Ash and Light

Sometime in between “we are through” and actually being through, I got a new job and moved to “his town,” the town where my (now ex-) boyfriend lived during part of the time we were dating. He lived in an apartment above a store that sold brightly colored men’s suits. One of a handful of stores and restaurants in the downtown main street square of a small Georgia town.

After I moved there, I drove downtown and parked in one of the nose-in angled spots on the street where he used to stand by my car and kiss me good-bye. I strolled past the storefronts, saw the entrance to the apartments above with the push button intercom where I would call up and he’d buzz me in. He was no longer there but that was his building. Up those stairs, we would laugh and talk and I would roll my eyes at his corny puns. On the nights we watched a movie, cuddled on the couch, he’d stand up as the credit music began to play and offer me his hand, pulling me into a slow dance under the skylight above our heads.


A couple of months after he moved away from that town and our relationship gained geographical distance, he called me one weekend to say he was in town. He wasn’t there to see me, not specifically anyway. There had been a small fire at his old apartment. The landlord had called him. I was confused as to why he was notified, why any of his stuff was there.

“Oh. I just kept renting the apartment,” he said.

By this point in the relationship I was used to convincing myself to believe what he said. Used to ignoring questions in my gut and flipping down red flags. So, I accepted the explanation and jumped straight into planning when and where to meet up for an impromptu date, swept up in the romance of the unexpected.


That day I moved to the town there was still a long aluminum chute that emptied into a dumpster hanging from one of the back windows of his building, evidence of the fire clean up.

I stared at it – wondering what blackened belongings of his had been thrown down it.  Did the couch where we dreamed about the future survive or was it in ashes?  What was left of the kitchen counter where I would sit and listen to him narrate his way through preparing dinner as if he had his very own Food Network show?

The last few months he lived in that apartment I was never inside of it. He called me one day and won my heart a little more by saying, “I think we should make sure that we don’t hang out alone in my apartment anymore. I want to be better at honoring you.” Reluctantly, but admiringly, I agreed. I treasured his leadership in our relationship.   “Honoring,” in our shared vocabulary at the time, meant no more kissing (or more) in private.

I had been raised to believe that men lead and pursue and I wait and follow. I was told that a godly man would lead in godly ways.  More than one youth group story had centered on a young man who went to pick up his date and then turned around and left when he saw her, because he was lusting so they needed to not spend time together in order to honor God.  And here I was with my very own godly leader who put God above me.

Yet there was that aluminum chute and a dumpster full of ash and rubbish.

I wondered what belongings of hers were in the dumpster. The other girlfriend that had moved in a few months before he left. The one that stayed to finish out the year at her teaching job while he took his new job a few hours away. The one who called and told him about the fire. The woman he was living with while he was “honoring” me.


After the fire but before I knew about the other woman, I called him and choked out, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t feel like this anymore.”

“Are you breaking up with me?” he asked, surprised.

“Yes.” He didn’t fight, he just got mad and hung up.

I blamed myself. Over and over, the same message played in my mind: I wasn’t strong enough to make the distance work, to make him work.  After trying for years,  I was tired.

A couple weeks later, he called and renewed my hope by saying he wanted me back. I drove two hours to surprise him, my stomach in knots the entire way down because subconsciously I knew the one who was more likely to be surprised was me. I needed to not be able to lie to myself anymore. I needed to physically see and hear and know so that I could move on.

A woman yelled from inside for him to answer the door. With wide eyes he called inside to her, “It’s someone from work! I’ll be back!”

creative commons free - unsplashWe sat near a river bank and I watched with the muddy water flow by as he told me that he chose her, that he wanted someone who was physically close, that the long distance was too much.

“Why didn’t you just break up with me?” I questioned.

“I didn’t want to hurt you,” he said.

I drove home in tears. Mad at him. Mad at God. Mad at myself because the signs littered the road for the past three years.


I stayed in my new, his old, town for two and a half years. The aluminum chute was still there when I left.  

He visited once.  I visited once.  He called often.  I blocked and unblocked his number. He stayed with the other woman. He told me I was better than her. I begged him to let me be, to let me go. I told him I didn’t know how to walk away. I was addicted.

My brain  didn’t know how to stop forgiving him, to stop believing that the good outweighed the bad, to stop my heart from trusting that things would improve and that my fantasy would come true.

I didn’t reclaim that town those years. I didn’t even reclaim my life.


