Cinnamon Rolls and Aluminum Cans

nc-aluminum-can-recycling-cansThe garbage bags, smelling of beer and slimy with drops of liquid, are what I remember most.

Before recycling was a thing, Dad, in his worn clothes and scruffy beard, bought aluminum cans for 10 cents a pound at the Farmer’s Market.  I was his 5 year old helper.

The locals brought them in various containers–bags and beaten-up trash cans, old cardboard boxes and feed sacks. The cans would shift and jingle as they were weighed on a kitchen scale, rigged with a little platform.  What my dad remembers most was getting smart—learning to watch for rocks in bags and cans loaded with dirt. Once he found a half-eaten turkey adding extra weight to a bag.

When there weren’t customers, our old blue Ford got loaded with the purchased metal. As the Market was winding down, we would make home visits, picking up loads from around town.

My dad engineered 6-foot extensions to the sidewalls of the truck, a cage of sorts made of scrap lumber and chicken wire.  On the drive home, with the back of the truck full of aluminum, we wouldn’t speak.  My dad isn’t much of a talker.  And, over the rumble of cans shifting and vibrating, we couldn’t hear one another anyway.

At home, the cans would be released from their temporary captivity and spill onto the ground.  The tool wielded by my father crushed the cans flat. If he used the truck to crush them, we knew his back was acting up.

In addition to mighty tools, the little feet of my brother and I would stomp on the cans, trying to hit them just so. A can might curve perfectly around our little feet and our work would turn to play as we danced around in our shoes made of cans.

Newly compacted, the smashed cans were shoveled into reused bags and tied off. Once there was a full load, they would be sold in the city for 32 cents a pound. That small profit kept my family afloat while my dad recovered from a serious back injury.

It was a lean time—an in-between time where making ends meet was the adult focus. My grandma put $5 in her weekly letter; my mom used it to buy hamburger meat.

Because the ingredients were cheap and it was a recipe she had mastered, my mom made cinnamon rolls to sell in the park. With darkness still blanketing the house, the oven baked batch after batch of the sweet treat, my mom sacrificing sleep. Always attentive to the clock, she could time the last batch perfectly to arrive at the Farmer’s Market just as people started to show up.

The hot rolls, darkened with cinnamon and whitened with sugar frosting, would 6a00e54efbe3a1883300e551c6372c8834-800wimoisten the plastic wrap. In the trip down the dirt road, the wrap would begin to creep up leaving the edges of the rolls exposed to flying critters. My job was to stretch the wrap back over the edges and keep an eye out for pesky flies.

$1.75 for 8 rolls, fresh from the oven. Some had raisins.

Once that first plateful sold, I’d be given money to go and buy a bean burro from a lady from church. She brought pre-made burritos wrapped in tin foil. I loved holding that warm burrito in my hands on those early mornings and running between the can station and the cinnamon roll table.

My mom hasn’t made cinnamon rolls in years. I bet she still could if she needed to.

But, since I can remember, my family has collected cans, eventually taking them into the new Recycling Center that opened in town.

The Recycling Center closed several weeks ago—the resale price of scrap metal wasn’t high enough to keep him in business.

The tides have changed for my parents. They can now afford organic grass-fed beef. But, they can’t bring themselves to throw the cans away.

And the bags of cans are piling up on the front porch.

Little Miss Sunshine

I called my sister last week from a writing workshop.

What are you writing about?,” she asked, making conversation.

I replied, “Oh….dancing.  And, the beauty pageant from high school.”  There was a heavy sigh in my voice.

With a touch of exasperation in her voice, she responded “It’s time for you to let that go you know…

Yah, I know.

And I do.  But, whenever I think about it, it still stings.

tiaraEven though there wasn’t a pageant that year, my small town was asked to send a representative to the state Junior Miss competition.  Somehow, through the uncertain network of small town decision-making, the ladies called me.  I was the chosen one to represent our community.

Maybe it was a fulfillment of a childhood fantasy or the insistence of my mother or the honor of being chosen by the local powers, whatever the reason, I agreed.

As is possible in a smaller community, I was deeply involved in high school.  I had leadership positions in school clubs and was a dance assistant as a part-time job.  I was active in church and drama and even had a brief stint as a cheerleader for the wrestling team.   My country upbringing—where I was a big fish in a small pond—had not prepared me for what lay ahead.

