Ode to the (Nondigital) Archive

I found myself in need of information this week that–gasp!–could not be found electronically or in a normal kind of library. I had to head over to the University Archive on our campus, housed in a place called Special Collections. (I capitalize those words to suggest the appropriate amount of awe I had for the place, having never been there.)

I was on the hunt for course catalogs, course descriptions, and (hopefully) old syllabi from the general education curriculum in the 1940s at the University of Kentucky, especially communications classes, and especially in reference to the Army Specialized Training Program. WHEW. Welcome to the life of a research assistant.

So I headed over to Special Collections. And once we figured out that the somewhat-hard-of-hearing, elderly man assisting me had misunderstood and thought the whole time I was talking to him that I was looking for horse catalogs, rather than course catalogs, it was a pretty simple process. As I was working, he also dug out some old departmental files for me to look through.

I claimed my space at a big wooden table bedecked with old-fashioned lamps and carved signs forbidding the use of “ink or ballpoint pens.” Then I buckled down.

There was something pretty darn awesome about just being in that place. Being there. Hunched over a book that hadn’t been opened in decades rather than hunched over my computer. I mean, really, if you’re going to get bad posture anyway, this is the way to do it. That is not to say that I don’t love digital archives, too. (In fact, I love to flip through the 1912 issue of Poetry magazine, found here. Technology is amazing, I can’t deny it.)

But there’s something about paging through mimeographed interdepartmental notes from the 1920s, or opening a 1930s program from a Shakespeare production, or reading news clippings about Robert Frost’s visit to campus. And there are random, amusing things, too. Someone had clipped a newspaper article with the title “Wife of Dean Beats Off Man with Umbrella.” That was certainly worth putting in an archive, wouldn’t you say?

One of the best items I found, though, was the 1951 inaugural issue of The Green Pen, a booklet put out by the student-run English Club of “the best freshmen writing” of the year.

Some of the writing could have been lifted out of things being written this year in freshmen comp. One essay began like this: “It is a sad but true fact that democracy is a decreasing reality in our American way of life.”

Yes, that was written in 1951.

Just like now, back then students were worried about both their local communities and the national conversations, they were worried about religion (or the lack thereof) among their generation, about whether the University should have an honor code, about American life, and about war (though, granted, in the 1950s some of the students writing about war had actually served in WWII).

But here’s why I loved being there, in that stuffy research room, reading through those files: it was a good reminder that we’re in the same place.

I see how this revelation could be discouraging to some folks, as in, are you kidding me? We haven’t made any progress in sixty years? They were writing about that back then? How depressing.

But as I read through these student essays, I found it encouraging. Encouraging. As in, the world is not falling apart.

It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.

Even when it seems like it.

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Where Is “Home”? Does It Matter? (the gardening version)

I was asked to lead a discussion about new monasticism in Sunday school class last week, and it was for a class I’d never visited. As they went around the circle to introduce themselves to me, I discovered that many of these folks had been members of our church since before I was  born. I am not exaggerating. Every single member of the class was at least a grandparent twice over, to help you get some perspective on the demographic. There’s irony here, I think, in that I was leading a discussion about new monasticism, but that’s not what I’m going to talk about.

As I’ve struggled to generate community here in my little town, and I think “generate” is the best verb for it because it has often felt as if I were trying to make something out of nothing, I’ve learned that in the past I have taken for granted a lot of things:

  1. The other two places I lived since leaving “home” were both havens for transient people because of the nature of academic settings.
  2. When you’re all transient, you all have a “home” base to go back to. You tend to leave at the important moments, rather than stay.
  3. Relationships can be generated really quickly in those settings because you’re all without a “home” the majority of the time. And
  4. you don’t have to plant your roots, even as you build community, because you always know you have roots somewhere else.

This, quite frankly, sets up unrealistic expectations. Community beyond “Hey, I like you, let’s be friends” doesn’t happen overnight in the real world. Or in one year. Or two. Or three. Sometimes maybe not even twenty. (See my dad’s comment on my earlier post about this topic.)

