You Are Here, but We’re on Sabbatical

Dear Friends,

You Are Here is a bit more than two years old now, and it has been a privilege during these past 26 months of themes to step into the shoes of story-tellers from all over the country. Together we’ve explored the endlessly inspiring topic of “place” in the context of everything from travel and food to mess, gender, memory, and laughter, and our minds and hearts have expanded along the way.

During this short time, members of the administrative team have shifted and changed, as is the case with many volunteer-driven projects. So too has YAH’s vision and reason for being—we started mostly as a group of writers who wanted some company in the blogosphere, adding guest writers, peer editing, and a group of fabulous Writing Fellows along the way.

It’s been fun. It’s been inspiring. And it’s been a lot of work.

Now with just a handful of people working behind the scenes—with other writing and editing projects that need attention (in addition to things like jobs and children)—we have decided to take a break. The blog is on sabbatical, which offers us both a moment of respite as well as space to more fully consider possible next steps.

While we don’t have a timeframe for this sabbatical, we do have a goal—we’re going to compile and publish a Best of You Are Here anthology. This gives us an opportunity to celebrate the great story-telling that so many people have shared here, and to re-set our course in the light of our best work. Look for announcements and updates about this project throughout 2017.

And, in the meantime, there are 297 stories—297!—in the archives (organized by theme). That should keep you busy for a few months!

Until then,



The Blade and the Earth

A courthouse is designed to provoke obedience. Everything from the unforgiving stone floors and stuffy silence to the polished rails and guards in their creaking leather belts demands order. And why shouldn’t it? It’s a place where justice is meted out. A place where disappointments like us went to be punished.

We were nervous before we stepped inside, and the cop who checked us in certainly didn’t help.

“Sir!” he barked at my husband. “You can’t bring that in here.”

We looked around, wondering what contraband he could possibly be carrying.

The guard sighed and pointed at the waist of my husband’s carefully pressed black suit pants. “Your knife, sir. No weapons are allowed in the building.”

Born and raised in the country, my husband carries a pocketknife everywhere he goes. It’s as much a part of his ensemble as a watch, wallet, and cell phone, and neither of us had even considered our destination that morning as we prepared for what promised to be one of the hardest days of our married life.

“I’m so sorry, sir,” he stammered, sliding it from his belt. “Can I leave it here with you?”

“Nope,” the guard replied. “We’re not allowed to keep personal items at the desk.”

There wasn’t time to make the long walk back to the parking garage, and we stared, genuinely flummoxed and more rattled than we had been when we arrived. But then my husband saw a stand near the door that held plastic umbrella bags. He marched toward it, ripped one from the peg, and headed back outside to the courtyard. I couldn’t help but follow.

img_6399Choosing the closest planter, he wrapped the bag around the knife, tied it securely, and then began to dig a hole in the moist earth between a row of freshly planted purple and white pansies and the concrete wall. Then he dropped the bag in the hole and filled it in.

When he stood, I saw his hands were dirty—as dirty as I felt.

For weeks, I’d known this day was coming. It had been inevitable ever since we discovered the condo we’d bought, along with hundreds of others, hadn’t been built to code. Despite tens of thousands of dollars spent on repairs, which more than doubled our mortgage, the place still wasn’t close to passing inspection. In a few months, our savings account was siphoned dry, and bill after bill slipped into “past due” status.

Rather than continue to throw money into what had become an 1,100-square-foot pit (with new carpet no less), we’d opted to file chapter 13 and cut the rope keeping the financial albatross around our necks. Now, I imagined everyone who looked at me saw a scarlet “B” on my chest.

There was something so final, so disheartening, about stashing his knife that I couldn’t help but sob. It was like he was burying everything we’d worked so hard for—hopes for home ownership and putting down roots. Of finally being able to paint a wall yellow or blue instead of sterile rental white. All of it was going into the earth with that blade.

The rest of the day passed in a florescent-lit haze. We entered the courtroom and numbly sat down next to our lawyer. And when the time came for us to officially declare our insolvency, we stood and locked hands—more grateful than ever for each other. Shame, heavy as it might be, sits a little easier on two shoulders.

As the judge droned on for what felt like hours, we waited, letting the waterfall of meaningless words fall over us. The entire time, I imagined I could still feel that dirt on our hands, ground into the whorls of fingers and the crooked lines of life and love.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I thought. From it we were made, and to it we shall return—all at once or one piece at a time.

After the papers were signed, we escaped into the sunlight of a perfect Florida afternoon, exhausted and looking for the closest bar—unsure what to do now that we were, for all intents and purposes, homeless. We were so desperate to leave, in fact, that we nearly forgot the knife, but my husband remembered and went back. It reemerged as clean and sharp as when it went in, and—though it didn’t feel so at the time—the same would be true of us after seven long, lean years.