During our meet and greet luncheon, one of the girls turned to me and asked, “What’s your talent?”  She was modestly dressed in a fashionable skirt that showed off her long legs without revealing too much.

I’ll be dancing.”  What I meant was that I had borrowed a park bench and long overcoat and I had taken a piece of poster board that I made into a giant “book” entitled, “How to Dance.”   My loosely choreographed number would hit its peak when I ripped off the overcoat to reveal new-found dancing skills.  I had a basic plan, but it was ameteur at best. “And you?” I responded.

I’ve recorded myself singing an aria and I’ll be dancing ballet on-pointe,” she smiled kindly, her perfectly smooth hair framing her lightly freckled face.  “A piece that I’ve choreographed myself.”  She was outrageously perfect.

The week of activities, rehearsals, and interviews was filled with similar interactions.  With every conversation, my sense of inadequacy grew.  I didn’t have the right clothes or aLittle Miss Sunshinen outgoing temperament.  I wasn’t up on current events or for that matter, pop culture.  I had only been to one foreign country.  I was hippy and full among a gaggle of skinny girls.

“At least I will have the grades,” I told myself. “I must be in the running with that.”  But no, somewhere along the line I realized that even my above-and-beyond GPA wasn’t going to be in the running.

The night of the pageant came. I did my awkward dance.  I stood on stage in my on-sale dress, the same one I wore to prom.  I did my best to hold my ground. I tried to blend in with the perfect girls. But, by the end of the show, I was done.

You did SUCH a good job, Mary.  We are so proud of you,” my parents gathered around me as I gathered up my things.

In the silence of my teenage mind, I retorted “Then you are a fool.”  But, I smiled and responded, “Thanks. Can we just go home?

Absolutely.  Let’s go home!”   We made our way out to the parking lot and crawled into the minivan, covered with the dust of our dirt road.

A few weeks ago, my niece was in her first dance recital.  At three years old, it is evident that she is following her inner drummer—a strong-willed kid who doesn’t like to be told what to do.  She didn’t want to wear the costume, didn’t want to let go of her tattered Bear, and didn’t want to dance on cue.  As her family, we already knew that.

As the number started, it become evident to the entire audience.

She stood with her feet planted.  Not one single tap sounded off her feet.  Instead, she looked around and began to fiddle with the strap of her fish costume.

She didn’t shoulder shimmy or shuffle or shake. The girls beside her were moving around the stage but she stayed put.  Slowly, she slide her little arm from under the strap, letting one arm free from the itchy sequins.

Oh, sweet baby, no….” my mom whispered under her breath, trying to mentally will her granddaughter into staying clothed.  “Please keep it on.

The audience giggled a bit as she began to fiddle with the other side.

Before she committed to disrobing, the number ended and the girls lined up to form a choo-choo train and push my darling niece off the stage.

I hope I didn’t scar her, “ my sister whispered across the line of family.

Nah,” I whispered back, thinking of my strong niece, “she’ll be okay.”

The Three M’s

“Leave it all on the top!” was written among the other encouraging words. My co-workers had presented the pink bandana covered with inspirational phrases as a gift.

That pink bandana was now tied over my dirty hair. I cringed to look at our guides with their inadequate gear as I looked down on all my carefully purchased attire, bought just for this moment.

It was summit day.

The night before, our support team had made chicken for dinner. I knew that chicken had been carried on someone’s head for the last five days and tried not to think about it.

After the meal, our guide, Wense, came to give my sister and I a pre-summit day pep talk. The highlight of his speech featured showing us an oxygen tank that he would carry for emergency situations.  I wasn’t comforted.

Wense rattled the tent long before the sun rose, indicating it was time to get started. We wrestled into our clothes and emerged from the tent, strapping our headlights to our foreheads.  He looked expectedly at us, silently asking us if we were ready to begin. Melinda took a step forward toward the trailhead and I forced myself to follow her.

