i was born here

driving down the main hill into Hettinger, i see on the other side of the town plains spreading empty to the horizon, late afternoon sun golden on the buttes. i imagine them filling, imagine this thousand-person town swelling in fast forward, plains populating with steel and concrete, buttes crowned with hotels and multi-million dollar homes, and this little main street, half its shops closed, rebuilds into the historic heart of an old downtown, little bistros and street performers and new civilization reimagining the old.

it all vanishes. i look at the plains again, at one-hundred-year-old Hettinger and the depopulating Dakotas, and wonder which is likely to happen faster, that new city or the end of humanity. and the sun setting on these hills, as it's done for millennia, seems to answer me.

this place will always be wild.


taking the puzzle apart

these days i work as a painter in a government-sponsored housing complex. most of the occupants are elderly: old farmers and ranchers, or their widows, who never made enough off the dry dakota land to settle somewhere nicer. most of them are single, and all live alone. the place is quiet. i sometimes feel it's like a native american reservation: not where these people would choose to be, living on government land, but the only place many of them have, so they stay[1]. their lives they lead here are unimaginable to me, frightening. what does one person do all day, alone in his or her apartment, without work or much physical mobility? what sort of loneliness is that, what purposeless at the end of one's life? my mind balks at imagining what everyday reality is for the occupants.

when i see someone around, i stop and talk with them. i want to understand who they are, how they live, want to lend them an ear if that's the kind of thing that would brighten their day. i know it would mine, in the same situation. as it is, i am alone eight hours a day, painting, and the time can get long. when i was working in the south building, i'd often see Harold in the community room, jacket on, leaning his short body over a table scattered with puzzle pieces. early in the conversation, he always says "I'm just about to leave," though he's there about half the times i walk in.

sometimes instead of him it is a kind, smiling, slightly spacey old lady with a speech impediment, sitting and working at the same puzzle. there are boxes and boxes of these puzzles on a shelf above the piano, and more hang on the walls, glued together. i had forgotten puzzles--forgotten they existed at all. i don't think i've done one in fifteen years, which is like saying i've never done one. yet here these old folks are, working at them day after day, usually one puzzle assembled and one more in the works. i will greet them, and they look up and we chat for a bit, me mostly listening, them wandering gradually back into younger days, or interior thoughts, then back to reality. from there they will either wander again, or tell me they don't want to hold me up, and i go.

today i started work in a different building of the complex, and met someone new. she looks like hell: purple cotton jog pants, bulky black coat on against the wind and drizzle, maybe early 60s but with lizardlike smoker's skin, long white hairs on her chin. she is outside smoking as the sun goes down, and i stop and chat with her awhile on my way to the car. we talk of painting and renovations, about how she came here and the life she led before in Minnesota.

somewhere in our chat she mentions she does puzzles. i'm surprised, because i've never seen her in the common room, or anywhere else for that matter. she says she does them alone in her own room, and she has to work straight through from start to finish, or her cat will bat the pieces apart. "Sometimes I'm there for nine hours or more," she says. "Oh you know, you don't cook much for yourself, or just something small, it's only once in a while I'll make something nice, so, well, I remember one time," she says, sort of sighing out her cigarette smoke, "I started a puzzle at four, and I must have been working on it until, well, one thirty or more."

nine and a half hours! i comment on how diligent she is. she says she has to be, because of the cat. her next line floors me "But I get faster, after I put 'em together and take 'em apart a few times. You get to know where all the pieces go."

she takes apart her puzzles and puts the same ones back together again.

i am shocked: this is the exactly the kind of thing i have been afraid of imagining happening in these rooms. here is someone who actually spends long hours putting together and taking apart the same puzzle, over and over. just doing it once seems monotonous to me, and she does it repeatedly. i cringe from how i am feeling her life must be.

my mind tries to soften this image somehow: she has a cat at least, so maybe as she works the cat is on her lap, or she is watching the TV at the same time, but i keep coming back to her at a kitchen table, a single light on, cigarette smoking, one in the morning, putting together a puzzle she's done before.

oh God., i think, this is a real time for prayer. she has moved me to pity, something i want never to have to feel. i pray that she is happy, that she enjoys her life, that the perception of what she's just told me as awful or pitiful is only in my mind and not in hers. that the lives all these residents here live, without visitors, most of them unable to drive, is happier than it seems. i pray for it as we talk.

she's noticed nothing, and has moved on to talking about her furniture, how she has too much but just can't bring herself to get rid of it. i am still with her and the puzzle, sitting in her quiet apartment, checking piece after piece to see if it fits.

