#30til30: Days 6-10

Read more about this project here.

Day 6 (July 15)

I’ve always been mystified by those who are gifted at bringing people together. They throw the best dinner parties with a wide assortment of interesting people, who all get along and enjoy each other’s company. These magical folks orchestrate meet-cutes on the regular and introduce strangers (soon to be friends and soul mates) with ease.

Spoiler: I am *not* one of those people. Besides the fact I can only seem to have about three friends at once, I panic over social situations (I could probably end the sentence there) at which I will be “mixing my groups,” hosting people from various aspects of my life. I should just trust that if they like me, they’ll like each other, but instead, I host the night with manic energy, trying to micromanage everyone into having a good time. I throw GREAT parties.

Tonight I had dinner with two of my dearest friends from two different worlds, both who find themselves in Boston at this present moment. Both have heard loads about the other, and they even met briefly in Waco almost three years ago. Both are exuberant, full of life, funny, passionate, and smart. Both have been truly good friends to me.

We had the best time together. We ate so many tapas, drank too much sangria, and indulged in delicious dessert. We laughed too loudly and told ridiculous stories. We cleaned our plates and felt proud of ourselves for doing so.

The truth is I have always found my way to brilliant and beautiful people, and I have been grateful to share life with them, whether for a summer or a year or a decade or more. As long as I have them, I’m set for life. I don’t need to be that hostess in pearls, effortlessly guiding conversation. Instead, I can just be ridiculous awkward nerdy me, and rest in the confidence that my friends love me for these qualities; at least they all have that in common. Oh, and a deep and abiding love for tapas, sangria, and decadent desserts — significant pre-requisites for all of my friendships.


Day 7 (July 16)

These people let me do their dishes.

That’s not a humble brag, or a regular brag, or a “look at how great a houseguest I am.” Lots of folks have stayed on the same fold-out couch I’m sleeping on, and lots of them have washed bottles and folded laundry.

I’m saying that I don’t have many household skills. I’m rubbish in the cooking department, and my baby skills extend to “holding” and “looking unsure when baby cries.” I’m good at watching toddler dance parties but not good at thinking of toddler activities. Sometimes I feel like an unhelpful extra body in a small space wherein small disasters are constantly happening (a.k.a. life with small children).

But what I can do is dishes. Babies eat frequently, I’m not sure if you knew, and so there are always bottles in the sink. Also, toddlers eat, and so do grow ups (sometimes). The kitchen is a constant revolving door of dishes and bottles. I have two hands often not filled with children, and so I can use them to fill the dishwasher and scrub the bottles and put away the leftovers (of the dinner I couldn’t make to save my life). I know the cabinet homes for most of the items, given my multiple stays on the couch and in the guest rooms of this family, and it pleases me to know where each item is placed. It makes me feel at home.

Washing dishes is actually soothing for me. Jess and Stephen remember my furious dish-washing in college anytime I was in distress. Once I washed a mug so thoroughly that the handle broke off and sliced my finger open. I still have the crescent-shaped scar. Washing dishes is a task that you can watch being accomplished as you do it, can see diminish with each passing plate. Then the kitchen is clean, for just a moment. A short moment.

The best part, though, is that they let me do this. I know, I know, it seems like a great sacrifice on their part. But it is. Letting someone do your dishes is a vulnerable act. Even more, though, it is a gift to me. It lets me feel part of their household, the daily functioning of life. I feel like I belong, like I’m being useful, that my actions are for the good of us all. I am family.

I’m so grateful to wash dishes.


Day 8 (July 17)

On Mondays, I have to grade, so this morning, I left behind the baby, shrieking like a happy pterodactyl, and the pilot-boat captain-chef-ballerina toddler, figuring out who she’d be today, and I walked through tree-lined neighborhoods to Cafe Nero, where I got a teapot and a cozy booth and prepared myself for the onslaught of reality.

I’m thankful to teach online in the summers for the university I graduated from and the program that gave me my first (and only) real job. I left to go to graduate school, and when I got my master’s, I started teaching online classes for the adult degree program. While my students are primarily in the Portland area, this summer I’ve sent them video messages from Fort Worth, Waco, the Philadelphia airport, Tampa, and Boston … so far.

My students are adults, coming back to school after time away. They started their degrees but for any number of reasons, never finished. Now, they’re giving it another go. In my class, I have single dads, pregnant moms, and moms getting advice from their college-bound daughters. I have students hoping a degree will get them that promotion, a new career, or just something new. I have students who just got married, just got divorced, and just celebrated 35 years of marriage. Most of them are working full time. Nearly all of them are frightened by writing and college, having had poor past experiences. But they’re trying again.

I don’t tell them enough how brave they are to dive into something new. To do something they couldn’t finish last time. To be novices as adults. To try and hope and work so very hard though life is so busy.

In the busyness competition, a sophomore pledging a sorority has nothing on a single mom of three who works full time.

It’s not a competition, of course. Every student I’ve had came to our classroom with baggage and fears. But my online students are special. I watch them struggle and fight and succeed, all without seeing their faces. The reward isn’t tangible but it is sweet.

I drank my tea and read some bad papers and some good ones. But it’s fine. See, it’s a revision week for them. No grades. Just the chance to try again. They’ll get it this time.


Day 9 (July 18)

I don’t remember ever going to the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve flown over it, but the majority of my in-person ocean experience is with the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico.

Well, I am happy to report the Atlantic is a marvelous ocean. Definitely in my top two.

We took a day trip, all five of us, to Gloucester (a word I misspelled four times just now and cannot pronounce despite repeated practice). We set up camp on the lawn of Carol’s house, a kind woman who loves this family and especially this toddler generously. Her backyard overlooks the ocean, which is the understatement of the year.

The day was overcast and warm. The toddler ran and played to her heart’s content. The baby slept in the tent and giggled in the wind. I got to see the Atlantic.

The water at Gloucester is divided long-ways by a sand bar. On one side, the water is deep enough for sailboats and other seafaring vessels. On the other, Carol’s side, the water is shallow and still, and you can easily see crabs scoot along the ocean floor while you stand among them, water to your knees.

We waded out to the sand bar and walked the length of it. At the tip, we were surrounded by water on three sides. We felt like we were standing in the middle of the ocean.

This beach reminded me of a cross between the Pacific Northwest beaches of my heart and the Florida Gulf beaches of my childhood. Big rocks, small shells, soft sand, big wind, cold water.

As I get older, so many things remind me of something else, something I’ve done or said or experienced. But I never want to be that person who only relates things to the past, instead of seeing these moments as new, shiny brand new, and worthy of both my attention and my joy.

Each of the past few years, I’ve kept a document on my computer chronicling the things I’ve done for the first time that year. That list is always in my mind whenever I encounter a new situation. I always try to decide to do the new thing. At the end of each year, I want the list to be long.

2017: I went to the beach with my Maddie and my Lillian. I went to Gloucester, Massachusetts. I saw the Atlantic Ocean.

Added to the list.


Day 10 (July 19)

I came to love art museums only recently, but I fell hard for them. Three art museums in Fort Worth–the Kimball, the Modern, and the Amon Carter–are my favorite places in the city. I feel at home there.

Libraries have always been my first love, but while art museums have a similar ambiance of hushed appreciation, the museum cannot pretend to be anything other than what it is: a temple of useless artifacts.

I will fight to the death for the importance of art. I believe it makes us human. I also believe its power lies in its uselessness, that most of it cannot be used for materially productive ends. It can change our inner landscapes if we let it, but art’s true value has little to do with its usefulness.

Jess took me to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and good lord, what a place. It’s huge, with multiple floors and wings, organized by continent and era. I saw a fraction of what the place held; I’m already dying to return.

