Ebenezer and the Jordan

I promise I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth; I’ve just taken a break from my blog that lasted a little longer than I had planned. I am still figuring out how writing fits into my priorities during this busy, exciting year, but at present, I have no plans to put the blog on a longer-term hiatus.

Today, I want to share an observation that some of you might, rightly, find a little cheesy. All I can say in my defense is that I value symbolism because it helps me begin to grasp the abstract, something that does not come naturally to me.

Let me back up. A few years ago, I wrote a post about the Old Testament account of Ebenezer, the stone that the prophet Samuel set up to commemorate God’s leading of the Israelites. (I recently wrote a short story about this, which I hope to see in print soon–stay tuned.) The word “Ebenezer” is an important symbol for me; I have it engraved on a necklace, and I love its odd, archaic appearance in verse two of my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” If one can have a favorite biblical memorial stone, Ebenezer is mine.

But there are other memorial stones in scripture, and the speaker in a webinar I was listening to this past weekend reminded me of the memorial pile of stones (which doesn’t share a name with a Dickens character) that the children of Israel set up in the middle of the Jordan River after God miraculously allowed them to cross it on dry land. And then I thought about how God has led me to a Jordan of my own–my fiance, whose first name is Jordan. (I told you this would be cheesy.) When I moved out here to Michigan in August 2018, I was excited about my new job and ready for a reboot of my life, but the question remained in my mind–why Michigan, in particular? (No offense, by the way. Honestly, you can read here and here about how much I like Michigan.) And now I know why: so that I would be in the same eHarmony orbit as this wonderful man I’m going to marry in May.

Hither by God’s help I am come.

a pep talk for me

I’ve been feeling a little down the past week or so, and while I think there are several reasons for this, probably the biggest one is that my much-anticipated first summer of freedom (since college, that is, and with “freedom” defined as not having to report to work) has come to a close. I spent basically the whole summer going from one trip to the next, with people I enjoy being around and with something to constantly look forward to. I didn’t have to go grocery shopping or mow my lawn or take out the trash–all tasks that I don’t mind (sometimes even enjoy) when I’m home but that it feels exciting and slightly transgressive to be able to ditch for weeks at a time. Now that I’m back home but not yet back into the rhythm of the school year, I feel let down, broke from all the money I spent on my travels (I’m not, but it feels that way), and a little lonely. This last part has surprised me–normally, I’m all about my independence and totally capable of entertaining myself, but the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt like I’m suddenly not an introvert anymore.

I’m sharing all this not to whine but because I think this particular brand of mild seasonal depression may be more common among adults than we realize. It might not be an end-of-summer thing for everyone; I think it happens after Christmas for many people. But it’s something we should talk about so we know that we’re not alone. If you’ve ever felt this way, I’d be happy to listen to your story in the comments. (Or, if we know each other, let’s chat off the blog!)

Because it’s started off so poorly, I’ve been dreading the remainder of August, so I’m going to spend the remainder of this post listing reasons I have to be optimistic–if not manically excited like I was at the beginning of the summer–about what’s to come. I realize this is a totally self-indulgent use of my blog, but maybe it’ll inspire you to make a list of your own.

  1. School starts in 21 days, and classroom teaching (NOT meetings or assessment or filling out forms, though I understand why those are important) is the part of my job that I really love. I’m looking forward to meeting the freshmen in my composition classes and seeing some former students again in my literature class. I’m also teaching my first-ever independent study, on dystopian literature, with a really great, motivated student. And I’m excited to restart the creative writing group that meets at my house. I can’t wait to make food for this little community and share stories with them.
  2. I have a new boyfriend! He’s the sweetest, and that’s all I’m going to say about him here because, frankly, it’s none of your business, blogosphere. ūüôā (Yes, I tend to overshare, but I do have boundaries.) I’m excited about the adventures we have planned, such as Hippie Fest in Angola, Indiana, next month (I already know what I’m going to wear)–as well as the less adventurous but no less precious times we will be able to take walks, share meals, and keep getting to know each other. (I like what I know so far.)
  3. Fall in West Michigan is beautiful, but I didn’t maximize my enjoyment of it last year because I was still getting used to my new job and home (actually, I was still renting and home shopping last fall) and generally getting on my feet. This fall, I intend to hike, pick apples, go to festivals, and be outdoors as much as possible. As my siblings and I ironically-but-secretly-unironically like to say, it’s almost time for hayrides, hoedowns, and all things pumpkin spice.

