Archive for the 'On the Road' Category

Shirley

Thanks to my aunt, who reminded me to tell this wonderful story from December 2010.

As I took my aisle seat on the tiny plane from Minneapolis to Sioux City last year at Christmas, I was greeted by a great big smile and a hopeful set of eyes from the older woman seated next to the window. That woman was Shirley.

I endeared myself early on by helping her out of her jacket and stashing it in the overhead compartment for her. We had plenty of time to get to know each other, as our flight sat on the runway for twice as much time as it spent in the air.

Shirley is a 78-year-old woman from Yankton, South Dakota, though, as I told her, I honestly would have guessed her in her late 60s. She has that spark that my grandmother had; that glint in her eye that betrayed the reality that life had not always been so easy and comfortable, but the fire that assured her if she could overcome that, she could face anything.

She, as they say, had me at “hello.” But I truly fell in love with her spirit at her description of her sister-in-law, who had been born and raised in the north of England before moving to the U.S. “She was real stylish, real stylish. Oh, kiddo… she knew how to dress, she did. And she knew how to use makeup!” Shirley always wished she had gone to visit her, but young children at home in South Dakota had made the trip seem impossible. She has since passed away, Shirley told me with no small pang of regret.

When we found out our tarmac-bound plane was to be even further delayed, we both called our loved ones to let them know to delay their trips to the airport. After Shirley hung up with her son, she started relaying to me every word he had said—while I remained on the phone with my parents and tried to make sense of the little bit of conversation I could hear through the cacophony of voices. She told me about the son who was picking her up, about her daughter, and about another son, the one she had lost. He had a heart condition, the seriousness of which he kept from them as long as he could—until the day his father found him dead in his bed. “That was real hard on Charlie,” she told me. “It was real hard on him…”

Charlie was Shirley’s husband. “Oh, he was an absolutely wonderful man. Just a wonderful man,” she declared, a smile on her face that was full of equal parts gratitude, pride, and sadness. Because he, too, is gone. He died last year, two days after Christmas, while shoveling snow near their farm. They were married 53 years. She told me that he loved to brag to their friends that they never fought once in all their decades of marriage. “But then I’d say, ‘Tell ‘em why, Charlie.’ And he just told ‘em, ‘Anytime Shirley starts to get a little off kilter, I just smile and walk outta the room. No one for her to fight with then!’”

My paternal grandmother grew up on a homestead in South Dakota. Her childhood, and for the most part, her life, was defined by austerity. She was a child of the depression, no doubt. But she could laugh. And she could love. Both my grandmothers shared those two wonderful qualities. Shirley was cut from the same fine Midwestern cloth—her hardships had only made her stronger. I was moved to tears as she spoke about loss after loss, and told her so. She simply smiled and said, though it had been tough, she was “real blessed.” Real blessed.

She was also real talkative. I got precious few words in during our hours together, as I learned about her job at a print shop in South Dakota; how lovely the dress she wore to her granddaughter’s wedding had been (“You shoulda seen me, kiddo. With earrings, and everything. Oh, it was a real pretty dress, honey. I was a sight.”); how she was a 20-year veteran of her hometown’s sensible eating support group, and how now, in her 70s, she mentored newcomers of all ages (“I teach them how to cook some nice vegetables. I’m a great cook.”)

As we got off the plane and my parents rushed up to meet me, I watched out of the corner of my eye to ensure Shirley found her son. I was attached to her now. If her son hadn’t shown up, I would have made my parents give her a ride to Yankton or take her to lunch. Three hours together in a prop plane, and she had become my newly adopted grandmother, adorable in her collared sweatshirt and admiration for well-dressed British women.

At baggage claim, I introduced her to my family, gave her a hug, and wished well to Snickers, her “sweet little dog,” whom she said had kept her company since Charlie’s death. And then we were off, both going our separate ways.

But I’m still thinking of her, all these months later. Spring will be coming soon to South Dakota. She’ll have fresh grass in her yard and leaves on the trees in her backyard that overlooks the river. I hope she’s traveling again soon; maybe that trip to the UK that she had always regretted not taking. I hope Snickers is well.

But more than anything, I pray the people in her world realize how blessed they are to have a mighty woman like Shirley in their midst.

Why We (and I) Travel

As I’m in the “I was in such and such foreign country a year ago” mode, and am posting quick photos with quick back stories, I wanted to share this lovely site on the New York Times that does the same thing. I love hearing people’s stories, being inspired by their journeys, and reading their perspectives.