In one day, I saw mummies, Pollock and Picasso juxtaposed, photos from a Polish ghetto, Monet’s water lilies, concert posters from 1960s San Francisco. I always tell myself I’ll remember the names of the artists but they float away as I walk to the next room. I experience art in the present tense.

I know I’m in the right field because I couldn’t stop thinking about art as rhetoric, as a form of contemporary communication. Then I revisited the idea of museums as rhetoric (a class I’m dying to teach). The ways we engage with art in museums, from the lighting to the placement to the placards, are all crafted with intention and purpose.

After the art museum, Jess and Stephen’s community group came over, and they talked about work, vocation, calling, and service. I thought about the art I saw, and the things I write, and the research I do. What use does it have? How does it serve?

It serves by being. By delighting. By expressing and communicating. By challenging and confronting. By showing the human experience in colors so bold, shapes so wide that we can’t help but gape.

Artists’ names are forgotten. Art can be destroyed. But that it existed, was seen and created? I think that’s its power. Its purpose. Its service.




#30til30: Days 1-5

Read more about this project here.

Day 1 (July 10)

If you look closely, you can see the round circles where the futon legs used to be. It hadn’t been there for long, only a month since I’ve moved into this new apartment. It still wore its way down into the carpet.

It wasn’t a great futon. The cheap vinyl that covered the seat was starting to split from use and the Texas heat. It wasn’t that comfortable. But it had been my home base for grading, reading, Netflix watching. And it had been free, like so much of my furniture has been over the years.

Even now, I look around my apartment and I see things that I’ve adopted as friends have moved on, upgraded, discarded. I was there, arms outstretched. Being a perpetual student requires perpetual thrift.

My propensity to take what others give is not solely practical. I like looking around and being reminded of the kindness of others, seeing how I have been cared for through castoffs. But occasionally there comes a time to say goodbye to the old and tired, let bygones be, and get something new. Something that is chosen, purchased, wanted. Something that is mine.

The new couch comes on Thursday. I can’t wait.


Day 2 (July 11)

Buc-ee’s is the ultimate Texas road trip pit stop. Too big, too many options, too much merchandise, but the best bathrooms on I-35. My parents taught me the value of choosing your rest stops wisely on road trips.

Multiple people have said I’m a good road trip companion. I attribute this to the practice I got as a child, when my family would make the drive from South Dakota to Florida each May. We would brush our teeth in Georgia, and we three kids would sleep in the back of the van while mom and dad took turns driving through the night. 31 hours after we left the prairie, we’d arrive, unpack, go grocery shopping, and then head to the beach for the sunset. We’d also drive to Montana many summers, leaving the prairies behind again for mountains and evergreens. The Kelms vacationed well. And drove.

In college, I had to fly to see my family, but my friends and I would spend the summers driving to each other: Medford, St. Helens, Vancouver, Newberg. After my sister started college in Seattle, I would trek north and sleep on her dorm room floor.

A few years ago, my brother and I and all of my earthly possessions I could fit in my Camry (packed to the brim) drove from Portland to Waco: through mountains and deserts and ravines and nothingness. Another epic trip, in terms of miles, landscape, and emotions. In that car, he told me he was going to ask his now-wife to marry him.

Everything is far in Texas, and I found road trip buddies in grad student friends. I’ve road tripped to places like Fayetteville, San Antonio, and Huntsville. Last summer, the drive back from a wedding in Montgomery became a trip to see the ocean in Mobile and eat beignets in New Orleans. We ate the leftovers in a Buc-ee’s parking lot in Houston at midnight, the wind throwing the powdered sugar in our faces.

Yesterday, I road tripped with three friends from Fort Worth to Austin to see a writer give a one-hour talk. Our trip was extended by massive accidents that closed the interstate, but we stopped at Buc-ee’s on our way, and I sent this photo to my parents, an image of one of their favorite Texas places. Kelms know good rest stops make good road trips. They’ve taught me well.


Day 3 (July 12)

I’m writing this while flying in an airplane. Somehow. I don’t understand it.

I fly more than I road trip these days, given that the people I love are spread from coast to coast and way up north. By the end of the summer, I’ll have taken two flights west, one north, two northeast, and two southeast in the past year.

On every flight I’ve taken, I always have a moment when I face the reality of this choice I’ve made. I’m miles upon miles up in the sky, hurtling through clouds, sitting too close to strangers in a metal bird, piloted by a person I’ve never seen. Often, this moment occurs when the bird starts to shudder, buffeted by wind… I guess? I don’t really understand turbulence either.

As I wrote that, the seatbelt light just went on and the flight attendant just told everyone to return to their seats. I’m about to have that moment, that “why do we do this” moment, that “what am I doing up here” moment. People are not supposed to fly. Will our flight be punished for humanity’s hubris by the turbulent gods?

The plane stabilizes, and the map says we’re above the Tennessee/Kentucky border. Out the window all I see are pinpricks of light. I got into this plane in the heat of Texas; I’ll leave it in the middle of the Boston night; and all I did was obediently sit in my seat, listening to my podcasts and drinking my complimentary ginger ale.

Flying seems wholly disconnected from the dirt, barely connected to the body. No wonder we say souls soar when they travel. Flying is mysterious, unseen, even slightly imaginary. It feels unknowable. It feels like magic.

Then the plane rocks gently in the sky and I remember how humans are not meant to fly. But we are meant to love, and wonder, and wander. So I’m in this crazy metal bird that I’ve decided to trust to carry me to Maddie, and Lillian, and Jessie, and Stephen. I don’t understand how it works, but I don’t really care. The privilege of flying reminds me how we often get to places in ways we don’t understand, our bodies and souls along for the ride.


Day 4 (July 13)

Sometimes being in the moment means posting a day late.

This little girl loves maps. Last night, she learned the word “symbols” and then went through each individual symbol in the legend on the map of the art museum. Her mom patiently explained what each symbol represented and they found each one on the map: the elevator, the stairs, the bathrooms, the gift shop.

I could say something philosophical about that, about place and location and direction. But mostly it was cute and sweet, and I loved seeing this little girl excited to learn new things. Just yesterday I was holding her week-old body, and now she explains maps to me. She embellishes a bit, but I think the art museum would benefit from her architectural vision. Every art museum would be vastly improved by the addition of boats and trains. She and I both think so.


Day 5 (July 14)

I don’t spend a lot of time with babies in my daily life. The majority of my time is spent with fledgling and more established adults. Oh, and books. But when I’m in Boston, it’s all about the babies.

Facebook tells me that eight years ago, this beautiful woman and I were at a Harry Potter midnight movie premiere in our small college town. Sometimes I feel like I’m still in that space, with my perpetual student/teacher lifestyle. I come to Boston to be reminded of how much time has passed, to see those little girls who weren’t even in our dreams eight years ago.

My job takes me into the past and has me imagine the future: what do my students/field/colleagues already know? What can I learn and teach them for the future? Sometimes I forget it’s also about the present, the people and ideas and challenges and fears and hopes right in front of me.

Being around babies teaches me about the present. Lillian feels in the moment. She is amazed or thrilled one second, is upset the next, is suddenly irreparably tired the next. She exists in each particular moment, fully and completely.

This photo is a beautiful, perfect moment tied to the future and the past. Looking at it, I see Lillian’s mom, my best friend, and I see that incandescent smile I’ve loved for a decade. I imagine the future, who Lillian will become, and where, and why, and how I can be there for all of it.

Mostly, though, I see the moment: a Boston evening, the sun setting, Jess laughing, Lillian crowing and flapping her arms, me storing the memory away.


C’mere. A little closer. I have a secret to tell you.

(whispers in your ear) I have a birthday coming up. A big one.

Don’t tell anyone, okay? It would involve showing my hand. Giving my age. Owning my years in a world where youth is craved, ingénues are glorified, women are supposed to be ageless.


