The Lake House

I stand on the white planks of the dock, listening to the gentle sloshing of water against the grassy shore. The sun is setting behind me on this mid-August evening, earlier than it did last night, and the windows of the cottages on the eastern shore of Lake Chautauqua reflect its rosy glow.

Behind me, I hear the faint clink of wine glasses being refilled. The murmur of after-dinner conversation is punctuated with wild giggles from five-year-old Isaiah as his dad tickles him, doing his best to rile him up before bedtime.

lake-2016-bAs I walk back to join my friends on the shady side porch, I hear the teenagers laughing together from the kitchen. They have finished clearing the picnic table of ravaged corncobs and remnants of hamburger fixings, used paper plates and empty tortilla chip bags.

Once upon a time, I would have been the one standing at that sink, stowing leftovers, choosing dish duty as an introvert’s temporary retreat from the stimulation of too many people. But on this evening, I am content to lower myself into a cushioned deck chair and join the twilight conversation circle with my friends.

One combination or another of us have been gathering in this place over the course of so many summer evenings over so many decades—since we were barely older than the teenagers who are in the house now. They are singing selections from the U2 catalog, the soundtrack of their young lives—a legacy from their parents and their parents’ friends.


I was barely 18 when I first visited this cottage on this lake.

It was mid-October, a little over a month into my first year of college, and the Christian fellowship group hosted a weekend retreat at Lake Chautauqua in western New York State, an hour or so away from my northwestern Pennsylvania campus. There were too many of us to fit into one house, so a student’s family offered up beds and floor space in their vacation cottage for the overflow.

Little did I know then that the student whose house this was would become one of my best friends. And little did I suspect how many times I would return to this cottage on this lake and be comforted by how little it changed, while so many other things changed too much.


In our 20s, our lakeside reunions were carefree and action-packed. After many hours spent on the water, skiing and tubing, swimming and sunbathing, mealtimes were dictated by our hunger pangs, and bedtimes put off as long as possible as we basked in each other’s company. There were often more bodies than beds, and so sleeping bags and tents popped up on the side lawn. Those of us lucky enough to end up on the living room sofa bed were the last to sleep and the first to wake, as early-risers stumbled into the kitchen for morning coffee.

In our 30s, we negotiated whose turn it was to go out on the boat by calculating the appropriate ratio of adults to children, and then negotiating whose turn it was on the skis or the tube or the raft. Others of us stayed on shore to stand guard during toddlers’ nap times or to keep dinner preparations on schedule for the sake of the little ones. Bedrooms were assigned based on family sizes and necessary floor space for sleeping bags. The grownups cooked and the older kids took turns cleaning up.

This is the place we celebrated college graduations and engagements and anniversaries—and mourned broken relationships and divorces and losses of many kinds. It’s where we laughed together over shared memories and oft-repeated stories. It’s where we comforted each other during hard seasons that seemed like they may never end.

And always, the twilight conversation circle.


Isaiah has been tucked into bed. The singing teenagers are still in the house, busy with projects which will keep them occupied into the wee hours of the morning and cause them to sleep until noon the next day. And we—the grownups—sip wine and solve the world’s problems by the yellow glow of a citronella candle.

Tonight, a month shy of my 50th birthday, I soak in the familiar summer ritual. I listen to updates about friends’ “kids” who once-upon-a-time were with us at the lake, but who are now newly married or starting a first job after graduating from college. We commiserate about the most divisive presidential race of our lifetime. We pass around smart phones to share photos—and drugstore reading glasses so that we can pull them into focus. We joke about graying hair and thickening waists and, with broad yawns, our regrettable need for a full eight hours of sleep.

I think about friends who aren’t with us this year and how I wish they were. I think about singleness and marriage and divorce and remarriage and blended families and grief and brokenness and love and redemption. I think about the ways life has turned out how we hoped it would and the ways it has not.

I think about the grace of another late-summer evening at the lake house.


Amy bio YAH

Ukrainian Soul Food

“Mine look like bananas!” I apologized.

I was assured that, first of all, they did not look like bananas. And even if they did, who would care? Once they’d been boiled, smothered in sautéed onions, and served with a giant dollop of sour cream, they would taste amazing.

“It’s more important that they’re sealed tightly so they won’t break apart when we boil them,” my mother assured me. “The shape doesn’t matter at all!”

It was late December, and Mom, my younger brothers, Aunt Mary, Uncle George, and I were gathered around our newspaper-covered kitchen table. Hands dusted with flour, we had each set up our individual work stations with the proper tools: a square of waxed paper, a communal canister of flour, and a narrow-mouthed cocktail olive jar, which would serve as a mini-rolling pin. When we finished our project, the olive jars would be returned to a corner of the pantry to await next year’s pierogi-making party.

In the center of the table was a wet loaf of sticky sour-creamy dough, from which Mom cut small chunks to distribute to each of our work stations. We sprinkled flour onto our waxed paper and coated our olive jars with the same, and then we rolled the dough into something approximating a circle the size of a flattened tennis ball. We dropped a spoonful of filling—either the mashed potato and cheese concoction or my favorite, the sauerkraut, onion, and cottage cheese mixture—onto one side of the circle. Then we folded the dough over and sealed the filling inside by pressing our thumbs along the edges.

Voila! A perfect pierogi.

Which may or may not resemble a banana.


homemade-pierogi_kz6bdbGrowing up, the pierogi-making party was an annual ritual, an Advent tradition as familiar as candles and wreaths and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Our Christmas Eve dinner, or “Holy Supper,” followed the tradition of my father’s family, imported from his parents’ native Ukraine. It was a completely meatless meal, to follow the tradition of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. I think its original form involved multiple courses and a lot of symbolism—including straw under the tablecloth, to represent the baby Jesus’ manger birthplace. And raw garlic cloves served up like pickles or olives.

