Country Roads and Casseroles

On Sunday we drove out to Port Royal, Kentucky, a well-known little town because of one of its inhabitants, agrarian Wendell Berry. He’s oft-quoted here at Texas Schmexas, and a lot of other places these days, so I’m sure you recognize the name. I promise you, however, that Mr. Berry was not the reason for our drive (though I am pleased to have seen “the long-legged house” with my own eyes).

Port Royal is in Henry County, a little over an hour from here with nary an interstate between us–lots of tobacco, though, hanging in old black barns decorated with colorful quilt squares (and “Mail Pouch Tobacco”) painted on the side, and fuzzy brown cows, and trees getting ready for winter, and a smattering of houses masquerading as towns. In fact, I only remember two or three little “towns” in that whole hour of driving, but one was called “Gratz,” reminding me of beloved central Pennsylvania and warming my heart. We wove our way around the country roads, carefully keeping track of road signs, when there were road signs to be kept track of.

Port Royal, population of 79 in recent years according to Wikipedia, is home to two churches, a post office, a farm/feed/food store (which may or may not be a restaurant), and little else. We were in town for the Baptist church, where friends of our were preaching.

We were greeted as we walked up the steps and were encouraged to join in teasing an older fellow as if we were old friends. He ended up sitting in front of us (or, I’m sure, we sat behind his regular pew and it was coincidental), and from him we learned the history of lots of folks around town–the young pregnant couple who ran an organic farm and farm stand, the former interim preacher who won the “outstanding Henry Countian” award, his grandsons who were in from Florida for hunting season… you name it, we heard it.

Just before the “greet your neighbor” portion of the service, the gentleman at the pulpit announced that “we want to especially welcome our visitors here today,” and looked right at us. (I know we literally “stick out” in normal circumstances, due to our massive heights, but still, it made me chuckle to be called out from the pulpit.) This was a classic country church experience, though with a larger choir than expected, and I’m not sure what else to say.

Glimpses into other people’s otherwise normal communities, especially churches, can do a lot of good for one’s soul–it can help you realize what you appreciate about your own community. Or, let’s rephrase that: it can help me realize what I appreciate about my own community. I don’t often appreciate it, truth be told, even as I sit in front of my computer on a (somewhat) regular basis and write about it.

After church, we were welcomed into the home of a beautiful Henry County couple with an amazing view out over the trees. We ate lunch and we talked–about church, about people, about Henry County, our families, recipes, books, and, of course, Mr. Berry, who lived just over the hill and had known these folks since elementary school. We ate way too much casserole, stewed apples, bread, salad, broccoli, and oh-my-goodness pecan pie. And they tried to make us eat more. I wasn’t sure I could move. In fact, I wasn’t even hungry nine hours later as I was getting ready for bed (and not eating a bowl of cereal right before bed is not like me).

It was a good day with good folks in a good place.

Yes, you know it’s coming: it was community.

Driving Alone to Music City, part 2

Since I’m sure you’ve been waiting for the second part of the story, I thought I’d better quick write something before we hop on a plane to head to a friend’s wedding in Texas. (Ah, dear, dear Texas, we’ll meet again soon.)

The other thing I wanted to mention was just how odd the stretch of road is driving from central Kentucky into Tennessee on I-65. The first thing that one notices that is somewhat out of the ordinary are the gigantic dinosaurs. Yes, dinosaurs. Somewhere along the way, I passed by “Dinosaur World,” and even from the road, you can see what look like life-sized statues of dinosaurs. Actually, “statue” is a little too fancy of a term. More like paper mache projects of school children to the nth degree. (I’ve been told that they also offer teepees you can rent out like a hotel room, because of course dinosaurs and native Americans lived during the same time period.)

