The Things I’ll Carry

I’m packing my life into two suitcases.  And the things I will carry include clothing, jackets, a collection of short stories, two works of fiction, young adult books for the English library, maps of the Light Rail in Minneapolis, restaurant menus, enough band aids to plug up the Yangtze River, medications, floss, violin music, headphones, water sterilizing equipment, journal, converter/adaptor, Chinese dictionary, Lonely Planet China Travel Guide, hair junk, small teddy bear…the list goes on.  But what, as Tolkien might say, goes “on and ever on” is the packing. The process goes something like this:

Make a list.  Feel good that there’s a list.

Come back to list and realize that there’s a lot to prepare.  Promptly go to room with things laid out and stare at it.

Roll clothing.  Realize that it’s all depressingly monochromatic.

Go back to list.

Pick up pile of books and move them to other side of room.  Decide not to bring collection of poetry along.  Then remember someone saying that there’s this stereotype about Americans not appreciating poetry, so put it back in pile to prove stereotype wrong.

Consider a class incorporating poetry.  Then remember that it’s a speaking class, and that English is already the second language.  Decide to make extra credit for the truly zealous students.  Wonder if zealous students would want to learn the word “zealous.”

Go back to list.

Take out medications and put them in plastic bags with labels cut out.  (That’s a lie.  My Mom did that one for me.  I was thinking about Deep Things at the time, or more aptly called “spacing out”).

Think about family and friends.

Write down “develop photos” onto list.  Have no means of transportation.  Write “tomorrow” next to it.  Feel good that there will be preparations tomorrow.

Think about lesson plans.  Ordering at a restaurant.  Making dating profiles.  Telling ghost stories.  Good activities to get students talking to distract them long enough from the fact that I’m not really all that much older than they are.  Consider vocabulary to learn.  Realize that there is very little I know about teaching.

Existential Crisis.

Check Facebook.

Scroll through statues about friends returning to school.  Then remember that will not get Facebook once in China.

Recall former packing intentions when trolling through photos.  Think about developing photos before leaving.

End Facebook session.

Return to packing room.

Pull out a few sweaters. Remember the rainbow tassel hat, the home-knit scarf, and the patched mittens.  Find them and put them in pile.  Notice “hat, scarf, mittens” on list.  That’ll do, pig.  That’ll do.

Scroll through file of potential pictures to bring.  About to write “develop photos” on list, only to realize that it’s already there.

Consult address book to find missing names.  Contact the missing.

Stare at violin, trying to decide if it should come.  Try to determine what kind of lifestyle I will be leading once there.

Existential Crisis.

Watch Battlestar Galactica.

Wonder if Netflix is allowed in China.  Google it.  Find out that it is not.  Decide to watch another episode to get going before time runs out.

Go back to packing list.

Write down “mad libs” for class.

Return to packing room.

Stare.

Move one pile to other side.

Stare.

Existential Crisis.

Add another pair of socks.  Remove pair of socks.

Decide that packing is a process and decide to come to it the next day instead.  Spend remaining time with family watching “The Three Stooges.”  Because there’s plenty of time to squawk  at my packing pile.

As in, five business days.

Gulp.  [Mini Existential Crisis]

Bed.

Repeat.

Alone on the Road

There’s something weirdly sacred about stopping on the side of the road and walking into a cave.

I suppose I should back up a bit.  I was visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Fond du Lac, and decided to turn it into a mini-road trip.  My friends who have traveled alone told me that the best way to prepare, is to just do it.  So, I booked a hotel room in Eau Claire, and stayed there overnight on my way back from Chris and Nichole’s.

I was getting loopy from the length of the drive, so the first thing I did when I got to Eau Claire was get out of the car and walk around what I thought was downtown.  The streets were fairly empty, and small shops like “Anyone’s Bikes!” dotted the street.  It was cute, but I remembered Eau Claire being bigger than Decorah, so was more than a little confused.  Nonetheless, I bought a sandwich and got back in my car to drive around some more.

“Look at that statue!” I yelled, my mouth full of melted cheese.  I pulled over and ran over to poke the statue, noticing that it was dedicated to the man who commissioned the park.  So, in a sense, it was the man himself who made that statue of himself.  I was about to return to the car, when I saw interesting looking columns.  Not to be daunted, I strode over and looked at those, too.  Then, I poked a church.  A very big, impressive church.

It was 8PM and I thought that maybe I should head back, but then I saw the sign for “downtown.”  As it turns out, there is an old downtown in Eau Claire, and a more current one along the Chippewa River.  I walked along the river for a bit, and then went back to walking along the street, scoping out places to check out the following morning.