though they're not my cup of tea, i think i understand why people do puzzles: it is the joy of finding order in chaos, of gradually seeing the picture on the box coalesce out of random little colored pieces. the little excitement of discovering the piece needed to complete the cat's ear, the ship's mast, the lamppost in the quaint Norman Rockwell scene of a small town skating pond. it is human to enjoy finding reflections of our own mind in the world, as we love the ordered noise of music, the logical beginning middle and end to the story we never have in life, science explaining the apparently random laws of nature. i believe the joy of doing a puzzle is something like this, not only seeing but making order and sense come out of misshapen colored pieces.

this, however, is not that. this is that, the joy of discovery, of finding order, then destroying it to do over again. i can even see the joy in destroying, i believe that's human as well (think of little boys). but to later build it all up again, the same as it was? to do it enough that you gradually remember where each piece goes? over the course of hours and days, mastering how the little jigs and jags fit into a coherent picture, making it happen again and again. is there still joy in that? it stretches my imagination to think so. may be i am unimaginative, and putting all those pieces together time after time is just as good as rereading a book, that you bring something new to it every time.

but it strikes me, talking with her on this cold evening outside her apartment stuffed with furniture, the joy she finds in it is not that at all. it is the joy of killing time. i have seen her come out throughout the day to smoke, and go back inside, not talking to anyone or going further than her concrete front step. she has no job, no family that visits regularly, apparently no friends in the compound.

what sort of life is this? i don't hear the good answer i am hoping for in the things she talks about, in the set of her eyes. i pray that i am only unimaginative, unobservant, missing the joys she finds in life. but i leave her, the cigarette smoked, to get in my car with something like relief. spending that time with her, trying to see life as she does, has been harrowing. is harrowing, driving home. the glimpse she's given me into lives there has not dispelled but confirmed my fears. it is a puzzle i am afraid to put together, afraid of the picture it will make. at the same time, i want to do it, want to see things as they do, whatever that is. learn what i can from how their experiences have led them to lead life.

it strikes me that life may be like a puzzle for her, that she lives like she does puzzles: that in fact the picture formed from the pieces of her life may not be entirely pleasant, or even all fit together, but alone in an apartment like that you grow tired of not putting them together, and so you put the same pieces together again, sifting through memories like older people do, always hoping this time they will be different somehow, fit cleanly together into a logical picture. or maybe this life she's living--they are living--this life without family, living alone in an apartment with nothing but time, it is missing something, is a puzzle that's incomplete, with pieces missing or misfitting, and they keep trying to put it right, put it right. and not being able to, it is satisfying at least to put together these idyllic puzzle pictures of classic american life, the ones they knew. the ones they lost.

she is a puzzle i haven't put together yet. one, as i find more pieces that fit, i am less and less wanting to finish, and yet drawn to. like her. maybe we have more in common than i thought.

[1] i've been thinking some, too, about the will to survive. a friend of mine here i sometimes go to lunch will lightly say she'd rather die than have something like colon cancer. i've heard lots of people say they'd rather just die when they reach a certain age: 30, 60, 100. but when you reach it, you are always ready to live more, no matter the circumstances. this also is human of us, is deeper, even, than human: this is life, what defines us at our deepest: the will to survive. beyond the quality of life, beyond the sacrifices that must be made to do it, we want to live. don't you?


'is he me?'

i asked myself as i took the change from his hand. overweight, greasy longish hair, Supervalu apron on his chest, working the register in small town Hettinger North Dakota, the place i was born. is he me?

the first time i was here, two days ago, i didn't say much. he'd given me a ticket for their weekly raffle, i'd politely inquired about how it worked, end of story. but i'd been just a little excited at finding someone else my age not obviously having moved on to the marriage-and-children stage of life. they're rare here--strikingly like the villages i'd visit in Africa, young people in dakota villages do more or less two things on finishing (or dropping out of) schooling: get married or leave.

today this iconoclast pushed it farther, talking to me something like my imagination had said he would. in the intervening two days of solitude, as i removed outlet faceplates and taped off light fixtures, i had imagined what effect our encounter'd had on him. me, i'm fresh out of Uganda, from a warm community of friends in similar places in life, and am still riding that current into the social barren that the Dakotas are for single late-20s people. he, on the other hand, he most likely (i imagined, masking rooms to paint) graduated from Hettinger High, was working this same job he'd had in school there, and somehow never took that step into the unknown that would have gotten him beyond where he is. instead he stayed, and that step outwards got harder to take as he stayed, among the familiar. i imagined he still lived with his parents, or his mom at least, and was an avid video game player, sci-fi reader. what he said confirmed at least some of these suspicions:

checking out at the counter with my bread and cheese and pasta sauce, with my get-it-because-i-can-it's-america-baby Butterfinger, he says "I heard that's an awesome game." his voice is straight out of Tri-Lambda: a bit throaty from disuse, undertoned with the grand style of oratory he likely carries on in his head during these days at work. he is commenting on a hat i have.

