Small Town Vignettes

Eating dinner at the bowling alley

July 5, 2022

A man we’ve dubbed “Propane Joe” came up the hill to fill our tank today. He showed up unexpectedly a day early with a “Howdy” and a “Nice place ya got here,” then stuck around long after topping off our tank just “shootin’ the breeze.” People around here don’t seem to operate by the same clock I’m accustomed to, and no one’s ever in a hurry.

I smile to myself, recalling the words I’d recently read by Edward Abbey in his classic book Desert Solitaire, “We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men.

Two hours after his arrival, as Propane Joe was preparing to leave, he turned back to Arin, seemingly struck by inspiration, and casually called out over his shoulder, “Hey there, you want to be a volunteer sheriff?”

Arin shrugged and—without a second thought—replied, “Sure.”

“Great, I’ll call you sometime,” said Propane Joe as he hopped up into his truck and disappeared down our long dirt driveway.

~

Yesterday, I took Grayson into town to buy a pair of hiking boots. The owner of the store was (yet again) in no hurry, and as we visited, she discovered that we were new to the area and that Grayson ran cross country.

“Oh, Hal-the-cross-country-coach was just in here!” she exclaimed, picking up a pen. “I’ll give him your phone number and tell him to call you. Maybe you can get together with him over the summer!”

As she walked away to grab a piece of paper, Grayson glared at her and sneakily stuck up a tall middle finger before abruptly marching out of the store.

When I caught up with him moments later, I angrily demanded to know why he had flipped off someone who was so kindly trying to help us.

Scowling at me beneath one furrowed eyebrow as if I were the dumbest woman alive, he irritatedly explained, “I’m just not used to people being so nice. It makes me feel weird.”

Later that day, he asked to go back and apply for a job.

“I like that lady,” he definitively proclaimed. “She’s nice.”

The Sinewy Connection Between Life and Longing, Death and Doubt

July 5, 2022

I am mid-stride in the kitchen when the darkness hits. Without warning, it rolls in as quickly as the afternoon thunderstorms, although my darkness feels much more smothering and muggy. Siphoning my breath and dousing my previous exuberance, the darkness accosts me, demanding an immediate account for my actions: What have you done?

In the sudden eruption of thought, I cannot discern whether it’s originating from within myself or without. You realize you’ve just made the biggest mistake of your life. You’ve uprooted your children, your AUTISTIC SON nonetheless, and you KNOW how he hates change! You’ve forsaken your aging parents, abandoned your friends…and for what? A longing? A far-fetched dream?! You know that in time, you’ll make a mess of all this too—just like everything else you touch. You’re an inverted Midas; everything you lay hands on turns to shit!

My stomach twists in knots as I identify the franticness as Fear, and the spiteful accusations as Self Hatred. I banished the latter years ago; still, it loves to rear its ugly head from time to time to test whether my resolve has weakened. It tries to sneak in the back door, piggy-backed on my deep-rooted fear of failure. Both voices blend as one until Self Hatred grows overly animated and—hopping on its soapbox—starts portraying my longings as potential landmines, my dreams as catastrophes-in-waiting. 

Having exposed itself, I gently but firmly escort Self Hatred back out the door, reminding it that it is no longer welcome in my life. Turning my attention to my quivering Fear, I attempt to compassionately acknowledge it as real rather than feverishly ignoring it as I have for many years past.

The heaviness subsides slightly but leaves me shaky and unsettled, certain to the core that nothing in my world will ever feel right or normal again.

Shortly after, I take a walk to dislodge any residual heaviness. My eyes can recognize the surrounding beauty, but Fear prevents them from perceiving it as such. Rather than an ancient, towering Ponderosa Pine, my wildly scanning eyes inform me that I am beholding a mountain lion’s perch, from where it will inevitably pounce and tear me limb from limb. Every rock is a crouching bear, and every snapping twig confirms my impending doom.

But as the incline rapidly increases, I am forced to focus on just sucking in enough oxygen to maintain my leisurely pace (altitude is no joke!). In time, the deep, rhythmic breathing begins unfurling my knotted guts.

Up ahead, the dogs have zeroed in on something of interest, and although I call to them, they willfully ignore me. As I round the bend, I see a full rack of curving ribs, rising like spires from the weedy earth, and the hairs on my arms stand on end. The ribs are still attached to the backbone, forming more than half of a skeleton, with clumpy bits of fur and meat still clinging to the bone.

Although my boys and husband hunt, I’ve only personally experienced the post-hunt plastic-wrapped meat, the cleaned-up pelt-turned-rug. I’ve never killed anything, never even been close to such unmanaged, wild death. Something about it simultaneously intrigues and repels me (like many sacred things do), and I inherently understand that this push-pull will be my new steady companion while adjusting to life in these mountains.

