31 August 2012

the drought

The cornfields of western Iowa are bone dry. Burnt is the word I want to use as I fly past them at 75mph on I-80, but they aren't burnt: they're thirsty.

This summer's drought has turned the field brown in early August, as if ready for the harvest.

Everywhere you go in the Midwest, the word "drought" is spit from everyone's lips; perhaps the spit will green up the fields.

Around kitchen tables and over thick-handled, coffee-stained mugs at the diner smelling of hashbrowns, grease, and routine—and even in the cities with their climate-controlled malls and chain restaurants—we are all talking about the drought.

"I can't remember when it rained last."

"We had that big storm around the Fourth, but that was more wind and thunder than a good rain."

"Have you ever known it to be so hot?"

Our throats are parched, our grass is prickly, and in our dreams, gray skies pour forth—waves of raine—as if it were autumn in England and we all lived in stone cottages with fat sheep in the back pasture.

We live in a burnt and thirsty land here in the Midwest this summer, but looking out over the cornfields, it is like it's late September already. The harvest is ready, though the overall scene is wrong: the trees are still a brilliant, life-filled green. {Their roots have stretched down through the years, down through the soil and the rocks to where they can almost always find water deep in the earth.}

If it were the harvest, the trees would be oranges and golds. They would be red against the blue autumn sky—a blue so shining, you would forget the washed-out blue skies of July when the heat sucked the color from the world.

They're green now; it is too early for the harvest. With the car window down, I can hear the cicadas singing, and they, too, are a harbinger of autumn.

The world is ready early this year, even if we are all still stuck in thirst for something more from summer.

30 August 2012

a wagner matinee: thinking of willa cather in nebraska

Shostakovich's 5th Symphony is on the radio—it's Saturday night and Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion is featuring the St. Olaf Orchestra, and that's what they're playing.

Shostakovich. Just saying his name makes you sound like you're in the cultural know, as if you've taken in hundreds of concerts in hundreds of gold-edged halls from London to St. Petersburg and you can remember each of them with clarity that rivals the tone coming from the St. Olaf first-chair flute.

Shostakovich. I say it aloud in the car. I'm out on the edge of the prairie—Garrison Keillor reference there, don't know if you caught it—and heading east on I-80. I'm in Iowa but thinking of Nebraska and Willa Cather.

It must be the classical music: she wrote a short story called "A Wagner Matinee," and it's hard now for me to look at the prairie and not think of its main character—an old woman who years before gave up the music and culture and dances and high teas of Boston for a Nebraska farm and the man she loved. She returns to Boston in the story—leathery, work-worn hands, eyes that have squinted in the sun for too long, having heard no music since she left the East but splayed notes coming from an out-of-tune piano. Her nephew takes her to a Wagner concert, and it's no longer the prairie she hears and sees but the life she could've had.

The music crescendoes in the story, and I've always wanted to be sitting next to that old woman—no, more than that. Willa Cather makes you feel that you are that old woman: living and thankful for a life on the prairie that has its own richness, songs, color, and crescendoes, but at the same time, yearning {secretly, quietly} for the clash of the city, the hush of the concerts, and the beguiling knowledge that you're in the center of it all.

The concert ends. The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser are over, but Aunt Georgiana doesn't want to leave. Her nephew thinks, "I understood. For her, just outside the door of the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards; naked as a tower, the crook-backed ash seeldings where the dish-cloths hung to dry; the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up the refuse about the kitchen door."

Out on I-80, I understood, too: with Shostakovich strains filling the car and abandoned barns and windmills, cows in their pasture, and dried out fields of corn {oh, the drought} filling the landscape, I understood.

The 5th Symphony became just the right soundtrack for that moment on the road. The swelling stings matched the swell of the hills, and I thought about what gumption, what daring, it must've taken to move out to the prairie and try to make a life here, as Aunt Georgiana did in the story and as my family did generations before me.

The piece ended and the audience at A Prairie Home Companion clapped. Wild applause for the orchestra, and I pretended it was a round of applause for all those who made the prairie a home so that years later, I could drive across it on a freeway and marvel at the orderly beauty of agriculture and hard work.

28 August 2012

the air tasted of fall

On my run this morning, the air tasted of fall.

The sun rose behind me—a pinkish-orange that was so striking, I wanted to stare at it, even if you're not supposed to do that and so I ran away from it.

My shadow stretched in front of me, and I thought of where my legs had been running recently: on a bike path next to the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, on a golf course in North Platte, Nebraska, through subdivisions in Dublin, Ohio, and on a wooded trail in Rochester, New York.