I won’t lie. Being flat broke and without credit was rather close to the bone, but it also had a way of clarifying things. The finances were tight, but somehow, there was always enough. The few things we did have were enjoyed richly. My husband and I grew to love each other in truer and more meaningful ways, and each day, we found the answer to Jesus’ question “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25) was a resounding yes.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Jamie A. Hughes“The Blade and the Earth” was written by Jamie A. Hughes. Jamie is a writer, editor, and unapologetic St. Louis Cardinals fanatic who currently lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband, two adopted sons, and a pair of needy cats. A former high school teacher, she now works as the managing editor of In Touch Magazine and is struck dumb by her good fortune. She blogs at and can be found on Twitter @tousledapostle. 

In the Glow

We turn off all the lights, except the Christmas decorations. The tree sparks with red, gold, green, and blue. White strands frame the window, reflecting off the glass, doubling or even tripling the luminescent specks. The only other light in the room is the glow of the fire in our big stone fireplace.

It’s quiet, but for the soft crackling of the logs and occasional pops of moisture escaping the wood. The light of the flames dances on the walls around the room, flickering and fading, growing and changing. I have always been drawn to the warmth of fires, where the world seems to slow down, where there is space to ponder and ruminate, where I find reassurance, peace, hope.

* * * * *

You start with the small stuff: twigs and shredded paper, maybe some dryer lint or pieces of cardboard. Then come some bigger pieces of wood, thicker branches and split logs. Be mindful of the air: leave spaces for oxygen and heat to move around. Strike the match.

The flames spread slowly at first. Sometimes they need a little help, a little breath: don’t blow them out, blow them through. Let the air pass over and under and through the cracks and spaces between the twigs and logs. Be patient. As the smaller fuel burns away, the bigger pieces start to catch and you’ve done it: you’ve created something that breathes.


* * * * *

Camp outs in our Girl Scout troops were long days of hiking and cooking and relishing the outdoors, and they ended with campfires.  In the red glow, flickering and fading, growing and changing, we’d sing songs, mostly silly and nonsensical, and roast marshmallows, promptly squashed between graham crackers and chocolate. Our moms — our troop leaders — called us firebugs. These were days of learning self-sufficiency and self-reliance, working together and connecting with nature. We didn’t know it then though, or maybe we did but we didn’t care. For us, it was just friendship. There was so much world out ahead of us yet.

Summers at home growing up were often punctuated with similar campfires: out in the backyard on the edge of the woods, my dad would build a little fire and set his lawn chair up close enough to reach the flames with a long stick. As the twilight faded and the stars showed themselves, the glow of the campfire lit up our faces. We would sit out in the backyard, listening to the frogs trill by the pool or watching the bats flit by overhead. We would talk, sure, but we would also sit in the quiet of the warm evening and stare as the flames licked the logs, charring them, breaking them down, consuming them.

* * * * *

At our own home now, my husband and I track seasons by where we lay wood for the fires: in the winter and spring, the fireplace, in summer and early fall, the back patio in a small fire pit, surrounded by benches and cushioned seating. Backyard parties always end with friends and family gathered around the red-yellow gleam. As some friends call it a night, others just gather in closer, filling their glass of wine or grabbing a blanket to wrap around their shoulders. This is when conversations start to change: boisterous talk of friends catching up turns to slow, more thoughtful topics. This is sacred time.

Under the cover of mostly-darkness, faces lit only by a gentle blaze, we let down our guards and talk of the things that have troubled us, the things that have changed us, the things that have given us hope. Our voices lower and conversations become quieter as they become more serious. We choose words carefully, laying out offerings at the feet of our friends, which are picked up gently and turned over thoughtfully in the light of the campfire.


* * * * *

In the soft light of the fire and the Christmas lights, we can stop the world. We can stop the worry and the bustle and things that up-end us.  We watch the lights flicker and fade, grow and change. Then, the flames die down low. The charred logs crumble and the ash settles. We lay down our weariness as we look toward the new beginning coming soon to save us, to give us another chance, to give us hope for brighter days. And we sit quietly in this space, in the glow of the last red embers.


Jamie Y. Watkins is a wife, sister, daughter, and friend. She works at a non-profit by day and goes to school at night, trying to find time to write in between. Her biggest passions are travel– France in particular– film, and good conversation. She lives in New Jersey, where she and her husband open their house to others with good food and wine. She blogs at Seek.Follow.Love about wrestling with faith and church, looking for meaning in the every day, and feeling her way through life.

