Tennessee, and Me

This is my last week in Paris, Tennessee, and I haven’t done a single blog post on my time spent here.

This is partially because I’ve been prioritizing other writing projects, and partially because I realized, once I started trying to write about this place, that I don’t quite know the tone to strike when documenting this sort of month-by-month travel.

My travel writing is usually very event-based. I’m going out, breaking away from the everyday, doing fun things, and seeing cool stuff. But this new type of travel is such an odd mixture of eventful things and ordinary things. Like yes, I’m in a new location, around new people. But I still have to work, and they still have to work. It’s not quite as exciting.

So what has it really been like to relocate to Tennessee?

Let me see if I can sum it up for you.

The first person I met upon arrival that rainy Saturday night was Jenni Yoder, my new roommate and friend. She gave me a tour of her little house, showing me my room, and where I could make hot water for tea. There was a welcome basket on my dresser with insect repellent and water and snacks and maps of things to see in Paris TN.

Jenni explained to me that her parents were gone on a trip, and so she’d periodically go across the street to her parents’ house and cook for her three younger brothers. Her whole family went to a small church in a log cabin, and I was welcome to come along, she said.

So that’s what I did the next morning. I ate breakfast, met her brothers, and went to her cozy little church.

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Her church was tiny. Maybe 20 adults, total. And lots of small children. The service was cozy, informal, and discussion based. People were kind and welcoming.

But there was something about it that made me feel completely out of place.

The discussion seemed to be in some sort of coded language. At first I just thought people were just being vague, and I was about to ask for clarification, when I realized that I was the only one in the room who didn’t understand.

Eventually I pieced together what was going on. Let me see if I can concisely explain it to you. There’s another church in the area, a much more conservative church, that Jenni and her family used to go to. There was a lot of pain and dysfunction in that church, and eventually, a group of people split off and formed their own church. The log cabin church.

That means that every single member of the log cabin church has the same pain memories. They were hurt by the same people and the same institutions. So when they talk with each other about it, they don’t have to go into long explanations. All it takes is a few vague words about pain, and everyone knows what they’re talking about.

Actually, one of the most interesting things I’ve noticed about the Mennonite culture in Tennessee is that it’s very much a church split culture. I should ask Jenni about the exact details, but the way she talks about it, it makes it sound like every Mennonite church in the area was formed by a split with a different church, with the original church not even around anymore.

I know that Mennonites in general are way too split-happy. But I realized, after comparing Oregon with Tennessee, that in Oregon we’re much more of a migration culture than a split culture.

I mean, before my time I think there were a few splits. And maybe Riverside was technically a split from Brownsville? I’m not sure. But for the most part, when Harrisburg had issues people migrated to Halsey in droves. And when Brownsville had issues, people migrated to Fairview. And people leaving Harrisburg and Halsey used to migrate to Brownsville, but now Riverside is a much more popular destination.

Anyone know the science about what causes splits vs. migration?

Anyway, I’m not going to claim that either is a particularly healthy option. But being in Tennessee makes me think that a split creates an even more insular environment, because not only did this group grow up in the exact same community, but they have all the same pain reference points now too.

I went to the log cabin church again the next Sunday, because Jenni’s brother was speaking. The next weekend I was in Nashville with my cousin Jason, and I went to an Anglican church. That was really cool. I’d never been in a liturgical service before. It felt extremely reverent. And then this week I caught a little virus and stayed home and drank tea.

So from the church community standpoint, I didn’t really get very far in Tennessee. A month sounds like a long time until you realize that it means only four Sundays.

Most of my connection actually has been with Jenni’s family. They live across the road, and I eat meals with them several times a week. They’ve all been incredibly kind and thoughtful and generous. And Jenni also introduced me to some of her friends from her previous church, who are coming over for tea this afternoon. So I’ve made friends, but not really community, if that makes sense.

I’ve also spent time on my own exploring the town. The coffee shop, the library, the park. And I’ve noticed a few fascinating things about Tennessee culture in general. But I think I’ll save that for the next blog post.

Fun Times in Texas

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Sarah Beth and I in the coffee cart

It was late when we got to Texas. Somewhere between 11 pm and midnight. Sarah Beth met us at the door, wearing PJ’s and a smile.

