Friday, July 23, 2010

Finding Balance in the Mary/Martha story in Luke 10

The story of Mary and Martha is found in the Gospel of Luke chapter 10, verses 38-42. Five short verses always manage to spark the flames of controversy and tension among women young and old, with or without siblings. I'm no exception. This passage strikes a particularly tender, sensitive chord within me because the three primary characters are two sisters and Jesus. The dynamics between Martha and Mary are precisely the same between my older sister and me.

I've heard two sermons preached on this and skimmed through a book called "Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World" by Joanna Weaver. Yep. I'm a Mary. It's a personality style. I'm wired to be reflective, to contemplate, and to listen.  Maybe there are more "Marthas" than "Marys" in the world. Most women I know resonate with Martha.

What I've come to discover for myself is that it's okay to be a "Mary." For most of my life I've wrestled with the guilt and shame of not being a "Martha." 

I would be clumsy and awkward at throwing a meal together for a large group of people, even though scripture commands us to be hospitable. Just the idea of laboring over every detail of an exquisite cuisine, no matter how delicious, is enough to send me fleeing to McDonald's to take comfort in a simple burger. Food planning, preparation, serving and entertaining is clearly not my gift. I can disclose that without shame today and stand in awe and admiration of the women for whom hospitality comes more naturally. I'm not saying I couldn't or wouldn't rise to the occasion if I believed that's what God was asking me to do. Spaghetti would be on the plate because it's quick and easy. Pasta from a box. Sauce from a can. (Make mental note: do not come knocking on my door if you expect a five star three course meal made from scratch.)

Hospitality is not about wowing guests with the latest "Martha Stuart" (pun intended) inspired concoction. Guests aren't there to critique the meal. They hunger for meaningful conversation and that's not as likely to happen if the host is too stressed about overcooked broccoli or dry turkey. I think that's the point Jesus was trying to make to Martha. He probably would have been content with canned soup, Doritos and water for his purpose in visiting at that time.

This story is not about proving Martha "wrong" and Mary "right."  On the contrary, they're both right. God does call us to action. The church needs people to serve. In fact, right before this scripture is the Good Samaritan parable where Jesus is trying to instill the truth that everyone is the Christian's neighbor.

Instead, we might learn to find the balance between quiet, reflective listening to Christ from Mary's example, and getting the errands run, the dishes washed and the laundry done from Martha's example. Yes, this is difficult to do and how to go about doing exactly that is the premise of "Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World." (next week's blog) It's about respecting and honoring each other's differences and helping one another find balance. The "Marys" could gently encourage "Marthas" to slow down while reassuring them that what they have done is indeed appreciated. If a "Martha"  could just gently interrupt my reflecting and remind me to get the cake out of the oven, toss the salad, and pour the drinks, I would be ever so appreciative.

Friday, July 9, 2010

See me by the sea

It's the distant rumble of another wave about to land. It's the sound the water makes against the sand as it recedes. It's the way that the waves swell and fold in to each other just before release and crash onto the sand.  His dance and His melodies seduce me. His voice calms me.

We met in the mid 1990s, when my parents owned a time share in Cancun Mexico, where we spent some of my college spring breaks. This wasn't my first introduction to the beach. I had been to Captiva Island on the Gulf Coast of Florida and the southeast coastline, but it was the Carribean who spoke to me in a way that I could not ignore.

Some family and friends from the Midwest still roll their eyes with skeptical looks when I fly to Des Moines from Pittsburgh for reunions and declare that my final destination will be some coastal city or town - in part because I've been talking about it for about 10 years and still haven't moved. (But hey, life isn't over just yet.) While I cannot deny a certain amount of pride about being raised in Des Moines and have nothing against family and friends who chose Iowa, Minnesota or Kansas as a place to raise their families, I could, but chose not to ignore the strength of the undertow pulling me toward the sea.

Some Midwesterners tend to associate beaches with an elite, overindulgent lifestyle, but it's not about proving myself "better." It's not about becoming a beach bunny, showing off a bikini or scoping out "hot bodies." It's not about physically distancing myself from family or escaping my values. 

It's about moving toward the Sacred and Holy.

W. Phillip Keller, author of "Sea Edge" (1985) explains it so well in his opening dedication: "To those who love the sea edge and sense God's presence there." Exactly. I can experience the full essence of the Almighty through every sense by the sea. Keller writes of the healing powers of the sea, due to its chemical compounds. "The sea water itself  is a marvelous healing agency. Cuts, wounds, abrasions, sores, and skin blemishes are sterilized, cleansed and enabled to heal with great rapidity. Even injured joints and torn ligaments, if bathed in the sea, then exposed to the warm therapy of the sun, will mend in wondrous ways. Just walking barefoot on the sand, letting the ocean waves play about one's feet and legs is beneficial. The splash of sea water on the skin makes it throb and tingle with exquisite delight as the blood comes racing to the surface of the body . . . the Spirit of God reminds me that similarly He is my great Healer. It is He who restores my soul. It is He who renews my spirit. it is He who restores to my life the health and wholesomeness of His own character."

Anne Morrow Lindbergh has written insightful meditations on life inspired from the sea in "Gift from the Sea" originally published in 1955 renewed for its 50th anniversary publication in 2005.

Not only are the rhythms of the sea soathing and healing, but the sun creates millions of diamonds when it shines, making it a precious jewel, and more meaningful to me than stained glass windows, an altar and a pulpit. I fall to my knees in the sand and praise God for the gift of the sea.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Thick Skin

Before I can begin processing and making sense of all that happened in Spain, I must release some fury and frustration concerning this MFA program.

What makes a good writer? I ponder that in a deeply philosophical way on this evening as I continue to itch and peel away the damaged skin on my sunburned legs from two weeks ago while kayaking in the Mediterranean without sunscreen. What makes a good writer is weighing heavily on my mind after just receiving scorching feedback from you on my non-fiction pieces. (I should have applied sunscreen and tossed back a few shots of tequila before reading your comments.)

