In the town of Decorah, Iowa, there is a place called Seed Savers. It’s not just a clever name. They save seeds. Preserve heirloom varieties of seeds so that they don’t become extinct.
If you walk the trails on the property for about a mile and a half, you come across the most exquisite apple orchard. You and your tour group (probably from Mr. Trongstaad’s Environmental Resources class) will be encouraged to pick as many apples as you’d like. Every tree has a different heirloom variety of apple. The sense that this experience is very biblical, very Garden-of-Eden, will not be lost on your group of twenty-something liberal arts majors attending the nearby Luther College.
The biblical undertones of walking around in this orchard, sampling bites of apple flesh from these trees of knowledge is further underscored by the face that the tour is given by an ageless hippie who has a symbol instead of a name. He is clad in flannel and your nose tells you that this is probably one of those guys who uses that rock crystal thing instead of real deodorant.
You are not taking notes, but are trying to remember bits and pieces as, Mr. Trongstaad will reference something about this trip in extra credit questions. You tune out your ripe tour guide and instead watch Mr. Trongstaad’s eyes. He always asks extra credit questions about birds. And he mumbles. If he hears the call of a distant warbler or sees the pellet of a certain owl on the ground and you are able to catch him at the exact moment of discovery, the exact moment of mumbling, you are guaranteed at least 5 extra points.
You go to a liberal arts college because you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up. You were probably a pleasant Midwestern kid who scored decently on your ACT or SAT. You didn’t have the GPA or the ambition to hit up the Ivy Leagues, so you applied to a smattering of Protestant-affiliated, small liberal arts schools. None of them were more than five hours from home, whether home was Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis.
And odds are, you are here at this precise moment because Luther gave you the best financial aid package. Oh, sure, St. Olaf was pretty decent as well, but who wants to live in a fricking castle? So you said yes to the Luther Norse, to naked soccer, to dormitories with names like Ylvisaker and professors named Trongstaad.
You came here because you haven’t yet decided what your genre your book will be. Without the proper classification, there will be no place for you in the Library of Congress system of order. You will be a book in limbo.
This is the reason that people go to liberal arts college in the first place: because they are tentative about life. If they had tangible, sensible dreams, they would go to a state school, get certified as an engineer and start out making at least $60,000 a year. The people who go to liberal art colleges are the dreamers who are comfortable saying, “Yes, I can get a degree in Russian Studies and a minor in French Literature and everything will turn out fine.”
The population has an inordinate percentage of academic optimists.
And the Midwest…the Midwest is the worst. The optimism is still unbridled. This is a place where it is acceptable to wear an outfit made entirely of fake cheese. Where snowshoe softball is a summer pastime. Where jello with fruit and marshmallows suspended in the center is considered a legitimate salad.
The repeated consumption of these jello salad makes your mind slightly gelatinous. You are vaguely aware of a “real-world” out there. But that is at least four years away. Five or six, if you have indulgent parents who allow you to switch majors.
The truth is, college goes by fast, regardless where you end up on the 4-6 year continuum. You wish you could suspend yourself like the fruit in a jello “salad,” but you can’t. The years speed by, an art installation of beer bongs, writing papers at 2 AM, falling in and out of infatuations, losing your virginity, playing ultimate frisbee, attending contemporary Christian worship services while stoned, impromptu road trips, formations of some of your most meaningful adult friendships–And before you graduate, you walk around in that art installation and contemplate. You observe the pieces that you have made, many of them collaborative. And you wonder what it is that you’ve really learned. What your life will mean once you get this diploma, this piece of paper that deems that you are now fit to be an adult. That you have a speciality and can now contribute to society in a meaningful way.
And then you remember the apple orchard. Each tree is different, but they put out the same fucking apples every year. Is that what all these liberal arts colleges are doing? Churning out the same bumper crop of slightly different but mostly the same fruit?
You’ll probably take a year off after graduation. Live at home, or with a bunch of roommates. Barista and/or volunteer with AmeriCorps. Then it will occur to you that someday, you will want to have a fucking house. Someday, you hope to sustain yourself with more than ramen. You need a plan. You need a job.
