Since I've been living here in Adrian, Oregon, it's dawned on me how narrow my personal definition of intelligence
has always been. Adrian's given me the best education of my life
My dad grew up impoverished and fatherless in Boise, Idaho. His mother was a Scotch-German immigrant who understood that education was the only sure way out of poverty, and she encouraged my father to work as hard as he could toward scholarships. He did just that, and he garnered a full ride to the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Navy paid for some of it, but most of the money was from educational scholarships.
Dad became a Naval nuclear engineer and rose very quickly to the position of Lieutenant Commander on attack submarines. After he retired from the military, he took advantage of the ten-year GI Bill which pays the entire educational tab for retired military personnel. Dad had a profoundly overdeveloped work ethic, so once he retired from active duty he took a job as a postman in Charleston, South Carolina. He'd work eight to ten hour days and go to school at night - you know, just for fun?
He wound up with five master's degrees in five years. Just for fun. American History. Education. Mathematics. Psychology. Literature.
Mom was a twelfth grade English teacher with a master's in literature and a doctorate in education. I grew up around a dinner table that was practically the Algonquin Round Table. We had one television that lived in the attic except during weather emergencies and at Christmastime, when it was trundled downstairs so that we could watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Dad worshipped Dr. Seuss).
Dad was on active duty in the Navy until I was almost thirteen years old, so he was away for six months out of each year on tours of duty during my formative years. Dad was on tours in the Mediterranean Sea for the births of both my younger sisters, but he was home the night I was born in Bremerton, Washington. There's a picture of him holding me in the hospital.
My father is six feet six inches tall. His hands are enormous. In the pictures from my birth, I look like a tiny blonde kitten in his giant hands. You can tell from the photographs that he was talking to me.
He was reciting the Gettysburg Address. The first words I heard on this earth were immortal and incandescent and irreplaceable. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the reason I love words is that my father loves words. He imparted that passion to me as surely as he gave me my green eyes and broad shoulders. It's the best gift anyone's ever given me until now.
Dad's salary and job perks made it possible for my mother to be a stay-at-home parent, and she loved being a mom. She taught me to read before I walked. She began reading to me the day she took me home from the hospital, and started playing around with alphabetical flash cards when I was about three months old. The work she did with me stemmed from the pure joy she took in teaching, the thrill of watching all the subtle connections I made between those mysterious heiroglyphs and the world that surrounded me.
I never finished college, but it wasn't for lack of trying. I kept getting sick. Both my sisters, however, went on to get advanced degrees - Carrie's in radiation therapy and Elizabeth's in education.
I grew up on Naval bases and in military neighborhoods. I went to great schools with bright kids. I was raised with the tacit understanding that education is inextricably linked with intelligence. I went through my twenties ashamed of the fact that I'd never completed a degree. Nearly every single person who touched my life while I was growing up was highly educated and immensely intelligent, and somewhere along the line I came to associate intelligence with proper grammar and a diploma.
Until last year I have always lived in metro areas, suburbs to major cities. Washington, DC. Honolulu, Hawaii. Charleston, South Carolina. Places where education is not so much prized as expected.
I had no idea what a snob I was until I got here.
Take, for example, my brother-in-law. He's a forty-three year old metalworker. This is a guy who grew up in this miniscule, isolated desert town and who has never lived outside of its drowsy confines. The population here has never exceeded one hundred and sixty. It's a farming community, and the eldest male children are still raised to take over the family business. College has never had much credence out here.
His father was a blacksmith. That's right - an old-fashioned blacksmith. He shod horses. He made and repaired farming equipment. He welded and formed and lived and breathed metal. And when he died, the business went to George, who dutifully and happily took the reins.
When my youngest sister married this guy, I was appalled.
I was living in Charleston at the time, married to an educated guy with a respectable career. Elizabeth had decided two years prior to my own wedding that she wanted out of the South, so she picked up stakes and moved to Oregon. She took up residence in Adrian with my retired Aunt. Because of unexpected and exponential growth in Mount Pleasant, the suburb of Charleston where my parents had intended to retire, Mom and Dad decided that they might as well sell their house and follow my sister out here as well. Adrian offered a lot to my parents - it's sixty miles west of Boise, home to my father's only sister, eight hours away from Portland where my other sister lives, and in the middle of nowhere, all of which appealed to my parents.
