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. 

What Price Joy?

Today is my birthday. As we do, I attempted to start celebrating my birthday weekend on Friday night, when Eric and I went to Marie Callender’s for a fancy dinner of buffalo chicken sliders and Happy Hour pepperoni pizza. A good time was had by all. 

We got home and took the dogs out for their evening walk and, long story short, Millie got stung by a bee. Actually, I’m pretty sure she got stung by a bee and then she ate it. All of this is information we have pieced together in retrospect. 

Before I go further, let me say, Millie is fine. As I type this, she is underneath the bed, chewing on her toenails. 

Anyway, it took us a few minutes to figure out what had happened. One minute on her walk she was fine, then she was chewing on something, then she seemed disoriented and couldn’t walk well. When we got inside the apartment, she threw up and then I was pretty sure she’d been stung by a bee. We called our vet, they were closing and they directed us to a 24 hour clinic. 

200 dollars and two hours later, we were at CVS, trolling the aisles, Millie happily wagging her tail as her fathers searched for Benadryl tablets.  

I guess it’s a little indelicate to talk about money, but I wasn’t super excited about spending that much money on my dog. Probably, we could have gone to CVS when it first happened and bought the Benadryl and probably she would have been fine.

As we were hurriedly leaving the apartment, a shaken Millie in my arms, unsure of what lay ahead, with as much victimized passive aggression as you can imagine, I muttered, “Happy Birthday.” And then Eric said, “What?” And I tersely said, “Nothing!”

I fretted all the way down Beverly as Eric drove and Millie burrowed her snout into a blanket and my hands trying to alleviate an itch that had developed from the bee sting. 

But like I said, she’s okay. They gave her a couple of shots, we had a fun little visit to CVS, and then we took her home. 

Update, Millie is no longer under the bed. She is now on top of the bed, inches from me, licking the sheets. 

Anyway, when we got home, Brokeback Mountain was on tv. That’s a fun movie. I felt like maybe I’d had enough sadness for one day, so I went in the other room and read a book. Ricky snuggled next to me. After a time, Millie and Eric came to bed too. 

And then this morning came, and I woke up next to Eric, Ricky between us, Millie sprawled at my feet, all of us in our assigned positions. I checked to make sure Millie was okay. She was. And, I don’t know, either you get it or you don’t, but I was so happy this morning. My little family, we had weathered another challenge, and we lived to tell, or bark, the tale (or tail). 

Update: Millie is now rooting around underneath the duvet cover, trying to settle in for the night. Actually, she just came out and rested her head on Eric’s legs. I took a picture that I’m going to use for this blog post. And now she’s licking sheets again. 

It’s crazy when you think about it, how something as mundane as a licky dog, or a morning cuddle, can bring you so much joy. I am 49 now, today, and I have gained some sense of what moments in life hold the most value.

Now she’s giving me a kiss. 

Good night, happy birthday.

Running to Stand Still

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Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of listening to my friend Richard sing and play guitar to songs from U2’s Joshua Tree album.  I had not heard much of Joshua Tree in the years since I wore my cassette tape of it out back when I was in Bible college.  Throughout the evening, Richard had me awash in college memories.  I was struck by how many of my memories included going long distances on open roads, whether it was for weekend choir or preaching trips or visits home to see my parents or adventures in the hometowns of my college friends.  And Joshua Tree was one of a handful of albums/cassettes that provided a soundtrack for much of those years.  So, if you are reading this, Richard, thanks for taking me a sentimental journey that night.

After the concert, but before I even got in my car to drive home, I downloaded Joshua Tree so I could have it again. It’s such a great album and yet, in the last two weeks, one song has bubbled in me more than all the other tracks.  As I drive around LA, or walk the dogs, or swim, I find myself humming or singing,

Ha la la la de day
Ha la la la de day
Ha la la de day.

Maybe you know it, maybe you don’t but it’s the refrain to as song called Running to Stand Still.  It starts,

And so she woke up
Woke up from where she was
Lying still
Said I gotta do something
About where we’re going

It’s a sad song, a song about love not quite going right, maybe even about life not quite going right.  It’s a dirge, a lament.  Even before Tuesday, it had once again become a soundtrack, a part of me.

Obviously, much has been written about Tuesday, all of it on Facebook.  Well, most of it on Facebook.  We’ve certainly had the opportunity to air all of our opinions about this election and the aftermath.  If we thought it was divisive before and we thought it would go away after the election, we misjudged that as grandly as many misjudged the outcome of the election itself.

I voted for Hillary Clinton.  I can’t imagine anyone being shocked by that admission.  I don’t love her in the way some of my friends do, but I did feel that with the options presented, she was my, our, best hope.  I will also admit to being a big Obama fan, too.  I would happily sign up for four more year of him and Michelle.  Yes, I know that not everyone feels the same way.

