Thursday, March 13, 2014

See The USA: Travels With Jonah Two Years On

Four Corners

Well, hello.

It's been almost a year since I last posted, and nearly two years since the Travels with Jonah project began.

When I first set out to crowd-fund the project I had planned to produce, with your help, after a two week journey across the United States, a set of essays that spoke to the question, "What are Americans like today?" I planned to finish the essays in about a year.

I'm the first to admit:  I was naive about the project and its scope. What I thought would be simple, was very complex, and the project began to change the very moment the journey started.

Over the last couple of years I have experienced many conflicting emotions about the journey and the project I had proposed. What came of it was a rich experience, a ton of writing material, and an insatiable desire to "keep heading West."

Since returning home, I've been working on essays and literary pieces related to this project. The trip was not what I had expected. What came of it was different than my original intention. That's life. That's art. That is what is.

Though I have continued to work with the material I gathered, I felt that the Kickstarter portion of the project was never finished. I promised some folks the reward of an ebook. So, I made one. It should arrive via email today for those who have been expecting it.

Thanks, everyone, for all the support, encouragement, and kicks in the pants.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Gold Country: Only Fools Rush In

Pelton Water Wheel

In the late 1850s, a man named  Lester Allan Pelton left his family home in Ohio and headed West. It was the height of the Gold Rush era, and he, like many other men and some ladies, too, decided to seek his fortune in the hills of California.

Who knows what life was like for prospector in those days?  My imaginary Pelton lived a dirty, rough existence. He slept in a tent in a mining camp. Food was expensive. He ate moldy hardtack and beans cooked over a smokey fire. Hard by a river, he staked a claim. By day, he panned for gold. By night, he dreamed of gold --when he slept. He often didn't, worried about claim jumpers or starving or worse: the claim would yield nothing. He didn't bathe, just panned with a fever and let the water of the river rush over his feet, his hands. His stomach hurt from bad food. The nails on his fingers and toes grew into long, thick and yellowed claws. His beard went wild and after some time, his thoughts.

A Prospector

Pelton failed as a miner.

When he didn't strike it rich, he went on to become a fisherman, then a millwright, then a carpenter. But he never did stop learning about mining. Even after he left his claim behind, Pelton observed closely the methods and equipment used by miners. As the practice grew from a few men with picks and pans to large underground operations that employed thousands, the equipment that evolved in service to it was inefficient and required too many trees to remain sustainable forever. In the late 1870s, Pelton invented the Pelton Water Wheel an impulse water turbine that used kinetic energy rather than weight or steam and heat. His invention revolutionized mining and the field of hydroelectric power.

If you go visit any of the small Sierra foothill towns of California's Gold Country, you're bound to see a  Pelton Water Wheel somewhere. Lester Allan Pelton never hit the Mother Lode, but he is now known as the Father of Hydroelectic Power, and his invention powers hydroelectic plants even today.

Lester Allan Pelton

Memorial Day weekend, with dreams of untold riches in our heads, Mag and I set out for Gold Country for a short trip to Empire Mine State Historic Park and South Yuba River State Park. We were there less than 48 hours, but that didn't stop me from believing, like so many before us, that we might just hit an accidental jackpot while wading through the crisp clear waters flowing down from the mountains. Never mind that the real California Gold Rush was a somewhat ugly and brutal episode of history that took place in the middle of the 19th Century. And never mind that when the claims of individual prospectors were exhausted and the era of big mines, like Empire, began it was only a short epoch and embiggened only the wallets of folks whose wallets were already embiggened. Never mind that the big mines are now all full up with water, or that gold fever had left the surrounding environment disturbed and poisoned, so that huge swaths of it are too toxic or dangerous to meander through over a hundred years later.

My Imagined Future

In my fantasy, a few small sparkling nuggets of gold would be tucked snugly under a rock feet from the shores of the river, and I need only disturb it gently with my foot or hand to uncover the fortune that would change my life forever.

And what would I buy with such untold riches? Time to write? A plot of land? A hippie bus? A mountain cottage? A bowling alley? A robot butler? I'm lucky already, and my wants are all just dreams. But they're fun to think about and easy to get lost in, too.

