Notes from Kansas, Part 2

I am once again back in Kansas, visiting my parents. My days are mostly filled with trips to Bartlesville for my Dad’s radiation, several trips to grocery stores and bakeries throughout southeast Kansas and northeast Oklahoma, and driving around Independence, with my dog, looking at old houses and buildings. My Dad is doing well, all things considered.  

I get a little bored, our entire day revolves around a 10 minute radiation session. That’s not a complaint, it’s kind of beautiful really. Ten very important and hope filled minutes. 

I like the downtime. I like taking my dog Ricky out with me for a walk or a drive. I take him to Riverside Park and we walk around the fountain. Tonight, after two days of rain, the sun had returned, with a few lingering dramatic clouds. The trees a little greener, the sky bluer, I wondered if maybe this was the most beautiful spot on earth. Had I really travelled the world in search of paradise when all this time it was yards away from me?

I’ve said it before, but I can’t believe that after dreaming, moaning, bragging during my entire childhood that I would someday leave this hick town, that I am back, in awe of its beauty. Also, charmed by peeling paint on old Victorians, haunted by houses in varying states of decay. 

When I am in New York City, another place I once called home, I walk and walk and walk every day that I am there. I try to walk down every street and avenue. I ask myself when I was last on this block? Have I ever been on this block? I’ll see a structure, something noteworthy like a 100 year old church or a miniature park or a just a bakery and wonder, did I know about this and forget or never notice it before? 

And here, in my most hometown of hometowns, I find myself doing the same thing. I drive down streets just for the sake of taking it in, recovering old memories, like the SCF lock-ins at the Nazarene church or the carnivals that blanketed the Washington school playground or that library that I spent so much time in growing up, reading about people who lived in faraway places. 

Also, though, I discover new things, like an apartment building or a miniature park or a bottling plant and wonder, did I know about this and forget or is this completely new to me? 


And while I drive, and sometimes stop and take pictures, I wonder, why am I doing this? Is this going to make me smarter? More successful? What am I gaining here? 

To be honest, I don’t know. The other day, a friend, in all kindness, commented, “Your sincere wistfulness at the past is a lovely memory of the midwest.” I had to laugh as I wondered, am I the Miss Havisham of bloggers, weeping for a time that only lives in my memory which means maybe it never existed anyway? Am I the sentimental guy buying Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel slide machine? 

From that Mad Men episode: “This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It let’s us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.”

If you’re still with me, I reckon it’s because you have a place that holds that kind of weight for you too. I know I can’t say it better than Matthew Weiner, or Jon Hamm, but this week, these drives, these discoveries, these memories, they have fortified me. 

Maybe just as all children, whether they are close to their parents or not, must eventually make peace with the people who raised them, we must all make peace with the places that raised us too. Am I the only one who sometimes blames a weakness or failure in myself on the town that raised me? That thinks, I would have had so much opportunity if I’d just been raised in New Jersey?!?! (If I am the only one, don’t tell me, let me wallow in my delusions.) 

But this place, it’s pretty special. And not just because of Miss Able and William Inge and that first lighted baseball game. Much of what I am today is because of her. And just as we carry the people we love with us in our hearts, even when separated by miles and states, we carry with us, any place that we have ever called home. And Independence, I know this now, will always be my home.


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How to Take Ambien. 

Tip #1. Don’t do Ambien every night. Once every week or two is ideal, that way, when you fall into this wizened, actualized state I am currently in, it will feel like a gift, but also, an earned gift. 

Tip #2. Drink some water, hydrate yourself.

Tip #3. Do a non dangerous household chore. No ladders. I walked my dogs and then cleaned out my freezer. It’s so orderly I could get a job as a Schwan’s ice cream man. Ambien helps us take pride in our work, even as it deters our ability to edit grammar and spelling.

Tip #4. Acknowledge what you are feeling. Today, I am sad, today, I am worried, today, I am grateful, today, I want to get in my car and drive to Kansas. 

Last week, I told my parents and Eric that I felt I needed to move closer to home, to be there for my parents. Eric and I talked about moving to Kansas City, a town steeped with the kind of history that Eric and I both love. I would not say his response was ebullient, but he said he would definitely think about it, definitely consider it. 

