On Approaching Independence Day

My life feels pretty lost right now. The days are slipping past, bringing with them no signs for our next direction. We don’t have a map and our GPS is busted. Caleb keeps trying new roads, but they end or send us in circles. I wake up every morning and read my Bible, painfully reminded that even the Israelites knew why they were in the wilderness and how long they would stay there. We have to know what we’re doing by July 4. Nine days. By now it’s highly unlikely Caleb will receive an e-mail about an interview for a job with a salary rather than wages. We’ll be spending Independence Day staring at a bleak future where I exist to sell chicken and get yelled at by customers or we move in with my in-laws.

My personal Fourth of July tradition is to listen the soundtrack for the musical 1776, about the creation of the Declaration of Independence. It’s the show that always helped me answer the bonus questions in American History classes. (What were the names of the members of the Declaration committee? Easy, if you know the lyrics to “But, Mr. Adams“.) It’s the show that gives me instant, funny, singable greetings to anyone named John. (“Sit down, John! Sit down, John! For God’s sake, John sit down!” or “John, John, is that you carrying on? John?”) It’s also full of awesome, witty humor. (“What’s so wrong with being called an Englishman? The English don’t seem to mind.” “Nor would I, were I given the full rights of an Englishman. But to call me one without those rights is like calling an ox a bull. He’s thankful for the honor, but he’d much rather have restored what’s rightfully his.”)

Most of the musical centers around meetings of the Second Continental Congress. We meet the delegates, learn their personalities, their friendships, and what they care about. Throughout the show, Congress receives letters from George Washington, giving reports on the army and frequently asking for more supplies. Congress is too locked in debate to answer him. Near the end of the show, there’s a disagreement about an aspect of the Declaration of Independence. The delegates storm out. A new message from George Washington comes to the nearly empty room. It says, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?”

I’ve spent the past few months asking for a direction. Caleb needs a job. We need a place to live. I’d like to work somewhere where I don’t come home angry most days. I’d like to feel like we matter. Like it’s not actually true that we can’t do anything important with our lives until we’re old enough. I’m tired of asking for supplies and not getting any answers. I’ve been shouting Washington’s letter over and over and not getting any replies.

John Adams stands alone re-reading the letter. To him, the letter is a reminder of his own commitment to the cause of Independence. He sees beyond the current issues to his dream of the future. It’s the last song in the show, and it’s celebration of ideals.

I wish I could sing, “For I have crossed the Rubicon / Let the bridge be burned behind me / Come what may, come what may / Commitment!” But I’m not even sure who I am anymore. I’ve gotten so turned around that I’m not even sure of our destination. I started this blog out of my ideals. I wanted to write and think and dream in the long line of writers who lived on nothing in order to do what they loved. Living on nothing only works if the ideals are feeding your soul. Calvin gave me enough bread to get to cliff day, but my cupboards have been bare for a while.

Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?

The Grand Tragedy of Moving

Movies are my hobby. I have certain websites I check daily. I read reviews and production news. I get excited about certain movies and disappointed about others. One movie I’ve been looking forward to for a long time is Pixar’s next project, Inside Out. It won’t be released for another year, but I’ve been excited since I heard the initial idea, a movie about the inside of a girl’s mind. The next description said it would be about the girl’s personified emotions. Even better. The official synopsis was released recently. Eleven-year-old Riley’s emotions are thrown into chaos when her father gets a new job and her family has to move from the Midwest to San Francisco.

I was talking to a friend about the release and she said, “When I read the description, I immediately thought of you.”

Why, yes, I am an emotionally tumultuous female. But I don’t think my friend knew how right she was.

When I was eleven, my dad got a new job and we had to move from Arizona to Appalachia. And yes. There were lots of emotional conflicts.

I remember the first day it hit me that I would be leaving Tucson. i was at school, and it felt like the world had cracked open. I wouldn’t be a sixth grader at Tanque Verde Elementary. I wouldn’t spend my lunch breaks hanging around the goal posts on the field with my friends. I wouldn’t get to see my friends at all. A tragedy, since this was the first time in my life I actually had friends to miss. I wouldn’t get to have any of the teachers I’d heard so much about. And I wouldn’t get to go to the Gifted classes I loved so much. And I wouldn’t be in the desert!