Also, for the last week, I was working on a written piece that I hoped would be a part of a storytelling show.  I recounted one of the worst things that ever happened to me, maybe the very worst, and the show’s director asked for rewrites that took me further and further from a workable piece.  Have you ever written paragraph after paragraph and with each sentence found yourself drifting completely away from whatever it is you wanted to say when you started writing? When this person told me that I would not be asked to participate, it was a crushing blow.  Are you ok, they asked.  No, not right now, but I will be.

Ha la la la de day
Ha la la la de day
Ha la la de day.

Yesterday, after not speaking to each other since pre-results Tuesday, I called my parents.  We do not talk politics much, we are not on the same page.  But I was shocked to find out just how truly gleeful my Dad was about Trump’s victory.  I tried to explain that I was worried about my safety and my civil rights, but he was more interested in telling me the ways Obama failed these last eight years and that Hillary should be in jail.  It got heated and then it cooled.  My Dad said that with Tump being president, I have probably never been safer.  They told me that they loved me, I told them, I know, I love you too.

I did not post much to my FB wall this week.  I made a joke about moving to Canada (how original) early on Tuesday when I still had some hope that the direction the night felt like it was headed was not going to careen in the way that it did.  The next day, I posted a picture of my dog Ricky looking super adorable at the Blessing of the Animals at my church last Sunday.  Also, on Wednesday, I posted a picture of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son, a U.S. soldier, was killed in 2004 in the Iraq war.  Mr. Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was one of the most emotional moments of the convention.  President Elect Trump made fun of the family and conjectured that Mrs. Khan, who stood silently by her husband, was not allowed to speak.

Also, yesterday, someone I went to Bible college with posted a meme that said, “Protests only work if human rights have been violated.  Protesting for not getting your way is just crying.” I hesitated to comment, what good does it do, but I wrote, “I have not been protesting, so I only have a limited understanding, but I do believe there are people who fear that with Trump’s election, their human rights will be taken away. I know I fear that my human rights will be taken away. We will see what the future holds.” To which a stranger responded to me, “And what about the human rights of others being demolished right now in the protests? You are worried about nothing. The riots however are real.”

So I said,  “I am not making light of the violence that is occurring at the protests right now, but you do not need to dismiss my concerns about what the future holds.”  I did not think that was too offensive.  As you might suspect, a part of me wanted to lash out, say something cruel.  I looked at this stranger’s FB profile.  Apparently she loves her grandbabies and her state university.  I don’t really know why she felt the need to attack me, a stranger to her as much as she is to me.

You got to cry without weeping
Talk without speaking
Scream without raising your voice.

Anyway, I decided to take a break from Facebook.  If you see this, it doesn’t mean I’m on FB again, WordPress just automatically sends my blogs to Facebook when I publish them.

It’s Saturday night, this dramatic week is nearly over.  I don’t mind saying I’m glad to see it go.  I have a party I need to get to and I need to change into something cute.  (Typos and run on sentences, be damned.) Tomorrow is another day, a new week.  But tonight, I want to raise a glass and toast my friends and say that I’m sad. If you’re sad too, I get it.

Tomorrow we can leap and soar and fly, but tonight, suffer the needle chill, we are running to stand still.

Four in the Morning

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At 4:00 a.m., I wake to two big brown eyes staring at me in the dark.  “Are you okay?” I ask, then I rub my dog Millie’s ears.  She doesn’t say anything, just continues to stare.  I’ve written about her seizures before and while (knock wood) she has responded remarkably well to the medicine we have been giving her for the last several months, I’m always a little fearful when she wakes me up in the middle of the night.

She doesn’t seem particularly agitated, she just stares at me.  She really does have the prettiest eyes, even in the dark, even at 4:00 a.m.  I ask her if a treat might help her sleep.  No response, but when I get out of bed and walk into the kitchen, she and her brother Rick clamor into the living room, assuming their treat stances on the couch.

“Thank God you have the stamina to eat, Millie.” I’m kidding, but it’s a prayer too.

The three of us return to the bed, Eric trying to sleep through the commotion.  We are, none of us, quiet souls. Ricky circles twice and settles into his spot between Eric and me.  Millie sits regally, still staring at me from the foot of the bed.  I lie in bed, unsettled, alert.

I hope that Millie will settle like Ricky, but she doesn’t.  I get up, walk into the living room, turn on a lamp, grab the book I am reading.  Almost immediately, I hear someone charging into the room, onto the couch.  Millie plops herself into my lap.  Seconds later, Ricky joins us, gluing himself to my right side.

For several chapters, I read my book, a memoir, another person telling me their story.  Trying to illuminate their journey in a way that will illuminate mine.

I’m not complaining, but it’s not the easiest task, reading a book while petting two dogs at the same time.  Turning pages is a trick and sometimes, one of the dogs actually rests their head on the book. Any port in a storm.  If I pet Millie but not Rick, he glares sadly.  If Ricky moves closer, Millie tends to snarl or even snap at him.  Poor Rick.  So the best thing is just to pet them both at the same time.  Stop petting both when I have to turn the page, resume petting.

No one said life is easy.

