Category Archives: Stories

The Strangest Day of my Life

I’ve been looking forward to watching this eclipse for months.

I love bizarre, dream-like experiences where the normal rules of life don’t seem to apply. Like when I was in Thailand, exploring a semi-abandoned mall, where I’d walk through movie theaters and ice rinks and no one was there. Or when the floods of 2012 blocked roads and filled the play structure at school. Disasters seem kind-of exciting to me, just so long as they’re not too disastrous. Because then the normal rules of life are turned on their end.

Everyone thought that this eclipse would be the traffic event of the century. Huge numbers of people from California and Washington were expected to flock to our slice of the valley. “It’s WAY over-hyped,” my cousin Randy scoffed. But Dad and Ben still discussed the best back roads to take to my Aunt Rosie’s house, where we planned to have a Smucker eclipse-watching party.

And I still hoped.

I even dreamed, one night, that there was so much traffic it clogged the little country roads next to our house. But in the end, it seemed Randy was right. Over the weekend, the nearby towns were completely dead. “Maybe they’ll start zooming in Sunday night,” we thought. But as we drove to Rosie’s Sunday evening, even I-5 was barely busier than usual.

Many of us Smuckers live just below the line of totality, which is why we all congregated at Rosie’s, a half hour north of us. There were siblings and cousins, great-aunts and second-cousins, and an 100-year-old man who wasn’t a Smucker, but slipped in because his daughter married one.

Matt showing us how the eclipse works, why it’s rare, and how it moves.

We ate hamburgers and hotdogs, and discussed politics and spiritual gifts. Randy tried not to gloat about how his “over-hyped” prediction came true. In general, we had a typical Smucker family gathering. But then, instead of going home, we spread our sleeping bags out on the grass and watched the stars until we fell asleep.

The Smuckers chilling in the Sunday evening sunset.

I don’t usually sleep very well outdoors, but in the last two or so hours before I woke up in the morning I fell into a heavy, solid slumber. And then suddenly, I was awake, and all alone. Everyone who’d slept around me had gone inside. And then I looked over, and there was a cup of tea beside me, steaming hot.

My first surreal moment of the day.

Alone in the brilliant sunshine with my tea and a book I’d kept under my pillow all night, I had no rush to get up. I just basked in the warm comfort.

It was my mom, of course, though I still don’t know how I didn’t wake up once when everyone left and when she delivered the tea. All I can say is that walking on grass is a lot quieter than walking through our old farmhouse.

By nine everyone was up, dressed, and outside. Eclipse glasses were handed around. Brunch was set up on long tables. “There it is!” said Matt, peering through his eclipse glasses. “See? Up in the top right corner, you can see a tiny dent at the edge of the sun.”

Cousin Justin, his wife Kayla, Aunt Bonnie, and baby Crosby.

I looked through my own glasses. He was right. One side of the sun was ever-so-slightly flat looking, and then even flatter looking, and then it wasn’t a flatness at all but an actual little bite.

Grandpa watching the eclipse.

Intermittently, we’d stare at the sun, and then take our glasses off for a bit to chat with each other, eat some brunch, or sip some tea. Every time I put my glasses back on I was amazed at how much more of the sun was covered. First it looked like pac-man, then a cartoon-ish moon, and then it started looking like a fingernail moon.


“Is it growing darker?” we asked each other. It was hard to tell. “Well, not darker, but it is colder. I’m sure of it.” I put my jacket back on.

“It doesn’t seem weird to us, because we’re so used to dim light from our constant cloud cover,” someone joked. And indeed, it did rather look like a slightly overcast day, except for the sharp shadows.



And then the real weirdness began, as the shadows changed shape. The shadows of the leaves formed little crescents, like a pattern of scales spread across the patio. My second-cousin Tristan splayed his fingers. “Look, I’m Wolverine!” He exclaimed, as little shadow lumps formed between the long shadows of his fingers.

“Shadow snakes! There are shadow snakes!” Jenny exclaimed. She’d spread a white sheet on the ground for this express purpose. And indeed, there they were, strange squiggly shadows flittering across the white expanse of the sheet.

