Repository of Memory

1 03 2012

I sometimes astound my friends with stories about my childhood – their surprise generally surrounds either the fact that my five siblings and I never killed anyone or the concept that I was allowed to go places without my parents. Yes, friends, I am that old – I grew up in a time when no one was worried about children being snatched.

We lived, back then, in a house on a bluff, overlooking the Mississippi River and the flat valley it had carved into the landscape. The downtown, and many places of significance in my childhood, were located in those flats. Most forays both within and outside of my neighborhood involved negotiating either steep streets or flights of endless stairs carved into the bluffside.

Two blocks from my house, at a point where the street turned a corner and opened into a spectacular view of the city and river below, there stood a curious handrail. In the street itself, surrounding a hole in the pavement. As one approached closer to the hole, stairs could be seen, disappearing under a graceful arch of carved limestone blocks. At the bottom of those stairs, a walker was forced to navigate about half a block of very steep sidewalk, often broken and littered with glass, before reaching flat land. Positioned exactly there, an immense and imposing edifice became one of the happiest locations of my childhood.

The Carnegie-Stout Public Library. (click to see an old postcard of the edifice)

I can remember my mom coaching me the first time I was allowed to go to the library by myself. I was never very confident doing things on my own, so it is a measure of my desire that I was unwilling to wait for a parent or siblings to make the trip. Down through the hole in the street I went, taking my time on the stairs and the steep sidewalk (if I remember correctly, mom was watching from the street above, and I wanted to prove my maturity by not running and, inevitably, falling.)

I always chose the grand main entrance, though the side door led directly to my final destination. However, I loved those broad stairs, colonnades, and the stone lions guarding the massive wood doors. Inside, the reading rooms flanking the main hall, beckoned. One had comfy, overstuffed leather furniture, the other library tables with reading lamps. But I was afraid of the serious old men in these rooms, perusing their big city newpapers, so I generally passed through quickly. I always visited the adult literature section, not because I wanted to check out the books, but because of the winding iron staircase leading to the glass-floored loft in that section. I loved the surprise of the glass floor, the tall black stacks full of books, the iron railings which allowed a view of the open main floor and its lofty ceilings from a higher vantage point.

The second floor was not officially off-limits, but it was filled with offices and meeting rooms. Adults I didn’t know always asked if they could help me, and I got the impression from their tones that children weren’t completely welcome on that level. Typically, I scampered back down the marble stairs fairly quickly. Straight down to the basement where, as far as I was concerned, the real magic happened: the children’s room.

The room was bright, if shabby, and full of stories waiting for me to discover them. The librarians knew me, and knew what would interest me: at first, stories about pixies and fairies; then chapter books about families like “The Five Little Peppers”. Eventually, books and authors I could sink my teeth into. Frances Hodgson Burnett (A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy). The Boxcar Children. Nancy Drew. Any- and every- thing ever written by Louisa May Alcott.

As a child, I had many fancies about my world: our yard, our neighborhood, our town. This helped to make the world feel intimate and comfortable. As I grew older, I realized that the world was huge and not particularly cozy. Its vastness began to frighten me. When I discovered reading, particularly novels, I found that there was another, equally vast, world inside my own imagination. In this vastness, whether the setting was familiar or alien, I was always safe – if sometimes challenged to be more or think more deeply and broadly than before.

Sometime after I left home, the library built and addition and moved all the public spaces into it, closing off the original grand library (turning it into offices and storage rooms). I was incensed by this. Recently, though, the library underwent a renovation. I had an opportunity to visit, and was pleased to see that, in the renovation, someone had cared enough to upgrade while paying homage to the original detail. It isn’t the same, but it evokes similar feeling. The children’s room, in its traditional space in the basement, is bright and interactive. Perhaps today’s children will find magic there, just as I once did. I hope so.

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Friends: I would like to invite any of you who may be interested to submit a guest post to Jenion. Guest posts are a great way to test the blogging waters (for those who’ve wanted to blog but are unsure of the commitment) or, if you already have a blog, to share something that doesn’t fit your own blog’s theme. Here at Jenion, its all about aha moments, personal transformation and/or growth, weight loss, emotional development. Honesty and humor are both welcome! If you have a story along these lines you’d like to share, please email or write a reply to this post and we’ll “talk”!





