Car trouble: Second edition

Ever since I got my driver’s license in high school, car trouble has claimed a prominent role in my life. Part of the routine, you know, like paying bills or extinguishing kitchen fires: after a while you just get good at it. There’s enough time between incidents to lull me into false optimism, but it’s not quite a surprise anymore when it happens.

Much like the petunias from Hitchhiker’s. | Gif from the aptly-titled

Last summer, I sent my beloved, young-at-heart Charlie — so adventurous, and never a dull moment! — north to my parents, where she (so I hear) lives on in placid retirement. In exchange, I got Georgie.

Georgie, the trusty and rusty companion of my current life, is a baby blue minivan with (you guessed it) a bit of character. She trundles down highways and country roads alike with an air of resignation: she doesn’t want to, not particularly — but, well, if she must. She groans reluctantly at when we pause at stoplights (pesky traffic rules!) and sighs with browbeaten despair at the tyranny of cruise control. If one adheres to the belief that, if wheels and an engine are properly attached, anything will “drive” — lawn furniture, for example — Georgie is your patron saint.

But I am unkind; Georgie has been a long and faithful friend to my family. She has patiently suffered through Minnesota winters, cross-country road trips and a plethora of minor collisions. She more or less taught my siblings and I how to drive. She, like Charlie, is a survivor.

There were warning signs this go-around. Sometime during the winter the dashboard lights, the pilot fish of impending car trouble, flickered out. On one of my visits home, my parents hauled her off to a repair shop and got the main panel lights re-lit, though she still can’t show the time.

Next — the second warning sign — about a month ago the lock switches stopped working. Perhaps it’s true that every switch has a limited number of flicks in it, and we reached that limit. Perhaps Georgie simply decided automatic locks were one luxury I could do without.

These issues are more or less cosmetic — inconvenient, both of them, but I can get around them. I can wear a watch. I can hand-lock the doors. It’s not too much trouble.
Last weekend, as I drove into St. Paul to see family and friends, I noticed something a little off as I merged into city traffic.

Hmmm, I thought. The car used to accelerate when I pressed the gas pedal.

I pulled Georgie into the next exit, found a place to park and tried to assess the damage. (Meaning: I popped the hood and looked for smoke.) Something was definitely wrong, but I couldn’t pinpoint the source.

My parents were also passing through St. Paul at the time and met me to help. Together we gathered around the engine in silence, looking for something, anything, to help us zero in on the problem. Dad took the keys and drove a bit; we brainstormed past car problems as he checked the oil, tapped the various cooling parts of the engine. We finally realized (mostly by trial and error) the hub of the left front tire was hot to the touch.

The working theory is that the brakes start to engage on their own. (Good ol’ Georgie, trying to work overtime!) I’m not a mechanic, so if anyone has experienced this problem before, feel free to offer tips!

The problem went away when Dad put the car in reverse, for whatever reason, so Georgie and I have gingerly continued our friendship since then, with strict parental instruction to “get someone to look at it” if she fritzes again.

“Maybe I’m the common denominator here,” I speculated morosely mid-assessment. “The cars always break when I’m driving.”

“Right,” Mom said. “Or, maybe you only drive old cars.”

So perhaps that’s the solution — a new(-er)(-ish) vehicle. It’s not exactly a possibility on a student-loans budget — anything I could afford wouldn’t be an improvement — but maybe in the future I’ll have the chance, and Georgie can spend her numbered days with Charlie in retirement.

Mostly, I’m worried that by the time I finally get a fully-functioning vehicle, all of the good names will be gone.

How to take a day off


1. Sleep in.

Step one doesn’t go so well. It’s been a busy week, and the combination of stress and poor window shades snaps me awake at the unholy sunrise. I pretend to be asleep for another half hour (almost convince myself a few times, too) before I give up and start pretending to be awake. I’m usually better at that one — fake it ’til you make it, I suppose.

2. Drive.

I take I-90 west from Worthington, fields of wind turbines stretching out around me. While driving, I don’t have any other responsibilities; until I park the car, everything on my list of things that must get done keeps a holding pattern. Temporary freedom. The slight hills and divots in the earth become higher, lower, a tad more extreme. The number of trees starts to multiply — fractionally, but there are more, and closer to the road. They box me in; they wake me up. I am learning to love this landscape — even-keeled, all sky, wide open — but tightly-parceled forests and hills that warp the roads still feel like home.