Ten years after the fire, I drove through that town again. The aluminum chute was gone. In the years between, I had learned to sort truth from lie from unknown in the jumbled web of memories from the years spent with him.  I had quit my addiction and gained a clarity about myself that is perhaps only possible when forged in fire.


Nicole bio YAH


How to Eat a Burrito The Size of Your Head

I will never willingly choose to eat a burrito on a first date. If I ever suggest to you that we eat together at Chipotle, you should know that it either means that you are in my inner circle, or that I think that our relationship is doomed. It’s a beautiful litmus test, really. How many suitors or potential friends can continue to see me the same way after I have consumed a burrito the size of my head in front of them? It would be one thing if I could do it neatly, but I’m not sure that there is a person on earth who can eat a Chipotle burrito without dropping and dripping part of it, without guacamole oozing onto her hands, and black beans, steeped in the juice of two kinds of salsa, smearing the corners of their mouth. I know this at least, I am not that person.  If they still like me after seeing this it’s clear that they won’t run at the first sign of untidiness or disappointment, that our relationship isn’t based on my being put-together.

I grew up eating tacos at home a few times a week, first in San Diego, and then in Washington State, after we moved. My mother fried small corn tortillas and slightly larger flour ones in hot canola oil, folding them over halfway through so that they held their taco shape. I usually chose the flour ones because they got the most crispy, and I learned to pack them full of ground beef, cheese, lettuce, tomato, salsa, and avocado. On taco nights, we didn’t worry about staying free of debris. I waited until the end of the meal before I washed the salsa off my hands and cleaned off my face. Part of the enjoyment of eating tacos was the idea that there was nothing you could do to stay pristine. For a type A, list-maker who noticed when anything in her space was out of place, this was a safe way to stretch my comfort zone. This was a good place to be a little bit messy.

IMG_0710When I go out on dates, especially first dates, I think a lot about what we might eat. I blame this both on the fact that many of the men I’m dating ask me where I want to go, and also on my own tendency to overanalyze most decisions I make. Frequently, my inner dialogue revolves around what foods I can eat without making a mess. I can eat pizza with a knife and fork, but a hamburger just won’t fit in my mouth.

I know that for any kind of relationship to work, I need to be able to eat in front of the other person. I cannot hide away behind plates of pasta molded into small, bite sized shapes. Eventually, I will make my homemade red sauce in the blender, adding browned meat, and zucchini cooked soft. I will ladle it onto heaping bowls of angel hair and I will need to keep my cloth napkin close at hand.

Then, there are those sandwiches I make, more mustard than anything. I heap rounds of salami and cheddar cheese onto a croissant, sliced in half and cover it everything with plain yellow  mustard, and then the top half of the croissant. It tastes like Chicago in the summer, and also like living on my own for the first time in the late spring, finally responsible for all of my own grocery shopping. It’s messy like those days of learning to feed myself. Messy like the tubs of guacamole I bought for dinner at Trader Joe’s because I was tired and didn’t have a food processor. Messy like the sticky counter after I’ve gotten out twelve ingredients to make one cocktail.

I’m learning that good relationships are like homemade pasta sauce, overstuffed tacos, and cocktails. They are nourishing and take time and trouble, they don’t stay contained in the safe parts of your life, they can delight and intoxicate you. They’re a mess.

I can wash my blender and wipe down my countertops. I can eat the dropped parts of my taco with a fork. But I don’t stay neat, and neither do my relationships.

Like in those constant taco nights from my childhood, learning to love the juicy salsa running down my arms, I’m stretching into the edges of my relationships. I’m saying words like “I’m lonely” and listening to words like “I don’t know what to do.” I’m opening my mouth wide to welcome a bite of burrito, knowing that part of it will fall and that the person in front of me will see the mess I’ve made. I’m letting the rich red sauce of relationship spread onto the table between us, enjoying the scent of freshly crushed tomatoes as it fills the air.  

cara YAH bio

Other People’s Dirty Dishes

The stack of plates next to the sink had bits of dried cheese and other unidentifiable foodstuff stuck to them. A frying pan and a couple of saucepans were soaking in dirty dishwater in the sink, along with handfuls of cutlery. Unwashed drinking glasses were colonizing next to the dirty plates. I had just recovered a couple more from the living room where they had been abandoned, water rings left behind on the garage-sale end tables.

The house was quiet. The students who weren’t still sleeping in their bedrooms were scattered across campus, attending class or studying in the library.

And I was annoyed.


