Like riding a bike

Santa Fe

Craig and I are back from a weeklong arts workshop in Santa Fe, him life drawing and me nature writing. We drove from Kansas City with our bikes strapped to the car, watching the land grow from Kansas prairie to New Mexico mesas, from Flint Hills to the Sangre de Cristo range, from 1,000 feet of elevation to 7,000.

I hadn’t ridden my bike in a year. I hadn’t written outside of work since our last blog post two years ago.

Our first morning at the dorms of St. John’s College, I uncoiled the lock and jumped astride my Schwinn to ride to a nearby prayer labyrinth and begin our week in solitude. I remembered the route as being fairly flat – memory developed five years earlier while riding in a car. I reached the labyrinth quickly, not realizing until my return trip the gravity of gravity. I felt the weight of the earth’s weight against me.

I shifted to first gear within a few hundred yards. Before the first of three turns, my rate of breathing outpaced my pedaling. By the time I reached the college turn-in a mile later, I was moving so slowly I could barely balance. I dismounted and wobbled past the student center and classrooms to the upper dorms, my quads and lungs burning, rewound the lock and realized how much more meaningful it would be to pray on campus the rest of the week.

The writing wasn’t any easier than the riding. I’m not really a nature girl.

Day 1 exercise: Write about a powerful experience with wind. I live in tornado alley, so my mind went to … nothing. Toward the end of our 10-minute time limit I wrote a few disjointed sentences about a ferry ride and the need for ponytail holders.

Day 2 exercise: Write about a powerful experience with water. I had a great first line, “I take a drink and begin,” followed by … nothing. I started listing the ways water benefits me and blessedly ran out of time just as I began praising my soaker tub.

Day 2 invitation (i.e., homework): Write about your homeplace. I started 10 different times and went to bed with … nothing. Until 6 a.m., in my waking up, when I could see my scratches coming together into a unified piece, a piece that included both wind and water.

I never acclimated to the hills and altitude. I climbed the 92 steps from our meeting rooms to my dorm room three or four times every day, gasping each time. But I eventually found breath for my writing, remembering my process and seeing how nature can fit into my suburban-life stories. I’m eager to tell them again.

So I’m doing my exercises. I’m back in my writing seat, watching where the road leads, thankful if you ride along.

Three Stops to Becoming Wonder Woman

I watched as morning sparkled both the Chicago River eight floors below me and Navy Pier stretching over Lake Michigan several blocks to the east. Sadly, glass and concrete jailed me from the streams of shoppers and sightseers being welcomed into Chicago’s holiday hospitality.

I was in the city all last week for one of the world’s largest trade shows. My Magnificent Mile(s?) was inside Chicago’s McCormick Place, where I listened to radiologists address the blizzard of changes in today’s healthcare climate and where I took my station in Exhibit Hall B, Booth 9141, for seven hours each day to engage passers-by and show them the medical search engine I am charged with marketing. At nightfall, I ate dinner with colleagues and returned to the hotel to respond to the day’s emails.

My task each day was clear: Stand tall, listen well, speak coherently, stay positive and learn more about the way radiologists work. Unfortunately, I’m not that talented, even when wearing my cushioned leather flats and following my remember-you’re-in-your-50s resolve to decline all post-dinner party invitations. (As I fell into bed that first night, I had already given up any hope of posting a blog during the week.)

Once home, rather than embrace the rest my body needed, I heeded my spirit. The blast of city life beyond my reach all week kept pulling me. Chicago’s lakefront and stinging winds were 500 miles away, but the sun and warmth in Kansas City led me to several of my treasured spaces.

The Kauffman Memorial Garden was vibrating with light and color. Leafless branches exposed clusters of cherry-red winterberries and lavender beautyberries. Bare limbs imprinted the garden wall with tentacles of shadow. Even the girls sculpted of bronze and rising from the fountain seemed to enjoy having unobstructed room to dance.

