Thursday, April 28, 2016

So damned lucky

 The other day, I was talking to a friend who mentioned that the way I live my life is something she didn’t even know existed. I’ve been reflecting on her words ever since because it was so striking to me. I love when people talk to me about me, and this caused me to think about the why and the how of my life as it is now.

I made a lot of blind decisions along the way. There was a lot of ridiculously dumb good luck. But I think the first thing that happened that took my feet off one path and put them onto another was my decision to live in St. Louis, and specifically in the city of St. Louis. Bixby and I rented an apartment on South Compton and I worked in the city schools and things were really tough but I started to like them that way.

Buying our house—finding a real estate agent who didn’t try to make us move to Ballwin like my aunt so very much wanted—was the next moment when the path veered from one thing to another. In some ways, from easy to hard. In other ways, though, it was a change to something much deeper.
Then when I was 25, I started to make decisions in my heart that matched my choice of zip code.

I decided I couldn't hide away--not who I was, not where I lived, not who I knew or what I did with myself and my time.

I decided that this is where I would live. I wasn't a Benedictine yet but I understood in my heart that I needed stability. I needed to be here, in this place, with these people, doing these same things.

I realized that decisions made quickly and easily, even if they resulted in incredibly hard work, were usually the right decisions.

I started to trust my heart. I started to believe in me.

I realized I could be tested and could come through. That I could do hard things after all. That I could show restraint when I needed, cross the line easily when I needed, and retreat when I needed. I realized I could be powerful, but only when I  spoke truth.

Most of all, I found I could love people, even people who had nothing to offer me in return, that I could fall in love without meaning to, that I could give more and receive more than I thought possible, just by saying yes.

I started to recognize the power of connections between people. My soul was tread upon. I learned how to put on a brave face. I learned how important it was to touch someone's hand, to grasp it and not let go.

These heart decisions and realizations happened fast, in about 3 months time. I barely had time to bask in the glow of self-realization and growth when I miscarried two months later. And realized a lot of what I'd learned was coming into play.

I was an adult. Still quite malleable, plastic, and not yet come to any sort of fruition, but I was on my way. Hard things happened and I learned to wind my way through them.

More would happen over time. I quit teaching. My parents moved to town. I would have children.

We would find lead paint and have it remediated while I wondered what would happen to us in the end. 

My sisters' friend was murdered. I helped battle drug dealers.

I became a part of several important communities. I left one.

I got chronically ill. I got (mostly) better.

I played at being a girl scout. I shot arrows. I spoke truth to power holding a baby on my hip. I woke up and fought again and again.

 I played mah jongg and taught new friends how to play with me. 

I camped. I took pictures of my church. I learned how to cook deer. I got myself grafted into a family that was different from my own in many ways.

I laughed and drank coffee. A lot of coffee. I got drunk and then sober.

My son was diagnosed with a scary language delay. I had to write a 504 plan for my daughter so she could succeed in school, while sitting across from people who were not my allies or hers, learning how to be strong and mean for someone else.

And the seizures.

I started teaching again. I had a day laborer and his son live in my house. I talked and wrote and shared and bled and breathed in this interconnectedness.

All the losses. All the goodbyes. And all the pain.

But also all the real. My life is very real and very rich in its pain and beauty. At its most difficult, I still panic a little, I still reach for the wrong things to help me cope. 

At its most beautiful, though, it is a night sky full of stars, 

it is rain on the roof while I feel my heartbeat in tune with yours, 

it is standing on a solitary mountaintop staring out at this breathtaking world, 

it is my feet in the coldest creek, reaching down for a heart-shaped rock,

 it is lyrics that make me cry at their truth, 

it is knowing that I am a part of something that will never exist again and oh, 

am I so damned lucky to be here now.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Eastern Towhee

I saw an Eastern Towhee today on the banks of a pretty little creek. A phoebe pair was there, too, worried about their nest made of moss above me, squeezed into a joist support on the bottom of a covered wooden bridge. I sat under the bridge in the sand bank in this little curve of the creek, I'm sure cramping the style of several couples who walked over the bridge and thought the same as I did: I should go down to the water, that looks pretty on this spring day.

They were right, but I had it first. I claimed it as mine and I wasn't giving it up for anyone's engagement photos or barbecued wings in styrofoam for lunch. I was going to sit and watch the birds and sift through the sand for tiny rocks to toss into the water, each creating tiny ripples in the surface of the water like they do.

Like you do. Like I do. Like we all do. We trouble the waters and then everything has to sift again to hold the new.

I saw an Eastern Towhee but he wasn't singing his song, his drink-your-tea! song. It was more like DRINK TEA. More emphatic than I remember learning this weekend, where I saw an Eastern Towhee for the first time.

This was the second Eastern Towhee. Sitting in the sand and smiling at the birds wondering at how I could make it 41 years and this is the second Eastern Towhee in as many days and none before.

