“There is much beauty here, because there is much beauty everywhere…”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
There’s a moment in the first installment of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, when Sam pauses at the edge of a field full of sunflowers, a few steps behind his hobbit companion, Frodo.
“If I take one more step,” Sam declares. “It’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” Frodo smiles, Sam takes the step, and they continue on their less-than-merry way.
I’ve been in the Midwest for the past ten days, and while it’s clearly not the farthest from home I’ve ever been, it is the greatest linear distance from the Pacific Northwest that I’ve ever driven overland.
Five days it took us to get to Chicago, albeit in a discursive path and allowing for stops to photograph iron horses, marvel at the World’s Largest Metal Holstein and Buffalo and feed real longhorn calves. Five days and a few thousand miles of freeway, hundreds of exits and mile markers, dozens of rest areas and gas stations. It was, in a word, slow. (“Slow? Five days?” the ghost of Laura Ingalls Wilder shrieks. “That trip took my whole life! Where even IS Seattle, anyway? Pretty sure we turned around before we got there.”)
In a few more words, driving halfway across America was like being finally forced to read every page of a book with which I always claim a rather generous familiarity. Have I read Anna Karenina? Sure. I mean, the abridged version. Or maybe just saw the movie. In Spanish, on an airplane. I remember it snowed a lot. Wait, was it Dr. Zhivago? That’s how well I know my country.
I’ve read the highlights, all these years. Fly to Washington, DC in the eighth grade, wearing American flag class t-shirts so we don’t get lost when we visit Gettysburg. Fly to New York for a conference, see a show and walk in Central Park, living my own solitary romantic comedy. Fly to Hawaii in February, stepping out into the bizarre, colonial warmth of this annexed tropic. I’ve read and reread my favorite parts, the ones recommended by summarizers like me.
Driving is reading every page, one word at a time. There’s no skipping ahead. The land changes slowly, unfolding like a developing character, mile by mile, as hills rise and fall, greens fade and saturate. The land itself is the protagonist, especially in this latter half of America’s coming-of-age novel. The tiny towns, each with their own quirks and sameness, they’re only secondary to the vastness that surrounds them, defining them as oases in the prairie sea.
It’s in this careful reading that I glimpse the wild-hearted optimism that led people to these wildernesses, to take root and grow up in fierce places. It’s different than the inherited roots I find in Europe. It is younger, bigger, less reasoned and a little riskier. It is beautiful, this America, when seen like this, up close. The movies, they focus on the glitter and the violence, skip the characters speaking all those slow words, and jump straight to the action. As always, the book of America is better than the movies.
I’ve come to the Midwest this week mainly to attend the wedding of Becky Beeh, my close friend and former colleague at BFA. We sat, five friends in a row, witnessing this beginning in their words to one another, standing in a garden on a summer evening. As the music and laughter of a happening dance floor spilled out late into the night, and bride and groom floated around to tables full of family and friends, I thought about how this moment would make it into the abridged version of their lives, but is so much richer for all the slower pages that surround it. The transcontinental correspondence before, a move to Switzerland, the unknown new life waiting for them in New York City; these days are the ones that make this evening significant.
As I sit in Chicago O’Hare Airport, getting ready to skip back to the West Coast ending to this story of exploration, I think about the way we read each other in relationship. How it’s tempting to jump in and skim the highlights, skip to the good parts or reread the moments we liked the best.
Yet the highlights glow brighter when reached at their proper time, arrived at overland, one gradual mile after another. It is slow, perhaps, and not as dramatic as the summarized, fly-by life, but I’m learning to read slowly, drive carefully, paying attention to the journey and taking pleasure in sharing life with those I meet along the way.