Twitter: @jamieywatkins, Facebook: @jywatkinswriter, Photos by Obed Hernandez and Rahul Rekapalli

All My Favorite People

All my favorite people are broken
Believe me
My heart should know…

Orphaned believers, skeptical dreamers
You’re welcome
Yeah, you’re safe right here
You don’t have to go

—Linford Detweiler, Over the Rhine


“Good morning, Friendship!”

“Good morning, Darryl!”

And so begins the weekly ritual of Friendship Community Church congregation members sharing praises and prayer requests, joys and concerns.

It is November 1995, and I have been attending this quirky inner-city, inter-racial Presbyterian church for a little more than a year. Tucked between the university community and Pittsburgh’s Hill District—made famous in the 1980s crime drama Hill Street Blues— it is a modest cinderblock building that more closely resembles a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall than the hundreds of Gothic, steepled church buildings that populate this post-industrial city.

The wooden pews are five deep along three of the four walls of the sanctuary; we are a congregation “in the round.” I glance at the faces of these men and women—young and old, black and white, rich and poor—who are becoming more familiar to me, week by week. This is very much not like the homogeneous all-white, suburban, formal, upper-middle-class Presbyterian congregations I grew up attending.

The prayer requests begin.

A white female med school student asks us to pray for her grandmother, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Mr. Chappelle, an elderly African-American gentleman with snowy white hair, raises his hand to remind us, as he does every week, to pray for “the homeless and the afflicted.”

A middle-aged white man announces, with a mixture of pride and bewilderment, that he and his wife are expecting their fourth child. It looks like a career change may also be on the horizon in order to support their growing family.

A young, skinny black woman thanks God for waking her up this morning and adds that she has now been clean and sober for 27 days. We applaud.

A black woman in her 70s is wearing her customary Sunday-best hat; she stands up and clears her throat. And then, as she did last week and will again next, she slowly and deliberately recites Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

More requests and praises. Someone who arrived after the earlier greeting and announcement time tries to disguise a meeting announcement as a prayer request, and we all laugh. And then someone asks, “Has anyone seen Johnnie lately?”


Johnnie is a tall black man with an infectious smile who has been attending Friendship Church since he was a child. Johnnie is also a drug addict. He hasn’t been in church for months now, but occasionally, someone will run into him in another part of the city.

We never forget to pray for Johnnie.

holding-hands-black-and-white-peopleAs we do every week, we join hands with the people on either side of us—if necessary, reaching for the hand of a person in front of or behind us—and Darryl invites us to “pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray.” We bow our heads and lift our voices:

Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever.


It is November 2016, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and we’ve reached the point in the worship service for the Call to Confession. A tall broad-shouldered black man stands and ambles up to the microphone.

“Good morning, Friendship!” he says.

“Good morning, Johnnie!” we answer.

Johnnie is a husband and a father and a grandfather. He is founder and owner of a construction company which provides job training for young black men, offering them a way out of the destructive lifestyle that he himself indulged in two decades ago. Johnnie is a gifted story-teller and a jokester and a hugger. He is a respected elder in the church of his youth.

And Johnnie is a recovering drug addict.

Nearly every time Johnnie gets up to call us to confession—which is most Sundays—he makes us laugh or cry, and often both at the same time. As he encourages us to prepare our hearts to confess our sins, individually and corporately, he reminds us with illustrations from his own life what it means to worship a God of second—and third and fourth and fifth and seventy-times-seventy—chances.

Johnnie celebrated 18 years of sobriety a couple of weeks ago. When someone pointed this out, we applauded, and Johnnie was quick to remind us where the credit really belongs.

I wipe my eyes and remember sitting in these pews more than 20 years ago, alongside people who are still here and many others who have passed away or moved on. We asked, “Where’s Johnnie?” and we prayed that God would meet him wherever he was and rescue him.

And He did.

Hope In a Bowl of Soup

Every year, we ate Christmas dinner at Grandma’s house. Driving there in the car,  I’d pull my nose out of the book about the time we’d hit the big hill on her gravel road. A few minutes later, we’d see the small, white house – her closest neighbor.

I got a lot of reading done in the 45 minutes it took to get from our house to hers.

As we slowed down to turn into the long lane that was her driveway, I wondered which of my cousins were already there. Was there still enough daylight to go exploring in the barn? Would we get in trouble if we climbed on the roof of the pig-less pig pen? Would the roof cave in under our collective weight? Regardless, I knew just up ahead was an evening filled with cousins, presents and good food.

I’m not sure whose idea it was, but at some point we got away from our traditional holiday meal of ham and cheesy potatoes. Maybe it was because, as grandma got older, the adults wanted to take some of the responsibility off her hands. My aunts started offering up soups-usually chili, potato, and vegetable.

