Monday, November 26, 2012


I'm contemplating a shift in this blog's purpose and structure. And appearance.

My issue is that when I stop to re-evaluate, I tend to want to immediately quit whatever the current trend is before I move forward. I want to just stop whatever I'm doing if it isn't best and not pick up again until I have the sorted out purpose and goal for it.

Life does not work this way. Neither do successful blogs.

All of this is simply to say that I've been sitting back and watching my non-hit winning blog and thinking about it a lot in a passive, contemplative kind of way. Rather than blogging.

I'll try to fix that in the coming weeks. Evaluate and Sustain simultaneously.

If you'd like to help in this re-evaluation process, please note in the comment section if you have a favorite post or thing that keeps you coming back. (Or thing that keeps you not coming back. In which case its unlikely that you'll comment.)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Spies on Life

A year and a half after graduation and a year and a half into campus ministry.

I have no one to appall when I say I have never read James Joyce that I have never heard of this week's poet coming to read. In fact, no one asks what I'm reading anymore. There are no deadlines I miss if I don't blog on a given week. I can't remember exactly that Lyotard said about literary theory and I only remember the name "Stanley Fish" because the name was always so unique. I wouldn't know where to submit poem if I had actually cleaned one up recently.

I have a different kind of life than I had a few years ago. I miss it. I do. But I've also found a great many other things to love.

I do have someone to tell me what it is like to help give birth to a calve and where on the dairy farm she buried her first cow. I have someone to tell me the study of light and what she's learned about God in the calculations of daylight in architecture. And another tells me which roads to bike down on clear days. I hear stories of roommate conflicts and I hear stories of wedding proposals in pumpkin fields. In the range of my own evenings and days, making soup and hosting meals, having meetings in Webster's Cafe, dancing and learning to teach dance in afternoons, I get to see. I see people. I'm asked to watch and know and care. It's a job full of real things. It goes against my natural tendency to hide in ideas, sorting the farming of my own thoughts without the voices and lives of others.

It's like having a network of spies, out of my settled mind. Spies into the promised land, like Joshua and Caleb, bringing word of things that are both good and unnerving. Spies on life; real living; stories worth telling. Through my students I know more life than I can live. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

"What is Literature": Memories of a Loved Prof

I suppose they can go by many names.

Mentor, teacher, friend, mother, sister, advisor, role-model.

In my writing and intellectual life, I was raised by mothers and aunts and sisters. I'm thinking about creating a series of posts recognizing a few of these people. A sort of "thanksgiving" by way of memory. These are people who act as sign posts, as guides, as fellow pilgrims. I would be lost without them.

A week ago, I was thinking of one such woman as I went about my reading and writing and day-preparations. Nearly 20 days later, I remember that I never replied to her latest email.

I write her back and find out that she has gone through a terrifying amount of change in the last six months. She was hospitalized for a long period of time for health complications upon her long standing health complications. Her father passed away and she navigated family tensions before she finally laid his ashes to rest during Hurricane Sandy. She moved out of the house she raised her family in to a small home within walking distance of campus.

She ended her email saying she was having a dinner for her neighbors that Wednesday and that I was invited.

This professor was one of the early ones to make my imagination come alive. She was a gift in one of those mundane, routine courses all English majors were required to take: English 201 "What is Literature?" I don't remember what we came up with as a definition. I think she took the Suzanne Lori-Parks approach, thinking about "The Great Tradition" and the "Next Great Thing". Or something like that. In the tight room on the third floor of Sackett Building, with the wide window ledges that opened up to the tops of the elm trees, she drew outlines and timelines on the chalkboard in careful, elegant cursive. She had us reading "The Inferno" and translations of "The Bacchae" and gave extra credit for going to see live theatre. I gave a presentation on film adaptations for my final project, explaining through Jane Austen adaptations what "faithful translation" meant when taking literature to the screen (for the record, I lauded "Sense and Sensibility" by Ang Lee and decried the Joe Wright "Pride and Prejudice" as a fraud). A few times, she made us circle our chairs and sat outside the circle while we ran our own discussion. I met two of my favorite English Major friends in that course but probably wouldn't have ever learned to love them as much as I did without those discussions and papers.

When I walked as marshall for the English department at graduation, she walked with me. Kept me from killing anyone with that stupid banner.

Her new house was a charming one. She had invited all the neighbors she had met so far on her street and many had come, bringing food to contribute to the meal. She offerred me wine and then said in a panicked voice, "You are 21, aren't you?" When I was first in her class, I wasn't 19. Yes, I am of age.

I couldn't stay long and I hugged her as I left. "You are doing okay?" she asked. She had remembered a short conversation we had as we waited to walk for graduation over a year ago about my parents, my unwieldy banner sitting against a wall, and voices echoing around us in the high cement walls of the Bryce Jordan Center. I said that I was in a good place. "You sound skeptical" she replied. And I started crying. It had nothing to do with parents but with Other Things. She hugged me, saying that she understood completely. And please, would I come to her next dinner in a month? I promised I would.

I felt ridiculous crying in her dining room about something so passing in my own life when her own had been turned upside down this year. But that was the kind of grace this professor has, as a teacher and now as a friend.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Great Pumpkin [Bread]

It's a cold and icy and the leaves have all fallen from the wind gusts and steady rain that Hurricane Sandy brought in. I'm over at a friend's house. She fed me with roasted acorn squash on couscous and wine. I brought the tea and the pumpkin chocolate chip bread. The day was an impromptu day off. We had all braced ourselves for a very different storm than the one we got and all my Tuesday work things were cancelled. Last night I did laundry and helped Josh cook food for our students. The Hurricane had cancelled classes so we were forced to come up with somewhere not On Campus to meet. I enjoyed a quiet morning and just didn't do much of anything. I helped teach waltz and then learned how to lead standard in prep for a dance competition with my friend Megan this weekend.

I guess I'm sitting here on this couch watching "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!" and thinking: what a lovely day.

One of my favorite pieces of the last few days was turning an old banana bread recipe from my mother's southern cookbook into a pumpkin bread recipe. It kind of melts in your mouth. Just saying. Especially with a mug of chai tea... mmm.

All in all, the hurricane was a lovely pause in life. It stopped the pattern of rolling over and over through my days. It paused me long enough to recalibrate, to pay attention to the details because they were details I wouldn't have noticed in the routine of life. My roommates came home early from work on Monday and we toasted the storm and they fell asleep watching a chic flic. Students came over and ate dinner and I met new people and heard their voices in new ways. I watched an old movie I love and fell asleep through the night and woke and prayed from The Valley of Vision in the wake of a hurricane,

Come as beautifier, bringing order out of confusion, loveliness out of chaos. (p51)

I am not noting this day to be obnoxious or to boast in having a much lovelier day than you. I'm noting this day because it is good to note the good gifts, the wonderful gifts. To point them out to each other and share them. To read beautiful things and see how those beautiful things are in every day, regardless of our attention.

Pumpkin Bread
2 cups of sugar
1 stick of butter
1 egg
2 cups of pumpkin packed filling
2 tsp baking soda
3 cups of flour
1/4 tsps salt
1 tsp of all spice
1tsp of cinnamon
1 tsp of nutmeg
2 tsps vanilla
As many chocolate chips as you want

Cream butter and sugar.
Add the egg and vanilla.

In a separate bowl, beat/whisk the pumpkin and soda then add to the butter and sugar mixture.

Sift together flower with all spice, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
Add all together and mix.

Bake at 325degrees for 45 minutes [may take longer. The top will be browned and a fork clean when you stick it in the middle of the bread]

Makes 2 loaf sized pans (grease pans).

Muffins from this are amazing too and take about 12 minutes to bake. Just wait for the edges to turn brown.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Philosophy Club

Small minds trying ideas on: like clothes too large for us: like dress up. Playing and parading, taking on voices and discarding them, taking positions and discarding them.

