Wizard of Oz: “As for you, my galvanized friend, you want a heart. You don’t know how lucky you are not to have one. Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.”

Tin Man: “But I still want one.”

* * * * * *

ONE: At the grocery store, longingly pet beckoning bags of candy corn. Let recent dentist’s warnings and a cavity propel you onward, empty-handed.

TWO: Teach college English at an under-performing, low-income high school. Try to crack the pecans that are ten sleepy, bored heads entrusted to you in the early mornings. Offhandedly agree to attend one of their football games, then be surprised at how quickly you can fall in love. These classroom slouchers are in the band, on the dance team, in the crowd, and despite the fact that only a handful of families show up for support, and the football team loses, your students’ pride is unmistakable.

Watch them compete against the most affluent boarding school kids in the city. Huddle in the wet metal stands and suddenly start crying because the disparity is overwhelming. Chest-crushing. When the boarding school team gloatingly fires a jolting cannon shot after every touchdown, and startled spectators around you scream, try to quell the thick anger that rises. The truth is, you will never have been so angry and it’s a purple rage that doesn’t fully make sense.

THREE: Spend nearly three years with someone good and true, then part ways because your visions of the future are just too different. Remember when you had nicknames, a song, a routine. You’ve been through this forest before, so you know how to be thankful for something even as it becomes past tense. Fervently believe it was worth everything.

FOUR: Be far away from family. Think of scattered brothers, and the darling nieces and nephews growing up in an eye blink. Imagine what you will all talk about when you’re old, and how much you don’t know how to say now. When you were little you couldn’t have imagined that something as ordinary as love comes with so many question marks.

FIVE: Cling to the truth, like a lifeboat made of marshmallows, that there are far worse things to have inside your rib cage than a broken heart — an immovable one, for example. Or Ebola. Every crease is the chance to be braver, and a little more pliable. How else would we be folded into envelopes bearing love letters to the world?

This week marks one year since I pulled into a Chattanooga hotel parking lot with all my worldly possessions, squinting to see in the dark and thrashing rain, having just driven the wrong way down a one-way street before caving in to exhausted tears.

Since then, my parents have occasionally remarked that they’re proud I took such a risk — moving to a new city not really knowing anyone, away from all family and friends, and having the first adventure I could really call my own. It never felt brave to me, or purposefully bold. It was just unmistakably time for something else, and I felt propelled out of Texas as much as choosing to leave it.

But often I forget that I hit the road with card catalog in tow and only the hope of a full-time teaching job. The contract wasn’t official until a bit later, and I could just have easily ended up selling pants to strangers or fetching a grouser’s coffee. Before moving I had visited the city only once, for 2 hours, getting lost more than actually seeing it. Moving to Chattanooga was, in fact, a real leap — totally unknown.

And no risk could have been more rewarding. My magic formula for a city love affair is friendliness + manageable size + trees/mountains + low cost of living + artistic charm, and Chattanooga offers it all by the canoe-load. Most mornings I go on sunrise walks across Veterans Bridge, marching along to Stephane Grappelli and grinning like a loon at the river below because I’M ALIVE, AND I’M HERE. Passersby smile and wave rather than pretending others don’t exist; the outdoor market is beautiful, rich in local produce and food trucks; there are independent bookstores and coffee shops of which Kathleen Kelly would most heartily approve.

It is an existence I could not have imagined before living it, a joy that in my early 20’s would have seemed as distant as cratered moon. What do you do after being handed the job, trees, and sweet tea of your dreams?

You gobble it up with a soup spoon for as long as it lasts. You send postcards. And when you’re old you look back and sigh to your seventeen cats, “My, wasn’t that a life to love?”

If you like, there are websites that will compare your unborn child to fruits and vegetables.

I hadn’t paid attention to this before my sister-in-law got pregnant, but then suddenly my brother was sending occasional text messages with these fruit baby updates. Not usually one for abundant exclamation points, I loved seeing his excitement over the tiny human being brewing {who has since been born with red hair and an endearingly skeptical look in his eye}.