It’s like gardening. (One of my friends likes gardening metaphors, so this is for him.) Last fall, my husband built some cold frames for us, and we somewhat idealistically believed we’d have lettuce and spinach through the winter and onions and cabbage in early spring. We didn’t plant them as early as we should have, and the natural world did not cooperate when we got long-lasting frigid temperatures in December. (Even with the sun, the temperatures in our cold frames weren’t getting above freezing.) Then came the snow. And more snow. And more snow.

But this week it got warm. At first, we ignored the cold frames, didn’t even open them, like you’re supposed to during the day so you don’t bake your plants. The lettuce had gotten slimey back in the winter, which I would assume is not very promising, though I’m no green thumb. But then on Wednesday I opened them. It was pretty steamy in there. Thursday was a busy day, and it wasn’t until Friday that I went out to investigate again. I walked over to cold frame #1. Miraculously, the spinach survived. Yeah but, I thought, it’s hardier than lettuce. So I walked over to cold frame #2. Weird. The lettuce didn’t look so bad either. I squatted down to take a closer peek. It was kind of crisp, so I tore off a leaf of it and tasted it, prepared for it to be bitter. It wasn’t. It tasted like baby lettuce.

It won’t be a big harvest, but we’ll get something.

You see, I’m learning a lot about community here, and the main thing I’m learning is that I don’t need to “generate” it. I need to live it. I won’t always see what’s happening under the surface. I don’t know what I’m planting, what winter’s going to be like, and what the leaves might taste like come spring, but that doesn’t mean something’s not growing.

Oh yeah, and deciding a little late in the season to start a garden is not an excuse not to plant at all.

So back to that Sunday school class: these folks had roots, deep roots, roots deeper than my entire life. My entire life.

I’ve only been here three years.

Where Is “Home”? Does It Matter?

When I go back to the part of the country I most often call “home,” people tend to ask me how I like Kentucky. Usually I say, “I like it.” And then I say, “It’s not Pennsylvania, and it’s not really home, not yet, but it’s a good place.”

People these days are pretty mobile, if you haven’t noticed. Even on Facebook, most people I know list two categories: “Lives in ________” and “From ________.” Often these two places are very far apart. Very.

It’s a blessing that we can travel at the drop of a hat, that we can go and live where we are called, that we can experience the culture and community of different regions, that we can learn funny colloquialisms and crazy food choices of new friends.

But it also makes life pretty darn difficult. Families get seen only at holidays or major life events, like weddings and funerals, and sometimes then only if you’re lucky. Best friends live states away, and we have to miss birthday lunches and baby showers. When cousins marry, sometimes we’ve never met the new spouse until the wedding day.

Sure, we keep in touch thanks to amazing technology, but we get very little real-life interaction, very little face-time. We can Skype and laugh and share good news via grainy web cams, but we don’t go out to coffee or to happy hour or uncork a bottle of wine to celebrate. We can e-mail or text important messages to large numbers of people at one time, but we don’t sob together when life is hard. (Often because we don’t know when life is hard.) We see each other’s children grow up in photos, but we don’t get to feel them in our arms.

And it’s not the same thing.

There is something to lament here, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot, as I wonder about stability and putting down roots and really investing in a community here, where I’m planted.

You see, on the flip side of the “How do you like Kentucky?” question I get asked when I’m in Pennsylvania is the question I get asked a lot down here. You know what question I mean, the one that reminds me just how much I stick out? Yep. That one.

“Where are you from?”

Rarely am I asked, “Where do you call ‘home’?” Actually, I’ve never been asked that.

I’m beginning to wonder if maybe that should be our question. It tells a lot about a person. Truth is, I don’t know how I’d answer it today, and ten years from now, the answer might well be different.

