Somewhere Over Milwaukee, flying home from a writing retreat, May 2008, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
“That looks like Louise Erdrich?” I said, shuffling toward the boarding area of the DC-9 parked on the runway. Northwest Flight 792 out of Milwaukee was about to depart. Three days earlier on our flight from Minneapolis, Teri was stopped in security by a stern, expressionless woman with black, straight hair running down her back.
“What’s going on?” I had asked, sliding my laptop into a slingpack and leaning down to slip on my Lands’ End moccasins. Teri turned to me with a blank look. “It’s the soup,” she said. “The soup?” I laughed.
She had been stopped for carrying a blue ice pack in a small rectangular thermos, housing packages of Minnesota wild rice soup. Bob was bringing ribs from Missouri. We chuckled, wondering if they’d made it through the luggage scan.
“Come with me,” the security guard said to Teri. You need to go back through security.” I blindly followed. One step past the yellow striped police line, I realized my mistake. “Wait, can’t I wait here?” I asked the guard. “Too late,” she said.
I followed Teri, we checked our bags, and looped back through security, twice. Then we sprinted to Gate C3, pausing only long enough to realize we were supposed to be at Gate C7. We were two of the last to board the plane.
By comparison, the Milwaukee check-in had been effortless. No wild rice soup incidents. No blue ice packs filled with dangerous liquids. But Teri did have her backpack searched again. This time it was toothpaste. Finally we were shuffling toward the packed plane bound for Minneapolis.
“Yeah, isn’t that Louise Erdrich?” I asked again.
“What? Where…” Teri said, turning her head in the direction I was staring. “That is Louise Erdrich.”
We played it cool. But could barely contain our excitement. A second before, we had been embroiled in a conversation about writers. And we had talked about Louise among the four of us Saturday night, during a weekend writing retreat at a cabin on Lake Michigan.
Jude mentioned that Louise was coming to Wisconsin to talk about her new book, The Plague of Doves. That spawned a conversation about a night last winter, when Teri, Liz, and I went to see Louise Erdrich and her two sisters, Heid and Lise, at the Minneapolis Central Library. They were appearing together for a local program on writers, Talk of the Stacks.
All three Erdrich sisters are writers. After the Friends of the Library book discussion, we had them sign our books, and Liz took a few photographs, including family shots that she agreed to email to Heid.
That was February. Now it was May — two days earlier, we had talked in casual conversation about our favorite Louise Erdrich books. And just like that, Poof! — she was sitting 15 feet from us at the airport in Milwaukee. Most people did not recognize her.
“Should we say something?” Teri asked.
“Hmmm, I don’t know. Maybe she wants to be anonymous,” I said, throwing another glance toward Louise. She wore frameless glasses, a long brown skirt, and a print blazer. When you run into a well-known writer in public, how do you know the respectful thing to do? Would the writer want you to acknowledge her work, or respect her privacy. What would my published writing friends want. What would I want?
We scanned our boarding passes and headed to our seats. We thought she’d fly First Class. But then, we didn’t even know if she was on the same plane. We were quietly surprised a few minutes later when Louise elegantly walked down the aisle with her leather briefcase. She stopped while a young man in the row across from us almost knocked her over while slinging his carry-on luggage up to the top rack.
After one more look over our shoulders, we buckled our seat belts and settled in. Louise sat down in the opposite aisle, three rows from the back of the plane. It was inspiring be in the company of a famous writer known for her craft. It felt auspicious that she was on the same flight.
“Well, at least if we go down, it will be with one of Minnesota’s most famous writers,” I quipped. “And after a great writing retreat in Wisconsin.” In some twisted way, a moment of spontaneous, dark humor made sense to me. I never board a plane without saying my prayers.
Tired from the weekend, I stared out the window. The curves of Lake Michigan receded into the distance. I thought about Maurine’s funeral pyre on the beach Sunday night. I thought about how the wet sand stuck to my feet the morning I wrote haiku on the beach. I thought about literature, about writing. I thought about Louise Erdrich. She was carrying a CBS bag. Was she on book tour? Had she been in Chicago? New York?
How do you stay grounded, traveling all over the country promoting a new book. I remembered something Ann Patchett said when I saw her speak last year at the Fitzgerald — when you go on book tour, prepare to talk about the last book you wrote. It’s the one people have most likely read.
Teri struck up a conversation with the law student in the seat beside her. He was from Washington, D.C. They exchanged stories throughout the flight. He talked about his travels; she told him about the writing retreat, and that Louise Erdrich was on the same plane. Smiling, I looked down at Lake Michigan and the skyline of Milwaukee.
We rose to cruising altitude, the wings swooped, the plane tipped. We were heading for a bank of clouds with an open slice of light. I quickly unstrapped the Canon from my backpack under the seat, and clicked off a few shots.
The law student dropped his cell phone under his seat. It slid back toward me, resting under my pack. Camera in hand, I pushed it up under Teri’s seat with my right foot. “It’s under your seat now,” I laughed. “Can you reach it?”
She leaned down to pick it up. The glacial lake faded into darkening rain clouds. I focused on the rays of light between them. And wrote a haiku.
Openings, May 2008, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, all photos © 2008
by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
at the city’s feet
Lake Michigan from the air
Post Script: Teri and I bumped into Louise Erdrich again at the MSP baggage carousel. She was engaged in conversation with a woman she seemed happy to see. We wanted to mention how much we enjoyed her talk with Heid and Lise. But the timing wasn’t right.
Liz met us at the curb with a big smile on her face. I hugged her, threw my luggage into the backseat, and mentioned that Louise Erdrich was standing at the baggage claim. “Really?” she said, peering through the sliding doors. Teri hopped inside the Saturn and we headed to Hiawatha Joe’s for debriefing and iced tea.
I decided it’s enough to send good thoughts. Though I know her books, Louise Erdrich is a stranger to me. Perhaps the greatest gift was to leave her to a peaceful trip in relative anonymity.
-posted on red Ravine, Thursday, May 22nd, 2008