Places

Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle begins with the wonderful declaration, “I write to you from the kitchen sink.” Unfortunately, I only write to you from a very crowded backseat in a very crowded car. Someday I’ll find myself a big old kitchen sink, and climb in.

Really, there are lots of places from which I’d love to write you. There are those of the kitchen sink variety, places I suppose any imaginative person could think of: a window seat, a fireside, a roof full of chimneys, a balcony, an attic. Then there are the places particular to me: the freshly clean breezeway at my grandparents’ house that has Charity and me bursting with pride, the old cemetery across the highway, or the dam at the top of the lake, home to Poopsie’s Greatest Achievement and the world’s most delicious breezes.

Finally, there are the dream places, the places which, as of yet, I only love in fantasy. First there is New England. I’ve never been farther north than New York, so a little back sector of my mind is determined to walk cobblestones in Boston. I’ve been to almost every other part of my country, I suppose because New England is not on the way to anywhere (except perhaps Prince Edward Island—now, that’s a place to write from!) and most of the states I’ve been through have been on the way to family and holiday. But if New England is on the way to itself, then I suppose it must be worth seeing. Right, Liesel?

Next is Hay-on-Wye in Wales, the town with the most used bookstores in the world. I think my very first banner on this blog was a picture of the bookshelves which line the streets: Hardbacks, 50 pence and Paperbacks, 30 pence. In other words, heaven. Then, of course, I’ve just finished Wuthering Heights, and it’s such a wonderfully novelish novel. Though I was really quite pleased to see Catherine and Heathcliff fall dead, it made me want to wander the moors, stand in the wind, have my hair properly wuthered, and above all, write.  There is also Venice. Since reading Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord early in high school, I airily disregard all complaints of its stench and dirt, and instead concentrate staunchly on gold lions, arched bridges, and meeting my dear friend Scipio. Actually, my mother told me if I got a full ride to college she would take me, but obviously that didn’t work out. Sorry, Mom. Someday.

The place which trumps all, though, is mine. I am currently in the throes of a mild-to-severe case of house fever. I look them up online and plan paint, and built-in bookshelves, and secret passageways. It must be big and old and storied. It must have wood floors and stairs that creak. It must have its own peculiar smell (but not too peculiar.) Eventually, it must have the perfect bathroom. Round and domed with a huge, claw-foot tub and sunny windows high in the walls. There will be a fireplace and a big, wide towel rack, and piles and piles of books. (I suppose there’ll be a toilet and sink, too, behind a screen somewhere.) Oh, and probably a daybed and lots of large, ticking clocks. And perhaps a chandelier. That’s my bathroom. A Room of My Own.  A room from which to write you.

Story

It is nine-thirty on Monday evening, I have just finished reading the first two chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird to my cousin Charity, and I am wide awake, while she is fast asleep. I guess my southern drawl is soporific. Obviously she wasn’t very engaged in Harper Lee, but I’m so glad to have picked it up.

You see, I really want to write this summer—a real story—something with a climax, plot complications, and the sort of happy ending a reader can curl up and fall asleep in. The books I had been trying to make myself read, while worth my time, weren’t doing much for the creative juices. Bleak House, anyone? I cannot possibly write with Dickens on the brain. I can read with animation, I can hate Mrs. Jellyby with a holy passion, I can weep when Jenny’s baby dies, but when I sit down afterwards, I cannot think of a blasted thing to write. I do not have that scope. Instead, over the last couple of weeks I have drawn up the entire imaginary family tree of a clan called the Hardisons—sixty-one members and six generations worth. There are a good number of extra-marital affairs and shady business dealings involved, and I have the bad habit of marrying off third cousins to one another, but it has been great fun. I have worked out everyone’s birth and death date, and maiden name, all of which are neatly outlined in the 150 year timeline taped above my bed. And yet, there is no story screaming to be written. I have simply been joined by sixty-one vaguely interesting little writing companions. And we all lie there in bed late at night with little to say for ourselves.

In any case, while I could never be Dickens, there is a smidgen of hope for Alice as Harper Lee. I do not mean either that I grew up in place like Maycomb, Alabama in the thirties, which I didn’t, or that I could write something as wonderful and successful as To Kill a Mockingbird, which I couldn’t. I simply mean that Atticus Finch? I know him. I could reach out and shake his dry, warm hand, and honestly declare that I was pleased to meet him. The trick of writing characters, at least for me, is that I cannot write the people I actually know, but I must actually know the people I write. (If that makes any sense.)I must know them, at times, better than I know myself.  Yet, before I really know someone, I must see them doing—I must see them performing the action of being themselves. I know Atticus because I have seen him remove his glasses to shoot a mad dog, and remove his jacket to defend an innocent man. Which brings me back to where I begun. I must have happenings and doings; I must have story. I must have eucatastrophe and dyscatastrophe. I must have that which makes the ladies reach for their smelling salts and the gentlemen for their guns.

