Category Archives: uncategorized

Turning 30 and Surviving 2017: A Learning Process

IMG_7433If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. – Gospel of Thomas

In the past year, the violent angry dumpster fire that was 2017, I turned 30 years old. Age is just a number, birthdays are just a day: all of those clichés are true. At the same time, the milestone has given me the opportunity to think back a decade, to who I was at 20 (the same age as many of my students) and think about how I’ve changed.

A decade is a long time. We only have so many of them in our lives, and I wanted to mark this one well. I did that with #30til30 project, which documented the ways I was trying to be present in the final days of my 20s while also trying to make sense of the past. I wrote about friendship, brain cancer, babies, oceans, baseball, podcasts, old family photos, art museums. It was a snapshot of me, at 30. Or, almost 30.

Thinking back a decade, I don’t have a clear snapshot of me at 20. I was in college, in Oregon. My family had just moved to Canada, and I spent a lot of time sitting in coffee shops drinking vanilla steamers because I didn’t yet like tea, writing on a clunky laptop because I hadn’t yet learned to speak up. The 20-year-old me was self-conscious and uncertain. Silent. Afraid. Grasping. She had to learn things in her own way, and it took her a long time. But once she did, she changed.

When I try to chronicle some of those things I learned in the last decade, I realize they have become even starker in this last year, this terrible, frustrating, frightening, infuriating year. All of my convictions, which have always been mine and held closely and preciously, have become more important. More real. I’ve had to learn how to live them differently this last year, which has been both good and painful.

I don’t always live my convictions well, but I try to practice every day. Someday I hope these convictions will become as natural as breathing, as natural as the anger that I’ve never been good at cultivating but that needs to be felt. As natural as the joy that I’ve never been good at expressing but that is always there, hidden a bit under the frost.

And so, here are some things I’ve learned in the last decade and became more convinced of in the past year.

I learned the world is extremely cruel, and people are horribly mean because they are afraid. But that fear isn’t an excuse for inflicting pain on others, and until they – we – recognize that fear and address it, not letting it control our hearts or our actions, the world will continue to be cruel.

I learned even in a cruel world there is beauty, joy, light, even hope. I realized that even in beautiful places there is pain, and there can be beauty in painful places. I can choose to see both; I can hold them in tension; I can grasp the joy even while recognizing the pain.

I learned love is love, given by God, and I will never choose a side against love, regardless of the people who call it sin. I realized that life is too short to tell others how to live. I know my Jesus did, but I’m not Him and those who speak for him don’t often do it very well. And all I want to do is love in the name of God, and celebrate those others who love in the name of God. I refuse to acknowledge any validity in hating in the name of Christ.

I learned power can be stolen and taken, but true respect and goodwill only come through hard work, kindness, and strength. I realized that religion doesn’t work as politics, and politics should never be religion. I realized that not everyone who says the name of Christ really believes in his tenets.

I realized Christianity is broken but Christ is waiting for us to crawl out of the wreckage and do his work. I refuse any semblance of Christianity that aligns with abuse, racism, or discrimination of any kind. I know some would say Christianity is founded on those principles, and I am learning that in some ways they are right—but they do not have to be.

I also learned there are not always places for me in the church—single, female, intellectual, affirming—but I need to try to make it so there are. Because otherwise, it’s a place I don’t belong. And if I don’t belong, with my relative privilege (white, straight, cis), so many others do not belong. Some have been knocking on the door so long that they’re too tired to keep going. Others just bypass the door altogether. They’re leaving the premises, saying, “If you don’t want me, I’ll go somewhere else.” And what a loss that is for the church. For us. For me. I’m not brave enough to be the person who says that, but that’s a privilege to choose. I am learning to be brave.

I learned the mystery of God is much bigger than me. I learned that the beauty of God is infinite and often corrupted by our limited minds, our faulty language, and the ways we try to put boundaries around Him. I also realized that He is not just a He, but a She, and an It, and a They, and an Everything. And I love the parts of God that are excluded, maybe even more than I love the parts that are included.

I learned I missed out on some crucial conversations because I grew up in predominantly white, upper-middle class communities. I realized that I thought I was good at listening, but it’s easy to listen when someone is echoing your experience back to you. That’s not really listening, though. I’m learning to hear, and process, and ask, and apologize. I can’t help how I grew up, and I’m grateful for my growing-up years, in which I was safe and strong and well, in communities that loved me and fostered my growth. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t missing pieces, that there weren’t voices that were silenced. Now that I’m grown, I’m trying to find them and hear them. It’s not their responsibility to teach me, but it’s my responsibility to listen to them.

I’ve learned the ways of life that made it easy for me to thrive also made it hard for others to thrive. I recognize that a life that just benefits me does not help me, or society, or this world. Change requires action, and that change will likely mean that life is a little harder for me – but a little easier for someone else.

I learned it’s easier to be mean than kind, but being kind is always worth it. It hurts more, but the result is bigger. I also realized it’s easier to not feel rather than feel, but what’s the point in being here if not to feel? Feeling makes life rich. And feelings are God-given, not to be ignored and suppressed. The heart and the mind and the soul are our power, and hell if I’m going to ignore my feelings because they make life hard.

I learned everything can — and will — change in a phone call, in a whisper, in a text message. And the way to deal with it is grieve and fear and hope but mostly to keep moving forward.

