The Roughly-Scheduled and Totally Expected Love Letter to My Hometown

I left Fort Smith, Arkansas, telling everyone I couldn’t find the job I wanted here. I have a mismatched bachelor’s degree that is two parts music and one part creative writing, and I saw no one around me who had any idea what to do with that; I moved to Colorado for an internship with an orchestra, convinced myself I should do that, but not yet; I am halfway through a master’s program in Ohio, and all I know is full-time professorship sounds about as appealing and useful as a third big toe.

I’m not worried about this. I’m not focused on a straight-line career and I’m more patient with it than I thought I’d be. But I am starting to amend my first belief that I’d have to leave this place for it.


I’m sitting now at a coffee shop in Poteau, Oklahoma, with retired locals and students from the community college down the street. It’s finals week, the clouds are white and many, and when they’re in the right position it looks more overcast than it really is. From my view, it’s easy to forget how much I hate the hot, humid weather here, that the college is one bad enrollment from closing, and if I had a conversation with any of the people here they’d ask, “When are you getting a real job?”

And yet, I wish I could stay.


My favorite thing to do when I come home in the summer is drive the excessively large Toyota my mother keeps as a farm truck down Old Cameron Highway (it has a real name with numbers and everything, but no one uses it), where there are wildflowers and cattle and blue mountains in the background. This was the road we took to church every Sunday. It’s not faster than the highway that runs straight from my house to the Poteau bypass, but that’s not the point. I flick through preset radio buttons until I find a station not on commercial. My Spotify subscription is wasted here.

My second favorite thing to do is practice my accent. When I worked at a restaurant in high school, customers always asked where I was from, saying, “You don’t sound like folks around here.” My college roommate swore I had a slight accent, but she was from Illinois and denied having a midwestern accent herself (she totally did). Normally, comments on my neutral dialect felt like a compliment. After a long day and night in semi-formal for a gala, softened by exhaustion and one or two shots, the twang slipped out. A friend said, “You finally sound like you’re from the south.” I grinned.


I don’t consider myself a country mouse or city mouse. I’ve lived in both and they felt like home. But there’s a reason the story isn’t about their cousin, suburban mouse. He’s a banker with twenty baby mice kids and a house identical to his neighbors’ and if he visited his kin in the city or country, he’d never go home. He doesn’t particularly favor one over the other, but either would be it for him.

At a pub last week, I sat next to a woman at the bar. She met her friend, who had apparently been out of town for a few years. He was amazed at how different Fort Smith is now from his childhood. “Now it’s a place people come back to,” the woman next to me said.

When I was in college, it was very vogue to complain about everything Fort Smith lacked. It’s especially better if they’ve never lived anywhere else. I took it as a personal offense. Now it’s easier to find people who love it like I do, who aren’t stuck but stay willingly. Maybe this is because I’ve gotten out, yet I come back. Maybe you love your town if you can leave it.

Lamenting old cities is a worn out tune for me. I’m very ready to write about something else. Eventually it won’t be the only thing I think about.


An online journal is publishing one of my prose pieces in July. It’s about last summer when I came home, part fiction but completely true. The editors suggested I change the title to something that made more sense (I’m horrible at titles, ask every workshop I’ve been in). I only considered revisions that included Rock Island, my true hometown, simply so it could have a spot on some small map for a moment.

The table next to me is filled with people talking about bringing arts to Poteau. I can’t figure out yet what they’re planning, if it’s even concrete ideas or just idle wishes. There’s a place for it here I didn’t see before. I take back what I said years ago: I can find a life here doing what I want, it wouldn’t be settling. But not yet.

Not a Photographer

I got a refurbished Nikon CoolPix L840 for my birthday a few years ago. It’s small and user-friendly and perfect for travel, which is really the only time I’m particularly inspired to take photos. It’s easy to go for the tourist-y photo ops when you’re an actual tourist.

In Denver, I wanted to go out and take photos every weekend, but I really only did twice. I was trying very hard to look like I lived there and wasn’t another transplant (though that’s exactly what I was) taking tourist photos with my point-and-shoot while beanie-wearing Coloradans with trendy tattoos stood next to me with their DSLRs, two different tripods, and a designer leather backpack full of lenses. I was intimidated.

I’m not a photographer. I don’t want to be. I like taking photos, but I have no real talent for it and no intention to improve.

Once the weather in Ohio became sunny and above 30 degrees, I got that old urge to pull out the camera. It’s become synonymous with the desire to hike and be outside that surfaces every spring. I put on a hat and was at the Clifton Gorge trailhead less than an hour after making this decision.