South Yuba River

The bed of the South Yuba River shimmers with tiny flecks of gold. Reach in and grab a handful of sand and gravel, and the glass-like water carries it from you in a glittering plume. It's fleeting and hopeful and pretty.

Pants rolled up, I waded through the cold water and slippery stones.

Mag and I had just come from a long hike along the shores of the river and up, up, up into the foothills, then back down again. It was hot but bearable. A late night out drinking took its toll; I sweated and huffed all the way up, but the views of the foothills, the blue waters of the reservoir below, and time spent in good company were well worth any discomfort.

After our hike, as we sat by the river in the shade of an old bridge and ate half sandwiches and watermelon, it was difficult to imagine ever having been hot or tired. Above us, cliff swallows swooped down to the shore and back again to their gourd shaped nests lined up in a neat row. It is amazing to me, how they fly in unison, spinning and falling, rising, turning together without any language to know. Their nests, too, are so uniform, as if home is built into their genetic code. Sometimes I wish that was the same for me: to know, without knowing how, all the deep and essential stuff of life.

The water was so cold at first it hurt, and my bare feet couldn't find a place that wasn't sharp or slick. I liked that feeling, an acute but bearable pain; it brought me to the moment. When it passed, I leaned down and stuck my hands in. I tipped over rocks and picked up small handfuls of sand, then let it glide away with the current. Close by, Mag did the same, and we called out from time to time from our impromptu claims to let each other know neither of us had struck it rich, not yet.

We Did Not Have a Dog or Pans.

Searching for gold in a river is an exercise in mindfulness. It requires concentration. It requires patience. One need only stand in quiet and pay attention to the thing in front of her. There is not future, not past, only what is in her hands, only what is under them, only what drifts away.

But I wonder when it becomes something else? Because it does. To pan for gold is more than just the act of panning; to pan for gold is to also temper oneself against desire or to give oneself fully over to it. I stood in the South Yuba River. I searched with a mix of anticipation, hope and also with the kind of disappointment that comes just before a loss. My mind began to let go of the moment and find its way to a grandiose fantasy of all I could have or be, just if...

Was it something like those miners who dreamed of gold? So caught in the trance of imaginary riches, they lost sight of the moment and the real richness of it. It is often easy for me to do the same, to lean into an imagined future, when the present is not so bad at all.

Of course, like Pelton, I failed as a miner.

It's okay. It's not terrible where my mind goes when I imagine being unburdened by a sudden windfall and left with the time and space to think and write and create. There are infinite retreats and habitations, adventures and long days doing nothing but waking late and drinking coffee in the sun.

My imaginary life of leisure is surprisingly full, but there's little risk that I'll trade it in for the real one I already have. And I know that time, as squirrely as its nature might be, passes, and with it comes something more solid and valuable than any instant fantasy or sudden shift in circumstance can deliver. Time's passing, as tedious as it can seem from where I stand in any given moment, enriches everything.

Time gives us time. It's that simple. It's a gift greater than any old nugget of gold.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Keep Walking - Bear Creek Trail - Briones Regional Park

Just me on Bear Creek Trail

This weekend I went for a long solitary hike on Bear Creek Trail in Briones Regional Park. I heard it was good place for spring wildflower viewing, and I had been longing for a break from the "being stuck inside" times at the end of the rainy season in the Bay Area.

Up late the night before, perhaps a little hungover, a little dreamy and thoughtful, I packed some food and water and headed out. It was misty; what I call "unicorn fog" clung to the hills and the trees on them, thick and eerie like in a fairy tale. On the road out to the trail head, a raptor of some kind came gliding down in front of the car. I thought for an instant that I might hit it. I didn't, and the worry was replaced with the joy of "just having seen that."

There were only a few cars parked at the trail head, and there was no one around when I started down the path. I made sure to sign in at the registry and text a friend to let her know where I was, in case I disappeared or something. I was excited. I'd never been that park, and it was new, and it was all mine. So down the path I walked, taking in the views of the reservoir, moss covered trees, and carpets of teensy flowers.

Rainy Reservoir

I wasn't completely present. I was thinking through all the things that were happening in my life, sometimes close to the trail, sometimes floating in that rich and creative imaginary brain space. It wasn't until I was pretty far along, that I actually realized I was alone.