3. Shop.

I’m not much of a shopper, but I’ve recently noticed my closet has all the same clothes in it as it did this time last year, only thinner and with more-permanent wrinkles. I have a list of things, too, that I can’t seem to find in town.

I find a mall and wander but can’t seem to find anything I like: all the clothes seem misshapen, too large or too small, the color choices dull or glaring. I try out a new lipstick, only to realize the shop assistant is standing less than two feet away from me, watching me, saying, “Hmmm,” and “Want me to find a different shade?” This is not a day off, I grumble to myself; this is a makeup interrogation.

I must not be in the shopping mood.

4. Write.

I leave the mall for a bookstore. Oh, I think. This is the mood I’m in. I walk through the aisles, checking for new installments in series I read as a kid, locating my favorite authors. I buy a book — T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, for those of you who like poetry — and spend ten minutes geeking out like I haven’t since university.

Then I find a cafe and a cup of coffee and a table and my notebook with the broken spine and I write. The first few paragraphs are exhausting, words squeaking reluctantly out of my pen. It gets easier after that, and then there are pages full. I’m learning — why does it take me so long to learn the simplest lessons? — that writing steadies me. It makes me more certain of some things, more flexible toward others. Today, it relaxes my shoulders, tensed since step 1 — since before, honestly, since the week before last. I am hunched over a low table in an uncomfortable chair, but I already feel more like myself.

5. Hike.


I leave the coffee shop and meet a friend and a very happy golden retriever at Devil’s Gulch state park. “Jesse James Jumped Here,” the sign at the head of the trail reads. One side of the trail has thirsty tree roots grasping around crumbling rock wrapped in climbing tree roots; the other side opens to what seems to be flat grassfields. I stand close enough to the edge of the gulch to make me feel dizzy, looking down into the slow running water. I’m not good with heights, but they make me feel more myself, too.


6. Ignore the list.

All day I have half-heartedly postponed the list, but when I get home I push it aside in earnest. What’s a day off for if you can’t enjoy it?

I’m a skilled procrastinator, I remind myself. Even if I haven’t had half a weekend off, I’d write that blog twenty minutes before it goes on the page anyway.

Things Minnesotans will do to avoid offending others

1. Wait indefinitely

There’s one register open in the grocery store, and four people are lined up. The cashier is either new or excellent friends with the first customer, because she has four items and the line hasn’t moved in one minute and 48 seconds. I know, because I’m kind of in a hurry — I need to be back at the paper in 30 minutes and I haven’t had supper yet. (My fault; I didn’t think to plan a menu.)

But the line remains quiet. We check our phones, shift our weight from one foot to the other and browse through the tabloids as more customers silently join us, the checkout line curving slightly into the aisles. Come to think of it, there’s another cashier in my sight line, straightening the candy aisle. He hasn’t noticed the long line, and no one makes a move to cue him in.

Eventually the line lurches forward, the next customer already piling things on the counter as the cashier hands her friend the receipt. I get home with exactly 20 minutes left to cook and eat dinner — and given the bustle of my week, it feels like time to spare.

I’m told it’s a Minnesotan thing — this rather extreme generosity toward others’, particularly strangers’, time. You can spot it when people calmly wait their turn to speak in a casual conversation and when there’s always one roll left in the basket at the dinner table. (“Children and selfish people usually get the last slice of pie,” my dad explained to me years ago at a Fultz clan Thanksgiving. “Everyone else knows better.”)

It’s almost aggressive: from past grocery store lines, I know that if one of us in line had demanded attention — “Excuse me, can we get some help here?” — the rest of the line would have turned on that one like hyenas. (Well … polite, self-restrained hyenas. We would have pointedly ignored the offender and assured the flustered cashier that it was “no problem, none at all.”)

There’s a breaking point, of course; even the most patient Minnesotan will snap if the line stretches all the way to the frozen food section. But where is that point, exactly? And where do the extremist passive-aggressive Minnesotans take it too far?

2. Moving in

I’m on the phone with an out-of-stater, talking through the pros and cons of moving to a new apartment in town with a friend. Living with someone I already like — pro. Less privacy and personal space — con. Change — pro/con.