The version of Holy Supper with which I grew up was significantly abridged. We skipped the straw and the raw garlic and served only two courses: kapusta (a sauerkraut and split pea soup, which looked and smelled as appetizing as it probably sounds) and pierogies. Both of these were topped with onions sautéed in a pound or more of butter and were accompanied by unleavened bread, stuck with cloves of garlic before it was baked, and served with generous drizzles of honey. The strong flavor of the garlicky honey bread is the only thing that made the kapusta even remotely appetizing to me.

But I loved the pierogies. We would boil them on Christmas Eve, and for Christmas morning breakfast, we would fry up the leftovers in a skillet, along with the buttery onions.


My mother grew up a decidedly White Anglo Saxon Protestant dairy farmer’s daughter, and she used to tell me that she never tasted garlic before she started dating my father. She was raised with a predictably bland meat and potatoes diet, but she grew to love the food of her eastern European in-laws.

To my father’s delight, after a couple of false starts, she mastered how to prepare most of his childhood favorites. They often laughed about her first attempt at making halupki—or stuffed cabbage, or pigs-in-a-blanket, depending on your vernacular. She didn’t realize she had to steam the cabbage before rolling it around the ground beef and rice concoction, so she fastened the rolls together by securing them with toothpicks.

pierogiesWe ate pierogies and kapusta on Christmas Eve, and on Easter, cold kielbasa and potato salad and hard boiled eggs dipped in a shredded beets and horseradish mixture. The one delicacy of my father’s childhood that my mother never attempted to prepare is studenina: jellied pigs’ feet. My Uncle Paul likes to joke that, “You can spend an hour convincing someone that you can make jello out of pigs’ feet, and then you blow it when you tell them that you pour vinegar over it and eat it for breakfast.” My dad loved it. I’ve never been able to bring myself to taste the stuff.


When Mom first asked my grandmother for her pierogi recipe, Grandma shrugged. After decades of making pierogies every Friday, she cooked by instinct, not by measurement.

So Mom followed her around the kitchen, writing down everything she did to prepare the dough and mix the fillings. A pinch of this, a handful of that—with the end result enough pierogies for us to eat well that evening and for many meals to come. Our freezer would be well stocked for the twelve months that tended to lapse between pierogi-making parties. And we were following the steps my grandmother had followed week after week, when the “recipe” yielded only enough to feed my dad and his many brothers and sisters for a single meal.

The irony is not lost on me that what we have come to regard as an exotic, once-a-year treat is really eastern European peasant food—or what my dad affectionately used to call “Ukrainian soul food.”

It continues to feed our souls.


Amy bio YAH

Outer Banks

Tears streamed down my face as I huddled in my corner of the backseat of our wood-paneled station wagon. I was crying as quietly as I could, not wanting to attract concerned attention from my parents, or ridicule from my two younger brothers. As the car sped north and west—across the causeway to the mainland, away from the Atlantic Ocean and toward my western Pennsylvania home—I was convinced that my 12-year-old heart would break.

The Best Week of the Year had come to an end.


I was nine years old the first time my family vacationed on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. That first year, it was me, my parents, my two younger brothers, and the family of a man my dad worked with. Three years later, my dad’s three brothers and their families had joined us on what would become an annual pilgrimage and a de facto family reunion.

Every year, we journeyed to Kill Devil Hills, to The Cavalier by the Sea motel at milepost 8.5 of Beach Road. It was a week I looked forward to all year, when I would reconnect with cousins who were so cool, they probably would never notice me in the school hallways if (a) we lived near each other and (b) were not related.


A typical day in my life during the Best Week of the Year went something like this:

The aromas of brewing coffee and frying bacon would greet me when I awoke, mixing with the scents of saltwater and Coppertone suntan lotion.

I would emerge from my bedroom, hair hastily combed, swimsuit on, to find Mom and Dad sitting in bamboo chairs at the Formica table of the main room, finishing breakfast and watching morning TV. My bare feet would shuffle across the grainy, sandy texture of air-conditioned linoleum. After slurping up a bowl of cereal, I would be out the door, a brightly colored beach towel slung around my neck.

A quick stop at the pool in the courtyard to see who was already swimming, and I’d continue on, under the archway and onto the beach. Stumbling across the already hot sand toward the crashing waves of the Atlantic, I would drop my towel next to the cluster of beach umbrellas where my tribe had already set up camp for the week.

nags-head-family-picUncle Mike and Aunt Mary would be sipping their morning coffee. Uncle Paul and Aunt Barb would be slathering suntan lotion on my littlest cousins. Cousins closer to my age would be stretched out on towels—exposed skin glistening with baby oil, as was the naive custom of the 1970s—or jumping the waves.

After lunch, my cousin Mike would start his latest sand sculpture masterpiece, and my brothers would help our younger cousins fill plastic buckets with plastic shovels-full of sand, building castles and digging moats.

As shadows grew longer, we would wander back to our rooms to shower and change clothes before dinner—hot dogs and watermelon by the pool, or fresh seafood at a nearby restaurant, or spaghetti and meatballs prepared in one of the kitchens.

Later, we would return to the pool, or pile into cars for a trip to ride go-carts or bowl or see a movie. We would play cards until bedtime.

Then the aromas coffee and bacon and Coppertone would signal the beginning of the next day.


Around the time I graduated from high school, our family stopped going down every year—but the uncles and aunts and cousins did not.

While I loved these beach vacations, and so did most of my family, my mother was never a fan of the sand, and she wasn’t a swimmer. She didn’t like the beach, but she knew what this week meant to the rest of us.

The last time my whole family made that trip together was in the mid-’90s. My brothers and I were now young adults. It was a hotter-than-usual summer, and biting sand flies and stinging sea lice and the lack of a discernible ocean breeze served as the proverbial heavy last straw. Mom made it clear that we were welcome to go back again—but she was done with beach vacations.