The Psalmist once wrote, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” With each year that passes, and especially this last one, I’m realizing my days are not endless. Maybe that in itself is the beginning of wisdom.

I wanted to do something to commemorate these next 30 days, until my birthday. I thought about it long and hard, and I couldn’t decide. The 30 books that most impacted me? The 30 most significant pop culture elements I’ve loved? Thirty photos from my past? Thirty memorable moments from my life?

Nothing seemed right. Everything seemed kind of self-indulgent, which birthdays inherently are. Maybe I’ll do some lists of the above (don’t ever believe I’m above self-indulgence). But I don’t need an excuse to tumble into nostalgia; I throw myself into it enough as it is.

What I need help with is the present. Counting my days.

So, I’m going to do that each day for the next 30 days. Take a moment, snap a photo, write a little mini-essay. Though I likely will on my Instagram/Facebook, I won’t post daily here on the blog; I’m not sure I could handle the pressure. I’ll compile groups of five and post every few days.

Undoubtedly I’ll end up reminiscing about the past and imagining the future, for birthdays inherently lead to both. But I want to live these next 30 days: in Texas, in Boston, in Florida. I want to be present for the final days of my second decade.

Count ’em. #30til30

#30til30 Days 1-5

#30til30 Days 6-10



Zag On ‘Em: On Strength, Story-Telling, and Creativity

Artwork by John Pohlman (https://jopomo.carbonmade.com/)

Hello. It’s been a while.

In January, I posted my 2016 wrap-up, and I had big plans for my 2017 resolution post. I even had a word picked out for the year. But, as an indication of how 2017 would go, I never got around to writing it. 2017 exploded.

And now we’re halfway through 2017.

I look back and think, where did all of that time go? And then I remember. Oh yeah. I had the busiest and most stressful semester of my life, during which my best friend had a baby and was diagnosed with brain cancer. The semester ended, and I immediately went to Boston (for babies), then Waco (dog-sitting), then to Fort Worth (moving), and then to Tampa ( AP grading). All while teaching online classes and doing freelance work.

These are all excuses of course, valid ones, but excuses nonetheless. Life happens, we make decisions, and we carry on the best we know how.

But now we’re six months into 2017, and I’ve been thinking about zagging and creativity.

Most summers I fall deep into a very particular pop culture hole. This summer, I’m madly in love with three brothers from West Virginia who produce a variety of podcasts, the flagship being My Brother, My Brother, and Me (an advice show for the modren era). The McElroy boys and their goofs and their swears have kept me company while I traveled across the country and across town. In May, I even got to see them record a podcast live in Austin with my good, good podcast pal Sarah.

Each year, these boys discuss a name and a tagline for the year that will set the tone for the next 12 months. For example, 2016 was termed 20-fixteen, “building bridges,” which they acknowledged didn’t go  well. This last January, they had a long goofy conversation (as is their wont) about what to call 2017. Quickly proposed and discarded were 20-servin’-teen, “serve your community or SERVE your community,” and 20-raven-teen, “everyone gets ravens.”

Eventually, thanks to Griffin, the McElroy brothers landed on 20-serpentine, with the tagline: “Keep ‘em guessing.” In short, do the unexpected. Weave and wile your way through 2017. When they expect you to zig, zag on ‘em. It seemed a fitting response to the madness that was 2016, and listeners jumped on board (my internet best friend Lin-Manuel Miranda among them).

Well, six months in, and I keep forgetting to zag on ‘em.

My own personal word for the year was going to be strength, since I had spent the fall semester working out with my pal Rachel and using free weights. My arms were looking good, man. Then 2017 happened, and heck if I went to the gym once during the months of March and April. I did not. Truly, I was glad I didn’t write that post about 2017, the year of strength.

Halfway through 2017, my arms have lost most of their muscle tone. I’ve stumbled my way back to the gym in fits and starts, but I don’t feel much stronger than I did last year. Maybe that’s okay for now.

Another one of the McElroy podcasts I am listening to voraciously this summer while packing boxes and then unpacking boxes and getting on planes and getting off planes and driving to and from the airport is The Adventure Zone. It’s (ostensibly) a Dungeons and Dragons podcast, though everything the McElroys do is a variation on the traditional theme. I don’t feel the D&D label quite encapsulates the magic. For one, the three brothers play with their dad (who finds the multiple dice a challenge). Two, Griffin, the babiest brother and game master, has constructed a complex and multilayered story that has been building over the last three years. It’s just now wrapping up, and I’m just now caught up.

The podcast itself will hopefully get a blog post of its own at some point, but the story and the McElroys have made me think a lot about living a creative life. Griffin has written a beautiful story which has unfolded over 65+ episodes. He also does MBMBaM with his brothers, and he does a Bachelor/ette recap podcast called Rose Buddies with his wife Rachel (who is just as sharp and hilarious as he is). In his day job, he is a video game journalist, mostly making dumb Youtube videos for Polygon. (EDIT: Totally forgot the dude also writes original music for The Adventure Zone, which I am listening to right now while grading.) His whole life appears to be creative. He’s constantly making things, telling stories in many different ways.

Imbibing the McElroy family of products, and Griffin’s work in particular, has made me aware of the creative deficit in my own life.

I’ve been writing seminar papers, crafting conference presentations, and grading student work for four years now. In those four years, I’ve worked to plant secret echoes of myself in my work, and this last semester, I feel like I finally succeeded in subtle ways. I love the work I do, but I miss spending my time with stories, both my own and others’. I miss telling stories. I miss being creative, or maybe more accurately, expressive.

When I announced I was going to graduate school, my favorite professor–who had been one of my biggest encouragers and inspirations—told me, don’t let them take your passion for writing. And I said I wouldn’t. I was wrong, a bit. “They” probably didn’t mean to ruin it (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt), but my passion got very weak in the harsh light of the rules and regulations for traditional academia. Only write critical pieces. Don’t let yourself in. Don’t betray your façade of intelligence by showing yourself to be a person.

This traditional form of academia is changing, but slowly, and I don’t have time to wait until I get tenure to do the type of writing that gives me joy and satisfaction. See, my best friend, my strong and brave and powerful friend, has brain cancer, and she is fighting it like the warrior she has always been. But a fact has been made very clear to me.

None of us have any time to waste.

I just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which is about living a creative life. She says ideas are magic, that the muse comes to those who are ready and leaves behind those who are not. She says that fear will always come on the road trips of creation with you, but never let it drive or even touch the radio. She says that creativity requires bravery and thrives on whimsy and trickery.

Overall, she says that we are entitled to be creative, quoting David Whyte’s phrase, “the arrogance of belonging.” Because we exist, because we are here, we are allowed to create in whatever way, whatever ways, we deem necessary. Because creativity is necessary.

So, 20-serpentine. Zag on ’em. Create. Get those muscles working again.

My goal is to write more, hopefully at least once a month, and hey, start a podcast about all of these things and more (with a fabulous co-host who won’t let me quit). Who knows what else 2017 will throw my way, but I’m ready to tell some stories. I’m ready to find my way to creative strength, or at least a lack of creative weakness.

I’ve got six months left in 2017. Six months to figure out what that looks like. Six months to keep ‘em guessing.


Good-bye to ‘Sixteen

img_6445Hello. It’s been a while.

Let me blame it on 2016. 2016, a year that had a terribly low approval rating. 2016, which seemingly stole most things that brought us joy. 2016, of the ever-shifting, ever-heartbreaking, ever-maddening social/political/global instability. I know of very few folks who were sad to say good-bye to 2016.

My year can be summed up as follows: a crazy spring led into a fragmented summer, which led into a brand new fall and anxious winter. I read. A lot. I wrote for class, I wrote comments on student papers, and I wrote in a journal for a bit. I traveled, and I cried, and I fretted over decisions. Days turned to weeks, which turned to months, and then it was over. And I was fine with saying good-bye.