And then the “something different” that was lurking there all along showed itself.  I’m alone, it said.

It’s both freeing and terrifying to be alone.  Freeing, because I can actually pull over and poke a statue.  No one’s going to tell me not to.  But then, and this was what I realized when I was walking along the street, no one will come looking for me if I get lost.

Being alone is one of many things that intimidates me when it comes to China.  (That is, excluding the language, the gaffes, the lesson planning, and the general trying to not ruin hopes and dreams with every class I teach thing).  I want to say that I’m totally cool with being alone, but there’s always a part of me that anticipates the pity others might be feeling for me, so in turn comes up with excuses and then is ready to defend.

But there I was, eating a sandwich.  Alone.

And no one would know whether or not I existed in this part of the world.

It’s a sobering thought, but I shook it off and explored real downtown a little more the next day.  It wasn’t until I was in this breakfast/pie place “Norske Nook” that I realized that I was alone, and it was actually okay.  Then, I headed back on the road to fulfill another request of mine: go to a roadside attraction.

Which brings me back to the cave.  I’d already planned on going to see a supposedly-haunted mail carrier memorial, and drove through Campbellsport to find the UFO capital of the world.  (Funny thing, I lost my notes I took while there, and the Garmin wouldn’t stop talking to me in that town.  Weird).  I also ended up on top of a ranger tower in a state park by Dundee.  But I didn’t think about how I’d end up pulling off of 94 to go to Crystal Cave.

It was the tour guide’s 200th time giving this tour, so he was more than a little bored-sounding as he explained that no that wasn’t a way out of the cave, and no we weren’t going to go and double-check.  But the drip of the artificially-added-water-from-a-pump in the background and the “Wishing Well” portion (where pennies and dimes were stuffed into the walls to make wishes) made me think that perhaps Neil Gaiman was right—there’s something weirdly sacred about roadside attractions.  Everyone flocks to them, and no one knows why.

But I knew why I was there.  Because I could be.  Because I would have probably no other chance to just pull over and learn about how the cave used to be used as a fallout shelter during the Cold War, or how when all of the lights turn off, you can’t see any difference between your hand right in front of your eyes and the darkness all around you.

Ultimately, though, I’m happy to be home.  It’s nice being able to sit around in the living room, while Maren and Dad compose songs about poop, and smell the cookies my Mom’s baking.  It’s been a crazy past few weeks, what with all of the people I’ve been trying to see and assure that China is the best of all options for me, but it’s time to be Hannah again in the northern part of Lakeville.  It’s time to wrap myself in the old layers I’ve shed over the years and glean what I can from being with me.  Because there’s something weirdly sacred about a home, too.  You keep coming back to it, though maybe you just can’t quite articulate why.

Closing the Wagon Doors

Today, we met at City Hall to pack away the puppets for the summer.  They were to be stuffed back into their respective boxes (a “mass grave” as I told my friend Megan) where they would wait for the next batch of puppeteers to come and greet them. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect as Mom drove me in, as I sipped coffee, hung-over from a night of getting drunk on writing and reading Sandman by Neil Gaiman. The writer in me said “this is deep, this is going to mean something, and you better be ready.”  The practical side of me said “don’t try too hard and just clean up the wagon.”

When I got there, we gathered at the wagon, grabbing at the puppets and shoving them into the plastic bins.  Some of them we laughed about, like Pinky, and Steve took a couple photos with Sparky.  Then, we gathered the cords that had coiled all around the wagon, took down the curtain one last time, put the lid on the bins, and slid them into the top shelf in storage.

That was it.  Half an hour.  Done.

Patty then called us into her office as we turned in our time cards. 

“So, did you guys have a fun summer?”

Did I?  I guess it was a topsy-turvy summer, one where at times I wanted to pull my hair out, at others wanted to leap all the way into the sky and dance with the stars.  But with every segment of 24 hours, I change into someone imperceptivity different, as we all do.  Biologically, our cells change enough that we can be made of completely different particles within weeks.

But it’s a fairly simple question, just as packing up the wagon is a fairly simple procedure.  It doesn’t need to be mulled over, tossed about, or even questioned for hours at end.  Sometimes, a simple “yes” is all you need.

Sometimes, the writer in me needs to sit back and be okay with not overcomplicating an already multi-faceted world.

So we talked a bit about the summer, and then went our separate ways.  In all likelihood, we aren’t going to see each other again, as we’re all heading in very different directions.  But, as we’re asked over and over again if we’re ready, a simple answer will do.

“Yes.”

Because, like it or no, we’re heading there already. 

