Tuesday, December 31, 2013


As a new year begins, a few recommendations from my 2013. In no particular order: 

1. And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini's latest novel. See previous blog post for my gushing reflections. 

2. Houseplants. In addition to providing a lovely, natural, eco-friendly way to decorate, my ever-growing collection of houseplants are currently filtering the air in my polluted, industrial, heavily-trafficked Chicago neighborhood. I'm now soliciting tips for re-potting.

3. Fitness Blender. During last year's long, cold winter my quest for an indoor workout option led me to this website. Professional trainers Daniel and Kelli have created a range of workout videos that range from intense interval training to yoga-inspired stretching routines to kickboxing. Do an eight-week workout program like Jason and I did last spring, select a video that works a certain part of your body, or sort by time or difficulty level. The options are vast, and the interval format keeps things interesting. The only downside is if you're concerned about disturbing the downstairs neighbors with the inevitable pounding that comes when squat jumps, high knees, etc. are part of the workout. 

4. Vermicomposting. For those of us without abundant yard space or citywide composting, this is a great way to take care of food scraps. Put a bunch of red wigglers in a cheap plastic tub (or an expensive store-bought layered bin), feed them weekly, and create an easy-to-maintain smell-free source of nutrition for indoor and outdoor plants. 

5. HAIM. I admit that I was hesitant when Jason first introduced me to this new band. After a few listens, though, I was hooked. Disclaimer: I have no idea what their lyrics say. I just think they have a fun sound

6. Grace. Now that I work for the Lutherans, I'm trying to give and receive this more often. 

7. Autumn Cheesecake. Yum. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My Dating Reading Life

With the full onset of a Chicago winter my fair-weather biking has given way to bus riding. In the nearly hour-long commute to my office I’ve had abundant time for reading, a favorite pastime of mine. I am more caught up on my Time subscription, yes, but in recent weeks my focus has turned to my true literary love, the contemporary novel.

Last week I dove headfirst into Khaled Hosseini’s latest, And the Mountains Echoed. Having read his other bestselling, widely acclaimed novels (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns) I knew I was in for a compelling experience. Compelling, indeed. The interwoven plot lines combined with an engaging exploration of family relationships—biological and chosen, loving and harsh, present and absent—to pull me into the developmental trajectories of a rich cast of characters. Hosseini engages immigrant life, the ugly realities of war, and systems of oppression that extend across generations in this significant work of fiction.

After finishing the book on Friday night I felt aimless, not quite sure what to do next or how to spend my time. My other typical activities (ahem, TV watching) paled in comparison to the plot lines that occupied my brain. All day Saturday I felt lost, like some important piece of my world was missing. I woke up Sunday morning still thinking about the characters and the interwoven plot lines. Instead of getting ready for church I spent time diagramming the ways that each chapter connected with the next.

Sunday evening, still feeling lost, I tried to find another book to read to distract me, to fill the void that Hosseini’s novel left. I picked a short paperback called The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Thanks to a snowy two-hour commute home on Monday night I finished the novel in two days. It was a quick read, and the ending—oh the ending…

As I finished the last paragraph, though, I felt like I’d just ended a rebound relationship. I cared about the book and its characters, and I enjoyed my time with it. Yet, it was not true love, not like And the Mountains Echoed. It served a purpose for a time, but I won’t wake up thinking about it or carry it with me as I go about my day.

I’m not one of those people who believes in finding “the one” when it comes to romance. I’m not one of those people who believes in finding “the one” when it comes to books, either. However, And the Mountains Echoed was certainly “a one,” and I’m now on an active search for another “one,” another reading experience that pulls me in and holds me tight, that connects at some deep place inside of me.

As I continued to disentangle myself from my Hosseini-inspired daze I pulled another book off the shelf, this one Mindy Kaling’s comedic memoir-ish story. In my short time reading on the train, I realized this book was more like that guy I went on a blind date with once: nice enough, with a lot to offer someone...who is not me. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Job 3: Holy Fallout

(written August 2013)

I am sitting in the Argo Tea on the first floor of the Willis Tower watching the Facebook likes and comments role in. I just posted a job update: “My long, disorienting, discouraging job search has turned into meaningful employment: Chicago/Milwaukee Regional Director for Lutheran Volunteer Corps, starting August 1. I couldn't be more excited!” The likes are up to 31 and counting, and it feels good. In these moments it is easy to forget the stress and strain of the last few months.