How have I missed them?


I watched the Eastern Towhee cross over the water, flashing its rufous and white, and come towards me, landing on a branch nearby and then on the bank. Not close enough to touch but close enough to connect. It flew on, calling out in his insistent voice. DRINK TEA.

I could have sat there all day sifting the sand and listening to the birds and the occasional fish splash. Eventually, though, two moms and three very small children showed up and went down to the water to throw rocks, and those poor phoebes wanted desperately to get to their nest. I needed to pick up my kids at school and continue with my day, which felt oddly on pause under that bridge.

I slipped a tiny chip of a rock in my back pocket to help me remember, and then I walked across the covered bridge to the car, checking off the landmarks, the smells of old wood and new, the carved initials, the girl with the pink shoes and her boyfriend with the camera tripod. More cars arrived in the parking lot and I was glad I'd shown up when I did because it was suddenly filled with people, not towhees.

I think this could be a powerful summer, I decided as I looked out the window, biting down on my St. Benedict medal. Maybe I'll see another Eastern Towhee. Maybe I'll sit on a lot of sandy banks and sift. Maybe I'll drink tea.

This could be my summer.

It might be my turn, after all.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Just love them.

I love people.

Last night, talking with a friend about a ridiculous power struggle involving mutual acquaintances, I thought about how, in the end, what I try to do is just love people.

“The older I get, the more I meet people, the more convinced I am that we must only work on ourselves, to grow in grace. The only thing we can do about people is to love them.”--Dorothy Day

The power struggle involved is ridiculous and prideful on the part of the person in charge, and I thought, while I sat there, about how much I have ground down my edges in the past 4 years. How I really just try to meet people where they are and where I am and do my best.

Do my best to love them.

And when I find people who do that with me, I don't let go.

So I need to make it through April in the classroom without committing grave error. Not towards children, ever, but towards my coworkers because April is brutal in a school. No breaks, no days off, and then there's still May! It's beautiful outside and all I want to do is sit on my porch and listen to the Grateful Dead or Amos Lee and drink iced coffee from a jar in my bare feet while reading trashy novels or blogging. It isn't here yet. I want it but it's still so far away.

So I'm just going to try to love. Be easy. Ease back. Relax.

Soon it will be summer.

Shaw Nature Reserve

I am headed out to Shaw Nature Reserve. Alone.

Not alone. I'm headed out to Shaw Nature Reserve with a bunch of teachers I don't know to learn about birds. Or something. I am game for whatever because I love Shaw, I love the person who runs Shaw, and it is filled with only happy memories for me.

I've been taking the girl scouts there, with my coleader, for about three centuries, every spring and then later on, also every autumn.

It's a private nature reserve. It's not a state park, it's not a girl scout camp. It is sort of one of my secret places. I mean, people know about Shaw. Down 44 to Gray Summit. But because of the chance connections I have made in my life, it has become a sort of retreat house for me, even when I bring 6-14 girls with me.


I keep being so damned lucky.

And so damned happy.

I sit in houses down at Shaw with my coleader and I spill my story to her when I'm doing ridiculous things. She tells me stories of her classroom. We slowly got to know each other through so many times at girl scout camp and especially at Shaw because, frankly, you don't have to do any WORK at Shaw.

I owe Shaw Nature Reserve a lot. A lot of friendship and happiness.

And teaching girls that they can do things that seem totally outlandish to a group of urban kids. Pick up slimy things out of the wetlands. Go on a hike in the dark. Tag a butterfly.

But today I am headed to Shaw alone. I plan to do nothing but listen to experts talk about birds.

And retreat. Reflect. Recharge. Rest.

So I can get up again and do.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Nets casted.

This year has been my year of casting my nets into deep water. I thought it meant looking for a job. I really did. I thought, ok, I'll get that certification and I'll bail.

But it turns out it isn't about that. I did get that certification. I proved how smart I was, yet again. At work, though, my year has been more about casting my nets into the waters of these classes of mine and coming up with connections to students who have no connections. Casting my nets wide, with an eye towards what is coming, I can teach math more broadly and deeply. Oh, and I can write back and forth in journals with 6th graders who are just starting to cast their own nets out into the world.

And in my personal life? This winter I was Peter standing on the shore, lost and directionless and deciding to go fishing, to go back to something familiar, and yet frightening to think about just starting over.

I have gone out into deep water, beyond my normal bounds, with my bowlines tied tight, and I have cast my nets into a sea of maybe, hey, let's go out, I think I need to do something new and maybe we should do something new together.

I have drawn up more love than I can hold.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


Make a six. No, not like that. Like this.

The rabbit runs out of the hole, runs around the tree, and back down the hole.

Practice this until it is second nature. Because you never know when you will be at the bottom of a well and someone will toss you a rope.

