Wednesday, October 28, 2015

World Piece: The Homecoming...But Where is Home?

Goodbye, Frankfurt!
My very last stop on my World Piece itinerary was Frankfurt, Germany. This was where my flight would take off for Los Angeles.

LA was the place where I started, the place where three months earlier I said a tearful goodbye to my parents as they waved to me from the other side of the airport security checkpoint. I sobbed for a solid hour—all through the TSA scan, through removing and putting back on my boots, through the entire length of the concourse as I passed all the fast-food and Starbucks outlets on my way to my gate. Through getting onto the airplane and into my seat, the tears wouldn’t stop flowing. Instead of being excited about my journey, I was scared. I was terrified, mostly, over the idea I might never see my parents again, that something would happen to them while I was gone—or that something might happen to me.

I made myself get on the plane anyway. I had committed to doing this.

You would cry too if you had to say goodbye to these people.

And then, finally, after three months, 30,000 miles, 10 countries, and 211 pies, the day arrived. I was going home. Except I didn’t really know where home was.

Exactly one year earlier I had moved out of the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa, where I had lived for four years. (It had been a surprise to everyone, especially to me, that I stayed so long, as I left my native Iowa at 17, vowing never to return.) I was sad about moving out—I would have liked to have stayed—but the pressures that came from living in a tourist attraction had worn me down. So I went back to LA, which is where I was planning to move before I detoured to that irresistibly cute house in Iowa. I thought I would stay in LA indefinitely. I stayed for six months.

LA had been my home for many years. No matter where I flitted off to, trying on a new town or country for size, LA was and is always the place I go back to. It’s where my parents moved 15 years ago, leaving Iowa to live closer to three out of five of us kids. And given that my parents are 80 now, it’s important to me to live closer to them.

But when I returned to LA this last time, living in a furnished studio guesthouse 6 miles from my mom and dad, and 2 miles from the beach, I struggled throughout the entire six-month stint. Why? Because I discovered something I had not realized: Iowa had changed me.

My parents' ocean view
I was different and needed different things. Instead of trendy wine bars and power yoga—and traffic jams—I needed space, quiet, solitude. In rural Iowa, I was just as happy—no, happier—sitting at my kitchen table sharing a $10 bottle of wine with a friend and doing yoga guided by a 20-year-old Shiva Rea CD, rarely ever needing to get in my car. When I did drive, the only traffic was the occasional lumbering combine or Amish horse-drawn buggy.

My LA lease was month-to-month so I was free to leave anytime. But I’m not a quitter. All through the winter, I tried to readjust and find my old California self—the free-spirited and social surfer girl I was before I morphed into “the Iowa pie lady.” By spring, seeing how my life had been reduced to daily dog walks and nightly dinners with my parents, and how the one time I went surfing I got seasick, I accepted that there is no going back in time, only forward. I began itching to find a new home. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, or live, so instead of forcing a decision, I bought myself some time. I would finally make my World Piece dream come true.

Still, I had hesitated. The enormity of a round-the-world trip was so daunting. I had a million excuses not to do it. But my inner-taskmaster barked—and barked—“What the hell are you waiting for?” until I actually called the airline and booked the ticket. Admittedly, I was also spurred on by the looming expiration date of the frequent flyer miles. Either way, I was sick of talking about it. It was time to stop feeling stuck and Just. Do. It.

But there was one catch. I needed someone to take care of my dog Jack for three months. I knew just the person—and the place. So before setting off on my big international trip, I took a big domestic one. I packed up my dog and all of my belongings into my RV (aka The Beast—yes, it’s still running!), drove cross-country, and delivered dog and all to my friend Doug’s farm. In Iowa. It was the best decision I had made all year, one that I couldn’t have guessed would lead to another, bigger decision upon my return.

50 pounds is the weight limit. This
beast weighed in at 50 exactly.
After all those months that it took to make World Piece happen—two to plan it and three to execute it—I was dragging my tired body and overweight luggage through the Frankfurt, Germany Flughafen. I wandered around the duty-free shop, sniffing bottles of perfume and buying chocolate bars to kill time. Having nearly completed a full circle around the globe, I was counting the hours and minutes until my flight departed for the Great Homecoming.