The instense feeling of enormous meaning and frustrating meaninglessness to the discussions. The feel of something more important and the frustration with our own smallness in discussing it.


Hearing and being heard.

Speaking and not being heard. Being distracted. Blood pressure rising and falling.

Asking what did you mean? and realizing how little we know what we mean when we say anything.

Teasing and laughter. Conversations run and played over and over.

Quoting people with minds and writings far above our own skill to truly understand or imitate.

"What are you doing here?" one new student asked me after the meeting ran out of time. We had spent an hour running around the default conversation of what is meaning in atheistic existentialism. "I mean, as a campus minister. What are you doing in a philosophy club?"

A minister --ideally-- is simply one who has defined their work as engaging in human beings. Perhaps in an ideal world, we would not need ministers because we would all be ministers, all engaged in the business of caring for human beings as souls as well as bodies and minds. But for now, I'm a campus minister. Philosophy is the engagement with the writings and ideas and theories of men and women who have spent their lives asking why the world is the way it is. They are brilliant and profound and complex. But they are human. To engage philosophy is to engage in humanity. How in heaven or on earth is that outside of the bounds of a minister?

Friday, October 19, 2012


"Be careful. Let me get you a towel. She throws up. A lot."

Erica handed me the towel and helped me tuck it between me and Baby Hannah. I still marvel that Baby Hannah is here. Last year at this time, four of us were driving back to State College from a CCO staff seminar in Ligonier. Erica grew incredibly sick and threw up alongside a curb outside of a Sheetz in the middle of nowhere PA. Morning sickness was the norm and I hadn't known anyone who could turn pale and green at the drop of a hat like Erica.

And now, here is Baby Hannah already somehow not an infant but a baby, a difference I'm not sure how to articulate: her head tilted back to get a good look at my face and smile as we made screeching noises back and forth to each other.

She kept her spit up to herself while I held her. Then Erica took her back. It came up and went everywhere. Erica was unperturbed. "This happens all the time. At least she sleeps a lot!" Erica commented. The spit up was all over the blanket and some on Erica and some in Hannah's hair.

But Hannah. That little sweet heart was looking at me as she spit up. As her stomach came out of her mouth, she just grinned. No tears. No distress. Just a sweet smile.

Erica kissed her head and cleaned up a little bit. The conversation we were having kept rolling. And I couldn't help thinking how beautiful it was to be so taken care of that you can crap and throw up and be as gloriously dysfunctional as a body can be and be so unbothered by it. To be so oblivious to the mess and the trouble and the smell. It's okay. Someone loves me and will clean the puke out of my hair.

I want to be that messy and that carefree in my own helplessness and that confident in being loved.

I want to clean up puke with that kind of grace.

Monday, October 08, 2012

1AM Drunk

I am home late after taking the last flight of the day into State College from Philadelphia. It is one of the last nights where the night air is cool enough to make me cozy and warm enough to not make me miserable. The windows are open.

I hear stomping and heels and tense, brass female voices rising outside my window. The sentence I understand is between a plea and a sob and an angry accusation: "You think it can be all about you just because it's your birthday tomorrow?"

The words were meaningless. It was the raw pain in her voice. The drink in her veins taking what goes about hidden during the day and giving it voice at night. It is not the situation or her friend's birthday at has upset her. It is something else and it is painful. It is a silent wail.

I want to go outside and tell her that its okay. That I know she's not really upset about the birthday but some other unspoken thing. I want to tell her that she doesn't have to be okay in the day time as she is in the night. I want to give her a mug of tea.

It felt like being an RA again, where I would debate in my half asleep state whether I had to go address the situation. And by addressing, that meant leading them back to their rooms and then writing up an incident report and telling them they violated quiet hours, even if I would rather tuck them back in bed or hold back their hair as they dangerously puked their guts out. The tension stressed me. I came to resent my residents because of that impossible tension, grateful when I no longer had to discern justice and intervention with every sound in the night.

Tonight, I am free from fixing her. I whisper a helpless prayer from under my covers and listen as more heels go by, echoing across the fallen leaves between the sound of rain on leaf dressed sidewalks.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Personal Statement

I've been working on a personal statement for an application. I started it (or at least started worrying about it) right as I got off the plane from Bulgaria July 26th. I turned it in this Tuesday afternoon for the final internal Penn State review before it gets shipped off to the real review committee.

It was one of the hardest pieces of writing I've ever had to do.

Maybe its that I'm a year outside of my English degree and haven't touched academic writing in that time. Maybe its that I'm a long winded writer and that the constraints of 1 page, single spaced made me panic. Maybe it was how expansive it had to be and how important each word had to be that got me all wound up.

I wrote one draft and a panel of reviewers hated it.

I scrapped it. It was sentimental. And ineffective. It said some nice ideas and some nice moments from my life. It implied that I thought teaching was important and that we have to see people as "whole people".

Whatever that means.

I didn't write my statement until a dinner party the night before it was due. We stuffed ourselves full of Bulgarian food and I told stories from my time there. We drank family made wine that Sonia had given me as a gift. When I drank it, I was back in the room off the kitchen at Camp Lucky hearing Vlady raise a toast, "To the glory of God and the good of His people!"

After we ate, I sat on the couch while my friends washed dishes. I tried to write. And I wrote this paragraph.

"I want to say this as clearly as possible, this impossible thread that is through me, wrapping around both the healthy and unhealthy parts of me. I am afraid to write this because I am afraid of them seeing my empty idealism and my overweening responsibility for making other people better--when it is me, myself, that I want to see be better. I want to see me whole. "

Kaitlin noticed my face as it tightened up and I began to grow frustrated and couldn't write anything. "Hey. What is your identity?"

What is your only comfort in life and death? My only comfort is that I belong body and soul to my savior Jesus Christ.

I had grown too afraid to write. I wasn't even sure what I was afraid of. My only comfort. That sounds better than overweening responsibility.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Pillowman: An NRT Production

Forum 111, Friday and Saturday 8pm. Completely Free.

Pleasure from extraordinarily gratuitous violence: I don't like it in my theatre.

That being said, "The Pillowman" facinates me as a play. My intro to it was excerpts performed by a troupe in one of my reading theatre courses. It was played in a classroom with a lot of restraint. It was facinating.

Last night I attended the No Refund Theatre production. This group consistently impresses me with their student productions pulled off in less than ideal situations: scattered practice locations, transitory classroom spaces, "hell weeks" before 3-4 showings on a weekend.

I had never read the full play before but had remembered most of the pieces.

So I'm torn in my review of this play. There were several moments of brilliance. Jim Dickey (who, oddly enough, played Katurian in the class I was in) did an amazing job of the restrained, oddly unfeeling and human Katurian. I can't imagine anyone else in the role, to be honest.

But the production seemed to range from the gratuitously creepy and overdramatic to the restrained horror. I prefer the latter. The best moments of horror came in the most human moments like between Katurian and his brother (played by John Reddy). The moments that felt unnaturally gratuitous were the demonstration of the stories, often behind a black scrim. The scrim prevented most of the stories from being seen and sometimes distracted from the calm, engagingly narration that Katurian offerred. The sequence of "The Little Jesus" was forced and almost awkwardly horrific. The Pillow Man was terrifyingly painted rather than the sympathetic, huggable Michelin Man I imagine in my head.

Audience dynamics could have affected that. There was tense laughter through much of the production, increased by long scene changes and technical difficulties where we were neither audience nor crew. There was laughter at some good moments but when the play tried to become in-your-face about the horror, the only affect was restrained, tense giggles. Which I'm not sure they were going for.