You know, someone like Idris Elba. Or Henry Rollins.

I mean, you wouldn't want to fail them.

Bowline. Bo-lynn.

I stood there at girl scout camp fumbling with the rope in my hands. Remembering learning how to tie a reef knot back in second grade, my father's hands on mine, right over left, then under. Left over right, then under. Surgeon knots to tie quilts. Braids of three, four, eight strands. Clove hitch: make an x, then go through the x. Going through that card deck of knots at my parents' house. Each beautiful twist practiced over and over for centuries: sailors, survivalists, climbers, fishermen. Finding myself a book of more knots than I will ever know. Always more to learn.

I practiced this knot. I taught this knot. I know this knot. It is my favorite. Bowline on a bight. Spanish bowline. It is one of the four essential maritime knots, and I know them all (reef knot, clove hitch, and figure eight are the other three). I love these knots. I know what they are for. I can make them and untie them and show you how.

Tie yourself up tight, connect yourself to all you can. Give yourself a place in the world. And then turn yourself around and take a look. Those knots won't come untied. You are safe. Knots are what keep us from falling off the earth. Without the proper knot, you can't sail. But if you know how to tie one, you can go anywhere.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Right Now

An occasionally recurring post.

Right now my pre-algebra class is struggling with exponent rules, which I refer to as a big ole bowl of kale. It might be good for you but it's a terrible thing to have to eat. The struggle is real. But it's good.

Right now my desk is a crazy mess of papers to be handed back but I have a hard time handing them back because they all go straight to the recycle bin. No matter what they are.

Right now I'm playing some mental games to get through to my break next period. I need some ibuprofen and maybe go sit outside a minute and breathe because

right now I'm just kind of having a hard day and I'm going to say it.

Right now the somewhat depressed 7th grade girl comes over for help and smiles when it works out.

Right now all the darts on my magnetic dartboard are on the bullseye.

Right now I am trying not to think about the curriculum meeting I get to have on Friday and run/not run with my boss.

Right now I'm pretty chill in the building though because said boss is at a meeting off site. I can feel the relaxation. She's not a bad boss by any means. It's just an easier place sometimes.

Right now I'm glad I teach math.

Right now I need to process but I'm teaching math instead.

Right now I am thinking this venti quad latte might not be enough caffeine.

Right now it is hard not to bolt into the wild.

Right now I'm teaching math.

right now I'm teaching math.


That's all that's happening right now. And I am damned good at it. So that's enough for right now.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

State Project: Wyoming

Wyoming is an otherworldly national park. It is a ranger program that ends with the serenity prayer because, ya know, super caldera and we need to love the people we love and we need to RIGHT NOW. In fact, it was the best ranger program I ever attended. I wanted to hug the ranger afterward.

Wyoming is this sign:

And watching oh so many people forget this sign.

Wyoming is like another planet. It is places like this:

It's pretty much like how hell is often depicted, up in that corner of the state.

But Wyoming is more than that, of course. Wyoming is also a long 16 mile drive down a dirt road using directions I copied and pasted from an email weeks before, as the sun sets. Sounds promising, right? It is arriving at this place to stay the night:

And not being at all sure I can do it. I've been at the end of my physical rope before, and I can push onward. I have been at the end of my emotional rope before and I have always managed to find a new rope. But this, this was fear. Palpable fear. Bixby kept looking at me like I was out of my mind. But I don't know anything about our surroundings, I tried to articulate.

But what was really bothering me is that it was so utterly alone.

No cell coverage. No electricity. The door had a combination lock, like a realtor's box, with the key inside. We never saw a single person while we were there.

We stayed the night. Kids slept. Husband slept. I lay on one of the bunks in the front bedroom breathing silently, vigilantly listening to the nothingness.

Sometime around 3 in the morning a car drove past on the tiny rutted dirt road. What. The. Hell.

I managed to sleep sometime around dawn, knowing Bix would be up soon.

In the daylight, La Prele was just as creepy as at night. I am not cut out for isolation.

Wyoming is the terror flip side to Montana's desire.

Have I been to Wyoming? Yes. Still freaking out about it.

State Project: Wisconsin

Wisconsin is the first state I lived in that wasn't Missouri. I was four when we moved to Milwaukee but we were in California by the time I started kindergarten. My memories are pretty much snow.

Wisconsin, though, is a wedding. A wedding in which I am standing on the groom's side but don't get to wear a tux, much to my utter dismay. I had to wear the itchy purple...nun's outfit? Periwinkle. Flattered no one.

Wisconsin is the best wedding reception I ever went to. Not the official one, not the tea and cake reception after the Catholic wedding upstairs where I stood on the groom's side looking like I forgot which side I was supposed to be on. That reception was more or less excruciating as all formal receptions are. And I had an ugly dress on.

But I had friends with which to mock other people. So that was something.