In July 2007, it had been more than a decade since I had spent that summer week with my cousins. As we approached the first anniversary of losing Mom to cancer, my family returned.

Everything felt so much the same. And completely different.

The swimming pool and the beach were mostly unchanged, as were the Cavalier’s cottages—even with cosmetic upgrades of indoor-outdoor carpeting and fancy new pleather furniture. Traffic on the Beach Road was heavier, and there were more restaurants and hotels and houses between the causeway and milepost 8.5. Cousins I had played with as children were now husbands and wives and parents, and their children looked forward to this week as eagerly as we had at their age. Our tribe still set up camp under the rented umbrellas near the ocean, and we now spanned three generations and seven decades.

But even as we made new memories, introducing my new sister-in-law to the Atlantic Ocean and teaching my 12-year-old niece to play euchre, I missed my mom. I was aware that memories had been made in my absence that would never be mine. I was 40 years old and way past the age of wanting to live in my bathing suit.

At the end of the week, driving my own car across the causeway, away from the Outer Banks and toward western Pennsylvania, I let the tears flow.

This was still The Best Week of the Year for my cousins. It just wasn’t mine anymore.


Amy bio YAH

The Apprentices

The peanut-gallery chatter was almost as entertaining as the 1970s-era slide show my dad was projecting on the wall. Not that I was surprised—I‘d expect nothing less when the Tennants and Sysyns got together.

Our two families have been spending time together since before my life began, but the regularity dipped considerably when us four kids grew up and started moving off on our own. Those stretches of years and miles made this particular reunion, in July 2015, especially epic: 14 of us from Illinois, Michigan, Arizona, and Oregon were gathered at a house on the Oregon coast. Our group represented three generations of two families: my dad’s and “Uncle” Pete’s, my dad’s best friend from college.

In preparation for the reunion, my dad—forever the obsessive photographer—had scanned five decades of slides to share. We watched the greatly-anticipated show our last night together.

photo 2 (2)The early 70s photos showcased my dad and Uncle Pete as beat-poet wannabes. Their weary faces suggested all-nighters spent drinking wine and listening to Miles Davis, scrawling verses in composition books and debating philosophy. But the scene around them tells the real story: four kids under the age of five, joining miniature forces to raise full-sized havoc. As adult versions of those kids, we laughed at the scene our little selves had created in the cramped apartment. Those poor beat poets had no idea what had hit them.

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My beautiful picture

Pete (perhaps working on lyrics to the opera my dad scored).

Dad and Uncle Pete lived next door as college freshmen. Their love for the arts and their well-matched senses of humor sealed their friendship from the beginning, and they lost no time conjuring up the epic pranks they would one day tell their children about (again and again).

There was the time, for instance, when they changed the alarm clock of their dorm’s earliest riser, who had taken on the responsibility of pounding on everyone’s doors up and down the hall each morning to ensure no one overslept.

“You should have seen the guys all coming out of their rooms at three in the morning, ready to pummel poor George Lowe,” my Dad would say, hardly able to get through the telling of the story due to the laughter that erupted from within as he recalled the scene.

When my dad finds something really funny, he laughs in an extreme, choked up way, as if he’s on the verge of crying. My brother and I agree that watching Dad laugh is often more funny than whatever it is he’s laughing at.

The telling of the Alarm Clock Story was often paired with other classics, like the Co-ed Visiting Hours Story, about the time when my dad and a couple other guys on the floor managed to “lock” Pete alone in his dorm room during the university’s first ever co-ed open house.

“He missed the whole thing. We never heard the end of that,” Dad would say, his shaking shoulders indicating a level of laughter that was so extreme it was almost silent.

Not surprisingly, the hilarity at the core of Dad and Pete’s friendship inspired laughter and eye-rolling in the women who eventually married them, which later spilled over into our regular family gatherings each spring break, New Year’s Eve, and summer.

Soon us kids had a whole new generation of funny stories to recall together, from the dance routine we choreographed to the Xanadu album (one of my favorite gifts that Christmas), to the time our families met at a no-nonsense campground in Ohio late one night, unknowingly setting up our enormous shared tent terrifyingly close to train tracks. The rumbling and whistling of the train that woke us up in the dead of night set a new standard for a “rude awakening.”

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The Epic Reunion slideshow continued, shifting from photos of busy toddlers and tired parents into a series of photos Dad and Pete staged for the singular purpose of annoying and alarming our mothers.

My beautiful picture

“Billy” on the brink of disaster.

“Look, there’s the time Billy almost fell into that canyon,” Uncle Pete said, pointing at the projected image of my brother’s eyes peeking over a stone ledge, apparently hanging on for dear life with his fingernails. “We were so relieved we made it back with him alive” Pete added in a stage whisper, ”We never would have heard the end of it from your mothers.”

Uncle Pete is the master of the elaborate aside, holding one hand flat along the edge of his mouth as if trying to keep what he’s saying from a select person or two. And my dad is the master of egging Pete on.

Together, they’re masters of laughter, and as the slideshow came to an end, I realized my brother and cousins and I have been their apprentices. I looked over at the faces of my own daughters—the third generation of this heritage of hilarity—and felt satisfied that our reunion week with the Sysyns had served as a solid orientation in their own schooling of stories and silliness. May they grow into adults who fully grasp the value of friendship, traditions, and pure, uncontrollable laughter.


Learning the Mystery

Mystery is not the absence of meaning,
but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.
~ Eugene Peterson

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When I was a girl sitting in church pews—a girl still small enough that my feet swung back and forth because they didn’t reach the floor—I learned that God was holy. Being with God meant spending Sunday mornings in a space like no other in my life, with ceilings reaching three stories high, painted blue like the heavens, and walls of stained glass to my left and right. In that space I learned that mystery and rituals matter in equal portion—that Sunday after Sunday we did the known things we could do in hopes of glimpsing the edges of the unknown things shrouded in mystery.

unnamed (1)I learned very early on that God is loving and accepting of all, but also that my own potential to sadden him had no bounds. Through unison prayers of confession, I became aware of not only of the many things I could do wrong, but also of the “right” things I left undone. Between the sins of action and those of omission, how could I possibly get through a day unscathed?