I usually hike with a buddy. Who knows what can happen? A twisted ankle or a wrong turn, God forbid some creepy molestory-type like what happens in every Lifetime movie ever made? Look, I'm not dumb. I'm a lady. I'm pretty small. I do not have any secret super powers. I know I am liberated, but it doesn't make me free.

When I had this realization, I stopped. I felt my foot fall back. Then my foot advanced. I rocked in place for a moment. I felt, I guess, fear: the collective weight of all the possibilities, the bad ones. I felt the wind rise up, and I listened to it flow through the trees and the grasses, and I heard some birds out on the water.

I thought about all the times I wanted true solitude out in nature, and all the times I wanted to stand on my own without any other observers or conversations or interjections, where I could feel exactly and only what I was feeling. I thought about how long I had longed for that and how terrifying it really was, not just the "alone-ness" but also the "being-ness."

With no audience beside myself, was I as authentic, as deep? I was afraid of all of the real contingencies, and of the emotional ones, as well.

With only flowers to bear witness...

As I stood on the path halfway between coming and going, I reminded myself that the first part of courage is seeing fear clearly, recognizing how scared you are, and then going forward, whether it's heart first into the forest or heart first into your own heart.

In her book True Refuge, Tara Brach writes "Our undefended heart can fall in love with life over and over every day. We become children of wonder, grateful to be walking on earth, grateful to belong with each other and to all of creation. We find our true refuge in every moment, in every breath. We are happy for no reason."

In that moment, looking clearly at my own fear, I felt, also, the deepest, strongest sense of pure happiness: I was alone, in the woods, and it was all mine, and it was beautiful.

I kept walking.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

2013: Your Weaknesses Are Your Strengths

Me, Red Rock Canyon State Park, 12-30-2012

True story: the other day I was driving my poor twelve year old car to the muffler shop when my brakes went out. The day before I had returned from a camping trip to Death Valley National Park. All that previous week, my buddies and I had been driving in that poor twelve year old car up and down around and through mountains and mountain foothills and hills and twisty roads and long stretches of uninhabitable, desolate desert where wrong turns and breakdowns can have serious consequences.

One of my biggest fears is losing control on a steep mountain pass. I have nightmares about it. Sometimes when I'm driving on a road with a grade or a sharp turn, I have a panic attack. Sometimes I have to close my eyes or cover my face when I'm riding through mountains as a passenger. Sometimes, I just start crying my eyes out because I am so scared.

Despite this crippling phobia, I love going places that happen to be in, on, around, and near mountains.

A few days before the trip to Death Valley, I took my car to the mechanic to check its brakes because I heard a little noise, and my big fear cropped right up. I wasn't sleeping, thinking about going through those mountains not having checked the brakes one last time. The brakes, my mechanic said, were just fine. So, my buddy and I packed up our camping gear, and we hit the road.

The brakes went out. But not on a mountain pass or in the desolate desert. They went out on a busy city street next to a service station and a bus stop, and everything was just fine.

Heading into Death Valley National Park

It was wonderful to see in the New Year in such a wild and beautiful place and in such good company. As my friend and I drove in on 190 E down through the mountain passes toward our destination at Furnace Creek, it wasn't fear I felt, but something without a precise name deep, deep, deep in every part of me. And I did cry, because it was overwhelming. It was something like amazement, something like drama.

Let me tell you: there is nothing like this place anywhere on earth and possibly not even in your imagination.

That first day was cold and windy, and it had rained and snowed. On the way into the park, we stop shortly at Father Crowley Point. The wind was so strong there. It played against the earth and its crevices like a giant recorder humming deep notes.

All through the trip, the wind howled. With almost nothing to howl through, it was often just up there in the air, moving. At night, in and out of sleep, I would hear it and think, what a comforting sound, though there was something preternatural in it. Maybe it was just that it was the only sound.

We spent a few days camping with friends who drove in from Arizona. No cell phones, no computers, no Facebook. After sunset, we sang songs around the campfire and stared at the stars, and made meals, and cursed the cold, and told jokes. By daylight, we explored.