It is also totally in keeping with the play's content to demonstrate our sick facination with stories like the ones Katurian writes and are shared in the play's plot. So perhaps my tension for the huge range from restraint to over the top horror/surrealism makes sense. Max Simone, the director, does have a tendency toward horror as he has demonstrated in past performances such as Iago in "Othello" (a stellar presentation!) and in his performance in "MacBeth" (also an eerie/horror laced production) last spring.

But the shout outs have to go to Jim Dickey at Katurian. He never looses a nearly detached, normalcy to his role, even in when he looses his temper with his brother. John Reddy plays an adorable and affecting Michal, one that I never really grew upset with but really wanted to run and hug at several moments. Tupolski (played by Bryan Keith) was also phenomenal. I've seen Bryan play several more slapstick roles with NRT before but he did a beautiful job portraying the humanity and the brutality essential to this manipulative character.

The tension for me in watching this play performed by Penn State students also comes in it being largely about an extraordinary, long term cases of child abuse. It's poignancy to the events in recent State College and Penn State history was unsettling to say the least. Which made the moments of bloody sheets and laughing parents behind black scrims unneccessary and seemingly disrespectful. But I've never really had a taste for the surreal so I'm willing to be argued with.

PS. Major shout out to all my classmates from the English Department. Luke Miller, Max Simone, and Jim Dickey are all former classmates of mine. Hurrah for English!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Back to Dancing

I'm re-orienting my relationship with Dance.

I love ballroom dancing. When asked what my hobbies or interests are, I go straight to ballroom and salsa. I took the intro course in Spring 2010. I started competing in Fall 2010, the first semester of my senior year. The last night of my first competition, two days of dancing and running around the University of Maryland, our team stopped at a restaurant and ate together. We cleared the tables and Jolene played songs and had different couples dance to their best moments from the weekend. I remember dancing with James to a jive and two stepping with Melissa and watching a vwaltz by Seth and Ali and Sam and Matt Schmizu show off. I kept thinking, "I can't believe I get to do this. What a beautiful senior year moment."

Then I stayed the next year for a job and kept dancing.

As with all relationships, Dance and I aren't static. We are either growing closer or farther apart. But what I didn't realize was that the quality and nature of that relationship could change. I could grow closer to dance in ways I hadn't before even as one aspect of my ties to it are different.

I've been navigating being semi-sans-partner since last January. I say "semi" because I've had someone that I've practiced with consistently. But it certainly changed the flow of dance life once James left. And my job became quite central.

It's been reorienting.

The greatest way that it's been changing has been in learning to teach. For the first time, I'm getting to TA the advanced classes.

I love it.

It is the happiest I've been on the dance floor during this in between season. I'm not practicing all the time and I'm not measuring myself based on how I place next month at DCDI or Big Apple. This is not to say that measuring oneself based on competitiveness is a bad thing. It isn't necessarily. But the change of pace has been good for me.

Instead, I get to work really hard on trying to verbalize just what my body is trying to do in a natural spin turn. I pay close attention to how Tal and Vlada instruct in latin so I can replicate it and I observe how Jolene structures her classes. I'm aware now that I'm obsessed with the rib cage and arm positions in standard (because of a lesson w/ Igor) and that my fellow TA Carl is obsessed with foot placement (also because of a lesson w/ Igor). I get to go to a student who is giving up mid step and have her repeat, "I can do this" with me; if anyone knows what head trash can do to you on the dance floor and in life, it would be me (as Partner James can confirm this). I also love the moments that I can hear the folks who TAed my classes coming out of my mouth: Cherry's timing in chacha, Sam's encouragement and frequent use of "dude", Cecilia's liberty in physically moving whatever part of my body offended her into an acceptable position.

Life looks different. I'm still in White 133 every day of the week. But the changes are sinking in and I'm loving it.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Not Anymore

The reading was by Rae Armantrout. I know that I not in the writing world anymore because I did not know who she was. I had never read anything by her. The description online said that she had won a pulitzer. Later, I heard my friend's eyes grow wide over the phone when I told her who it was. "Oh! She's really big right now!"

For the first time, I did not recognize any of the graduate students. All of the ones that I had recognized either through passing along Burrow's hallways or through Poet Friend had graduated. Even Poet Friend has entered a different season.

The reading was forgettable. Rae Armantrout seemed bored or ironically skeptical of readings. She read page after page. I can remember none of it.

I did know a professor. I just typed that other sentence and wrote "my professor". When does a professor stop being in the possessive? She directed a year long writing project, the one where I said I wanted to look at the intersection of faith and art but really wanted to know if God was still good after my parent's marriage had fallen apart. She had helped me with language and clarity and structure and speaking in an uncensored voice. Her directorship had been no small gift.

At first, I felt too strangely shy. I was all the way to the rotating door exit in Paterno Library before I realized how absurd it was that I didn't say hi. I went back and interrupted a conversation with someone in order to say hello, the distance of several rows between us.

Me: "Hi! So good to see you!" Prof:"Yes! Good to see you! How are you?" Me:"I'm doing well and you?" Prof:"Yes I am well. (pause) You look very happy, that is good to see!" Me: "(pause) Yes, I am happy."

And there was nothing left to say.

I walked home, feeling alien. But alien can be comfortable if you know that is what you are. I didn't know. I was in a space I had once felt comfortable and familiar, with lots of small conversations to hold and thoughts to have about a reading by an author whose work I had just read in class. What do I do? How do I re-enter spaces that were once comfortable and be a stranger? It is worse than not knowing anyone.

Things change. But the places that used to fit me/ cannot hold the things I've learned / And those roads were closed off to me / while my back was turned. -Sara Groves

I don't want to be absent from the creative writing world forever. But I now see that re-entering it means Not Being Here. It means starting somewhere new. For now, I can still go to readings. And I can still think with gratitude on the people and places that I carry with me, even when I cannot return to them as I once was. Not anymore.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hobbit Evening

Butternut squash soup of my own devising. Multigrain bread. Apple crisp and ice cream. Apple cider.

Food makes the evening, in many cases. Just as a hobbit would say.

I'm thinking this evening about a book that stole my heart in fifth grade. The cover was so intriguing that I insisted we started reading it right away. Mom read it aloud to me and Hannah.

I started to look for signs of hobbits on our property and on walks.

"The Hobbit" was a gift. It opened a door into a genre of writing that I had known a little of before but hadn't really explored. I was obsessed with the maps in the book, trying to see where this troupe had come from and where they were going and trying to imagine the specific places they went.

It's a story that stays with you.

I've probably blogged about Tolkien before. How I read The Fellowship when I was 12 and starting middle school. How reading LOTR and dressing up like an elve and obsessing over the movies got me through those years. How Sam's words "Well, I'm home" rounded out everything I felt about not moving to Texas. How I read "The Hobbit" to Gretchen while eating banana muffins on a plane on the way to Texas, giving everyone a different voice (though Beorn and Gandalf required such low voices that they blurred sometimes).

Last year we threw Bilbo a party. A grand one. With cake and beer and lights strung on the trees. It is colder today than it was last year. More rain and wind. But I do think of dear old Bilbo today and wish him a happy birthday. Him and Frodo. It's a world I'm grateful I have.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Mathematics Colloquium: Also known as "How to Love the World"

"So a Writer walks into a Math Seminar..."

Sounds like the start of a joke, right? From a 3rd person perspective: what could be a more interesting and hilarious than sending an English Major into a room full of mathematicians for a presentation on math?

Dr. Roe has been the faculty advisor for Calvary Elements for a long while. He's spoken for our Monday night gathering a few times. He worked on the planning team for a one day conference called Faith for Thought. He makes a mean, improvised sea food and veggie stew and enjoys punning.

He's also very wise. And very British.

So when he invited me to attend his colloquium in which "no mathematics higher than algebra will be used," I decided to go. I wasn't sure what a colloquium but it didn't seem like it would hurt me at all.