The God of my childhood was not a God of fire and wrath, but a God of head-shaking and disappointment. It seemed he was always looking down on me, wishing I had made a different, better choice.

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At high school church camp, I learned the night sky could be the ceiling and the northern Michigan trees the stained glass of a different kind of church. I learned that God could be met anywhere, apart from pastors and acolytes donned in robes, and even apart from my family sitting alongside me in the pew.

I also learned, through the testimonies shared around campfires by leather-jacket-wearing ex-convicts and -addicts, that God’s love is bigger than his disappointment, and that he’s in the business of changing lives, not critiquing them.

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During my senior year of college I sang in a gospel choir at a diverse urban church whose style of worship couldn’t have felt more different from Sunday mornings in the stained-glass church of my youth. In addition to learning the importance of clapping the off-beats, I learned my alto part by listening to the choir director sing it—I learned that God could be found outside of music staffs and key signatures, and beyond written confessions inked on pages at the back of hymnals.

In that place people wept their confessions, which were scripted in their hearts. I also learned that God made people raucous and joyful, and that I could get caught up in that joy for a moment or two, but faking it wasn’t the same as making it. My understanding of God had broadened over the years, but now I could see it was still flat, easy to see right through.

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At a church in St. Louis, a couple of years into my marriage, I learned how God works in the lives of grieving people. We arrived just months after the sudden death of the church’s beloved pastor, and while that could have easily been a reason to leave the church, it became a reason to stay: In that place I first glimpsed an entire church full of people being raw and real in the presence of God.

I saw a broken community of people trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy, and trying to hold one another up. They worked out their anger with God over months, not hours, and I learned that God accepts our anger, like a father who lets a grieving child beat upon his chest until, finally exhausted, the struggle becomes an embrace.

*    *    *    *    *

But when my own life was falling apart, a handful of years later in another city, my new church presented me with a different God—one who wasn’t there to absorb and then transform my pain, but to deflect it back on me, to multiply it with guilt and regret in order to help me learn the hard, unforgettable way.

In that place, I almost unlearned everything important I had learned about God—the loving and holy mystery that can’t be contained by stained glass, the God of transformative power, who meets us in our raw pain and failures. Instead, I was learning why so many people walk away from it all, as I finally did one bright spring Sunday morning.

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Until one day a few months later, when I walked into a space that felt nothing like a church, with its coffee stains on the carpet and institutional ceiling tiles above. It was in that place—filled with unpredictable, moving, awkward, painful, and joy-filled people and worship—that God taught me about grace, and about all of the learning I have yet to do.

The Creek Less Traveled

There were many bodies of water to enjoy and explore at my grandparents’ cabin—it was Northern Michigan, after all, where bodies of water are as common as fields of corn where I live now, in Central Illinois.

The small, inland lakes had their appealing features: sandy shores for digging, floating rafts to dive from, and glass-like surfaces that perfectly mirrored the evening sky until the canoe you paddled broke through the stillness.

But of the many tempting bodies of water, it was the creek that enticed me most. The creek had something the lakes didn’t: It had mystery, a destination.

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We called it simply The Creek, but on a detailed-enough map it has a proper name: Canada Creek. It probably winds for miles, but our encounters with the creek took place in the far upper-east corner of Michigan’s lower peninsula—right where the cuticle of your index finger would settle in the mitten-shaped map.

As elementary-aged kids, my older brother and I were allowed to walk together down a curving sand road until it became a one-lane bridge at the creek. The road was rarely traveled, like all the roads in the area—we were somewhere in the midst of 20 square miles of woods and water known as Canada Creek Ranch (only a fourth of which was dotted with a few hundred cabins).

At the creek, my brother and I stood on the bridge for a while, tossing stones into the water to hear them plink and plunk their varying notes. Then we slid and scrambled down the gravely bank to the creek’s shore, where we inevitably ditched our canvas sneakers and sweaty socks to wade in the cold, clear spring water. It was sandy and shallow by the bridge; I liked to stand very still, hoping a dragonfly might land on me, while the tadpoles investigated my toes.

But how long could a kid stand still in a creek? After all, the creek had places to go and things to show us.

*    *    *    *    *

PICT0023I’m guessing that we schemed and planned our first creek walk when I was about seven, sitting around Grandma’s breakfast table, pancakes piled high and studded with wild blueberries we had picked the day before. I’m sure my brother and I were persuasive in our desire to follow the creek. Not only did it beg to be further explored, but the creek held potential for so many stories. The grownups were apparently just as intrigued, because a new summer tradition was born (one that continued into our teen years, as seen in the photo): The Creek Walk.

On Creek Walk day my brother and I set out as adventurers, eager to play the characters in our favorite books—to live out their stories, or more likely a compilation of their stories. Laura Ingalls, Davey Crockett, Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea each took a turn being embodied by us as we forged the stream.

Sometimes we talked through our stories as we walked, staying in character as we navigated over or under a fallen tree. At other moments I broke from character to yelp as I slipped on a rock and nearly went under, or to complain when my brother, leading the way, fooled us with his favorite trick: gradually bending his knees then walking on them until the water was up to his neck, which suggested it would be well over my head. (A few times he wasn’t joking, and it actually was that deep.)

And then there were spells when all of us were quiet, amazed by just how quiet the world could be, save for the swish of our legs displacing the water as we walked, and the song of a Goldfinch from somewhere above. Now that I think of it, I don’t recall ever encountering another person on our many creek walks.

