Weekend Pith: Cleaning Slates

I always switch gears a little once September is about to come around. Obviously, that’s usually because school is starting, and even though my grad school is set up a little differently, there’s still a definite summer’s end and fall’s beginning. Should my plans for teacherhood pan out, my life will always be this way.

And I don’t really mind; Autumn is my favorite season, and I take joy in pausing and rerouting, in digging down and musing. Autumn always means a return to both physical coziness and heightened mental work. I love the interaction between the two.

This fall, I’m switching gears from my summer writing projects to my very different school-time one. Sometimes the transition can be jarring. I’m going from my work on a heady, multi-faceted mystery to continuing my draft of a more creative children’s novel. 

Obviously, this is a huge change, so every time I make the jump from adult lit to kid lit and back again, I let myself take a week off. I don’t work on any big writing projects. 

Of course, I periodically take unnofficial breaks in my writing, more than I’d like to admit. But this one is different. This is a break to make a break. This is a break to retool my mind, to pack up the old work and bring in the newer-old work. This break creates a separation and clean slate so I’m fresh and strong again.

Lots of things in life need little breaks, sometimes. I’ve taken breaks socially, spiritually, educationally, the list goes on. And I think it’s important to remember that sometimes the presence of a break does not mean the erasing of a certain part of your self, or a rejection of and falling away from what you are. Sometimes a break is just that, a separation and clean slate so you’re fresh and strong again.

Remember to take breaks. 

Reading Like a Kid

I remember reading a lot when I was younger. I gobbled up books one by one, reading whatever took my fancy. Most of them were children’s classics, cozy tales with female protagonists.

Little Women made me want to be a writer. The Secret Garden inspired me to sketch the plans for my own secret garden, complete with a wall and gate I would somehow craft all by myself in my small-town backyard. Anne of Green Gables reminded me it was okay to be a little odd and poetic, even if people looked at you funny.

But then somehow, as I got older, it got harder to find time and energy to read, even when I still counted reading as one of my main hobbies. It’s hard to justify sitting down and reading for fun when you have a job, or laundry, or reading for a college class, or—let’s face it—when you’ve already wasted enough time on the internet.

A lot of adults have a similar story. We loved indulging in literature when we were younger, but now recreational reading seems just that—an indulgence we can’t quite justify.

Ironically, I think my nearly five years of undergraduate education made me hate reading for fun. And I’m the biggest nerd I know. I love school. I didn’t mind reading for classes at first. But that mindset of reading-for-credit really gets ingrained, even when you don’t think about it. And it turns on you. When I graduated, there was no one telling me, “Read this by that date,” no counting pages til I could be done, no direction, even, of what to read and what to look for in it. I found myself a little lost, and a little miffed that my long-time hobby had been taken away.

I soon realized that my motives and justification behind reading had become twisted. I had taught myself that reading was a chore. I had reduced literature into page numbers I had to get through. Sometimes books were on my reading list because they were “good books to read,” something that had been recommended to me, or worse, books which everyone referenced with ease and I still didn’t know about. And sometimes I didn’t read because it felt trivial to sit on the couch and read a book I wouldn’t get any benefits from besides inherent enjoyment and perhaps some useless knowledge.

But the truth is that any writer needs to read. It is also true that life is too short to read a book you don’t like (thanks Leonard). And finally, it’s incredibly smug to assume you have nothing concrete or useful to learn from a book. Any book.

So this summer I let myself read like a kid. I picked what looked interesting even if it wasn’t my genre or usual choice. I had books gifted and recommended to me, and I enjoyed them and let them lead me to new fields I’d never considered before.

And you know what? I’ve never read so much in a summer, not since I was a kid. Something about taking away the boundaries and expectations, of letting the imagination wander if it wants, makes you explore and soak in. You learn, and you have fun doing it.

This summer, I’ve read children’s lit, adult fiction, self-help, theology, and poetry. My reading has been like a hike: I’ve walked alone, followed along with a friend, run off the trail and darted back, and walked a few familiar parts of the trail over and over again.

