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. 

Tom, Get Your Plane Right On Time

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A couple of weeks ago, like two seconds after I emailed my federal tax return, a thought occurred to me that I should make a quick trip to New York,  I popped an Ambien and I stayed up a little late researching flights and hotels.  Many, many times during my year, when I’m feeling blue, I tell myself, if I could just spend two days in NY, it would make everything better. And planning trips to NY are approximately 36% as exciting as being there in person.

I found a flight that sounded reasonable enough. It had my signature redeye departure and ideal midday return flight.  I juggled some things around at work and got a few days. I looked on TripAdvisor for recent reviews of the kitschy, fun and slightly scary Jane Hotel where I have stayed twice before. I fretted over money and what friends I would be able to connect with.  Would it be sad traveling to NY without Eric?  It was my city before it was his, but now, it feels like it’s our city.

I was reading a chick-lit novel at the time about a lost woman in her thirties who inherited a fancy, but broken down Central Park West luxury apartment.  And somehow, this protagonist’s lack of anchor called to my adriftness.  Maybe I could find some truth on this trip, maybe something can lead me in the direction my life is supposed to take. Whatever that is.

IMG_9876I never feel more alive than when I am walking through Central Park and along the West Side Highway and through Bergdorf and sitting at Bemelmans or Barney Greengrass or crossing Manhattan to Staten Island on that aptly named ferry. It’s bliss to me.  And then I come home and pore through my pictures, pore through the memories. I compare the lists, the places I made it to and the places I ran out of time for.  And then I compile a new list, for the next trip. Do you have any idea how many times the Cloisters has been on my LIST?  (And it doesn’t look good for it this time either.) My friends give me suggestions: Thank you Ivy for giving me THE FRICK. Thank you Joel for giving me THE TENEMENT MUSEUM. Thank you Traci for giving us the Museum of Arts and Design and by proxy, one of our favorite watering hole’s Robert on the 9th floor. Thank You Eboni for Levain.

I told my therapist that I decided to go because I’ve been depressed and the thought of planning a trip and looking forward to a trip brought me joy.  I was afraid to tell my parents, would they think I should be visiting them?  And I understand, that’s a risk we take, especially when our parents get older.  But I think about if any two people taught me to love travel, the value of travel,  it was my parents.  Even today, I see an Amtrak or a Union Station and suddenly I am 8 and my Mom and I are traveling in the middle of the night to visit my Grandma and cousins in La Junta.  I taste a pineapple, and I am 12 again, on my first visit to Hawaii, of course, with my parents.  Perhaps a part of them hesitated booking such a grand trip, the costs involved, but ultimately the yes must have been accompanied by the realization that trips mean memories. My Father’s Father joined us on that trip and my parents and I still reminisce about this one week in 1981 that packed so much life into it.  I think I remember every moment, from the confused feelings I felt for some handsome teenage backpackers in the SFO airport, to eating caviar for the first time, to nearly being taken under by the undertow in Maui, the two luaus, feeling like Bobby Brady at Pearl Harbor.  And then the 24 pineapples and many boxes of chocolate covered macadamia nuts we gave away and dined on ourselves in the weeks after our return to Kansas.

 

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I am a little Ambien-y tonight too. So if my words are slightly muddled, please forgive me.  Or maybe pop an Ambien yourself and my prose might become as magical as Pink Floyd’s The Wall.  But life is hard, I know I’m that guy that is always crying about how hard his life is.  A complainer, a victim, easily crestfallen.  But on vacation, I really do find joy.  I laugh, i have more energy.  I’m even nicer. I feel like a vibrant part of the texture of the world we live in. With the earnestness of a young bride whose colors are blush and bashful, I  go around saying things like, “I’d rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” New York is my 30 minutes of wonderful. IMG_9818

So, yes, I am going to New York in a few days.  It feels like a risk and also, like something I positively must do. These trips. we always bring something back.  Something useful, be it a mug or pastries or an understanding about the world or about ourselves.  And the older I get, travel, leaving home, seeing another part of the world, meeting old friends, remembering what made us safe when we were 8 or giddy when we were 12 or handsome when we were 26, it feels to me no longer a luxury, but rather a necessity.

We Need to Talk About Ray 

Yesterday, my friend Louie called to tell me that our mutual friend Angela had been messaging him about me. It seems Angela is worried about my recent involvement in church. I pressed Louie for details and then stopped myself. The whole thing kind of irked me and I felt the more I knew the angrier I’d get. 