I walked north through the Sculpture Park at the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum and rested on a bench overlooking the expanse of lawn. With only one person within speaking distance of me, we were both surprised to find we knew each other. This artist and pastor friend joined me on the bench, and our serendipitous catch-up built more connection than I had experienced during all the long days of conversation the week before.

My third and last stop was to see my daughter-in-law and 1-year-old granddaughter. While Jessi ran to the post office, I walked Hazel to the neighborhood playground – four swings, two of them baby buckets, and a structure connecting three slides. Her eyes and smile, her whole world, opened up. She rode and twisted down the slides and, enthroned in a bucket, delighted in the running, climbing, sliding and pumping of the three older kids (a 2-, 3- and 5-year-old) also at the playground.

Hazel’s joy was contagious, freeing me to see how wonderful – truly, wonder full – my day had been.

Thanksgivings Past and Present

The Thanksgiving table was ready, each place at the polished oak table sparkling with new stemware and china. So what if the official holiday was five months away? Ann Thomas’* gratitude couldn’t wait.

On this hot June day of 2007, in her village of Phoenix, La., 30 miles south of New Orleans, Ann walked me through her newly built home, fresh with the smell of paint and new furniture. This home replaced the one swept away when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in September 2005. After nearly two years of living with relatives and then in a FEMA trailer, Ann and her husband, Dymond, were finally home.

I was just one of the many volunteers from Covenant World Relief who had spent the past year helping the Thomases and other Phoenix residents rebuild. In the coming months, more houses were finished and more families left their cramped trailers to return home. By Thanksgiving, they were ready to serve up their gratitude and sweet potato pie to the volunteers fortunate to be there for the weekend. I was one of them.

The church-hopping that started the day – we worshipped at St. Joseph’s and then Zion Travelers – moved into table-hopping, a festive parade from house to house where each hostess served us a traditional Cajun feast. I vowed to approach this day as a progressive dinner – appetizers at the first house, salads at the second, entrees next, etc. – but my Midwest resolve disappeared when I walked into Ann’s kitchen and saw the counter laden with a Cajun-spiced turkey, dirty rice, gumbo, shrimp-stuffed peppers, and sweet potato pie. I tasted it all, and did the same at the next three houses. By 7:00, I reached my fifth house with a greatly diminished group and appetite. Two of us shared pie and stories with our 80-year-old friend Ellen.

At each stop throughout the day, the stories and laughter fed us as much as the oyster dressing and baked spaghetti. We learned how faith always trumped despair, how a devastated community remained hopeful and thankful.

It’s a lesson I’m carrying today as I head to the nursing home with Craig and my daughter Anna to pick up my dad and take him to my brother’s house, where 15 of us will be nourished by my sister-in-law’s turkey and stuffing as well as everyone’s stories and laughter. Our faith and gratitude this year are coupled with suffering and sadness. A year ago Dad was carving the turkey and telling the stories. He suffered two strokes this past year and is now weakened and unable to say what’s on his mind. Today he will listen and tire early. We’ll drive him home and laugh some more, letting him know how thankful we are for the rich way he continues to fill our lives.

 

* Thanks to Marianne, my traveling and feasting partner that Thanksgiving Day, for correcting my spelling of Ann’s last name. I’ve updated it from the first version.

When the Water Subsides

The stories of devastation and heroism in the wake of Superstorm Sandy remind me of Hurricane Katrina, particularly the residents of Phoenix, Louisiana, who I got to know during their rebuilding efforts. Despite losing almost all their possessions, people in this close community still shared riches with me. Here’s a story from my visits in 2007. 

 

“Why would anybody live here?”

It was the obvious question for a busload of Midwesterners unpacking our legs after a cramped 16-hour journey from Kansas to the tiny Louisiana town of Phoenix, a town trying to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Swarms of mosquitoes coated the windshield. Humidity fogged our glasses as we hit the heavy air. Lizards scampered for cover among the weedy fields. And this was December. What was July like?

Phoenix, once a town of about 300 and now less than half that, sits 30 miles south of New Orleans, a crater between levees holding back the Mississippi River and a marsh leading to the Gulf of Mexico. Katrina was not the first hurricane to fill the basin. Nor would it be the last.

