Towards the end of last summer, I read the book Gilead by Marilynn Robinson.
Gilead is a composition of letters written from elderly father, Reverend John Ames to his young son. The reverend is aware that his life is coming to an end, and he wishes to leave his son the written account of important memories from his life, pieces of advice learned along the way, and a brief history on the town Gilead, Iowa. John Ames, his father, and his grandfather lived in Gilead for all of their lives. Although Ames was often advised by his parents and older brother to leave Iowa for the experience of other places, he never leaves; and insists that the reasoning is simply because he loves it there.
Gilead, Iowa is your classic small town. Everyone knows everyone, along with the gossip of each person’s life, every business is a locally owned business, and the accepted common grounds for those who live in Gilead revolve around Christianity and their belief system. The population of the town seems to be fully aware that they’re unaware of the goings on in the rest of he world. They’re content in this understanding. They find joy in sunsets on dirt roads and scenes of cloudy skies overhead, and that’s enough for them.
My hometown, Seymour, Indiana, is frightfully similar to the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. During summer evenings, Kovener’s Korner Ice Cream is where you could find most any high schooler. Mi Casa Mexican Kitchen is the place to go if you’d like to order a burrito named after the town’s most beloved optometrist. One could visit any nonchain business and, upon leaving, insist that your total be added to your “tab”. There isn’t an unsafe street to walk down. People just know when a new person arrives.
My reading list is never ending and ever growing. I write down the titles of works I intend to read in no specific order, only as I hear about them. Due to that lack of any real organization, Gilead happened to occur on my list between a few books pertaining to “adventure”, one being the infamous Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I read Gilead during the time frame when Ethan and I were feeling incredibly conflicted between staying in the cliché, charming, small town of Seymour or embarking on our own journey with an unmarked path. Gilead, having been suggested to me by Pinterest, was an unfamiliar title with which I had no idea of the plotline. Upon finishing the novel, I used it as a means of coping with staying in Seymour, as I felt that was my inevitable fate. If Reverend John Ames could write a book length love letter on his deathbed about a well-lived life in a Seymouresque town, I should be able to live a half decent life in such a town without feeling regretful…right?
On the very first page of Gilead, John Ames states, “There are many ways to live a good life.” And on one of the last pages of the book, he reiterates, “A harmless life could be lived here.” A good life and a harmless life are what could be lived in Seymour, Indiana. Really, there isn’t a compromise lifestyle. You will raise a family. You will go to church every Sunday. You will get caught up in the unimportant, yet entirely fascinating gossip around town. You will pull weeds and mow your lawn, as if any of that matters in the grand scheme of creation. You will enjoy a one week vacation with your spouse and 2.5 children on some unimpressive, overcrowded Floridian beach during spring break once a year.
I know I sound like I have a negative bias towards those activities, but I’m really not trying to say there is anything wrong with that lifestyle whatsoever. So many people in the world living in towns like Seymour and Gilead can’t be wrong. In fact, let me make this clear: leaving Seymour was one of the hardest things I have ever done or will ever do. I liked the cliché. I was fully charmed. I was prepared to live the good & harmless life for the rest of mine.
Several times throughout Gilead, Reverend John Ames gives his young son permission to leave. He understands that not everyone will be charmed by local businesses and dirt roads and gossip. He doesn’t want his son to feel guilty if he becomes the first in the Ames family to get curious about the rest of the world. In his attempt to give reason for himself not leaving Gilead, Ames offers, “I truly suspect I never left because I was afraid I would not come back.” And that’s when I lost my lure for the storyline. I got stuck in my mental processing. That’s like saying, “I’ve never tried chocolate because I’m afraid I’ll never return to my previous state of having never eaten chocolate.” Why would you be willing to do yourself the injustice? What’s the point in such a sacrifice? What’s to gain if you starve yourself of what’s outside of Seymour?…er, I mean Gilead.
I completely and utterly adore my hometown. Please understand, the reason that the Seymour life wasn’t the one we ultimately chose was only because we had already experienced it. We were immersed in that lifestyle. We road our bikes to Kovener’s Korner as the sun set in the summer sky. I ate the Dr. Nate Veggie Burrito for lunch every Thursday for over a year. I can’t tell you how many times I said, “Put it on the Brown tab” as I walked out of the hardware store. Ethan and I devoted ourselves to the community and dove headfirst into everything that existed there for us to endure. We lived the good & harmless life of Seymour, Indiana for a year and a half, and then other parts of the world and other lives called to us. Some people were made to find their one “niche” lifestyle. We just weren’t. We were made for several.
