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Once upon a time — wait, no. This is real life. Let’s start again.

The one that got away. What a great catch. These sentences are fishing metaphors. They also, when girls I know tell me love stories that have these as the plot lines, seem to be magical, romantic, mysterious, beautiful. What could have been. If these phrases were movies we’d see soft sunny filtered images of smiling beautiful people in fields of flowers. But no story is one sentence long. Only distorted memories begin with Once upon a time

The one that got away is a complicated tale. Maybe “one” is actually many. Maybe this isn’t even a Rom-Com. Maybe the one is someone’s father. Maybe it’s someone’s dream.

I love people because they are so complicated. If you dig deep enough everyone has a story; everyone is still writing it as they go along, just like me. Just like you. Good stories are always complicated. Good stories are hard to tell. Good stories get sliced into tiny pieces and boiled down to What could have been so we can try to share our stories with other people. We use words and we use pictures. We have Instagram (that comes with the soft sunny filter), and we have Polaroids of our grandmothers when they were young.

Our stories will always be incomplete. Memories fade or change so that every morning we are remembering and living a slightly different life. The people we love die or fade out of our lives in different ways, and the houses and cities we grew up in get torn down or repainted, or they stay exactly the same and our memories of them change so they end up feeling different just the same.

I have a Polaroid picture of my grandmother. She is not young in the picture, but I am. We are sitting together on the steps of her back porch some sunny Spring day in the early ’90s, a bright green apple in my hand and a grin on my face. I do not remember this story. My grandmother died when I was four. But luckily there are more pictures, more sentences from the story of her life.

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Loving people and their stories is dangerous, of course. It’s not romantic or mysterious, though sometimes it seems magical, and often it is beautiful, at least for some of the time. People are like our memories, in a way. They change unexpectedly, they surprise you, they make you cry. The worst thing of all is when someone abruptly leaves your life when you were still writing your life stories together — cliffhanger forever. And if you don’t fully understand that person’s story, and your own story is still uncertain, how do you tell someone else about it, even if they care to listen?

The (other) one that got away. 

1. If you find a project you want to work on, or a job you’d like to have, or a movie you want to be in — but for some reason, you can’t work on that specific project, or have that job, or be in that movie — make your own. Don’t give up or change your dreams or goals just because they are not readily available or simple or easy, and especially don’t rely on someone else to make them happen!

2. People are not going to live up to your expectations — ever — whether that be for good or for bad. That’s just part of what makes life so interesting… and also difficult.

3. Speaking of life being difficult (this is a cheery post, eh?)… You know those difficult situations/problems that arise in life, that you struggle to overcome, and once you’ve dealt with those things, you feel like a stronger person? Until, of course, you find yourself in the same situation again later, and realize you haven’t really learned yet how to cope with it. I guess that in itself is a learning experience.

4. I’ll admit it… sometimes the universe seems like it’s either playing a joke on us… or helping us out in major ways. Crazy, right?

5. Don’t feel bad for wanting more.

6. Write down the quotes, words, and/or blips of conversations you hear that mean something to you. Collect them. Keep them in a jar and read through them when you need to.

7. Do the stuff you don’t want to do first, that way it’ll be done and over with and you can get on with the stuff you like/want to do! This is like the opposite of what happened when you were a kid and had a pile of green beans left on your plate after dinner.

8. I’m an introvert, and as an introvert, I totally understand the not wanting to talk to people thing. It’s just so much easier to stay quiet and just listen. However I’ve come to find that talking to people is another way of listening — if you can get people to talk, they just might turn out to be an interesting story. I think introverts have the right idea — the whole not blabbing on the whole time thing — we just need to take that perspective and use it to interact with the outside world.

9. Bad things happen sometimes. A lot of times. Every day. But good things happen just as often, maybe more often. The trick is to accept that both the good and the bad are going to keep happening, and learn to live with this roller-coaster of a thing that is life.

10. Sure, your smartphone can tell you what the weather’s going to be like for your birthday in three years, and it notifies you the second someone likes that picture of your dog that you just posted on Facebook, but don’t let all that take away from how amazing it is that there are tiny cells in your body keeping you alive.

1. If you got to know that person you don’t understand/know very well, maybe you’d find someone like  yourself. Maybe you’d understand them, maybe you could even be friends. If not, at least you tried to be sympathetic and not an apathetic asshole. More people should be like you!

