Friday, November 4, 2022

Our long road trip: traversing across America The Beautiful...

"There are those we come across, whom we barely know, who offer you a word, a sentence, give you a minute, a half hour, and change the course of your life."  --Victor Hugo

"Your travels should take you through the great heartland of Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. And you must get off the interstates. You must ride the side roads where the small towns are..." --David McCullough


About a month ago we dropped in to see our favorite Cardinal fan in St. Louis--89-year-old Dorothy, a widow whose husband had passed away long ago. When she opened the door to see us, she said, "I didn't think I would live long enough to see you again, but here you are back from China." We visited our old friend of almost 30 years and heard about her love of her faith, family, and baseball. So grateful we stopped by to see the woman who was everyone's grandma because we learned she passed away yesterday. 

 One of the best things about raising our kids in Mid-West America is that we could travel in any direction to discover the amazing cultures, traditions, and history of this country. Often, as parents, we would gather them for a long road trip to see family--stopping along the way-- to visit towns and places I only dreamed of seeing as a sometimes restless San Diego kid. Growing up, I longed to see Gettysburg, the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, Yellowstone, the Freedom Trail, Emily Dickinson's house, the Sequoias, or the small Icelandic immigrant hamlet my father was born in North Dakota--pretty much anywhere I could roam. My parents had taught me to love history and I wanted to connect and share with my kids through places I/we had always wanted to see. Many summers we/I crisscrossed the country with them--driving up to 8,000 miles. It sounds wild and crazy, but most of the time we loved it. 😁

Fast forward a few years, (I have been an ex-pat for about ten years--living in six countries--one of them twice) in my life, and it was time to come home after an eight-year span. The sojourning of the world was (most of the time) spectacular and eased my nomadic urge, but I did not feel I understood my own country anymore. I wanted to come home, but it was a little like Rip Van Winkle waking up to a new world. Political upheaval, inflation, and global tensions to just name a few. 

Since we could not see loved ones because of living in China for several years, we decided to venture across America and be with our children, family, and other loved ones along the way.  We are racking up the miles as we wander west to east, north to south, and then circle back. The result? Again and again, I am wonderstruck with my own country, the shores that gave me my first roots. This journey has catapulted me into not only different states but different worlds. I am constantly asking myself as I hear stories who were strangers a few moments before, "Could they be my friend?" Each time it is an unequivocal yes. 

I have met people of different races, faiths, and who have changed their gender. While some have little education, others are professors at elite universities. More than I would want to say are down on their luck. I know now because I am older and a little wiser: all of us have bruises and wounds that are invisible. Also, I more emphatically know that a little encouragement or a smile can begin to ease some suffering because someone has done that for me. Repeatedly, continuously, I have been amazed at the beauty of people--all kinds of people.

Also, on this trip, I have been teary-eyed with the wide open skies against the cornfields as a luminous amber sunset spreads across the sky in the Midwest. I forgot how beautiful they are. Some tears trickled as we gazed in wonderment at Acadia National Park's craggy shorelines with glowing, golden autumn maples in the background. Conversely, I am also worried about the great water veins of our country, the Mississippi and Colorado Rivers that are experiencing never before seen droughts--all the climate warming that is playing havoc with our world. Just like we need to be aware of others, we need to take care of our landscape, our holy spaces.

Lush and breathtaking landscapes nourish our souls. We return from beholding the splendor of places and astonishingly realize, those scenes can magically, sometimes automatically, transfer to discerning more magnificence in people. Since we have glimpsed the stunning marvel of nature, our hearts are widened. Our pulses slow down and we make more space for beauty--to not only be transfixed by terrain but be astonished at the splendor of people in unexpected places. 

In these election times, I can't help but think our politicians would benefit from not only crossing physical borders but boundaries that block new understandings of people. The truth is we don't have to travel far. We just have to trek to another part of the town we live in to expand our sometimes static perceptions. Mostly, I have decided it starts with conversing with people who don't share the same borders--to stop and understand their topography or map of the world. 

