I welcome Char Gustafson as a guest writer today. This was written in March, 2021.
Now…” , the big man bus driver looked at me, a scared little 8 year old and said, “Where do you belong?”
It was March…that time of the year in Iowa where those who rented farms moved. Leases were up. Farms were sold. Families, uprooted. In 1961, I was alone on the bus, trying to get “home”. That bus experience became part of my story.
Fast forward to 2020. I feel as though I’ve been alone, on the bus, once again and have asked myself that same question many times this past year, “Where do I belong?” “How does 2020 fit into my story?
Granted, I’m no longer that frightened 3rd grader but this past year has presented me with that all consuming frightening question “where do I belong?” Uprooted from our norms, we’ve had little of the leadership to “guide” us during the past four years. There has been no “driver”. I’ve had to find my way.
My dad died when he was 47. My spouse when he was 57. I remember the feeling of being alone on the bus. Later as a bereavement counselor I often told other widows that grief is like “travelling in a foreign country where there are no maps and no one knows your name”.
COVID , I realize, has brought me back to the early “grief days” on the bus. We have had so much loss and there has been little memorializing. I can’t quite grasp that we’ve lost more people to this scourge than to all our combined wars. Expectations are gone. Things that once gave sustenance to the soul no longer exist… going to church, a concert or to an afternoon matinee … all gone. As the late Iowa author Curtis Harnack aptly titled his book about loss, “We Have All Gone Away”. I’ve found that perhaps these things, the things that we have always done, that have made up the moments of our lives… perhaps they have been mere substitutes for what really matters. And, as in the grief process, the only thing to do is go forward, one day at a time, sometimes, one hour at a time, doing the only thing that we know how to do or can do in moments of any kind of loss. Find our peace…with ourselves.
So, “where do I belong?”… some days, on the couch, with a book in hand and a good cup of coffee at my side. Somedays I belong looking out at the timber in my back yard… the gold finches flitting about for their black thistle coveted treasures, the squirrels gleefully running up and down, up and down, forever grasping for their holds on life. Somedays I email, or actually write letters or send cards. My Colorado grandchildren think Grandma G. is hilarious when she asks them to “write her a letter”… and reply with their quizzically “I have no idea what you are talking about” zoom looks.
Early in the pandemic, I had a purpose…making masks to help and protect those on the front lines. I reported to my sewing room daily where I would turn out thousands of masks for Iowans in need. It gave me a “purpose” and at least I felt that I was doing SOMETHING even though our then president thought that the masks I and thousands of other men and women made in their homes and on their sewing machines, were not important enough for him to wear. I pressed on .
I’ve become quite the “online shopper”… I don’t think that I will EVER have a need to go inside a grocery store again (Costco, however, that is a totally different thing all together..this author says with a smile). You Tube? I’m totally in love and have found that there are many women, like me, who have become Ok with no visits to any hair or nail salon. I find solace in the instagram celebrities who show up sans make up. In a society where youth is everything, they are brave to show up as they are, and so that makes me brave too! I know now what “hard pants” are and really don’t want to go back to them either, although I’m sure I will as sweats are rather hot in the humid Iowa summertime.
I know and love Marco Polo (no, not the guy explorer) and receive not enough updates on the weather, flora and fauna from children in California and Colorado, respectively. I almost feel as I’m there and long for that day…
I listen to too much “news” and have uttered “huh? Or whhaaattt?” far too many times. There have been dark, dark days when only Stephen Colbert could provide the antidote for the snake bite that was 2020.
I’ve become quite the Facebook Marketplace aficionado and from my front porch have traded or given away things I no longer need. I have given to those who are in need wherever I safely could (Des Moines, how can I help you? Facebook site has proven just how many are hurting…) I have “met” many women such as myself who search for “things” that remind them of a favorite kinder, simpler decade when life was simpler and the things that Grandma or Grandpa had have the uncanny ability to make us happy…whatever trips your trigger and my memories have been tripped by— dishes!
I have found kind people in my neighborhood. I fulfilled a dream of placing a Little Free Library in the yard this year (made from inexpensive items from Facebook Marketplace!). A neighbor, whom I did not know, rang my doorbell and left a holiday gift, stating how she appreciated its use. What can I say,? That little kindness made my season. I passed it on.
I utilize my little library’s card catalog, reserve books on line, call and my library delivers to my car. I asked friends for recommendations and have developed a love for entirely new genres I never thought I would touch.
I’m finding a kinder, gentler Iowa in spite of our current “leadership” and the not so kind ways that the “leaders” “lead”.
So, I’m still looking. As in the early days of other grief journeys, I go forward and sometimes falter in trying. An important quote from a favorite book came to mind again and again as I tried to bring peace and kindness into my small world this past year. Don Marquis is quoted in E.B. White’s “The Second Tree From the Corner” in one of my favorite E.B. W. essays, “The Door”,
‘My heart has followed all my days something I cannot name’…
On the farm, rural Iowa, when days were long and people close, long ago now, E.B. White wrote to me, for 13 years, a rural Iowa woman who liked his work. But that story is for another time.
Literature and music bring me solace…always have, always will.
So…”where do I belong”? Where indeed. Not on that bus with the driver who had no idea …or in a school system that failed to tell him that there was a new little girl that would need to find her way…or in a world where dads die and husbands do too. I belong, exactly where I am now. Feeling giddy, like an 8 year old school girl who has just figured out what to tell the bus driver. I got my second COVID shot last week and now, I’m driving the bus. I will go forward in the ways that I know how, hoping that everything will be kinder and gentler to those who have lost their way.
Char Gustafson is a graduate of Buena Vista University. She has her Death & Grief Studies Certification from Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s Center for Loss, Ft Collins, Co. A former hospice bereavement counselor, she has presented workshops on hope, creativity & writing “your story”. Forever a “creative” who believes art has the power to change lives, she continues to find hope in the creative journey. She lives in Ankeny and loves to travel and explore California and Colorado where she spends time with her children, Matt and Joanna and grandchildren, Andrew and Grace.