Summer 2017

Summer 2017 has been full.

I went to Germany and Poland with my family in May.

In June, I moved back to the ranch and helped in the hay fields. The beginning of July brought a gathering of family and friends to Valentine.

Then I transitioned into a long weekend in Colorado with more family and more friends. And mountains!

I got my wisdom teeth out (that was not a highlight of the summer).

My parents and I visited my brother and sister in Missouri. I used to hate going down to Missouri, but it’s growing on me.

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Chicago was up next, with an appointment at the consulate and a boat tour along the river and out onto Lake Michigan.

Nebraska was in the path of the eclipse’s totality, so we loaded up a vehicle and drove two hours south and sat and waited and witnessed one of the most beautiful and wonder-full occurrences I’ve seen in my life. Pictures don’t do it justice, even the professionals’. I think maybe the closest I can get to reliving the enormity and magnificence of totality without seeing it again in person is listening to audio recordings of my fellow humans losing their composure over the event. There are some of those captured moments at the beginning and end of this podcast. The whole episode is delightful, and I highly recommend listening to it all.

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And now—in one week!—I’m moving to France. If you’d like to get a closer look at this looming adventure of mine, I’m starting a Tinyletter. You can sign up to receive it here. I plan to keep blogging, but the letter will be a more informal and (hopefully) more frequent update on what’s going on over there in France.

Goodbye for now! Enjoy the rest of your summer.

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Colorado

Colorado helped me believe in fairies again.

Not fairies as corporeal beings with wings, but fairies as a stand in for magic and childish wonder, for serendipity and felicitous simplicity, for the feeling I get when I reread my favorite book and marvel at the conjurings of words on a page.

On an evening hike along a ridge, when the sky to the west is pastel peach and orange and purple from fog or haze or dust, and afternoon heat and rain releases the spicy musty scent of pines into the air, my spirit begins to rest. The weeks leading up to this moment have been long, hard, lonely. But in the mountains, where cell phone signal is weak, with a college friend who has a bed to spare and a list of hiking trails to choose from, I feel as if I am coming home to a younger, more-ready-to-believe-in-fairies version of myself.

When, in the cool of the morning, we sit on benches in a clearing in the woods, alone with the dew, the waking rustles of small animals, and our thoughts, I hold in my hand, hot and pulsing, the ancient belief that if I look close enough, I might just see something miraculous emerge from the trees. It might not be a fairy or any other magical beast, but it might, miraculously, be joy.

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Later that day, we hike up a mountain and talk about books for hours. We marvel loudly at the wildflowers. Then the hail finds us, and I am aware of the smallness of my life and the largeness of the world. I begin to realize how ill-prepared I am for this hike, but I think this is the most beautiful mountain my two legs have ever carried me up. We keep going and I am terrified and in awe. As we walk back down the mountain my toes go numb from trudging through piles of hail on the path.

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The next day, we have a lazy afternoon at a lake nestled against a mountain range. Between two trees, I sit in my hammock for the first time. We eat hot dogs and splash in a stream. My friend and I borrow two kayaks from the family we are with. We haven’t been on the water long when we see and hear a wall of rain drumming along across the lake. Laughter seems like the appropriate response. I throw my head back and laugh at the serendipity of it all. When we are our most vulnerable—crossing the tree line or paddling out to the middle of the lake—the skies unleash their torrent on us. We can race back to shore, we can take cover under a hammock, but we will never truly escape this downpour untouched.

I am not mad at our bad luck; I am not scared. I am joyous. This weekend, I have walked into the wilderness and it has met me with the honesty of itself. In 48 hours, it has shown me solace and fury, peace and tumult, and it has all been good. It has woken me up to the enchantment of this world.

Reading Series: The Most Human Human

It seems that every few weeks, this blog turns into a diary of my emotional health practices. Sorry if you’re not here for that, but I obviously am (this is my blog, after all).

On my radar most recently has been mindfulness. A few months ago, I found Alayna Fender’s Youtube channel. She has made a series on mindfulness and self-compassion. The way Alayna talks about mindfulness makes it feel extremely accessible; it’s not about striving or reaching some perfect Zen state. It’s about noticing your days and moments as they are happening.

We should approach every experience as if it’s our first time. We take the ordinary for granted. We take the things we see and smell and taste and feel every single day for granted. Even though you’ve heard the wind in the trees a thousand times, notice it. Hear it again. Approaching every experience as if it’s a new one strips away our previous judgment and allows us to have a fresh start.