There is an interview with Bill Hayes in advance of his new book of photography How New York Breaks Your Heart that talks about his love affair with the city and the people in it. His previous book Insomniac City describes this relationship as though NYC is a living being worthy of affection. I guard this book closely for how it accurately describes my feelings of Denver, though I was there under a year and Hayes has been in New York since 2009. Some places take your heart just like people can. I don’t miss it like home, but I am homesick for both.

I’ve always liked hiking alone (I like doing most things alone, honestly), and the camera makes me slow down in different ways. I’m not just looking around me; I’m looking specifically for a good shot, and for the things I can’t catch in a photo. I can photograph the gorge next to me, but not the different sounds it makes at different points on the trail. I can zoom closely on the dead leaves still clinging to branches, but can do nothing at the exact moment the breeze catches them.

I saw several other photographers on the trail. One man stationed deep in the gorge, off the trail behind the flood warnings that urge people to not pass the trail markers. Another was walking along the trail like me, a large gear bag strapped to his back and walking sticks around his wrists. Mostly, though, it was hikers pulling out their phones at the overlooks.

When you look for the things worth photographing, they’re suddenly abundant. It’s no secret I’m struggling to love Ohio still. But as I look for more photo subjects, I see better how other peole can love it here, just like Hayes looks for the ways others love New York.

I was defensive of Fort Smith when anyone said there wasn’t anything there. I want to feel the same for Dayton.

Still no interest in being a better photographer. But I do want to love where I am better than I do.

Thanksgiving Hacks to Disappoint Your Grandparents

Disclaimer: I have no evidence stating these hacks have disappointed my own grandparents, and therefore have no reason to say they would disappoint yours. Quite the contrary, one of my grandparents would think the whole thing is funny, and the other is probably incredibly jealous. But if this were a holiday movie, the actors portraying my fictional grandparents would be very, very disappointed.


This is my first apartment with any sense of permanence. There are nails in the walls — nails — and I bought a TV this week. Dining table came in last week. I even decorated for Christmas. Working on four months and I finally almost live here.

I’ve had exactly one guest and she was here for 15 minutes before we left to do what we had planned, which was basically anything but stay in my apartment. My cat, the socialite of the house (competition is slim), has long since felt the lack of attention, having never been left alone in our four-person set up in Denver. But, at long last, I’ve had my first hosting experience this Thanksgiving when my mother came to visit.

Hosting your mother is almost like being a guest in your own home. She knows more than me on everything and my carpet has never been so spotless (she probably vacuumed 3 times since walking through the door). My mom is also a sucker for simplicity (a trait she passed to me) so she was the perfect guinea pig for my small apartment Thanksgiving feast for two.


The Menu:

There were two issues with food choice: 1. My kitchen is tiny, even for an apartment, leaving little room for both prep and leftover storage; 2. My mother doesn’t like pumpkin pie, which I was content to serve on loop for three days instead of cooking anything. With both of these issues in mind, here’s what we ended up with.

Turkey
Assess oven size to determine which turkey to buy. Realize there’s no hope and get a cooked rotisserie chicken from the Walmart deli.

Stuffing
I’ve never heard of turkey stuffing from a box — I didn’t even know it existed until last week. We made it on a stovetop in my Target pans, and butter sauteed onions and celery with Dollar Tree spatulas. Loosely follow instructions on box. Serve warm.

Vegetable sides
Walk up and down the entire grocery store frozen section looking for a vegetable medley more creative than corn, peas, and carrots. We settled on frozen brussels sprouts and grabbed two sweet potatoes from the produce section. Skin and dice potatoes, saute in vegetable oil on other Target pans with the same Dollar Tree spatulas. Add frozen brussels sprouts. Salt to taste. Pepper if you’re not boring.

Bread
Buy day-old bread for $0.70 and heat in oven. This is the only thing we put in the oven all week, it’s that small.

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The bread was forgotten for the photo, however.

Dessert
You have room to splurge on this. We got a pumpkin roll and I’m still eating it days later after my mother went home.

Drinks
Yellow Tail wine, any color. We chose Bold Red. It won over our favorite Barefoot color because it doesn’t have a cork and I broke every corkscrew I’ve owned. I’ve never had a wine stopper either and buy a lot of boxed wine. Our bottle cost $6.99. Open, let breathe, serve in Dollar Tree stemless wine glasses, the only glasses I own.

