Sunday, July 26, 2015

Southern Accents, Oklahoma Memories, and Writing Cabins

You know how Americans are a bit too enraptured with all things British?

William and Catherine!
Buckingham Palace!
The accent!
The Queen!

Well.  I am like that about the American South.

The porches!
The accent!
"Yes, Sir," and "No, Ma'am!"
Fried okra!
Black-eyed peas!
The accent!
The chivalry!
The manners!
Fried chicken!
Big brick churches!
And did I mention the accent?!

Last week one day I got a phone call from a truck driver who needed to pick up a load at the warehouse.  Oh. My. Word.  He had the thickest and heaviest Southern accent I've heard in YEARS.  He was from Memphis!  How many truck drivers from Memphis come to the Wilton Smucker Warehouse?  I would have said None, but there he was, with an accent so thick you had to sort out the words one by one because they were stretched out and then glued together with sweet tea and molasses.

Ben came home from sacking that day and told us about this truck driver who came by with this unbelievable Southern accent, so I wasn't the only one who was impressed.

Paul's explanation was that there's a company in Memphis that for some reason decided to send their own trucks for seed rather than having it shipped by rail or some other way.

Just a few days ago it happened again.  The accent wasn't quite as pronounced, but again it was a truck driver and he was traaah-in' to faaahhhnnnd this warehouse, and the G-P-EHHSSS had sent him to the end of Substation, and he couldn't go no further.

Well.  That meant he was right outside our house.

I told him to turn right and go a quarter mile and look for the sign.  Then I looked out the window and there went this big white truck, with the company name on the side.  "Wiley Sanders."  Oh my word.  Could there possibly be a more Southern name than WILEY SANDERS?

My sister Margaret married a guy from Mississippi and is a little less starry-eyed about the South than I am.  It's HOT AND MUGGY, she says, and there are BIG SNAKES in her mother-in-law's attic!

So I guess I will continue to admire the South from afar and hope that lots of Southern farmers will feel compelled to buy grass seed from Oregon and have it shipped by an outfit like Wiley Sanders.  And I guess if my friends in the South want to call me up and just let me listen to them now and then, that would be ok too.

In other news:

Paul is working on prepping the old machine-shed boards for my writing cabin.  He pulled 99 old nails out of one board, he told me, which confirms for us all what a labor of love this is, since this goes entirely against his natural bent of being as efficient as possible.

I stopped by the other day and we evaluated which of those beautiful ancient textured boards should be used for flooring, siding, and so on.

This week I was at the authors' table at the county fair for a few hours and didn't sell many books but as always talked with other authors.

Bill Sullivan the hiking-guide author was stationed next to me.  Some years ago he and his wife built a log cabin way back in along the Siletz River.  They had to haul all their materials in by hand, a mile and a half.  He told me the hilarious story of going to the county office to get a permit for this project.  For one thing, he had drawn up the plans in metric measurements, and the county people just squinted at it, completely confused; for another, the officials were asking about plumbing, electricity, and road frontage, none of which applied, and like so many official paper-filers they didn't know what to do with this.  Finally they gave him one of those yellow papers that you tack up outside when you're doing a building project, indicating that the county has given you permission to work on this.  So Bill tacked the yellow paper up in a prominent place, knowing full well no one would ever check up on him.  The next day a cow ate it.

I knew Bill would understand the charm of a cabin with reclaimed materials, and I told him about our "Acorn Cottage" project and how Paul plans to make it.

He said, "Good.  You need a writing cabin.  I built a cabin for myself at the cabin."


"Yes.  It's 8 by 10 feet.  I have a typewriter there and nothing else.  Well, a typewriter and a table and windows."

He went on, "Especially with writing fiction, you need to be by yourself."

All right then.  Not that I needed affirmation or permission, but it was nice to get it anyhow.
-     -     -

This week I also took Dad to see his cousin Paul Yoder in Eugene.  Both of them lived in Oklahoma, but Dad was eight years older, and Paul's family moved to Oregon when he was twelve.  They had a great time reminiscing and Dad could still reel off the names of all the Indian kids in school without even stopping to think.

I know Indian isn't the most appropriate term any more but that's what Dad called them so I'll keep the term for the sake of the story.

The government at that time was trying to get the Indians --mostly Cherokee and Osage in that area--to be farmers, so they would give each family some land, a plow, and two horses.  In one area near Thomas, Oklahoma, most of the farmers were Amish or Indian.