Homes there sat in water for several weeks after Katrina hit in August 2005. Their owners rode out the storm in shelters and then moved to cities throughout the South. Residents couldn’t return for four months. When they did, they found trees and homes blocking their way. Houses still standing reeked from mold, mud and debris. While thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars poured into neighboring New Orleans, people in Phoenix slogged for FEMA trailers and relief funds and salvaged what little they could.

Our team arrived 16 months after the storm. Some houses had been cleaned out or removed and new foundations laid, but residents still lived in trailers and would for most of the next year. Not one to jump into home projects, I was surprised to be drawn back to Phoenix four more times in the coming year. I worked a bit on homes but mostly fed volunteers and talked with residents. I eventually felt comfortable asking them the question we asked the first time I arrived: “Why do you keep coming back?”

The answer was always the same: “Where would I go? Everyone I know and love is here.”

Some thought they had it easier than I did: “How much warning do you get before a tornado hits?”

I had to concede their point. Several years earlier, my 12-year-old daughter was forced to huddle in the restroom of a convenience store while a twister ravaged a field just across the highway. That night haunted her all summer. The year I traveled to Phoenix saw a record number of tornado touchdowns, with Kansas leading the tally. Two towns were leveled. Four people died.

Do I ever consider moving away because tornado sirens send me to my basement once or twice a year? No, never. I’ve lived in the Kansas City area for nearly 30 years. The people I know and love are here.

And that love is much more powerful than the power of nature. As I befriended a handful of Phoenix residents, I felt the force that drew them back, both to the people they have known their whole lives and to the land their families have owned for more than a century. Embedded in them is the simple truth that I first learned from the world’s most famous Kansas farm girl, herself a victim of nature’s wrath: “There’s no place like home.”

Confessions of a Failure

Craig and I took a Scripture memory class at our church. We learned and meditated on two Bible verses a week, reciting each one every day. At the beginning of each weekly session, our teacher went around the room and asked each to report how many days we had recited. The first week all 20-some of us circled up and echoed each other: 7, 7, 7, 7. Likewise for week 2. Week 3 started the same – 7, 7, 7 – until we hit me. I was the first to proclaim 6. I can still feel the awkward silence and see the teacher write my deficiency on his attendance sheet.

We took that class in 1985, nearly 30 years ago, but I haven’t forgotten the shame I felt for that failure – which now I recognize as too small to even register among my many real failures.

Yet I continue to shame myself. Today it’s for blog failure.

I had convinced Craig that we needed to post a blog at least twice a week to show we were serious, to build up work, to make sure readers found and stayed with us. Last week we only had one. Craig had sent me the image for the second one, the above gondolas overlaid with his notes on the painter John Singer Sargent. I had my idea for the copy, how we packed three important things for our trip to Italy: respect, stamina and curiosity. Our Italian-English dictionary represented respect for our hosts, a willingness to speak their language rather than assume they spoke ours. Our walking shoes represented our stamina, much needed in a country where every road seemed to head uphill. Our map and willingness to ask questions represented our curiosity, which took us to neighborhoods, restaurants and stores far from other tourists. I liked the idea, but every time I tried to write it, I sounded rather pompous.

So I stopped writing.

When I sat down at my computer, I checked email and Twitter instead. I played spider solitaire and free cell. I read the newspaper and finished the crossword puzzle. Thank goodness for the intestinal bug that kept me from finishing off the entire bag of Lay’s chips in the pantry. I delayed further by reading Craig’s new Steven Pressfield book, Turning Pro, about the need to stop being an amateur who talks about what you’ll do and actually become a professional who does it. No matter how hard. The book was so insightful. Pressfield seemed to have written it just for a few friends who came to mind.

Pressfield’s mindset has led to a dozen bestsellers. Mine has led to a dozen blog posts.

