When we departed our tall tall narrow city house, releasing all of its fetching winding stories to climb into the cloudy sky?
At last, a day without fields (our eyes were tiring of them); a day entirely urban. The remainder of Pennsylvania, into New Jersey, moments of driver-thrill on the edge of New York City. Do you remember when we shouted at Manhattan from afar, glad to not drive there, grieving to not set foot there together, swiftly passing onwards, upstate, Connecticut, up, up, up?
The final stretch! You were almost to your new state. New license plates, new taxes, new skylines, new customs. We have been the only Oregon plate since Montana.
Do you remember the silence when we were trying not to think about the end?
And how we reflected on the trip up to that point? It had been two weeks. Graciously: two of the longest weeks we’ve known. Years were somehow fit into those weeks. And once we started searching for connections, it didn’t take long: we’d very naturally had the only adventure that the two of us would have. Do you remember? We called it “a cross-country journey through art and conversation”. We stitched all the miles together into a beautiful woven wrapped thing, a cohesive thing, our shared space.
We didn’t realize how hungry we had been. Hungry for connection, thirsty for paint and ink, starved to speak of what matters. To stand and allow ourselves to be changed by the work before us. We had been homesick for all the far-away people who knew us so well, to hear their words, to hold their faces in our gaze, to sit quietly in the same room with them.
Was that when we changed? That moment in the car, looking behind us at how far we’d come, when we saw that we had left something of our old selves behind? That moment when we spread our arms, leaving vulnerable our beating hearts and breathing chests?
Do you recall arriving late in the evening, into the Boston we had aimed for? Rolling down the windows, letting the new air fill our stale, bug-swathed car? How suddenly it mattered to pay particular attention to where we were? You had to get your bearings because you had travelled to that place, and, unlike all the other places we inhabited: you were staying.
We did not yet understand this.
Do you remember that night?
We slept at last, safe on the other side of the country.
Here’s my challenge to you: Try something you’ve never done before.
When was the last time you did this?
Our exuberant hosts in Philadelphia are excited about climbing. They have all of the right equipment and plenty to share: shoes, harnesses, ropes, chalk, positive energy, calluses on their palms. They know of a great spot hidden in the middle of the city: a man-made rock wall on the edge of the park and train tracks, hidden in the woods. From my earth-level vantage point, it is a high high wall.
In this moment, I have never climbed before. You see, I have a lot of complicated history with, well, sports. Activities. I have never done any of them. I am a semi-disabled woman: it’s a long story. The short version: I am not sure that my legs will get me up this wall. I have limitations.
But I have decided to try.
It is a beautiful muggy afternoon. We rig up, watch Caleb lead-rope our routes up the mountain, John the Baptist preparing the way in the wilderness. He makes a magical great swing for the kids.
I try. I like the feel of my feet on the wall, I don’t like that the wall GOES STRAIGHT UP. I am used to scrambling on mountaintops, generous handholds at the crowning peaks of hikes, not this unstoppable great barrier. I try and try. Mika claims that I am on that wall for much longer than anyone else, she marvels at my willpower. My goal is to make it halfway up the wall. I climb a quarter of the way twice, so I suppose that is satisfactory. But it feels like a defeat. Willpower is not enough. I’ve been fond of the phrase “fail harder”, but that sentiment does not make this moment less emotional. I was worried that I would not be able to do it; it is just as hard to discover that I really can’t do it. Here are my limitations, I feel them in my muscles and bones. They are tangible and not to be argued with.
Mika performs beautifully. She makes it two-thirds of the way up the wall the first time, conquers to the top on the second try. Bloody hands, shot arms, sweat pouring down her face. It is magnificent.
It is the evening. We sit on the rooftop, drinking late into the night, sharing life stories. It is a wide-reaching conversation, encompassing decades of experiences. We share belly laughs, we share sad dark stories, we marvel. I listen and stand next to the younger iterations of my friends: I see their family road trips, watch them prank and bolt at summer camp. But my imagination can only share so much. Here are our limitations.
It is the next day: I have never been so sore. It is a driving day and both of us can barely turn our heads to check our neighboring lanes, lift our arms to the turn signals.