I learned to be much less certain about everything, and I have worked very hard to make myself soft in the midst of my uncertainty instead of rigid and harsh. It is a daily struggle, because my bones want to become fused and unyielding because that makes me feel safe. But I refuse to become someone who is threatened by that which cannot be understood. And so I try to become more uncertain and live in the tension that uncertainty creates. Life then becomes more complicated, more gray, and more lovely.

I learned everything is rhetorical. By that, I mean everything, including my life choices, has meaning to various communities. It all says something about who I am and who I want to be, how I view the world and what I want the world to become. I can’t always control how my life rhetoric is interpreted, but I can make specific rhetorical choices to make my life sound as it should, to benefit the listeners, to benefit the community. That’s what the Romans thought rhetoric could  do; that’s why Rome banned rhetoric and exiled the teachers. That’s the power of a well-constructed life filled with intentional words and actions.

I learned words can’t solve everything, but they can do a lot. They are never enough but they are always something. They can be wielded as a sword, striking down swaths of people and hearts and souls, or they can be an offering, a piece of bread or a drink of water, a way to say “me too.”

These are just a fraction of the things I’ve learned in the last three decades, and really in the last year. I can’t say I’m sad to say good-bye to 2017 and its best friends with brain cancer and surprise surgeries and mass shooting and hurricanes and new laws and reckonings. I also can’t say that I’m feeling enormous hope for 2018. But then I remember: 2017 brought me manatees and podcasts and Lillian Naomi and knowledge and art museums and joy and memories. It brought me to 30.

Sometimes I wish I could go back and see that 20-year-old me. I wish I could walk into Chapters and see her sitting by the window with her HP laptop and her green Margaret Houlihan coat and her hot sweet milk, reading books for the first time and writing poems and journals and feeling so deeply. I wish I could sit down beside her and ask her how she is. And who she wants to be. Like an angel, or a person from the future.

I hope that 20-year-old, if asked who she wanted to be at 30, would have said something like: kinder. Smarter. Braver. And happy.

What would I do in response? I don’t know. I’d want to say, Yes, girl, you got this. You don’t know what’s coming, but that’s okay. That’s better. It will be better than you thought. And it’ll be worse. You won’t be who you thought you would be, you won’t be where you thought you’d be. You aren’t magical, you aren’t fixed, and you aren’t new. But you will learn, and you will grow, and you’ll start to talk.

And, I’d say, at 30, you’ll just be getting started.


#30til30: Days 26-30

Read more about this project here.

Day 26 (August 4)

About a year ago, I decided to like baseball.

For someone as sports averse as I, this decision doesn’t make a lot of sense. But I had recently moved to a new city, and my quiet apartment felt pretty empty. Luckily, baseball and its unending season to the rescue!

Baseball and I are a good match, as far as sports go. It doesn’t move quickly, which most detractors cite as a negative. For me, the plodding nature is soothing. Plus, when I invariably lose focus and miss the one exciting part of the inning, I look up, and there is a replay, or four from different angles and speeds, to educate me.

I love the ritual of baseball, the patterns of play and the managing and the announcing. The game itself is rife with statistics. I don’t understand the rituals or stats, as a very lackadaisical fan, but I am pleased that they exist.

I also love that some of the players are old or slow, but they can still drive a ball deep into the outfield and so are still valued. I like that their uniforms allow me to see their faces, which sounds dumb but makes a big difference when I’m trying to tell them apart. I don’t understand the comings and goings of the players mid-season, but like I said, I’m not bothered to learn the ins and outs. I just want the game on in the background, and my favorite guys playing, and that’s all I need.

My team is the Royals, by the way, for no other reason than a friend made me watch Royals games all throughout graduate school. Plus, I like the colors and I already knew the guys, and the stadium was nice, and oh, they had a good year a few years ago, so that’s enough for me. Salvador Perez is my favorite player, because he has a megawatt smile, seems to enjoy his teammates, and splashes them with water during post-game interviews after a win. Also, he’s a great catcher.

All that to say, last night, I went to my first remembered MLB game, the Rays vs. the Brewers (my parents say I went to a game when I was 6, but the memory is lost). Tropicana Field is ugly but climate controlled. The Rays lost 2-0. There was a devil ray touch tank. I wore a floral baseball cap and loved every moment. Even the ones I only saw during replays.


Day 27 (August 5)

We haven’t been out to see a sunset yet, because it’s been cloudy most evenings. We attempted tonight, and here’s what we got.

I’ve been a little restless today, a little vacation tired, a little inwardly emotional because of upcoming endings and beginnings. I also have a low-grade toothache that I’m obsessing about since I don’t have dental insurance. Or a dentist.

I’m also thinking too much about the internet, of all things. I’ve been seeing terrible things happen online to people I don’t know but respect, and I’m starting to believe maybe the internet is bad. Or at least a good portion of it. Or at least who we have become because of it.

I just deleted a bunch of hand-wringing paragraphs that led to this: the internet itself is not bad or good, obviously. It’s a space in which people interact, and people can do that in bad or good, kind or mean, ethical or unethical ways.

So, then, how do we learn to interact well? How do we remind each other that words mean something, that they have consequences, that they can wound? Even if the other person is an unseen stranger, miles away? That discussions need to begin with respect and relationship, not abuse and distance?

(I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I could make the sunset picture a metaphor. That would tie this all together nicely.)

I’m not quitting the internet. That would be foolish and I wouldn’t last a day. Just like that one time when I tried to quit sugar (don’t @ me on how quitting sugar changed your life). But I can choose how to participate in online culture. The clouds will always be there, the dross and the filth. The internet has scores of dark clouds. But the light often finds a way to peek through.