So that peculiar combination of cultures went to school together, apparently with no dominant-culture American/"Englisch" kids in the mix.  Many of the students got to be friends, and Dad and his brothers went to Indian pow-wows where, Dad says, the drums pounded all night long.

The Indians used to eat turtle soup and also puppy soup, Paul said. I don't know if they shared with the Amish kids or not.

When Paul was quite young, his brother Earl and Earl's friend Elmer decided to dip Julia Big Eagle's ponytail in the inkwell.  Pretty classic behavior of boys in that era, if the books are to be believed, but what happened then wasn't in any children's book that I've read.

Julia went home and told her mom what had happened, and her mom was not happy.  Paul says, "Her mom come to school the next morning, a big Indian woman, with her blanket wrapped around her, and from under the blanket she pulls this big butcher knife, and she took off after Earl and Elmer.  We were scared.  We didn't know what she was going to do."

Earl and Elmer dashed into the outhouse and locked the door.  Mrs. Big Eagle pounded on the door, trying to get in, and the terrified boys kicked out a board in the back of the outhouse, slithered through the hole, and ran off into the cornfield.

"I was just little," Paul said, "and my eyes were this big."

He still looked scared, telling us about it 80 years later.

-     -     -
Quote of the Day:
The dishwasher broke, which means a lot more conversation over dishes:
Emily and Ben get gradually more loud and animated, Smuckerishly, as they discuss a professor at LBCC.
Grandpa: A soft answer turneth away wrath!
Ben and Emily: Huh??!
Jenny: I think he thinks you guys are arguing.
Kids: [howls of laughter]
And we all think: Oh, Grandpa!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

When Life is Hard Slogging

About seven years ago I directed a dreadful Christmas play called Why the Chimes Rang.  It began as a good idea but turned into a bad-dream project that muddled on and on, growing huger and more complicated, with every aspect of it, from the singing to the costumes to the behavior at rehearsals, steadily degenerating into chaos as time went on.

Or at least that's how it is seared into my memory, which is why I haven't directed a play since.

One of the characters was a young mother who was hungry and lost on a winter night.  The actress was supposed to come down the church aisle, unsteady and desperate, clutching her baby in her shawl as the winter winds blew the snow down on the village.

She had one line to say: "Oh, I am so weary and cold."

Thankfully the girl who played this part had a sense of humor, because for some reason she COULD NOT GET THAT LINE.

"Oh I am so tired and hungry!" she would say before collapsing into the snowbank which I think was a pile of quilt batting from the sewing circle, covered with a white sheet.

No no.

Back up the aisle, turn around, and toward the front again, into the wind.  "I am so weary and tired!"

No!  "WEARY and COLD."

"Oh, I am so cold and hungry!"

I'm not sure if she ever got it right, even on the night of the program.  I should have let her ad-lib, I guess.  Who would have noticed?

I am thinking of this scene now because sometimes there are seasons of life in which it feels like we're all weary and cold, fighting our way into the winter wind, and our shawl isn't enough protection at all, and we are about to collapse into the snowbank with our baby in our arms.

Sometimes life is just a lot of hard slogging, on and on, and we grow weary in body and soul, which makes us extra weary and cold in spirit as well, and it feels we will never reach the front of the church, and for sure we won't hear the miraculous chimes when they ring in the steeple on Christmas Eve.

This is such a season.

I've had more sickness this summer than I've had in years.  Bouts of bronchitis, weeks of just feeling unwell that makes a normal day's work feel like climbing Mt. Hood, all of it complicated by a certain affliction that my children say is entirely TMI but it involves a sudden sense of flames radiating out of one's ears and breaking out in perspiration from every pore, and it comes upon women my age uninvited.

That this combination should land in the middle of summer, of all times, and the hottest summer in years, and just when everyone is working long days to the point of utter exhaustion, and also while my dad is here, just feels wrong.  Other times, there'd be someone around to pick up the slack.  Now, there isn't.

Life becomes a hard climb uphill, day after day.

As I said, there's the relentless heat, so unusual for an Oregon summer, and the early and intense dryness of it, so the grass has died, the lilac leaves--normally hardy through the heat of August--already look curled, and all the flowers wilt quickly as soon as my back is turned.

Harvest.  Animals to feed.  Yard work.  Jobs and school and vehicles. Fruit to pick and put away.

Summer is wonderful but it is also hard, and I sense in my spirit that I am not the only one facing a hard path to joy, that others face relentless spiritual forces as well, that many of us are short on rest of every kind.