My attitude about all this was pretty poor. My youngest sister is one of my best friends and I'm extremely close to my mom. It was bad enough that Elizabeth had decided to come to Adrian, but I was furious about my parents' subsequent decision. I absolutely hated that they deserted the South and abandoned me and a beautiful, paid-for house to come to this godforsaken part of the country, three thousand miles and a daylong flight away from Charleston.
I came out here to visit for the first time in August of 2000, less than two months after I got married. Sam absolutely hated it. My parents didn't have a computer at the time and Sam has never been an outdoorsy type of guy, so there was nothing for him to do out here for three weeks. I liked it all right - I hiked and fished and hung out with my dad and mom and sister. But privately I agreed with Sam - Adrian was Rural America, USA. I could understand the appeal Adrian had for my retired parents - Dad golfs and fishes, and Mom quilts and reads and cooks up a storm for the entire town - but I couldn't for the life of me understand my sister's decision to move here at the tender age of 22.
I was even more frustrated when I heard that she was going to marry George. Yeah, I knew he'd contracted with Micron way back in the mid-nineties to provide some of the machines that make computer chips. I knew that he'd made them from scratch, with his own two hands. I knew he'd parlayed the huge wad of cash he made from that plum job assignment to build a perfect showplace of a log home on a stunning piece of land overlooking the Snake River, land that his father had left him for that express purpose. I knew he'd sensibly paid for it outright, with no mortgage at all. I knew he adored his two young daughters from a previous marriage and that his daughters loved Elizabeth.
I knew he did decorative metalwork on the side - gorgeously detailed home furnishings that he considers a hobby but that are actually works of art. I even knew that he was blissfully smitten by my baby sister. But in my narrow view about what constitutes "intelligence", George just didn't measure up.
I had a huge fight with Elizabeth over the phone a few weeks before her wedding. I remember being an absolute raving bitch.
For crying out loud, LizzaBit, how could you marry a guy with no education? A metalworker! What on god's green earth do you two have in common? My husband was eyeing me warily from across the room as I hyperventilated.
It's testament to my sister's immense patience and character that she didn't rise to my bait. She never lost her temper. Ashley, she explained, first of all, kiss my ass. Second of all, he's the smartest, wisest, most generous man I have ever met in my entire life. Besides, what the hell do you and Sam have in common? You don't know squat about computers, and that's all he's interested in. Your husband's just as much a manual laborer as George is. Sam fixes machinery, too. It just happens that he fixes tiny machines while George fixes huge machines.
I conceded the point by hanging up on her.
We made up later that day - I can't stay mad with Bit - and I agreed to be a bridesmaid.
At the wedding, my sister was happy - deliriously happy - so when the hoopla was over I headed back home to Charleston and the false security of my marriage.
Life has a way of taking the smug ones down a peg or two. Well, more like several pegs. Well, okay - life took not only my ladder but the building it was leaning on.
While Bit and George settled into a very content marriage, my own marriage fell apart. George, heartbroken himself, stood beside Elizabeth through one of the most traumatic events I can imagine - the loss of triplets at six and a half months, a full-delivery birth that yielded three babies who lived for only minutes outside of her body. Many marriages have crumbled to dust over significantly less crushing experiences.
He's been nothing but a wonderful husband, devoted father to his own two girls, and a great provider on top of all that.
So I wound up here in Adrian last year, back at home with Mom and Dad, stark raving mad and sicker than I've ever been, with a husband who'd essentially abandoned me and absolutely nothing in terms of assets.
What can I say about this community?
Yes, it's full of "uneducated" people. Many of them are farmers, the majority of them second- and third-generation. Pioneer stock. Adrian sits directly on the Southern route of the old Oregon Trail, and back in the late 1800's several families recognized Adrian's rich topsoil and proximity to the Snake River as an excellent place to put down roots. These are tough people, people used to hardships, drought, and relatively litle money. But they own their own land, they take quiet and keen pride in what they do, and - most importantly to me - they have a deep affection for the wounded.