My little battalion of sixty-one, or perhaps soldiers from an entirely different quarter, must rise, sail onto the page, stake their claim and defend their territory. Go West, young man into the distant regions of the memory and the subconscious, drag the rivers, mine the gold, rake the muck, but return not empty handed! (Please. I really want to write a story.)

Grandmother’s House

HI!

Please picture me wondering around an empty house turning off the radios my Grandpa has left on, spreading grass with a large, lethal pitchfork, trying on an extremely classy sixties dress and coat set from my Grandma’s closet, going to battle with a mulberry bush that lives in the middle of the prickliest roses, and discovering the most wonderful photographic evidence of some very early cousin bonding. Kindly remember that I have not yet visited Walmart, and there is still a cow carcass to be removed from the barn. Wish you were here.

Love, Alice

(That was a postcard for you)

Other highlights so far have included having a very business-like game of waving with Cheryl’s twin boys, finding that unless I have the number memorized I am far too slow for the dial telephone, making friends with a sixteen-year-old girl at the library who’s obsessed with anime, finding a really cool cigarette lighter in the yard, walking up to the cemetery on Memorial Day, then slinking away when real mourners came, and making the life-altering decision to give the dog a bath, so that when he gets friendly while I’m weeding I’ll still be able to breathe.

I’m rather lonely—my cousin Charity won’t be here for another week and a half—and am still adjusting to life mostly sans internet and phone reception. There is currently a rather startling red X over the wireless icon at the bottom of my screen, but tonight I’ll drive Grandpa to Moberly for his prison Bible study, sit in the YMCA, and use their Wi-Fi to post this. And I’ll probably watch the season finale of Modern Family, and it will be very therapeutic.

One more thing. I’m making dinner tomorrow night, and in a counterproductive act of utility I convinced my Grandma to give away a good deal of her cookbooks last week. She doesn’t use them—but I would. Ideas? Something simple that would remind me of home.

A Long, Cumulative Entry

I have finally had time to think. I finished finals on Monday, missed some people in my good-byes, and left school on Tuesday. The past few days have been full of helping my mom cook, and driving Mary back and forth to Davidson to move her in and out of houses. Next week is for unpacking and repacking, and generally being of use to some favorite high school teachers.

A couple hours after I got home, I went to Caldwell’s spring choir concert, and after about two songs, I wanted nothing more than to sneak out the back door and go home. I stayed because to leave would have greatly perturbed George, my date, and because this was something I had promised my high school self. It wasn’t that the music was hard to listen to. Mama Twigg, you always put on a great show, and the other night was the best I’ve heard. Our choir department is dang good, and I hope they’re getting a heck of a lot more money than they were when I was there. Neither was it loneliness that made me uncomfortable. Lots of faces lit up when they saw me, and I got all the hugs I could reasonably ask for. I think what bothered me most was my own detachment. Last year, I was fine at graduation, but I bawled at the spring concert. Choir was far and away one of my favorite parts of high school. Almost all of my close friends were in it at some point or another, and as one of the few who liked almost every single song we sang (yes, even the Robert Frost cow one) I was possibly its most devoted member. That girl still exists, and I hope she always will, because for the most part, she’s a good kid. But in the last year many layers, some of them rather thick, have stretched over her. I have grown larger, more substantial, more myself. On Tuesday night at the concert I had only just left a heap of dear friends, and there were very few theatrics with which to mark my goodbye. I was not in the mood to watch all these nice kids gush over each other, and the extremely tight bond which was cemented by perfect harmony and pleated black cumberbunds. I wanted to be home on my study couch, writing an entry such as this. Here goes.