Tests must be studied for, late at night, for summer classes, and the summer job means your friends go swimming and you stock shelves, and worn-out belts and motors must be fixed high in dusty warehouses in motionless heat.

Young people with long hours of alone time on combines and in deserted warehouses day after day end up with too much time to think and no outside voices to counter the inner noise.  Condemnation, temptation, depression--whatever the spiritual weakness, it shows up here.  And sometimes just a weird outlook on life, and then they start having arguments in their heads with all the stupid people on NPR or with Rush Limbaugh or that opinionated sports dude.

Then they think, "Wait.  I am arguing with people on the radio."

It's the season when young people apologize.  I first noticed this years ago, when a young friend was driving combine and then wrote me a note apologizing for how she had said something, and she's afraid she left the wrong impression, but really she meant it like this, and she feels very badly about this.

Combine syndrome, I named it.

Last Sunday two young people came to me separately and apologized for lying, kind of.  One wanted to leave this impression and not that, but it wasn't honest.  The other had answered a question impulsively but, she later realized, not accurately.

And I felt their soul struggles in the hot sunshine and I saw their difficult journeys and I wanted to say, "It's just a hard hard season, all around, and a tough trail, just now. Be gentle with yourself."

The day I found myself lecturing Caitlyn Jenner, I knew I had a bad case of combine syndrome of my own.  In case you're the last person in America to know this, the athlete Bruce Jenner has taken steps to transition into a woman and now goes by Caitlyn.  This news has been all over social media, news media, everywhere. And I was actually thinking about this, and harping in my head: "It is none of my business what you do with your life, but you're in your sixties and if you want people like me to take you seriously as a woman, how about you transition into someone named Edith with gray hair and a bit of a belly and some HOT FLASHES, OK???"

Then I thought: God help us.  Saeed Abedini is still in prison.  Christian people are dying in Nigeria.  There are still silent little orphans in toy-less cribs in Jamaica and China.

And I have followed the rest of this country down this rabbit hole of insanity.

I laughed at myself, which is what you learn to do at my age, especially if the choice is down to laughing or crying, and I went back to the Word and ate it hungrily.  And that is what I have been telling the discouraged young people in my life: you need more Jesus, and you need to counter the crazy voices with Scripture, even if it's a dusty note card tacked up by the sacker or a podcast on the combine.  And you need to talk with real people with real voices who speak real words to you.

So one morning I made Dad's oatmeal and then escaped to Jake's Cafe in Harrisburg and met a friend for breakfast.  A fellow mom who has kids the ages of mine and adrenal issues.  And those two hours were like a huge icy Kicker from Dutch Bros on a 100-degree day on an un-air-conditioned tractor.  Had I not been in this season, with all this work and all these challenges, I wouldn't have appreciated it half as much.

At least I know this, among all the hot flashes and hot days and the dry straw swirling and the hard uphill journey--the season eventually ends.  I've been here before, and I know this for a solid fact.  It doesn't last forever.  One day when you least expect it the farmer will tell you you're combining the last field today, and you'll have time in the afternoon to go swimming, or you can sit up late with friends on a Sunday night because you won't have class the next day, or a cloudy day turns into a scattered rain, and maybe the lilacs will be ok.

The day will come when the sackers won't be working night shift any more, the blueberries will all be in the freezer, the farmer won't need you to do flail-chopping until next week.  Your mind will think normal thoughts again, the confusion will pass, the guys on the radio will be only an occasional noise in the background.

And finally finally you'll reach the front of the church and get your line right, or at least right enough, and the long long walk will be done at last, and the chimes will ring in the ancient belfry, and as you sit on the pew and rest you will know that it was scary and hard and it seemed it would never end, but you are stronger, better, wiser, braver for what you've just been through.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

July's Column--On Summer, Food, and Such


Cooking can nourish the soul, too

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
JULY 12, 2015

You’d have thought we were a pioneer family loading our covered wagon in St. Joseph, Mo., the other day, instead of a mother and daughter stocking up for the next few weeks at Cash and Carry, Eugene’s efficient restaurant-supply store.

Five dozen eggs. 25 pounds of brown sugar. 50 pounds of potatoes. A gallon each of barbecue sauce and ketchup. A quart of mustard. Six pounds of sliced cheese. Seven pounds of sandwich meats. Two quarts of cream. And a three-gallon barrel of vanilla ice cream.

We heaved it all into our car, the ice cream wrapped in a sleeping bag in the trunk and the potato bag awkwardly swung into the back seat with Emily and I each hoisting an end.

