The Landscape of Love

11 06 2015

“If you know one landscape well, you will look at all other landscapes differently. And if you learn to love one place, sometimes you can also learn to love another.”
― Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

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I walked the long block in the rain. The only other people I saw were in cars driving past, on their way to work at 7:50 a.m. The door to The Boiler Room stood open, and as I walked in I was greeted by Michael, the owner and sometimes barrista. He asked, “How many days left?” When I said, “Three,” he replied, “Wow! That went fast!”

He doesn’t even know the half of it! Michael was referring to the brief weeks since I’ve known I would be leaving Minneapolis. But his comment made me think about the entire two years I’ve lived here and how they have flown past. Time is such a strange and fickle construct – after all, the first winter I was here was one of the longest, coldest, snowiest on record. Every moment of that winter time seemed to crawl miserably by. Yet now, it all feels like a flash of light passing ever so swiftly before my eyes.

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I arrived in Minneapolis just in time for the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Mike and I spent two days celebrating: a Twins game, riding bikes back and forth across the Mississippi River, eating great food at local restaurants. The other two days were a marathon of driving, loading, unloading and more driving to get me officially moved. Once that weekend was over, though, Mike went back to work and I was left to my own devices in a new and, mostly, unknown city.

That first day, I got on my bike and rode. I found The Midtown Greenway, and rode until I hit the river. Now I know I took the West River Parkway, but then I had no idea where I was headed: I just kept riding as long as there was a trail. Eventually, I ended up at Minnehaha Falls (though I didn’t know how to find the falls and rode right past). I took a photo of the train depot there, and texted it to Mike with the caption, “Guess where I am?”  Looking back, I laugh at the fact that, actually, neither one of us knew where I was!

Before that ride, I was drawn to this city for many reasons. But that was the day that Minneapolis took up residence in my heart. The day I felt for the first time that we truly belonged together. Like most relationships, my love affair with this city has had its ups and downs. During the Polar Vortex of 2013-14, I seriously considered a break up. Often, when I was poor and discouraged by an interminable and dehumanizing job search, I thought that perhaps love was not enough to live on. Through it all, though, there was a thread of joy that kept me feeling that this thing between Minneapolis and I was just “right” somehow.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned from loving this place:

For attraction to deepen into love, you have to see beyond the superficial. Early in my time here, I happened upon a local resident’s blog. The purpose of the blog was to showcase how, in the mind of its creator, the city was becoming uglier every year. While I understood the author’s points and the political statement he was making, I just couldn’t comprehend taking such a negative view. In my response to his blog were the seeds of one of the best things I did over the two years I’ve been a Minneapolitan: my #dailypicofmpls Instagram project. I made it a point to get out and about, both in my own neighborhood and in the larger city, to really SEE things. Big things (like the iconic Stone Arch Bridge) and little things (like quirky messages hand-chalked on sidewalks). I chronicled the sights I saw, indelibly imprinting the city on my heart one block at a time. I tried to embrace it all: the good and the bad; what was ugly and what was lovely.

When you love a place, the issues that matter to that place become issues that matter to you. After the fall elections of 2013, I found myself celebrating representation by people who value similar things to me. For the first time in my adult life, I attended events featuring my ward’s councilwoman; our mayor; the city’s bike and pedestrian coordinator. On a bicycle tour of “The Grand Rounds”, I saw firsthand the unequal distribution of city funding. At Open Streets events I visited both affluent and less affluent neighborhoods, but was able to celebrate the vibrancy and unique character of each. On my own street, I spent time in places where I was the only non-Somali person present, I visited a powerful exhibit of Native American Artists at the First Nations Gallery, and I silently filed past the ghost bike commemorating a cyclist struck and killed by a drunk driver.

Love (like growth and most other worthwhile things) takes seed and flowers when you push yourself outside the confines of your comfort zone. For much of my life I let my introvert tendencies have ascendency – meaning I mostly sat back and waited for things to come to me. Living in a large metropolitan area, working part-time, and knowing exactly four people here when I arrived meant that mode of operation was not an option. So I pushed myself – to attend events, to talk to strangers, to make connections. I went to group bike rides solo. I walked and biked all over, often stopping to enter coffee shops and strange places (a chandlery, a visual arts center, a tiny neighborhood fresh foods market). I tried paddle-boarding, mountain biking, alley-cat racing. I volunteered as a bike parking attendant and as a photographer. I went to odd places and famous venues to see live music by musicians I’d never heard of. I joined a writer’s group and a joyful community of cyclists. Not every experience was wonderful, but each one helped me understand the value of being proactive rather than passive in my own life. And some truly beautiful souls entered my life as a result!