Here are a few of the people who make America better. I found myself wanting to be a little more like each of them. Some I have known for many years, and others who I only passed through their life for a few moments:

       Here is the house of Harriet Tubman where she lived at the end of her life. It is located at 180 South Street in Auburn, NY, and is an independent non-profit established by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. For about 35 years this pastor has helped to renovate the adjoining buildings and acreage, manage, coordinate, and give tours at this sight. He has a flair for drama, and his tour was like a dramatical one-man reading show--complete with voice inflections and quoting Harriet's favorite sayings. To me, he conveyed a complete commitment to unveiling and teaching about who Harriet Tubman was as a person. Her life became alive to me as we celebrate her 200th birthday this year. I am grateful for someone who saw a void that needed to be filled and poised himself to do it. 

When you meet a perfect stranger at a Kansas City farm produce auction, and then get invited to go fishing with him a few days later--having the most heavenly day. 

We were neighbors with this amazing bunch in Doha. They showed me how to be an ex-pat, and now live in NH on a six-acre farm out of town. L. runs the town, as she always does, with being on the school board and a PTO president of the middle school, plus lots of volunteering for those who need help with food, heating, and clothes. And they both teach a church religion class, all the time feeding their old wood stove to keep warm. 

Pictured is the director of the Louisa May Alcott house in Concord, MA--one of my favorite places. We were lucky that day to have her as a tour guide. For almost 50 years she has been associated with the LMA house and now directs it. We all wished we could have camped out in our sleeping bags for a week as she energetically told the stories of the Transcendental time in Concord with the Hawthornes, Emersons, Alcotts, and Thoreaus. History is life. What a repository of stories she had packed in. 

One of our favorite old places to go when we lived in the east long ago was Waterford, VT. This is Eddie's Bakery--a most congenial, happy place where the best apple cider doughnuts are made. 

Boston, MA  I am always inspired by people who raise others' children. This is what this woman did. She changed the entire trajectory of a family. 

Syracuse, NY.  I met this Cambodian woman at church who delivered a baby in a refugee camp I worked at in Thailand 41 years ago. So wonderful to see her come to a new country and flourish. I loved hearing her story. 

Port Huron, MI. As we walked along the shore of Lake Heron, this woman struck up a conversation with us about how wonderful it is to walk beside the water and collect rocks and fossils. She even gave one to Elias. Her vivaciousness and enthusiasm for the world were infectious. We were better because she talked to us.  

                                          A family hike in Ithaca, NY. Love these people...

                            Bangor, Maine   This family was with us in Tianjin, China during Covid. They lived in China for 25 years. We used to pass dumplings and bread to one another in Covid times when we were in quarantine through the fence. As a trained school counselor, she sat down and counseled me on how to adjust back to the US again since they came back a year earlier than us. 


                    Cooperstown, NY haunted tour at The Farm Museum. We did not have tickets for this highly anticipated event, and they still let us come in. 


                         Boston, MA  Long ago in NYC Deb was our neighbor. She helped me deliver three of my children and helped us when Joseph was mugged. 

                  When in St. Louis during baseball season, always go to a Cardinals game with CB. Long ago Joseph delivered her eighteen-year-old triplets. Her tanacity as a single parent of triplets always inspires me. 

         Elias's counselar who has saved some of his paintings since he was 12 years old. When she met this young boy with autism almost ten years ago, she said he changed her life and has been his fan all these years. I was tremendously touched by how long she has loved him. 

          Growing up in San Diego, CA, I had never seen or even imagined surfers in Lake Michigan. But here they are going against the waves in a storm. 

               An older woman stopped to talk to me about her love of watching water foul out on the ocean from far away. I liked her reflections when she said, "There is so much more happening out on those waves than anyone would ever realize." What appealed to her was to see what the rest of us did not or could not see. She inspired me to try and look deeper, longer, and to see the distance in what most of us do not even attempt to observe in the world and in people. 

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