This is my first winter in Iowa. My first winter with snow. My first winter in the Midwest.
Yeah, I have the blahs. The grumpiness, the lethargy, at times even the despair. I once heard vertigo described as “the insuperable longing to fall,” and there’s something about this cold, bare winter that pushes me down. Down into the deep mud of the primordial Iowa inland sea.
Where are the flowers? Sleeping, someone said, but I have yet to see their return and doubt it, as I doubted that all the leaves would return to the trees last spring. Show me. I haven’t seen it yet. Where are the birds? Just the little brown ones come to my feeders, only occasionally a bright red cardinal. The large nests of bundled sticks way up in the trees are not for crows (or storks) as I once thought, but for the towns’s healthy population of feisty squirrels.
As in Game of Thrones, I heard earlier this year: “You’re in for a REAL WINTER,” said with a smile and barely contained schadenfreude. Subtext – candy-ass California girl is going to suffer with our big, bad Iowa winter.
But I am not a soft Cali girl, not the Beach Boys variety at all. I lived up a dirt road, foraged for wood for my stove, drove over fallen trees, harvested my friend’s crops, and chopped off rattlesnakes’ heads with my shovel. I watched fires burn right up to my house in summer, and drank vodka with my Swedish neighbors in winter, hiking home in the rain and mud.
I waited for the landscape of the town to change, and it did! Last night my winter blahs became winter wonder. Freshly fallen snow sparkles with some kind of celestial twinkly light. Who knew? That evening my husband and I ventured forth, the hard whiteness crunching under our feet, then drove to the superb local Sushi restaurant. There, as we watched the snow continue to fall, we feasted on sweet rice balls, and tuna and crab rolls with extra wasabi. All washed down with cups of warm sake. (So much for Dry January.)
Fairfield’s trees reach up to the sky, like bony hands, or branching arteries. At night the spinning stars and planets shine through. If you’re serious and bundle up, you can gaze at them outside, for a few minutes anyway. Green comet, anyone? Last night, someone painted branches of the lovely old oaks, maples and cottonwoods with ribbons of white, highlighting their gracious arcs and curves. Rooftops recall fairy tales, with sheets of white icing coming down to their eaves.
Snow here makes the whole town prettier, like an old-time Christmas postcard. It justifies my sitting at my desk, writing and nibbling on cookies. Or reading Melville’s Moby Dick beside the fireplace. Shoveling just a bit of ice off the sidewalk this morning was refreshing. The quiet of snowfall is poetic, tranquil.
By focusing consistently on what we are grateful for we can make so many of life’s disappointments fade away. It’s a practice for me, and one which the Stoics would approve…
When we spoke with the young man who drove our rental truck two thousand miles from Big Sur to here, we asked him what his experience was driving large vehicles long distance. He told us his stories of expeditions to Burning Man.
Suitably impressed, we told him about Fairfield, the Maharishi Transcendental Meditation community, the Golden Domes of Pure Knowledge, the many ethnic restaurants, the farmer’s market, and the 16-mile loop trail that circles the town of about 10,000 souls.
“It’s like Burning Man,” we said, “but for old folks!” Which got a laugh, and is somewhat true. There is a thriving bunch of active retired folks here, but Fairfield also has lots of young families with little kids, university students, artists, farmers, professional people, a real small town demographic.
“The sky is our ocean,” said a new friend. When we drive out of town, down the nearly empty highways, we see this sky-ocean, sometimes baby blue, sometimes steel gray, always changing. A huge palette in the sky, clouds painted in broad strokes by the ever-present winds.
Now, in May, the land is truly beautiful, with endless, patient crop fields not yet planted, abundant forests, gardens and hedgerows, and the expansive Skunk River, where I half-expect Huckleberry Finn to float by on a raft.
Still, sadness lingers, ebbs away and crashes back. Driving up to Iowa City, I asked my husband, “Where’s the edge? Where’s the edge?” There’s no jumping off place, no escape. “There is no edge, sweetie,” he said, “we’re in the middle.”
The middle. Swaddled in miles and miles of Mother Earth. When we would look at Google earth before our move, we’d see the golds and greens of the continent up to the Pacific Northwest, the ochre and sepia of the western deserts and mountains, then the emerald tones of the Heartland. I told myself we were moving from the ragged coast to the soft, enfolding center of the continent.
