A few days ago, I returned from my annual obligatory visit to my grandparents house in Lockney, TX. This is not to sound coarse at all – I love my grandparents and the real weight of obligation is the travel and location. I do it gladly and it truly is not a terrible place. It’s just, well, out there (geographically, politically, and in about every other way you can imagine). One of my major goals for this year and my personal evolution is to reattach myself to my familial obligations and reconnect with my multifaceted heritage (the Ukraine, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana). I’ve spent many years of my life off gallivanting with nary a postcard to show for it. It is not that I don’t love my family or enjoy communicating with them – it’s that I allow myself to get caught up wherever I am, presently and wholly. If I am on tour, the only people I see are the people in front of me. If I allow my thoughts to rest on all my people elsewhere, there is a sense of longing that becomes misplaced and stagnant. I’m not sure what to do with it. It has been my m.o. for years now – keep busy so as not to confront the silence and the empty. The vast amount of space and potential in inactivity and reflection scares the crap out of me. I am just being honest.
My maternal grandfather married his high school sweetheart almost 50 years after their high school romance ended. My grandfather married my grandmother when they were in their 20’s and his sweetheart, Anne, married his best friend. It sounds dramatic (and I’m sure it was very sad for a time) but my grandfather gave Anne and his best friend his blessing. Fast forward 50 years, after Anne’s husband died and my grandfather and grandmother split, and suddenly there was room to rekindle an old love. The first time I had ever been to Lockney, TX was to see my grandfather get married to Anne after all these years. And while their marriage has made both of them happy, better people, the town they relocated to has been carrying on the same way for decades.
My mother and I drove the 7 hours west on Friday, through the hill country and then onto the plateau that characterizes Texas’ flat facade. You never really know you’re on a plateau until you come across one of the immense canyons in the middle of what appears to be solely farms and ranches. The wind whips across the landscape – there’s nothing to stop it on either side. No mountains for thousands of miles… You weave through a sparse network of TX highways before you stumble across the wonder that is a 16-block x 16-block grid capable of holding only a few thousand people. One main street, one high school, one elementary school, and a bunch of churches. The town’s Dairy Queen is the only sign of life (like most Texas towns) and, oh, did I mention it’s a dry county? Not a watering hole in sight…
When my mother and I go to visit, we load her trunk up with spoils from Whole Foods. We bring enough to make homemade chicken and dumplings, salmon patties, pinto beans, collards, and all sorts of other southern favorites. It is always such a treat to cook for my grandparents but I’ll admit there is a selfish angle as well. We do it so we can give ourselves a rather large buffer from the authentic local fare (again, the DQ) and so we can keep our hands busy in the overarching silence of that town. I am not lying when I say that there is an audible ticking clock in each room of their house, marking every second of every day loudly and definitively. There is no ambiguity or illusion in the passage of time. For further description, please dust off your old copy of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and ignore the murderous plot. Take note of the heartbeat and what it does to the narrator’s sanity and here you have my Easter weekend.
To avoid sounding like a total brat, I will say that looking through old photo albums and hearing old family stories is gratifying for both myself and my grandparents. We manage to cobble together a cohesive familial experience every time I’m there, though it always feels rather rushed. We stay 2 days, maybe 3, and there is only so much you can fit in to make up for our disconnect the rest of the year. 3 days in my own life goes by in the blink of an eye; 3 days in Lockney feels like a lifetime. I recognize the irony when I lament about how time passes so quickly but when I finally have (nothing but) time to engage in a meaningful part of my life, I go stir crazy. And such was my Saturday, characterized by complete shutdowns and a lot of coffee drinking.
I realize now that the key to finding the balance in full engagement with your life is not about swinging the pendulum the other direction, thinking overall it will even things out. It doesn’t. The key is to take the stable bits from one side and join the stable bits from the other side somewhere in the middle. My desire to confront the ghosts of family past could not be done in a vacuum, outside the realm of my familiar daily life. For all the times I beat myself up about using activity as an escape, I realize that a remedial level of activity keeps my mind and soul open to real growth and connection, whereas utter silence and inactivity puts me in fight or flight. After a rocky Saturday, I came at Easter Sunday with a different approach.
My grandfather has both pecans and walnuts in his backyard, one of the few gifts of abundance God gave West Texas. The sad part of the story is that my grandfather can no longer eat either of those two gifts (something about his digestion, I dunno). Lucky for him, his yuppie daughter and granddaughter brought the Vita Mix (for the purpose of organic, vegan morning smoothies) – a tool that is otherwise completely worthless in a town whose idea of a smoothie is a Blizzard at the DQ. After being informed that he can still eat nut butters, we opted to make my grandfather homemade pecan butter and proceeded to engage in shelling pecans like they did in the good ol’ days. Slowly. Carefully. Like whittling a stick. What started out as a 2-person venture in the backyard became a full family affair, sitting around the table, silently opening each nut and digging for the prized meat. It was quiet and contemplative, solitary but communal. We didn’t say a word to each other for 2 or 3 hours and it was the most connected I had felt to my family in a long time.
The weight of words has always been something I have felt very deeply and struggled with for fear of being misunderstood. It is a possible explanation for why I simply cannot update a blog every day or even every week. Each word is a mountain and I always want to approach it from the best side possible. This burden has the negative effect of making communication and connection to others seem incredibly taxing, though if you make me forget myself, I can talk a blizzard around you. This year has been characterized more by feeling than thought, moving and strategizing based on my gut rather than my trusty noggin. It is difficult and confusing, which is why it probably needs to be happening this way – ultimately, your gut never fails you. You can imagine then the daunting task of conversation in a place so silent there is infinite room for words, with people who are more to you than a life full of topical, surface bullshitting with acquaintances. I suppose I don’t often get to practice real communication or intimacy, but I will say that making homemade pecan butter for my 78-year-old grandfather in peaceful, contemplative silence says more than any word I can think of. And watching Anne, mom, and my grandfather working next to me in their own silent diligence fulfilled me more than finishing a book or knitting a sweater. Activity for escape can be lonely. Activity as a family is what makes us better humans.