There hasn’t been much time for letting the words gel in my own current existence, but rest assured, some will come. In the mean time, some words from a while ago, during another May anniversary of mine.
May 16, 2009
In a couple of days it will have been one year since I moved from Kentucky. A place that I debated whether or not I should try to make it feel more like a home. The pace I kept didn’t lend itself to many moments of reflection in this vein, so I don’t know really what I ended up with after the fourth and final cross-country drive. Enough time has elapsed that Bowling Green has slipped into a dream state, a place called Folkloreland. Sometimes I don’t believe that I really lived there. My very first night in Kentucky was thick with humidity. As my family settled into our Kozy Kabin at the KOA on Three Springs Road, I walked to the bathroom in a haze of late night cicada song. This thought came to me: I SHOULD NOT have decided to come here without visiting first. My car had broken during the journey across. My family had to leave me the next afternoon. I started walking to church that first Sunday in a pouring rainstorm, not quite sure which direction I was supposed to go in. I could hardly breathe for the overabundance of water EVERYwhere. I knew nobody. And I kept a thread of self-reassurance running through my actions of that first week that went like this: Nelda, you knew you were supposed to come here. You thought about it and prayed about it so long– you gotta stay now.
And stay I did. I pulled out my shovel and started digging in.
My smiling-est moments include the first time Michael Ann turned to me in folk art class and asked my opinion on a particular chapter from John Dorst’s LOOKING WEST. My opinion as the resident Westerner in the room. Include the time when I stood laughing in Meredith’s living room the night before comps, realizing that I couldn’t remember my own email address, my brain was so full. Include watching the sun go down through the trees while I sat in the back room of the cabin. Catching split second glances from a boy across the room, whose praying voice reminded me that God does hear His children, and who looked really hot in a leather jacket. Listening to Meredith sing to a ring of folklorists in a hotel in Canada. Having Clayson Booher crawl into my lap of his own volition during Primary one Sunday. Gesticulating wildly in front of my ESL class, wondering if I made any sense. Grocery shopping late at night, standing in the organic section of Kroger, frozen in my tracks because the song “She Likes Me for Me” is floating down from the speakers, instantly transporting me to something like Logan, Utah, 1997. Listening to Aimee explain an online zombie game and classical literature in the same discussion. Looking up at the still white light shooting down through the wood and glass layers of the Centre Dwelling at South Union, breathing in cool air and order.
Fortunately, my smiling moments come to mind more readily than my painful moments out there. My heart wanting to split in two so as to somehow reach a friend I dearly loved who was sad and drunk and living 1600 miles away. Realizing that other people’s universes are shattering all the time, I just don’t know about it. Discovering what it’s like when Nelda freaks out.
But not every experience falls on one side of the smiling/painful divider. There were so many things that I needed to learn out there, so many people I needed to meet, so much music I needed to hear, so many words I needed to write. These chapters I find myself living are making me not necessarily a better person, but more of a person.
But because I have desert and not bluegrass in me, I couldn’t stay. Because I didn’t make myself dig in deeper while I was there, I couldn’t stay. Were it not for the things I do and the ways I think and move today, all those things I picked up while I was out there, I would question my memory and active imagination. But as it is, Bowling Green turned out to be another footing. Another brick in the wall. If I can borrow from Mary Sue Martin, it was a stone to stand on, once new and now old, succeeding in getting me safely to the next place I needed to be.
So, Bowling Green, I lit Carol Appel-Basham’s Virgen de Guadalupe candle for you tonight, the one that she left behind in the House of Folk and that Aimee and I kept in our folklore shrine, next to our Important Folklore-Related People matching game and our tobacco sticks. I complained a lot about you while I was there, I bad-mouthed you when I wasn’t there, and yet we both know that you were supposed to happen.
A garden came, where there was none before, shaped out of the tilled land by hand after our local state legislator and his grandson passed through with an old tractor. Four Karen families tumbled out of three minivans last Saturday morning, took one look at the tools in the bed of Julie’s truck, and launched into the familiar work of digging. Little ones spent approximately 5.5 minutes helping put rocks in buckets until the call of the untamed landscape surrounding the garden was too much to ignore. Enthusiastic Karen conversations filled the Saturday morning air in this neighborhood where too many windows seemed shuttered and too many porches seemed empty. I never gardened with my family growing up– it was something that I did as an adult, and so I wasn’t anticipating my favorite thing of the whole day. I watched the families swinging hoes and bucketing rocks, the two brothers and two sisters who each have their own spouses and each have children playing with sticks and climbing trees as their parents craft their rows. Two brothers and two sisters whose families were originally resettled from Thailand to Kansas City, San Diego, Boise, and Salt Lake, respectively, and who took eight years to finally come back together, in this high desert valley in Utah. Up until the moment when I first heard their laughing and conversations, I hadn’t considered how my part in all this was to help create a space where these families could know each other again.
