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The Way We Live Now

Every February the ladies at my church have a ladies retreat, and then a week or two later the youth at my church have a youth retreat, and I have to decide whether to go to one or the other or both.

It’s always at the coast. I don’t know what people do who don’t have a coast to go to. There’s a rented house, sometimes the one you used last year and sometimes a new one. And when it gets too small and loud you can slip away, barefoot in the cold, down the cliff on rickety wooden steps, to where the ocean waits; your friend.

This is the way we live now.

One week it’s all birth stories, and dark tales of the spiritual abuse from their past. Awful stories of evil, power hungry bishops who tried to control their weddings. Their weddings! I was so confused. What business was it of the Bishop’s? It wasn’t his wedding. You don’t understand, they tell me. You didn’t grow up like that.

Then, two weeks later, it’s a buzz of matchless energy and hormones, only I can never keep track of who is flirting with who because I’m over here chatting with the youth sponsors. We were all friends in high school, the youth sponsors and I. We’d go on the youth coast trip together, and back then I know who the flirty ones were. It was them, but only in the most subtle ways. Now they’re married.

I’ve barely arrived before I find myself driving down to Thor’s Well with Justin and Ben, the youth sponsor and my brother, respectively. We stand in the sideways rain and marvel at the natural wonders of the world, and talk about careers. I get soaked to the skin. I only have one set of clothes, because I’m not staying overnight, because I am no longer a teenager, and staying up is no longer a privilege; sleep is a privilege.

Back at the rental house, I borrow a change of clothes from Jenny and browse the bookshelves for a book to read. A thin, yellow paperback catches my eye: Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour, an Introduction. The only J.D. Salinger I ever read was Catcher in the Rye, which I deemed OK-ish. But I heard that he wrote stories about a family of geniuses called the Glass family, and I wondered if this was one of those books.

It was.

I was completely enchanted.

But then, I thought, about the time I’d reached page 3, the point of spending time with the youth is to spend time with the youth. Which you are not doing.

I looked at my enchanting book and my cup of tea and the sideways rain outside the window and sighed.

But books like these can be found at thrift stores and read, later, in the comfort of my own home. Time with these people is a precious commodity. And I genuinely like them. All of them. The ones who have found themselves and the ones who haven’t. The ones whose bishops ruined their weddings and the ones who subtly don the baseball cap of the boy they like and it becomes a BIG DEAL.

This is the way we live now; sometimes a naïve woman who has never suffered abuse or birthed a baby, sometimes a world-weary youth who goes to bed too early and talks about careers. But always someone who cares about being part of your world, even if I don’t slot into it quite as neatly as everyone else does.

Island Lake

The Oregon summer is like a magical rope that slowly pulls people west: the harvest workers, my dear cousin Stephy, Janessa-of-tiny-houses-and-life-advice-fame, and most recently, the delightful shining light that is Sarah Beth.

Of course, being the shining light that she is, she has about 75 people that want to hang out with her every time she comes to Oregon. So when I said, “do you want to go camping with me on Tuesday?” and she said “yes,” I was elated.

Then she added, “Ashlie is getting off work and coming up for a few days, can she come too?” Then I was double elated. Ashlie and I went on all sorts of adventures last summer and fall when we were roommates, but now that she lives down south in Roseburg we see each other much less frequently.

The camping trip was inspired by the fact that my family recently bought a minivan.

“Are your parents having more kids?” my cousin Randy joked to me after seeing it in our driveway and wondering what was up.

I laughed. “No, our old full-sized van died, and mom wanted something she could haul furniture to Goodwill in.”

Every cousin in hearing thought this was hilariously funny. “Your mom really needs to haul furniture to Goodwill that often?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I didn’t realize how strange it sounded until I repeated it, but I am certain I have heard my mom, on various occasions, say that she wants to keep a van around in case she needs to haul furniture to Goodwill. I have never heard her give any other reason.

On the other hand, I hoped we’d get a minivan so that I could borrow it to road trip or camp, sleeping in the back instead of the much less secure and much less comfortable tent.

And so it was that on Tuesday, Ashlie, Sarah Beth and I took our new red minivan on its first adventurous outing. We drove through the Cascades and down rocky pot-holed roads to Island Lake, a tiny hidden gem I only know about because my friend Esta discovered it last year and a group of us camped there.

Island lake has various charms that make it one of my very favorite places. First, it’s tiny and hidden, and on a weekday it’s almost deserted. Second, it’s situated in a charming and eerie burnt-out forest, and through the tall dead tree remains you can see beautiful views of the mountains. The island is just the right size to swim or boat to, to bask on, perhaps to build a campfire on or sit and read for a while on if you’ve brought a boat to transport things like books and firewood.

