Chapter 11:To Live Deliberately

Dear Tadi,

What do you want to be when you grow up? Adults have been asking me this question ever since I moved to America. It’s like the most important thing in the world for kids to have a plan for the future. I want to be a doctor. A fireman. A soldier like G.I. Joe. And of course, you change your mind every month or so, because when you’re a kid, everything seems possible.

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So there I was, a kid in the park, with no real plans for the future – only vague ideas about finding some way out of the ghetto, or heading into the woods like Thoreau, or seeking a Great Perhaps, like Rabelais. And the next thing I knew, high school was over. With a cardboard hat on my head, dressed in a polyester gown, I celebrated the end of my childhood, and the end of dreams of possibility.

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For the first few months after high school, I lazed around, reading books, watching TV, or hanging out with other slacker friends who, like me, hadn’t gone off to college or gotten a job or made any efforts to get out of the city.

But as the summer days crept by, my tio grew impatient. “Look,” he said, “working a few hours a week at the laundromat was okay when you were in school. But you’re a man now. It’s time to start looking for a real job.”

So off I went, scouring the city for Help Wanted signs, looking for something that would put more than just a little change in my pockets. After weeks of searching with no luck, I wandered into Frank’s Garage.

“Yeah, we can use an assistant,” said the head mechanic. “Because I’m about two seconds away from firing this birdbrain!” He shot an icy look at his assistant mechanic, who gave a sheepish shrug.

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“Man, don’t even listen to him,” the assistant, Keith, told me as the head mechanic stormed off. “D.J. gets mad about everything. You’ll see.” He tossed a grease-stained uniform in my direction and showed me around the garage. And just like that, I became a mechanic. It wasn’t bad work. I was pretty good at fixing things, so it didn’t take long to figure things out. Plus, I got to spend eight hours a day around cars, one of my favorite things in life.

D.J., the head mechanic, knew pretty much everything about everything. Not just cars, but history, politics, even literature. He hadn’t heard of Walden, so I loaned him my copy to read. He was a pretty cool guy, except for one thing – he had some serious anger issues. Even when talking to customers, his face would grow redder and redder, the mercury rising. Then, the moment the customers left, he would explode, unleashing a tirade toward poor Keith, who just stood there and took it all. A couple of times, D.J. tried to take out his anger on me, but I wasn’t quite so passive.

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“Look,” I said, my own temper rising to match his, “you point your finger in my face one more time, and I’ll break it off.” Okay fine, so I said it in Spanish. But I think he got the point, because he left me alone and started kicking the innocent tires of the truck he’d been working on.

Sometimes, D.J., Keith, and I liked to hang out after work, too, grabbing a beer or two and throwing darts or whatever. Away from the garage, we were much more relaxed, swapping stories and jokes like we’d been best friends for years.

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“I’ve finished reading Walden,” D.J. told me one day when the three of us were playing foosball. “And I decided it’s time to do it.”

“Do what?” I asked.

“Leave this cesspool of a city,” said D.J. “Live deliberately. Suck the marrow out of life.” His eyes shone with a light I hadn’t seen before.

“Is he okay?” asked Keith, looking at D.J. in alarm.

“He’ll be fine,” I said. “But I think we just lost our head mechanic.”

Suddenly, D.J. clapped a hand on each of our shoulders. “Come with me!” he said. “All three of us. We can take my van and leave together. Tonight!”

I blinked. Every rational cell in my body was screaming at me to refuse. Think of your job! Think of Tio Jaime, Tia Karina. This is an insane idea. But something stirred deeper inside me. Something passed on to me by parents who were as brave as Thoreau – brave enough to leave behind everyone and everything they knew in order to seek something greater. I didn’t know what was out there for me. Not yet. But I was certain that I wasn’t going to find it by staying still.

“I’m in,” I said. We headed over to lock up the garage, which was empty of cars.

“But…where will we go?” Keith’s voice rose with anxiety. “What will we do for money?”

“I have a little saved,” I said, thinking of the shoebox of cash under my bed.

“Me too,” said D.J. “It’s settled then. Let’s go!”

“Road trip!” I slapped him some skin.

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I raced home and announced to my startled family that I was leaving. Then I threw my belongings into a cardboard box and exchanged teary hugs with my tio and tia. An hour later, I was sitting in a car with D.J. and Keith, watching the city where I’d lived for the past ten years slip away, growing smaller and smaller as we headed out into the great unknown.

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Your Adventurous Friend,





Chapter 10: The Flight From Rainbow Acres

Dear Leon,

Tadi (71)

I woke up last week with a strange feeling. It was like I had forgotten a word which I used to speak all the time. It was on the tip of my tongue, but the word would not come.

