mourning

We announced the new incarnation of Proximity Magazine last night. For our inaugural issue, we chose the theme, “morning.” I’ve been mulling that over for the past few weeks, wondering what I might write, were I not one of the editors. I guess you could say I’ve had morning on the mind.

 

I could use a good morning, instead of this, its homophonic twin. I do not like pity. Sometimes I choose not to share bad news, to avoid the look people get in their eyes, the down-turned corners at the mouth, the silent “I’m sorry”s. But we’re in a season of grief in our household, in our close and extended family. And after a while, it shows. We are tired. We are sad. We are going through the motions through which we must go, when all we want to do is to sit with our favorite loved ones, hold them and feed them, and remove ourselves from the rest of the spinning world for a while.

We are lucky. We don’t need to share details for good friends to see that something is wrong. And so pots of soup appear on our doorstep, and pans of apple crisp, and bags of chocolate, and bottles of wine, and homemade bread still warm in its foil. We’re not at the center of all this grief, but we love the people who are — they are the ones who deserve this kind of tending. In our heartache for them, our edges have frayed; and so we feel grateful for (and a little undeserving of) our friends’ ample kindness.

My aunt was, among many admirable things, a birder. This is a morning-person’s pursuit. It’s something I’ve always liked in theory. I don’t mind rising early — but in practice there is a problem. I hoard my mornings. I want to enjoy them in solitude, indoors, cupped in the corner of the couch with a mug of coffee and a book. Mornings can swell with potential — anything could happen. They say anticipation of something can inspire stronger feelings than the thing itself, and mornings are all about anticipating the possible. I want my mornings to last all day.

The evanescence that is so peculiar to this time of year — as the leaves pause in mid-color, the air flecked with cool — is most obvious in the mornings. By afternoon the sun is hot and bright, but in the early morning chill, you can sometimes smell the fireplace fumes left over from the night before. The air feels crisp like stationery paper; the cool blue sky feels closer to the ground, the clouds hang low over the trees, and a there is a general sense of unsettling, as we approach that tipping point into fall.

This has always been my favorite time of year. Early fall, to me, is synonymous with the start of school, and the ripe anticipation of new beginnings. And so we warm ourselves with soup and bread, made by people who love us; and we see glimpses of our own loved ones in the smallest things — a bird’s call, a painter’s brush, a snippet of song playing on the radio. And we know the leaves will fall, and the skies will darken, and the ground will freeze. But it will all come back again. And we should hope to be so blessed to see it.

food + family

Last year, because our Christmas plans involved whirlwind trips to Austin, Houston, and North Carolina, we decided to take it easy and stay put for Thanksgiving. Because it revolves around food, family and gratitude, Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday — and the prospect of Thanksgiving dinner for two didn’t quite have the feel of holiday to me.

So we brought down the serving dishes from my grandmothers and Joe’s cousin Jeanie, the china from my great-grandmother, the glasses from my brother and sister-in-law; we used recipes from Joe’s mother and set the table with linens made by mine; and, by the time we sat down to eat, we felt sufficiently surrounded by food and family:

thanksgiving dinner, 2011

This year, we’d planned to head to Greensboro, NC, to spend Christmas at Joe’s parents’ house. But thanks to an ill-timed blizzard, once again we find ourselves staying put. This time, my parents live here, and my aunt and uncle will be in town. So, though we’re staying in Madison, it doesn’t mean we’re without loved ones nearby. However, it means Joe won’t be able to celebrate Christmas back home — only the second time that’s ever happened.

So, when we had my parents over for pre-Christmas chili a couple of nights ago, we found ourselves once again using food as a proxy for family, reaching for Joe’s mother’s cornbread recipe, the perfect complement to the perfect food for a cold, ice-covered day:

It was all so good that we’d eaten almost everything before Joe thought to take a picture. Almost everything, but not quite:

snow day

The second biggest snow storm in Wisconsin history blew through town yesterday, causing us to cancel our eagerly-awaited Christmas trip to North Carolina, but giving us a surprise day of doing nothing but eating, walking the dog, and watching the snow fall (and fall and fall and fall — for more than 24 hours!).

how Joe spent his day
how I spent my day

We lost power last night around 7. The power company warned us we were among 4,000 homes without power and likely wouldn’t get it back until morning, so we hunkered down with a houseful of candles, played some music, and whipped up a pot of rosemary orzo, the only thing in our house that wouldn’t require opening the refrigerator. (Lucky for us, though, we were only without power for less than a couple of hours.)

The snow emergency lasts through Sunday morning, and though the skies were blue today, the roads are still a disastrous mix of ice and slush, so they canceled school for the second day in row — and because Joe’s office closes when the schools do, we stayed home and spent the day digging our house out of the snow drift.

post-blizzard
digging out the driveway
poor, buried front steps
our cedar tree snapped and buckled in the storm
our snow-logged back porch and chicken coop
it’s hard to believe it looked like THIS three months ago.
the snow from the porch became snow mountains
for scale, Joe amid the snow piles
I was really happy about shoveling that driveway!
four hours of shoveling later, and we’re still smiling

the truth about tumbleweeds

Tumbleweed (noun) a. A densely branched plant that breaks off near the ground after maturity and rolls about in the wind, aiding in the dispersal of seeds and spores by scattering them as it tumbles. b. A troublesome weed in central and western United States. c. A cliché of Western movies.

