Do you remember that show "The Simple Life"--our first ridiculous introduction to Paris Hilton and her schemes toward some kind of legitimate celebrity? Well, Arkansas is not all like that. And I don't know of many other families besides the Duggars who have enough children to man a football team. But things are a little bit simpler here. It's probably the lack of school work and schedules. And the fact that we're in a house in the woods at the end of a gravel road. I feel like I'm stuck inside a Taylor Swift song--here is a place where the moon shines like a spotlight on the lake and you might actually get away with calling it a one-horse town. I think it's also my grandparents. They remind me of a time in my life that was simpler. And they are simply good. Paw Paw makes us a decadent breakfast every morning and refuses any help. Grandma lets me sit with her while she curls her hair and tells me how nice mine looks, longer and with bangs, thicker somehow (sharing hair woes with her reminds me that I am somebody's baby--my mother's thick mane makes me look like an adopted child). The two of them, my grandparents, they really do fight--no, just live--like an old married couple. It's nice to be reminded that relationships (of any sort) really can work. People can complement each other and finish each other's sentences and be cranky with one another without really minding and live together for over 50 years.
Last night we went to the movie theater downtown. It was free popcorn and coke night--just because, they said, every Tuesday is free popcorn and coke night. Our tickets costs just $6 each. We parked our car right out front, on Main Street, without fear of returning to a boot on the tire and a $50 fee. Paw Paw reflected upon a simpler time even further away, a time when he had young granddaughters to take to see Disney movies about princesses falling in love. We all took a trip back to that time last night--it was at my request that we see the only movie playing at the one-house Gem: The Princess and the Frog. Of course, this time on the way home, the twenty-four year old granddaughter noted scornfully with her mother that Disney still had their modern princess swept off her feet by the prince in a matter of hours, to be married within days, despite attempts at the beginning of the movie to make her an independent woman. I don't think the four year old Whitney would've minded that quite as much.
Two nights ago we soaked up a little more local culture. My grandparents operate a free health clinic in town and their church has been producing a Christmas play for the last three years as a fundraiser. Afterwards, Mom and I experienced our first round of introductions to some of the church folk. When we told one woman that I went to school in Atlanta, at Emory, she nodded wisely and asked, "Candler. That's a good conservative school there, now isn't it?" "Well, no ma'am. Candler actually tends a bit more towards the liberal end of things." After pausing for a moment of thought, she concluded, "That's good. It's good to have somebody on the inside that can change things." She also said to me, earlier in the conversation when Grandma first said I was a student at divinity school, that she "loved divinity." I was struck dumb momentarily, not sure whether this was some way unbeknownst to me for expressing one's personal devotion to the Lord, or if this woman was a particular fan of divinity schools in general. Apparently, as I was told later by my grandmother, divinity is some form of dessert. Hard to believe that there is a dessert I have not yet met, but it seems that my face did betray a bit more of my cluelessness that I had intended. Perhaps I can make it up to her by bringing Candler down from the inside.
Liberal or conservative biases aside, it has been nice to take a break from school work (though not from theological ponderings altogether) and return to a few simpler talents of my own: shopping at WalMart (thank you, YouthWorks), doing a little cooking, singing in the church choir. Reading. I finished Donald Miller--darn him still for making me want to write. Everything has become a story--I start narrating my life inside my head as it is happening (well, I do it more than usual), constructing clever sentences about the silliest little things, remembering conversations and things people say because it might make for a funny reenactment in a memoir about my life. Here's one that I had to write down:
Phone rings. Paw Paw answers. It's the preacher from the church, he says, as he hands the phone to Maw.
"No, I don't want to play at the New Year's Eve service," she says by way of greeting.
Pause. "Well now don't start in with all that God-talk or you'll make me say yes. What would I have to play?"
Pause. "Well of course I can play that--I used to be a Lutheran."
Of course, in the end Grandma agrees to play at the service. I am left laughing and mentally scribbling this scene into my memory and am encouraged to know that Donald Miller may be onto something--that real life may be funny and poignant and meaningful, whether you're traveling through painted deserts or sitting around the kitchen table in Heber Springs, Arkansas.
I also want to hike the Grand Canyon now. And watch the sun rise. I don't know if I've ever just sat and done that. That makes me pretty sad.
There will be a few more days in Arkansas to do that. Tomorrow, Christmas Eve, the family is coming. There will be food and bustle and awkward conversations until things settle in and we're comfortable with one another again, for these few hours at least. There will be cousins with boyfriends and babies, reflected by the increasing number of stockings across the fireplace mantle. I stop for only a minute to wonder when my stocking holder will have one with a name done in puff paint tucked next to it, then decide that right now, this is just right, where I am. I've got stories of seminary and Atlanta and future plans to retell again and again. The independent princess.
On Monday I will fly to Texas to see old friends, one of whom is getting married. She asked me to lead a Scripture reading in the ceremony, and I think sentimentally how that is much better of a gift she is giving me than the utensil holder I bought for her off the registry. But I've been awful sentimental lately. The day before I left Atlanta, I woke up in time to catch the end of Mona Lisa Smile on tv and I sobbed and sobbed as Julia Roberts left Wellesley and all her students behind, but all the girls jumped on bicycles and chased down her car and waved her off with tears in their eyes. I realized then how much I hate goodbyes. I think that's why I am soaking up every moment here with the grandparents I see only once a year, why I'm excited to see my friends next week but already heart wrenched to leave them again, why I'm planning a trip to Chicago in March to end that period after your last goodbye with (several) someone(s) when you're left wondering when it is, if ever, you will see each other again.
That's kind of life though, isn't it? Even the simplicity of Arkansas can't change some things. But I've gotten dreadfully long-winded. I hope you have a merry Christmas, simple in joy and hope, wherever you are celebrating.