A Honda Civic can hold 4 people (two tall, two short), 1 hard-cover suitcase, 4 backpacks, 1 small duffel bag, a cooler with four wheels and a stubborn handle, 4 balls of yarn and 2 sets of crochet needles, 4 cameras (not counting smartphones), 2 cases of La Croix, and a mix of snacks and food staples—including but not limited to 2 cans each of black beans, chickpeas, corn, and artichokes.
The car, once we packed it fully in Texas, gave the impression of having outgrown its body. I, as always, overpacked. Settled now into Minneapolis, I rotate between the same few outfits, which sit coolly on my skin, and my skirts and dresses languish like snake skins on the floor of my closet.
As a kid, I packed my carry-on for flights with the desperation of a woman running from a burning house. What if I needed my pack of markers as well as my colored pencils? My bear as well as my stuffed bunny? TSA gutted the contents of my backpack, and I watched from across the table as the agent performed a messy dissection of who I was. Origami paper, corners crumpled. Spiral notebook with 1/3 of the paper torn out, the curling edges stuck in the rings. Taffy, chips. You have so many books, an agent once said, the machine couldn’t tell what was in the bag.
But most of what I carried I held inside. I called it The Feeling. The Feeling felt like God placed his thumb in the center of my chest and pushed down, hard—so hard, in fact, that my body rammed through the Earth, and I fell through it. When The Feeling grew in my chest, I laid down on the floor to alleviate the pressure, and spent my afternoons reading or thinking with my head to the ceiling.
I found solace in my stories, and in the Cowboy. The Cowboy was everything I was not, and everything I wanted to be. I wanted to thunder across the land. I wanted to slip out from God’s thumb and feel the lightness of standing on solid ground. Once I learned how to drive, I chased the Cowboy by embarking on long trips to nowhere. The Feeling left when I was out driving, but back home, I found myself laying on the carpet again, watching the fan blades whip the air.
Years later at 21, I loaded into a car with three of my friends, and we started our way up the middle of the United States.
HOW TO LET GO
On the second day of the trip, we decided to have breakfast at White Sands National Park.
The whole of the Southwest was once covered by water. When the sea retreated, it left behind the largest dunefield of gypsum in the world, proof of the water’s previous reign. White Sands National Park extends across the basin between the Sacramento and the San Andreas mountains. Extending to the north of the park is the White Sands Missile Range, which detonated the world’s first atomic bomb in July of 1945. The second exploded a month later over Hiroshima. The park still closes periodically for bomb testings, and the website recommends that tourists check the bomb schedule before driving out.
Breakfast for me was carrots with hummus and an apple with peanut butter. We ate at a picnic table covered by a metal roof that looked like a sail. The spirit of the sea somehow persisted to that day—I felt like I was in the ocean, struck by the unmistakable feeling of being both adrift and consumed. Both the desert and the ocean answer the question why? bluntly. Why any of this, here, and arranged just so? Why bombs and sand and breakfast and history and well-designed picnic tables? There is no why, they say, the sand falls, and where it falls, it falls into place. I focused on my breakfast to nudge away The Feeling.
After breakfast, we started our hike. The trail was less of a trail and more of a line of trail markers, thin and hollow and colored a pale cream concerningly similar to the sand. A few times we came across a fallen marker, and we did our best to bury it back into the sand. If we died, Sophia said, the sand would bury us, and the vultures would come. Within 30 minutes, there would be no trace of us. The desert forgets easily, making evident the fact that even if we try to hold on, letting go is the law of the universe. The desert wouldn’t even let the trail markers remain steady. Looking back, we watched the trail markers fight the wind, and fall.
A week later in Minneapolis, I shook a sock and out fell the dead ocean. You can never really let go of something, not completely. Not sand, not your childhood, not an ex-partner, and not The Feeling. Everything you carry leaves something behind.
HOW TO HOLD
The playground at the Airbnb was identical to the one I grew up playing on. Two swings and a tented play area formed in the shape of a castle turret. Emma and I swung, and I marveled at how light my body felt. We were somewhere in northern New Mexico, staying in a ranch house painted an earthy red. I felt small, in a good way. I felt like the span of a sunset. Brief, contained, and beautiful.
Sam, Sophia and I sat together in the grass for some time. We talked about bowls, and holding on. Everything is a bowl, I said, because everything holds and in turn is held.
Bowls hold the spoons, which in turn hold the milk. Mothers hold their babies, who grow up to hold their mother’s love and grief. These hands hold this pen, which holds these words. Words hold their meanings tight and loose, and they fall from the pink mass in the bowl of my skull to this paper, like salt from a salt shaker.
Bowl theory views every thing not as submitted to hierarchies but engaged in mutual relationships: what we hold is at the same time held by us. Understanding the dependency of everything upon everything else produces reverence not just for what is grand but for what is small. It rails against the idea of a brutal, solitary life—that American ideal of masculine independence—in favor of the dignity of care, of intention, and of existing in loving relation with what one chooses to hold and be held by. There is no love in solitude, and no peace to be found in relentless ambition.
With our faces to the sky, we talked about bowls. I have four of them. Good Friends, Good Food, Good Art, and Good Work. Or, love, nourishment, beauty, and justice.
The future we want, it looks a lot like that New Mexico night. The garden is lined with holy statues. The night sky pinned up neatly with stars. The quilts and the dinners are homemade. The Earth and our love is cultivated to be richer than it was the year before. Peace, Sophia said, is a brave thing to pursue. Peace feels like the lightness of solid ground.
HOW TO BE HELD
The air in the sanctuary felt heavy as if lined with velvet. But there was no velvet here—this was the Southwest. This was dirt and brittle pastels, Mary and baby Jesus worn down to their bare wood. The sanctuary laid at the door of a mountain range like a flyer wedged between the knob and the frame. The earth did the holding. We came here on a hot afternoon, and after making a joke to Sam about holy water on tap, the air, spiced with incense and blessings, led me to silence. I slid into a pew less from my own volition and more by a hand which placed me there. I had grown up in the church, spent a better part of my childhood in holy places eating holy food and drinking holy wine, and this—this felt like childhood again. Similar to The Feeling, but beautiful. As if the weight of God’s thumb was instead a great blanket filled with dense, brown angel feathers. My neck bowed under its embrace. I prayed for the first time in a decade.
I thought: this is what it means to be loved. To know what holds you, and to let it.
The American landscape turned steadily past. The Cowboy, who used to ride just out of reach on the edge of the horizon, was nowhere to be seen. I don’t know when he left, but he took The Feeling with him. In the backseat, I turned to look at the land—the grasslands became hills and the hills mountains. The oranges to whites to greens to night. Then morning, again. The car rumbled on. Emma rested her head on the window, her hiking hat loose on her head. The light made her look like she was glowing from within. Perhaps the glow emanated from the deep sleep her body held her in. Perhaps it came from my own head. I took a picture, to remember. Time is the one thing that can’t be held.
Sophia drove on, while Sam hummed to himself. I said a small prayer, to no one and for nothing in particular. It is floating somewhere in North Dakota now, falling like sand shifting in the dunes. Wherever it lands, I am glad to have blessed it.
Header artwork by Emma Mohrmann