going to Georgia, coming home

Driving home from Georgia on Friday, we listened to my “wanderlust” cd - a mix of songs I made a decade ago when I was writing my senior thesis on the idea of the open road in American pop culture in the 1950s-60s. I guess I still empathize with that idea that freedom is in getting out and going - but I don’t dream of it in the same way.  In highschool, I used to daydream about being a truck driver - yes, a truck driver - because then I could see the country, clear my mind, and listen to my own cassettes.  My life plan at eighteen included a year spent touring the country in a VW van, and another year backpacking across Europe.  I managed to do shortened versions of those trips in my twenties. Backpacking in Europe was the freest I’ve ever felt.

But it could never be that way again.  Now, when I travel, I’m never footloose and fancy free. At least part of me is always thinking about my home and my children and my responsibilities. At least part of me is always ready to go home.

The first place we visited in Georgia was Ed's Lake Rd, where Jack’s grandparents live.  It’s this kind of magical place, hidden back in a tangle of woods, and named for Jack’s great-grandfather.  That makes us the fifth generation to be there, and even after so many years, it’s quiet and isolated. Jack’s grandparents keep bees and have Fox News on high volume all day. His great aunt Mary Alice collects local antiques and plays the harmonica. She baited the fishing lines for Rosie down at the dock behind her house, and the fish practically jumped out of the water to our poles.

How many years have they lived there?  We brought one of their extra hives back for bees on our land, too, and I wondered how long this new house will be ours.

Jack’s parents have lived in their home in Macon, where we went next, for about seventeen years. The house was newly built when they moved in, and they said the yard felt like it needed trees.  Now, the house is surrounded trees so that when you sit on the back porch and look out, you think you’re in a small clearing in the middle of a forest.  Our acres in Indiana are more field than forest, but I wonder - will we be here for seventeen years?  Will we grow a forest, too?

In Macon, we did the things we do; with seven cousins six and under, that means mostly that we eat and play, but we also visited a peach orchard and the Georgia Aquarium.

Rosie wanted to have a princess party.  When she didn't smile for the pictures, I asked why. She said she was not supposed to smile: she was supposed to look regal. This is her most regal look:

You can see how excited Jack was about taking care of the boys during the princess party.

Sometimes it makes me sad - this sense that my wanderlust has quieted, that my possessions have weighed me down. My life had been rippling out and out: to Memphis and Austin and Gulf Shores, to Nashville and Mankato and Chicago, to Scotland and Paris and Haiti, to Italy and Vietnam and Cambodia, to LA and Seattle and now, Indiana. The ripples have stopped, the stone has sunken into the riverbed here. I’d still go, if I could, if I could still capture that feeling of freedom, but I know I can’t. Without becoming narrow-minded - I still want to keep the wide world in my mind, to settle in to this specific place without losing awareness of the beautiful variety of cultures and perspectives out there, without forgetting that though I am living comfortably, many people in the world are not - Now is the time for staying, for abiding, for following Wendell Berry’s instructions and knowing my place.

Now is the time for learning the name of every plant on our property, for walking it enough that I know just where the ground slopes, for growing the slow compost that will soften this clay into garden soil.

I was anxious to get back to our house (still so many things to do here before we are settled in!). But I was also surprisingly ready to get back to Indiana. I remember the first time we left Indiana after moving here.  We started driving south for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and as soon as we hit southern Indiana, a spot that was a bit hilly, I almost gasped with relief, like I’d been underwater until then, like the flat cornfields for miles and miles had been starving my soul.  I hadn’t even realized until that moment how much I’d missed the Olympic range, the Ozarks, the Rockies. But I had.

But Friday when we drove up through Indiana, cornfields on one side, soybeans on the other, the sky enormous above us, I felt peace settle in my soul, like I could breathe easy again. On 1000, the orange daylilies had faded, and something yellow bloomed with them that hadn’t been there when we left. The sunset glowed like cotton candy across our driveway, and on the back porch, its light hit my neighbor’s barn and soybean fields in just the way the sunset used to hit Twin Sisters when I stood on the back porch of the lodge in Estes Park. The hayfield next door, recently baled, called to mind a spot in the Ozarks where once, hiking by myself, I heard the voice of the lord in a frog’s mysterious croak. Inside the house, the saints of California gazed down on our suitcases and the girls in ao dai rode their bikes ceaselessly through the living room. We unloaded the bee hives we brought from Ed’s Lake Road and watched an episode of Veronica Mars with my brother.