But where was home?

I missed my parents. Every time we Skyped—from Auckland, from Sydney, from Bangkok, Mumbai, Beirut, Athens, Bern, Aachen and Budapest—a wave of solace filled me when seeing their beaming faces, but this was always followed by a riptide of longing whenever we hung up.

I also stayed in touch with Doug during my travels. And every time Doug sent a video of my dog Jack fetching the stick, swimming in the pond, or trotting down a trail—and he sent at least a picture or a text almost daily—my heart ached not just for my dog, but for the peace and simplicity of Iowa. And maybe something else, something I didn’t yet grasp.

One day in July, during my trip, while staying at a friend’s apartment in Bangkok and bogged down with a head cold, I sat outside by the pool and tried to meditate. I say “tried” because I’m not very good at keeping my brain quiet.

I was trying to do that “clear mind” thing, but I kept thinking about the American Gothic House and how much I missed it, how much I missed living in the little historic cottage—a whole house big enough for dogs and house guests and pie classes. I missed having all my stuff so perfectly placed in it—my overstuffed daisy chair, my railroad freight cart coffee table, my flannel sheets, my down pillows, my grandmother’s china—and having what felt like a real home, an anchor, and a community.

Inhale. Exhale. I took more deep breaths—through my mouth, because my nose was so stuffed up (which is what happens when you fly in an enclosed airplane and sit directly in front of a kid who is coughing without covering their mouth the entire eight-hour flight)—and tried to push the American Gothic House—and everything else—out of my mind.

Daisy, my sweet little angel
But then I started thinking about Daisy, and how much I missed her, my sweet little terrier-mix who had been killed by a coyote eight months earlier. (Jack, also a terrier-mix, had been wounded in the same attack, but he survived.) I missed her sparkling brown eyes, her Winnie-the-Pooh-like calm, her unconditional love. She asked for nothing and yet gave so much.

I tried not to let the sadness over Daisy interfere with my meditation. I was going to really relax, damn it! But grief is a tangled vine that wraps itself around the heart until it chokes and suffocates it. I gasped for breath, acknowledged the feelings and the subsequent tightness in my chest, and after a long exhale, I returned to my mantra, which was something akin to BE QUIET IN THERE!

The next thought that popped into my mind was Marcus. This wasn’t a surprise because he is always there, living on the surface of the cerebrum’s folds. But in my congested, sinus-clogged state I didn’t have just thoughts of him, I actually heard him. He was talking to me, gently and lovingly. “It’s time to let go, my love,” he said in his British-German lilt. “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better husband. You should find another man.”

Marcus was reiterating something I had read in one of my grief books, something an Indian philosopher said whose advice was seemingly heartless yet so practical: “Your husband died? Go find another one.”

Marcus was offering the same practical advice. I had tried to be practical, but I was still holding on. I needed to let go—and not just of Marcus, but of the American Gothic House and Daisy and whatever other ghosts and grievances of my past that were holding me back.

The voice of my late husband opened a gate and led me through it. All my other thoughts were preempted and my synapses started firing right past my post-nasal drip. Suddenly, I had a clear idea of where I wanted my life to go after my World Piece trip was over. God knows, I had been asking myself the question and had been asked by others almost daily during my travels: “What are you going to do when you get back?” Each time I tensed up, unable to answer. But right there, in the tropical sun, jet-lagged and sick with my feet dangling in the 100-meter-long swimming pool, I had an epiphany. (Proof that meditation really can work, even when you suck at it.)

I had an answer, better yet, direction. I was going to find a new house, another cottage in Iowa where I could recreate the country lifestyle I had come to love. And once I got settled, I would adopt another dog. Daisy had been a rescue, one who had been badly in need of care. There were many, many other needy, even desperate, dogs out there I could adopt. I would do it to honor Daisy. I would also stay open to letting another man in my life. Yes, I had dated in the past six years, but there was never room for a real relationship, because Marcus was taking up most of the space.

