Tuesday, March 18, 2014

they will keep coming back to you

For me, one of the best parts of visiting far away friends and family is having my coffee made for me. I mean, I guess this is beside the obvious benefit of seeing said friends. My normal routine when I'm home is to get the coffee pot ready the night before and set the timer so that it's brewed by the time I wake up. Staying with friends (or, as was the case last week, having friends stay with me) means that I don't have to think about coffee the night before, because my friends make it for me. (It is occurring to me now that maybe this is something to look for in a husband - someone who will make my coffee? Noted.)

A few weeks ago I stayed with some dear friends in Seattle who made my coffee for me - nice and strong, too. The first morning I was with them I welcomed the coffee but refused breakfast. I had a banana and was eager to get out the door and downtown for the last day of my writing conference. The second morning was different. It was a cold, rainy Sunday morning, and I'd just slept more than 10 hours after 3 long days at the writing conference. I wandered downstairs in my pajamas, hoping there was still some coffee left. Parents were puttering around the kitchen while the kids played around them. They would soon be heading off to church for the morning, while I would stay back and watch rain from their window and contemplate a run (but instead wrap myself in a blanket and read one of the books I'd bought during the conference and allow all the new ideas from the past few days settle in). On the counter, my friend had assembled breakfast options: some rhubarb crisp and two different kinds of oatmeal, which she makes in big batches to nourish her family for days on end.

And that's what I wanted to tell you about, because this oatmeal almost outdid the strong coffee that was waiting for me that morning. I know what you're thinking - oatmeal is usually pretty boring, especially before it's sweetened with raisins and brown sugar. But this oatmeal was special. To make it, my friend had sliced fresh ginger root and added it and some cardamom pods to water, and set it to boil. When the water bubbled and rolled, she added the oats, but also some shredded carrots (and I think she told me she put coconut milk cream in there, but I'm not sure when that happened). I heated mine up with raisins and sugar. It was warm and homey and filling, just like my stay with these friends. And I realized that my friends are on to something here because when you feed your guests this kind of food and have the coffee waiting for them in the morning, they will keep coming back to you.

I've recreated the oatmeal a few times since I've come home. Here's a quick recipe in case you want to try it for yourself (and some future houseguests).

Warm and Homey Oatmeal (yes, I just made that name up)
1 3/4 cup water
sliced fresh ginger
a pinch of salt
a piece of cinnamon stick
a few cardamom pods
a few whole cloves*

Bring these all to a boil over high heat in a covered pot.

1 cup oatmeal
1/2-ish cup grated carrots
handful of raisins (I used regular, golden would be great, too)

Turn burner down to medium. Bring mixture back to low boil, and cook for about 5 minutes or to your preferred consistency, stirring occasionally. If you plan to use some as leftovers, I'd leave on the thinner side because it thickens as you let it sit.

Makes 2 servings (approximately).

*I haven't tried the cloves yet, but the idea came this morning. I plan to try it next time.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

aching to know what it's like

When she got up to read her essay, I missed her last name because I was admiring her haircut. There was something funky and familiar about it, the kind of short, choppy cut I'd get if I knew I could pull it off. Her haircut, her style, the way she carried herself like she knew she could hold the attention of an audience of one or one hundred - it was all familiar to me, but in an aching, desperate way. She reminds me of Janelle, I thought. I looked down to read her last name. Yoder.

I bet she's Mennonite. A few minutes later, as she introduced her essay, she explained that she'd been raised in a conservative Mennonite home in Ohio. Bingo, I thought.


In my best friend's wedding, I was the maid of honor and Janelle was a bridesmaid. I had grown up with Heather, had known her since before either of us could read, back when you pick your friends from the small pool of people who you can find by running out your back door over the summer. Years later, Heather graduated from a high school a year before me and left for Baltimore and then Kenya with a Mennonite missions program for young people. There she met Janelle, her teammate, a friend whom Heather had to leave home to find but then did everything new and exciting with: slept in the same dormitory-type room and talked about their first real loves and lived in a hut in Kenya. I heard about Janelle, and then met her and immediately knew why Heather liked her. She was fun and spunky and unafraid of being different. Set next to my preference to blend into a crowd, I'm surprised Heather even remembered me. And I'm sure that's what I was afraid of: being forgotten. In terms of friendship with Heather, I had more than ten years on Janelle, but growing up and leaving home seemed like a it came with a whole different set of rules.

