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On the Road Again

On the Road Again

How was your spring break?

Fifteen and I packed our bags, scratched the kitties’ ears, and headed out on the open road for a Spring Break trip. As I said to someone recently, “I’m the kind of poor that means I can pay for a new dishwasher or go traveling with my daughter, and I’ll pick the latter option every time. It’s easy enough to wash the dishes.” It was sweet and easy to leave dish duty behind, too.

The first stop was Grinnell, Iowa, where the recently opened Hotel Grinnell welcomed us to their boutique accommodations fashioned out of an old junior high. Attention to school-oriented details make the hotel whimsical—an apple on the desk, the black metal furnishings reminiscent of lockers, the paper on the pad lined like lettering pages from elementary school. We enjoyed dinner with Eighteen and while Fifteen took her first official college visit of her brother’s school, I spent downtime in the hotel.

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The Hotel Grinnell

Downtime isn’t exactly in my vocabulary. It’s a novel experience. Aside from flooding the single-serve coffee maker trying to heat water for tea, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with myself. I was reminded that easing out of one’s daily routine and relentless to-do lists and detaching from responsibilities aren’t easy tasks. But they’re important, and I left home looking for the right blend of adventure and relaxation.

Some of our hotels were more mainstream than others. In Chesterfield, Missouri, The Courtyard Marriott was on one of those streets that looks like anywhere USA. The next day, when the admissions officer at Washington University suggested that homesick students go to the mall, I thought about why we like and build these streets of plenty—familiarity. Comfort when we’re outside of our comfort zones. But the true delight of the recently renovated Marriott was the chance to spend the evening with an old friend.

The woman I’ll call “Mimi” and I met in graduate school. She was one of two graduate advisors to my teaching preparation group, and later she and I were on a committee together. After graduate school she would be in a position to hire me for a summer gig at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival; we hadn’t seen each other since. At dinner Friday night I was able to remember for her something she said that I have carried with me ever since about her happiness. It was a lovely reunion.

Saturday started with a perspective look at Washington University, St. Louis, where I was ready to enroll by the time we left the admissions talk and headed out on tour. Fifteen was less enchanted, but we agreed the campus was pretty and the school is appealing. We next enjoyed the orchids at the Missouri Botanical Center and walking the grounds on a warmish day. Then it was time for tea.

The London Teahouse had just one table available at 3pm. Pots of tea and a three-tiered tray of delights in the lovely flower-filled Hyde Park room were just right. We left with full tummies and six ounces of “Naughty Vicar” to brew at home. That evening found us in the Tudor-style Seven Gables Inn, a 1926 Irish Inn with framed art on the walls and dark wooden floors in the rooms. Two steep flights of stairs up, we found a delightful room with a view of the courtyard. The Inn had oodles of charm and is in a lovely, walkable neighborhood in St. Louis. We enjoyed ramen for dinner around the corner and snuggled in for the night.

We opted to make the Arch a drive-by as it was starting to snow. We were headed for Memphis, home of the famous Peabody Hotel, where ducks swim in the lobby fountain from 11am to 5pm, and were in time to witness their march to the elevator that carries them to their penthouse suite. The Peabody is not only whimsical, it’s elegant and stylish and the service is without compare. The concierge spent an hour helping us print and submit scholarship application forms for Fifteen’s summer exploration, even making a trip into the dining room to find us with the confirmation email she received.

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Always four females and a drake–the ducks spend three months thrilling the crowds at the Peabody and then return to the farm. There is no duck on the menu at the Peabody. 

Memphis was a wonderful surprise—a city that is easy to navigate and brimming with energy. We toured Rhodes College, famous for a number of aspects of the education they offer and frequently atop the list of prettiest campuses in America. It lives up to its reputation. The Memphis Zoo is right across the street, so we headed there after the college to marvel at the animals. Our feet tired, it was a treat to return to our hotel where, in perhaps the swiftest scholarship decision in history, Fifteen found an email rewarding our work the day before with a substantial investment in her summer plans. We celebrated with dessert from the hotel bakery—oh were they good!

The next morning we were off to Graceland. One former Memphis resident told me, before we left, “Well, you can skip Graceland.” Another said, “Of course, you’ve got to go to Graceland.” I’ve been in the latter camp ever since Paul Simon released his album of the same name; if Paul Simon wanted to see Graceland, so did I. Fifteen and I had listened to a wonderful collection of Elvis songs between St. Louis and Memphis. She observed that the songs were short and catchy and nice to listen to. We were ready to learn all about Elvis.

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“For reasons I cannot explain/some part of me wants to see Graceland”

And we were truly panicked, for about fifteen minutes, when it seemed we were stuck in the hotel parking garage. And then we were unbearably happy throughout the tour where Fifteen’s favorite room was the jungle room, complete with shag carpet on the ceiling. Looking up at the mirrors on the staircase ceiling, she said, “If Eighteen is an eighties teen-film star, then I’m a seventies girl through and through.”

