafe mochas with soy milk (hold the whip cream).  Cue the angels on harps ad a light from heaven shines down on us.

Always the savvy traveller, Katy grabbed a few tourist pamphlets before leaving the heavenly coffee shop.  As we strapped ourselves into our seats, she mentioned that Monticello has a street once known as “Millionaires’ Row”.  Only a few wrong turns later, we found it.  The homes ranged from the Victorian Era to The Arts & Crafts Period.  One house looked like something out of a Jane Austen novel, complete with a long, wrought iron, gable-roofed greenhouse in the side yard.  People walking by waved at us as we lurked and gawked at the houses (even stopping to photograph a few with our cell phones).  Thankfully our windows were rolled up so they couldn’t hear us saying, “Oh my God!” and “Holy Shit! Holy Shit!” as we drove under the speed limit up and down the lane (twice).

The coffee shop that used to be a church in Monticello, IL

As we left town, Katy put in her Billy Joel Greatest Hits CD, Part 1, and we sang “Uptown Girl” as we headed towards Springfield, Illinois.  We spent the majority of our day there because we took our time touring Abraham Lincoln’s Museum and Library.  Katy loves history and I wanted my picture taken with the life size figurines of Abe Lincoln & his family, so it was a win-win situation.  Truthfully, the museum and library are well worth the stop and it is very interesting and moving, especially when you get to the gallery that documents The Civil War.  We rambled around downtown on foot in search of somewhere to eat, and landed at The Feed Bag restaurant (excellent potato soup, and old school slushy ice for your soft drinks).  After that, neither of us could resist spending more time and money in an old used book shop next door.  Both of us left with treasures and a bargain.

Later in the evening, we arrived in Hannibal, MO, the birthplace of Mark Twain.  The town itself is not noteworthy, and it appears that tourism is currently the only saving grace of this river town.  However, the two of us were happy to be in an historical town that glimmered with the possibility of good food, good junk, and good sites and stories.  On all three of those fronts we were not disappointed.  Katy drove us into the Best Western hotel on the River and our parking was so steep (Hannibal is built on river bluffs and cliffs) that she had to put on the parking brake.  We were looking at our brochure guides (again, Katy  has the knack of always picking them up at every visitor station or rest area we end up at) when I realized just how steep the parking was. My head was involuntarily leaning on Katy’s shoulder, and her shoulder was leaning on the driver’s door.  When we got our luggage out, Katy set hers down and it began rolling down the parking lot and would have gone into the oncoming traffic had it not been for her quick maneuvering (with a few “Holy Shits” thrown in for good measure).

After looking through more brochures, making phone calls to restaurants, and driving up and down the main streets for almost an hour, Katy finally convinced me to eat at “Mark Twain’s Dinette”.  I was a little skeptical only because I had my heart set on eating at Lula Belle’s (which was once a brothel until it was converted into a restaurant in the late 1960s), but once we sat down in the comfortable booth and started talking about life in general, I was happy to be there.  I was even happier when my perfectly fried catfish sandwich and hot, tasty steak fries were in my stomach.  As proof that I care enough about my sister’s opinion I will admit that she was right, and I was wrong.  (For any of you who are older siblings, you know how hard it is to express this sentiment in words.)  In retrospect, I should’ve just bought the Mark Twain Dinette coffee mug that had his silhouette on the front.

Mark Twain’s Dinette, Hannibal, MO

In the morning, I was the first to wake up early.  Not because I was super excited (which I was) but because the family next to us were loud, and their conversation was bizarre.  I tossed and turned as I heard the following riveting and meaningful conversation:

Wife:  “Why did you wear your socks to bed?”

Husband:  Mumble, mumble, mumble

Wife:  “Hurry up.  We’ll miss the free breakfast.  Let’s go.”

Husband:  Mumble, mumble, mumble

Wife: “Where ARE YOUR socks?”