114 Macalistair was very, very full. It is the beginning of the semester and the beginning of many graduate student's first years. Everyone was in attendance and all of the food was long gone by the time I arrived.

The presentation was titled "Sustaining Mathematics". It was, in a sense, an open letter to the new department head and to the community of mathematicians at Penn State. It addressed the value of sustaining math in four places:
  • Personally
  • Math Culture
  • Public Support
  • World
What I loved the most about this presentation was that the ideas in it could be applied to almost every area of study. It was about loving something well. Loving math well. And loving the world better by loving math. 

He talked about the necessity of "feeding joy" in one's work. To not stop loving math because it is beautiful to you. "This theorum gives me goosebumps every time because it is so beautiful," he said as he took the room through the second pythagoreum theorum. "What could it mean," he later asked, "if math was taught like a joyful intellectual adventure?"

"Sustaining Mathematics" made it feel possible that my learning experience with math could have been different--that I wouldn't have given up somewhere in fourth grade so that I was stubbornly, seriously behind in my understanding the whole way through college math. The lowest math I could take at PSU, get the credit I needed, and still get an A was Math 022. I took it (unhappily), passed, and never looked back. Not till Thursday afternoon.

Towards the end, it began raining quite hard outside and created quite a clatter on the roof. Then it began thundering and all attention was lost. Mercifully, Dr. Roe didn't seem too bothered by this and graciously permitted all the attention to rush to the window where it was hailing violently.

I am grateful I went. It was an hour shot through with ideas like redemption and restoration in the world, just by loving one's work and loving it well. But sustaining a way of thinking, a "playground" that the world needs.

Who knew math could be so inspiring?

Friday, September 07, 2012

Geography of a Week

I tweeted yesterday that I was "thinking about the Geography of my week and what it would take to change it."

Kaitlin texted: "See the sunrise tomorrow? Meet me at 6:15. Geography change."

I hate mornings. A lot. I hate the grogginess and the lethargy. But I needed a change (see previous post Stuck). Drastic measures must be taken. New ways of seeing. Changing the order. New thoughts at a new time of day.

I woke up several times in the night to check the time and make sure I didn't miss my alarm for 5:50am. Kaitlin and Mel and I met in the Spikes Stadium lot by 6:20 and drove into the fields where tailgating happens. We waited facing east towards Mt Nittany and Tussey. And waited.

If you were awake this morning, you'd have seen that the storm clouds from last night gave way into fog and mist this morning. No sunrise.

But we sipped on our caffeinated morning beverages and talked about plans and goals for the year--to, as Kaitlin put it, "Suck all the life I can out of State College this year, do all the things I missed last year."

Changing our geographies.


What do I mean by geography?

A mapping of time. A mapping of space. My week is broken into slots. I have a semi-set schedule that comes out of the first few weeks of the semester, into which I slide certain tasks like books onto a bookshelf. The order and arrangement largely reflects my job as a campus minister. This brings me within certain circles for certain amounts of time. On Mondays, I am always on campus for the Elements meeting Monday night.  I am in Henderson building and I am with my students, a relatively set group of people. On Tuesdays, I am at the church office for meetings. etc etc. I see certain kinds of people in a certain contexts only.

My interactions are both established in time, in person, and in content.

This means I walk a beaten track through State College. Through relationships, through time, through space. A set geography.

I'm a creature of habit.

Routine is good. I crave routine when it is missing. Without it, weepiness and frustration and rising panic ensues. But the slots I have open or closed in my week do not always reflect the values I wish they did.

 The Commonplace is a new project this fall that my current geography does not reflect. I want to 1) connect artists/makers together so they are encouraged and challenge in what they do and 2) speak to the tensions and contradictions individuals feel as both artist and person of faith. To do this, I need to get a lay of the State College arts scene. I need to start showing up in bars and visiting student gallery openings and concerts and dance recitals. There is far more than I could ever conceivably familiarize myself with. I know this. But I also see how my current geography prevents me from naturally finding my way into these places.

An example: last year, I missed most English department readings because I was leading a lifegroup for work. My geography prevented me from being somewhere, like being on a side of town without a bus system that routes the right direction at the right time to get me to the other side... if I even knew where I wanted to go. Right now, I don't even know where I want to go.

I'm not sure how this works, uprooting my comforting routine enough to be in new places. I'm not even sure quite where to start looking.

At the very least, I know I can get good beer at Zenos. There could be worse places to start frequenting.

Thursday, September 06, 2012


My mind has been consciously and subconsciously centered on one thing:

I'm writing an application. The personal statement is killing me slowly, surely, by ebb and flow of tides of procrastination.

But I'm finding the words are stuck. I'm stuck. My thinking is stuck. My body is stuck. My imagination is stuck. My heart is stuck.

Things have been stuck for a long while.

This is an understatement.

This is coming from inside me. (I have been taught never to use "this" in such a way but to always define it. That is not as much fun or evident when one is stuck)

I had tea with a poet friend last week. We talked about being stuck. In life. In words. She just recently started writing again. "Bad poems" she called them. She is really happy, in a relieved, "Oh my gosh the morphine just kicked in and the pain has disappeared" kind of relief. You only know it if you've experienced it: the hopeful expectation that, just perhaps, that pain will never be felt again. It had been an entire summer without writing a single piece. If you knew this friend, you would know how scary a change that is.

But now she is writing bad poems and is happy.

She said, "I stopped thinking about all the bad poem's I've written. I stopped remembering them and became afraid that I would never write anything good again. But I'm glad I did [write bad poems] because they got me somewhere. They taught me something."

I'm currently watching some pieces of my life play out like bad poems. I wrote the whole damn thing. Now I'm watching. Stuck.

But I am learning.  And I'll be someone worth being on the other side of Stuck.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tourism of the Holy

Me in front of the church that sits in the center of the monastery.
I've been letting this idea rattle around in my head since the evening Bill and Lisa Clark drove me up to the Rila Monastery, 40k outside of Blagoevgrad. A half hour after I got off the bus, we got in the car and drove up a winding road, marked every few k with stands of homemade honey, jams, and preserves. Though we were pretty far from any clear location or town, there were people everywhere. They were picnicing by the river and up on the hills. There were many cars. A restaurant we passed had a full parking lot and no seats at the tables. There was a campground.

All of these people were going to see the Monastery and the Holy Rila Forest.

It's a famous place. St. John of Rila was a holy man who lived by himself in a cave for seven years. If you know what winter is like in those mountains, up near the tree line, that was no small feat. So a monastery grew up near his cave and once housed over a hundred monks and novices. Now, four monks hold down the fort while hundreds of people, Bulgarian and otherwise, come to "see" the place.

Stands selling popular fried dough
I've never been exactly comfortable with visiting churches and other locations just to "see" them. But in Bulgaria, where every church is Orthodox, I can't help but be an outsider. I don't know what the icons mean. I don't know the liturgy or what to do and I would be an imposter if I tried. I feel like Charles in "Brideshead Revisited" who visits the chapel in the house and imitates Sebastians handmotions and then is scolded. "You aren't Catholic" he chides. Well, I'm not Orthodox. So I just try to stand as politely as possible and look up at the smoke darkened ceiling where birds fly in the rafters and be as un-touristy and intrusive as possible.

It seems kind of rude no matter how I look at it. People worship here. And I'm just looking at the cool architecture and restored liturgical art.

Then we drove up the mountain a bit more to the cave where St. John lived. We missed the sign that asked us to be quiet and respectful as we walked through the woods--as did the group of teenagers that were walking behind us. A small chapel was at the foot of the path. We climbed up through the cave and Bill told us about the legend that you couldn't get through the back entrance unless you were Holy. But everyone gets through these days, it seems. When we walked back down, we passed a conservative Orthodox family sitting on a stone wall outside of the chapel, quietly chanting/singing prayers.