"yeah," i say, noncommittally, "i got it from my sister's husband, he manages a video game store."

"oh, that's like my dream job," he says, pushing the register drawer back into the till unconsciously, "to work at a video game store. or a comic shop."

and from there it's on: we have crossed the clerk-customer line, admitted our shared circumstances in small town dakota, and even found common ground. i admit that while i am not much of a video game player, i am a sometimes comic and an almost regular sci-fi reader. we talk more--the supermarket is dead though it's noon. he moves away from the register, turning to face a wall of Advil and Tylenol, and i understand he is under the managerial gun to be busy at all times, not to be seen idly chatting with customers. i imagine he has been talked to at some time in the past about bothering customers with speech from his sci-fi and comic-laden reality. i don't mind: it's good to talk with someone as irregular as i, if again as different from me as i from others here, and we talk facing the pain killers, me holding now this box and that as though considering what next to buy, he as though advising my purchase.

it comes out that he too is a writer: a writer of sci-fi, of a sci-fi trilogy about aliens invading the earth in the 1950s, at least that's the first book, and as i mention how that may be what the world's peoples need to unite, a common enemy, talk moves to the Watchmen and comic books and this and that. he is the quintessential never-got-past-it high school nerd, wallowing in his own nerddom.

and i wonder again if he is me. if i could have been he, could have been behind the register at a supermarket in a small town in the Dakotas, dreaming of the video games i would play, sci-fi i would read and write after work, horribly out of touch with the female sex and society in general. it is not such a far stretch: i can paint his life in my mind so vividly because i lean that way, because i am also an introvert, i also enjoy sci-fi escapism, i also once had a penchant for video gamery and also need to push myself to get beyond all that.

that's the sticking point, the one that has made the difference--i did push, got outside my comfort zones again and again until my comfort zone is so big it takes weeks to cross, has couches gathering dust in areas i might not pass through for years, but will still be comfortable when next i'm there. i got good at pushing, as he (i'm imagining) got worse. and i like him just for that, for being another version of me. he is obviously intelligent, describing the plot and justification for his novel, obviously introverted and creative if in a world-ignorant way, obviously chosen escapism over realism. i could have fit all those molds.

he is a potential friend, valuable as gold in these hills. more than that, he is a symbol to me of what i might have been, had i stayed here, of how i've changed and how much for the good it's been. undoubtedly the cirumstances of his life and mine have been different, and all the details i've filled in to convince myself we are in fact out-of-sync doppelgangers are likely as fantastical as the novels he plans to write. all the same, life's details are arguably as created as experienced, and these endear me to him as few others might, notwithstanding our only interaction is brief register conversation. i like him.

is he me? i ask myself, next time i see him. yes, i answer. he is me, just another road not taken, worthy of love and friendship, someone to be learned from. and in that spirit, over five dollar checkouts of bread cheese and butterfinger, we become friends.


Dear Reader,

Greetings, konnitiha, jebare emirimu. This is levi, your writer. First and foremost, I want to thank you so much for reading these posts. It's been one of the loveliest experiences of my life meeting people--friends and strangers--who have kept up with my blog the last couple of years, who know intimate details I forgot I'd even written here, who talk with me about characters in my posts like they'd met them too. It is lovely to have shared my life with you, and endlessly encouraging as a writer to know that the sharing was well-written enough for you to come back time and again, reading these (often sprawling) posts on my work, life and all things experienced therein.

It is over.

That is, Africa is over. For those of you who go even further back, when I was writing about my experiences on PeaceBoat, that's over and gone as well. I am home, in my own country, writing the first tentative lines of a new chapter, what will be an entirely different volume of my life, one lived (mainly) among my own people, in my own place. The moments of shocking cultural awareness, the bizarre stories from other ways of life, insights seen through all of that back into the common things we share, those will dwindle. It has been nearly two months that I've been back from Africa, and I am piecemeal becoming a fairly integrated US citizen. Do I still sing songs in Japanese under my breath? Yes. Am I still dancing like an African when I think no one's looking? Yes. Will that ever change? Probably not. But a telltale sign has crept into my everyday English: like a good Dakotan, I find myself ending every other sentence with a trailing "so...," a spoken artifice I have always disliked and tried to clean from my speech. Nevertheless, I've started saying it again, so...

So I'm not as much of a foreigner as I was. Things are getting normal again in a way I've been fearing they would since i left the country six years ago. That everyday, nothing-special-going-on kind of feeling you get when your current experiences superimpose cleanly on those of other days and years, and you could easily forget today happened at all--that feeling is starting to creep in. Soon as I settle, it will likely settle with me, unless I fight against it. I don't know if I will: there's a part of me that doesn't like to fight change, doesn't want to label something good or bad until it's been experienced as one or the other. There is something good in everything, right? I might even say everything here is something good--it's just up to us to see it.