Husband:  Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle

Our morning tour of Hannibal began with a short walk up a bluff that overlooks the Mississippi River.  Then, we bought our tickets and toured the Mark Twain interpretive center, a recreation of Huck Finn’s home, Twain’s boyhood home, a viewing of Becky Thatcher’s house, and the iconic fence Tom Sawyer convinced his friends to pay him money for the privilege of white washing.  It sounds silly, but it was worth the $10  (especially when that includes the Mark Twain museum and gift shop at the end of the tour).  My imagination was on fire to be walking the same streets Twain once did.  I laughed out loud as I read passages from his autobiography or novels that were artistically arranged around memorabilia or photographs of him.  I learned that Twain also had a boyhood friend, Tom Blankenship, after whom he modeled Huck Finn.  Huck is one of my favorite characters in literature because despite how uneducated, uncivilized and ill-mannered as he was, he had so much love, kindness and loyalty in him.  His free spirit, to come and go and do as he pleases (though he always does the right thing), is still something a lot of us wish we could tap into more often.  It was refreshing to know that a real life Huck Finn really did walk this earth many moons ago.

View from a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River
Recreation of Huck Finn’s house (i.e., Tom Blankenship, Clemens’ boyhood friend)
One of the vignettes inside Twain’s boyhood home
Outside view of Twain’s boyhood home
Tom Sawyer’s fence

Once the self-guided tour was over, the junk shopping began.  We came upon an antiques store on Main Street, and I’m so glad we stopped.  We found treasures galore!  Yet, the treasures weren’t ones to buy (though Katy did want a gaudy spider ring and bracelet).  Instead, we happened upon a lot of life-like (and often creepy) mannequins that were displaying the different styled and themed antiques.  Words fail me, but the photos don’t.

Creepy Mannequin
Little Spooky House on the Prairie
70s creepy Melancholy Mannequin
Katy & creepy Loni Anderson mannequin

Our last stop in Hannibal was Rockcliffe Mansion, which was built in 1898 for a wealthy logger, Cruikshank.  The drive to the mansion included not only a steep climb up a tall cliff, but hairpin turns as well.  Again, Katy was driving.   I noticed she was a bit nervous, not because she was muttering, “Holy Shit.  Holy Shit,” but because she was leaning forward in her seat, chin jutting out at a 90 degree angle, shoulders hunched, and hands gripping the wheel.  I started laughing, and she looked over at me and snapped, “Megan!  Lean forward!”  This mediocre attempt at physics made me laugh even more.  She turned and looked at me again and said, “I’m serious.”  So, I appeased her and leaned forward, laughing all the while, until we came to another hairpin turn and I leaned away from it and into her.  In the parking lot, I was making fun of her again and she tried to laugh it off while simply saying, “You know I was just joking, right?”  Yeah, right.

We joined a tour in progress and were told that the mansion was abandoned for 43 years until 2 private owners bought it a few years ago and began the restorations.  The mansion is still in some disrepair, but it was beautiful nonetheless.  Fortunately all the Tiffany stained glass windows are in excellent condition, and the chair that Twain used to sit in when he visited the family is still there.  The tour guide swore that the place has the signs of a haunting, but try as we might to capture something supernatural on camera, all we got were beautiful pictures of a bygone era (oh, and one of a creepy attic housing a dismantled, nude mannequin, but no ghosts that we could find).

Dismantled Mannequin or Fainting Ghost?

Despite this drought, the ride home was scenic and peaceful.  There is something about the Midwest that tugs at my heart strings.  Maybe it’s the rolling hills of varying fields of corn, soybeans and wheat, the trees, the beautiful, blue skies with white puffy clouds.  Or maybe it’s being in the company of my little sister who sings along to the Bee Gees and ABBA which makes me recall bygone days of our childhood when a family road trip was one of the most exciting and memorable moments of our young lives.  As I took my last photo of the trip of the the haunting and graceful windmills acting like sentinels of the farmland,  ghost-like memories of my past swirled in front of me and silently whispered of a future filled with happy road trips with my kid sister by my side.

This beautiful landscape of the Midwest