Apr 28, 2015

The Roads that Lead Home

"You take what you're given, 
whether it's the cornfields of the Midwest 
or the coal mines of West Virginia, and you make your fiction out of it. It's all you have. 
And somehow, wherever you are, it always seems to be enough." 

It's a quiet downtown, with a few empty storefronts, and a hand painted sign advertising "Jack's Sandwiches and Daily Specials" in faded red letters. Below it, an American flag waves lazily in the breeze, and around the corner, a vintage advertisement for Gold Medal flour on the side of the brick building. Tulips are growing, deep red and pale yellow, as if insisting there is still life blooming despite the quiet of this town. And inside, we're in a small room of the library for their weekly storytime.

We visit this town, a few miles from our own, fairly regularly. The librarian knows us well, asking about my dad now and then, handing me misplaced pictures of the kids' visit to Santa they'd kept from previous years. This week, Millie found a spot in the front of the room, still easy for me to spot with her purple gingham shirt, saddle shoes, and pigtails. Later that afternoon, Millie and Walter and I took a trip to an indoor park, and as they played, my mind began to wander.

I had been watching parts of the White House Correspondents' Dinner earlier that week. Just as the sight of Champaign's newspaper building always stirs up feelings inside me, the dinner does, too. An entire evening dedicated to black tie attire and celebration of journalists. Writers. The people I envy a little, because I always hoped I would graduate from college (at 22, with a bachelor's, instead of at 30, with an associate), and climb the corporate ladder until I became a famous, award winning journalist. I imagined the stories I would break. The opinion pieces that would stun the country. The career I would give up to focus on writing my book. 

It hasn't exactly happened.

And I thought about how the Vice President drove past my street last week, on his way to give a speech at the U of I. He made a bee line back to the airport, the shiny limousine dodging our potholes, and hopped aboard Air Force Two as soon as it was over, anxious to leave this Midwest soil and go back to places where life happens with urgency and importance.

Some people I know from high school have moved far away. There are those who drove the couple hours north to Chicago, the place that gave Carl Sandburg so much to describe. There are others who left Illinois altogether, and made their homes on one shore or the other, opening their windows to mountain or ocean views every day. And then there are some who remain here, who seem to lament at where they are. 

But this is my place. I know which country roads lead home. I know what day the apple orchard opens in July, what day the farmer's market begins, and where to go on those 90 degree July days to cool off. I know where to go for jazz concerts in the park, or the best restaurant for pie, or the way we have to get out our short sleeves one day and our winter coats the next. I can see the sky full of bright sunshine before the eerie green of a storm, and know to take shelter. I can drive down the road to towns with horse and buggies, Amish men in suspenders, and Amish women in bonnets. And I can raise two little ones on ear after ear of fresh sweetcorn grown here in town.

The library in that small town is a place which reminds me how small I am, too. The empty street assures me how little will change here, and that the only kind of fame that happens around this neck of the woods is the rare kind that comes long after you're buried, if it comes at all. But like most people, I've learned that my life isn't going to have the fame and glitter, and my name won't grace the spine of a dozen books.

My place is in the empty street, holding Millie's hand as we cross it together, stopping to admire the tulips. It's in the orchard, sipping cider slushes and devouring apple doughnuts. It's squinting in the evening sun at the ice cream place, handing Walter a cone in the sweltering heat that turns my hair into a mess. 

It's here, with them. Small, quiet, and home. It's my favorite place to be.

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