I come from Minneapolis, and before that I lived in Seattle and Boston — three of the bluest, most left-leaning cities in the United States. I was an urban woman and couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than a city. My husband concurred. Then our 28-year-old son died in late 2016.
Suddenly the traffic and noise and confusion became too much. John and I took off on a year’s driving tour of gentler parts — both of us working from the road, a computer security consultant and a writer. We grew nearly silent in grief.
We considered Asheville, N.C., and Santa Fe, N.M. But on a chilly, silver January day, we drove into the Ozarks of Northwest Arkansas. Though neither of us could put our finger on exactly why, this felt like our place. People back home were flummoxed: I heard them say a lot about white, rural Christians who reject outsiders and “cling to their guns.”
But what city folk don’t know is how beautiful it is here, and by that I mean way more than you imagine. We’re surrounded by low mountains, bony shale bluffs, forest, shining lakes and mysterious twisting roads. The wide-open sky brings every bird formation and low-hanging planet into relief.
One Sunday in August, after yoga, we went to Home Depot. There was an old truck in the parking lot with a large American flag stuck upright in the bed and a handmade sign about the virtues of patriotism and God. Since our daughter joined the Navy, everything about the military makes me miss her. And the constant evangelizing feels like a threat to every spiritual inkling I have.
Our dog, Ellie, had accompanied us. This is one thing I love about Home Depot: its corporate policy to welcome dogs in every store, which means we buy a lot of picture hangers and doorknobs. It was 95 degrees with a bright, hard sun, so this was her big outing of the day. John carried her 40-pound pit bull heft from car to store so she wouldn’t burn her paws.
Inside, a young man in an orange apron offered us water bottles from a cooler and gave us an extra for the dog. Then we went looking for a compost bin.
“A what?” asked a different young man, the one who came to the garden area to help us. I described what it does. You put your food scraps in, your grass clippings; you return organic matter to the earth. He looked at me with a pleasant smile, as if I might be a little off.
But here’s the thing about Arkansas: It can fool you. There was a compost bin — the last one of the season — way back in a corner, and when we spied it, the boy suddenly understood. “Ah,” he said in his soft Ozark twang, “you’re just making better dirt.”
It is not uncommon that my description of things, my assumptions, is what trips us up. Yet people are endlessly tolerant of my fussy academic Yankee liberalism. They seem happy to know me, even so.
We walked through the store slowly, because it was cool and somehow nicer — quieter, maybe? — than the Home Depots up north. Somewhere around plumbing, a couple stopped to admire Ellie. They were adorned in pastel tie-dye and Jesus paraphernalia. He had a silver beard, a lurching limp and an enormous silver cross on a leather cord around his neck. She wore her hair in a messy gray bun, and had a rubber bracelet around her wrist. On it was printed “Matthew 11:28.”
“She is gorgeous!” hollered the man, leaning down to pet Ellie, teetering because his game leg was at least two inches shorter than his good one. He scratched her where she likes, on her hips, for a minute. After he was done, the woman squatted gracefully and let Ellie lick her entire face.
“They are such a misunderstood breed,” she said, wiping away either tears or dog slobber as she rose. “Thank you for letting us visit with your little one.”
We wished them a good afternoon, and they walked away holding hands. In the car, driving home, I told John I was trying to think in terms of diversity. The people in our circle are black, Asian, Jewish, Middle Eastern and LGBT — also, in large number, white Buddhists, vegans and Unitarians. Our most devout Catholic friend is pro-choice and gay. For years we have ignored Christmas, preferring to celebrate the winter solstice, even though it falls on that last-minute day when business wraps up for the year.
One group of people we didn’t know well, to be honest, was conventional Christians. I saw their narrative as limiting and judgmental. But when I examined my feelings, they made no sense. My Jewish, Muslim and, for that matter, vegan friends could be just as dogmatic. This was a particular bias, the kind I claimed not to have.
“Doesn’t acceptance mean all people?” I asked. John nodded, just as an enormous spire loomed into view.
When we got home, the dog lay in the air conditioning and slept with her tongue hanging out, and John went to the garage to assemble the bin. I started making dinner, and while the meat was cooking I googled Matthew 11:28 on my phone. I suspected it would be about the wicked and our need for salvation, or miracles where only believers were raised from the dead.
Instead, I found this: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” I had wandered onto our deck, and the trees around me shimmered in a sudden cooling breeze. And so — in a sense — we have, I wanted to tell the woman. We are weary. We’ve found rest. We are here.
Ann Bauer is the author of “A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards” and “The Forever Marriage.”