It’s the vegetable soup I remember most. As a kid, I wouldn’t touch the stuff. At home, when I started smelling a roast cooking in the oven, I became disappointed, rolling my eyes and hoping Mom would at least remember to cut me some raw carrots. I couldn’t stand them cooked. Until I discovered ranch dressing, I didn’t like the potatoes prepared with the roast either. Pot roast was definitely not my favorite meal. To make matters worse, I knew the leftovers from this meal would end up being vegetable soup.

My mom and her sisters liked vegetable soup though. In our family, it was a tradition all its own. Grandma liked hers with a can of Brooks chili beans in it. Most of the men didn’t like diced tomatoes in theirs; but at Christmas dinner, the women put them in anyway because the men gravitated toward the chili. A little cabbage, carrots, corn, green beans, potatoes. Celery was optional. Is it any wonder I didn’t like this soup as a kid? It was downright healthy!


While the soups simmered on the stovetop, we’d dig into the appetizers. One of the many hunters in our family usually offered up venison summer sausage, partnered with squares of cheese on a round Ritz cracker. Someone would have picked up a cheeseball from the local grocery store deli. It was my favorite, the perfect balance of cream cheese and shredded cheddar. Years later, I’d write one of my aunts, asking if she could get me the recipe.

Long before Pinterest came on the scene, the women in our family served up trendy appetizers and sides. I remember ranch-flavored oyster crackers, apple salad with Snickers whipped in, marshmallow cream fruit dip, Chex mix and Puppy chow. Every inch of counter space and the entire kitchen table filled to overflowing.

Grandma always mixed up a pitcher of Kool Aid. One of our aunts would stand near the disposable cups, ready to hand off the Sharpie marker to ensure we’d only use one – our own – the entire evening. The adults always had coffee. Cup after cup of coffee.

If us kids ate all our soup – as if any of us were still hungry by that point – we could move on to the dessert table. One of my aunts shares her birthday with the Christ child, so we’d sometimes have cupcakes or a birthday cake. Also cheesecake, Rice Krispy treats and pecan (pronounced puh-con) pie.

I know what love is if it can be offered up on a platter of cheese and crackers. If it smells anything like a stovetop full of soups. If it looks like my grandma and her adult daughters bustling away in her kitchen. If it tastes like cherry cheesecake. If it can be heard in the uproariousness of thirty-plus people in one single-story farmhouse.

I know what love is. It’s these very tangible things giving me hope that love will always emerge victorious. Love looks, sounds, smells, feels-and tastes-like Christmas dinner at Grandma’s house. Like home.

* * * * *

Traci Rhoades lives in southwest Michigan, somewhere in a triangular section connecting Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids with all things Lake Michigan. She and her husband parent one daughter. They have dogs, cats, ducks, pigs and chickens–a number that is always changing, as farm animal counts tend to do. She enjoys watching sports, reading, cooking and all things Bible study. She is  a writer. When she first started blogging, she wondered about what unique voice she could bring, eventually landing on this one line: A country girl goes to church.

It all began on Hope Street

Hope Street, 1998

I’m leaning over my daughter’s crib, daring to get my nose as close to her head as possible, in order to imbibe her baby fragrance.

Today, like any day with a two-month old, included its share of unhappy baby wails, new-mama exasperation, and waylaid plans. But since finding her thumb a week ago, my daughter has been a champion sleeper, granting some margin for gratitude, hope.

img_6032Heady with baby aura, I lower an ear, holding my breath so I can hear hers. It’s deep and slow, with a slight rattle in her throat. While listening, I’ve almost forgotten to breathe for myself, as if she could for both of us.

Straightening up, I take a long pull of oxygen that fills my body with a momentary energy. I marvel at the duplicity of motherhood. My daughter and I are always linked, but also separate. It’s a concept I’m just beginning to grasp—to grieve and also to welcome with a tinge of relief. The inner struggle of motherhood has already begun.

I gently place my hand on my baby’s silky head, fingers following the curve of her skull as if to cradle it, wondering what seeds lie sleeping in that head, waiting to unfurl and carry her from crib to bed and into the world.

My heart forms a wordless prayer—one that’s open-ended enough to remind me that my love and her autonomy are not mutually exclusive, not even now, while she depends on me for everything, my milk her only food.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Race Street, 2004

I’ve finished unpacking yet another box of kitchen miscellany, trying to find space in a half-sized kitchen for things I rarely use—a large funnel, a hard-boiled-egg slicer, a pastry cutter.

