Everything Else, Writing

At home in the world

Downtown Champaign. Image credit: Vallejo Center for Learning Spanish, Champaign, IL

I didn’t love Champaign at first. Really, I didn’t even want to come here. 20 years ago when it was time for me to decide where to go to college, I didn’t fill out my application to UIUC—I hid it under my pile of first-choices, hoping my parents wouldn’t see. But they found it and I ended up applying, turning in my application a day before the due date, kicking and screaming all the way. I would never go to a state school. I was much too much of a snob for that.

But then my first choice wait-listed me. My second rejected me. And the third came back with a tuition fee that was double what we were expecting. So by default, I accepted my acceptance to U of I and at the end of that hot, lazy, 1997 summer, I reluctantly drove down to East Central Illinois (not Southern Illinois, like I’d originally thought) (oh my goodness I am a child of the suburbs).

The main Quad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Image credit: StudyUSA.com

I don’t remember much about my Freshman year other than that it was a total blast. Sophomore year I met my two best friends, both of whom I’m still close with. Junior and Senior years were spent deciding not to go to med school, adding a major, and graduating with no idea what I was going to do next. After doing a summer internship in downtown Chicago my Junior year, I was terrified to live in the city by myself, so I took a job my professor put me up for in the marketing department of a Champaign publishing company.

I was young and inexperienced and the people there took me under their wing, helping me find my first apartment downtown and teaching me the ins and outs of the office world.  I worked there for three years, during which I met and married my husband. He’s from an even smaller town than Champaign. And that’s why I’m staying.

Not because he told me he would never move to the city. Not because he told me Champaign was the biggest town he was comfortable living in. Not because he’s forcing my hand in any way. But because I want to. Champaign, compared to the city and the suburbs, is simple. Life here is easy in a way I never felt it was up north. Across the street from me is a cornfield. I pass cows every day on my way to work. These novelties were things I only experienced in my childhood when we would drive up to Lake Geneva for a vacation. While I occasionally feel that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses jealousy here in Chambana, I mostly live in the niche I’ve carved out for myself, experimenting with my personal style in dressing and home decorating, driving my SUV around the farm machinery that takes over the roads every spring and fall, and watching as more and more farmland is given up for homes and businesses, watching as the “suburbs” of Champaign move ever closer to the city, watching as even this little town in the middle of nowhere succumbs to the name of progress.

I am now the proud owner of this mug. Photo credit: @shopartmart; Art Mart, Champaign IL

I’ve dreamed of living other places: Chicago, Seattle, Oregon, Florida (or really anyplace that doesn’t have winter). But as the days fly by and my calendar points to May, summer weather and all that brings, I’m thankful for the changing of the seasons. The familiarity of the trees outside my window. The ebb and flow of the planting and the harvest that I now have a front-row seat to. There is a peacefulness to living here that I have not experienced anywhere else. And though I dream of other places, other cities, and other, busier, more glamorous ways of life, this will always be home.

This was written as part of Tsh’s celebration of her new book, At Home in the World, which comes out today. You can read more about it here: http://theartofsimple.net/athome/

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Writing

On creativity

I was chatting with my best friend recently, my college roommate who I’d argue knows me better than anyone, even after 15 years of living apart, and I was talking about how I was going through a sort of redecorating frenzy at home. We moved a cabinet to relocate a desk and that prompted a redo of the dining room. I stepped on one too many toys in CJ’s room and suddenly he has a new bedspread and I’ve rearranged all his furniture. I organized the basement and cleared out our clutter. I sent a bag of clothes from my closet to ThredUp and hung my remaining items in rainbow order, with the hangers spaced evenly and categories for fancy clothes, work clothes, and everyday. While the rooms we’ve done feel done, meaning I don’t feel the need to go back and tweak and move and buy, I have more ideas for the house, more decluttering goals, more pins for my Pinterest board, and a list of little things that need fixing. It isn’t a never-ending cycle by any means, but decorating the house is something that’s always in the back of my mind. My friend said, “Well it makes sense—you’re a creative person, and you need an outlet.”

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Then I was reading a blog post from Cait Flanders and she shared, “there is one thing I know for sure: whenever you’re thinking of consuming more of something, you need to figure out what part of you or your life feels like it is lacking—and do whatever it takes to fix that instead. The best answer is never to consume more.” It got me thinking: is the lack of a place to express my creativity pushing me to consume more food? Am I trying to patch this hole in my life with sweets? Sometimes I have those nights, those nights when you’re full and tired and your eyes are drooping towards sleep while you lie on the couch and flip through the channels but something in your brain says No, you’re not full, it’s not time for bed yet, it’s time to eat some more. Have a bowl of popcorn. There you go. Now here, have a bowl of ice cream. Feel better? And while I don’t always feel better, I go to bed feeling full, and the feeling of my slightly swollen stomach resting on the sheets as I snuggle under the covers is comforting in its familiarity, if nothing else.

I’ve read more than one book recently that’s talked about finding the purpose for your life, and what do you really want to be doing, and if you’re not doing what you really want to be doing then does your life have any meaning at all? Then there’s my favorite question: what would you do if you couldn’t fail? Or another version: what would you do if money were no object? The problem for me is, I’ve spent my life trying to find purpose in what I’m doing. I quit my cush marketing job (it was so great, seriously, sometimes I look back and think about what an idiot I was to leave) for a career wiping other people’s butts and cleaning up vomit. But when my patients would look me in the eyes and say thank you, or when I would hand a swaddled newborn to its mother for the first time—my purpose was obvious. I was put on this earth to help people.