I thought blogging with Craig would be fun. I hoped others would appreciate our willingness to collaborate and would identify with our foibles and discoveries. I expected my vignettes to be easy to write, but as I develop my voice, I’m afraid to let people hear me sing off-key. I want to avoid the shame I felt at being the first to fail at my Scripture recitation.

It’s time to recapture the traits that defined Craig and me in Italy: curiosity, respect and stamina. Am I willing to keep exploring and learning, to trust I have something to say, and to persevere in saying it?

I think it’ll only work if I also develop another quality: the grace to let myself fail from time to time.

Postcard of a Travel Itinerary

Another reflection from the trip Craig and I took to Italy during his painting sabbatical.

 

After 10 days in Italy, I came home with wine and olive oil from the castle and farm we stayed at, a 19th-century drawing of the Madonna and Jesus, a 2,500-year-old Etruscan bead given to me by a gallery owner who spent 15 minutes telling us – as best we could follow – about traveling to America with the pope and meeting President Kennedy, gifts for the kids, and a notebook filled with stories of people, places and meals. Craig returned with sketches, photos and pneumonia. He blamed me for the pneumonia.

Craig had envisioned 10 days of relaxation, strolling through Venice, riding a gondola along the Grand Canal, painting the Tuscan countryside, eating pizza in a sunny piazza. We would buy plane tickets, make hotel reservations (or not) and drive to the airport. I call it his “get in the car” – or in this case, “get on the plane” – approach to travel, one he employs for his creative wanderings. With nothing more than a general sense of where he’s headed, he simply lets his trips happen. He walks or drives until he finds something interesting to paint or gets hungry or needs sleep. The unknown is his invitation for adventure.

The unknown is my invitation to miss an important destination. I like guidebooks. And maps. And itineraries. As Craig is watching the hawks circle the field beside Highway 151, I’m calculating our ETA at Pickle-Barrell Subs in Dubuque. If I was getting the chance to see Italy, I’d make sure we planned out what we’d see. I started with guidebooks to outline a reasonable timeline – could we explore Venice and Tuscany and still get to Rome? (No.) I read travelogues to discover back-road charms. I hit the internet to confirm my choices. Then I built a calendar that Craig never looked at.

I knew the best time to visit the Basilica of San Marco in Venice (late, as the tours were leaving) and the Accademia in Florence to see Michelangelo’s David (first thing, with a reservation), how to pack light, and where to find the rundown abbey where The English Patient was filmed, the butcher in Panzano who fed and entertained people on Saturday afternoons, and the farmer selling his dried herbs at the Wednesday morning market in Castellina. I learned about agriturismo, where farm families supplement their income by renting out rooms to tourists and feeding them from the animals and produce they raise.

Craig indulged my obsessiveness – even welcomed it – as long as I understood he needed time to wander and paint. No problem. I could schedule that in too.

So we meandered … toward the church I wanted to see. Craig painted … while I read up on our afternoon’s destinations. We sat in piazzas … where I talked with students who told us we had to walk the Stations of the Cross along Via Margherita. I penciled it in. We each lived our ideal vacation … until Craig got sick and couldn’t keep up.

We didn’t know he had pneumonia (I might have been more sympathetic if we had), but our last two days he was tired and wanted to head back to the farm by early afternoon. We missed castles and gardens as we lay by the pool. How could we ever see Italy if all we did was sun on the terrace overlooking the patchwork of vineyards and orchards rolling up to the majestic towers of San Gimignano?

I applied more sunscreen and sipped my glass of wine.

Postcard from a Pilgrim

Another reflection from the trip Craig and I took to Italy during his painting sabbatical. 

 

We visited churches every day in Italy – Renaissance basilicas, Romanesque abbeys, stone churches along country roads. We stood dwarfed by towering architecture, gazed upon masterpieces and followed narrow staircases to once-hidden rooms. We were halfway through our trip before I realized I was entering every church as a tourist. What would happen if I became a pilgrim instead? If I, a Roman Catholic turned evangelical turned Christ follower with lots of questions, changed my secular eyes to sacred?

I started lighting candles. I gave my offering. I let my prayers lift heavenward to be united with the chorus of saints praising Jesus.