*    *    *    *    *

After three or so hours of pressing on, the heat and deer flies became more bothersome, as did the ache in our legs and the rumble in our stomachs. Grandma began searching for a place to exit the creek—an opening in the tangle of brush where the bank wasn’t too steep and we could make our way from the creek’s winding world into the woods.

How Grandma had any idea where we were, I’ll never know. But she had hiked and skied those acres for years, and could confidently point us in the direction of Little Joe, one of the remote lakes on Canada Creek Ranch. We followed deer paths or forged our own way in the direction she pointed, motivated by what we knew we would find at our destination: Grandpa, firing up the grill for hotdogs. Each year on Creek Walk day he put the cooler Grandma had prepared into the car and drove the two-track roads through the woods to meet us at Little Joe’s lone picnic table.

After our feast, we all packed into Grandpa’s car, soggy and worn, to drive back to the cabin. The hotdogs and the lift home were luxuries Sacajawea never had, but by that point I was ready to be a modern-day little girl again, tucked into bed where more creek adventures could be spun in my dreams.


As a nine-year old recent refugee I often felt lonely. The kids at school, taking their queue from ubiquitous images of famine-stricken Ethiopian children with protruding stomachs and flies milling around their eyes, referred to me as Starving Ethy—Ethy being short for Ethiopian. The school often isolated me, with other aliens, in a special class they called English as a Second Language. When not at school, I spent most of my time alone, roaming the neighborhood, scavenging for odds and ends, finding the occasional Garbage Pail Kids trading card or a broken Transformers figurine.

Yet my family and I were not alone. Like many other refugees before them, Eritreans in the U.S. had begun to conform to an old pattern. The first group arrived in a specific city by design. They resettled there as part of a grand scheme cooked up in the mind of civil servants sitting in a conference room somewhere. These special refugee programs preselected some location in the U.S. that they thought made sense for the refugees. And these displaced people didn’t know any better. Des Moines is San Diego. San Diego is Des Moines. It’s all the same to those simply trying to escape calamity.

But once the trauma of transition abates and with the gift of time, these immigrants grow familiar with their new homeland. They also grow restless. They long to be with people like them. They are drawn to DC by an old friend from the refugee camps in Sudan, to Seattle by a neighbor from the village back home, to San Diego by a former fellow rebel-fighter. Mostly though, they are simply glad to cluster their lives around other Eritreans. These people, in their search for more than refuge, shift and move; drawn to each other to dull the bite of loneliness.

It is through this familiar road that a growing number of Eritreans made their way to Atlanta. It is why a room full of Eritreans greeted my mom and me during one of our routine visits to one of these Eritrean families on one sunny and beautiful afternoon. The home, a unit at one of the local public housing properties, was overflowing with strangers, old friends, and cousins of cousins.

After the customary cheek-to-cheek greetings, my mom joined the other adults who were dutifully occupied by a coffee tradition that must date back to the beginning of time. All the guests sat together outside on the porch in a semi-circle with the hostess at the juncture and a brazier at her side.

5543145597_017e65feb6_zLike the old priests and their censers, the hostess filled the air with the scent of roasting coffee, giving each guest the occasion to waft and savor the aroma rising from the roasting pan. She ground the beans and carefully poured them into the jebena, a special kettle made of clay. After adding a cup or so of water, she placed the jebena on the brazier to work its heat as the ancient taste brewed with slow serenity. When it was time, she slowly filled each finjal, small ceramic drinking cups decorated with beautiful patterns in different colors, moving continuously from cup to cup until the circle was complete.

It was a well-choreographed ritual wrapped in a thick blanket of gossip, debate and gloating, each adult trying to outflank the other with their better tales and more exciting news. They moved from topic to topic, sometimes with rambunctious energy and sometimes with solemn prayer depending on the mood of each issue — all of this they consumed with wide open hearts, as they sipped their scrupulously prepared coffee. While the adults sat on the porch consumed by their disputations, I joined the kids playing out in the field an earshot away.

In many ways these interactions are perfectly symbolic of the solitude we all felt in that place. A white American friend once described a moment she’d experienced in Shanghai, China. After living there for years, she ran into a black man, the first speckle of diversity she’d seen in a long time, while strolling along at some shopping district. As soon as she spotted him, she ran over and asked if she could give him a hug, explaining that he reminded her of home. The stranger obliged.

*   *   *   *   *

Biniam“Refuge” was written by Biniam Gebre. Biniam is a former refugee from Eritrea, a beautiful and young country in East Africa. He is also the former acting Commissioner of the the Federal Housing Administration. Both in his professional life and personal struggles, he is in constant search to understand the meaning of place. He currently lives in Washington D.C. Biniam blogs at Choices and Values and can be found on Twitter @biniamgebre.

Photo of the jebena, above, is by Canned Muffins.

Searching for a Home, Via Alaska (part 2)

And I would do it again, but set down
This, set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
– T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi

Let your beauty manifest itself
Without talking and calculation
You are silent. It says for you: I am.
And comes in meaning thousandfold,
Comes at long last over everyone.
– Rilke, “Initial”
apt xmasAt the risk of proving too dim – more so than usual – how in the world do you even begin a tradition? And how do you decide which traditions to adopt or dismiss? What makes our family traditions lasting, what makes them stick?

These were and are my burning questions this holiday season, beginning – as I described in my last post – this recent Thanksgiving, accompanying me through Christmas yesterday, and traveling with me into the coming New Year. This year I admittedly found myself at a loss. Part of the reason for this conundrum was because, having just flown East for my brother’s wedding in Philadelphia this summer, there was no way to afford another trip from Alaska to the East coast this holiday season. However, I think, too, this mostly-financial matter only forced me to face a deeper, ultimately unavoidable fact of my situation as a single father up here in Alaska, far from Pennsylvania, my home place of origin:

What am I offering these boys, who, at ten and six, are rapidly passing through boyhood and coming of age in a landscape and time period so vividly and markedly different from my own? And how do I attempt or manage to shape anything resembling traditions, for now at least, mostly solo and on too-frequently-limited resources? And how can I deliver legitimate holidays to my boys that don’t blithely or solely coast along the thin surface of the media, Target, or versions of what the day supposedly means?