James: My baby is the size of a lentil bean. And developing intestines, ears, eyes and buds for arms and legs, and intestines! INTESTINES!
Me: Remember when Mom used to make us eat lentils? But not babies. Congratulations on your progeny’s intestines!
James: This is the first lentil I’ve ever loved.

I’m amazed watching my brothers raise their children, systematically clinging to some methods employed by our parents and dispensing with others, as generations will do. While in my early twenties, when well-meaning strangers would ask and I made my no-biological-children-for-me stance known, they would say, “Just wait until all your friends and your brothers start having babies. Then you’ll want them.”

And that is definitely not the case. But what has happened is that I squeal over microscopic fingernails and limb buds, feeling more genuine joy and excitement than I ever thought possible over someone else’s offspring. I’m anxious for the time nieces and nephews are old enough to appreciate stories about when their dads were young and skinned-kneed, crashing onto cactus patches and pretending to slip on banana peels for attention.

It’s a wonderful thing, being part of an ever-growing fruit basket. And I wouldn’t trade it for all the grown-up fingernails in the world.

Photo of Sam Everett courtesy of my sister-in-law Heather, who had apparently just woken him from a 3-hour sleep.

Photo of Sam Everett courtesy of my sister-in-law Heather, who was greeted with this face after waking him up for a feeding. He’s having none of anyone’s shenanigans, clearly.

While browsing the magazine racks in a bookstore over the holidays, I paused at a RealSimple headline with the following declaration: NEVER WEAR THE WRONG THING AGAIN. Generally I like RealSimple, but something about this struck me as off, almost aggressive — as if readers are supposed to expend serious energy worrying that they {gasp!} might not be wearing what someone else deems good enough at some sparkling holiday soiree. Isn’t the “right” thing to wear what makes someone feel confident and comfortable? Can it not just be that simple?

Similarly irksome was the email from Express that appeared in my inbox soon after, commanding me to BE THE HOTTEST GIRL AT THE PARTY. Naturally there’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel attractive, but not only is this kind of ultimate attainment of hotness impossible, it shouldn’t even be a thing. If women’s magazines and advertising primarily encourage being the hottest woman, and men’s magazines overflow with advice for how to get her into bed, we all lose. Is this really supposed to be the focus of our lives? Our culture?

It’s like when a celebrity is described as being “pure sex.” Wouldn’t it be better to be “pure razzmatazz” or “pure kindness,” or — goodness, even “pure carbohydrates” is a worthier aspiration, I think. Now there’s a marketing gem: BE THE MOST CARBOHYDRATE-LADEN GIRL AT THE PARTY.

Here I raise my hand as the former ringleader of magazine addict parades, because the headlines that used to invite me in for fanatical page-flipping now just make me sad. The promises of perfection — the flawless body, wardrobe, relationship, and home — are exhausting, not alluring. It’s almost a shock when media voices attempt to connect to something besides our insecurities: tenderness, curiosity, and gratitude. These aren’t the things that sell, of course — but they’re the things that make a life.

I crave headlines about how to connect, how to forgive, and how to choose the right red bicycle. Please no more urging me to attain someone else’s version of perfection, physical or otherwise.

We’re all terribly misshapen pancakes, but golden, and it’s enough of a life just trying to shine without the vipers of competition or comparison. So how about this: you leave the perfect country estate to Martha, and I’ll pass on the sizzling designer wardrobe to someone with an actual hairstyle, and we’ll call it a blessed day over a plate of nachos.

ONE: Twenty-nine is going to be a delicious age {and “delicious” has to be murmured like a red-lipped vixen, with poutiness and flair}. My early twenties were hard — entire years were painfully hollow — but the nice thing about having blues and bruises in the twenties is that everything coming after feels slightly more manageable. Financial worries, career panics, relationship fractures? Been there. CHILD’S PLAY, I declare! Watch me charge this red bicycle into a thundercloud and not even drop my baguette! You can ride in the handlebar basket.