So, a recap. Sixteen Significant Things that Happened in 2016, in no particular order.

  1. Teaching full-time (at one institution) — I got to teach my dream class, teach upperclassmen, teach argument and narrative and technical writing. I was always exhausted and stressed. I was always grading.
  2. Ph.D. Institution Reveal Party — After months of applications, and some yeses and some nos, and an excruciating decision between four strong options, I selected the place I’d be giving my time, energy, and tears for the next four years. And I announced it to my favorite people with colored cake and cheap champagne.
  3. Traveling east (mostly) — I made monkey bread in Boston, avoided horse poop at Churchill Downs, and got drenched in Central Park. I rested my hand on Dr. King’s church on a sweltering day in Montgomery, saw the ocean in Mobile, wandered down Bourbon Street, rode the Kansas City streetcar. In December, I finally went west: to Seattle coffee shops and to Alberta snowstorms.
  4. Kelm Girls Take Manhattan 2016, aka the Hamilton trip — My sister and I took our first sister adventure as adults, and all we did, I kid you not, was eat dessert and see Broadway shows. The reason for the trip was, in one word: Hamilton. Seeing the show broke our hearts open and stitched them back together again.
  5. AP scoring in Kansas City — I stand by my characterization of this week as summer camp for teachers, if summer camp means a week of 8 hour days in a fluorescent convention center grading thousands of mediocre/poor essays written by teenagers.
  6. New delicious experiences — Traveling meant I had Ale-1-8 in Louisville, beignets in New Orleans, burnt ends in Kansas City, and British tea in NYC. Oh, and I ate amazing food (all of it unfamiliar, all of it delicious) at an iftar prepared by generous Muslim friends during Ramadan.
  7. Moving to the Big City — I said good-bye to my old, beautiful, drafty apartment in my weird little broken Texas town, and I moved north. Ninety miles north, to be precise. New city means new restaurants, coffee shops, and museums. Also, lots of getting lost.
  8. Podcasts — New city means much more driving, so I rediscovered my love for podcasts. Linda, Glen, and Stephen at NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour; Justin, Travis, and Griffin at My Brother, My Brother, and Me; Trayvon and Mike at The Room Where It’s Happening; and Josh and Hrishi at The West Wing Weekly are basically close personal friends of mine, by this point. Oh, I can’t forget seeing Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder of Serial fame give a lecture. Radio in real life, guys!
  9. Starting a doctoral program — Four+ more years of graduate school. When I say it like that, I feel tired, but when I break it down into component parts, I get panicky. But when I remember what I get to study and with who (brilliant faculty and brilliant colleagues), I feel lucky.
  10. Yoga and weight lifting — The day after my birthday, I went to my first yoga class (a hot one!), and I got hooked. It’s exactly my type of exercise: slow stretching. And then I found a workout buddy (shout-out to Rachel!) who has been teaching me the finer points of lifting heavy things.
  11. Kelms Invade Texas 2016 — All of my people came to visit me, all at once, over Canadian Thanksgiving: two parents, one brother, one sister-in-law, one sister, one sister boyfriend, all in one house. It was ridiculous and magical, and I felt loved.
  12. Selling merch at a show — To be specific, I volunteered to sell band merchandise at a Switchfoot/Relient K concert. It was a full-circle moment, for teenage/adult Sara.
  13. The election — I’m still at a loss for how to express my grief about what this recent election cycle and decision says about our nation and what its citizens believe about both people and words. This continues to be a significant and painful time, one that keeps teaching me the importance of being informed (locally, nationally, globally), courageous, and kind in a world that increasingly devalues each of these things.
  14. Revisiting old loves — When your heart is heavy, it helps to go back to things that you know give you joy. For example, the Great British Bake-Off, The West Wing, Parks and Recreation, Harry Potter, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Happy Endings, Sufjan Stevens, memoirs written by my favorite comedians, bands from my adolescence.
  15. Finding new loves — A few new things gave me unexpected joy over the past year of darkness: the utter weirdness of Twin Peaks, the joyfulness of Chance the Rapper, the companionship of the Royals (and the Cubs winning the Series), the unbridled nostalgia of Stranger Things, the smooth vocals of Leslie Odom, Jr. and Leon Bridges, the silliness of The Good Place, and the beauty of Chef’s Table.
  16. Reading good books — I remembered what I often forget: I love to read. This year, I read graphic novels/memoirs, illness narratives, baseball novels, comics about radio, rhetorical criticism, books about the prairie, and young adult fairy tales. I recapped all 53 books I read in 2016, but highlights were Moore’s short story collection Birds of America, Abel’s comic about radio Out on the Wire, Ansari’s Modern Romance, and McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.

There’s my 2016 in a nutshell, my way of saying good-bye to the year that was. My word for 2016 was “health,” and I’ll think more about how that word applied to the year as I try to figure out what my 2017 word will be. I have lots of thinking to do. Stay tuned — I’ll be back soon.


Summer, Changes, and Things that are Making Me Happy

Summer is fully half over, and I haven’t accomplished much.

I’ve done a few things. I went to New York City, saw Hamilton (I work that into conversation as much as possible). I went to Kansas City to grade a thousand AP exams. I taught an online class. I got a gym membership, and I started reading again. I found a new apartment and did my best to avoid all thoughts of moving and starting school again. I went to the pool.

It’s easier to count by the things I haven’t done, good ole pessimist that I am. It’s also easier to look ahead and get afraid, get stuck and mired in my own anxiety about what is to come.

The world isn’t helping in that regard.

2016, man. Giant losses. Enormous violence. Heated political rhetoric. In the last two weeks, we’ve had shootings and hate crimes, a sit-in on the House floor, and the departure of the UK from the EU. Also, Zika is still a thing. I mean, what is this life?

It’s a changing life, is what it is. It’s changing like crazy, seemingly for the worst. This world is a pretty rough place these days. People are mad, sad, and afraid.

And yet. My friends are having babies, itty bitty humans that will be living in this world we’re creating. Other friends are getting married, trusting that a life together won’t make the gloom dissipate but it’ll be less gloomy. On my darkest nights, I wonder how they’re so brave, in such a unpredictable and broken world. On my lighter days, I’m grateful for them. They might not see it as such, but their choices to move forward are a middle finger to the darkness, saying we will choose this joy despite your presence, despite the uncertainty. Their acts of bravery cause ripples of changes.

I’m taking my own steps of bravery: moving cities, starting grad school (again), finding a new community in a new Texas town. On my darkest nights, I don’t know how I’ll be able to do it. On my lightest days, I am grateful — not a condition that comes naturally to me.

I’m more of a realist/pessimist. Brené Brown, God bless her, says in Daring Greatly  that a common coping mechanism is to approach anything joyful with deep foreboding. This can be thought of as a “continuum that runs from ‘rehearsing tragedy’ to what [she] call[s] ‘perpetual disappointment'” (121). Yep. I know that tendency. If I expect the good to turn to bad, then I won’t be upset when it happens. Besides the fact that’s blatantly untrue (I’ll still be upset, obviously), that negativity taints the joy that is right in front of me. Instead of seeing the beauty, I am waiting for the inevitable rain.

Sure, the rain’s gonna come, but it’ll be easier to manage if I’ve let myself be vulnerable and joyful, and I store those memories for a rainy day. Thus, Brené’s solution is gratitude. Remembering the good things that have happened and will happen again.

So, in this hot mess of a world, I’m working on making gratitude a more central component of my life.