A few Tuesday mornings ago I waited for a call from Lutheran Volunteer Corps. At 8:30 am they were going to tell me whether I got the job or didn’t get the job, either sending me dancing through my apartment or collapsing onto my bed in tears. I woke up before six that day and did my best to pass the time: a morning run, a healthy breakfast, some piano playing. As my anxiety grew I grabbed the poetry book I’ve been reading: The Gift by Hafiz. Picking up where I’d left off I stumbled across a piece entitled “There Could Be Holy Fallout.”

Call it serendipity or divine intervention, it was a Word with a capital “W.” As the clock ticked closer to 8:30 and my nerves were stretched as thin as they could be I read:

Sit down, my dear,
Take a few deep breaths,
Think about a loyal friend.
Where is your music,
Your pet, a brush?

Surely one who has lasted as long as you
Knows some avenue or place inside
That can give a sweet respite.

If you cannot slay your panic,
Then say within
As convincingly as you can,
“It is all God’s will!”

The poem ends by claiming that “it looks like Holy fallout,” and now—knowing the outcome of that phone call—I couldn’t agree more. But if the outcome hadn’t been that, the poem still offers hope through its suggestion that the reader has all of the resources she needs. Surely one who has lasted as long as you knows some avenue or place inside that can give a sweet respite. Indeed. May all those who search know sweet respite and holy fallout.   

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Job 2: Not This Time, Maybe Next Time

Though I’m posting this blog entry after having been hired, I wrote this post during the summer of 2013 during a discouraging time in my job search.

The two-year-old that I babysit for is a complete delight, and every now and then she teaches me something important. One day during lunch I was working really hard to get her to eat her tortellini. She didn’t want it and wasn’t about to be fooled by my coaxing. Instead she put on a serious face and told me, “not this time, maybe next time.” The only thing I could do was laugh and laugh.

When her mom got home I relayed the story and found out that this was a phrase from the family’s potty training book. The book tells stories of successes and close calls in a toddler’s efforts to learn to use the toilet. Its healthy, shame-free approach asserts that it’s okay to miss an opportunity to use the potty. If you don’t make it this time, you can do it next time.


I had a job interview recently for a fantastic position recruiting and coordinating volunteers and serving in administrative and supervisory roles in a refugee resettlement program. My experience working in resettlement and my degrees and my skills and my interests and my commitments and my passion for multicultural settings made me a great fit. I used my connections – someone knew someone at the organization and put in a recommendation – to make sure that my application materials were noticed. The interview went fine, and I had a great connection with the interviewer who was impressed with my experience and knowledge.

After I didn’t hear anything for a week, my hopes started to sink. After a week and a half I began mentally and emotionally disentangling myself from the role. I quit planning a new schedule and quit brainstorming program development ideas. After two weeks, I received my rejection letter and it was over.

Another difficult job search experience to add to the rest, and this one hit particularly hard because it seemed so promising. One morning as I was feeling discouraged and trying to recognize and honor the disappointment of another crushed hope, this phrase popped into my head: not this time, maybe next time. A helpful lesson from a two-year-old turned into a helpful mantra as the search continues.  

Job 1: The Search

Though I’m posting this blog entry after having been hired, I wrote this post during the spring of 2013 in the midst of my job search questions and frustrations.

I have seldom been as disoriented as during my extended job search. I’ve done all those things that one is supposed to do: I tailor each cover letter and resume to reflect skills and experience relevant to the opening. I network by phone and in person, meeting people who may be able to offer advice or connect me to organizations and managers who could hire me. I look broadly and apply widely, keeping an open mind and trying to be flexible.

Still, nothing. So discouragement creeps in. Then hopelessness. I can’t catch that vision that I used to have, that passion to work with people for social change. Instead I ask,
Was it worth it to go to graduate school? Why did I choose seminary? Was Chicago the wrong decision?

I think of all the things I should have done. I should have gone into a STEM field where there is a shortage of women instead of into helping professions where the market is saturated. I should have chosen my internships more strategically, picking opportunities that could lead to employment rather than opportunities that fit my interests. I should have done a part-time program so I could work full-time while I studied. I should have… I should have… I should have…

I struggle to fight off the negative self-talk as internal voices say that I am not good enough, I am not kind enough, I am not smart enough. If I were, I would get an interview. If I were, someone would hire me.

And so, the search continues.

