Reaching Totality

If you want to get a sense of the interconnectedness of all being, start with a two-hour flight delay on your way to see a total eclipse of the sun. This will cause you to miss your connection, and then you might meet, as my mom and I did, a string of remarkably kind and helpful people.

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My sister, Mom, and I sometime before totality in Payette, Idaho.

The nicest and most interesting ticket agent ever explained that we could not fly anywhere near the eclipse, booked us on the next flight to Reno, and proceeded to tell us all about her niece who works for the Uruguayan national opera and her own passion for photographing whales.

The man behind the hotel desk in Reno in the middle of the night was patient and pleasant, and equally so the next morning when we checked out. The cheerful woman who drove us back to the airport to get our rental car regaled us with stories of the crowds that descend on Reno heading to Burning Man.

And then there were the people of Payette, Idaho, a town I never planned to visit but am grateful to have spent a couple of days in. Not only did the person whose phone number was listed on an online event announcement return my voicemail, she called her connections in town to find out who was offering camping spots.

We ended up with a gorgeous, large, and inexpensive campsite, thanks to the Miracle League of Payette, which offers adaptive baseball for children with disabilities and graciously serves as host when the eclipse comes to town, letting people sleep in the outfield and refilling the toilet paper in the bathrooms that, miraculously, offer running water. To top it all off, at the Dutch Bros. Coffee drive through, they gave us our frozen caffeine-chocolate-sugar sludge for free because we were first timers.

Not all of the kind people were strangers. My sister generously sacrificed spending time in the mountains, which she’d been greatly looking forward to, and met us in Boise. My friend Katie didn’t bat an eye when I told her she’d have three houseguests for a couple of days. She even let us cook her eggs over easy two mornings in a row, though I’m guessing by what was left on her plate that she doesn’t like runny yolks.

Don’t get me wrong, the sun turning black is indescribably cool. I recommend seeing it if you can, but don’t miss all the people along the way who help you get there.

 

The Size of Small Things

My friend Anne wrote a book called A Friend That I Can Do For, and I was lucky enough to be in Chicago on the day of her book signing. The event taught me a thing or two.

Anne interviewed people who gather on Tuesday nights at a food pantry sponsored by All Saints’ Episcopal church in Chicago. Some come to volunteer, some come for a hot meal, and all come for a bit more—community, friendship, a surprisingly unmasked being with each other. The book tells people’s stories in their own words and has no sections, so the story of the pastor is mixed in with that of the man who sleeps in the park and knows a cop who brings him sandwiches and hot soup around 1 a.m. Whether people initially come to the pantry to serve or to be fed, it becomes clear after only a few pages that giving and receiving happen in equal measure regardless of economic status. There is a real humility on both sides that helps break down that need we all have to categorize.

The book signing directly followed the first service on Sunday, and all the profits went to the food pantry. On the way to church, Anne had wondered how the book would be received and whether anyone would buy it. As her husband and I stood in the church hall watching the line form, we kept revising our estimates as to what percentage of the congregation was buying a book. Our final estimate was nearly 100 percent. Of the 100 copies Anne brought, she might have had fifteen left, and there was still another service that morning.

A Friend That I Can Do For will probably never hit the New York Times bestseller list, but its importance to this small community outweighs, for them, that of any John Grisham or Harry Potter novel. I have a tendency to think that the things I do don’t count because they’re not big enough, not grand enough. This small book sticks its tongue out at that attitude and says, “Get a grip! Look what I did. I fed people.”

As the inscription in the book says, may we all be fed.

Note: The book also features striking photographic portraits by Charlie Simokaitis and will be available soon on Amazon.

I Like It Here

When I was growing up, the promotional video for my hometown of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, featured a bunch of guys sporting Magnum P.I. mustaches sitting in a hot tub singing, “Steamboat, Steamboat, I like it here.” Though the video has been updated several times since then, I still agree with the lyrics.

horse pulling a child on skis down a street in front of a crowd
Ski joring down Lincoln Avenue in Steamboat. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Boeke.

Steamboat recently celebrated its 100th Winter Carnival, and I attended along with my family and a number of friends from high school. Here are a few of the reasons why it was so much fun.

One: carnival buttons, which get you into all the weekend events and are often seen pinned to ski hats, still cost only $10. I bought mine off a woman on the bus who had an extra.

Two: the carnival is a liability nightmare. Put skis on small children, give them a rope to hold, tie the other end of the rope to a horse and tell the rider to go as fast as possible down a street covered in a couple feet of snow. Just for fun, add a jump in the middle. Or start with a 50 meter ski jump. Wait until dark. Add a flaming hoop and have people jump through it. Just for fun, let one of them pull a toboggan that is on fire.

Three: though the population of the town has more than doubled since I was a kid (to a whopping 12,000), everyone still puts on four layers of clothing and stands around in the snow for six hours cheering for the kids and the horses. Occasionally a kid lets go of the rope before she crosses the finish line and then has to ski half a block or so on her own. Everyone cheers the loudest for these kids, and every single kid who let go of the rope crossed the finish line even though she knew she wouldn’t win.

