I am recently inspired by a book that I randomly picked up in a dusty resale shop in Marion, Indiana. You know how it goes — at least if you’re a reader or writer — the first stop is in the back where castoffs unsold at garage sales or lugged from overflowing home libraries rest precariously on makeshift bookshelves or in unorganized piles.
I’m usually looking for classics, memoirs, or books about writing, although our own overflowing bookshelves force me to try to be selective. But that day, I found a treasure. In Season and Out is a book by John Leax, my writing professor from Houghton College, whom I’ve written about before. A bonus is that the lovely illustrations are by a dear family friend, Roselyn Danner, now in heaven.
The book is simple, beautiful, lyrical. Divided into four seasons beginning with summer, the entries are dated and chronicle Dr. Leax’s woodcutting, vegetable gardening, teaching, and small town living. This passage, in particular, resonated with me:
Last night while walking Poon, I suddenly realized I had walked past nine houses within one quarter mile and did not know the occupants of any of them. I can rationalize my ignorance. The generation gap accounts for part of it, most of the houses are occupied by elderly couples or widows who keep to themselves. The cultural gap figures in it too; college English profs are not easily assimilated into the daily life of a small rural town. And the inevitable knowledge gap between old and new residents finishes it off; I’ve only been in this town nine years — I’ll never possess the local knowledge of those who go back generations.(In Season and Out, Zondervan, 1985, p. 41)
My husband and I take a twilight walk. We’ve been in this tiny country town for almost exactly three years, slowly remodeling our 110-year-old house. We don’t know most of the 986 occupants of Swayzee. Fortunately, we do know most of our direct neighbors along our street, but any conversation quickly uncovers the truth that no matter how long we live here, we will always be newcomers who will “never possess the local knowledge of those who go back generations.” Folks here grew up together, went to school together, and lived around one another as they married, had children, worked, and grew older.
As much as I love our small town, I mourn the boarded-up and vacant buildings, the cafe someone bought to remodel and never finished, the houses unkempt or uncared for, the closed-up hardware store still full of supplies, the empty downtown building that fell (literally fell) because of neglect. At one time, this was a vibrant town — now the biggest news is that we watch a field outside of town slowly transform into a Dollar General.
But there is splendor here, splendor in the ordinary. The open fields, the sunsets, people’s care for one another, the annual rummage sales, the tractor day parade, the parks, the elementary school kids lugging their backpacks, the fresh wind bringing the scent of a new harvest.
Dr. Leax’s book inspired me to spend my summer writing about my small town, our butterfly gardens, our slow remodeling progress, our attempt at growing vegetables, my preparation for fall classes — all of which he touches on. I want to celebrate my very ordinary life, capturing its splendor as best I can.
I am not trying to get this published. I am writing to sharpen my skills and voice, to keep doing what I teach my students to do.
I owe it to my old prof, forty years later. Once again, Dr. Leax, thank you for your inspiration.