Light like my dad doing the morning news roundup from his iPad. FaceTiming with my siblings. The podcasts I love and the gifs that make me laugh. My internet best friends who speak with hope and wisdom. And the virtual birthday party my two real best friends are throwing me.

So, yeah, the internet sucks, like toothaches and cloudy sunsets. But it’s also really great, like oceans, sincerity, and sneaky sun rays that come through anyway.


Day 28 (August 6)

Things I did today:

•Counted about 38 sea turtle nests in 2/3 of the beach on my morning walk. When I was a kid, I was thrilled to find one. This late in the summer, they’re everywhere. Baby turtles, just growing beneath the sandy surface.

•Retied my swimming suit top approximately seven times, and each time, no matter how I tried, the knot was left of center. Finally, I gave up and hope it looked like a stylistic choice.

•Saw a flock of pelicans, ten strong. Those are big birds, brown and wide.

•Saw a giant dark mass swimming in the water. I don’t know what it was but I choose to believe it was a manatee. It would swim near people which shows it wasn’t very smart and those people would just gasp and not run away. True manatee behavior.

•Was very brave when surrounded by small shiny fish in the ocean. The feel of their small bodies brushing my legs was like pinpricks. I know it should have been magical, but I was not into it. They would jump up unexpectedly, and at one point I said aloud, if you jump into my swimming suit, it will be the death of us both.

•Read a book about teaching to hopefully make me stop blaming my forthcoming students for ending my summer. I hope they’ll extend the same rational thought to me.

•Picked up more shells on the beach, bringing my shell total to what seems to be several hundred.

•Parted my hair on the other side because I burned my scalp real bad on my real part. I barely recognize myself in the mirror.

•Signed up to transcribe an episode of one of my favorite podcasts for fellow West Wing fans in the Deaf community. Hundreds more folks volunteered than were needed, which reminds me there are good (nerdy) people on the internet.

*Saw some glorious sand art. It’s a beautiful thing, to make something so temporary, that will be washed away with the next tide.

•Walked down to the public beach where there was a drum circle. Old hippies, rastafarians, young percussionists all on the same beat. People danced however weirdly they knew how. I couldn’t help but think that’s what church should be like. With maybe a smidge less pot.


Day 29 (August 7)

Today was the last day for a few things. My last day on childhood beaches, my last day in this particular decade, my last day with family. Essentially, the last day of summer.

Endings always make me melancholy. Beginnings often make me anxious.

Yet today gave me two transcendent experiences to carry into these beginnings.

One was at the Ringling Museum of Art. The Ringlings (yes, the circus ones) built a huge pastel pink mansion in Sarasota in the 1920s. They also built an art museum. We only went to the museum, which is filled with Ruebens and oil portraits and really terrible placards (adding to my fodder for my dream “museums as rhetoric” class). The art was beautiful but stodgy, but the sculpture plaza was incredible. Nothing like seeing a replica of the David surrounded by palm trees.

The museum has acquired a few pieces of modern art, including an installation by James Turrell that was influenced by his Quaker upbringing and his psychology education. It is a room with green lush vines growing on the walls and up the white columns. Brown traditional pews are set up in a square, facing the center of the room. In the very center of the room, there is a square cut out from the ceiling, open to the sky, no glass as mediator or barrier. Today, the sky was the bluest blue. The room breathes. Its stillness moves. Its silence speaks. The me that is Quaker and psychologist and lover of quiet places wanted to stay there, breathe there forever.

Transcendent experience number two happened earlier. Remember that dark blob that swam through the water yesterday that I watched from the beach? Well, he came by again. He came by me and the family, as we floated in the ocean. Only 15 feet away, a submerged dark mass approached and passed us by. When he was about 30 feet beyond us, he poked his squishy snout above the water and raised his wide paddle tail. A manatee. A manatee swam by me in the ocean. In the wild. A real manatee.

I was, as you might expect, beside myself. It was a pre-birthday miracle.

So. As long as I can be surprised and thrilled, as long as I can be moved, I will choose to welcome the beginnings, saying good-bye with gratefulness.


Day 30 (August 8)

This morning at 6:15 AM, I went out to the ocean one last time.

The rest of the day was filled with car rides, saying goodbye to parents, ridiculous Orlando airport security lines, a long flight. Then seeing my best girl Sara, drinking champagne, opening presents, looking at old photos, eating too much Mexican food. So much glorious birthday.

But it started here, with the moon high in the sky, reflected in the ocean, shadows of palm trees. The waves were calm, the water insanely warm.

In these last 30 days, I’ve chronicled a busy month that’s taken me from Fort Worth to Boston to Siesta Key, from goddaughters to grandparents, from humid to more humid. I’ve graded and read and walked on multiple beaches. I’ve seen family and friends who are like family. I’ve eaten great key lime pie and had some magical manatee encounters.

The goal was to count my days, to live in the moment. I didn’t always do that. But I lived the last 30 days, writing every day. Which meant I stopped to think about those days instead of moving quickly to the next moment. Stopping can be hard to do. So can writing.

30 feels no different than 29 years and 364 days. No new aches and pains, no cataracts, no memory loss (other than the usual). Today is just a day. I have no new insights, no grand pronouncements about aging or the passing of time.