I am so excited for this season of growth.
Piecemeal, I’ve been starting to pack up my belongings, pausing much too often to unfold an old, sentiment-stained item of clothing or open a shoebox full of old photos and letters. This letter slipped out to me, written by a cynical, satirical American Studies major with whom I shared a handful of English classes, after I’d written him the long list of things I was still processing after my summer in Central America. Two sides of a yellow legal pad sheet, black ink without a single scribbled-out mistake, completely embodying the disaffected, yearning-for-something-more mindset of so many of my friends at that time in our lives, and completely underestimating the power of the connection between my homeland and me.
Re-reading it, though, I thought about how I may have learned how to value these experiences of mine from this unlikely source. He may have been one of the reasons I don’t doubt the significance of things I have learned, even if what plays out in my everyday beliefs keeps evolving. I always needed to write, but he may have been one more source of encouragement that convinced me to continue encapsulating in words the important things that I live.
I’m so pleased to see that you’ve made it back from the steamy jungles of El Salvador in one piece. I was surely expecting some sort of ransom demand from some revolutionaries and had thirty dollars saved up for just that occasion. Not that you’re back on familiar turf, I will spend it on fruit and soap to celebrate your return.
I had drafted a hasty reply to your first letter, but was reluctant to send it to a country that lacked zip codes. What kind of savages are they that allow their correspondence to fly will-nilly across a country without those guardian five digits to usher it into the proper mailbox? Anarchy, I say.
So you’ve slipped back into the same life with the same routines and the same job but with this troubling bank of new realizations, eh? Find some headphones– the sooner, the better. Nothing good ever came from being sequestered with your own thoughts, especially following an experience such as yours. Pump some loud, overbearing conservative AM talk radio into both ears, stereo style, and don’t question a single issue.
Here’s how I see it– you’ve lived a new, mind-opening life for the past three months but you have no effective way of describing it; and, by describing, deciphering its significance for yourself. This is partly your fault since you voluntarily plunked yourself into this peculiar state/valley/town where all outside and novel experience is instantly suspect and smacks of “the other.” So you’ll drive yourself mad trying to find a like-minded spirit that comprehends what a truly formative experience it was, how it has pleasantly displaced your psyche. And with this frustration will come the second guessing: “Was this really as important as I think/thought it was/is?” And with this comes waning confidence and a slowing self-realization. So don’t listen to that voice which demands to be heard over the thrumming of lawn mowers. It is probably calling to you right now, ordering you to pack your bags because “you, no, we, were on the cusp of really getting it, the big It, before we started back home. And now, in this stultifying, suffocating lovely Valley, we’re in danger of losing all of it. So, quick! Let’s keep this fact-finding mission on the road.” I’m glad you got away for a few months. I hope you can do it again and never let the creeping malaise tie you to this town like it has with so many others.
As a little girl learning how to write, I once showed my dad a scrap of paper with what I thought was I love you scrawled on it. I remember being so confused when he told me that a heart shape was not how you spelled the word love. “But if you read this out loud,” I protested, “you would say I love you.” My father, much like Shel Silverstein’s Hector the Collector, still has stacks of those little notes that my sister and I gave to him, decorated with mommy, daddy, and baby hearts, Seussian two-headed monsters that I learned from the Draw Squad, and my sister’s unbearably cute characters that she could freehand without a second glance.
A few valentines from me, slid carefully into a strangely-sized thin paper envelope with odd-tasting adhesive, plopped carefully on your desk as I walk by, the little girl with the unraveling braid and bookish bangs:
I was thinking yesterday how Valentine’s Day has actually been a significant date in my short personal history of dating. My very first date as a sixteen-year-old was to Logan High’s Sweetheart’s Ball 1999. (A big shout out to the friend and fellow string quartet member who said yes to what was probably an over-thought, unnecessarily complicated invitation to the dance. The Creative “Ask,” that interesting facet of Utah teenage dating culture is a topic for another day. I once heard a great analysis of this tradition in terms of gender power dynamics at a folklore conference.) My first tear-filled break-up happened about a decade later on another Valentine’s Day, made more absurdly dramatic by the fact that I was dressed to the nines in a fancy pioneer dress, petticoat and all. Valentine’s Day 2014 was another first date: Indian food that segued into the Banff Mountain Film Festival and then into a folk music jam that lasted until two in the morning with a man who would, ten months later, ask me to marry him.
