How to Be Attacked by Your Heart’s Desire
Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.
—Hafiz of Persia
PEOPLE TALK ABOUT FOLLOWING THEIR bliss, but if you’re stubborn, unobservant sods like Jack and me, your bliss pretty much has to beat you over the head until you see things in a new light. By the time Jack and I met, some twelve years before the bookstore in Big Stone Gap entered our lives, we had between us lived in eight countries and visited more than forty; the first five years of our marriage were spent in Jack’s native Scotland as cheerful workaholics with pretensions to vagabond artistry. His salary as a college department head and mine for directing an arts nonprofit afforded us fulfilling lives of music, story, friends, and travel throughout the British Isles and the States.
Since we’d married late in Jack’s life, the second time for him and the first for me, an awareness of our age difference (twenty years) kept an easy balance going. The undertow of time’s river reminded us to be happy with each other while we had the chance. With this in mind, we slid our day jobs between hop-away weekends performing stories and songs at festivals, fairs, and conferences. At first, Jack sang and I told stories, but as the years rolled by, his song introductions got longer and I sang more ballads until we were pretty much both doing both.
Driving home from these road trips tired and happy, Jack and I often engaged in casual banter about what we’d do “someday” when we gave up the weekend warrior routine. Such conversations revolved around a recurring theme:
“Someday we’ll give up this madness, settle down, and run a nice bookstore,” I’d say.
“A used book store, with a café that serves locally grown food,” he’d agree.
“It will have incredibly beautiful hardwood floors that squeak when you walk across them.”
“Lots of big windows to let in the sunlight, as it will of course face south.”
“In a town with tree-lined streets, where there’s lots of foot traffic so people walk in on impulse. Everyone will love us as colorful local characters. You can wear a baggy Mr. Rogers sweater and push your glasses up your nose and talk about Scotland, and I can teach at the nearby university and write the great American novel.”
“It will have high ceilings with old-fashioned wooden fans.” Jack liked to stick to physical descriptions.
“And a unicorn in the garden.” Two can play at that game.
“Of course! It will keep the elephants company.” My husband is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy.
Mile after road-weary mile, we created castle-in-the-clouds daydreams about the used book store we would run “someday.” When the five-thousand-square-foot personification of this idle pastime appeared without warning at a most inconvenient moment, it didn’t so much enter as take over our lives.
We didn’t arrive in Big Stone intending to run a used book store, and in fact we almost passed up the chance when presented with it. Two years before we moved to Virginia, we had left the United Kingdom for the States so I could take a position in the Snake Pit. (That’s not its real name, in case you were wondering.) That move landed me in a high-power game of snakes and ladders in a government agency—except we played with all snakes and no ladders. In this “bite or be bitten” ethos, it really didn’t matter what was true; it mattered whether you could bite harder than you were bitten—and that you never questioned why biting was the preferred method of communication.
Freedom might be another word for nothing left to lose, or the moment when common sense blossoms through the mud. One fine day I woke up seeing clearly for the first time in two years. A willing entrant into the Snake Pit—because the job looked exciting and as though it offered chances to do good in the world—I’d become instead just another biter. No, thank you; life is not about who gets the biggest chunk of someone else’s flesh.
Unless you’re a zombie.
I talked to a lawyer, gave two weeks’ notice, and walked away. Almost everyone has experienced a Snake Pit at some point in their lives—more’s the pity. Bad as our Pit was, Jack and I were fortunate. We owned our house and don’t eat much, so we could call it quits. That’s a luxury many people stuck in horrible situations—from minimum wage to white collar—don’t share. Sensitive humans doing a job they hate to keep food on the family table or a kid in school deserve major honor. If you’re in that position, kudos for sticking it out. God grant you an exit ramp soon, and forbearance until it appears.
For Jack and me, exiting Pitsville seemed like a bad cliché: midlife crisis meets crisis of conscience. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama expressed sympathy for anyone who “lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.” C. S. Lewis said almost the same thing in The Screwtape Letters, that people who suddenly wake up in the middle of some “important” activity and ask themselves, “am I enjoying this?” rarely answer yes, yet spend their lives doing the same things anyway.
Living in a world with no moral center had thrown us into an off-kilter limbo. We longed to return to a gentle life with friendly people who had less to prove and more honesty in how they proved it. So when I was offered a low-profile job running educational programs in the tiny southwestern Virginia town of Big Stone Gap, we packed our bags and shook the venom from our shoes.