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As I walked back to my apartment from The Boiler Room I thought about the many things I will miss about Minneapolis, then about how little effort I made to love Cedar Rapids during the seventeen years I lived there last time. While there are many people I love(d) in Iowa, the only patch of ground I made any effort to care about was the hill on which Mount Mercy University stood.

I know now that I have to extend my own boundaries in ways I never did before I came to Minneapolis. I’m willing to concede that my failure to love Cedar Rapids as a place may have been a failure of my own imagination rather than a failure of the city to have anything to offer. More than that, I never invested myself there as I have here. Hopefully, I’ll be able to put what I’ve learned from my sojourn in Minneapolis into action in Cedar Rapids.

In the meantime, I’m going to let the rain today express my sadness about leaving the City of Lakes. Don’t misunderstand: I am excited about the new opportunities opening in my life. But for a little while, I need to feel the emotions connected with leaving this city I’ve grown to love so deeply. And, because there’s no equivalent to The Boiler Room in my new neighborhood, I may have to brave the downpour for another Americano.

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Our bikes outside The Boiler Room, Thanksgiving Day, 2013

 

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Jumping the Tracks

10 10 2013

“The enormous lake stretched flat and smooth and white all the way to the edge of the gray sky. Wagon tracks went away across it, so far that you could not see where they went; they ended in nothing at all.” — Laura Ingalls Wilder

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No one tells you, when you’re young, that there are choices you make that set you on a road from which there will be no deviation. Or at least from which you will not know or feel you can deviate. A woman who counts the days (in years) until her kids graduate so she can quit the job she hates. A man who has created two lives, his public one and his private one, who always feels divided within himself. Another who randomly got a job in a lucrative field and has never been able to walk away. Me, working my ass off in a job that was fulfilling but also usurping, leaving almost no space for me in my own life.

Sometimes, I resisted change out of love – love for the mission and mercy of the institution I worked at, love for the students whose lives I was privileged to participate in, love for my colleagues whose hearts and souls were so amazing. Sometimes, I resisted change out of fear – of failing, of being too much or not enough of the “right” things. Whether out of fear or love, resistance kept me on the track I was on, moving forward as far as my eyes could see into a future that held more of the same. Resistance, when we give in to it, is  an insidious form of self-betrayal.

Resistance is self-betrayal because it manifests in these ways: it causes us to be silent when we need to speak; it  justifies dishonesty about our true selves; it effectively hoards our gifts and talents when they exist to be shared. Marianne Williamson has, famously, said “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” So we hide, we make ourselves small. Not to prevent us, in my opinion, from outshining others, but to prevent us from being seen when our true shining selves are revealed. What we love and what we fear cause resistance because they both carry the price of vulnerability.

So, what is it like to jump the tracks? I wondered for a very long time. Years of agonizing soul searching. Years of excuses. Years of making my friends listen to all of that soul searching and excuse-making. (Obviously, I have the most incredibly supportive friends!) And in all that time, I didn’t do any real planning. Any real preparing. I felt incapacitated until the thought of remaining on the tracks, the resistance, became more prominent and painful than either the fear or the love keeping me there – and I just jumped.

Here’s what it is like: it is like being a new soul again.

I cannot contain my curiosity. There is so much to see and read and learn, so much content and innovation, so many ideas. I read and explore on-line until I can’t see anymore.

Then I go outside and explore my city. I knew I didn’t care for the city I lived in and called home for almost two decades. I didn’t realize how stifling I found it. I don’t mean to dis Cedar Rapids – it is objectively a great place. It just wasn’t for me. This city makes me feel expansive: the diversity of people, of neighborhoods, of opportunities.

I am in love with creating. When I unpacked my boxes, I discovered fifteen unopened artist’s sketchbooks – which definitely says something about what my heart knew I should be doing (not necessarily drawing, but creating). I’ve been busy taking photographs, writing, creating recipes from delicious food. Here’s the thing about allowing your creative self the freedom to breathe after years of pushing it down inside – you’re a newbie and you suck (not so much with the recipes, they’re tasty. But with the writing…oy!) Even sucking feels pretty good right now because I am writing.

I have two primary fears: not finding a job, and conversely, taking one out of necessity that recreates the “tracked” lifestyle. Out of fear, and a whole new set of loves, I still betray myself via resistance – I hold back, I worry about acceptance rather than experience, I allow discomfort with the unknown to stop me. I am also discovering that the world in general prefers when we are on the tracks. It makes more sense to people, they know how to define us when we’re on a specific track in life. There is a subtle pressure to get back on, to resume that endless trip toward a gray horizon.

I probably could have jumped the tracks sooner. I could have chosen a different means or method of doing so. I could even, probably, be doing this trackless exploration differently right now. Perhaps in the future I’ll look back and think, “Wow, that was a dumb way to do it!” The only thing I know for sure right now is that I can breathe more deeply than I have in years. That each day seems to be so brimming with possibilities it is often difficult to choose from among them. But I’ve always been a hard worker, it’s in my DNA. So I am gradually buckling down to the work of self-discipline – which is vastly different when the things I am being disciplined about feed my soul and don’t just earn a satisfactory performance review and a heap more work.