Wisconsin is the other wedding reception, the one that followed the tea and cake. The one when I'm out of the ridiculous dress and back into jeans and a t-shirt. The one that happened in a park? Campus? Something. It was 4th of July weekend, I had some denim blankets, and we parked ourselves down. Along with all the cool kids from the wedding. Mother of the bride goes home, cousins and their plus ones go home, and the friends remain.

Wisconsin is getting pretty drunk at the cool kids reception. Lying on the denim looking up at the clouds. Watching Bixby play a game titled Hunkerhausen with friends of friends--most of the cool kids are not college friends of the groom, but rather members of the SCA. Being a member of the SCA means you are no longer in the closet about pretty much any part of your life. If you have created a medieval character and there are people out there who only know you by that name, and you have all the medieval skills and talents and clothes and weapons to match, I mean, there's nothing left to hide.

Wisconsin...there was a brief time between the high school boy and Bixby, there was a moment when I was living that Edna St. Vincent Millay poem: I will be the gladdest thing under the sun, I will touch all the flowers and not pick one....and when the lights begin to show up from the town, I will mark which must be mine and then start down. I was a bit fluid. Whoever asked me out first from a list of about 3 boys, I was going to date him. In this specific rendition of reality, that boy was Bixby. But the groom was on that list. Most likely, I would have dated him quickly and moved on. Because I was not going to create a medieval character to live in for half my life. But for a moment, finding out he was getting married was like being told no.

Wisconsin is laughing. Pretty sure I dragged my sister Bevin on this trip. And my old college friend Dez and one of my former roommates. And other SCA friends and Bixby and it was just as perfect as it could be.

Wisconsin is eating spam that someone sticks out to me and says, "want spam?" Wisconsin is wishing there was more beer. Wisconsin is finding hard cider. Wisconsin is kicking back and talking and talking and talking about all the things.

Wisconsin is going with the groom to his truck to get something he wants me to take back to St. Louis. And that something is quite a kiss.

Wisconsin is getting home to our little apartment on South Compton and not regretting anything about any of the everything.

Have I been to Wisconsin? Yes.

Monday, April 11, 2016

State Project: West Virginia

I read Shiloh when I did my apprentice teaching, to a 4th grade class of suburban folks and farmers over in Illinois. And then I saw the movie with another class, a few years later, and it felt wrong. There was something wrong about the depiction. And I realized it: they had sanitized the family's poverty and made them essentially upper middle class folks with hunting licenses. Poverty isn't a character in that book, but it is definitely present. The movie had changed it for our own comfort.

I felt like it didn't do right by the story. Or by all the kids who would read that book and feel a connection.

How many stories get changed for our comfort? How many folks don't say what is killing them from the inside, for our comfort? How many of us watch as people pass by and don't see it? How can they not see? How can this have been going on?

West Virginia, after all, feels like every kid I didn't do right by. I can name them. But it would drive me into a self-indulgent melancholia with no method of revolt.

West Virginia darkness covers my skin
Loneliness and cold are breaking me

Have I been to West Virginia? No.

State Project: Washington

Washington is across from where we were. We were traveling, Bix and I, for our 15th anniversary. We went to Portland. It was a head-scratcher for me. Portland? But Bixby has good ideas and Portland was perfect. We had a nice time, and the last night we were there, we visited Washington. Crossed the Columbia River and had dinner in Washington. I couldn't tell you where.

We were also staying on Bixby's hotel points the whole trip, so we stayed the night in Washington to make it for real. I really was there. I didn't just cross a river and kiss the ground and claim it for my own.

But I feel a little bit ashamed to say I've been there. I've seen nothing there, I haven't walked the earth there, I haven't truly seen Washington.

I have been to Oregon. I have hiked there. I have been to California. I have hiked there. It isn't the only thing that means I have been there, of course, although...there are few states I have on my "yes" list that don't also involve a hike, interestingly enough. Iowa. Haven't hiked there. So there's one. And I feel like I've been to Iowa.

But I feel a little sneaky about Washington. All I've done is eat a meal with my husband and sleep in a hotel room. I'm cheating it. I should try again.

Have I been to Washington? Technically yes.

State Project: Virginia

Virginia is looking at a map and thinking about planning a trip to Shenandoah National Park. It's our thing, of course. Started ruminating about it because we had friends nearby and thought maybe we could do both. We could go camp and walk part of the AT, which is one of the things I kind of really like, and then stop by and say hello.

It never happened. Everything changed.

Virginia feels like plans that change or fall through.

It's like when I was pregnant the first time. We didn't have a girl name yet, but we knew if we had a boy, he would be Raphael. And if later we had a second boy, he would be Gabriel. We were young.

That pregnancy ended in miscarriage, and when I got pregnant again, I knew again, Raphael. We debated girl names, but Raphael was the boy name. And then I had a girl.

