It is Sunday; I start my journey back to Maryland on Friday. In the time I have been here, I have settled in, watched and listened, met a few old friends, and made a whole bunch of new ones. I have learned some things about clothing in North Platte, but more about myself. And wasn't that the plan, all along?
I have not blogged much in the last few days, though I have written in my paper journal and posted thoughts and pictures on my personal Facebook page. One reason is that I was writing a report that demanded several hours of research, thought, and writing every day. My word limit arrived with a bang by mid-afternoon, and I would be done with writing. But the bigger reason is that my head has been a jumble of confused thoughts, between the election, the death of my poetic ideal Leonard Cohen, and the sensations produced by being here, in North Platte, at this time in my life.
I drove into the Sandhills again yesterday, all the way to Thedford, about 65 miles north of here. It is desolate, yet inspiring, landscape. Driving -- most of the time as the only car on the road -- through the rolling grass-covered hills -- was like being on a small boat on the ocean. Except in the sandhills, the waves are standing still, and only you are moving. On the way north, I listened to side one of Leonard Cohen's "Live in London" album; southbound, I listened to side two. I played my favorites, "Anthem", "Hallelujah" and "Democracy is coming to the USA".
So how do I spend the next five days? There will be a visit to a local clinic, to deal with this lingering ear infection before it causes permanent damage, and there will be laundry. There will be writing in the morning and microfilm at the library in the afternoon. Probably more time in Cody Park, more sunsets (and maybe sunrises), and at least one more long drive besides the one to Denver on Friday. I am hoping for more new acquaintances, and good conversations. At some point, the North Platte that was has slipped further into the past, and I am firmly in the North Platte that is. It's a place worth knowing and understanding, for me at this precarious time.
I did not plan to be in North Platte during the election; it just fell that way. We had a social event scheduled for the third weekend in October, and my son's birthday is a month later, so here I am. Once I realized the timing, I figured it would make it more interesting.
In the two weeks I have been here, I have seen a Trump/Pence sign here and there, chatted with some Trump supporters, and hung out with members of the local Democratic Party, many of them former Bernicrats. Let me say at the beginning that even small town politics can be very complicated, and and I would have to be here much, much longer to make any kind of sense out of the picture.
I hung out with the Stalwart Dems, as I call them, for the first three hours of election returns. That's Bob, the transplant from Brooklyn in the glasses and cap waving on the left. And on the right are my new friends Susan and Sean. The gloom descended on the room early on, and people started drifting off after ten. No one in the group expected Nebraska to turn blue, but they were hoping that a ballot measure to retain the ban on the death penalty would pass; it didn't. By close to eleven, I was starting to fade, and took my leave. Luckily, I was by myself when Florida was called. After that, I was caught between my need to know and my urge to curl up in an anxious ball. I slept maybe four hours in all.
I wake up slowly on a good morning, and this was not a good morning. It was in the 20s outside and I am down to my last pair of warm socks. The friendly local coffee shop seemed less inviting, populated as it must be by cheerful Platters who voted for Trump. (And a few, very quiet folks who didn't.) Here's what it is actually like:
The staff were as cheerful as always. The regulars were all there (not the Dems; they'll be here on Saturday). Yes, they were talking about the election. But here are the snippets I overheard:
In the time remaining: more listening. Much more listening.
i hardly know where to start. Every day I make more contacts and more connections, and learn more about myself. I spent six straight hours at "the office" -- the Espresso Shop on Dewey Street, in what used to be one wing of Montgomery Wards. Some of that was writing a report about dress codes for a state charter of the ACLU, but most of it was talking to the locals. First, there was my new Facebook friend, Dan, who contacted me even before I arrived and made me feel welcome. Then it was the group women with the spinning wheels and knitting needles who gather once a month for coffee and fiber goodness. The it was my once-upon-time neighbor and playmate, Dennis, who remembered practicing our lariat skills in our backyard on Willow Street and reminded me of the fun and mischief to be had with an irrigation ditch.
