On the Diving Board

“Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?

Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I’m getting older too”

I’ve been hearing his song a lot lately, it comes on the radio or appears on a playlist as if to pick a scab, poke my my inner doubts. I have always loved “Landslide” by Stevie Nicks and the lyrics are feeling more relevant than ever.  Can I handle the seasons of my life?  A great question. For a woman approaching sixty, a mother, it’s easy to tie my life’s purpose to my children, wipe tears as they leave the nest, or as an athlete to face inevitable aches or physical limitations. The challenge is to allow life-defining chapters to end, to not be afraid of changing….

My son was graduating from his MBA program this spring and heading out on new adventures. During a recent drive, I said, “This is an exciting time, but don’t forget, transitions can be unsettling.” Who was I fooling? He was no longer a little kid whose teacher needed to give me practical advice on how to guide children from one school to the next.  Maybe he needed the reminder that change can bring up fear, but in all honesty, I was speaking those words to myself.

This time of my life sometimes referred to as “bridge years,” when kids are launched and out of the house, yet we aren’t sitting in rockers knitting sweaters or playing grandma.  It’s a shoulder season nobody really prepares you for. There was a time when people retired and lived on golf and bridge at age sixty.  What if you feel too young to be old? Is it presumptuous to want more? More time? More meaning?

So much in my life feels like a transition right now, and based on my discussions with peers, I am not alone. Those of us who are fortunate to have our health and bandwidth, there is still a lot we can do, but the fear comes when trying to figure it out. We had a lot of time to think, to work up righteous indignation during the pandemic. Now the question is, will we act on those ideas? Will we seize the learnings from that major life disruption and become new people?

Like Nahshon, who is the first jew to jump into the red sea before it parts and the Egyptians are in hot pursuit, it takes a literal leap of faith to leave behind what could be very comfortable and take on a new challenge. 

I’m here to say to others who also feel nagging self-doubt, I am on the diving board.

Please join me.

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Mother’s Day is Complicated

I’m the first to recognize Mother’s Day as complicated.

Invented in 1908 by Ann Jarvis to celebrate her own mother, a Sunday School teacher and caregiver of soldiers during the Civil War, Mother’s Day was co-opted by greeting card companies by 1920 and today represents a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Despite her own campaigning for the holiday, Jarvis became disgusted with its commercialization and by 1924 was having petitions signed to rescind it. She accused florists and greeting card manufacturers of being “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.”

Still, who doesn’t enjoy being recognized with a thoughtful card or a beautiful bouquet?

mothers-day-is-complicated-woman-with-bouquet-jeanne-blasbergFor all the happy families gathering around their mothers for brunch next Sunday or celebrating her with flowers and cards, there are an equal number of people for whom the holiday brings dread and pain. I’m not talking about the eleventh-hour panic striking the hearts of fathers and kids searching for gifts that will live up to Mom’s expectations, although there is probably an essay to be written about the command-performance aspect of Mother’s Day. 

I’m talking about the year you lose a mother, or the year in which, having lost both your mother and your mother-in-law and your grandmothers, you find yourself not needing to buy any cards at all. Suddenly, the issue of commercialization doesn’t seem so important, and every card you receive (or don’t) takes on a new meaning. 

I’m talking about those Mother’s Days when maybe you’ve chosen to cease communication with your mother for months or maybe years, and despite knowing this is the best and healthiest choice for everyone, you are overcome with guilt because it seems everyone else in the world is able to have normal family relationships, that everyone else ended up with a mother who was easier to love. 

I’m talking about the pain of Mother’s Day for women who have lost children, or the pain felt by women who gave birth and surrendered their children for adoption. There are complications for stepmothers and biological mothers, surrogate mothers and motherly figures. The scenarios are endless.

mothers-day-is-complicated-pressed-flowers-jeanne-blasbergWhy am I talking about these hard and complicated Mother’s Days? It’s not because I’m trying  to be a downer. But I personally have experienced both the highs and lows of the holiday. I had a therapist with whom I spent a session expressing my anxiety over Mother’s Day and she told me that it was the most problematic holiday for so many of her patients. In a perverse way that made me feel better. I wasn’t alone in these hard and complicated feelings. For a while I imagined forming a group for all of us for whom this holiday isn’t just brunch and bouquets, the Mother’s Day Haters Club. Wanna join?