But it’s not that our roots aren’t important. I will always be “from” somewhere that warms my heart, and sooty cities will probably always make it pitter-patter. I don’t fancy changing NFL allegiances any time soon or ceasing to use “awhile” to mean something like “now,” which is perfectly rational if you’re from central Pennsylvania.

It’s that it might be important to know where “home” is, too.

And sometimes it’s not the same thing.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Governor!

Today, over a thousand Kentuckians concerned about the future of our state’s environment, livelihood, culture, and people gathered on the steps of the capitol, capping off a weekend of protest that involved a handful of our local celebrities, including the more widely known Mr. Berry. This colorful group of folks carried signs, chanted chants, played music, hollered, swore a little bit, smiled a lot, passed around petitions, signed Valentine’s Day cards for the governor, and, well, supported a cause they believed in.

The “I Love Mountains” rally occurs every year about this time, around Valentine’s Day, when Congress is in session, as a way to push for clean-energy legislation and, at the same time, end mountain top removal.

I’d never been to a rally like this before, and though I’ll refrain from getting political, let me just say this:

It was pretty darn awesome.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand how complicated of a situation we find ourselves in. I know there are no easy solutions, and many of the folks I listened to today are not fair and balanced in their reporting.

But still.

Being surrounded by a group of passionate yet peaceful folks, who may be hollering but are hollering together, it was a great place to be. Old folks and young folks. Wheelchair-bound and stroller-bound. Dogs and guitars. Hippies and coal-miners. Hand-made signs and signs snazzy enough to have been used in presidential campaign. (If you’ve not read the slogans before, you might enjoy “topless mountains are obscene,” one of my favorites.)

This was a big crazy mob, and it was community.

I even got myself a new bumper sticker.

A common bumper sticker around here is “Friends of Coal.” I like this better.

Check out I Love Mountains or Mountain Justice for more information about ending mountain top removal, learning more about the process, and tracing your home’s power back to its source.

Stuff, Community, & 31 Pairs of Shoes

I’ve been thinking a lot about “stuff” since November, back when I mentioned that I had come across the 100 Thing Challenge. Life was crazy at the time, but even then I knew that I was in need of some serious thought about getting rid of stuff. Here’s what I wrote:

Our stuff really gets in the way, in the way of community, in the way of emotional health, in the way of life. Not because it is stuff that we don’t need (though we certainly don’t need it all), but because it is OUR stuff, and we like to surround ourselves with us.

I decided about a month ago that I was going to unload. By half.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like my stuff. I pride myself on being frugal and not throwing things away, on still wearing clothing and shoes I had in high school, on primarily buying things on sale.

Did you catch the verb in that last sentence? I pride myself…

That’s a sure sign there’s a problem here.

So half of it was going to go. Some of it offered to friends, some of it donated, some of it recycled (scraps of material are being turned into pillow stuffing, for instance), but it was not going to hang around and weigh my life down.

I decided to start with shoes. Check this out:

That, my friends, is my bed. It is a king-sized bed, and it is covered with shoes. My shoes. Thirty pairs. Add to that the pair I was wearing when I took this picture, and you’ll get 31. Thirty-one pairs of shoes.

And even though this includes three pairs of slippers, winter boots, old sneakers, flip-flops, and gosh, the shoes I got married in seven years ago, I’m still embarrassed about it, quite frankly.

But it’s a good first step.

Goodbye, shoes. I’d say I’ll miss you but, the truth is, I probably won’t.

It’s just stuff.

Community, Mourning, & Food: Let Them Eat Pie

For the second time in less than two months, J & I found ourselves this week surrounded by family in mourning. We drove to Western Pennsylvania and gathered with family from far away and from close by. We mourned, yes, but we also celebrated; cried, but also laughed; we hugged, and we remembered, and we ate.

Did we ever eat.

On Wednesday evening, the day we arrived, so did a vat of potato salad like I had never seen. At least ten pounds of potatoes lost their lives and quite a few onions, too–after seven of us ate it for dinner, along with a delivered meatloaf, only 1/5 of the salad had disappeared.