Would St. Catherine of Siena notice me lighting a thin white taper at her altar at the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena? If so, it would be with her new body, as her earthly and quite shriveled head and finger were on display – a mighty popular one at that – in the church. I couldn’t decide if I should be horrified or fascinated at the gruesome relics and those of us praying before them. Catherine spent her short life in service to Christ and seeking peace and reform in the church. Were we guilty of idolatry, or were we humbly seeking connection with and inspiration from this 14th-century mystic? Could my identity with a fellow pilgrim who centuries ago walked these roads I was walking this week help to deepen my experience of her country, bring holiness to this adventure? I confess to being earthbound in my understanding of the communion of saints.

My insight ascended a bit heavenward as I wandered by myself through the coastal village of Vernazza. Entering the Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, I recognized the cadence – if not the words – of the priest saying Mass and the female voices responding. I stopped midway up the staircase. To enter would be disruptive, so I stayed on the steps and recognized each new phase of the liturgy – the consecration, the priest’s prayers, the women’s responses. I stood for 10 minutes, my head visible to the two women in the front row. One gently beckoned me to join the worship celebration, so I climbed the remaining steps and slid into the third pew. Now there were six of us joining the priest to remember Christ in the breaking of the bread.

After Communion, the women and priest sang a cappella, and their hymn resonated in the 14th century stone church. Their voices were those of the angels, clear and strong and praising, these five elderly Italian women carrying on the traditions of their faith. I too praised God, not with my voice but with a silent prayer of thanksgiving for the heavenly chorus that surrounded me. When Mass ended, I lit a candle.

Postcard of a Tuscan Farm

A number of years ago Craig was awarded a six-month painting sabbatical and spent time traveling to places that he and his favorite painters loved. It culminated in a 10-day trip for the two of us to Venice and Tuscany, Italy, a back-roads approach that included more stone churches and villages than art galleries. We followed the philosophy of Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun and other stories of life in Italy, who said:

“If you settle in, even for two weeks, live in a house, not a hotel, and you buy figs and soap at the local places, sit in cafes and restaurants, go to a local concert or church service, you cannot help but open to the resonance of a place.”

Over the next couple of weeks we will post our reflections of the trip.

 

It’s 6 p.m., and we still have two hours before dinner. A brief thunderstorm has passed, and Craig has wandered over to a lawn chair to paint the medieval towers of San Gimignano just beyond the vineyards and olive orchards rolling across this countryside south of Florence. I decide to take a walk around Fattoria Poggio Alloro, Laurel Knoll Farm, our home for the next few days.

A couple suns on the terrace outside our room, and a handful of guests lounge at the pool. It’s a lazy afternoon for us, but the work of the farm continues.

The owners, Amico and Rosa Fiorini, tend the garden, not a formal perennial bed but rows of vegetables that will feed Craig and me and the 18 other guests eager to gather at the long dinner table on the terrace. Amico plants another two rows of lettuce to ensure a prolonged harvest. Rosa weeds among her herbs. They have dozens and dozens of tomato plants, some laden with fruit about to mature red, others barely six inches high. I see the pea plants, with their plump pods, that supplied the peas for our pasta sauce last night.

I walk past zucchini plants filled with blossoms, dodge the dill feathering the hillside and scale the rise to arrive at the kitchen. The scent of simmering wild boar, a Tuscan staple, reminds me how hungry I am. It’s been hours since my small tuna panini for lunch. The cook sees me spying and invites me in, lifting the pot lids to proudly display her meat ragu for tonight’s pasta and the sautéing peas, onions and asparagus. I want to linger, to offer to help, but I don’t know the words. I smile broadly and rub my stomach. I hope it’s a language she understands.

As I return to my room to get ready for dinner, I see Sara, the owners’ niece, finishing a tour of the winery for an American family. “You’ve made our trip today,” I hear the dad in the group tell her. “The next time we come we’ll have to stay here.”

Wise choice, I think. I’m just sorry for them that they have to walk past the kitchen to get to their car.