My buddies just chillin' on Mesquite Flat Dunes

I like camping. Most of the time is spent solving problems, simple problems of comfort. We have to figure out how best to cook a meal over a fire or how to get make coffee when the propane stove goes bust. We have to decide how to stay out of the smoke, how to stay warm, where to pee, if we're all getting enough water... The whole time we were out there, I didn't think once about my student loans or my job or the future. I didn't look at a clock. Time had a different quality.

Devil's Golf Course

I'm what you might call a naturally anxious person, and I've always seen this as a weakness. In the absence of big worries, there are always worries to fill the gap. What if a rattlesnake crawls into my sleeping bag? What if we run out of gas? What if we lose control and fly off the mountain? What if one of us breaks a bone at Devil's Golf Course? My anxiety is always with me.

On this trip, my friends and I played the "worst case scenario" game, in which I propose an activity, and they brainstorm the worst case scenarios until I'm giggling instead of fixating on what could go wrong.

Q: What could happen on Artist's Drive? 
A: We're all so overcome with beauty, we abandon the car to paint.

Bad Water

I'm not obtuse, I know my friends worry about my worry, then I worry about them worrying about my worry because that is what I do. It's a cycle, though not necessarily a vicious one. I was feeling a bit down about this anyway, worrying out loud if my worry was a total mellow harsher, when one of my friends started laughing.

She said that she was glad I was the person I was because I was always prepared. She knew, if we broke down, we would be fine, because I brought enough water for everyone, because we had food and shade and sunscreen. And, in real life, if there was an earthquake, she said, I'd be that person, the one with enough supplies to keep going. Everyone would want to be with me.

In all my years of worrying, I'd never thought about how it could be a strength. I only ever saw it as an obstacle that needed to be worked through or with or around, and in the space of a few sentences, my friend helped me to understand it could also be something really great about me too.

Natural Bridge Trail with Ing

Every year, I try to come up with a motto, instead of a set of resolutions. I think about this for a few months before and a few days into the New Year. There were a number of contenders, but 2013: Your Weaknesses Are Your Strengths is the winner.

This year, I plan to flip what I perceive as my personal weaknesses and obstacles right on their heads and look at them under a different lens instead of getting down about them.

Zabriskie Point at Sunset

True story: 2013 is going to be a great year!!!

Happy New Year!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Black Diamond Mines

Mount Diablo Coal Field Marker

On a hot September day at Black Diamond Mines, a regional park located in California's East Bay, a couple of friends and I walked together up the dusty road to Rose Hill Cemetery, a small, abused plot of land on an eroding hillside and the only remnant of the the mining town that was once settled around it.

Entrance to the Hazel-Atlas Mine

We'd just come from the cool, cathedral like silica mines, and the earth and heat we surfaced to felt unreal in what it was and what was beneath it. Who could ever know such a place existed, tucked into the California landscape: vaulted subterranean rooms held up by massive pillars, down, down, down, seven levels, and beneath, and parallel, even older: coal shafts where children as young as seven donned soft hats, clutched miner's candles and rooted through the earth like grown men?

Graffiti Carved into the Sandstone 

The short film we watched at the Visitor's center, located just inside the entrance to one of the silica mines, made life in the coal boom town of the mid-19th century sound  idyllic. Miners, it said, liked to be beneath the earth. Sometimes they worked seven days a week for months without the sun, living, breathing, eating in darkness, a darkness that fed their families and the ever hungry and growing city of San Francisco across the bay. They had a schoolhouse, a choir, even a baseball club. They were mostly Welsh Protestants, some Catholics. The latter were denied burial in the town cemetery.

A View from Chaperel Trail

When we climbed the rocky trails above the center, the early Autumn sun was burning, the sky clear, the path steep and smooth. At the crest and out in the distance, we could see the city of Antioch, the bay, and a huge energy farm, its propellers spinning hypnotically before us. There was something ineffable about the land, the way the hills rose up like the muscular back of a lion sleeping in the heat, the blue sky pressed against its yellow fur. Lower down, Manzaneta trees grew in dense thickets, their bark alternately smooth and red and rough and gray, was striking up close; far away the colors blended to a heathery purple.

Manzaneta, the park ranger told us at the Visitor's Center is great for poison oak. The berries are tasty. Foxes and other small animals love to eat them.

Manzaneta Tree?