Finally, it was getting visibly darker. “Are we going to have to go to bed when it gets dark?” Jocelyn, my cousin’s daughter, asked, worried.

I put on my glasses and looked at the sun again. Only the smallest orange mark remained, and it got smaller, and smaller, and smaller, and suddenly…

I whipped off my glasses.

“gulp!” The sun was gone.

I’m sure you know what a total eclipse looks like. Facebook is blowing up with pictures ranging from professional to extremely amateur. But there is nothing, nothing, like seeing it in real life. I know, now, why people become eclipse chasers. It’s like my friend Heidi wrote on her Instagram, “In the moments where the sun was completely black, the world could’ve ended and it would not have seemed out of place.”

And then a bead of brilliant light appeared at the edge of the blackness, and we all looked away again, back to the white sheet and the shadow snakes. And then, just like that, the world was light and bright again.

“Woah.” We looked at each other, shocked and awed. “That was amazing.”

The moon-shaped sun in the eclipse glasses getting bigger and bigger wasn’t nearly as exciting as when it got smaller and smaller. Jenny had to go to work, and before too long, the rest of us had rolled up our sleeping bags and headed back home.

“Hey look.” Matt jerked his chin towards a north/south side road east of I-5. “There’s traffic on 7 mile lane.” I looked and saw seven or so cars at the stoplight. Maybe there was a bit of traffic after all.

Then we were on the overpass, and looking down we saw that I-5 itself was WAY too busy to take home. Traffic! My heart was happy. There were a lot of people here for the eclipse. We decided to take 99E home, but when we ran into traffic in Shedd, we took a side street and ended up going home via about three different winding back roads. And as we drove I put my eclipse glasses on periodically and watched the sun become a cartoon moon again, and then a pac-man, and then a tiny bite that turned into a flat spot on the sun’s round surface, and then disappeared.

“Wow, look, there are some people on Substation,” said Mom as we drove toward our house. Traffic is so rare on that road that it’s tempting to back out of our driveway without looking first, so seeing five cars on it at once was a bit jarring. “Maybe Google maps or something is directing them our way.”


But when those cars had passed, more cars came. I carried in sleeping bags and pillows, but kept getting distracted by the weirdness of those cars. A few would come, and then you’d think surely that had to be the end, and then a few more would come. They mostly had California license plates. I was so fascinated that I brewed some tea and sat in a chair out by the road, people watching. How often do you have a chance to people watch from your own yard?

I walked into the front yard, then, where I met Matt coming out the front door. Matt had flown home from DC just to watch the eclipse with us. And as we stood there and marveled at how the traffic was just getting worse and worse, a legitimate cars-stopped traffic jam happened right there at the intersection in front of our house. It looked exactly like the bizarre scene from my dream.


We could. not. believe. it.

Suddenly, Matt, at 31, and I, at 27, reverted into the giddy teenage versions of ourselves. He began filming a Facebook live video, and then we impulsively decided to walk down to the warehouse and climb to the top, to see if we could get a better view of the traffic. So off we went, waving to people, counting how many license plates were from California vs. other states, and filming Facebook Live videos. We got very dusty climbing to the top of the warehouse where we had good views of nature but not much of a traffic view. Then we decided to stop in and visit our neighbors/relatives Darrell and Simone, and their children Dolly and Tristan, but no one seemed to be home.

When we got back to our house the traffic had reached unbelievable levels. There in our driveway was Simone, handing out glasses of lemonade and iced tea to the people driving by. “Free iced tea and lemonade!” she yelled.


Then she saw me. “Oh, Emily! I saw on Facebook that you were watching traffic, so I decided to come join you! And then your mom decided to hand out drinks, so I decided to help!”

Mom dashing inside to make more lemonade.

And help was certainly needed. We made gallons of iced tea until we ran out of ice, and then mixed up gallons and gallons of lemonade. We found paper cups and purple plastic cups and Styrofoam cups from the back corners of our pantry. We found cookies, and muffins that were leftover from our morning brunch.

