How Far Have YOU Gone?

“People will tell you where they’ve gone; they’ll tell you where to go. But till you get there yourself, you never really know.”
~ Joni Mitchell, ‘Amelia’

If you’ve been around, you have stories. That used to be enough, when people had the patience to stop, listen, or read, and the imagination to see themselves in others’ recollections with intrigue or an appreciation of novel experiences. Today, a quote, a video (even a crappy one), or a tweet is about all that will hold the attention of, what I observed to be, a highly competitive and self-absorbed social arena. The old adage, ‘Quality not quantity’ doesn’t seem to hold much value in life experiences or in relationships, for that matter. It’s all about one-ups-men-ship, a bombardment of shocking facts and numbers, with no stamina to listen to or ‘read more…’

Occasionally, the lunchroom one-ups-men-ship topic drifts to a place where I once lived. I mean, really lived. Like my parents, storytelling was in the natural order of things. I learned to sit and listen, to mentally walk in their shoes, thereby experiencing the places and people that I knew I might never experience in my own life. This started at a young age, of course, before people bought into the concept that children have limited attention spans and are aching to go stimulate their brains with something more exciting like a video game which has resulted in, well, a host of new childhood problems that have run amuck.

Back in the teacher’s lounge, someone asked, how far north have you gone…south, east, and west? I’m sure the question wasn’t meant to elicit long answers, as we have all of maybe 20 minutes to inhale our lunches and get in a little adult conversation. But, of course, my early training kicks in, and a little excitement sprinkled with beautiful words in the hope of ‘getting others there’ starts to pulse through my storyteller veins, as if I’m sitting in front of a hearth with children at my feet who, ugh, are interested.

I lived in North Dakota for almost three years in my early 20s, through some of the meanest winters on record. I can still hear the frozen snow crunching beneath my boots and see my breath turn to ice crystals around my face…creating a snow-globe effect that was magical. Okay, on to the next person, who has miraculously driven through every state in the Union. I guess she wins; conversation over! And that appears to be what it’s all about these days; who wins with shortest, most dramatic comment.

People seem intimidated by the stories of others, as opposed to interested or curious, and terminology has changed. Lived-in, driven-through, or visited are not measurements that weigh the experience, anymore. One would argue that the questioner didn’t ask where we had lived. Yet, what is the point of ‘rating’ how far one has been, if they have simply driven through a corner of a state or stepped over a border only to yank their foot back with a proudly earned participation ribbon. That’s sort of like saying; I’ve had many lovers…in my mind (but not in my arms)! “North Dakota? It was dark and cold, I don’t know, I slept most of the way, but I’ve been there!! Ribbon please!”

Throw in the geocentric belief that everything where YOU LIVE is somehow bigger or better (as if one was personally in cahoots with God and had a hand in making it that way) and the attention quickly gets narrowed down to the, well, less experienced.

This is unfortunate.

Anyone who has ever LIVED in North Dakota, for instance, can tell you things that are anywhere from breath-taking, like seeing the northern lights dance across the plains, to horrifically desolate. The visual delight of seeing miles of indigo-colored flax in bloom, shoveling through the snow to get OUT of your house, and the dismals feeling of standing in a small grocery store in the dead of winter observing one’s choice of produce…a cabbage, an onion, and everything else is either rotten or not available; this, my friends, more aptly describe just how far north I have been.

Raised in the 1960s and 70s, many in our generation were all about leaving home as soon as possible. People strapped on their REI backpacks and headed out to hike the mountains, went off to ‘find themselves’ in far off places, thumbed their way down roads less traveled, joined communes, and left ‘the settling’ for later. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had never left. Yet, it was in the leaving that I learned to appreciate coming home. And it’s ‘in the living’ in different places that taught me how to appreciate other cultures and vistas, establish new friends, and navigate the highways of life. In short (if I must), I grew. I also found that I can ‘sit and listen or read’ other peoples’ stories without a need to one-up anyone. I just find it interesting how I am meeting fewer and fewer people that have this same sensibility. People just seem so uninterested in other places and life experiences other than their own.

A fellow Northerner and I were once dreamily recalling the beauty of autumn ‘up North.’ A Texas co-worker shook her head and said, “I could never leave Texas because I need the beach!” My friend, from ‘the land of 10,000 lakes,’ and I, from the ‘Great Lakes’ state, just looked at each other with puzzlement. There is safety in ignorance, I suppose, but it’s rather boring, and in this case embarrassing. When you try to explain the inland seas to people who have never seen them, it’s like trying to explain having a baby to a man. They don’t get it, and they don’t really want to know. End of conversation.

Photo by Alamy

Photo by Alamy

On another occasion, I was sharing my memories of Tahquamenon Falls, one of 84 magnificent waterfalls in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The falls are more than 200 feet across with a 48 foot drop, colored brown by the tannins leached from the cedar swamps which the river drains. Tahquamenon Falls is noted as being the land of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha – “by the rushing Tahquamenaw” where Hiawatha built his canoe. Naturally, someone quickly piped in with, “Oh, WE have tons of waterfalls here! You haven’t seen waterfalls until you’ve seen Gorman Falls!” one of 28 waterfalls in all of Texas, most fed by rainwater run-off. So, when there is no rain, they don’t fall. But, really, why does ‘sharing’ have to be so competitive? “My falls are better than your falls, nana-nana-boo-boo!” Given my before said training, I was curious about Gorman Falls, and quietly listened to the other’s experience. She didn’t seem to want to know anything about the root-beer colored water that rushes through the Hiawatha National Forest. End of conversation.