Over the past two weeks, I have been everywhere on that road trip across America, and I was always on the go. Even when I was sitting in a car, I was, of course {so obvious!}, moving, and my mind was always moving, too.

Running this morning, though, away from the summer and away from the sun, I felt—ironically—everything slow down.

Not my legs, mind you. Those keep turning over, but it was my mind that stopped turning over and churning.

And I think the answer to why lies not in how early it was or how I've settled back into my routine or how when you're given a break, you always appreciate your life more.

Why did everything slow down? Because the air tasted of fall. It tasted of an expected and welcomed change, and my mind slowed down to expectantly welcome it.

It was the sharp edge in the air, the slight chill as I ran faster, that put me in mind of changing colors, falling leaves, and much later, winter nights with wine.

Hours later, it is now hot, and it seems ridiculous to have thought of winter just this morning as if it were around the corner.

But I did, and throughout the day, as the tasks and conversations picked up their pace around me, I thought of my run this morning—and slowed down.

27 August 2012

in the routine

When my alarm went off this morning at 5:15, I threw back the covers and leaped out of bed.

I practically trilled to Little Pug, "Time to head to the gym! Time for my routine life to begin again!"

She looked at me with sleep and confusion because for her, life is nothing but routine: sleep, eat, walk, play, sleep, eat, walk, play.

But the past two weeks, I have been on vacation and life was not routine. Life was:
  • driving across the country with my sister and brother-in-law—8 days and 2,600 miles
  • sleeping in a different bed every night {La Quinta in North Platte, NE: you win for comfiest bed. All the flies in the room creeped me out, but I just burrowed deeper under the covers and ignored them—and all thoughts of fly larvae in the bed}
  • eating at restaurants for pretty much every meal. I never want to look at a menu again. That is what I said when I came home, and then today was the birthday of someone in my office, so out for birthday lunch we went. Hello, menu and your plethora of choices that overwhelm at the moment. That might be symbolic in some way, but I don't want to think too deeply right now.
  • watching the beauty and diversity of our country speed by at 75 mph, but even when you're going that fast, there's plenty of time to take in the scenery and realize what a deliciously creative world we live in.

And that is a good life—for two weeks, but I am a person of routine. So much so that when we were walking back into the office after the birthday lunch today, I said to a co-worker, "All I want from life is routine."

"That sounds sad," she told me, and when I heard it out loud, it did sound rather down, rather like I'm a person who doesn't like adventure, rather like I don't want change or a challenge, ever.

All I meant was, on my way back to my desk {back to remembering what it is I do every day at this job}: I like my life. I like the schedule of my life. I like being back in my own space—in my own bed, waking up to my own alarm.

I like going to the gym, knowing I'll be greeted with a bright "Good morning!" by the guys who work the front desk. I like knowing that at least a couple of people at the gym will say, "Hey, haven't seen you around in a couple of weeks. Where have you been?"

I like cooking in my kitchen and knowing where everything is. I like walking up to my bookshelf to look for something to read before bed.

I like my routine. And I like that I have these times that break my routine so that I get the delight of settling back in.

16 August 2012

on the blog today {the great weaver migration}

I've seen this on other blogs—much more famous blogs, I should add. Blogs where the writers get asked to contribute to other blogs, and so they link to that other post by saying something like:

See today's thoughts over here on the Second Greatest Blog Ever, After Mine.


I'm writing over here today.

I could try that, but I don't think I'm famous enough. So instead, I'll say:

I'm driving across the country with my sister and her husband, and we have a blog called The Great Weaver Migration '12. {Weaver being their last name.}

We're on our way from Los Angeles to Rochester, NY {my gosh, we live in SUCH a big country}, and today we arrived in Iowa.


Where we come from.

The Great State.

And I couldn't do my "coming home to Iowa rituals" and I blame my brother-in-law for that. He's always getting in the way of my rituals.

And so I wrote about that in a post called "{missed} fields of opportunity," a title that only improves if you know what the Welcome to Iowa sign says. So you should go read that, over there on that other blog I was asked to write for because I'm so famous/because my sister set it up.

15 August 2012

another night in vegas {a poem}

Like a plague sent as punishment,
it is raining in Las Vegas.

On the Luxor, raindrops slide down
the glass pyramid,
Nile rivulets marking riches and excess
Pharaoh himself would covet.