Noticing is hard. It takes energy that, when I’m in the thick of a semester and trudge from bed to work to class to bed, I think isn’t available for such a frivolous thing as being mindful. It requires that I open myself up to excitement and enjoyment as well as pain and disappointment—and every other ordinary emotion in between. But the expended energy is worth it to so I can catch up with myself throughout the day and readjust plans if necessary.

Alayna’s videos pair nicely with a book I read for my communication theory class last winter: The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian. Brian explores the question of what it means to be human. I find his answers satisfying. The key to being human, Brian concludes, is showing up to the moments that compose our days and resisting the temptation of streamlined interactions that our automated, autocorrected world offers us.

…complacency—because it is a form of disengagement—is a whisker away from despair. I don’t want life to be “solved”; I don’t want it to be solvable. There is comfort in method: because we don’t always have to reinvent everything at every minute, and because our lives are similar enough to others’ lives, the present similar enough to the past that, for example, wisdom is possible. But wisdom that feels final rather than provisional, an ending rather than a starting point, that doesn’t ultimately defer to an even larger mystery is deadening (92).

Sinking into the comfort of routine is nice; routine can keep us sane. A morning cup of tea, reading before bed, soaking in a hot bath once a week—these routines helped me through weeks of grad school and teaching. But routine can also deaden us, as Brian says. It can lead us to approach our days as obligations and our encounters with the people around us as drudgery. If we only see as far as our routines allow us, we blind ourselves to the details and delights of the wide world beyond our expectations.

Mindfulness helps me expand my vision. It’s a practice I’m trying to pick up in this interim season of my life when I’m living once again in my childhood home. Here and now, mindfulness is prayer.

If you’re interested in mindfulness or what it means to be human, I highly recommend Alayna’s video series and Brian’s book.

The highest ethical calling, it strikes me, is curiosity (257).

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A Student of Travel

In one of my college classes, I was introduced to the concept of literary citizenship. My professor encouraged us to be active participants in the literary world. This meant reading and commenting on blogs, buying and reading books and literary magazines, writing book reviews, talking to our friends about books, creating our own content in support of and in conversation with existing literature.

These simple actions helped me develop a sense of belonging and worth that I had struggled to nurture before this point. Before learning and practicing what it meant to be a literary citizen, I had felt like a nuisance and imposter in the literary community. But thinking of myself, and all the other readers and aspiring writers like me, as a vital part of the community emboldened me to claim my place in the literary world. My feedback and support of authors and creators was and is valuable.

These days, I’m taking the things I learned in that class and applying them to new situations.

As a quick side note, a few months back I listened to a This Rhetorical Life episode critiquing the rhetoric of citizenship. That conversation is playing in my mind as I think back on the literary citizenship I learned. I don’t think the term “citizen” is necessary here. The literary world shouldn’t be shrouded in language that connotes governmentality and belonging (citizen) that is countered with unbelonging (alien). You do not need proof of citizenship within any community to be a reader, creator, or lover of literature.

This hesitancy to use “citizen” language forces me to get creative in finding other language that describes active participation in a community. Right now, I’m going to use the word “student” in a setting in which “citizen” might be the first word you reach for.

Over the last few months, I’ve been traveling and thinking about traveling a lot. I spent a week in Memphis in March. Last month I traveled to Germany and Poland. Travel, for me, is fraught with implications of exploitation. I try to approach travel as a student instead of as a tourist. As I wrote about in one of my Memphis blogs, learning about a place before I go there is important to me. My most meaningful trips have been the ones where I studied up on the history, culture, and politics of the place.

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This fall, I’m moving to France for ten months. It will be, by far, my longest stay in another country.

I don’t want to go as a tourist, and I won’t be going as a citizen either. Instead, I want to be a student of the place. And just as I found my place in the literary community while practicing participation, I hope to do the same with France. I am learning the language. I want to read up on the history, follow the news, dive into the culture—get invested in this country across the ocean. Learn all it has to teach me, and offer what I can through my interest and involvement.

I’ll try my best to keep you updated as I go, to share with you what I’m learning. But right now, I need your help building my syllabus. What recommendations do you have for French books, films, documentaries, music, or blogs? Merci!

