flyover country

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I remember reading once that there is more life in a one-square-foot patch of earth than in an entire city block. I may be off on the specifics. The point is just how much life there is–from microscopic to tiny–everywhere you go. The point is what you can see when you stop and look. I remember being floored by that colorful fact, probably encountered in National Geographic Kids, and crouching in the grass for several minutes. Sure enough, there were more bugs than I knew how to name. Everything was moving, when you really looked at it. Everywhere things were crawling and seething and hiding.

I’ve had lots of time to look, home in Missouri, waiting on paperwork to process for a teaching job in France. My room overlooks fields, a garden, a lawn of browning grass. I count the surprises viewable from the windows: Deer in the field. A sudden rainstorm, sweeping in with bruise-colored clouds. A few bats in frenetic flight, just blacker than the matte night sky. The wind carving paths through the knee-high soybeans. ACS_1184 2

It’s less than exhilarating, my existence here. Friends have moved on, to engagements and new cities. My old jobs are positively vintage, inaccessible: I spent sweaty afternoons at the local pool completing the teenage rite-of-passage known as lifeguarding. What’s left is family and this old house where each creak of the floorboards is familiar.

In a world so full of noise, this kind of quiet feels almost radical. In a time of life where I am expected to be always striving, always carpe diem, this time to just be feels like a revelation. It affords the kind of clarity that I realize comes from simply paying attention to things.

For maybe the first time, slowing down hasn’t tortured me, overwhelmed me with immediate existential crises or urges to make unwise impulsive decisions. Free from the childhood distractions of summer camp and swim team and general growing up, I have a whole lotta time to think. It’s not so bad once you get used to it.

Plus, there’s more time to read. I’ve been enjoying what I think of as “rural novels” or “Midwest novels,” marked for me by a matter-of-fact tone, no artifice. Characters largely stay put, but compensate for a lack of mobility with rich appreciation and description of their surroundings. Two such examples are Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning Gilead and companion novel Home. These novels follow two aging Iowan pastors and their families in rural Gilead in the fifties. The books are subtle and true, imbued with melancholy and sunlight. Robinson manages to write about faith and family without bowing to the sentimental. These books are slow, meditative. Not at all boring. This time at home feels like that.

All this practice slowing down–like a temporary life of retirement at 24–had me eager for the road trip I took in July with Victor. We saw a lot and just like with that fabled square-foot of earth, it brought me to a few realizations. First, once again, this earth is teeming with life. There are stories and things of interest everywhere, often very subtle. Everywhere were curiosities. Even at the rest stops. Even in the odd ghost town in Arkansas. Just a matter of paying attention. ACS_1185

Second was the melancholy acknowledgement that I will never see everything, know everything. The more I learn, the more I am humbled by all there is to know. Our trip made me think, and say: I know nothing. Or very little. 

It reminds me of when I was 15, working on Rosetta Stone French, able to recite a few phrases from memory. A friend asked me, without irony, “so are you like fluent now?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty close,” I responded. It would be years before the assertion of fluency was accurate. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

I feel that now, just with life. A full acknowledgement of how small I am, now that the sparkle and arrogance of the college days has faded. Time felt endless. Now it doesn’t. The reality paralyzes for awhile, and then you move forward, conscious of your place. I am, I think, a raindrop in a sea.

Home is where you go to entertain these true, hard thoughts. Absence of distraction. Marilynne Robinson wrote “Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?”

On the road trip, there is again much time to think. Companionable quiet as we drive, all corn fields and cloudless skies. I become well-acquainted with the right side of Victor’s face. I grit my teeth when semi-trucks seem not to see us or when a storm rolls in and slicks the highway. I am scared of car wrecks. Not in any inhibiting way, just with an acknowledgement that floats hazy on the edge of my consciousness. It’s such a common way to die. Every time we leave the house we surrender to the possibility of falling victim to another person’s inattention. I’m surprised we don’t consider it quite a bit more often, our own mortality.

bringing missouri to montluçon

Many of my students have never met an American, so I didn’t want to teach cliches.

Burgers and fries, big cities and celebrities? They’ve seen enough of that, maybe only that, on TV. I wanted to share what think of when I think of home.

So rather than trying to introduce the whole country in one go to children who think I regularly hang out with Obama, I took a local approach. There are now dozens of small-town French children learning about float trips, caves, the Gateway Arch, and gooey butter cake.

I’ve explained the term “America’s Heartland” and shown pictures of KC barbecue and played black-and-white YouTube videos of 1920s jazz.

I’ve told them how to say St. Louis with an American accent and shown them a picture of the arch at sunset, city lights glowing against a purple sky. That one always elicits gasps of awe. Mais c’est trop beau!

I’ve shown them a photo of Mizzou’s Jesse Hall and the columns that got the same amazed reaction. A university?! You’d think it was a castle! Does the president live there? When I tell them the enrollment number (30,000 to keep it simple), they think I must be mistaken. Trente-mille ?!  One little girl wondered how on earth so many students could fit in that building.

Of course I had to talk about sports, showing a picture of the MU Tigers. Ah oui! Le football américain! 

I even talked about armadillos, those prehistoric-looking creatures that now line Missouri roads.

The presentations have gone really well and I am mobbed at recess and in the halls. When they’re not talking to me, trying to impress me by saying a word they know-blue! fish!-or a phrase–my name eez Akim-I hear them talking about me. Mais elle est belle ! Oui, elle est belleElle parle anglais ! Elle est anglaise ? Elle vient des États-Unis en fait ! Elle parle français aussi !

They’re kids. And they’re French. So naturally, frankness abounds.

But the attention is enough to make a girl feel like Beyoncé.

At the TAPIF orientation, we were told to always link language with culture, and it makes so much sense now that I see it in action. I get why they brought us here: the kids are naturally curious about us, so we can help translate the enthusiasm about us into enthusiasm about English. We can show them that learning a language is a real, worthy pursuit that goes far beyond scholastic exercises.