“Anything else for the pro-move column?” my out-of-stater asks.

“Well, she has one of my books,” I say. “I don’t need it back or anything, but I still want to read it occasionally.”

I was joking. I was joking, right?

I’m just worried it will spiral out of control.

3. Marriage

“He looked so hopeful. I mean, I didn’t have anything else planned for the next sixty years.”

4. Death

“It’s not much of a cut, really; don’t go to any trouble. I’m keeping the bleeding on the linoleum, so it’ll be easy to clean up. It’ll be just fine in a minute.”

I’m curious about others’ experience of this passively aggressive Minnesotan habit. I’m willing to believe that I have a greater share of this tendency than others, but I don’t think it’s all me. (Grocery lines, waiting rooms, restaurants…) Is it a common trend or a fairly isolated phenomenon?

And really, how far is too far?

Taking my own advice

As it turns out, practicing ‘rest’ is ridiculously difficult.

I’ve been waking up before my alarm lately, and not because I’m pleasantly well-rested. (I’m pretty sure my sleeping habits are a carryover from college life, or toddlerhood, or something.) I wake up when the light leaks from behind my bedroom curtain with my daily plan already cycling through my brain. My life is mapped out these days, nearly every minute accounted for.

I’ve picked up a few work projects and a part-time job (shoutout to student loans). I’ve started a few projects on the side, too, things I know I need to learn if I want to continue in my field.

It’s not all work, though. There are messages to receive, replies to send, groceries to buy, miles to run, bills to pay, people to see, household appliances to fix, words to read, things to learn. There’s always something to pay attention to.

I enjoy being busy. I like knowing I’m doing things, keeping my mind in motion, staying on my feet. I firmly believe (to the chagrin of my mother and at least half of the roommates I’ve had) that a messy desk means a full life. I look with pride on my kitchen table, piled with yesterday’s mail and tomorrow’s drafts. I also know that I tend to assign myself value according to what I do and how much I can contribute.

I spend a lot of time in my life coaching my friends and family to disengage, step away from their responsibilities and unwind. I’ve seen enough burnout to know that overworking, even doing valuable work, tears a person inside-out.

For me, the bigger problem is the niggling feeling that I should be doing something, the guilty feeling I get after I stop working for an impromptu dance party or opt to read for fun rather than research when I get home from work. It’s the voice in my head saying, “Really, you could be productive right now,” and, “You haven’t responded to that email yet, have you?” and, “After three consecutive days cereal doesn’t count as a meal,” and, “Shouldn’t you be writing?”

It’s kind of annoying.

However, all the things it’s telling me to do — they’re good things. Things I value. Who doesn’t want to excel at their career? Be accessible to friends? Have functioning kitchen appliances?

As I sketched out this blog post during a morning break (irony?), I could hear the news blaring from a television, and I scribbled something in the margin of my notebook about a story I wanted to include in today’s paper. I think — I hope — this constant awareness makes me a better editor. It makes me automatically interested in the communities around me, excited to learn more and experience more.

But sometimes it comes back to that value thing — measuring myself based on how successful I am, how timely my responses are, how much I accomplish.

How little I relax.

The voice in the back of my head saying should helps with productivity, I think. It doesn’t do much for quality of life.

Sometimes, I’m learning, I can’t rest on my own.

This week, when I went to spend time with “serious” friends and talk about “serious” things, we toured a bit of Worthington I hadn’t seen yet and then went for ice cream.

And sometimes — when I think I can get away with it — when I wake up before my alarm starts chirping, I turn it off and go back to bed. It doesn’t feel like a victory — the should voice goes crazy — but I think it might be one anyway.

Rest. It’s a lot of work.

Friday, whether or not it’s good

I have had quite enough of grief these days.

Lately I’ve been reading stories with endings I already know, laughing harder than warranted at my own jokes, watching really horribly scripted rom-coms on Netflix. On Easter weekend, while most of my friends have a few days off for friends and family, I’ve opted to work extra, covering for co-workers out of town. I’ll be working Easter Sunday — just another Sunday for me. I’ve been keeping busy.

But I grew up in the church, and certain traditional impulses run deep, so Thursday evening I skip dinner to slip into the back row of a Maundy-Thursday service. After all, it’s the day on which Christians around the world celebrate the day their God was tortured to death.