It has been, now that I think about it, a wonderful year. A very nice beginning sort of year. I am startlingly, some what of a big girl coming out at the other end of it (dare I say…adult?) When buying lunch I think about food groups. I take myself, and sometimes my friends for long, late-night walks. Sometimes I forget my make up and it’s totally okay. I have a books-to-read list and a movies-to-watch list, and I can identify and mock bad literary criticism when I see it. I am more shy when I am uncomfortable, but I am more honest with those I’m close to. Somehow, by a lovely perverse law of nature, if you get in the habit of always sharing your honest opinions, your opinions honestly become nicer, especially if you make a practice of listening to other people’s first. I’m less theatric, more practical, and in addition to my usual endearments, have picked up some soothing forms of address such as “dude” and “man.” My speech is also sometimes  liberally sprinkled with unintentionally pretentious literary references. I am much more dependent on this little computer than I would like to admit. Aside from this blog, I’m addicted to several TV shows on hulu, and I no longer feel the need to handwrite the first draft of every paper. (I’m a little nostalgic about that last one.) Friends have gotten in the habit of giving me their cast-off clothes (sweaters and dresses in particular,) and telling me when I’m getting sassy. I’ve learned to live with snow and boots and wet jean-cuffs and a Jesus who is much more real and active than I’d ever really known. And, dude, I’ve probably given and gotten more hugs in a nine-month period than the rest of the Borough of Grove City combined. (As Jackie would say: like a BOSS!)

Anyhow, a week from this coming Tuesday, I leave for six weeks at my grandparents’ in Missouri. It’s exactly what I did last summer, and it was not the plan this time around, but, you know? It’s gonna be good. I’ll weed some rose gardens, wash some windows, and forge through that book list. Here, for your reading pleasure, is what that good kid under all those layers wrote as she sat in the car last July heading home to Carolina, after a generous dose of Brookfield, MO.

   As I left for Missouri I had two basic ideas of what would be happening once I got there. Books and Boys. It was to be a summer to remember, a summer to grow up in. Something adult was going to happen. Yet instead of late nights reading or in town, I found myself sprawled across the bed in the end room till midnight or so, comfortably suffocated in the estrogen-saturated atmosphere, telling stories and discussing isms. Shakespeare, Calvinism, elevators, Jane Austen, Silly Bands and feminism. I grew to love Charity’s questions and the way Faith mocked my figures of speech. Every boy was pronounced a “sweetheart” and chigger bites were documented on film. We cut and dyed our hair just for kicks. Girlhood reigned. One afternoon I ran into town to get something from Walmart for Grandma. While there I suddenly noticed something I hadn’t before. There were hordes of girls, about my age or a little younger, wandering around a little aimlessly, wearing a great deal of eyeliner and a uniform of t-shirts which had been ripped open down the sides, then tied back together to artistically display their sports bras underneath. It dawned on me. Walmart is the one place in town everyone comes. This is the equivalent of clubbing in Brookfield. They were looking for love. I bought my bleach and left with no regrets. I had a cake to make, and later maybe the girls and I would lie out. We would get in the pool, pour bleach on each other’s heads, and then go to the front yard to let it dry in the sunny breeze off the lake which feels like the warm moment between waking and sleeping, like Aslan’s breath.

  I have learned many things about myself this past month or two. I have learned  that I easily lose patience with those who annoy me, and I have so little self-control that I will consume an entire jar of Nutella in 24 hours. I have learned that I do not appreciate either KFC or Lady Gaga more on better acquaintance, and that there are moments when sixteen-year-old boys could suddenly go extinct and I would totally be okay with it. But mostly, I have learned that I am blessed. As the psalmist says, “The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places.” Places like a camp with tall trees, tall cousins, and ginger cookies. Places like a twilight cemetery on a hill full of cicada song. Places like a long, low house looking over a lake, which smells of bacon first thing in the morning, and only has little country mice. And my family. I have several cousins who like to give presents for every occasion, (mostly I think, because they like to buy them…) but I’m not sure they’ll ever understand that the greatest gift they give me is the way they listen. They listen when I talk like they want to hear. They ask me to read; they ask for stories. I’m someone important. I’m their cousin. Of course, my grandparents are the sort of people you rarely meet if ever. They have done what their Lord has asked of them, and spent their lives being the salt of the earth, preserving and seasoning what is good. I will never find better or more godly examples.

            So now I have packed up to go home after seven weeks. I had to sit on my suitcase to zip in all the new clothes I have gotten practically for free and all the letters friends from home have sent. I have learned my way around my grandma’s kitchen, even making a pie of which she approved, though none of my cakes quite made the grade. True, I did not play on any hay bales, but I got to visit the Marceline Business Complex, and drive Highway F with the windows down, so what more could I ask? There were people to hug when I left Brookfield this morning, there will be people to hug tonight in Nashville, and, most excitingly, there will be people to hug when I get home on Friday. Whenever anyone asks my grandfather how he is he answers, “Greatly blessed.” Tell me about it, Grandpa. Tell me about it.