My parents, they simply assured me that I wouldn’t like living in Kansas OR Kansas City again. They remember the speed with which I fled my hometown. At 20, I thought there was nothing that was not only interesting to me but also representative of me. But now, nearing 50, all I dream about are home cooked meals and walks in the park and sitting by a fountain and contemplating life as the water rises into the sky and falls into the pool. Driving to doctors appointments with my parents, they are a sacred ritual, like going to church. The  reward a sticky bun from Laurel Street Bakery or a chocolate long john from Daylight Donuts. And at night, I read a library book.  Books about faraway places that at 16, I read and thought, I hope to live there someday. And now, I read and think, I’m so happy I lived there. I once said in a piece that the local library was my window to the world out there, the world beyond Kansas. All true, and now I find myself luxuriating in the memory of being that chubby teenager, behind that window, warm, wistful, emotional, dreaming. 

These big medical stories that come up in our lives, they suck. Definitely they suck, but with the grim prognoses, there comes a permission to tell those we love just how much we love them. We get to spend more time with them. We try harder to make them laugh a little. We hold each other’s hands. We hug.  These last few months, this is the closest I have ever felt to either of my parents.  My Mom probably wishes I listened better when she explains the plot lines to her Mary Higgins Clark books on tape. Some days, my Dad’s voice is stronger and clearer than others. And some days the strain of trying to get people to understand his speech probably weighs on him more, but these conversations, even still, are for me, and I suspect for them too, touchstones of our days.

In just a few days, ETD still to be determined, I will be driving back to Kansas. This time, Ricky will be my co-pilot as we cross half of the country. Millie will stay here in LA with her other Dad. I am truly excited about Roadtripping with Ricky, I just hope he doesn’t get mistaken for Guy Fieri at all the diners, drive in and dives we plan to stop at along Route 66. 

Driving long distances, I don’t know, it’s kind of like those “what did you do on earth scenes” Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep bear witness to in Defending Your Life. You hear a song or see a sign or listen to a podcast or drive by a car, and you are flooded by the big and small memories from your entire life. The things you did right, the things you did wrong. 

Tip #5. When you become very tired. Turn off the lights, climb into bed and close your eyes. You will still hold the burdens of your day, examine them, polish them. But you will find grace in knowing all decisions do not have to be made tonight. Or tomorrow night. Think about the things that excite you.

Tip #6. In the darkness, with eyes closed, plant a smile on your face. Dream happy dreams.

The Forty-Niner

On Sunday, Eric and I took a day trip to Santa Barbara. We visited the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and, while it is partially closed, we thoroughly enjoyed the pieces that are currently being exhibited. 

My favorite was a painting of a gold rush miner sitting in a small cabin, his dog nuzzling him. The young man reads a letter, and the dog stares lovingly at him. No surprise that it was my favorite. I read the placard on the wall. The artist Ernest Narjot, until yesterday unknown to me, had been a young man who was part of the California gold rush. In fact, apparently, the gold rush is what inspired him to leave his native France and go west. 


When I got home, I googled this painting in hopes of finding a crisper image. I couldn’t find one. What’s up, internet? What I did find were a few more biographical details about Ernest Narjot. How he wasn’t exactly the most successful gold rusher. And how now, many decades later, he is most known for his gold rush paintings. AND, most of his gold rush paintings were done in his later years, with a nostalgic element prominent in those works. It’s certainly here in this lovely portrait. He painted The Forty-Niner in 1881, when he was 55, a middle aged man looking back on another time. 

Time flies, I know. Seems just yesterday, I was a young man leaving my own home and traveling far away in my own hopes of striking another kind of gold. Because today is September 11, I searched my old photos to find an old picture of me with the World Trade Center in it. I found a picture from 1991, from my first visit to New York, on a trip where I fell in love with the city the second I crossed the Holland Tunnel. 

I was on a mission trip with my Bible college. I wanted more than anything to live in New York but I didn’t know if I would ever be brave enough to make such a big move. Clearly, it was a grim day, all clouds and some rain, but still to me, paradise. Less than a year after this trip, I was living in New York. There is a part of me that will always feel that the day I moved to New York is the day my life started. 

So, today, on September 11, I reflect on the great tragedy of that day, the lives lost,  the people affected in New York and Washington and Boston and everywhere else.  We say we will never forget and I hope we never will. 

But also, on a lighter note, I reflect on young Ernest Narjot who in 1849, left his own version of Kansas and moved to his own version of New York and then, eventually, created beautiful paintings that touched the hearts of wayfarers (and dog lovers) for years to come.