My hobby has returned to me, or perhaps I to it.

The Beginning of Adventures

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It’s not really the beginning of all the adventures. We’ve already been to El Paso. It was hot, and pleasant, and you could see Mexico right over the poor excuse for a river. It was lovely.

Tomorrow we begin the long-term adventure to Arizona, to the desert where we’ll be spending the next two months. In the many times I’ve been to this lovely state, it’s always been summer, which I think is probably the worst time to go.

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And yet, it’s not really that bad at all. It’s beautiful. Just a different kind of beautiful than my own beloved state. I’ve been drinking in all the greenery here, hoping it’ll tide me over, a little nervous of leaving the protective hills and peaceful trees for the always open landscape and wide open sky of the desert.

There aren’t many clouds out there. You can’t get your bearings or mark time by the passage of giant masses of water vapor. In El Paso at an open air mall I looked up to see a patch of sky bordered by buildings all around me, and I was bewildered. All that was up there was blue, no framing trees or hills or clouds. I felt lost and disoriented for a moment.

There have been many times I’ve felt so bewildered, for reasons besides the sky. This past year–one year of marriage, yay!–has been bewildering in many ways (not because of marriage, okay. That part’s been great). I’ll look up from all that’s going on and try to get my bearings on the clouds and trees in my life, and when I don’t see them I become disoriented (and also really crabby). I’ve had to realize that my bearings do not come from the fickle sky or the changeable landscape, no matter how decent or reliable they might sometimes be. My bearings must instead come from the earth, the Rock I stand upon.

All other ground is sinking sand, which I realize is the desert, but that’s beside the point.

Our Coming Adventures

Over a month ago I shared that we were making tentative plans for some big adventures. Well, we’ve decided to take the leap and spend most of the summer in a new place:

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(photos all by me :) )

We’ll be visiting the great state of Arizona for 2-3 months! We plan to stay with Alex’s grandparents near Phoenix, helping them out and getting to know them better. Alex and I have been to Arizona several times together and separately, and it’s one of our favorite states. Alex wants to move there. I’m a little more skeptical.

It was a little scary to decide to run off West when we still have a house and jobs here in PA. I like structure and I was rather set on our plan to stay near school over the summer. But this was an opportunity that shot up suddenly, and we’ve noticed that when this happens it’s usually something we need to take advantage of. We won’t have very many years of utter flexibility, so we decided to enjoy where the wind takes us while we’re still light enough to be swept along.

It will be a busy summer. We have three weddings to attend in three different states, none of which are Arizona. We’ll get to see a lot of new airports. But we’re looking forward to going on those adventures together, to discovering new people and places and learning more about ourselves in the process. We are fully confident that God is leading us in a new and exciting direction, and that we can trust in His provision as we do something slightly crazy.

And anyway, it’s the closest Alex will let me get to being a gypsy.

 

The Highway

This is a short story I’ve been working on for one of my classes. I’ve been wanting to share it here – enjoy!

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They were building a highway. It would stretch from the northernmost tip of the state through the mountains and all the way to the ocean, five states away. It was progress. It was speed. It would bring produce and packages and soldiers. It was the mark of every modern society.

Unfortunately for Norris, they were building the highway right through his farm, right in between his house and barn, where the old dirt road ran through to connect one town with another. Some engineer in Washington had decided that Township Road #132 was the ideal place to link the new Interstate. Anywhere else would run into a lake or mountain range, wasting money and time.

The highway wouldn’t interfere with his farm at all, they had told Norris. It wouldn’t ruin his land or crops. They were essentially just widening the road that was already there, which did belong to the government, after all. It was part of the President’s new initiative. It was progress.

Construction began at the beginning of summer. Crews came and plotted out the new boundaries of the road. It would be a four-lane highway with low railings on either side. You’ll still have your privacy, they told Norris. One edge of the highway was to come twenty feet from his house, the other twenty feet from his barn. We’ll build a bridge so you can get across, they said. It won’t interfere with your farm at all.

