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.


Move one pile to other side.


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]




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.


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.

Rumplestitltskin–Puppet Wagon Style!

This is the final weekly show of the Lakeville Puppet Wagon, and we end with a bang! It might be hard to hear some of the lines, since my mic doesn’t run nearly as hot as the others. The video is courtesy of Steve’s family (he’s one of the puppeteers). Enjoy!

This is the final weekly show of the Lakeville Puppet Wagon, and we end with a bang! It might be hard to hear some of the lines, since my mic doesn’t run nearly as hot as the others. The video is courtesy of Steve’s family (he’s one of the puppeteers). Enjoy!

Meet the Puppets

A lot of people have been asking what exactly goes on in a Puppet Wagon.  Sometimes, I tell them about the curtain flailing in the wind, or the animal noises I’ve made to entertain children (like the squawking I did as a peacock), or the sensation of realizing that, even though you’re picturing an entire kingdom in your head, the kids really only see a curtain and a puppet.  But I haven’t taken the time to really lay out what kinds of puppets we deal with.

So, that’s what I’m going to do.  Introducing…the Lakeville Puppet Wagon puppets!

Sparky: A Dalmatian, who used to have a proper tongue, but somehow lost it prior to this summer.  He starts the show from the orange Sparky window.  The kids write him letters every week, usually saying “I love you,” and drawing pictures that look a lot like random scribbles.  He also tells jokes every week, which the kids sometimes rebut by writing more in letters the following week.  When he was gone for a week, we pretended he was in Germany.  (Not “Doggy Heaven” as Maren suggested).

Pinky: This is an oddly-torpedo shaped pink cone-head puppet who sings songs with the kids for intermission.  There’s an odd arrow of yellow hair on the top of her head, and when I showed the video of the wagon to Laura, her reaction to Pinky was “Wow, she’s really ugly.”  I play her, and her voice gets progressively shriller with every show.  She likes to make up words for the songs and really likes to sing fast, because she loves sugar.  I never read from the script.  She has a mind of her own.  For example, the kids are taking pictures with the puppets this week, and one kid forgot his camera.  My thought: “Oh well.”  Pinky’s reaction: “Ohhhhh that’s okay!  Just stare really really hard and you’ll remember it like a picture!!”  Same difference.  Likewise, we’re singing “Apples and Bananas” with the kids this week, and with their suggestions and Pinky’s…pep, we’ll call it…it became “Waffles and Ice Cream.”  Hopefully we don’t get letters from parents asking us to be better examples of good health.  Then again, they’d be writing to a dog.

Human Girl: The only human girl.  She has really coarse brown hair put up into pigtails and has played Red Riding Hood, Snow White, a random kid, a magician, and a princess.

Human Grandma: She’s one of the only puppets with non half-lidded eyes, which makes her look like she’s constantly alarmed about something.  Her hair is in a bun, but still seems to fly all over the place.  She’s only ever played a grandma, but in “Little Red Riding Hood,” she defeated the lion/wolf because she knew Kung Fu.

Human Grandpa: He has this funky bow-tie, which we thought made him look a little Spanish.  We tried to make him the Spanish puppet “Roberto,” but it never stuck.  His mouth is falling apart, which makes him look like he has more than one.  Along with being Roberto, he’s also been Jello, the rapper in “Puppet’s Got Talent.”

Frog: This one (which we call Kermie to narrowly dodge lawsuits) has non half-lidded eyes too, and one of the eyes is almost falling off.  He’s a dark green frog that wears a vest and a white long-sleeved shirt.

Other Frog: Another green frog, but he has a bushel of yellow hair on top of his head.  He has this rumpled white shirt with green spots.  One time, Steve used him to play “Happy” the dwarf, and used a Southern accent and the phrase “Mmmboy!” from time to time.  His reaction: “I keep trying to change it, but it just sticks!  I’m getting a little creeped out…”

Bernie: Steph grabbed this one right away, hoping to make it the new host (rather than Sparky).  He’s a blue oblong-headed creature with a plaid shirt and overalls.  I liked him, but the kids were already attached to Sparky, so he did not stick as host.

Lion: Well, it’s a yellow lion with an orange mane.  We substituted the lion for the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood,” and right now, Steve is doing a Mufasa impression for the show this week.

Black Puppet: There’s only one black puppet, and when we first started in June, we saw that it was missing an eye.  Not to be deterred from using him, we made an eye-patch and turned him into a pirate.

Sergeant Doogle: This is the Scruff McGruff-style police dog investigator (complete with a trenchcoat).  He’s the only puppet with a full body, and when Steve used him for the first time during Pan-O-Prog, a kid came up and started petting it during the show.

Other Dog: A yellow dog with floppy brown ears, and tiny T-Rex-like arms dangling from its body.  Stephanie gave it a Southern Belle voice.

Demon Butterfly: It could have been a normal orange butterfly, but since both of the eyes are peeling off, it looks more like something you’d want expelled from your house than asking you to play.

Raccoon: Just a normal raccoon, except that many of the kids think it’s an owl, which they yell to us during the show.  (Along with the one girl who yells “You’re a baby!” whenever Pinky comes out.)

Monkey: A brown monkey that squeaks.  We actually wrote an entire script based around the fact that Steve really wanted to use the monkey in a show. (The storyline boiled down to: Where’s the monkey?  Yell Monkey when you see it!  There it is!)