Over the nearly four years since my sons’ mother and I split up, I found familiar comfort and reliable ease in flying the three of us east to spend the holidays with my family. This effort required little to no thought in my mind, no question of the role I assume or play in the context of extended family, or what I’d be offering Sam and Matt once our plane touched down. Order the gifts early enough online that they’d be at my parent’s house before our arrival and then Sam, Matt, and I would just effortlessly slip into the stream, the flow of everything I’ve inherited throughout the all-American, uber-traditional holidays of my own childhood.

Admittedly, the traditional Bower family Christmas back east has for as long as I can remember also been defined by nothing less than a requisite degree of full blown, manic chaos. Albeit an adorable, welcome brand of chaos, largely because the holidays are perhaps the lone, annual opportunity to find every niece, nephew, sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle, and surviving grandparent reliably collected in one place, even if it is at the price of temporary insanity for all involved.

bower vile family

Jonathan’s Wannabe-Whitman/Thoreau/Teen Wolf phase circa the mid-1990’s

Though an entirely well intended, big-hearted affair replete with randomly occurring acts of familial affection – walloping to near-smothering hugs, earthquaking belly laughs, spontaneous guitar jams and more – the day is no less defined by a never long-sustainable level of noise and borderline confusion. These are riotous events that reliably tax every child’s emotions, ultimately requiring that some assortment of offspring collapse in tears before we can really determine whether the day proved successfully over-stimulating enough or not. Our gatherings have also been annually governed by the persistent din of new devices being fired up or tested, new instruments relentlessly strummed or pounded on, new stereos and/or albums blaring from multiple corners of the room. Of course, someone also always receives the one toy that will send the terrier into a yapping frenzy. It’s a brand of nuttiness that leaves the adults gleefully resigned to caffeinated autopilot from shortly after morning coffee until they can collapse for the rumored winter’s nap at night’s end. By evening, the day’s relentless barrage of good cheer and sugared, fatty foodstuffs and shiny new material possessions and the full brunt of unending social engagement finally reaches critical mass, driving a select batch of us – those too cowardly or soft to live the teetotaler lifestyle of our forebears – to covertly duck into a secret room or to launch out back to grab a nip of an adult beverage. That small band of us pauses and breathes outside, some anxiously grasping for their smokes as we attempt to sit still long enough to raise a glass in the nearest dark space we can find that will afford us a moment’s respite or silence…

Every year in Alaska’s deepest, darkest winter hours, I’ve longed for this single day of unsustainable chaos the way I imagine the polar explorers longed for the affections of their faraway wives and the comforts of home.

The question of traditions and rituals we instill among family – blood relations or adopted or “friend” families – seem to me actually part of the larger question of how you in fact make a home…which is precisely what I’ve circled the wagons trying to do since becoming a single parent a few years ago.

And so, with no ready-made or fixed traditions in place, this holiday season became a kind of riddle, a query lobbed to no one but myself, especially since both my sons, born and raised (so far, mostly) here in Alaska identify no other place they’ve visited or traveled to as home:

What if (huge gulp) we were already home for the holidays?

And, on that notion, what if we started making a day that grew (sanely, maybe even quietly) out of – in the words of Andy Williams, from a Christmas album that has since childhood marked the arrival of the holiday in my mind – “a few of [our] favorite things”? What if we dared test the waters of a new, different stream, perhaps even one that proved a little less chaotic? What then?

sam acolyte xmas eveWe attended the 11pm Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal church we frequent, because Sam was scheduled as an acolyte that evening. Afterwards, close to 12:30am, he raced up to me, bleary eyed and still in his robes, and threw his arms around me announcing, “Merry Christmas!”

I drove him to his mom’s and said I’d see him and his brother in the morning. When I woke the next morning, it was snowing. I took a short walk. As I walked through the neighborhood, muted as it was by the snowfall, I remembered out of the blue, for the first time in over twenty years, that one of my English professors once introduced our class to a recording of T.S. Eliot reading his poems. For the first time in as many years, I wanted only to hear Eliot read The Journey of the Magi.

I returned to my apartment, made tea, and found T.S. Eliot reading The Journey of the Magi at the Poetry Foundation’s website. I played it twice. A day was in motion.anchorage out back

The boys’ mother texted that the boys were awake. Good friends texted and invited me to dinner later, an offer that provided a flush of comfort I wasn’t fully aware I even needed then. I loaded the boys’ gifts into the car. It was still snowing and that hush was only periodically interrupted by the melodic trill of waxwings dashing back and forth between trees out front.

Like the snow’s steady drift and accompanying, welcome silence, and the waxwings passing to and fro briskly overhead, this day required nothing of us. That morning, the boys demanded only that I make it to their mom’s apartment with their gifts, pronto. But the day asked nothing, save perhaps only an invitation that we live into the day we were given. There was no script, no prescribed agenda, no long ago-ascribed roles, no demands to be anywhere specific. Not even any clues for how to proceed with the day. The day only unfolded. As perhaps a good and most memorable day may wont to do – “without calculation,” to borrow from Rilke.

In that way, this Christmas was a lot like writing, like starting a new story. As with composing any new story, the writer plays a critical part in its unfolding. But so much in the details and what happens is left to mystery, too. So much so that, as with any story’s beginning, you have no idea, no clear sense of how any of it will end either. Taking that plunge, then, can often prove frightening, or at least initially a little intimidating.