The most romantic job I’ve ever had was… get ready… in the campus libraries at Utah State University. I walked past the Merrill-Cazier Library a couple of nights ago, looked up at the yellow rectangles of light and the students whose gazes were glued to computer screens, and wisps of that library feeling came back to me. I remember the sound of my footfalls on the carpeted floor as I walked up and down the aisles with a stack of books in my arms, racing through the alphabet in my mind as I put the books back where they belonged. Each floor of the old Merrill Library had a distinct smell, and a breaker box that had to be switched off by hand on each of those floors. One semester I worked with a girl who described her current suitor as a guy “who has a thing for girls who work behind counters.” I thrived on those late night shifts where I had such straight-forward tasks: put away all the books until the cart is empty. Check books out to people, then work on my homework. I think what I loved the most was the thought of all those words contained in a single building, with my favorite writing nooks (the art book room, the wide, quiet tables of the fourth floor) close at hand, where I could write out every single assignment, long-hand. There are a lot of spaces in which we are constrained to learn things, and then there are places where we choose to learn things, and how precious the latter can be, even though the space no longer exists and almost ten years have gone by.
And because I can’t contain the mushiness any longer, a few words about this man, who has loved my heart and its intentions for longer than even I may suspect. Prove it, my I-was-raised-to-be-my-father’s-practical-daughter mind challenged my heart. Prove that what you’re feeling is love. My heart answered, I don’t have to prove it to you. You’ll see it soon enough. Take your habits of careful consideration and experience gathering, your short personal dating history and your intransigent commitment to be no one but yourself. Take all those things, and you will soon come to recognize this for what it is.
Okay, my practical mind said. I trust you, heart.
Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone.
You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet.
Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes.
A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale.
And then– the glory– so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories.
–Steinbeck, East of Eden
1. Santa Fe, New Mexico 2014
2. Arches National Park 2012
3. Green Canyon, Utah 2013
4. Cache Valley Gardeners’ Market 2014
5. Logan, Utah 2011
Last month I sat on a long wooden bench at the local Catholic church to listen to an incarnation of a symphony I once played in almost ten years ago. Did I ever look so young? I wondered, as I considered the almost-all female percussion section, the backs of violinists’ heads, the mohawked clarinetist. The contrarian bass players who wore long ties instead of bow ties. They played The Moldau, the one that opens with that insistent and curious current of a flute line that always manages to spider up my spine and whisk me away to what I imagine a dark riverbank in eastern Europe looks like.
As I watched individuals, whole sections of musicians, jump into the dance of orchestration, I realized how long it had been since I had counted rests. As a viola player, I got really good at doing this. Unlike the flashy, high, heat-seeking missiles that the two violin sections are asked to be, the viola section often is often polite and responsive, its part filled with waiting for a turn to answer, to support, to affirm, to move the conversation along. ONE two three four, TWO two three four, THREE two three four, FOUR two three four, I would count as my eyes wandered from the collection of rests on the page to the conductor to the percussion section across the orchestra from me to the congregation of notes that I imagined above all our heads, alternately dancing and mushing together in something that sounded good. The percussionists were the best counters, and you could see it on their faces: the concentration, the pride at being relied upon to do the important and dramatic thing at the right time (e.g., a perfectly contentious cymbal crash at the height of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture, some unassuming clave taps in the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story).
Even though my viola gets unzippered at least once a week, I don’t do much rest-counting. Sunday night jams with the Rowdy Machine are enthusiastic, unfettered dashes through mandolin and guitar chords with buckets and botched bridges and communal percussion instruments positioned in the middle of the room so that anyone can play anything, anytime they want. Don’t feel like playing on this verse? No problem. Can’t find the key, despite the chords being written on the white board? Grab the tambourine. Jump back in whenever you feel like it, and while you’re at it, hand the egg shaker to the spectator in the easy chair. Rest counting not required.