On the coast Mother Earth dares us to maintain our balance, and keeps us on our tippy toes. Here, she holds us close, she seems more peaceful. She lulls us with endless storybook clouds, and the kind of landscape that must have inspired that childhood Rorschach – drawings of a house, a yard, a tree, the sun. Again and again, in village after village nestled between farms.
Iowa is dramatic land, too. It’s dramatic in its stillness, its endless vast flatness (and rolling hills), its timeless quality. And of course, snow, which is still a novelty for me. Then, there’s tornadoes. Wooooo boy. Our sweet realtors told us that Fairfield isn’t really part of “tornado alley,” which has occasioned a guffaw or two from folks we’ve met. Another part of the adventure.
Did tea-kettle topped grain silos inspire the Tin Man’s hat in the Wizard of Oz? A sensational amount of corn is grown here: approximately 13 million acres of it, yielding 128 billion pounds of “field corn” (used mostly for animal feed and ethanol production) each year. Iowa grows more maíz than Mexico. The rich seas of soil in this hardworking land bring an agrarian sensibility to the culture. You can see this from the front porch to the farmer’s market, from the county fairs to the monster silos beside the highways.
Perhaps because of the cold winters, social relating is a highly developed art form. I’ve found there are many storytellers here, with lots of quick, dry wit. Standing in line with my new pitchfork at the farm store, the older gent behind me said, “She’s either got some digging to do, or her husband’s in trouble!”
I loved learning from my neighbor that the delicate silver maple leaf pods that flutter to the ground like spinning butterflies, are known as “maple squirters.” When they’re green, kids squeeze them, and, as you guessed, the seeds pop out.
Another passionate pastime is birdwatching. On a cold morning right before Easter I trudged through the melting snow with several women of all ages and some adorable girl scouts, looking for newly arriving birds. It felt like an Easter egg hunt, as we searched for and spotted the beauties. We saw all kinds, from red-wing blackbirds, eastern phoebes and tufted titmice to dashing scarlet cardinals and the elusive white-breasted nuthatch. Even a wood-duck emerged from its box in the lagoon.
When I asked the group leader, a round lady in her later years, what kind of bird she would be, she replied immediately, “A sparrow, for its subtle beauty.”
And I’d like to thank Bob Dylan, for (another) gem of wisdom. He’s chosen Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the home of his just-opened Bob Dylan Center in the Tulsa arts district. When asked, why Tulsa? he replied that, while the coasts have a certain energy, he prefers, “the casual hum of the Heartland.” Thanks Bob! I’m starting to like that hum too.
Each Spring, for the past two decades, we’ve hosted a flamboyant neighborhood festival, the Eggstravaganza Easter Egg Hunt, on the Lone Palm property we caretake in Big Sur.
It began on a rainy weekend in 1999, at the bridal shower I hosted for my dear friend Margaret. Margaret could bake pies, sew wedding dresses, paint landscapes, knit elaborate sweaters, and be glamorous, too. I can still see her in her floppy straw hat, wearing the sweater she’d knitted herself. She swings her Easter basket back and forth, her banjo-big blue eyes smiling, the coast stretching out behind her to the south, the silver gray ocean reaching out to the horizon. She sealed her nuptials later that April under the wedding tree, after riding a snow-white Arabian horse, adorned with red ribbons and pink roses, across the meadow.
That bridal egg hunt got me thinking. It’s much easier to connect with neighbors in springtime than to host a Christmas party when big storms cause power outages and impassable roads. The eccentric, sturdy folks who live on this mountain sometimes disagree – over water use, access roads, fence placement, outdoor lights, short-term rentals, controlled burns and more. But a truce is declared for those who attend the Eggstravaganza on Easter Sunday.
We are Switzerland, as one neighbor said, as we watch toddlers, young children and teens search for chocolate bunnies across fields of wildflowers and freshly-mown lawns. Each year I hope to create an experience that lives in communal memory until the following Spring. Over the years, as we watch the children grow and play, there’s a sense of continuity along with wonder. Sometimes, we can return to the garden.
The story of The Selfish Giant, written by Oscar Wilde for his two young boys, inspired the Eggstravaganza, too. A very selfish Giant returns from a year long visit with this friend, the Ogre. Outraged, the Giant throws the village children out of his garden, where they have been playing every day after school. When Winter comes, Winter decides to stay, and invites Snow, Frost and the North Wind to join the party. For years the Giant wonders why the flower and fruit trees don’t bloom, why Spring never comes back.