A phrase from a week of basketball camp drifts back to my mind, suddenly, that could be applied to any practice or discipline. Nothing at all about basketball stuck with me, but the phrase, "perfect practice makes perfect" always has. Not practice makes perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect. How can this be applied to writing? Would you agree that the regular, consistent practice of "perfect" writing is what it takes to achieve excellence? Or publication?  Or at least a good grade from you? I can accept that. If nothing else, two semesters of this program has forced me to establish regular writing times that I otherwise would not have been disciplined to do.

What I cannot accept, however,  is you comparing me to other classmates to illustrate just how far I fall short of their brilliance. I've already ascertained that I am surrounded by many more talented writers than myself. Why am I paying you a ridiculous amount of money only to be told something I already know? Your job is to encourage, coach, help, facilitate, lead, model, and be an example. In theory, this particular program is promoted for being "encouraging and supportive."  I find that to be true based on the feedback from my classmates, but  not  from you. In fact, I've learned a lot more from my younger, perky, fresh-faced 20-year-old classmates than you who has been "teaching" here for a thousand years. Why haven't my 11 classmates and I been meeting at Borders once a week for three hours between January and April to workshop  and suck down cappuccinos instead of paying you who haven't said more than three sentences about my work or anyone else's all semester?

I realize that I haven't been able to process and integrate all the changes and revisions in my work that were suggested to me by my classmates and you.  I'm still learning and growing and developing as a writer. I'm sorry for making you look bad. But consider the possibility that your teaching style could use some adjustment as well. As in actually doing it. You're not the first one to tell me I'm "not getting it," or that I'm "not catching on." I'm not about to let the one opinion of you discourage me.  Measurable learning and growth is not always neatly reflected during your convenient time frame of three months. Accusing me of "not getting it" is like glaring at a sunburn and demanding that the skin regenerate immediately. As much as sunburned person would like instant healing, it takes a long time for those surface level epithelial cells to heal, just like it takes time to process and integrate all the complicated metaphors and figuratively language you wanted to see in my writing blossom forth. Growth and development happens in stages. Sometimes you have to peel back several layers before you get to the juicy, pink, raw stuff.

You say I'm holding back. That my material is all reportage and not enough of me. Don't you realize that my background is in journalism? Of course I'm finding it difficult to integrate myself into my writing and you aren't helping. Chatham, you chose me, but I'm losing patience with you. Go ahead and have your little private meetings in your ivory tower with the program director to discuss how you're going "to solve a problem like Leslie who just can't get it." I may decide to pack my bags by the end of the month and head south where my talents and gifts will be more appreciated and valued.

If the one thing you wanted was to instill in all your students the ability to withstand criticism and thick skin, you've succeeded! Congratulate yourselves.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

thoughts and musings in anticipation of Spain

Spain will change me, I'm told. I don't dispute that, but exactly how, I don't yet know. I've been asked to consider exactly how I think I will change and I'm finding it almost impossible to answer. Right now I'm more anxious about the red-eye flight, the process of traveling that could be fraught with every imaginable obstacle during international travel. Will I be robbed of my passport and money? Deal with illness? Once we are all safely at our destination,  the games may begin.

Just before moving to Pittsburgh from Kansas, I was invigorated and desperate for a change of scenery. I couldn't wait to start classes and meet new people. Then I arrived and dealt with challenge after difficulty after obstacle. I proved to myself that when pushed and shoved and held under the fire, I had some degree of endurance and capability.  Just before any new experience, whether we're preparing for marriage, moving, death, living independently, or job, we can do everything we can to think we're prepared, but we still don't know what's around the bend. Any new experience teaches us something new about ourselves and that new self-awareness is a gift.  The more new experiences I have, the more I find myself increasingly drawn to  people who also regularly put themselves in new and different places and situations.

I've never traveled to another country for  Christian missionary work, but I've heard countless stories from those who have testify that they were radically changed by the people to whom they were ministering. I think the same principle applies to Spain. This is not a vacation, but an opportunity for Spain to teach me something about life beyond  the comfort and familiarity of America.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Place entry #8 week of 4/12-4/18

 Lessons from the pond

The clouds hang like draperies, thick and low,  shifting from charcoal to purple, then green to white.  Tiny flakes of ice swirl and fall down intermittently with the biting wind. It can't be more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit today. Without sunshine, it reveals no emotion. It's swollen due to recent rains and probably a little sore from shouldering so many twigs, seedlings, waterfowl, fish and silt. The leaves of the towering Maple are now fully formed. It will soon provide refreshing shade from the sun for the ducks when temperatures soar into the 90s. The pink and magenta blossoms from the shrubs forming the perimeter along the south bank shout out their beauty in contrast to the silent, colorless waters. A few heavy branches and sticks with torn bark and other debris lay clustered around the Maple, most likely sliced off by the impressive thunderstorm winds a couple nights ago.

I think about the power of water, ice, wind and lightning on all plant life and recall how massive branches and leaves and twigs choked the streets of my former tree lined neighborhood in Kansas after a tornado. We look with dismay and call it destruction. Maybe nature calls it pruning and trimming.

 There are multiple life lessons to be learned from communing in nature because it reflects the wisdom of our Great Creator. Regular visits to the pond have reminded me of this during the past few months.