Counting rests turned out to be some of my first lessons in what I used to call Patience in the Art of Waiting. Anecdotal evidence from my parents reveals that I was a somewhat impatient child, though the only corroborating memory I have that supports this is a series of moments when I can hear my father’s voice from a height above me pronouncing, Patience is a virtue….
It also turns out that one spends a good amount of one’s life waiting. You can supply your own list of things that you have waited for in the past, or that you are currently waiting for. It might be literal waiting, like when I’m on the phone with the IRS on behalf of a refugee who has no idea where her ex-husband might be or if he’ll ever pay his share of the taxes he owes because he filed the joint return before all his W-2s arrived back in 2011. It might be a more galactic kind of waiting, such as waiting to be done with school, to be married, to become a parent, to find the less-than-perfect job that you’re willing to settle into, so long as it pays the bills and you are happy. Waiting to leave a holding pattern, a liminal space, the parquet-floored room lined with doors, the doorknobs of which you have tried multiple times, and still haven’t been granted passage (with no Drink Me or Eat Me in sight). I have sometimes thought that the indeterminately-timed trial of waiting rivals the trials of sudden tragedy, sudden loss, sudden course correction.
In the days since The Moldau, I’ve been thinking about waiting. In orchestra, I counted rests until my turn came, and because I waited my turn, everything sounded like it was supposed to. I was part of a coordinated whole that was engaged in the act of creation, and part of that creation involved waiting and counting. Waiting was part of the music.
In these galactic waits of mine, what am I doing? Letting my attention get distracted, getting sloppy with my counting, stopping counting altogether? Setting myself up to miss my entrance, unequipped with the things I need when I am called upon? Or am I counting and subdividing, noticing what’s going on around me? Staying present, as my meditative and reflective friends like to say. What am I doing with this time? What am I required to be while I’m waiting for the requirement to change?
It must be said that counting rests doesn’t mean you can never actually rest. It is possible to wait well without actually doing anything but being in a place. Maybe the key to that is to figure out what really makes you feel rested, what really pulls the plug on the voltage that will not only take care of you for the moment, but for the subsequent moments too.
In Tennyson’s Ulysses, there’s the line, “I am part of all that I have met.” My poetry analysis days are long past. I had to Google that line, I think I heard it once in the valedictory words of a precocious high school senior somewhere along the way. Today I was thinking about my… [role? right? responsibility? privilege?] to mourn. To mourn the death of someone I met, who, because of that meeting, I am a part of him. Or he is part of me. Someone I did not know well, but whose impression on me will remain unaffected by the fact that he is no longer right here, with us.
Memories of him are split-second flashes: a boy with glasses in the sixth grade orchestra’s viola section sitting behind me. A distinctive gait as a backpack is shouldered at the ring of a bell. A vignette written for Mrs. Warr’s AP English class that talked about colorblind eyes that couldn’t tell one fingerpaint from another. An incredulous guffaw when a classmate, trying to tease me out of my wallflowerness, proclaimed that she had seen me partying it up at a recent shindig, a wild child that no one suspected. An enthusiastic review of O Brother, Where Art Thou? Years and graduations later, a response through text message to my inquiry on whether the word “Okie” is still found offensive by folks in Oklahoma.
I went back to Facebook 2010, and an old journal entry from the summer of that year, which was the last time I saw him. Say what you want about the Book of Faces; I have found it to be an effective time encapsulator where mundane moments are immortalized (for better or for worse). That winter, in the midst of some soul-searching life philosophy articulation, I’d spontaneously messaged him two memories that I’d found at the root of Nelda, memories in which he was entangled, apologizing for the random reminiscing. Nelda’s Life Philosophy No. 5: Everyone has a right to their own art, I told him, came from my nerdy ninth-grader consideration of when he quit playing viola and played football instead. And from a story that involved him and papier mache mask-making in the basement of the English building, I learned Nelda’s Life Philosophy No. 6: I will never make anyone feel that their creativity isn’t enough. His reply from Berkeley: Dear Nelda, I LOVE free association reminiscences like this.