One day he sees that his fence has fallen down in one corner of his orchard and the children have returned. They sit happily in the branches of the trees, they skip and play along the paths. Spring has returned, the birds are singing, and all the fruit trees and flowers have burst into bloom. The Giant’s heart melts and he decides to share his garden from then on, knocking down the fence and welcoming all the children. “I’ve been a very selfish giant,” he laments. In this way, the Giant is fulfilled. His should grows wiser and kinder as the children become his friends and enjoy his garden for many years.
Bringing happiness to others makes us joyful, and as our hearts open the world is more beautiful. In this way we create a life that flows with love.
We can trace the origin of Easter to the Saxon goddess Ostara. She transformed a bird into a hare, and it thanked her by laying a batch of colored eggs. Seriously, that is the story! The celebration is also related to Ishtar, the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, who came back to life from the dead, a seasonal theme. Special celebrations for Ishtar took place around the spring equinox. Eggs are also a ancient symbol of procreation and abundance.
What do bunnies do? What humans used to do in a pagan festival a little later in the Spring. At Beltane in ancient Celtic lands, villagers built great bonfires, herded cattle into higher pastures, drank copious mead, danced, and, like the proverbial bunnies, swapped sex partners. A child born from the Beltane celebration was a good omen for the community.
“What’s Easter about?” asked my friend Lisa years ago. She’d been raised Jehovah’s Witness and was curious about all the holidays. “It’s about Beltane, babe,” I replied and explained the ritual to her. “Oh!” she sighed beneath her Easter bonnet as we trudged through the meadow, hiding eggs. “Let’s do that!”
Spring is when Lone Palm’s lawns, elegant old trees and landscaping really shine. There’s golden poppy, raspberry vetch, yellow lavender and purple lupin on the hillside above the house. Daisies, daffodils and birds of paradise burst forth, wisteria and jasmine festoon the garden. It’s a perfect time for colored eggs, Easter bonnets and champagne flutes filled with jelly beans.
On Easter Sunday we frolic on the lawns, swing in the hammocks, mingle at the picnic table or on the yoga deck. Whales spout in the ocean below, curious condors swing by above. One year, we even had face painting. Kids and adults sprawled on the blankets on the grass as playful artists decorated their foreheads, noses and cheeks with multi-colored tendrils, arrows, dots and feathery shapes. We became a tribe of Easter aboriginals.
It’s always a potluck, thank goodness. The dining room table fills and empties, then fills and empties again throughout the day. One year I counted six plates of deviled eggs on the table at once. There’s a variety of salads, often from greens straight from neighbors’ gardens, multiple kale dishes, pasta and lasagna, wheels of brie, baskets of crackers and homemade bread, slices of roast beef and ham, spicy tamales, Bundt cakes, elaborate pastries, fresh watermelon and mango, and more.
Guests are asked to bring “nice bubbles.” In other words, no Barefoot Bubbly! If someone brings something cheap, eyebrows go up and sniffs are audible. We may be hillbillies, but we know our sparkling wines. One year we filled a small claw-foot with bottles of Champagne, the colorful labels on the bottles making the tub as pretty as a basket of Easter Eggs.
There is a home-grown innovation to the ritual: a champagne glass hunt. Those over 21, in order to have a glass of bubbles on Easter Sunday, must first go and find their goblet in the grass. Sometimes, this makes grown-ups grumpy. “What do I do to get some Champagne, again?” said an exasperated Dad who the following year simply brought his own glass.
A decade or so ago it was an all-weekend bash, beginning on Friday night as guest arrived to help with preparations. Stalwart Moms, notably Margaret and then Peggy, have made so much of the magic happen! Handmade glitter eggs and vintage tchotchkes from the Oakland Museum’s White Elephant sale, candies galore. We’d dye the eggs the old-fashioned way all day Saturday and get up super early on Easter Sunday morning to stage the hunt, before the littler kids woke up or arrived. We’d start drinking the good Champagne early in the day, with poetic toasts, or course.
As in any ongoing human activity, things sometimes got complicated. One year the “Bad Easter Bunny” appeared and handed out airplane-sized liquor bottles and bright colored condoms, which the kids blew up into balloons. Surprisingly, not everyone thought that was funny. “What’s the difference between a condom and a balloon?” went the story afterwards. “About 10 years,” was the response.