This site/sight, which is actually off the same exit as the (ironically named, in my opinion) South Central Kentucky Cultural Center, made me start taking note of odd places, signs, bumper stickers, and semi trucks I was passing by. I came across Kentucky Down Under (who knew?), Kaiser Pickles from Cincinnati, Ohio (“Offering quality products at affordable prices since 1920”–now that’s a well preserved pickle!), Where are you going to spend eternity? (I’ve shared my opinion on these signs before), Got Murco Mud? (?), Brakebush Chicken (almost makes me want to Google it), and Historic Thomas Drugs (definitely makes me want to Google it).

All that said, it was an interesting drive. All of the above got squeezed into a short story I wrote last week for fiction class, too. Killing multiple birds, and all that jazz.

Until next time, friends: Keep your eyes on the road.

Driving Alone to Music City, part 1

When I drive by myself, even when I drive very long distances, I often don’t turn on the radio or listen to music. Even when I drove the fifteen or whatever hours from central Texas to central Kentucky, following behind the Penske in our little car, most of the time I just sat there, thinking. (I also took the time to memorize the Nicene Creed because I happened to have a church bulletin nearby and thought it was about time I’d done so.)

So last Sunday, a few short hours after posting a sabbath meditation about community memory and after drinking more hot tea than I should have, I hopped into our hatchback and drove down to Nashville to surprise a dear friend celebrating her birthday.

It’s a relatively easy 4-hour drive because it only involves two roads: the Bluegrass Parkway and I-65. Here’s the problem I encountered: I really had to go to the bathroom pretty soon after getting onto the parkway. For quite a long time I held out hope that there would be a rest area; this is, after all, a major artery across Kentucky. No such luck. At the point where I was finally willing to stop ANYWHERE–any shady-looking gas station even–there were no more exits with amenities. One of the last exits had one of the blue “food” and “fuel” signs but it was completely blank, as if to taunt me.

Needless to say, I was in dire straights. After merging onto I-65, I took the very first exit I came to and miraculously made it to the restroom. Emergency averted. I decided to go ahead and get gas at this station before getting back on the road.

As someone I know and love says, “I told you that story, so I could tell you this story.”

On my way into this gas station, I saw a pile of duffle bags sitting out by the pay phones at the edge of the parking lot. Propped on those duffle bags was a cardboard sign, “Headed to TN.” My bladder was controlling my emotions at that point, so this all barely registered with me. But as I got gas, I looked over at the bags again, saw the sign again, and felt a tinge inside my chest. I was headed to Tennessee. (I honestly don’t remember if there was an actual person near these bags or not–maybe he or she was on the phone? I can’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter to the story.)

So I felt this odd feeling inside me, and I quickly shoved it to the side. I’m a single woman driving alone for many hours. A hitchhiker might be a murderer or a rapist. My husband was sitting in church at that very moment, and if there was an emergency, I’d have nobody to contact. The person I was driving to meet didn’t know I was coming, since it was a surprise. It wasn’t a good time, I was in a hurry, and I’m not irresponsible. What kind of a person hitchhikes these days anyway, right? Right. I paid for my gas and then followed the signs to get me back onto I-65.

Almost immediately after I got back on the highway–remember that I tend to just sit and think when I’m driving alone–I started thinking about my sabbath meditation of the day, the Wendell Berry quote that ended with these two lines: “If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.”

Moreover, they fear one another.

I don’t want to sound like I’m being dramatic about this, and it’s really pretty hard for me even to write about it at a week’s distance, but as I drove down I-65, my eyes filled with tears, my throat tightened, and I couldn’t help but cry. Right there in my car, driving down the highway.

It is hard to be the people we want to be.

It is hard to be community to perfect strangers.

It is hard to admit when you’ve been a hypocrite.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “E,” you’re thinking, “you weren’t being hypocritical. You were being sensible. I wouldn’t have wanted you to stop and pick up a perfect stranger. It’s just not safe.”

Well, for one, Jesus didn’t call us to be safe, not one of us.

For two, being community can mean a lot of things. Saying hello, offering a cup of coffee, just not pretending that someone doesn’t exist. That’s what we usually do with hitchhikers or people asking us for money. And we make excuses about how unsafe it would be to help someone, how the money would just go to alcohol or other bad habits, how they’re probably making tons of money on the side and choosing to pretend to be poor.

