When I was a kid, I thought that my town kept to a rigid schedule – one I could never hope to understand as a mere civilian. The idea that workers put up our Christmas lights whenever they felt like it was blasphemy. That illusion was finally broken for me this week, though not in an unwelcome way.
It was the morning of the first real snow, more than a week before Thanksgiving. At some point between when I set out for the post office and when I left to go back home, the village employees had decided to put up our Christmas decorations. I returned to a scene of snowflakes and stars being hoisted onto light poles.
Of course, I don’t know that this decision was based on the weather. But it’s something I can see myself doing (and have already done with a few of my own decorations). It seems that the factors of wanting to decorate and having a reason to do so converged on this day. In any case, it’s nice that the workers take pride in the town’s appearance.
I’ve been thinking a lot about taking pride in one’s work since my most recent job interview. This was a position that I wouldn’t have considered five years ago, simply because it didn’t match up with my major. But as I’ve worked in more places, I’ve both diversified my skill set and learned that being in my field of study doesn’t automatically make for a good job. In applying for this one, I hoped to play a role that would help other people do their jobs more effectively.
As with the snowflakes, it was a convergence of my desire to be helpful with the opportunity to do so. I wouldn’t expect any job to be perfect, but this one checked a lot of boxes. And like the folks who put up the snowflakes, I felt uniquely suited to make my community a better place. I didn’t get the job — but I showed up with my decorations and winter coat anyway.
Thanks for your well-wishes after my last post. I’m happy to report that there are no lingering effects from my unprovoked fight with a window.
There is an alley here in town that makes bird sounds. When I passed it last week, I heard hundreds of house sparrows cheeping their delight at the grapevines lining the walls. As they (presumably) fed on the ripe grapes, they remained invisible, shielded by a curtain of leaves.
To us, the sparrows are a nuisance. To them, however, my snooping around was an interruption to their otherwise steady rhythm of life. What are walls for, if not to grow grapevines?
The same goes for the squirrels that occupy a large oak tree by my window. They have the run of the place. In the squirrels’ world, my patio is merely a large, flat branch. When I use the patio for its actual function, there is shock on their little faces as they scramble away.
My rodent neighbors are so omnipresent that I wouldn’t be surprised if one asked to borrow a cup of sugar. It’s cute to see them up close; it’s less cute to find pieces of walnut husk (or worse) on my patio furniture or in my drying laundry. Squirrels don’t have what we would call manners. But getting to know them on their own terms can be fun.
Living next to an oak and getting to know its squirrels is a little like moving to a small town and getting to know the human neighbors I see every day. Our paths intersect, and we all end up playing a role in one another’s worlds. This is what I hoped would happen when I first arrived here. Sharing part of my life with others – and getting to know their stories in turn – helps me live more fully in my own tree.
I’ve had a busy summer, so it wasn’t too surprising last week when I was rushing to get somewhere and sustainedanother silly injury. I imagined no window where indeed there was one, and came away with a cartoonish – though very real – concussion.
My prescription from the urgent care doctor was “brain rest” (insert joke about how some people engage in brain rest all the time). It can be difficult for me to accept rest of any kind. Tiredness and restfulness can seem more like the symptoms that need to be healed, not the tools for healing. But I recognize that this comes from being too hard on myself. In this case, rest was the only way to heal and become myself again.
I quickly found that all of my normal activities made me tired, even reading and watching TV. Taking it easy was the only option. I had plans for the week, of course, which had to be cancelled. This was difficult but made easier by the kind words of the folks on the other end.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m extremely lucky, in that it was a minor injury and I could take several days to do nothing but heal. Still, it was a learning experience. No matter how strong my will or intentions, and no matter how badly I want the situation to be different, there is simply no getting around some things in life. Including windows.
I never carry cash, but I felt guiltier than usual about it the other day when I walked past dueling lemonade stands. The two tables were set up across from each other on a silent back street. If they were relying on foot traffic, I would be their only visitor for a while.