  1. Life is seasonal. There are seasons of renewal, rebirth, growth and death. There are periods when it appears nothing changes or happens because the activity is hidden and silent. And when you least expect it, everything changes. This is how nature teaches us patience.
  2.  Sometimes it is necessary to let go of what may seem to be a precious treasure in order to receive something even better. What if the Great Maple refused to drop its leaves last fall? What if it was so proud of its beautiful colors that it tried to keep them? Then there would be no room for new leaves to sprout forth now.
  3. The ducks don't quack, "I don't need you!" to the pond. The birds don't twitter "I don't need you" to the trees. The trees don't bark "Stay off my branches," to the squirrels and birds. There's a beautiful display of interdependence. Each living thing is sustained and nourished by the other. We can accept this in nature, but often fail to apply this  elsewhere in human relationships. We were not created to be emotionally or spiritually self-sufficient.

At the conclusion of this final required entry, I ponder "turning over a new leaf" in choosing another physical place for the summer and visiting regularly to write about it here. This exercise has become a form of meditation and prayer and has thus changed me. It's taught me to observant to the present moment.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Final post #8 week of 4/12-4/18

Bridging the gap between awareness and apathy: A skeptic changes attitude about nature and writing

Mission Impossible, should I choose to accept: Select and commit to a physical setting that you will go to regularly and give detailed descriptions of in blog.

It sounded simple enough in the beginning. After much contemplation about inspiration and travel distance, however, I realized this would require more discipline than I was comfortable with.    Furthermore, having lived in Pittsburgh for just three months, I still wasn't yet familiar with the city to have a sense of a "perfect place." This prompted me to do some research on the city parks. Alas! There are so many! Highland Park revealed itself as a potential candidate, but after a couple drive-a-rounds in January, it failed to inspire me.

Then someone told me about Washington's Landing, a little marina off of 31st street where I could access a walking trail near the river. I was on my way there for the first time on the Friday before this was due when I received an unexpected and upsetting phone call. The conversation soured my mood to the point where I was totally unable to focus on the original purpose for driving there and devoted six pages of my journal reflecting on it. No more Washington's Landing for me. Too far to drive.  By Sunday, I still hadn't made up my mind. I happen to be on campus then, and noticed the pond for the first time, stopped and christened  it "my perfect place" out of desperation. 

I had been seeking out a specific natural setting regularly when living in Des Moines, not for the purpose of describing it, but as a means to escape and pour out angst regarding another area life. But something startling began to unfold. Sitting on the bare ground, writing in the present tense about my observations of this pond also helped ground me in the present moment, something I've always wrestled with. Rather than seeking out a natural setting to scribble complaints and discontent about circumstances beyond my control, this activity helped me put myself aside and open up to whatever the present had to teach me.

Mission Impossible, should I choose to accept: The readings and a 290 page text called Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams.

Although postings on this text were wide ranging and controversial, it has influenced me the most. Her concern about the Great Salt Lake was the undertow that drew me in. TTW's relationship with her family and the illness touched me deeply because I had a similar experience with another family member.  She has become a role model and guide for me.

Lisa Couturier's work on urban nature also excited me and helped me understand how to seek out nature in an urban setting. The Native American's approach to nature writing was also deeply moving. Their land and sense of place is so deeply ingrained within their culture that it flows "naturally" into their  writing.  They don't need to give it a name and genre. It's humbling and inspiring.

Barbara Kingsolver's essays were thought provoking as well, and I think it's noteworthy to mention that I'm a quarter of the way through Animal Vegetable Garden as one of the required readings to prepare for a field trip to Spain in a few weeks. I wish I could share my reactions to this work in this class because I'm discovering many connections. (It suddenly occurs to me that every writer I admire from this class is female.)

Final Mission Impossible, should I choose to accept: The Final Project . . . navigate my way through the crazy maze of highways.

I began fretting about this weeks before it was due. Ideally, I wanted to focus on oceans or beaches, but those don't exist in Pittsburgh. I thought about sense of place and water and the readings on urban nature turned me on to the idea of writing about what the City of Bridges is most famous for: the rivers.  A Pittsburgh native and friend helped orient me to the newly renovated south side near the Hot Metal Bridge. A classmate and I explored part of this river trail together and then I took a wrong turn on our back and we took the scenic route home. The two week process of losing and finding my around the riverfront walking trails were critical in helping me feel a little more connected to the City of Bridges. After losing my way around downtown several times -- with and without the GPS -- this small town two-highway girl in me was zipping around the North Shore to the South Shore freeways like I'd lived here all my life. Well . . . sort of.

The City of Bridges has bridged the gap between apathy and awareness to nature and my surroundings.  It has shown me the rivers. It has instilled me with more confidence. It has revealed a part of my writerly self that would not have surfaced if I had not intentionally changed my environment. And it's only just begun. These bridges have more plans for me.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Place entry #7 week of 3/29-4/4

 Based on observations on April 2 and March 31

The animal kingdom thriving by the pond

Cast of characters:

Cardinal - Rupert
Robin - Loretta
brown duck 1 - Molly
brown duck 2 - Clarisa
green duck - Mavis
squirrel -Jimmy
little girl - Sara