I've been trying lately to learn about the flora, fauna, geology, and geography of the state I've come to make my home. Back in Michigan, I could probably narrate a nature walk from memory. In California, I don't know anything. As we hiked the steep trails of the old coal field, I couldn't identify the Manzaneta's even though they are a common plant, and I'd brought a field guide complete with glossy pictures to help me find my way. Compared to Michigan, everything in California looks like it was culled from the pages of a fairy story. I wonder: did those old-timey miners who lived there far from their native Wales feel as disconnected and dumb as I do sometimes?

After hiking a short loop of trail through the park, my friends and I ate lunch in the shade of some tall pines at a picnic table in view of Rose Hill Cemetery and the golden hills above it. I thought the Italian Cyprus trees, so alien on the land, looked as if they were pointing a pathway to heaven. We learned later, in the mines, that this was the reason they were planted there, so souls could find their way to God.

A Distant View of Rose Hill Cemetery

In the silica mine, we watched a slideshow about the park and the eras that came before it. We donned hard hats and jackets, grabbed flashlights and followed the old tracks of the mining carts down into the earth. The docent told us stories about mining life and technicalities. As we passed through, we learned that the ceiling was the floor of the ancient ocean that California rose out of millions of years ago. Above our heads, prehistoric waves and sea life, time past but present, hung preserved in the sandstone ceiling.

How could such a place not be full of ghosts? When I asked the docent, he said the only known "ghost" was actually a lady who cooked meth in a squatter's trailer on the land in the 1980's. This meant as we walked to the cemetery together, we had nothing spooky to speculate on but the real nature of humanity, of life and of death. I suppose that is spooky enough.

The trail up, a dusty twisting road cut through the yellow hills, did something to quiet us anyway. The wind picked up, and the light at the end of day, when everything feels suspended, began to spread over the hills and valleys.

An Up Close View of Rose Hill Cemetery

Ahead of us, a lone woman walked in Nike running shoes. She wore a t-shirt with the Pittsburgh Pirates logo. She carried a plastic wrapped package of cookies and a dented water bottle. At the top, she sat beneath the swaying peppercorn tree that marked the entrance to the cemetery. She took a few raspy breaths before moving on. It was quite a climb up, and there was something strange and sad about her and in the way her body heaved with exertion. There was something mournful in the way she looked out across the land.

I wondered, for a moment, if she was a ghost -- then, if I was a ghost -- then, if my friends who bowed their heads dutifully to read the information placard at the gate were ghosts. I felt a chill, even in the heat. There was nothing left but the dead. When the coal shafts were exhausted, the miners and their families packed up the town that fed the lonely cemetery. Board-by-board, nail-by-nail, down came the houses, the schools, the church, the saloon. Everything went; nothing remained except remains, and even those had been defiled.

As dusk came on, the wind picked up and with it, the dust around the graves. We wandered through what was left of the headstones in silence. When a gust of wind stole my friend's sunhat, she chased it through the cemetery, and I chased after her, laughing.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The HU Sound

Montezuma's Foot Bath

I'm hunkered down with three other writers in a cabin in Camp Verde, AZ, working on the manuscript for the book that the Travels With Jonah Project inspired. I'm even more impressed this year by the talent of my fellow Desert Rats, and I'm feeling pretty humbled, too. That's good.

The story I set out to work on is maybe not the one I had originally planned, and that's okay, because it has to be. I think this one will be better, though it may take longer.

Thank you all for your  support and patience as I work my way through it.

Yesterday, we took a side trip to Montezuma's Well, a site just up the road from our cabin. A round lake formed from an underground water source when the ceiling of limestone cavern above it dissolved. Around its rim, cliff dwellings over 800 years old are carved into the rock.

Montezuma's Well

I think this place is magical. At the risk of sounding like one A-Class hippie, I dreamed about this place a long time ago, so you can imagine how surprised when I first crested the hill that hides this oasis from the high desert. It's like this place is hard wired into my brain.

Oh, yeah, I am an A-Class hippie. Here I am hugging a giant Arizona sycamore tree.

To be honest, I've been feeling a bit down these days, fighting off a depression of the generic but powerful and exhausting existential, "what does it all mean?" variety, peppered with a nice dose of antsiness that makes it hard for me to sit still too long. Maybe this is just called "being a writer." 

