Oops!

I made a mistake about the time for the Iowa City Public Library today.

I’m there at 4:00 pm, not 3:15. 3:15 is the time I’m leaving the hotel. Yeah, it helps if you read ALL the way through the information. This, by the way, is why I can never put together anything that requires assembly–because I read one sentence, and go, “Instructions? We don’t need no stinking instructions!” Then I toss the paper aside and stare at the pieces as if they will form a hologram that will convey all the information needed. I should stop doing that.

Anyway: Iowa City Public Library
123 S. Linn St.
*4:00 PM*

I am going to talk some about The Sweet Far Thing. I think. Maybe. Maybe I’ll do the book in mime. We’ll see.

Flying into Cedar Rapids was cool. I was on one of those little Tonka Toys planes. Usually, this fills me with fear. My feeling about flying in general is sort of, “Hmmm, let me see…I’m in a metal sausage, 37,000 feet in the air, hurtling through the skies, defying gravity atop an ignitable fuel source….who’d like to sedate me first?” But for some reason, I wasn’t scared. We were flying low, for one thing. And as we descended over the cornfields, I just thought the landscape was amazing–flat and golden-brown, the corn stalks like brush strokes in a painting. It all looked just like I thought the Midwest should look, but more beautiful.

Living in New York City, I sometimes forget the glory of wide, open spaces. I mean, I come from wide open space. North Texas is definitely that. But maybe because I associate Texas with adolescence and that age-specific need to get away, to escape, I experienced it as claustrophic. All that sky weighing you down, sameness everywhere you looked. But driving in from the airport yesterday, I felt as if the sameness of Iowa was different. Beautiful. A bit mythic. Yeah, maybe there were gas stations and a Target to break it up, but for the most part, it was open and expansive. It made me think of Neil Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS. (Hmmm, perhaps I should be worried now…)

I called my family to say goodnight, and then I called my best friend, Eleanor, up in Boston, and she sat on her kids’ swingset and I sat in my hotel room, and we yakked for nearly two hours, as if there were not half a country and thirty years’ of history between us. Like once again, we were both restless teenagers with a car stereo blaring The Who as we passed those shiny, green-and-white mile markers that dot America like advertisements for a manifest destiny of happiness, a promise of finding yourself: “Keep driving,” they whisper. “What you want is just down the road.” We used to do that–drive a little further each time, daring ourselves with the thought of escape until we had to turn back around, turn toward home.

This morning when I woke up and opened the curtains, the sun was strong, but there was a low line of graying clouds on the horizon. Six floors down, there was a pond with a fountain and beyond that, an unassuming blue house with an American-made, midsized car and a boat tucked back next to the garage. Farther out, through the thinning tree leaves, there was a road where semi-trucks whizzed along, to and fro, carrying mysterious cargo. And I was filled with a small, winged hope for nothing in particular, just a nugget of joy at being alive and where I was for the moment with the whole day stretched out before me and no real expectations.

There is a romance to traveling. It as if, when you leave your hometown, you also leave yourself behind. You are free to become whatever, whoever you care to imagine. No one can say, “Oh, it’s so-and-so, the mom” or “So-and-so the underachiever” or “So-and-so the not-nearly-as-beautiful-as-her-older-sister.” You’re a stranger, not just to everyone else, but to yourself. You are wide open for self-discovery. And, perhaps because of that, you are more open to the rest of the world and its stories.

As I was waiting for my connecting flight in the St. Louis airport, I had a conversation with an eighty-year-old woman, Mrs. M., who had come down to visit her grandchildren and was on her way home. She had lived her whole life in Iowa City. She told me about her father’s barber shop, about what it was like and how it had passed from her father to her husband. She met her husband on a blind date. “He didn’t even hold my hand until the third date,” she told me, smiling. “He kissed me on the fourth date and that was it.” They raised three children in Iowa City and ran their business. Now, she is a widow of two years, and she told me she goes to his grave every Sunday afternoon and says, “Joe, get your butt back down here!”

As love stories go, it is a quiet one. But it’s a love story, nonetheless. And I felt privileged to hear it in a busy airport, people rushing around–some frustrated, some frantic, some laughing–all of them going from one place to another, taking their baggage and their stories with them. We’re all strangers connected by what we reveal, what we share, what we take away–our stories. I guess that’s what I love about books–they are thin strands of humanity that tether us to one another for a small bit of time, that make us feel less alone or even more comfortable with our aloneness, if need be.

Outside, the clouds have won the day. There’s a gray, cottony lid pressing down on us. But near the pond, a family of birds is enjoying a last drink. They know that winter is coming. Soon, they will take to the skies, searching for warmth, for food, for whatever it is they need. They will travel light, taking only what is necessary to continue, as they fly over the trucks; the cars; the cornfields and strip malls; the small blue houses that shelter; the restless teenagers and whispering roads; the collective dreams, endless and mythic as the Midwest, of the strangers below.

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