“I just moved in today, so things might be a bit chaotic,” she said.

Amy and I laughed. I guess it’s our lot in life to pop in on friends when they’re in the middle of moving.

The last time we’d seen Sarah Beth was at her wedding this summer, but that being, you know, her wedding, we didn’t have a whole lot of time to hang out with her. We made up for it now. Who cares if it was the middle of the night? We sat on the couches and started gabbing.

Eventually we made our way to bed. By the time I got up in the morning, Sarah Beth was already gone. She had an early morning babysitting job. Andy, her husband, had also gone to work. I rustled around in the cupboards looking for tea, and then sat on her couch and sipped it in the quiet morning. It felt just like old times.

That’s how we used to hang out. I’d go over to her apartment and we’d stay up late, figuring out the personality types of all our acquaintances or whatever. Then when I’d get up in the morning they’d all be gone to work. She and her roommates. And I’d find myself some breakfast and tea, and just chill alone at their place as thought it were my place, before finally driving off to my 11 am class.

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Sarah Beth has about 10X the energy I do.

Eventually she returned, and the three of us got ready to go to her main job at Atrium Coffee Co. 

She felt a bit bad that she had to work the afternoon shift both days that we were in town. Beyond a few jaunts to thrift stores and the local Mexican restaurant, most of our time in Texas was spent sitting in a coffee cart.

But, see, it was great. Business was slow, so we could sip our coffees and Texas Fogs (Like London fogs, only re-branded to appeal to proud Texans) and chat and catch up and try to figure out why people do the things they do.

And then in the evenings we got to know her husband Andy better. It’s kinda scary, when your friends get married to people you’ve never really gotten to know. But it turns out that I can trust Sarah Beth’s taste. He’s a cool guy.

Saturday morning it was time to leave. Amy and I left Rosebud and drove north and west. When we got to Little Rock, Arkansas, we took a tiny detour from the highway and stopped at the airport.

“Goodbye, Amy! Thanks so much for driving with me!” We hugged and she disappeared into the airport to fly home. It was just me, now.

I crossed the sprawling Mississippi River, zooming into Memphis, trying to stay on I-40 as it merged and un-merged with other highways. There were too many lanes for me to count without losing concentration and swerving out of my own lane. But it was great. There wasn’t a single traffic jam.

Through Memphis, into the wilderness again, I stopped at a little rural gas station. Where the inevitable happened: I couldn’t figure out the gas pump.

I went inside. “Excuse me,” I said. “I’m at pump 4, and I put my credit card into the machine but nothing happened.”

“Oh, it asked for a PIN? Yeah, that sometimes happens. Just pump your gas and come in here to pay.”

Well, my issue had nothing to do with a PIN. But whatever. I pumped my gas and then went inside to pay. In the polite chit-chat with the cashier, I wanted to explain why a grown woman like me would have trouble with a simple task like pumping gas. “See, I’m from Oregon,” I said. “We don’t pump our own gas there, so I’m not used to doing it.”

“Oregon!” he said in his thick southern accent. “What are you doing way out here?”

“Oh, I’m just doing some traveling. I’d like to try living in different places.”

He looked at me like I was an idiot. “Well why did you choose Tennessee? Go to Florida or something!”

Ha. Well maybe I’ll take his advice once winter rolls around, but so far I’ve found Tennessee beautiful. Lush and green, with rolling hills and forests and bizarre blankets of kudzu.

That night I pulled up to the little brick house that was to be my home. It was the end of my trek across the country. Now, it was time to live for a month in Paris, Tennessee.

More about that in my next blog post, coming sometime this week.

 

 

Adventures in Hutchinson Kansas

The first stop on our road trip was Hutchinson Kansas, to see our friend Heidi Mast.

We go way back, Heidi Mast and I. She and her siblings were some of the first friends I ever made through the internet, in the mid-to-late aughts. Then Amy went to Bible School with her, and they became friends, and subsequently Amy and I have told each other, “you know, sometime we should go visit Heidi Mast again.”

So we did.

Around 5 pm on Monday, September 17, we parked in front of Heidi Mast’s apartment complex and walked up to the front door.

“Is this where we go in?” I asked. “I thought I saw on Instagram that her apartment opens to the outside, but not to this porch. Maybe if we walk around the building we can find it.”