So every morning Norris got into his rusty Ford pickup, clattered down the makeshift service road, across the skeletal wooden bridge stretched over the fledgling highway, and down another makeshift service road to the barn, where he fed the animals and started his work in the fields. Around midday he’d return to the other side of the highway for lunch and then work in the other fields. “It’s a damn nuisance,” he told his wife.

When the highway finally opened, it droned with business. Huge trucks carried cargo to faraway cities and little cars, like brightly colored insects, carried people. The house, barn, and garden were soon coated with a perpetual layer of dust, and there was an incessant hum that echoed off the old farmhouse no matter what the hour. Norris and his wife began not to notice it until they went out for errands or church or visited other people’s houses and felt an emptiness in their ears.

Norris remembered when a single car on the old dirt road was an occasion. He’d been young then, a short skinny boy with a blond mop head, freckles and snaggleteeth, spending his summers running wild through the woods and cornfields. Dad came in from the fields every night at six, covered in dust, with rings around his eyes like a raccoon. Norris was expected to be home by then too, if he planned on getting a dinner and avoiding a spanking. Mum had dinner on the table by six fifteen, usually meat and some kind of vegetable, with her famous bread. They’d sit in the golden light of the summer sunset, eating and drinking the light and balmy air as they ate and drank their dinner.

One evening as they were sitting down to eat, Norris looked through the open kitchen window and saw one of the cows staring back at him, right on the other side. All of the cows had gotten out of the pasture by a break in the fence, and had ambled over to the scent of dinner.

“Dammit!” Dad said, jumping up from the table. The dust shook from his overalls.

“Bill,” Mum noted before jumping up as well.

The three of them struggled into rubber boots and ran out into the yard, where the three dozen brown and white cows strolled lazily in the evening light. It took hours to corral them all into the barn. Norris whooped and jumped to get their attention while Mum and Dad chased the herd into a little knot, then drove them into the barn while Norris held the door open and welcomed the bovines in like a circus master. When he shut the door behind the last straggler, he slipped in the thick mud, and when his parents tried to help him, they slipped too. Then, weak from exhaustion and hilarity the three of them pulled together and slid their way to the house, laughing in spite of themselves. By then, dinner was cold, but they were too hungry to care.

One day at the end of a summer, when Dad was in the fields and Norris had been drafted into the service of window washing, a blue Ford Model 18 drove up the dirt road in a cloud of shining dust and parked in the yard. The car stood out crisply against the faded green cornstalks and the yellowed white house. The man it carried stood out too, in a navy pinstriped suit and matching hat. He marched up to the porch, his patent leather shoes clicking like snap peas.

“Good afternoon, Ma’am,” he said when Mum answered the door. He swept off his hat and held it to his chest like a martyr. “My name is Ellis Chaney and I work for the township. I’d like to talk to you about improvements to this road here.”

Mum brought him in and offered him a seat at the table. Norris watched through the windows, wiping away the grime with his sponge so he could see better.

“Ma’am, it has come to our attention that the roads in our fine county leave much to be desired. They are beset with dust in the summer and potholes in the winter. Ma’am, we in the township value our citizens, folks like yourself who are the lifeblood of this county and state. We are considering paving this road here. It’s high time we had some progress in this area, and it’ll certainly make travel and trade faster, a boon for everyone involved. We’d like to hear everyone’s input on the matter.”

“Well, that’s certainly an idea,” said Mum. “But I’m afraid my husband isn’t home. I’m sure he’d like to give his two cents.”

The man cocked one shiny, groomed eyebrow. “Of course ma’am. I can come back another day if that’d be better.” He rose to leave. “But if I may ask, what, Ma’am, would you say about paving the road? I’d like to have your two cents.”

Mum blushed a little. “Well, I think it’s a very nice idea. It’d be… nice to go into town and back without getting so dusty.”