“Really?” I asked, “Why is that?”

“You raised me on Abba!” Did I mention that we both loved Elvis’ sparkle-studded jumpsuits and his flashy cars?

We left Graceland with sparkling pen key chains and a sense that we were definitely on an adventure. Even as the impetus of our trip was glancing forward, beginning the conversation around Fifteen’s college journey, more than one stop was a glance back. Lambert’s Café (the home of the throwed rolls, where we caught a roll but did not stay for lunch), was a feature from a family car trip when I was six. Hot Springs, Arkansas, has stayed in my mind ever since I saw billboards for it on a graduate school trip to visit a college friend in Little Rock. Every day was just the right combination of travel, hotel, exploration, and, yes, downtime.

Some of our adventures were decidedly less planned. We didn’t plan, for example, to go to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, but we found that it fit nicely into our itinerary and offered a fascinating look at the history that I lived and came just before Fifteen’s arrival on this planet (the story of how we all met William Jefferson Clinton in our pajamas is family lore). We didn’t plan, until we walked out of our tour of the Clinton library, to find the perfect place for cappuccino and ice cream, but we found that, too. Nor did we plan, between Memphis and Arkansas, to set foot in Mississippi, bringing the total states I have yet to visit in my lifetime down to eight. But after Graceland, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to drive ten minutes south and dine at a surprisingly good rapidly expanding fresh-food chain called Newk’s.

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Hard to photograph but wonderful to explore!

Some of the sweetest moments of travel are those unplanned surprises. Sometimes the surprises are significantly less sweet as when we were headed north from our Mississippi lunch, just slowing to merge onto one highway from another, and suddenly saw a mattress launch from the back of a trailer and flip high into the air heading for our lane. It was one of those moments when everything slows down, and I could categorize the responses in my brain. I watched the mattress lift up and flip, considered its possible landing trajectories, and was able to swerve just enough so that it landed inches to my left and I didn’t collide with the car on my right. The people towing the trailer had reacted swiftly, too, pulling right off the road to retrieve their bed. The people to my right gave way, slowed, and navigated the emergency such that no one was hurt (although I suspect the mattress suffered some road rash). My daughter heard me hurl the F-bomb for the first time in her life, and we shook and nervously chattered for the next ten miles. After that, it became an excellent story—that time we nearly got killed by a mattress—and something of a nightmare as I have rehashed the event and the what-ifs more than once both waking and sleeping.

It was an unplanned event of our trip and life in general that my phone rang one evening with the distressing news that a very good friend’s purse had been stolen. I was distraught that she had been so violated and dismayed to think of the hassles she would have in securing her identity and attempting to replace the contents, both valuable and invaluable. She was distraught because she was on cat duty during our absence and her means of access to our house were in her purse. Oh, yes, that’s a problem.

I wonder now if thieves have any regard for the ripple effect of stealing one woman’s purse? In this (as, I would suspect most) case, police are involved in the crime report, insurance agents in the property claim, the business outside of which the burglary took place in securing their premises for their patrons, the banker officers and credit managers in safeguarding her identity, and on and on. For just my piece of the experience, as we traveled, I had to ask my back-up cat care friend to step in. When it turned out there was no key in my lockbox, I reached out to the neighbor with a house key, but she texted back from her spring break in France. Finally I sent a key overnight via FedEx, all to be certain that my four-footeds would be fed. Again, once the anxiety settled, we ended up with a good story from the road.

As Fifteen read and I drove along, watching for signs of spring, I mused about perspective—maybe it’s an obvious truth that all over the world there are people going about what they do, earnestly, some with bold ambitions and the best of intentions, some with selfish inclinations and the most harmful of results. Travel brings us face-to-face with all of it—the big and the small, the luxurious and the necessary, the markers of the past, the fulfilled intentions and goals, the way our actions reverberate in the world, and the surprises and how we handle them.

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Just the car for our next road trip!

If you’ve read all the way to the end, thank you—we made it home without further incident, with another happy reunion with a dear friend, and without, yet, a college of choice. The laundry done and folded, the cats soothed, Fifteen was ready to pack the car and head out again. The next great family college-search road trip will likely be summer 2018. I, for one, can’t wait! Happy Spring Equinox, with all my love, Rxo

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Following Instructions

Following Instructions

What are we writing today?

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it. – Mary Oliver

It’s a rainy Friday in May, cool outside the coffee shop. The line for the drive-through wraps around the building and winds through the parking lot. Most of the tables are full. My writing partner and I are nestled in our customary spot, the twin chairs in front of the picture windows just beyond which the cars edge forward, their drivers anticipating coffee for their morning commute. “Perseverance,” my writing partner counsels wisely, “we just need to sit in the chair.”