Nearly a quarter century ago, I spent four years living in community with college students. When I accepted a campus ministry position as a co-director of a co-ed discipleship house in Erie, Pennsylvania, I had idealized notions of what that would look like. These ideals were founded on my own experience a few years earlier, when I spent the summer between my junior and senior years of college living in Ocean City, New Jersey, in a co-ed house with fifteen other Christian college students and four campus ministers.

We shared a house and we shared meals. By day, we worked in souvenir shops and pizza parlors, or we cleaned hotel rooms or mowed lawns. In the evenings, we took turns leading Bible studies and learning from teachers who visited each week to help us grow in our faith and our leadership abilities. All of this while living a couple blocks from the beach.

We laughed and learned and flirted and grew in our relationships with one another and with the God we were getting to know better. For two months, we experienced the very best parts of living in community. And then we tearfully said goodbye and returned to our families and our different college campuses.

When we parted ways, we were barely out of the honeymoon stage.


Two years into being a campus minister and a “house mother”—at age 24—the honeymoon was definitely over.

I was now one of the adults, living with students who had varying motives for living in this house. For some, it was an opportunity to live with other Christian students and to grow in faith and learn how to share that faith with their peers. For some, it was an inexpensive alternative to the university’s residence halls or campus-owned apartments. And for others, it was a combination of the two.

Dirty dishes were the tip of the iceberg. There were so many more issues below the surface.

We were a motley crew. Protestants and Catholics and agnostics. Republicans and Democrats and independents. Young women and men transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, and two campus ministry “house parents” who did not have much of an age advantage but were trying to help these students to ask good questions and figure out who they were and who they were becoming.

This was no two-month adventure at the Jersey shore with relatively like-minded people. This was nine months of classes and midterms and finals and debates about whether the TV should be tuned to CNN (the general preference of the international students) or MTV (the rest of the students) or shouldn’t be turned on at all (the house directors).

dirty-dishes-resized-600This was a minimum two-semester commitment to weekly house dinners and meetings on Sunday evenings, followed by living life together the rest of the week.

It was difficult for some of us to resist the temptation to keep an hour-by-hour mental tally of who cleaned up after themselves and who did not.

For much of my time in that house, I disregarded the importance of the mundane, day-to-day, messy business of living life together. My focus was on house dinners and Bible studies and philosophical conversations. These were important. But my passive-aggressive response to dirty dishes and TV channel disagreements contributed to the mess—and dismissed real opportunities for growth and identity formation.

I wish someone had shared with me back then that the secret to a healthy community living environment is being willing to put up with each other’s messes.

Or better yet, to pitch in and help clean them up.


Amy YAH bio

Visiting With Ghosts

About once a month, I wish that I could revisit a place from my past. It’s not always the same place (though some are recurring), but my terms are always the same: I want to be alone and undisturbed. I want to be able to look around to my heart’s content, and I want it to be exactly as it was when I was there.

I’m not sure what I think this would solve, exactly. I’m not sure what I would gain by sitting again at the bar of a restaurant, closed for the season, where I ate several breakfasts and dinners with a boy I once knew, who worked there when it was open. I remember the way he made coffee with a practiced, professional hand, and how we cooked together in the industrial kitchen in bare feet.

I spent one day there, alone, meeting food writing deadlines. Autumn sun flooded the floor where tables and chairs usually would have been. If I close my eyes, I can still remember how strange it was to be in a restaurant which wasn’t fulfilling its purpose, as if I were living in a post-rapture world and businesses were no longer relevant.

When that boy moved out of the country a few weeks later, he took the keys to that restaurant with him. I know that if I were to go back, it would not be to the same place where we danced to “Summertime Sadness” in the dark, or watched “You’ve Got Mail” together on Halloween. “That’s my favorite movie,” he had told me. I believed him.

Then, there’s a triplex in a small college town south of Spokane where my ex-boyfriend used to live. Floaty, grey sheers hung on his windows and the frozen early spring light filtered in during the day as I sat on the couch. Sometimes I would drive the hour and a half to spend a day off with him; we would sit together, enjoying our closeness. On those visits, I would arrive before he finished with work. He left the door unlocked for me, and I would lock it behind me immediately, the difference between my San Diego upbringing and his in rural Idaho.

From his window, I could see the local grocery store. Sometimes I would walk over and buy vegetables or salad dressing. He always had plenty of frozen things, chicken, beef, and vegetables, but I was the one who bought and roasted asparagus, quartered brussels sprouts, or sautéed mushrooms in butter.