The conversations are mixed and interwove so much after a while I can't remember who said what. But the idea of North Platte feeling like a world apart came up again and again. We had all spent part of our lives elsewhere, and we had all experienced what it is like to feel connected to the rest of the world. Sometimes, in my home in the Washington, D.C., it feels like world events are happening just on the other side of my front door, and it is hard to escape from the misery and urgency. But there is something about being in a self-contained community miles from a major city, even with the Internet, cable news, and social media, that has created in me a sense of separation that makes me feel calm and safe. Several times, one or the other of us used the expression "the middle of nowhere", until one of the weavers smilingly said, "I like to think we are in the middle of everywhere".
So that's where I am, right now, or trying to be. In the middle of nowhere, and the middle of everywhere. And hoping I can be in that place, no matter where I am.
Feast your eyes. This is the view of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church, taken from the balcony during the service today. There were two beautiful things. First, the quilts. These are the quilts completed by the ladies of the church in the last year, ready to be given to the homeless, the needy, the refugee.
The other beautiful thing was the roll call of saints, members of the community who had died in the last year. Among those names was a familiar one: Ardith Woolson, probably my mother's best friend in North Platte. She and her husband Walt were frequent guests in our home; I have photos of them sharing Christmas dinner with us. We saw them when we came through NP back in 1993. I missed seeing her by just a few months; she died in August. But I was able to show her photo to her friends and share my memories of her, and Walt, and their son Alfred.
This was my fourth visit to First Lutheran, and my second service. I have been thinking quite a bit about whether this would still be my church home if we had not moved. I left the Lutheran church fifty years ago, unable to reconcile my own beliefs with church doctrine. I have been a Unitarian Universalist for 34 years. I remember our minister, Paul Johnson, staying that he left the Lutheran seminary when he realized that everything he believed about Jesus was reduced to just a comma in the Apostles' Creed. That comma between "born of the Virgin Mary" and "suffered under Pontius Pilate", which is all the reference there is to his core teachings: love God, and love your neighbor. have probably been a universalist since I was ten or eleven. I gave up on the Trinity a bit later, along with the divinity of Jesus. But I have also been a member of the same UU congregation for that entire time, through good times and bad. Community matters to me, and this community still feels like home. There aren't any more theologically liberal options here; I suspect I would not be the only person in North Platte choosing community despite differences in belief. I just don't imagine I'd be teaching Sunday School!
It's been a week, and I have been soldiering on, but this cold has finally won. I am feeling better in most ways, except for this: my hearing has gone wonky. Imagine you are hearing everything in stereo, but with a slight delay on one speaker, and the two audio streams are tuned a half step apart. Annoying, right? Especially if you are in a coffee shop trying to write a pretty boring report and there's background music.
Fortunately, it turns out that Saturday morning is the gathering time for the Stalwart Democrats of Lincoln County at this very coffee shop. I crashed their party last week, then dropped in at their monthly meeting on Thursday, so there were some familiar faces by now. It's a trip to Oppositeland for me. After all, I live in a very blue county in a blue state when Dems bother to vote -- (cough) Larry Hogan (cough) -- and my GOP friends and acquaintances worry about their yard signs and whether they should "come out" at work. Here, registered Dems are less than 20% of the electorate. I share their social paranoia (sorry Sara, the "Pantsuits for President" button is still on the desk in my motel room) but am also trying to share whatever shreds of optimism I can muster. I am not pessimistic about the election; I believe that Hillary Clinton will win. But I have no illusions about our ability as a nation to put the incivility and venom of the last twenty-five years behind us. At the very least, it will be nice to have company on Election night.
So I wrapped up my work for the day and headed back to the Husker Inn to take more medicine, drink lots more water, and catch a nap. No sunsets for me tonight, just more writing and an early bedtime. Also no music until my Eustachian tubes settle down.
It was laundry day today. I originally planned to got to the movies and see Dr. Strange (in 3-D!) but the weather was just too fine, so I headed to the river instead.
Later, I headed to one of the two places in town (so far) that carries microbrews and had dinner. A woman who had been at my talk stopped by and we had a nice chat about being liberal in North Platte. Much to digest. Here is that poem, in case you'd prefer to read it than listen to my cold-ravaged voice.
How far has the river of time carried me?
How do I map the distance, the depth, the eddies of life?
Here I am, an old woman (or nearly old)
standing on the bank of the same river I knew as a child.
As if I never left.
Yet nothing is the same.
This water, 60 years ago, was in a cloud, or a jelly glass, or an antelope’s eye.