My tea tastes more like the cream I impulsively added to it than black tea. I’m shifting and fidgeting in my chair, balancing my laptop on my knees, wondering if I can get into the creative flow that I came here looking for. For some time Mary Oliver’s quote has been on my desktop, at times mocking me, at times simply calling to me. I want to explain to her that I’ve been paying attention and plenty astonished by the last two months. I’ve been failing at telling about it.

In the big picture the pieces have shifted and shifted again, like one of those puzzles where you keep sliding the tiles around to make a pattern or organize the numbers. Seventeen is now Eighteen and finishing his first year of college in a blaze of excellent grades, new friendships, wonderful memories, and age-appropriate frustrations in pointing his car toward home where he understandably feels his life goes on hold for the summer. IMG_8170Fourteen will be Fifteen shortly—the past four months together have been a wonderful exploration of our mother-daughter duo—and she is excitedly headed toward summer through the end-of-the-year obstacle course of finals, projects, recitals and concerts.IMG_8173 Ninety-Two has come back stronger than before from a health crisis in April, astounding us all. My house is on the market, creating a combination of uncertainty about where we’ll live next and requiring the constant upkeep of living in a “Pinterest house.” Each of these is a story unto itself, full of little and big astonishments; spring, though, is about mushrooms and rainbows. So it is these I shall tell about:

Mushroom Soup

Ninety-Two’s health crumbled in early April. Another hospitalization landed her back in skilled nursing, where a team of physical and occupational therapists helped her get back on her feet. The fabric of support from friends and family for both of us was truly astonishing. From meals delivered to rides for Fourteen to flowers on my doorstep to kind words via email, phone, and text, we felt the love from near, far and wide. One email arrived with this welcome news: Morels … Found a bunch and I’d like to share them with you. Might make your mom happy.

My mother and I delighted in morel season on our farm, going out into the woods to look together, squealing when we found a mushroom. They are undeniably delicious, but also a herald of the spring with summer to follow, seasons of ease and abundance, of heat and leisure, of a shift away from the arduous slog that was winter life in the country. Disappearing as quickly as they appear, morel mushrooms are earth-magic, little wonders like four-leaf clovers and rainbows that you will only see if you pay attention.

Our morel benefactress zoomed up to the yoga studio in her black car and handed me a paper bag through the window. I hopped from one bare foot to the other on cool pavement in my bare feet, telling her I had devised an entire plan since her email the evening before. At home with the morels, I started diced onions in oil, the beginning to any good recipe and one that used to bring my mother out of her room when the scent of sizzling onions wafted around the corner. To these I added garlic and chopped crimini, then mushroom broth, simmering the flavors together. IMG_8153With the immersion blender on its last legs, the motor whining as much as it smooths, I puréed the soup in the pot and added thick cream from a local dairy.

Leaving the soup on low, I turned my attention to the paper bag bearing the most perfect morels. Lifting them one-by-one, I carefully sliced them the long way into quarters while my pan heated on the stove. Cooking them the French way meant tossing them into the hot pan without oil or butter, turning them rapidly and waiting for their liquor to release. When they were just right—cooked through with their edges and flavors intensified by heat—I tossed them into a thermos and trapped their heat with the lid. The soup went into a second thermos, and both went into a bag with a bowl, a cream-soup spoon from our farm days, and a kitchen towel. Defying the Pinterest house, I left a mess in the kitchen and went to deliver spring to Ninety-Two.

Whatever the results, there is something life affirming about knowing the impact of our actions. I’ve gotten things completely wrong plenty; sitting with the feelings of regret or dismay or despair is the surest way to forge through and rebound, but it isn’t the least bit pleasant. On occasion, I’ve gotten things completely right. Delivering morel mushroom soup to my convalescing mother was one of those occasions, worth everything I put aside to make the soup while the mushrooms were fresh, worth every dish I zoomed home to scrub in my otherwise barely used for-sale kitchen. I watched her exclaim and spoon up every bite, adding more broth so that each spoonful was a silky mixture of soup and mushroom. Later, while Fourteen and I were enjoying morels with eggs and asparagus, Ninety-Two’s email arrived, celebrating the soup and, in hindsight, heralding the turn toward her remarkable recovery.IMG_8154

Which leaves just rainbows to tell about—if you live in the Midwest you’ve seen some amazing ones recently. One morning I woke up in the yellow glow of morning and realized I had woken up inside of one (pictured below with May hail and the rainbow that followed). If mushrooms are earth-magic, then rainbows are the generous gifts of sky and wind and rain and sun, heralds of changing skies and astonishing times to come. But we won’t even notice them if we don’t pay attention and we won’t receive their gifts if we aren’t willing to be astonished. With intense gratitude for your presence on my journey and for letting me tell you about it, Rxo

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