A RAGBRAI Story – Part 1

3 08 2011

A Saturday afternoon, July or August, 1978, Loveland, Ohio (just outside Cincinnati). Flipping through the television channels, my father and I start watching a documentary. It is about a bike ride across the state of Iowa – our home state, which we still love. More of the family wanders in while we watch, and by the end of the show at least my Dad and I are convinced: RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) is the coolest thing ever. We SO want to do it (never mind the small fact that neither of us rides our bikes voluntarily.)

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8:15 a.m. Friday morning, July 29, 2011. My friend and training partner, Sarah, and I crested a hill on Highway 6, outside of Grinnell, Iowa. Morning fog was just burning off the cornfields covering the rolling hills which spread off in every direction. We looked at each other, grinning, but also misty-eyed. A brightly colored river of people on bicycles, its current weaving and undulating, was visible for miles ahead on the pavement that lay before us. We were finally riding on RAGBRAI!

For every rider on RAGBRAI, there are two narratives: one that is purely individual and another which is all about community. The individual narrative is about the motivation, preparation, and determination required to successfully complete what can be a physically grueling test of endurance (even for someone, like me, only riding one 75 mile day of the week-long event). In all of my training rides, every mile I rode leading up to that morning’s start in Grinnell, I thought that this individual story was the story. I was completely inside my own head.  Had I progressed far enough away from the 350+ pound sedentary couch potato I once was to successfully complete this challenge? At 50? For me, this individual story is an important one – but it pales by comparison to the other narrative – the one about community that took me by surprise and brought me to tears numerous times throughout the day.

The second story began at 5:16 a.m. when I was standing in my driveway, in my bike shorts and Mustang jersey, trying not to freak out because my ride and the other bicyclist embarking with us, weren’t there yet. Then I heard a honking horn and my friends, Layne and Kristen, shouting “Yeah, Mustangs! RAGBRAI here we come! Woo Hoo!” Did my neighbors appreciate this serenade? Doubtful. But it brought a smile to my face. We loaded my stuff, and my friend Tricia’s, into the back of the borrowed pickup truck, then rendezvoused with the two other trucks loaded with our team and their bikes.

Once we arrived in Grinnell via gravel roads (the main access to town was blocked due to RAGBRAI), it was time to wipe off the road dust, pump up the tires, and meet the rest of “Team Mustang” at the park in town. Before leaving the park, our “road crew” got out the sharpie markers and wrote on our legs, telling the other 10,000 riders that I was celebration turning 50. Talk about a birthday celebration – nothing like having hundreds of birthday wishes shouted to you by passing strangers! Anyway, at 8:02, it was time to mount up and take off. We rode through town to the cheers and well-wishes of Grinnell’s citizens.

There are so many details of that day etched in my mind. I would love to share them all, but in the interest of time, I will share those which most illuminate the story about community. My friends Colette, Wendy and Tricia chose to participate on the ride primarily to join me in the celebration of my birthday. They, too, have their own individual narratives about the ride, but I know that they chose to put themselves through the experience in support of me. Sarah spent countless hours with me, the slow-but- slowly-improving rider, leading up to the day. While we were separated on the road, it helped to know that, somewhere in that sea of polyester and spandex, were people who love me.

We met up with our support team again in Marengo (the halfway point) for lunch and some much needed companionship – not to mention rest. I was daunted by the morning’s ride. Not ready in any way to give up, but very unsure if I had the reserves to finish the day. Truthfully, after the initial happiness of seeing the group together again, we were all a bit sober – having discovered that the day would be harder than we anticipated. But the hour we spent, eating and laughing on a stranger’s front lawn, reminded us that we were in it together, no matter how alone we necessarily were in pedaling our bikes. We left Marengo in a pack of matching blue and gold jerseys, to the cries of “Go Mustangs” from passing cyclists.

After lunch, I lost Tricia, who had been my riding partner most of the morning. I rode the entire first leg of the afternoon on my own. The road from Marengo to Homestead, Amanas, was a long, flat one. It wound through a valley so beautiful that I could not believe my good fortune – no hills AND the best of Iowa to look at! My spirits lifted, and I was so overcome by gratitude, I pulled out my phone and called my parents in New Mexico just to tell them how amazing it was. I wanted my Dad to know that we were right, back in 1978 – RAGBRAI is the coolest thing ever!

Heading into Homestead was a long hill, but I could hardly complain after the miles of flat terrain just completed. I shifted into low gear and took as long as I needed to crest the hill. Just as I did, my phone rang – my friends were in Homestead and waiting for me in the beer tent!