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Photo credit: Simone Smucker

“What I really need is a bathroom,” one woman confessed. So we made a new sign. “Restrooms Available!” And soon had a long line stretching all the way out our back hallway. Matt sat in the living room and directed people to our upstairs bathroom, while Mom showed people where the downstairs bathroom was as she mixed up batches of lemonade. Soon we had groups of people in our driveway chattering in Chinese, as children swung on our ancient tire swing.

“We’re running out of cups!” I told Simone. “Do you have more at your house?”

“Yes,” she said. “I have a whole bunch in my pantry.”

So I rode my bike to her house, skimming past the cars as I rode along the shoulder. She was right. She did have a lot of cups. “Do you have a bag I can put these in?” I asked Dolly, who was sitting in the living room with her dog, Bailey.

“Oh, and also, you should come join us. We’re having fun!”

“Well, I’m not wearing a head covering,” said Dolly. She grabbed one of her dad’s ancient baseball caps from a hook in the mud room.

I found a utility-sized garbage bag and stuffed it with packages of cups. “How am I supposed to get these home on my bike?” I asked Dolly.

“Maybe we can take the 4-wheeler,” she said.

“Can you drive it?”

“Well, if I come I have to take Bailey. And I can’t hold Bailey and drive. And Bailey might be scared if you try to hold her.”

I didn’t know how to drive a 4-wheeler, but people needed drinks and drinks need cups. So I climbed onto the seat of the 4-wheeler, and Dolly climbed on behind me, somehow managing to hold her dog and the gigantic bag of cups in her short arms. She told me how to drive the thing, and we zoomed home. Halfway there I saw, in my peripheral vision, Dolly’s hat go flying off her head.

I parked beside the pump house and ran to start filling cups with lemonade again. Dolly came to help, and I saw that she was wearing a baseball cap.

“Didn’t that fly off your head?” I asked.

“I caught it,” she said.

How she managed to catch her hat while holding a dog and a giant trash bag full of cups is something I will never understand.

Bailey was a big hit among the people who came. “Can we pet her?” they’d ask, and Dolly or Simone would explain that she was a rescue dog, and shy of people. But still we gave them drinks and they used our bathrooms. Mom made tea until she ran out of ice, then lemonade until she ran out of lemonade powder, and finally we just handed out water and whatever odd grocery depot macaroons and brownie bites we could find.

I felt like Jacob who just happened to have some stew, and here were these desperate Esaus who were willing to give up their entire birthright for a cup of lemonade and a chance to use the bathroom. “Why are you so nice?” They asked, pressing money into our hands even though we insisted it was free.

But honestly, this was the kind of thing I literally dreamed about. The most surreal experience, and the most exciting thing to have happened in our backyard since ever.

There were so many weird elements to our day. Like, we didn’t have a trash can, so whenever we had a broken cup or a dirty cup or a sign that said “iced tea” even though we’d run out of iced tea, we just shoved it into the hedge. The dry, ugly hedge bush was surprisingly good at holding trash.


“I’m done with this,” shall I put it in this trash bag?” one guy said, after stopping to use the bathroom and get a drink. He held up his dirty paper cup.

“No, that’s full of clean cups. Put it in this bush,” we said.

Then suddenly, there was a gap in the traffic. The first gap since…two hours ago? Four hours ago? What was time, even?

We took breaks, with only one person manning the table at a time. Simone left, taking me with her, and I rode home the bike that I’d left at Darrell and Simone’s when I got the cups. The trickle grew less and less, like a waning eclipse, and then we abandoned the table all-together, figuring that if some lone car came by they could stop and help themselves.

Mom pulled together something for supper. Jenny came home from work, disappointed that she’d missed all the excitement. We rested. We processed.

And the Sisters’ Forest Fire filled the sky with a hazy smoke, and the sun set, large and red, over the coast range.

 

 

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The Weather is my Real Boss

In midsummer, the sun rises in the northeast, shining through my north bedroom window and straight into my eyes. In other words, if I don’t wake up at 5:45 AM, there is enough cloud cover that I might not have to go to work.

I used to read old books and wonder why everyone was so obsessed with the weather. Who cares? I certainly didn’t, unless it was hot enough to go swimming or snowy enough to cancel school or windy enough that the electricity went out. But now I get it. When your job is about growing things, the weather determines your schedule.