Next year, I’ll probably spend my summer a little more quietly (then again, who knows?). But although I’m feeling the crash right now, I don’t regret my summer of carpe diem. (I know that’s grammatically incorrect in Latin.) And, especially now that I’ve written this post, I’m looking forward to what comes next.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, take two

In a post this past November, I argued that the John Hughes classic¬†Planes, Trains, and Automobiles¬†is about radical hospitality. I would now like to add that it is also about learning to be calm during travel mishaps. I mean, duh–but I’ve really come to need that lesson over the past few days. I’ll explain momentarily, but first, can I take a John Candy detour?

Okay. I watched¬†The Great Outdoors¬†for the first time recently. It’s no¬†Planes, Trains; in fact, it’s basically just a loosely plotted series of sight gags related to the outdoors–waterskiing, racoons getting into the trash, comedic bear attacks, you get the picture. But what makes it a delight is the actors. Dan Ackroyd plays a horrible person, but he’s very good at it, and he comes around in the end. John Candy plays that character he’s so good at playing–an affable, long-suffering, optimistic on others’ behalf, Really Good Guy. I have no idea what he was like as an actual human being, but I have a hard time believing he wasn’t at least a little bit like this character type he made famous. I think we need more guys like him, in movies and in life.

Now back to the topic at hand. I was supposed to fly to Manchester, UK, last Friday for a week with my dad, who is working over there. When I got to the airport and tried to check in, I learned, to my horror (not an overstatement), that my passport was expired. It was devastating on a number of levels, perhaps the deepest being that it was a shameful mistake on my part. I take pride in being on top of the details of my life or at least appearing to be, but over the past few years, I’ve found myself increasingly absent-minded, whether because I’m getting older or because I have too much to keep track of (probably both). Often, I can get away with making a joke of my forgetfulness, but there was no humor to be found in this passport screw-up. I have no doubt that many of the well-traveled people I’ve told this story to over the past few days (including some of you reading this post) have been puzzled and silently judgmental over my failure to check on something so obvious. Thank you for keeping it to yourselves.

There followed a series of emotional phone calls to my dad, the US State Department expedited passport automatic scheduling service, American Airlines, Walgreens (to find out if they take passport photos all day), my mom (basically just to cry), the guy I’d met on eHarmony and had talked to for the first time that very afternoon (who was kind enough to call again and make sure I was okay after I texted him the story), and a friend I’d been meaning to visit. I came up with a plan: apply in person for an expedited passport in Detroit Monday morning (the closest and earliest I could get an appointment), reschedule my flight for June 26 (today), and try to distract myself over the weekend. I ended up traveling two hours south to the Michigan-Indiana border to spend Saturday and Sunday with my friend. She was a gracious last-minute hostess and even took me on a kayaking trip down the St. Joseph River that was as relaxing as anything I’ve experienced in a long time. (I mean the part where we were being carried downstream. Upriver was harder.) And, as it turned out, my friend lives less than half an hour away from my eHarmony guy, so I got to meet him Sunday afternoon, more than a week earlier than we had thought we’d be able to meet, and that was lovely too.

I got the passport on Monday, a story in itself that I won’t take the time to share here. Today, I was understandably anxious about checking in, so I showed up at the airport excessively early. (I won’t tell you how early because I’m embarrassed.) There were no mishaps.