My friend Jim and I were sitting at his kitchen table, drinking beer and discussing the nature of home. We had each moved to Wisconsin from Montgomery, Alabama, following our spouses here—his wife, Trish, for a Ph.D. program; my husband, Joe, for a job. At the time, Wisconsin was the latest pit stop in a litany of cross-country moves, yet part of me wondered whether we’d finally found the place that would entice us to stay awhile.

I shared this with my friend Jim, but he was skeptical. “You’re either roots or a tumbleweed,” he said. “You can’t be both.”

I thought about this for a moment and shook my head. “I don’t know if that’s true,” I said.

I grew up in the Texas panhandle, in the land of tumbleweeds. They rolled down University Avenue, cartwheeled across the pavement outside the Dollar Western Wear, lodged under pickup trucks barreling down I-27. My hometown smells like crude oil and cow manure. It’s a flat, treeless place, with endless amounts of red dirt, barbed wire, and horizon.

Each month, my parents would shuttle us into the minivan and drive south, to our grandparents’ pecan farm near Big Spring. The tumbleweeds and oil derricks and cotton fields that make up the west Texas landscape were as unremarkable to me as the gray, fabric seats of our Ford Aerostar. It was the first landscape that ever felt to me like home.

I wonder if that wide horizon is to thank for the insatiable urge to find out what was on the other side. Because once I left, I didn’t stop: Boston; Washington, DC; the coast of Maine; central Alabama; and, finally, Wisconsin.

There was something addictive about it. Each place became an exercise in shedding something old and acquiring something new, a constant re-invention of place and self and identity.

And there was so much to be found. In Washington, I came to love the concrete smells and many-bodied sounds of the city, the row houses and empanada stands, the known rituals of walking up and down the Metro escalators instead of standing on them. In Maine, I fell in love with snow, with waves crashing into rock, with the fierce independence of remote, roadless communities. In Alabama, I witnessed the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, honored Rosa Parks in the days after she died, and chronicled the brave and humbling stories of civil rights legends.

“Face it,” Jim said, raising his glass in my direction, “you are a tumbleweed.”

What I learned from tumbleweeds isn’t evident in old western movies: that the destination is less important than the distance traveled, than the arc and route of getting from there to here, what you pick up and what you let go of along the way. In that sense, we’re all tumbleweeds, dispersing our seeds and charting our courses.

  ***

 A lot of people have written about home—the joy of finding it, the desire to escape it, the pain of losing it. Maya Angelou describes the “ache of home” that “lives in all of us.” To Angelou, home is something to long toward, a mythical place where one might vulnerably, peacefully be oneself.

Wendell Berry describes home as an active state, as the primary lens through which we learn about, well, everything else. “The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long,” he writes, “but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.” To understand the far-flung places, it seems we must first understand that which is right in front of us.

And, in honor of the cowboy poets of my homeplace, Andy Wilkinson reassures the weary wanderer, “When you wonder where you’re going, where you’ve been, and where you are, remember that the Wise Men followed nothing but a star…. Without the map, the road is still the road”—though elsewhere he warns, “The road that takes you cannot take you back.”

Each time we step out into the world, we have to learn these lessons all over again, for ourselves.

In all the wandering, I never stopped to consider what might be lost. It is a big place, west Texas, so vast and windswept that you sometimes feel you’re the only living thing for miles. There is a stillness there that to outsiders may feel stifling but to me has always offered room to breathe; time slows down and you can consider things. Yet when you leave a place and don’t go back, it can grow hard to claim it as your own. And so, after a while, I began to feel anchorless—a citizen of the United States, if not a particular one.

The truth about tumbleweeds is that sometimes they come to rest. They catch in barbed wire fences, in the gnarled roots of mesquite trees, in the muddy banks of the Brazos. When they land in a wet place, their branches soak up the moisture, and they loosen. Sometimes they dissolve. Sometimes they end up in a field, a whole cluster of them, and get caught in the rows of soybeans or cotton and stay there.

Against a backdrop of uncertainty—what will happen to the economy? who will lead our state? who will lead our nation?—the notion of rooting down has developed an appealing shine. This is no longer a pit stop, a temporary pause while planning other journeys. We woke up one day and realized we were home.

So this is our experiment: What do we lose when we put down roots—and what do we discover? How can we gather and disperse while we remain stationary? I am not a mystic or a deeply spiritual person, but I do believe one can experience stillness in a way that is active and inspired by a sense of seeking. Though we have decided to plant ourselves in this place, we still crane our necks to take in the horizon, the way the sun sets over the neighbor’s trees, the sound of urban wilderness at early morning light. There is an adventure and a purpose in this rooted place, and it’s our job now to find it.

originally published in ON LOST & FOUND, Spring 2012