I got away from myself a little, describing the correlation between Seymour and Gilead. One day, I hope to fully examine and elaborate on all of the factors that led to our undertaking of this traveling way of life. For today, I only wanted to emphasize what it is I feel when I’m back in the lifestyle of my hometown. The following paragraphs detailing the rest of my trip back to Indiana aren’t simply a journal of my to-do-list visits with people, but these paragraphs are a rare ability I have to jump back in time to my past life. I’m ever thankful to have a hometown that provides me such a gift.
The week I came to Seymour happened to overlap with our church’s week of involvement in a local program called “Cold Night Out”. During the colder months of the year, participating churches in the area take turns acting as a homeless shelter for those in need. In addition to being given a place to sleep, those seeking shelter are also provided with dinner in the evening and breakfast in the morning. Martha had signed up to be one of the people preparing breakfast in the mornings, and I was more than happy to accompany her during this.
We got to the church at 5am Sunday morning, coffee in hand. After breakfast was served and cleaned up, we went home for a couple hours until it was time for church service. A great majority of the people I know in Seymour, I know due to involvement in our church. This made Sunday morning service one of the highlights, as far as seeing people goes, of my trip. I walked to church thirty minutes early so I could socialize. I do love running around hugging everyone. It feels special to be in a town where everyone knows my name. Thanks to social media and my activity on such, mostly everyone I encountered was able to ask questions and make comments on my and Ethan’s new southern life. I’m not sure why that made me a little bit happy, as escaping town gossip was a certain contributing factor to our exit, but happiness was bestowed upon me, nonetheless.
Sunday afternoon, I was exacerbated by family activity. Of course, I was back home and I didn’t necessarily mind just doing what everyone else was doing, but by the end of the day, I was exhausted from being told what to do since 4:30am. I would’ve much rathered take a nap than play board games after lunch. I would’ve rathered take another nap than go back to church for an extra long, special service that evening. I don’t even remember getting fed diinner, which is, itself, a funny sentence to say being that I’m 23-years-old and married to a 26-year-old husband who is a doctor. It’s odd that I’m back in a house where I’m seen as a child who needs guidance. Again, I’m not complaining, as I chose to come home and I promise, I do love family time. I’m just saying, I was reminded for a few hours today why it felt so important for Ethan and I to leave our hometown.
Monday morning, again, I joined Martha in cooking and serving breakfast for those taking shelter in our church. An older woman partaking of the Cold Night Out program remembered me from the morning prior, and insisted on giving me several hugs and toothless kisses on the cheek. Knowing that this lady has been staying in shelters for several weeks, it made me feel special to have stood out to her and, in some way, made a difference to her, even if all I did was smile and show her love.
Volunteering in the community was a huge part of my life while living in Seymour. Yes, volunteers are needed in every community, but temporary help is only needed in some places. Also, it doesn’t feel good to get involved in a community where I’ll only be living for a couple of months. I loved pouring myself into the lives of my preschoolers, church kiddos, and others during my Seymour days. I’m glad I can step back into some of that while I’m here.
Speaking of my preschoolers, I was able to visit my 3-year-old class on Monday! Oh, that was so, so precious. There’s nothing like walking into a room of a dozen sweet, smiling, sticky faces who are all beyond eager to see you. I don’t think I was without a little one clinging to me for the hour and a half I spent with them. Their new teacher, and my friend, Amy, happily put aside her lessons so I could be silly with them for a while.
For lunch that same day, I got together with a woman I grew close to from our church, Nancy. She and I went to one of my favorite locally owned restaurants in town, Bullwinkle’s. With her being someone who greatly encouraged Ethan to I to embark on this “Born to Roam” journey, it was hard to talk about our Louisiana adventures without a huge smile on my face. It’s lovely to know someone who understands the deep desires to see the world that we have.
Nancy seems to be aware of something Reverend John Ames was as well, although he was speaking only of sunsets and sunrises in the small town of Gilead, “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”
Later that afternoon, I was able to meet my brother, Joey and his current love interest for coffee at Starbucks. I’ve never had a dull visit with Joey. He can make me laugh like no one else on earth can, because I suppose, no one on earth is so properly accustomed to my sense of humor as him.