“Are you worried about me?” I asked Louie. Louie said he wasn’t. And then I wondered if Louie was just saying that to placate me. I have an active, bordering on paranoid, imagination and ever since talking to Louie, I’ve had this image of every person I know, by text, email or Facebook messenger, communicating with each other with the subject line: We need to talk about Ray.

Never mind that I’m sure Angela’s intentions are pure, that she just cares about me and wants me to be happy.

When I lived in New York, one of the young men who had been in my youth group when I was a youth minister came to visit me. He was a freshman at an East Coast college. I had worried a bit about our trip. I had come out to myself and most of my NY friends knew I was gay but I had not started the process of telling the folks back home, so to speak.

In our time in New York, we didn’t talk about my sexuality. I didn’t really think he’d figured it out. But a few days after he left, I received a late night call from one of the girls, now in college,  who had been in my youth group. “Ray, I’m just going to ask you, are you gay now?” “What?” “Gary just called us and he thinks you’re gay now.” I told her that this wasn’t the way I wanted her to find out, but yes, I was gay. 

It was one of the saddest phone conversations I’ve ever had. This girl who called, even though we’re not supposed to have favorites, was one of my favorites. I felt I’d let her down, I felt I’d let the entire youth group down. Also, I was mad at Gary, I questioned his intentions for sharing this piece of information before I felt comfortable with others knowing. And if he’d been so sure, why hadn’t he asked me if I was gay while we were together in New York?

In the months after that phone call, I found that this girl gathered all in the youth group, my youth group, who attended this particular university and they all prayed for me. Presumably, they prayed for me to stop being gay. But also, I think they prayed for me that I would know God’s love, find my way, find peace and joy.

Later, when I found out about that late night prayer session, I was conflicted. One one hand, it was an example of how much they loved me, that this little group dropped everything and came together to beseech God on my behalf. On the other hand, it was also kind of like when Sandy walks into the bedroom after the Pink Ladies have been singing an entire song about her and sadly asks, “Were you talking about me, Riz?”

All day, I thought about Angela. For years, I was the source of concern (or gossip) because of my lack of faith and now I’m the source of concern because of my (perceived) return to it. And the irony is, I still don’t know what I believe. I just missed church and decided I wanted to find a church that affirms me, my people, and I found it. And I really like going.

I do know this, I know what I have to remember. Angela loves me. Louie loves me. Those kids in the youth group loved me and even Gary loved me. They all just want the best for my life. They want me to be happy and joyful and at peace. 

I could spend a day or weeks or months or years ruminating about how people are talking, worrying, and texting about me behind my back, or I can just say, “They love me. I know they love me.” And move forward.  

Life’s too short and I don’t even know if heaven exists. 

Around the Corner

  For a play that I claimed not to love, I certainly thought about The Humans for days and weeks after my trip to New York. There is a line that I’m sure I’m butchering in my memory. I’ve probably actually recreated the way the character said it. But at some point, someone said, something like, “You can go through life lonely alone or lonely with someone.” And the way I remember it, the line got a laugh and a bit of a tear. Like, either way, we are all a little lonely. I was a lonely kid, a lonely teen, a lonely adult, and now, as a middle aged man, I am still lonely. And you know, I have a partner, dogs, great friends, but I’m still, like Lenny Kosnowski, a lone wolf

Granted, I like being alone. And maybe I even like being lonely. 

After my friend and I left the play, that Friday night in NYC, we went our separate ways. Michael asked me to go to Joe Allen with him and his college friend, but I wasn’t up for it. Eric was back at the hotel. That morning, he woke up sick, so sick that it threatened to ruin the entire vacation for him.  

We really needed this vacation. Our work lives had been frustrating in the weeks before the trip. There had been health issues with one of our dogs. In a two week period, every day, something bad descended on our little home. A dog bite that became infected. A betrayal from people I thought had been our friends. Money woes. If we could have backed out without the money we spent on plane tickets, we would have.

Anyway, after the play, I took the subway down to the Lower East Side to visit my friend Jon who was bartending. The teeny restaurant  was packed with New Yorkers, young and oldish, all glamorous, enjoying their Friday night. Jon poured me a drink and let me stand off to the side of the bar. His co-workers were all gracious to me, but the whole time, I felt like I was in the way. Also, that if it weren’t for the fact that I was in the way, no one would have even noticed my presence.

I finished my drink and thanked Jon and headed out. Contemplating a bus or a subway, I opted to walk awhile. I walked north, up 1st avenue and turned left onto 6th street. I passed a building that seemed to be the architectural embodiment of what I was feeling. Old, sad, weathered, crowded in by happier buildings all around. Garbage piled in front, on top of the melting snow. Twin porch lights flanking the door way. 