I spent many hours in that three story house waiting for him to get home. I’m not sure why it still haunts me. In the afternoons there was a silence about it that reminded me of nap times when I used to babysit. I kept an ear out the way I listened for a child who might be stirring. I watched out the window for his return, tuning my ear to the sound of his truck.

Most often though, I find myself mentally walking the halls of my mother’s mother’s house, the one she sold quite a few years ago. Before I even get inside, there is the fragrance of gardenia along the path. There is a bush where I hid a Lindt truffle from my grandmother’s jar, hoping that it would be there for my next visit (it wasn’t). The lawn is split into two levels by a rock wall where we sat to let our sparklers burn out safely every fourth of July.

Inside, I step carefully into the marble-floored entry, remembering how hard it could be in an unexpected fall. I pause in the living room for a moment, remembering the year all of my cousins got gymnastics Barbies and we twirled them all over that floor. Upstairs, I run straight to the Tulip room, so named for my grandmother’s favorite flower and all of the tulip decor, mostly pink. This was where I slept when I visited and where she kept all the toys.

Across the way is the yellow bathroom where I steeped in oatmeal baths during my chicken pox and brushed my teeth with bright blue bath salts the color of my Crest gel.

Downstairs there is a den, beneath the kitchen where the food rested expectantly on holidays, ready to be heaped onto plates. I can’t quite remember how it worked, but I know that there was a bar. That was where my grandparents kept the biscuits for Jebby, their faithful dog, who patiently accepted one from each of the six grandchildren.

That den was where my Poppa, my mom’s dad, introduced me to Indiana Jones and Star Wars in those tender years we shared before he passed away, followed soon after by Jebby. If I pause in this section of the house and squeeze my eyes tight, I can hear the splashes from the waterslide into the pool just through the sliding glass door, and the echoes of a hollow ball meeting paddles and a table, down the hall in the garage where the coordinated are playing ping pong. Any moment now my Poppa will wrap an arm around my shoulder and ask if he can make me a drink. I guess, maybe, when I revisit a place, I don’t always want to be alone.  

The Future Syrah

I stood with the bottle in front of me, corkscrew in hand. The note on the bottle, written in my own handwriting, told me that it was “not to be opened before May 22, 2015.” I cut the foil, and slowly rotated my key into the cork.

Five years prior, I was getting ready to leave a job at a local winery as the summer waned. It was my first post-college job, the answer to the question about “what I was going to do” after graduation. I attended a small conservative Christian college, and I got quite a few raised eyebrows when I said: “I’m going into the wine business.”

The long hours and the free wine created an experience I will never forget, but not a sustainable one. My career in the wine business was short.

As I worked my way through the summer, getting more comfortable with our wine offerings and going tasting with co-workers on the weekends, I noticed that my sense of smell was heightened. On evening walks, I could smell subtle flowers and herbs. I was overwhelmed by the smell of laundry. I could sense the faintest hint of smoke in the air.

That summer, I went on a few dates with someone new. I’d always fallen into relationships somehow, skipping the first few steps of courtship. When he asked me to dinner, it was my first real first date. He came to pick me up and we walked a little ways to a restaurant not far from my parent’s home. We sat on the patio and talked and laughed without looking at the menu. I kept smiling apologetically at our server, but if he was frustrated with our indecision, it didn’t show. Finally, we ordered a bottle of wine.

It was a Washington Syrah, smooth and supple. I hadn’t yet learned then that when I drink wine, I like to eschew the hard edges. I look for something silky that touches my tongue tenderly without a trail of tannins. This was one of the wines that taught me that, one sip at a time. That Syrah is still in my top ten wine experiences.

During my summer of wine, I looked for a way to commemorate the momentous nature of that season. I decided to buy a bottle of wine to store for five years, opening it near the anniversary of college graduation. I consulted my wine stylist, a person I still keep on speed dial, a local wine whiz who occasionally chills bottles for me when I text him so that I can pick them up later. He suggested that a Syrah would hold up well over time. Washington is known for her Syrahs and it seemed the perfect choice, something that would remind me of lunch breaks in the vineyards and my swirling glass in the evening after I got off work, paired with oyster crackers.

When my wine stylist suggested that particular varietal, I knew that I would buy the same vintage as that first date. I wrote the date it was to be opened on a yellow sticky note in the shape of a star before covering it in tape.