So Brooklyn was not Raphael. When I got pregnant with London, we kept the name choice. But London was not Raphael.

I got pregnant with Niles.

It felt like I'd already had Raphael. Been there, done that. So he was Niles.

That's how I feel about Virginia. I had these plans to go, to visit and be friends and do something to show that.

And now it feels like I've already been there, done that. And frankly I like Tennessee and Montana and Texas and California way more than to try that again. I have other new things to try and old things I love to visit again.

Sorry, Virginia.

But not really.

Have I been to Virginia? No.

State Project: Vermont

My friend Trisha goes to Vermont each year and stays near a town that is right near where my blog friend Indigo Bunting lives (and Lali as well).

For a long time Trisha would say, "Sally, you would love Vermont," and then goes on to describe some hardscrabble hippie thing that is just. like. me. And she's right. I would love Vermont.

The tenor of this conversation has changed over the years. It has gone from, "we should go/you should go/you would love Vermont" to something more hesitant.

"I'm afraid that if you went to Vermont," she admitted, "that you would never come home."

I laugh, but she is probably correct. I think there is probably something very Vermont about me. I didn't see it, but as I hear it told to me again and again, I think I can believe it after all.

It feels a little bit like Passover when I think about it.

Next year in Vermont. Next year in Vermont. Next year in Vermont.

Have I been to Vermont? No, but someday when I'm strong enough to know I'll come back, I'm going to go.

State Project: Utah

Have I been to Utah? Yes.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

State Project: Texas

This will be a long post.

Texas is a rebirth. Texas is deciding that I am going to be from here and that's right, you're not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway.

Texas is a biker ice house where Jason and I duck in when his jeep breaks down and then both of us taking a step back because wait, we are going to get hurt here. We are going to get raped and killed here. But no. The skinny lady with the hair wider than her shoulders asks us, him in baseball pants and me in a uniform skirt, if she can help us. And she does.

Texas is a pond outside a friend's house and how on earth did we all wind up without our clothes on.

It is a narrow two lane unpainted road, often with standing water, as my route to school every day.

It is quitting my first job after one night.

It is my sister getting bit by a dog and holding her in the front seat of the car as my father runs red lights to get to the hospital. We never ever went to the hospital. I pretty much figured she was going to die. I'm only kind of kidding.

Texas is prom and first real boyfriends and several fake ones. Texas is having to call my dad for permission for the barber to cut off all my hair when I'm 17.

Texas is being too smart for my own good and knowing it. And flaunting it. It is being my high school's first and only National Merit Scholar. I know because it doesn't exist anymore.

Texas is like that. Everything is new. Hurricanes and black mold wipe it all out over time. It is constantly churning. Obliterating.

Texas is a rodeo. It is a train to Galveston. It is a sunburn that blisters. It is piercing my own ear. Twice. With a safety pin.

Texas is making friends with adults for the first time. And friends with people who don't speak my language in their homes. Or have my skin color. Or my gender. Or my socioeconomic class. Texas is about a level playing field.

Texas is a retreat outside San Antonio where a group of us gets lost in a snipe hunt gone wrong and then Joe has to hit Matt. Texas is so many red ant bites you have scars around the tops of your ankles after the retreat.

Texas is sitting bitch in a truck between him and his girlfriend and trying to figure out how to change this fact. And not really changing it, but on the way back, it's just the two of us because she's mad at him because, see above, snipe hunt.

Texas is learning about bad men. Not evil men. Just men who aren't very good at being men. Texas is learning what I want in a partner. And it ain't that.

Texas is riding in so many trucks with boys. And driving a 15 passenger van up over a sidewalk to get away from bad men on yet another retreat. Texas is dancing with a boy at a bar to a song about drinking yourself to death. While on retreat. Texas is getting felt up on retreat. Perhaps Texas is bad at retreats.

Texas is saying goodbye at graduation and seriously never seeing any of them ever again. Not even him.

Texas is a summer job at Wal*Mart and my father's advice ringing in my ears: life looks better through a classroom window than from behind a lathe.

Texas is a bus trip with people I hardly know, going to a conference so far away. It is stopping at a truck stop in Amarillo and being jerks.

Texas is many, many Dairy Queens. And Whataburgers. And Waffle Houses. And Steve Earl's song Telephone Road.

Texas is walking down the beach on Galveston Island and down in Freeport. It is the dirtiest ocean you've ever been to and it's mine. Texas is a day after a storm and so many shark eye moonsnails.

Texas is a bag of sourballs and a fatherless boy and truths spoken when we are too young to handle them. Tangerine sourballs. I can still feel the pain in the corner of my mouth when I think about it.

Texas is a 1974 Triumph Spitfire driven down 288 to the theme song of "The Prisoner".

Texas is all my speeding tickets.

Texas is buying a german army coat at an army surplus store on Galveston when I realize I'm going to stay in St. Louis after all. 