The man smiled. “Of course, Ma’am. If I may say, however, you look quite fresh and lovely. Not dusty at all.”

Mum blushed more. “Oh. Thank you.”

Only after the man had gotten back into his car and sped away toward another white farmhouse did Mum notice Norris at the window. Her face grew scarlet.

“What have I told you about sneaking around?” she said. “I don’t have all day for you to wash one window! Get on to the next one!”

Dad came in from the fields at six. Mum didn’t mention the Man in the suit.

As the weeks passed the cornstalks grew brown and dry and Norris was drafted into the service of school. Every afternoon he hurried home down the dirt road, his books and lunch pail holding on for dear life, hoping to get a few rambles in before Mum called him to chores and dinner. The sun was setting sooner now, which meant Dad came in from the fields earlier, which meant Norris only had a short time to avoid any work.

One afternoon he got home to find the blue Ford Model 18 in the yard. He remembered the Man in the suit, but since the dirt road was still dirt, he had filed him away as not useful. He wondered, as he panted sweaty and dusty in the afternoon warmth, if the Man was finally bringing some good news.

Norris burst into the house, forgetting to wipe his feet on the rug. A bump and clatter was heard upstairs, and then a wild parade of footsteps brought Mum and the Man in the suit (a brown one this time) down the stairs. Norris blinked. Mum’s face turned scarlet.

“What have I told you about wiping your feet?” she scolded. “Look at this floor!”

“I’m sorry Mum,” said Norris, feeling more guilty than usual for the mess.

“Go get the mop and clean it up. I will not have you tracking mud into this house.”

With a glance at the Man, who smiled with all his perfectly white teeth, Norris went to the broom closet for the mop. When he returned, the Man and the blue car were gone. Mum was putting bread in the oven for dinner. Norris worked silently, erasing every speck of dirt in the hallway. Suddenly Mum was behind him, her hand on his shoulder.

“Dear, I’d like to talk to you.”

Norris blinked. “I’m sorry about the mud.”

“Don’t worry about that,” she smiled. “I’d like to talk to you about Ellis.”

“The Man in the suit?”

“Yes… Mr. Chaney – the Man in the suit.”

“What about him?”

“He was here to talk about the road, you understand?” She began to blush.

“Yes ma’am.”

“And your father and I have talked about the road, and we don’t agree on it. I agree with El-Mr. Chaney. We’re trying to figure out what to do with the road, and until we do, it’d be best not to mention anything to Dad. He’s tired from working so hard and shouldn’t have to worry about another little thing. You understand, don’t you?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Good boy. Go on, then. And remember: we don’t need to talk about Mr. Chaney or the road. Not until we think up a solution.”

Norris went on until the whole house was mopped. Of course Dad wouldn’t want the road to be paved; he hated progress of any kind. It made sense not to worry him with it. At least, it sounded right.

That night dinner was quiet. Dad ate hungrily, Mum bustled around making sure everyone had what they needed, and Norris could neither talk nor eat. He still felt guilty, and he couldn’t remember why.

“Dear, eat your vegetables,” Mum said. He jumped.

“I’m not very hungry, ma’am.”

Dad put his fork down. “Eat your food, son. Times are thin and we need to show thanks for our blessings.”

“Yessir.” Norris tried very hard but the food in his mouth was tasteless and sticky. It was like swallowing dust.

“What is the matter with that boy?” Dad shook his head.

“He’s just tired, is all.” Mum moved her food around, then passed the butter to no one in particular, then got up to refill everyone’s water glasses. She spilled the pitcher a little and went back to the sink.

“I’m fine, sir,” Norris said, forcing down a bite of bread. “Just tired.”

“You weren’t like this yesterday,” Dad finished off his meat with a final bite. “I hope he isn’t coming down with something,” he said to Mum. “I’ve heard reports of the flu in town. Any kids at school come down with the flu?” he said to Norris.

“No sir,” Norris gulped down his newly-filled glass of water.