In front of the concession tents were hundreds, maybe thousands, of bikes. Some were very expensive, most had bags attached crammed with valuable items for the ride. Not one was locked. Such was the community feeling. The party in the beer tent was one of the happiest I’ve ever participated in. Not one person looked anything but sweaty, dirty, tired and completely exuberant. As the Mustang team congregated, the live band performed “Mustang Sally” for us. Amid the dancing and cheering, every 50 year old woman in the tent found me to wish me a happy birthday and offer me a drink (which I politely declined because I don’t trust myself to drink and ride). Serendipitously, I literally ran into a college friend, Sue Sweeney, whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years. But it was the hugs and congratulations of my teammates and friends that put joy in my heart. When Ryan Scheckel, who had been sleeping off the effects of the previous day’s ride (and party) finally caught up with us, proudly wearing his Mustang jersey, I thought the day was complete.

Except that we still had 25 miles to go. And the final 17 were expected to be the hardest, with over 1,000 feet of uphill climb.

(Tomorrow: Part 2)





I Don’t Think We Need to Know…

21 04 2011

“I don’t believe we need to know what below zero feels like.

Or why we die: that, too, I don’t think we need to know.

Why life is hard? I think not.

It’s hot inside, it’s cold out:

that’s already a lot to know…”

–from “I Don’t Think We Need to Know” by Jim Moore

This past weekend, I did something that is likely to become a thing of the past. Something that I have taken for granted is a right, but which most of the world would consider a wasteful luxury, and certainly not in the least eco-friendly. I took a four hour road trip by myself. Driving solo through the midwestern landscape, the horizon called me, if not to adventure, at least to less-familiar places, faces I didn’t already recognize.

For most of the drive, I listened to “All Things Considered” on NPR. The stories were interesting, but as we’ve all experienced, the news has a tendency to depress. I realized, speeding along the interstate, that lately I’ve thought a lot about things I’d rather NOT know – the fact that butterflies, honeybees and millions of other species are disappearing and may be gone within my limited lifetime. Or that police officers were arrested for the killings resulting in mass graves in Mexico. Or that sugar may be a toxin implicated in the rise in US cancer rates.

While I’d rather not know these things, I believe they are things I should know.

On Saturday, in Magers and Quinn, a huge independent bookstore in Minneapolis, I picked up a volume of poetry, Lightning at Dinner by Jim Moore, and discovered the poem quoted above. And during my lovely four hour drive home on Sunday, I had leisure to consider: Are there things I don’t think we need to know?

Here’s my list, delivered less poetically than Moore’s:

  • I don’t think we need to know why the sky is blue, though I’m told the answer’s easy. It is enough that it is beautiful and changeable and can handle all the prayers and dreams we confide to it.
  • Do we need to know how many germs, and what kind, are on the elevator button? I don’t think so, “Good Morning America”. Please stop telling us!
  • I doubt we need to know the illusory difference between a “certificate of live birth” and a “birth certificate”, despite some individuals’ need to keep talking about it.
  • We don’t need to know why, some days, our beds feel too comfortable to leave. Just luxuriate in that moment.
  • Do we need to know why the grass we just crossed in our bare feet was suddenly, inexplicably, wet? Let’s agree not to think about it.
  • Some people feel like home the moment we meet them. Do we need to know why, or just be grateful, ever so grateful, that they do?
  • Do we need to know the inner workings of grace? Or to pinpoint the brain’s intricate wiring that leads us to experience what we call faith? And let go of the mystery and wonder? I hope not.
  • I don’t believe we need to know how love happens, only that it does.
These are the very important thoughts I was able to dwell upon during my sinfully luxurious solitary trip home on Sunday. Do we need to know everything we know? Surely not. The things we do need to know can be awfully heavy to bear, therefore, perhaps choosing not to know some things might be a kindness we can do ourselves.
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Note to readers: What do you think we don’t need to know? Please share in the comments — that’s one thing I DO want to know!




Milestones

22 07 2010

My sister, Chris, was born 13 months before me.  My brother, Jeff, 13 months after me.  Throughout our childhoods and teen years, we did the same things, met the same people, experienced the same milestones of life at virtually the same times – or each on the heels of the others.  That all changed in July 1980.  On a very hot day, July 19 to be exact, Chris married Dave Finnegan and began what has, this week, been 30 years of life together.  Not too many years later, in 1982, Jeff married Marsha.

On Monday, Chris and Dave’s 30th anniversary, I was in Cedar Falls visiting Jeff and Marsha and marvelling at the passage of time, the beautiful family and life they have created together, and realizing that my life stopped including the same milestones as theirs way back in the 80s.  Back then, I didn’t think much of it.  I assumed that, like them, I’d meet someone, fall in love, get married, have a family.