Truthfully, the longing and curiosity have always been intertwined with my fears and doubts (more on that later), and like a rubber band ball, I have never been able to tug on one strand without the whole mass tagging and bouncing along behind. In reality, it’s all one bundled package anyway—life and death, desire and fear, light and dark. They cycle back and forth, round and round, in and out, and our wide-eyed attentive presence to all the opposing forces is what shapes us into more well-rounded humans—empathetic, sensing, and wholly present.

This unexpected encounter with death somehow makes me feel more acutely alive, and as I walk up the remainder of our winding dirt road, I notice my previous darkness had, at some point, dissipated along with my Fear, leaving behind only a deep-rooted satisfaction.

One day, I will be ribs and backbone and clinging morsels of flesh.

I have one life.

How will I choose to live it?

Integrity is often a willingness to hold the dark side of things instead of reacting against them, denying them, or projecting our anxiety elsewhere. Frankly, it is just another name for faith.

-Eager to Love by Richard Rohr-

“To tread the sharp edge of a sword, to run on smooth-frozen ice, one needs no footsteps to follow. Walk over the cliffs with hands free.”

-Buddha-

I Went to the Woods

July 2, 2022

My eyes flickered open to the dark outline of a mountain, and I blinked repeatedly, willing the looming shape to disappear, yet simultaneously praying to God that it wouldn’t. This inner disparity made me feel instantly crazy, for the decision to move had been mine. I’d driven the real estate search (much to my husband’s delight); I’d scrawled out the list of geographical prerequisites for any potential homesites, and I’d packed the last box with my own two hands just barely over a week ago. Even so, the whole process had felt mechanical, as if something outside of myself had been set into motion, and I, although entirely capable, was somehow too paralyzed to stop it.

I’d been waging such an interior push-pull war since November of 2021 when Arin and I first decided to move, and half of me has spent the last seven months trying to convince my brain to revise its position. This fearful half has spent hours ranting at my daydreaming half to pull its head out of the clouds, to consider all the horrifying “what-ifs”—the bears, the mountain lions, the intermittent lack of cell phone reception. Besides, who did I think I was to tackle life in the woods? I was just a wimpy wannabe, a city-girl admirer of manicured nature, a fake, a phony, a fraud.

Yet despite my fearful self’s frantic ravings, my body calmly continued touching up paint, patching old holes in our walls, and methodically packing one cardboard box after another.

In hindsight, this journey started the first time I read Thoreau as a junior in high school. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”

His words were instantly tattooed on my heart and became a life motto of sorts, yet they’ve remained dormant as simmering lava, tempered by whichever thin window pane of glass has separated me from the ruggedness of nature I’ve historically preferred to avoid. Like Goldilocks, I’ve tended to live life in the “just right” zone—neither too hot nor cold nor too hard or squishy soft. I’ve been perfectly satisfied to savor the great outdoors from the comfort of my climate-controlled office, curled up beneath a fuzzy blanket in my spider-free, herringbone, wing-backed chair.

But one morning, Thoreau’s words suddenly grew tired of simmering, and—with much roiling and smoking—started a violent upheaval.

The whole process began in earnest on August 29, 2021, when I found myself bawling over the pages of a Magnolia Home cookbook. There was Joanna Gaines in her full down-home simplicity and beauty, making cookies with her precious children, who were sprawled contently across her farmhouse countertop. On another blissful page, she was walking hand-in-hand to gather apples with her daughters. With every turned page, I cried harder and harder. Each photograph was like a knife in my heart, representing the life I had failed to create, the precious moments I’d lost (or never experienced) with my own five children.

Grayson, our son with Autism, had demanded much of my time and energy, leaving me steadily depleted and numb; and while I’ve never resented him, that day, I resented my reality. I closed the cookbook and shoved it away, unwilling to stomach one more stinking photo of Joanna Gaines and her annoyingly adorable kids. I went to sleep feeling brokenhearted, angry and cheated—as if someone had stolen a part of my life and there was not enough time remaining to salvage the leftover shards.

The following morning, Thoreau’s words thundered in my ears, no longer willing to be largely ignored, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…”

What would it look like to live the second half of life deliberately? I wondered, gazing through a thin windowpane of glass. If the highest good in life is union with God and our fellow man as I believe it to be, how can I live intentionally, in a way that facilitates more moments of potential unity? How can I soak up every precious moment of whatever life I have left on this earth? How can I grow more fully present, fully aware, fully available? And what “things,” for me, are the best conduits to living in such a way?

I pulled out my journal a started a new list: nature, time, freedom, solitude, silence, space, love…

Seven months later, I awoke on a mountain.