The first stretch of the summit was bouldering in the dark.  Yep, maintaining balance, moving from rock to rock, in the dark. I tried not to panic. As I looked at the twinkle of head lamps making their way up the dark mountain, I took a breath and told myself, “Do it for Melinda. Do it for Matt.34239_409440772942_6699517_n

Since my brother, Matt, had been killed a few years earlier, Melinda and I had gone to crazy places to see the sun rise on his birthday. This year we were going to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. It is the tallest peak you can climb as a recreational hiker.

The first few hours passed with few words and my continuous mental mantra, “Stay calm. You can do this. Just keep moving.” Or, the African version, “Pole, pole.

Melinda was in top physical form. I, however, overcame a major mental hurdle just putting on a sports bra. I had done a minimal training plan…walking to work a few times with my pack, climbing the one local peak a few times. I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I should have been and I knew it. But, Melinda had convinced me to do the trip saying, with a twinge of exasperation, “Mary, you could do it right now if you needed to!  You’d be surprised what your body is capable of.

About 60% of the way to the top, it was clear that my sister and I were traveling at different speeds and needed to part ways. We stopped to take a “just in case” photo. She pressed the button, and then again, and then again. After several attempts, she couldn’t get it to work and shook her head in confusion. Later, she realized she had a pressed the On/Off button repeatedly, absolutely unaware. A first indication of her altitude sickness.

A few minutes later, I caught up to her as she vomited into the rocks. She went to get a drink out of her water, but the line stretching to her mouth had frozen. She did her best to spit and without hesitation, she pushed forward. The junior guide followed a few steps behind her.

As the sky began to light up and we rounded a corner, I could see the summit, still off in the distance. Doubt was taking root. “Oh, it’s still a long way. Can I do this? Do I even want to?” I asked myself.

The terrain had turned to rubble, and with every step forward, I slide back a few inches. The backwards motion was wrecking havoc on my mental game and my breaks grew longer and longer. Without a word, Wense pressed his shoulder against my back, prodding me back into motion. He didn’t appear to even be exerting himself.

My mental toughness wearing thin, I couldn’t rely on my own pep talk any longer. Starting to think about calling it quits, I turned to divine help and the rhythm of words.

Hail…“–one step.

Mary…” –another.

full…“–eight inches forward.

of grace…“–another.

The Hail Mary is 23 steps long.

After I finished the whole prayer, I would pause and then, go after it again. Another 23 steps. Another plea for help. Over and over.

Somehow, beyond my comprehension, I made it. The summit!!! Amen!

I was too drained to do much celebrating. But, I had done 35892_881344741012_7154721_nwhat I needed to do. I had done it for Melinda, for Matt, and for myself.

My sister left three M&Ms behind at the highest summit post, a small token of remembrance for “the three M’s” as my mom had called us.

Enjoying the view, I turned to glance at the trail and knew that I had indeed left it all on the top. Thank God for gravity and momentum. The trek back was a stumbling, fuzzy, grumpy blur except for one vivid memory where Melinda turned and said, “I have never seen you like this. Are you okay?

I wasn’t. But, I would be…we had done it!

MP Top of Kili35892_881346712062_403916_n


Moments from The Open Road

“Mind if I add deer meat to the burger?”

Sitting out on the porch overlooking the large garden and the stunning Appalachian Mountains, I didn’t mind at all. I rocked back and forth absorbing the beauty of the life my friends had created. Their 7-year old entertained me with a story about a box car race which she had recently won. A large piece of metal sculpture fashioned by the artistic hands of her dad was just on the edge of my vision.  The clouds and the mountains and the storm and the trees created a ever-changing, ever-the-same view.

From the mushrooms they planted in a stack of wood to the tractor seat that served as the swing set, I soaked in their life. We chatted with joy about the little one who was growing, still hidden in mommy’s tummy, and looked with reverence at the small momentos that give witness to the little ones they had lost along the way.

After dinner, we pulled the bed out of the sleeper sofa and knelt by the edge of their children’s bunkbed to say prayers. The cool mountain air coming in the window and the house creaking with quiet noises, I settled in to the peace of their small mountain home. In the morning, the sound of bread-making roused me from restful sleep.

A loving whisper gently filled the silence, “It’s time to get ready for school, sweetheart.”

I folded two dollar bills and slipped them into the tip can. “Can you do Danny’s Song?,” I asked. Just in case, I sang my favorite line at full voice, “Even though we ain’t got money…” He had a startled look for a moment, probably not a typical request.