I’ll admit, it’s sort of ironic for an author obsessed with writing about motherhood to be the founder and president of the MDHC. (Not to mention an author who does a Mother’s Day giveaway of her books most every year—haha.) But then, that’s also the point. Motherhood, in all its forms, is hard and complicated. The stories I’m drawn to don’t shy away from those complications, and neither should the holiday.

Mother’s Day, I’m sure, is neither all good nor all bad for most women. A thoughtful card might land in the mailbox, or the phone might ring with a loved one calling, but it is also a day when both men and women feel loss, for people we no longer have in our lives, or people we never had in the first place. Recognizing these complications, rather than falling prey to the pressure of commercialization or perfectionistic ideals, helps us not only to be sensitive to the potential difficulties of Mother’s Day, but also to stay grounded in our approach to the true meaning of a holiday that can be quite joyous.

mothers-day-is-complicated-baby-feet-jeanne-blasbergI am so glad I made the choice to become a mother. My relationships with my children are my greatest blessings. However, Mother’s Day isn’t the one day I look to them to manifest appreciation. We have loving relationships in which nobody has to give thanks or keep score.  Their existence is enough. I hope for them, as flawed as I may be, my existence is enough. 

For me, the second Sunday in May is the perfect temperature in Rhode Island to plant my vegetable garden—or, as I wrote in a recent essay, to reconnect with Mother Earth. It is a day to be grateful, with others or alone, hands in the dirt or reading or writing. My friends and I might exchange a few texts, my husband might bring me a cup of coffee. In my life, as in my writing, I’d rather recognize the complexity of human emotion surrounding motherhood instead of letting capitalism dictate some rosy ideal of what it looks and feels like. 

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This Earth Day, Celebrate our Ultimate Mother

This essay was originally published on Medium.com.

We have a friend with a large Andy Goldsworthy sculpture on his property. It looks like a human scale beehive, exposed to the wind, rain and sun which means it’s slowly eroding…

Continue reading at Medium.com

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Small Bites of Fear Each Day

This essay was originally posted on Medium.com.

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I have started wondering why I like to ski so much. Yes, it is the beauty of the mountains, the fresh air, the social component, but it’s also because I regularly push myself. Every time I drop in somewhere steep or carve early morning turns maybe a little too fast, I take nibbles of fear. I’m not being extreme, just challenging myself enough to enter an alert state, entirely in the present.

You practice how you play, and you play how you live.

Why consume daily doses of fear like multi-vitamins? Maybe because, as a coach once told me, you practice how you play, and you play how you live. Practicing how to live alongside fear develops important muscles, the same ones you need to take any risk, to fall in love, to have a child. Traveling abroad and training for a marathon have been similar opportunities for me to flirt with fear. I credit facing those challenges with helping me write novels.

jeanne-blasberg-small-bites-of-fearI have been so enjoying keeping up with the Story Club with George Saunders. One of the latest editions of this online master writing class was titled “Joy, not Fear. Unless fear is helpful.” He writes of a peril in writing being “the disappearance of joy in the face of fear,” defining the latter as caution and the former as daring. And so as I think about that sensation to which I am addicted when I ski, the wind screaming over my helmet, it is a fine blend of anxiety and elation, and maybe it is my joy muscle that needs exercising.

Listening to a skiing podcast THE LAST CHAIR which featured Kristen Ulmer, the first and one of the greatest female extreme skiers in the world, I learned how she turned that experience into a career as a high-performance facilitator and a fear/anxiety expert. One of her pearls of wisdom was to rename fear, to be aware of a state of heightened excitement and awareness, and to not think of it as a negative, but rather to think of it as a superpower. Our relationships with fear, after all, define our lives and can stand in the way of happiness. She wrote a book called THE ART OF FEAR which is a deeper dive into the topic. And of course Lindsey Vonn’s RISE: MY STORY sounds like a great companion story, both on my TBR!

The winter Olympics have shown outstanding examples of athletes who consistently overcome…

Continue reading on Medium.com.

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Digitally Connected: Are We Keeping Track or Trapped?

This essay was originally published on Medium.com

The first time I did a long drive by myself, I was nineteen. It was 1985 and I drove from Dallas, TX back to college in Northampton, MA with a detour through Detroit (long story), a hot minute in Canada and some time in upstate New York. A cooler filled with green grapes and diet coke within arm’s reach, I nibbled the whole way and biting into a grape still brings back the smoky, beige velveteen interior of my beloved Delta 88. It was a chocolate brown Oldsmobile sedan my grandparents handed down to me. It was a car, but it was also connected to freedom.