Texas is belonging to something just by opting in. Texas doesn't have unwritten rules to break. Texas don't care. Texas wants you to sit at the table.

Texas is voting on the theme from the "Jeffersons" for our high school class song and being vetoed. It is being valedictorian and not being allowed to say the speech at graduation. It is playing soccer on the boys team. It is about not fitting the mold, but not getting killed for it either. It is learning to love being the underdog. Even though it often doesn't work out.

Texas is being told by the high school principal that I do not have a magnanimous heart. It is telling him where he can stick that magnanimous heart.

Texas is having school colors of shit brown and white and liking it anyway.

Texas is being a witness to a crime. It is watching a group of men in the middle of the night dump a body in a ditch and having a sheriff blow it off.

It is the first time I spoke truth to power. And got an eraser thrown at me by a teacher from across the classroom.

Texas is a Saturday detention for skipping French III. And being glad about it.

Texas is getting home well after curfew and it is still above 90 degrees in the middle of the night. It is sneaking into and out of the house. It is a fight at my brother's graduation party that resulted in the cops being called.

Texas is coming home and sleeping on my parents' couch for a summer while I figure out what the hell I'm going to do next.

Texas is realizing I'm not as brave as I'd like to think, but also not as cold-hearted as everyone else seems to like to think.

Texas is digging a grave for a german shepherd and getting chinaberry tree droppings all over me. It is catching this combination of sweat and dirt on my skin that I can't wait to scrub off, that smells like my father's family, realizing that I cannot fight genetics, as hard as I try, so perhaps I'd best embrace them.

Texas is lying on the back of my car in his driveway, staring up at the orange sky of Pasadena, and waiting for the owl to silently fly over. Like it did every night we waited for it.

Texas is saying yes at a barbecue joint and saying no in my parents' driveway. Texas is walking away forever from something that isn't good for me, even if it's been fun.

Texas is visiting my brother and his girlfriend and their new baby, with my own baby, and then having mine get croup while I'm visiting and then spend a day in a Spanish-speaking clinic where they think I'm there to get her ear tag removed. Muy linda, they kept saying. Yes, I know she's pretty. But she can't breathe.

Texas is that same brother playing me Robert Earl Keen songs. It is my realization that I am crowding the fuck out of him. It is deciding that I have to be easy. And it is visiting him again many years later and everyone is easy.

Texas is a good place to be from. I'm not from there, or anywhere at all. But that's ok. Texas will graft me in.

I love Texas. I can't even help it. It's like the state version of my brother with all his stories and laughter and nonsense and politics and jalapeno recipes. It is big and noisy and ADHD and feels just right when I need it.

Have I been to Texas? Baby, I'm still there in my head some days.

State Project: Tennessee

I first encountered Tennessee as a drive-through on my way to other places (to and from Georgia and St. Louis for my great-grandmother's funeral with my Uncle Kelly snoring in the station wagon next to me). Back then Tennessee didn't mean much. Same as any other place with gas stations and rest stops.

Then we went to Tennessee, eight years ago. Tennessee is beautiful. I love Tennessee. It is waterfalls and history and so many worn down places. It is learning that hiking is therapeutic for what ails me.

(My two little gnomes on the Trillium Gap Trail)

Tennessee, later, is a trip with the girl scouts. Five women, five girls, five days in July. It is falling out of a boat into the Pigeon River and laughing as the guide yanked me back up. It is being in awe of Gatlinburg and how it is "just like Sally said it would be". It is creepy little cemeteries and barred owls' mating calls in the middle of the night that sound like possessed monkeys come to murder us.

It is wading into Cosby Creek after conquering Mt. Cammerer, dunking my head in the icy water and feeling the exhaustion, the utter beautiful exhaustion. My brain empty and that is my favorite.

Tennessee is lived in. Comfortable. Wabi-sabi.

If they knew what wabi-sabi was.

And in that way, Tennessee is a lot like me. Like my house. Like my life. Broken in jeans and broken in personality and moments of beauty surrounded by a lot of hiking to get there.

It's what I'm becoming, Tennessee, if I just let go and let it happen. Let the crows feet crinkle and put on the hoodie sweatshirt and try to find a via media, a middle way, between conforming to what I should be and losing myself in what I could be. Tennessee feels right.

I'm not too hard persuaded. I will probably be Tennessee in the end. And Tennessee is perfect.

Have I been to Tennessee? Yes.

State Project: South Dakota

South Dakota is a boomtown. It is right angles all over, roads and counties and edges. South Dakota is an endless highway of signs for Mt. Rushmore and Wall Drug and getting slap-happy as we drive across it, forever west, threatening our children with a trip to Wall Drug if they don't behave.

South Dakota is the Badlands. Aptly named national park.

