Oh the joys of a summer trip to the library… my kids piling up more books than they can carry, me grabbing a few new release novels that will inevitably rack up late fees, and a few things I’ll never actually read (cause you’ve gotta have a backup)-- and then going home for an afternoon of family reading time and maybe getting ice cream drips on a few pages. Bliss.
This was one of the things I missed most during the pandemic. Our library was entirely closed for the longest time, and then they did “curbside pickup only” which was fine but all things considered, hard to plan for and utterly unsatisfying. I missed the roaming and browsing, and the flexibility to just go when we had a few minutes and were in the neighborhood. I missed finding and picking up things I’d never heard of. I missed watching my kids go to their favorite sections and totally nerd out over things I know nothing about.
Add these tiny joys to the long list of things I will never take for granted again.
Now the library is back! And it’s summer! Let the people rejoice. Also… what are we reading??
While I had a hard time focusing on ANYthing early in the pandemic, I got my reading mojo back about 6 months ago. I’ve also discovered the gift of audiobooks in recent times, so between the actual paper reading and the listening, I’ve covered some pretty good territory this year. The past year-plus has been a good reminder that a book can take you places, even when you can't go anywhere. As we (hopefully) start to go ACTUAL places again, here are some titles that I highly recommend for your summer roadtrip/hammock-lounging/beach-bumming/mountain climbing/porch-sitting adventures.
Every one of these books, in its own way, has the ‘sense of place’ factor--which is to say, the power to take you places-- that makes a book magical. So whether you need a book to take on the road this summer, or you need a book to actually be the road that takes you--we’ve got you covered. Happy trails!
How much time is too much time to spend reading Air BnB reviews? Asking for a friend...
Since we all know the friend is me, I’ll just tell you that I'm in vacation planning mode, and no help for it. Once I get here, you may not see me for awhile. I can spend hours, days, weeks, just perusing locations and destinations. And I’m perfectly happy about that. In fact-- few things make me happier.
It has always been thus. But after a year of quarantine, my vacay planning vibes are just extra at the moment. I've decided to lean into rather than away because really, it's kind of a freight train situation and I couldn't stop it if I wanted to.
Before you holler at me that THE PANDEMIC IS NOT OVER-- I know this. I do. I am looking at reasonably remote locations. We will wear masks. We avoid crowds. We will eat outdoors or cook for ourselves whenever possible.
But still. The very idea of being able to plan a trip is a joyful thing after this never ending lockdown winter. And when I heard that every adult in Kentucky would be vaccine-eligible by April--and since I have a 4th grader, and every 4th grader in America gets a free National Parks pass for their family through the National Parks Foundation [to which I am a regular donor, so I guess I'm technically paying for it, but still]-- it kind of feels like the whole universe is saying: go.
So I dusted off an old favorite book that is literally falling apart from overuse, if not recent use: Frommer's Guide To National Parks of the American West.
In our younger (read: pre-kid) days, my husband and I wore this thing slick out. When we moved from Kentucky to Arizona, we took 6 weeks off between jobs and did an epic tour of the west. He still had his Marriott employee discount at that point, so we would camp for 3 or 4 nights, then find a hotel so we could shower and do laundry or whatever. Then we’d drive awhile and to it again. It was one of the best times in my life.
We’d been married for two years at that point, but I think that is the trip when we learned to Be Married. We learned to be really on our own, away from all our other people; we learned what a 5,000 mile road trip will do to your car (even a Toyota); we learned how to fight, and how to just let shit go; we learned to navigate.
And when I say navigate, yes, I mean both literally and figuratively. But I also mean, without smartphones or GPS devices. Can you even remember those days?
Sometimes, it is beyond my reckoning how we used to get around town, much less across the country. But as I flipped through my ancient Frommer’s guide, and I see all the notes and underlines and circles that 20-years-ago-me thought were interesting or important-- I remember that we really did just have that book and an atlas. And we just went.
We had cell phones, but they didn’t do much. They didn’t even have signal half the time, especially in the wilds of Zion or Yellowstone. No navigation. No TripAdvisor app, telling us where to find the best burger in Montana. No AirBnB finding us a place to stay when we couldn’t find our preferred (heavily discounted) chain. No roadside assistance on speed dial when we had a busted tire in East Jesus, Utah; or a completely melted car battery in Idaho. These were things we had to just… figure out.
And I guess we did.
Once we settled in Arizona, we still made good use of that gospel. Day trips, weekend trips, week-long vacations-- when you live in that part of the world, all these amazing places are right in your backyard. And so we went.
