An Evangelical Pilgrimage

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Important Update

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Things have been quiet around here. The last post is five weeks old. I think we’ve posted just six times in the last two months. Some of the posts are only marginally about our trip, and most don’t mention the trip at all. The dearth of updates doesn’t reflect a lack of activity, a calm before the storm of our scheduled departure in early March. We’ve actually posted less because of just how very much activity there has been behind the scenes. Everything has happened, the ground beneath our feet shifting from one day to the next. Daily updates would have been exhausting and cruel. Only our families and Dave and Kristialyn should have to go through that. Now the ground has stopped shaking and everything is changed. It’s time to fill you in.

In short, we are postponing the trip. Our adventure was possible because my work as a grant writer can be done from anywhere as long as I have a telephone and internet access. But the grants business has slowed to a trickle. My unspoken belief that my line of work was recession-proof — thanks to the stimulus money, what one of my colleagues calls ObamaBucks — was foolish. We haven’t had steady grant work since October. My family is now in a position where we need to hunker down, finish paying off debt, and start saving money again to replenish the cash reserves we’ve burned through these last few months.

We don’t regret in the least our decision to pack up and leave the city we love. We’ve made our way up and down the West Coast, as we always intended. We spent wonderful time with my family in Keizer, with Kate’s family in Grass Valley-Nevada City, and with friends in Chico, California, which is where we are now. We even made it back to Portland a couple times. Since October, we have been the recipients of an enormous measure of hospitality and grace. I know that Kate is looking forward to utilizing her own gift of hospitality when we settle down. And it is time to settle down.

Time on the road taught Kate and me several valuable lessons. One important lesson is that today is provided for, and that that can be enough. A second, related lesson is to hold loosely to future plans. The rest of the blog post was written and should be read with those two lessons in mind.

Kate and I foresaw the need to make this decision, and so we talked and prayed for a few weeks about where we want to settle down. It ultimately came down to two choices: Grass Valley-Nevada City, or somewhere near these two little towns in Oregon, Mt. Angel and Silverton, which are just a few miles apart and not far from Salem and Portland. Both areas have a lot in common: they are communities which seem to be intimate with their landscapes, supportive of rural living but still within easy driving distance of urban amenities like airports and museums and the arts, proximity to family, proximity to outdoor adventure like hiking and camping, open space, plenty of inspiration for my writing. In addition, these communities seem like they could support a small bookstore, which has become a recurring feature of our daydreams.

In the end, we decided on the Mt. Angel-Silverton area. What ultimately tipped us toward Oregon is our community there. These last few months, we’ve taken the American dream of mobility and life without geographical constraints to an extreme, and we don’t want to keep living there. Though our lives have been untethered from any actual place, we were always orienting ourselves, like magnetic north, toward our friends and family. We have some special people in Oregon. Like Dave and K-yo, Mark Lore (of thedaysoflore.com) and Alexis, Dustin and Cara and Moses, Libby, Yubi, the Westbrooks, Sarah and Trevor, Brit and Andy, the (Stable) Gabels, the Brunos, and Jon (Daddy) Riker.

Kate will be going back to work, something she is actually excited about. I’ve started sending e-mails asking about apartments and houses in Mt. Angel and Silverton. Our plan right now is to drive back to Oregon on January 17. For good, it seems. We don’t have a place to stay yet, but we know we’ll manage somehow. There are even strong signs that the grant business is ratcheting up for the spring — too late to save our trip, but very welcome.

On the Narrow Road isn’t dead. We’ll continue to use this blog to document our family’s attempt to live in a way that does not conform to the broad road of consumerism and American excess. It’s time to learn how to live within boundaries, submit ourselves to a community and a place and to God. It’s time I learned how to live a life governed not by the overwhelming appetites of the present, but by the accumulated wisdom of the past, with an eye on the future, planting sequoias, judging each decision by how it will effect the world Molly will inherit from me, if there is a world left for her to inherit.

I hope to continue writing the OTNR book. Instead of writing the book in the form of a long travel narrative, I am going to go back to my original idea: 12 essays about 12 churches. Each article can stand alone, and I will try to publish them in magazines as individual essays. Then I’d like to add a 13th chapter which would be the account of a month-long road trip (very different than the 36 weeks Kate and I originally planned) to re-visit the churches, talk to people along the way, and draw some broad conclusions about evangelicalism in America. If it makes sense for us financially, I’d like to start the project by visiting my childhood church in Lincoln, Nebraska this March or April.

And so our adventure will be a journey not measured in miles but in the distance from the head to the heart, and between Kate and me, and between us and you, our community. Thank you for coming this far, gentle reader. Won’t you continue on with us?