Meh. Whatever it is: it is what it is.

So, today, I convinced a couple of my fellow writers to go out to Boynton Canyon in Sedona. I wanted to get a hike in and just zone out and try to think myself into a better mental space. 

But, when we arrived at the trail head, we ran into a slight hitch:

Great. Bears.

This probably would not be a problem, but I just watched Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man about a month ago, which was followed up by an OCD level marathon viewing session of Animal Planet's Fatal Attraction. I pretty much immediately had bloody visions of Timothy Treadwell flash through my head and tickle my extreme and irrational anxiety gland. I stomped off in the direction of another trail not blocked by bear warnings, while my fellow writing hikers followed after me complaining about my decision to suddenly abandon the Boynton Trail for one called Dead Man's Pass. 

"Fine!" I shouted at them after two-minutes of unbearable whinging. "I'll go down your dumb bear infested trail." I made some further childish protests about no one paying attention to my needs. Then I turned on my heel and passively/aggressively stomped back to the bear trail with visions of park rangers poking at my eviscerated entrails and shaking their heads while mumbling, "Damn hippies," under their breath.

Anyway, at the trail head, we ran into some other hikers, who were actually damn hippies. A sun baked, white haired dude with a small day pack and a fixed beatific grin stopped on the trail as we passed and handed each of us a heart shaped rock, which he told us was a gift from Mother Earth. I asked him if he had seen any bears, and he said they were really far off  in the wilderness and that I should just concentrate on love overcoming hate. He lectured us for a few moments on the power of love before moving on down the trail. 

I was still grumpy, but, I resolved to try despite myself and a few false starts.

Me at the secret entrance to the Secret Mountain. If you look closely, you'll see the outline of the heart stone in my pocket.

We spent the hike literally looking for love. Fellow travelers had hidden the heart shaped rocks the earth produced prolifically amid the branches of the junipers and clefts of cacti along the route. We had great fun pointing out the ones we found, and it was easy, too. There was so much love; it was ubiquitous. I tried to  foster a positive attitude in my mind as we climbed up the red rock face to a scenic outlook.

Boynton Canyon Trails are filled with heart shaped rocks  lovingly placed  in the trees by fellow hikers.

When we  reached the top of the rock, I have to admit, despite our encounter with the spirit man and Mother Earth's love, I was still feeling pretty pissy. One of my companions reminded me that we were at an energy vortex, which was easily identified by the presence of many twistier than average of juniper trunks, rock cairns built by other visitors and some hot lady doing yoga by herself way up on a rock a few hundred yards away.

I sat down with my back against a tree and proceeded to eat some almonds and the apple I brought with me, when I burst into tears. I stared out over the red rocks, and I told my buddy that I figured I'd get it right at some point. We had a really deep conversation, the details of which I will spare you from. I snuggled into the crook of the tree and just zoned out, like I wanted to all along.

A view from up there.

When we decided to come down off the vista, I felt a lot calmer. As we walked down the trail, I heard a buzz, quick and deep, like a hum under my feet. I stopped and asked the people with me if they heard it too. They hadn't. We started walking again, then just as suddenly I heard it again; maybe "felt" is a better word, a low, warm rumbling buzz, for the second time. It was strange and strangely comforting. I don't know what it was, so I've decided to just call it the HU sound, which is both appropriately hippie enough and most probably true.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Coming to America

Where I learned all about my Swedish heritage

"No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate," GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said during a recent stump speech in Michigan. "They know that this is the place that we were born and raised."

While the candidate denied that it was anything more than a nod to his native state, it's hard to ignore that the statement was made in context of a larger, ongoing controversy regarding our democratically elected President's country of birth.

A small but powerful faction of people still seem to believe that President Barack Obama's birthplace is somehow in dispute and that this should somehow discredit his presidency, despite the fact that he was born in the United States and was democratically elected by a majority of registered voters following the rules that our revered founding fathers and whoever else was super important in history laid out like a million years ago. It also seems that even if members of this small and powerful group say that they don't actually believe Obama was born someplace other than the United States, they don't have any qualms about bringing it up over and over again.

"The governor [Romney] has always said, and has repeatedly said, he believes the president was born here in the United States," one of his aides said later.