Art Journals

Over the past few years, I’ve been finding my way back to art. I’ve been inspired by people like Caroline of Made Vibrant and Crystal of #yearofcreativehabits. This year, I made it one of my goals to create every day. I have a huge list of creative projects I want to tackle, but so far I’ve mostly been focusing on mini art journals. And I wanted to share them with you! I’ve finished three this year. Most days I only spend a few minutes putting a few pieces on paper, so it’s slow going. But I love it. I gather inspiration and bits of paper from the world around me, then make something with it.

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Work in progress.

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This is my first art journal of 2017. I was exploring ideas of expanding and moving outward. Pictured is one of my favorite spreads—the words are cut from a running shoe catalog and a bra catalog and make a lovely found poem.

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Here’s the second art journal of the year. This one memorialized a quick trip I made to Nebraska in February. Winters are really hard for me, especially because they last so long where I live in Michigan. Being able to spend an unseasonably warm weekend in my home state with my family was the perfect respite, and I loved capturing some of the small, precious moments on paper.

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And this is the third art journal! It’s pretty short and filled with warm, bright colors to celebrate sunnier days. It’s going to be sent to a dear friend later this week!

Finally, I’ll leave you with a quick glance through all three journals! Enjoy.

Reading Series: Spring Break 2017

We had about a fifteen hour drive both ways to get to Memphis for spring break, so I made good use of van time and read three books! I selected these books specifically for what I thought I would be contemplating and experiencing during the trip, and I’m pretty happy with how the books synced up with my trip.

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Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, Preston Lauterbach. I borrowed this from one of my trip leaders and started reading it before the trip to learn some Memphis history. The more I travel, the more I understand how much I value learning about a place’s history before arriving there. Even though I know I can’t learn everything about a place, I know that making an attempt enriches my experience in the city, region, or country. The author of this book also wrote this article, which is basically a super condensed version of the book. The article was my first introduction to the role housing inequality plays in racial inequality. If you care about racial inequality, I suggest reading this article. There’s a lot of good information, historical and current, to think about.

March: Book Three, John Robert Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. I’ve seen these graphic novels a couple times on my Instagram feed and wanted to see what the hubbub was about. Unfortunately, when I checked the interlibrary loan site, only the third book was available. I didn’t have any problem picking up the story without reading the first two, but I definitely want to go back and read the rest of the series. They tell the story of Representative John Robert Lewis’ involvement with the civil rights movement of the last century. At times, this can feel like a history that’s too complicated and downright awful to comprehend. The graphic novel form makes it a little more approachable, though the gravity of the situation isn’t lost. Poetic language is paired with haunting illustrations.

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Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, Amy Peterson. I had the great privilege of meeting and learning from Amy while at Taylor University, so I was thrilled to hear she was publishing a book. Before my copy came in the mail, I listened to an interview Amy did with Cara Strickland and heard her mention rethinking how we talk about short-term missions. While my spring break wasn’t called a missions trip, it definitely had some aspects of traditional mission trips. Amy suggests going into cross cultural service experiences with realistic expectations and language for the purpose of the trip. Let’s work on integrating “all parts of their trip” into a “cohesive learning experience” “instead of dividing them into ‘ministry’ and ‘tourism’ (49). The most important thing I can do on these sorts of trips is learn about the history, people, and culture of the place and take that knowledge back to my home and share it with the people there.

An unexpected aspect of Amy’s book that I greatly appreciated was her discussions of the challenges of living abroad, regardless of purpose for being there. I spent all of spring break mulling over an opportunity to live abroad for a year, and this book gave me some perspective on that choice. If this move comes to fruition, I will hold Amy’s book close as I transition to life in another country.

What have you been reading lately?

Memphis

 

I spent spring break this year in Memphis, Tennessee. A group of ten students and staff from my university made the trip south to volunteer with organizations in the city. It was my first time in Memphis, and really my first time being in Tennessee. In the weeks leading up to spring break, the readings I was assigned for my composition pedagogy class had a lot of really interesting intersects with the topics our group was thinking about in preparation for the trip. One line I keep coming back to is a quotation from Susan Bordo:

becoming more conscious is a tremendous achievement.

Traveling to new places and learning about ways and realities of life in other parts of the country and the world is important to me. Becoming conscious of the fact that the life I live is not the only life is a tremendous and vital achievement. With that in mind, here are four things I loved about my time in Memphis.