I again felt like an intruder.

But not quite as badly as I did when we visited a small monastery in another mountain range later that week. The monks drove us in a jeep at break neck speeds up to their farm. They let us see their small, cluttered, well loved church, with thick plaster and stone walls that kept it cool on the hottest of days. They sang a song honoring St. John of Rila that day and I didn't know quite what to do. Because I wanted to pray but I didn't know how to pray with them.

I don't know what to make of this, how churches and temples and mosques become places to see and just to see. They are beautiful places and worth seeing and yet... I feel insulted when I see a sign in Bulgarian and in English stating that it will cost me 5leve if I take a picture in the sanctuary of the church in Elena. Or that there is a stand selling small icons by the front door. Or that some churches I have to pay to go into at all. Or archeological museum in Sofia that used to be a church building, but is now white washed inside to give the appropriate museum feel. Part of me says, "Well church spaces are beautiful and really amazing public spaces." Part of me says, "Why shouldn't all people have access to seeing these spaces and this beauty?"

And the other part of me says, "How dare you." You meaning me. "How dare I?"

Thursday, August 16, 2012

On Moving: On Staying

A response post to Dolce Vita's post "On Moving" to .:westcoastcity:. She asked me to write a post on what it is like to "stay" in the midst of others leaving.

Two Tuesdays Ago: A bright, cool summer morning.

Seth had told me the plan around midnight the evening before when we had showed up to fork the yard for his birthday (another story for another time):

"Some people will be at Saints in the morning around 11. You should come."

It was one of the last days living within a few minutes walk of Saints. I walked slowly, tired and sick from an undiagnosed bacterial infection. Crossed Atherton and moved up the hill towards Frasier. And stopped, winded.

When I stopped to catch my breath, I looked up the several remaining blocks to the cafe and saw a small group sitting outside. Their faces were indistinguishable. But I knew who they were. Dan's hands were moving as he expounded on his point. Seth was laughing and gesturing casually as he tossed back a devil's advocate response to rile him up. They were too far away to hear, but I imagined Robbie and Dolce laughing at the exchange. Dolce would be alternating between her shocked, only partially genuine disapproval and hearty laughter. Robbie would be taking the absurdist argument, or just watching gleefully, observing far more than he ever let on and being entertained by it all.

I knew this, though I was too far away to even make out their faces. I continued to stand for a few moments. Happy. Grateful. At a loss.

Seth and Dolce would move to different parts of the country later that week. This was the last gathering where I was be with both of them together in this small group that makes me laugh so much.


I graduated from college and stayed in my college town. Some people do this. It is not the norm, though perhaps more common in this place than in others. It was like being in the same bedroom but waking up with all the furniture rearranged. I've seen many people leave. I've had to say goodbye. I've learned that goodbyes are rarely satisfying, and that good "goodbyes" have a ring of impermanence about them, as if that person really can't be leaving.

It is impossible to really say goodbye until the person has left and you learn to accept the spaces they left and the way time closes in over those spaces so you don't even remember that those gaps were there.

In short: time keeps going. New people come that you learn to love.

But for a time... even Time seems to mark their absence, make you notice their leaving.

Good friends like Seth and Dolce tend to leave parts of themselves with you. A stack of letters. A new favorite tv show. A top secret recipe. A book recommendation. A poem read aloud. A distinction between real "tea" and "herbal blends". A belief that Indian Food is perfect for Being Sick. A tendency to capitalize things like Science and Art and Things You Must Not Do.  An attention to dance shoes and the new dresses in the window of Mr. Charles. An appreciation for moscato wine and well defined cheekbones (ala Mr. Cumberbatch). Someday, I might not remember that these things came from them. I hope I do. They were good gifts.

I start to look for them. I see a slim Indian figure walking with great purpose in some random neighborhood and I check to see if it is Dolce. A man bikes past on a green road bike and I check to see if the handle bars are green and if Seth is passing on his way downtown--which makes no sense because the roads I now watch from my desk wouldn't be on his route. I hear tangos and think Dolce. I see Scrabble and I think of Seth and Robbie all of this early summer in Websters.

Some definitions of this experience would call it "missing".

Life continues in its normal frantic pace. The gaps close faster than I think they will. I rush from one thing to the next. But in the quieter evenings, when its time to find people to join me for a peach cobbler attempt and my latest version of soup, I notice that I cannot add their names to the list of "The Usuals" and I hope that they are doing well, they who have somehow made it out of this Valley and are making their new stories in other towns, finding new things to love. Because they will. It happens. New places that they will share with new friends in new stories.

And I wonder what would happen if I followed them out of the Valley, to Somewhere Else.

Friday, August 10, 2012


Tuesday It was my first real day on my own in Sofia and I had spent most of it sick. I had envisioned venturing out on my own, making it the mile walk to the downtown area and having some great adventures wandering around, window shopping, visiting museums, etc. Instead, Danche was at work and I was sprawled on the couch praying my stomach would stop rebelling against the new diet of banitsa, shopska salad, musaka, and yogurt. I read. I slept. I skyped with some friends in the US. I tried not to panic as my stomach turned over again and again.

By the end of the day, I was doing better. I had slept through most of it but there were still some hours in the day. Danche wasn't home yet and I decided that I would make attempt to interact with the outside world. I took my set of keys and set off.

I wasn't going to risk a long walk so I went to the Bazaar that was less than a two minutes walk from her apartment building. The Ivan Vasoff Bazarre. Named after the famous Bulgarian novelist.

Interpreting new experiences can be hard. It is difficult and frightening to try to categorize what kind of situation one is in. I was torn between two experiences: the State College Farmers Market OR the bazaar in India. The former was a simple exchange. Things were priced and you paid that price. In India, you haggled to get a fair price. And I had no idea which situation was walking into. My arsenal of Bulgarian words and phrases was pretty low. I had mastered "yes" "no" "okay" and "I don't understand." So I adopted a "I'm-Pissed-Off-Don't-Mess-With-Me" expression, one I had seen quite often on most pedestrians in Sofia. I made no eye contact.

All of this was unnecessary. But being in a place where you can't say things causes some unnecessary actions.

While there, (and it was very much like the State College farmer's market) I spotted several flower vendors. Ed had told me that it was customary to bring flowers to a hostess. I immediately wanted to buy some for Danche. I walked around the flower vendors. Twice.

And then walked back to the apartment.

I stewed for a while, ashamed of my own fear. I was going to do this.

I put some leve (Bulgarian money) in my pocket and set back out.

There was one vendor who had been particularly friendly when I walked by (twice) so I walked directly to him. He was old. White hair. Cap askew on his head. A cigarette burning casually in his mouth. He smiled when he saw me again and (I think) said, "Hello!" but I can't be sure because I hadn't learned that word yet. I picked up the first bouquet I saw. He asked me a question. "Nerazberum" I said, 
shaking my head and smiling. He nodded, picked up another bouquet and handed it to me. I then saw that the one I had grabbed had mostly dead flowers in it. He was pointing this out to me and helping me pick. I chose the fresher one. He found another and held it out again for me to compare. This happened four times before he was satisfied with my choice. I said, "Da" and he nodded and went to make change. Asked if I wanted ribbon on it by holding up different colors. "Ne" I said. He counted out the change for me in Bulgarian to make sure I understood he wasn't cheating me. As I left I said, "Blagodaria" (thank you) and he grinned.

You'd think I owned the world rather than a bouquet of flowers.

Danche loved them.

Flowers from the Ivan Vasoff Bazarre

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Dolni Maryan

From July 6-26th, I was in Bulgaria. Many of the following posts will be concerned with this trip. Just look for the label "Bulgaria".

