Monday, August 15, 2016

Bloomington/Indiana Thoughts, Part 1

It's now August, and we're in the dog days of summer. The mostly warm-to-hot days of June and July have given way to day after day of muggy, cloying warmth, interspersed with thunderstorms to liven things up now and then. Somehow, the last two months have passed, filled with work and little adventures and time spent with loving family and friendly acquaintances and supportive friends. And so, time has sped by, to this point.

There are only a few fireflies, here and there, lighting up the twilight, and that, more than anything, is a silent, sobering reminder that time does march on, and despite the seeming perfection of life, it dwindles and sputters and dies.


Speaking of time passing, and the rhythm of seasons, and the ebb and flow of time passing...

...The students are returning.

You live in Bloomington long enough that, come May, when the spring storms are receding and the green foliage is at its most vivid, you rejoice, for the students retreat. They go back from whence they came, and you enjoy the reduced amount of traffic, the briefer wait times at restaurants, the shorter lines at the grocery stores, the fewer dude-bros hanging out around Kilroys on Friday and Saturday nights. But then you become one of the people that go to ground during certain times, usually around the middle of August, and then again during the Little 500.

We really cannot complain too much, because the existence of Indiana University, and thus the students, is what makes Bloomington Bloomington. We're a significant little city in this state. Without the university, we'd be another Solsberry or Hindustan or Danville or Paoli or Elwood. It is the students--their presence, their money, their diverse cultures, both national and international--who  make us who and what we are.

So they are returning, (or arriving for the first time) and the poor little shits are having to practically have to row their way here, because...


The last few days, we've been completely deluged with rain. Not, like, "Anchors Aweigh!" or "Louisiana drowning" rain, but several hours of steady rain, on and off, which can lead to some real gully-washing. Tonight, when wandering back to my car after a lovely outing with a couple of new friends, I noticed the rain-washed streets, reflecting a gleam from yellow streetlights. As I gazed into the murky gold muddling the asphalt, I thought about a younger me, 12 years younger, looking at a similar rain-washed street, in the same damned city. Then, I was a new arrival, just starting grad school, on the cusp of what I once thought was THE relationship of my life. I was 24 and bright and clueless and yet felt like I knew everything. Probably just like the students who look at those rain-washed streets tonight, for the first time.

It would be a goddamned privilege to live here for the rest of whatever years I have left to me, watching the generations of students come in and out, keeping this a town forever young. And yet...

On a slightly more sinister note...Lauren Spierer. Several years ago, I saw this poor duck and the circumstances of her disappearance showing up on my newsfeed. Being an Indiana news-junkie, even then, I was disturbed and saddened. And now, having moved back here, I can see that her presence is as strong as ever through her absence. One of my companions tonight remarked that we were driving past the place where Ms. Spierer disappeared--and as it turned out, it wasn't that far from where I had lived, just a few years prior. Like, just seven blocks away.

All safety is an illusion, even in a quiet little liberal college town.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Thoughts on Two Marriages

Last month on Facebook (the most reliable source for all breaking news) I came across a little article announcing that the author Elizabeth Gilbert and her partner were separating.

If you're not familiar with this storyline, never fear--I can sum it up for you pretty quickly: Talented author realizes that she is miserable in her marriage. Author divorces husband and decides to travel around the world to a lot of countries that begin with the letter "I" to eat pasta and find herself. Instead, she found herself another fella, fell in love, and wrote a memoir about the whole experience, making a boatload of money in the process, and getting a movie deal too. I can't say for certain, but I think there's a strong possibility that the book and movie inspired a good few women of a certain seconomic and educational strata to leave their partners and chase after their inner Julia Roberts.

(Not me. I didn't take a months-long trip to Italy or Indonesia or India, although I DID take a 17-day vacation to Indiana.)

I wanted her to have a happy ending. (I mean, what curmudgeonly troglodyte asshole DOESN'T want someone to be happy?) We all wanted her to have a happy ending because we want to know that we will have happy endings. But here's the truth: there's never a totally happy ending. Perhaps a happy pause between storylines.

Regardless, I did feel a slight see of connection with Elizabeth Gilbert, as one is supposed to do when reading the work of a talented memoirist. And then, she decided to marry her fella, for complicated reasons...but before she did, she wrote a book facing down her ambivalence about the institution of marriage. Ironically, or perhaps coincidentally, I read it right before I got married.