It is yesterday, months and months after that day in Philly. I join a friend at her climbing gym. I am anxious but know that I will likely have fun. She has been a great cheerleader of my life for years. Secretly harboring my fears, I decide that it will be okay if I fail. If this moment does not turn out how I wish, it will be alright.
… but I do it! I DO IT. Active verbs, active nouns. My feet hold the vertical path, arms reaching wide. I learn the ropes, the knots, the steady landlocked rigging. I attempt to climb four different walls, all of differing skill levels, and I MAKE IT TO THE TOP OF ALL OF THEM. I am utterly shocked. I find myself to be capable. I feel it in my muscles and bones. The capability is tangible and not to be argued with.
I marvel that new things can constantly be springing out of the ground and falling from the sky. Although I just celebrated a birthday and became older, yet I am a child, I am a child. May I always be surprised.
I was born in Oregon. I live there still. Mika moved to Oregon in high school; she had also been raised in a rainy, green, mountainous place. We are familiar with rain. We know the many kinds of rain, rain that mists, that showers, that spits, that scatters, that hisses, that sings, that embraces. My brother and I once ran through a downpour in New York City - he with a popped collar against the water, I with a pulled-down hat. ”WE’RE FROM PORTLAND” he joyfully shouted to the passers-by who fought against their umbrellas. We understand rain. We delight in it.
In Philadelphia, Mika and I joined a mob of friends and explored the city streets in search of ubiquitous Philly Cheese Steaks, (thankful to discover that a meatless version existed for us). The sky was overcast; three members of our six-person party grabbed umbrellas “just in case”. We feasted. As we stepped out of the restaurant door, it began to rain. Three umbrellas popped open. We walked and walked and suddenly the skies opened.
No, listen to me: they opened.
The most phenomenal drenching dumping wet wet pouring rain was unloaded upon our neighborhood. Buckets of rain, cats and dogs of rain. It was like nothing we’ve ever experienced. We, who know rain. It was movie rain, the immediately-drenched-in-five-seconds rain. We shrieked and yelled and laughed and leaped in our useless shoes, our deeply underwater summer garments. Ah, to always be surprised!
Our rock-climbing plans were cast aside for indoor activities for the remainder of the day: whiskey-spiked cocoa and movies, a visit to the Art Museum to be greeted by a beautiful modern collection: Kandinsky, Matisse, Twombly! The little boy of our hosts shouted his delight at the echoing acoustics of the Museum hall. I held my tongue carefully: I wanted to shout too.
"HEY!" I yelled silently in the vast hall. "EVERYTHING CAN BE UNEXPECTED AND WONDROUS!"
That evening, I met with my dear friend Kari and our conversation explored the last few years of our separate lives over Indian food and a bottle of wine. Ah! To be away from someone and rejoin, to find that we are still travelling side-by-side on the same road where we once met.
"HEY!" We shouted to the city streets, night-lit and firing, "EVERYTHING CAN BE UNEXPECTED AND WONDROUS!"
The thrill of Chicago driving: Eighty MPH before coffee! Take care! You might be killed!
A stop in Michigan, swift glimpses of Indiana.
Just when you get used to your pace: STOP. TOLL ROADS.
Ah, the toll roads, the grand royal reststops of Ohio.
WHAT IF WE NEVER ARRIVE?
Pennsylvania! And the land becomes very old.
Green Green Green.
Slow Show through a factory town - it has always been there. It was waiting for us and we merely passed by. We noticed it as best we could but did not give it our best.
The blinding angled four p.m. sun blazes the gas station bathroom (of which we have become connoisseurs): it is a good one. How strange: in the midst of a long long day of passed distance, it is a crumbly white bathroom that takes our breath away. Lit spiderwebs in the corners, frosted glass. It has always been there. We see no citizens of this small valley town: Everyone is over at the baseball game. We could have robbed the bank.
We pass two Amish buggies (wire-strung headlights dangling) and LOSE IT. We are so excited to see those horses. We are children, we are exhausted, our dreams are coming awake. Strung out on cigarettes and chewing gum, cheap caffeine.
At the close, the dark anonymous suburbs before the city, a mobile conversation with our next host:
"Hello, this is Anna, answering Mika’s phone!"