It is a strange thing to realize that I have had these choices all along. No matter what I was told, or what I grew up believing. No matter what pressures I felt internally or externally. It is strange to know that I will continue to make some choices out of fear or love or resistance that may not be the best choices for me. It is especially strange to realize that I took comfort from the very tracks that steered my life away from being the life, and me becoming the person, that was meant to be. When you jump the tracks, that false comfort is denied to you. You have to find your own stride in the trackless wilderness.

And that seems a fitting way to describe where I am today: I jumped the tracks, and now I’m finding my own stride. I can’t quite see the features of the horizon, but it isn’t gray. And my tracks won’t end up going nowhere at all – they’re heading somewhere of my own creation.

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Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home

13 06 2013

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As we were leaving church after the service, slowly processing out in single-file, my mother stopped the man in front of me.

“Mike! Mike! Is this your hat?”, she asked, handing him a straw cowboy hat.

“Yes, ma’am it is. Almost left without it!”

“Did you see my daughter taking a picture of it?,” Mom asked.

“Is that what you were doing?,” Mike asked me. “I wondered.”

“Well, you just don’t see that in Iowa,” I said, referring to the cowboy hats left resting on the adobe sills of many of the church’s stained-glass windows.

Mike frowned. “Don’t they allow hats in the churches up there?”, he asked.

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A brief conversation was all that was needed to explain that most midwestern churches don’t have thick adobe walls and, thereby, deep window ledges on which to rest hats. And that most men don’t have expensive Sunday hats – their feed caps are left at home or in the car during church services. However, as I departed Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, the cowboy hats sparked a train of thought. I was thinking about the phrase “Any place I hang my hat is home”.

Home. Always an evocative word, but especially so now, when I find myself both unemployed and homeless (albeit both busy and sheltered). Where is home for me now?

At mass on Sunday, I felt at home. Although I am by no stretch of the imagination a practicing Catholic, my spiritual life began in the Church. Despite years of choosing not to participate, I find that Catholicism’s rites are comforting to me in times of upheaval and change. As comforting as it may be, though, I don’t really think the Church encompasses the definition of home for me.

When, as now, I am staying with my parents, I think of myself as at home – though I’ve never actually lived in either this house or in Rio Rancho. The last actual structure I shared with my parents was on Andrew Court in Dubuque, Iowa 30 years ago. Whenever I find myself in Dubuque, I think of it as my hometown. I also feel deeply connected to the Mississippi River, and regardless of which state I am in when I see her rolling waters, I have a sensation of home.

Interestingly, I lived in Cedar Rapids for 17 years and never thought of that city as home. Instead, I thought of the people who populated my life, though they bore no blood relationship to me, as family. Since “family” is what typically populates “home”, I suppose in some sense Cedar Rapids could be considered home. Mount Mercy University probably deserves that appellation, though I’ve definitely left that home in my past.

After racking my brain to answer the question, “Where is home for me now?”, all I was able to come up with were bits and pieces. The truth is, while home may be a physical place, when we say home, we so often mean something more than mere geography. In a 2011 article in The Atlantic, Julie Beck writes, “If home is where the heart is, then by its most literal definition, my home is wherever I am.” When I read it, that statement struck me as the same level of cliché as “Wherever you go, there you are.” Obvious. Literal. True. But missing the point. My beating heart is wherever I am physically located, but my feeling heart is often elsewhere. Despite my best efforts to live in the present moment, I find that I am divided – that my emotional heart has left pieces of itself – among many homes.

In the weeks leading up to my move, I felt courageous and strong. I have rarely felt as grounded and ready for the future as I did at my going away party, surrounded by my oldest, youngest, and many of my dearest friends. Realizing this, I did a quick inventory of the recent past and discovered that, as I have developed stronger and more meaningful relationships, I have also felt less fear in new situations: sightseeing on foot alone in Philadelphia; losing my way on a detour and self-navigating out of Chicago’s Loop; a host of smaller solo adventures. It seems that having a deeply rooted sense of belonging or connectedness, of an emotional home, is key to maintaining a sense of courage and adventure – is central to holding an idea of myself as strong enough to keep venturing into unknown territory.

And having that connectedness for several years now, I was unprepared for the fearfulness I felt this week in ordinary situations I would typically take in stride.  On Monday morning, for example, I was nearly paralyzed with fearful indecision about where to ride my bike. Every choice seemed dreadfully scary.  In the Harry Potter novels, the character, Voldemort, split his soul and placed pieces of it in a variety of objects called horcruxes. These horcruxes preserved his immortality but left him vulnerable. That is how I felt, suddenly. Like I had left a piece of myself with each of the people who gave strength to my sense of self, and who were now separated from me by great distances. I felt very vulnerable. I found myself wanting to cling to my parents, the warmth of their physical presence comforting me.