We have nothing really in common, Ms. Gilbert and myself. She has achieved a great deal of worldly success and is much farther along than I am in her skills as a writer. But yet, here we both are, both of us separated and terminating our relationships with the partners that we once thought we would be with until the end of this life. I got married, and couldn't make it work. She wrote a book on marriage, and got married, and couldn't make it work. And there are no doubt a lot of people that have plenty of thoughts on that matter.

Last weekend, I came across a blog post about Elizabeth Gilbert's announcement, and the world's more-than-slightly-stupid reaction to it. I agreed quite strongly with her statement that "to suggest that readers are (or should be) somehow 'disillusioned' with the news of their separation is to hold Gilbert to a ridiculous standard--one nobody can uphold." She also takes the pretty generous, but not inaccurate, view that "marriage does not need to last forever to be a success." That all sorts of amazing things can come out of marriages that don't last. Children, and happy memories, and positive impacts, and lasting friendships can make marriages--even ones that end in divorce--a success.

Here is, at least for now, where Ms. Gilbert's and my story differ most drastically. I feel like--and I say this with no bitterness--my marriage was anything but a success. We didn't have children, we are not coming away with a lasting friendship, and just about all of my recollections of our six years together are tinged with vague emotions of contempt, boredom, disgust with both of us, homesickness, bitterness, disillusionment, and distrust. I know I shouldn't indulge in those kinds of emotions, and I want to move past them, move past this travesty of a marriage and all my flawed thinking that got me into that mess to begin with.

Maybe it's time to eat, pray, and love my way through Indiana. I've got the eating part down.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Another Indiana

It's a funny thing...back when I lived in That Place, and I expressed to folks my desire to move home to Indiana, they would give me A Look. Specifically, the look that said, "Girl, I know your politics. What the hell are you thinking, wanting to move to Indiana?" At which point, I would sheepishly acknowledge their point, and then rush to say, "Yeah, but not that Indiana!"

And now that I live here, whenever I remark on something being odd for where we live, I have lots of people helpfully pointing out, "yeah, but we're not Southern Indiana. We're Bloomington."

We're a diversity-lovin', recyclin', hippie-dippie, activist, academic kind of community, it's true. And so I didn't feel any hesitation or compunction at all, attending a Black Lives Matter rally this last Saturday.

Black lives have mattered to me for a very long time now, whether or not I actually knew to put the words to it. But regardless, for a long time I have been grinding my teeth over the blithe arrogance of people (read: white people) who don't see things wrong with things the way they are. I have a huge respect for folks who devote their lives to law enforcement, but I see that there are major issues with the way we handle the presence of minorities in this country, and I also see the disgusting racism that takes place, and I don't want people to think that All White People don't care. I am an ally. Even if all I do is show up to a rally, and hold a sign, and look my fellow country(wo)men in the eye and try to convey that yes, I acknowledge your struggle and I am here if you need me and I won't stand silently by. Even if all I do is that, I want to do it. 

So I did it. 

Funny thing to note: in the Midwest (even Bloomington) a #BlackLivesMatter rally is still very white. 

I came, I chanted, I rallied, I embraced the spirit of democracy that protects us all in America (in ideal America, anyway). But I learned something, early on. I commented to the person with whom I was attending, "Of all the places in America for this rally to take place, I cannot imagine a less relevant place than Bloomington." Bloomington, the hippy-dippy, diversity-lovin', academic oasis of Indiana--what police brutality or prejudice or inequality could we possibly have here?

Right away, I caught myself--spoken like a Caucasian middle class female who has never had to experience life as a person of color.

Even as an ally, I have so much to learn. But I want to turn up to the lessons. And while that might not be like a lot of Indiana--well, it's still my Indiana.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Departure and Farewell

A few days ago--much, much sooner than I was ready--I returned to California.

It didn't matter that I was only there for, like, 62 hours, or that I was no where near the horrible place where I lived before. It didn't matter that I was surrounded by people whom, for the most part, have no idea of the emotional shitstorm that went on in my life last year. It doesn't matter that it was a trip to bring closure to one of the few remaining things that tied me to California. I just didn't want to go. 

For the weeks leading up to this trip, I've been dreading it. There were times when I was about 10% convinced I should just bail. It was a trip in which I would be flying (ugh) to California (ugh) surrounded by some of the best librarians in the state of California, some of the most ambitious and accomplished current and emerging library leaders in the state, and would have to give a five minute presentation (ugh) about a project that essentially I sucked at. At least in my Crazy Aunt Mel brain.