Four: nowhere else in the world will you see a rugby team, a refrigerator, and a running gas grill on skis. There was sauerkraut for the hotdogs.

Five: keeping the local ranchers at the center of the festivities as riders and parade participants somehow ties the different parts of the community together in a way that doesn’t happen in many places.

Six: the lighted man. Yes, he is shooting fireworks out of his backpack. Yes, it is the coolest thing ever.

Plan to buy your buttons for the 101st.

Just Marvelous

A very important event happened recently: my friend Mary Ann turned ninety. I hope I can be as full of life on my next birthday as she was on her nintieth.

Every time Mary Ann sees you she tells you, “Well I think you’re just marvelous,” and she is so clearly delighted with exactly who you are that you start to believe it a little. You also start to think maybe you could tell others the same thing.

Mary Ann collects people. She almost never walks past someone without greeting him or her, regardless of whether she knows the person or not. There must have been more than fifty people at her birthday party, young and old and most ages in between. To honor her sense of adventure, the candles on the cake were tiny sparklers.

She has survived the death of her husband and all her biological children with her good humor and ability to enjoy life intact. She appreciates beautiful things and supports the people who make them.

She is losing her sight and has had to move into an assisted living apartment, a dangerous environment for a free spirit. The first year or so, she struggled with the transition, but every time she started a conversation by complaining, she ended it by telling me why she was lucky to be there.

During a prayer at the party, a friend of hers, in trying to describe what about the birthday girl she was grateful for said, “I’m grateful for her being so Mary Ann.” And I’m grateful for such a fine example of how being deeply ourselves and enjoying the heck out of it may be the best way to spend our lives. Thank you, Mary Ann.

Creating Possibilities

I don’t often celebrate my birthday by discussing the demise of the world, but that’s where the conversation turned during one of my many birthday meals (remember that bit about eating). Most of the table agreed that, given the current political and economic situation, the future looks bleak. Those factors alone, however, do not determine our fate.

A quick scan of K-12 history books, which record largely political and economic affairs, might lead one to wonder how the human race has survived this long. I think we’re still around because the way we treat each other on the small, daily scale makes as much of a difference as those forces we generally consider global. (One political scientist’s research on disaster survival supports this idea.)

Of course politics profoundly shape people’s lives. I just finished reading Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane, his autobiography of growing up in Alexandra, South Africa, under apartheid. Arguing that sharing a meal together would undo what he and others suffered under those laws is ludicrous, but by the same token, no political or economic shift allowed him to survive. His mother’s dedication to his education and an American tennis player’s friendship and follow-through brought him to the U.S. well before the end of apartheid.

How does the removal of one young man from an oppressive regime contribute to the end of that regime? I don’t know, but perhaps one person spared from the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual starvation imposed by that system is one more person imagining something better. Perhaps that person tips a balance we can’t measure.

When Mathabane left South Africa, he could picture a world without apartheid, but he probably couldn’t describe how that change would happen. In the middle of the Cold War, who would have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall? Transformation happens regardless of our ability or inability to foresee its exact nature.

None of the people at lunch that day live as if they believe their choices and kindness don’t matter. One offers gracious and impeccable hospitality; one supports and enjoys an unusually close-knit family; one radiates enthusiasm and joy wherever she goes; they all provide compassionate leadership at work. They don’t believe these actions will save the world, but maybe their caring, and that of others like them, is as powerful as a failing economy and a divisive political situation.

I believe the communities we create on a daily basis and the generosity and good humor we offer one another create possibilities. William Stafford captures this idea in his poem “Yes,” a more eloquent closing than I could hope to write.

Yes

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out — no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

Did Someone Say Food?

If I go past entry number three without talking about food, those who know me will begin to question the honesty of this blog. I love to eat, especially other people’s food.

In his book Brain Droppings, George Carlin suggests world peace through formal introductions. I believe potlucks could accomplish the same end. Eating together is an intrinsic human behavior, like language, perhaps because of the bonds it forms. We may say all sorts of critical things about someone, but if he or she brings a fabulous spinach artichoke dip to the party, a lot can be forgiven.

I once took a long, overnight, third class train ride in China. The very accurate Chinese term for third class is “hard seat,” but they sell far more tickets than there are seats, or did in 1997, and I was sitting on the floor with a crowd of fairly cheerful Chinese people, far more cheerful than I. I spoke Chinese well enough to get around but far short of fluency and often understood my fellow passengers’ questions but didn’t have the vocabulary to answer them.

At one point during the night, the two people nearest me, better prepared than I, broke out their food and offered me some. I declined. It’s good form in China to politely refuse a couple of times and then accept, but I continued to say no. They hadn’t planned on feeding me, and I didn’t want them to spend the night hungry.

Then they asked me a question I couldn’t have answered even if I had known the words. It went something like this: What’s wrong with you Americans? You think you always have to look out for yourselves, but here we look out for each other. Needless to say, I accepted the orange soda and the sausage stick and redoubled my Chinese efforts. (A sausage stick does not belong to the sausage family. It resembles a cold hot dog wrapped in red plastic the way some cheeses are wrapped in red wax. It has the shelf life of a twinkie and tastes as delicious as it sounds.)