I listen to this podcast (Pop Culture Happy Hour, by NPR) that discusses movies, tv shows, books, music, anything pop culture at a deep and critical level. Yet no matter how deep or critical they get, they always end the episode with the things that are making them happy. Each week each member of the round table has the chance to gush over something they are enjoying. Not only does the segment give the listeners new things to Google, it ends the episode with a subtle undercurrent of gratitude for the good things in life that make us happy — whether it’s a tv show, a band, or an experience.

The things that break our heart need airtime, but so do the things that fill us with light.

And so, this is my inaugural posting of “What is Making Me Happy Right Now.” I’d like to say it’s going to be a weekly posting, but I can’t get my act together right now, so we’ll just see what happens.

So, here’s what has made me happy this week. I’m fighting the darkness by being grateful for these things and many more.

1) Chef’s Table: This documentary series on Netflix is giving me life. Seeing artists describe their culinary work, along with the struggles they experience to do what they do, reminds me that we’re all in this together, fighting for our passions. Also, the food is deliciously gorgeous, as is the storytelling of this series. Highly recommend.

2) Lin-Manuel Miranda: If you don’t know Lin, he’s the mastermind behind Hamilton. He’s an amazing artist, but he’s also a really generous guy in so many ways. Sometime soon Imma write a whole fan letter post to Lin, describing what this guy is doing for the Broadway community, the music community, the Hispanic community, the world at large. This guy, though, posts nothing but light on Twitter. He deals in words, but he knows how to use those 140 characters to brighten and soothe and delight those around him, even though most of us have never met him. He’s my best Twitter friend, hands down. Follow him at @Lin_Manuel.

3) Iftar: Tonight the Islamic community of my town invited a number of local church parishioners to share iftar with them, the breaking of their Ramadan fast. They welcomed us into their center, prayed with us, and then made us precede them into eating the most flavorful and delicious food, which they prepared even while they fasted. I looked around the room tonight, after hearing a rabbi, a Baptist minister, and a former police chief speak words of unity and inclusion, and I only felt love for my Muslim, Jewish, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, etc. brothers and sisters. We were a community.

Fight the darkness with gratitude. What’s making you happy this week?

Baking and Swearing: A Post about the Future

A Friday or so ago, I was running around my kitchen, swearing.IMG_5971

I don’t really remember why I was swearing, in particular, except for the fact that I was trying to bake a cake, from scratch, from a new recipe, with limited counter space and limited time. Oh, and the cake had to be the right color on the inside.

You see, in a few hours, I would be hosting a Ph.D. Institution Reveal Party, at which I would cut the chocolate frosted cake, disclosing to my dear friends exactly what school and city would own the next four years of my life. Never mind the fact that I was questioning my decision every other moment, as well as my choice to host a party after being gone three weekends in a row. Oh, and I was having major doubt about my ability to use food coloring.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.


The plan wasn’t always to get a Ph.D. Three years ago, I applied for master’s degree programs, not doctoral programs, for a few reasons. One, I didn’t know if I wanted to get a Ph.D. Two, I didn’t know what I wanted to get a doctorate in, if I did want one. And three, I didn’t know if I could do it.

So I applied to master’s programs, got into a few, chose the one with the best funding, and moved to Waco, Texas, where I knew absolutely no one. I left a full-time job and a community that loved me for… the unknown.

The last three years have been an experience. I’ve worked hard and played hard, met new folks and turned them into good friends, grown to love an odd and unlovable place. I’ve experienced new things and those things have become familiar.

After writing a thesis, I got a master’s degree. Then I taught for two wonderful and stress-filled semesters. I loved my students, and at some points, I think they perhaps liked me. And I thought, I don’t know what to do with my life, but I think I could keep doing this. So. I applied for Ph.D. programs in rhetoric and composition so that I can study and teach writing for the foreseeable future.

I applied to six places, because I had no idea if any of them would want me. Diverse places: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana. Oh, and one place in Texas, just because my rhet/comp professors would say, “You know, TCU has a really good program.”

The acceptances started with Texas Christian University, of course, and I thought, Nope. I’m not staying in Texas. Other acceptances came, but the problem was that TCU gave me a better offer. Plus, the more I looked into their program, the more I liked it. They pursued me; they knew my work; they wanted me to come.

After visiting the campus, I thought, so what if it’s in Texas? Four years isn’t too long. And in a city, no less! With coffeeshops and art museums and Indian food restaurants! I decided I would say yes to TCU after Easter.

Well, then the game changed. On the flight to Boston for Easter, I got an email from the University of Louisville. Acceptance with a great offer, almost equal to TCU’s.

So, the next weekend, I was on a plane to Louisville. I had a great time in Louisville. I met fantastic people, I drank bourbon, I visited the Kentucky Derby Museum. I liked the school and the program. Obviously, my enjoyment of the place was upsetting to me.

I was stuck. I had to decide between two good options. And my kind, loving people kept telling me, you can’t make a wrong decision. This was true, but not helpful, because I had to make a decision, and how was I supposed to do so if there wasn’t a wrong one? How does one choose between two good things?

My deadline for deciding was Tuesday evening, 10pm. I arrived back to my apartment from Kentucky at 9pm. The day had been spent writing lists, crying, writing journal entries, staring, praying, and being mired in indecision. I texted everyone I knew, I emailed every spiritual leader I’ve ever had, and I talked on the phone to my parents and my thesis advisor. No clarity. No certainty.

Two good things. What’s a girl to do with such a problem? It’s a great problem, but it’s still a problem, and I wrestled with the decision over and over again, like a rock tumbler trying to smooth out the edges of a shard of glass. Each time it tumbled, it broke again, more pieces to put together. More sharp edges. More uncertainty.

Let me pause for a moment here and state the obvious: I’m not great with decisions. I prefer decisions that are a) made for me, or b) easily returned within 90 days with the tags still on and original receipt. I know as a grown, independent, single, strong woman I should be the captain of my own ship, the maker of my destiny, but most of the time I still want my Mom to tell me I don’t have to go to school because I don’t feel well. Decisions are hard, and they hurt. They create a crossroads, two possible pathways of which the end is foggy and undetermined. I don’t do foggy and undetermined.

And so I sat in the Atlanta airport, waiting: on God, on my mother, on some sign to emerge to tell me what to do. Nothing happened. The pros/cons lists were still there, still equal.

The problem is that I knew I would end up different, depending on whether I would spent the next four years in Kentucky, or in Fort Worth. I would be a different person on the other side. I didn’t know which one would be a better version of myself. I wanted to become the best version of me.

What I often forget, mired in the swamp of indecision, is that there will be hundreds of decisions between the me I am now and “four years later” me. Each of those decisions will change me, slightly. Or hugely. This Ph.D. decision was just the next step in a long line of decisions that had been made by me and for me for years. The journey is now. It was, it is, and it will be. I just needed to decide.

So. I got back to my apartment. My dear friend Sara came over. She looked at my lists, and then turned them over. I cried a little more, and she held my hand. Then I wrote an email, and clicked Send. We went to Chick-fil-a at 10:30pm to eat fried chicken in celebration.

But before we did that, I burned my pro/con lists. They didn’t go up in flames, but rather smoldered away, little by little, turning to embers and flying into the sky.


At some point in this long process, I realized at no point had I celebrated. People kept telling me congratulations for all of these acceptances, and I would look at them, confused as to why they would congratulate me for the torment caused by the decision-making process. I would sigh, and say, it’s a hard decision. At no point, did I feel like I had accomplished anything.

Because of this, I decided to throw myself a party.

I invited all of the people who had been listening to my neverending processing about cost of living and public transportation and  the price of health insurance. I told them that the party would be like those baby gender reveal parties, where I wouldn’t tell anyone my decision, but rather I would bake it into a cake. We would cut the cake, everyone would cheer, we’d drink champagne, and I’d feel proud. I’d celebrate.