As I pondered what to do, I was approached by the advance guard. A boy rode up to me on his bike from the stand on the south side of the street. He asked if I wanted some lemonade. “How much is it?” I replied, thinking there might be a neglected quarter in my wallet. But a cup of lemonade runs for a dollar these days – inflation, y’know.
When I told him I didn’t have a dollar, the enterprising kid said, “Or it’s 75 cents.” I informed him that I didn’t have that either, but that I would come back later with the money. He returned to the stand and relayed this information to his family. Not wanting to leave anybody out, I said something similar to the girl on the north side of the street.
Now I had a decision to make. Dinnertime was coming on. If I stayed home much longer, I’d be breaking the promise I had made to those kids. This might convey the wrong lesson about adults and honesty. On the other hand, going back might teach them to trust people too willingly. It was a complicated question (the complications, of course, all stemming from within myself).
In the end, I did go back. The northern stand sold me a chocolate chip cookie, but the other family had packed up and gone inside. I guess that’s just how life works sometimes. What I can say, as a former kid myself, is that the young entrepreneurs won’t remember anything their customers did or said. They’ll remember waking up with the need to have a lemonade stand, sitting outside on a beautiful day with their siblings or on their own, and eating and drinking away their profits while just being kids.
One of my favorite summer rituals, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog, is watching chimney swifts gather at their roost sites. I’m grateful to the friend who introduced me to these little guys – and pleased that I correctly guessed where they would be in my new town. It was a joy to arrive at this building shortly before nightfall and find it encircled by hundreds of birds.
These “cigars with wings”, barely visible against the deep blue, chase after a few last mosquitoes before letting themselves drop into the chimney. As they circle and make false dives, they remind me of children who don’t want to go to bed. Eventually, though, they all disappear. I can hear them chirping inside the chimney as I pack up to leave.
Summer and the swifts always return, even if the legacy of a hard winter stays with us. It’s much the same as our current situation. This world-altering pandemic isn’t “over”, as many grieving families will tell you. But it will keep entering new and strange phases. Some of these may feel somewhat normal, even if others decidedly do not.
Case in point: over the weekend, my community held a music festival. It was the first of its kind since 2019 – and it felt more normal than abnormal. I wasn’t there for long, but I got to watch a sea of familiar faces enjoying good music and good food. Attending a concert with friends is something many of us haven’t done in three years. It’s heartening to take part in some of the old summer rituals. We are coming home to roost.
The other day, I went into a store and was immediately helped by three considerate employees. These folks knew exactly what I wanted and where to find it. They talked me through my options and I left promptly, glad I had made the trip.
There’s no way to tell this story without making it sound like a complaint: about “kids these days” and their “work ethic”, or the very real nationwide staffing shortage. The fact that I remember this day at all could be seen as a testament to deteriorating standards. But I don’t see it that way. My experience was noteworthy, COVID or no COVID.
It has always been the case that someone who’s new to a job needs time to learn how to do it well. And being part of a skeleton crew can be counterproductive. This is especially true in times of stress for both the employee and the business (read: a global pandemic).
It is also true, and always has been, that employees who get poor training or poor support are prevented from doing their job well. Their managers may be stretched thin or new to the work themselves. From my experience in foodservice and retail, I can say that poor training is the root cause of most problems that get passed on to customers. If an employee can’t magically overcome this obstacle, it is a reflection on the obstacle and not on the trainee.
Imagine you’ve just started a job and no one is explaining what to do – or you get conflicting instructions. If you try to make it through by using common sense, you might fail. Common sense isn’t always a factor when these environments are set up. Then add the pressure of customers who (rightly) want to be helped and managers who want to look like they’re in control, and you will always be stuck in the crossfire.
Okay, maybe this is a complaint. But my intention was to praise some people for exceeding my expectations, which were not low. I thought these human beings would be a little uncertain about what I needed because I, a human being, was also uncertain. I expected that we would work through it together. Had I chosen to go online, I would have flailed around miserably for an hour before giving up. Instead, I took a chance on the human route. Not only did I not regret it, but I was rewarded for it.
