“I love you on purpose.” Emma, age 3 ½
Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you find a nugget of hope and inspiration in the most unlikely of places. I found mine with a stack of French toast at a breakfast outing a few weeks ago with some much younger women – twin sisters Emma and Molly. Their mom shared the story of Emma recently declaring that she loved her “on purpose.” Mommy was very touched, of course, but also a bit bemused, and questioned Emma if she knew what “on purpose” meant – to which Emma quickly replied, “I mean it.” Gulp.
Emma’s beautiful words have challenged me. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to love on purpose – in the big picture, as in the world – and specifically, the United States. Some days, I feel like Ouiser from Steel Magnolias who famously declared, “I’m not crazy – I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years.” My bad mood is only going on six years and its origin story can be directly traced to November 8th, 2016. Like so many good souls, I went through the five stages of grief after Hillary’s loss to Donald Trump. You know them – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The problem is that four (it only felt like 37) years of Trump made me relapse into a permanent state of stage two – anger. Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 granted me a brief sabbatical from my fury, but not a total absence – my anger was more like a simmering sauce pan on the back of the stove for a few months.
That saucepan has morphed into a full-blown dumpster fire the past several weeks – beginning with the horrific school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX. I learned of the carnage the afternoon before my dear wife and I were departing on a two-week vacation to the Pacific Northwest with our good friends Lori and Sue. Suddenly, picking out the right shoes to pack didn’t seem so important anymore. We had planned to watch the series finale of This is Us that evening and had joked that nothing says leaving on vacation like a good cry. Ironically, This is Us, premiering in the fall of 2016, became a balm for many of us during the dark chaos of Trump’s reign of terror. The fictional Pearson family often reminded us of the unexpected joys in everyday life. Yes, they also made us ugly cry every single time (dammit). True story – my wife and I would joke that “we hate this show” every time we cried – sometimes even before the opening credits were finished. But that was okay – we needed a safe place to cry, and the Pearsons were there for us for six moist seasons.
We didn’t watch This is Us that evening, but we cried plenty of tears watching the news coverage of the massacre of 19 children and two teachers. I don’t have children and I always think of my younger friends who have school aged kids when these shootings happen – over and over again. I often wonder what my parents worried about when they sent me and my siblings off to school. They might have been anxious about us getting hurt playing sports or not doing well on a math test, but the idea of some other kid with an AR-15 rifle mowing us down was beyond their wildest nightmares.
Our flight to Seattle left early the next morning and I felt a bit relieved – and guilty – that I would be away from the news cycle for six hours or so. My wife and I usually reserve two aisle seats on flights – they provide a little more leg room and you have at least an outside chance that the middle seat might be empty for your flight. After I sat down, I started my usual screening of the folks filing towards me down the aisle. You know the routine – you really hope that frazzled mother with the cranky baby is not your seat mate. And you really hope it’s not the dude in the Dockers who screams manspreader and will knock you out slinging his carry-on bag into the overhead bin. I lucked out and got seatmates right out of central casting for the reboot of Dawson’s Creek. The pair were a young couple in their very early 20’s. The guy even looked like Kevin Pearson – the younger version – and he was completely unaffected by his good looks. His girlfriend was beautiful, too, and wearing shorty shorts – the kind I was never comfortable in even when I was 10. I usually give an eyeroll to this sort of airline attire, but she looked like she was on her way to pick flowers for her grandmother – just that creamy perfect skin and an irresistible smile. They apologized for making me have to get up so they could take their seats, and I could feel myself smiling too much at my good fortune.
I was a bit apprehensive that there might be a lot of PDAS between these lovebirds on the long flight – nobody wants to see that. They did hold hands a lot and giggle softly in each other’s ears and for a few precious hours, I believed that love could heal our broken world. And then they shared a pair of earbuds to watch a movie on one of their phones – Finding Nemo. I couldn’t make that up if I tried. Seriously? They were so freaking cute together. I wanted to get the addresses of their parents and write them thank you notes for creating two such lovely humans. They appeared so unblemished from cynicism. They were like that perfect new composition book you carried with you on the first day of 7th grade – full of possibilities just waiting to be written.