Every place I've been is still with me now, and I'm home.

why we stayed

We made the decision to buy a house last summer (though it took us a year to actually buy).  What that really means, I suppose, is that we decided to stay in Upland at least long enough to justify buying a house - the staying in Upland part was the big decision.

We moved to Upland, IN from Seattle three years ago, and told ourselves, “We’ll probably just stay for three years, and then move on.”  At new faculty orientation, someone told us that ALL the incoming faculty say that...and then they end up staying forever.  I smiled nervously and excused myself to cry in the bathroom.

Here’s how we got to Upland in the first place: Jack was applying for jobs after finishing his MA at the University of Washington.  The TESOL market was saturated in Seattle, and the cost of living there was high, so we knew we’d probably have to leave the city that felt like home in so many ways. He was applying (or, more often, I was the one actually sending inquiries and filling out applications) everywhere, and by the end of April, he had two job offers: first, a fairly prestigious one-year contract with the State Department to teach in Laos; second, a ten-month contract to be the Curriculum Coordinator and Assistant Professor of ESL at Taylor University, the small midwestern Christian college that his parents and younger sister had attended.

We wanted to go to Laos. But we really didn’t want to have to job-hunt again after a year, and we also wanted to have a second child, which would be more complicated in Laos.  The job at Taylor would almost definitely extend beyond a year, maybe even becoming tenure-track. We took it.

Only a few weeks later Jack was offered jobs we would have accepted in a heartbeat - at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville (in the gorgeous Ozark mountains and only a few hours from my family) and at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (halfway between Jack’s family and mine). But it was too late - we had just moved into our rental house in this “map dot/ stop sign on a blacktop” (as Tim McGraw would say). Upland, IN (pop. 3845) had a total area of 3.15 square miles, no stoplights, and (needless to say) no Thai food.  The main thing we noticed when we moved into town was the high number of overweight people on riding lawn mowers wearing bikinis.

For two people with family in the South, the midwest was not ideal.  For two people who had met in Southeast Asia and dated while living just outside LA, a small town white as homogenized milk was not ideal. For two people who loved food, music, and film, a town with no restaurants, little chance of live music, and no movie theater felt not only not ideal but downright ascetic. In Seattle we’d been within walking distance of Vietnamese, Mexican, Brazilian, and Thai restaurants, at least three historic movie theaters, and a number of venues for live performances; in Upland, we were within walking distance of cornfields.

The ESL program Jack began working with was small and fraught with problems.  He put his heart into it, working with diligence and a strong sense of loyalty (as he usually does).  He started going gray.  Three years later, he is the Program Director, and the university has brought in Charlie Brainerd (who spent many, many years in China with ELIC, the organization we went to Vietnam with) to help expand and oversee the program. When Jack began, the program had a handful of Korean students.  Next year, we’ll have Korean, Chinese, Congolese, and Saudi Arabian students enrolled.

We struggled to find a church and to figure out where we fit in this small community.  For six months we visited churches within a 40 minute driving distance, but most of them managed to offend us in one way or another.  We had finally decided to just bite the bullet and attend one small church not too far from our house, and on our third Sunday in a row there, someone preaching from Revelations said something like, “I really have no idea what Revelations is about - let’s leave that to the scholars,” and I died a little bit inside.  We got in the car, looked at each other, and said, “Let’s go to the Episcopal church.”

When we’d first visited the Episcopal church, there had been hardly any kids there, and the congregation didn’t sing any songs we had ever heard before. Now, six months later, there were more families in attendance (though we still didn’t know any of the songs they sang).  Deciding to attend Gethsemane may have been one of the biggest factors in our eventual house-buying decision, and I suppose that’s how it should be: rootedness in a church ought to be that integral to life.  At Gethsemane we found friends and community, and for people like Jack and me, who are introverted and somewhat slow to connect with people -- it would be hard to leave these people and to start over again.

So, three years later, we’ve invested in the university and grown rooted in a church community.  We’ve also started to embrace small town life.  I love that we can walk to library story book hour every Friday, and on the way bump into other friends who are walking there. I love that I can walk my kid to preschool, and that I already know half the kids in attendance.  I love the sense of community at the farm four miles down the road. I love that Labor Day is garage sale day, and that I know which houses to go to for clothes to outfit my daughter for the upcoming year. I love that so many people garden and hang their clothes out on the line to dry.

Don’t get me wrong - I haven’t bought into this American mythology about the purity of small towns or farmers.  It’s true that I still probably disagree with my neighbors about all kinds of political issues. You can certainly find narrow-mindedness and divisions among the people here.  