But in that flow, in the quiet stream of unfolding and unknowing yesterday, the whole birthing of the experience proved at moments quietly thrilling and then also terrifying. In that way, the day also resembled the landscape in which we daily find ourselves piecing together our lives, our family – a striking landscape, and a place that my sons know only as home.

ak wish you were here

Wish You Were Here xo, JJB


Searching for a Home, Via Alaska (Part 1)

I know I’ll make it back
One of these days…
Where the cups are cracked and hooked
Above the sink
And a cracked door moon
Says I haven’t gone too far
– “Via Chicago,” Wilco

What is it that proves so timelessly compelling about an unknown place – and especially the distant, the faraway – the Not Here Where I Am Right Now? Maybe there’s an anthropological study or psychological classification for this phenomenon. Perhaps Lonely Planet or Rick Steeves have a term that adequately summarizes our thirst for going someplace thoroughly unfamiliar, for getting a little lost, for stumbling through a foreign anywhere with only a select handful of phrases, and eating whatever seems most intriguing or unlike the foods found in the places we’re from. “Wanderlust, dummy,” you could say, but that’s not what I’m getting at – or, it’s not only that. Wanderlust, to me, feels too temporal, too casual to properly describe the specific longing I’m describing. What do I call that spirit that comes to life when I’m huffing away on the Stairmaster at Planet Fitness and Anthony Bourdain is on TV sipping a steaming liquid from a delicate ceramic cup, or eating meat or cheese from a place where everyone’s skin is darker than his? In those moments, I want to know those people and that place, but I also know the likelihood of deeply or intimately doing so is highly unlikely.

I’m curious on one hand because I’ve recently become worried, wondering if I, over the past twenty years, unwittingly traveled and “adventured” myself into a corner. Rather, in making a lot of my life one fascinating backdrop or living experience swiftly following another, I now find myself at a bewildering impasse: This year marks my tenth as an Alaskan resident, which means I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else save for my state of origin, Pennsylvania. And despite an active engagement in Alaska over the course of that decade, I still find myself feeling oddly far-flung,JJBoutofplace a bit adrift, “a stranger in a strange land,” and frequently out of place in a location that my two sons – both born and in love with their lives here – fully consider and embrace as home.

Under my love of the wildly unknown and the thrill instilled by journeying to new places, I’m now finding another form of longing, and in recent years it’s proven a deeper, heavier pull than the passions that lured me towards a tireless series of fascinating locations and situations in previous decades. In simplest terms, I think mine proves a longing that all of us to one degree or another carry for “home.” And yet, I worry that naming it as such reduces it to a pouty, Dorothy Gale-by-way-of-Judy Garland type of pining. Either way, however, it’s perplexing that I would experience these conflicted feelings while occupying the same location on Earth where my children feel so utterly present and at home.sam and matt

Meanwhile, “home” doesn’t often seem a very “sexy” or hot topic to bridge in conversation. It’s not a subject that gets many people excited, unless you’re discussing the purchase of an actual, physical “house,” or watching a cable reality show where a couple’s house is about to be remodeled or transformed from Ordinary into a palatial estate. Otherwise, it’s probably not a topic that will really charge a conversation the way “travel” or living abroad do when you’re trying to make friends or identify yourself among new acquaintances at a party. Where we’ve been and what we’ve done or seen tells others something significant about who we are (or, who we think we are) in a way that trying to discuss remaining still or feeling content rarely, if ever, will.

When I make a reference, for example, to “when we (my then-wife and my boys) lived in Japan,” something sparkles in the listener’s eyes, or a smile swiftly dances across his or her face. I imagine they, like I used to do, entertain a swift, thrilling montage of koi ponds, teahouses, manicured gardens, and exquisitely designed pottery and luxurious foods. At one time I strongly identified with and entertained that same montage.


And yet, I highly doubt anyone recognizes by referencing “when we lived in Japan,” a part of me bristles inside. In fact, I sometimes feel sheepish sharing that we did – it feels rather like a misstep in the pace of a conversation. Nowadays, it’s almost as if I admit I lived there to a listener. There’s no romantic indulgence in revealing it, no bragging rights. Rather, a part of me goes a little limp inside. And oftentimes, saying I live in Alaska has felt this way, too. And I never imagined going into either of these situations that I would one day feel this way.

With Japan, I imagine a big part of this is that it’s the place where, over the course of a few days my sons’ mother and I briefly feared that our one-year-old might die. It’s also where his mom and I one year later realized and faced the hard cold truth and acknowledged aloud that our marriage was, in fact, dead.

Matt Hospital Japan

Rather than an exotic, storybook fantasy, our experience more closely resembled that of the characters in the film Babel, many of whom acutely wrestle with a 21st-century specific form of displacement and confusion related to being out of place, far flung from any idea or notion of home.


I was reminded of all of this the Tuesday before Thanksgiving a couple weeks ago, when my youngest, now six, received a visit from the latest flu monster currently making the rounds up here.

A friend had a week or so earlier invited us to dinner with his extended family at their log home in a town three hours north of Anchorage. I looked forward to fleeing the city for the holiday, but a restless night with a boy battling a 103F temperature in the mornings leading up to Thursday found me a little beside myself, brainstorming a possible “alternative” Thanksgiving if we were possibly stuck at home.

I had done very little shopping, which is to say none at all, aside from purchasing some odds and ends for the table of the friends’ home where we were intending to spend the holiday. I was definitely turkey-less, and I didn’t even have a single can of the gelatinous, can-shaped substance we call cranberries. I couldn’t help imagining that if Matt’s health dictated that we stay in Anchorage, this year would go down in my ten-year-old, Sam’s journal as the year we ate turkey club sandwiches at Denny’s.

In hindsight, I see that my panic was fueled by a clueless, single father’s blend of confusion and distress around both properly caring for a sick boy with the flu and a 103F fever, as well as having no grounded family traditions in place up here for possibly observing the holiday. The latter realization was compounded by the knowledge that we also have no immediate or extended relations anywhere nearby – nowhere, in fact, within a twelve-hour flight across the country. Which meant, too, that I had no family to call on for assistance for the Tylenol I was out of at 1am, or family to crash with on the holiday or to send Sam to if I were stuck home with Matt, on a holiday during which time we customarily celebrate and gratefully reflect on family and our ties that bind.