This is what came rushing back when I saw this writer stand to read her essay. This and knowing that I envied Janelle and this woman not only their spunk, but their belonging. Though I also identified as having grown up Mennonite, I was not really Mennonite. And for some reason, I realized, I'd always felt left out because of it.

Being Mennonite, I like to explain to people, is like being Jewish: it's both a religion and a culture. So while my parents chose to be part of a Mennonite church when I was very young, they don't come from Mennonite heritage. Which means that of all the extended families of grandparents and grandchildren and cousins (growing up, it seemed like my mom was always surprising me with news of who was really related to whom at church - Amy and the Wismer boys are second cousins? I never knew!), my family just stood by itself on the periphery. A little lonely bush next to the family tree that was church. To make matters worse, my dad stopped coming with us to church when I was in early elementary school. Single-parent families in Mennonite churches weren't too common, especially one created from a father who'd rather stay home on a Sunday morning.

I guess it might sound a little strange to say that I felt strange to NOT be Mennonite, but understand that in Southeastern Pennsylvania, little brick Mennonite churches abound. Mennonites were (are) everywhere. The Rices, Yoders, Myers or Meyers or Moyers, Detweilers and Friesens, they were all Mennonite. I went to a Mennonite summer camp and to retreats and volleyball tournaments that gathered Mennonite youth groups and I even went to a Friday night social type event at a Mennonite church during high school sometimes. I should probably also clarify that while yes, there were some aspects of this upbringing that sheltered me, I didn't grow up in a plain Mennonite tradition where women where coverings on their heads and certain social activities or clothing are restricted. My life was pretty normal, as were my Mennonite friends. Normal except that they seemed to flourish from the richness of their Mennonite heritage. My flourishing seemed to lag, with my family's questionable church attendance and mixed background. (I guess here I should add that I do have a little true Mennonite in me - my Mom's mom's mom was a Moyer, a Mennonite. Unfortunately, she did some things that a Mennonite woman shouldn't do. She wasn't banished or anything but, well, the fact of her Mennonite-ness seems like it kinda gets cancelled out or something.)

I can guess how Janelle and this writer and other young women who grew up belonging would respond to me - they would say that while I was trying to belong, they were trying to escape. Belonging has its calloused underside, rough and bumpy from rubbing against what threatens to steal your identity. I think that is the reason for the funky hair cuts, the mysterious glimmer in their eyes, the decision to devote themselves to vocations that emphasized beauty, creativity, uniqueness.

I listened to the writer read her essay, the story recounting her own attempt at a certain kind of belonging. It left me aching to know what it's like.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


I wish you could have been there with me.

To experience the rush of winding through the crowds of 12,000 writers carrying bags fills with books and pens and notebooks. To stop for coffee and a scone on the walk from my hotel to the Convention Center, the only real decisions ahead being which panels to choose from. To laugh with me at all the cliches - the mysterious young man in a long black peacoat who sits in a chair, opens his moleskin, and looks around to make observations about all the other attendees, or the young, hip panelist who used the word "narrative" and the qualifier "sort of" after every other word (i.e. he had a... sort of difficult time living out his narrative when he had these... sort of hallucinations...). To discuss excitedly the reading Gregory Martin did of his Stories for Boys and the book on aboriginals in Australia that Amanda Webster is writing.

When I left Seattle, I walked through the airport wheeling behind me my carry-on, heavy with books and journals I'd acquired, while my heart - eager and hungry for what is next - pulled me forward.

I wish that because now I am back and real life has gotten its hold on me and forced me to settle into its regularity and commitments. I am thinking about groceries and cleaning my toilet and when I'll make time for lunch with my friend who works down the block instead of what books I want to read next and the new ideas I have for free writing.

At the conference I wore a badge on a lanyard around my neck to enter the convention center and gain access to the panels and speakers. I hung my pass up on the mirror above my dresser when I got home, knowing I wanted to keep it but not sure why I felt a need to display it. Now it's there as a reminder that I have access. The invitation to that kind of excitement and motivation is a standing one - I'm trying to hold on to this even while I wash dishes and sit in traffic.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

is it God's fault that I'm a late bloomer?

Growing up, I never ever would have thought of myself as a late bloomer. If thought of in strictly physical terms, the term wouldn't describe me at all. I was always taller than everyone else in my class, which made me look years older. I also caught on to things fairly quickly in school, and usually finished assignments early. If anything, I felt ahead of time and wanted it all to slow down.