But best of all, the water is warm and deep. Yes. A place in Oregon that has warm water for swimming.

And that is the first thing we did when we arrived on Tuesday, though the sun was lowering in the sky.

Then we changed out of our swimwear, ornamenting the little baby Christmas trees around our campsite with our dripping garments.

Camping in a van is so low-key compared to the car-and-tent version. You can toss everything in the back without running out of space, and there is no tent to set up.

We were surprisingly tired after our swim, and went to bed early. This was my view out of the back of the van. I thought it looked a little like the shape of Oregon.

When I woke up in the morning, I saw Ashlie sitting outside on the van seat we’d removed in order to lay our our mattress. I thought it looked quirky and delightful so I took a picture, but I guess it my just-woken-up state I put a few of my fingers over the lens.

It’s hard to give a decent recap of the trip, because we mostly slept and ate and swam and read books.

And made a flower crown or two.

But then, what could be more delightful than swimming and reading books and making flower crowns with two of your very best friends?

The Great Switch

Two things I desire with a ferocity that nearly overwhelms me:

  1. To create
  2. To live an interesting life

I know “interesting” means different things to different people, but to me it means new places, new ideas, new interactions. Traveling, reading, exploring, learning.

College was a constant parade of interesting ideas. There was always a robotics club to join, or a new classmate to tell you all about her childhood in civil-rights-era Mississippi, or a free lecture on underwater archaeology. But I never had time to create anything of significance.

This period of my life is the great switch. When I have to put up with a less interesting life in order to have time (and money) to create.

I had tea with my friend Janessa the other day, desperate to glean some of her wisdom. She manages, somehow, to both create and live an interesting life, traveling the world in her tiny home on wheels. We ended up commiserating on our struggles with self-motivation, and I did a lot of verbally sorting through my feelings, trying to figure out what I really want out of life, which she patiently listened to.

“I’m terrified of living a boring life,” I told her. And she laughed, because it was a little funny.

But also, true. Because to create something, not just to write but to create a finished product, requires a healthy dose of mundanity. It takes boring days of staying at home and working on the thing. It means not just starting the new stories and dropping them when they’re no longer fun, but working on them. Finishing. Editing. Working hard.

I once read a fascinating article about how it doesn’t matter so much what you want in life, it matters what you’re willing to give up to get what you want.

For a long time, I was willing to give up nearly everything in order to get my college degree. One of the things I gave up was writing another book. I just didn’t have the time. I was, in essence, giving up my desire to create in order to further my desire to live an interesting life.

Now, I think I have to be okay with living a life that’s less interesting, in order to have time to buckle down and create things.

Part 2: We Admire the View

As you may recall from reading part 1 of our adventures here, Mom, Jenny, Amy, and I woke up Friday morning to a very poorly functioning septic system. We dressed and primped, using as little water as possible, and then left to see the sights of Port Orford while the septic guys did their thing.

After a breakfast of free coffee, tea, and donuts at a local cafe (paid for by our apologetic property manager), we headed to the Port Orford coast guard station. The museum was down for repairs, but we saw the old lifeboat and the lovely views.


Photo by Amy Smucker


Photo by Amy Smucker


Photo by Amy Smucker

After that we visited the port of Port Orford, which was an interesting and odd place. Instead of having docks with rows of boats moored merrily in the water, there was one large concrete dock with boats in little wheeled carts.


Photo by Amy Smucker


Photo by Amy Smucker

Every boat that docks here gets hoisted out of the water first with a giant winch.

After buying some iced tea at the little cafe on the dock and exploring some of the little Port Orford rocks and beaches, we decided to go to a thrift store at the senior center. En route, Jenny came down with a terrible case of hiccups. I tried to scare her (that’s a hiccup-curing tactic, right?), but her loud relentless hiccups didn’t budge.

We pulled into the parking lot and walked into the front doors of the senior center, trying to figure out where the thrift store was. In the next room over we heard some people talking, but no one was around where we were. But look! Some paper cups in a stack here, and a sink over there.

Now if you know anything about anything, you will know that the sure-fire way to get rid of hiccups is to slowly drink a glass of water while someone else massages your earlobes. So I, wanting to help my poor sister out, reached for a paper cup, intending to fill it with water for Jenny.

“EMILY *HIC*” Jenny whispered in the most yell-like whisper I’ve ever heard. “I’m NOT going to steal from the OLD people *HIC*.”

Mom and I burst into spasms of silent laughter.

“Oh, the thrift store is downstairs,” said Amy.

We went outside, down the hill, and into the basement door to the thrift store.