Closer to home, one friend in my office recently made my day when she brought me a breakfast burrito for no other reason than that she had made one for herself. Another brought me peas from her garden because she knows they’re my favorite.

Their thoughtfulness reminded me to follow suit, and I delivered banana bread to another office during a stressful time. I’m as capable of believing I don’t have enough as the next person, and sharing what I do have cures this feeling faster than anything else I know of.

We are a species capable of incredible generosity and incredible selfishness, and both are contagious. Offering and receiving food opens that generosity within us. So let’s eat!

Hitchin’ a Ride

I am the Dagwood of my vanpool. The van leaves the parking lot at 7:27. On a good day I arrive at 7:26:58. My vanmates generously find this habit amusing rather than annoying.

It seems like a small thing, the ride to work in the morning, the ride home at 5, only an hour a day, one twenty-fourth. The more I think about it, though, the more I think our van family, as we call it, is not a small thing.

“Family” rings a bit hokey in cold, hard pixels, but the title fits. Like family, we didn’t choose each other but are stuck with what we got. Also like family we enjoy each other and watch out for one another even though we do not all share religious beliefs, political convictions, or lifestyles.

When a van member’s dad died, we passed the hat for a gift, and a few of us attended the funeral. When a spouse was diagnosed with cancer, someone remembered to check in after each doctor’s appointment until she went into remission. At my novel-finishing party, some of my vanmates helped me celebrate.

We recently had a baby shower, the first van baby since I’ve been riding. “It’s so nice to get to spend lunch with everyone,” the mother-to-be said. There’s no particular reason this statement should be true of sixteen randomly selected people, but it is.

In a world as polarized by insignificant differences as ours is—and probably always has been—I find it remarkable that everyone in this group decided to bear each other goodwill. The vanpool policies do not require kindness; everyone came to this behavior on his or her own, unprompted. And yes, there are vanpool policies. Seriously.

Not to say that we are a community of saints and bodhisattvas. I’m sure I’ve said things that cause others to roll their eyes once they’re off the van. We have our periods of drama and our moments of pettiness, but we show up for each other in small, important ways.

In The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron talks about paying attention as a means of connection. On the van, we pay attention to each other’s lives, and, for me at least, it helps.

Inspired by a Hobnobber

For a while I had a quote from Anne Lamott on my refrigerator: “As we live, we begin to learn what helps in life and what hurts.” I’m afraid that many of the stories we tell each other every day hurt, not because they are necessarily untrue but because they do not contain the possibility of hope or change. I’d like to tell some stories that help. They may be purely joyful or they may contain some sadness or pain because without those we wouldn’t need help.

I believe help surrounds us in many forms: the generosity of a houseplant that continues to thrive despite my best efforts to neglect it, that last streak of pale yellow rinsed from the sky just before dark blue gives way to night’s black, the perfect gooey sweetness of a well-toasted s’more. And perhaps most importantly, community.

Communities are like weeds–they spring up all over the place in uncontrollable and unpredictable ways. Last night, I attended my first hobnob. The couple who organizes these gatherings uses the etymology to explain the evening to newcomers: “in the sense ‘drink together; drink each other’s health.'” The practice is to show up, munch on whatever arrives, and chat with whoever comes–no stressful preparation for hosts or guests.

I confess that I went mainly in search of single, straight men in their late thirties or early forties, of which I found none. I did, however, meet a number of delightful men and women, gay and straight, in their fifties and sixties. Among them was a man, we’ll call him Tom, whose son is a poet and who overheard me talking about the novel I recently finished. (Kudos to the host and hostess for creating such a welcoming atmosphere–revealing my secret novelist identity to strangers still scares me.)

Tom found me later in the evening to ask about my writing, and I gave the elevator speech description of the novel’s plot. In return, I had the privilege of hearing the love and admiration in his voice as he talked about his son. Tom is a retired physician, and his son’s life as a writer–working as adjunct faculty, going through the process of submission and rejection–is a new world for him.

I think parents may worry, and with good cause, when their children announce they want to do something as financially risky as writing, but Tom is thoroughly impressed with his son and the lifestyle he’s chosen for himself in spite of, or perhaps because of, its difference from his own. He enjoys discovering who his son is, and I imagine being in the presence of that enjoyment would raise anyone’s spirits; it certainly raised mine.

At the end of our conversation Tom said to me, “It’s nice to know there’s someone like you here.” Talk about a ray of light in the darkness. My current litany of self doubts runs something like this, “No one will ever buy this book, especially since I don’t spend enough time sending out query letters, and what’s this crazy blog thing and how can I have time to do any of it between my day job and exercising?” So knowing that someone besides my mom (sorry, Mom) thinks my existence, both as myself and as a writer, is worthwhile helps, a lot. Community at work.

Thank you, Tom, and thanks also to your son for having the courage to pursue his writing and by so doing to inspire and remind me to pursue mine.  For all of you artists and writers and everyone who feels as if the rest of the world has it all figured out while you find life rather puzzling, someone in your community, whether you’ve met this person or not, is grateful there’s someone like you here.