m wood pen

illustrator of books, cocktails, travel + more

tonight i got a glimpse of somebody’s sorrow.

it’s not like i don’t see this stuff all of the time; it’s pretty much everywhere.  and the older i get (because, truth be told, i am very, very old), the more i accept the entire concept of malaise as an unchangeable piece of life.

there’s no stop without go, no love without hate, no war without peace, no give without take, no beginning without end.

so, this sorrow.  well, you know the scene in the wizard of oz when dorothy is being held captive in castle of the wicked witch?  she’s a wreck (understandably), and sort of slumped over that ginormous crystal ball.  i mean, that poor gal is scared: she’s just a kid!  and the witch is creepy and green…surrounded by those menacing flying monkeys….all in all, a horrific situation to be in.  so, through her tears, dorothy sees her sweet auntie em magically appear…clutching her heart, holding a hankie, looking plaintively up and all over the sky, calling “dar-a-thy, dar-a-thy!”  our heroine leaps up, wipes her tears, a smile starts to form on her tear-stained face, and she calls to the crystal ball, “i’m here, i’m here auntie em!”  oh glory!  oh hope!  oh love!  oh salvation!

well, we all know what happens next.

that creepy witch, what a freak, so mean, popping into the mirage of this crystal ball and just laughing in this horrible shrill voice, imitating dorothy’s joyful cries, omg!  dorothy recoils (love that word) and falls back into the previous heap of weeping hopelessness on the cold stone castle floor.  so twisted.

tonight i thought i was reading something else, perhaps a friendly bit of news.  instead, the missive contained a sad and all-too-common stories.  someone’s unthinkable and unexpected sadness, all spelled out for me in an email, leaving me with a palpable batch of empathy.  damn.  and the worst part of is is that this person really, honestly, didn’t see it coming.

i put the email down (which is impossible, i realize).  what i actually did was shut off my iphone, sit out beneath the night sky on my deck, thinking.  mulling.  another great word.  sort of tasting this fresh story and deciding what to do about it.  i’m no miracle worker, is not like i can change what happened or anything.  all anyone can do when faced with this sort of story is to either ignore it or do something.

but what?

when i went away to college, (super swell utopian, idyllic, & darling), the four hour drive might as well have been a trip to the moon in a rocket ship.  cross the great mississippi, pass the countless cornfields & silos of eastern iowa, wind down highway 30 to see, out of nowhere, almost like the emerald city itself in its incongruousness, the high, tree-shrouded hilltop of mt. vernon.

lovely!  cornell college drew me in based on three factors:  it was a small liberal arts college within the 200 mile radius orbit from home required by my parents (5 kids, easy to fetch us by car); it had a compact campus which made me certain i’d never get lost going to class (i’m not making this up); and it’s red brick buildings (dating back to 1853) gave the illusion that i was in new england. sign me up, college selection done.

the strangest thing happened, and kept happening.  after the hassle and fuss of lugging my things up the three flights of stairs, settling into my dorm room, saying goodbye to my parents (no special mom & dad orientation, family love fest, or delayed gratuitous keeping them hanging around stuff back in ’78), my happy college life began.

wow, was this a friendly place!  at first, i just figured that the college staff was just on overkill to keep the new kids from crying.  smiles, waves, nods, easy conversation, and more waves.  welcome abounds!

later that day, my roommate and i walked to town to fetch something (no, it wasn’t beer!). comfortably close (again, no worries of getting lost, a colossal relief), we ambled across campus and then down the main street in town.  now, this is iowa, which i learned, is more of a verb than a noun…and the weirdest stuff kept happening.  in a ten block walk, off of campus mind you, every single person who passed us by looked right into our eyes, smiled, and said, “hello!”  (or some version of a happy salutation).  everyone.  old ladies, old farmers, little children, shopkeepers, townies, office workers.

e v e r y o n e!

it was the weirdest thing ever.  i kept thinking: what’s wrong with these people?  or: are they mistaking us for someone else?  and: now that they’ve said hi, what am i supposed to do?   it really threw me.  it was new, it was strange, but i can tell you: it was wonderful.  once i figured it out, wow, was it nice.  a bunch of sappy, grateful, gregarious people, sharing the sidewalk, sharing the line at the deli, sharing the sunny saturday afternoon…even now as i type this i can feel how much i miss it, and why i try to get out there as often as possible for my hit of americana small town wonderful!

so, i’d say that within two days, i was had, officially, become one of these smiley, ridiculously friendly people.  i’m waving to pick up trucks driving by, winking at tots, chatting about the weather with ladies loading groceries into their buicks, sitting for a spell on park benches with some cute old guys…it felt wonderful, important and real.

here’s the thing: when you’re standing in an elevator, and a stranger walks in, what do you do?  i think most of us stare at the buttons, stare at our cellphones (even though there’s never service in an elevator, right?), stare at ourselves in the reflection of the shiny metal doors, stare at our feet, stare at the ceiling looking for the trap door in case it gets stuck (i actually do this…), but anything to avoid saying “hello” to the stranger?!?  ridiculous!  i get my ‘iowa’ on and say hi.  why on earth wouldn’t i? it takes so much more energy for two people in close proximity to pretend that they don’t know that there’s anyone there….doesn’t it?  i’m incapable of ignoring them, of playing that  “i don’t see you even though you’re 7 inches from my left elbow” game.  it’s stupid!

today as i was leaving a restaurant (delicious cole slaw!), my friend and i passed by booth after booth of important business people having important business lunches.  i could tell that these were professional groups because very few of them looked happy.  so, out of my peripheral vision, which is really keen, i noticed that a few of them were watching us, no doubt desperate for diversion! when we passed the last booth and the last fellow, i locked right into his eyes and said, “i love your glasses”…and just kept walking.  it caught him so by surprise, he laughed, thanked me, looked at his pals, who now were all smiling, like, “can you believe that?  she talked to you!  she likes your glasses!”

it’s all so blanche dubois, relying on the kindness of strangers, thing.  and it feels great.

granted, my kids have struggled for years with my inability to keep my mouth shut:  “mom!  mom! stop!” as they watch me chatting up the gas station attendant, the lady who sells us bags of chips, the people who hold the ‘slow’ signs on the roadway during construction, every single ‘server’ we’ve ever encountered while eating out, people waiting in the concession line at the movie theatre…everyone.  on our crazy drive to california and back, the kids finally just accepted this oddity in me, and began to count our ‘new friends’.  i’m not sure if they were making fun of me, actually, i’m sure that they were…but, and this is cool, at some point, i know that as the tally grew, their enthusiasm grew too.  it became a challenge to see how many friends we could make each day.  i know we all agree that i picked the wrong friend in edwards, colorado…but overall, we met some super friendly people who all become part of our story.

and guess what?  they do it now, too.  those cute kids!

and back i come round (i always do) to my sorrowful stranger story.  i can’t shake the iowa in me, nor do i want to: it’s one of my best features.  what i think i’ll do is come up with a nice, friendly way to just tell this stranger:  hi.  you’ll be fine.  you matter.  just that.  and that’s enough.

One thought on “iowa

  1. Kathleen Casey Hertenstein (Cornell 1979...oh yea, I said it....THAT long ago.....) says:

    Just found your site from Elie Saad’s FB page….I LOVE IT!! I was drawn to your writing about Iowa and think now you must write a book….I’ll look for your cards and will have to peruse your site to find the retail outlets. Finding your site has made my day!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: