Monday, April 09, 2018

ABC Post 9--Traveling, Tea, and Coming Home

My Letter from Harrisburg article will do double duty as April's newspaper column and today's April Blogging Challenge post.

Traveling brings sweet returns

In a few days I’ll be at a church camp in Montana where the paths are muddy and the bathrooms won’t be conveniently located. I’m taking a coat and boots since a “snow event” is predicted and also NyQuil and cough drops, just in case, since I’m giving four speeches. I can’t count on having phone or Internet service there in the mountains.

I can’t wait.

In a week, I’ll be home again, making a pot of perfect black tea in my own kitchen, looking out over the budding lilacs and Powerline Road as I sip from my favorite cup.

I can hardly wait for that either.

I travel more than most Mennonite women, I’m guessing, because I speak at retreats and conferences at least twice a year. Also, we live on the West Coast, which is a long way from everywhere, and most of my family members live more than 1,500 miles away.

The last couple of years have included one women’s retreat in Colorado and one in Indiana, a wedding in Utah, my dad’s 100th birthday party in Minnesota, a Christian school conference in Pennsylvania, a visit to my uncle in Kansas, and two trips to Virginia — one for a writers’ conference and another for a vacation with my two sisters.

I’ve somehow stayed awake for many 3 a.m. drives to Portland, listening to NPR. I’ve dragged huge suitcases full of books onto shuttles and out to rental car parking lots and even into the restrooms at the far end of the baggage claim area on the lower level at the Portland airport, since those are the most convenient facilities before the check-in counters.

I’ve made the same sort of early morning drive from central Minnesota to the Twin Cities, in bitter cold, through one small town after another, where the only radio stations are Catholic Answers and droned reports of hog and cattle prices. There are no coffee stands to be found anywhere, and it is often 50 miles before the next open gas station.

Despite all the inconvenience of travel, all the discomfort of sleeping on airplanes, all the stress of gate changes and late flights and bad weather and pushing on through the night on Interstate 80 through Nebraska, I love to travel. It feeds a deep curiosity and is always full of surprises.

Most places are not like Oregon.

The horizons are level in the Midwest and the houses are older in Virginia. At gas stations in the South, I’ve opened the lids on hot stainless steel kettles and looked at the boiled peanuts floating there, soggy and a bit slimy, but I have never had the courage to eat them.

Women from isolated churches in the West are tougher and less inhibited than women from large and long-established Mennonite communities in the East, I’ve found. The accents are different everywhere, the word choices, the priorities, the food, even the shade of green in the trees.

Road signs in South Carolina say, “Have Pride. Don’t Litter.” In Minnesota, signs at a one-lane bridge read simply, “Take Turns.”

Battlefield memorials and historical plaques show up everywhere on the East Coast. I couldn’t find separate garbage cans for recyclables at the Raleigh-Durham airport. People get upset if you eat in the Metro stations in Washington, D.C., for fear that dropped crumbs will draw rats. They don’t want to be like New York City.

Kansas and Oklahoma have winds like you’ve never experienced before, dry and steady and strong, slamming your car doors shut and whipping your skirts about with shocking impertinence.

I’m told my hellos and goodbyes are too abrupt for parts of the country, with not enough chitchat about the weather or meaningless inquiring after everyone’s health. If you want to fit in, in Minnesota, you act nonchalant about 20 degrees below zero with 30 mph gusts of wind.

Travel is a great teacher, making you sit back and watch and learn. Going to a new place makes you feel different and a bit left out, as we all ought to feel, now and then, in doses just large enough to make us welcoming to strangers who show up in Oregon and don’t know how to order a latte or return a soda can.

In spite of the many benefits of travel, I always try to bring a bit of familiarity with me in the form of hot black tea.

At houses, camps, dormitories, airport terminals, motels and churches, I’ve unpacked my travel-sized electric kettle, a tin of loose black tea, and my slightly dented but non-breakable stainless steel teapot, and I’ve mixed boiling water and a scoop of pungent black tea for a comforting taste of home.

More often than not, it is a disappointing exercise. The water is full of minerals and tastes of sulfur or the cup of tea has a disturbing, barely visible film shimmering on top, or the leaves won’t release their flavor and the tea is weak and tasteless.

So I resort to coffee instead, its robust flavor better able to overpower the oddities of local water variations.

Then I count the days and nights until I can be at home again, in pajamas in the dim morning light, with cats and daughters slowly waking up, brewing tea in my own warm kitchen, with the freshest and best water in the whole world.

“Do you like doing this sort of thing?” my daughter Emily asked me when I was about to leave for a speaking engagement in Pennsylvania in January.

I said, “To be honest, I’m already thinking, ‘Only one more week and I’ll be home again.’ ”

My husband turned to Emily and said, “I think she goes away just for the thrill of looking forward to coming home.”

Invariably, after a few months have passed in which I’ve caught up with laundry, organized my sewing patterns, and cleaned the pantries, a tiny restlessness emerges, a sense of places calling.

When the email or letter or phone call arrives with the invitation to attend or speak or help, I’m ready to say yes.

So the endless push and pull continues. New places call me to discover them, and home calls me back to the loved and familiar. I would never want all one or the other.

A perfect pot of tea is all the more appreciated after a week of coffee, my family is more precious after seeing hundreds of new faces, and after I’ve seen deserts and cornfields and kudzu, the oak trees along Muddy Creek in the summer are always obligingly heavy with the precise green color of home.


  1. I would love to go to a conference where you are speaking. Do you ever come to Arizona?

    1. I've never been asked to speak in Arizona, but I would probably say yes if I were asked and it fit my schedule.

  2. I'm just finishing my first winter in Minnesota, after seven years in southern Iowa. I've lived in and traveled to many places also and recognize the familiar pull of new places and the call of home familiarity. Your way with words is so much better than mine. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I agree so much about the water. We have a 275 foot deep well with water so good that friends come and haul it home in gallon jugs. There is no equal to it anywhere we go.

  4. "I think she goes away just for the thrill of looking forward to coming home.” much yes! We've been gone for a week. I am so anxious to get back home!

  5. I don't think IdI want to try to fit in in Minnesota... 😉 And I agree that you brew the perfect pot of tea. There's something quietly joyful about it. Or maybe that's the caffeine. 😄

    1. *I'd Why can't one edit comments on here?

    2. Thank you, Dolly! I like to add a pinch of joy to ever pot of tea.

  6. This is an excellent post. The only thing I'd like to add would be, please muster up the courage to try the boiled peanuts. They sound and look bizarre, but they taste delicious. :)

  7. Home, is where the Army sends us. I'm leaning that home is wherever my husband and daughter are. Don't get too attached to one state or country because we will just move in two or three years. It's nice to know that God is always with us when we move.