The day had come, and I was swearing at the cake. I had no idea what color it was inside. I know what color I had tried to make the batter, but my cheap food coloring plus a slightly yellow cake and my lack of baking prowess was throwing off all of my plans. I had no way of checking what color the cake was without cutting it open. And people were coming over in mere hours.

I hurriedly made chocolate frosting and covered the whole darn thing, before running around my apartment like a mad woman, looking for belts and lipstick, and my master’s hood, which I was going to wear, because I paid for that thing in blood/sweat/tears and there are very few occasions on which a master’s hood is an appropriate accessory.

My friends arrived with seemingly endless bottles of champagne. Joseph brought his world-class guacamole. In the center of the table was the cake.

Would it be red, for the University of Louisville Cardinals? Or would it be purple, for the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs (that’s right, I said horned frogs)?

They all took a poll, and of the twelve individuals present, they were almost split down the middle. Everyone was nervous, excited, including me. On the video (below), you can see my lack of certainty: in my cake-cutting abilities, in my food-coloring abilities, in my decision-making abilities.

But I had to cut the cake. It was waiting to be cut, to be claimed, to be celebrated.

I looked around and knew that even though I would never trust my own decisions, my friends thought me wise, capable, and intelligent. And I trust them. At that moment, for a split second before I doubted myself again, I knew I made the right choice, because I had simply made a choice. And I would become the woman I have always hoped to be, by sheer force of will and bold decision-making.

So, along with of a celebration of myself and my future, I chose, in that moment, to celebrate those around me in person and afar: my advisors, my playmates, my audience. My friends. My family. My fellow journeyers toward truth, goodness, and beauty. The people who came to celebrate me, even while I was determined to celebrate them.

I cut the cake. It was a dull blue-grey. One could say, practically purple.

Cue the champagne.


So, I’m doing it. I’m going for my Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition at Texas Christian University. That means four more years in the great state of Texas. Fort Worth has museums, art, music, coffee shops, tacos, and an airport (or two). The program at TCU is top-notch, and I cannot wait to begin the next phase of my academic journey, learning more about the composition and rhetoric discipline in which I plan to make my mark. I look forward to investing in the TCU graduate community, and eventually teaching the students at TCU (after my first year fellowship).

Most of all, I’m excited to take my next steps, say good-bye to Waco, and move 100 miles north to the big city. I can’t promise certainty at any step along the way, but I can promise a healthy amount of swearing at baked goods.


If you want to see the reveal, here it is!

After ‘Fifteen Comes ‘Sixteen

IMG_5706Hello. It’s been a while.

Let me blame it on 2015. It was a hard year, man, as evidenced by my lack of posting and high number of emotional breakdowns. Yet, it was good. Friendships fell apart and then were pieced back together. Movement happened. Graduations, applications, uncertainty and confusion. Much changed, even while I so desperately tried to hold things the same. It was a year that involved plenty of growth, and the realization that I have a lot of growing to do.

Writing-wise, I wrote a thesis that was 136 pages long, and I wrote lesson plans for plenty of classes, but I didn’t do any other writing. For months, I wrote only for school, for class, and for my freelance projects. I barely read: 17 books in 2015, as compared to 50 books on average the previous four years. But I worked so hard. 2015 was the year that made me tired. So, I have some plans for 2016.

First, a recap. Fifteen Significant Things of 2015, in absolutely no particular order:

  1. Ate mole in San Antonio – not mole like the animal, mo-lay like the delicious Spanish dish. San Antonio is a lovely place, even in the rain.
  2. 4 Cs – Going to the Conference on College Composition and Communication (in sunny Tampa) showed me that I do actually love the field of rhetoric and composition. A good reminder, in the midst of thesis stress, that pain has purpose.
  3. Turned down a job – So I was offered a job, with health insurance, and I turned it down because I think I would have been really exhausted and really unhappy. Sometimes self-knowledge can be scary…and empowering.
  4. Seattle with sister-friend and farewell to Newberg (again) – I went to the West Coast to watch my sister graduate, see evergreens, and say good-bye to Newberg all over again, as my best friends sold their home and moved to the East Coast.
  5. Got my master’s degree, and my parents were here to celebrate – I did it. I finished. 136 pages and many tears later, I got a fancy new hood, a new line on my C.V., and exhaustion.
  6. Moving – is the worst. But my new apartment has interior glass doors, wood floors, and lots of natural sunlight.
  7. The summer of everything, then nothing – The first part of the summer was thesis to the max. The second was pool to the max. I loved the pool part of the summer.
  8. Went to a Czech festival and a Texas rodeo – Central Texas, a hotbed of cultural experiences. Who knew?
  9. Learned how to curl my hair – Learning new skills keeps the brain cells from dying.
  10. Taught full-time (at three different institutions) – All I can say is that there are a lot of names to memorize and a lot of assignments to grade. And every once in a while, there’s a brilliant exquisite moment of clarity that tells you it’s worth it.
  11. Won trivia – I’m busy Thursday nights. My trivia team has gotten pretty darn good, and I’m prouder of this than most other aspects of my life.
  12. Broke into a house with a credit card – Relax, I knew the owners. Just know that the context for this act was stomach flu at a wedding. Also, Alabama is lovely!
  13. Anything involving Madelyn Christine – This kid is now 20ish months old, and she’s a gem. Sure, she drives her mother crazy, but she’s smart, funny, silly, curious, and straight-up adorable. I love seeing that little girl whenever I can: in Newberg, in Boston, over Skype. She owns my heart.
  14. Star Trek: The Next Generation & Jurassic Park – 2015: Captain Picard kept me sane through thesis-ing, and now I get why I should be afraid of velociraptors.
  15. Hamilton – I know, I know. Me and everyone else. But it is straight up brilliant, and I’ve been following the career of Lin-Manuel Miranda for years. It’s both a revolution and a revelation. Just stop being cynical and love it already.

So, that’s 2015 in a tiny nutshell.

It’s just like me to do a year in review over three weeks into the new year. Same for resolutions. I like to bypass the window of failure. By making the resolutions late, I’ve already failed. The pressure is off!

In years past, I haven’t really done resolutions. I find them anxiety-producing. So, I’ve conceptualized the year’s goals differently: using words (no surprise there). In the past, I’ve chosen one word for each year, words like yes, brave, balance. I guess I didn’t chose a word for last year. I don’t think I had any idea what my life would be like in that year.

Surprise: still no idea what 2016 will hold. But the word that keeps coming to mind is Health. Honestly, I hate it. I hate this word. It makes me think of the doctor and diets and exercise and making good choices that really actually suck. But I can’t get it out of my mind. I think it’s my word for 2016.

It’s my word, I think, because I’ve made some choices this past year that weren’t healthy: physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally, spiritually. We can’t make the best choice 100% of the time, but I’m realizing that I want to be healthy. I want to feel proud of the progress I’m making in my life. I don’t want to get stuck; I don’t want to indulge habits that feel good in the moment but ultimately leave me empty.

That’s the idea, isn’t it? Health means fullness. It doesn’t mean deprivation or frustration or isolation. It means goodness, hope, energy, life, and fullness. So, here are some ways I’d like to be healthy this year. I’m not holding myself to any of them, but I’m interested in seeing how my life could change.

Physically: Make choices that give me more life, instead of sapping my life (this probably means an emphasis on the exercise/vegetables/sleep side of things)
Emotionally: Take a Sabbath for my mind and heart to rest
Relationally: Spend time with ones who naturally bring me joy instead of trying to force joy
Professionally: Work hard and give myself grace (and a lunch break)
Artistically: Give myself the room and the permission to write and read
Spiritually: Use these other means of health to clear the way for sacred experiences

Who knows what 2016 will bring? Already, it’s more of the same: fighting, blizzards, and uncertainty. But I’m going to approach it with clarity, hope, and health. We’ll see what happens. Hang in there with me, will you?