But now I always feel a little bit behind. Moving to a big city didn't help this feeling, I'm sure, and neither does the internet. There is always someone doing something more, something better, something faster. I often feel like a very small fish in this enormous, very full pond.

Being so exposed to other peoples' journeys to supposed greatness has led me to realize that I have actually been quite slow. For example, I just read Mindy Kaling's book (please don't judge), and she writes about her absolute love for comedy in junior high  and high school - about watching Comedy Central on weekends and staying up late for SNL. She knew, she immersed herself, she went for it - and now, the same age as me, Mindy is hot stuff. I am not.

While Mindy was preparing herself for a great career in comedy, I was writing my best friend notes about the boy we both had a crush on, who we met at summer camp and making up dances to Janet Jackson songs. My life revolved around this best friend, her pool, youth group and summer camp. And this is where I start to get to the nagging question of this post: Is it God's fault that I'm a late bloomer? That it's taken me this long to even decide what I want to be when I grow up? Youth group and summer camp were places of safety and acceptance, and of growing spiritually, and I went all out for it. Some of my friends (Stanford alum) attended a summer academic institute at a college near where I went to school and asked me if I ever went to one. No, of course not, I was singing cheesy worship songs and giving girls piggy back rides to the pool and cooking pancakes over an open fire, all in the name of loving Jesus.

During my senior year of high school, I worked at a Christian bookstore. I loved browsing all the self-helpy inspirational Christian books about loving Jesus, desiring God, knowing Him. And I read many of these, too, while sitting at the register at night and waiting for customers to come. That year, in an interview for a full ride scholarship to my Christian college of choice, I was asked about the most influential books in my life. I clearly remember giving the answer: Redeeming Love and Desiring God. I didn't get the scholarship, and I still attribute it to that answer. What high school senior is reading John Piper? I realize now I would have been smart to answer some classic literature, but the truth was I wasn't reading that then. I'm just catching on to the value of that kind of fiction now. End result: I chose a different college because I didn't want my loans to keep me from doing missionary work. I was very practical (and the psychology behind some of these decisions could be analyzed further, I suppose, but that's another blog post).

I suppose it's not completely fair of me to blame God for the seeming uselessness of my adolescent activities. I could also blame my parents, media, my generation. But there's a deeper question to all of this, the flip side of placing fault. It's, "can God use it?" There's this verse in the psalms that says that God fulfills His purposes for us. It's in the context of the psalm writer feeling overwhelmed and like his life might as he's being pursued by an enemy. That's not quite my context, and yet the anxiety about my life coming to nothing is still there. I'm a good 20 years behind Mindy, and a lot of other people, at this point. I'd like to think that roasting marshmallows and playing capture the flag all summer for a few years will somehow be used of God for what He has for me today, but how that works isn't all that clear yet.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

dressing the part

Next week, I'm attending my first writer's conference. It's kinda snuck up on me and now I find myself trying to think of everything I need to do to prepare. Someone 10 years my junior told me I should print personal business cards (people do that kind of thing?). Blog posts by people who have attended in the past advise to bring purell (oh man, I really do not want to get sick) and to avoid risky hook-ups (that one was especially helpful for me).

Probably my main concern - being the Angeleno that I am - is my wardrobe. Everyone in LA know that it takes more effort than you'd imagine to make your look effortless. I want to pull off the right balance between intellect, humility and artistic flair. And since I'll be in Seattle and near a huge warehouse full of books for sale, I also need to think function: waterproof for rain, layers for changing temps in hotel conference rooms, bags to carry books in.

Here are the pieces I'm defining as essential:
  • Glasses: I usually wear my contacts, but glasses help just about anyone look smarter.*
  • Blazer: Warmth, a layer that's easily removed, and very writerly.*
  • Converse sneakers: Comfort for walking and dresses down the blazer perfectly.
  • Chunky knit infinity scarf: Lately, I feel like a hobo when I wear this thing, which is kinda perfect. It will keep me warm and I will look like a wandering starving artist.
  • Cross body bag: Rain proof, and will keep my journal, bible, water and wallet easily, plus an extra canvas bag to put all my loot in.
  • Bright coral umbrella: My world would be bright coral if I had my choice. The only question is whether to also bring my coat that also bright coral. I can't risk being too matchy matchy.
  • Go Overboard nails: Dark and mysterious, just in case I decide to risk the hook-up.
  • Lululemon pants: Stretchy pants for the hotel are a must. Plus, no LA girls goes anywhere without these.  
Is there anything I'm forgetting?