If You’ve Heard of “Mesaba,” This One’s For You

There is no getting from New York City to Sioux City, Iowa, (aka, “Where I Grew Up,” and “Yes, the airport code really is SUX”) without passing through the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. I love walking past the gates where my flight from NYC lands and fantasizing about jetting off to somewhere new. Last week, I strolled past queues of passengers bound for Shanghai, Tokyo, and Amsterdam. Sigh…

But past the exotic locales seen in the big terminals, we find the real Minnesota-ness of MSP’s Terminals A & B. Any big city transplant who originally hails from towns like Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Rhinelander, Wisconsin; or Bemidji, Minnesota, will smile knowingly with me at their mention. Terminals A & B, my friends, are where the puddle jumper planes take off. The destinations get progressively less exciting. And the Midwestern-ness, progressively more… er, Midwestern. If you’ve ever heard of Mesaba Airlines, you, too, dear reader, are from the Midwest.

It’s a brilliant place for people watching. I like to guess at people’s stories; their reasons for travel. A true Midwestern farmer type would never “waste money” to fly from Minneapolis to somewhere accessible by car in a mere 5-6 hours. Over Christmas, the terminals are packed with 20 and 30-somethings who fled the small towns for the big city: they (ahem, “we”) can be identified by their in-vogue wardrobes, high-heeled shoes (women), effective use of hair product (men), and intellectual liberal-leaning reading material (all around). They have a point to prove.

The other young refugees returning to the motherland for Christmas are those who fled single-digit winter temperatures (Europeans, I’m talking Fahrenheit) for warmer, greener pastures. You will recognize them by their Arizona State sweatshirts, their vocal and frequent complaints about winter driving, and their annoying commentary about how warm it is in wherever-they-just-flew-in-from.

I’m progressively acclimated to the Midwest as I step first, into the Minneapolis airport, second, into Terminal B, and finally, on board the plane. Boarding that 50-seater bound for Iowa is a vastly different experience than hopping on any plane on the east coast. People smile, first of all, even when you sit in that empty seat next to them. The vocabulary is different on these flights, too. Just try asking for “seltzer water.” And I overhear chatter about things like the price of corn and cattle futures, things I had forgotten existed after so many months and years away.

Most people want to talk, for better or worse, often for the duration of the 45-minute flight. I’m usually traveling this route on three hours’ sleep, but when I can push through my New Yorker cynicism and exhaustion, this can be absolutely lovely. More than once, I’ve met someone who knows my family back home, or have been so touched by my conversation that I felt compelled to introduce my fellow traveler to my family upon our arrival in Sioux City. This time around, that was Shirley. More on her soon.

It’s funny, it’s sweet; sometimes endearing and sometimes eye-roll-inducing, but you know what? It’s home. And it is what it is, so you might as well embrace and enjoy it. I ran into a cashmere-clad couple waking down the jet-bridge in Sioux City last week carrying a Dylan’s Candy Bar tote among their Vuitton carry-ons. I stated, more than asked, “You’re from New York?” We discovered we had been on the same flight from LGA. The woman sighed with as much urban exasperation and snobbery as she could muster, “Yeah, it was like a cross between a day care and Noah’s Ark. Babies everywhere. And the dogs… It was all ‘two-by-two.’”

At LGA, I probably would have joined in the rant, especially while proudly whizzing through the expert traveler security line. But her sarcasm and negativity just seemed a little out of place at Sioux City Gateway. This is the Midwest, after all. It softens us up a bit—or, at least, it should. I just smiled and wished them a merry Christmas.

It turns out that simple friendliness has become as exotic as Shanghai and as sought-after as sashimi in Tokyo. I’m going to stash a little bit in my carry-on to smuggle back to my big glamorous city. I hear Midwestern kindness is this season’s “new black,” and it will certainly warm things up a bit. Isn’t that why we all left in the first place?

Things I Saw Today

Just a normal day in New York City, going about my normal business: work, errands, phone calls, a little walk for pleasure. The scenery, as usual, has been anything but ordinary. Between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., I saw the following:

  • The fruit (vegetable?) pictured above, unknown to me
  • A 50,000 square-foot Italian market, complete with a tour by a guy who had his picture on the wall (and in the middle of this WSJ shot),  a friendly and informed looking gent, who I happened to ask for directions
  • Thousands upon thousands of dollars of gorgeous clothes worn by gorgeous Italians in said market
  • $6,000 handbags
  • $6 handbags
  • A statue of a deer with antlers in someone’s front yard in Brooklyn
  • Statues of the Virgin Mary and Buddha
  • The personification of Jesus Christ
  • Authentic mobsters
  • The way a city reinvents itself, over and over, block by block, neighborhood to neighborhood
  • The Wing Fat Mansion
  • A pint of beer disappear quickly in the heat
  • Grace and gentleness
  • A baby laughing
  • A small miracle that had a big impact on my faith
  • A whole part of Manhattan in which I’ve never set foot
  • The reflection of my own smile in a window as I took it all in

And that was all under cover of daylight. Who knows what the night will bring?