It’s not a very nice holiday.

By the end of the service I am sitting criss-cross applesauce in the pew: my heels had been starting to pinch, and isn’t bare feet on holy ground also a part of Christian tradition? It feels somehow inappropriate, like I am getting away with breaking one of the unspoken rules because everyone is too polite to tell me off. I don’t mind. I feel more like myself, head tipped back as I listen to others sing.

I know Good Friday services are meant to be times of reflection, pondering mortality and, you know, the dying God, but I keep having to call my mind back from the dinner I’m missing, the work I have left to do once the service is over. I have laundry to do — maybe two loads, enough to sort into lights and darks. Blood of Christ shed for you, I remind myself sternly. Maybe I’ll wash dishes while I wait for the machines.

Pre-Easter services seem shockingly inappropriate to me — people gathered around a torture implement, symbolically re-crucifying again the God of the universe. There’s a hymn I know snatches of — Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers. Of course we are all too well-bred (or well-trained) to giggle in a church, but there’s a rather memorable similarity between the crowd of Christians staring upward in a dark church and the crowd we read about, watching a man die.

A few weeks ago, at my grandmother’s funeral, the biggest gift people offered my family was standing beside us, watching us try to wrestle through irregular grief. They couldn’t fix it, of course. But the watching seems to help, somehow.

Christianity is built around contradiction — Thursday’s service prominently featured songs about wounds that bring healing, blood that washes clean. One of the most difficult contradictions for me to understand is the idea that the work of Christianity is to not work. Blood of Christ, shed for you. Christians just drink it.

It grates against the way I think. You rarely get something for nothing, after all. The Puritan work ethic is practically genetic for me. It feels jarringly wrong that the prescribed labor of Christianity is to watch someone else work.

Sabbath rest comes before murder in the 10 commandments.

I am trying to remember to rest, these days — to unclench my fingers, set aside the cloud of klutzy motion and angling opinions and general busyness I surround myself with. I’m definitely not there yet.

Still, there’s something to be said for trying. And something for giving up.

Happy Easter, friends. May you have time to rest.


Grandma’s memory

Alzheimer’s and dementia run in my family, and my grandmother knew she was showing symptoms. When she was diagnosed with incurable cancer, she and my grandfather considered it a blessing. She didn’t want to forget her family.

I got the message Monday afternoon — her fall and resulting broken arm the week before were worse than expected, hastening the effects of the tumor — and it takes me until evening to process the information, translating a week, maybe longer into come soon. I cut short sleep the next morning to drive north and “say my goodbyes,” whatever that means. I’m bad at goodbyes, even short ones,  even to strangers’ pets. How do you say goodbye to a life?

Grandma taught me piano lessons once a week starting before I turned six. I didn’t like to practice. While she taught my siblings, I’d wander into the kitchen. Molasses crinkles and strawberry milk, fresh smushed raspberries with ice cream. (Five-year-old priorities at their finest.)

When I reach my parent’s house on Tuesday, we talk about Grandma, and also about road conditions and something funny my dad saw on a t-shirt. We show emotion and don’t, I suppose.

People keep trying to prepare me. “She’s worse than you expect.” She’s not speaking. We think she can hear us. We tell her about piano lessons, tell her we love her. We don’t have many words to use. My aunts and uncles — her children — are calling to check in, relay messages. Nobody is holding it together.

My sister is stroking her forehead and I’m holding her fingers underneath the covers and we’re trying not to count the space between breaths until we realize it’s been too long.

It makes me smile, in a way. She died as she lived — graciously, and not wanting to make anyone go to extra trouble.

It’ll hit me later.

At the funeral (in true Fultz form, the speakers have been instructed to keep it short and not cry) she is compared to “The Proverbs 31 Woman”: an unattainable Christian goal of industry and kindness, dignity and wisdom. We are inclined to glorify the dead, and she didn’t want that. Still, the idealized description didn’t ring painfully false. She was riddled with imperfection like the rest of us, but how do you follow behind someone who will be remembered for their goodness?

She raised seven children. All of them steady, level-headed, diligent. Hard-working.

“We decided to raise our children so they weren’t afraid of hard work, and we may have succeeded a little too well,” Grandpa says, and we laugh. It’s true, after all. The Fultz family never stops. I was taught to value hard work, not only for the result but also for the sake of its being hard.

