Sunday, October 2, 2011
So What? – Observations and Lessons from the Road
Well. Cecelia’s Big Adventure is done, more or less. So what? Did I discover something about myself, or America along the way? “Hold onto your hat”, as my mother would say. Here comes my laundry list of revelations.
I learned that the Hand to Hand Project is a flowing organism, not an individual work of art, or just an expansive collaborative installation. It’s become an unfolding story. H2H has ceased to be about me, or war, or one more art piece to put on a resume. It’s about communicating with artists and viewers without asking anything in return. It has become a structure for moving deeper into my own life, trusting others, pushing out self-protective walls and reconnecting with relatives, artists and friends. The Return of Hand to Hand seems to be a vehicle for experiencing people within their essential life spaces, beyond the Project’s diverse messages on the gallery walls, or the individual creative juices that spawned them.
I learned on the road that fear comes from somewhere in the mind, and that most of it is a stone rolled out by my little ego to keep supporting its fantasy of control.
I learned that I did not fear aloneness in the wild. Talk of bears on the loose, and two experiences with odd acting humans at campsites was unnerving, but I kept my “street smarts” alert in the forest, and made adjustments for safety whenever I could. I listened to my gut.
I learned that direct experience within the world is the most vital form of learning.
I learned I can push out my limits, but I was never eager to do so.
I learned I’m a running water kind of girl. On the road, I usually wanted to spend the night in a cushy motel or a cozy cottage...not camping – but I did it anyway. It saved me a lot of money. I stayed in a motel only once when the temperature in the sand hills of West Texas was too much for me to bear.
I learned I can make choices to live within my means, and still create an adventure.
I learned I’m a seeker...some may say a navel-gazer...bent on a quest to figure out my purpose on this planet. The Hand to Hand Road Trip Across America was just a nice excuse to extend that path horizontally.
I learned I’m braver than I was when starting out. I can face the unknown a bit better, but I’ m still most comfortable when I can arrange my future necessities–especially where I will sleep the next night, how much money I have in my pocket, or how far to the next gas station in the middle of the desert. Let’s say I had 10,000 miles of practice becoming comfortable with uncertainty, and I’ve still got more miles in that direction to go.
I learned I’m afraid to sleep in the car by the side of the road...at least not alone. I’d need a lover to hold and protect me in order to surrender to that much insubstantiality of existence.
I learned I hate hot weather...thoroughly and throughout my body, from its core to the outer pores and hairs of my physical being. My face erupts after enduring days of sun through the windshield, and explodes in a relentless flush of red cheeks and miserable rosy splotches blooming across my neck. My body refuses to sweat in enough quantity to keep itself balanced with the punishing, endless daylight. This body ran down after a week of intense, blistering climate across the South and Southwest, even with AC in the car.
I know why the prophets went to the desert for enlightenment and transformation. It is a place stripped of security and comfort, ripe for fostering existential questions about the nature of life and death. The intense sun, lack of water and absence of people, shelter and shade left me feeling exposed and alone. The desert sky is huge. Etta and I were specs beneath its giant dome.
I learned that in empty landscapes and on long, lonely highways, “The Unknown” gathers force and personality. I gave this depressive emotion the name The Road Demon. Sometimes he sent me into little panic spells as I gripped the wheel and hoped to find a town or gas station around the bend.
I learned I can roll with the rules and the housekeeping styles of my hosts. I was always treated to a comfortable bed, fresh, beautifully presented meals, and conversations about art and life. Some of the folks I stayed with put flowers on the table, had elaborate kitchen appliances to figure out, and special rules for loading the dishwasher. Sometimes Etta was allowed to jump up on the couch, in other homes she had to stay in a separate room (with difficulty and lots of whining.) In some places I stepped around the hairs in the shower drain, and ignored the dirt behind the commode. In others, shoes were removed at the door. It all seemed to work.
I learned that after traveling four time zones west, and then four time zones east in three months, my body’s preferred active time is rising with the dawn, and sacking out by 9:00 pm. This explains why in winter, when it’s dark after dinner, I have such a hard time motivating my body to get off the couch. My circadian rhythm would suit a Vermont farmer.
I learned that I can push through loneliness, continue moving, and that the feeling will change, especially when I make the effort to connect with strangers.
I learned to stop trying to identify every river I crossed, or mountain in the distance and to enjoy the flow.