I’ve sat in a remote Japanese village after the orange harvest eating horse meat and drinking a clear liquor made from sweet potatoes that I’m sure must have shared chemical properties with space shuttle fuel, all while knowing only a handful of stock phrases you could pick up from watching Lost in Translation. sam russian marketI’ve drifted through a Russian village meat market and stood slack-jawed watching a toothless man butchering a pig – cigarette dangling from his mouth, no shirt or gloves – in a way that would no doubt cause reps from both OSHA and the FDA to collapse from aneurysms. I’ve lived five miles deep in the woods of New Hampshire without running water all winter. Stood thigh-high in steaming piles of horse manure twenty-one miles up a mountain in Oregon, holding only a shovel and longing for nothing more than to finish the job and return to my wood-heated cabin and books a stone’s throw away.

But nothing – I swear to you, nothing – in my life has felt more truly foreign or alien to me, honestly, than the terrain of single parenthood these last three years, and nowhere more so than in the helplessness that springs to life when the children are sick, or during the holidays when – minus the grounding of roots or traditions – I’ve wondered where to orient the three of us.

And don’t get me wrong – I do treasure the sum of my adventures. They make for rich memories, and mine’s proven an undeniably privileged way to spend one’s young adulthood. However, as I sat at my son’s bedside, anxiously scrolling on my laptop for advice on how to care for a child’s flu and fever that Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving, as he writhed and his breath scraped along his throat and through his nostrils, I also wondered about what I may have neglected or failed to consider during my years exploring distant places, gathering mostly only experiences in everywhere and anywhere entirely unfamiliar…

sam koi

Cut from the same dough

When I was growing up, they were simply “Christmas cookies” to me—not butter cookies or cutout cookies. Just Christmas cookies: the quintessential sweet of the season.

Of course, there were many cookie varieties on the platter my mom kept stocked on the kitchen counter throughout the holiday season. I had to taste each of the others at some point—the gingerbread, the mini pecan pie shells, the coconut and chocolate “magic bars,” and the shortbread squares with salty cashews pressed into the caramel on top. But when the platter was offered with the instruction to “just take one,” my small hands only hovered over other choices before inevitably gravitating back to a beloved “Christmas cookie.”

cookietinAs an adult, I consider these classics a family recipe, but in truth, the five-ingredient list is hardly complicated, or a secret: butter, flour, sugar, an egg, and—most importantly—a half-teaspoon of real almond extract (imitation is forbidden!). First, as with all cookies, the butter and sugar are creamed together before adding the egg and almond extract. Then the flour is carefully stirred in. For years I had to hand over the spoon to my mom when the last cup of flour went into the bowl, and for years I was in awe of how strong she was, as I watched her effortlessly finish the job my wimpy arm couldn’t handle.

scookiecutterAfter the dough was chilled (a step I was never a fan of waiting through), my mom and I rolled it out to a careful ¼-inch thick round ready to be puzzled into Christmas shapes. It was with Christmas cookie dough that I learned to use a rolling pin: gently but firmly, keeping the pressure even between left and right hands, learning to lift the rolling pin slightly as it reached the outer perimeter of the dough, so as not to leave the edges too thin to be cut.

Opening up the tin of cookie cutters each December was as thrilling to me as unearthing my family’s boxes of tree decorations. All the old favorite shapes were there—stocking, tree, candy cane, wreath, star, santa, and the gingerbread boy and girl (which we didn’t hesitate to use on non-gingerbread dough)—as well as the surprise of a new cookie cutter or two we had added to the collection the year before. I learned to be strategic about arranging each shape before pressing it into the dough, minimizing the scraps of dough to be gathered and rolled out again. The outstretched leg of the reindeer nicely made use of a little strip of available dough left along the top of a tree’s point, and the positive points of one star could utilize the negative spaces left by another star.

Frosting and decorating the cookies, though, was the best part of the process. The bowls of colored frosting and various sprinkles were laid out on the table, drawing the whole family as if they were a feast rather than work to be shared. Over the years, our approach became increasingly elaborate and creative. Armed with toothpicks, we discovered techniques for swirling two or more colors of frosting in the middle of a star, and for picking up and placing tiny candy balls exactly where we wanted them, along the hem of an angel’s dress. In his teens, my brother went rogue with his approach, transforming traditional shapes into entirely different objects—an upside-down stocking became a hobby-horse, and bell became a space shuttle, with USA spelled out carefully using those small, stick-shaped chocolate sprinkles.

As a college student, making and decorating “Christmas cookies” was always my first order of business upon arriving home after finals. Years later, after having my own children, I could hardly wait for them to be old enough to sit around the kitchen table and decorate cookies with Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Bill. When I eventually met Jason, I knew immediately he and his daughter would embrace the slightly-competitive fun of our family’s cookie decorating marathons. (A man who would scoff at such an activity would be no man for me!)

Our three daughters are now teenagers, and the “Christmas cookie” tradition continues—even beyond Christmas. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that “Christmas cookies” could be made at other times of the year, so I began buying new cookie cutters: tulips and rabbits, pumpkins and maple leaves, hearts and snowflakes.

photo (2)A few weeks ago, on a cold Saturday morning, we sat down around the dinning room table, where stacks of naked autumn cookies waited for their sweet, creative disguises. Each of the girls had invited a friend to join us. “I didn’t realize other people even did this any more,” one of our guests said, picking up a toothpick and getting intricate with her design.

The cookies are definitely special—everyone who sees them and bites into one agrees. But for me, it’s the tradition of time spent together—evolving as our family evolves, yet remaining the same from year to year, in a life where it seems nothing really remains the same—that I crave most this time of year.