Two full dinners arrived on Thursday, and by Thursday evening, we had more loaves of bread on the counter than people in the house. We had soup and beef stew, cole slaw and salad, lemon cake and raspberry bars. And every time we turned around, more food arrived: breakfast food, dinner food, desserts, desserts, desserts. By late Thursday night, an aunt joked that nobody had stopped by in awhile, and within a few minutes the doorbell rang. Breakfast casserole and muffins!

In days like this, we know what community is.

Grandma had lived in the same town for her near-ninety years. She and Grandpa went to the same church for the sixty-one years they were married. They raised their kids here, and many of their grandkids. This is the community J has known his whole life. And for the last ten years, it is a community that has welcomed me in, too.

One of my favorite moments of the last week came on Thursday afternoon. Some of us had been outside in the cold looking at a renovation project, and when we stumbled inside, we found that three pies had been delivered: a cherry rhubarb, a coconut cream, and a blackberry-blueberry combination. As the pies were pulled from their baskets, we realized that they were still warm.

Grandpa was sitting at the table in the kitchen, and we were all standing or sitting around him, marveling at the pie excellence in front of us.

And then the patriarch requested a piece of pie.

Right now.

Before dinner.

And so the pies were cut, first just the cherry rhubarb. Then the coconut cream. Then the berry. It became clear that if we wanted to eat pie, we’d better grab it while we could.

That is the image of community I will carry with me in the coming months: Grandpa, requesting pie in the middle of the afternoon, and the rest of the family surrounding him, happy to oblige.

Coffee, Conversations, & Solving the World’s Problems

I have a friend who is truly amazing. She roasts her own coffee and it is beautiful. We tried yesterday to roast our own coffee and it was not beautiful. It looked nothing like hers. I also imagine that it tastes nothing like hers.

Unfortunately, my home-roasted coffee beans were intended to be gifts, so before I risked giving them away, I decided that we better taste test. J does not drink coffee, so I offered to take one for the team and try a mug from each of the batches (regular and decaf).

As I was brewing the first pot this morning, our friend Daniel, who is a temporary housemate, woke up and came into the kitchen. Lucky for me, Daniel drinks his coffee black.

Unfortunately for him, this coffee was not black. It was brown. And not a very dark brown.

*sigh*

Still, Daniel gave me props for it, though I had my doubts. As I got the second pot ready, Daniel prepared his breakfast, and we headed into the dining room table to sit and drink our less-than-black coffee while pot number two brewed.

Daniel & I sat and we talked. We ate and we talked. We drank coffee and we talked. We talked about being frustrated with our inability to care about everything in the world, and change everything in the world, and make a difference with everything we see that is messed up with the world. And we talked about the difficulties of knowing things aren’t right but not being able to visualize a solution. We talked about the call to be a Christian and how difficult it is. We talked about “giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s” not being an excuse to live our lives the way we want to live them. We talked about the “lesser of two evils” as not being a solution when it comes to voting. I talked about an article I’d recently read about the history of agriculture in Haiti; Daniel talked about his first-hand experience with mountain-top removal and fishing in polluted waters in eastern Kentucky where he grew up. We pulled out the laptop to look up the ‘Better World Shopper‘ website to see where Fallmart ranked (grade: F) and to look up Kroger Corporation to see if it’s on par with Fallmart (those are the only two grocery options in our little town).

All of this over one cup of coffee.

By the time the second pot was brewed, our trusty housemate Adam had gotten out of bed and meandered into the kitchen. He got to try the decaf roast, which was thankfully a bit darker and masquerading as a satisfactory cup of coffee. I told Adam that we’d been sitting and solving all of the world’s problems while he slept.

Solving the world’s problems.

Well, maybe not.

But some days I don’t wonder if a little dose of community in the morning really could solve the world’s problems.

And even now, most of the time, I’m surprised to find community right there at the dining room table, as if it was just waiting for me.

Maybe it is.