“Yah.  Absolutely.” He fiddled with a gadget, something that provided the words and the chords.

I had spent the afternoon rambling through Savannah, exploring and snapping photos of interesting patterns and angles. Where the strap met my sweaty skin, my sandals had  rubbed large raw spots across the top of my feet. Every step was painful.

Hot, sweaty, and footsore, I became attuned to the couples. They were everywhere. I slipped into a mini-funk, a grumpster state. Sitting on a bench, I fiddled with my phone, not ready to go back to my hotel room but unable to keep walking. Nobody answered.

Casually dressed and with tousled hair, he was singing and playing guitar at the bar & grill on the corner of the square. It was the perfect blend of country and folk and soulful melodies. I sat and listened for over an hour, my heart slowly lulled into a happier state. Eventually, I mustered the courage to go and sit at a table. And with dinner ordered and a beer drank, I mustered the courage to make a song request.

You bring a tear of joy to my eye and tell me everything is gonna be alright.

When he sang the chorus, big, inexplicable tears rolled down my check.  They were the tears of a beautiful moment, part of which I had created and part of which I had been given.  Tears of gratitude and heartache, of goodness and beauty.

My heart, long asleep, stirred.

Although suffering the effects of a rotten cold, my joyful friend greeted the day with her typical morning vibrance, “DisneyWorld, here we come!”

I drug myself out of morning fog and with the enthusiasm that I could muster in the morning, replied, “Whoo-hoo!”

As I thought about completion of graduate school, I had gotten it my head that I wanted to see the Magic Kingdom on my way home. Florida is not really on the way to Arizona but I didn’t care. When we realized that she would be in Florida for a graduation, it sealed the deal. By temperament, she’s a planner and so, we made plans months in advance. I messed it up and arrived a day early. Whoops.

It could have been weird. I was on the pull-out couch in a large hotel room with my long-time friend and her newly-wed husband. But, it wasn’t. I was tempted to be weirded out by the the lack of weirdness but instead, accepted it in gratitude. As the two had become one at the altar, I had gained a new friend.

We arrived at the theme park, googling “How to Use a Fast Pass” as we made our way to the entrance. With cold symptoms at their peak, we knew we only had a few hours before exhaustion won out. We tapped into the efficiency skills at hand and came up with a plan. In between the plan, we had spontaneous moments, ducking into the less thrilling attractions which were flooded with childhood memories and children.

It was an easy day. A day of innocent entertainment, deep friendships, and celebration of happy things. A day where goodness triumphed.

My melancholic soul was light-hearted and unafraid.

I’m not sure the attraction of a rambling solo road trip but it definitely calls to me. Whenever I can, I choose the smaller scenic roads, marked by a dotted line on the old-school atlas lodged between the seats of my car. I would rather go slow and be bathed in nature–the Shenandoah Valley, the Ozarks, the open sky of my beloved Southwest.  Or, go out of my way to have a quick visit with a friend.

The stretches of open road and the moments in between teach me. Home. Beauty. Lightness. On the road, there is just enough going on that you can be in your head without focusing on being in your head.  You can look back on moments and see their depth. That’s a sweet spot for me.

Days ago, my road trip ended as I drove up the dirt driveway of my childhood place–the home that my father built around us as we grew. Now, in the rhythm of regular life, I am trying to build new habits, to remember new ways. I have returned home

…at least until another road opens up in front of me.11078154_10153371527107943_3090907364091819517_n


Camera pans out.charlie's angels

Music begins.

With long-legged strides, a group of beautiful woman strut with deliberate confidence, their hair pushed back by wind and the sheer intensity of their motion.

They have a common mission.

They are…unstoppable.

This image has nothing to do with my current reality. I am bit prone to the slow stroll and my intensity comes out in awkward spurts and fits rather than anything resembling grace. My confidence has been shot to pieces. I’m trying ride out this season of transition until I figure out where I am going. My hair is more likely to be tangled in my necklace than flowing gracefully in the breeze.

But once.

Once upon a time.

Once upon a time, I resonated with the image of fierce, determined women moving with certainty, surrounded by beauty.