The swings in the park behind me are new. Safer, and smaller.Or maybe I am just bigger.
I’ve met a few old friends and driven by many more, in the graveyard.
What hasn’t changed? The sky. The smell of the river bank. The reddish brown squirrels.The yellow autumn.
The flow of the river, always south and east.
And somehow, in ways I cannot see or say, but only feel — me.
No scenic pictures today; I was too busy. I made some last-minute changes to my presentation slides, then headed to the library fro my brown bag talk. It was very well attended -- twenty or so people, including a local reporter covering the event. It pays to be a big fish in a small pond. The after talk discussion was pretty amazing; I learned all kinds of things about high school dress codes in this part of country, including that girls were first permitted to wear pants to North Platte High School in 1971. That will save me lots of microfilm time.
I crawled back to my motel -- this cold is still whipping my butt -- and took a short nap, then medicated myself up and headed to the harvest dinner at the Lutheran Church. Jackpot! The dinner was great, and I ended up sitting with a "connector". She's one of those people who could scan a room and pick out the two or three people who could identify the kids in my choir picture. One of those kids, Jimmy Nisley, was also there, and was able to name half a dozen of them.
From the Lutheran dinner, I headed to Wild Bill's Wings and Bowling for the monthly meeting of the Lincoln County Democrats. What a stalwart group! They live surrounded by friends, family, and neighbors who abuse them and steal their Hillary/Kaine signs. (One elderly woman has lost seven in the last few weeks.) They spent a good part of the meeting hearing from a woman who was explaining the Affordable Care Act issues, providing solid information and talking points to counter the hair-on-fire "reporting" going on. They are determined to "go high when they go low", and they have to fight an ongoing battle for equal time in the local media. The chair agreed to attend a political forum at a local church and found himself alone in a very hostile crowd, but he delivered his message and hoped he opened a few minds, at least to the possibility of political differences without hate. Like I said, a stalwart group. I'll be spending election night with them at Wild Bill's.
What a day! I wrote for nearly three hours, fueled by twice as much coffee as usual, made another new acquaintance, and viewed another reel of old microfilm. But that wasn't the best part. The best part was sitting with Sharon, my classmate from second and third grade, and just talking and listening. She's still working part time at an elementary school, a job she loves. She actually left North Platte for a few years after community college, working in Denver before returning to get married. Her husband never wanted to leave, but she misses Denver. She's had her challenges; an aneurysm several years ago, a daughter with MS. But when we talked about school memories, her blue eyes sparkled, and we laughed together. She filled in some holes in my memory, and I tried to return the favor.
Best set of all, she remembered me, and told a story I had forgotten. She said she always remembered when I came to school with new shoes and said, "Look how fast I can run in these Buster Brown shoes!" and proceeded to run around the playground at top speed, and then do it again. Apparently it was the talk of my McKinley Elementary classmates long after I moved away. I can't put into words what it is like to catch a glimpse of long ago yourself through someone else's memory.
I returned to the motel, and paid for my next week, and the sweet manger, Linda, loaded me up with food, as she does every on their day.
After enjoying her offering (I skipped lunch -- bad idea), I decided it was the right day to drive north toward the Sand Hills and catch the sunset. The actual Sand Hills are much farther away; maybe I'll get closer on a weekend. Picture rolling prairie dunes covering a quarter of this immense state. For now, be content with this, taken about 20 miles north on Route 83.
Today I tried (and failed) to learn more about dress codes in North Platte in the 60s. It turns out that the schools keep copies of yearbooks, but not student handbooks. Le sigh. So I am hoping that Sharon remembers something about her experiences!
Instead, I plunged into the local history materials at the library, beginning with the months leading up to our departure in 1957. Yay, microfilm. Bigger hooray for a fancy new microfilm reader that can same images to a flash drive. How else could I share with you this gem?
Yes, kiddies, these are the radio and TV offerings available to me on a Tuesday night 59 years ago. You can bet I would be watching Phil Silvers and Spike Jones!
Sure beats the election news, doesn't it? And remember: without Spike Jones, there's no Frank Zappa, no PDQ Bach, no Weird Al.
Here's a bonus Spike Jones hit, from my birth year:
My Gender Mystique blog focuses on my work on clothing, sex, and gender. That's not all I do, so this blog is about everything else.