So we walked around the building, and yes, there was her porch, with its plants and orange chairs.

But through her half-open door I saw, not Heidi, but a man I didn’t recognize.

We knocked, and he opened it fully, sending out a blast of air conditioning. “Is this Heidi Mast’s apartment?” we asked.

“I don’t know, I just rented it off of Airbnb…”

“Oh, okay.” We hurried away, embarrassed.

Heidi wasn’t answering our calls or texts, so we just hung out on her front lawn, in the shade of the big tree. And then suddenly there was Heidi, rushing out of the front doors of the apartment complex. “I’m so sorry!” she said. “I was hanging mini blinds, and I could see you through the window but I couldn’t get to my phone!”

There were hugs and greetings. “There’s a strange man in your apartment,” we informed her.

She laughed.

“So, I didn’t tell you about this, but I figured you’d be chill. I decided to move upstairs. There’s better light for my plants. I’m only partially moved, but I’m renting out my other apartment on Airbnb this weekend, so we’ll have to sleep upstairs.”

We were chill.

. . .

I am convinced that most of the truly amazing people, the ones who are making the biggest impact on the world, are the ones you’ve never heard about. They are the ones actively listening to the needs of their own communities, and diving outside of their own comfort bubbles in order to provide it.

I look up to them. I want to be like them. Someday I’d like to write a whole book, celebrating the accomplishments of these people.

But for now, I’ll just talk about one of them: Heidi Mast.

See, okay. Walking through Hutchinson Kansas, you get the feeling that it used to be a prosperous little city with prospering little people, but those days are gone. There are rows and rows of lovely old buildings, rotting away.

But to Heidi, it’s all beauty and potential.

And that’s how she sees people, too.

Heidi told me that there’s a pretty big drug problem in her town, and when she started working with women, trying to help them get sober, hold down a job, get their children back, housing was a huge issue. Not being able to pay the rent, and getting evicted, just seemed to set off a negative spiral of events. So she decided that, when she moved out of her parent’s house, she was going to get a place with an extra bedroom in case someone needed a place to crash for a while.

Instead, she bought an apartment complex.

Yes, I am not joking around. An entire apartment complex. She rents out most of the apartments in the regular fashion, making just enough to pay her mortgage, and keeps one or two available to shelter struggling women, free of charge.

And it’s not just an apartment complex, it’s a beautiful apartment complex. A downtrodden place with hardwood floors and old windows and kitchens that open off of the bedroom. Charming. She does wonders with plants and pretty rugs and thrifted paintings, and your heart feels at rest.

Here is, for example, a snapshot I took of her upstairs apartment, half-moved into, containing no furniture except a table and a bed, and still looking lovely.

For more pictures, and far better ones, take a look at her Instagram.

So anyway, Amy and I spent a fantastic few days in Kansas. We hung out with Heidi and her friends and family, and walked around town checking out the thrift stores and coffee shops. Including one that had light fixtures made out of tea cups.

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It was a very charming, enjoyable stay, though just a couple days long. Wednesday morning a few of Heidi’s siblings returned from a trip they’d taken to Iceland. So we squeezed in a last lunch at Heidi’s parents’ restored Victorian mansion, eating rice, curry, and yogurt salad, and listening to Iceland stories. Good times. But we had to move along to Texas before it got too late.

They gave us coffee, tea, and popcorn for the road.

Goodbye, goodbye!

We pulled away from the Victorian mansion, and out of the city of Hutchinson, and on down south, to Rosebud, Texas.

Reflections from The Road

Oof. September was a difficult and dizzying month.

I have so many THOUGHTS about LIFE: Some that are blog-worthy, many that are not.

Let me try to catch you up on the blog-worthy parts.

On September 16, a Sunday morning, Amy and I headed east. The first rains of Fall were splattering our windshield, smearing the dust and bugs, and then we crossed the mountains and, ka-bang! Sunshine.

Photo Credit: Amy Smucker

It took us over 8 hours to even get out of Oregon, and then we continued to drive on and on through the barren wilds of the West. Amy had downloaded an audio book version of Pride and Prejudice, so we listened in as Lizzie Bennet went to dances and house parties, met men of various sorts, and talked them over with her sisters.