That epiphany was in early July. I still had two months and six countries to go in my round-the-world trip, so I couldn’t put my plan into immediate action, but the clarity gave me peace and helped me to stay more focused on the present. (Traveling solo, by the way, with a packed itinerary is a good exercise in staying in the present. There is no time to focus on anything beyond the logistics of making your next flight or finding your next bed.)

At last, it was August 27, the date I had been eyeing on the calendar since I flew away on June 2nd. When they announced my Lufthansa flight to LA was ready for boarding, I tried not to run down the jetway. I was heading back to the USA. I could finally get going on my plan.

I landed at LAX on a Thursday afternoon. My parents had dropped me off three months earlier, and now they would be there to pick me up three months later. My heart pounder harder as we taxied toward the gate, my iPhone already buzzing with messages from my mom saying they were waiting in baggage claim. I zipped through immigration and rolled my 50-pound beast of a suitcase past customs one last time. God, I would not miss dragging that bloody bag around!

I scanned the hundreds of faces lined up along the barricade and spotted my mom. She looked so petite among the mass of tightly packed bodies and tall chauffeurs holding name signs. It was her, her short dark hair in a spunky new cut, her matching yellow top, pants and flats, her flowered shoulder bag coordinated to complete the outfit.

Like animal instinct, the recognition of a mother and her offspring was more than visual; it was visceral. Once we found each other we locked on. Her brown eyes, which had been hunting for me like a lioness looking for her cub, turned from expectant to shining to misty. We both teared up in an unspoken moment of relief, a release of that underlying anxiety we had apparently both been holding onto for the past 15 weeks.

Hooray, she said without words. You are home safely.
Hooray, I said with my tears. You are here and you are okay.

And then our silent-film moment dissolved suddenly, replaced by the full volume of airport noise that nearly drowned out my mom’s voice when she said, “Come on. Dad is over here.”

My dad pushed through the crowd as he saw us approach, and without regard to the people trying to pass with their bags, grabbed me in a bear hug. “Welcome back, Boo.” His blue eyes twinkled from beneath his seaman’s cap. He fixed his eyes on my face, his smile lighting up the Tom Bradley terminal so brightly he could have brought down 747s with it.

The moment I had been waiting for. The "Victory Shot."

Whatever stress, sadness and sickness I endured throughout my journey, the magic of this reunion made every bit of it worthwhile. We took a few “victory shots” before leaving the airport, recreating our parting shot with a return one.

This is what love looks like, surrounded by luggage.
I studied the photos later. My parents looked the same: healthy, happy, and vibrant. Which was a tremendous relief given they had both had skin cancer surgeries during my absence. Their scars were already healing, their prognoses positive, and neither looked worse for the wear. In fact, they looked better than I remembered.

Did I look the same? My hair was a little longer. I had lost maybe a pound or two, though that could be wishful thinking. Surely my face looked tired, if nothing else from the dehydration of the transcontinental flight.

The bigger question was, was I the same person I was when I left? A young woman I met during my travels insisted that this must be a life-changing trip. I paid lip service to her and nodded in agreement, but inside shook my head at her naiveté. No, this trip wasn’t the stuff that changes lives. It is not life changing to get on and off airplanes and make pie for three months. Life changing is when your husband drops dead at 43. Life changing is when your angelic terrier’s body is ripped open and eaten by a coyote. Life changing is having to move out of your tourist attraction house after four years upon realizing you have inadvertently become the attraction. (Perhaps this last one isn't so traumatic when you remind yourself that six-foot-long snakes lived there too.)

I can think of many adjectives for my World Piece mission: interesting, informative, enlightening, educational, exhausting. But did it really change me?

The best answer to that, I think, is summed up in a comment left on my last blog post about Budapest. “The reward for effort is sometimes not realized until long after the work is done,” this person wrote. “Like a farmer, you've sown a seed and somewhere it's growing.”

I stayed with my parents in Redondo Beach for three days, basking in their love and their hot tub, and their homemade meals of creamed tuna on biscuits. I was in LA. With my parents. I was home. Sort of. But not really.