*My friend and I agree that glasses and blazers are the cape and stretchy pants of the writer/book nerd.
**In case you don't know me and/or my humor writing still needs some work, please know that this post contains a lot of sarcasm.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

the oil that doesn't stop flowing

Having just started a new adventure living on my own, I'm extra aware right now of spaces that are empty and what filling looks like. When I moved into my apartment a few weeks ago, there were blank spaces to fill: a need for kitchen supplies, the bookshelf to unpack and arrange my books on, a couch that needed (and still needs) some pillows. My walls are white and all my frames and art are sitting on my desk waiting to be hung. My month has been spent buying and filling my new apartment to make it a home, functionally and aesthetically. Meanwhile, I anticipated (somewhat anxiously) lots of unfilled time by myself and learning how to adjust to the rhythm of living alone. The rhythm is different, and yet I've realized that time is filled pretty easily (especially once you get the internet hooked up). In many ways, I'm living the pace I was hoping to change when I left a full house: I fill up, escaping any emptiness I forsee. How can something made of nothing feel so heavy?

All this to say, this week I've been thinking a lot about being empty and being filled up. I feel a certain void because I'm spending this Christmas in California, working (all but the day of, anyway). I miss the Food Network cooking shows, sleeping in, baking and helping to plan the big meal, special outings with my nieces and nephews, even (gasp) the holiday travel. These have been my traditions for most of the last 9 years, for most of my adult life, really. Typically, these are the things that make my holiday full.

This morning I read a post in the New York Times about an adoptive parent who is learning how to not try to fill holes in the lives of her children that she can't, or wasn't meant to, fill. It made me reflect on my own life, how there are empty holes that I feel more acutely at some times than others. But it's not really my job to fill my life with things that might at the very least cover over those holes, if not fill. I leave them empty and believe that God will fill what we bring to Him. It reminded me of the communion passage at my church Sunday. It was a story from the Old Testament in which a woman's creditors come to collect what they're owed. But her husband has died, and she can't pay - so they threaten to take her children. The woman asks a prophet for help, and the man of God tells her to pour from her one jar of oil into any vessel that she's able to find. Her children go out and gather jars to bring for the oil, and that oil doesn't stop flowing until all the jars are filled. It's enough to pay what she owes, and then more to live on. The story is a miracle of God, and what is so amazing to me is that no jar is left empty. God fills every empty vessel.

Merry Christmas, and may you experience God filling your life with the light of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

moving out, moving on

So I moved out. I packed boxes with books and kitchen utensils and candle holders. My cookbooks filled their own box, the heaviest of all of them. I packed about five more boxes of kitchen items than I anticipated, and spent more than I'd budgeted to outfit my new kitchen, and still there are things - like plates, like a pot to boil water in - that I am missing. I folded blankets and sheets and clothes into more boxes and my suitcases. I took frames off the wall and used the tail end of the hammer to pull the nails out (is there a verb for that action? I couldn't find one just now). My friends came over and helped me take apart and put together a bookcase, fill a moving truck, carry my clothes still on their hangers and buy a fridge. And now I am moving in, putting all of my things in their own new homes inside my new home, making a home for me and for others (if even just for a few hours of their visit). My last night in my old house I was afraid I'd made one of the worst decisions of my life to date, and on the first evening in my new apartment I drank wine and danced like a fool because no one was watching and no one cared and I love new beginnings.

This is all moving, all the physical placement of things. But I realize I've been putting off some of the other moving, the moving on. And I don't mean moving on like forgetting, but like packing and taking it with me. This is what gets lost in between all of those little boxes I drew next to the items on my checklist. This one can't easily be checked off because it will take time and sometimes it happens not when I plan. It doesn't all fit in a box. But to help it along, I bought gifts for my old housemates (or should I say, my second family of brothers and sisters and nieces), one of which I didn't even give yet. And I keep putting off the writing of notes, the expression of how much they gave me and what I am taking with me and setting up in my new apartment. The generosity and perspective and acceptance and memories that weigh more than my full box of cookbooks and will be what makes this apartment a true home.