Ease into the Crazy

I got in touch with one of my future coworkers.  She’s from Sydney, Australia, is an experienced ESL teacher, has taught French, and is already in Hangzhou with her significant other.

I really look forward to meeting her and other interesting people when I go abroad, but there’s no denying the familiar tug of desperation when meeting new people in an unfamiliar setting.  I don’t want to slide into familiar rhetoric, like saying that America’s “home of the free,” when I barely know what that means.  Because, then you start suggesting that other places aren’t free, which leads to a lot of loaded assumptions, and then the existential question of what being “free” even means comes up, and I only want to tell her that I’m American, not a babbling brook of inconsistencies.

I want her to think I’m interesting, but not crazy.  Which, I’ve come to realize, is a fine line.  On the shuttle ride up to Duluth this weekend to see my Grammy and Grampy, I was sitting next to a woman who taught Geography at the UMD.  She was watching me with interest as I transcribed a Bach Unaccompanied piece.  I had the staff paper, and was fingering on my pencil to figure out the notes.

“You read music?” she asked.

“Yeah, I just forgot it, so I’m trying to remember it.”
“Oh, well, good luck with that.”
Then I thought: ‘She’s going to ask me what I do for a living, and I’m going to have to tell her that I’m a puppeteer in a traveling wagon.  Because transcribing music wasn’t weird enough.’

I had fun with the puppet wagon.  But I feel like I should be doing something more illustrious with my time on earth.  Like teaching disadvantaged youth, rather than closing off our regular season by making funny videos with the puppets, going on “Hopes and Dreams Patrol” as we wrenched the curtain open before kids came, and mouthing funny things to each other from behind the curtain as our puppets kept saying cute things.  Our last week was the time in the season when we puppeteers finally lost our minds, actually yelling at a Google car out the window of our truck in our puppet voices.  There’s a picture of Steve pretending to stomp on the Sparky puppet, and one of him pretending to be Pinky with his entire arm visible out of the curtain.  I spent the last show pretending to bite Stephanie’s arm off with Bernie, the oblong-headed creature.  Stephanie stood outside of the curtain talking to us in a Batman voice.  And then we topped it off by attacking each other with puppets behind the curtain.

So, maybe that’s not how I’ll introduce myself, at least not at first.

By the time I had to get on the Shuttle again to get home, I was very much in a good mood.  I had a wonderful weekend with my Grammy and Grampy, doing everything from picking berries to riding the four-wheeler in the woods wearing Grampy’s cowboy boots to learning how to shoot at targets with a revolver and a semi-automatic, which I’d never done before.   It was a good lesson, being told to ease into the trigger, to “be surprised” when the actual bullet shot, so that you don’t panic, flinch, and make a bigger mess.  I was surprised the first time, in the sense that I flinched, but after a while, I learned to move so slightly, it was as though I wasn’t moving at all, which gave me time to aim and be ready for when it did go off.  It reminded me of my leap to China: I could cower and flinch as the departure date approached, or I could ease into it, really aim, and be surprised by the trajectory of my own adventure.  It was deep.  Really.

Then I thought: ‘the passengers are going to ask what I was up to this weekend, and I’m going to have to tell them that I was shooting a tree in the woods.’

Out of context, it sounds pretty bad, as if I was waving pistols above my head and screaming “DIE, NATURE, DIE!” as I raced between trees.  Of course, that wasn’t the case, but with one single first impression, who can say where the truth lies?

We were all pretty quiet on the way down, and it wasn’t until the last 10 minutes of the ride that I got to learn more about my fellow Shuttle-mates.

One of them had an MA in Theology, worked at a Lutheran Church for 3 years, became angry that it was so profit-driven, and became an attorney instead.  He was from New York City, and had recently started visiting Minneapolis.

“I’m just so fed UP!” he said with a smile on his face.

When the passenger left, the driver told me about how he believed in spirits.

“I’m not crazy or anything, but I swear that the spirit of my mother rode in the car with me.  It was definitely her.”

He helped me out of the Shuttle, telling me the lore of a healing woman in the Iron Range, and how locals still told stories of her powers.  “I didn’t believe it at first, but you know?  Could be true…”

By the time I left, I was fully convinced that I could introduce myself any way I wanted to.  My true colors would eventually come through, no matter what.  I could try to come off as very reserved and dignified, but at some point, I’d say something really weird or morbid.  So I went ahead and told my future coworker that I currently work as a puppeteer and that I wanted to bring fortune cookies to China, if only to give them a good laugh (since they are an American creation).  There’s no easing into the crazy, let’s face it.  Because everyone’s crazy deep down.