People who know such things have told me that the average date of last frost in our Driftless region is April 15. That means spring is almost here (to say nothing of tax refunds). As tortured as our weather seems right now, the temperature is guaranteed to get steadily warmer.
Meanwhile, life in my town is almost back to pre-COVID levels of activity. I recently got to perform in a local theater production. It was my first acting role outside of school, and I hope it was the first of many. What a joy to make friends within my community, work with them to bring a story to life, and then share that story with other friends both old and new.
And to top it all off, I almost wrote a book over the winter. If you’re following along, I had hoped to finish a draft by March 31. That became impossible once I realized that the kind of book I was picturing didn’t excite me. The emotional landscape of this winter was also fraught in ways both related and unrelated to writing. But I’m okay: I’ve made huge strides in both areas, as a writer and as a Grace. I know what kind of story I want to tell and one day share.
This is more than I had before, and I think it’s enough to help me keep writing. Whatever might be “almost” over for you, I hope that you can emerge into a good place.
No cats harmed in the making of this photo. Only couches.
February 6, 2022
I used to think that I hated February, but then I moved 300 miles north and encountered March. A short month of predictable cold, I learned, beats a month of expecting warmth and continually getting my hopes crushed.
This year, though, I find myself already anticipating spring. The longer days and greater frequency of bird songs are clear signs of change to me. While I’d like to say I’ve grown more attuned to nature, I’ve really just been spending more time looking out the window. The result is the same.
It’s no secret that I hold prejudices against certain months, on this blog and elsewhere. But I also have the capacity to hope. There’s at least one instance in my journals from those years up north when I headlined a January entry with, “Spring!”. And even now, the plastic comes off of my windows on the first day of March – no exceptions.
Of course, it’s all about what you value in a situation. I often equate cold weather with isolation and an inability to enjoy the outdoors. But from another vantage, the cold means I can get comfortable indoors while not having many demands on my time. People who love snow sports might even prefer the winter months (the horror!). I resolve to start appreciating each month for what it is — for the joy it brings — and not for how much closer it gets me to another month I think I’ll like better.
I recently walked into a local restaurant and was greeted by five employees shouting my name. Cheers jokes aside, it felt wonderful to be both recognized and welcomed. I know how much effort it takes to process the hundreds of faces encountered in customer service, especially during busy hours – let alone develop a rapport with any of them. And their kindness was the real deal, not tied to my status as a customer. I felt like I belonged there.
This is the kind of familiarity I’ve been striving for since I moved to my town earlier this year. While it’s not the deepest of connections, it feels good to visit a place so often that folks know my name (and what I drink and eat). It says something about the town and the people in it that such things happen at all.
Perhaps the most striking, yet understated, example of this is our post office. After months of getting my mail there, I realized that the clerks now know me by name and my box number by heart. (Again, I don’t see myself being this thoughtful in their position.) What’s more, it turns out that one employee remembers the first time I stopped in to set up my mailbox – before I was even an official community member.
True, it’s partly a function of size and the fact that many people who live in this community also work here. But I don’t think my case is unusual. We make an effort to know one another here, whether or not it’s our goal to become known. I feel welcomed, and welcome.
The time is ripe for an announcement, folks. I will not be blogging on a regular basis this winter (here’s where you pretend along with me that I’ve been blogging regularly up to this point). Instead, I’m going to direct my energies into a book. Or rather, the book — the one that has slowly but steadily taken shape in my head over the last nine years.
If I see this project through, you can expect to pick up a copy at your local coffee shop someday. If I start but then decide my time is better spent elsewhere, I will still end up with a healthy writing “muscle” and be prepared to take on the next project. Either way, I’ll be better for it.
I’m hesitant to share any details; I’d prefer to work them out on the (proverbial) page first. And I could be speaking too soon about this blog, which now has its 50th post. There may be a place for it in the grand scheme of things. Just know that I haven’t given up, and I’m beyond grateful to you out there for reading these words.