An Evangelical Pilgrimage
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Posts from — November 2009

My Place in this World

bookstore

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

Welcome to California

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Penn Valley, CA :: We are in California and I’m loving it. Although Oregon has become a very special place for me and I can see us settling there when this trip is finished, I am a California girl 100%.

Fall in Nevada County, California is wonderful. The deciduous trees flash bright red, orange and yellow between tall evergreen pines. The air smells wonderful. My sister describes it like, “mushy leaves and pine needles, old brick, rusty iron, cedar, mulled cider, incense, old books.” And I add that it is all warmed to a gentle simmering fragrance by the beautiful sun light that makes it way through the trees. Topped with a little bit of smoke from the wood stoves.

California has sun. Oregon sometimes has sun. California has my kind of sun, consistent. Today we all woke up with leaves stuck to our cars and wet roads thanks to the downpour that started at about 11:00 p.m. last night. But then, by 9:00 a.m. the sun was out and it will most likely remain out for the next few days. Right now my whole family is seated around the dining room table, speckled with sunlight shining warmly through every window. It just feels warm everywhere…even if it’s chilly.

I’m happy here even though I know we won’t stay here.

November 12, 2009   12 Comments