After a week of various adventures, I rode out with several other Americans to "Camp Lucky" to start as a language partner at a week long English Language camp. I was 10k outside of a small town, Elena, set in a tight valley in central Bulgaria. I was not merely outside of Elena but was outside of a tiny village named Maryan. I was actually in Dolni Maryan (Lower Maryan). This is my attempt to describe the landscape. 

You take a broken, construction marked road from Elena to Maryan. In the afternoons, the clouds of blanched crushed dust rise around the car as is bounces in and out holes. This road is around 10 kilometers in length. The mountains line the eastern view, a low ridge the west, both blue in the haze like the Catskills on the drive to my grandmother's farm.

In Maryan, a small sign points to the left. Don't cross the bridge into the town. Turn before it down the single lane, strangely well paved road. It will feel like gliding after the road from Elena. You are almost to Dolni Maryan. The ridges come in closer around the nearly dry river, that winds to the left. Fields of sunflowers stretch to the right.

Don't look at the holes in the last bridge as you come to the last stretch of road to Dolni Maryan. Just look at the water and the cows that may be wandering through it. It is deep July heat and there is almost no water. What water there is grows small minnows and green algae. Birds cry and crickets. It is the kind of dry brown that sounds like cicada cries. It is quiet instead of the cicada rattle.

The rusted sign marks the final left turn into Dolni Maryan.

The land rolls out. It is farmland. The grass is tall in the fields and there are farmers cutting it with scythes and with tractors. There are goats and sheep with bells on their necks. The sunflower field is for sale.

Sheep dogs, mutts, guard the corner past a low barn and towards the houses. For a stranger on foot, these dogs pose a noisy threat, and run along behind you. In a car, your speed will slow down and the road will rock your car like a jetty in the wake of a storm.

The houses are old style Bulgarian architecture. Wood structure, covered with newer, white plaster. The roofs are red, curved tile. Someone should tell you that these roofs will last for a hundred years if they are sitting on the right frames. The yards are walled in with old stone. There are wells in them, and farming equipment, and televisions connected to satelites, and a solar panel in the hill above the village. Fruit trees sit with their fruit with in reach. Plumbs, still green and tight; or yellow and tart and ripe, falling off onto the windshield of the now parked car.

The quiet has remained, though if you listen you can hear American pop music or a television playing through an open window.

Dolni Maryan does not seem neglected, though pieces of every structure seem slightly sagging and mortar pieces are misses and doors stand on an angle into the tangled, grape vine covered yards. Just sleepy. Just old. Just streets that Time has passed through quietly and steadily, dragging an old grass broom behind her.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Sitting For A Portrait

A few weeks ago, as I travelled back to PA on a Arts Roadtrip, I spent two days in Rock Hill, SC with the folks from Friday Arts Project. They asked me to sit for their portrait drawing group. I said yes.

I perched in a chair and stared at the wall behind their heads. I tried not to move very much. Two of them worked with pencil and paper. Three worked on their computers. We talked a little bit and listened to This American Life.

The first few moments were self conscious ones. Five people with their focus and eyes scanning and rescanning and plotting my face through their minds and into their hands. When my eyes would stray from the wall, I would meet their eyes and be startled by how focused they were. They were seeing me but not seeing me. They were noting and observing and making something from it. I wondered what they were learning from studying my face or if they were more interested in the angle of my facial structure than anything else. But these were questions you don't ask a group of artists knee deep in their craft.

And then the feeling wore off. It was like dancing at a competition, the audience both there and not there, when you finally get yourself settled in your belly and not flitting around the corners of the room or shrinking from a judge's gaze.

My view. I stared at unique bump on the wall between Stephen and Seth's head.

Five artists worked during the two hours. Below are three examples of what they saw and made. In writing, one has to change what is seen in order to both adapt to ones abilities and to express something other than the model for the work. That is what fiction and poetry and non-fiction all do. They change things. So going for the closest to "a photo of Dana" isn't the point. I loved how all of these were so different!

By "Professor Seth"

S. Crotts Illustration
Matt Andrews @mandraws

Friday, June 29, 2012


I'm leaving for Bulgaria in a week.


I think I need to say that more than once a day so I actually start believing it.

Where is Bulgaria?

North of Greece. South of Romania. West of Turkey.

I'll be in Elena, where the red pin is.

So when I went to ask for a travel guide from AAA, it wasn't supposed to be a weird question. Anjali suggested it. AAA wasn't hard to find either. I just sauntered in last evening and asked the lady if they did indeed have free travel guides. She said yes. I replied that I needed one for Bulgaria.

She snorted. [That description is not an exaggeration]

"I'm sorry," she said when she regained her composure. "We only have guides for countries, like, in Europe."

I blinked a couple of times.

"It's right next to Greece. Is Greece not considered Europe?"

"Oh," She muttered, clearly realizing that she had imagined the country to be in a very different geography location, "Fine, I'll look."

She was right. They didn't have a guide for Bulgaria. Nor was there any information in the general "Travel Europe" guide.

I walked out empty handed but amused: Bulgaria is in the EU. I think that counts as Europe.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What I'm Not

There is greater general interest in the place of my birth when I am here.

Here is South of the Mason Dixon Line.

I was born in Athens, GA.

People ask where I'm from and I say "State College, PA. If you took a pink and put it in the dead center  of the state, you'd be about where State College is." Then I talk about Penn State. If they are still listening, we might get around to my family being in Hershey.

But where I'm born keeps coming up this trip. "Why are you in Rock Hill, SC?" they ask. Or Charlotte. Or Charlottesville. So I explain why I was in Athens this past week: a family reunion. And that I'm road tripping back home and stopping by art communities on my way home.

Then their eyes light up. "You were born in Georgia? That's great! Glad to know you're southern." It doesn't all come out in those words. It comes out in a slight nod of approval. Or curiosity. Or the blatant question, "If you don't mind my asking, why would you leave The South?"

The answer is this: my father got a job. We moved. But that doesn't answer the attack I feel has been made on my Pennsylvania roots. In high school, I had a distinct sense that the green farm hills of Central PA were part of my story just as much as the small New York valley town my father was from and the red clay of Georgia were part of my mother.

Its an odd, unspoken complexity. I was in Georgia for just enough of my formative years that it seems like the place I'm really from. My grandmother and cousins and other extended family are down there and we visit about twice a year. I've driven the 11.5 hour drive with my family more times than I can count in the 13 years we've lived in Hershey.

Long enough that when someone says, "I really wouldn't mind if the South actually seceded. And good riddance," I get a little hot beneath the collar.

But I am from Pennsylvania. My home town is in the north. I'm a "yankee baby" as one particularly staunch confederate woman once noted with slight disappointment. I don't have an accent anymore, lost somewhere in the first year we were in Hershey. I don't freak out at the sight of a grey buggy on the road. I know that Lancaster is pronounced "Lan-kester" in falling syllable emphasis and not "Lan KAS ter". It takes me a while to warm up to a large, new group and I generally walk around new places without making eye contact. I do not own a pearl necklace and am generally uncomfortable in the expression of southern femininity.

I stand as the defender of both. No, I do not want the South to secede because they are too "dumb" or "conservative". No, I do not want to be called a "yankee" with that disappointment in your voice, as if I'm somehow a different creature.

Being born matters. I just don't know what part in the story it plays after that.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Family Reunion

Location: Athens, GA

This is my first in 14 years. 1996. There are pictures. You can see me tucked in the front row since I wasn't any taller than elbow high, sporting my favorite purple hoodie with pink embroidered flowers. It was in NC at a beautiful house with lots of windows. And a creek I played in with an older second cousin named Corbin and my cousin Caleb. I would follow them up the creek and daily fall in the mud and get in trouble. I only distantly remember the various other relatives. Shadow memories, more than anything.