I left Dallas in late August with some cash, a family credit card “to be used only in the event of an emergency,” and a AAA Triptik. For anyone under the age of fifty, Triptiks were little spiral bound cardboard books created especially for your journey, a nice perk of AAA membership made obsolete by GPS. After getting pulled over for speeding in Hope, AK, a sheriff took me to station and basically held me hostage until I forked over $200, either that or “called my daddy.”

My cash reserves depleted, I continued on a little jittery, nothing much left for lodging between Hope and Detroit. The only thing that soothed my nerves were grapes, an occasional cigarette and watching the odometer spin. I sang along to whatever was on the radio, flipping the pages of the Triptik. All night long thinking, just turn one more page, one more page, get within x miles of x town and then pull over and look for a motel, or a place to sleep in the car.

Years later, I’d be running on a treadmill, the metrics of my effort lit by red LED lights and I’d be connected to a similar recess of my brain, the one that said, just five more minutes, just twenty more calories, just another half mile. I am wired for these little incentives, a gerbil on her wheel, a rat in the laboratory adapting to the most boring of incentives.

jeanne-blasberg-digitally-connected-tracking-or-trappedThirty seven years later, I’m driving an SUV, basically a computer on wheels from Westerly, RI to Park City, UT with detours in Madison WI and Denver (long story) and each day I set my destination in the WAZE app on my phone and take pleasure in the miles whittling away, the ETA getting closer to the time on the clock display.

And when I check in to my Residence Inn with two dogs, their food, my smoothie fixings, a yoga mat and a foam roller, it hits home how so much of my life has changed, but then again hasn’t. When it’s just me and the road and the thoughts in my head, I could be any age. But I don’t need a Triptek anymore, and I have enough funds to stay in hotels. But that endurance mindset is still with me, only now I’m hooked up to devices—constantly connected. It hits home just how hooked up I’ve become, because I’m carrying all these god damned chargers! Most notably for my Apple watch and my Oura ring which have cemented me in a permanent laboratory rat mentality — what kind of sleep score will I have tonight? How much REM sleep, where will my heart rate settle? Need to get my steps in somehow, wonder how my recovery will be?

Am I alone in being motivated by this stuff? …

Continue reading on Medium.com.

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Wishing You Less in 2022: What’s Your New Years Priority?

As we move toward another new year, I’m considering what’s a priority. On a recent Saturday afternoon, my husband and I were walking in Boston’s Back Bay and shared a stunned expression. We had a free afternoon in front of us. No plans or commitments – I hadn’t felt like that for about twenty-five years. What were we forgetting? 

It certainly had something to do with a COVID variant cancelling plans, our kids moving on, and parents passing. We had spent so many years as that middle generation, sandwiched between our kids’ needs and activities (which were often very fun, don’t get me wrong) and spending time with our parents (also a blessing). Now that those two slices of bread are gone, we’re just a piece of cheese and a slice of turkey coated in mayonnaise, looking around and wondering what to do.

Maybe it’s not a great metaphor for a couple of vegans, but it’s a fun one! And it’s apt for the crossroads we’ve found ourselves at. The easy solution would be to find something new to be our bread. Or perhaps to try out a substitute—a bun or a tortilla. But the upheaval of the past few years has also taught us to value simplicity, adaptability, and inventiveness. Now, instead of reaching immediately for something to add to our lives, we find ourselves pausing to consider. We wonder: what we might become without any bread at all?

I’ve written previously about reassessing just about everything during the pandemic, the most significant of which was our family home in Boston. We ended up selling it this summer along with almost everything inside. These days, when people ask me if I miss it terribly, I tell them what I do miss is my kids being in elementary school and middle school, all the running up and down the stairs, dinners around the dining room table, them doing homework at the kitchen table while I cooked and quizzed them on vocab. If I can’t get those years back, then I am okay letting go of the house. Downsizing is what people do when they get older; they simplify.  However, I would advise people of any age to wake up each morning and choose who and what they want to keep in their lives.  

essentialism-greg-mckeown-book-review-jeanne-blasbergIn Greg McKeown’s recent book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, he highlights how much energy can be redirected to the pursuit of our highest priority when energy being spent on “non-essential” issues or tasks is cut back or cut off entirely. (In other words, there’s no need to keep a toaster or a panini press when your bread has flown the coop!) There was a time when I said yes to too much, so while you might not really need a book to help you say no, it is affirming to see best-selling books espouse this movement. 