Around 11 pm I decided to see if I could sleep. So Amy started driving and I managed to snooze a bit, but fitfully and badly. And then about 1:30 a.m., or probably 2:30 because surely we’d switched time zones by that point, Amy pulled into a rest area so that she could sleep too.

Rest areas, it turns out, are brilliantly lit. And now I didn’t even have the rumble of the engine to help me sleep. I tried, for a while, but finally I sat up and looked into Amy’s coffee cup. She had a good two inches of coffee left.

“I’ll drive if you’ll give me this coffee,” I said.

So we switched places and I drove, listening to music through one earbud. Driving through Wyoming in the middle of the night, you begin to feel as though the world goes on and on forever.

Well I mean, I guess it does, sort-of. Although there’s no road that reaches all the way around.

I was still a bit on the sleepy side, and though I was in no danger of falling asleep, I felt like my reaction times were slowing. The speed limit was 75 mph, but my car, laden down with my worldly belongings, had a lot of trouble making it up the mountains and hills at that speed. So I set my cruise at 60 mph and enjoyed a fantastic, relaxing drive. Hello thoughts, and ideas, and introvert time.

Amy woke up just as dawn was breaking in front of us, deeply purple and veined with thin clouds. Rejuvenated. Ready to drive again.

That was convenient timing.

We ate breakfast and now I slept. Oh, so soundly, with dreams and everything. Till noon-ish, though I forget which time zone. It was hot, here, and I changed clothes and brushed my teeth in a rest area bathroom.

I thought the hills would stop once we got to Kansas, but they didn’t. Isn’t Kansas supposed to be flat? Mr. Darcy proposed to Lizzy, and she rejected him. He wrote her a letter, and she read it in the woods, and started to notice her own biases. I love that turning point in the story.

There was no sign of Autumn in Kansas. It was hot, muggy, and oh so green. It looked like an Oregon spring and felt like a hot shower.

My 60 mph meanderings had cost us a good 3 to 4 hours. But finally we drove into Hutchinson, and pulled up in front of Heidi Mast’s apartment complex, at about 5 pm.

Stay tuned for Reflections from Kansas, coming soon to a blog near you. (And by that I mean this blog. And by soon I mean maybe tomorrow if I try really hard.)

Saying Goodbye

It’s been a busy, tough, strange week. But my journey has officially begun. I write this from the road.

I said goodbye to friends, went to Church camp, and vacationed on the breathtaking southern Oregon coast. A dear friend gave birth to a healthy baby boy, while another couple of our dear friends gave birth to a beautiful baby who had already gone to be with Jesus.

Asher Kai, they named him.

I’m not even sure what to say about this, as his parents are private people, and it feels presumptuous to try to tell their story on my blog. At the same time, it feels weird, almost silly to post about anything else…as if anything else matters right now.

Amy and I delayed our trip for a day, and went to Asher Kai’s burial and graveside service on Saturday. He lay in his little casket, that beautiful, perfect little boy, and we saw all the things that could have been but will never be.

As my friend Esta said so eloquently, “There are no earthly words for the inconceivable loss of a tiny, perfect son. Only tears.”

Update on my Crazy Idea

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In July, I posted about my crazy idea: I want to spend a year traveling to different parts of the USA, spending a month in each location.

Yes, that’s still happening. Currently, I’m planning to leave Oregon on September 15, which is shockingly SOON.

At first I was super organized with the plan. I kept track of everyone who invited me to their area, and replied promptly to their emails, and tried to sketch out a travel schedule that would allow me to spend no more than 10-ish hours driving between locations. And would also allow me to visit locations on weekends even if I couldn’t stay there for a month. I sorta wanted to include everybody, because I was so thankful to all the people who were offering to let me stay in their area.

I was looking to stay in about 8 or 9 locations, since I’d like to return to Oregon in the summer. I initially received about 15 legitimate invitations, and a few more dubious ones. I carefully crafted a plan. But then a few wrenches got thrown in. Like…

  1. More people emailed me offers to let me stay in their area
  2. I decided that my initial plan was too focused on the South, and I wanted to spread it out a bit more
  3. My sister offered to help me drive my car east, and then fly home, which was WAY more doable than trying to drive myself, but messed up the schedule I’d made
  4. I didn’t know if I’d for sure have enough money to stay in some of the places I wanted to stay, like DC
  5. Etc

I subsequently modified my expectations. I’m not going to plan out a whole year. I’m going to plan out three months at a time. If I want to spend time in your area, I will contact you at least three months ahead of time to make arrangements.

