Iowa

IMG_0254Before I began my freelance work, I was an in-house writer and editor for a company that published continuing education content. On any given day, a random assortment of courses and books would cross my desk. I never knew what the day would hold.

One day, a professional engineering course showed up in my inbox to edit. These courses were often the most unexpected topics: ponds, power distribution, bridges, laws, ethics. Today, it was a course about gravel roads.

One wouldn’t think that gravel roads would be a hot topic, especially for engineers. The Federal Highway Administration, however, reported in 2012 that about 35% of America’s more than four million miles of roads were unpaved. In some states, these roads account for a large percentage of fatalities and injuries—up to 20%. There are a lot of reasons for this like, apparently, poor visibility, sharp curves, narrow lanes, not enough shoulder space, limited sight distances, obstacles and non-compliant (or no) signage. So of COURSE engineers would need to learn about how to properly build and maintain these unpaved roads.

I was flooded with memories as I read through this particular course.

I grew up in Iowa, where more than 60% of the roads are unpaved (according to the Des Moines Register). I dealt with the challenges of living with these roads and regularly traveled them to visit friends and family.

There were unpaved roads near where my mother’s sister and her family lived. I would ride along with my older cousins in their old, dusty-smelling cars. They would drive too fast over the steep hills. I would laugh, despite being a little scared, begging them to go faster. The hills’ drops would “tickle my tummy.”

I moved south over a decade ago. I’ve never really looked back. The Midwest was a different lifetime—a life that was good at times and cruel others. (Admittedly, both outcomes would be due to my own decision-making processes, which were often faulty.)

In my “bad dreams” (the word “nightmare” is too strong), I’ve found myself back in the Midwest—a place where the winters drag on and on and on. My seasonal affective disorder would rear its head.  Year after year, I would plunge back into the dark depths of depression, like clockwork, in October. In my dreams, I would emphatically insist that I needed to live—and had lived—in a place where I didn’t have to deal with this nonsense. I cried, wanting to go back where the sun would shine.

This course made me confront memories and truths.

Iowa was my home—a place where the pavement would sometimes just stop, and loose rock would begin. The landscapes were dotted with red barns and tall silos. There were grain elevators in every town. Iowa was a place that could raise characters from John Wayne and Donna Reed to the mask-wielding, numbered nightmares in Slipknot.

IMG_0255Last year, I traveled back there for the first time in ten years. I had conflicted feelings about Iowa throughout this decade of exile. Thinking about it made me feel trapped, claustrophobic and landlocked.

It was also, however, the place where I would find myself in guided relaxation or sleep tracks when I was asked to think of a “peaceful place.” In my peace, I would envision myself in the country on a warm summer day, walking down a cow pasture path behind my cousins’ hay barn. I would walk toward the small pond where we used to swim and fish. Sun-dried cow patties dotted my path. If I walked a little farther, I would come to a wooded area. A small creek ran through these woods, which was one of the feeder sources that would later become the Skunk River. My brother and I used to play there, climbing over fallen logs, splashing around in the water or playing with Matchbox cars. In Iowa, there was nothing sweeter smelling than fresh-cut hay and clover on a summer evening.

I rented a car and drove out on these gravel roads, past the places I remembered as a child. Nothing looked the same, except for the gravel roads. The weather had been dry, so dust billowed behind the car in a plume.

I kept driving, trying to recapture the sights and smells of my youth.

Prague, Czech Republic: Gingerbread, Trdlník and Haunted AirBnBs

I have always loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book A Little Princess.

The novel is set in the late 1800s and features young Sara Crewe, who is sent to attend an exclusive boarding school in London. On one of her father’s adventures, however, he dies. Now an orphan, Sara is suddenly the responsibility of the school’s bitter headmistress, Miss Minchin. The charity case and servant, as far as Miss Minchin is concerned, is consigned to a sparse attic room and is forced to work for her keep.

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Photo taken from the Prague Castle. The middle rooftop with the light on is our attic Airbnb bedroom.

The attic bedroom of our Prague Airbnb brought back memories of the attic bedroom that was described in A Little Princess. Its north-facing window opened up to a world of red rooftops and a lighted view of the famous Prague castle.

“You can see all sorts of things you can’t see downstairs,” Sara said in A Little Princess. “Chimneys—quite close to us—with smoke curling up in wreaths and clouds and going up into the sky…it all feels as high up—as if it was another world.”

The rental was in a very old building.  It was located on the very top floor of a multi-floor walkup; the bedroom was perched at the top of a narrow set of creaky wooden stairs in what, at one time, had been the attic.