Typical Oregon weather is very wet and drizzly throughout the year, and then completely sunny and dry during the summer. Little known fact: this is the perfect weather for growing grass seed. Grow it while it’s wet, harvest when it’s dry. As a combine driver, I don’t start work until the hot sun has evaporated the last of the morning dew.

When a freak rainstorm hits in July, as was the case last week, the harvest frenzy draws to a halt. Instead of working dawn till dusk, my farming neighbors took a spontaneous family vacation to the coast. I sat on the porch and worked on the short story I’ve been totally procrastinating on.

It was a week before things had dried out enough for me to get back on the combine. And “dried out” goes in quotes here, because it was still wet enough for me to plug my combine up over. and over. and over. “My arms are going to get so strong,” I thought as I cranked straw out of the header with a giant wrench the length of my arm.

I consoled myself with the fact that Farm Boy, my co-worker, was plugging up more than I was.

I also consoled myself by looking around at the absolutely brilliant beauty around me. It was warm, but not hot. Gentle clouds blew across the sky. Sheep grazed in a meadow to the west, and the world smelled like wild mint. If I could ignore the dust and the grass seed filling my shoes, it was much nicer out here than in my cab anyway.

We quit for the day during the golden hour. There were long purple clouds in the sky, and so much wild mint, and the dust, when subtly scenting the air instead of flying in my face all at once, smelled like summer. What a beautiful, beautiful walk back to my car it would be.

I heard the old red pickup truck coming up behind me. It was Farm Boy, in his highlighter-green shirt. “Boss Man says I need to give you a ride,” he said. (He literally calls our boss Boss Man.)

“Okay. Thank you,” I said, halfheartedly, climbing into the pickup.

Farm Boy and I can never find much to say to each other.

“So, were you plugging up much?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, wondering why he was asking me this when we’d been in the same field all day. Surely he saw me plug up. “Were you?” I asked back, to be polite.

“Yeah,” he said with a chuckle, and I realized that he’d asked in a sarcastic way and I hadn’t gotten the joke.

“Did we plug up because of how wet it was?” I asked, just for something to say.

“Yeah. It was at 60%. It’s supposed to be at 20% or lower.”

What exactly was at 60%? Humidity? Is there a scale of wetness besides humidity? I didn’t know. I didn’t ask.

“Thanks for the ride.”

“Yeah.”

This morning I woke up at 7:30 because my Dad was loudly talking on his cell phone in the room below me. “Hmm,” I thought, “I didn’t wake up at 5:45…”

I looked out my window. No rain, but the cloud cover would keep the dew from drying up.

Boss Man texted me: “Let’s shoot for 12.”

I might start work at noon today, but we all know that the weather is my real boss here.

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Stop Being Spooky, LinkedIn

I have a very weird story about LinkedIn that has puzzled me for three years.

It actually began six years ago, when I started my very first term of college ever, at Bridgewater College in Virginia. Bridgewater required that every student take a class called “Personal Development Portfolio.” It was kind-of a weird class. We read Siddhartha, and the Sermon on the Mount, and a lot of random philosophers.

There were only about ten students in the class, and for some reason the other students really disliked me. One day we had to take a bus somewhere and do a service project, and no one let me sit by them, which was the kind of weird petty thing that happened in books but that I’d never actually seen in real life.

To be honest, it was the first time in my life that I’d ever felt disliked, and it was kinda tough because I didn’t know what I was doing wrong (though looking back I have a few guesses). Now, granted, I’m sure it wasn’t literally the first time anyone had ever disliked me, but it was the first time the dislike was obvious enough for an oblivious person like me to notice it.

I only went to Bridgewater College for one term, and then I moved back to Oregon and went to community college, which was, to be honest, a much less snobby and entitled environment.

Three years ago I took a journalism class. The teacher required us, as part of the class, to set up a LinkedIn profile.

In my profile I said that I went to Bridgewater College in 2010, but that’s the only info I disclosed about my time there.

