I went to Iowa and came home with fuel for the fire.
This summer I traveled to Iowa for the first time, to teach an iron handpress workshop at the Ladies of Letterpress conference: Type on the Cob II. It was awesome. I got super inky, geeked out with fellow letterpress enthusiasts, talked business, and enjoyed evenings in the "hospitality room" with some of the best people in the world. I've wanted to attend the conference for years, and I finally made it. I won't miss it again! Many many thanks to Jessica and Kseniya for including me.
I've been home from Iowa one week. I've been thinking and writing a lot. I've also been listening to every Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors album in existence. After a week of processing, it's time to gather my thoughts and share them. This is the in depth story. I've added "aspiring writer" to my biography, so this is me, writing. It's a little scary to share. But I believe that sharing is worth it.
On my travel day to get to Iowa, I took time to write a few things in my notebook. Let yourself breathe. Let your mind take a break. Don't let guilt waste your moment to recharge. It turned out to be the travel day from hell. My first flight was delayed 5 hours, which lead me to miss my next flight, which meant I'd arrive in Iowa after midnight. My hotel was still over two hours away from the airport, so I was pretty frustrated by the end of the day. I rented a car and said a few words of prayer in the driver's seat before putting foot to pedal. I'd slept very little the night before, and I was alone, late at night in an unfamiliar place, embarking on a roadtrip of questionable safety. I felt quiet and small. The simple words, spoken aloud, were all I could think of to do.
I wasn't sure what to expect of Iowa. I had only movie musicals for reference - Margie and her family going to the State Fair and Music Man Professor Harold Hill winning the hearts of stubborn Iowans and deciding to stick around. It wasn't altogether different than I expected. Upon leaving the airport, I was on a quiet two lane highway, with periodic streetlights and barns in the distance.
As I drove, the streetlights disappeared into darkness and the road got smaller. The pitch black sky was only broken by my headlights, clicked from low to high to low again when a truck passed in the other direction. For many miles, it was just me out there. Me and fireflies, dotting the night with flickering stars. The sky, black and otherwise starless, was lit at times with lightning - hot and bright and revealing gigantic storm clouds. It was beautiful. It was late. I sang, sat up straight, stretched my left leg, tinkered with the air conditioning. I tried not to think about the time, my tired head and the distance left to travel. Just keep going. One more twist of the road. One more flash of light. One more barn or truck or mile. A deer crossed the road, just escaping my headlights. I teared up, thinking about my sleeping son. I memorized the words to new favorite songs. I felt guilty for leaving home. I felt hopeful for the trip.
I arrived at my room in the Mount Pleasant, Iowa Rodeway Inn at 3am. My body was there, but my mind had already checked out. I craved sleep. It was finally time. Tomorrow would arrive too soon. I left home craving rest and I lost sleep instead. But rest came anyway.
My alarm woke me up too early in the morning, and I sat in my bed staring dully at the busy patterned carpet. I left my frigidly air conditioned room and opened the motel's back door to a warm, humid summer morning. I took in my Iowa surroundings. Flat and green, with big clouds. I did a first thing of the day that would soon become ritual - using the car key buttons to locate my transportation. Five days together, and I still couldn't pick that car out of a line up if my life depended on it. I drove to the Midwest Old Thresher's, a place I could never remember the name of and as such, nicknamed "Thresher's Paradise." I was so tired on the drive that I stopped at two different flashing light four way stops, waiting for them to turn green. The phenomenon I experienced has been explained to me as "Iowa nice." No one honked at me. They waited their turn as I snoozed with my eyes open. I suppose that is pretty darn nice.
I arrived at the conference and found myself in a conundrum. I'm a strange blend of both needy for people and awkward. I've decided to call my personality "chatty introvert." This set of traits makes arriving at events complicated. I was simultaneously thrilled to be there with other printers, and terrified of them. Lack of sleep didn't help the situation. In those panicky, sleepy moments, I wanted to run away. Instead, I drank three cups of coffee. And then, I spotted Printer's Hall. I timidly wandered in, afraid I was breaking the rules. (I hate breaking the rules.) What greeted my tired eyes made everything okay. Cast iron, wood, lead, ink, dirt, weight, and history. I didn't know many people in the room, but these things I know.