That bottle followed me from my parents house to the light-filled one I rented with a purple-painted porch. Every time I went to find something to open, for a date or dinner with friends, I noticed that gently sloped bottle, designed for Syrah. It lay in my wine rack, surrounded by bottles of table wine, Perrier, and other special bottles, waiting for its moment. Though new jobs, publications, relationships and breakups tempted me, I never reached for my corkscrew.

This May, I brought the bottle back to my parents’ house and my mother and I made bruschetta from fresh tomatoes and basil. I opened the wine to let it breathe and immediately, I recognized the scent, my nose still sensitive to all of those stimuli. The wine had mellowed over time, but there was no mistaking it. Even though that restaurant has closed and reopened twice under different names, I was back on that patio with my cardigan draped over the back of my chair. I was hopeful about post-college relationships and jobs and life.

I poured myself a glass, a little nervous that five years was too much after all, that this wine was history. One sip was all I needed to realize that the future Syrah was not ruined, as I had feared. She had not passed her prime sometime in the midst of those years. In fact, she was smoother than I remembered.


caraCara Strickland is a freelance writer living in Spokane, WA. She writes about food, faith, singleness and relationships for a variety of publications in print and online.

She’s delighted that her current career allows her to drink wine (and write about it).

A Note About Aaron Housholder

One fall day in the middle of the Indiana cornfields, many years ago, I walked into a college class called “Imaginative Writing” taught by Aaron Housholder. He was clean-shaven and approachable, his head bald and smooth. His voice was not loud, but it somehow managed to get everyone to lean forward and pay attention. I always took copious notes. He hadn’t been teaching there long. Neither of us knew that it would soon be wise to plan ahead if you intended to take a class with him.

I’d intended to take a year off before attending college (if I ever went), but the thought of creative writing classes beckoned. I received glossy flyers promising author events and workshopping sessions. Between my HR job at a national grocer and those circles of workshopping bliss, I attended a local state school, catching the bus during the six am hour to make it to classes in time. I had a year and a half of college under my belt before I walked into that classroom, but it felt like everything was just beginning.

Aaron told us to call him by his first name (something I’ve only now become comfortable with, over five years past graduation). He assigned us poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction (my genre of choice in those days). He once assigned us an essay to read: A Note About Allen Tate by Kelly Cherry. I couldn’t tell you what we were supposed to glean from it, but I’ve never forgotten that winsome creative nonfiction about a student who learns about life, and about paying attention, from her Literary Criticism professor. Later, one of my writing professors mentioned that it usually takes about five years past an event before you’re ready to write about it. “So in five years you can start writing about college,” he said. When he said it, I remember thinking about that essay, and five years later, I’m still thinking about it.

A Note about Aaron HousholderMy time at that small, private university was brief. My year at the state school and my willingness to take an overload made it possible for me to be in and out in two and a half years. During that time, the English department went through a major transition, so that I started as an English major with a writing concentration, and ended as a Creative Writing major (which was what I wanted to be anyway). Now, “Imaginative Writing” is called “Intro to Creative Writing” and Reade Center, where we had all of our English classes, has been surrounded by cheerful landscaping.

Aaron taught me a great deal about writing. He taught me to think before I wrote, and after, but not at all during. He taught me to pay attention to what I wanted to write about. He taught me to accept when my writing changed. I’m sure he brought some of this in his notes, but other things he lived out in front of us.

I used to write romantic scenes to compensate for the fact that my college experience wasn’t like the movies. There were cute guys in polo shirts and Sperrys at my school, but they weren’t interested in me. I lived in the dorm rumored to be the home of girls you date, across the street from the one where you look for a wife. I lived in both of these dorms and evaded both stereotypes, much to my chagrin. In my writing classes, my classmates would sometimes refer to me as the romance writer. I did my best to defend myself against these charges at the time, saying that I was just writing about men and women talking, relating. Now, I wonder if those classes didn’t need a little romance to go along with the existential angst, and exploration of sexual identity.

Aaron would often read us pieces, or tell us stories about his son. I looked forward to those stories the way I’m told people looked forward to the next installment of a Dickens novel, delivered in serial form. What would this precocious boy do next? I wondered.

When my first long-awaited love visited me at college, I introduced him to Aaron. Though we planned to marry after graduation, and had settled on a date and begun fighting about the color of bridesmaid dresses, very few people had met him, not even my parents. His home was in Chicago and mine in Washington State. His school was in Texas, and mine in Indiana. I can count on one hand the friends I’ve had who have known me through all of my romantic relationships, hopes, and breakups. When I submitted a short story to an undergraduate conference, he was the only one who knew that it was reality thinly masked in fiction, in which I dealt with my boyfriend’s mother, who hated me.