This summer, it seems that food is consuming me, instead of the other way around.

Food, family and the grass-seed harvest take up most of my time.

“You got any oats?” my 98-year-old dad demands enthusiastically at 7:15 a.m., thumping into the kitchen with his cane and his hard-soled shoes.

“Sorry, I gave them all to the horse!” I joke, and I set the little pan of water on the stove just as our son Ben comes in from a night of sacking grass seed and stands beside me at the stove frying three large quesadillas before he goes to bed for the day.

Steven, our youngest son, took his turn cooking for his fellow firefighter students on an overnight shift last week. Late the night before, he shredded potatoes and chopped celery for a salad, then left at 5 a.m. with a gallon container of pulled pork, 15 enormous buns, two quarts of homemade applesauce, and the tub of potato salad.

Some of us pack lunches to take to work; some eat lunch at home. Some make tea in the morning, some coffee. They all have different work schedules, so someone is constantly in the kitchen, rooting in the fridge for a late meal after work. Most of the seven of us gather around the table at 6 p.m. for a big meat-and-potatoes dinner. And just before 11 p.m., Ben once again rattles drawers and opens cupboard doors, preparing fuel for the middle of the night.

We pick gallons of berries to wash and freeze for winter, reserving some for fresh pies and cobblers.

Then there are hot dog roasts in the back yard with young cousins and friends around the fire pit in the dark, guests and grilled chicken on the Fourth, and Sunday dinners with extra leaves in the table and a pot roast in the oven all morning.

I’m the one who makes sure it all happens.

They all know basic cooking, I make sure of that, and they all pack their own lunches. But someone has to manage the logistics of this operation and keep it running efficiently, and that would be me.

“How did I get to this place?” I wonder now and then as I check the long list on my clipboard and brace my feet to heave a 200-pound cart of groceries down the condiments aisle at WinCo. I was the girl who could happily live on Cheerios, fresh peaches and iced tea. Mom taught me to cook, sort of, but I didn’t find it particularly interesting or fulfilling.

Paul and I took the traditional roles of breadwinner and housewife when we got married, which worried me just a little, but I soon learned that we were both happy with simple Crock-Pot meals.

Then the world spun around a few times and I found myself a mother of six, a pastor’s wife, a friend of many, and the chief food coordinator for a houseful of people and a stream of guests, with two refrigerators, two freezers, three full pantries, and a shocking grocery budget.

The most discouraging part of the job is that all my hard work is constantly disappearing. Hours of shopping, baking, thawing, stirring, frying, whipping and then, in minutes, it’s gone, with only a few bones left on the plates and a smear of dressing in the bowl.

This is what is means to be an adult, I think: to make peace with the life you didn’t foresee, to see spiritual significance in the daily repeated tasks and to find fulfillment in doing them well.

If all I can see is the doing, the disappearing and the dirty dishes, I’m going to be resentful. I won’t be concerned with quality and nutrition. I’ll quit being creative. Worst, I won’t see that it’s not about frantically shoveling mash in a trough but about bringing together and nourishing the people I love.

So, as I do with everything, I look to the Bible for perspective. “Bread” is the word for food in general, I find, and it is used with reverence.

“Man shall not live by bread alone,” Deuteronomy says, and Jesus repeats the words, much later. He teaches his followers to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” He asks, regarding God’s generosity, “What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?” And then he says, mysteriously, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.”

The Book of Proverbs dares us to be surprising: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” And: “He who has a generous eye will be blessed, for he gives of his bread to the poor.”

Food, I conclude, has far greater significance than a McDouble grabbed and eaten on the way to more important things. It’s meant to be fellowship, gratitude and sustenance, an indicator of character, a unifying gift, a symbol of spiritual realities.

If I believe in divine design, then I also believe that all these people in my life are precious to God, this constant hunger was intentional, and to nourish and feed his children is a calling with eternal significance.

“Work is love made visible,” Kahlil Gibran wrote in his poem “On Work.” “For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.”

The bowl of apples on the counter becomes a work of art, the bags of groceries hauled inside on a hot day a sacrifice to God, the cheesecake a fulfilling creative challenge. The cookie in a lunch bag opened on a dusty combine, the smell of bacon drifting upstairs on a summer morning, the barbecued dinner on the porch that makes a harvest-weary husband smile — these are holy and precious things, love offered on a plate, fragrant whiffs of joy, beauty that disappears in minutes but continues for a lifetime and eternity.