In my early 20s, friends and I joined together in a common mission to serve pregnant women who found themselves on the streets. With a bit of luck, a ton of grace, and the available elbow grease, we created a home that drew women into a safe place and a loving community. I call that season: “the Holy Spirit light show.” There were some really challenging aspects, of course, but, it just felt special. All around us, people were being zapped by grace and drawn into the project. Things fell into place; the right people showed up; donations arrived at the perfect time. We were movin’ and jivvin’ in the blessing groove, filled with gratitude and awe at what was happening around us.

It was incredible to be a part of and it taught me that anything is possible. Having known the bewildering presence of God in this season of creation, I was forever changed.

I remained in the work for 15 years, joining together with many mighty souls to create a place. A place of healing, a place of love, a place where motherhood was preserved.

I never felt the glamour and attraction of the long-legged women with hair blowing in the breeze. But I felt the unity of purpose, the strength of common work. I felt a part of something strong.

And now.


Now, I am no longer one of the “Maggie’s Place girls,” at least in the same way. I don’t have to think in terms of community. I’m on a solo mission, completing my graduate work and listening carefully to the echos of my heart.

And yet, we remain bound together. I am tied to those whom I shared my life with–in our common memories and experiences and more so, in that sense of love that made us a community.

Several of prayed alongside Angie last week as she mourned the death of her son.  I spent a wonderful evening discussing feminist theories with Dayna over a margarita and queso dip.   Christy’s good news–she is moving back to her beloved Arizona!–made my day and Chariti will join me next week to celebrate my graduation.  Jana called just to check in and see how I am doing; I have coffee with Lynda on my calendar; Miranda’s wedding invitation sits on my desk.  Emails and posts, little signs of the bonds that were build, of the connection that remains.

The love is alive, not merely a memory of the past, but a present reality on which to draw strength.

I am road weary and limping a bit.  I could use a haircut and there isn’t much of a breeze.

But, I’m walking, facing head-on.

And, if my footing falters, someone will be there.

And, that makes me strong.

Alone in the Light; Together in Darkness

The lights suddenly flipped on. The bells started ringing. A young altar boy rushed to light the candles. Black robes began flying into the air and then were caught and flung again, straight up in the highest part of the vaulted ceiling of the church.

The moment had arrived.

It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

Dominican priests typically wear a white robe with a large cowl neck collar and long piece of vincent-mcnabbfabric down the front. All those things have fancy names, but I will spare you the lesson in monk fashion. For special occasions, like the days of Holy Week, Dominicans add a long black cape that covers over the white robe. It is a solemn gesture, a gesture of reverence for the solemn events that are being remembered. To my eyes, it is a shroud of darkness, of mystery. The cape always draws my attention, and something in me wishes I could wear a cape without being thought of as a Lord of the Rings fangirl gone wild.

Watching the black capes thrown into the air, I was standing tiptoe in the courtyard of the church, peering over the heads of hundreds of standing figures. I was in Poland as a solo personal pilgrimage to honor a saint that I hold dear and was spending the week prior to Easter making day trips and exploring Krakow.

I’ve always loved the Easter vigil, the very long liturgy of Saturday night that begins in darkness and ends in Easter joy. I didn’t understand the Polish but I understood that moment. The church was suddenly bathed in light; darkness was literally cast aside. My melancholic spirit knew: He is RISEN!

This year, I was again in the presence of the white-robed Dominicans for the days leading up to Easter. My friend had taken several courses at the Dominicans House of Studies and wished to attend the liturgies amongst the preachers and teachers whom she loved and respected.  I was up for anything and not-so-secretly hoped that cape throwing was a part of the American tradition. (It wasn’t. Only cape removal and tactful folding.)  Nonetheless, I encountered another tradition.

We attended Tenelargebrae, a candlelit chanting of the Psalms that led into the Holy Week liturgies.  A chapel full of robed religious singing Scripture in the ancient prayer of the Church put me into a reflective, quiet place.  Stillness came; silence set in.  As the chanting ending, all of the light was extinguished.

The entire church stood in pitch blackness and perfect silence.

Time passed.

My mind raced, “How long are we going to silently stand here? How are all these people going to get out of here safely?”

More time passed.  My mental soundtrack didn’t let up, “I wish I could read my program so I understood what was going on.”