My dog Jack was still back in Iowa, with Doug on his farm. My trip wouldn’t be complete until I was reunited with my “Little Man.” Restlessness and anticipation—and jet lag—nagged at me until I was once again airborne—headed for the Midwest.

Doug gave Jack a bath before my arrival.
This picture always makes me laugh.

Doug picked me up at the Quad City Airport and didn’t bring Jack with him. He wanted to video tape our reunion and for that he wanted us to have room outdoors on his farm. Doug may not have had Jack in the car, but he had a bouquet of wildflowers. And a card. With a gift certificate for a massage for me. We stopped for milkshakes at Whitey’s and talked the entire two-hour drive back to his house.

Iowa (aka Home)

The reunion with Jack was all that I had envisioned—the face licking, the tail wagging, the racing around in circles to shed the energy that couldn’t be contained in his 15-pound body, me crying tears of joy while smothering him with kisses. Doug got it all on tape.

But reuniting with my dog after my round-the-world journey is not where the story ends. It is just the beginning.

Sowing seeds for the future.
One of the pictures Doug sent me during my trip.

My meditation by that poolside in early July proved prescient. I’ve only been back two months and I have already ticked everything off my list of goals. The reality, however, isn’t exactly what I had imagined. No, it is far better and came with some added bonuses.

I found an Iowa farmhouse to live in. I moved into Doug’s. The place, with its original wallpaper and crown molding, is every bit as quirky and charming—and old—as the American Gothic House. But it is not a tourist attraction. It sits on 1,200 acres surrounded by crops and cows (instead of mean neighbors!), and offers a luxury I had been missing: privacy. Doug and I worked together to rearrange two of the upstairs bedrooms in his four-bedroom house—a big one for my office and a small one for my dressing room—so I have my own space.

"Country roads, take me home to the place I belong."

I have not adopted another dog—yet. Instead—or, should I say, in the meantime—Doug graciously sacrificed some of his pasture and barn space to give a home to four goats whose owner could no longer care for them. I used to go on long road bike rides from the American Gothic House and one of my favorite routes took me past these goats. I would stuff carrots in the back pockets of my bike jersey to feed them. I loved them so much they often became my destination rather than just to pass by. I cried the last time I visited these cute shaggy creatures last year, thinking I would never see them again. And now they live at my house!

Meet our four goats.

Except that it isn’t my house—it’s our house, Doug’s and mine. The big, seemingly elusive and hardest to accomplish goal on that list was to make room for love again.

When I returned to Iowa, I saw something—someone—that seemed new but had been there all along. Doug and I had been friends for a while, and we had had a brief romance a year earlier, but after moving out of the American Gothic House, I was sure I was destined to move back to California, so I never really gave him a chance. But Doug, who has the patience and faith of a farmer (because, well, he is a farmer), never gave up. He had not only texted me photos and videos of Jack during my trip, he took the time to write me long, newsy emails with stories of his farm, his outings to the city, his arrowhead-hunting creek explorations, his kayak trips. He offered me words of encouragement when he could tell I was tired, cheering me on every step of the way. His letters were an especially noble effort considering he doesn’t like to type.

The happy couple, Doug and me.
When I came back to pick up my dog, I felt a seismic shift in my heart; that resistant muscle in my chest cracked open like the San Andreas Fault. Not in a broken way but in a way that a dam bursts and a rush of water flows in to fill the empty space. Doug was that flood, that tsumani.

Doug had not only shown the utmost love and care for my dog, he had shown it to me. I just hadn’t been willing to accept it. Until Marcus showed up in Bangkok and whispered in my ear. Until I visited Marcus’s homeland of Germany and said my final goodbyes to him. Until I made it back to LA and made sure my parents were in “good order,” as my dad likes to say. Only then was I ready and able to open up to a new life.

So yes, maybe my trip was life-changing after all. Just not in the way I expected. It took traveling all the way around the world to learn the meaning of home. And now that I know what home is, I have learned there is no place like it.

And they lived happily ever after.