I loved the desert. I loved the mountains. I loved the summer storms and the crackle of dry heat. I loved my desert jungle of a front yard, and the huge mesquite tree I scrambled up and down. I loved the greens of the cactus and trying to find spadefoot toads in the backyard at night. I loved the smell of rain. Ohio didn’t have any of those things.

I started writing a book about all the tragic things that happened in my life that summer. My friends would get to graduate from elementary school after sixth grade. Sixth graders in Ohio were already in the middle school, so I wouldn’t get a ceremony. I was diagnosed with scoliosis. Girls from church were mean to me. I went on a retreat to Palm Springs and discovered the evils of humidity (the bane of my existence every summer since).

And then I actually moved to Ohio. The town was so small I almost missed it the first time through. I hated the looks of the neighbors as we moved in. I got sick of that weird phrase “Out West”, of teachers talking about deserts as barren places. One teacher had the audacity to tell me that I had misconceptions about the use of slang in English because of the Western accents I grew up around. Tucson is not Texas, I fumed.

And then there were the people. Every non-adult had the same reaction to me. They would pull back their heads, screw up their faces, and say, “You’re scaring me,” as they nodded. I heard it from boys and girls, from teenagers and kids. I spent days screaming into my pillow. I wrote my tragic novel until the notebook it sat in tore to pieces. I Hate Ohio. I Hate Ohio. I Hate Ohio. I hated the obsession with football. I hated that everybody hated reading. I hated not being challenged in school. I hated being the brilliant one. In Tucson I was moderately intelligent, but left the title “genius” for my friends who took algebra as sixth graders. In Ohio I outshone all my classmates. So they rejected me until it was time for a geography quiz. (Of course I knew more about US states and capitals. I’d actually left the state before.)

My patient mother spent hours listening to me sob about how much I hated everything, how much I wanted to leave, how nothing good could come out of Ohio.

I remember relating all this to my husband one evening this fall. He laughed.

“I’m glad you moved to Ohio.”

I’m sure I blushed and squeezed his hand. Yeah. We moved from Arizona to Appalachia and I got a wonderful husband out of the deal.

In exactly a month, we’ll be packing our apartment and moving…somewhere. We’re still not sure if we’ll be moving a couple of miles, a couple of states, or heading back to Ohio (“I wouldn’t mind it so much,” Caleb says, “if it wasn’t for Ohio State fans.” “Oh dear, Lord, yes.”). Time is running out. I wake up with a cloud over my heard. I go to work not sure if I’ll be there for four weeks or fifty-two. I come home to our apartment and can’t help but think about all the work ahead of us. Caleb’s still applying for jobs. I’m still waiting. That dramatic eleven-year-old girl is still part of me, screaming about how awful everything is, her imagination spinning all the worst situations.

At this point, it’s pretty clear our magic car isn’t going to fly. Yet. There’s so much I can’t know. I couldn’t have guessed that twelve-year-old me would be forced into a writing project with genius, visionary Angelica Wisenbarger with whom I would act in plays, write songs, jam, swap books, and start a writing club. I couldn’t have guessed that knowing her would lead me to a whole community of musicians and writers all struggling to make something out of our small town existence. I couldn’t have guessed I would meet my husband in a bit part of a middle school play (of which there was so much personal drama already).

By the time Pixar’s Inside Out is released, a year from tomorrow, I’ll have a different perspective on moving. I’ll have more stories to match of settling into a new home, of trying to put the pieces together from what our life used to be and all that we wanted it to be. I’ll have a new set of experiences to match with that eleven-year-old crying under the shadow of the hideous pink cats left by the previous owners. I’m sure there are more tears coming. I’m sure there are more misunderstandings. I’m sure there are more good people, more communities, whether down the street or across the country. I have to believe that Joy will win out in the end.

I’m Sick of Being a Millennial

Yesterday at work, we found ourselves swamped. Most Tuesdays at noon are steady but quiet. On this day, we were packed with wave after wave of customers. I was out in the dining room, briskly cleaning tables and sweeping the floors, taking stacks of trays to the back, and trying to keep the condiment bar stocked. We didn’t have enough workers to cover the full lobby, so during the busiest moment, I was pulled away to serve trays and fill the ice bins. I sweated buckets. The room felt like no air conditioning existed.