As we began our descent into Seattle, you could see the snow-covered crest of magnificent Mount Rainier appear. Young Kevin was snapping pictures out of his window seat, and I leaned over and asked if he would take a few on my phone for me. He smiled that sparkly smile and chirped, “Yes, ma’am.” And that didn’t even annoy me. I was invested in this young couple’s future – or at least, their trip to Seattle. I got a grip on myself and dialed it down as I said goodbye when our flight deboarded. They were probably climbing Mount Rainier later that afternoon. Anyway, I hope they can change the world with their bright spirits.
And so, our great Pacific Northwest adventure began and something truly remarkable happened. I did not turn on a television for two weeks and somehow Nicolle Wallace and the rest of the MSNBC tribe managed without me. I read the headlines on my NYTimes app, but that was it. My screen time was filled with mountains, waterfalls, forests, flowers, coastlines and vineyards. I have been to Seattle a couple of times but had never been to Oregon – big mistake. Huge. I was absolutely gobsmacked (you don’t get many chances to use that word) by the breathtaking beauty of the state. I was totally immersed in nature, okay, and a fair amount of pinot noir, and I felt better than I had in months.
I was also touched by the genuine kindness of so many folks we met along our journey. Sure, we saw plenty of hipsters, but mostly a lot of outdoorsy people who were friendly and laid back. They just go with the flow out there – literally. Rain does not prevent Oregonians from hiking, biking or anything else. I love that! They don’t bother with umbrellas because, well, they’re a pain and it rains a lot. I think they know how lucky they are to live there so they’re just naturally kind of happy. A craft beer bar and a coffee shop every 30 yards might have something to do with it, too.
One day in the Willamette (rhymes with dammit) Valley, we had planned to have a picnic lunch at a vineyard but learned upon our arrival that they did not allow outside food. We turned around and drove a bit before we pulled off onto a dusty patch next to a silo. We were unpacking our picnic when a guy in a pickup truck pulled up near us. I immediately went into full Ouiser mode preparing my retort for when he told us we couldn’t park there. Then the guy smiled at us and asked if we were lost. He said, “I saw you turn around up there and I wondered if you needed directions.” That’s the part in the cartoon where the dumbass (me) character’s face turns into an actual heel. I was disappointed in myself that anger was my default before I even knew what this man wanted with us. Wine country is a small world and the next day we ran into the same guy at Laurel Ridge Winery. He recognized us from the day before and said, “Hi, I’m Lucas – I’m the winemaker here.” I tried to make amends for misjudging him the day before by buying six bottles of his wine. Some apologies are easier to swallow than others.
The morning we left Oregon to return home, I took a walk on the beach by myself. We were staying in a very cool Airbnb in the tiny town of Netarts at the mouth of Netarts Bay on the edge of the coastal rainforest. I called it Pop-tarts because I’m goofy like that. The coastline is dazzlingly beautiful – so pure and untarnished – sort of like that young couple on the plane. I stood on the beach and tried to commit to memory everything I was feeling in that moment – the cool air on my face, the sound of the birds, the gentle lapping of the water. It was the one souvenir I wanted to take home with me – peace – and maybe a shred of hope that maybe we the people don’t have to keep screwing everything up.
Reentry into my real life was harsh. We returned to a heat wave and my car had to go in the shop for five weeks. Oh, and the Supreme Court went on a justice bender and overturned Roe v. Wade and Justice Clarence Thomas intimated that same-sex marriage could be on the chopping block next. And there were more shootings – and more shootings – and more disturbing revelations from the January 6th Committee. My moment of Zen from Netarts became a distant memory. I felt like so many of the things I had worked for most of my adult life as an activist were circling the drain.
And then I had breakfast with a couple of three-and-a-half-year-olds who seem wise beyond their years. Children are so present – what a gift that we alleged grown-ups abandon so easily. All that mattered to those two in that moment were the stuffed beavers we had brought them back from Oregon. Hey, I may not have children, but I do know how to get on their good side.
Beavers, sticky fingers, lots of giggles and a side order of inspiration were just what my weary spirit needed that morning. So, lately I’ve been trying to listen to my inner-child and put Ouiser on mute. I know it’s a tough challenge – I was a grouchy old woman long before my time – but I’m trying to be more present to the everyday gifts this broken beautiful world can offer.
I’ll keep trying. I mean it.