Waking up at 4:30am the past three mornings caught up with me on Tuesday, as I accidentally fell asleep on the couch after returning home from volunteering at breakfast, and nearly missed the visit I’d scheduled with my 4-year-old preschoolers.
They were an even more precious group to get to see. I’d gotten to teach all of them for the entire duration of last school year, so I was a bit more bonded to them than I was the 3-year-old class. Oh, I just loved getting to squeeze all of them. I can’t tell you what it means to me that they remember me and felt excited to tell me anything new happening in their tiny lives.
I stayed until school ended and the kids went home. Afterwards, I was able to have lunch with Amy and two of her three little boys, who I’ve come to love about as much as you can love children who aren’t your own. We ate at another locally owned jewel in town, Mi Casa. We ate and visited for almost two hours. Friendships that can pick up where they left off, with very little contact between meetings, are one of the great joys in my life, living the life I’ve chosen. I’m blessed to have Amy and her sweet stinker boys as friends. Amy spoke with wide eyes and excitement as she updated me in the world of 3 & 4-year-olds. I listened with an irremovable smile at being thrown back into my old life, temporarily.
Martha picked me up from Mi Casa because she had arranged for us to get massages that afternoon. Isn’t she the best? I didn’t realize how much I needed a massage until I felt the stress melting off my shoulders while being massaged. I guess one could always use a massage, right?
When spa time ended, it was around 4:30pm, and we needed a snack. Big Woods Pizza & Brewery is the place to go in Brown County/Nashville, Indiana. Since it was an off-season Tuesday evening, only the brewery was in operation, which was fine by us. We found ourselves a lovely table by a window, ordered pork rinds and special drinks, and sat there laughing way too loudly and talking way too obnoxiously for way too long. It was just my kind of evening, really.
My father-in law was in a meeting until 7:30pm, so that’s when we met him back in Seymour at yet another locally owned masterpiece of the area: Boston Pizza Co. and Brewery. Boston has the best beer I’ve ever had, and the pizza isn’t bad either. I get pretty overjoyed when I get to have focused time with my in-laws together. I’ve been blessed to have more time with them than most people ever get to spend with their in-laws, and correspondingly, that has allowed me to have a deeper and more meaningful relationship with them than most people would imagine having. And, in our relatively large family, I’m thankful better yet to get the two of them to myself every now and then.
To use another quote from John Ames, as he is declaring the love he feels for his son, “…it is your existence I love you for, mainly. Exitence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”
I skipped Cold Night Out Shelter Wednesday morning because that night I’d be driving back to Shreveport. Around 9am, I woke up to a phone call from Martha, insisting that I get over to her friend’s design shop so I could see some of the chosen elements being incorporated into the lakehouse. I’m always happy to be involved in design work, I like to believe I have somewhat of an eye for those types of things. An appreciation, at the very least. Rushing over to Karen’s Design ended up being an excellent move on my part; Karen was eager to get rid of some clothing from her little boutique, and I somehow wound up leaving with several cute pieces at a small fraction of their original prices
I got to visit with my grandparents Wednesday afternoon. Time spent with them is infinitely blissful and cherished. They’re intrigued by my and Ethan’s wandering and are a special support system to return to, always.
The last activity on my Indiana Trip agenda was to appear at kid’s church Wednesday night. When it was time for the kids to be bussed in, I was waiting for them in the sanctuary, unbeknownst to any of them. The screams as about thirty children entered the area at once = absolutely pricelss. They tackled me to the ground with hugs. Being around the children I once spent so much time with immediately reminded me why I was willing to stay in the boot-shaped state of the Midwest for the rest of my life. I loved getting to be apart of their church going experience.
After church, I walked back home to find Martha and Randy in the living room, each caught up in their own tasks, I’m sure, but for a brief moment I imaged that they were only sitting there waiting for me to return. Their heads popped up as I came through the door, and they silently watched as I gathered my things and packed them back into my rental car. We quietly hugged when saying goodbye, as people do when avoiding tears and cracks in their voices. They waved to me from the front porch as I drove around the circle driveway to leave and return to my roaming.
I will admit, I left Seymour three months ago with the same fear that Reverend Ames described to his son in Gilead: what if I never return? But now that I have returned, that fear has been dissolved. Saying goodbye to so many people at once again hurt, and I’m sure it will continue to hurt each time I depart from future visits, but knowing that I get to return to this small town, timeless piece of earth is a great comfort and joy to me.
Liv – Authentically