In the five years before I moved out here, it began to dawn on me how outrageously kind these people in Adrian really are. They stop by my mom's house to drop off fresh seasonal produce and homemade preserves. They come to swap recipes and share benign gossip. They come to visit, to catch up, the way people in the South used to do before the South I grew up in turned into a sleepy version of the fast and hectic Northeast.
The women (and some men, too) come over to my parents' house when the day's work is done to sip iced tea or gin and tonics in the summer and Irish coffee in the winter. They have a naked hospitality that is not dependent, as so much Southern hospitality is, on appearance or pretention.
They are kind because they love Elizabeth, and many of them here in town are related to my brother-in-law. They nurture me because my mother and father have become cherished members of this community in the relatively short time they've lived here. But mostly they love me and take care of me because it's who they are. They are simply people who love, naturally and unconditionally.
It was last January that I started to truly appreciate my accidental community.
It's a tiny town, and within a few hours everyone knew what had happened to me last January. I'd only been living with Mom and Dad for a couple of weeks when I had a psychotic episode so dramatic and crippling that my parents had to call an ambulance, have me strapped down, and rushed to the nearest city for immediate treatment. This has happened to me before, but never in such a small place, never among such "uneducated" people.
Once I came down from The Crazy, I numbly anticipated the community shunning I was sure to receive from all these "ignorant" people.
I couldn't have been more wrong. Over the next several days and week, while my fragile and suddenly brittle sanity slowly scabbed over and began to heal, people started arriving at my parents' house. They came because they understood. They came because they all had sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, children of their own who'd been through the special sort of hell reserved for sufferers of extreme mental illness.
These people are who they are, and they love me for who I am.
They came without platitudes or pretention. They came with quiet stories of their own to share, stories that were more healing than any medicine, any therapy. They came carrying bouquets of flowers, homemade cookies, casseroles. They came to comfort me and my shaken parents in a million tiny, priceless ways. They didn't come for any reason other than love.
And they came with no diplomas. They came with poor grammar. They came without much of a sense of the world outside the hundred-mile radius of this isolated little town.
Earlier this year, after Elizabeth told me the amazing news that she was pregnant again, she was finally able to talk about what the people in this town did for her after her babies died.
They loved her. It sounds simple, but it isn't.
They gathered around her and around my entire family and held them up with prayers and exactly the right flavor of love. They donated a gravesite to her babies, and they intuitively understood how important it was to refer to those babies by name.
Paul Walker. Anna Betts. Callie Rose.
They sat with Elizabeth and allowed her to grieve. They spoke the names of her children to her, with her. They came with stories and tears for their own lost children. They stood in the granite wake of death and grief along with George and Elizabeth, and they were fearless in their love. They were present for her and for George in ways that are infinitely precious and that must have cost them a great deal of comfort.
They were there for my family in that grief, and they are here for me now in my own losses, in my own confusion, in my own frustration and pain.
I've been reading over the past few years about what's often referred to as a new sort of intelligence. More simply, it's called EQ, short for Emotional Quotient. It's an inborn thing, like the mundane, chilly intellectual intelligence I grew up revering. It's defined as the capacity to accurately perceive emotions, to use emotions to facilitate thinking, to understand emotional meanings, and to manage emotions.
These days it isn't cerebral people who impress me. It isn't the ability to string grammatically correct facts together. It's not even writing ability or artistic flair.
What blows me away and sustains me is the ability to understand emotion, the courage to reach deep into one's self and others and come up with dripping fistfuls of the stuff that makes life worth living, really worth living.
The people here have lavished a million tiny kindnesses on me every single day. Me, an outsider, and a crazy one at that. While I was writing this admittedly long daylog, Rex came over with an enormous bucketful of red beans fresh off the combine. He knows my mom likes to make chili, and he knows that Dad and I love that chili.
Kindness doesn't come from facts, and love isn't born from books. PhDs are minted at alarming speed. The internet has made fact-finding quick and easy. Brilliant minds seem to be a dime a dozen these days. Brilliant hearts? That's another story.
And you know what? In the end, it's the only story that matters.