Flipping through this book is a trip, in more ways than one. It has phone numbers-- actual phone numbers, you guys-- to call visitor centers in various park-adjacent towns. To ask the nice, helpful folks where you should stay, plan your hikes, see if they can help you book a campground… can you imagine calling an actual person for that?? Like you can’t just sit down at your laptop with your Saturday morning coffee and read the traveler reviews of thousands who’ve gone before you?
It reminds me of this whole other world we used to inhabit. It’s not a bad place to visit, by any stretch. I have never felt so free in my life as I did during those nomad weeks, deciding each day where we would pitch our tent-- literally. But it does draw into sharp relief how much things have changed. Not just in the past two decades, but the past year.
We all know that much about the travel industry has changed, at least for the short term. Fewer people on planes, masks everywhere, more outdoor dining, lowered capacity at museums and other tourist spots… but I am noticing some things about what I’m looking now for as well.
For instance, I’ve always avoided crowds, tourist traps, and “high season” as much as possible. But my reluctance to book in really popular locales is kind of next-level at the moment. You could not pay me enough to go to a theme park this year-- possibly ever again.
And miss me with any rental or reservation that does not have a very generous cancellation policy. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that things can fall apart quickly. Flexible travel is the only travel left, as far as I’m concerned.
My hunch is that, as the ice breaks and more of us begin to venture out, much will change about the way we travel; and some of that change will be permanent. Our ways of thinking and interacting with the world have undergone a radical transformation over the past year-- and we are only beginning to glimpse what this new world will be.
We are writing the book of these days as we speak. In 20 years, we will read it again and marvel at how we used to do things. Or rather- how quickly we found a new way of doing things.
One thing that I know has not changed: travel is healing, and restorative in a way that few other things can be. The family time, the off-grid time, the ‘see where the wind blows us today’ feeling that can only be accomplished when you leave your work and your stuff and your walls behind… for many of us, this is soul movement. How we get there may look different--whether for the short term, or forever-- but as for me and my house, we will go.
And, as with much of life-- we’ll figure it out when we get there.
How’s your creative energy these days? Mine is in the tank. I hear that’s going around.
The guitar I bought last summer has not been touched in months. I have little bandwidth for reading. I cook the same rotation of things for dinner pretty much every couple of weeks. Playing with my kids? Forget about it. (An as-yet unnamed grief for me in pandemic times is that I started it with two kids, but will emerge on the far side of it with two tweens/almost teenagers. Like all of us, they have grown up fast this year.) I spend time with them, yes. But anything that could be construed as creative ‘play’ has mostly left the building. Not only are they on the verge of being too big for such things-- I just don’t have it in me to pretend things these days. That part of my brain is off the clock.
As for writing-- I’ve tried explaining to friends and fam why I have chronic writers block when, in theory, I should have all the time in the world to write. I have no travel, no daily commute, no social engagements, no evenings and weekends spent running kids to endless activities, and few of the errands that can consume us in normal times. I’ve been stumped.
It makes easy sense, at some levels. I read somewhere that the part of our brains usually devoted to creativity is now devoted to processing endless changes to our ‘normal,’ facing a relentless string of daily decisions in this new reality, and, you know, staying alive during a global pandemic. Not to mention that the 4 people in this house are almost always in this house. One of them frequently banging on drums. So there’s that.
Still. I look around my house and think to myself: I’m always HERE, why can I not spend a few hours a day doing this thing I love?
And then it occurred to me-- I’m always HERE. But what I write about is OUT THERE.
Just as I dearly love to read a book that has a strong sense of place, I also write with a sense of place. Both content and form are shaped by my physical location, in more ways than one. It is, in part, about geography: I am a different writer in one landscape than I am in another. When I lived in Arizona, the desert itself found its way into my voice, in some ways that stayed with me and some ways that I lost when I left. Living in Kansas, I never really connected with the Midwest scenery in the same way; but what I wrote was still profoundly shaped by the people around me and the community where I lived.
Beyond that, I had physical spaces in which to write. A favorite coffee shop, a favorite bar, a favorite corner of the library.... I had quiet places, and places with a low hum of activity. Even when I was not writing, I was places- church, the gym, my kids’ school, people’s homes, hospitals, bars and restaurants, my daughter’s dance studio, my son’s baseball practice… Our days were an endless cascade of nouns! People and places everywhere.
I may not have been writing about the places, but I was writing from them.
When we moved back to Kentucky, I was back to the climate, geography and culture that I knew in my bones. But working from home, I had to try a little harder to be out among the folks. I found a favorite coffee shop, a favorite corner of the library. A place to sit at church while I was waiting for the kids to be done with an activity. A two hour window of time to myself every Saturday while my daughter did her theater thing. And, of course, there was travel. Lots of it.
Over the course of a decade, from this litany of locations, I wrote two books, hundreds of sermons, and nearly a thousand blog posts. Who knew there were so many words in the world?