But leaders don't quit, or something, and I felt like I owed it to the cohort to stick it through. After all, last year we vowed to ourselves and each other that "We are Eurekans, and we are in!" (and if that doesn't sound like a cult, then I clearly didn't live in California long enough) so I bought the damned plane ticket and slapped together a powerpoint presentation and memorized my talk and packed my bag and hauled myself up to Indy at ass-o'clock in the morning and flew out to the Land of Sun and Bullshit.

And I lived to tell the tale. In fact, almost immediately I was pretty happy that I went. I'd made some friends through the program, so everything else aside, I got to reconnect with them. In an over-air-conditioned conference room, I watched my closest friend in the cohort give an effing flawless presentation (while wearing my heels!) and knew that it was worth it for me to come, just to see that. In that same room, my mentors presented me with a pin and told me about how they could see how much I had struggled during the program, and came out stronger. In that same room, I stood before 50 people and talked about my project and somehow managed to acquit myself pretty damned well. Oddly, no one else thought the project was a failure--but then, according to one of my mentors, if I use my smile right, I light up a room and can sell ice to an Eskimo. And then, a very few hours later, I boarded a plane and came home.

After all of that, I am still not sure what professional leadership looks like for me, or whether it's something that I will ever really be ready for (shit, I can't even keep myself from crying at work), but after those 62 hours, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that while it was one of the sources of stress for me during the Year of Suck, it was also one of the sources of strength that I found myself equipped with when it came time to make my decision to move home.  It helped me leave California so that I could fly away from Indiana and then come back, as my home. It helped me to become the leader in my own life.

I don't know when I'll be back in California. I have neither an immediate reason nor a pressing desire to go back there. So when I flew away from there, it was both departure and farewell. And it was with a sense of closure, and a happy one, which we don't always have the luxury of experiencing, that I came home.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Talking About Music is Like Dancing About Poetry: A Review of Tim Grimm

In my efforts to go native (and, also, because it's my job), I've begun to research local musicians that are from these hills and hollers. Pretty immediately, I came across the music of Tim Grimm, and oh, what a wonderful soundtrack to the montage of my first couple of months here.

There's something so lovely about discovering a poet, or a writer, or a musician who creates works that resonate with you. It's like they've given voice to thoughts and feelings you didn't know you had, and have expressed them so beautifully that you feel that if only you could meet them, you would be BFFs or at the very least, kindred spirits. In his album Farm Songs, I feel like I've not only met a kindred spirit, but in fact possibly a secret twin brother that perhaps my Dearly Departed Dead Mom spirited away at birth. 

This hunch grew when I heard the first lyrics from his song "Too Hard Drivin'":

"I just pulled in, three days on the road
a road trip with my three year old
between the land of hearts and the city of angels
so may angels have fallen down
they walk around with broken crowns
they stumble on the trembling ground
and have trouble breathing..."

Hell, he pretty much narrated my life over the last couple of months. And continues to do so through the whole song, as he reflects on the pointlessness of a Hollywood life and the joy of settling down on an Indiana farm. SRSLY WHAT IS THIS EVEN. It's like he's in my head!!!! 

The rest of the album is just as exquisite; it's a solemn, dignified contemplation of folks and family, their commitment to each other and the land, the hard work and love and loss that goes in and comes out of the soil with each season. 

"Heart of the Winter" does touch, delicately, on the seasons (one of my favorite aspects of this beautiful home of mine), but the focus on winter here seems to reveal a pretty solid vain of angst running through the song, which seems to be a result of modern day anxieties conflicting with the more traditional ebb and flow of a farming life. 

"Just like my father and his father before
Who oftentimes told me you reap what you sow
I wish someone would tell me why life feels like a race
I know my granddaddy just cared for this place
He lived with a purpose, he lived by his hands
In this world that keeps changing, tell me what makes a man?"

"People's Highway": Lest you think that these songs only relate to us Hoosier-folk, I beg you, listen to this piece. It's a tribute to The Grapes of Wrath, I think, and who can't have a visceral reaction the heartbreak of displaced farmers, torn from their homes, wanting no charity, only dignity, respect, and a bit of land

"We don't want your handouts mister
We don't want no charity
We want work and stay together
Pick the fruit...Land of the free..."

In "80 Acres", he practically goes through the entire 150-year-history of his family's farm, from its founding to its enduring of the Great Depression to its current owners, and rather than being a boring so-and-so begat this and inherited that recitation, it's a sweet tale about a family who have names and take pride in their work and how the farm endures from one generation to the other.