But then, it depends on what you consider a family reunion. If you count seeing my grandparents and my aunts and uncles and cousins, then this happens about once a year. Athens, Georgia is not an unfamiliar town to me. Despite having left here at age 9, I can still navigate some of the roads. I can get myself from Gmom's house to the Tingle Estate in Watkinsville. And I love being here with them. I love Emma and Katie. I love my grandparents. I love the Thanksgivings squished in the Tingle dinning room. It's like a reunion since we don't see them all the time.

But this kind of reunion? When we go back three generations to my great-great grandparents and invite everyone who has ever been born from their 8 children and children's children and children's children's children?

Yeah. It's been 14 years. Maybe even longer.

There are almost 100 people here.

The simple truth is that I don't know very many people. I know my cousins and what not. But I don't really know all these other people who come from distant sides of the family. There are some memories like of Cousin Jackie (my mother's cousin) teasing me about boys when I was little. Or of Great Uncle Jack's voice. But I don't really know them.

Three days into this affair, I have many stories I can share about this strange family. But right now I have two predominant feelings/observations:

1) These people like each other. They like me. And I really like them too. In reality, we're strangers. Strangers sitting around talking, swapping stories, and finding out who each other are. It's weird being related to so many people. And very cool.

2) Time is deep. And my own life story is very small and very short. When you start counting back the people within living memory and when they were born, you're easily in the late 1800s. And there are so many people in eachother's life web.

2) Three days wasn't long enough. It took the first 24 hours for my Yankee Social Ice to thaw. And we all leave in the morning.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Friend Groups: Starting Over Post Graduation

I had a pretty stellar friend group in college. We were an odd collection of thinkers and doers. We liked discussing theology. We liked night hikes and camping without tents. We liked food. As we grew older past 21 years, we liked a good bottle of wine and cheese from the Cheese Shoppe. We like Firefly and Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog. We liked to make fun of Eric Seidle's facial hair.

It was easy.

I woke up this May after finals and realized: they were all gone.

Not entirely. There are still several in State College and we hang out together. Melanie is my roommate. There is a decent turn out for each of Dan Conway's "Wine and Cheese" nights at the end of every grading period. There are people and they are my friends and I see them often.

But it is smaller and growing smaller. Seth moves next week. Anjali moves in August to Oregon and will no longer be able to head us all towards Zbar on a weekend evening or tell us the proper way to hold pipettes. I won't be living with Mel next year.

I woke up this May after finals and realized: I had not re-established a community.

It had been busy. I was completely engaged in work at Calvary and on campus. I had fabulous roommates. My sister was nearby. And #PSUBallroom was well over 40 people whose names and faces I was trying to learn.

But then May came and the empty space opened around me and I realized that for the first time since my first year in college, I was going to have to go hunting for community.

It's humbling to put yourself out there and say, "I need friends. Please be my friend."

But I'm finding them. Lois and the Third Place crew are letting me do it and don't make it seem as strange as it feels to me. Walking into parties where I'm "the kid" again unsettles me, but I'm trying. I'm having to face my "I'm not a grad student and therefore not as capable or legitimate" insecurity complex [a strictly college town phenomenon I'm pretty sure]. I'm showing up to help in community gardens (I don't garden) and at stranger's houses for meals. I'm trying to remember to introduce myself to the people around me and I'm relearning the small talk codes I've leaned on since high school. I'm horribly shy, an experience I really haven't dealt with for years. I'm on new turf and it isn't mine and I'm used to knowing the layout in the dark.

It may have taken me a year, but I'm finding my way out of undergrad and into this strange Next.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Did You Read...?

I picked up a book from the box. "Look!" I cried to my brother Mooney. "Look, it's 'Stewart Little'!" He nodded but clearly didn't know the story. "But it is such a good one!" If he wasn't older than me and clearly uninterested in my finds, I would have made him buy it for himself.

But I didn't. I heard a laugh beside me and I turned to see a young mom piling kids books in a large canvas bag. Her younger daughter, bright blond hair and pink hoody, was exploring under the tables during the search.

"That is a good one," she agreed. "I keep finding treasures here. 'A Wrinkle in Time' and a bunch of others!"

I made an appreciative gasp. You can't really go wrong with Madeleine L'Engle. I asked what else she had found and she listed some others.

Then I found "Lyddie" by Katherine Paterson. The mom didn't know the author right away until I mentioned "Bridge to Terabinthia". "My girls are just getting old enough for me to do read alouds. And I'm loving it!" She added the book to her pile.

A morning well spent.

What books did you read or were read to you as a child? Picture books? Chapter books? What were your favorites?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Birthday Cake

The cookout had ended. The chicken took nearly 2 hours to cook fully but it had cooked and it had been delicious. No one had gone hungry. People came a few at a time and left a few at a time, until 8pm when there were only seven of us left. We loaded up Fraleigh's car with the now dirty utensils and tinfoil pans and knives and uneaten tomatos and avacado and the abandoned bags of chips.

While packing up, I realized that no one had brought a dessert. More signficantly, there hadn't been a birthday cake. No candles. No singing. At no point throughout my birthday had someone sung to me. It may have been the first year that it had happened that way.

And I wanted cake.

Some of you may remember some of my past cake experiences, the Loneliness Cake from earlier in the spring as the chief example of what can happen when I get my mind set on cake baking. I get stubborn and desperate. In fact, many of my baking experiments came to be through stubbornness and desperation. Why cakes? I don't know. Maybe its the same reason I tend to paint my toe nails when I'm angry. It is a nameless urge.

Debate ensued. People wanted different things from the evening. But I was serious: I wanted cake. Specifically, carrot cake. I was pretty sure I had all of the ingredients. So back to Whim Cotty it was.

Cue Mass Chaos.

I've never been part of quite that level of scattered effort. People were pulling things out of cupboards and from the dishwasher and we were starting the cake at the same time we were cleaning dishes from the cookout. It turns out that, once again, I didn't have the right about of oil. Hannah left to get some from her apartment. Pans were dropped. Carrots grated. Flour was haphazardly measured into mixing bowls. Seth perched the computer on his head so we could read the recipe that I only had saved as an email to Barb.

And the, of course, the mixing and baking smelled just fine. It even tasted pretty good.

The aesthetics of cake-from-pan-removal still leaves a lot to be desired.

But a little bit of fire goes a long way to cover the sins of falling apart cakes.

The candles burned a little too long and wax got on portions of the icing. Something had to be done and much of the icing ended up on various noses and in hair.

A proper icing fight: an excellent way to end a birthday celebration!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Shingletown After the Laurels Bloomed

Mooney picked me up in the same car we drove in two summers earlier to Shingletown Gap and climbed on the rock face. I wonder if it is about the same time of year as it was then. He wasn't sure how to get to Shingletown anymore. I showed him a shorter way I had found when I took the time to be lost for a while. I set my head out of the window and let the wind rush around. The roadside purple flowers were in bloom.

 We were about a week too late for the laurel and rhodedendrons. We kept looking for ones in bloom but only found one plant out of the hundreds we passed. No views or ridges or bouldering today. We stayed down by the Roaring Run. "The creek is running pretty nice the whole way" he comented several times. I wasn't sure what it meant for a creek to be "running nice". But it sang with energy as we moved slowly upstream, stopping to watch it when it came near us, in a small roar. As loud as its small body could manage.

But it was the green that captured us. It was so new. The light seemed young. It seemed happy and restored to itself. To hope.

 I was reading into this because I was quiet and sullen. Mooney asked me right away how my day was going. Rough. I had talked with a friend and it had been harder than I had imagined it would be. A conversation where you return things to each other like an overdue book exchange, handing back the borrowed pages.

I had slept more hours than my body really needed trying to resort things in my head. I needed to get out. Then Mooney, my older brother, texted. "Hike in Shingletown?"

The woods. The creek. The light. The green. It restored something. It was a perfect day. Everything looked like it shown in its own light.