Loretta, Molly and Clarisa enjoy basking in the warm sun light. They paddle gracefully in the olive green waters, each dunking her head to nibble at something on the bottom. "Over here, girls," Mavis calls out to Molly and Clarisa, "There's a ton of snacks at the south end!" Clarisa  and Molly effortlessly glide over to investigate.
"No, it's too muddy over here. We don't like these snacks," Clarisa complains.
"Don't you think it's time to ease up on the food?" Molly asks Clarisa. "Aren't you putting on a few spring pounds?"
Clarisa glares at Molly and continues nibbling.
"Knock it off, Molly. She's a growing duck. She can afford the calories," advises Mavis.
"Hey everybody!" Loretta hops to the shoreline. "Anyone seen any dry grass or weeds? I'm still not done building my house."
"Check over on the north side," says Mavis.
"What's the water like?" asks Loretta.
"Fabulous!" says Clarisa.
"Okay. I'm gonna wash my feathers too as soon as I find some decent weeds," says Loretta.
"Hello there, pretty lady, you come here often?" Rupert twitters from a nearby bush.
"Oh you wish! I am so far out of your league . . . I'm not even your same species!" Loretta tweets.
"Don't be so hard on him. He flirts with all different kinds of birds," says Mavis. "Alright girls, I think we've bathed long enough. Time to dry off."
"Not me, Mavis," says Clarisa.
"Yeah, I agree, all this eating and swimming can wear a poor duck out," says Molly. Molly and Mavis waddle up on the west bank, next to the Maple. They shake their water-logged feathers, tuck their feet underneath them and bury their bills in their feathers. Molly closes her eyes. Just as Mavis is also drifting off for a nap, she and Molly are startled awake by Sara.
"Hi duckies! Say quack! Quack! QUACK!"
"Oh my god, what the?" stutters Molly.
"Back in the water, immediately! Remember, humans can't be trusted!" orders Mavis.
Jimmy scurries over to the shoreline. "I heard someone asking about weeds! Who was asking about weeds? I know where the weeds are! Right by the nuts! Under that pile of leaves!"
"Uh huh, Loretta was asking about those," says Rupert.
"Tell her I found dry grass and weeds! Tell her it's over here! Tell her she's got really pretty feathers this year! Tell her - "
"Yeah, yeah, I know Jimmy. I'll give her the message," says Rupert.
Loretta reappears, fluttering from shrub to shrub, grass in her beak.
"There you are, Loretta! Jimmy wanted me tell you that he knows where some dry grass is," says Rupert.
"Awesome," mumbles Loretta, her mouth full. "But first, I have got to wash my feathers."
"Say, you need help with your house?" Rupert asks.
"Ah no thanks. And I have a boyfriend already, so quit looking at my feathers that way," says Loretta. "Good-bye Mavis Claris and Molly. I found all the weeds I need. See you later!"
"Bye bye" the ducks say in unison.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Blog prompt #7 week of 3/29-4/4

Holy Waters

They were beaten, abused and overworked as slaves to the Egyptians for more than a 100 years. And then on day they are told that deliverance is on the way, that some God is about to rescue them and lead them to a place called the "Promised Land." But this is hard to believe when the Egyptians discover this and work them even harder. Nevertheless, the deliverance comes as promised. Their leader guides them south and east on foot toward the Red Sea. The Eygpitans, however, change their minds and are in hot pursuit. The slaves are cornered at the shoreline. Someone forgot to arrange for a boat to transport them. Just as they wonder whose bright idea it was to escape bondage using this particular route, a great wind blows down and splits the Red Sea waters in half, creating a dry trail in the middle. What's even better, the second the slaves have all safely walked the trail, the waters return and drown the incoming Egyptians.

The Jordan River was the natural barrier between the desert and the Promised Land then known as Canaan. When the slaves, now known as the Israelites, approach it, they believe it's an obstacle and a setback. But there's a reason why God expects them to cross it. They've been vagabonds in the desert for more than 40 years while God has been patiently teaching them to trust him. The generation that witnessed the Red Sea parting, sadly, didn't live long enough to reach the final destination. The kids have grown up and have to continue on, but this is terrifying. This is the rainy season, so the river is flooded and, according to their assessment, too dangerous to cross. They're convinced God is sending them on a suicide mission. But as soon as the first person in line gets his feet wet, the river calms and recedes.

At the first crossing, God is demonstrating his faithfulness to the Israelites. At the second crossing God  expects the next generation to demonstrate their faithfulness to him.

God uses the physical landscapes of rivers, seas and desert to lead, guide and reveal himself. 

Two young men greet each other warmly and converse for a few moments. Then they wade in the might current of the Jordan River until they are waist deep. One gently dunks the other, and then they hug. Suddenly a dove descends from somewhere and flutters around the pair. "This is my son, with whom I am pleased," booms an unseen voice.

Jesus knew he needed to be baptized before beginning  his ministry and there was no one more appropriate than John the Baptist. It was an initiation rite and he was setting the example for his followers. Baptism today symbolizes initiation into God's family as well as "washing away" of sin.

These events are as relevant today as they were to all the early followers of Christ. God continues to demonstrate his faithfulness to believers and he also still expects his followers to demonstrate trust and obediance, although it's often not quite as dramatic or literal. The scriptures are drenched in water imagery. There are many more examples of how God uses water in a literal and figurative way to teach, guide and communicate.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Place entry #6, week of 3/15-3/21

Wednesday, March 17
5:30 p.m.

The Duck and I

I sit on the east bank of the pond, the soft ground is spongy beneath me, still damp from recently melted snow. The sun shines. A gentle breeze blows. The air is balmy, carrying the scent of new grass. I am now surrounded by green! Green for the Irish and green for new life and growth. A young, dark skinned dark haired girl carrying a baby and looking after two small boys strolls by on the other side. The pond is re-born. Free, flowing, liquified - reflecting the green from its grassy banks, reflecting patches of pastel blue from the sky, reflecting the trunk of the long, slender pine directly opposite me.

The orange fish are gathered at the north end, their heads pointed toward each other. Now gentle ripples flow from  one end to the other from the pump. Water is alive. Fluid. Reflecting. Rippling. One fish just surfaced. Then another, emitting a concentrated concentric circles that lasts only seconds.

The pond's shape has expanded and changed again. No longer a lollipop,  it is now oval at the north end, uneven on the west end. It's difficult to compare it to another shape because it doesn't look like anything else, except perhaps a very skinny, compressed state of Wisconsin.

Buds are just beginning to form on the small shrubs next to me. They are beautiful tiny cones of green half in, half out of the brown shell. They look within mere hours of bursting forth as tiny leaves.