Trying to find room for the unessential seems to be a theme in my life as of late. Over the weekend, I moved into a duplex—half of a house, for half of a parenting team in possession of half of the books, furniture, and art.

Since the divorce, I feel less sad, but more overwhelmed. My two girls, just six and four, are so busy, full of thoughts and ideas, calls for help, emotions that require extra patience, consistency, and love, and I’m wasting time staring at the contents of my former kitchen, wondering if I’ll use a funnel in the next year.

Today, bedtime couldn’t have come soon enough. But now, two hours after singing one last song and flourishing one last “tickle-scratch” on each back, I miss them.

In their dim bedroom, I carefully step around boxes they were told to “unpack” after dinner. My earlier annoyance with the mess melts into understanding: Unpacking inspired play—happy reunions with toys they hadn’t seen for a week, opportunities to pretend being teachers and mamas who take on challenges, fix problems, and comfort hurts.

Standing by their bunk bed, taking in one sweet face then the other, I still feel the ache of missing them. Am I missing the babies and toddlers they were? Or is the missing in anticipation of the day these daughters, fully grown, will sleep under roofs other than mine?

I decide I’m missing the busy, silly, awake versions of my sleeping girls. And I’m tempted to wake them up, but I know better, so I kiss each girl’s temple and take myself to bed.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Oregon Street, 2011

Jason and I can’t keep our eyes open. So this is what it feels like to be old, we joke, setting down our books to move from the sofa up the stairs to bed.

For years we’ve been the last ones up each night at our house, but these days it’s a toss-up. Our oldest two girls are legitimate teenagers, at 15 and 13, with busy after-school schedules and stacks of homework crowding their evenings. Our youngest, at 11, is developing into a night owl—the one who’s forever begging to read “just one more chapter!”

On the landing at the top of the stairs, we begin our nighttime rounds, noting the knotted brow of our oldest, my stepdaughter, as she tackles advanced math, then calming the chatter of our middle-schooler, who somehow has several hours of life to update us on, even though we last talked less than an hour ago.

We gently scold the youngest for not turning off her light when we told her to, but night owls will be night owls. This is not our battle. I smooth her hair and hum the song I rocked her to each night as a baby.

In our own bed, Jason and I share a weary high five and a kiss before turning out our lights. We’ve completed another day of “doing our best” as parents, even though what’s “best” has become increasingly fuzzy.

All we know for sure is things are getting real. Before our eyes, all of the knowledge fragments we’ve dispensed along the way have become a collection of tools our children are ad-libbing with out in the world. Each bit of freedom and autonomy, while terrifying for us, is an opportunity for them to practice and learn. We can’t stop any of it—they’re already on their way.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Orchard Street, 2016

I set down my mug of rooibos, tucking a bookmark between pages so I can reach my phone, which just buzzed at me from the coffee table. It’s a text from my oldest daughter whose mind is fixed on the many plans she has for Thanksgiving break, her first week home since moving to college. Smiling, I thumb a response. She’s always had so many ideas and plans—they just keep getting bigger as she becomes more capable of making them happen on her own.

The oldest of our three is also off at college, pursuing a science degree and being a wise, steady support system for the students on her floor, where she serves as RA.

Only our youngest still occupies one of the bedrooms upstairs. She’s now in possession of a driver’s license, along with the new level of autonomy it brings. After years of playing taxi, I’m still surprised when she arrives home on her own from her favorite cafe, as she does now. Plopping next to me on the sofa, she pulls the edge of my afghan across her lap, offering her back for a tickle-scratch before bed.

Kissing my daughter’s head as she says goodnight, I realize it’s time for me to think about bed, too. Just one more chapter.

As I turn another page, my phone interrupts with another text, this time from the bedroom above me.

Are you super busy or could you come play with my hair for a couple of minutes? I can’t sleep. And I miss you.

I miss her, too, I think, setting down my book, mid-chapter. I miss them all—even if they’re not mine to hold back, just to encourage forward. Switching off the lamps, I climb the stairs to my baby girl’s room.

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me. 
                                  –Emily Dickinson

For the first part of the year I was hopeful for a job and to pay off debt. Now I’m hoping to leave my job, work for myself, and jump back into debt by buying a house. I’m also hoping to stay in a church I’ve found after years of searching, finding, backing away, and restarting the search.

Advent is a season of hope for me. It’s the tipping point into the New Year. It’s hope for the long-expected coming of the infant Christ. It’s the time of year I like the best. Contemplation, choral music, commercial cheer, even Walmart becomes a beautiful place to me for the first week or two of Advent.