And then, a moment.  A moment of standing in darkness with 200 other people. A moment of being in silent worship together; a moment of turning my attention toward Him.

Breaking into that moment, a wretched clanging of drums and cacophonous noises filled the darkened chapel.  On and on it continued, a noise that disturbed the peace of the space and the peace of the spirit.

Just as quickly as it began, the noise ended. The lights returned and the service ended.  I glanced down at my program, “All creation shudders at the death of the Lord.

In the first, I was alone and rejoiced to see the darkness cast aside.

In the second, I stood together in darkness and worshipped and trusted the chaos had meaning.

To both I answer, “Amen.

Seasons Greetings

Cookies and punch on a table across the back, folding chairs in lines across the industrial carpet, bulletin boards with flyers and happy images: I was in a church hall. SuburbiaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA USA.

I was at a talk on masculinity and femininity. The presenter was a friend of mine, a quiet soul who comes to life when giving presentations. I was the chauffeur.

I enjoyed watching her in action. She used simple, relatable ideas to talk about profound topics.  It was engaging and smart and light-hearted. As she wrapped things up, much of the group lingered. People lined up to speak with her individually or in small groups. I hovered at the back of the room and kept an eye on her book table.

I had had a long day. I was tired…even more so, exhausted. My graduate program was doing a special week of talks from visiting professors and I had just sat through hours and hours of lectures. Days and days of trying to wrap my head around challenging content had worn me out.

One of the ladies also hovering at the back of the room struck up a conversation with me.

“Ugh,” I admittedly thought.  “Just leave me alone.”

But, I was polite and put on a happy face.  Chatting began.

It didn’t take long before I realized that she wanted to get into it.  Her natural style was skeptical and she was ready for some meaty conversation.  I understood the material given in the presentation and was chest-high in studies on the topic.  My mind raced.  I opened my mouth to respond and…

I just didn’t want to.Minefield

It was too much.  I was too tired.  The topics were too sensitive.

The possibility of walking into a minefield was way too high.

I mumbled something and dodged the conversation.

I’ve thought about that moment for months.  I feel guilty for not going there, for having a good opportunity where real conversation was possible and avoiding it.  I can cut myself some slack but haven’t let it go quite yet.

By personality, I am a peacemaker….or so I’ve been told.  I would prefer to think of myself as a courageous warrior and maybe I’ve had a few quick moments of glowing bravery.  However, my day to day manner is quiet, easy-going, and eager to avoid an argument.

The challenge is that I am a peacemaker in a pluralistic culture.  And the issues of our country and our time are deeply divisive.  I am a peacemaker who has well-formed ideas that many others don’t agree with. And tragically, I am a peacemaker who feels despairing about the state of our conversations.

I’m from Arizona.  My experience of seasons is subtle: hot, super hot, super crazy hot. Looking for inspiration for this month’s theme, I googled “seasons.”  “Seasons Greetings” was near the top of the list.  (As was “Seasons of Love” which is now an earworm in my head.)  “Seasons Greetings” is tied to my story of dodging a sensitive conversation in a way that I can’t fully articulate.  It represents the “should” in the art of conversation.

There is something beautiful about the inclusivity of “Seasons Greetings”–that we’ve developed a phrase that embraces the variety of cultural traditions in our country.  I went to a Kwanzaa dance celebration last year and was aware when Hanukkah started. And, in my heart and practices, I’m a “Merry Christmas” girl.

Perhaps its just the turbulence of a cultural shift in majority and minority opinion–the burden of the “Post-Christian era” that intellectuals write about. Maybe it’s that I am a sensitive soul who would prefer that everyone got along and I live in a culture deeply divided. Perhaps all of my studies on the nature of man and of the state and of freedom and so on have made me think in a language I can’t converse in yet.  Maybe the simple fact is that I want people to like me.

Whatever may be the case, I’m unsettled.

And, frankly, a little afraid.

(I mean, I chickened out at the back of a suburban church hall!)

My warrior’s cry might simply be–

Show up.

Go there.

Have your voice tremble.

I am Mary, hear me…speak.  


Tough Seasons

I’m just in a tough season right now.

For awhile in recent times, this was my “real” answer to the question, “How are you doing?”  To my mind, it communicated that the current load was heavy and awkward, but that I knew it wasn’t going to be like that forever.

