“Remember the stories you told me about wandering in the woods when you were a little girl? It scared the crap out of you, but you went out there all alone, knee-high to a bunny rabbit, and picked berries and climbed trees and found bird nests and came home all bug-bitten and mossy. And you loved every minute of it. It made you our beautiful Arctic Bell, impervious to cold and feared by mosquitoes. Aren’t you glad you didn’t stay by grandma’s side, darning socks and baking gingerbread?”

“Who darns socks?”

“Girls nobody tells stories about.”

{from Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers}

What I don’t understand:

  • God
  • human beings
  • love
  • evil
  • government
  • war
  • the soul
  • the Real Housewives of anywhere
  • “mullet” dress hemlines

What I understand:

  • the Dewey Decimal system

So let’s begin there.

A few weeks before moving, I spent an afternoon at my grandmother’s house. Despite a year having passed since Granddad did, it never feels natural to refer to the house as only hers. The many rooms are theirs in the way that the goats are theirs, the grandchildren are theirs, the life is theirs.

On this afternoon I was surprised to be told, for the first time, of an encounter she had with Granddad just after they had been introduced by mutual friends. Seventeen year-old Grandmom’s parents were out for the evening, so she tied her hair into a messy tangle on top of her head, donned scrubby work clothes, and set about cleaning house in pleasant solitude — that is, until James Kite appeared, unannounced in his sharp Navy uniform.

She was so flustered by her informal appearance, and by him in general, that when she excused herself to throw away a pail of potato skins she’d been holding at his arrival, she frantically tossed them into a bin of washed laundry instead of the garbage.

They were married three months later. Once, when asked what they would do differently in life, they responded, “We wouldn’t have waited three months.”

I love to think of my grandparents young and swooning, before facing hardships together of every sort. But I also relished watching them, in their sixties and seventies and beyond, flirt with and tease each other. Their bond, however deep and hard-won, never lost its mischievous spark.

Their love makes me love the world more. I see them in every elderly couple holding hands, shuffling gingerly together, endless volumes of joy and sadness in slow bones. I often wonder if it matters whether I ever claim such an ending for myself; perhaps it’s enough just to be alive in a divine world where people take the long way together.

I see this when, after telling the funny potato peel anecdote, Grandmom sighs. “This winter I wore his robe, and it still smelled like him.” She pauses, and I cry.

“And you know what? It helped.”

Some mornings: fog is so thick above the valley it’s like living on a cloud, or surveying a wide, steamy river on deck. Even more surreal are the random stalky trees piercing it, never swaying. These daybreaks are my favorite part of living here so far, and sometimes my favorite part of being alive, period — except for then having to drive to work in said fog, white-knuckled and holding my breath around every topsy, barely-visible turn.

Many afternoons: I hustle at the part-time job I’ve taken on for summer, as an Agent of Happiness {official title — you can see why I swooned on the spot} for Southtree. At twenty-eight, I’m the oldest employee in a curious collection of super stylish, savvy wunderkinds. I constantly ask questions and shyly shadow experts the same age as the students I harp on about required reading. Life as an English instructor-slash-random-creative continues, not unpleasantly.

One night: I am invited to a mountaintop dinner with my exuberant landlady, Judy, and her Swiss sailing comrade Markus. He is an easy presence and attentive listener, regaling us with madcap sea stories in sparks of accented English.

Over cedar-grilled salmon and roughly broken chomps of bread, he leans conspiratorially into Judy and says, “There is something so deep in Julie’s eyes. I can’t look into them for too long. I am not even sure that she knows all what’s in there.”

And when he says this — “all what’s in there” — I immediately picture a pantry crammed full of unidentifiable foodstuffs. It seems an accurate rendering of the brain and heart: TOTAL SNACK-FILLED NONSENSE. And then I can’t stop laughing, partly because of the unexpected imagery, but also because sadly there is a Julie on whom such suave Swiss lines may have worked — many years and heart smashings ago.

Judy and I tease him good-naturedly, and we move on to discuss spirituality, flight attendants, and Germans. After dark the wind kicks up, spilling our glasses and hurtling fireflies. When I finally sink into bed hours later, I think of the sea.

In order to say a shy hello, and return to this formerly memory-logged space wiped clean a year ago, I will have to wave at you from behind an enormous tree shading a red wheelbarrow, because I now live on a mountain and that just might be the sort of place faux mountain girls can be found.

As of June 1st, home is a tiny cottage adjacent to the house of a wild-haired professional sailor. I’ve always loved small spaces best as long as the ceilings are high and windows plentiful; consider the fact that through those windows is branchy forest and mountain valley, and well…what else can be said?

I’m undone.

I came to Tennessee to teach somewhere new, and to learn somewhere new. I came because for years, life in Texas felt like an awkward pair of too-small sneakers. Because for even longer than that I’ve hoped feverishly for mountains and trees {albeit in the much-beloved-and-dreamed-of Northwest. PORTLAND, I AM COMING FOR YOU. MAKE NO MISTAKE.}

Despite some hiccups and missing family, the solo life spread between mountain hideaway and Chattanooga {where I work and socialize} has been a joy. I’m learning about the city more, getting lost less, and wearing out a new library card; regularly unearthing friends, favorite restaurants, and shortcut back streets.

Twinges of sadness only set in when reading e.e. cummings or thinking about mail, and that will probably always be true no matter where I hang my hat {or cardigans}. In short, life here is a good fit. It is slowly, with every surprise and navigational triumph, becoming home.

I never thought it would be Tennessee, honestly, or anywhere in the south. But sweet tea charm has snuck into my pockets, and it looks like I’m not going anywhere soon.

Hello, new life: so happy to be here. And hello again, you: so glad you’ve stopped in.

{I happily admit my creeper tendencies and love getting peeks into other people’s spaces. Maybe you do, too. If not, avert your eyes and we shall never speak of it again.}








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