While I’m plugging motivational books, another one that has made an impact on how I think recently is called The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks. It can’t really be summed up in a simple prescription, but the gist is training the brain (mine had defaulted to worry mode) to extend periods of contentment. Human beings are wired to self-sabotage when things are going too well for too long because of an inner fear or feeling fundamentally flawed or undeserving. The goal is to shed those shackles and allow things to go well all the time, the pursuit of a life full of creativity and joy and discovery in the genius zone.  Although these two books weren’t suggested by the same person or at the same time, there’s something to be said for the synchronicity of picking up simultaneously at a time when they spoke to me. 

big-leap-gay-hendricks-book-review-jeanne-blasbergA funny aside in McKeown’s book is that at its conception, the word priority was intended to describe the single most important thing in one’s life. It has only been in the last hundred years that priority was made plural and it became acceptable for people and organizations to have multiple priorities. 

Tempting as it may be to turn back the clock on this particular linguistic shift, the truth is it’s unreasonable to expect ourselves to whittle our contemporary lives down to a single priority—no matter how devoted we may be to minimalism and downsizing

Perhaps in other times and places, the various aspects of our lives were more unified. We farmed to survive. We lived where we worked. The whole family was in it together. But despite the recent shift, for many, toward work-from-home, the spheres of our lives are no longer so intertwined, and often we find ourselves pulled between them. 

So maybe the plural priorities isn’t going away any time soon. But understanding this etymology can be a reminder to ourselves that plural doesn’t have to mean infinite. We can place limits on our lists. Perhaps it would be more realistic to suggest focusing on a single priority in each main area of life. Some people might take the “4 burners” approach: family, friends, work, and health. Personally, I like the idea of three focus points. 

For the foreseeable future, these are mine:

  1. My family
  2. My writing/artistic life
  3. Investing in regenerative agriculture

What is this agricultural interest on your list, you might ask? Am I reverting to that all-inclusive farm life after all? Stay tuned and suffice it to say that it’ll be a great story. But throw it also in the bucket of assessing our lives, deciding we have another big chapter left to complete and one priority we have is leaving the planet a better place. 

jeanne-blasberg-grey-1928-priority-sweaterTomorrow I begin driving to Madison, WI, then through Iowa and Nebraska to Denver, Colorado and ultimately to our new home in Park City, UT. Packing was simple because I don’t need much. (Lessons learned from #vanlife with our daughter.) My husband gave me the greatest sweater for Hanukah, the numbers 1928 splayed across its front. That number is special to me so I see it as good luck, a connection to loved ones, and just pretty damned cool that he found it in a store and snatched it up knowing it was meant for me. That is love. It means so much to me I told my husband I will likely wear it everyday of the entire winter, so that solves a lot of fashion questions. I guess that makes it my single priority sweater! 

This year has been all about cutting back, revising. In fact, I just sent a major revision of my novel-in-progress to my fellowship mentor at Bookends which has been an incredible experience to date. But the revisioning doesn’t end there. As writers, we learn that a new draft means completely re-seeing what’s come before, sometimes letting go of old ideas and plot threads, sometimes whittling away the words that bog it down. The same practice has imbued my life outside of writing. 

This next cross-country journey (including all the side-winding) would not have been possible if we hadn’t let go of that which was holding us back. Embracing new dreams, reinvention, call it what you want, it is a powerful drug.

So as this breadless cheese and turkey pair face the future hand in hand, we’re no longer thinking, how do we fill in the gaps to go back to being a sandwich? These days, we’re wondering what we could become with everything else stripped away. Might we melt ourselves into a casserole or roll up into a roulade? How can we highlight the ingredients we already have, rather than overpowering them? No matter what we make of it, we’re facing the future a bit lighter, a bit less, and with plenty of room for levity, possibility, and hope.

I’m looking forward to the report I’ll write from the other side!!

 

Wishing everyone safe travels in the new year along with peace and good health and freedom from your clutter.