Printer's Hall is a faux wood building within a massive barn structure. Flags of all different designs hang from the ceiling, ranging from the American flag to "Don't tread on me" to my favorite, an anchor and the word hope. The floors are dusty, huge doors open to the outside. The rest of the building is filled with farming equipment, stretching back into darkness.
I'd been asked to teach a workshop on the iron handpress and speak in panel about design and letterpress. I'd been preparing, but in the way a new mom/small business owner can - only to a point, and for about 10 minutes at time. I worried that no one would take my class. I worried that I'd been a last choice. I worried that I'd be left out. I prepared to start my class. I was nervous, but too tired to do much mental multi-tasking. In the final moments before my students arrived, I worried - sure that everyone had assumed I was a fraud or that no one cared about the iron handpress. Tears were collecting, threatening to release the previous day's frustration and exhaustion, the month before's lows and fear and my mom guilt at leaving home. I was close to crying like Iowa rain - sudden, torrential, humid. A hot mess.
But then, there they were - my beautiful students. They came eager to learn, excited about the iron handpress. They were patient and kind and encouraging. And with them before me, I started to talk about this thing I love. As I talked, my confidence and knowledge surprised me. Teaching comes easy. I have this deep need to communicate ideas and share what I love with others. I love the sharing and I love the sharers. It feels like where I'm supposed to be.
The four hours flew by. We covered less than I'd thought we'd have time for, but by the end we were all inky and smiling. We'd done a day long scavenger hunt for necessary printing materials, but we'd done it together. We all chipped in. We celebrated successes. We came away with inky hands. In my opinion, all the best days end with inky hands.
That night, I drove through the window at McDonald's, intending to stop at Walmart for supplies and eat at the motel. Instead, I scarfed down my meal in the car in the parking lot like a wild animal. I'd skipped lunch, and I was just so tired. I wandered Walmart's massive aisles like a drunk, collecting rubber gloves and blue painter's tape and snacks. I made it back to the hotel and slept from 8pm to 8am. It was glorious.
Day Two included the panel on design and letterpress I'd been asked to speak on. It occurred to me half way through that getting paid to have an opinion and say things I've been thinking about to people who smile and nod in return... It's a totally sweet gig and I'm stupid lucky to do it. Words flowed, people asked great questions, and I said things I hadn't realized I'd processed yet. I don't know why, but I open my mouth and things come out, and I think - where did that come from? It's always been that way. The best term I can come up with is "external processing."
Day Two continued with the second half of my class. I'd given the crash course on the first day, and it was time to let my students problem solve and print. And we printed lots! Beautiful things with beautiful solutions to tricky problems. I felt like a proud mama. We ended the day with preparing a keepsake to print for the final day. It included wood type, printer's blocks, type cast on the Ludlow, and lines from the Linotype. We finished the prints by sending them through the thermography machine. Few places in the world have a collection of equipment to rival Printer's Hall. Handpresses, C&P's, tabletops, Windmills, Vandercooks, and things I didn't know the names for. It was a printer's playground. It's an honor to print there.
After the events of the second day, we had a banquet dinner in a pavilion on the property. It was hot, the food was hearty, and the locally made beer was delicious. Storytelling commenced, and a feeling that had been building finally blossomed. These were my people, my tribe. I belonged here. We laughed and got loud and I smiled until my face hurt. It's been too long since I relaxed enough to have that much fun. I laid down my burdens and enjoyed the here and now. The evening continued back in the motel's "hospitality room," with students and teachers and printers - from far away and locals, enjoying each other's company. We were silly, we were serious. We talked smack and we got sappy. We stayed up past two. (It's been years since I stayed up that late on purpose.)