Hope is the thing with feathers. It perches in my soul. I have always assumed that my life is the sum total of my experience in the world. That I’m a hopeless distance from attaining the wisdom and experience I should have. On my worst days, I believe life WILL probably end today, right now. But I look at Dan and see how quickly a year and a half together has gone by. That there has been such healing for me inside my marriage, and I hope and trust that we have many more years together ahead of us. Hope is like a cold I keep catching and giving to myself.

On Saturday, Dan took to our church a huge paper mural he created for the members to color on through Advent. We don’t know many people there yet and I hope we will stick it out before wanderlust and the old feelings of being at odds with church set in. It’s hard to enter a new compact with people we don’t know well. To show up week after week with others and say, “Hello, I’m here for you even though I don’t know you very well and we keep forgetting each other’s name.” To look longingly at others’ children and wonder if it’ll happen for us. But we keep showing up, hoping for Advent and for friendship. The paper mural is part of that. Hope, as Emily Dickinson says, is the tune without words that never stops. It’s the song stuck in your head you wish would go away, even as you hum and tap your fingers to it. wall-mural-2

The mural is a thing of beauty. It is the best of Dan’s art. It’s whimsical and playful, big and generous, and the priest loves it. Everyone immediately began to draw and write prayers on it. It’s public but intimate—just like Advent. The mural was pristine when we put it up Saturday and on Sunday it became imperfect. It was covered with the eager fingers of children who colored in the Star of Bethlehem with black Sharpies, ignoring their parents’ requests to color in the lines and to please use the eighty beautiful hues of markers and pencils available. Like the little bird in the poem, these children are unabashed. They hope they can finish the coloring job unimpeded, by the end of Advent.


This morning at church I spoke with a woman I met last week. It was a glad meeting of recognition. We’re trying to become friends. I even remembered her name, Sarah. Our greeting was formal, warm and over too soon. I walked away out of countenance. But it’s the hope of friendship that makes me press forward. We’ll talk again. We might even let slip one or two revealing opinions about the election or other people we know, and we’ll wonder if it’s alright to say them out loud in church. And we’ll look at each other sheepishly and our friendship will really begin. Hope doesn’t need anything from me, not even a crumb. Just belief. It will precede every friendship and every encounter in this church, in this city, in this life.

The First Sunday After the Election

It was the first Sunday after the election, and I wasn’t the only one who came to church in search of healing. Our congregation is many in terms of race, culture, background and class; but we gather because we were also one. One hope. One faith. One Lord. One old red-brick building facing east, perched on a hill overlooking a wide, crowded valley. Overlooking the city that is my home.

Pittsburgh, Pa. November 13, 2016. Mercifully, the sun had risen another day.

On that Sunday, I gave and received hugs, eased my body into a pew, and tried to settle my mind. Our daughters were collecting crayons and paper from the table in the back, and my husband sat close, leaning into my arm. He knew I was barely hanging on.

I sighed.

Psalm 27 filled the first page of the bulletin. Too much text, I thought. I need to sing. I was desperate to gather up the chaos inside and release it into words, notes, and vibrations. I needed our collective voices to transform some of this pain into hope.

But I had no choice. This was how we were beginning. And so, as sunlight through stained glass filled the room, I submitted to the many words.

The Lord is my light and salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

And I thought, Lord, would you like a list?

When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh–my adversaries and foes–they shall stumble and fall.

Or win elections. Betrayal was still bitter on my tongue.

though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident… for he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble… Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

The psalm went on and on. And on. Together we heard it. Together we allowed it to soak in. Together we let the light crack through the stone we were using to protect our aching hearts.


Photo by V. Wolkins

You could almost hear the chisel at work: Do not forsake us, Lord–the Lord will not forsake us–Do not forsake us, Lord–the Lord will not forsake us.

Chip, chip, crack.

I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord!

Now it was time to sing.

* * * * *

Later, during prayer request time, we shared our own words.

I know a lot of army recruits. I’m concerned that the fear and the rhetoric will lead to more deployments. These recruits–they’re great kids.

Our foundation cannot be shaken–God is still in control. God is king of kings, president of presidents. No politician has ultimate power. Don’t be afraid.

How can we have reconciliation with Christian brothers and sisters who don’t even understand why this hurts so much? 

If Muslims are forced to register, we will also register as Muslims. Because Jesus is Lord.

First, we cast our votes. Now, we cast our lives. This won’t be the first time. 

And, like Psalm 27, we went on and on. And on.

* * * * *

My family left before the end of the service. We had previous plans to visit my parents, who live an hour out of the city. But first, on our way to their house, we would go on a quick bike ride. It was a beautiful fall day in Western Pennsylvania, and we had wanted to try this trail for months.

But now I was nervous.