The Decor

What will make this officially a Thanksgiving dinner and not just a budget grocery store spread is the decorations, many of which were harvested the day of.

Tree
I love natural trees, not only because they’re gorgeous and fragrant, but because the artificial ones are a bitch to store. But if you’re like me and allergic to cedar and fir, wait for a storm to knock over a tree in the parking lot, let it sit for a week while the wood dries and insurance assesses the fence and vehicle damage (it’s ok, probably not your car), and go out one afternoon to find a branch the right size to fit over your couch with just enough character to look better than a large dowel rod. Fasten to wall with Command hooks and twine. Decorate with string lights. Add ornaments if you have them (I have one).

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My one ornament, crocheted by my grandmother.

Centerpieces
As a craft store and homemade preserves enthusiast (never my own, but I enthuse over the work of others), I had several wide mouth mason jars on hand. Go for a pre-dinner nature walk wherever you can find evergreens. Bring a bag to fill with pinecones. If no one has done this before you, you may not have to go deeper than the parking lot. Be the lookout while your mother cuts from the blue spruce on state property. At home, fill mason jars with pinecones and greenery. Tie extra pinecones to you Christmas tree branch. Put more pinecones in an empty planter and any other container you can find. You’re still left with way too many pinecones.

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Ambiance
All grocery stores have tiny $1 scented candles. Buy $12 worth.

Entertainment

We went to a bar Wednesday night (learned it’s the busiest time of the year — who knew families pushed everyone to drink?), watched Amazon Prime movies on Thursday, and went to antique stores on Black Friday. If you’re “go hard” kind of people, you should’ve learned by now this post isn’t for you.


These are all tried and true hacks that can be easily translated to your Christmas celebrations since most Western holidays within these 35 days are all basically done the same way. Tell me your simplest and fuss-free holiday ideas that will keep me festive without the mess and tears.

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Happy late Thanksgiving!

 

Relocated

I’m approaching the 2-month mark since moving to Ohio, with little to show for it.

By the time I reached this point in Denver last year, I went on several road trips, live performances, and met so many people Facebook keeps reminding me I friended a year ago. Flash forward 365 days: I’m sitting on the living room floor of my two-bedroom apartment I share with my cat, drinking coffee at 12pm, watching the leaves fall from my window, googling road trip ideas in Ohio, a state I only peripherally knew existed before living here.

There are several differences between now and last year. I’m going to grad school instead of beefing my resume with an unpaid part-time internship; I live by myself in a town where I’m the obvious new kid; my money goes to living expenses and school-related things, and I no longer have a killer part-time second job that lets me read on the clock while also ensuring I have plenty of money for my Nation of One; I’m in a city a quarter of the size of Denver where servers ask if I’m meeting someone later, and then look taken aback when I say I’m here by myself (this could be changed if I were less reclusive and sought companionship more—I’m not yet to the point of full-on friendship, but if you add up my works-in-progress, they equal maybe three whole friends. The point is, I wasn’t expected to change this behavior in Denver).

In summary: Fewer mountains, more questions about my name (which is very exotic here?), and I’m dubbed the eccentric out-of-towner known to YA male fiction writers.


 

“Why would you move from Denver to here?” I’m asked by everyone, brows furrowed, words soaked in incredulity.

Denver was a temporary stop, my last physical address (and current one, according to my mixed up New Yorker sub. Hope whoever got my magazines by mistake appreciated the fiction sections like they should). My hometown in the Arkansas River Valley is exactly like this city, just displaced by 800 miles to the southwest. Fort Smith, too, is caught in a post-industrial decline, though on a smaller scale, and newcomers are working to revamp the downtown scene into an arts center. There is local history taken for granted, and the kids who grew up there claim there is nothing to do, which is complete bogus. Dayton and Fort Smith are twin cities and they don’t even know it.

Yes, it was—and remains to be—a major adjustment from Denver (the gas is higher here?) and I miss that city differently than I miss home, but just as severely. I miss it because the people of Denver were excited to live in Denver. There was a city-wide pride that I wish I saw in Fort Smith, and what I saw growing when I went back last summer. I don’t see that here.

Perhaps I’m searching in the wrong places. Small town universities aren’t the best place for that (looking at you, students of UAFS). I need to find that inspiration I was so excited to take back to FSM those months ago. Luckily, until I require a second job, I have weekends to spend on small solo adventures, so when I leave I can actually say I’ve been here.

Readers, get ready for a travelogue with mediocre photos.