"Oh hey Anna!"
"Hi Caleb! We’re about thirty minutes outside of the city!"
He speaks the magical words:
"Okay, great! Here’s what you’re gonna do. The front door is open, so come on in and throw your stuff down in the living room. You’re gonna head straight back into the kitchen and grab a couple of beers. Then climb to the top of the stairs and head out the window - we’re all up here on the roof."
A rooftop view of the night-lit city! Philadelphia! At last, closest family and spoken Japanese. The stars are hidden by the city - skyscrapers and taxicabs, new friends fresh-faced in the dim glow.
"And nothing comforts me the same As my brave friend who says, 'I don't care if forever never comes 'Cause I'm holding out for that teenage feeling, I’m holding out for that teenage feeling’”
- Neko Case
“It is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again…” - Mark Rothko
Chicago! So quickly we felt at home. On the road, there had been too many fields for we citydwellers. The landscape was thoughtful, slow, beautiful; but now was the time for quickening. The rush, the speed, the light flashing off of the great structures. Trains and broad sidewalks. Finally, a decent espresso!
We ran through the city and discovered. We found the enormous Picasso statue, we fulfilled our playful tourist obligations at The Bean. But the glory of our day was the Art Institute of Chicago. We got lost for hours and ah! Rothko! I encountered great harrowing halls of his work at the Tate Modern and London helped me begin to understand Abstract Expressionism. My learning expanded during Mika’s time at art school; we’d have long conversations about abstract concepts and, as she described it, I suddenly saw the human body expanding off of the canvas. I began to learn how to be present with the work, allow it to interact with you. Chicago held a shining bright orange piece from Rothko, the most celebratory piece I’ve seen from him. He was suddenly joyous and shouting. We joined him.
Back in Minneapolis, waiting at the Amtrak station a few days prior, across from me sat two teenage girls. Eighteen or nineteen, full of sarcastic energy and youth. They sat close together and, leaning over an iPhone, shared earbuds. They danced together and fully inhabited the space around them. Anything was possible. I felt an odd adult envy of them. I noticed that I was older, and, despite the horror of high school memories, I felt a sadness across the decade between us. I am forever glad to be out of my teenage years, and yet: there’s a lot to hold there. What of constant change? What of imagination and discovery? Foolishness and flashes of irresponsibility?
We reveled in the exhaustion of a day in the city. Completely carefree and full, we sat on the train and, like the teenagers I’ve envied, we shared earbuds in youthful defiance of the businessmen surrounding us. We listened to JAY-Z and smiled to each other. Arrogant and sure, we held rebellious energy in our hands. We were young, we had taken the city. We were travelling and had no worries.
Expand your body beyond the limits of this canvas! Anything is possible.
When you are about to spend four complete waking days in a car, naturally: one must be prepared.
We loaded up with cold brew coffee, with food and road snacks of all kinds. We loaded our iPhones.
The first day, the first selection: the entire back catalog of The National. I held tickets to see them on the last night of the trip: it was only appropriate that they’d be bookends to America.
We embraced the novelty of placeful listening: Sufjan Steven’s ‘Michigan’ album in Michigan; Damien Jurado’s Ohio in Ohio; Empire State of Mind into New York City; Elliot Smith’s Coast to Coast hitting Massachusetts.
And the gifts of music we were sent forth with! Camila slipped a Talking Heads CD on my porch before we left (with playing cards for down time), Chris sent along a song-a-day to keep the Northwest close to our hearts. A pitch-perfect theme-heavy travel mix from McKel composed a Road poem for us: Young Americans, Drive My Car, Green Light, Go on, There She Goes, To Be Young, These Days, Along the Way, Keep Your Eyes Ahead, Modern Love, Shake it Out, Easy Steps Away.
In rebellion against the foreign-to-us toll system of the Eastern half of the country, we sought country highways. We took our time and listened to the ‘Illinois’ album through the Illinois countryside at dusk, small towns and twilit farms.
