Return: 1. To come or go back to a place or person:
The windows behind the altar at San Benito Monastery look out on woods and creek. The sisters wear socks or slippers on the chapel's wooden floor. They sit on matching benches. The service and music mirror the setting of the sun, in song and stretches of silence. On Saturday at vespers, as we sung about day's ending, we watched the ravine behind the altar darken. By the end of the service, shadows fell across the floorboards and we could no longer watch the sun through the windows.
I went to this same service last year on my way west. When I pulled into the monastery this year, Annie, the sisters' dog, greeted me at the same point on the same gravel road. The same nun led me to the same bedroom, furnished with a dresser, a chair, a twin bed, and a set of clean purple towels. I placed my food in the same white almost-empty fridge. Last year, I drove the same stretch from Ames, Iowa to Dayton, Wyoming, a fourteen hour trip. During the fourteen hours of Westward-driving I watched the landscape change from row crops to rolling hills to short grass prairie to Badlands to high desert to Black Hills to Big Horn Mountains. I checked off landmarks I knew: the first Wall Drugs signs on the far east side of South Dakota, the corn palace in Mitchell, the Missouri River, Laura Ingalls Wilder's homestead in De Smet, the Wounded Knee museum in Wall, the Badlands rest stop that rents out interpretive headsets, the Wyoming state line, and the yellow detour lights that flash during the winter when mountain snow makes the road impassable.
I've been on the road for eight days. A slower trip than I've taken before. Last year when I drove to Washington I drove made the journey in three days: Detroit to Ames, Iowa, Ames, Iowa to Missoula, Montana, Missoula, Montana to Gig Harbor, Washington. I spent the week before I left making my car into the kind of habitat I could spend forty hours in--I vacuumed, loaded library books onto my ipod, toasted granola, and baked bread. I filled a fold-able cooler with sliced tomatoes and carrots, goat cheese and apples. I didn't stop for food once. I ate on the road or sitting in the sun on rest stop picnic tables.
The first meal of this road trip took place in Chicago, on the back porch of the flat my friend Amanda shares with her sister. We barbecued chicken, tofu, and vegetables on Amanda's Smoky-Joe. We washed and seasoned the meat in the sink of Amanda's apartment, passing the chicken back-and-forth as we collaborated on the cooking process. Neither of us barbecue much. Neither of us eat much meat. At one point, Amanda held the bird by its wings and pressed her face close to it's flesh. "It smells weird. Is it supposed to smell like that?" She asked. I drew my own nose near the chicken's bumpy skin, "It smells like death. But that seems right. It is dead so that makes sense." We rinsed the bird again. We rolled it in seasoning. We poured charcoal into the metal basin. We crumbled paper and created a flame. We waited for the charcoal to burn red before placing small sections of seasoned meat onto the grill. When the meat began to brown we filled the remaining space with green and red peppers and olive-oiled corn wrapped in tin foil.
The chicken tasted moist, grill-smoky, and garlicky--rich with backyard flavor. We ate it on chairs gathered around the wooden table on Amanda's porch with peppers and grilled corn and Leinenkugel's. From our second story porch-perch we could hear the hum of the highway and the jolt of the El. We made s'mores, skewering marshmallows over the grill using forks, and talked about transitions, jobs, good and bad foods to eat on dates, books, boys, and the difficulty of being in our twenties when our lives seen so much less professionally, romantically, and spiritually definitive than the lives of our parents. We stayed on the porch until dark shrouded the city and other apartment lights speckled the horizon.
That night, I remembered a line from the Stuart Dybek poem Windy City: in a city like that one might sail through life led by a runaway hat. I thought of the day I bought my first Stuart Dybek book, a collection of stories called The Coast of Chicago in a used bookstore, while wandering Chicago neighborhoods solo during another time of transition. I read the whole book that afternoon, sitting on a sidewalk bench, underlining lines like:
Our plans for the future made us laugh and feel close, but those same plans somehow made anything more than temporary between us seem impossible. It was the first time I’d ever had the feeling of missing someone I was still with
with the conviction that Dybek was writing about people like me: young transients who moved to moved to places like Chicago not for glamour but for old worldliness: delis and bakeries, weeded lots and hanging laundry.
In Iowa, ecology students burn the prairie. They section the grass with rakes and light the field on fire with small torches. When the prairie burns smoke rises into the treeless skyline. Soot covers the men and women who stand on the perimeter of the burn wearing Carharts and holding with rubber paddles to beat stray flames. The fire leaves the once lush landscape bare. But within weeks plants begin to re-sprout from the ashen soil, bright green snaps against the earth. The deep root structure of prairie plants saves them, knotting them to the Iowa earth so that only invasive species die in the fire.