Our Prague flat was nestled just south of the Prague Castle, on the downward slope that led toward the Vltava river. About 90% of the apartment had been updated; the only space in the apartment that didn’t appear touched was its unheated entry mud room space, which consisted of rustic wooden walls and brick floors. A two-stair entryway led to the cozy kitchen. Throughout the entire space, the ceilings were low and slanted, reminding us just how close we were to the rooftop.

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The world outside our temporary home was decorated for Christmas. An artisanal gingerbread cookie store across the street of the building’s entrance begged us to come, see, taste and featured window displays that could only be described as magical. A hike up the hill led us to the gothic Prague Castle. Its construction began in 870 A.D.; it is the largest and oldest castle in the world and sits on 750,000 square feet.

Around the castle complex, vendors in temporary shops sold glühwein, art, Christmas decorations and warm treats. We bought mugs full of spiced wine from a father and a son from France. The mugs featured the father’s artwork.

We continued down the hill, toward the Charles Bridge.

Warm white Christmas lights lit up the streets, Christmas decorations added to the magic and sweet smells wafted out from the coffee shops. My daughter begged us to try Prague’s famous trdlníks. These street desserts featured cone-shaped donut pastries that were filled with ice cream and achoice of toppings. My daughter chose a chocolate cinnamon donut filled with vanilla soft serve and drizzled with chocolate. Chris chose a donut filled whipped cream and strawberries. Neither one could finish their trdlník.

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Beef goulash, bread, potatoes, dumplings: traditional Czech food beckoned us everywhere, promising comfort, heaviness and warmth. On this chilly night, however, we had filled up on sugar, ice cream and chocolate. We walked back to our Prague apartment.

Later that night, I woke up suddenly. Heavy footsteps were ascending the creaky stairs that led up to the attic. I thought it was my daughter; the ice cream dessert had proved too much for her and she went to bed on the couch in the downstairs family room with a bellyache.

“Margaret,” I called. No answer. “Margaret?”

The footsteps continued up the stairs. They entered the bedroom. They walked over to the bed. I pulled the blankets over my head as the footsteps, recognizing how cliché this move was.

I peeked out from under the blankets to an empty room. There was no one there. I moved closer to my husband.

I thought about this old building and about the buildings, and the history, that surrounded us. If a structure was going to be haunted, it would certainly be here.

Later that morning, we got up early: we had a city tour with a guide scheduled. Chris went for a morning run to the to the castle on the top of the hill and took a picture of our lighted flat below.

We set out that morning for a full day in this favorite, historic city. We stopped by a café for a strong cup of coffee. As we ate our breakfast, I thought how many stunning changes this city had seen; it was full of colorful stories and wonderful characters. Prague was wonder, beauty, brutality, death and innovation all rolled up into one.

This city, full of paradoxes and ghosts, will likely be standing long after we are gone.

Ashes: Pashupatinath Kathmandu

IMG_4733If I closed my eyes and imagined myself somewhere else, it would have been in a happy place. Like, at a Memorial Day barbeque. Chris would be grilling burgers on our lanai; I would be setting out our favorite broccoli salad—the one with the raisins, red onions and bacon bits. The kids would want to open the bag of Wavy Lays and the French onion dip. “Don’t open that until dinnertime,” I would yell. I would then open it myself when the kids wandered off. I’d shove several chips in my mouth when I made sure they were out of sight.

IMG_4740I would have preferred to be there. Not here.

I fished the face mask out of my yak wool jacket’s pocket as soon as I began to see the wafts of smoke billowing across the path in front of me. This would be neither pleasant nor easy. I fastened the ear loops around my right ear, then my left.

I pulled the mask up and covered my mouth, then my nose. My eyes were still exposed to the air; they burned. I would later send the clothing to the laundry service at our guest house and would take a shower. The smell of burning meat permeated and lingered.

It would be more accurate, however, to say that the smell of “burning flesh” lingered.

The smell of cooked meat, the billowing smoke—it was all caused by burning bodies. It was 11 a.m. on a Tuesday.  Barely 24 hours before, the bodies had been people: they had laughed; they had cried; they had probably known they were going to die. Their families had gathered around them to say their goodbyes.

It was hospice.

I am at Pashupati Nath on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, an area that consists of 518 temples and monuments. This is the biggest shrine in Hinduism. It is also one of the holiest places, where the dead are prepared for their eternal ritual. It was recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It is dedicated to Pashupati, an incarnation of the Hindu god, Shiva. “Pashu” means “living beings”; “Pati” means “master.” According to maptia.com, “Pashupati is the master of all living beings in the universe.”