Graduate school seems a good a plan as any. You regard your options carefully. You want a program that’s fairly easy to get into, with in-state tuition, that will give you another diploma, a better piece of paper, that will certify you as a more specific specialist who will make the world an even better place. You have your education award as a bargaining chip–you can assuage the cost of tuition, if your parents will only help you out a bit, hey, you might even get a graduate assistantship and then the school will pay you.
You are still book that is not yet fully realized. The table of contents is hazily coming into focus. You are on the brink of choosing your genre. You are not particularly passionate about anything. You just want to be useful. And get paid to be useful. And wear cute outfits. And live in a place without parents or roommates. All of your friends from high school are getting married and having babies. You think this is quite mad. You just want piece and quiet and endless expanses of…books?
You approach this idea tentatively. Like dipping your toe into a pool of water. Or when a girlfriend insists on getting matching tattoos. This. Just. Might. Work.
The answer was there all along. The library. You have experience with books–you shelved them for eight semesters for your work study assignment. Hell, you even read a lot of them. And understood a good 85% to 90%. You are not excited enough to attempt writing new books and words, but you’d be happy to organize the ones that already exist. And help other people find and read them.
The decision is made. Three more years spent in higher education. You emerge triumphant with a Masters of Library Science. You apply for jobs, and to your surprise, you end up right back where you started this journey. At Luther College. They are hiring a half-time research librarian (in charge of Norwegian artifacts), half-time Inter Library Loan coordinator. You can do this job. You are qualified. They like hiring alumni.
The job is yours.
Seriously, they job is yours. They hire you.
They hired you.
They. Hired. You.
I have a job.
I have a job at the college I left four years ago. I will be here indefinitely.
My parents are so proud. It could be that they’re just excited for me to move out of the house and have a job where I no longer qualify for food stamps. But I think they’re being sincere. I find myself looking at places to rent. By myself. This is what I’ve always wanted, right?
I settle on an apartment that rests atop a bakery on Water Street. I have to buy furniture. This is so foreign. I go to IKEA and I’m the one who is actually making the decisions, instead of my roommate or my roommate’s parents.
This is unfamiliar. I feel like I’m waking up from being anesthetized.
I have to buy groceries. I get to buy groceries? I walk to the Oneota Co-op and buy a membership. And an organic frozen pizza. And some ice cream. And some wine. Granola for breakfast.
The lady at the counter regards me. She is wearing cotton palazzo pants and a co-op t-shirt. No make up. No bra. Her silver hair is pulled back in a braid.
“Don’t I know you?” she asks.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“I never forget a face. You look familiar.” She probes.
“I…Well, I went to Luther. Graduated in 2007.”
“Well, you’re buying a membership, does this mean you’re moving back?”
“Uh, yes, I just got hired at the college library.”
“Really.” Her word is breathy and full of meaning.
“Yup. Start orientation tomorrow.”
“It is just so nice to see kids coming back here. We need more young blood that sticks around.” She smiles.
“Glad to help.” I don’t know what else to say, but I want her to relinquish my re-usable canvas tote bag.
“You have a nice day, now!”
But I am already gone.
That afternoon, I venture out to Seed Savers on my own. There are no hippies to guide my way–I let their office know that I’ve been here before, that I’m familiar. And they let me find my own way.
I head back up to the apple orchard. I stand in the summer stillness. I walk around the perimeter, determined to take only one apple home. I must choose carefully.
I end up picking a small, red shiny orb that imagine to be both sweet and tart. I shine it on my green paisley dress. I take a bite.
The juices run over my chin. I am surprised at how good it tastes. I look at the sign. “King Luscious.” I laugh. And laugh. I can’t stop laughing. Before I know it, I am rolling on the ground, cackling in the apple orchard.
I feel like the voice inside of Eve that said “Goddamnit, sister, take a bite of that apple! Screw Adam, do whatever the hell you want!”
And she took a bite.