January 24, 2007

Self: River and Rock

Last week I reconnected with the man I deeply cherished in high school. We were 17, enjoying our last year; and though we were not romantically involved, Wayne and I shared a unique bond. We were both pseudo orphans.

Wayne and his younger sister Carol had absorbed some of the responsibility for their other siblings, particularly Carol. For health reasons, I had to leave home in Iowa to live with friends in Arizona. I left behind a traumatic health history and the kind of social stresses that would leave any girl feeling lost and unsure. So there we were, orphans of sorts, with secrets and shame, struggling to find our way in the world. Wayne became my sanctuary in a conflicting, critical stage of my development. And while we eventually went on with our own lives, he remained part of my heart.

I tracked Wayne down once when we were 30: I was in crisis and needed his input. I tracked him down a second time when my youngest son turned 17. I was simply nostalgic for my friend. This Christmas, though, I found myself really missing him. I tracked him down again and sent a Christmas card. He replied--and delighted me by sending me his sister's e-mail.
I wasted no time but shot off an e-mail to a woman I hadn't seen or spoken to in some 35 years. Two days later we were on the phone, talking two and a half hours. What struck me most was that Carol hadn't changed; she'd simply become more of herself. When Wayne called later that same day, we talked another four or five hours. I had the same impression. Wayne is simply more of the man he had been. The core of his being, where everything lives that counts, is the same: honor, truth, passion, humor, insight... And while I'm sure they're both vastly different in many of their beliefs, ideologies, and views of life--after all, middle age is vastly different than being seventeen--life's ups and downs have not diminished them at all but brought them into a measure of wholeness. My head has been reeling ever since. Have I evolved into more of who I was? Or have I allowed myself to be altered by life's ups and downs, and been diminished rather than brought into a measure of wholeness?
It's a hard question to answer.

Wayne sent me a CD of some of his published photographs; several of the Grand Canyon. I've been there. I've walked down to the Indian Gardens, seven miles down, seven miles up. My sons have walked to the river itself, twenty-one miles to where water laps rock. It's easy to be overwhelmed by the canyon, with its strata of rock and stone a mile high. It's easy to focus on the color and texture and enormity of something immobile and so solidly fixed. But look, way down there, way way down, runs the river. There it is, bubbling, rushing, catapulting, pooling, crooning, thundering, lapping, slapping, splashing, a steady swathe of water that keeps on going and going--and plunging over and around--year after year cutting down through the walls that surround.
Maybe the question is hard to answer because I've fallen into a habit of defining myself by the walls. There they are, all that granite and quartz and fragmented marble, all that basalt and limestone and Jurassic slate. All that towering "hard stuff" hard to ignore. Yet there is the river, too: dogged, persistent, unrelenting, cutting down through all that "stuff" and running on. Amazing.

To truly appreciate the Grand Canyon, you have to see it from bottom up. From the Indian Gardens, the canyon is astonishing. From the river's edge? I can only imagine. But it's dead, all dead. What's alive is the river, where everything that counts lives. Fish and bacteria and moss and frogs and flies and water-skippers and the DNA of the world.

Have I evolved into more of who I was? Or have I allowed myself to be altered by life's ups and downs, and been diminished rather than brought into a measure of wholeness? Looking into the river of everything that counts, I can answer my own question. If Wayne still holds in his soul honor, humor, and insight... if Carol still is rooted in faith, loyalty, commitment.... then here am I, grounded in the essential elements that have always defined me: unstoppable, unwavering, persistent, dogged. An old boyfriend once gave me an "eel of the year" award because I refused to give up in face of high odds. Okay, so I throw up my arms in that splash of despair over there; I fall into this side place of despondency; I eddy in hopeless circles of confusion and futility. But I get the job done, and behind me stands the impressive walls of life's ups and downs that don't define me at all. Monuments, if you will, of life lived well.


And if I really want to get all philosophical about this, I suspect behind us all stands astonishing monuments of mute testimony to our collective survival and triumphs.

Thank you to Wayne and Carol for letting me talk about them; and thanks to Wayne for allowing the use of his photographs.

January 05, 2007

Spirit of Washington Dinner Train


This year for Christmas I gave the oldest pair of my Bobsey Twin grandsons a ride on the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train. Their excitement knew no bounds and they managed to capture everyone's attention as they hurtled thither and yon in yip-yelping glee.

"Wow, Nathan, look at the wheels! They're humongous!"

"Yeah!" Nathan wrinkles his nose, he angles his head. "What's this, Rome what's this?"

Rome hun
kers down, checks out the wheel thingy-ma-jings. "I don't know! But wow!"

"Hey, over here, come quick! Look!"

And off they'd go. And off I'd go. Everyone around us laughing.

Once on board, they were
fascinated by the lamps, the windows, the tables, then out came the muffins and bread rolls and a plate of cheeses!

The train, however, didn't give a whistle warning before starting up, and so the two of them very nearly pitched into their plates nose first. But they came up giggling and laughing and whirling to see out the window. Who wanted those muffins anyway?

After a bit, dinner arrived. Rome and I traded places so they could each have a spot by the window and you should have seen the window by the time they were finished eating. Noses breathing fog onto the window pane--while chewing Tony's pizza and chicken strips--left a distinct pattern to the glass that I'm quite certain was not there before.

Next thing we knew, we were at the vineyard. Out they clambered on the run--Nathan had to go "poop!" The line to the ladies' restroom was long--but Nathan's jumping up and down got us moved up the ladder rather quickly. Once he got himself behind a swinging stall door, the ladies in que got a running commentary on the whole big hairy deal.

"Oh, my, did you ever!" one little old lady exclaimed, fanning her heart.

The boys, of course, were not interested in the winery or sampling the wine. They wanted to go back on the train. So back on we went. This time they raced from one car to another. They got down to the last car. Locked! Now why would they do that? Very good question, but Rome was quickly distracted by the drop-off to his left. Before I could blink, he'd gone sailing off the stoop, Nathan
right after him. I was just getting ready to yoo-hoo them in when, this time, the train did whistle. My word, you never saw such panicked youngsters in your life.

Rome, I think, leaped straight up and was going straight back down when I snagged his wrist and hauled him in. Nathan, at this point, was in sheer terror, straining and struggling, jumping, clawing, trying to get up. I grabbed him under the arms and gave a heave.

"Granny! If you weren't here we'd be left behind!" cried Rome in glorious safety and taking another gawk from our perch.

"You guys are just darn lucky I like you."

"Can we do it again, Granny?" Nathan asked.

Desert on the way back was, for them, apple strudel. Chocolate mouse for me. They took one look at my desert, though, and dived right in. Half way through it, Rome looked like he was going to be sick.

"You all right, Rome?"

"Huh, huh, I'm
fine," he said, going sheet white, but shoveling in another mouthful.

Nonetheless, I quick grabbed a cup and just managed to get it shoved under his chin before he upchucked. He sort of shook himself out and then smiled, and all the color came flooding back into his cheeks and the sparkle came back to his eyes. I don't think I've even seen a transformation so fast. High spirits sliding into I'm-going-to-puke and then bouncing right back again to high spirits. But he didn't take another bite, I noticed, of my desert.

I taught them how to play dot-to-dot. Rome wouldn't quit, demanding game after game. "I love this game! It's the best game ever! Don't you love this game, Nathan?"

"I want my
mama."

But by this time we'd pulled back into the station. The boys insisted on being the last ones off. Headed for the car, they spotted something fun. I let them play and thought, this was their gift, but I think it turned out to be mine.