South Dakota is cold morning by a lake and hot afternoon in a place where, if I let it, it would make me lose my mind. A bewildering blind alley overpowering the unaware.

South Dakota could crumble under your feet. South Dakota is a facade. It is danger hidden in the featureless folds of the prairie.

South Dakota is getting in the truck afterwards, eating olives out of the jar and looking out at the sunset get enveloped by a thunderstorm.
South Dakota, it's grim.

Have I been to South Dakota? Yep.

State Project: South Carolina

South Carolina feels softer, more genteel than North Carolina. Little triangle state overshadowed on the map by its northern sister, wedged in next to Georgia.

South Carolina brings up the words barrier islands for me. I'm a barrier island sometimes. Standing between someone who needs a champion and the person or situation they need defending from. Waves rush up against me and I break them before they hit the mainland. I can feel my fists go up.

South Carolina is the south, too, and that always makes me panic a little bit inside. I can't land Georgia's sins on South Carolina's back, but it's hard to separate them.

There is nothing southern about me. There is plenty Texan, but south? No. And I can feel my fists go up.

I can't. There's a whole section of the country I can't make eye contact with across the table. South Carolina stands behind Georgia, cutting his meat.

Have I been to South Carolina? Hoo boy no. Fists.

State Project: Rhode Island

Rhode Island is a vague idea of a tiny place far away that I can't put any thoughts into. And then Miguel announced he was going to Brown for grad school.

Rhode Island suddenly had context. It was the new home to my Venezuelan friend. My manic, exhausting, demanding, awesome Venezuelan.

Miguel for so long was a punch line. He was that short, manic, and exhausting. He was moody and hard to read and laughed when I least expected it to be funny.

He was part of a group we called, at least for a time, the Blake 7. Because Blake and there were seven. Yeah, I was kind of a ringleader.

Our "two movies a week and a roleplaying game and dinner and all weekend togetherness" eroded over time. Because it had to.

The last straw was Miguel moving to Rhode Island. Our college years were over.

We were still friends, some of us, for some of the time. Our Euler diagrams shrank and multiplied. We were friends with this person in this context, that person in that. Not a group anymore.

But as I age, I realize group doesn't work as well as it feels like it should. Too many personalities for consensus. We are each working hard to build consensus in our own relationships to have energy to do that in a group of 7 or 9 people. It is doomed from the beginning. But that doesn't mean it isn't fun while it lasts.

Now our Eulers cross here and there.

After Brown, Miguel was deported. Caught up in the sweep of expired student visas. But his sister was a citizen, and now he lives here again, legit, with his wife and family, in the midatlantic.

His emails are still intense and exhausting. But worn down around the edges in an attractive way that I think Rhode Island must be as well, venerable stone buildings covered in ivy. He's an old friend from Venezuela now. Who introduced my kids to Studio Ghibli films. And occasionally sleeps on my couch when he comes through town.

Have I been to Rhode Island? No.

State Project: Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is a history lesson about Ben Franklin and so boring.

It is another business trip with Bixby on the other end of the phone describing a place I've never been.

It is realizing that even with moving every two years cross country, that our chosen professions meant that he was going to overtake my state totals. My one advantage disappears. Ah well.

Have I been to Pennsylvania? No.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

State Project: Oregon

I'm not sure when I became aware of Oregon. It was several years ago. It might have been via my 26 Days of Advent blog. But suddenly I had a friend in Oregon. I love the internet.

Oregon is Bixby turning to me about 5 years ago and saying, "I want to surprise you but I know you don't like surprises and so I thought instead I would tell you my plan and then you can help me." Because he's met me. And then we were planning a trip to Oregon.

Oregon is the best bookstore in the country.

Oregon is deciding, sure, we can walk up to the top of that waterfall. And to the bottom of that crater. And back to the top.

Oregon is seeing a starfish in the wild for the first time.

It is sharing a meal with someone the internet brought into my life.

Oregon is my kind of place. But I knew I didn't belong there. My home is where people decided they'd moved far enough. Oregon is as far as you can go without building a boat and continuing into oblivion. Oregon is where people stopped because they had to.

Have I been to Oregon? Yes.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

State Project: Oklahoma

Oklahoma is a rental house in Broken Arrow. It is a grade school classroom in a portable building with cyclone fencing on the windows. Oklahoma is a seesaw and learning how to ride.

Oklahoma is being called home early from a friend's house and getting home to find my father has managed to cut open his own knee with an ax.

Oklahoma is half of first grade, the only half I ever did, before moving to St. Louis and starting 2nd grade in January.

Oklahoma is the first time, on the way either to or from college, that I stayed in a hotel all by myself.

Oklahoma especially, though, is a trip to the Ouachita Mountains for a little family reunion. My brother and his family, my sisters and one boyfriend, me and Bix and our kids. Oklahoma is finding a compromise so everyone has something to do, and do it with someone else.