It all felt so important in the moment, and my urge to write it all down in detail on the flight home was overwhelming. Perhaps I was tired of travel or my hand hurt or time and miles pass - but written down it seems more straight forward, less whirlwind than it did then. Maybe it's okay that the tornado stops and there's calm again. Being away was a giant release after months of holding my breath. It was heady with joy and people who understand. Maybe it's selfish and silly to get swept up. But for a few days, I felt useful, skilled, well spoken. When we're all sick with the same obsession, I'm not crazy - I'm home. I left home and found home, and like always, travel leaves me torn.
The drive back from Mount Pleasant to the airport in Des Moines was safer than my trip in the other direction. The roads are totally different in the light of day. Once there was darkness and unknown, but on the way home it was wide open and green as far as the eye could see. I drove and listened to music and tried to figure myself out. Fireflies and lightning were replaced with red winged blackbirds, crossing my path in bright flashes of color. I loved them and I never wanted them to go away.
I followed signs for the American Gothic house. I drove through the tiny town and made my fine art pilgrimage. It was hot and raining softly. I picked a bright yellow flower. I stood before the little house and felt alone. But a half smile, heart tugging, sick with love, melancholy alone.
I want to grab all these moments and immortalize them, because they feel somehow vital and I don't want to risk losing them. I fell in love with Iowa a little bit.
I have a lot of feelings. Many at once. Big ones and small ones, pushing each other out of the way, fighting for my attention. It's just how I am. I came out this way. I like my feelings. They let me feel inspired and hopeful and sad and scared and cold and empty and full and joyful and in love and amazed and young and growing and beautiful and small. I wouldn't send them away for anything. They make me more human. Without the feelings, I'm a hard working efficiency monster with an infinite to do list and no empathy. But lately there are so many feelings, they get jumbled. It's like I can see something large coming on the horizon, but I can't tell if it's a bear or a truck or a storm cloud. Here comes a feeling! Here it is! Wow, it's a big one. What is it? I'm knocked down but unsure if I'm mauled or flattened or just getting rained on. I grasp for words to describe my feelings, for people to help me discern. But though I find immeasurable value in sharing experiences with others, and I generally believe we all share the same basic feelings and desires, hopes and needs... I'm scared of hurting others with my vagueness. I have to find the words to explain and express.
Being away, after what feels like a lifetime of crazy circumstances at home - away felt like freedom and deep breathing and open road and sense of self. I talked and shared and stayed up late. I taught and learned and laughed and got rest. I thought about the reasons I started my business and the things I want to do. I felt like me. I felt valid and worthy and anchored, but moving towards the future. I felt like part of a tribe. Others understood and saw and nodded heads and were kindred spirits. I rolled all this up into one giant IOWA feeling that I didn't have a category for.
For several months (okay, maybe years) I've had major life stuff to deal with, and I've ignored how I'm doing to keep juggling 1,001 things. Nothing really got dropped except for personal well-being things. Leaving home (especially leaving my son for the first time) brought on a lot of guilt, but guilt is a liar. After returning home, two different people told me to take care of myself. And they're right. I can't care for my family or my business if I fall apart.
So this week I got honest (for real) about my limitations. I'd like to believe I'm super woman, but I'm not. I'm a communicator, and I need to talk about things - everything. Even the scary stuff. So I scheduled a few things: date night with my husband, time to make and experiment, and a meeting with a counselor. They're no brainer things now that I've done them, but they felt like mountains to climb when I realized I'd been missing them. Being a new mom, a wife and the owner of a rapidly growing business is a lot to juggle. And there is no shame in admitting you need to talk things through and handle things differently. In fact, it's healthy. (I say this to me as much as to you.)
I also need to get the heck out of town on occasion, because travel is clarifying and challenging for me. The things I can ignore at home hit me like a ton of bricks on an airplane or a road trip. I left home to teach a class and speak on a panel, and I came home with dear new friends, “fuel for the fire,” important realizations and some new grace for myself. Taking the time in Iowa for myself gave me new wind for my sails.
And yes, I took an 8 month break from writing for the blog. In the last 8 months, I became a mom and grew our stockist list by more than 100 stores. It's been nuts around here! If you'd like more frequent updates, go follow me on Instagram. I'm @constellationco.