Farther down the Strip,
an attempt at the Eiffel Tower outside
the Paris Hotel welcomes the rain—
even though it is not the gentle rain of a French spring
that slicks the cobblestone streets around
the Champs de Mars, umbrellas appearing
in one theatrical flourish:
the French joie de vivre does not
proclaim itself in neon lights and clanging cymbals.

Under the portico at Caesar's Palace,
millions take shelter.
Stand too close.
Rub bare shoulders with strangers.
And stare with a communal vacant eye
at the rain
as if it were another game they could bet on.

The Strip has flooded from the downpour:
for once, Vegas itself is overwhelmed.

A girl in a Pepto Bismol pink dress
that stops far above her knees
looks both ways on the River Strip
and not seeing Charon coming to ferry her across,
puts one gold-sandaled foot in the water,
shriek-laughs at the grime flowing around her ankle,
then flings herself across,
hoping for better luck on the other side.

12 August 2012

homecoming in the red rocks

Today I became one of those people who take pictures out plane windows.

I've made the flight from Chicago to Las Vegas three times now in the past year {and by this time next month, I will have made it four times}, and every time, I've looked down at the red rocks and desert below me and thought: I know I must've been there.

My family spent most of our vacations camping out West, perhaps because it was as different a landscape as you could get from Iowa. My parents have given me many things, but every time I come back to Utah and the desert, I am grateful one more time for their gift of travel.

They made sure we saw the world beyond the cornfields, and now seeing the red rocks feels like a homecoming. On the plane today, it felt like the great, expansive landscape below me was welcoming me with open arms.

And so I had to take a picture. It's like seeing a friend you haven't seen in a long time: you want to document the moment when some part of you you didn't know was lonely suddenly felt full again.

The desert doesn't make me feel lonely so much as aware of my own smallness. Even looking at it from 35,000 feet—high above and through the scattered wisps of clouds—it makes you realize how you take up one speck of the world and how surrounding you are other little specks trying to make the most of where they are.

These are the kinds of thoughts the desert brings me. {I never think of it as me bringing anything to the desert.} I wanted to share it with someone, and so I turned to the girl sitting next to me on the United flight.

She was watching a subtitled British show on her iPad—subtitled into Chinese. At the moment I turned to her, Stonehenge was exploding in the show and she was laughing. I thought something might've been lost in translation and decided to leave my desert thoughts in my head.

And on my camera. I took a picture of my homecoming to the red rocks and wondered if my dad, looking at this picture, would be able to tell what I was flying over. His memory for our vacations—his memory for everything—always makes me jealous.

I wanted him on that plane with me so he could lean over and say, "Right there? We were camped there when you were 7 and your sister was 9. We spent the day hiking [fill in the name of a trail I can't remember] and then the night was so clear we decided to sleep under the stars."

09 August 2012

oh, trees

This summer has been particularly hard on the trees in my neighborhood.

First, there were the men with their chainsaws, come to chop down the ash trees, although I suppose for equality's sake, I should say "the people." Women, of course, could have done this, this strategic wielding of chainsaws.

I assume it was chainsaws, but the image of them taking down the trees, chunk by chunk, with a lumberjack-type saw is, for some reason, appealing. How Paul Bunyan of them. It makes me think of forging the towns of America through the forests of untouched land—tearing down the trees one by one to build houses and then fences and then churches.

But I'm sure the city workers used chainsaws as they took away the ash trees: those trees had been infected by the emerald ash borer, and they had to be gotten rid of. They had to be sawed away.

Second, there was a storm so massive it uprooted trees, sending them sprawling into power lines and telephone lines. Their roots were exposed as they exposed all of us—so dependent on light and air conditioning and communication.

The storm's damage stopped the town for a few days, put us into a daze. How do you move a tree? How do you navigate these now-unfamiliar streets? How do you keep food cold?

And then the trees were gone—cleaned up by crews who made mulch out of all those downed trees. One group of tree workers, sitting on the curb and waiting for the mulching truck to come back to that block, told me that they made mulch to sell. Profiting off the storm and the downed trees, turning it all back into something you can spread around your professional landscaping.

My neighborhood now feels naked and treeless, even though it isn't. There are still trees, but it's the stumps of reminders of what used to be that makes me stop short and marvel at the way things change.

And how we have a way of adapting to them. Six months from now, will I remember what the street looked like when it was tree-lined? When the stump is gone, who will remember that a tree was once there?

In this frame of mind, I stumbled on a poem about just the reverse of this—about trees growing where there once was a different life. And so I'm sharing it here in celebration of trees and change.

Wendell Berry

I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.


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