Likewise, try to explain the smell of Texas….rich with the warm roasted aroma of BBQ in the air, the intoxicating fragrance of Mountain Laurels in bloom, or how quickly a big rain can turn into a flash flood, to a Michigander, and one is met with a raised eye-brow and a quick dismissal. They’d prefer to hold on to their limited belief that all of Texas is covered with rolling tumbleweed. Try sharing the joy of canoeing a river and having beaver and river otters playfully flirt with one’s paddles, and get met with ‘beaver’ jokes. Share one’s experience of the Ozarks and the beauty of Arkansas with anyone from anywhere, and get the ‘dueling banjos’ whistled back at you. Share the bounty of Wisconsin apple orchards and serenity of its pastoral scenery to someone from Illinois and you get the cow-town jokes. Really? Is there no judgment-free wonderment left in people?

In short, people don’t want to know ‘how far you have been,’ in any detail. In fact, it seems to make people feel threatened. Blinders on, ear-plugs in; they proudly talk up their little neck of the woods. They don’t seem to want to know what else might be ‘out there.’ What gets lost in this disregard for other’s experiences are the stories that inspire travel, geography, insight, romance, and …growth.

To me this is leading to a very shallow and uninteresting human condition. Not unlike celebrating a couple who has been married for 50 years, neither of whom even talk to each other anymore, in fact their disdain for each other may be written all over their harden expressions, yet everyone around them is celebrating their longevity; it’s all about the quantity not the quality of the years. Let’s not tell the ‘real’ story of their long marriage. No one wants to ‘read more…’ After all, we may learn something that shakes up our safe status quo.

How far have I gone? I stepped over the Mississippi River once. Do I win?! Of course, it was the mouth of the Mississippi in Bemidji, Minnesota, which at that time was a babbling brook. But, oops, adding more of the truth just took away from how cool (and short) my answer was. No ribbon for me! I lose, but not really.

My mother, who in the last years of her life shared a bounty of wisdom with me because, well, I would listen, told me that after awhile no one wants to hear the stories of older people, so you learn to just smile and nod your head like you’ve never been anywhere or experienced anything. “It’s a peaceful feeling” she said, “like letting go. You can’t tell anybody anything. They have to live it for themselves.”

Texas Hill Country road Photo by Jeffrey W. Spencer

Texas Hill Country road
Photo by Jeffrey W. Spencer

I’m so glad I lived it for myself, from the North Dakota desolation, to the playful river otters, the deafening sound of 50,000 gallons of water per second pounding over the Michigan falls, to those loves (yes, sir, heart break and all), and the serenity of a drive along the wildflower-edged roads in the Hill Country of Texas. You can have your life-in-the-moment tweets and your competitive snap to out-do others. I, for one, will gladly listen to your stories, but have learned not to expect the same in return.

I imagine there will be many empty hearths someday. Maybe the tide will change, and a new generation will have a need to sit, listen, or read about other peoples’ lives without the urge to one-up the story-teller, thereby missing the beauty in the ‘sharing.’ With any luck, they may change the bleak course of our social interactions, to include more engagement, and less judgment or need to prove their experiences are ‘better.’ That’s my hope, anyway, as I learn to yield with, ‘a smile and nod of my head.’


If Not For the Rain…

“Come to the door my pretty one. Put on your rings and precious things. Hide all your tears as best you can, try to recall what use to be.” ~Gordon Lightfoot, “Love’s Return”

I sat on the porch swing tonight watching the rain pour down on our poor dried-up lawn. We’ve been in a severe drought for several years now.  Spring often starts out relatively green and fragrant, the mountain laurels heavy with purple blossoms, the red bud’s perky show of pinkish red flowers, the Mexican plum near my front door welcomes me home with a sweet aromatic bouquet. But soon the leaves fade to grayish-green, the lawns remain spotty, and everything seems to turn to dirt brown long before mid-summer with the cicadas buzzing in the trees and the sun sizzling the day into a baked emptiness.

As I softly swayed on the swing tonight, watching the rain roll off the roof, hovering slightly when the cold wind picked up and blew the downpour near, a bittersweet memory emerged of a porch-swing on a rainy evening long ago, though the memory was as clear as a bright blue-skied day.

I was in McKeesport, Pennsylvania with my boyfriend’s family, visiting his Croatian grandmother in her quiet little neighborhood of 1940s brick homes, tree-lined streets, manicured lawns, little pocket parks of swings and merry-go-rounds; the family neighborhood of steelworkers and immigrants who had prospered and stayed on.  His widowed grandmother made the best apple strudel I was ever to have, and moved around her house of many up and down staircases with ease and surety; a soft-footed ‘angel of the house,’ as Virginia Woolf would have observed.