I learned on Puget Sound that I can unleash Etta and she will return. She disappeared along the coast, I held my breath, but she answered my calls. I learned I can let her meet other dogs and she will be OK. She herself is opening to more diverse experiences. Each travel day she would jump onto her passenger seat perch, and wait enthusiastically for take off. Etta gradually relaxed into each new day, and the new people we encountered, particularly their pets. She set her boundaries with other dogs by a low growl and a snap in the air if they did not get the message. Then most of the time, all canine/feline parties understood how the territory would be divided–who gets the pillow or couch. Most of the cats chose to disappear.
I learned that I love the cooler northern summer weather, and its deep green forests. Places without tall trees, and too much dust or desert comprise the first rings of the inferno for me. Vermont became the Emerald Kingdom quest in my mental mists. The downside of course, is the long cold winter and all that restrictive snow, but no worries about that in July.
I learned I can eat simply---cereal in the morning with a small can of juice. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with sliced cheese and baby green spinach for dinner with fruit for filler. I ate only ten times in restaurants the entire three months of summer (not counting my daily search for coffee shops with wi-fi each morning and the elusive great cup a joe.)
I learned that America and I have a love/hate relationship with coffee. Small town cafes and gas stations usually serve weak, over-cooked coffee. No one seems to mind. Convenience stores sell elaborately flavored hot brown stuff in big thermos pumps with over-sweetened half and half substitutes. On the other hand, college towns all across the USA support at least one local coffee shop serving delicious, well-tended brews and home-made pastries. Starbucks is a reliable source of flavorful, fresh coffee whenever I could find one. I stumbled upon a Starbucks in small-town Spencer Iowa inside the Spencer Dream Center, a city social services building opened by a welfare group, and manned by students–excellent coffee in a welcoming atmosphere.
I learned I can travel light, without a camp stove and all the cooking utensils and fuel. Space was at a premium, especially in the beginning when my compact Scion XB was filled with boxes of artwork to return.
I learned that oranges and apples stay fresher longer in a hot car than soft skinned fruits like plums or peaches. I craved bananas, but they did not survive the intense heat of the car. I learned to buy only two or three at a time, and stop at stores more frequently. America offers an abundance of foods, with small stores along the highways that cater to the travelers needs.
I learned I can store all my perishables within a 6-pack sized cooler, and simply buy a couple of “Big Slurp” sized cups of ice each day. Inside it I packed a block of cheese to fancy up my evening peanut butter and jelly sandwich, one bottle of beer for the evening wind-down, and a vacuum box of soymilk which kept longer than cow’s milk. Bread in the cooler invariably got soggy no matter how well I ziplocked its plastic bag. I stashed non-perishables like dry cereal, bread, raisins, nuts, individual pop-top canned juices, and my multivitamins in one grocery store fabric totebag. I regularly bought a gallon of spring water, or the shrink-wrapped 24 pack of individual bottled waters. Etta lived on available brands of dry dog food.
I learned I am not a loner-survivalist. Throughout the journey I went out of my way to connect with shopkeepers, fellow campers, cousins, and friends scattered around the country. I used talking, camping, and eating as vehicles for deeper connection.
I learned that my car is my friend. I took good care of her along the route with regular oil changes and gentle driving. I went the speed limit, and on step roads I did not push or rev the rpms. I usually let her find her comfortable speed uphill, even if it meant she dropped below the postedlimit. Her engine became shrill if I pushed too hard.
I learned that camping in state and national parks is an ephemeral community act. In mid-summer, these places, carved out of the forests, deserts, and lakesides are gathering spots for local families and friends staying for a week or so of down time. Campsites are close. Conversations, songs, game-playing, cooking smells, truck doors slamming, headlights at night sweeping across my tent reinforced my awareness of being a part of a bigger body of vacationers.
I learned that a tent is a thin-skinned interface between inside and out. In a crowded camp ground, neighbors can be loud and intrusive, but also they will share food and resources, like my fellow campers on Grand Isle, LA who drove around in a golf cart offering fresh cooked shrimp, crab and veggies from a beach low-country style boil. They showed me how to crack open the shellfish, and offered three types of home-made sauces.
I learned to always say “yes” when someone offered help. In Santa Fe at Black Canyon campground, a young woman from a group of Oklahoma girlfriends on a mini-vacation came to my site to help me set up my tent. She was genuinely disappointed when I turned her down. Later I visited their area. We talked about our lives, and I shared my story about the return of the Hand to Hand Project. The next morning they gave me a breakfast soup made of grains and chick peas, and I showed them the actual Hand to Hand glove artworks. By saying” no” to help in the beginning, I almost blew the opportunity that developed to get deeper.
