At Target, an imposing cashier with a broad grin and corkscrew hair says, “I got a message for you, ladybug.” She pauses scanning my items. “I almost gave up on life once. I was real sick. I couldn’t get out of bed. But then I realized, it ain’t about me.” She points skyward. “It’s about HIM.”

Moved, and somewhat at a loss for a response, I say, “That’s a hard lesson for sure.” She nods and resumes scanning. “Got to learn it while you’re young, girl.”

* * * * *

Before getting to know Evans, I was decidedly uninterested in Theatre People. Maybe because someone who has been known to hide in public restrooms with a book if too much social attention is directed her way isn’t the most natural fit for a confident and charming performer. Or because many of the actors I’ve known are what could be termed “aggressively self-lauding.” Regardless, I harbored all sorts of unfair assumptions when meeting the man I would go on to marry less than a year later.

{Over our first meal together — as colleagues, not even real friends yet — I asked him skeptically, “So are you an actor or a capital-a Actor?” The answer, I found out later, is neither. He’s a creative professor who sees performance as a way to tackle social justice topics. So. Humble pie, slice for one.}

But I wish someone had told me that when a Theatre Person loves you, he will let you create ridiculous scene scenarios and then perform them, even in public. When browsing at a greenhouse he will cradle a miniature plant while you say, “Okay, now you’re jealous of this tiny succulent because I suddenly direct all my attention to making sure it gets enough light. Ready? Action!” Wandering up and down the aisles of an antiques store, if you plead for his “Tom Hanks face,” he’ll oblige. It’s even sweeter that when prompted by friends to do accents or characters, he shrugs shyly and says, “I don’t really do things on command.”

{Amused bystanders fondling native foliage know differently, sir.}

* * * * *

At the supermarket, three egg cartons in a row that I inspect are missing an egg. Just one. I love imagining that lonely customers each pilfered a single egg, walking around with them gingerly pocketed.

This is the life of two thrifty peanuts named Jarnefeldt:

At church, in the middle of communion, Evans gestures up the length of his leg {where an inch of bare skin is visible between pant and sock} and whispers with feigned allure, “Can you believe all this is yours?” And suddenly I am a disruptive sinner laughing during sacrament.

Because it is just the right size {small} and just the right price, we buy a house from a blind woman. It is a 1930s charmer in need of some cosmetic work, but the bones are good, as they say. We are so in love with making it home that hours after getting married, we stop by Lowe’s to pick out paint swatches. The looks we get from strangers while marching about in a sequined gown and sharp suit are priceless; the manager generously offers a free gallon of paint in congratulations. Every now and then we park in a lot near the still-occupied house — close enough to see but far enough away that we appear only mildly suspicious to neighbors — and discuss where to plant azaleas.

Mornings are a song-and-dance routine — sometimes literally — as we alternate who scrambles eggs {with cumin — that’s the secret wonder ingredient} and who makes the bed. I am up long before Evans is, awake before the sun, pulling on the delicious solitary hours like a favorite sweater. Being alone much less these days is a happy trade to share life with someone who refers to me as his “little knapsack of cells.”

Somewhat surprisingly, I have married someone who matches every bit of my {often morbid} curiosity measure for measure: such as when I make comments about human teeth and he turns them into an impressive show tune, or when I exclaim over a little intact hand belonging to otherwise unidentifiable roadkill and he muses, “Anyone can be dark and creepy. I like that you’re SUNNY and creepy.”

Only sometimes, when I wonder aloud who we will leave all our books and my typewriter to when we’re gone, does he fold me in his freckled arms and say, “Let’s not think about that just yet.”

[Photo: Alicia Henderson]

[Photo: Alicia Henderson]

Based on all the internet pleasure reading I’m finally catching up on, it seems that for many 2014 was Quite a Year — and ditto for this crumbly biscuit of a woman. Over its course I fell more in love than ever with Chattanooga and teaching, said teary goodbyes to some wonderful things, hello to other wonderful things, and — most importantly — befriended a young, mulleted computer whiz named Quantum Potato {or QP for short}. He wears pants with zip-off legs and is super into lentils, so what I want to know is: who wouldn’t dream of putting him in a knapsack and feeding him crackers?

The year was tough, but refining. Somehow I have more armor, but a gentler heart underneath {and let’s not tell anyone the armor is just carefully arranged blue cheese crumbles}. 2015 is already a bit crushing on the global scale, but I’m hopeful in light of two personal snippets:

ONE: In a tiny church with patched floors and dark wood-paneled rooms, I spent an evening with middle school-aged residents of public housing. They proved to be spirited experts in the lost art of origami fortune tellers, urging me to pencil everything I want into the paper flaps. They were so excited for my roulette of wishes, suggesting pets and clothes and games, but in the moment I couldn’t think of a single joy lacking. I finally settled on things like “a library” and “good Mexican food” {which, so far, has escaped my grasp in Tennessee}. The students weren’t particularly impressed with these choices, but by night’s end I’d been peppered with gold foil star stickers, pinned haphazardly to my coat. I didn’t remove them for days.

TWO: During an early morning pre-work supermarket run, hurrying past the bread aisle, what I spied demanded backtracking: five men fluidly stocking the shelves with every kind of loaf imaginable. The workers hustled in silent tandem to unload enormous crates blocking the aisle, and I pretended to mull over the tortilla selection while watching them work, thinking: This is their job — they handle breads all day. It felt like stumbling into the Narnia of carbohydrates. Though in real life they looked quite normal, when I remember the men now they’re wearing spotless baker’s aprons and maybe singing sea shanties.

These seemingly ordinary bits are on my mind all the time. Paper-loving kids and bread magic — the small boats that keep me bobbing contentedly in unknown waters. Whatever 2015 holds for any of us, I hope it includes a lot of grace, extended to ourselves and any set of ragged bones that may cross our paths. I hope we’re all on fire for things that matter, come lentils or high water.

I am always hungry for marginalia. Are you, like me, 73% more likely to purchase a used book if there are interesting asides and scribbles? Recently, while paging through a colleague’s book of voice and speech techniques, I was rewarded with all-caps declarations such as LOVE IT! and YES! — small, hearty words floating in a soup of white space.

But most wonderful was this gem of a scrawl: IN A NUTSHELL, EVERYTHING. I stared at the words and read them aloud. When I asked my co-worker about them, he couldn’t fully explain or recall what the note meant and, unsatisfied with this, I decided to take them on as poetry. They have since become a secret rallying cry, meant to spark a small fire in me when feeling blue or complacent.

What am I thankful for? IN A NUTSHELL, EVERYTHING!

What do I love about life? IN A NUTSHELL, EVERYTHING!

What am I going to eat for lunch? IN A NUTSHELL, EVERYTHING!

The application of the phrase is limited, you can see. But this is what I’d like to know about every person I meet: what are the words to which you march? What phrases rattle around the boot of your brain like a stubborn pebble? Surely being latched on to by words is one of the best things about being alive, the joy I try so desperately to awaken in my students. Maybe some of them just haven’t found the right word soul-mates yet.

What is there to love about language? IN A NUTSHELL…you know.

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.


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