Friday, June 21, 2013


I was cleaning out some cupboards a few weeks ago, and I came across a little notebook from the summer of 2005. I lived in Atlanta for a few months, working for a service-learning program and experiencing city life for the first time. One of the pages of this notebook offered the beginnings of a top ten list that I never finished: Things That Wouldn’t Happen In Newton, Kansas. One item: being late to work because the street is closed for a Braves game and you have to take a detour. Another: getting hit on by the man bagging groceries at the local store.

I spent a lot of time that summer in awe of the urban setting – people everywhere, public transit, diversity of many kinds, an abundance of restaurant options. The parking lot of the church where I was staying filled up for a couple of days with trailers and equipment used for a big screen movie that was filming nearby. I learned why side-view mirrors are important while driving a mini-van in multiple lanes of traffic. I had to think about things like locking the door and traveling in groups and paying attention to smog alerts.

Now I live in Chicago and many of those things that were shocking, awe-inspiring, or exciting have become commonplace. When I go back to Newton and my mom runs into several people she knows at the grocery store, I am surprised. When I think about how my road bike would never work on the gravel, how quiet it is without the constant noise of city traffic and sirens, and how soil contamination is not a concern when planting a garden…these are the things that are shocking, awe-inspiring, and exciting to me now.

On one hand, I want to use these reflections to draw big conclusions about human malleability and the de-sensitizing effects of exposure to new things. On the other hand, I am reminded of the importance of taking notice. I can see the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower from the living room window that I am looking out as I write. A Mexican man pushing an ice cream cart just walked by on the sidewalk outside. If I open the windows, I will hear the Ashland bus announcing its stop half a block down. Commonplace. Special. Some of both. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Soundtrack for a Season

The 2012-2013 academic year, my last in a long graduate program, has been full of ups and downs. Along the way I’ve been accompanied by a couple of important albums. Great for provoking deep reflection, offering comfort when things look bleak, and providing a burst of adrenaline while trying out the running shoes after a sedentary Chicago winter, Taylor Swift’s Red and fun.’s Some Nights have been my favorites. Here’s why:

The capstone class at my seminary, a constructive theology project, started off in a bad way. After struggling to decide on a context for my paper, I thought I’d found the perfect angle. My professor, however, was not as enthusiastic as I and offered a strong critique of my first draft. Just as I thought I’d gotten going, I had to start over. Thankfully, shortly thereafter I discovered that fun. sings more than the few songs I’d heard on the radio. It turns out that their lyrics include carry on, it gets better, it’s all alright, and put one foot in front of the other one. I carried on and  it did get better, especially when—months later—I passed my constructive theology oral examination with honors.

I turn 30 in August, and this milestone birthday has sparked a fair amount of reflection about aging and life choices (more on that in a future blog post, perhaps?). Thankfully, both of my favorite albums offer some inspiration on this front, some invitations to think about age as a state of mind: toni-i-ight, we are young, so let’s set the world on fire. We can burn brighter than the sun. And I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22… Everything will be alright if we just keep dancing like we’re 22.

In March the concert choir from my alma mater, Bethel College in Kansas, came through Chicago on their annual tour. Their performance had many highlights, but my favorite was a particular song performed by a women’s group called Woven. The group sang a mash-up that included fun.’s “Some Nights.” I loved the song already, but to see those talented and powerful young women perform the upbeat piece was inspiring. More than that, the whole night was inspiring as I remembered how important and formative my time as a Bethel student and as a member of the concert choir was.

My job search has also been a significant part of my year, and it has been a disappointing process. A few months ago I interviewed for a challenging, exciting, and well-paid position doing community mental health outreach. Through the hiring process, I walked a delicate line between beginning to imagining myself in the role and trying not to count on being hired in case things didn’t work out. I was one of two finalists for the position, but I wasn’t selected. I’ve been spending the last eight months thinking all love ever does is break and burn and end could apply to job seekers as well as to angsty adolescent love. More cover letters to customize. More organizations to research. More interviews to prepare for. The title of Taylor Swift’s “Begin Again” was a refrain that captured that feeling.

School is over. The job search continues. And I'm still loving these albums.

Friday, May 31, 2013

New Baby, Dead Children

Friday, March 22, I spent my day as usual, completing some homework for my online class, browsing the internet for job leads, and taking a lunch break in front of one of those ridiculous t.v. shows I’ve gotten hooked on.

The day held more excitement than a typical Friday, however, because I was also awaiting word of the birth of my younger sister’s child. She had been induced the night before, and I expected the phone to ring any minute with the news. Mid-afternoon my mom called to say that things hadn’t gone as planned and my sister would be having a c-section—the new baby’s birth was imminent.