2. Don’t worry – having weird/awkward experiences will just make you a better/more interesting person in the end! You’ll have the best stories to tell.

3. If someone asks for your help, before you answer them, ask yourself this: if they needed me to do this right now, would I do it? Reply accordingly.

4. No one wants to hear about how cute/smart/funny your pets/children are. They don’t care and they desperately wish you would stop talking so they could stop attempting to look interested.

5. That boy doesn’t know that you’re interested in him – and why is that? Because you’re attempting to show him that you’re interested by avoiding eye contact. AKA, by showing that you’re not interested. Er, what? Either take what you want, or don’t.

6. Stop telling me to smile. Why would I walk around with a smile plastered to my face? I’m not upset, this is just how my face looks! Life isn’t all smiles – so leave me and my face alone!

7. Is it bad that I always assume you’re drunk after 9PM?

8. I currently have a hidden stash of christmas presents in my room that are for my family members. I’m like a creepy hoarder santa!

9. Don’t you come on my website, comment on my About page, and then leave. Um, no. That’s not how we do it here, and your attempt at self-promotion has now been deleted. #getoutstayout

10. People who use hash tags when they are somewhere other than on Twitter really irk me.

I think people really want to love one another. I think that’s all we really want to do. It’s what the good people want, anyway – the ones you want to hang out with – not the psychopaths or corrupt politicians.

It’s a great, lifelong struggle, though. It’s hard to love people. People that aren’t your family – people you haven’t lived with your entire life. It’s hard to get to know someone to such a great extent that you feel like you know them, that you can trust them. It might take months or years before you can love a person. Or, maybe you just can’t love a particular someone. That stuff happens, too. It just doesn’t work out – you don’t get along well enough, your personalities clash, you don’t think the same things are funny, your world views are too different, you like different music – whatever.

How much do you have to know about a person before you can love them? In any sort of relationship – friends, in-laws, romantic partners. Can you ever understand a person enough to love them? Won’t they always be able to surprise you, to hurt you? Do we even understand ourselves? Maybe not. Maybe you don’t understand why you didn’t laugh at the cute Starbucks barista’s joke even when you thought it was funny. Maybe you don’t know why you averted your eyes when that black-haired girl was looking at you in the hall.

Maybe you don’t really have to know a person to such a great extent in order to love them – maybe you just need some level of basic understanding, some I-get-you.

Yet, how do you come to love people – come to understand them – when they are so far away? There is such a great divide between people. It’s hard to bridge that gap. It’s hard to be brave or foolish enough to do it. And yet, it’s so easy. It’s so easy to ask someone how their day is going – it’s even easier to simply make eye contact and smile. It’s easy even to walk up to a stranger and ask them if they’d like to have coffee with you sometime.

Why is it that what we want most is to love each other – to understand, to support, to be happy together – and yet it is the hardest thing to do, and the easiest? Is it all really so complicated? Have we just made it complicated? Why? 

We are all interesting, unique people, with dreams and plans, things that inspire us, things that motivate us, things that make us cry. We are all so together here on this planet, and so alone.

I stood underneath the lip of the yellow and white striped tent, in shock and in awe of all that loomed around me. Auctioneers hollered out their fast-lipped spiel as old men flashed their buyer number cards, fingers, and nodded their heads to bid again and again on a huge assortment of items. Old cars, buggies, plows, shovels, rusty chains, farm equipment odds and ends, car parts, toys, baby strollers, furniture – all collectibles. The man who had amassed this collection had died, and now it was all up for sale.

“Auction! One hundred, one-fifty. We’ve got one hundred, now one-fifty. We done? Who’s buyin’? One-fifty, One-fifty. One hundred goin’ once. One hundred goin’ twice. You? No. One hundred. One hundred. Sold! One hundred dollars. Buyer number… 413!”

Two auctioneers worked at once, yelling into megaphones that were attached to speakers. People grouped around the action, not only to buy, but also to watch. As I stood in the clearing between the two masses of people, the noise was overwhelming. There was so much to see, so much to hear.

I was in Port Hope, Michigan. If you haven’t heard of it – it’s in the top of the thumb area of our mitten-shaped state. It’s a very beautiful place.