I learned that I like the feeling of being encompassed by something bigger than myself, like waking up inside a misty cloud at dawn camped by a riverside, or being contained within a forest surrounded by the density of trees. It is a humbling, exhilarating, existential experience to look up at midnight under a dome of stars, or to travel an endless road in the merciless desert. I am a spec within this mysterious bigness of being.
As an easterner, I learned that I had no concept of the vastness of space and land and the hugeness of the sky in the western desert landscape. Small plants and scruffy trees reveal the heavens, and lay bare the body and mind to the relentless drilling of the sun. I felt afraid sometimes. At other times I experienced the joy of freedom running down the highway.
I learned to turn off the music and the talk radio. The landscape, signs, and the craft of thinking drew my razor sharp attention. My eyes sucked in the world beyond the windshield. My mind and memories seemed to be expanding. This ultra focus was exhausting, but I’m sure I was creating new synapses with each mile. It had to be better than a crossword puzzle as a brain builder.
I learned I love talking about art with artists. It is so easy. Having a conversation with a well-meaning person who might not be into art about what kind of work I do elicits a silent sigh from my soul, and a begrudgingly difficult response. Polite smiles and gaps in their understanding is a drag, but I’ll always try.
I learned I miss my grandkids–Jack from my bones, Rosie from my head and Roman from my heart. I hate saying goodbye to my own children and kids-in-law. I love sharing their lives and being pulled into their circle of fun, friends and experiences.
I learned that I had no inclination to meditate or pray the rosary. That seems to be a function of staying in one place and being with the stationary moment. On the road I’m in a heightened state of observation and movement. I suppose if I did this constant motion thing for a living, I’d be praying more. I gravitated to the Buddhist readings that I brought, rather than my Catholic books.
I learned that “land” is no longer an abstraction to this city-raised girl, but is an ally that supplies life and livelihood, or can take it away. I physically experienced the elements of weather, sun, rain, water supply, plant life, wild animals, time changes, and earth formations.
I learned that some friends and artists along the way are also seeking, like Kevin Maher in Silver Spring, MD who wants to know, “What is my purpose?”, or Andy Faith in Charlottsville, VA who is retired, and feels like a free spirit in her art. She told me that she would not let anyone say she couldn’t do this.
I learned that I do not realize when I’m stressed or exhausted or pushing myself too much, until my body gets sick. It happened over and over on the road. I was fine. It seemed the world was out of whack. Is this learning?
I learned that I have two homes. Vermont is where the memories and deep heart connection with friends, relatives, the land, the mountains, trees, rivers and liberal, local, back-to-nature lifestyle live. And Georgia is where my children grew up, where my son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren reside, where I keep my possessions, and where I have an expansive network of artist friends and collaborators.
I learned that my dog Etta is a comforting companion. I could not go into museums for fear of frying her in the summer heat of a parked car, but I adjusted the trip so we could follow trails and walk in nature instead.
I learned that Americans like big cars¬–lots of SUVs. It amazed me to see an elderly gentleman in West Virginia clamber down out of a monster pickup truck. He had trouble walking, but had power behind the wheel. I observed that in Southeastern and Southwestern USA, white is the predominant color for pickups.
I learned that Subway and McDonalds restaurants can be found all over the country, and that Dollar General stores favor locations in much of small town America.
I learned that all the truck weigh stations I encountered on major highways were closed except for Virginia. I’m not sure why.
I learned that one could study the animal life of America by observing road kill. Alligators on the side of the road in Louisiana. Prairie dogs, weasels, pheasants and locusts on the grillwork in the Midwest. Jack rabbits in the Southwest. Pikas in the Northwest. Skunks in the northeast. Armadillos in the South. Raccoons, deer and squirrels almost everywhere.
I learned (tried) to be a considerate driver. It was more relaxing to drive long distances this way.
I learned that friends on the route wanted to give me traveling directions. I accepted this verbal help, but generally ignored most of it. It was less stressful in traffic to simply let the voice of my GPS instruct me in real time.
I learned that the Clean Water Act is working. A friend asked me to stop by his hometown of Covington, VA, which was on my way. He asked if the Jackson River was as polluted and full of paper mill foam as it was in the early ‘70s. I was happy to report that it ran clean and clear.
I have a sneaking suspicion that over time these lessons may fade in importance. Right now they are vivid. Perhaps I will forget. Times will change, and make my observations simply chronicles of one path in America at one time in the universe. I guess that’s OK. What I did exists in a big soup pot of events and experiences. This realization is humbling. I do suspect, however, that I’ve turned some sort of corner in personal expansiveness, and gentle abiding with whatever happens next.