I still hadn’t heard anything by the time I needed to leave home and head to a vigil and march remembering the hundreds of children lost to violence in the city of Chicago. Eight hundred and six children killed since 2008, which was, as the slogan for the event proclaimed, “more than we can bear.”

While riding the train to the vigil, my phone rang at last. It was my brother-in-law calling with what I could only assume was some joyful news. Lincoln Jesse had been born at 4:11 pm, and all was well with baby, mom, and oh-so-excited dad.

The disparate nature of these two events—a joyful birth and the remembrance of those children whose lives had been cut short—was not lost on me. Also in the news in Chicago around that time was the death of a six-month-old baby killed by gun violence. The birth of a new child is a cause for celebration, but we must not forget that the sad loss of little ones demands recognition too.

Of course I hope that Lincoln lives a full and healthy and happy life. With a well-resourced and loving family, he is already on his way. More than this, though, I hope that every child lives a full and healthy and happy life, with an abundance of resources and an abundance of love.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Kids Saying and Doing

Last night’s babysitting triumphs deserve some reporting. During dinner, I told the kids about today’s party for Jason’s upcoming birthday. The coolest part, I said, was that we were going to have snack foods that started with each letter of Jason’s name. We talked about how to spell Jason and then guessed different foods whose names started with those letters. They mostly made up nonsense words that began with the correct sounds, but they were interested and engaged for a sustained amount of time. I tried to give them a hint about the “n” by telling them that pistachios, almonds, and cashews were different kinds…they guessed ice cream. Hopefully they will remember that those are also different kinds of nuts.

After dinner while the boys played rambunctiously, yet cooperatively, in the basement, six-year-old Kelsey and I got creative upstairs. In recent weeks I’d brought some projects to work on while the kids watched movies, and she’d seen me at work braiding and sewing t-shirts for a rug and knitting. Last night, she got excited about doing her own craft so she looked in the supply closet and found just what she needed: paper, markers, pipe cleaners, tape, and popsicle sticks. She decided that she wanted to make a birthday present for Jason (who, by the way, she’s never met and knows of only as my friend).

The two of us gathered around the kitchen table, and she flitted around, doing some drawing, some tearing, some moving of objects as her vision developed. Eventually, she hit on the perfect idea: a pencil holder! She started to coil a pipe cleaner into a spiral and then gave it to me to finish. This, I learned, would be the base. Then, she began taping popsicle sticks together for the sides.

When we needed to take a break, we went to the other room and practiced our gymnastics. Kelsey turned many cartwheels, and we did some stretching together. Eventually, I decided to try a cartwheel, too. Feeling nervous, I asked if Kelsey could encourage me and give me some tips. She told me to imagine that I was just like her, and she cheered when I did it.

Returning to the craft project, we did team work on the popsicle-stick taping. As we worked, Kelsey had some great ideas for giving the gift to Jason. She said that I should have all of the guests write their names on it and then surprise him with it. I thought it was a great idea but I privately wondered if the pencil holder would stay together long enough for people to sign it. Later, she said that I could take it to the party but that I needed to bring it back next week. As we worked, Kelsey became increasingly more invested in the project. She fished for compliments several times, asking if it was a good idea and if she was very creative.

As bedtime approached and the pencil holder was nearly complete, Kelsey began putting the finishing touches on: a green pipe cleaner around the outside to give it some color. Some crumpled red tissue paper inside the pipe cleaner for…decoration? I began trying to re-direct her attention toward pajamas and BFF (brush-floss-flouride), so I told her that she’d done a great job and made a beautiful pencil holder. Knowing that her attachment had grown beyond her original idea of a gift for Jason, I asked if she wanted to keep so that she could enjoy it herself. Without hesitation, she said yes and asked me to be sure to show it to her parents when they got home. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Car-less 2013

Since moving to Chicago in 2009, I’ve been introduced to a new way of life. Not owning a car is relatively common among my friends and acquaintances in the city. Some don’t even have driver’s licenses. Where I grew up in rural Kansas this was, of course, unheard of and impractical if not impossible. Now, I walk two blocks to the grocery store. There? Ten miles.

Though exceedingly grateful for my car as I traveled to church by 9 am on Sunday mornings or as I journeyed to my weekend babysitting engagements on the other side of the city, I also did a lot of walking those first couple of years here: to class, to the gym, to my part-time job.