A duck (Mallard?) appears from nowhere just to my right. It has just plopped into the water from one of the small stone outcroppings. Its head is emerald green,  its feet orange and feathers white and brown.  (I hope I don't scare it away.) It paddles around the pond, sporadically plunging its head into the water near the eastern shore - about three yards away from me, as if doing the butterfly stroke. Is it eating or bathing?  Its downy white bottom wiggles. Its bill is yellow. 

I look up from my page and duck has emerged from the water, waddled up the bank, fully bathed, its feathers gleaming in the sun, and proceeds to groom. A mourning dove coohs. A robin descends from the tree behind me and gives me a glance. It hops to the very edge of the pond and washes its gray feathers. I am now suddenly aware of several other chirping birds.

The fish are now in a tighter cluster crammed against the north edge. Duck continues to stand, drying off, gives me a curt nod, then  monitors walkers on the pathway behind me. It is motionless. It doesn't seem bothered at all by the commotion on the patio of Lindsay Hall. Duck returns its gaze to me and we commune as I sit on my own haunches. Perhaps the ducks are used to people. Perhaps waiting for me to toss a few bread crumbs its way.

Sadly, I had to adjourn the meeting before Duck did.  The sun just dipped behind a row of buildings, casting a shadow across the water, erasing all reflections. It is five minutes past six and other duties call.

Blog prompt #6, journal entry for 3/15-3/21

Transformation that stretches beyond borders

When I had reoccurring dreams about a city of bridges, my mind was focused on San Francisco, not Pittsburgh. When I fantasized about having a garage for my car, and never again scraping an ice-coated windshield, my mind was focused on on either California or Florida, not Pittsburgh. When I entertained notions of freelancing or at least improving my writing, my mind was not on Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh chose me.

I grew up with traffic roaring down the hill on which our house perched. We were 10 minutes from the international airport and the Army National Guard, so the jet engines seemed like drums in concert with the birdsong from the woods bordering the backyard. Yet it was not living in the city.

Iowa is highly regarded for its warmth and hospitality, strong family values and simplicity. The entire state has two highways, one running north and south and the other running east and west, making it very easy to navigate from one end to the other. But none of those appealing characteristics would be conducive to the molding and shaping necessary for me. I'm a very complicated case.

There are no highways in Manhattan, Kansas. Downtown main street is empty and dark after 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday evenings. The buildings are no more than four stories high. The primary environmental concern is the ongoing effort to preserve and maintain the prairie, part of the Flint Hills, but I never felt any connection to it. What I did feel was the desire to expose myself to something different, something beyond the borders of Kansas.

Pittsburgh chose me.

Moving to Pittsburgh has been like Alice tumbling down the hole into Wonderland - an alternate reality. I expected to adore public readings, live for the theater, symphony and thrive in the company of other aspiring writers. None of that happened. Instead, I had to endure moments of why didn't I just stay in Kansas and to accept that I am novice in the midst of so many other better, more prolific writers.

Maneuvering and losing my way around the three freeways enveloping Kansas City was the only exercise that came close to preparing me for navigating through the labyrinth of Pittsburgh's freeways. At night, the city is alive with light. The bridges shimmer over the black waters. The foothills sparkle. When I look out the plane window at night, during the final descent, the sea of lights rolls on infinitely.

Even after seven months, I still find myself somewhat hypnotized when gazing up at the towering buildings downtown while claustrophobia threatens to disarm me. Sound waves bounce off pillars of steel and glass. Brakes screech. Sirens scream. Buses roar. My heart pounds. This is what you signed up for the determined part of me reminds myself. Where would you rather be the dreamer part of me asks myself.

I am an ant within this landscape -- almost invisible and displaced, yet Pittsburgh has been guiding me along a path of self-discovery. I've always thought of myself as a city girl, which is one reason why I expected for find happiness here rather than a Midwestern small town. I'm learning, however, that the most significant transformation in me is rooted in an exchange between the natural and spiritual worlds, not from dodging traffic, not from sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, and not squinting through the blur of neon lights.

Pittsburgh chose me.

Pittsburgh has pushed me to seriously question myself as a writer. And if I'm honestly not a writer, then who or what am I? Pittsburgh has trimmed wordiness from my writing. Pittsburgh has pulled me from indifference to the natural world to thinking daily about it. Pittsburgh has stretched my patience and coping skills in an unfamiliar environment. Pittsburgh has re-potted me to grow with other seedlings. Pittsburgh has only just begun getting its hands dirty with me.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Blog prompt #5 (week 3/1-3/7)

You use it several times a day and almost never give any thought to it. You use to brush your teeth, make coffee, or take pills. You just want to wash that apple, or those grapes, and start dinner. When you turn on the faucet, water magically pours from the spout, splashes against the sink basin and then obediently disappears down the drain. At your demand. Hot, warm or cold.

You're not thinking about the ugly, stinky, unnatural chemicals that have been extracted from and dissolved into your city river in the process of becoming "purified." You're not thinking about the complex network of underground city pipes through which your water is pumped just to pour  from your faucet. Are they old? Are they new? Are they corroded? As long as the water isn't putrid brown or has no unpleasant odor, you assume that any harmful bacteria or toxin has been effectively removed.

Pollution from acid mine drainage was contaminating Pittsburgh's drinking water during an earlier part of the 20th century. A lengthy report from The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology was published in 2003. In it, a study called "Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and its Region" outlined all the efforts taken to restore and maintain the Allegheny, the source of 95 percent of the city's drinking water.

If you type in "tap water" or "water pollution" and "Pittsburgh," as key words in Google, several Pittsburgh Post-Gazette articles, dating from 2007 to now will spring up and start talking. Concern is seeping into public consciousness. Justified or not?

In one of those articles, an important sounding scientist has discovered that some fish from the Allegheny are not sexually differentiated. A closer investigation of the water revealed trace amounts of drugs, including estrogen and anti-depressants. Not to worry, a public official was quoted. Low doses of these drugs aren't harmful, at least not on a short term basis.  Further analysis revealed residue from cosmetics and cleaning products dumped down drains. The implication is that these contaminants, all of which individuals can control at their own sinks, could be what is harming the fish.