Yet I’m grateful for this chronicle of the past 30 days. It’s good to see where you’ve been as you ponder what’s coming. A new semester, new classes, a new job, new colleagues. Maybe some new habits, new passions, new surprises.

Today I’m just thankful to be here. I was once a baby with cancer, but now I’m mostly grown: healthy, smart, kind. This world is imperfect but beautiful, and I want to know it more over the next 30, 40, 50 years. Much life is ahead, God willing. I want to see it, to write about it all.

Thank you for the birthday wishes, the encouragement. Thank you for listening, counting the days with me. I’ll write more about this day soon, but for now, thank you.

On the beach, a woman walked by me and said, “Good morning, young lady. Isn’t the moon beautiful?” I wanted to say, “Today I’m 30” but all I said was “Yes.”

#30til30: Days 21-25

Read more about this project here.

Day 21 (July 30)

It rained today. All day. Just poured. And I forgot to take pictures.

We met my crazy Aunt Penny (as she calls herself) and my sweet Uncle Art for lunch. They braved the rain from the north and we braved it from the south and met in the middle at a Cracker Barrel. It was so good to see their faces. Penny is one of my greatest encouragers, and Art’s smile is one of the warmest I’ve seen. They brought us beach reads and bought us lunch, and we sat out in rocking chairs looking at old school pictures of my mother, saved for 40+ years. Then we headed out in the rain. I was so grateful they made the trip, but I forgot to take pictures.

Later we went to the Green Turtle, which confidently calls itself “A Tropical Department Store.” Nothing about the store indicates it has anything like “departments,” but it does have a wooden pirate at the door. When I was a kid, the store seemed cavernous, unending, filled with magical sea shells and highly luxurious beach gifts. You can never go home again, they say, and now the Green Turtle seems small, a bit dingy, full of junk and the same postcards they were selling a decade ago (and probably a decade before that). I’ll go back and spent $10 on worthless totchkes, all for the sake of the memories. I remembered to take a picture, but just one.

As we were about to head to the car, the skies opened up, with huge raindrops falling fast, hitting the ground so hard they sent up a spray. A group of teenage boys sprinted through the parking lot, already irreparably drenched. A summer rain. I forgot to take a picture.

I don’t know what beloved family members and a tropical department store and a summer storm have in common, except they all happened today. I could try to construct a throughline, make a cohesive narrative, create a link, but sometimes there isn’t one. Sometimes things just happen: good, bad, beautiful, terrible, just fine. Sometimes days are truly lovely and yet there is no throughline other than, here I am. In this place. Watching the rain, outside a shop filled with childhood magic, thinking about the blessing of seeing people after a long time apart.

That was my day. And here’s the one picture.


Day 22 (July 31)

In the wee morning hours, I woke up afraid.

Waking up in terror doesn’t happen as frequently as it used to. I was an anxious child who used to write lists of things she was worried about before bed, in hopes that putting them to paper would mean eventual sleep. It rarely worked. I would hear a pounding in my ears as I tried to drift off, and I knew a nightmare was waiting for me. My worst dreams were ones where my father died. I would wake up, fear gripping my heart, and creep downstairs, skipping the squeaky step, just to peek in my parents’ room. Just to make sure.

The nightmares of this morning were fully adult and fully terrifying, and I woke with that same fear of my father’s death. I tried to convince myself of its folly, but still I crept out into the living room of my beach house like a child and looked through the slightly ajar door behind which my parents slept soundly. They were fine, of course. I still didn’t sleep well, and I woke tired but relieved to find my father quietly sitting, watching the tropical storm.

Tropical storm Emily came through this morning, bringing wind that whistled around corners, lightning that cracked into the ocean, rain that splattered against windows. And nightmares. We watched her rage against palm trees and the surf, turning our beautiful beach into a wild no man’s land.

When Emily finally calmed, Dad and I walked the beach with other restless souls. The waves still crashed mightily, and the wind whipped my hair, but the rain was light. Emily threatened to again gather over the ocean, but lost her steam, and we kept walking.

I know some folks who are living through their Emilys right now, with no protection from her terrifying elements. They are out there in it, feeling every lightning strike, every bone-rattling thunderclap. They are living their nightmares. I know an umbrella won’t help, and I can’t shout her down, this tropical storm. But I can watch the horizon with them and wait for the lightening of the grey that leads to softer rain, calmer breezes, and maybe someday, eventually, the tiniest glimpse of blue.

For tonight, I’m hoping Emily takes my nightmares with her as she heads out to sea.


Day 23 (August 1)

I absolutely adore manatees.

I love everything about them. I love that they’re shaped like grey torpedoes, but like slow ones. I love that their tails are giant but their front flippers are small. I love their cute round snout and their little beady eyes. I love that they just hover in the water, taking up so much space.

I love that even though they look like the dolphin’s chubby cousin, they are likely to blame for some sailors’ tales of merpeople. I love that that they look infinitely squeezable and absolutely dim. I love that they’re also known as “sea cows.”

I feel a kinship with the manatee for the following reasons: I’m not great at swimming, but I love the water. I’m super into floating and not at all toned. I love the color grey. And while I am not dolphin-level attractive, some find me huggable.

So, as you may have guessed, we went to the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium today, and spoiler alert: I was giddy the whole time. My intellectual feelings about animals in captivity are complicated, but my childlike spirit just LIVES for any zoos, aquariums, or nature reserves. If I can see animals in a controlled environment, I am INTO IT.