Imagine my surprise, then, when LinkedIn sent me an email suggesting I connect with, of all people, a girl that had been in that class. One of the one’s who’d disliked me. We didn’t have any connections in common. We hadn’t had any contact with each other since I’d left. Yet there she was.

This has continued to happen throughout the past three years. One by one, LinkedIn has sent me emails with the LinkedIn profiles of various members of that class, trying to get me to connect. I  just got another one this morning.

I don’t get it.

Besides the people in that one tiny class, no one else from Bridgewater College has ever been suggested to me as a connection.

No one from that class has mutual connections with me.

No one else has ever been suggested to me as a possible connection unless we already have some mutual connections.

After I left Bridgewater, I had no connection anywhere on the internet with anyone from that class.

I just don’t get it.

While I was attending that class I did, once, send an email to the whole class through my personal email. But surely LinkedIn doesn’t have access to my email records? And if they do, wouldn’t I get connection suggestions about the gazillions of other people I’ve emailed in the past six years?

I am completely baffled.

The Pain and the Peacefulness

I woke up with the worst sore throat I’ve ever had in my life. I felt like I was choking on a pine cone. Swallowing sent brutal pain through my throat, and yet I couldn’t seem to make my mouth stop swallowing. I lay in a cold sweat, my muscles aching. Too sick to get up, too sick to fall asleep, and desperately in need of some NyQuil.

There was no NyQuil in my bathroom due to the fact that I “moved out” a couple weeks ago. My friend Ashlie and I are living just up the road from my parents’ place, which is why I put “moved out” in quotation marks, since I still spend quite a bit of time with my family. Like, for instance, when I need NyQuil.

Finally gathering enough energy to get out of bed, I tossed a few things into my backpack and climbed into my car for the 1/2 mile drive to the land of NyQuil and a comforting mother.

I parked in the driveway, opened my car door, and then just sat there.

NPR was announcing the morning news. “We will be updating you regularly on the Egyptian Air flight that disappeared over the Mediterranean this morning.”

It was 5:00 am, and the sky was that eerie darkish blue of not-quite-morning.

Rain fell, suddenly, pattering on the roof of my car, the new-rain smell blowing in through my open door.

And somehow, in the middle of the weird eeriness, the intense pain in my throat, and the sadness of another plane disappearing, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace. I didn’t feel the crushing stress of the last couple weeks of term. I guess this is what they call a peace that passeth all understanding.

I’m on antibiotics now, and I woke up this morning with my throat barely hurting at all, thank God.

It’s very much coming down to crunch time, school wise, and I stress because I don’t know how to not stress. But for the past few days I’ve been clinging to the memory of that peace because I love to know that it exists.

 

MOP April 21: Little Sister

“Hey Emily, guess what?” My little sister stood in my doorway at 11:02 last night.

“What?”

“This may be the last time you’ll see me as a 16-year-old.”

Maybe not so little, after all.

“Not if we hang out for a while,” I said.

She sat on my bed and we started chatting. I don’t even know what about.

“Let’s take a selfie,” she said.

“But I still have that white stuff in my eye.” I’d been doing an odd experimental eye treatment.

“I’ll cover it up for you.”

We took a selfie.

Jenny is almost nine years younger than me, and when she was born, seventeen years ago today, I didn’t think that we’d end up being best friends. I thought that she would be the little sister, and I would be the big sister, and there would always be a large nine-year gulf between us.

I was wrong.

I never wanted to be the person who was still living at home at age 25. I really value my independence. I was on my own for a couple years, but I was too ill to support myself and my mental health was in shambles and I wanted to go to college so I came back.

As much as I love my family to pieces, I always thought I would move out again if it were at all financially possible. Because independence.

Something interesting happened though, and I truly believe it was God redeeming a situation that I found very difficult. I became best friends with my little sister. The nine year gap became nothing. We learned to work through all our weird sibling issues. We had piles of fun.

