Tag Archives: midwest

After the Burning [Guest Post]

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I’m honored to share Hannah’s story. I met Hannah when she started dating my childhood friend, David, and I even got to be part of their wedding last summer. I resonate with a lot of what Hannah has to say about expectations. You can read more of her writing at her blog, hannahlynnmell.com.

 

When David and I moved to Kansas last summer, I envisioned countless bright scenarios: making our first home together, establishing ourselves in a new arts community, gathering a circle of warm-hearted midwestern friends. We drove the moving truck cross country just three weeks after our July wedding, headed toward David’s first full-time teaching position and a shockingly inexpensive high rise apartment in downtown Wichita.

The low cost of living meant that I could piece together part-time work instead of looking for a full-time teaching job myself. The set-up offered precisely what I’d hoped for: ample time to write. I’d unleash volleys of cunning, heartfelt essays, utilize the glittering Interweb to network with likeminded creative-types, and watch my freelance career begin to unfold.

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You can smell the punch line, can’t you? We make our plans, and the good Lord chuckles. I love writing and revising essays; I don’t love submitting and resubmitting them. After ten minutes on Facebook or Twitter, I’ve had my fill of social networking for the week. It wasn’t that I spent the year in ardent pursuit of my dream but met with disappointment; my ardor dried up by the end of autumn.

Turns out I thrived on the bustle of teaching full-time. Waking early, putting on pretty clothes, riding my bike to school: my old routine suited me far more than staying in my pajamas and plunking away at a computer keyboard. When I found myself brooding at school, singing joyful songs with children snapped me out of it. In my new life I depended on afternoon voice lessons to buoy my spirit – and teaching students via Skype fell far short of teaching them in person.

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As autumn ended and winter set in, I grieved the loss of my Writing Career as though it had actually existed. I knew that I’d continue to write, but I unhanded the illusion that it would make me famous or even pay the bills. Okay, “unhanded” is a graceful but inaccurate verb. God had to pry the illusion from my sweaty, clutching fingers the way I’ve seen parents wrest dangerous objects from their toddlers.

Meanwhile, David’s teaching job dragged him through a disillusionment of his own. I don’t know which made me weep more: watching my husband struggle or letting go of the person I planned to become.

Fast forward to spring. Autumn and winter make a lot more sense when the world begins to blossom. Letting go of the person I planned to become? I’ve begun to recognize the loss as a gain.

Lines of burning grass create pattern on landscape at dusk

In the tall grass prairies of Kansas, spring is a time of burning. Native Americans started the tradition of setting fire to the old grass in order to instigate the rapid growth of new grass. Viktor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” In prairie terms, we could slightly revise that: What is to give life must endure burning. As I survey the charred landscape of our time here in Kansas, I see fertile soil and green shoots. New dreams arise from the ashes of my surrender. David and I make plans to return to Massachusetts. I begin to outline a novel.

Catherine asked me to write about living the in-between. As she astutely observes, “We’re all there in one way or another.” David and I have experienced the in-between in full force this year, but I can’t remember a season of my life that didn’t feel like a transition. Like a baffled student, I return to the same lesson again and again. I’ll say it confidently now, with the windows open and the lilacs in blossom: the new life quickening within me will feed next year’s flames. When the grasses fade to yellow and the cold sets in, I’ll weep and question and eventually let go. I can’t tell you next year’s particulars, but I’m learning to love the pattern.

Hannah writes, Skypes voice lessons, and teaches yoga in Wichita, Kansas. She met Catherine through her husband David, one of Catherine’s childhood friends. Her blog lives at hannahlynnmell.com.

[Photo: James Nedresky at Flint Hills Images]

Whirlwind in the Windy City

Chicago has a way of tricking me into thinking I could live in the midwest.

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The lake really is quite huge. You can’t see to the other side of it and it slaps against the edge and even has whitecaps in the wind.

The L is just as bizarre as the T. Actually, that’s probably not true. At least it’s cooler because it’s above-ground.

The Chicago Institute of Art is one my favorite museums.

There’s good coffee everywhere.

And as of right now, I have two good friends living out there, and the numbers seem to be growing.

I finished Andre Dubus III’s memoir Townie on the plane. I closed the book and cried (just a little, no one noticed, but there were tears nonetheless), and even though I tried to put words to it (like kinship and desire and maybe someday) there was no way to separate the reasons that book hit me.

I landed in Chicago to the arms of the friend I met teaching English last summer. Her hair was just as wild in March as July and the weather was no better than Boston.

We wandered the Art Institute (and this time I didn’t take a nap in the park).

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The most beautiful sculpture that my blurry pictures don’t do justice to. My first thought was Adam and Eve, before and after the Fall. I wasn’t far off, together and not together, to know each other but still not fully know another person.

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I met a good friend from high school, and she took me to Wilde Bar and Restaurant. That’s right, Oscar Wilde, complete with quotes. I saw her condo and she showed me the bus system and I navigated it just fine, thank you very much.