January 5, 2010   10 Comments

My Place in this World

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Penn Valley, CA :: Kate just told me that I stress her out more than any person she knows. I wanted to point out a few obvious exceptions – Hitler, Pol Pot, swine flu – but I didn’t go there. So I stress her out more than any person she knows; it’s not hard to see why: this afternoon I came to her with another idea.

Amidst the never-ending stream of my bright ideas, there is one dream Kate and I keep coming back to. We’ve talked for a couple years now about buying a little acreage with Dave and Kristialyn, producing as much of our own food as possible, putting down roots, and living life within a specific geographical, cultural, and community context. But we get discouraged because it feels like we’ve been priced out of the market. Property is expensive. We don’t feel like we should work office jobs we hate in order to enjoy our homestead for a couple hours a night before bed, with occasional weekend visits. (I don’t mean jobs that are hard. I mean jobs that are inharmonious with our values and priorities.) Nor do we want to wait for retirement. Why work for forty years at jobs we “hate” in the vague hope that once we retire we can finally live a life that is consistent with our principles, as well as our deep desires? This amounts to a hatred of the present tense, with no guarantee that we’ll make it to retirement anyway, and it requires us to compartmentalize our lives in a way that can’t but damage our spirits.

Going back even further to when we were just married, Kate and I had a different vision for our lives. We talked about opening up a little bookstore in some little town. I’d be in charge of the bookselling, Kate would make pastries and coffee. Between customers I would write my own books. Our little shop would sell both new and used volumes, and I would be able to promote books and authors I like. I’m not sure what happened to this particular dream. We held on to it for a while, but it got buried by the demands of daily living.

Driving around Grass Valley today, I was again discouraged by how out of reach our little piece of land seems. Then I remembered that other dream, the bookstore.

It just so happens that I’m getting ready to re-read Wendell Berry’s novel, “Jayber Crow,” for an essay I have to write. And driving around I remembered that, unlike most of the characters in Berry’s fiction, which centers around the community of Port William, Kentucky, Jayber Crow was not a farmer. Jayber’s skill was barbering. When Jayber made his way to Port William, the town happened to need a barber, and so Jayber took over the chair.

Jayber Crow performed several services essential for community life. Besides cutting hair, Jayber’s barber shop became a meeting place. Whether they needed a cut or not, men were always stopping by to share the latest news, catch up, or just watch life happen on the street outside the shop window.

No kidding, I believe access to a good local bookstore is essential to the health of a community. Bookshops are businesses, and local bookshops are local businesses. They are storehouses of knowledge and wisdom and renewal. (The word “store” comes from the Latin word meaning “to renew,” though I write this post on Black Friday, when few retailers seem especially concerned about renewal.) They can be gathering places, houses of hospitality. I also believe bookselling can be a vocation, in the sense of using one’s gifts – time, abilities, and resources – for the common good. (As one example, it seems like the folks at Hearts & Minds Bookstore in Pennsylvania approach bookselling as a vocation.)

So today I approached Kate with an idea – really a melding of two ideas: moving to a little town somewhere that needs and can support a bookstore, a town in proximity to trees, water, and room to walk; introducing ourselves to the community; renting until we can afford to buy, and then buying from a neighbor. Besides its vocational aspects, there is another, more selfish reason I like this idea. There is no work I enjoy more (or feel more called to) than my own writing, but I can’t support the family that way right now. If I had to pick an alternate way to make a living, running a bookstore would be it. So much so that when my writing career does take off, I believe I will want to hang on to the bookstore. These seem like all-important consideration.

I’m not sure how this fits in with On the Narrow Road. I don’t see how it conflicts, since it must take longer than a year to set something like this up. For starters, I don’t know how to find a town that fits the above criteria. I suppose we have to stumble upon it. Like when I drove through Joplin, Missouri earlier this fall. Joplin, Missouri – a Mississippi River town (though at 50,000 people, a little big for my taste), plenty of trees, the birthplace of Mark Twain, and, as far as I can tell, not a single stand-alone bookstore in the whole damn town.

I’m nearly 32 years old and I’m still trying to find, in the raspy words of Michael W. Smith, “my place in this world.”

What are your thoughts? Does anybody out there know a little town in need of a young family and a bookstore?

November 27, 2009   12 Comments

Give Thanks at the Table

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Penn Valley, CA :: It’s the day after Thanksgiving. I’m sitting with my dad talking about recipes and miscellany. This is a great way to start a day. A cup of coffee, dad’s eating leftovers, I’m eating a gluten-free vegan blueberry muffin (I’m going to be enjoying a vegan diet again for a while). We’re debating the fine points of pork tenderloin, killing and plucking chickens, installing solar panels on a roof (that’s what he does these days for income), turkey stock and upcoming projects for his home.