Somewhere in the midst of my rushing around and hardcore crying on Friday evening, I came up with a¬†Planes, Trains, and Automobiles¬†mantra for the weekend: Be more like Del and less like Neal. Neal Page (Steve Martin) has many good qualities, but I simply meant that I should enjoy the adventure, mishaps and all. As I’ve written before on this blog, mishaps make good stories.

What am I going to do this summer?

I just walked home from meeting with my supervisor to go over my first annual evaluation in my new job. This should be the last time I have to go on campus until August–not that I don’t want to be there. It’s just that this is my first summer since starting college that I haven’t been working a job that has regular hours. I’ll be teaching online throughout the summer, which is real work, but it’s work that I can do anywhere (such as looking out at the Atlantic Ocean, which I may do while at Myrtle Beach next week) and anytime (including on BST, British Summer Time, which I’ll be observing while in the UK the following week). So I’m determined not to set foot in my office until my contractual obligations begin again in August.

My summer is almost comically full. For most of June and July, I will be making periodic stops at home just long enough to repack my suitcase, mow my lawn so that it doesn’t look like a jungle, and get the chiropractic adjustments I’ll need after all the flying and driving I’m going to do. Oh, and somewhere in there, I’m getting a haircut. Besides the trips mentioned in the previous paragraph, I will be visiting family in Pennsylvania and friends in Virginia. I also have tentative plans to visit the famed Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the short sliver of the year in which it’s not covered in snow, and I may combine this with a pilgrimage/research trip to northern Minnesota to see the town (Hibbing) in which I set my zombie apocalypse novel but which I’ve never visited. I’m a little nervous to see the real Hibbing, but if I find that my portrayal is wildly inaccurate, I can always change the name to Unspecified Northern Midwestern Town–or chalk the differences up to zombies.

I almost just typed the sentence, “But I don’t want to waste this summer,” and then the smarter and kinder part of my brain was like, “You¬†know¬†that resting, spending time with the people you love, and seeing more of this beautiful world is not ‘wasting’ the summer.” This is true. However, there are a few things I’d like to accomplish besides traveling and teaching online. One is to continue the dent I am making in my reading list. Last fall, I took inventory of the books I had been buying over the past few years and realized that my to-read list was out of control. So I divided the books into categories and have been making my way through a selection of them each month. In my suitcase for the beach trip, I have packed Roald Dahl’s¬†The BFG, which, in the form of a small mass-market paperback, even looks like a light beach read. But I’m also probably going to bring along the massive hardcover biography of Thomas Hardy that might take me into July.

In addition to reading, I would like to start writing the sequel to my zombie novel. I’m still trying to decide what to do with the first one, Sam’s Town (yes, that’s an intentional reference to The Killers’ album),¬†though I’m leaning toward self-publishing it as an e-book. (My reasoning, in short: I want some people to read it, but I don’t have any expectation, need, or desire to make an income from it, so I might as well send it out into the world in the quickest and most straightforward way possible so that the few people who are going to read it can get started on it.) And I plan to make some more revisions to it after my beta readers are finished with it. But in the meantime, I want to start working on the sequel,¬†Sam’s Home. (It’s a pun! “The home of Sam” or “Sam is home.”) I wrote a 200-word scene last week, and I want to keep going while I have the momentum. I know it will involve another road trip, some romance, and probably the death of one of the main characters. But more on that later.

So that’s what I’m going to do this summer. I’m not sure how much blogging I’ll be doing, but I won’t go completely off the radar. Do you have any big plans for the summer?

“Michigan seems like a dream to me now”

I’ll go ahead and warn you that I’m not totally sure what direction this post is going to take–whether it’s going to turn out profound like last week’s post or be a stream-of-consciousness reflection on how Simon and Garfunkel lyrics have kept coming to my attention over the past week, which is all that I have in mind right now. Just letting you know.