And now I am always… well, HERE.
I know what a privilege it is to be able to work from home, to be fairly sequestered in this place to stay healthy and keep others safe as well. I also know that this is all temporary. In the meantime, it helps my spirit tremendously to be able to name why we struggle to find creative space --when much of our lives are situated in a single place.
Despite my recent lack of focus, I did recently finish reading News of the World, by Paulette Giles. I saw the movie trailer, and well, you had me at Tom Hanks. Being a strong believer in finishing the book before starting the movie, I powered through the whole thing.
I’m a sucker for a good Western anyway, but this one just resonated deeply. The story itself is a great one, but more than that, I loved the landscape and the premise. In the post Civil War frontier of northern Texas, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kid travels from one small town to another, and he reads people the news. He curates selections from multiple publications, and people pay to come hear him read these stories.
It’s a great reminder that, well before the days of the 24-hour news cycle, the globalization of everything, and tiny devices that put the whole world at our fingertips, people-- many of whom could not read, and would never travel beyond their own county line-- craved a glimpse of the outside world. To hear those stories was an escape, yes, but it was something else. A connection to something much bigger, in a world that must have felt very small.
These days, our worlds have gotten very small again. And in many ways, that’s not entirely a bad thing. But something primal remains in our being that wants to be part of a bigger story. So just know, when you have trouble creating in your own space--which is likely the single space in which much of your life takes place these days-- that the longing for the story is, itself, the spark or creation. It is often drawn out by the people and places you orbit. But the essence remains, even when your orbit gets much smaller.
I have no magic formula for drawing out that creativity when time and space is acting against it. But remember that whether you are struggling to play your music, or paint your picture, or bake your masterpiece, or play cowboys with the kids and their stuffed animals... that story is still there, and will be called out in its time. The same creative energy that formed the world--that separated light from darkness and called up life from the depths of the earth-- it still moves, and moves in you. However quietly it might be stirring at the moment.
I will keep trying to write small things from the small world I inhabit these days. I will write about bread, and winter, and things that give us life while so much of it is standing still. I will write from memories of the desert, and long roads that used to call to me regularly, and are still out there somewhere. I will write about the people in my small orbit, and the news from this small corner of the world.
How about you? What are you creating these days? Or what is creating space in you?
The Long Winter
Historically speaking, January and I have not been friends. Blame it on the cold, the post-holiday letdown, or the fact that January is about as far as a month can be from October (except for November & December, but they get a pass on account of holidays).
For the seven years I lived in Arizona, January and I had a respite from our adversarial relationship. In the southwest, that window of time is a sparkling paradise -- perfect for drinking spicy Mexican lattes and hiking desert mountains under crayon-blue skies dotted with hot air balloons. And also, you know, a nice break from the other months that will melt your face right off and not even feel sorry about it.
It's possible that, since leaving that winter utopia, I've felt even more frigid towards the first month of the year. And January in a pandemic? I've been dreading it, hard. The cold and the gray, plus the isolation and anxiety, and the lack of things to look forward to... It felt like a lot this year. The attempted overthrow of the government didn't help, but at least I saw that one coming.
I looked at my calendar this week and noted that January is ALMOST OVER! And yet... winter is not done, by a long shot. Neither is the pandemic. Or the escalating political discord that really piles on to the usual heaviness of the season. We've got miles to go yet, on all counts, and we all need some coping devices to get us through. I'm not telling anybody how to live their lives, but here are a few of the daily verbs that have been holding me up through this season:
Speaking of reading--my daughter has been reading The Long Winter, a book in the Little House/Laura Ingalls Wilder series. I never really got into those as a kid, other than little snippets here and there. But I'm familiar with the gist of this one: it's winter, it's cold, they have no food, everything is terrible, they almost die. The end. And get this-- my kid has read this before and is reading it again on purpose. For fun.
I said "why in the world would you want to read that right now?? Isn't it so depressing?!"
And do y'all know what this tiny thing said to me? She said, "Well, parts of it are sad. But it makes me feel happy because in the end... it's spring."
Well. Let the child preach.
Here in my end of Kentucky we got a beautiful big snow this week-- the kind that looks nice and is fun to play in but melts off the road quickly. I walked over to creek (crick) in my neighborhood just to stand there on the path in a quiet, wooded place for minute. The canopy of icy branches, almost cartoonishly magical, reminded me that winter does have its own kind of beauty some days, its own spiritual gifts, if we can be wise enough to witness.
Meanwhile, the water running over the rocks of the creek bed sang its own song -- spring is coming.
Seems like my kid and my creek have the same good news to share this week. Finish the book. Stay in this story, however sad and heavy it feels. In the end, it will be spring.