But then, trying to encourage a friend who was wrestling with a series of deeply challenging events, I muttered something along those lines, “Whew, you are in a really tough season.”

And she pushed back.

“What if it’s not a season?  What if this is just the way that things are?”


I took pause. She might be right.

I have lived the scene in the movies where a bunch of friends wearing overalls and headscarvesMP Under Magdalene fix up a run-down property and fill it with love. With four other friends, I founded a charitable non-profit at the wise old age of 22. During the construction phase, we had long circular conversations about how to handle potential problems. But soon, the doors opened and time for long conversations was gone! Real women with real problems began to move into the home. Our mission of welcoming homeless pregnant women was set into motion.

Suddenly I had to make important decisions as a part of my daily life—decisions that affected the well-being and living environment of the people in my life. Freshly out of college and a natural peacemaker, the reality of constantly angry or disappointed people rocked my world. As the leader of this project, I was forced into difficult conversation after difficult conversation.

To a mom: “I’m sorry, we are asking you to leave. I know you don’t have anywhere else to go but your behavior was unacceptable. For the good of everyone, this is the decision that I’ve made. I’m sorry.”  Her response: hardened silence.

To a neighbor: “I would love to have a calm conversation about this and figure out a workable solution. This is our home now and we want to be good neighbors.” Her response: filing complaints with the fire marshall and the zoning department.

And on and on and on.

I was a very young soul fumbling to shoulder a very big responsibility.

A potential donor came by for a tour of our program. As he left, he turned to me and said, “One day, running one home will be easy.” I smiled and nodded, keeping a polite “Yes, Mr. Donor” face. Inside, I was fuming. THIS could never be easy.

My internal experience of that time was one of sheer emotional weight—the feeling of having no choice but to bear something beyond my capacity, something completely and utterly unbearable.

I was holding it together and doing what needed to be done. I was putting on my best “I am a competent leader” face when it was needed. But deep down, I was overwhelmed, alone, and scared.

But, even so, I did bear it.

Free from consequences? Nah. With perfect dignity? Nope.

Nonetheless, I did learn to shoulder the responsibility, to carry the weight.

And as it turns out, the donor was right. Eventually, I was able to bear the load of more than one house. And looking back, the responsibilities of leadership in those early years now seems small in comparison to the responsibilities of the later years.

So, thinking about “tough seasons”… perhaps my friend going through a tough time and I were both right.

Life is hard. You say things you wish you could take back. You experience betrayal and disappointment and grief. You have to deal with things that you never wanted in the first place. Dreams and reality collide. Plans shift and sacrifice stings.

But, you live your way through it.

And seasons change.





Owning It on the Dance Floor

I do not have a dancers body–nothing about me is long, lean, slender, or angular. I am all curves, round and full. But, there is a vein of dance in my heart. I will not hesitate to open and close down the dance floor at a wedding. When listening to music, I envision dance moves in my head–things that my body can’t do but my imagination can. Admittedly, I even like dance movies, even the ones that reek of cheese.

I’ve taken a lot of dance classes in my lifetime. Enough that I can instinctually feel the rhythm of music: “1 eee and a 2 eee and a 3 eee and a 4 eee” or “one n’ TWO, three n’ FOUR.” Taking dance classes as an adult can be a challenge. I’m not a complete beginner. But, I’m not destined for Broadway either.

When I moved to DC, I looked up the adult classes at the nearby studios. Dance is a form of exercise that doesn’t involve a feat of willpower and I desperately needed the natural happy of endorphins. I tried a handful of classes including Zumba, Hip-Hop, and Casino Salsa (the Cuban version of square dancing! Yah, I didn’t know that either.)

On a whim, I mustered my courage and walked into a class labeled: African Tribal Dance. Not long after the warm-up was finished, I was hooked. I’ve been a regular the entire time I’ve been in DC.

The West African dances we are taught involve dramatic movement to the music of livedance-place-97 drummers, performed by men and women wrapped in bold prints. At times, grandmothers modify the steps while maintaining the fire of the movement and the younger women hoot and holler as a sign of respect. Bodies of all shapes and sizes move across the floor in small groups according to experience.  There is swaying and hopping and flailing arms in big sweeping motions. Some of the movements communicate worship and gratitude, others speak to crops and childrearing and animals. All of it requires me to step outside of the intellectual life of graduate school and into the world of rhythmic music and form and steps. For at least a hour, I am out of my head and fully present to my body.