1. Civil rights history: On our first full day in Memphis, we spent the afternoon at the National Civil Rights Museum. Near the entrance to the exhibits was a theater with a short film. This film claims the museum as a sacred space. I carried that notion in my mind as I walked through the exhibits, and I think it’s true. Throughout the civil rights movement, people debated if they were fighting a moral or political battle. I think it was and is both and that it is also a spiritual battle. Having the opportunity to stand near the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and being able to learn and think about the enormity of the civil rights movement was emotional, to say the least. I have so much more to learn about the history of civil rights in our country.

FullSizeRender 82. Landmark Urban Farms: One of the organizations we volunteered with was this urban farm in the Orange Mound neighborhood, the oldest black neighborhood in the country. The owner, Mike Minnis, is one of the wisest, kindest people I have ever met. We spent two short afternoons with him; in that time he told us story after story, let us plant a few rows of okra and beans and tomatoes and sunflowers, and made us all feel seen and cared for. Time on his plots of land left me feeling more rejuvenated and hopeful than I have in a long time. Mike is a gem of Memphis.

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3. Seeing Mary: I’ll admit that one of the biggest reasons this trip caught my eye was because my college friend Mary moved to Memphis after graduation, and I wanted to see her and her new city. It was wonderful to catch up with her and talk teaching and experience Memphis through her perspective for a few hours.

IMG_16494. My team: Another big reason that I signed up for this trip was to make friends. I’ve been at Michigan Tech for nearly a year and a half now and am still struggling to find people who I feel comfortable being my full self around. I hoped this trip would connect me with people on campus who share some of my passions. By the end of our first full day in Memphis, I wrote in my journal that our group was starting to feel like a group and not like ten individuals. Throughout the week we had deep conversations and shared lots of laughter. Hopefully these friendships will continue throughout the semester and beyond.

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I left Memphis feeling so full and like there was so much left to see and learn and do. It’s a city worth returning to.

Here’s a short video I made of one of our afternoons at Landmark.

Reading Series: Letters to a Young Poet

I frequently see Rilke quotes floating around the internet, and, being a part-time poet, I figured it was my duty to read him for myself. A couple weeks ago, I snuck up to the stacks on the third floor of my university library and found this thin blue volume: Letters to a Young Poet.

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I don’t have much commentary to offer, but I did want to share some of my favorite excerpts. Because this book is a collection of Rilke’s letters to, as the title says, a young poet, it feels pretty self-helpy. If that’s not your thing, consider yourself warned. Thankfully, poet self-help is totally my thing, so I thought this book was pretty great.

On simplicity in inspiration

…describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty—describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the pictures from your dreams, and the subjects of your memories. (Letter 1)

 

If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring…then everything will become easier, more coherent. (Letter 4)

I need to keep this advice in my poetry notebook. The simple is just fine.

On uncertainty and perseverance

…be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, that cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. (Letter 4)

This is the first Rilke quote that really caught my attention. It helped me through a really difficult transitional period in my life. I’ve found that uncertainty doesn’t go away for very long, so you might as well get comfortable with it.

We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult. (Letter 7)

“Difficult” sounds harsh. I think there’s a line between punishing yourself and pushing yourself.

The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly the new goes into us, so much better do we take it to ourselves. (Letter 8)

I’ll just say it: being sad isn’t fun. But like being uncertain, I’ve found it’s a pretty dependable part of life. It’s so natural to want to close up when sadness comes, but Rilke suggests that openness is a better way to embrace it.

…perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. (Letter 8)

This imagery is beautiful to me. Princesses from dragons.

And because I have a total creator crush on Austin Kleon, I made a list of advice based on Letters to a Young Poet, like Austin’s check list of Goethe’s “every day” activities. Here it is (and a peek inside my journal):

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Seeing Women

Many women, most more eloquent than I, have said this before, but I’ll add my voice to the chorus: representation matters. Seeing strong, complex women on our screens and in our books is important.

For some reason, I never thought of myself as someone who would be moved by the presence or absence of strong female role models in the movies and TV shows I watch. Perhaps it’s my individualistic tendencies. Perhaps it’s that I’m a graduate student and I think I should be above that influence. But it’s precisely because I’m a graduate student studying culture and communication that I should know that the stories we tell shape how we view the world.

Rey in The Force Awakens got me thinking about what it means to see women taking the lead in places that traditionally foreground the stories of men. What does it mean for young girls and grown women to finally see a woman who is strong and smart and capable of saving herself? If representation doesn’t matter, if the gender of the main character has no influence on the plot of the story or the way the story is perceived by the audience, then why are films primarily about men? Why don’t we give women the same attention? I’ll let you think of your answers to those questions; you’ve probably heard a few.