“Do you have any water?” I asked the lady behind the counter. “My sister has the hiccups.”

“If you go upstairs to the senior center, the men there will give you some water!” she said.

Mom went upstairs and returned with one of the exact same cups I’d been about to grab for Jenny earlier.

After spending our morning and early afternoon jaunting around town, we returned home to a fully functioning toilet. We ate leftovers and sat outside in the sunshine. “I really like this place,” said Jenny.

“Me too,” I said.

“Really?” said Amy. “Because when we first got here, you two were kind-of homfey glomphy about it.”

I laughed. I hadn’t heard the term “homfey glomphy” in a long time. I think it’s one of those phrases that exists only in the dictionary of Mom. And Amy too, now, apparently.

That afternoon we relaxed, napped, roamed the beach, and read. Then, after supper, we went to Cape Blanco. Ah, Cape Blanco, one of my most favoriteist places. (I blogged about it when I went there with Ben last year. It’s also the location of my header photo.)

As usual, the beauty was astounding.


Photo by Amy Smucker


Photo by Amy Smucker

After watching the sun set multiple times from multiple vantage points, we headed home, where Mom built a campfire out of driftwood. We sat around it for a while, feeling introspective and dreamy. Then we went inside and watched Call the Midwife.

The next morning we packed up the car and headed out. We stopped along the way to tour the Cape Blanco lighthouse, which had been closed the night before, as well as a nearby old house/museum called the Hughes House.

And then we went home, over the mountains and back to the valley, for the first (and so far, only) really hot (100º) summer day.

It is so nice, I thought, as I looked at my mom and sisters, to have a group of people with whom  you know you will always belong, no matter what. 

Part One: The Girls Have Fun

My mom has a great love of buying things at garage sales, re-selling them on Ebay, and collecting the profits in a “girl’s fun money” jar. So far this has resulted in at least one fun girl’s trip every time Amy happens to be in town.

Well Amy came home recently, I think for my graduation but I’m not 100% sure, so we organized a Smucker ladies’ trip to the southern Oregon coast. We left Wednesday and came home Saturday and had a marvelous time.

Port Orford, the little town where we stayed, is three hours from home, and we extended this time by stopping at various second hand stores (where no one under the age of 65 ever seemed to donate) and fast food restaurants. At last we reached Port Orford, and tried to follow our Google Maps directions to our house, only to come to a fork in the road with “Private Property” posted up at both forks.

This prompted us to stop in the middle of the road and have a friendly argument for a bit, until Mom found the official directions from the property manager, which said “Go left at the fork.” So we did.

“I hope that’s not it,” Jenny exclaimed as we passed a small outbuilding.

“No, this is it,” said Amy as we pulled up to a very small cabin.


Amy later claimed that Jenny and I were very “homfey glomphy” about the cabin. It consisted of a small kitchen, small living room, and smaller bedroom all in a row, with a tiny bathroom tacked onto the living room as a sort-of lean-to. The whole house was a bit crooked and sloped, and there were no cupboard doors on the cupboards. Lo and behold, when we tried to flip the light switches, we discovered that there was no electricity either. So yes, we were a bit “homfey glomphy,” which I believe is a term my mom coined about 20 years ago when we were slumped and whiney.

However, my attitude changed when I woke from my nap about an hour later and discovered that Amy had found a small path over the dune to the beach. And it was the loveliest little beach, with its dark pebbly sand that was incredibly soft to sit in, and the giant green waves that broke right on the shore.

It was private, too. During our whole stay, I never saw anyone else on the beach besides my mom and sisters.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach while the electricians came to fix the electricity problem, and then came home to a delicious meal of burrito bowls (cooked by Amy). After that we tried going in the hot tub, but while 92 degrees is hot when it’s an air temperature and the sun is beating down on you, it makes for a lame hot tub experience. So we gave up and retired indoors to watch Call the Midwife.

The next morning we all slept in as much as we pleased, taking morning beach walks at our leisure, and pausing to read books and do a little writing or watercolor painting. Amy whipped up a lovely lunch of make-your-own salads, complete with avocados and hard-boiled eggs and bacon and chicken and chickpeas and many other delicious topping choices.

After that, we headed north to hike around Cape Arago and end up at the Shore Acres gardens. This was the same hike that Ben and I had taken a little over a year ago, which I blogged about here. Like then, the pictures don’t do justice to the weird geography of Cape Arago, but here are a couple pictures of the beautiful views anyway.

…as well as one snap of Mom in the rose garden at Shore Acres.