Yeah. I got something to look forward to in a few weeks, don’t I?

Cousins, California, and Christmas itself…

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Hello. In case you were wondering, exams went well, except for one. Then after many hugs, and fending off the last wisps of stress, I boarded a plane to Iowa. Of course, I do not live in Iowa, but my family was there already with my Mom’s side at the Wasserbahn Water Park. (What a place!) Thus began my vacation of lots-of-people-for-not-long-enough. I did see my cousins, of course, and it was a good time. Since United didn’t get my bag to me on time, we had an adventure to some nearby outlets to buy me $70 worth of clothes for which I will be reimbursed. There was also an extremely satisfactory Secret Santa, a rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” which we found so entertaining that it is posted on Facebook, lots of Uno and Telephone Pictionary, and much cousin bonding on the couch in the hospitality room which was also Uncle Jon’s room. Poor UJ. We spent a quiet Christmas day at my grandparents in Brookfield, MO, and were up very, very early to get on a plane to San Francisco.

My dad’s entire family is in California, but except for him, the rest of us hadn’t been out for six and a half years. There has been some pretty awful drama which you may know about, and the details of which I’m not going to go into right now. Suffice to say, I’m so thankful we went, and that such a thing was even possible, but it was a surreal experience. We met my Granddad’s new wife, Shirley, and saw lots of cousins, whom I knew I had met before, but whose faces were unfamiliar. Last time I saw my cousin Lorenzo, we were kids and we visited the Jelly Belly factory together, this time he got more cheerful with each of four beers. It has been a very long time. We visited St. Mary’s Cemetery where my Grammy’s memorial is. We all stood around in the grocery store beforehand and said “I have never bought flowers for a grave before. How does one do this thing?” We got yellow because that was her favorite color. We visited my Aunt Sharon in the little house in Sacramento where Grammy and all of her siblings grew up. We drove down to Orange County to see my uncle and aunt and cousins. We went to a beach (a beach!) on New Year’s Eve. There was Bananagrams and a deeply competitive game of Silver Screen Trivial Pursuit.

I’m still sort of in awe that all of this could happen. That we could get on a plane in ten degree weather, and get off to see trees heavy with oranges down every other block. That Mary and I could sit there and watch as Grammy’s sister, my Aunt Marge, and Granddad’s new wife next to each other on my cousin Nancy’s couch making friends. That my family could step out of the car on Partrick Road in Napa, where my dad grew up, and smell the eucalyptus, and chew on stalks of anise. I had not remembered that California was so beautiful. Wherever we went I always felt like we were in a valley, surrounded by mountains that looked like cozy giants sleeping in extravagant positions. I could pick out a rumpled shirt-tail here, the crook of an elbow there. The palm trees that were not pruned looked quite silly—as if they were wearing shaggy fur coats beneath a bad hairdo. I looked out the window a lot.

Yet the trip was not idyllic. I suppose I am too old for that to be possible, but it was more than that. We never saw anybody long enough to get properly comfortable with them, and even then my aunt and her lies seemed to lurk a little triumphantly in the corner of every conversation. And there’s another thing. I think I missed Christmas. I mean, really, where was it? There was that one quiet day at Grandma’s, but I was busy packing. It is a silly thought, but I feel as though Christmas and I planned to meet, but missed each other by a few minutes. That doesn’t mean, though, that it didn’t happen. When I got off the plane from Pittsburgh and walked toward the baggage claim, there was a large group with American flags and signs, waiting for their soldier. I was a little shamed to walk past them in my dress and leggings. I was so obviously not the hero they had come to meet. Then my sister jumped suddenly out from behind them trying to scare me and hug me all at once, and I could feel their smiles at our little reunion, and I didn’t feel embarrassed anymore. That was Christmas. In Iowa, we took a cousin picture wearing light-up necklaces. That was Christmas. In California, we drove down the road in our cramped rental car listening to Simon and Garfunkel, and George snored on my shoulder. That was Christmas. Last night driving back from the Kansas City airport the stars above me refused to come into focus. They stayed icy and soft no matter how I squinted, so I closed my eyes and went to sleep. That was Christmas.

Christmas is no less than a promise fulfilled, an expectation realized. We are told every year that Christmas will come again. It does. “When we are faithless, he remains faithful.” He does. “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  And He is.