But when it came time to decide if we should stay or go, it didn’t seem right to leave. We have good jobs (thanks to the nearness of the university, the plethora of dependable babysitters, and the support of the university, it’s easy for me to teach one or two classes a semester), the cost of living is low, and we have friends and church.  If another job came calling, we might leave, but it didn’t seem right to go looking for one.  It seemed more right to practise the Benedictine way of stability, learning humility through the discipline of place and community.

We’d like to be closer to family, and we’d like to be adventuring across the wide world, and we’d like to have a Thai restaurant in the neighborhood.  But in the end it seemed right to us, for now, to make it our ambition to lead a little life, to mind our own business and to work with our hands.  In the end, it seemed right to stay, and to live (as Tim McGraw puts it) where the green grass grows. 

Pretty soon I’ll be cutting that green grass on a riding lawn mower, just working on my tan.

abide {one word}

Yesterday I spent a quarter of an hour scrubbing the window above the kitchen sink.  I could go into great detail here - about the tiny, nearly impossible to plumb crevice between the back of the sink and the ridge of the windowsill, and how when the faucet leaks, it leaks into that crevice, and the mold that grows - or about how our hard water leaves a white film on everything, clean dishes, the innards of the coffee maker, and yes, on the window where steam gathers - but there I go going into great detail after all. Suffice to say, it needed to be cleaned.  

Cleaning the window doesn’t change the view: still snow, still fence, still wires and tree branches bare but for an enormous hornet’s nest.  But it does clear the vision.

That’s how I feel about New Year’s resolutions, too. For me, regrouping at the New Year is less about making a list of goals to eventually fail to achieve, and more about taking a minute (or more than a minute, but let’s be honest, I’ve got tiny children pulling on my legs) to reflect on who I am and where I’m going.  
What are my hopes and wishes? Do I need to change the trajectory of my life?

Cleaning the windows of my soul these past few weeks, the word that came to me was ABIDE.

I think I need to remain where I am, to sojourn here a while longer.

I need to abide with small town Indiana. You know me, I’ve been moving my whole life. I lived in four states before I was five years old.  In the last ten years, I’ve had seven homes, two of them overseas.  This staying put is foreign to me, and I get itchy to move on to the next thing. But it’s time to abide.

I need to abide to the end of things. I get excited about things at the beginning.  I get passionate and dreamy.  But I rarely follow through to the end of projects.  I put down the quilt pieces and start planning a gluten-free menu, which I abandon in favor of New York Times chocolate chip cookies, and then I think about how I need to knit a french press cozy.  Maybe now it’s time to finish some things, to abide with projects and ideas and see them through.

I want to abide with my kids, being more present when I’m present, and less distracted. I want to abide with my students and friends here in Upland, and with you friends on the blog (yes, I’m sticking with my blog, though still re-thinking some aspects of it all). I want to move a little more slowly through days, through books, through thoughts, abiding with them longer.

I want to continue on in the directions I’ve been traveling this year.

I think it’s time to sojourn here for a spell, here where life looks still, quiet, even boring and monotonous, because I think this is an underground year.  Verily, he says to me, unless a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. This is underground year, a die to self year.

After all, as NT Wright says in After You Believe, you can’t force changes in character on yourself.  They grow in subtle, quiet daily choices:

Character is a slowly forming thing. You can no more force character on someone than you can force a tree to produce fruit when it isn't ready to do so. The person has to choose, again and again, to develop the moral muscles and skills which will shape and form the fully flourishing character.

It’s a strange thing to me, to pick one word for a year, when really you have no idea what the year will bring. Can choosing a word change what the year brings to you? Or change the way you respond to it?  

Perhaps I’ll actually find that everything about my life this year will be overturned, and what the word really means for me is that Christ abides, and I abide in him, so I am unmoved.

Abide in me, O Lord, and I in Thee,
From this good hour, oh, leave me nevermore;
Then shall the discord cease, the wound be healed,
The lifelong bleeding of the soul be o’er.

Abide in me; o’ershadow by Thy love
Each half formed purpose and dark thought of sin;
Quench ere it rise each selfish, low desire,
And keep my soul as Thine, calm and divine.

As some rare perfume in a vase of clay,
Pervades it with a fragrance not its own,
So, when Thou dwellest in a mortal soul,
All Heaven’s own sweetness seems around it thrown.

Abide in me; there have been moments blest
When I have heard Thy voice and felt Thy power;
Then evil lost its grasp; and passion, hushed,
Owned the divine enchantment of the hour.

These were but seasons beautiful and rare;
Abide in me, and they shall ever be;
Fulfill at once Thy precept and my prayer,
Come, and abide in me, and I in Thee.
-- Harriet Beecher Stowe