The grounds are crawling (literally) with monkeys. The “sadhus,” who are ascetic “holy men,” are seated around the area, covered in the ashes from the funeral pyres. They have unshaven beards and long hair. They wear orange robes; although, some are naked. Naked yoga sometimes occurs. (We did not see this when we visited.)

In Hinduism, those who are cremated on the banks of the Bagmati River and whose ashes enter the water will have their sins washed away. In turn, they will be closer to their eternal goal, which is referred to as “moksha,” “nirvana,” or “samadhi.” This goal is essentially a release from the cycle of life—of death and rebirth.  All living things are trapped in this cycle, a belief that ultimately results in the caste system.

IMG_4744The bodies are prepared by the oldest son, who is the “lead cremator.” Before the cremation begins, he bathes himself in the river. The women step aside: they are not allowed in the area while the ceremony occurs.

The bodies are wrapped in white or red (red, if it is a woman whose husband is still alive). Water is put in the deceased’s mouth. The big toes are tied together with a string and a Tilaka (a mark on the forehead) is applied. The body is put first on a ghat near the river and is then set on the pyre with its feet facing south.

There were currently no less than six cremations happening, just across the trash-strewn “river.” At this point, in early January, the Bagmati River seemed less like a river and more like a trickle of water. (Although I grew up along the banks of the Mississippi. So, my standards of what constitute a “river” are slightly skewed.)

The water was filthy. A little girl of seven or eight had taken her shoes off and had waded into calf-deep water. Smiling, she fished something out of the water. She lifted it up triumphantly to show her brother who was kicking rocks on the riverbank. I wondered what she had found. At that age, my daughter would have collected rocks, mulch, ribbons—it didn’t take much to pique her interest.

“Look at that,” my friend Michael said as he leaned in next to me. He pointed to an active pyre. I looked just as a leg—from the knee down—tumbled out of it and onto the ground.

uXZdq0JJTPeCNV5su28s7gThe man tending the pyre, perhaps the lead mourner, grabbed two sticks. He deftly picked the limb up and flipped it back into the fire. The charred foot remained visible. I wondered who this person had been — what his or her contribution had been to the world. To me, he/she would always be associated with, “that time I saw the foot fall out of the fire at Pashupati.”

The air was heavy with not only smoke and ash, but with sadness. This was a place of sorrow and of death. I could feel it; it was acute. I believe I could feel it even more so: my dad had been cremated hardly a month before on the other side of the world.

We had sat in a small room at a dark paneled wood conference table on rolling caster leather office chairs.  A young woman sat in the corner. She wore foundation that was several shades too light and a dress that was at least two sizes too small. She didn’t say a word, but fetched water for us and, occasionally, documents off the printer.

The shock of his death had barely set in. Not even 48 hours before, I had rushed to the hospital as fast as I could. I didn’t make it on time. I had instinctively known this. When I had pulled over to call my mom, the hospital’s chaplain answered her phone. Never a good sign.

“Thank you for being with her,” was all I could say. Several hours later, I kissed his forehead. He looked like he was sleeping.

My brother, husband and I sat with my mother in a weird, uneasy silence across from a rotund man in a cheap suit. He was nice, straightforward, and considerate—everything you would want in a funeral director, although I had no experience with this. It had been a preneed arrangement and had been already paid for. The date on the preneed papers my mom clutched within her file said 2015.

There were, however, several choices we need to make.

“Behind you are the biodegradable urns,” the man in the cheap suit said. We all turned, as if choreographed, to look simultaneously at the selections. They were all unremarkable, I thought; as Marie Kondo would say, nothing “sparked joy.” None were remarkable enough to hold my dad—a person who was utterly remarkable in every way. Not every daughter could say that, but I could. And I still can.

They were all slightly chintzy. He would have scoffed at the choices. We chose the biodegradable urn with butterflies on it. It wasn’t really him, but it would do: It would be going into the ground, anyway…what did he care?

The man went through the charges. He fussed around with a credit that had resulted when we decided that the burial would be performed at a later date: transportation wouldn’t be needed to the cemetery.

We designed the funeral programs.

The cardboard box in which he would be cremated cost $90.fullsizeoutput_1ac7.jpeg

I looked across the river at the bodies covered in orange cloth and sprinkled with marigolds. We had seen strings of marigolds draped across homes, shops, gates. Here, they were laid across the bodies before they were burned. I thought they were beautiful; however, I would never look at marigolds the same way.

His forehead had been so cold when I had kissed it. I’m sure the bodies across the river from me were also cold. Although the sun was out, it was a chilly day. The families of the deceased sat huddled together by each funeral pyre. I wondered if they felt the warmth from the fire in front of them; I wondered how it felt to know that the fire’s fuel and warmth came from their loved one.

My eyes stung. I realized I was crying.