Recently, Aaron and I caught up after too long. As usual, conversation turned to story, to writing. It was as if I was in his office again, meeting to discuss my senior project, getting feedback on a short story. In those days, I bemoaned my singleness often (not much has changed). This time, Aaron made a suggestion which has stuck in my head. “You’re always looking for a relationship which will make a good story to write,” he said in that calm voice that always made us pay attention. “Maybe instead you should be looking for a story that’s too big, too good, not filled with the dramatic elements and tensions that make a good story. Maybe the story you’re looking for is one that you don’t want to write.”

All that time, in “Imaginative Writing,” “Fiction Writing,” and in those talks about my senior project, I hadn’t just been learning about writing. I was learning about writing because it’s my most reliable way to learn about life. Sometimes, the writing is important, lauded, exceptional, but the writing pales in comparison to the actual point: a life, one that is too big for words, no matter how we rush to capture the gossamer.

{photo credit}

A Park Called Manito

There is a park in Spokane, Washington, called Manito. It’s the crown jewel of the city, the place my family always takes out of town guests when they come to visit. It’s 90 acres of formal and informal gardens, fountains, a conservatory. When my family first moved to Spokane, when I was 7, we would sometimes make the 25 minute drive to the park to spend the day. In the cool of the evening we would walk around the Rose Garden and I would take note of all of the rose names like “Queen Elizabeth” and “Pretty in Pink.”

Occasionally, we would go to picnics at the Upper Manito playground and the other kids and I would move the picnic tables, covered with dark green, peeling paint, behind the swings. We mounted them, the swings around our legs, and jumped off for maximum lift.

pool at duncan gardensOnce, with friends, I stripped down to my underwear and went swimming in the fountain in the middle of a traditional English garden. It was cold, and my friend’s father made us put back all of the change we had collected.

We always walk through the Lilac Garden in April, breathing in the heady fragrance. Spokane is known as the Lilac City. Families and couples cluster close together for pictures during the high point of the season. Choose any weekend in spring or summer and you’ll catch a glimpse of prom-goers, or a wedding party.

Our next house was blocks away from Manito Park.

Often, in the evenings, I would walk a little ways to Upper Manito and swing by myself, sometimes bringing a friend, or my MP3 player (long before I had a cell phone, let alone one that would store music). I would swing and think, sorting out the problems of the day, sometimes praying. I went there whenever I had an unrequited crush, or when I was waiting for a phone call. I went there the day before I left for South Korea when I was 19, my first trip overseas without my family. I went when I was stressed out at work.

They have re-done the swings and the playground equipment since our days of jumping off the picnic tables, and added a splash pad, but the baseball diamond is still there, and those picnic tables are still peeling.

ManitoOver the years, I walked with many friends through that park. Now, when I return, I hear snatches of conversations, I see snapshots of people I don’t know anymore. In a grassy area beside the English garden with the fountain, I can almost see my beloved dog when she was a puppy, chasing after a  tennis ball, and I have to remind myself that she’s not with us anymore.

I sat on a bench in the Perennial Gardens after my first breakup and told a childhood friend that I was fine.

“You don’t have to be fine,” she said.

When I moved out of my parents house, my new place was near enough to walk to Manito still. I often made my way to the calming Japanese Garden and took a lap or two. Sometimes I would bring my phone and catch up with people as I walked through the Rose Garden or down to the duck pond.

lilac gardenAs I wind past the Japanese Gardens, I remember that the park was the site of a zoo which closed in the 1930s, a casualty of the Great Depression. The ruins of the animal enclosures still dot the landscape in certain areas. If I didn’t know what I was looking for, I’d think that they were just stones haphazardly stacked.

We hadn’t even started dating yet when my out of town boyfriend first came to visit me. Almost as soon as he got off the plane, I told him that I wanted to take him to Manito Park. He still teases me about this, about my dogged determination to bring a country boy to a manicured park in the middle of the city. But I’ve lived my life in Manito. It has been there for heartbreak and heart-to-hearts. I spent time there with my first crush as an 8-year-old (naturally he was completely unaware of my existence). I have pushed my friends’ kids on the swings, picnicked in the grass, and played kickball. It was only fitting that it be the backdrop for this new, fragile chapter too. Now, as I walk through the field next to Upper Manito and take a seat on the swing, I hear whispers of that visit joining the rest of the cacophony.