When we’d caught up on serving, my supervisor sent me out to clean as much as possible. I made my rounds with little method. As always happens, many of the tables I was walking to clean were immediately filled by a customer. (What is it about a crumb-filled table with a stack of napkins and unused sauces that attracts them, I wonder?) One in particular was frustrating. I was on my way to pick up the pile of napkins (Why don’t they throw them away? Do they seriously think we reuse those? Would you like to use a napkin someone else had manhandled?) and sauce packets when a fit, middle-aged man in a suit took the booth. Oh well. I jumped back into the fray, changing two of our six trash cans and frantically trying to stay on top of things.

At this point, I was starting to get dehydrated. The sweat had taken it’s toll. (I don’t understand how I’ve gained weight at this job.) I came from the back and found that most of the customers had left.  Lunch rush is like that. The people come in waves. I took advantage of the quiet, hoping this was the afternoon lull. I came into the middle of the dining room and saw the table I hadn’t gotten to before had been vacated. The napkins and sauces were still there. He could at least have thrown the napkins away. I tucked the sauces into my apron, got to work on the table, and began eavesdropping. It’s the best part of working in the dining room. I get a lot of good material that way.

I heard a man’s laugh and glanced behind me. The man in the suit had actually not left. He leaned against one of the tables in the middle, chatting with the ladies in the opposite booth. I went back to work and listened.

“How’s work?” one of the ladies asked.

I moved to the other middle table. It was also covered in crumbs.

“Not going well.”

“Really? What’s wrong?”

“It’s all the young people I work with.”

I silently groaned, wiping off the chairs.

“They don’t do any work,” the man complained. “When I was their age, I knew that hard work was important. You can’t just do whatever you want. You have to sit down and go through every task completely. You need to leave the job better than it was before you got there.”

My hand brushed the packet of sauces the previous occupant of his table had left behind. Yeah right.

My work pulled me away from the conversation, but it didn’t matter. I was fuming. Because here’s the thing. He’s not the first person I’ve heard say such things.

i was born in the early 90’s. This puts me in the generation known as “the millennials”. We’re known for getting trophies for everything we participated in. We’re known as coddled and shallow. We’re known for our obsession with idiocy, as long as it makes us laugh. We’re known for our blind acceptance of technology, prizing smart phones above grocery bills. We’re known for our entitlement, shouting that we deserve luxuries because we exist. We’re bad with failure because people told us our whole lives that we were special and talented, even though we had nothing to show for it. We’re lazy.  We’re stupid. I’ve heard it all before.

There are many people in my generation who do fit this bill. I know people who snarled when they didn’t get into college. People who protested at the drop of the hat. I know people who didn’t want to work, manipulating teachers to do the homework for them. I know people who assume they’ll get jobs and are baffled when they can’t. I know people who left college, moved in with their parents, and are still there, unsure of what they’re supposed to do.

But this isn’t all of us.

I received two trophies as a child. One I earned: a trophy for first place among non-registered teams at a math league competition. They other is a soccer trophy given for participation. I may not have “earned” that trophy, but I look upon it as a medal of honor for surviving a year of soccer with three girls who’d been playing since they were three and wouldn’t let me forget it. Somewhere in my parents’ house is a stack of green participation ribbons from elementary school field day. I couldn’t understand why we received them. I thought the teachers were trying to rub it in that I kept finishing last in the mandatory races. So please. Can you stop bringing up the trophies?

I got my first phone halfway through my freshman year of college. It was a flip phone. We did not have texting in our plan, and I was okay with that. I used it as an alarm clock and a phone, mostly to call my then boyfriend, now husband. I now have a phone with a keyboard, but I often miss calls because I left it in my purse. Can you please stop bringing up the technology?

I graduated from college knowing that what I wanted to do, write and publish good books, would take time. I figured I should have something worth publishing in ten years, but maybe not. I knew that I couldn’t “make a living” writing books, so I got a job at a “quick service” restaurant and spend my days working hard, dealing with crap from customers, cleaning and stocking counters, making shakes and drinks. I dream of having a job at a bookstore some day, but the only one in town didn’t like my application. I’ll work in this job as long as we’re here. So please stop saying that we don’t know the value of hard work and effort.