We went to Mote Marine when I was a kid, but I remember nothing. I assume that is where my admiration of the adorable grey blob began. I do vaguely remember the sting ray touch tank, which I spent a ridiculous amount of time next to today. Again, complicated brain thoughts, but exquisitely happy heart feelings. The feeling of a sting ray’s exterior is like velvet.

But my heart will always belong to this big grey guy, who kept smooshing his nose up against the glass. I laughed every single time. His name is Buffett (yes, like Jimmy). Buffett turned 30 recently, and I hope to carry the years as gracefully as he does.

At aquariums, I’m always astounded by the colors of the fish, who sport the brightest, most iridescent and neon colors. But leave it to me to fall for the plain round grey dude with a doleful look.

Love is inexplicable. You just know when you find it. Me, I’m already planning on moving down here in 50 years, so I can volunteer at Mote Marine.

The siren song of the manatees compels me.


Day 24 (August 2)

I’ve only really cared about two things in my life: stories and people. Everything I love and have loved all come back to those two things, and the different permutations of the two.

Only being interested in stories and people means I also watch a lot of tv and movies, listen to a lot of podcasts, and spend exorbitant amounts of time on the internet, particularly social media sites and YouTube. I used to be embarrassed by this, thinking it wasn’t what smart folk do. I’ve stopped being embarrassed.

I can mark eras of my life by stories. I watched MASH in high school with my friend Gabri. I read the final Harry Potter book enroute from Portland to Calgary. I watched Doctor Who the summer my best friends got married. I watched Star Trek: TNG while writing my master’s thesis. Sara and I watch The Way Way Back to officially usher in every summer.

This summer has been all about podcast. I’ve written about this already, but summer 2017 is truly sponsored by the McElroys and the Adventure Zone (and Blue Apron and Squarespace (podcast joke)).

TAZ, as I’ve written before, is kinda a Dungeons and Dragons podcast by three brothers and their dad that started as a goof but–largely thanks to Griffin, our dungeon master and best friend– has turned into something intricate and special.

The podcast is an example of collaborative storytelling, that combination of people and story that I live for. The complexity of TAZ has deepened along with the maturity of the players. I listened to the penultimate chapter of the story today, feeling all of the mixed emotions you feel when a thing you love is about to end.

I have a wise friend who says pop culture needs to supplement reality/relationships, not substitute for them. I resonate with that, because my love for stories is so deep, personal, and often undertaken alone.

And yet. My brother and I are talking regularly again because of TAZ. My pal moved away and regular podcast check-ins keep us connected. I’ve found new friends and new sides to old friends due to podcasts.

So, I’ll keep bringing people into my stories and bringing the stories I love to my people. I think that’s a good use of my short time here.


Day 25 (August 3)

I’m at the beach. America’s #1 beach, to be precise.

Apparently, Siesta Beach has been named the best beach in America. Dr. Beach apparently puts out a list every year, based on 50-some criteria, and it is quite the honor. The town celebrated by putting up some small brown signs that are noticeable, but not showy.

To me, it’s simply the beach of my childhood. My grandparents owned a villa in a resort right on the beach, so every year after school got out in mid-May, my family would road trip down to Siesta Key, a straight-through 31 hour marathon. We’d arrive in time to unpack, go grocery shopping, and watch the sun set over the water.

I didn’t realize how lucky we were. I thought all beaches were this lovely, all ocean water this clear and warm, all sand this soft. I was never afraid of the ocean, even when a rare giant wave knocked off my glasses (that were found again by some miracle). For three weeks, we sat on plastic noodles in the middle of the ocean each morning, and practiced diving in the pool each afternoon. We would visit so early in the season that we got used to having our run of the place, and would glare at anyone who dared encroach on our private pool.

As a kid, I took for granted the beach walks, the shell collection, the sand, the sunsets. I don’t anymore.

This photo was taken a few days ago, when I went on a overzealous morning run. The waves were still high from the tropical storm, but normally the water is calm and placid, warm like a bathtub, clean and clear.

Visiting in August is a little different than in May. Warmer, for one. Busier. More sea turtle nests. But the beach feels the same between my toes. It smells the same: damp, salty, beachy.

This place is part of who I am, the weirdness that makes up me. I am a girl who grew up in the Dakotas, who still calls Oregon home, who has found her way to Texas, and who has warm salty white sandy beaches hidden in her spirit.

#30til30: Days 16-20

Read more about this project here.

Day 16 (July 25)

These three objects dangle from the review mirror of my grey Camry. They’re wound tightly around the mirror, rigged up with spare pieces of twine. In most areas of my life, including car decor, my priority is not finesse or refinement. Usually I forget about them but sometimes the twine gets extra twisted and they clang together when I take a turn a little too hard. And I see them again.

These three items have hung in my car for years. Facebook photos show them present in my move from Portland to Waco four years ago, but no sign of them in the my darling crumpled red station wagon Hugo (RIP 1997-2012). So, I must have hung them when I got the Camry.

I keep them because I think they look cool, but they also reflect things about me that I like, that I deem important or even critical to who I am or who I wish I were or who I hope to be.

On top is a silver coin stamped with two alligators. A one kina coin, leftover from my brief time in Papua New Guinea. It reminds me of a time when I was brave, bold, and strong, telling stories in the tropics with strangers while surrounded by friends and artists.

