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.