Are genderless fish reason enough to render concern over Pittsburgh tap water? Indeed. But even more troublesome is that these local authorities claim that the Environmental Protection Agency has not required any further testing or set guidelines. Until the federal government issues the authority to take action, local authorities seem content to sit on their thumbs and ignore the potential problem.

The taste is another reason for concern. At room temperature, tap water feels gritty in my mouth, has a slight chlorine odor and leaves an awful aftertaste. Bottled water a smoother texture, is odorless and tasteless.

Even if concerns over the tap water are valid, relying exclusively on bottled or distilled water isn't necessarily a short term or long term solution either because recycling the plastic becomes an issue.

It's difficult to know who to trust when environmental issues are at stake because no one wants to take the blame should anything be seriously wrong and politics and cash flow undermine and motivate almost every major decision. Unfortunately, this leaves the responsibility of researching the issues to individual citizens, which isn't fair because unclean drinking water affects everyone.

Place entry #5 (week of 3/1-3/7)

Tuesday, March 2
4:45 p.m.

Temperatures feel milder today than they have been in weeks. There seems to be less wind. I am seated in the same wooden lawn chair, facing west. Branches from the large Maple tree criss-cross an otherwise blank white sky.

The pond is shaped like an old-fashioned keyhole. I didn't realize that until now. Melted water flows at the rounded south end where the pump is pushing water forcefully enough to create concentric circles. Grey and brown leaves are visible again in the daylight. The long "handle" is still ice-encased.

Small bushes dot the south shore line. As I scribble, tiny drops of sleet begin to fall, blurring the ink from my blue pen. A gust of wind changes the angles of the three water spigots and thus the sound of splashing water. Sometimes it pounds on the rubber pump. Other times it gently pads.

The snow surrounding the pond is stiff, but when it gives way, my feet sink what feels like several inches into the deep. Snow matches sky. Bleak and colorless. Today, only one set of footprints marches back and forth from the chair to the basement entrance of Mellon Hall.

Chimes ring off to my right, from the chapel, marking the five o'clock hour. Chatham shuttle buses rumble back and forth along the drive by the north side. Birds and small animals are hiding. Fifth Avenue begins to hum as rush hour traffic begins. Nicely muted, however, this far inland. Just then, a crow startles me and flies away just as quickly. No human voices. Students haul backpacks and book bags, walking purposefully to and from the path above the pond level.

Sleet comes faster and harder now. Writing gradually becomes almost impossible
as my naked right hand goes numb.

Saturday, March 6
4 p.m.

It is absolutely beautiful with the sun out in its full armor. There's a slight breeze but the air is significantly warmer since my last visit. Sunlight glints off the water's surface and blinds me. I simply close my eyes and smile. When I open them, I see bright orange fish. They hover at the boundary between melting ice and water. I look up at the azure sky and delight in the "trio" of color from snow to sky to fish.

Small boulders and stones surrounding the east side now poke through the melting snow. The snow's texture remains crusty and stiff. Boots are still necessary to trudge near the shore. I suppose it would be absurd to expect this area to be shoveled and salted. Why would anyone care to stroll around or sit by a half frozen pond in late winter?

Ten fish -- maybe more -- reappear and swim toward the circle.

Beads of moisture from the overhanging Maple branches also drip into the pond. Sky reigns blue. Maple stand majestic. Some green shrubbery grows along the higher bank near the pump. I didn't notice it before today.

I breathe deeply through my nose, but detect no smells or tastes.

The fragile ice glistens and quivers in the sunlight, as if resisting the sun's warmth. It, too, must give way to rising temperatures. The edges of the ice look like lace, with random gaps and holes as the water underneath expands and stretches.

Life, movement and energy are slowly seeping their way into the pond.

The northern end remains frozen. Clumps of snow look randomly tossed onto the icy surface.

A large pine stands directly opposite me about 20 yards away and another pine is behind me and to my right, closer to the pond's edge. Lindsay Hall sits somberly to the right of the large pine.

Very few people walk about on campus this afternoon. The only sound is splashing water.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Blog prompt #2 (journal entry)


I have scooped up a handful of rich, black Iowa topsoil, breathed it in and allowed it to sift through my fingers. I have planted seeds and watched them sprout. I have weeded gardens and planted flowers. My hands have gotten dirty. My grandfather worked the land. His father and brothers before him worked the land, and his mother and father before him. Yet, there are no seeds taking root in my blood.

Solid ground is not what anchors me.

My ancestors were born where salt water meets sand. They were born where the waves polished the rocky shore. How they felt about living on the Northern Atlantic coast of Salten, Norway, and how they lived prior to leaving for America is unknown. Perhaps they struggled to cultivate the land, but grew frustrated with failure and were told America is much more suitable for agriculture. Was the cold climate too harsh? Did they ever miss Norway? How did America change them?

These questions will not remain unanswered for my descendants. They will know that the first place I called home was Des Moines, Iowa. The south side suburb was small, safe and comfortable for a child.  Home was also my family and all the people who loved and nurtured me. But the Midwest climate and landscape never nurtured me. Glaciers flattened the central part of the state thousands of years ago, leaving no majestic mountains, rolling valleys, cascading waterfalls or pristine lakes. Just blustery bone chilling winters that contrast with long growing seasons and scorching humid summers. While some people delight in the seasonal changes, I pop Prozac. While the corn and soybeans flourish, I wither.

I first heard the ocean waters calling me back home while on a family vacation during Spring Break in Cancun, Mexico in the mid 1990s. It was completely unexpected. I stood on the beach, enjoying the evening breeze, mesmerized by the indigo waves gently rolling in, toes digging into the soft sand, and knew that my spirit would always soar as high as the gulls as long as I was there.