Big Stone (as the locals call it) is nestled in the mountains of central Appalachia, in what locals call the Coalfields. The town had been on its way to becoming the Chicago of the South in the early 1900s, until the coal boom went bust. Now it was just another dot on the map, full of coal miners and retirees, with an embattled downtown and a Walmart up by the four-lane. Football games and high school reunions were the biggest local events.
A nice gentle job in The Gap (its other nickname) seemed a good situation in a pleasant place; we could hang out for a year enjoying life in the slow lane without getting too attached. I’m from central Appalachia, Jack from Scotland. Mountains and rural living are some of the ties that bind us.
While helping us look for housing cheap enough to be realistic yet cozy enough to be comfortable, Debbie, the affable local realtor, discovered we liked old houses. Her company had just acquired one she hadn’t yet seen, so we stopped and explored it together, just to take a break.
That’s how the Bookstore ensnared us. Edith Schaeffer, who with her husband cofounded a Christian commune called L’Abri, once wrote, “The thing about real life is that important events don’t announce themselves. Trumpets don’t blow … Usually something that is going to change your whole life is a memory before you can stop and be impressed about it.”
That about sums it up.
The five-bedroom 1903 Edwardian sat near two intersections, and edged a neighborhood of sturdy brick homes and leafy bungalows. Parking spaces dotted the front curb. The place felt snug and cozy the moment we walked in, despite its voluminous size.
“Squeaky floors,” my husband said with a frown, rubbing one rubber sole across the scarred hardwood.
“The pocket doors stick,” Debbie observed, sneezing as she wrestled oak panels from their hiding places amid a shower of dust.
“That’s a lot of windows for somebody to wash.” I pointed at the floor-to-ceiling panes adorning three open-plan rooms, stretched across the southern-facing house front.
Rickety wooden fans hung from high ceilings, wires exposed. The second-floor parlor, with its peeling wallpaper, overlooked the town’s tree-lined ancillary street one block from where it intersected the main road. The ghost of cat pee wafted from the oak staircase, which boasted exquisite copper corner pieces dulled by neglect. My husband and I stared at each other with lust in our eyes, thanked Debbie-the-Realtor for the impromptu visit, and left her making notes of things to fix before the house could be put on the market.
From the Edwardian mansion, Jack and I headed to Little Mexico, a signature Big Stone Gap restaurant. Little Mexico sits at the top of a hill next to Walmart, and the parking lot offers magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. The season’s flowering power—rhododendron pink, mountain laurel white, cornflower purple—displayed its full glory in the midday sun. Inside, we dipped tortilla chips into fiery salsa and eyed each other through sangria glasses.
We had no money. We’d bought a house in the Snake Pit with cash when we first came over from Scotland, but the economy had just tanked while the housing market crashed amid escalating horror stories; no way would we be able to sell that house quickly. Thus we couldn’t afford to buy without getting a mortgage, and given the nose-diving economy and the limited appeal my esoteric PhD in ethnography had in the job market, that didn’t seem wise. We needed to just park ourselves quietly for a year and regroup. It was madness to even think along unicorn-in-the-garden lines. No, the word “bookstore” would not come out of my mouth.
Jack crunched a corn chip. “That big white house would have made a perfect bookstore, had it been in a bigger town.”
I knew it! “Oh, did you think so?”
My husband of ten years smiled. “I knew that’s what you were thinking. Debbie said the population is 5,400. That’s not enough people to support a bookstore, and anyway we won’t be here that long.”
“Yep,” I agreed. “Stupid to get entangled in something like that now, when we’re so tired and, you know, off balance.”
“Aye. Not to mention, we don’t have enough money.”
“Or energy. Pity to see something so nice and not be able to take advantage of it, but the timing is so wrong. We need a sure thing. I’ll handle this job for a year or two, and you can find some relaxing retirement project.”
Jack waited a beat, then said thoughtfully, “But if we were to stay a wee while longer, there is a college nearby where you might teach … well, not that we’re thinking of long-term plans now.”
My heartbeat accelerated. “No, not that we’re thinking long-term.”
“We’ll set up a bookstore someday.”
We crunched in silence, and then Jack drew his sword and slew the dragon. “What if someday is today?”
Not even a gentle pop resounded as the cork flew from our bottled-up lives. But the waitstaff seemed startled when I leaned across the table, stomach grazing the chip basket, and kissed my best friend long and hard on the lips.
Copyright © 2012 by Wendy Welch