“He’s fine,” said Mum, “and even if he is coming down with something, I’ll just run him up to the new doctor Ellis was telling me ab – ”

She stood still for a moment, then sat down slowly and set the pitcher in between her and Dad. Norris stared at her in horror.

“Who’s Ellis?” Dad looked up, sensing the change in the air.

“That man.”

“What man?”

“That man from the township. I mentioned him to you. He came over again today asking about the road.”

“I thought we already told him what we thought about it. His name’s Ellis?”

“Yes. Ellis Chaney. He’s from the township.”

“Well why did he come around again? I hope you told him we don’t need a paved road here.”

“Well, I didn’t want to be rude. He wanted to double check with everyone. He had some very good things to say – ”

“He must be pretty friendly if you’re on a first name basis already.”

Mum began to blush. She smiled and looked at Norris. “Dear, please go up to your room and do your homework.”

Norris sprung from the table like a squirrel from a cage. He had barely shut his door before their voices started talking faster and louder. By the time he fell asleep an hour later they were shouting.

He woke the next morning, and the house was silent and gray, like the fields after a rainstorm. His parents’ door was closed and Dad’s work boots were gone. Norris dressed and packed, then left for school, running away down the dirt road as if sunshine would be found at the end of it. All day he dreaded going back home. He didn’t feel guilty anymore, just sick.

He trudged back home down the dirt road, fearing everything that might meet him when he got there. He didn’t want to hear another shout, see another stiff smile, hear Mum say “dear” one more time.

He was still a ways off when he saw the blue Ford Model 18 parked in the yard. The engine was running and all the doors were open. Mum and the Man in the suit (a black one today) were loading it with suitcases. Norris broke into a run. Mum and the Man got into the car and shut the doors, and sped away in the opposite direction to a town Norris didn’t know. They were almost out of site by the time he got to the house.

“MUM!” he screamed. “Come back!” And he knew she must have looked back, at least for a second, and seen him crying in the road, but the car didn’t stop.

It never came back again.

In the years that followed, the house was always gray, and dinners were always quiet, and there was no more bread. Norris and Dad washed the dishes and mopped the floors and went to sleep for work and school in the morning.

And every so often Norris would dream of the blue Ford Model 18. Mum was driving it, and she would, unlike most people, be able to find the dirt road and the yellowed white farmhouse on it, and she would drive herself up to the house and let herself in. Norris would smell her perfume and fresh-baked bread and come bolting down the stairs, and she’d wrap him up in the kind of hug she used to give him when he was little. Dad would come in from the fields, covered in dust with rings around his eyes like a raccoon, and she’d kiss him, and the three of them would sit at the table to a dinner of meat and vegetables and bread in the golden light of the sunset.

But now none of that would ever happen, because now there was a highway.

The First Blog Post in a Month! (and what’s been going on since then)

Hello anyone who hasn’t forgotten about this blog!

It’s nearing the end of July (!) and my lofty ambitions of blogging throughout the summer pretty much died as soon as summer break actually got here. Of course, the whole process of getting married really takes up time and energy, so I can allow myself a little slack. But these past few days I’ve been challenged to get back in the writing saddle again. So here I am. Take a look at life this summer:

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I haven’t been completely dormant as far as writing goes – I now have a blogging job, so I guess that’s an accomplishment :) I write over at Honest Aromas, the blog for a new aromatherapy company started by my one and only mother, who received her aromatherapist’s certification this May. She is one of very few certified aromatherapists in the Western PA area, so the new business is very exciting. I serve as her blogger/social media/public relations/pretty much everything else gal, and so far that’s been fun!

We are also preparing to move down closer to school. We found the perfect little house three blocks from campus, where we plan to stay for the next few years as we finish up our degrees. We move in a month, which will most likely be a stressful and exciting experience (which is pretty much this year in a nutshell!).

Stay tuned as I plan to write more here, as I should be. :) And bear with me as I try to keep all the plates spinning.

Thanks for reading folks! Hope your summer has been smashing!