Well, maybe so. Maybe so.

But If [we] do not know one another’s stories, how can [we] know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.

On Hospitality & Dirty Underwear

Because our first Little Bean arrived two weeks early, we were able to make a trip to the North East to attend a good friend’s wedding. Though I wasn’t sure about embarking on such a long trip in the car, we decided to take it slowly with lots of stops along the way. After all, I knew going into it that it would be more stressful for me than for the Bean. And it was, but it was worth it. She got to meet grandparents and great-grandparents and cousins and lots of friends as we headed to the Cape.

But that journey isn’t what this post is about.

This post is about the fact that we were away from our house for two weeks. And we left the house in a bit of a jumble, as you do when you’re preparing a two-week trip with a five-week-old baby. Not just cluttered messy, but dirt-under-your-bare-feet-on-the-kitchen-floor messy.

A few days into the trip, we received a phone call asking if an out-of-town visitor could stay at our house for a night. While we were gone. From our jumbled house.

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The Songs We Sing (Part 1), or, “If you’ll be M-I-N-E-mine…”

Some time around 1979, my dad, mom, and my dad’s sisters and their spouses formed a gospel singing group called The Family Circle. Lugging around their sound equipment and matching outfits, they sang to gospel music cassettes at assorted church events on the weekends.

From an early record cover

Eventually, they upgraded from a van pulling a trailer to a full-size coach bus decked out with bunk beds, a kitchen and dining area, and a bathroom. Since my grandfather owned a campground in New Hampshire and spent winters in Florida, The Family Circle ended up driving that coach all along the Eastern seaboard. We called it “the bus.”

I came along in 1982. By the time I was four or five, I had my own song, called My Mommy Told Me Something. I don’t remember singing it, to be honest, and at least in the one video recording I saw of myself flanked by my cousins in front of a church, I mostly stood there mute and stared at the congregation, microphone in hand.

My memories of time on the bus are a ragtag collection of snippets: Uncle Larry microwaving Lebanon balogna sandwiches, the teasing over Coke versus Pepsi, learning the “Fifty-Nifty United States” song when travelling during the school year, lots of sunburned shoulders, getting foot massages from Aunt Diana (a reflexologist), watching Top Gun in the back bedroom, sleeping on the bottom bunk on the right side across from my cousin Justin, the youngest of the group.

And, of course, all the singing.

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On Hospitality & Dirty Underwear

Because Little Bean arrived two weeks early, we were able to make a trip to the North East to attend a good friend’s wedding. Though I wasn’t sure about embarking on such a long trip in the car, we decided to take it slowly with lots of stops along the way. After all, I knew going into it that it would be more stressful for me than for the Bean. And it was, but it was worth it. She got to meet grandparents and great-grandparents and cousins and lots of friends as we headed to the Cape.

But that journey isn’t what this post is about.

This post is about the fact that we were away from our house for two weeks. And we left the house in a bit of a jumble, as you do when you’re preparing a two-week trip with a five-week-old baby. Not just cluttered messy, but dirt-under-your-bare-feet-on-the-kitchen-floor messy.

A few days into the trip, we received a phone call asking if an out-of-town visitor could stay at our house for a night. While we were gone. From our jumbled house.

Continue reading

Guest Post: The Sanctity of the Bugle

Today, I had lunch with a good friend. (Having lunch with friends is one thing I do when I’m not motivated to work on projects.) We met at our local greasy spoon for matching pimento cheese sandwiches, which is a story for another day, and spent two hours talking and talking. After lunch, we stepped outside and talked some more. Then, when I got home, I remembered it was Wednesday–as in Guest Post Wednesday. Well, darn it. I didn’t have anyone lined up. I e-mailed my friend frantically: Please write something for me! And so she did.

A good road trip only needs a few things. A packed bag, someone to sing with, and a bag of Bugles.

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