I didn’t have to work today.  As I read my memoir, in the middle of the night, hoping to get sleepy enough to return to my slumber, it strikes me that all in all, it isn’t the worst of situations.  These (mostly) sweet puppies keeping me company, this book, my couch, my apartment, the saint in the other room, my life.

I nod off mid page, then jump.  After that happens twice, I get off the couch and return to bed.  Millie and Ricky bounce onto the bed.  Ricky circles twice then settles down.  Millie roots between the blanket and bedspread then burrows herself not far from my feet.

Relieved that Millie is now sleeping, I lie in bed, pondering my life.  I hate my job. Not every aspect of it, but enough.  I do like the people I work with and I’ve been in the work force long enough to know that counts for something.

I guess a few jobs are like this, but I sometimes marvel that my co-workers and me, we often see people at their very worst, their most unkind.  Some days it’s staggering.  I do not see people as intrinsically good anymore and there was a time that I did.  And I wonder if I will ever turn a corner and see the good in people before I see the bad.

Anyway, after some tossing and turning, I get up again and I return to my couch, return to my lamp, return to my book.  This time, only Ricky joins me.  I hope everyone reading this has at least one soul, human or otherwise, who loves them as much as Ricky loves me.

The sun has started to rise by the time I return to bed.  I sleep for a few hours, get up to give Millie her pill then sleep for an hour more.  I get up and drink my coffee, already made.  Besides making the coffee, Eric has also walked and fed the dogs.  Then I go to church.

If I were to ever write a memoir, I don’t think those hours on the couch with a book and two dogs would ever make it past the first edit.  It’s not really a story.  But maybe it is.  Maybe its the story of my life and I don’t even realize it.

 

Always

  
As I drove Highway 128 from Mendocino to Santa Rosa, towering redwoods flanked me for most of the journey. These old, gorgeous, distinguished trees were like nothing I had ever witnessed growing up in Kansas. Otherworldly, maybe even a little sinister.

I had been in Mendocino for a friend’s wedding, and now it was Sunday. More than a little hungover, I headed home. My two dogs, Lucy and Mandy, in the passenger seats, were my docile navigators.

On NPR, I discovered a Julia Sweeney audio cast, what I came to know as her one woman show, Letting Go of God. She spoke of a spiritual quest that she’d embarked upon that ultimately led to her embracing and accepting her own atheism. She talked about Biblical inconsistencies, other religions, Deepak Chopra. For some reason, probably because I was surrounded by the most majestic trees I’d ever seen, her thoughts on Jesus (cruelly? rashly?) condemning that fruitless fig tree  have stuck with me in the decade since that day. I mean, DID that fig tree really have to die?

It might sound strange, but that drive ended up being a sort of spiritual experience. I was surrounded by beauty, my two dogs curled up next to me, it was Sunday morning, and I was listening to this woman’s compelling story about her complicated relationship with faith. It made me feel less alone about my own complicated relationship with faith, and God, and Jesus.

Two Sundays ago, I joined the church that I have been attending for the last few months. Not a rash decision, it was something I had planned. On that Sunday, about 15 of us, old, young and in between, stood in front of the congregation and were introduced as new members.  I tried to stand up straight, look proud, but also humble. I wore a tie. 

That morning, when I woke up, my first thought was, do I really want to do this? Am I ready to do this? Shouldn’t I wait until I’ve become a better person or a better Christian before I join a church again? I really do cuss a lot when I’m driving. And I’m a gossip. Also, I border on self-righteousness. 

But while a part of me said, “Take the day off, gets some donuts and go to the beach.” Another, louder voice, told me to go forward. There would always be questions, weaknesses, doubts, but why not explore those worries within the parameters of church, and church’s membership.

On that Sunday, as I was sitting in the pew, in the second row, cordoned off for the new members, the minister told an anecdote about an atheist who attends our church, who after each Sunday’s service, shakes the minister’s hand and says, “I’m glad you haven’t given up on me.” I thought about that long ago drive, and the Julia Sweeney audio cast. 

As I sat there, listening to the minister’s sermon, reflecting on that memory, it hit me, that all along, even in the decades that I avoided church, felt completely detached from God, that church and God had still been a part of me. Always. 

I loved church when I was little and I loved it as a teenager in youth group and I loved it in Bible college and, certainly, in my short time as a youth minister, I loved trying to help others to love church. 

And then I left the church, and I thought I’d left it permanently.

Of course, I kind of knew that I had this fixation on church and religious themes. I still loved Amy Grant. 

Sometimes I read my old blogs. For three years now, I’ve written so much about God and Christianity and church it seems obvious, in hindsight, that it was all, always, leading up to this return. 

Is it possible to come home to somewhere you’ve missed for decades only to find that you never left at all?  That you only thought you left?

I’ll tell you what the big surprise in all of this is, it feels as if God has been saying to me, “Not only have I been here all along, but you have been here too.” And not that I even know exactly what the “here” is. 

Not that I was always faithful or always pure or always kind, maybe not that I’m even any of those things now. But God and faith and Jesus and Church are still a part of me, of who I am. Always have been, and fight it or not, always will be.