We got dressed up to pumpin’ tunes. I dumbly forgot my contacts, so I took on the challenge to look sophisticated and Friday-night-out-worthy wearing glasses.

I greeted the boys, our dates, our city-chaperones, with the charming:

“Can I help you find your reference materials?”

(They said no and took us out on the town.)

Heard of dueling pianos? Check out Howl at the Moon and get ready for some loud singing and great piano.

Take a taxi to Navy Pier and attempt to get on the ferris wheel. Accidentally crash a wedding reception while your date steals the show, find the ferris wheel closed, then awkwardly walk back through that same wedding reception.

Have two taxis stolen right out from under you.

Sit at the Drake with new friends and newer friends, drink a classy cocktail, and wish you could sing along with the Frank Sinatra crooner and baby grand.

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Take a walk in the sunshine on your last day and wish that everyone you love lived in the same place.

Chicago1And be grateful for airplanes.

[Cafe Sleep]

I could fall asleep with my head on this table, press

my hot cheek to the cool varnished wood splattered

with other people’s coffee.

 

I still like my idea of beds suspended from the walls,

folded out to catch your tired bones – who

wouldn’t like a comfy mattress for a few

minutes of rest?

 

The busy city wears out your feet and sores

your muscles; the least it can give is a café with beds.

 

But that would be so dirty, they remind me.

The logical ones. The ones who cannot

let go of fact to see perfection.

 

Yes, I admit, it would be hard to keep clean.

But oh how luxurious to sleep

to the muffled voices and toned-down laughs

of a Chicago coffee shop.

A Mini-Trip

I’m writing from a brown leather couch in the middle of America.

[Thanks to Southwest Airlines and my incredibly delayed flight back in February, I booked my current trip for a grand total of $99. Who says travel has to cost an arm and a leg? If you’re willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of future reward, it is totally doable.]

Haven’t taken a single picture yet, and that’s likely to remain unchanged…unless my friend takes a couple. I didn’t bring a camera (shame on me), but I did bring a stack of good books (Tim Keller’s Reason for God, Anne Sexton’s poetry [yes, still plugging away/reveling], and a novel called The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake). I read on the plane ride, but there is too much to do here to really sit down and devote myself to a book.

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Here’s a late-addition from my walk around the museum.

So how am I writing right now, you ask? Because my friends are still sleeping. I woke up early to cars and trucks out the window, the sound of sidewalk sweeping, the smell of already-hot-sun-on-brick. It’s 86 degrees here in Chicago, and, while I am proud of my friends for their economy-savvy, I now realize the beauty of air conditioning. It’s good training, though, for when I get my own place; judging from my past budgeting choices, things like air conditioning won’t make the cut.

Little apartments are perhaps the best thing ever. I walked in and immediately felt at home. Wood floors, large kitchen, open windows lining the street. Books and books everywhere because M. was an English major, and we English majors feel the need to remind everyone by the stacks that line our walls. It’s fun to see how people grow up – I’ve know L. since 8th grade when we sang in choir together. Now, I get to see her new life, her adventure into adulthood. The brief trips she’s taken to come back home cannot show you a person’s new life, really.

[They love coffee here, so when I woke up I made a pot of dark roast, and breakfast consisted of a nice mug of that along with a Trader Joe’s wheat-free muffin (good? yes. thick? yes. tough? a little.).]

Today consists of a trip to the Bean. Don’t even know what this is, but everyone back home was like “See the bean,” and even here, my friends, the anti-tourists, claim that yes, it should be seen. Then a delicious solo-trip to the art museum while L. works at the theater for the afternoon. I can’t tell you how excited I am for that. This whole three-day excursion is smelling remarkably like Austria, and I can thank my experience there for allowing me to navigate this new city with less angst than I’ve ever traveled before.

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And proof of the trip to the Bean.

Back Home!

Back from a week of the midwest. How’d I do with my list?

On the Plane
  • Finish Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and start Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Let’s just say I finished The Year of Magical Thinking long before I got to the plane, and I didn’t have time to grab Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Did read Diane Keaton’s Then Again, which was pretty good. Could’ve used more pictures of Warren Beatty though…
  • Watch all the passengers
And make up stories about them…BIG CHECK
  • Write in my journal
Of course this happened, but it’s always harder for me to write when there is so much to look at and experience. What if I miss something?! The real writing comes later.
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  • Hang out!
We got lost on the way home from the airport (not so shocking to people who know us), and we talked the entire time. And didn’t really stop until the last hug at the Tulsa airport three days later. A lot happens in two years, but it’s amazing how you immediately fall back into the way things always were.
  • Eat sushi and barbecue
Yes, I consumed both sushi and barbecue while in OK. I didn’t even have to ask for them. Now that’s good hosting.
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  • Relax
Definitely. Read. Wrote. Ran dogs in the woods. Went to Barnes and Noble, drank coffee, and looked through books with beautiful houses. Talked a lot. (I’m pretty sure I left A. exhausted, both emotionally and verbally. He’s not used to my lifestyle.)
  • Check out a church
Went to church. A lot. Early service in chairs in a make-shift sanctuary while the real sanctuary is being renovated. Then on to Sunday School (and yes, people are interesting/weird/lovable wherever you go). Then to help out in children’s church. I have a new appreciation for people who work with children. The patience those helpers exhibited could only come from God. Then at 6:30 there was evening church. The evening sermon was thought-provoking, and on the way home we got burgers. A good ending.
  • Check out a museum