TWO: Before moving to Tennessee, I spent who-knows-how-long every year stalking strangers’ Flickr and Tumblr pages for photos of fall. Sighing over blazing leaves and country roads flanked by fleets of russet trees, it seemed impossible that I might die not having lived in a place with unabashed autumn.

Naturally I expected this enchanted land to be the much-pined-for Portland. But it’s time to admit there is no competing with fall in Chattanooga — not when there are warm biscuits and Vince Guaraldi Trio playing on winding Lookout Mountain drives. My heart is wearing much more plaid than I do in real life, because it’s just a plaid-banjo-pine cone kind of place. I absolutely love it. I didn’t think The Place would be the South, but it feels right to hang up the cardigan and build a treehouse here for now.

THREE: Dating an avid and hard-to-scare Halloween buff means bidding the comfort zone adieu and shuffling, head ducked in terror, through an elaborate haunted house. Here’s what I can say about Wonder Bread: he’s extremely patient and protective, and very little rattles him — and now this includes a shrieking, near-crying weenie twisting his arm at unnatural angles and marching on his shoe heels, prodding him to move faster because SERIOUSLY, WHY DID I THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?

In the parking lot afterward, having survived the chilling ordeal, I bemoaned this lack of toughness. “I would be useless in a zombie apocalypse!” I wailed. “All I do is go to libraries!” A soul-crumpling realization, that.

I’m always intrigued by people who relish fear because that kind of tortured delight is so foreign. You know what’s scary? Eating the last morsel of a favorite cheese. Gas appliances. A classroom full of bored college students. I could fall off the mountain bluff at any moment! Daily life is edgy enough, my friend — albeit with fewer chainsaws.

I never wanted to be one of those people who, when asked how they are, always reply, “Busy.” It seems ridiculous for that to be a primary descriptor of life. Do you know those people? And don’t you want to sing them a gentle song about meadows and lambs, and about how they don’t HAVE to wear the panic of the Eternally Overloaded?

Well. Here we are.

A summer of occasional teaching and relaxed part-time work morphed into full-time teaching {including an extra class that needed adopting at the last minute}, weekend contract hours for the summer company, and a relationship that is now long-distance for a minimum of three years. I spend weekdays in offices and classrooms, and weekends in the car.

I’ve been eating a lot of rolls. And not sleeping a lot of nights.

But there are, as always, daily graces. While driving to campus before sunrise, I hack staunch German phrases into the quiet {because what would a full plate be without attempts at learning a foreign language?}. And while some of my new classes unavoidably include students who won’t talk and won’t engage, others offer some of the brightest and funniest brains I’ve ever met. Work, while heavy, feels meaningful. I’m thankful to be in a field I love, at the base of mountains from which I have yet to plunge to certain death.

And then there are the eggs.

Last night I stepped onto the balcony with a long-expired carton, ready to toss them over the mountain bluff. After aimlessly vaulting the first egg, it smacked into a tree branch and exploded — and you would not believe how weirdly unfettered I felt. I became a beaming lunatic hurling yolks into the forest, wishing for a hundred eggs. I could have bellowed, SOMEONE BRING ME ALL THE CHICKENS! had anyone been there to hear besides cicadas. Can you imagine the satisfying crack of shells against a tree? Why aren’t there poems written about this? Let’s sit Billy Collins down for a chat.

Naturally I look forward to the time {Christmas?} when “busy” stops being the truthful answer to how I am — because it’s certainly not who I want to be. But in the meantime, you know where to find me. And you know to bring an egg or two.

Is there a song that suits your every mood? That feels good to the soul no matter what?

Do you have any cool scars?

Is there a book that makes you cry?

Do any of your beautiful memories involve trees?

At what point do you consider toast burnt?

How do you typically react when angry? Do you yell, withdraw, pout, drink?

What was your favorite teacher or professor like?

If you could write only one postcard to one person, what would it say?

How do you feel about pigeons?

What is your favorite nickname?

{Imagine being cornered at a party with these kinds of questions, erupting from a wild-haired woman fighting a serious corn dog craving. My ideal life is too awkward for words.}

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45 other followers