My boyfriend and I were young, only 18 and 16 years old, but old-fashion and certain that ‘we’ were meant for each other.  We found ourselves sitting on his grandma’s porch swing, high above the street and rich green lawn, watching a thunderstorm shower this old eastern town with a hardy spring rain. We were happy to be away from the kin-folk, at last alone to soak up the drama of the rain storm and the sweetness of our young love.

He was everything to me, as I was everything to him. Not unlike other first time loves, we couldn’t get enough of each other. We, of course, lived by the moral foundations of our times, and weren’t about to blatantly make-out or get carried away on his grandma’s porch, but we found delight in the subtle exchange of little kisses, holding hands, and my leaning firm against his arm as I curled up closer to him with every thunder clap and spark of lightening.

It was simply a sweet moment. The air was rich with lilacs and lily of the valley and the fresh aroma of rain-cleaned streets with the swish of cars passing by. We didn’t talk much on that swing, but we seemed dreamily in the same place. We were intoxicated for the first time on love’s sweet promise and both seemed happily anxious about what the future had in store. I loved the scent of his skin, a scent that every now and then I will encounter on a young man passing by, or even my own son, of sweat and denim, Carhartt jackets and leather boots. He was not a boy of words, but he made it clear that he loved my bright eyes and rosy lips, and the feel of my little hand in his. That was enough for me, and I thought I could live on that complete feeling for the rest of my life.

But life had other things in store.

We were to marry four years later, but little did we know that we did not have the resolve to move through the challenges of life together. Perhaps we were too young and hadn’t really found out ‘who we were’ before we pledged our hearts to each other, but the road led us to faraway places and unforeseen sadness that our love simply could not shoulder. After nine years of marriage it was officially dissolved, and I never saw him again.

Forty-four years have gone by.  New loves, new places, many houses, marriage, babies, and grown children, and yet something as simple as a rainy night sitting on the porch swing transported me back to that place where I once felt completely loved and cherished, full of hope and possibilities. It has been so long since I’ve felt any of those feelings, that it was easy to rock in that image, to see it all again through the sheets of pouring rain, and to recall the warmth of an innocent time.

I don’t pine for him anymore, though I did for many years. He went his way and found what he was looking for, and for better or worse, I found my way in the world as well. But, I can’t help but wonder, maybe hope, that on some stormy night, when he, now gray and showing the years on his face, finds himself sitting on his porch watching the rain, that he might think of me in passing and remember how much we once loved each other.

I am surrounded by young people these days, all holding hands, gazing at each other with adoration and desire, happily making their plans and enjoying this time in their youth. It’s a joyful time, as it should be.  And yet I feel compelled to tell them secrets; secrets about love and how it can go right or wrong.

For love can be like the rain. It can be fickle. It can come in with gusto, be exhilarating, rolling and pounding away on your emotions like a thundering storm.  Or it can be torrential, flooding your thoughts and overwhelming you until you feel like you are drowning and need to save yourself. Or it can be a soft, constant shower, drenching you slowly with a gentle watering of pleasure and consistent nurturing.

But love, like the rain, can slow down, tapper off, come to a slow pensive drip off the house you built together and …stop, as well. And like the trees and plants in your garden, it can dry-up for lack of watering and subsidence. Love needs to be refreshed; carefully cultivate and gently re-planted, if need be, with the things that make it grow and blossom. Love does not continue on its own, and once it has been neglected long enough, it is like a plant that has not been nurtured, it’s stem gnarled and ugly, dried to a crisp, it’s roots detached; it most likely will not come back to life again.

It is unfortunate for some of us, now older and wiser with broken hearts that have been glued back together, that we should be so aware of this little secret about love when it is, well, almost too late. But perhaps, if the young are listening and watching carefully, they will learn from those of us who have lost. Love is not a stagnant emotion. If it is to remain alive, love must flow and breathe and be born again and again. Lovers must be vigilant. They need to watch their partners like a mother watches a child; know what it needs before it asks. They need to give each other space to grow, affection that never turns away, and words that produce more smiles than tears. Sometimes, in the depth of trouble and disappointment, that will be hard, almost impossible. But, do it anyway. Not because some piece of paper tells you that you must lawfully bind yourself to this person, or your church says your love was sanctioned by God.  Love begets love. This is a simple truth that is so easily tossed aside by pride and resentment. Don’t let the flower of your youth dry up for lack of love. Water it. Let it flow in sheets of passionate down pours or gentle, consistent showers, but let it come. A drought isn’t pretty. It’s a painful slow death from want and thirst.  If not for the rain, there would be no hope of life, or love’s longing to stay alive. Do it to hold on to the love you once had. That young love that sat sweetly on a porch swing watching the rain, hand-in-hand, with tender kisses between the threatening claps of thunder.

My swing is empty, the rain has stopped, yet my memories of love have taught me well. There is always hope for showers again tomorrow, a quenching of thirst after a long drought, a green garden and fruitful boughs and the promise, with nurturing, of sweet love’s return…and, maybe, a piece of apple strudel shared from a grandma’s old recipe box, on some soft rainy day.