the hallmark town

Maybe you've been watching some Hallmark channel Christmas specials.

Maybe you've been wondering if that mythic American small town exists- the one that adult children return to on holiday from their Important Jobs in The Big City- the one whose residents understand that love is more important than money- the one where belief in miracles is all that's needed for true love to be found, small businesses to recover, and families to be reunited. (Also the one where most people are white, lower-middle class, and vaguely Christian.)

Tonight I'm here to tell you to Believe.

Yesterday we braved the flurries and low twenties to attend the town tree lighting and bridge dedication. Here's the town council cutting the ribbon on the new bridge. Yes, don't worry, the secretary saved some ribbon to paste in the town history book.

After the ceremony, we walked though the park, past the reclaimed caboose car which you can tour on special occasions, into the "depot" for cookies and cider. Then we gathered in a Who-like circle of joy and sang carols with Cumberland Gap.

We listened to one of our oldest residents read a poem, "The Light of Upland," and we were admonished by another that the Christmas season is about the birth of Jesus, God's gift to us... And that what that means for us today is that Upland is God's gift to us.

A local pastor read from Isaiah. My toes were frozen, so Owen and I went to the car before the tree was lit, but Rosie and Jack stayed.  After all, they wanted to see Santa.

But I wanted you to know, if you were hoping to find your way into that mythic pastoral American small town that Hallmark loves, with good old-fashioned (and sometimes small-minded, petty, and racist) values, I've found it, it's here, complete with ridiculous hats and heartwarming carols. I do love it.

Merry Christmas.

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.

art and hospitality

Last week Anna Broadway wrote this delightful piece for Books and Culture about composing haikus at work.  As web editor for a company, much of her cubicle work involves writing short emails, and one day she began sending them in haiku form. 

Broadway admits that many of her poems might make real poets shudder, but she keeps at them anyway.  Her explanation resonated with me: 

"...while I want more really good poems to be written, I can't shake the notion that any art form—in order to thrive—must exist at all levels of society, even if quality of execution ranges widely."

Removing fear and the pressure to be perfect allows you to play with art forms, at any level, and recognize that you are honoring the imago dei as you do what you were created to do. 

That's part of why our family attended the Blackford County Arts Center Open House and Dedication over the weekend.  Our friend Dan has been instrumental in turning a hundred year old storefront in the next town over into a community space for art, music, and writing classes and events. On the morning after the school shooting in Connecticut, Dan and Jack spent several hours clearing debris out of the space, preparing it for renovation. In an email promoting the Arts Center, Dan wrote:

"During that time, many debated gun control and mental health awareness and other issues. I felt that the best thing I could be doing where I live is working to provide a place made for the appropriate expression of anger, frustration, alienation, and more--a place where a person could come and transform his or her pain into something positive: pottery, music, painting, poetry. I believe that our communities need these places as much as ever."

Investing in local community doesn't always come naturally to me - I live inside my own mind far too much, and I'm not a very social person - but I am trying to be more intentionally involved where I can.

Anyway, this is a long introduction to the fact that I've written an essay about creating and fostering the spirit of creativity - about how hospitality makes art possible.  It's about my experience visiting Paris at sixteen, and about my life in Indiana now.  The essay, "Barefoot Places," is up at the Art House America blog today, and I do hope you'll read it

 (PS - There you will see a picture of teenage me, wearing a beret, wishing to be a bohemian.)