Last night I did not stay within the vegan ideals. We enjoyed many of the traditional Thanksgiving goods: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, pan roasted brussel sprouts, steamed green beans, cranberry jelly, stuffing with dried cranberries and cherries, and bottles of great red wine. I brought a few things to the table that I’m proud of. My teriyaki sweet potatoes, a 2007 bottle of Smith Syrah, a pecan praline pumpkin pie (say that three times fast) and a cranberry apple crystallized ginger pie. It was all wonderful. The company was wonderful, and Molly ate by the handful.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. You can enjoy family, friends and food (my three favorite “f” words) without the worry or pressure to also providing gifts. The table is enough. Cheers to that!

November 27, 2009   6 Comments

Merlin’s Justice

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Grass Valley, CA :: I’m sitting outside a Starbucks in Grass Valley. This town is where Kate grew up. It was a beautiful Sunday. I went for an hour-long walk with Molly today, and then went for another long walk by myself later in the afternoon.

It’s 7:30 p.m. A clear night after a beautiful day, but it’s getting cold now. It’s actually too cold to be sitting outside without a jacket, but I needed to be within earshot of the five guys drinking their coffee out here on the patio. They are all drinking venti sizes of something and, judging by their energy level, their volume, the way they keep talking over each other, and the way they are all standing instead of sitting, they got extra shots too. At least two of the guys are more under-dressed than me, wearing shorts. All of them have longish hair, and a couple of them are making valiant attempts to grow facial hair.

I needed to be within earshot of these guys because when I walked up to the store they were engaged in a passionate discussion about something and I wanted to know what. I just Googled some of the phrases I keep hearing: “berserker,” “Thor,” “The Courtesan,” and “Merlin’s justice” (which is not, it turns out, ancient Britain’s version of Montezuma’s revenge). They are talking, loudly, about role playing games. Just now, one of the guys shouted out, “Regular melee is the best, magic melee sucks ass.”

Yeah, these guys are nerds. But who cares? I had zero friends when I started halfway through my eighth grade year at Lowell junior high in Lincoln. It was the RPG guys who took me in, so, yeah, I know my way around a 12-sided dice.

I realize that I’m arguing with no one in particular, but how is what these guys are doing any different than the thick-necks who get together every week to watch and argue about professional sports? If anything, watching an NFL game is harder to justify than a role-playing game, because at least with DragonQuest (or whatever these guys are playing) they are more than just spectators. They enter a story and exercise will and their choices have consequences.

But I’m not going to begrudge the nerds or the jocks their past-times. Ultimately, what they are doing is creating community, and the worst thing of all is to be isolated.

I have no idea where all this came from. I have a lot of catching up to do on this site. I need to talk about our trip to California from Keizer. I need to explain why I am posting haiku of all things on my Twitter feed. But I sat down at my computer and this is what came out. Now it’s so cold I can’t feel my fingers, so all that other stuff will have to wait.

Updated: In an earlier version of this post, I said “if anything, the NFL is more meaningless than…” That was not only bad writing, it was lazy writing. Both of these activities – the sports-watching and the gaming – are packed with meaning.

November 15, 2009   7 Comments

Work

Penn Valley, CA :: I experience life through work. I find pleasure in making things, helping on projects, moving stuff, fixing items, etc. When I have a project I have purpose. When someone needs help I have meaning. I always knew this about myself on some deeper level but until John and I started talking about our value as members of a community I didn’t know how much I was driven by this.

Example: We arrived at my Dad’s house in California last Monday. Since then I have raked and moved the leaves on his lawn (about the size of a suburban lot), removed wallpaper paste left on the walls (from the last time I was here and worked on taking the wallpaper down), installed and taped and applied mud to the walls in the bathroom, emptied the old freezer and loaded the new freezer, moved the old freezer out of the house, watered all of the outside potted plants, picked the last squash from the garden to be stored for the winter, and helped John with a massive book mailing project for the BWC. In the next three days I plan on winterizing the vegetable garden, installing a new granite counter in the bathroom and prepping for paint and painting installing new light fixtures.

Am I a little manic? It’s possible I rely too heavily on what I do to determine my value or usefulness. But I really do enjoy working hard. At some point over these next few months I’m going to include sitting quietly, meditatively, in my daily schedule. It’s not so much about balance as it is about growing and stretching myself. I think I might be able to find value within myself if I sit and listen and just breathe.

Until then, off to work.

November 13, 2009   1 Comment