Right.

So here is my current plan:

Leave Oregon on September 15, with my sister Amy. Drive east. Spend some time hanging out with friends in Kansas and Texas. Then she’ll fly home in time to start fall term of college, and I’ll be dropped off in Tennessee.

End of September, most of October: Paris, Tennessee.

End of October, most of November: Holmes county, Ohio.

That’s all I’ve planned so far.

A note about Holmes county: Carita, who invited me there, mentioned in her email that she hoped I wouldn’t “dismiss” her area, like some people do. I was so confused by this. Surely people don’t think I’m coming to their areas, which they’ve so generously offered, only to “dismiss” their area?

Well, it turns out that Carita meant that some people dismiss her area because it’s Holmes County. I thought this was so, so funny. I have never quite understood the way back east people are with their counties. Pennsylvania people, when I ask where they’re from, will say, “I’m from Pennsylvania, but NOT Lancaster County!” And I had one friend who lamented that, while she quite liked her boyfriend, he was from Wayne county! How could she marry someone from Wayne county?

I had never heard of Wayne county in my life. Lancaster county and Holmes county both have huge Amish populations. That’s about all I know about what makes them different from other areas. As an Oregonian, I find it really weird when someone specifies that they’re not from some particular county or another. What is that supposed to signal to me? That you don’t have a bunch of Amish neighbors? Who cares?

Anyway, maybe if I spend enough time in the east, the whole county classification system will make more sense to me.

Bookweek 2018, Day 5: Middle Grade Books

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Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

For a long time, when people asked me what kinds of books I liked to read, I said “Children’s books.” That was confusing, because people thought I meant picture books. No, I meant real books, with chapters and plots, that were written for children.

I eventually learned that the technical term was “Middle Grade.”

Ah, middle grade books, where children never grow up and Cinderella only gives in to her step-family because she has an obedience curse. Where juvenile delinquents search for buried treasure, and there is a literal island called “conclusions” which people reach by jumping. When I grew up I looked for adult books with similar interesting plotlines, and couldn’t find them (with a few notable exceptions).

Of course the older I got, the more strange looks I received when I said that I liked reading middle grade, and that my favorite book was Peter Pan. So I began to clarify that statement by saying, “I like reading middle grade because that’s what I want to write.”

It’s true. Ever since I decided I wanted to write, my #1 goal has been to write middle grade books. Oh, I want to write other stuff too. Blog posts and plays and memoirs and picture books. But middle grade has always been the end goal.

But on the other hand, it’s not true. I don’t like reading middle grade because that’s what I want to write, I like writing middle grade because that’s what I want to read.

Oh, I still read plenty of books for adults. I enjoy complex characters and nuanced writing and carefully crafted sentences. But when it comes to the plot, I still think like a child. I would still prefer an absurd what-if story to one in which a woman in her 30s returns to her hometown and tries to repair her relationship with her estranged sister.

I’m often embarrassed by my childish taste. It reminds me, interestingly enough, of when I was a child, and how “immature” and younger than my years I always felt. I imagine people rolling their eyes in embarrassment and thinking, just grow up already.

But on the plus side, I appreciate being able to still see the world that way at age 28–always wondering, “what if this were different, or magical?” What if I opened this book I found in my grandmother’s attic, and it contained a recipe for a magical salve that could heal any wound, and I realized that the weeds that plagued their small farm weren’t weeds at all, but valuable heirloom herbs? Or what if our cat could talk–but she wasn’t a nice cat–she was whiny and annoying and we wished she’d just shut up? Or what if you had boots with pogo-stick-like springs in them so you could bounce instead of walking?

It makes the world more interesting. And it gives me, maybe, an advantage when I write for children.

Those are my final bookweek thoughts. I was thinking about doing a post about omniscient point of view, because I think it’s so much fun to read, but it’s completely fallen out of fashion and no one who’s anyone uses it anymore.

But I couldn’t think of much to say about it besides the point I just made. So that topic got shelved.

Until next year’s bookweek, happy reading and thinking about books!