Taking it on The Road (part three) Mother / Daughter #vanlife

This essay was originally published on Medium.com 

A week after selling our home of twenty years, the house in which we raised a family (and collected generations worth of bric-a-brac), I exercised my first expression of freedom — three weeks in the Pacific Northwest with our daughter, Annie. I wanted to gain a glimpse into the #vanlife existence she’d been living for the past year.

She has all you need in that van, even a little library of books written by great authors who took to the road. She relayed a pertinent quote from Suleika Jaouad’s wonderful memoir BETWEEN TWO KINGDOMS on one of our hikes, “Every trip has three parts — preparing and packing for the trip, the trip itself, and the memories of the trip.” As far as prepping went, I didn’t do a great job. I was so focused on moving, the closing, and then getting my hands on her, I didn’t even research the places she’d be taking me. I flew to Portland, OR in a whirlwind where she picked me up with a full refrigerator and a well-researched itinerary. The trip was incredible (see all the photos). But ever since returning on August 27, my reflections have only intensified. It was the type of experience that demanded meaning making and an assessment of lessons learned. When people asked — how was your trip? I gave a very superficial “great!” But hopefully this post scratches a little deeper beneath the surface.

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Returning East: Road Trip as Art Across America

This essay was originally published on Medium.com under the title “Returning East: Lessons Learned on a Pandemic Road Trip.”

Whereas our trek West as our road trip began in January had been motivated by the urgent need to arrive, our return trip was intentionally drawn out, our desire to avoid returning to reality for as long as possible. We budgeted two weeks for our drive from Park City, UT to Boston, MA. Two weeks in which to traverse this strange, beautiful country. Two weeks in which to reroot ourselves in family — visit my grandparents’ graves in Oklahoma City, bring our son home for a holiday weekend. Two weeks in which to say goodbye to “Out West,” home of our ski bum test run, and prepare ourselves for a return to city life.

Before I delve too deeply into the drive, I want to reiterate how healing the trip was in general. I recently read an article by the Urban Monk regarding brain plasticity. The idea is that patterns are stuck in our brain, both healthy habits and unhealthy habits, both beneficial ways of thinking and destructive ways of thinking. Trauma can get stuck in our brains. But the good news is that it doesn’t need to be permanently stuck because our brains are plastic with the ability to change. Traveling somewhere new is an exercise to gain greater brain plasticity. I truly believe that all of our stops and having to figure out new places on this road trip kept me in the present moment, changing my brain’s dependance on routine, the auto-pilot sensation that came with so many months of being at home.

The beginning of our drive “back East” brought us perhaps the most important road trip lesson of all: sometimes the best experience is the one that wasn’t even on your itinerary.

As March 2021 drew to a close and April opened before us it was time to go home. We would find ourselves in St Louis, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, New York — cities of ever-expanding population that pulled us inevitably back toward our urban existence. Our days were no longer spent marveling at mountains or exploring personal and national histories, but working in Marriotts and replenishing the food stores that would get us from one Zoom meeting to the next. It was a stark change from the silence of our snowy walking paths. But before we arrived at our destination, we had a few more things to learn from the mountains, deserts, and prairies along the way. The beginning of our drive “back East” brought us perhaps the most important road trip lesson of all: sometimes the best experience is the one that wasn’t even on your itinerary.

jeanne-blasberg-park-city-utah-returning-east-pandemic-road-tripWe left Park City on March 20th, with an itinerary that would take us through some of the most lauded locales of the Southwest. Our first stop was Zion National Park where we’d elected to try “glamping” at Under Canvas, yet one more chance, we thought, to commune with the nature that had been so influential to us throughout the winter. But glamping, it turns out, isn’t all that glam with the March chill creeping in and two dogs demanding our attention. The wood burning stoves might’ve kept the cold at bay, but the need to refill them every 90 minutes or so led to something of a sleepless night.

In the park, we found that COVID restrictions required sightseers to enter the park by bus. Tickets were only a dollar, but sold daily on a lottery basis — so basically impossible to get. Luckily we learned that one could access the park by bike, and our time at Zion was saved by cycling into the incredible scenery.

jeanne-blasberg-arizona-with-husband-and-dogs-returning-east-pandemic-road-trip(One other travel hack we learned about was Rover.com. Dogs are not allowed inside most National Parks, but the Rover app helped us find wonderful dog sitters in nearby towns so that our dogs could be well-looked after while we were biking or hiking. I kept this app on my phone and have now used it all over the country. I would say that it is great for daycare, but I haven’t had such good luck with walking or boarding services on the app.)