Caleb’s looking for jobs. It’s not going well. You’d be surprised how many conversations we’ve had with people who keep telling him his expectations are too high. It makes me want to scream. Best Buy rejected him for Pete’s sake. He could apply where I work, but they’d make him shave his beard…which makes finding a job in his field a lot harder. (No. Seriously. The beard adds a lot.) I try explaining this, but it makes no difference. And then I remember history.

We are not the first people to find the “real world” hard to navigate. Isn’t 20-something disillusionment part of what makes The Graduate so important? Why is it that people my age get shamed for frustrations that were expressed by our parents? I’m sure plenty of men in suits complained about the work ethic of the “young people” in their offices in the 1960’s and 1970’s. And were you really taught to leave things better than when you found them? Or is that just glossy hindsight?

So please. Stop preaching against us because of the stupid trophies. Stop ranting that we’re ruining the world. Stop telling us that our expectations are too high when we would be happy with a part-time job selling electronics with a nearly completed masters degree. Please. Because I’m working as hard as I can.

In the Doldrums

Maybe at some point in my life, I won’t live in a college town. I can dream. For now though, I’m experiencing the summer lull. It happens when you live in a place where a large portion of the population leaves in May, and you find yourself in June. When I lived in Ohio, a third of the population left. Here in Indiana, it’s only a fifth, but it’s still obvious. The streets are quieter. Our student apartment complex isn’t empty, but it might as well be. I don’t run into anyone when I do laundry. The people I see the most are the groundsmen. Our business has dropped off at work. We still have locals, but so many are going away on vacations. 

The emptiness goes beyond the roads. I work with lots of high school and college students still in the summer break mentality. They mean well.

“So, do you guys have any plans for this summer?”

I stare at them and laugh.

“This,” I say, gesturing to the floor I’m sweeping. 

The truth is, it’s weird to not have any milestones to talk about. I’m not graduating. I don’t have an internship. I’m not getting married. The job-hunting front is still pretty bleak. There’s a high likelihood Caleb’s thesis project will take longer than expected. I wake up, read my Bible, do the dishes, check facebook, go to work, come home, make dinner, eat, work on my revision, encourage Caleb in his projects. The days blur together even more now that Caleb isn’t going to class. We have trouble remembering if it’s Wednesday or Friday. 

This is real life, we’re told. Empty, quiet, routine. Try to focus. Try to keep busy. Summer breaks belong to childhood. Even professors work, doing research and prepping for the fall. So we shut the curtains to keep in the cool air from our upstairs window unit and downstairs fan. Caleb works on his computer, sometimes never getting out of his pajamas. I live on the couch when I’m not at work. 

I’ve been thinking about how most of my milestones this summer are about the passage of time. I’ve been out of school for over a year. I’ve almost been married for a year. I’ve been revising the same chapter for a year. I’ve been working on my book for almost nine years. I wish I had more of my own creations to celebrate. Like maybe I could be in a play or in a concert or maybe I could finish up this revision and say, “I have a second draft, people!”

But I wipe down counters on quiet afternoons and stare at the sparse parking lot on our drive-thru monitor and wonder what exists in that blank void drawing ever nearer called “the future.” I have this growing fear of all that could not happen. Of the quiet failures and slipping away.

“What do you fear lady?” he asked.

“A cage,” she said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”

Caleb laughs at this.

“You won’t get trapped, Lyddie,” he says. “I wouldn’t let you.”

I’m reminded of a lecture I heard while in a British literature class. The subject was Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”, believed to have been written on his honeymoon. The poem deconstructs a romantic image of listening to the waves on the beach, and of the world in general. The poem can be quite bleak. My professor pointed to the last stanza.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

He said that the real beauty of a marriage isn’t the wedding or the smiling pictures in sunshine. It’s standing next to someone in the face of darkness. It’s holding hands, raising heads, and saying to the real world, “Bring it.”

So here we are in summer, in a much quieter city, no plans, no achievements, hoping that we won’t have to move back in with our parents. But it’s hard to get trapped in a cage when your companion on the journey is watching your back.