Did I do that? No way! I'm just a regular guy who likes pratfalls and jokes all kinds!

Yup, the sitting President of the United States was born in the United States. I'm not sure why a person would need to make multiple statements on the topic, but I digress. Go back a generation, and Barack Obama's dad was born in Kenya. Mitt Romney's dad was born in Mexico. Go back a few generations, and it turns out a shit ton of most everyone's ancestors were born some place other than the United States.

Our country is an immigrant nation. This isn't something to laugh at or deride. Someone having come from somewhere else is perfectly American. We all got here somehow, and it was not by a spontaneous cosmic happening. Okay, so maybe some people got here by way of star ship, but I'm sure most of those folks descended from the heavens together and woke up primarily in Berkeley, Sedona, and Yellow Springs.

For the rest of us, our progenitors came from somewhere else right here on the planet Earth.

The chariot of travelers without a country or planet of origin.

Though I'm an American, just like Mitt Romney, and I was born in Michigan, just like Mitt Romney, I, the bits and pieces that formed together to make the me of me, came from somewhere that was not here. I'm pretty sure the esteemed GOP candidate did not wake up, bathed in light and fully formed in some hospital in Michigan. If he had, then I would be forced to vote for him out of sheer amazement. His family came here from somewhere that was not here, so that he could be born here. He didn't have any hand in it.

Ellis Island, where a lot of our foreign, immigrant ancestors first entered America.

I understand that who I am is not where my family came from. I'm an American through and through (whatever that means). And, no, you don't need a birth certificate to know this is the place I was born and raised.

I don't imagine I'd have any need to wonder or care about anyone else's birth certificate.

Although if you REALLY need to see it, you can buy this mug.

My family's story is the quintessential American story. It is also the quintessential immigrant story.

On the one side, my family came from Sweden during one of the great immigrant waves of the early 20th century.

My relative, Leif, got here WAY before everyone else.
Feeling smug in his discovery, he went home before the actual party started.
This is totally a family trait.

From what I understand, at the time, life in Sweden was not all free health care, progressive thinking, murder mysteries, punk rock girls with motorcycles and large dragon tattoos, and tasty sandwiches. While I'm not exactly sure why my family decided to leave for America, I'll take a wild guess, and say they were poor. Like so many other typical immigrant families of the period, they looked West hoping for better opportunities. In America, there was land, and I think that was something my people wanted: land to call their own and a land to make their own.

The superior American adaptation of a Swedish novel

Our early family history in Sweden is full of stories of births, deaths, marriages & shack-ups, and surprisingly (or maybe not), arrests. The arrests were the result of crimes of poverty:

"She and her brother Olof were sent to the county prison at Gavle in September 1852 for petty larceny, which was for milking goats in the field in order to survive. These goats belonged to someone else, and she received seven days in prison on bread and water and three days in a special prison for a total of ten days."

My distant cousin Arden Eckstrom wrote in our family history of a great many times removed aunt, Anna Persdotter. "They were very poor," Arden repeats in his text. I imagine jail wasn't so bad compared to the alternative of starvation.

All I know about Swedish cuisine: meatballs, lingonberries, and lutifisk.

My Swedish family were country people. They came from a place named Los. In Los, there is a cemetery in in a church yard, and my ancestors are buried there. Before 1901, they all had surnames that ended in -dotters and -ssons, following the patronymic practice of naming at the time. Reading our early family records, I cannot keep track of all the Anders Mattssons and Matts Anderssons. I wonder, if I ever made it to Los, would I be able to sort them out?

In the latter half of the 19th century the system of naming children after their fathers fell out of favor. It really is confusing. Some families "froze" their patronymic surnames. Nobles kept their noble type surnames, soldiers took soldier type surnames, and people with particular professions often took their surnames from their craft.  

Our family, with its questionable lineage, and being neither noble or professional, took its name from nature: Eckstrom. This  means "oak stream" in English, is lovely, and probably says something about their low status in society.