These trails of thought about gender and representation followed through into election season. The closer November 8th drew, the more I began to understand how radical it would be to elect a woman as president of the United States of America. Again, before this year, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about how electing a woman would influence me. But as I watched Hillary Clinton win the Democratic nomination, something changed. I didn’t know what dreams I wanted to dream about the place of women in this world until I saw a 68-year-old woman win a major party’s nomination for the first time in our history.

In December, I had the privilege of seeing Hamilton in Chicago. I’d listened to the soundtrack, I’d read the Hamiltome cover to cover, I follow Lin-Manuel Miranda on Twitter: Hamilton has captured my heart and imagination. I knew seeing the show live would be an emotional experience, but I wasn’t prepared for the particular ways it moved me. While listening to the soundtrack, I had always rooted for Alexander, the immigrant orphan who dreams of dying in glory. But when I watched the show, the characters who tugged at my heart the most were Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy Schuyler. I started crying when they sang their first notes, because I was overwhelmed by the mere presence of opinionated, complicated women in our nation’s revolution (and grateful for Miranda’s decision to include them so prominently in his musical).

I want to take their example and be one of those opinionated women in our century. I want to surround myself with other smart, determined women who are fighting and writing for change. I want to nag the authors of histories and anthologies to stop excluding women and people of color. I want to help the women around me achieve more and live more fully into their dreams instead of competing with them. I want to support films and TV shows and books that tell the stories of women (Hidden Figures is at the top of my to watch, I’ve heard great things). I want to be loud about what hurts me and makes me happy and not apologize for the disruption.

Women like Rey and Hillary Clinton and the Schuyler sisters help me realize that I want these things for myself. They ignite dreams.

Looking at 2016

Reviewing the year as it comes to an end is a way for me to say good-bye to the past twelve months while remembering the parts I may have forgotten. It’s never a comprehensive look, of course, but it gives me something to hold onto as I move forward into the new year.

On Twitter last week, J.R. Briggs asked what hard and challenging things we did in 2016. It wasn’t hard for me to come up with answers. So I think this post will detail some of the challenging things I did as well as some ordinary joys of the year.

In January, I moved into my first solo apartment and started grad school in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My parents made the drive from Nebraska to help me settle in, and I was overwhelmed by the way they put love into action. They are two of the most generous, hospitable, selfless people I know, and I hope to love with a fraction of the fervor they do.

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Grapefruit-flavored anything became a part time obsession of mine. I loaded up on the fruit on nearly every trip to the grocery store, tried grapefruit soda and deodorant and essential oil and soap and made muffins and cake and cocktails with the juice.

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School consumed more time and I energy than I anticipated, but I made time to paint and read and cook—things that feed my soul. Half gallons of milk went bad in my fridge more than I care to admit and grocery shopping was a skill I didn’t know would take time to learn and perfect (I still haven’t perfected it, of course).

I shoveled snow for hours at a time and sidestepped the giant icicles that grew above the steps to my apartment’s door.

I braved a new church. Then left it and tried another.

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A freelancing job for the local newspaper found its way to me, and I faced some of my worst fears of calling and meeting strangers. It was exhausting, anxious work, but I survived it.

In an icy, snowy, hilly city, I trained for my second half marathon.

The end of April meant the end of the semester and long papers and moving out of my leaking apartment into a friend’s apartment to watch their cat while they were on vacation, then into the basement of a sorority house until the lease on my new apartment began in July.

During the summer, I luxuriated in sunshine and novels and hiking trails. I got an internship at the university library. My whole family came to explore my new hometown. We romped about the peninsula for a week, seeing mines and monasteries and lakes and virgin forest and waterfalls.

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Fall brought another semester of grad school, this time with teaching a college class thrown into the mix. To guard against the overwhelm of studying and lesson-planning and impending winter, I held wilderness and poetry close. The creativity of my students surprised me on more than one occasion.

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Halloween and feminism and my own autonomy convinced me to shave my head. November came in with magic and subversion on the wind. I mourned the decision of our nation and held tight to art and love. I turned 23.

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I made my way home for Thanksgiving. Sunsets were spectacular and time with family was sweet.

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The snow came heavy and long. Another finals week full of reading and writing came and went. The year ended in a daze of movies and books and Hamilton and sleep. As usual, the transition from year to year comes softly and on a winding path.