Beneath that is a shell, broken beautifully. I found it in Siesta Key, the beach of my childhood, where I learned how to love the ocean and how to just be. The shell reminds me of softness, warmth, and rest, and the importance of all three as modeled by my family. (I’m headed again to that beach soon, actually.)

The final object is a medal of St. John, the patron saint of loyalty, friendship, and authors, and the guy who articulated the mystery of the Word so wonderfully. I picked up the medal at the oldest church in Albuquerque after presenting at my first academic conference. It reminds me of so many things: the calling I was created for and also chose, my hodgepodge way of faith, and the importance of asking for help.

I have a strong tendency to make so much out of so little. And yet, surrounding myself with reminders of who I am (and long to be) reminds me to keep cultivating those aspects of myself that I hope will become ever brighter with each passing year. Bravery, stories, friendship, warmth, rest, calling, faith, words.


Day 17 (July 26)

This is the view from my Omi’s new home. She has the prime location: lake view, corner apartment, exterior door, small sitting area surrounded by potted flowers. Every morning she walks twice around the lake, except recently, when the humidity and heat get the better of her.

When she shuffles down the hallway, she greets everyone she passes with a bright “Good morning!” She goes with friends to dinner and exercise and bingo. She won last week, five whole dollars, and my cousin says she gave it all away.

My Omi tells me how proud she is of me, getting my doctorate. She doesn’t really understand what that means. She asked if it meant I’d get a higher salary; I said I really hope so. When I told her I had three years left, she exclaimed, “Can’t you finish it sooner?” She couldn’t help but ask three separate times if I had a special man in my life. Omi means well; she wants me to be happy and secure, which means a stable family. There’s no way to tell her that my career is that happiness and security for me right now.

I hadn’t seen my grandmother since my brother’s wedding three years ago. I live so far from her, and I live the life of a perpetual student, constantly counting pennies. I wish I could go to bingo with her every once in a while. I wish she knew me better. I wish I knew her better.

She’s getting older, my Omi is, and I’m so glad she has this view every morning. It’s the view I would want. I’m glad she has friends, activities, a community. I’m glad my cousins visit her and take her to concerts. I’m glad she’s living life well in her eighth decade, after a life of difficulty and loss: losing her parents as a child, living in Germany during the war, moving to America, learning English, raising her boys, watching the memory of her husband (my Opi) disappear, burying her husband, the ailments of growing old.

After the life she’s lived and what she’s lost and how she’s survived, my Omi deserves to look out every morning on such beauty.


Day 18 (July 27)

This photo is hanging in my Omi’s apartment. I just love everything about it. The suits, the hair, the glasses. Even the tint of the photo. We all have our pasts, and this photographic evidence of my uncles and father is just too wonderful to bypass.

I also love that when I look at my teenaged dad in this photo, resplendent in his khaki suit, I can see my brother. For years, people have said that my father and brother look alike, and I didn’t disagree. But in this photo, I can really see my brother in the face of my father.

Tonight I sat in my parents’ room under a huge pastel painting of palm trees as they recounted extended family lore, stories I had heard and forgotten. The uncles who served in Vietnam. Uncle Adolf’s long hair and motorcycle. Dad and Ralf’s pranks on their cousin Walt. Omi’s relationship with her sister-in-law Frieda, who eventually married my mom’s grandfather (I know, it’s weird, my parents are technically related. They don’t remember meeting at the wedding as teens, which my mother says is a blessing.) We are a family of entrepreneurs and teachers, with a few preachers and mechanics thrown in there.

The stories shifted, to my delight, to lore of my babyhood and childhood illness, and I listened to the tales of me, before I was me, but more so the tales of my parents as young adults, younger than I am now. I was a wily little kid who did not suffer fools, like the doctor who teasingly stole my pacifier. I come by these forehead frown crevasses honestly.

While they talked, I thought of dinner the night before where I sat at the “kids table” and talked to my cousins. I remember them as children, babies really, back when we all lived in the Midwest, an 8 hour drive from each other. And now they’re basically grown, delightful, funny, smart, kind. I envy those who get to see their cousins on a regular basis, but the fact I see mine so rarely means I snapshot these moments and hide them away. I try to remember.

We’re making our own lore, the next generation of tales, of who did and is doing what and with whom and where. The family stories continue.


Day 19 (July 28)

Hanging out with my parents for a couple of weeks means a lot of family stories and a lot of family pictures.

Today, my mom handed me a flash drive and said, “happy birthday.” On it was a hundred or so photos of me throughout the years: with siblings, at the beach, in a hospital bed. No year was left undocumented, including those awkward chubby years of which I seemed to have extra. Spoiler: I have always been this adorable.

Of course, stories abounded. My favorite ones, though, were my parents’ recounting of their “courtship” over 35 years ago. My dad was paid to drive a bunch of girls to church. One Sunday, he suavely announced to the car that one of them could be his future wife. In response, my mother started to make retching noises in the backseat.

Ah, the beginnings of love.

My mom was weird and hesitant; my dad was persuasive and charismatic. She knew she was going to marry him long before he told her she was going to. (My dad’s come a long way in the humility department…).

Look how cute they are in this picture, wearing pastel tanks and overalls, sporting 80s glasses, both younger than I am now. New parents, with an infant a few months into cancer treatment. I imagine a lot of time in hospitals makes you humble and mature pretty quick.

I’m reading a YA novel about two Indian-American kids who have two very different ideas about love and marriage, and I’m reminded how much of our ideas of partnership are shaped by our parents and the type of relationship they have and show to others. We formulate what we want for our lives in response.