We didn't say much as we walked. I was thinking. He didn't bother me. Just the ocasional, "What a beautiful day!"

Then I was attacked. He brandished his walking stick. "Find a weapon! On guard!" I grabbed a wet stick that he beat to the handle in a few blows, while I  I cried for mercy, giggling at my inevitable defeat. He fake stabbed me and the fight was over.

We found some landscape art. Someone had come by and arranged large rocks in a carefully balanced tower. It said, "I came by. Look, the earth is beautiful." We said aliens had come and changed the order of things.

I began climbing on things. Touching trees as I passed them. Letting my body weight fall with a thumb as I jumped from logs onto the waiting path. I tried to push Mooney into the stream. I started playing.

It was the light, the creek, the green, the woods.

And it was good.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012


Anyone who has followed me around for long enough knows that I am captivated by the idea of home. My fancy classroom words for this are place and presence and spaces and local community. Home has changed for me in the last four years. While I haven't written about those changes very frequently on this blog, many of you know some of the unhappy changes that took place inside my immediate family.

When "home" changed, I learned that my definition was based on experience only. When experience changed, the definition changed, and I didn't know to what.

I'd like to believe that "home" is an ideal that was revealed to humanity along with the moment consciousness was given. I'd like to believe that "home" was a real place and meant all sorts of idealistic things: comfort, acceptance, love, security, laughter, food, friendship, forgiveness, etc. They sound sappy when you line them up like that, stuffed with a warm, naive light like a Thanksgiving turkey with onions and bread crumbs.

In fact, I do believe it existed. Exists. Will exist.

My anxiety about the meaning of home, however, has subsided. I think the need to define and question quiets when it is answered by another experience. Whim Cotty was part of that. State College. Calvary Elements. Shingletown Gap. Room 133 in White Building.

These are places. Locales. Physically defined walls and windows.  They do not replace the physical location that no longer can be home. I still grieve the yellow and red maple trees in the front yard of 518 Trail Road. I still grieve when I think of the day that Jesse found cancer in one of them, the same day that I really understood that some things fall apart and won't be remade.

Home isn't the same.

While the places I listed don't replace what I no longer have, they do remind me that there are good places and that home is a gift not confined to my birth family and "hometown". There are spaces that do indeed become reminders of belonging and relationship and purpose that the house I grew up in can no longer give.

Home is not just a physical place but a spiritual one. It is more than physical space but a constant presence that walks within and without. There are many theological words for this. For now, I'll leave say that home is a relationship, a walking with God. And this God turns the most unusual places and our own tendency towards habit into ways of comforting and settling.

Last week, Anjali was walking across campus towards her lab. She was lost in thought and discovered that she had walked into White Building and was about to open the door to the 133 ballroom. Amazing. We're habitual creatures and when we don't watch our feet, they go back to the rooms we have spent the most time, the walls that we're used to holding our stories. I like this about human beings. I like that we circle around places that remind us of who we are. I know this isn't a good thing all the time, but originally... it was.

As part of this loosing and finding and loosing and finding, I think I've become better at making space for others to find a home somewhere alongside me. A friend told me this past week that he appreciates coming to Whim Cotty because we're always talking, making food, doing chores around our guests feet, doing work, watching movies, teaching roommates to dance. And it's like home. I was glad to hear this, to know that Whim Cotty has been a good place for more than just me.

And I want to be better at this. I want to carry "home" around with me like I sometimes carry around hummus and crackers, ready to share at a moment's notice.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Comes Dropping Slow / After the Students

"... for peace comes dropping slow."

I think of this line from Yeats as I walk around State College. Today is 24 hours after the last graduation and the population had settled down to a still trickle. The rain also kept some folks indoors. The hills have turned deep green.

There is a peace that settles in on the Valley in the first days after the semester is over. A relief. A sudden quiet nap. Breathing slow.

I took time and watched a duck watch a fountain. Watched the rain fall with the same interest one watches a camp fire. Let conversation pool and run like drops down a window, gathering and moving as it will, slowly and then quickly, and then slowly again.

Baking banana bread with a friend in her quiet kitchen, all the roommates gone. Peach and plum tea.

Seeing my sister go from a hesitant waltz to a winning newcomer waltz in a crash course lesson in Rm132.

Pizza and beer with Mel and planning all sorts of events that might never happen.

Marking up pages in "Wisdom and Wonder" by Kuyper in green pen.

The days are good like this. Work and focus and quiet and steady rain.

Saturday, May 05, 2012


I am thinking about return. Re-turn. Turn again. Go back. Leave and come back. To have left and returned. Out and back. There and back again. A hobbit's tale.

I. Books

I forgot about the dvds. Two of them. "An Education" and "Mrs. Hotschkisses ballroom and charm school". Yeah. About that.

At least it was watched with friends.

They hid with the other dvds that I do own. I forgot until Schlow Library sent me a notice. Overdue. A steep fine.

I've been avoiding the library since.

II. Jess

It was the last Essence of Joy concert of the season. The alumni were back and joined the regular choir in singing some classic Essence favorites. Afterwards, I ran into several alum. I found Kyle Garcia who in his usual delightful self effusively hugged and kissed me and we offerred joyful anecdotes on our lives the past semester. And then I saw Jess. I saw her first across the room as I talked to her boyfriend and we made eye contact and waved. When I finally made my way over to her, she hugged me and said how strange it was to be back. We talked a little of what fills our days. She said how she walked by her old apartment. How things are still the same.

"It's just strange coming back. I don't know how else to describe it."

III. Websters

Websters finally opened. Almost two years of waiting. And it returned.

I was tired and hungry and it was Monday and bright. But I dragged myself out of bed in time to go visit the new location on my way to tutoring. Golden Eros Chai. A Sceric (sp?) blend. Seth was there and we settled at a large table near the small windows that let in the daylight from the street. We exchanged the books we had on us: Rilke and French book in German. Someone at another table struck up a conversation about how good it was that Websters had reopened along with some snide remarks about feminism. Seth smiled his quiet smile, the one where you have no idea what he's actually thinking, but could be interpreted as agreement. I shifted the mug in my hand and noted that engraved on the side was a phoenix coming out of a book. Ah yes. Websters was back.

IV. Shingletown Gap

The trails around Shingletown are more and more familiar to me these days. I took the path across the footbridge to the right of the trail head and tried to piece together a recognizable path along a muddy creek bank. The trail blazes kept leading up the hill, so I followed them. The trail changed several times and went through an open area where there wasn't much underbrush or even trees. It felt familiar. So when I found my way to the top of a smaller ridge, I simply assumed that I recognized pieces from previous walks.

And then I went around a bend in the twisting trail and came into a flat open space. With a large fire ring. And a log beside it for sitting. And a strung up lean-to out of branches. It may have been four years at this point, but I knew where I was. This was the spot we had come in my first hike here, the one where I was the only girl and was unhappily stuck in the back seat of a small car and Greg Ford got us lost on the trail going up and we climbed down the rocky part in the dark. The time when they went out of their way to make me feel awkward and Mooney wasn't a good friend yet and Ben... well. We all remember what Ben did when we got back to the car. It was the night that I think of when someone asks for funny stories from college. I can't help but laugh when I imagine each of those people in their various jobs today: in Alaska counting fish for the government; a campus minister and neighbor; an engineer in DC; a masters student in Turkey; the still to graduate friend across campus.

I watched the empty space for a while. Further down the trail, I sat down and prayed for the guys who had been with me that night. In the oft repeated words around me, "Good times. Good times."

Workshop Quotes: Lydia Petrogova

"You see when I let you go without directions, it falls all over the place. Restrictions give freedom for you to perform your best. Everyone thinks freedom is being able to do what you like but that is not freedom. You cannot be your best without restrictions. Restrictions are freedom."

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Brief For Defense: Poetry Month (Late Again This Year)

A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.