As we drove north, the Trump yard signs multiplied, and my stomach tightened. Paranoia surfaced. Why had my husband insisted on wearing his “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt? Would someone say something disparaging in front of the girls? Or worse? We would be in isolated places on the trail. What if someone tries to hurt us?

I had one comfort–it was cold. My husband  would have to wear his flannel over his t-shirt. We could blend in. None of us had dark skin, or wore a hijab, or seemed ‘other’ in any other way. No one would know who we were and where we came from.

And that quickly, I forgot who we were and where we came from.

* * * * *

The other day a friend said to me, “There are people who are deeply invested in the divisions in America.” This didn’t make sense at first. Aren’t the deep divisions our problem? But then I realized–it is the divisions that keep us safe.

As long as my husband wears his “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt in the city and his flannel in the country, we will be safe. As long as we vent our frustrations about the election with like-minded friends, no one will challenge us. As long as we pray with people who feel our pain, we can comfort one another.

Now. There’s nothing wrong with comfort, venting, or self-preservation. But we can’t stay there. Somehow we must find a way to bring our whole selves into the scary and uncomfortable places. We must listen. We must speak, somehow, in a way that can be heard across the divides.

We must learn, and learn again, to love more than we fear.

Last night I wrote out the text of Psalm 27 and posted it by my bathroom mirror. It is a reminder. A clue. A signpost on the way to hope, which I might be needing in the days to come.

The Lord is my light and salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

No one, Lord. No one.

A City, Stopped

Fifteen years ago, my wife Maile and I drove the straight stretch of 95 North where it races through New Jersey, slowing to a stand still as we waited to drive into New York City. The traffic converges there, just outside the Lincoln Tunnel, then slowly submerges, everyone holding their breath for the passage under.

But what I remember most is the way the smoke still billowed from the ground on the other side of the river, a cloud of it reaching out over the Hudson. We were moving to England, one month after 9/11, and the whole world was tipping off its axis.

* * * * *

Our move to England required visas, and those pieces of paper were tied up at the British consulate in NYC, so we hit the road that day in hopes of retrieving the visas personally and in time for our flight to London the following week.

I had been to New York City many times before that, and I looked forward to returning. There was something about the chaos of the city, the constant horns and maddening flow of people, that made it feel like anything might be possible. But when we drove up out of the Lincoln Tunnel and turned to enter the parking garage in the heart of the city, we were met not with the promise of adventure, but by guards with machine guns.

There had never been guards outside the parking garage, but there they were, carrying machine guns, staring straight ahead. They wore what looked like police riot gear. Their faces were emotionless landscapes. They asked for my driver’s licence. They searched the car. They reluctantly took down our license plate number and waved us through.

Still shaking, we climbed out of the car and then out of the underground garage, out into the light. It was then the silence hit us.  New York was quiet. I couldn’t believe it. A hush hovered in the alleys and drifted through the streets, like fog, and everything was muffled by it. Barely any of the cars blew their horns. People scurried from here to there, looking over their shoulders.

And there was the cloud. Always the cloud. Rising up like a smoke signal.

* * * * *

We sat for a few hours in the office. We presented our passports. We got the small pieces of paper we needed to start this new life on the other side of the Atlantic.

We walked the quiet streets back to the parking garage and we found our car. The same guards waved us off, and I stared at them in my rearview mirror. They were the new reality.

Back down through the tunnel, up and out again, then south on I-95, all the way. But I kept glancing in my rearview for as long as I could see the column of smoke, and it was deep, and it was foreboding. In those days we wondered what might be next.


* * * * *

A few weeks later, visas and passports freshly stamped,  we walked the streets of London, our new home. Black cabs sifted through the traffic, gliding past pubs and red telephone booths. A low, slate-gray sky was barely held up by the buildings.

And on that day, everything stopped. Everything. Cars. Pedestrians. Businesses stopped serving people. A minute of silence for the United States and all that we had lost in 9/11, and a minute is a very long time in a city.

I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since. A city, stopped.

* * * * *

Shawn is a writer living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 9/11 photo by Kristen on Creative Commons.

In Memoriam

It’s my fiftieth birthday and I’m wandering around a graveyard.

It’s not that I am feeling morbid, or even that I am attempting to come to terms with my mortality. (Although it’s hard to deny that there is something about turning 50 that pulls the whole mortality thing into sharper focus.)

My younger brother is visiting from New York City, which doesn’t happen very often, and we have decided to take a drive into the country to visit our parents’ burial plot.

“Do you have any paper towels?” Vern asks, as we merge onto the interstate, heading south from Pittsburgh toward Washington County, Pennsylvania.

I point to the glove compartment and raise my eyebrows. “Why?”