What does it mean to place yourself in a landscape? On this trip, I visited Grinnell, Iowa before I went back to Ames, Iowa, where I'd lived for three years as a graduate student. I stayed with the family of one of my favorite former professors Dean and his wife Amanda. I helped Amos (age 4) and Lydia (age 7) build fairy houses from twigs and stones in the backyard. We braided strands of grass into fairy carpet and crafted tiny tables out of acorn tops. When an ant skittered over the bark where we worked Lydia asked if I thought ants could be pets for fairies. I said yes. She looked at me, searching my face, "Rachael do you believe in fairies?" I raised my head from the strands of grass I'd been thumbing, "Yes." She nodded. "Good." I imagined tiny beings, walking barefoot on our grass blankets and reclining on the smooth stones we collected. Sitting cross-legged in the lawn, with my back against a maple, I wished I could inhabit the structure Lydia built: that I could live in a shelter walled by tree-roots and lit by fireflies.
During my visit to Ames I walked two prairies: one at the Everett Casey Nature Reserve where I hiked with friends and former professors, one on my friend Becca's newly bought plot of property. It felt good to walk through grass that rose higher than my head with people whose lives I felt rooted to. I thought of a line from the Philip Levine poem Gospel, I did not come to a place like this for answers, I came to walk on the Earth. At the Everett Casey Nature Reserve, we followed my former Professor Steve, who swung a machete through the thick underbrush, hiking through brambles and nettles to reach the clear spaces on the property where we could look out at the expanse of prairie, river, and woodland. We hiked to Bluff Creek where we sat on river rocks for almost an hour, chasing tiny frogs with our palms, talking about the future and freckling in the sun. In Grinnell, I built fairy houses and read bedtime stories aloud, I talked to Dean and Amanda while Lydia stood behind me on a stool, pulling my hair into braids and buns, I ate pancakes cooked using a recipe in a children's book and drank carrot ginger juice Amanda pressed herself. In Ames, I hiked and cooked, I ate out and drank coffee on the porches of my friends while we all perched over laptops and open books. In both places, I walked on ground that felt familiar. I felt like a prairie plant, ready to spring from dirt.
Ames was the first place I planted flowers. Weeks after moving to my first duplex, I bought a bag of daffodil bulbs, which I patted into the ground in front of my porch. I knelt on the grass and sifted the Iowa dirt with my fingers. When yellow flowers peppered our yard next spring, the house felt more like mine. I'd planted part of myself there--bulbs which would still rise from the dirt years after I graduated and left Ames. This trip, I didn't drive by either of the homes I lived in Ames, but I know next spring my daffodils will still be there, sprouting along the scraggly rental property lawn.
The word for Matins, the morning service at San Benito Monastery, comes from Matuta, the Latin name for the Greek goddess Leucothae or Leucothea, the goddess of the morning. It's an ancient ritual, one that dates back to the earliest days of the church. The nuns spend most of the morning service in silence, with only rays of the rising sun to light the chapel. The morning I left three of us sat in a space quiet enough to here the hum of breathing and the gargle of unfed stomachs. I settled my body into my circling thoughts. I flexed my bare feet on the wooden floorboards and watched the sun speckle the altar. I knew I had almost eleven hours of driving ahead of me. I knew I had paperwork to finish and phone calls to make but for forty minutes I sat in quiet until Sister Gladys's alarm clock beeped, indicating it was time to sing in the day with hymns and psalms. Before I left the chapel that day the sisters gathered around me, blessing the road and my travels upon it.
I jogged from the chapel to my room after matins, scattering the gravel under my sandals. I pressed my books and clothes back into duffel bags and backpacks. When I walked to the kitchen to gather the contents of my cooler from the fridge, a woman wearing a black-and-white dress approached me, offered me her hand and a cup of fair trade dark roast coffee brewed from beans she'd bought at the co-op before coming to San Benito. I accepted and we talked about our jobs and lives how we found the monastery. I told her about being a naturalist and a writer and an assistant teacher at Holden. "That's good work," she said. She told me she worked as a death penalty lawyer. "That's good work," I responded. I described my previous trip to the monastery and other occasions I'd stayed with Benedictines. She told me she'd come to San Benito to visit Sister Helen, an internationally known anti-death penalty advocate and author of the book Dead Man Walking, an activist I'd admired since age nineteen. "I'm going to bring her coffee now. I'll have her pop out and say 'hi' if she's awake." The woman disappeared with her french press and I paced the kitchen, wondering if I should wait to meet my college hero, pushing back my departure time. After a couple minutes of shifting my weight and checking my watch, I left a "thank-you" Post-It on the counter, took my coffee thermos in hand, and headed out the door.
When I looked in my rear-view mirror, I saw the woman and Sister Helen, running behind my car. I pulled the Honda into brake, and ran toward them. Sister Helen wore tortoise shell glasses and clogs. She pulled me into a hug. "I hear you're doing good work," she said. "I'm a huge admirer of your work." I bumbled back.
When I pulled out of the monastery to continue on my way west, I felt the weight of Sister Helen's words and of my journey. I like the slowness of car travel, even seven hours into a squirmy thirteen hour drive, I like watching the landscape flash by. I like stopping at fruit stands and listening to audio-books and adjusting to the three-hour time difference one day at a time. There's a slowness to monasteries, to prairies, to the building of fairy houses, to forging of relationships with children, learning to cook, or getting to know a city. Some days I feel the only way to move forward is to cling to the ground beneath me and keep my car in gear. Some days I roll down the window and sift the wind between my fingers, as if grasping at the landscape, trying to keep each passing panorama.