The twelfth & thirteenth hours were always the hardest. Kanye’s ‘Yeezus’ and Jay-Z’s ‘Magna Carta’ saved us and, throwing all of our hip-hop mixes into the CD changer, we shouted and sang “I’M BOSSY! I SWITCHED UP THE BEAT OF THE DRUM”
Somehow, we always arrived at home. When we pulled into our two-night beds in Wheaton, Illinois, we had gloriously survived, as we always did. Perhaps we doubted that we’d ever arrive? We were invited in to a feast of curry and lovely conversation. Erin and Barrett were loose acquaintances turned into fast friends. Always, what hospitality and support we received!
Halfway: we thought it would be harder. Our different-bed-every-night sleep was becoming easier and deep, our rituals and highway habits were settling in. We were beginning to feel that we were going to Boston.
A wedding! I was so thrilled to discover that my Midwest heritage included a love of dancing.
It was at a New Year’s party that I first loved to dance. Ah, the often horrible New Year: the holiday which holds so much weird anticipation and disappointment, countdowns and quickly fading dreams. Freshly twenty-one, I was finishing up a challenging year of grueling leg surgeries. I was nearly on the mend. I had spent so many years not moving that it all had to come out at once. The right spark of electronic music came on and a wave of movement came over me and I danced hard with my friends. It took me by surprise.
A few months later, I hit the town with Mika. We were new acquaintances just beginning a season of roommate-ship and it was the first night we went out together. I recall the lights and the sweat and crowd. Madonna and WHAM and Billy Idol.
I have since spent my happiest nights dancing with my best friends. On another New Year’s Eve, Mika grabbed my shoulders during Billie Jean and exclaimed “I CAN’T BELIEVE HE’S GONE” in a drunken howl. (She has no memory of this). She was nearby when I danced so hard to Ratatat during my twenty-fifth birthday party, I fell over and sprained my knee. A wild joy in our limbs, the energy of a room, falling in and out of love. Too much alcohol and ringing ears, late-break cigarettes.
In small-town Minnesota, I participated in the age-old pre-wedding ritual of “getting ready” with a lot of other women in a small room. We then sat through the ceremony and all of the in-between moments, leading up to the best part of any wedding celebration: the dance floor. Footloose came on and Aunt RoJean and I threw our hearts into it. We belonged there together. And even at a wedding, when the DJ is churning out every cliche song we’ve already heard too many times… it is wonderful.
THIS is the way to celebrate everything - the glory of shared movement. We belong here together.
Mika stayed on in Minneapolis for a few more days, I headed to the farm. We said goodbye in an early-morning Amtrak station parking lot.
In the early nineteen-seventies, my mother drove across the country from small-town Minnesota to Portland, OR. She stayed there, met my dad, etc, etc… I grew up rooted in Portland, never went East; other than a few occasions in my first years, never even saw my grandmother. She just existed, someone related to me that I’ve never known. We began writing letters to each other last year and, after decades, began our relationship.
I think of the way letters and postcards hold us together. I hold this parcel in my hand, and a few days later, you shall hold it in yours.
I was so excited that our journey took us through Minnesota: at last, a chance to visit the farm. Additionally, I arrived for the perfectly-timed wedding of a cousin: a reunion of everyone in Minnesota with my blood and my nose.
My very-delayed train arrived in Winona and I met my grandmother for the first time as an adult. I found myself amidst a mighty matriarchal pack of mother and aunts: I saw where my mother’s laughter came from and my height.
So swiftly I saw resemblances and familiar facial expressions. I’ve seen it in Mika’s family too, I hear it in the phrases and jokes that I’ve absorbed. And on these family trips: how many times shall we pile in and out of the minivan together? How many ways shall we be delayed, shall we not reach our destination? We are too large a pack, too unwieldy, we are nothing but pure wind-resistance to our surroundings.
What a marvel to see where we come from!
My mother and I slept that night in her childhood bedroom: “the girls’ room”. I tried to imagine the eight of them living in this small farmhouse and could not. Ah, how I’ve missed exploring a grandmother’s house! It was a wonderful time capsule - the closets were filled with perfectly hung 1970s- and 80s-era clothing. Colorful woven rugs carefully folded on a shelf, snapshots in dated frames. Hand-sewn quilts and a Jesus on the wall. There were a lot of rifles stored under my creaky bedframe.