I’ve been raised by the best. They love each other in the most ridiculous, most persistent way. They love their kids that way too. As such, my bar for a potential life partner is quite high, and so I haven’t been much interested in any fellas that didn’t seem up to that standard.

It was good to be told, then, of what an idiot my dad was, and how opposed my mom was, and how they fell in love despite college boy bravado and college girl eye-rolling. And be reminded how tragedy and terror can make you both softer and stronger, individually and together.

They are, as the kids say, relationship goals.


Day 20 (July 29)

This is not an original photo, if you were wondering. I did not stumble across Martin Sheen and John Spencer laughing on the lawn of the White House circa 1999 in the midst of my family vacation in Florida. I have no such magic, though I love this photo and have used it to represent key friendships of my own.

My parents and I started rewatching the West Wing. They haven’t seen it since it was on the air nearly 20 years ago, which I can’t fathom since I’ve basically been rewatching it repeatedly for the last 5 years straight.

Watching the show now is like reconnecting with old friends who always make the same jokes and go on the same tirades, but you just chuckle anyway. So, basically, like my real friends, but with more definite story arcs.

The show is dated in many ways: the computers are massive, as are the suits; the news cycle is still based in newspapers and press releases; diversity is addressed at points but not enacted; and the view of the presidency is vastly different than it is at present. The show is also not perfect. Its idealism can be saccharine, especially if the music swells too noticeably. The men on the show are often cads. The show’s political leanings are clear, even as it frequently tries to show both sides.

But the show is clever and loving. The patter is rapid, smart, and funny. The relationships depicted on the show are loyal and steadfast, and I am drawn to the idea of a strong and moral leader who enjoys and respects words and has a sense of humor. I like seeing people bound together by and working for what they believe in, but willing to listen to the other side. Perhaps it’s idealism, at least in contemporary politics, but that’s why I watch the West Wing.

My best friend has a signed photo and a rosary from Martin Sheen himself, which is a whole other story. When I saw them for the first time, I truly almost cried. I did hug them both. I know it’s silly, he’s just an actor, but damn if that note he sent wasn’t one of the most beautiful, kind, presidential things I’ve seen.

Bartlet for America ’til I die.

(P.S. If you’re a WW fan, you’ve got to listen to the podcast The West Wing Weekly. It is top-notch. 🛫)

#30til30: Days 11-15

Read more about this project here.

Day 11 (July 20)

This photo isn’t the best. Stephen is blurry, and I’m smiling so wide I have multiple chins, and Jess’s arm is in the shot because she’s the only one good at selfies.

But in other “better” photos, our smiles are fake. This one shows who we really are when we’re together.

I moved multiple times as a kid, so I don’t have many relationships that began in childhood. Facebook has allowed me to connect with folks I knew years ago, yet their pages mostly serve to show me how my life could have turned out so very different.

When I got older, I realized friendship was no longer a byproduct of circumstance; it was a conscious decision, a protracted effort, a financial commitment. And absolutely worth it, in the case of these two.

They have been my best friends for 14 and 10 years, respectively. He and I were prom dates; she and I were college roommates; I stood next to them at their wedding; I helped them move into multiple houses; I held their baby one week after her birth, and the other 2.5 months after hers. We’ve lived our lives together.

Now their life is medication and doctors appointments and sleep training and disciplining the three-year-old and more appointments and not enough sleep. She is on chemo and steroids and sleep-deprivation. He is balancing grad school, internships, and trips to the park with Maddie. Their home has been a revolving door of houseguests since the diagnosis.

She wears her scar and her half-shaved head with grace and strength, and she looks like a badass while doing it. I’m fiercely proud when she displays her beautiful self in all of its broken glory. She has always been and she continues to be absolutely radiant. Oh, and he looks good, too.

Friendship with these two has never been easy but it has always been joyful. And being part of their family has taught me two things:
1) We have no time to waste, and
2) loving our people is the most valuable use of our limited time.

This photo shows a few more wrinkles, pounds, and worries than the ones taken when we were 16 or 20. But I’ll keep taking pictures with these friends of my heart until the end of our lives, and I’ll be grateful for every one, good or bad.


Day 12 (July 21)

Getting home from the airport can be a grand adventure, if you decide it will be.

With all of the travel I’ve been doing lately, I’ve more than used up my airport pick-up favors. So I thought it’d be a good idea to figure out public transit options.

Stephen took me to Boston Logan at 5am, where I got Dunkin’ (when in Rome) in preparation for my long day. The plane left at 7:30a, and I sat next to a chatty older woman who was going to visit her grandson. Upon landing I changed into shorts before catching the two buses that would take me to the train.

I had to wait for the train in 98 degree heat, but there was a breeze blowing and benches in shade. And when the train came? Friends, it was a TRAIN. Not some little commuter rail, but a real train with an engine and some guy hanging off the caboose, checking for any stragglers.

I do love trains. Their sounds are so distinctive: the wheels on the rails, the whistle blowing, even the sound of the attendant asking for your ticket. They don’t move fast, but they have their own path, and everything stops for them.

Once I got off the train, I took a Lyft the final 10 miles to home. Planes, trains, automobiles, and buses, all before 3pm.

I got home, tired and sweaty, and laid down on my living room floor (still couchless, but that’s another story). I am grateful for the time to travel and the ability to spend what little I have on seeing the people I love. I enjoy being self-sufficient and trying new things. But I also love lying on the floor of my apartment.