Our fortunes continued to improve as we left Zion and drove south through the Grand Canyon toward Flagstaff. It was a beautiful, desolate drive and John and I were just overwhelmed by the expanse of land, the solitude and the beauty. Red earth, plateaus, long stretches of nothing but orange and auburn bright against blue sky. We crossed the Colorado river close to Lee’s Ferry and Lake Powell, stopped at the bridge to buy some great books from a small gift shop — Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and David Gessner, place-based writers emblematic of the American West. Interestingly, all three of these writers also had strong connections back East, Gessner originally from Boston. I was in good company, it seemed, among writers deeply affected by the landscape that now surrounded us.

jeanne-blasberg-american-west-red-rocks-blue-sky-returning-east-pandemic-road-tripFrom Flagstaff we drove to Santa Fe. Departing Arizona and heading into New Mexico continued our experiential lesson in expansiveness. The desert really felt deserted. It was nerve wracking, but also extremely beautiful. There was always this fear just below the surface — what if we were to break down here? How would we ever get help? For a city person to drive through hours and hours of nothing is quite something. Accustomed to 24/7 road side assistance, the ability to order anything and receive it quickly, the lack of apparent help or support in the event of danger took us back to an earlier era of self-reliance. With a survivalist’s frame of mind, the red rocks and landscape were more than a beautiful backdrop. They spoke to me, “We are more than just iconic scenery, you must live to tell about it. You must have gas, you must have water, you must know how to repair your own car.” The thrill of the road trip was wrapped up in the beauty, for sure, but making it through to the other side felt brave and like an accomplishment too.

Closures and vacancies due to COVID were evident all over New Mexico, but the landscape as we approached the civilization of Albuquerque was a balm for two easterners not ready to let go of big sky, aridness, and an early taste of spring. Despite all the major museums being closed in Santa Fe, galleries were open, and the Saturday we were there, we were treated to perfect weather in which to walk and take in the town. We meandered through the galleries in the Santa Fe Railyard where there was a lively outdoor market and contemporary art museum. We were attracted to the large oil paintings in one gallery, canvases painted with photographic realism, and when I asked the owner if it was okay to bring our dogs in, she brightened.

“Of course, just about every gallery in Santa Fe is dog friendly.”

Our Australian Labradoodle and long haired Dachsund never fail to be conversation starters.

“Where y’all from?”

When we explained we were from Boston, and in the midst of our drive East, the gallery owner was quick to ask if we planned to visit Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, AK on our way.

I was a little embarrassed to admit that after Santa Fe and a stop in Oklahoma City to pay respects at the gravesites of my grandparents, I hadn’t plotted out our road trip journey with much intention. But upon checking the map and seeing it wasn’t too far out of the way, we decided her mentioning it was a sign we should head there. Turns out it would actually encapsulate our experience.

We had a wonderful 24 hours in Santa Fe, where we stayed in the room at the La Posada hotel where the former mistress of the property, Julia Staab, went crazy and killed herself and is known to haunt hotel guests. I immediately ordered American Ghost a book written about Julia by her great-great-granddaughter and was incredibly edifying with regard to the town’s first and most prominent Jewish family.

From there we made our way to Amarillo TX, reading about Julia’s clan as well as well known Santa Fe artists like Georgia O’Keefe as well as Edgar Lee Hewitt and “The Eight,” artists who would frequent Santa Fe during the early part of the Twentieth Century, putting it on the map as an artist’s colony. Their art attracted funds and tourism to Santa Fe but was also responsible for portraying a romanticized view of the American West and Native Americans to patrons on the East coast. Much of this art was responsible for the misrepresenting the reality of that life, where Native Americans lived in robust communities and were not lone unicorns, not savages or curiosities.

When finally, we pulled off I-40 in Amarillo to see Cadillac Ranch, it seemed art, or at least color would be the overriding theme of our journey. This long row of Cadillacs half buried in a rancher’s land is spray painted over by tourists on a daily if not hourly basis. We arrived at dusk with the row of cars set off by a blue sky turning periwinkle and springtime green of grass. If we felt like we’d begun to appreciate the wild art of the American landscape, we had much more in store.