That night, we threw the windows wide. The country dark was rich and deeply silent. A breeze blew the curtains, it tasted sweet: a deep green-scented quiet home-like thing.
I am not a swimmer. I want the water around my body, but never beneath my feet. I wish the earth to remain there.
I’ve long heard of the Lakes of Minnesota. (I recall my aunt producing Minnesota-tourist-produced pasta once that was 1,000 Lake-shaped. None of the shapes were recognizable as lakes, they were just odd blobs. I do not recall eating these bodies of water). There are indeed lakes constantly. And swimming in a lake is a particular thing. No awkward current, just a lovely slope slouching its way deeper through the surface. The reflections are so different with stilled water.
Mika and I visited art museums in every city we visited. As we stepped through the doors we fell into a natural rhythm: young artists exploring the ENTIRE WORLD. We easily let the current carry us through the galleries.
First stop: contemporary art.
Then: we’d each immediately bolt to our own favoured medium: she to painting, I to photography. We’d regroup and brag to the other about the amazing things she’d missed.
"Mika, Morrel turned an ENTIRE ROOM into a camera obscura! The glory of the Manhattan skyline on an unmade bed! The outdoor exposure of Half-Dome on the rocky ground?" Photography sleeps against my heart.
"No, no - YOU missed the entire room of Latrec!" We’d half-seriously argue. "Ah, paint on a canvas…" she’d sigh. Her ribcage is ever-breathing with colours and paint.
The paint that Mika put down on canvas is hung on many walls in my home. These pieces live and breathe and have their being. I begin to understand.
We went to a lake with Abby and her two children, Esther and Michael. They are both small and full of fresh enthusiasm. We waded and swam in late-afternoon, the sun welcomingly blinding us a bit, melting water off of our backs.
I waded with the small boy: hardly have I seen a human look so happy to exist wet. I swept him side-to-side in the water as if he was a paintbrush on the canvas’ still surface. He bubbled with deep joy. And it was such a joy to hold his weight, a perfect almost-heavy weight, baby-nearly-boy. ”Doesn’t he feel great?” Mika asked, and I grinned.
He felt like the make-heavy of the cool viewfinder against my eyelid, of the brush movement in her hand. I begin to understand.
When you’ve heard of someone for years: does it blow your expectation of them out of proportion or simply set you up to love them immediately?
In my case, it’s often the latter.
I was set up to be smitten with our Minneapolis hosts a few years ago.
A significant, intentional element of our journey was that we were visiting friends across the country. We’d stay in their homes, drop into their cities and be swept along in the current of their daily lives. This is the greatest way to visit a new place: no landmarks, please: let me just sit in your kitchen. And so, I’d heard about Ben and Abby for years. I already loved that they only had a landline and already loved the ways they’d impacted Mika’s life. I was set up for victory.
So when I met Abby in her backyard at dusk, it was natural to follow her into the kitchen and chat while she smiled contentedly and made beautiful pie crusts. And when I woke up, of course Ben offered me a coffee while their daughter wreaked havoc in the living room. I held the small boy and we stared at each other, happily. The day was mundane and quiet and perfect. A lower-case day, out of the day-to-day.
I had an afternoon away and saw long-lost Liz. She also is a woman I was set up to be fond of: I met her at a lovely wedding: we’ve since run into each other in different cities over the years. Friends of friends of friends are now my friends etc. etc. As we progressed across the country, of course I kept loving everyone I met because of course my dear friend would have dear friends who would be amazing… you understand. A twisted tangled wonderful web of the smallest world imaginable. I am happy to keep being surprised.
For Abby’s birthday, we sat out under a rich pink sunset. We sat amongst her friends, we laughed and what is better than a summer table laden with pies?
Mika had been harbouring fireworks from Japan for over a year. (There is no end to my delight at her constantly bragging that she “smuggled them on the plane”. As though the Feds were ever on the edge of our revelry, shutting down the speakeasy).
You cannot imagine what they looked like! Friends! What careful small fires! Flashing rooted tendrils of flame, elegant little sparklers with everything good to say about the world.
Elaborate root systems: that’s what we are! Intertwined and firing.