"And I don't pretend to own it, but this paper says it's mine
And this farm is a long memory of walking back in time
and through the generations whose hopes were not in vain
to live a life in harmony well I hope to do the same.
With history in our favor, we've set out on a course
the ghost of Bailey Needham is a gentle guiding force
Although what we do and how we live 
might seem against the grain
freedom is finding beauty in the simple and the plain."

If I had to compare Grimm to anyone, I'd say that he tells stories through his songs as beautifully as Dar Williams. There's honesty in these songs, and sentimentality that somehow manages not to be treacly. There's imagery, and quiet pride, and I think I may have made Tim Grimm the Poet Laureate of Indiana. Is there such a thing? There is now. At least in this virtual Indiana space.

Completely apart from his beautiful music, Grimm has given me something else: words to explain why I abandoned my home, my job, and my marriage in California. Apparently Grimm lived out in Hollywood for many years, working on various tv shows, and then, finally, recovered his good sense and moved home to Indiana to pursue "a life of significance rather than success." Significance rather than success--it's the first time I've really been able to put my Indiana life into words. 

Yup. Long-lost twin brother. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Summer Lovin'

For ten years, summer has been a source of dread for me. Memorial Day, a holiday of unhappiness. While people in other parts of the country were having cookouts, celebrating the beginning of the season of summer and cookouts and outdoor living and winter being very far away, I was hiding out, trying to pretend that I wasn't about to commence the Season of Hell. 115+ temperatures. (It's a dry heat, my foot. After 105 degrees, it doesn't make a difference. And at least when you get humidity, you get storms.)  Days of relentless sunshine. 

 No more. 

This first Memorial Day back home, I got a pleasant reminder of how summer could be. I strolled down the block of an Indianapolis suburb with friends and their two toddling boys.  I watched them blow bubbles; I watched the sun illuminate brilliant blossoms that would already be struggling to survive in the desert. 

I did a totally traditional thing and went to a friend's house for a delicious cookout. (Mmmmm, cheesy brats...)

And I did something totally different, but that I think can and does happen quite a lot here in the Heartland...I went out on a pontoon boat and spent an afternoon bobbing about on Heritage Lake, swimming and drinking beers and watching kids frolic and being hauled around in a tube...

And watching thunderheads gather, and dissipate...

It was a good day, and it actually left me somewhat happily anticipating the months ahead. 

So, no more summers in hell. Lazy evenings spent watching fireflies; blowing bubbles; bobbing about on lakes; cookouts with all the meat; road trips down country roads; Icees and lemonade and margaritas and adventures. I'm ready to leave hell and love summer. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Indiana @ 200

There are many, many things that please me about being home again--first, that I am home now, just about 10 years after I left; what a nice, round number!--but second and most of all, that I've returned home at the Bicentennial time, a celebration of my state being a state for 200 years.

There are a lot of BFD events going on this year--we have a license plate commemorating the bicentennial, and we are doing a torch relay through every county and ending on the State House lawn; but there are a lot of modest events and projects, reflecting the equally modest towns and cities and townships and hamlets from which they originate. All of them, though, share the common thread of fierce pride in our home, and the history of it.

I've always been a bit of a history nut. I would beg my grandparents to tell me about "The Olden Days" growing up on their Indiana farms. I majored in history in college. I devour historical fiction and have a freakish recall for dates and love poring over old photographs. And I love learning about the history and the quirks and the houses and the everything around Indiana, for here's the thing: my grandparents grew up in Tipton County, one of those seemingly insignificant counties, and hundreds of thousands of folks' grandparents grew up in 91 other counties of insignificance in this state, and perhaps millions of grandchildren and great grandchildren and so on will never know everything about their families. The composition of Indiana is more than just its people; it is a million stories, untold, never known, forgotten, modified, buried, preserved, pondered.

And celebrating the Bicentennial is, in a way, celebrating each of the long-passed, long-forgotten, anonymous folks that have populated our state and its history. The weathered farmers, the steel workers, the housewives who were never just housewives, the politicians who steered us to where we are now (for better or for worse), the earnest civil servants, the freemen who fled the South, the Klansmen who persecuted them and brought shame to our doorstep, the hundreds and thousands who have lived and died in this state without making the Hoosier Hall of Fame. We are all part of the history of this plucky, overlooked, defensive state, and we are celebrating our own anonymous spot in the ongoing history. Maybe, just maybe, acknowledging that is my own Bicentennial Project.