He returned to our homeland later that summer, and we took a walk in Green Canyon, talking about books that I lacked the confidence to read, about navigating the place you grew up in after going away. I was making a living at the time by dressing up in WWI-era farm clothes and teaching children to milk a cow by hand, he was a master of Bible studies. Somewhere along the walk I’d picked up a stick, contentedly poking things during lulls in the conversation, and he mentioned that he’d always admired how I could derive happiness from everyday things. Which may have just been a nice thing to say. But I balled up that compliment and tucked it away, a little glowing coal I’ve used for warmth and light in the years since then. We went to see this documentary at the Logan Art Cinema before it folded and became an archery supply store, and afterward, to the tune of Main Street in Logan traffic, with patches of weeds clawing up through the pavement at our feet, I listened to his searching and to his questions.
Dear Ben. Your questions. Out of everything, your death makes me want to keep asking questions about this life, this world, the way things people think they ought to be. And it makes me want to go read books that are hard for me, that require me to think, to tear into. I will probably never know the force of the blackness that faced you. I will not completely understand the evolution of your faith. But you can rest, assured that this nerdy ninth-grader will remember that you read, and that you asked questions, and that she will do the same, in her own way. She hopes you don’t mind these words flung out to the stars of cyberspace.
N: Can we be [Facebook] friends again? I promise to impose only well-thought out musings on your newsfeed.
B: Hah! No such requirement. Thrilled to hear from you again, my (lately lost) friend.
I loved this summer. And, in a twist reminiscent of Adah Price from The Poisonwood Bible: this summer, I loved.
I taught summer school to elementary kids who mostly voluntarily showed up to read, to make clouds out of Ivory soap in the microwave, to draw dragons, and to tolerate dozens of sack lunches that met federal nutritional standards (Uncrustables, carrots, milk, chips, cookies, and the occasional box of Raisels). I read a bunch of Fablehaven in an attempt to read all 2,527 pages and come up with complementary art projects and games for each book, succeeding only with the latter. (Time was when I could knock out a thousand pages in a week… then I grew up and started reading boring things.) I rode the city bus with anywhere from one to fifteen refugee kids each morning and each afternoon, doing my best to balance letting the kids be the experimenters they are with learning respect for their fellow transit patrons. (I may have not chosen the most effective tactics to achieve this. During one ride, the kids were doing impressions of each other, trying to get the others to guess who they were. One boy, in a dramatically high-pitched voice, chanted, “Everybody sit down or else the driver will kick us off the bus!” His audience grinned enthusiastically. “You’re Nelda!” they exclaimed.) I watched countless games of Karen jump rope (the rope comprised of so many rubber bands looped onto each other to make a giant stretchy circle), and a tag game that involved yelling “sa bo deeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” until the runner ran out of breath, and endless arguments over the finer points of four-square. It was a big, sticky, whiny, wonderful mess sometimes, and even though we probably did little to make a dent in the literacy issues that these students face, there was so much more that we got done that no standardized test will ever measure. I loved the creative freedom, the honest evaluation (“I like all of summer school. Except for the reading.”), and the genuine, trusting anticipation.
I loved the yellow cherry tomatoes from Johnson Family Farms, nestled sweetly in little green plastic baskets at the Cache Valley Gardeners Market, where I also sell lemonade. Tomatoes that could enchant the socks off anybody, sure to flit about my dreams during the dark, inverted winter. I bought a farm share from Appenzell Farm again this year, and the joy that seized my heart when I opened the flaps and saw for the first time six ears of corn AND a cucumber almost made me gasp. And don’t even get me started on the peaches.
I have a longstanding love affair with summer evenings in Logan, and am convinced that those must be what heaven is like. During this recent cold snap, I’ve been thinking of a snapshot in my mind of strands of late afternoon sunlight reaching through so many green, green branches at the county fairgrounds, shadows just beginning to form on blades of grass.
The most recent love is of this new job that I have, one that almost manages to make me forget the disappointment at the fact that I didn’t go back to the elementary school and try out all the ideas that I had for this year. I work in a place where I have a hand in community-making, in creating spaces in which people might possibly find home and purpose and help. And it intertwines so perfectly with the refugee bedrock I’ve been carving out of the last couple of years. It happened so unexpectedly that I have no doubt that it was meant to be. I often find myself thanking God and the Universe and folklore at various times throughout my week for having dealt me certain cards months, years, decades ago that set me up for the tasks I’m now asked to do. An adventurous sort of love in a space I once inhabited as a 19-through-22-year-old, who was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.
And this. Love imprinted in every element seen and unseen in this photo. A quiet, soul-smiling reminder why Rowdy Machine calls this song “Beautiful.”