As time passed and that didn’t happen, I rolled with it.  Throughout my 20s, I didn’t worry much about getting married.  Sometime in my mid-30s, I started to realize that it might not happen.  It was easy, for the next decade or so to imagine that the problem of a husband or lover would resolve itself if I just lost weight.  As long as I told myself the reason no one wanted me was a physical issue, I could allow myself to believe that other people’s shallow feelings were to blame.

But deep down inside, I wondered.  I was a lot like Jennifer Anniston’s character in the movie “He’s Just Not That Into You”.  At her sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner, a cousin gives a toast, intended to include good-natured ribbing about the character’s single status, that goes too far.  Anniston walks away from the table, and her father comes up and says, “Cousin Joe’s a jackass.  Always has been.”  Anniston’s character says, “I know.  And yet, even HE is married.”  As in, “If that ass can be married, what is so terribly wrong with me?  Because I must be really unlovable or things would be different.”

Next week will include my 49th birthday.  Not really a milestone year (watch out next year, though!).  I’m still single.  As I’ve lost weight, I’ve had to confront a host of toxic beliefs I’ve been carrying around in my heart.  One milestone I’ve recently celebrated is actually believing I am someone to love, not just someone who can love.   Another is that, after years of wishing for a passionate lover to sweep me off my feet and change me or my life for good, I’m actually happy with my life and am not looking for a hero or savior.

Here’s what I find myself wishing for now:  an intimate friend like my siblings have found.  Someone to share my daily life and mundane tasks with — someone to split a sandwich with, if I’m not hungry enough to eat a whole one.  These are the things I envy when I see my siblings’ and parents’ marriages.  Well, that and the way they run interference for each other, softening the blows life deals out, soothing hurts, or telling each other the truth when they need to hear it.

Don’t read this post and think I’m sad or lonely.  I’m not (well, only a little and only some of the time — and I understand this is the case for married people, too!).  I accept that I don’t control what the future holds and I’ll be okay whatever does or doesn’t happen.  More importantly, recent insights make me, finally, feel that diverging from the path Chris and Jeff took, and hitting a whole different set of milestones, has been a worthwhile journey, after all.





What We Desire Travels With Us

1 07 2010

I have been thinking about this line from a Denise Levertov poem all week:  what we desire travels with us.  This is true, I think, across distances, across time, across differing levels of maturity or growth.

When I was a teenager, I spent one evening hanging out at the home of my best friend’s mother’s best friend.  Four women, two teens and two in their 50s, bonding over canned peppers (we tasted mild, hot, and fiery) and the ways we experienced our gender.  I’ve never forgotten that night, and I still desire time with my women friends, times of support and solidarity and sisterhood.

Last weekend, my cousin visited and when we got up on Sunday morning, we talked and laughed over a pot of coffee.  Some of my favorite moments have been these unremarkable early morning coffee-klatches with family or friends.  I love a solitary and reflective cup of coffee at the local coffee shop, but I still desire the unguarded and open moments of sharing before beginning the day’s tasks.

My friend Sue is a talented basket weaver and jewelry maker.  “I just want someone to do this with me,” she regularly laments, explaining why she hasn’t created anything lately.  I totally understand her dilemma, because my whole life I have desired the same — companions nearby who share my interests and schedule, who will just be physically present with me while we do our things.

There are transient desires in my life as well…sometimes I think I need this thing or that gadget.  Good Will has benefitted greatly from the purchases made while experiencing these impulses (a brown down coat that made me resemble a human-sized turd; the “Twilight” book series; a host of neon-colored plastic baubles).  But the lasting desires remain steady, even if the surface details change.  An endless summer day that winds down to a magical moonlit night is timeless, though the activities it contains may vary over the years.  The love of dear people who know us intimately is deeply desired, though each relationship takes on its own unique character.

Like the nautilus, that lovely “living fossil”, we carry our homes with us — though theirs is literal and ours is a figurative home.  As the nautilus shell curves inward, into ever smaller chambers, so do our desires:  as we strip away the outer details, we find ever smaller kernels of desire for which our hearts truly long.  And these desires are the companions of our lifes journeys, whether we acknowledge them or not.  What I am learning, on my journey, is that it is acknowledging what we desire, without judging ourselves or our worthiness, that brings us closest to satisfying our heart’s deepest wishes.