End-of-Semester Stress Disorder

944234_10201276693383348_532355830_nPeople, this is it. We’ve now hit finals week, and the work continues to pile up. Being both student and teacher has taken a heavy toll on my mental status. While I thought I was doing fine, recent events have proven otherwise. I’m calling this “end-of-semester stress disorder,” and it’s serious business. So here are some warning signs for EOSSD that you might want to look out for, from one who has experienced them. All of them. I’m not kidding. This is a record of my recent life. I can’t make this stuff up. As I continue to slide down the slope toward insanity, I’ll continue to add warning signs at the top of the list. And you should let me in on your EOSSD insanity via comments. Because if we’re not laughing hysterically, we’re sobbing on the shoulders of strangers, so let’s laugh, people.

You may be experiencing “end-of-semester stress disorder” if…

–You consider riding your bike to the farmer’s market but decide not to because you might get hit by a car and break your arms. Now is not the time to take risks, my friends.

–You leave binders of papers open in the middle of your living room floor in the hopes that someone else will put them away. You have somehow forgotten that you live alone and thus you will be the one to trip over them repeatedly. And the one to put them away.

–You bring chocolate chips as a “sharable snack” to a study party. Granted, you bring three different kinds of chocolate chips, but they’re still chocolate chips.

–You stop everything, and I mean everything, to text a friend about it being Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s birthday. To be fair, you’re both really big fans of the Rock.

–You start researching academic articles on the rhetoric of “A Prairie Home Companion,” because you think you might want to do a dissertation on Garrison Keillor. By that, you mean just listen to “A Prairie Home Companion” instead of doing real work.

–You take a walk to clear your head. While walking, you come upon a huge branch in the street. You think, “There’s a big branch. Don’t trip on it.” You trip on the branch.

–You get really teary watching Planet Earth, because the baby elephant walks the wrong way, away from the herd, and you realize that baby elephant is you, and you’re going to be eaten by a lion called academia.

–You leave a coffee shop because “the air is bad” and you can’t possibly work there if the air is bad.

–You look in the mirror right before you leave the house, and you can’t remember if you put on makeup. Like any makeup. Also, you can’t figure out a way to tell if you put on makeup because you can’t remember what your face looks like with–or without–makeup. For all you know, you’re looking at a stranger.

–You forget the name of the new wine you had with a friend approximately six times over the course of 24 hours. Each time you forget, you ask that friend to repeat the name of the wine. She does so the first five times. The sixth time you ask, she tells you and then threatens violence if you ask again. At which point you have already forgotten the name of the wine. You don’t tell her.

–You stress-eat turkey pepperoni, which is probably the least sexy food to stress-eat. Slightly better is the stress-eating of the chocolate chips, of which you have three kinds (milk, semi-sweet, and dark, obviously).

–You stress-wash dishes, both yours and a friend’s. The friend is grateful. You pretend to have done your friend a favor. You did not.

–You stress-bake cookies that are actually so good that you forget that you baked them in order to avoid work, and instead you think you did something for the good of humanity. You’re welcome, humanity.

–You yell at the dryer. In your defense, the dryer was being unreasonable.

–You see an acquaintance in a place you are not expecting to see anyone you know. This acquaintance asks you what you’re doing at this place, and you suddenly can’t remember. You mumble incoherently. She leaves quickly.

–You buy boxed mac and cheese even though you are a grown-up and that stuff is probably toxic. You also make said mac and cheese with Greek yogurt because you’re out of milk. You pretend that this makes it classier and fine for an adult to eat. You eat the whole box in one sitting.

–You make plans for spending time with friends after the semester ends, but each time you do so, you have to intentionally stop yourself from saying, “If I’m still alive then.” It’s possible you would be making a joke, but no one would be sure, including yourself.

–You are at a friend’s house, alone, presumably working. Suddenly you hear a scratching noise. You distrust your own senses, as you realize you are constantly moments away from emotional collapse, but then you hear it again. It sounds like it is right next to you, scratching at the wall. You text your friend after noise number three, just asking out if he’s ever heard anything like that before you freak out. He hasn’t. You hear it again. The fifth time, it essentially sounds like there is a giant mouse-raccoon monster under the bed you are currently sitting on. At this point, you call this friend, speaking in panicked, incoherent sentences, finishing with “It’s probably fine Bye” and hanging up abruptly. This alarms him enough to come home and check. There is nothing there: not under the bed, not under the couch. The walls make no noises. He gives you a look that is too kind. You realize he is convinced you are crazy. He might be right, but you decide to never step foot in his home ever again.

–In the office, you develop a plan with your colleagues to quit everything and become beach detectives who turn cases into murder mysteries that are performed at your beach theatre. Also, one of you is highly invested in having bees, which another claims he will be able to train to sting the bad guys. This is all highly suspect, but it’s the end of the semester, so it makes perfect sense.

–You edit this blog post for three hours instead of working on your papers and grading. Because you’re an artist.

–You try to remember if you’ve ever been this crazy before, and you remember the last week of spring semester last year when you had a real pacing problem. As in you couldn’t stop pacing. A friend took you to the grocery store (presumably because you shouldn’t have been left alone), and you wandered up and down the aisles, wringing your hands and doing Lamaze breathing. Your friend kept asking if you were okay. The response is not part of the memory. Remembering this, you’re not sure if you’ve gotten better at handling stress or worse.

Church, pt. 3: Further Vignettes

IMG_2306(Better late than never, this is a post I wrote a few months ago. It’s truer now than ever.)

During Advent, I resolved to go to church every Sunday. I felt strange that I was in a phase of life that I had to resolve this, but I did. And so every Sunday of December I went to a different church. One held friends and Advent wreaths, another liturgy and a communion I didn’t stay for, another a windowless room and loud music. The last was my father’s church, a big Baptist church that welcomes Calgarians of all backgrounds to worship together. And they do: Filipinos, Africans, Koreans, Chinese, many recent immigrants who are looking for a home, both physical and spiritual, in the cold North.

I sat next to my mother, the same spot I used to sit in the church in Minnesota, in South Dakota, in Washington, and now in Alberta. I know she loves to sit next to me during church, and while my siblings often sit with friends when they return home for Christmas, I sit with her, because we need each other, her and I. We shed our winter coats, our scarves and gloves, stashing them under the pew in front of us. We seek the warmth of church, of Christmas, of hope in the midst of the cold.

My dad sneaks in next to me, during the worship songs. He’s about to do his work, his busiest day always the day of rest. He generally sits in the front row, for easy access to the podium, but when the kids are home, he likes to sit with the family just for a song or two. I wonder, not for the first time, what it would have been like to be in a “normal” family, where the preacher wasn’t Dad and Dad wasn’t the preacher. That moment passes as I hear my dad sing, and I realize it doesn’t matter. He’s doing what he was always meant to do.

I look up at the Christmas decorations, giant stars hanging from the ceiling. In a few days, we’ll be back for Christmas Eve, then for the Sunday service post-Christmas. For the woman who grew up in the church, this is normal; for the woman who hasn’t a church home, this feels like a lot. But I know Dad will be up front most of those times, and I’ll hear his pastor voice proclaim the good news:  Jesus is born, and we are here, and we should rejoice. In a time when little else feels solid and true, I’ll hear his voice and believe it.