She was a tad gullible, for raising a family of jokers. My dad and his dad and — well, everyone, really — would tell her dramatic stories of risk and injury and loss in a nonchalant but sincere tone, and she would gasp in heartfelt concern before her serious face shifted into the “oh come on now” expression. She’d shake her head at them as they laughed; she didn’t seem to mind being laughed at.

The shaking-her-head expression — and the smile-behind-the-hand, and a bit of a grin with an eye-roll toward us when her husband said something preposterous — are favorites of mine.

“I think you’ve got a little of her snark, the quiet stuff,” my sister tells me. A high compliment. We rarely noticed Grandma was poking fun until after the fact, when we’d turn to her and laugh, partly in surprise. She caught us off guard. She caught herself off guard, too.

Twenty-three grandchildren, and a generous handful of great-grandchildren. Somewhere in a box I still have pajamas she made for me that I outgrew years ago but didn’t want to let go of. She used to have a scrap-bag of fabric squares, printed with patterns for “easy” embroidery. I would find them after my lesson ended and try them out. Mine always looked angular, thread pulled tight through fabric. She could make the thread curve, and I’m still impressed by that. I saw her do it, and I still don’t get the mechanics.

Some of my parents’ friends come to the funeral, people that never knew Grandma. Another brings muffins to our house. This is more reassuring than anything else — the reminder that things continue, even after. Sometimes my dad needs to know that people love him. Or, at least, I need reminding that people love me, and I am my father’s daughter.

The visitation is full of other people’s memories, sides of Grandma I didn’t know. I like thinking of her as the curious one, the risk-taker. Tenacious and adventurous. Willing to put in enormous amounts of effort. The stories fit into what I know of her, even if they’re not all pieces of Grandma I remember.

Consistent is the word Grandpa uses to describe her. Married for 62 years, a steady legacy. She understood commitment. Trustworthy, dependable, effort in one direction, straining toward God. She loved her Lord. She was looking forward to seeing him.

When my dad bought a second-hand piano — a baby grand — and had it moved into our house, we found a kit in the bench compartment advertising, “Learn To Play The Piano Overnight!!” We brought it to Grandma at our lessons the next week. She was, understandably, skeptical.

“You better play all night,” she said.

I don’t have any more words for this.

How to be an adult

This is the year: I am determined to figure out how to make real food.

“Real food,” of course, means food that doesn’t come from cans or boxes. It’s made using individual ingredients that have to be mixed together. By hand. (Or, you know, by spoon.)

This wasn’t a new year’s resolution; I didn’t exactly make any. This was more of a semi-despairing life decision: Girl, you’re 22 years old, you should know how to feed yourself.

It shouldn’t be that hard, right? I’m not promising to invent fabulous new recipes or become a gourmet chef; I just want to eat a few meals a week that aren’t provided courtesy of Campbell’s or Kraft. Meals I can enjoy with pride rather than a vague sense of shame and immaturity.

Let’s face it, being able to cook seems like a basic skill to qualify for adulthood. Food is on the ground level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And sure, most of us can survive (even thrive) on frozen pizzas and “just add water” mixes, but there’s something about being able to cook from scratch that makes it seem like you’ve achieved the next level. Congratulations! You have crafted a delicious potato soup and may advance to the next round.

Due to some late-running meetings on Monday, I had an extra-long dinner break and decided to try out a friend’s recipe for banana-chocolate chip muffins. And let me tell you, they were delicious. They were so tasty that all I ate that night was carrots’n’dip and then a few (several) (too many) muffins — which, for the record, totally qualifies as a full meal. (All the major food groups, right? Grains, fruits, vegetables, chocolate…) I felt like I had officially checked off one of the requirements for true adulthood.

The sense of victory was somewhat short-lived when I remembered last week’s cooking adventures.

The plan was to make some grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner — a two-ingredient meal. Not that hard, right?

I managed to get distracted in the four minutes it takes to fry one side of the sandwich, only remembering my cooking attempts when I began to smell it. Melted cheese fused to the pan, blackened bread, a lingering smell of burning carbohydrates in the apartment —

Not to be defeated, I washed the pan and tried again… and became distracted, once again.

