The Path Taken Together

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“We are now arriving in Rugby.  Rugby, North Dakota,” announced the conductor over the loudspeaker.  “For those of you who don’t already know, Rugby is the geographical center of North America.”  My two adult dinner companions and I looked at each other and smiled as the youngest of our party, six-year-old Thing2, absorbed the information.  It was the first time he had been silent since we had been seated with the Boy Scout troop leader and den mother.  

The train may not have reached the geographical center of North America at its appointed hour, but the dining car staff was a model of down-to-the-minute efficiency.  Feeding 400 people in two hours required military precision and, as in our case, sometimes seating strangers together to ensure every booth was used to its fullest potential.  

I had seen the Boy Scout troop board the train earlier in the day.  We had just reached the border of North Dakota when the uniformed flotilla of teenagers marched past us and then forgotten about them – a tribute to their chaperones’ ability to keep a dozen boys in line for hours on end – until the seating hostess put me and Thing2 together with their leaders.  

Twelve years of living in a very small town has not undone my urban-cultivated and media-nurtured policy  of never talking to strangers.  However, for Thing2′ – born and bred in the country – strangers don’t exist.  As soon as we sat down he began chattering with our companions, asking about their badges and where they were going.  

Sociability had been his hallmark for the past two days of our cross country train trip, and it kept him happily busy as he played with other children and introduced himself to friendly passengers in the observation car.  He showed neighboring passengers the pictures he was taking and cooed at babies.  He chatted with a friendly Amish woman about her dress (which he found beautiful).   And, as he got to know people from all walks of life, so did I. 

Now, as we sat with our companions from the midwest, I thought of the pundits and pollsters who love to claim that Americans are completely at odds with each other – divided by region and class.  Listening to the troop leader talk about changes in North Dakota topography and things that were high in the minds of his neighbors, I was reminded that there were probably more shared values on that train than insurmountable, opposing ideologies.

We may have had different boarding points and destinations, but we were on the same journey.

Dispatches from the Road – Down time

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Something about dropping everything seemed to open the floodgates. We’ve been on the road for almost 2 days now, and, except for posting a few photos to friends and family, my digital life has gone dark.

My creative life is exposing as page after page of my notebook is filled. It’s not just about having time either. It’s about the fresh perspective that comes from crawling out of our cave and getting to know different cross sections of the planet.

Dispatches From the Road – Romance and Better Things

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At five in the morning after a night of trying to stretch out while still fulfilling my duties as pillow-in-chief to six-year-old Thing2, the train seemed a lot less romantic than when we got on the night before.  The rosy glow was gone, but what remained was better.

We had planned an elegant evening meal in the dining car but, realizing we would need to bring our bags or leave them unattended, decided to take turns foraging at the snack bar.  In the time it took each of us to find some microwave pasta and sandwiches, Thing2 had befriended the four-year-old in the seat in front of us, scoring himself a box of crackers in the process.  

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It wasn’t late, but it was dark by the time we all finished snacking and eating, and Thing2 and his new friend had little trouble snuggling against their respective pillow-moms for a short summer’s nap.  They said goodnight to each other, and eyes were closed in a few short minutes.  It wasn’t romantic, but it was cozy. 

Great Escapes and Guilty Pleasures

I’m in the middle of my latest favorite guilty pleasure. It’s Monday. The kids are in school. I have the day off, and I’m hanging at Bob’s Diner, indulging in a veggie burrito and listening to Queen on the jukebox as I write. There’s no champagne or pate on the menu, and I’m not likely to blow through 17 rolls of film recording it, but my Monday mini-vacations are fast becoming great escapes.

Once upon a time and for a few years, the Big Guy and I were DINKs (double-income-no-kids), and we loved every minute of it. We ate out. We went to movies – at an actual movie theatre. We took our time wandering through museums, and we watched rated R videos before nine o’ clock. It was one long date.

We knew kids were in our future, and, while we looked forward to that time, we had enough friends with school age kids to know we didn’t want to take our freedom for granted. Eventually, we got tired of just enjoying other people’s kids and decided it was time to have one of our own. Before we embarked on that journey, however, we decided to take one to Europe as a last hurrah with just the two of us.

