I’m used to the flat roads in the Midwest, as strait as the sight-lines of rifles. I grew up there: Costco, CVS, Comfort Inn, Oil Lube. The roads are ribbons of cement disappearing into the horizon like they’re making their way fully around the earth: Canada, Russia, Mongolia, China, each franchise accommodating the language; Yangzha Huandao (KFC), and then circling back to America. I don’t like roads like this, but with the ease of large, earth moving machinery, cities and towns have managed the flat Midwest into sanctums of greenery and hill. Plant a couple dozen trees, build a handful of architecturally interesting buildings, add a few curved walkways in between, and whoop, you have a mild scent of gardens and streams. A man made Middle America sanctum is now an institution, a conservatoire, an academy. Let the learning begin.
And so I headed west: to the great Festival of Writing—moleskine in hand—to sit at the feet of greats. Pulitzers and Whiting Awards. Authors who make my skin tingle and my bottom lip sag . I will be, almost, one day, perhaps, a kin to them; I think this in my most solipsistic moments. I will offer them coffee and scones and we will open beautiful books together, we will talk of Bellow and Cheever and Flannery, our first name friend, because she is gorgeous and she is humble and we love her like we love ourselves.
But my bag didn’t arrive with my plane.
This is unfortunate. The plane was small and my bag was big (I know, shut up. It was important I look my best.), which as far as I know was tossed into the hull of the plane but wasn’t. Yes, unfortunate. Very. Lost luggage meant lost medicine meant lost me.
Oh and I was. I tracked my bag (medicine) through the night. Philadelphia, Charlotte, perhaps Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia (yes, Philadelphia again). Rick said fly home. I thought CVS might have pity on me. I ended the long night lying in a booth in a darkened restaurant of the hotel weeping into my phone. But I have to have them, it’s a medical emergency . . .
In the end, CVS did take pity on me, I scored a couple of meds, which left me lacking only one. I was a bit unstable, a bit dizzy, but that wouldn’t be much of a bother. I showered, left my room, and headed down the hall half sliding against the wall like a cat back-scratching itself on a couch. But I was fine, really, I was fine.
My brain, I thought, was perfectly okay, however was not. I decided, before I really decided, to approach the editor of editors, the man of the blessed and praised journal I had yet to be published in but someday with prayer and petition might be. I stuck out my hand and said, “I love you.” I said this. My mouth before my brain. I handed him my business card, which I had printed with one of my oil nudes on it, thinking at the time that it would be artsy and all that nonsense. I turned to leave, I had said I love you!, and dropped every pamphlet, card, and paper I was holding. They flew out of my hands. I had nothing to do with this, they flew like the words from my mouth did, spitting white brochures and fliers in my cognitive fog across the carpeted floor. I had no control. I was no longer me. Did he mumble to his assistant as I walked away, “you meet all types at these conferences . . . “? This might be true. It really could be. I have no idea.
I ate a granola bar that was a chocolate bar in disguise. It made me feel a little bit better, but then The Event.
When you go to a parking lot you usually need to step off a curb. It’s possible as well to fall off it. Or sort of skid off, trip—no that’s too mild. Dive. I would say that’s the correct word. You can dive off a curb if you want to, or even if you really, actually, have no desire whatsoever to, you can dive anyway: asphalt met my fingers in an awkward bend, then knee, shoulder, and thank you Lord for sparing my head. Already enough damage there.
After The Event my fingers swelled like a white Mickey glove. It felt like I was wearing an enormous, foam “we’re # 1” finger at a football game. If I had tapped someone on the shoulder they would have startled like Janet Leah washing her hair in the shower of the Bates Motel.
I resisted the urge to sign my name to email lists and whatnot because it would necessitate pulling out my hot dog fingers, focusing on the paper, and concentrating like I was wiring some kind of bomb. It seemed a pointless thing to be there. My hand hurt and I’d already missed the first day.
So I didn’t, in light of The Event, see Zadie Smith, or Paul Harding, or Tobias Wolff, or any of the greats. Many of my writer friends might see this as a travesty but it the end it wasn’t. I gave up on the conference and spent two days on the grassy man made berms and lovely curved sidewalks of the celebrated Festival of Writing praying a little bit and getting to know people and even writing. Thank you hot dog fingers, and night in the hotel lobby, and American Airlines operated by American Eagle. Oh sweet lost luggage and pebbled asphalt. You thought you won but I did.
Sometimes I think our temperature, our Jesus Love, is like an enormous curve that follows our soul and heart and strength, like America’s wide avenues on roads of heat and skid. Just down the road another mile or two maybe you’ll finally get to Costco or Marshalls or whatever. It’s like the ships when ships creaked with their ropes and wood and the people stared long at the horizon. Today there are the yellow lines that shoot forward and it can feel like bullets pinging in your ears.
And then off to the side, just over the grassy hill, are the curved sidewalks. Turning your head to see the beautiful stuff just as Payless is whizzing by is hard, but if you think about it the shoes aren’t real anyway. Some kind of rubber and glue. We look down the road and grab things as we drive and head toward the horizon but it disappears, always. We circle the globe and then try again.
But over the rise the trees are beginning to flower. The hill and slope of grass and the sidewalks and architectural lovelies can become a place where you actually, really, learn if you pay attention. The burden of tires spinning on asphalt fades as you sit on a bench and write in your moleskine and think about how funny it is that you just made a fool of yourself like ten times in a row. You can laugh with God your Father and he’ll laugh with you—you’ll both laugh while Zadie Smith is inside a concrete building reading from one of her recent books, maybe the one called On Beauty, her beautiful dark face and glorious words silent to you in the garden, but like so many other things, it's okay.