Coming or Going?


I love airports. Is that normal?

Complaining about air travel seems to be in vogue, but I get all tingly in the toes as a I wheel up to curbside check-in. I relish the fact I know the TSA regulations well enough to choose the “Expert Traveler” security line. I totally get the George Clooney character in Up in the Air. Miles make me happy, too.

I met friends arriving to JFK a couple weeks ago. Watching the passengers from the LAX flight pour into New York made for fascinating people watching. You should try it some time.

I’ve never really thought about the “arrival” bit of traveling before. I like the departure: the anticipation, the stepping into the unknown, the leisure of lingering in the terminal (or better, the lounge) waiting for your flight to depart. I’m sometimes excited to get back to New York. Sometimes. But when I decided to start traveling in March, a well-traveled friend told me, “People will say you’re getting it out of your system. But the wanderlust will only grow.” He was right.

For me, departing is like that rush of adrenaline you get when you stand on the edge of a diving board. You know, intellectually, what’s next. You’re going to splash into the water. (Or land at your final destination.) But you can’t predict the nuances of the journey; the surprises that linger down the next terminal’s corridors. The people you’ll encounter along the way.

In an ideal world, we’d enjoy all bits of the journey, right? That’s certainly my goal. I’m a little light on the journeys just now, with nothing remotely exotic on the near-future docket. But…

BUT. I know I serve a God who likes to shake things up, and I’ve already had a lot of interesting “travel moments” right here in Brooklyn. Have I arrived? Oh, no. But it’s a really easy flight so far.

Still Traveling Light

I’m not officially traveling anymore. I’m back in New York, which is home in a way that nowhere else has ever been. I have no plans to leave at the moment, save for a conference here and a family wedding there. I am not carrying my camera everywhere I go nor trying to decipher foreign languages to find the exit, and I have a job.

I’m not officially traveling.

But I’m not officially done with it either. I also don’t have an apartment, a permanent address, or a clearly defined five-year plan. (Really, I don’t even have a five-month plan.) I’m not emotionally ready to give up my travels, nor the place Europe has come to occupy in my heart, so I won’t. What does that mean practically? Haven’t a clue.

That’s not true, actually. I am going to keep up this blog. That’s reasonably practical. When I thought about names, I liked Traveling Light because it had a couple of double meanings that I liked the idea of applying to my life in general. I’ll let you ponder those.

I’d love to say that travel is a state of mind, but it’s really not. It’s hard to be in a “everything’s a new adventure” state of mind when you’re in your hometown. But my eyes are focused on the promise of things to come and grateful for the richness of blessing that’s right in front of me. I’m most definitely on the road.

A Quiet Moment at the Louvre

Louvre

One would think that traveling around Europe for two months would offer ample opportunity for quiet reflection and deep thinking. I mean, what better venue than art museums in Paris for a creative type to find great inspiration?

Unfortunately, as is often the case, I’ve found the reality differs somewhat from the ideal. The days of travel, though filled with gorgeous art, become a race against the clock created by opening hours, train schedules, and—just as the flash of creativity is about to strike—an angry stomach reminding it’s time to find food.

But even when I can’t find (read: “don’t make,” and that’s a whole other conversation) time on the road to reflect, go back once I’ve come home. This photo, taken 20 minutes before closing time at the Louvre, helps me do that. A deep breath, a sip of tea, and eyes gently closed, I’m back here:

A pause from the mad rush of Paris to find a room, full of art yet void of people. Perfect Parisian spring light pours in the windows, and it falls on me like a blanket of peace. There is such intimacy in this room. I feel like the art here is mine and mine alone; a secret shared between me and its creators. A gift. But also an invitation. In this room, this quiet place, I hear a whisper telling me, “You belong here. You are welcome here. You can create, too. And I want to see it.”

I pause, I hear, I smile, and I know. I know it’s true. A moment of gratitude before the journey continues.


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