So for two weeks, we skipped around Spain and prowled the streets of Paris. Letting serendipity steer us, we eschewed schedules. Spain and Paris were already sultry in April. We consumed art in the mornings and tapas and sangria in the afternoons. We wandered gardens and sampled chocolate concoctions with our afternoon tea. It was an escape filled romance with just a bit of hedonism, fortifying our marriage with fun before a third person came into our family.

Fast-forward fourteen years, and our future is here and full. We’ve added two the family roster, and there are no waking moments when one of us isn’t busy playing chef, referee, chauffeur or tutor. Reality is everything we hoped for when we fell in love with the idea of being parents. It’s also very much what we anticipated, and, while the memory of sun and sangria still makes me smile, sipping a soda, uninterrupted by email and household eruptions is the ultimate great escape.

What’s your favorite great escape?

 

 

The Eternal Tourist

My parents weren’t hippies exactly, but I always thought that the social upheaval of the sixties was at least part of the wanderlust that infects both of them to this day. Intensely curious about cultures and socially conscious, my parents began roaming the world almost as soon as they said, “I do.” My dad finished his medical studies in Montreal. Later, the army would move them south to Texas, and while my dad served out his tour there, they became frequent visitors to Mexico and the surrounding states. Their curiosity took them on shoestring holidays to Europe and research-based stints as expats to Peru, and neither of them seemed to think parenthood was a good reason to slow down.

Riding in baby-backpacks and cars that would be condemned by modern child services agencies, we traveled across the country and out of it. We drove from the Eastern Seaboard to Central America. As we got older we started to fly to visit family in Europe. When we moved from the East Coast to the Midwest, my parents explored the heartland in earnest.

With all of that traveling and moving, it was inevitable that my sister and I would become infected with that same wanderlust that still takes my parents to the other side of the globe. I have fed the infection with multiple moves and travels of my own. And, while I am always eternally grateful to my parents for this affliction (I hope to pass it on to my kids someday) and these experiences, I think there was an unintended side effect.

When we moved to Peru, we knew we were visitors. Even when we learned the language, we spoke as foreigners and we were tourists as often as my Dad’s work schedule permitted. When we came home to the states the second time, though, I still felt a little like a visitor. We moved to the Midwest, and I felt even more like a visitor. We continued to travel, and I found I was happy visiting and observing and absorbing.

With one or two exceptions, I have loved most of the places we and I have visited and lived in, but looking back I realize I have spent most of my life feeling like a visitor. Even now, comfortably ensconced in the mountains of Vermont, I still wonder if we’ll be here for the long haul. I wonder what it would be like to live in Vancouver or Iceland or Italy – and if we will find out. There is always a sense of not completely belonging. For a long time, I lived as a witness, and that sense used to make me wonder if writers (as I wanted to be even then) or artists were supposed to be witnesses rather than full participants.

This question bothered me for years. After all, some of the greatest writers have been intense participants in the game of life.  One of my favorite exchanges in any movie was between Private Epstein and Jerome in Neil Simon’s Biloxi blues touches on this, and I think Simon was speaking to all artists when Private Epstein tells Jerome, “You have to take sides. You have to fight the good fight… Any fight. Until you do, you’ll never be a writer.”  It was a commentary that nagged at me for a while.

That was before the Big Guy came into my life.  His presence fed and nourished my wanderlust along with my heart, but I knew that, deep-down, I was still just a visitor in the places we lived. I was still an observer.

Then Thing1 came into our life, etching our family circle in stone. Thing1 was born on the road (we were living in Germany at the time), and at the time the Big Guy and I were long-term visitors together. But, thrown together on the endless adventure of parenthood, neither of us could remain casual observers – whether or not we would have wanted to be.

With the Big Guy’s help, Thing1 (and later Thing2) yanked me off the sidelines of life. I still wonder if I’ll ever belong to a place, but now I belong to a group of our own making.  Over the years it’s pull has grown stronger than any sense of place I’ve had, and because of it, I’m finding that Private Epstein was right. Fighting the good fight of growing our family – regardless of the theatre – has opened the door to becoming a real writer.