If you’re wondering why Mom is on her phone in this picture, it’s because she was texting the property manager about our septic tank issues. Scarcely had our electricity been fixed, when our toilet began to resist flushing. The property manager was apologetic, and Mom was hinting that a partial refund would be nice, if they were hoping for a good online review and all.

By the time we’d finished our glorious hike it was past supper time. We drove to the nearest McDonald’s to buy smoothies for the drive home, and then ate a late supper of seasoned potatoes, chicken, and broccoli. Amy really spoiled us on this trip, food wise.

Jenny and Amy went to watch the sunset on the beach, while Mom and I got in the hot tub.


Then we watched more Call the Midwife, and went to bed, and tried not to flush the toilet too often.

The septic guys would be out the next morning, we were told. But in order to know for sure what happened next, you’ll have to come back for Part Two.

All photos taken by Amy Smucker.



For seven years I’ve been composing graduation blog posts in my head.

For seven years I’ve been waiting for the day when I could say, “I struggled through chronic illness and depression, I never bought myself new clothes except for a couple times, like for a friend’s wedding, I went to four different colleges, I did whatever it took so that I could get this degree, and now I’ve achieved it.”


Maybe then I could make some meaning out of my struggle.

During my long college journey, I never questioned the struggle. When I took time off for health or financial reasons I never questioned that I would go back. When I didn’t buy new clothes because I was trying to save money, it never occurred to me that safety-pinning my underwear together so that I could afford another 1/3 of a textbook was a bad trade-off.

I just wanted to achieve something.

I wanted someone to say “wow, you did that thing. You kept at it, and you did it. Good for you.”


But there’s not always honor for the strugglers.

In the middle of this term, I found out that despite my 3.86 GPA, I wasn’t eligible to wear honor cords because I was short 3 OSU upper-division credits. That’s when my dreams of honor and recognition began to break down. The very struggle that I was so proud of powering through, the struggle that caused me to switch schools so many times, was keeping me from being honored.

I’ve met so many brilliant strugglers in college. People battling homelessness, mental illness, discrimination, people working multiple jobs, people who had to skip class because their children got sick, and I’ve rarely seen them get honored. Many of them never even graduated.

And then I questioned why I was doing it. If it was worth it. If it was just a stressful, expensive, thankless venture.



And I concluded that maybe it is. But as much as my human heart wanted the honor, I was never in it for the honor.

I was in it, as silly and cliche as this may sound, because I desperately wanted to learn.

Professor Covington, during my first term of university ever, told me that a liberal arts education was valuable because “it is worth it to know what you don’t know.” And I deeply believed it.

I still believe it.

And as I sat on the football field with 4,000 other graduates today, I wiped a tear away, overwhelmed with a deep sense of thankfulness.

Thank you, Oregon State University, for giving me a chance to learn.

Thank you Bridgewater College, thank you Linn Benton Community College. Kind-of-thank-you-but-also-kind-of-good-riddance, University of Oregon.

And thank you, Oregon State University.

And Go Beavs.


The Wedding

Up here the sun sets late and rises early, and the relatives go to bed later and get up earlier. My mattress on the living room floor was not an ideal place to catch some zzzzz’s. In the morning I pulled a blanket over my head to block out the light and the feet shuffling and the coffee sipping.

Then suddenly the shuffling was right next to my ear, because my curious uncle had picked the book I’ve been reading, and was flipping through it.

That woke me up properly.

(The book, in case you are wondering, is Stories of my Life, by Katherine Patterson. Katherine Patterson is the author of Bridge to TerabithiaJacob Have I Loved,  etc.)

I drank tea and then wandered over the property, with its meadows, its Christmas trees that never sold, and it’s broken-down machinery. I took a picture and then tried to upload it for this blog post. It was too big. I couldn’t figure out how to re-size it, so I made it black and white and then it uploaded. Colored pictures will have to wait until I have a better internet connection, I guess.

The wedding was at 10:30 am.

As much as I pretend, while I’m at college, that I’m an expert on Mennonites, I really have no clue about some things. This wedding was much more somber than the weddings I’m used to. Which was fine, until the preacher (who, incidentally, was the same uncle who examined my book) started saying funny things in his sermon, and I was the only one who laughed. Out loud. I couldn’t help it! Isn’t laughter the proper response to humor?

(Apparently, in some Mennonite weddings, a silent smile is the proper response to humor.)

After a couple hours of ceremony and a couple hours of reception and a couple hours of napping afterwords, I hung out with my family and washed towels and tried to pretend that I don’t have homework to work on this weekend.

Tomorrow I road trip home. As much as I’ve enjoyed this weekend I’m also eager to face the open road. It’s been waaaaay too long since I’ve had a proper road trip.