Most days on the farm, everything is routine. Wake up with the sunrise. Feed the livestock, collect the eggs. Gather honey and beeswax from the hives. Rain or shine, frost or fog, there is always work to be done. The grapes must be harvested for wine. The peaches must be cooked and made into jam. The stalls must be cleaned. Work, work, work.

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It never stops.

It is easy, in a way, to get lost in all that work. It is like wandering around while still asleep, doing, but never thinking. What will today bring? More cooking, more gathering, more work. What do I want to do tomorrow? It doesn’t matter what I want to do – the work must be done.

“I would really like to go to school,” I told River one day when we were taking a brief rest. It had been on my mind a lot. I hadn’t been to school since I was a little girl in Ethiopia, and I had always hoped to attend one here in America.

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River pursed her lips. “Public schools are evil, corrupted places,” she said, shaking her head. “They take good, pure minds and fill them with dangerous ideas. Besides,” she added, “the Teacher prefers that you girls are trained here at home. You’re learning everything you need to be a good wife.”

I wrinkled my nose. “But what if I don’t want to be a wife? I want to learn math and history and science.”

River looked at me as though I had just told her I wanted to become a water buffalo. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “You are a girl. Becoming a wife is your destiny. Now off you go.” She made a shooing motion with her hands. “There’s work to be done.”

That was what triggered the strange feeling, I think. Like a tiny alarm inside of me was buzzing. Wake up, Tadelech, wake up!

“I feel it too,” said Belinda when I told her. “I feel it every day. Like if something doesn’t change, I’m going to burst!”

I stared toward the fence that bordered our farm. Beyond it stretched wide fields and rolling hills, mysterious places where we had never been allowed to venture. Something sparked inside me – a tiny golden flame that burst from my memories, of you and me sneaking out of the village late at night. Silver-flecked black skies, shadowy creatures slinking through the darkness, the shivery anticipation of the unknown.

“Let’s go,” I told Belinda.

“Go where?” her eyes danced with light.

I spread a hand toward the road that snaked into the hills. “Wherever it leads us.”

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Throughout that day, we kept pausing in our work to make plans, exchanging conspiratorial whispers and giggles. And early the next morning, we raced through our chores, then set off. The others would think that we were out in the vineyard, or the orchard, or perhaps fishing at the pond. No one would ever suspect that two hard-working and dutiful girls were heading outside the boundaries of Rainbow Acres.

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We walked a long way, but we barely noticed. We were too busy drinking in the strange, exciting sights of other farms, other houses, and occasional cars that passed us along the road. We breathed air that was fresh, new air. We felt rain that was fresh, new rain. Even the sky looked different.

And the word came to me at last. Freedom. For the first time ever, we were free of the confines of the farm.

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Eventually, we reached the town – straight lined roads, buildings of brick and stone, and charming little houses that reminded me of picture books your parents used to show us. We wandered around open-mouthed, dazzled by everything we saw. The neat, trim gardens filled with flowers. Parks and fountains and shops filled with clothes and rows of food. We tiptoed up to the school building and peered inside a window. A smiling woman was talking to a cluster of children, who were seated around tiny tables. The walls were lined with colorful pictures and posters. Nothing about it looked evil or corrupt. Something tugged inside of me, a deep sense of yearning.

After that first time, Belinda and I sneaked away to town three more times. One time, we met a kind boy who answered our questions with an air of patience mixed with astonishment at our ignorance of this world outside of our own. “You’ve never been to school?” he asked, eyes wide. “You’ve never seen a television? Man, that’s crazy!”

He led us up and down the aisles of the market. He bought us each a chocolate bar, then grinned at the looks on our faces when we had our first taste. He led us to the public library, and oh! Leon, I can’t even begin to describe what a wonderful place that is! So many books in one enormous room. I could have lived there.

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Belinda and I returned to Rainbow Acres each time with heavy hearts. We are birds, you see, who were always meant to fly, but have just discovered that we live in a cage.

Our ventures came to a swift end one day. It turns out that Leslie saw us sneak away that morning and told the Teacher. When Belinda and I came home, River and Spring were waiting, fire and brimstone in their eyes as they punished us – first with harsh words, and then with extra chores.

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Now, I am so sore and exhausted when I drag myself to bed, that I can’t even imagine mustering up enough energy to sneak away to town again. Belinda and I have settled back into the routine, sleepwalking through the daily work, and exchanging sad glances, filled with shared memories of our short flights of freedom.




Chapter 9: Something is Missing

Dear Tadi,

Leo Pondering (20)

Something is missing. I mean, Tio Jaime and Tia Karina take good care of me. I have everything I need – a cozy home, good food and clothes, plenty of friends.