Gratefully, there are no mirrors in the classroom. For, as much as I love the class, I find myself very self-consciousness.

On a practical level, my body simply does not move with ease in some of the ways that are required. Many times, watching the more experienced dancers, I have placed my hands on some region, say my lower back, and tried to think through, feel, and build a simple sense of muscle memory for what it is like for those muscles to move according to the step.

In another way, my self-awareness is an insecurity of role. Am I an intruder into an ethnic art-form? Am I the awkward white girl whose movements revert to Western dance postures when a more soulful stance is required? Am I the outsider in a community of people who clearly know each other well?

Nothing has happened externally to cause these questions to be raised. I’ve been met with graciousness and professionalism throughout my time at the studio. Rather, it’s an internal insecurity, a questioning of my place.

And really, the same questions resonate in many areas of my life:  Am I a poser in the academic world? Am I the legit as a student who stammers to communicate my thoughts in a classroom full of articulate peers? Am I an outsider to the East Coast culture where I often feel a bit unusual?

Having been through a significant transition in recent years, I am rebuilding my sense of self, at times fumbling and confused, experimenting a bit. I am finding that I’m a bit more mysterious to myself than I realized.

But, you know what?!?!

I do know that I love to groove to African Tribal rhythms!  So, awkward or not, I am gonna own that!

size_550x415_DanceAfrica 2010. Photo by Enoch Chan (29)

Photos were found online associated with Dance Place:

© Enoch Chan

In the Crook of His Arm

In the world of fundraising, it’s called “Prospect Research.” As a leader of a mid-sized non-profit, I was pretty good at it. In the online world, the same set of skills is called “creeping.”

A few days ago, in a moment of weakness, I went “creeping” after an ex-boyfriend. (Don’t go judging on me…someone told me that research says that 80% of social media users are regular creepers. So it’s got to be true.)

Because I have mad skills, I soon found a photo of him…and his new wife.Lightning_bolt

Bzzzttt. (That’s the sound of sheer electrical current that passed into my heart when I saw the photo.)

Stunned, I looked at the shot.There, in the crook of his arm–the place that used to be mine–was a new girl. He looks the same. She is lovely. They were grinning, joy on their faces.

This shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was. Our ways have been parted for a quite awhile and I had reason to think he had married. Nevertheless, it stung a bitter sting. He is in love and I’m watching old seasons of television shows. It sent me backwards, into a few days of re-grieving the loss of his place in my life.

Dating is a funny process, but “not funny ha-ha” as a friend of mine would say. I have yet to experience anything “casual” about it, much to the chagrin of my sister and her loving advice. Rather, it is an emotional sequence of longing and wondering, evaluating and being evaluated, hoping and fearing. If you happen to experience any type of mutual intrigue (cue heavenly choirs), then a whole new adventure begins. Starting to think in terms of “we” and then, navigating the questions associated with being a “we” is an awkward dance where toes are in frequent danger of being stepped on. Getting to the part where you actually rest into each others company takes a while–and admittedly, it is precious when it happens. And, giving the other your heart–that’s the good stuff. Sheer risk and sheer joy.

Having returned to the world of online dating (pardon me while I gag!), I am actively prying my heart open.  I mentally repeat the encouragement whenever I log-in, “Be open; be open; be open; be open.”  I should change my password to “openness” or “unguarded” or “savemefromthistorture.” Typically, after three days of active use, I must take a break and allow the disquiet that it produces in this good-hearted, average-looking, 30something girl to settle. But, it’s how dating is done these days and so, I keep trying.  Unlike some of the profiles that I look at, I’m not creepy…just occasionally a creeper.

On Sunday, the priest celebrating Mass looked eerily like my ex. It was a cosmic message of “off limits,”  a visual verification of what I already knew.  Okay God, I get it. Two messages in one week.  Moving forward.  Logging back on.  In the sacred space of my little heart, in the quiet of that church, I crawled into the crook of His arm, a little child needing to be soothed and reminded to hope. And, for a moment, I was aware of being loved.