Two inedible sandwiches and a blackened outline shaped like a slice of bread permanently seared into my frying pan, and I gave up. I ate bread-and-cheese that evening. Finger food, right? The smoky smell only took a couple hours to waft out of my apartment.

Baby steps.

So I’m not there yet. This whole “competent adult” thing is harder than it looks. I keep trying, and maybe someday I’ll have a success rate higher than 50 percent. The odds aren’t good enough to bet, but I’ve got my fingers crossed.

However, this regular failure when it comes to cooking has given me a solid comeback when it comes to kind friends, family and coworkers encouraging me to settle down.

“Do you know any nice men?” they ask. “Are you seeing anyone special?”

A boyfriend? I say. I can’t even keep track of a grilled cheese sandwich.

Yoo betcha

I’ve always been interested in accents.

I’m not good with languages — it takes me ages to learn even the simplest of phrases — and maybe that’s why I listen so closely when it comes to little things, like the way people from different sides of the country make vowel sounds and drop consonants. (Sometimes I find myself listening more closely to the way people talk than what they’re actually saying.)

However, I’ve never been able to identify my own.

“Y’all have such cah-yewt ahy-ak-sents!” my Texan relatives say when my family heads south for a visit. I don’t know how to respond, because I notice that they stretch out every “ah” and “ay” sound into an extra syllable, but I can’t hear anything in mine. To me, my ahy-ak-sent sounds like naked English — no frills, no personalizations, just words in their truest original form — because, after all, I am the universal standard for correct pronunciation.

I suppose I’m too far inside my own accent to be objective.

“That’s not a word!” my mom said when my siblings and I discussed the process of re-shingling the roof of our house. To me, roof has the same vowel sound as book and put. To my mom, a military child with a bit of a pan-American accent, roof has the same sound as rude and crew.

I started to notice the Minnesotan edges of my accent when I visited my hometown of Bemidji — the far north — on my first trip home from college in St. Paul. At home (among my own people, I suppose), I noticed myself speaking in a hyper-Minnesotan accent.
“I left my baigs on the counter,” I’d say, referring to my grocery bags. Everywhere else it has the same sound as apple and act, but in northern MN it has the a of flavor. (Though it makes me cringe to encourage the stereotype — think of the Canadian eh.) I’d notice belatedly when I started dropping t’s from words — mitten and don’t now pronounced mi’n and don’ — and I’d start to grin whenever I heard the phrase, “How about yourself?” bunched into, “Howbowcherself?”

I know I’ve absorbed snatches of accents from the places I’ve traveled and the people I’ve met, and I like the idea that my accent is a bit of a patchwork. I can only identify a few of the pieces — a conspicuous r from a friend in Washington; an odd, unwriteable vowel sound in the word sorry from a few months in England. But it’s my own voice; for the most part, I don’t notice when it shifts.

So when a friendly woman I meet at a church potluck says, “You have such a great accent — where’s it from?” I’m confused for a moment. We are in Minnesota. At least to some extent, we are both from Minnesota. Honestly, I thought we were speaking exactly the same.

I’m used to tracing other people’s accents, but where’s mine from? I honestly don’t know.

One year anniversary

Come Tuesday, I’ll have lived in Worthington for exactly one year.

It feels weird, honestly. I haven’t lived in one place for this long since… Well, since high school. It feels oddly stable, like my life should be in flux right now. The balance is dizzying.

“One year,” I told myself. If I was really going to do it — move to a city smaller than my hometown, heavy with wind and harsh weather, a place where I didn’t know anyone and nobody knew me, for reasons I didn’t fully understand and couldn’t explain — if I was really going to do it, I was going to last at least one year. So I loaded up my parents’ minivan with all my earthly belongings and made the trek south to an apartment and a job at the Daily Globe, braced against the next twelve months.

And then — I don’t know when, I wasn’t paying attention — it became my job and my apartment. My town, sort of. I can’t engineer investment in places, people; it has to grow on its own. These days I sometimes find myself — on my off days — reading about the progress of a particular bill as it travels through the Minnesota Legislature, or looking at the way a local charity effort is impacting Worthington, and I wonder when that happened. When did this change from a thing that I simply do to a thing that I care about? I didn’t notice the moment I switched from observer to participant.