I’m reveling in it. Only four days until the next adventure.


Day 13 (July 22)

Long ago, I made a vow: “one Texas summer.” How foolish I was.

You know the old adage about making God laugh with your plans? While he can’t stop me from making them, I have learned not to say them aloud. My mother taught me that, who claimed at a young age she would never marry a pastor. Look where that got her. (Okay, very happily married. But to a pastor!)

My inaugural trip to Texas was in May, and I left the rain of Portland to gorgeous sunny skies and 80*F weather in Waco. I met with a graduate student who gave it to me straight. He told me summers in Texas were completely awful. His honesty made me think I could survive in that particular graduate student community, if not survive the summer. He lives in North Dakota now, and I like to imagine he is similarly honest about the winters. I’m still in Texas.

One Texas summer, I said, and here I am four summers later. It’s unbearable, truly. The heat index today at 3pm was 112*F. Why do humans live here? Why do I live here?

I hid at home all day, doing household tasks and avoiding all appliances that gave off heat. I conserved all energy by moving as little as possible and not cooking at all. Also, I have no food, but who has the energy to grocery shop when it’s this hot out?

I recently moved to a third floor apartment that faces the afternoon sun. I despise the heat, but I am very cheap and my recent electrical bill was, shall we say, elevated. My solution at present is to keep a box fan directly in front of my body at all times, cover the windows with blankets, and keep refilling the ice trays. I always cave and turn up the AC around 5:30p, when I feel like I am rapidly losing electrolytes while in my own living space.

Anyway, Texas is utterly miserable right now, but I’ve learned my lesson. I’m here for the duration, and I’ll pay the dues for my verbalized plans and my outrageous hubris in sunburns and sweat.

Winter’s really nice here, though!


Day 14 (July 23)

I am happy to report the couch saga of 2017 has ended, and this beauty has come to rest in its home.

It’s been a journey. I bought this couch online with delivery planned for the day before I left for Boston. Then shipping was delayed three days, so a friend volunteered to come by and wait for the package. Well, she (and her dear husband) spent all day at my place, only to find out that the Fedex driver decided to drop the box off at my apartment front office.

The box sat in that front office for over a week, very inconveniently, until I got home and another friend and his truck could help me. Today was the day, and this friend took time out from moving to help me load the couch into his truck and then lug the blasted thing up two flights of stairs in 100*F heat. We did it though, to my surprise (I had all the confidence in him but little in myself).

Finally, the unboxing and assembly, which was done easily and happily while I listened to podcasts. The couch is stiff for now, but it’s put together and beautiful and I’m so happy to have a place to sit.

I woke up today very grumpy. Part of my grumpiness was soul tiredness from feeling the summer ebb and sensing transitions to come: in strained relationships, in work/life balance, in who knows what else.

As I put the couch together this evening, I thought about this couch saga, and how many people had helped me along the way. Those who helped me decide which couch to purchase. Who helped me try to figure out how it would get to me. Who waited for it all day. Who let it languish on the floor of their office. Who used their strength, encouragement, and truck to get it into my apartment. Who celebrated with me via text when I sent them this photo.

It was a ridiculous saga, but typical of the ridiculousness of life, right? At least the saga reinforced how many good people I have around me and the unexpected ways things can work out. Transitions come: old couches gone, emptiness in the inbetween, new couches come (after stress and heat exhaustion) and assembled. The circle of life. In a way.

The takeaway? It’ll all be okay. I’ll try to remember that each time I collapse on my couch.


Day 15 (July 24)

It’s easy to forget that starting new things is hard.

As a grown person, it’s easy to stay in your particular wheelhouse. For example, I haven’t left school since the first day of kindergarten. Along the way, I’ve gotten fairly comfortable with writing text on paper or on a screen. Not confident, mind you, or nonchalant, but it’s the mode I primarily work within.

Well, this summer my friend and I started recording a podcast. No episodes are up yet. We’re still figuring it out. It took us a while to figure out a name, and then we recorded the inaugural episode multiple times. Our schedules are crazy, so we have little time to meet between her work schedule and my numerous trips. But we’re doing it.

The learning curve has been and continues to be steep. I’m in a whole new world, trying to learn about podcast hosting fees, file formats, and audio quality. She’s doing the editing, clipping and cutting away.

Audio requires a different way of composing. We’re still thinking about familiar things like tone and pacing, but in terms of our actual voices. Rambling is just as easy in audio as in text, but it’s harder to fix; highlight and delete is less of an option.

We’ve had to try stuff. And fail at stuff. And redo stuff. We’ve had to talk a lot about what we’re trying to do and wanting to do. We’ve had to start over…a few times. It’s been challenging in occasionally frustrating but mostly great ways.

This process is teaching me so much about voice and structure, and more generally, about the type of academic, teacher, and researcher I want to be. I want to speak with my own voice in whatever I do, and speak about things that are important to me and my community.

I’m also reminded that learning new things is hard and intimidating and sometimes seemingly impossible. So, when I ask my students to do something new, I need to be mindful of those gut reactions–and then help them through them. Our minds are capable of amazing things, and we are changed by what we learn.

So, the podcast is still very much in process. Who knows what it’ll be? But the possibilities are exciting and terrifying and thrilling all at once.

#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

#30til30 Days 11-15

#30til30 Days 16-20

#30til30 Days 21-25

#30til30 Days 26-30







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

Artwork by John Pohlman (

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.