I can imagine papa’s voice right now. “Be thankful for all the blessings God has given you, Aurelio.” And I am. Thankful, I mean. But still, I feel like something is missing.

“Man, what you need is a girlfriend,” said my friend, Rob. So I let him fix me up with this fly girl named Shamica. She’s cute and sweet, and a good kisser, too, as I found out.

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I knew she was the one for me after my tio took us bowling, and Shamica didn’t make fun of my skills. I bowl about as well as I play basketball.

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But after a few months, Shamica decided that I was a dud. “All you ever want to do is talk about books and cars,” she said, scowling.

“We can talk about whatever you like,” I said. But Shamica didn’t want to talk. She wanted to go out to the movies, and the roller rink, and to make out down by the docks. Then one day, she decided that she’d rather go out with some other guy, so that was the end of that.

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“What you need,” said my tia, “is to get a little part-time job. Boys your age need to start doing work and making your own money.”

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So I went around the city looking for Help Wanted signs. I ended up getting a job at a laundromat, helping people with their laundry and fixing the machines when they broke. It wasn’t interesting work, but I was making $2.90 an hour. I was rich! Most of the money, I have stashed away in a shoebox under my bed. One day, I’m going to buy a car. Not a new one, but some classic junker that I can restore to life. I like the idea of taking something old and worn and making it like new again.

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As for that empty feeling, well, I went to visit my old friend, the Professor. We warmed ourselves by his fire while I spilled my woes. The Professor listened thoughtfully. Then he rose to his feet, straightened his imaginary bowtie, and cited, I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

“Huh?” I stared at him.

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The Professor rolled his eyes. “Thoreau, my dear boy. You must read Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. Then you will be ready to face your feelings of emptiness.”

Another book. I should have known.

So now I am mucking my way through Walden, which so far hasn’t answered any of my questions about life. Not like I can move into some deserted cabin and live alone in the middle of this concrete jungle, unless I want to be a bum, like the Professor. Really, I’d rather go away to university, the way rich kids do. But I don’t think my shoebox full of savings will ever stretch that far.

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Your floundering friend,




Chapter 8: The Grooviest Man in the World

Dear Leon,

TadiFarm (56)

I have a new favorite word in English – groovy. The Teacher says it all the time to describe something that is excellent or beautiful. That song is groovy. That sunset is groovy.

Well, we all think that the Teacher must be the grooviest man in the whole world. He is very smart, and so handsome. “Like a movie star,” says Leslie, who is the only one of the girls who remembers watching things like movies and television. (I asked Spring if we could watch a television one day, since I’ve never seen one. But she says that electronic devices like televisions are full of dark, negative energy that will corrupt our spirits.)

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The Teacher is an expert at everything. He can ride horses faster than the wind. He can fix anything that breaks. He can sing and play guitar, too. In fact, he is teaching me how to play, and says that I am the most advanced student he’s ever had! I am writing a song for you. It is not yet finished, but it is about our days of playing in the savanna. If only I knew some way to capture the song and send it to you!

I spend all of my time with my sisters at Rainbow Acres. We work the farm, of course, and help with the household chores. By the end of the day, we are always exhausted. But once in a while, we do fun things together. Remember how you and I used to sneak out for late night adventures under the stars? Well, some nights, my sisters and I sneak out to the orchard. The other girls like to gather around while I tell them stories about Ethiopia. Sometimes, I even tell them scary stories, like the kind the village storyteller used to frighten us with. My sisters love to listen to these – except for Megan. She’s a big chicken. Once, when I told the story about the Boneless Man, she actually screamed in fright. Then, a light turned on inside the house, and we all had to scramble to sneak back in before we were caught!

Now I know that one mustn’t play favorites, but I must confess that Belinda is my favorite sister. She is honest and brave, and she makes me laugh so much! She was rescued by the Teacher himself when she was just four years old and lived in a car with her family. Her parents used to leave Belinda alone during the day while they tried to find work. One day, the Teacher found her playing in the alley where her family’s car was parked. He led her away and brought her to Rainbow Acres, where she would never be left alone again. Isn’t that so groovy?

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There is one thing that is confusing about the Teacher. Back in Zewedu, a man could only be married to one woman. Only one. But I cannot tell whether River or Spring is the Teacher’s wife. He treats them both the same, and they both fawn over him the way a wife would her husband. I imagine this must be another strange American custom, and I cannot decide whether or not I like it. But I do know this – if the Teacher says that it is right and good for him to have more than one wife, then it must be so. For the Teacher knows everything.

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I hope that you smile when you read this letter, and that you have a groovy day!