Had I ever walked by this building before? I couldn’t remember, but probably I had. Probably I had passed by and not noticed. 

This time I took a picture. I googled the address hoping to uncover significant history, like maybe Eliza Hamilton died there. (She did not.) I started to Instagram the picture, playing with filters and shadows and saturation but each time, what I captured didn’t seem Instagram-worthy. 

I walked a little further north and grabbed a slice of pizza on 14th street and sat in the corner and charged my phone. After, I got on the 6 which went to Grand Central. I got out at Grand Central and walked through the terminal, then up a couple blocks back to my hotel.

The next morning, miraculously, Eric felt better. I’m glad too, because I didn’t want more nights like the lonely one I’d endured. If my favorite time to explore Manhattan solo is early weekend mornings, late weekend nights, is the worst. As I walked by every crowded bar and restaurant, gay, straight, mixed,  I expected to look through the windows and see 20-something me, standing in a corner, alone, hoping someone would come up to start a conversation. 

Sometimes it seems I spent the first half of my life trying to make friends and then the second half, trying to keep a safe distance from relationships that have asked too much of me. 

As I said, the next morning, Eric felt better, and with our friend Michael, we packed weeks, months, into our few days in New York. Roosevelt Island, Central Park, John’s Pizzeria, The Met, Gramercy Park, Eataly, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Brooklyn Bridge, Staten Island Ferry, Shake Shack, Flaming Saddles. 

Every day, I posted Instagram pictures and went through my phone’s camera roll, deleting certain shots from the trip, #latergramming others. Again and again, I would return to the picture of the loneliest building in all of the lower East Side, maybe the entire isle of Manhattan. I couldn’t bring myself to post it,  nor could I delete it either.

And maybe you get this, maybe you don’t, but every time I look at that picture now, months later, it is a source of joy, no sadness at all. Well, maybe a happy sadness. Like somehow, as if appearing magically, on a crisp January night, when everyone else was light and gay, this lonely old building saw this lonely old soul, turning a corner, lost on his way home and shined the light to guide his way.

Look Up

  For the second time in two weeks, I have found myself in a church service on a Sunday morning.  It’s hard to say how this all came about and certainly, I don’t have any idea where this new journey of sorts will lead me, but, this seeking, I guess you could call it, has been on my mind lately.

I have found an old church, a congregation that dates back to the 19th century and its current edifice has been around for nearly 100 years.  As you might expect, it is a congregation that welcomes, affirms, and condones the LGBT community.  For the month of February, the pastor’s sermons have been based on the Alice Walker novel, The Color Purple.  So, long story short, it’s very different from the churches that raised me.

  If my mind had a tendency to wander at church when I was 10 and 15 and 22, one shouldn’t be surprised to learn that my mind still wanders (and wonders) when I am at church.  I love looking up at the high, majestically high, ceilings of the sanctuary.  I think about the men who built this church.  It’s the kind of thing I think about when I visit historied, grand, ornate, towering churches.  I thought about it when I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Church of St. Mary the Virgin on my recent trip to New York.  I look at the ceilings and think how men risked, and probably sometimes lost, their lives, creating these works of art, how some probably took great pride in their efforts. This will be my legacy, they might have thought.  For others, the work might have been only a job, maybe not even a well compensated one.  I don’t know.

This morning, as I sat in my pew, occasionally looking up, I marvelled at the beauty of this church.  I thought about how its current state was the sum contribution of many people with many stories.  Some believers, some doubters, probably even some heretics.  And then I looked down, looked around me, at the other people filling the pews.  Maybe these parishioners are not all that different from the men who built this church all that time ago. Believers, doubters, heretics.  Maybe, I went so far to imagine, we all have belief, doubt and heresy in varying amounts, in all of us.

When I started this blog, a couple of years ago, I really had no idea how much I was going to talk about religion and God and Christians.  Several times, in emails and Facebook messages, people from my midwestern past have asked me what I believe about God and Jesus and Heaven and Hell.  And I usually just avoid the question because the truth is, I don’t know what I believe.

  For a long time, I thought that my questions or disbelief were a reason to keep me out of church.  Why go if you don’t believe?  But, somehow, in the last couple of months, I started wondering if maybe, those questions might have more value than I realize. And maybe a church is the best place to take one’s questions about God. Makes sense actually. 

  I don’t really know where any of this is leading.  While a part of me feels that I should know what my intentions or goals are, the louder voice tells me to just be still and listen.  So here I am, listening.  And for what feels like the first time in a little while, looking up.