Several years later, while strolling down Huntington Beach in Los Angeles, friends who knew my affinity for the ocean anticipated my delight. I looked at them, grinned, and declared, "I'm home."

Home is not necessarily Norway or any other northern climate. Home is where water meets sand. Home is where the surf crashes against the boulders. Home is where the waters appear the same from day to day, but beneath the surface, are in a constant state of change. Home is where the moon rises to direct the tides. Home is a shining beacon guiding a ship to shore.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

blog prompt #1 (journal entry)

I am the great, great granddaughter of Magnus and Sarah Romsdahl, ancestors on my father's side. They were both born in Norway in 1857, and emigrated to the New Land of Opportunity with their parents. Both endured travel in covered wagons. Both enjoyed several brothers and sisters.

Magnus spend his youth working the land somewhere in Northern Iowa, and then attended a teacher's training school in Dexter, Iowa. Sarah also grew up helping her father and brothers plant and harvest the Iowa land. As a young adult, she cooked for the Federal Land Grant College in Ames, Iowa. Today it's known as Iowa State University, the institution  where I received my first M.A. It isn't known exactly when or how Magnus and Sarah met, but they married January 4, 1889 in Story City, Iowa.

Lutheranism is the cultural and religious legacy passed down through this family line. Magnus and Sarah believed that the Hand of God guided them through every walk of life. Christmas, Easter, Lent, infant Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion are the important traditions, celebrated within the community of believers, that mark us.

Recipes and food are almost always an important cultural tradition, and mine is no exception.  One such traditional food has been Lutafisk, which is uncooked cod soaked in lye, once considered a delicacy, most  likely in the coastal regions of Norway. In the rural farm communities, and during almost all family reunions, it is now simply mocked while much more yummy dishes like lefse are enjoyed. In fact, a late blooming tradition started just ten years ago when my mother, her sisters and grandmother get together the first weekend of December to bake lefse.

The women have also shouldered the greatest responsibility in weaving religious teachings into everyday living. Both my grandmothers were faithful and active church members and each played a small role in my own spiritual development. The church was their social community and they looked forward to fellowship with friends and neighbors. And it was also through their community of like-minded believers  where they received the most support after their spouses passed away.

Neither grandfather was a faithful church attender. Both wandered in and out of various vocations,  including farming. They struggled with alcohol and struggled to support their families in small working class towns in northwest Iowa and southern Minnesota. I have only vague memories of my mother's father, who died of a heart failure when I was 10, and no memory of my father's father, who died of heart failure when I was a year old.

This family history was recorded in a cookbook dedicated to the memory of Sarah and Magnus Romsdahl in March 1986. Although I am grateful to lick the crumbs from the culture and traditions gave birth to me and nurtured me, I still feel a odd sense of emptiness that stories about my great great grandparents were not fed to me orally.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Place Entry #4 (week of Feb. 8-14)

7:50 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10

I stood on the walkway behind Lindsay House and stared at the vast depth of snow surrounding the garden and pond, searching for any shoveled path that would allow me closer access. All I saw were several blurred human tracks criss-crossing the area. Partial immersion would be required. Breaking new ground, I waded in snow up to my knees, approaching the area from the western end rather than the east. There was no place to sit, unless I circled the pond to the wooden chair on the opposite. It seemed easier just to stand along the western bank, gaze up at the charcoal sky and gaze down at my snow-covered boots and soaked pants. Small snowflakes pelted my cheeks. Female laughter and shouts drifted from the hill next to the chapel where a group was sledding and making snow figures.

I was surprised to discover that the pond wasn't completely frozen. Noticing a radius of about two feet of flowing water around the pump at the south end, it dawned on me that hot water was being pumped into the frozen ground. This raised some engineering questions that can be addressed later.

I gazed across the pond searching for the boulder on which the plaque commemorating a dedication was attached. It was buried, but Anne Putnam Mallinson's memory is not. I scribbled her name in my notebook two and a half weeks ago when I first noticed it.

Cancer may have silenced Mallinson's music, but this pond reminds me that her spirit still sings and her Chatham legacy still flows. She was a music major and Chatham choir member. She was a resident of Warren, PA, and active in her high school choir. She graduated from Chatham in 1961 and served as president and other leadership positions in many alumni fund raising organizations. The university dedicated the pond to her on May 3, 2008 in honor of her lifelong service. ( Did she enjoy a fulfilling musical career after she graduated or is she remembered primarily for her philanthropic activities? Did she have a husband, children and grandchildren? What did she enjoy most as a student? What kind of cancer was it? How long did she suffer? I can still feel the waves in the wake of her journey to the afterlife. Who made the decision to dedicate the pond in her memory? Was the pond created just for her, or did it exist before her passing, created for another purpose? More questions float through my mind, to be explored further.

Then I turned around and contemplated another choice. Follow my own footprints back to the main path, or break another new path? Thinking it would be easier, I tried to follow my footprints. I felt like a football player stepping through a series of tires. Maintaining balance was the greatest challenge.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blog prompt #3 week 2/8-2/14 (journal entry)

White Noise

Seventeen inches of snow quietly blanketed Pittsburgh last Friday night and paralyzed the city by morning. It stopped the roaring port authority buses. It muted rubber against pavement. Road conditions, weather updates, cancellations and closings dominated the local news until I silenced it as well.

Around early afternoon, as I was gazing out the window, still curled up on my couch and sipping a cup of coffee,  I watched people crawl out from their caves to slip and slide in the white ocean. A team of four emerged from my building. Armed with shovels, a broom and windshield scraper, they trudged to one of the mounds  marking the edge of a side street. Within 15 minutes, a gray compact car was resurrected. Later, a youth knocked on my door, shovel in hand, and made an offer to clear the walk way.