2 Tall-Headed Orange Things: They have really tall orange heads, which make it almost impossible to talk normally with them.  I almost got away with not using one the entire summer, but then Steph thought the monkey script would be better with the orange things.  My orange thing had a really thick Iron Range accent, being from Minnesoooooooota.  (Am considering breaking it out in China, if any other Americans ask where I’m from).

Dumb Bunny (“Chuck”): He’s not actually dumb, but when I used him one week for a treasure hunt, his voice got progressively stupider-sounding, so I can’t think of him as anything else.  The foam inside of his head is also really old and has a crevice running through it, which I didn’t realize until I was speaking with him and got my hand trapped up where his brains ought to have been.  Maybe that’s why he’s forever a dumb bunny for me.

Our scripts vary, but one thing that never changes is how much the kids obviously love the puppets.  And, you know?  As much as I might make it sound like a janky job, it’s actually been fun.  Laid-back, entertaining as all hell, and something that’s an endless supply of weird stories.

The Decorah Story

When Danielle and I got out of the car, happily stretching our legs after a 2 1/2 hour drive to Decorah, my first thought was “Oh, this feels strange.”

It has nothing to do with the atmosphere comprised of drunken Norse blowing horns or the shock of a silent sidewalk leading into my old neighborhood on Fifth Avenue.  Being English-y people, the only way we could really describe it was: “This feels like a story, which might not necessarily be mine.”

A lot of phrases in the English language use books or stories to talk about transition, like saying “I closed the book on that one,” or “It’s time for the next chapter in my life.”  In fact, most phases (phrases, if you will) end with a period or an exclamation point, rarely an ellipses or something with less finality.  (A Dickinson-esque dash, perhaps?)  Without degenerating into a full-out syntax romp in the woods, I will say that much of the language I hear regarding graduation or moving on has some tinge of finality to it.  “Keep moving forward,” as I’ve heard.  And it’s true: time doesn’t play trickster with a hop, skip and jump to past moments, though we all wish we could be Time Lords.

Graduating from Luther was the moment that the book closed on Luther.  I would not come back in the thick of action, or even anywhere near the climax.  Instead, it would be the epilogue, if anything.  The “in case you wanted to know” moments that are usually skipped for the sake of time.  We were welcome back into the town, but it wasn’t with the same sense of belonging, or it was with a very different sense of belonging.  It’s the question of what happens when you open a book you thought was closed.

I’ve been re-reading the journal(s) I kept throughout college lately, and it’s surreal to look around the places I am now and see the ghost of my former self mulling over issues, pondering new acquaintances, and trying to see where my feet could go without tripping over themselves.  A fun moment: doing a norm violation on Matt and Megan, who would ultimately end up being very close friends, only to realize that they thought I had a lazy eye the whole time.  Or, meeting Xiao, a good friend of mine because another friend wanted us to smile and eat ice cream in a video for the school.  Or even my friend Sally and I staying up until 4 AM chatting, only to be wrenched out of bed for a 4:30 fire alarm.  When I thought that the moments would scroll along and keep coming–when I was in the rising action part of the Luther story– I paid less attention to them, though they all became the particles making up the “modern me.”  I didn’t write them down, but rather committed them to the corridors between words.  The moments passed, I closed the book, and moved on to the next entry.

It’s when I decided to physically walk back down those corridors that things got interesting.  Suddenly, Decorah was not “my town” anymore, if it ever was, and I realized that I’m now lumped into the category “Luther alum.”  I ran into people who ask what I’m up to, and we mutually agreed that it was a mind-trip to be back, but not really back.  All around us, the next generation of Luther students prepped for the upcoming school year, agonizing over what classes they wished they had time for in their schedules.  And I sometimes scroll back through the pages, remembering when I used to do the same thing.

It sounds forlorn, but I was more curious than anything else to see an old home resemble more of a vacation spot.  You can travel 1,000 miles in your head and heart, but find your feet where they began.  Except this time, your heart receives it differently and it’s like starting over with perceptions, this time four degrees to the left. 

The temptation was very strong to run around and SEE EVERYTHING while I had the chance.  In every moment that I chose to do one thing, I wasn’t doing six.  But instead, I went into town solo on Saturday prior to meeting up with other people, sitting outside of the courthouse with a bag of ships and a bowl of guacamole.  It was like writing my own story again, instead of trying to pry open the pages of the old tome.  

I stood still, and the world introduced itself.

I ran into professors and had the kind of conversations that made an hour feel like an entire book, stopped into the Sugar Bowl to talk to Craig and got free ice cream just for “good luck,” and I made sure to peer into the windows of new shops, stopping to talk to anyone who seemed game.  I saw a dancer who bloomed and wilted as smooth as rainwater, and taught some of my friends (with help from others) how to talk in the “ermergerd” accent over drinks.  I did a lot of walking (getting rather burnt in the process) and walked down the sidewalk barefoot to get mud out of my toes.    

Here’s what happens when you walk back into a story that might not be yours anymore: you return to those corridors between words and remember the things that made you find them in the first place.  The funny or strange stories I have meeting people for the first time is my story, and all of them intersect occasionally in Decorah, where another story unfolds as the minutes scroll along.  I like to think of new moments in life as “redrafting,” or the process of rewriting a story from scratch.  It’s scary as all hell to see a blank Word Document staring at you, but once you start again, there’s more detail, it’s richer, and you know it’s more you than it was before.

And that, I think, is pretty invigorating.  And it’s something you don’t realize until you look back at the old story and see how far you’ve traveled since then.