Um, St. Louis closes down on Mondays. No art museums were open! But my girlfriends and a husband and I rode the tram up to the arch and looked out over the city. While we waited to go up, we strolled through the Lewis and Clark museum, so I guess that can count. The tram was like a little capsule for five people. We only had four in our group, so some unsuspecting bald man had to squeeze in with us. And the three of us girls sure know how to be annoying when we’re happy. Poor guy.

And I come home, a little more broke than when I left. But who’s complaining? Too many good memories to care.

What I Want to do on My Trip!

On the Plane
  • Finish Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and start Slouching Towards Bethlehem
I opened Blue Nights by Didion last week and it was as if I’d already read it. DRAMA ALERT! As if she were an old friend, and our souls had spoken to each other. I felt this way when I read Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood the summer I worked at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – there is something about women who show you their truths. I think they illumine my own.
  • Watch all the passengers

And make up stories about them…

  • Write in my journal
Writing on planes is so much fun. It’s like you’re suspended in time and whatever you write was written in an alternate reality. Also, the idea of writing before you have any idea what your trip will hold is so romantic. All the hopes, fears, and anticipations rolled into a little notebook, no matter what kind of  trip it is.
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  • Hang out!
I can’t wait to spend time with old family friends! So much to talk about, so much to fill each other in on.
  • Eat sushi and barbecue
I make it a point to eat sushi as much as possible, but the idea of eating it in the midwest is a little strange to me. I guess people who don’t live near the ocean still eat fish…? And who doesn’t want a little Oklahoma barbecue?!
St. Louis
  • Relax
One of the best things about my friend A. is that he has no expectations. I can be whoever I want, do whatever I want, and he won’t mind at all. So if I feel like hanging out on the couch all day reading and drinking coffee, he won’t be surprised.
  • Check out a church
Growing up in New England, I’ve only had fairly typical New England church experiences. Most churches have been really small, many hurting, and the few larger ones I’ve gone to have been so academic that it’s hard for me to implement any aspect of the sermons in my life. I’m looking forward to seeing if the churches in St. Louis are different, or if young Christian men have to hide from the ever-eager young Christian women everywhere you go.
  • Check out a museum

I want to hit up the St. Louis Museum of Art and/or the Contemporary Art Museum. Also, there’s a great outdoor art exhibit called the Laumeier Sculpture Park. On Monday, my good friends from college are meeting me in St. Louis (you should be humming the song right about now), and I’m hoping they’ll be up for a little art!

25 Things to do in St. Louis:

http://explorestlouis.com/visit-explore/discover/25-things-to-do-in-st-louis/?gclid=CJDGs9WWlK4CFY9W7Aod6UGCMQ

Packing My Bags

Four days and I will be on a plane to a place I’ve never been. Oklahoma may not be the trip to Italy I’d imagined taking this winter, but old friends wait for me and I don’t need more of an excuse to see a new part of the world. There’s something about planning to travel that I can’t get enough of; a few nights ago I felt overwhelmed and anxious about finding a job, about feeling useless, and as soon as I logged on to Amtrak.com and looked at the various routes I could take across the country, my anxiety level dropped to nonexistent. My blood pressure didn’t drop, though, cause whose doesn’t rise at the idea of a train trip?! I may be a dying breed, but then again, check out a little Bill Bryson…

The anticipation of travel has me floating through my days, unbelievably excited and unbelieving in God’s blessings. A whole week to see new things. A whole week to talk and laugh with people I love and who love me. A whole week to be a little bit of someone I’m not. You can recreate yourself every time you step foot in a new place, and that is maybe why I love it so much.

After a few days in Oklahoma, I’m flying up to St. Louis to stay with an old friend. I was worried at first: what do I tell him when he asks what I’m doing with my life? Do I admit that I still don’t know? Do I talk about the glories of retail? He’s not the kind of person to expect cookie-cutter people, but I didn’t want to present myself sadly or pityingly, even if I sometimes feel that way. Now, though, I have an answer. I got accepted into the TEFL program, starting in May. Oh the joy and relief of knowing the next step in life!

So, on to the midwest I go!

Some photos from my summer in Austria. Just too beautiful not to keep looking at! I wonder if the photos from this trip will be able to compare?!

evening sun on Salzburg

If you want to read more about my travels in Europe:

singinginsalzburg_catherine.blogspot.com