So Jenny, on your 17th birthday, here are 17 things I love about you:

  1. I love your love of learning.
  2. I love your artistic side and fantastic sense of style.
  3. I love your wacky sarcastic humor.
  4. I love all our inside jokes.
  5. I love that you are unafraid to bash stereotypes. That you simultaneously embrace being geeky and girly and sporty, reading romance novels and solving math problems and doing cardio in your spare time.
  6. I love that you like to have spontaneous adventures.
  7. And sleepovers.
  8. And that we still play truth or dare.
  9. I love that you give me your honest opinion when I ask you what you think of my outfit.
  10. Or when I ask what you think of anything, really. Even guys. Especially guys.
  11. I love that you like to discuss the interesting oddities of life with me.
  12. I love all the interesting YouTube videos you find and share with me.
  13. I love the way you like what you like, whether or not it’s “cool.”
  14. I love that you’re not afraid to tell me when I’ve hurt your feelings.
  15. And that we can talk about everything.
  16. I love your unique perspective on life.
  17. I love that you are my sister and my friend.

Check out Jenny’s last MOP post here, and Mom’s latest here.

 

MOP April 19: Things in Unexpected Places

Today my friends and I hung out because it was Ashlie’s birthday, and we had a conversation that went something like this:

Ashlie: It’s cold in here. Why is it so cold in here?

Anna: I’ve heard that restaurants keep things cold so that you’ll eat more to burn more calories to keep you warm.

Ashlie: Did you know that fast food places purposefully make the music loud so that customers will leave and they can usher people through faster?

Mandy: If you want to go to a place that’s nice and quiet you should go to Coldstone Creamery.

Me: I want to go to Coldstone sometime. I have lots of gift cards.

And by “lots” I meant two. One that someone gave me , and one that I found long ago while cleaning the school at the end of the year.

Mandy: Why don’t you use them?

Me: I just don’t get to Coldstone since the one in Albany shut down.

Anna: (Wistfully) I had a Coldstone gift card once. It was for, like, $20. But then I lost it.

Me: (Offhandedly) Oh, did you lose it at school?

Anna: Yeah.

Me: Really? I have it right here.

I reached into my wallet and pulled out the gift card.

Anna: What? But I lost it, like, four or five years ago.

Me: Yeah, I think it was about four or five years ago that I found it.

Anna: But you don’t understand. I looked and looked for it. I prayed and prayed about it. Even Chaz knows about it.

Chaz being her husband of less than a year.

Me: Well, here it is.

Anna: No, I can’t take it!

Me: What? Of course you can. It’s yours.

Anna: You have to blog about this.

So I took her advice.

 

MOP April 13: Vindication

I was pretty bad at academic writing when I started college, which was hard on my ego. I mean, I’d published a book and stuff, how dare my teachers make notes in the margins of my papers telling me to take a writing class?

Humph.

Still, being of a practical frame of mind, I signed up for an entry-level writing class the next term.

Our first paper was supposed to be an essay about “the worst job I’ve ever had.” I wrote something clever and funny, and brought the rough draft to class to get critiqued. I think the idea was to get into small groups and critique each others’ papers, but as the teacher wandered from group to group giving helpful hints he decided to grab my paper and read the first paragraph out loud.

Oh no. My paper was not funny and interesting as I had previously thought. It was, instead, vague and confusing. At least, the first paragraph was. That’s all he read before flippantly dismissing it, and I went home with my writer ego a squashed mess.

I ranted to my mom about it over a cup of tea.

“I once had a writing teacher who absolutely tore my work to shreds in front of the whole class,” she said. “Then when I became a successful writer I saw him again, and he praised my work up and down, and I felt vindicated.”

After I got over the sting of criticism, I re-wrote the first paragraph to be less vague and confusing. The next class session, my teacher immediately came up to me. “Emily! I’m so sorry last class ended before I had a chance to critique your paper!”

“Um, yeah, well I guess the beginning was kinda confusing so I changed it,” I said, tentatively handing my paper to him.

He began reading it. “Yeah, this is great. This makes so much more sense.”

My writer ego scabbed over nicely.

Today, five years and several colleges later, I was finished with class and walking back to my car when someone yelled at me from across the street. “Hey, it’s the girl in the red rubber boots!”

I laughed as my former writing teacher crossed the street and came up to me, shaking my hands as if I were the celebrity and he was a fan. “I love your blog!” he said.

Mwa ha ha ha ha, vindication at last.