A damp chill in the early morning air, unusual for April this far south, makes me shiver. My azaleas and dogwoods are laden with buds yearning to give a color show of pinks and whites.

“Maybe my wisteria will be in bloom when we get back,” I say to myself.

“Come here and tell me what you think,” Tom calls.

Milk crates and boxes filled with antique glass bottles are packed in the rear cargo hold of our SUV. Like a chess player contemplating his next move, Tom, my husband, is surveying the situation—rotating the multi-sized containers until he makes a space for “just one more.” We are preparing to leave for a collectibles show and sale in a small Virginia town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Where in the world are we going to put our luggage, our clothes on hangers, and my tote bag?  I  ask.”Something’s  got to give.”


The April tax crunch and an impending audit of our family business have pressure-cooked the creative juices and energy out of me. Tom rarely smiles. Our tempers flare—often. Silence follows. We’ve settled into a rhythm: Work. Sleep. Eat. Work. Sleep. Eat.

Five hundred miles of interstate stretch from Memphis to the Virginia state line. West to east we follow a route we have traveled many times. Tom drives, with a slight hunch of his shoulders, leaving a space between the seat and his back. I absentmindedly reach over and rub his back, circling my fingers over flannel and the nape of his neck.

I see cows graze in a pasture, dots of black scattered across a pasture of brown and patchy green.

“There are your cows,” says Tom with a knowing smile.

As I begin to tell a childhood story about my pet cow, I stop myself and apologize for re-hashing a tale he has heard many times during our 30 years together.

“It’s okay,” he says. Tom smiles, reaches over, and squeezes my hand.

Nearing Nashville, the road begins a gentle climb, bordered by an irregular wall of layered rock. Small trees struggle to maintain their footing as they grow through crevices in the stone. A few reddish brown leaves have hung on to their spindly branches since autumn.


A sign greets us: Welcome to Virginia. Virginia is for Lovers. The interstate winds slowly, flanked by deep ditches and streams of water littered with broken Styrofoam, food wrappers, and beer cans. Tidy white clapboard houses, with painted shutters and porches for sitting, live in the shadow of houses with unhinged shutters and collapsing porches.

JESUS IS LORD. WE SELL GUNS. proclaim the signs nailed side by side on the back of a weathered shed with a rusty red metal roof.

“Oh my goodness!” I exclaim. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Our route leads us off the interstate to a two-lane highway with the occasional pothole. I hear the tinkle of shifting glass in the back of the vehicle and gasp. Tom assures me his careful packing will protect the fragile bottles from breakage.

Spring is coming slow here, also. The forsythia is starting to splash her cheerful yellow against the canvas of winter’s lingering gray. Slips of green are pushing through the pea-gravel at the side of the road. The mountains rise above this plateau, inviting us to travel to higher ground.


photo by Lisa Phillips

Five Years Time

Five years ago, around this time, I was driving down a sunny Indiana road under a canopy of tree branches adorned with bright green leaves.

It was spring in Indiana, and it felt like the return of the humidity that seemed to go somewhat dormant during the winter. It looked like stepping carefully over the worms who had found their way to every sidewalk on my small college campus. It smelled a little like decay, as the leaves from the previous fall were exposed to fresh air again.

That spring, I was knee deep in a romantic relationship, the first one I’d had since my first love. I have never cried so much about anything as I did during that relationship, but when the leaves turn green and the light filters through them, I don’t think about the tears, I think about those Sundays driving home from the sweet little Episcopal church I was learning to love, listening to a mix cd he’d made for me.

There was a song we both loved by Noah and the Whale called Five Years Time. It’s about a relationship and wondering about the future.

In five years time I might not know you

In five years time we might not speak

In five years time we might not get along

In five years time you might just prove me wrong

Every time I hear that song, I think about that spring in Indiana. Part of me wanted us to find a way to make it work, just as I do with every relationship.

That spring was the beginning of many lasting love affairs for me. It was during those months that I first slipped between the pages of Harry Potter, devouring the series in just a few short weeks. I listened to the music of Over the Rhine for the first time, playing “Drunkard’s Prayer” and “Born”  on repeat through headphones in my dark dorm room, while my roommate slept. I began to practice yoga, tentatively, stretching muscles I hadn’t known existed. My crush on liturgy blossomed into a commitment.