I read a book before going home for Christmas that rattled me because it was about a young man who found himself going to two different churches, the two churches that I had been rotating between. He pinpointed some of the same concerns that I had with one, and also pinpointed some of the beauty I had seen in the other. The latter was an Episcopal church that I had felt drawn to even while struggling to reconcile it with the Quaker faith testimony that I identified with. How could I do both, the open worship and the traditional liturgy?  I panicked and emailed a friend who had been Episcopal in a former life but now does not attend church. I knew he had attended a Quaker church in a former life too. I asked him why he had stopped going. His email back was was honest: he had worshiped with the Episcopalians because the church was close to his home, he liked the people, and the service times worked with his schedule. In my heightened emotional state, I felt that he was being blasé about this spiritual crisis that I was having, but now, thinking back, I realize he was telling me what he always tells me: to relax. To live. To let the combination of my daily life and my eternal soul and my battered heart tell me what I needed. It was okay to go to a church because the times worked well. It was okay to go to a church because the sanctuary was beautiful. It was okay to find a home you weren’t expecting among people you’d never thought would welcome you.

After the New Year, I couldn’t wait to go to my Oregon church on a rainy Sunday morning. It had been nearly eight months since I saw my Quaker friends in that wooden sanctuary with the small stained glass windows. As I entered, I greeted the usher, whose name I never remember. He doesn’t remember my name either, but he remembers my face, and so we just mutually recognize each other and smile. I find a seat in the pew in front of my friend Nancy, and we talk about the changes at my former place of employment, where she still works. And then the service started.

The usher whose name I can’t remember came up to me during the greet-your-neighbor time. Would I help with the offering, he asked. I hesitated a moment, pondering whether or not to tell him that I’ve been gone from this church for a year and a half. But before I knew it, I said I would be happy to help.

While we sang 90s choruses and old hymns, I wondered why I said yes, why I couldn’t let myself just sit and visit. And the answer came simply: I considered this my home church, the place I most belonged on a Sunday morning. I wanted to serve by taking up the offering because this place had given me so much comfort and challenge, had given me my voice and a community. So of course I would help.

This is what I longed for in Texas, this is what I craved and what made me cry and what I begged for in the brief silence of every church service I had attended in the last year and a half. I begged for another place like this.

So when the time came, I stood up with the wicker basket and moved to the front of the sanctuary. I passed the basket, and endured the smiles and the whispers of “you come back, we put you to work!” I was grateful for the gentle teasing, because it meant that people knew I had been here, that I had left, and that I was missed.

The man preaching that morning, not the usual lead pastor, said he remembered walking into this old sanctuary for the first time, looking up at the front, and feeling like he was home. And I looked at the framing behind him, the lack of a cross where a cross could be, the stained glass with a dove and an anchor, two symbols I often pondered during the open worships when I could not focus.

During open worship, I sat in the silence and felt my body relax, and focus, sharply, intently. I was grateful for the open worship, to hear the community I missed so much share what darkness the Inner Light had illuminated. And I was grateful to heard a member of the community speak words during the sermon that illuminated the Quaker peace testimony in a world so dark and violent, a testimony that is foolish in its hope and its practice. At the end of the service, my fellow Friends teased me, saying that they always ask visitors to collect the offering, and I said I’m not a visitor. I’m family.

I had coffee with my dear friend Jay, once again in the Oregon area for Christmas and his brother’s wedding while I was in the area to cuddle babies and drink loose-leaf tea. We met at the coffee shop we always met at as undergraduate students. We caught up about life and grad school and teaching and family and future plans. Then he mentioned he had been going to both a Quaker meeting and an Episcopal church as part of his spiritual practice. Jay grew up in the evangelical Quaker church, and he embodies so many of the things I love about it. They are part of who he is, and so I asked the question that wouldn’t leave me: how does he do it? How does he reconcile the complete lack of sacraments and hierarchy within the Quaker church with the full-on liturgy and ecclesial faith practice of the Episcopalians? He paused for a moment, and said it was all about encountering Christ. The way he sees it, both faith traditions put a premium on a personal encounter with the living God, whether through the Inner Light and open worship, or through the Eucharist and the liturgy. Vastly different practices, but with a similar result. The power of the Eucharist, of the bread and wine, is something that cannot be explained but can only be felt and experienced. It’s the very same thing with open worship. I realized in a moment how rigid my rules had been, how I was missing the underlying spirit of these faith practices. And I suddenly knew I could try again.

I was going to do it this time. Come hell or high water (all puns intended), I was going to take communion at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. I was going to walk down the center aisle, up the stairs, through the choir stalls, up three more stairs, kneel, and accept the bread, accept the cup. I was going to do it.

It was my first service back after Christmas, and the sanctuary was the same: beautiful, sacred, and filled with grey-haired parishioners who bowed their heads at the right times but didn’t even attempt to get into kneeling positions. Neither did I. I wasn’t ready yet. I also didn’t cross myself when others did. I knew the motion wouldn’t mean anything to me, and I couldn’t pretend it did. I hoped, though, that other things would have meaning.

The choir sang a beautiful hymn, a stellar young tenor taking a solo that “brought me to Jesus,” as some faith traditions are known to say. The sermon was short, as the rector’s voice was gravelly due to a cold. Even so, he spoke simply and honestly about the need for the church to move outside of its walls, of how it should work to bring people into this beautiful space by going out and getting them.

I felt at peace in this sanctuary, the dark beams above, the stained glass over the altar and along the sides, the creaking of the pews, the calming pattern of the liturgy that lulled and challenged. I started listening to the words that we said aloud, that we claimed to believe together, the forgiveness we asked for together, and the people we prayed for together.

I started to notice things that felt familiar from my time with the Quakers. The silence, for one. For another, calling government leaders by their first names during the Prayers for the People. The prayers for peace: the recognition that we are part of the problem and we can pray for a solution. The allowing of children in the service, and recognition that they can experience God too. The belief that women, if called, should lead a church. The idea that the community hears God together and participates in his spirit as one.

For once, I didn’t let myself get distracted by the differences; instead, I rested in the similarities. I didn’t need to become confirmed in the church. I just needed to listen for Christ wherever I could, and if I could hear him surrounded by Texan Episcopalians who crossed themselves while juggling multiple books and saying ancient words together, if I loved the church for the beauty of the sanctuary and the words said aloud in it, and if I felt like I could be known here, then Jesus was there with me.

Later that day, I went to the zoo for the first time since the fall. Only as I walked toward the orangutan complex did I realize it was my first visit since Batari’s death. Batari was the little girl orangutan, born right after the birth of my goddaughter in May. Every time I saw her little monkey face, her crazy hair, the care of her mother Mei, I thought of my little Maddie. Batari’s death in December crushed me in a way that I didn’t expect. I cried for the little girl monkey and the unfairness of life, and I asked what the point of this all was if baby monkeys die and baby humans die and adult humans do too. At that point, I didn’t know when I’d come back to the zoo, because I was so sad. But I did go back, because I love the zoo and I’ve felt at home there.

Approaching the orangutan complex, I thought about church that morning, and why I kept going back to church even though it was hard, even though it didn’t make sense most Sundays. I realized I went back because I needed to go, even if it hurt, even if I felt lonely or sad or discouraged. I went back because the joys that I have known in the walls of a church—through my dad’s voice, through open worship with the Friends, through the poetry of the Episcopal liturgy—outweigh the pain I feel. At the core is always hope: hope for community, for family, for an encounter with the divine. It might be a foolish hope, but it’s one that has been realized before, and so I’ll keep trying to put myself in situations where it can be realized again.

So, as I leaned up against the railing at the orangutan complex, not seeing the grieving orangutan couple, but praying for them regardless, I felt a peace, just like the one that brought me to tears that morning after tasting the bitter red wine of Christ’s blood on my tongue, the dry wafer of his body crunching between my teeth. The priest had given them to me after I had survived the long walk up to the front of the nave, and I had taken them. Then, a rush of gratefulness and peace, a salve for a tired soul. I had found a place, for now, to add to the places that I can encounter Christ: a pew between my parents. A creaky sanctuary in Oregon. A kneeler in a nave in Texas. And a zoo that gives me joy and pain because it is something sacred.