Thankfully, I’ve learned that when fear and anxiety begin to ratchet up, it’s best to take a time out and practice some good mental hygiene. So I spent some time in reflection, thinking about the difficult nature of transitions. After some quiet thought, prayer, and deep breathing a couple of simple truths occurred to me. First, I’m already mid-leap. The time for fear, if there was a time, was before I quit my job, packed all my belongings and stuffed them in storage. If my life were a game of poker, I’d already be all-in.

Second, the horcrux analogy is flawed. I haven’t left pieces of myself behind with the people I love. We’ve spent years building those relationships, binding our hearts to one another’s with cords that are flexible (and stretchy), but incredibly strong. And while I am vulnerable because of these relationships, it is the ordinary vulnerability that we all risk when we open our hearts to another person, not a fatal flaw like Achilles’ heel. This kind of vulnerability is, paradoxically, necessary to the development of strong relationships – and to the development, at least for me, of a strong sense of self-efficacy.

After I realized these things, I could once again think about the concept of home without panic. So what if I don’t have a physical location to designate as “Home” at this very moment? Maybe it is cliché to think that if home is where my heart is, wherever I am is home. What’s so wrong with being cliché sometimes? I’ve brought the strength that I receive from the love and support of friends and family with me, as surely as I arrived in New Mexico with a framed photo of the extraordinary women who make up my book club. Their smiles remind me that, while I may be required to face my fears alone sometimes, I will be loved whether I meet with success or failure. And isn’t that part of home, too? They’ll take you in, at home, no matter whether you succeed brilliantly or fail miserably.

After all of these musings about the nature of home, and its meaning for me during this moment of transition in my life, I had to smile when I received a text from Minneapolis, a city I’ve never lived in. It contained a photo of kites and the line, “We are so doing this when you get home.”  Still smiling, I grabbed my bike helmet (the closest thing I have to a hat) and headed out the door to face my “scary” biking options.

I guess, after all, it’s true what they say: “Any place I hang my hat is home.”





New Year’s Day in Cedar Rapids, IA

1 01 2013

Two new photos posted on http://theviewfromtwocities.wordpress.com/.

Just a couple of homey Cedar Rapids shots for the new year!





Defining Moments

14 06 2012

I have a friend from college who is on an extended vacation in Berlin. His Facebook posts paint little scenes for us, snippets of his experiences. He writes of many ghosts: in the apartment where he is staying; in the old graveyard where half the plots are tended and the other half are (mysteriously) overgrown and wild; the whispering voices of history on the Reichstag lawn at 2 a.m.

Tonight, I have my own voices from the past whispering in my ears.

Today is the anniversary of the 2008 floods which swept through Cedar Rapids, the worst natural disaster in Iowa’s history. I’ll never forget it. For more than a year beforehand, my colleagues and I had worked to put together a campus crisis/disaster plan. That planning team, and our many meetings, is where some of my best friends and most valued colleagues were cultivated. And when the flood hit our town, and the plan we had created was enacted…I was hiking in the desert southwest.

That day my parents and I were in the mountains visiting a chain of remote national monuments, old Spanish missions. At each stop, the ranger at the information desk would ask, “Where you folks from?”, and my Dad would say, “Albuquerque. But our daughter is visiting from Cedar Rapids.” And every single person asked, “Isn’t that where they’re having that terrible flood?” Each time, I felt my sense of panic ratchet up a notch. I was not where I needed to be.

It’s interesting to look back at your own life and find those moments just before something big changes. Just before your perspective shifts, creating a new way of looking at the world around you.

There were many changes to Cedar Rapids, to the lives of people who live here, brought about by the flood. I would never want to minimize the difficulties and ways people suffered. For me, though, the flood changed something deep inside: for the first time, after living here for years, I thought of Cedar Rapids as my home town. And myself as part of this community.

I’ve written about perspective before (here): how hard it is to keep, how it can be regained in a moment of stunned reaction to a major life event. It is especially difficult to maintain perspective when we live cocooned in the false notion of self-reliance. When we think we are in “it” by ourselves, whether “it” is our job, raising our children, living through a serious illness, or simply trying to get through the day. The truth, hard as it is to hang on to when we feel alone, is that we are not alone.

This sense of being part of a community has only grown in me over the years since the flood. I didn’t suddenly start seeing Cedar Rapids as my dream city, or the only place I could ever live. However, I’ve come to understand that community transcends place, while it is also grounded in a place. We call that place “home”.