Five years have passed and I am still wild about those things, if not about that person. The song Five Years Timeproved to be prophetic, we don’t know each other now, we haven’t spoken since that clear summer day when he called and told me he didn’t see a future for our relationship.

Recently, I was talking with someone about the way the seasons remind me of relationships. The first day of spring marks the birthday of a long lost friend who was once very close, the winter and new year remind me of a relationship I chose to end, and the freedom it brought. It seems that every season carries a context now. There are no seasons without memories, without twinges of sorrow, or joy, often intermingled. Memory triggers are everywhere, unavoidable. I’m doing my best to embrace them when they come, rather than shrinking back from the emotions they provoke.

When I graduated from college, I wanted a way to mark the occasion, to remember what it felt like to be in that moment. After doing a little research, I purchased a bottle of wine I liked a lot at the time (something I’d had on a promising first date). I wrote instructions on a sticky note, telling me to open the bottle in May of 2015. That bottle has sat in my wine rack all this time, waiting until the time is right. Soon, I will take it out and open it, allowing it to breathe in glasses before taking a sip.

I hope that five years have improved the taste of that season, but I won’t know until it’s open, sliding warmly down my throat.

Out of Place in Yourself

At the time, I had no way to describe it other than, “I just don’t feel like myself.”

Feeling out of place in my own skin was new to me. I was the person who seemed comfortable almost everywhere—the one who struck up conversations with grocery store cashiers while they scanned my purchases and with other parents as we watched our children play at the park. I didn’t get nervous at job interviews or speaking in front of a group.

The world was a fairly comfortable place. I had somehow lucked into the type of personality that “fits” best in the world, a circumstance that then snowballs in the best possible way: My general comfort allowed me the luxury of assuming the best of others and believing I also had something good to share with them.

But then, that vague out-of-placeness began lingering. It was like a dark cloud just over my shoulder, gradually seeping then settling deep into my bones. At first I was able to override it, when I needed to, but eventually it took root as a feeling of insecurity—a sense that I was no longer comfortable with myself, or with others.

Rather than seeing strangers as potential friends, and seeing friends as people who were looking out for my best interest, I began seeing them all as possible agents of hurt, as people not to be trusted with my fragile being.

I also saw myself as having little to share with others. Where I had once felt powerful in my ability to enrich and brighten people’s lives, I suddenly felt sure I would do the opposite. So I did something I had never done before—I turned inward.

*   *   *   *   *

IllinoisfieldUnfortunately, this turn in me coincided with a move I did not want to make, to a place I did not want to live. My then-husband had accepted a job in the middle of Illinois, so we moved our two daughters (one still in diapers, the other a busy preschooler) away from the wooded lakeshores of West Michigan to the flat cornfields of Illinois.

But it wasn’t the landscape that left me feeling foreign—it was being surrounded by people who only knew this out-of-place version of me. My history, my core, the way I had been just a year or two before—they were all unknown to the people around me, which made those parts of who I was feel even less real. When reality is shifting, one of the only comforts is being able to look into the face of someone who sees and recognizes it too—someone who can say, “I know. You are not crazy.”

It would be months before someone knew me enough to ask—and I trusted her enough to listen—“Do you think you’re struggling with depression?”

Now, looking back at that time, I find it hard to believe that I could have been so oblivious to something so obvious. But in most cases, depression sneaks in so gradually that you don’t recognize it, and then it changes you so profoundly that, before you know it, you don’t recognize yourself. It’s disorienting in the most fundamental way. Even your own sense of who you were—who you are at your core—is distorted and suspect.

*   *   *   *   *

Thankfully, anti-depressants have been effective for me, especially paired with a whole lot of self-reflection and a determination to uncover and embrace my truest self (which in many ways I had never done, even back in those pre-depression days when my skin and the world I moved through felt so comfortable).

Now I have a decade’s worth of perspective on that time in my life, and I’m able to see this: If depression is one of the darkest of clouds a human being can try to live beneath, my experience with it has a silver lining. Not only has it allowed me to develop great compassion for others who feel out of place—whether that sense is rooted in depression or in a too-narrow set of societal expectations and norms—but it has also revealed to me what love looks and feels like: a deep desire for wholeness in another. God’s love for me is rooted in his desire for me to live fully as my true self, the person he created me to be. And likewise, that is how I am called to love others, from my husband and teenage daughters to the people in my community who rub me the wrong way: To love them is to long for them to be at home in their skin.