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Walton family patronage has made Bentonville an oasis of art and education. Crystal Bridges, one result of that patronage, is a museum of American Art, but not just any museum. There, exhibits are hung thematically as opposed to chronologically or by culture, resulting in a viewing experience set apart from that of any other art museum I’ve visited — and a commensurate level of appreciation on my part. Wouldn’t you know a place that we hadn’t originally planned on our road trip was the highlight and took the theme of experiential art, sculpture, painting and architecture to a new level.

Crystal Bridges’ curation provided a critical commentary on the approach taken by exhibitions such as those once hung by “The Eight” of the Santa Fe School in the early part of the Twentieth Century. At Crystal Bridges, traditional American art was hung alongside Native American art and African American art of similar time periods offering a more complete and complex picture of historical periods and for me highlighted the bias of the white lens through which many museums are curated. It was a timely lesson, completely in line with what I was learning in DEI training I was doing around anti-racist approaches art and cultural institutions should take. Something about being in Arkansas was liberating, maybe freeing the curators and educators there from an East Coast, “Old School,” point of view with regard to telling American stories. I so appreciated our time in this museum. It felt like the curators at Crystal Bridges were really on to a new way of hanging art and educating the public.

John and I spent an afternoon and the following morning at the museum and its gardens. The architecture and sculpture in its acres of gardens being a true part of the experience. In addition, flowers and trees were in bloom in late March, it was mild, we were being treated to another phase of spring and the natural world awakening. A quick check of the weather app on my phone told me this was not what was waiting for us in the Northeast.

jeanne-blasberg-crystal-bridges-american-art-museum-sculpture-garden-returning-east-pandemic-road-tripAs we drove out of Arkansas, we listened to Alice Walton’s audio guide of her collection, which further emphasized what we had felt walking through the galleries. Wow. She was not a woman raised on museums or with an Art History education. She learned much as a collector and had a very intuitive and contemporary take on what she purchased for the museum. She had expert advice yes, but she collected with a desire to have strong female representation and to represent artists with differing perspectives. For this Art History student from Smith College, raised on our American cities’ major museums and the great European masters, her point of view was not only refreshing but electrifying.

After Crystal Bridges, our road trip began its turn toward reality. The wide distances of the desert were filled first with grasses, then with trees, and finally with the concrete, cars, and apartment buildings of our city slicker life, an architecture and a lifestyle far less connected to the land. Still, the drive home was incredibly stimulating and took our minds off of the work we had in front of us. Taking our cue from road trip lessons, we had decided that after raising our family in Boston, it was time to sell the home our children no longer inhabited. It was just too big for the two of us, too much to keep up with. We felt ready to part with much of our stuff. Living in Air BnB’s and out of a car for 6 months can have that effect on you. In letting go of the surroundings we’d carefully curated over 20 years in Boston, we freed ourselves to see more clearly the beauty of the art objects all around us, and it was an experience we wanted more of.

jeanne-blasberg-beacon-hill-boston-spring-returning-east-pandemic-road-tripWe’ve been back in Boston for three months now, and I miss the red rock, the Ozarks, the mild weather, the unexpectedness. As I write this most of that landscape is in the midst of a drought and record heat wave. I think about the expanse of desert in such extreme conditions and I worry about the lack of water. I wonder if our potential relocation west would add to the problem of this fragile landscape or if we could settle with sensitivity, with appreciation, and a desire to do no harm?

As I write this our Boston home is under contract, with a closing in little over a month. I am purging our belongings, letting go. Things are slowly falling into place. I credit our drive out and back as the catalyst for our transformation, a literal change to my brain’s wiring. To see and feel the distance was important; to see the beauty, endlessly affecting. It’s something architects know, and sculptors: the profound impact our surroundings have on us, the undeniable impact of relationships of space. I think it spoke to two people used to crowded urban centers — it said, there is more room than you think, more opportunity, possibility for a change, even in a pandemic, even in a drought, even at your age. I’m so glad we took the time to listen.

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Our Road Trip and Tips for Yours

This essay originally appeared on Medium.com

Read more of Jeannie’s Essays on her blog, at Medium.com, and across the web—and check out her book reviews at the New York Journal of Books, or on Goodreads.

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The Value of a Grown-Up Gap Year

This essay was originally published in the Travel section of Moms Don’t Have Time To as “The Value of a Grown-Up Gap Year.”

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