Slowly I got used to using public transportation. With practice riding my comfort level on the buses increased, and I stopped experiencing anxiety that I would miss my stop. I became better at standing and walking on moving trains without tipping or tripping. Using the Chicago Transit Authority system, it turned out, I could get anywhere in the city that I wanted to go and didn’t have to worry about finding (and paying for) parking. In 2011 I invested in a bicycle and used it to commute to my summer internship in the Loop.

The gradual lessening of my dependence on a personal vehicle was good, but I remained skeptical about whether I, too, could go car-less. Even as I marveled at the small carbon footprints and the complete disregard for no parking signs and gas prices of those without vehicles, I enjoyed the ease and comfort that my car provided.

Every time Sylvia the Silver Saturn broke down, Jason and I had a conversation about whether this was the last straw. And every time, we paid for the repair. Last summer we even set a limit: if the repair was over $200 that would be it. It cost $175.

When the car wouldn’t start this past Thanksgiving, we figured it was the battery and got it replaced. When the car wouldn’t start again a few days later, it turned out that the alternator was the problem and our favorite mechanic shop would repair it for $365, parts and labor.

This time, as part of our discernment process, we pulled out a thick folder of receipts from various auto shops. We got out a calculator and started figuring. The water pump, the starter, the radiator. The series of electrical failures including the one at the rest stop in Iowa that resulted in a 60-mile tow to Des Moines and an overnight stay there while we waited for the fix. Not to mention the price of gas, regular oil changes, registration, city stickers, insurance, and those pesky street-sweeping tickets. The time had come and the $365 alternator repair—as it turned out—really was the last straw.

We’ve been car-less for two months now and are doing well. We signed up for a car-sharing program and have done a little cold weather biking. We don’t have to scrape the windshield or dig the car out when it snows. We don’t have to worry about the coolant light that came on at inconvenient times, and we won’t have to get an emissions test in the spring. Best of all, the car owner’s guilt that had been growing in me since I first learned about the car-less lifestyle has vanished completely. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Cattle and Cantaloupe

“Start a blog” being one of 41 things on my 30 Before 30 list, it seems as if my first entry should be epic. A brilliantly crafted piece of prose that delves into existential questions of meaning, perhaps. Or, more personally, a thoughtful and summative reflection on the past three and a half years of full-time graduate studies. Instead, the interesting occurrence that will mark my inaugural post is a report on a recent dream:

The family was gathered on the farm in Kansas, celebrating a holiday or a homecoming or maybe just some lovely late spring weather. Grandparents, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and siblings milled about the yard and—in particular—the orchard and garden area east of the house. Uncle Blair was in workout clothes, jogging around the barnyard to get some exercise. Some cattle also milled about, friendly and unobtrusive guests. Also a source of sustenance in unexpected ways.

It came time to prepare dinner, and I was tasked with cutting the fruit. My fruit-loving status is well-known in the family, and this duty is a favorite of mine. Little did I know the horror that was to come. Cantaloupe—a summer favorite—was on the menu, but instead of cutting into a store-bought stash of melons I picked up my knife (the one with the wooden handle that mom always uses) and began to cut off the tails of the cattle. These tails, so it seemed, were slices of melon. This was a horrific realization. Though the cattle didn’t protest, I was deeply impacted by the visceral nature of the task.

I filled a basket[1] with bite-size pieces of cow-tail cantaloupe, and the family gathered in a half-circle to pass the basket around while we blessed the food. The prayer was a beautiful song, sung in parts. The words were unfamiliar but the tune was the same as “Great God the Giver.”[2] I desperately wanted to participate in the sung blessing, but I couldn’t grasp the strange words.

In the end, after the cantaloupe had been passed and the blessing sung, I busied myself repairing a nearby fence, attempting to prop up different parts in order to reinforce the structure of this cow pen. My mind was preoccupied with a conundrum: I had been so disturbed by my earlier encounters with the cantaloupe cattle that I was working to convince myself that becoming an honest-to-goodness vegetarian was a necessity. There was only one serious problem with this proposal: would that mean I could never eat cantaloupe again?

[1] The basket, a play item from my childhood, was pale yellow with chipped paint and many rusty places. Maybe a half-bushel in size, it was made out of wire and had a handle for carrying. It was a totally impractical object for holding cantaloupe slices of any kind. 
[2] Great God the Giver is a song that I’ve heard and begun learning in my Chicago church community. Generally an “insider” when it comes to church music, with this sung prayer I have experienced what it is like to be the person who can’t follow while everyone around is clearly in the know.