“Remember the last time we visited?” he asks, and I do. We planted marigolds, and we scrubbed dried bird droppings from the marble headstone. We laugh and agree that this is par for the course in a graveyard surrounding a church with the word “pigeon” in its name.

Forty-five minutes later, we pull into the parking lot of Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. A stone monument to the left of the wide front door proclaims the church’s historical significance:

The Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church was founded by John McMillan August 24, 1775. It is the oldest church west of the Monongahela River.


pigeon-creek-church-graveyardMy mother’s mother is a descendant of the Rev. John McMillan. Pigeon Creek was the home church of my mother’s father—and his parents, and their parents, and so on. This little red brick country church, perched atop a hill near the intersection of Brownlee and Church Roads, is in walking distance of the house in which my mother grew up, and in which I lived my first two and a half years.

Grandpa Hamilton was an elder at Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church, and Grandma Hamilton taught Sunday school and accompanied the choir on the piano. This is where Mom and Dad were married, where my two younger brothers and I were all baptized, and where my parents are buried, in a plot next to my grandparents.

It never fails to amuse me, as a person descended—through my mother’s line— from a long line of English, Scots-Irish, German, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, to see the Maczuzak headstone adjacent to the Hamilton one. My father, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant coal miner, married into a family of WASPs and is now buried among them.

I am descended from a Scots-Irish Presbyterian missionary who opposed the Whiskey Rebellion on the western frontier of America in the late 18th century. And I am the granddaughter of a brave Eastern European 18-year-old who sailed to Ellis Island in 1913 to labor in the coal mines of western Pennsylvania. The presence of my surname in Pigeon Creek’s graveyard, just a few hundred yards from a handful of Revolutionary War interments, speaks eloquently of the American story—and of mine.


Since my mother’s and father’s funeral services, a decade ago and nearly three years ago, respectively, I have attended only one worship service in this building—the installation of its new pastor, my friend and former campus ministry colleague, John Dykstra. That intersection of past and present is a story for another time, and a bit of serendipity. Another chapter in my history with this church.

Today, we stand together in the center of the small sanctuary, and John catches us up on the modern-day happenings of this congregation. Vern and I reminisce about our childhood memories of this place—how much brighter it used to be before the clear windows were replaced with stained glass, how the Hamilton/Maczuzak clan always sat in the same pew—second row on the left, as you face the altar.

We walk to up to the chancel to investigate the inscribed plaque on the side of the upright piano which has graced this space for nearly 40 years, a living monument to our musical grandmother:

MAY 7, 1978

gravestone-gridWe step into the bright September sunshine and walk together down the steep bank to visit the matching marble headstones for DAVID A. & FRANCES F. HAMILTON and for JANET HAMILTON & JOHN ANTHONY MACZUZAK. My grandpa and my dad were both predeceased by their wives, and when visiting the graves, must have experienced the jarring sensation of seeing their own names and birth dates etched into the marble, a blank space waiting to be filled in at some future time.

By the time they were my age, my parents knew where their earthly remains would rest. I am now 50 years old, and I have no idea.


“Are you two related to the Hamiltons at the top of the hill?” John asks, and curious to find out, we climb the steep bank to check out the headstones closest to the rear of the church building. Catching my breath after the climb, I pull out my phone and snap a photo of an ornate headstone:

David M. Hamilton
Aug. 28, 1846–Apr. 26, 1911
Elizabeth A. His Wife
Mar. 15, 1855–May 16, 1933

I text the picture to my mom’s brother and ask, “Who is this?”

Uncle John replies within minutes, identifying my great-great grandfather. After some back-and-forth Q and A, he wishes me a happy birthday and teases me about how I have chosen to spend it.


I don’t visit this cemetery often, and I confess that I am never really sure what I’m supposed to do when I get here. I feel connected to my parents in all sorts of places—even moreso than on this quiet country hillside.

But this is where we gathered with our family and friends shortly after they died. This is where we shared memories about how grateful we were to have known them. This is where we chose to erect a monument to commemorate that, once upon a time, they lived and breathed and laughed and cried and loved.

Like my ancestors at the top of the hill, most of whom I never met, and the people buried in the nearly illegible Revolutionary War era graves, the headstones in this cemetery represent flesh-and-blood men and women who lived full, rich, complicated lives about which I know very little. But I do know this: if they had not lived, I would not be here.

As Vern and I say goodbye, my friend John assures me that it’s not too late to purchase a burial plot in the Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church cemetery, and we laugh. But then I wonder. Maybe I should. I’m not getting any younger.


Amy Maczuzak is a writer and editor who has lived most of her fifty years in or near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.