Each year I place a small, wooden baby blue stop sign, the corner gnawed off years ago by my puppy, at the main entrance to the maze. It says, “Easter Bunny Stop Here.”
At high noon, I stand on a chair, make a brief speech and ring a gong to kick off the hunt. Big kids, 10 and up, enter the elaborate narrow maze cut into the tall grass of Lone Palm’s large meadow. Children 5-9 follow another, slightly easier path. Wee ones under five have their own “children’s garden,” a tiny spot filled with sparkly treasures and sweets, amid scarlet geraniums, bunny-soft Mexican sage, and fragrant sweet peas.
An additional bunny visit is often required for the little ones whose parents bring them late to the party. “You are the Easter Bunny!” said my neighbor in mock awe. A Vietnam Vet who reminds me of the Marlboro Man, he’d spied me, basket in hand and wearing bunny ears, re-seeding the children’s garden with treats.
Today, it’s more Prosecco than Veuve, and the partying is gentler. The dozens of kids seem younger, the parents, too. I feel such joy when I connect with neighbors and when I discover new friends of all ages. Some little people become great fans of the Big Sur-style Easter Bunny, and bring a passion to filling their baskets each year.
As the hostess, my Easter costume is key. After years of playing around with everything from a pink corduroy pantsuit plus a top hat to the gaudiest floral table cloth mini-dress I could find at Goodwill, I think I’ve found the best one yet: a skirt, camisole and jacket in a lustrous pale green fabric, with iridescent pink and yellow threads sparkling throughout. A white felt hat with a veil, simple flat sandals, and off I go, Egg Hunt Mistress of Ceremonies.
In the office the teenage boys I’d met as infants were playing card games. They looked up at me as I emerged from the bathroom in my finery, so on impulse I asked them, “What do you think?” To my pleasant surprise, their budding gallantry shone forth.
“You look lovely,” said Theo, now studying at Vassar. “You look like Easter!” said Blake, who plays the Chinese board game Go with my husband, and cooks breakfast for us all.
One of the sweetest photographs from a decade ago shows five little girls, all in their Easter dresses, jumping up and down on the outdoor bed, hair flying, laughing. The cobalt ocean is their backdrop, a sky blue sheet with clouds scattered across it covers the bed. One little gal, Stella, is in mid-air, as Mom Heather stands by, holding hands with Mason, encouraging him to jump towards the sky too.
Two years ago, one of the first young ladies to come to the party was one of those children. Now 14, Emilou’s golden tresses spilled over her jean jacket and her smile was the smile of an old soul. I popped a wide straw hat, crowned with orange paper flowers, onto her head, and snapped another photo.
Years ago, their was Ryan, with his wispy, curly hair that hadn’t been cut since his birth, his eyes a soft chocolate brown. People thought he was a little girl, until he started climbing the tallest tree in the yard, a 50′ tNorfolk pine. I can still see him, wearing the world’s smallest red plaid fleece shirt, holding the itty-bitty black bunny I’d adopted up close under his chin.
Then there was Isabella, destined to be a teenage rodeo queen. You might remember her if you hold onto copies of Smithsonian magazine: in 1999 she made the cover. She stands barefoot on the back of her honey-colored horse, on a hilltop above the sea. She looks directly at the camera, her eyes serious, her face wistful. “Big Sur, Life on the Edge,” the headline reads. In my mind’s eye Isabella holds up a royal purple egg, a diamond pattern in white crayon peeking through the paint. Her long brown hair frames her face as she smiles a Mona Lisa smile, freckles sprinkled across her nose and cheeks.
Towards the end of the Eggstravaganza late one April Sunday, I met a mermaid just before sunset. I gave her some big fluffy towels and a glass of Champagne, and she took a long soak in my claw-foot tub, which she filled with sprigs of lavender and strands of passionflowers.
Her handsome, red-headed boyfriend sat and chatted with us on the nearby deck, a sheepish smile on his face as he glanced over at his girl in the bath. Lukie, all grown up, gamine and beautiful. Her close-cropped thick black hair and aquiline features, her deep amused laugh and her sweet youthful self covered in bath bubbles and flowers. The perfect finish to a day of celebrating Spring.