Driving over Donner Pass Friday morning, we saw: clear skies, sun glittering on an expanse of deep-blue lake, rushing streams lined with red and gold reeds resembling the fur of an unknown animal, polished stones like giant mushrooms, ribbons of snow tucked beneath their rims.
“I love California,” I told my husband, minutes before we alighted at a vista point to say our blessings of leave-taking. “It feels like who I am: high mixed with low, all categories blurred, limitless permission to improvise.” I’m not a surfer girl or a valley girl, but California shaped me to the core. I pour a libation of tears before we cross the state line.
We’re listening to a CD I made my husband for his last birthday. Phil Roy sings “God is Not Sleeping,” followed by Wyclef Jean’s amazing version of “Knockin on Heaven’s Door,” then U2’s “One.”
“My dad taught me the American dream,” sings Wyclef, and I think of Barack Obama. It’s easy to normalize anything: I’m already annoyed at the flock of hawks who seem to be his foreign policy advisors. But driving east, with the mountains on all sides, it hits me freshly how this son of an absent Kenyan and an adventurous Kansan improvised his way into the nation’s chief elected office. That morning on the motel TV I saw an ad for an Obama inauguration commemorative plate, “Genuine porcelain,” the announcer said. “showing his confident smile and warm eyes.” Cut to an ecstatic white family cuddled on the couch. “I never thought I’d see this day,” the father exclaims. Indeed.
John Trudell is singing, “The Only One for Me.” “The answer just is: you’re the only one for me.” I have no idea what lies ahead, but I am comforted beyond measure by the thought that I never could have predicted the sense of possibility that pervades even this challenging moment in our long national improvisation.
“World so undivided,” chants Trudell in “Tina Smiled.” I am glad I grew up in a place and time that allowed me to make my own way without the burden of social expectation that often attaches to civilizations older than California’s new-new thing. I’m sure it was so much easier for me than for my dear friend Bev, for instance, who pushed against centuries of British commitment to the done thing to make her own road by walking. I’ve made countless mistakes, of course. How else to learn? But I am so glad they were mine to make.
The Nebraska scenery is a nearly unchanging panorama of corn stubble and the bare skeletons of trees, going on forever. Nick Cave sings “Carry Me.”: “Turn to me, turn to me,” leaning into love despite the clarions blasting “Danger, danger, stay away!” This land is vast and everything living on it seeks growth. Everything seeks connection. Everything seeks opportunity. All the rest, praise be, is improvisation.
We arrived in Kansas City last night, exhausted but fine. From the window of my husband’s temporary lodging, I see blazing sun, blue skies, church spires, skyscrapers and a park the size of a pocket handkerchief. I’m off to buy paint for the kitchen.