“This is a leaving town,” someone told me. Full of new arrivals and people who have lived here their whole lives. Relationships start to feel like they have expiration dates. When I meet someone here in town, I’m almost always asked the same two questions: “How long have you been here? Planning to stay?”

I’ll give it a year, I said. And now it has been a year, and instead of leaving I’m finding new ways to connect to the community.

This town is shaped by wind — ever-present, inflexible — and for me that applies to character and relationships as well as landscaping. The wind scrapes out the excess, everything that isn’t securely tied down, revealing rough edges and vulnerabilities, tearing open injuries. It has been a hard year. I’ve learned a little more about the things I cling to.

I’ve also met some of the kindest people I’ve known — people who have made me laugh, welcomed me into their communities. People who thought, “She won’t stay, she’s one of the leavers,” and took me in anyway. That kind of warmth, acceptance — I’m not used to it. It makes me wonder if I could have that kind of strength, that kind of generosity, and what kind of practice it takes to earn them.

I’m used to having a game plan, and I don’t have one yet. Question two left blank. But it’s been one year, and I’ve looked around and noticed I’ve put down roots here — projects I want to see to completion, relationships I want to puzzle into, community developments that make me excited about what can happen here. It doesn’t decide anything; I have roots in other places, too. But it’s been one year, and I’m still trying to pinpoint exactly when this became my town.

American citizen

He’s an immigrant from Burma, born the same year as my mother. He and his wife have lived in Worthington for several years. Their children are grown and scattered across the states. He probably has the most dignified smile I’ve ever seen.

We meet in a citizenship class at West Learning Center, where I volunteer once a week to tutor immigrants preparing to become naturalized U.S. citizens. Students practice reading and writing in English and learn answers to basic American history questions like, “Who is the father of our country?” and “What are two rights of anyone in the United States?”

He has completed the first stage of the exam when I meet him.

“He passed everything except the small talk portion,” the teacher says, guiding me over to his table. “He answered all the history questions, and he can read and write perfectly, but just — conversations — it’s difficult. Can you two maybe just talk?”

He inclines his head, grants me one of his dignified smiles. He doesn’t speak unless spoken to, I learn. He answers questions but does not initiate.

I think I understand a bit, at least. In college I studied French for five semesters (my teachers despaired of my ever achieving a passable accent), and I still struggle with the most basic of conversations.

There are so many ways to say the same thing. I can recognize the French for “What is the weather like today?” — but ask me “How’s the weather?” or “What’s it like outside?” or “Think it’ll rain?” and I come up empty. The words slur together if they’re not on the script I know, and that’s exactly what small talk is — unscripted.

So he and I talk. I try to remember to talk slowly; he listens carefully, staring ahead in concentration. I know I’ve said too many new words when his smile starts to look pained. He responds quickly to “Do you attend school?” but hesitates after “How long have you gone there?” I mentally kick myself, because long refers to distance more often than time, and gone is more vague than attend, and there refers to the previous question, and that’s far too much to lazily toss at someone who has just begun learning English.

I tap my head and roll my eyes, to show that it’s my fault, and his smile eases a little. He’s working so hard to understand.

“Did you make breakfast this morning?” I ask.

“Breakfast — yes, coffee,” he says, sitting back in his chair.

“How do you take your coffee?” I ask, and the smile starts to slip.

“What do you put in your coffee?” I ask, searching for new words to ask the same question. “Do you put cream, or sugar, or do you take it black — with nothing — just coffee?”

He looks at me silently, staring at the empty Styrofoam cup in front of me.

“One moment,” I say. I step outside the classroom to the coffee cart waiting in the hall, carrying the creamer and sugar back to our table.

I open my mouth to explain again, but he cuts me off, eyes lighting up.

“No sugar, just milk,” he says.

“Yes!” I say, a little too loudly, and he almost laughs at my enthusiasm, but offers his dignified smile instead. He understood the question. I didn’t teach him that.

We talk every other week, give or take. Learning conversation in a new language is practicing spontaneity: you’re methodically training for casual comfort, and it feels completely counterintuitive. It takes time, even if you study every day.

When I walk into class the day after his test, I almost don’t recognize him, because he doesn’t have that dignified smile — it’s an unrestrained grin I’ve never seen before stretching across his face, and he doesn’t have to tell me that he passed.