I hadn’t really wanted to go to the auction. Port Hope is about a three-hour drive from my city, and, on top of that, I don’t really like rusty old bits and pieces. I like to think of myself as a minimalist: Who needs all that stuff? I agreed to go, anyway. Why not? I like to view every opportunity that you don’t really want to take as an opportunity for adventure.

I am so glad I went. It turned out to be quite the experience.

Going to a estate auction is similar to going shopping at a thrift store – you don’t really know what sort of people you will find there, and you don’t really know what you’ll find there for sale. That’s what makes them both so exciting, right? Sure.

So, yes, the auction was huge. There was just so much stuff. And it was interesting stuff – not like those little angel figurines you find at your local Goodwill. Old Ford vans. Piles of what use to be cars from the ’30s. Shovels, rakes, other strange farming implements – all made of rust. Tents full of collectible children’s toys. Percussion instruments. Trailers, tractors, washing basins, mirrors, stools, chairs, baby buggies, horse carriages, hundreds of bicycles. So much stuff.

Oh, and there were Mennonites.

Now, maybe you’re more familiar with Mennonites than I am. That wouldn’t really be a difficult thing – I know basically nothing about them – or anyway, I knew nothing about them then. Like I said, you never know who you’ll run into at an auction. It was a very interesting sight to see: Old, farmer guys, young kids, people from the country, people from the city, cowboys and their little cow-children, and Mennonites, and me. The Mennonites stuck out because of the way they looked. It wasn’t just their homemade clothing (very cool – where can I get me a Mennonite-made shirt?), but their bodies, their hairstyles, their hands, even their language.

You could tell these people were hard workers. Their back and arm muscles were much bigger than the “modern” men’s that surrounded them. Their hands were big, and callused, from lifetimes of hard farm labor. One older man was missing his index finger. My mom guessed he lost it in a farming accident. Another had an (actual) wooden leg that made it difficult for him to walk. All the men sported beards, bowl-cut hair, and suspenders; all the women donned bonnets, aprons, and long dresses. I even spotted a little three-year-old Mennonite boy (so cute!), walking through the crowds with his father, wearing the same getup as the older men.

As for their language, yes, even that was different. I’ve no idea what it was – Wikipedia suggests some sort of German, or Dutch – but I will admit to scooting closer to two older gentlemen as they were conversing in an attempt to listen in. Little good it did me!

It was an amazing thing to watch: Mennonites and men and families and teenagers and city-slickers all bunched together, all mingled, all enjoying their auction visit together.

(I wish I had had my camera. Ugh! Don’t you hate when you don’t have your camera?!)

(Yes, ok, also, I eyed the Mennonite guys from afar. You would’ve too, ok!)

No shame.

Honestly, standing there in the dirt with those suspender-clad men, I felt sort of worthless. I don’t do hard labor to support myself. I spend a lot of time on the internet. I don’t make my own clothes (with pants with double-pockets!), I buy them from mass-producing companies. I don’t raise all of my own food – I buy it from huge chain grocery stores for way too much money!

Should I be like the Mennonites? Should we all be like the Mennonites?

Maybe a little.

Let’s consider it. We’d all look more attractive, anyway.

After that day, I was left wondering that. I was also left with the mental image of the modern people and the Mennonites together. It was like the old generation of Americans had stepped from the past into the estate auction. It was, to be descriptive, really neat.

Always do the things you don’t really want to do – you might have a good time, or learn something, or both!

Also, there was pie. Mennonite pie.

When I was very small, about 4 years old, my grandmother died. She had cancer. I don’t remember her very well, but I still love her to this day. My grandfather, her ex-husband, died almost a year later. They were buried side-by-side in a cemetery in their hometown. These were my dad’s parents. After my grandma died, we moved into her house, and lived there for about 6 years until we moved again. I spent a lot of my crucial growing-up time in that house, in that neighborhood, in that city. I still feel very close to that area, and so does my family.

Before we moved away from my grandmothers’ house, we used to visit the cemetery (which is right across the road from our old neighborhood) about once a month. After our move, though, we stopped visiting so frequently. Before today, in fact, we hadn’t been to that cemetery since 2008. (I know this because that is when my great-grandmother died. She was 99 years old! My grandmother was her daughter.)