So, yes, last night while I was making a tuna layered salad to chill for tonight’s meeting of my creative writing group, I listened to my Simon and Garfunkel greatest hits record because for days, I had been coming across direct and indirect references to their songs, from a former grad student telling me that “Bridge over Troubled Water” played an instrumental role in the conversion of Christian singer Jason Gray (shout out to you, Kandy, if you’re reading this!), to Max Lucado’s odd but appropriate mention of “The Boxer” in his early book¬†No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, to the Michigan place-name Saginaw, which always makes me think of the song “America” (which, since that’s the most generic song title ever, most people probably think of as “All Gone to Look for America”). (“It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw.”) By the way, I haven’t been to the city of Saginaw, but the reason I fairly often think of the name and hence the song is that there’s a thoroughfare called Saginaw (Street? Avenue?¬†It’s just called Saginaw, apparently. They do that a lot around here) in Lansing where the American Red Cross platelet donation center is. Yes, I do drive an hour to Lansing to donate platelets when I could donate here in Grand Rapids with Michigan Blood Services. I’m loyal to the Red Cross, and I don’t mind making the drive once or twice a month, especially now that I have a new Mazda CX-5 that I really enjoy spending time in.

Okay. Rambling. Focus.

There’s a line in “America”–near the Saginaw line, of course–that I never really paid attention to or possibly even heard until last night. (I recently got a new turntable and speakers, and I’m having all these revelations because I can now hear my records properly for the first time.) It says, “Michigan seems like a dream to me now.” This line brought a bemused smile to my face as I was chopping cucumbers or whatever I was doing at that moment. Michigan does seem like a dream to me now, not because–like the protagonist of that song–I have passed through it quickly and left it behind, but because I am still here after seven months and yet it sometimes doesn’t seem real that I live here. And I don’t mean “dream” in the sense of “beyond my wildest dreams”; after all, if you told me I could live anywhere in the world, no restrictions, I’d probably pick Italy or somewhere else more temperate in climate and with better food than Michigan (no offense intended). But I’m awed, blessed, and kinda proud of myself that I am not only living in a state that a year ago I’d never remotely considered living in, but also working at a university that a year ago I’d never heard of (but only because it’s a hidden gem)–and I own a house in that state and just a few blocks from that university. I even have a Michigan license plate on the four-wheel-drive vehicle I probably would not have bought in Virginia. But it all feels a little surreal, like an unusually long vacation.

That’s all I have to say about that, as Forrest Gump says. I hope it was sufficiently profound for you. Go listen to some Simon and Garfunkel.

my first winter in Michigan

Here are some things I learned during my first winter in West Michigan:

  1. Weather-related cancellations are rare. They are more likely to happen due to cold than to snow. I understand this because I know that cold can be dangerous, especially to the very young and the very old, but driving on slippery roads with low visibility is also dangerous–just saying.
  2. Speaking of slippery roads, I learned that I can drive okay in snow but that I will feel much more comfortable in an all-wheel-drive vehicle. I came to this decision when my Mazda 6, which has served me well for nearly 10 years, got stuck in the snow twice in one day in February. I plan to begin shopping for a small SUV soon.
  3. On the other hand, I learned that I probably don’t need a garage or carport. This had been one of my must-have items when I began home shopping, but I ended up buying a garageless house that fit nearly all of my other needs and desires. I talked about installing a carport, but now I don’t think I need it. Defrosting my windshield in the morning is a minor inconvenience, and anyway, I live close enough to my job to walk when I don’t feel like digging out the car.
  4. I also learned that you find out who your friendly neighbors are in the winter. During the late January polar vortex, one neighbor whom I hadn’t met saw me struggling to shovel out my driveway and came over with his snowblower. It was too cold to exchange pleasantries, so I still don’t know his name, but I’m grateful to him. Other neighbors helped me push and shovel on that day in February when my car got stuck twice.
  5. And finally, I learned that I can handle a Michigan winter. So to those of you who were hoping to gloat when I came crying back to Virginia–sorry, you don’t get that satisfaction. Heh, heh.