But I also feel I have a yearning for a more creative life, maybe one that involves interior design, or writing. Sometimes I think my dream job would be to stay home with the kids and just write this blog—I have the time, but I’m missing a few key components, like a clear direction for my writing and a way (or ways) to make money. I’m going to make one more reference and then I’ll leave you alone—that Friends episode, The One Where Rachel Quits. Basically, Rachel quits her job at the coffee shop because she desperately wants to start her career in fashion, and waiting tables isn’t moving her towards that. She then gets The Fear because she quit without having another job lined up, and that fear motivates her to find one quickly. And yes it’s a TV show, and yes, I had The Rachel haircut in high school, but I think the point about not having to move forward because everything’s going pretty OK is a good one.

All this is to say, I think I want to do something more with my life. I’m not sure what, but from now on, I’m going to try harder to find out.

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Writing

Secret dreams

Glennon (of Momastery) posted this to her Instagram last week and dammit if it wasn’t encouraging:

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It spoke to me because—and here is my secret dream, people—I want to be a writer. It’s really hard to admit that. Easier to write it than say it out loud. I took creative writing in college but wasn’t good enough to get into grad school. And the short story isn’t “so I became a nurse instead.” I truly want to help people, and I felt called to nursing and am proud of what I do. But writing is something that’s always been in me. I’ve always been told, or assumed, I wasn’t good enough to write novels or short stories. So I slog away here, where no one can really see. Well, just the 150 or so of you who follow me. A number I can handle.

I missed posting yesterday because we were running around trying to cram a month’s worth of fun into the last week of summer. But Mondays are usually my days to regroup, both myself and the house. I sorely missed the quiet time with my computer yesterday, and I missed putting the house back in order after a weekend where everyone was home. I’ll get to that today, but for now, I wanted to share a writing sample with you. I wrote this a few months ago, and it’s very loosely based on my high school experiences. I can’t tell you why when I go to write something creative I go back to high school, but maybe I’m someone who’ll excel at young adult fiction or Chick Lit. For now, I’m going to excel at this blog post. Enjoy.

Paul Wisner was up on stage delivering a monologue about the many uses of toilet paper, a satire piece one of the advanced English students had written expressly for this purpose. Drama Club met after school, something Bailey looked forward to every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with unparalleled anticipation. And according to their moderator, Mr. Wilson, they all needed practice memorizing longer pieces. They were high school students, prone to cramming for exams, prone to cutting class, prone to finding ways to have fun during even the most mundane of tasks, like Bailey was doing now. She was listening to Caroline whisper horrendous things about Paul into her ear: that he preferred a jock strap to the more common boxers every high school boy seemed to wear, that the slouchy knit hat he was wearing had been thrifted and probably had fleas, which would explain why he kept scratching behind his ears every few minutes. Her best jab though, was that as Paul professed his love for Charmin over any other brand, he was really professing his love for Bailey, the stringy-haired sophomore that sat twelve rows back in the large auditorium, sniggering childishly with her best friend.

Bailey giggled just as she had after each of Caroline’s other quips, trying not to let on that she had in fact been in love with Paul for many months. He was a senior and the best actor in Drama Club, and rumor had it that after graduation he was going to New York to make a name for himself. Bailey knew nothing about him beyond that, and sometimes at night, alone with her thoughts before she fell asleep, she wondered whether he would go to college or not, because he was the type who could probably get a job without a degree, and probably a good job, too. She would imagine him walking along the streets of New York—she’d been once, for her aunt’s funeral—and he would be smiling his wide, confident smile, already at ease in such a big, unfamiliar city. [She was so unlike him in this way—she had to study diligently to earn the As she brought home to her parents on every report card.]

Bailey and Paul attended the Ernest Hemmingway College Preparatory School for Boys in Oak Park, Illinois. The school had been founded in the late sixties with money left over from Hemmingway’s estate. His last wife, Mary, had wanted to give back to his hometown, at least, according to the newspaper article, and had bought the old, abandoned school building from the city for a song. The wife of Hemmingway’s oldest son, Byra, had hired contractors and painters to revive the stone building, replacing crumbling bricks and broken auditorium chairs, hanging portraits of the school’s namesake in every classroom and stocking the library with his works and the works of authors he admired. When it opened its doors in the fall of 1969, boys in smart jackets and straight ties flooded through its doors, eager to make a name for themselves the way Hemmingway had. It was a private school, and their parents had invested good money into their education, and they were there to make them proud.

The school prospered until the late eighties, when it was clear that the rising taxes in Oak Park and cost of upkeep on the building were too much for even the richest of the city’s parents to handle. The board voted to expand their student base by opening Hemmingway’s doors to girls as well as boys, a move which the students balked at, at first. In the two short decades Hemmingway had been in operation, it had morphed into a boys’ club of sorts, a who’s who for the teenage royalty of Chicago’s western suburbs. The boys were smart, rich, and creative, and those few that were there on scholarship knew their place and kept to it. The addition of girls was an unwelcome one, and Paul was a member of the last all-boys class the school would ever see. He was crude, even vulgar, when he was with his friends, shouting come-ons at doe-eyed freshman whose pleated uniform skirts swished seductively above their knees. The girls would furtively look around for the source of the insult, then scamper away into the shelter of the closest stairwell, hugging their books tightly to their chests as they went. The building Byra Hemmingway had so eagerly made over was actually built in the 1897, and resembled a Scottish castle, with classrooms hidden up in narrow turrets and a bell tower that still functioned. There was always somewhere to hide.

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