Today, though, my family and I found ourselves driving through our old stomping grounds. As the familiar sights filled my eyes, I said, “Let’s go to the cemetery!” So we did.

I may have written this here before, but I am fascinated by cemeteries. I love to wander through them and examine the gravestones, reading names and dates and the quotes that loved ones chose to represent their family members. It’s the recorded-in-marble history of our people, and the people that loved them. Anyway, graveyards are interesting places all ’round.

I know I just said that the last time we visited the cemetery was back in ’08, but I think it must’ve been many more years than that since we visited my grandparents’ graves. I think I must have been 10 or 12 the last time we went together as a family, so at least 10 years had passed.

The reason I think this must be so is because today I read my grandmother’s headstone, and what it  said seemed like new information to me. Like today was the first time I had ever really seen it. I hadn’t remembered it saying anything other than her name.

It read the following: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” 21:4

Of course I realized this was a bible verse, which surprised me since I hadn’t thought she had believed in god.

Me: “Was she religious?”

Dad: “No, your uncle was.”

Then, I stepped to the right and read my grandfather’s stone.

“The most generous and loving father that ever walked on this Earth.”

Yep, that one got me.

I remember my grandpa just enough to know he was that. I’ve heard the stories from my dad and my two uncles, and I remember him bringing us kids grapes and cinnamon gum and reese’s peanut butter cups all the time.

I blinked away the tears that wanted to run free and knelt down at his stone to tear up the grass that had begun to grow over the corners. When the job was done I got up and brushed the dirt and grass from my knees and wandered over to read the headstones that belonged to my grandparents’ “neighbors”. As I walked, I noticed many of the stones were covered by grass as my grandpa’s had been. These dead had been left here. These expensive marble sheets were being retaken by the earth.

Before we left, I suggested we visit my great-grandmothers’ stone, as we had never been to visit her since her funeral. Her site was across the cemetery, in a much older section.

We found her headstone easily even though we hadn’t been to see it before. Both she and her first husband are buried together. He died in 1965, and their headstone has since turned the nice green color that bronze tends to turn when it is left out in the weather.

Again, I wandered nearby and examined the names and dates carved in stone. These dates were much older. One nearby read 1880 – 1955. Another, 1905 – 1989. Another: June, 1908 – February, 1991. My birth year.

Then, I spotted another bronze stone, just like my great-grandmas’. However, this one was almost entirely covered by grass. Only the first half of the last name could be seen. Again, I went to my knees and began uncovering. Who were these people? Why hadn’t anyone kept their stone clean? Were they forgotten?

The sod wasn’t easy to tear, but I managed it. Chunk by chunk, I tore it off and uncovered more of the abandoned stone. The woman had died in 1965. Perhaps this grass had grown over their stone since that day. It sure seemed like 50 years of growth to me as I ripped at those roots with my bare hands.

I wish I had had my camera. They had very unusual names, as it turned out, that pair – husband and wife. I believe the woman’s name was Aluna – her husband’s was much longer, and their last name was a gem. It must have been French. I suppose I could go back and find out.

My dad joined in on my digging as I worked on the other half of the stone – the man. When we had uncovered most of it, I pointed out how the original color of the bronze could still be seen where it had been covered in dirt and grass. Their history must have been covered for a long time.

My mom and younger brother stood nearby watching us. I don’t think they understood why we were doing what we were doing. I don’t think I knew why I was doing it, either. It just felt right.

As I headed across the cemetery to wash the dirt from my hands, I spotted another one. Another almost entirely buried plot. I stopped, again, fell to my knees, and began uncovering it. The only thing that could be seen at first was the date of death. It was a baby’s stone. It was small, and round. As I dug, I discovered the stone was actually in the shape of a heart. It belonged to a baby girl who had died after 7 days of life. 1961 was the year. Fifty years had passed, and the grass had grown. No one knew this story. No one visited this stone.

Cemeteries are our history. Our people are there. Our quotes of love and remembrance. Those dashes between the birth years and the death years that signify lives that were lived.

I don’t know why I tore at that grass with my bare hands. I just had to. It was just wrong. All of those people, all of those stories, all of those lives. There were many hundreds more gravestones that were overgrown with weeds and grass. I can’t imagine how many people have been forgotten. How many wonderful lives that are now lost to memory. How many names and dates and quotes that have faded away with time.