Sven Leander Eckstrom

The first Eckstrom on record was Sven Leander Eckstrom, my great, great grandfather, born 1868, in Los. He was said to be a tall, robust man, a practical joker who liked his drink. In Sweden, he worked as a forest ranger, a laborer, and a mail carrier. He married my petite great, great grandmother, Evelina Andersdotter in 1899, and together they lived a rustic life in the woods about two miles from Tackasen, Sweden, where they inhabited a small one room cabin with a dirt floor covered with pine branches. Sven built the cabin near a roaring river that "tumbled out of the mountains," and sometimes it was so loud it kept them awake at night. Sven shot wild turkeys to supplement the family's diet, and Evelina washed clothes in a spring that bubbled up out of the ground.

That sounds idyllic to me.

But for my great, great grandparents, and vast numbers of Europeans like them, something was lacking. Sven's brother, Ulrik, and his family had already left for America, and in May 1910, Sven said goodbye to his wife Evelina, and their five children (Ebba Kristina, Emma Davida, Ebbe David, Elsa Margreta, and Ester Maria) and boarded the SS Arabic in Goteborg, Sweden. He traveled first to Liverpool and then on to New York.

Sven had only $6.00 in his pocket and a train ticket to Cayuga, North Dakota.

Though all of this seems amazing, improbable and scary, it was a common experience for new Swedish Americans who emigrated to the United States for the most part between the 1840s and 1910, the year Sven and his family arrived in the country. Swedes set up communities all through the Midwest, the West and the Pacific Northwest. They lived among each other, spoke the language of their homeland, wrote and published in Swedish, worshiped with other Swedes, and conducted primary school in Swedish. They developed their own Svenskamerika community.

Svenskamerika? I don't know, dude. I'm from Michigan.

In essence, they had a thriving and established Swedish community in the United States. Apparently, some parts of this culture is still alive in some places in this country today. Sven knew this community was here, and perhaps it made the critical difference in his decision to come. He had left his homeland, but he wasn't too far from his home culture.

In September 1910, my great, great grandmother, Evelina arrived in New York at Ellis Island with five children in tow, among them, my seven year old great grandmother, Emma.

"Upon exiting the ship, Evelina immediately combed and brushed her children's hair and then inspected their heads for lice, which was common to have received during a trip under those conditions for a long period of time. Evelina had problems because she somehow lost her passport and did not speak any English." 

Anyone who has studied the history of emigration to America or to make it easier, anyone who has seen the popular movie Titanic, knows that the conditions in-between decks on the great steamships of the time were pretty uncomfortable. As often as I think of Sven arriving alone with virtually nothing to his name, I think of Evelina traveling all that distance by herself with five children all under the age of nine. She didn't speak the language of the country, and her passport was missing. Her husband was half a continent away. What did she do? How did she feel?

Evelina Andersdotter Eckstrom

Once the passport issues were sorted out, Evelina and her five children traveled by train to North Dakota, where Sven met them with a team of horses and a wagon. They all lived together in a room upstairs in Sven's brother's house, while Sven established himself. First he farmed. Then he shoveled coal for the Great Northern Railroad. "Sven loved hard, physical work and never complained. It was said that he was so strong that when he left for Anaconda, the railroad had to hire five men to replace him," my distant cousin Arden said of my great, great, grandfather.

I often get cranky about my life and how hard I think it is. I don't always want to get up at the same time every day or participate in the hustle and bustle. It's hard. Most days, I ask myself, "Is it too early to go to bed?" And I know I can't because there is always something to be done to further my own existence.

When I'm exhausted from being a 21st Century lady working in an office in Berkeley, living in a beautiful neighborhood in Oakland, eating organic foods from grocery stores and markets where people shop with sustainable hand crafted baskets, I try to remember my ancestors, and everything they went through, so that I could live this exhausting but not-so-bad-at-all existence. I know that I live with a different set of challenges, but it would be difficult to scrape together enough personal experience to add up to an authentic understanding of how hard it must have been for them to come and establish themselves here.

ABBA: the sum total of my knowledge of Swedish music culture

I'm nothing but proud of my immigrant roots, and I'm a fully assimilated American. No one needs to see my birth certificate to know I'm from here. The truth is, I don't know a damn thing about Sweden. Besides my surname, there isn't one vestige of the old home culture left in me, not a concept, or a phrase, or a recipe, or a tradition. Sometimes I feel a sadness about this, and sometimes I don't, because in the end, I figure, this is exactly what my family wanted all those years ago when they came here: to become American.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

~From "The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus, 1883