I was stunned, but not by the daunting task of scraping and shoveling my own car. Millions of crystallized flakes ushered in other possibilities. The absence of sound frequencies detected by my ears was startling. Silence screamed. Seventeen inches beneath the surface, I was aware of inhaling and exhaling. I was aware of my heartbeat. I could see the tiny vein in my thumb pulse. I could hear the Divine whisper. "Be still and know that I am God," it said. It continued.

I was so unaware. I was unaware of my emptiness and  deadened to my physical surroundings until I heard that voice.  The voice of the Divine awakened me. The cold, snow and ice around my soul was being scraped and shoveled. Perhaps this is why some of the religious devout take vows of silence. It's like fasting for the soul. They know that the silence will pave the way to the stillness they yearn for where the stillness will have the space to speak.

The stillness spoke the earth into existence. It will continue to speak long after the earth returns to dust. On the eve of the next snow fall, I do not despair or succumb to depression because I know that the stillness will speak to me again.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Place entry #3 (week of Feb.1-7)

Will you believe me when?

Will you believe me, dear child of mine, when I promise you that you will become pregnant once you are long past childbearing age and have a son, and through this son, I make the great nation of Israel? Will you believe me?

Will you believe me, dear child of mine, when I promise you that, buried beneath 17 inches of new snow, lies a small pond in this very spot, despite the fact that you've never seen it? 

Will you believe me, dear child of mine, when I promise you that the dove you sent out will return with an olive branch and these flood waters will subside. I'll even send you rainbow as an added bonus! You believed me enough to build the boat!

Will you believe me, dear child of mine, when I promise you that beneath this icy facade, water still flows and will continue to flow when the ice melts?

Will you believe me, dear child of mine, when I promise you that I am with you  in the midst of this frustrating chaos of super high wind and waves - and if you work to keep your energy focused on me - rather than the chaos,  that I will lift you up and help you navigate these troubled waters?

Will you believe me, dear child of mine, when I promise you that, all in due time, my warmth will melt away every single snow flake, even though you feel cold and hemmed in from every side right now?

Will you believe me, dear, precious child of mine, if I was to tell you that I am preparing a spouse who will be suited for you, and that I'll arrange the meeting in due time? Would you believe me?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Place entry #2 - week of 1/25-1/31

Anne Putnam Mallinson Pond, 1961; dedicated on Oct. 25, 2008, reads the plaque attached to a small boulder near an oblong shaped pond behind Mellon Building on Chatham campus. Due to fluctuating outdoor temperatures, the pond appears to have three different regions at the surface. A small artificial fountain where water flows in three thin prongs keeps the water liquified  at the southern edge. In the middle, a thin layer of ice persists, and transparent enough to reveal oat-colored leaves blanketing the bottom. At the north end, a few feet away, a thin layer of snow remains, concealing thicker ice and the bottom.

The sound of flowing, bubbling, cascading water always calls me home. If I listen carefully enough, it sings and laughs. A closer look into the water and a careful listen will reveal its story and my own.

Snow and ice silenced and immobilized me in my 20s. Frozen. Paralyzed. Blind. I was unable to see through people in order to assess their character and unable to see myself. Medicated on prozac, I was thrashing within a deep dark abyss, desperately trying to break through to the surface if not just for one gasp of air before feeling shoved back down again.  My hopes and dreams were frozen.  I was in hibernation. I was functioning, but not living. An invisible evil had seized my brain, partially distorting reality, and who I should trust. The person to whom I gave everything was destroying me one cell at a time.

Around the bend toward my 30s, the sun rose and miraculously shined into my soul, slowly melting away the darkness. An unhealthy relationship gradually came into focus. People could see through me. Some knew how to respond, others didn't. I wasn't yet ready to acknowledge and release the pain.

I'm now swimming closer and closer toward the water of life. At times I may appear to simply tread water, and when I move, my strokes are far from perfect, but I am definitely flowing and bubbling above water. I'm learning to breathe. I'm learning to float and find rest. I'm allowing the healing to wash over me. When the tears come, I freely release them.

Life lessons are learned in phases and sometimes resemble the different phases of water. We have all endured challenges during the ice phase and a melting of some sort. We are at our healthiest and most productive when we feel free to be who we are and allow the healing waters to wash over us.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Place entry 1: week of Jan. 18-24


I study the clouds as they roll and tumble across the sky and shiver in the blustery wind. I gaze at their dim reflections in the small pond. Birds soar up above and complain in the small cluster of trees west of the pond. I'd like to sqawk myself, or at least shift to their perspective. I'd like to scramble higher to catch a glimpse of the big picture as well. If I had wings, I could climb as high as the clouds.

These are the same clouds my ancestors studied to predict  weather conditions as they cultivated their land and tended their animals. Did they find their answers in these clouds? Did they find purpose and meaning in these dancing patterns? Did the clouds pour when it was needed and reveal the sky when sun was needed? Not always. Clouds were as unpredictable as life. My ancestors didn't often find answers they wanted when looking up, but they learned to accept whatever rained down.

Today the skies are their usual dull, slate gray, reflecting some grayness of my soul. Answers I seek  from up above are not raining, or ever dripping. Instead, circumstances that I don't want pelt down, stinging my eyes and bluring my vision. Like Noah, I am safe and protected in my boat, but I need to wait for the waters to recede before emerging onto dry land. Like Noah, I long for the sun to break through and truth to shine.

Rain quenches dry land and sustains life. Without it, I would not be mindful to cherish the sun. Let the rain drip, pitter patter and splash. Let the thunder roar. Someone, somewhere is grateful. Someone is receiving answers. We are not ignored.

The same Hand of Providence who sustained my ancestors a century ago continues in me. They knew knew that when the sun smiled through their teardrops, a rainbow would appear.  Just as they learned to immerse themselves in the goodness of those promises, I too, must learn to get a little wet.