It is a game of Mexican Train Dominoes during which my brother took his teeth out.

It is a hike in solitude.

It is a perfect evening around a huge table.

It is also mourning for the uncle who died days before we set out. It is cigars and whiskey on the porch.

It is the most comfortable time I'd had with my whole family in years. We were all just easy with each other in a way that can never happen when we are each other's guests. Going together to someplace new was key to building adult relationships.

 We will go back to Oklahoma.

State Project: Ohio

Ohio is being a plus-one for a wedding I don't care about. Bix is in the wedding and we've been married a year or two. Ohio is being able to ask, "Toledo, really?" and not have any actual reference point for that except reruns of MASH.

Ohio is oddly crowded and oddly rural.

Ohio is that wedding, at which I was socially awkward and left on my own during the whole "wedding party get on the bus and take pictures all day" traditional pause in the action.

So Ohio is an afternoon at the art museum alone.

I don't spend a lot of time alone, ever, teaching and family and neighbors and friends. An afternoon alone at an art museum makes me feel like the sort of person people look at and wonder about why on earth they would be alone at an art museum. I don't do the contemplative stroll very well, and certainly not back then. I have aged well.

Ohio is before cell phones, so no "omg i cant believe we r still taking pix" from Bixby. Just silence and oh my goodness Dale Fucking Chihuly exhibit.

Ohio was a tiny little surprise. Like a card in the mail from a friend. A one-eyed glassblower friend I'd never heard of. So that was nice.

Have I been to Ohio? Yes.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

State Project: North Dakota

North Dakota is a rectangular space holder between the midwest and Canada. I hear it is full of oil fields and rough single men working that problem.

Maybe I should visit sometime. Or. Not.

Have I been to North Dakota: No.

State Project: North Carolina

North Carolina is balanced at the end of the next switchback. I kept telling myself that as I walked further and further up the ridiculously named "Low Gap" Trail. Low gap my ass. Tennessee was killing me with switchbacks like staircases. This seemed like such a good idea. When we told the guys in the raft that we were going to try it, these men, these scruffy men who lead float trips full of girl scouts down this river every day all summer long, looked at us and told us that was quite a big bite to take.

North Carolina is at the top of the next switchback. I can do this. I can do this because I don't have a lot but I do have stamina. I persevere. If I can do 52 hours of labor with that crazy London  I can walk to North Carolina.

North Carolina wasn't at the top of the next switchback. Or the next. We kept walking, my traveling companions including Brooklyn who was smiling at me mildly as I kept saying, "no, I can go further." I can keep at it. I can keep going. I can do it. I can do this. I am more than this.

I could see the change in the light as we curved around on the last switchback. Finally the last one. I saw it but I didn't believe it. I kept my eyes on the steep rocky ground, these hiking boots that could keep their own blog steadily moving me up. This. Mountain.

And then there we were.

She sits on a big gray rock/takes off her boots and socks/not knowing what/she will do next/just starts to cry

I hike because it calms my brain. I can feel the synapses refocus and reorganize. I hike because damn it, I'm tired, I'm over 40, my brain won't leave me alone, and all I want to do most days is crawl back into bed but I won't. I won't do it. I can't do it. So I hike. And I run a little and bike. But my favorite is a hike to something amazing or hidden or beautiful.

This hike obliterated me. Because we got to North Carolina and we weren't done. Not even.

Walking the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, walking that oldest footpath, it was easier than Low Gap, but it was haunted. So many footsteps on that narrow little trail. It felt more like a pilgrimage than anything I've ever done before. The path was so narrow. How could it be so narrow?

It brought me here:

And here:

Sitting on the wrap around porch of Mt. Cammerer's fire tower, I was more myself than I had been in a dozen years or more.My brain was quiet and the wind was all there was.

And then we walked back down.

Have I been to North Carolina? Yes.

State Project: New York

New York is flying to Albany, the first time I'd flown anywhere in ten years. It is taking a trip with a friend, the first time I'd gone anywhere with anybody who wasn't my family or my husband, on a plane or otherwise, to a place where family didn't meet me at the airport, ever. New York is a bit of an adventure.

New York is a sheep and wool festival. It is a lighthouse on the Hudson. It is hanging out with people who are way more niche than I am, way more focused on their craft, way more interesting than you would think when you say the words "sheep and wool festival."

New York is buying beautiful yarn from small mills. It is watching teams of spinners and weavers go from "sheep to shawl" in the course of a day. It is deciding that I want to do things like that.

New York is knowing how to do one small thing that opens up a larger world. I know how to hold knitting needles in my hands and manipulate them to create fabric. A scarf or a pair of fingerless gloves. I know how to make a sweater, even.

New York is about skills. Learning them and demonstrating them and perfecting them.

And then standing on the shore at the start of autumn and thinking about new ones.

Have I been to New York? Yes.