So Africa is over, and Japan before that. But will the blogs stop? Is the music over? Did the lights come and is this the Fat Lady singing? No. Sweet reader, so long as you are willing to read me (and probably even after you're not), I am wanting to write you all the remarkable things I find in being alive. I fully hope and intend to find them right here in my own country, without the international icing we've developed such a taste for these past years. In fact, I am finding them. Life the past two months has done nothing but encourage me about how good it is to live here at home (wherever that is, exactly), and I hope you've found the few blogs I've posted on it as good as they've ever been. They will continue to be the best I can do, because nothing else is worth doing.

Thanks for reading.


Earth Day, 2010
Grand Island, Nebraska


old strawberries

driving north and west to Hettinger this morning, telephone poles repeating themselves into the horizon, the Dakota landscape flip-flops between ugly and beautiful in my mind.

before me on the road there are patches of yellowed grass pushing up through half-melted snow, lumpy buttes rising in the distance, sky neither gray nor blue, no sign of humanity save a farmhouse in the distance.

it is ugly: this is where i grew up, the endless yellow-gray nothingness of prarie, no color or distinguishing landmarks, possibly the flattest, dullest place on earth. it is beautiful: as i came to see it once i'd been out of the country a few years, it is possibly the most peaceful landscape on earth. the bottom of an ocean now gone, the land swells and stretches, grassed and treed in impossibly subtle shades of wheat, flint, rust and earth. the sky makes up for that subtlety in shameless dawn and sunset displays, brilliant as though the sky had drained all the land's color for just these few minutes. then the rest of the time it's dull--it's ugly. no, once you get a taste for what looks dull you just find it is beautiful--a more delicate beauty, like a Japanese garden or a lesser known Mozart. no, it's ugly. it's beautiful.

my mind flops a few times between these, then out of them entirely, a caught fish desperate for water. the world, it says, is a bowl of strawberries and cream. no matter how the strawberries look, how you arrange and process the ingredients, they are all good and good together. and when you eat them, my mind tells me, it's going to be delicious. so with the world.

this sends me deeper inside. i remember sitting around digesting after another amazing dinner one night with my Japanese host family. the dad went to the fridge and told me he wanted to show me what to do with old strawberries. there were some there past their prime, and he poured them in a glass bowl, then unceremoniously dumped some sugar on top of them, and finally a few glugs of milk.

'mix,' he said. this from an excellent cook in a cuisine that can require slices of radish to be not only of a certain size, but that their edges be beveled before cooking. a culture of renowned meticulousness precision and refined sensibility. what he said amounted to heresy, but you don't contradict your host dad. i mixed. the red strawberries and white milk and granules of sugar all came together into an indelicate pink mass, something that would never sell in Japan. then we ate it. it was lovely.

what i realized today, driving to work in the morning and watching the landscape flop from beautiful to ugly in my mind's eye, is that the universe is also a bowl of strawberries, cream and sugar. it doesn't matter the arrangement: if those lumpy Dakota buttes are mountains, if the grass is yellow or verdant green, if the sky is gray or blue or ochre shot with violet and amber, if they are witnessed only after days of arduous Himalayan trekking or from the windshield of an aging red Suburban. what is important is knowing the inherent goodness of all of it, like you know the cream, sugar and strawberries--dark patches or not--are good. any way you put them together, they are going to taste good. GIGO. and if you see the goodness in them, they can't help but be beautiful, whether they're a delicate whipped cream mountain studded with strawberries and sparkling sugar, or a la Shigeru: mushed up in a bowl. the goodness is key: to seeing beauty, to making good food, to living wherever you are in contentedly. our challenge is to see the good in things. every thing. including the dreary half-melted prarie i am driving through.

so what do you do with the same 26 mile morning drive through nothingness? what you do with old strawberries: you find the goodness in them, and enjoy it. a place like Zanzibar, or a dessert like you might get at an expensive restaurant, they're easy to see the good in. too easy. that's why i like living here: it stretches me, makes me better at finding goodness in things. in people. once you see the good in them, you can love them. once you see the good in where you are, you can live there (really live, not just waste time). once you know the goodness of its ingredients, you can eat your food with joy.

now let me spell out the slightly radical proposal i had a few paragraphs back: the world is a bowl of strawberries and cream. that is, the world holds nothing but good. i mean nothing: the most blasted landscape, the worst weather, the hokiest country song, the awfullest tasting food, the most annoying person in your day. good. strawberries and cream. eat it and love it, or die trying. that's what we have to do.