The Fifth February 27th

Each year I write a letter to my Grandma and post it on her birthday. When she was living, I wrote her poems every few years. Since she’s been gone, I’ve found these letters to be an integral part of learning to navigate a life without her in the daily happenings.

This year’s letter was harder to write than I expected. I didn’t feel like I had much to report, but then again, you’d love to read even the most mundane things if it meant I took the time to write.

In many ways I would describe this last year as both wonderful and weary. I made some tough decisions and tried to conjure what I thought you’d give as advice in each situation. I’m not sure I got it right…but I know I tried.

It was a year full of “I thought I would ____________ by now” and honestly it was hard to accept. No major milestones, but I’m learning to acknowledge progress as being enough.  The perfectionist overachiever in me doesn’t want to leave, but I’m finding a way to muffle her voice.

There were a few moments when I longed to return to your living room – to curl up on the couch with your tiger blanket, a warm bowl of mac ‘n cheese, and the Sound of Music on the tv. Your off-key singing wafting in from the kitchen as you danced and did the dishes.

The two of us in her living room. I still have that reindeer.

You’d be so proud of the community in which I’ve found myself a part. A group of questioners, oddballs, and sillies who know the secret combination of laughter and vulnerability. They’re my go-to people. They’re not you – they won’t ever quite “get” me as much as you did…but it’s the closest I’ve felt to normal since you left. I sometimes think about how they’d love to have you as a communal Grandma –they would cherish your knack for showing up at the most unexpected, but perfect, times.

Sister and I were sitting together a few months ago and she said, “I wish Grandma was here. She’s missed so much.” We sat in somber acknowledgement. This coming year will bring the third wedding bouquet not assembled by your hands. We continue to reach milestones while we strain to hear the memory of your cheers. We think fondly of your spot at our kitchen table and your ever-presence in the bleachers and pews of our lives. We’re following your example – we try our best to support and advocate for those around us. We move forward imperfectly, but in love.

I went back to your park a few weeks ago – the warm days in February seem to increase with each passing year. I wandered through the trees and spent some time by the water. I almost made it to sunset this time.

Happy Birthday, Carolyn Diana. Your sunshine loves you infinity plus seventy-three.

Goodbyes and Hellos

In the spring of 2006, I saw her photo for the first time. She was a joyful jumble of cheeks, scrunched nose, and pigtails. As I walked up to the table of packets, I saw her face and picked her immediately. Josselyn needed a sponsor, and as a college student with no consistent income, I decided to take the role. I agreed to a monthly commitment of money that would be a stretch for my little budget, but I was determined to make it work. I had no idea we’d spend the next 13 years in community with one another through letters and photos.

As years passed, I watched her baby face mature and her pigtails disappear. I marveled as her correspondence evolved from pictures, to words, to paragraphs full of insights and encouragement. She gave me descriptions of her life, her hobbies, and her dreams. I did my best to write back and send her pictures of my own, sharing milestones along the way. I beamed with pride as she recently told me of her wish to attend university and to visit Paris…and to one day meet me.

…and then yesterday, it all came to an end.

I received written notice from the organization that Josselyn had aged out of the program. No warning. No formal way to say goodbye, just a phone number to call to arrange my next sponsored child.  

After more than 13 years, we deserved closure. We’d built a friendship that deserved recognition.

I learned so much from my interactions with Josselyn over those years. She helped me keep a global focus and remember that my actions can affect people I will never meet. In a way, we both grew up. I am certainly not the same person I was in college, and she’s transitioned from preschooler to adult in that time.

I received the notice about Josselyn right after I scheduled my interview to begin the process of becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children in foster care. Coincidence?

I’m no longer Josselyn’s sponsor, but I’m going to be a voice for children in my community. My interactions with her are part of the journey that heightened my awareness of vulnerable children. This volunteer opportunity is the first step in what I hope will be a much larger story.

Thank you, Josselyn. Maybe we’ll meet in Paris someday.

Like Holding Sand in the Ocean…

The title of this post is my attempt to describe the way I feel when I’m overwhelmed with life. I’m not talking about being overwhelmed with a busy schedule or an influx of tasks. There are times when it is hard to find motivation to function. My coping tendency is to isolate and vegetate – not great solutions.

In recent years, I’ve recognized January/February as a typical timeframe for the appearance of this overwhelm. I could blame it on the weather or the abundance of free time I seem to have during those months, but regardless of the cause, it’s an experience I do not enjoy. Once I saw a pattern, I developed a plan to combat reoccurrence. So, this year I’m trying a few things to battle the “winter blues” and continue thriving:

  • Be intentional with free time
    • The hours between work and bedtime seem to multiply in the winter, and my mind likes to run marathons if left idle for long stretches of time. This year I am attempting to schedule tasks and errands throughout each week to make sure I have a goal to accomplish every day. For example: rather than cramming all my chores into one day, I’ll wash clothes on Monday, fold them on Tuesday, go grocery shopping on Wednesday, etc. It seems simple, but assigning tasks to specific days encourages me to avoid wallowing in a dark room with Netflix.

  • Take on a new project
    • I like to be crafty. I often knit in the winter, but this year I’m trying diamond art instead. It’s similar to paint by numbers, but you place acrylic gemstones instead of paint. When I’m finished I’ll have a nice image to frame. I work on it while I’m watching a show or listening to an audio book, and it keeps my mind from wandering.


  • Yoga
    • I’m striving for a peaceful demeanor, so I chose a fitness practice that emphasizes calm. I try to complete three sessions a week.

  • Pick small things on my “someday” list and do them
    • I love to cook, especially in the winter. I have a family recipe for tomato sauce and meatballs that I’ve wanted to attempt for a few years. It’s an all-day process so I kept saying I’d do it sometime in the future. This time I set a date and invited good friends to share a meal. I was tired by the time we sat down to eat, but the food was delicious and the company made it all worth it.


  • Make plans to see people
    • It sounds silly, but scheduling time with friends and loved ones is one of my best practices. There are plenty of spontaneous events, but putting coffee meetups or shopping trips on the calendar helps me break up my workweeks and ensures that I’ll spend time with people who care.

So far I’ve been successful with these practices, and it seems to be making the winter more pleasant. January feels forever long, but I think everyone feels that way this year? Are you trying new things to make winter fun?

The End of the Beginning

I stepped into a mall during the holiday season. Not just any mall, but THE mall of my youth. This particular mall quite literally makes an appearance in the telling of my birth story (more on that later), so when I say it’s the mall of my youth, I truly mean my ENTIRE childhood. 

There were other malls in the county, but Lakeforest was closest and it had everything we needed. White Flint felt small and fancy. Montgomery Mall was too expensive and far away. Lakeforest was just right for us. 

The mall is dying. 
Three of the anchor stores have closed. Many shops are empty. Even Starbucks abandoned their post. 

I was struck by a wave of nostalgia mixed with sadness as I walked through the mall and still found Santa in the center, sitting on his chair and posing for photos. That’s the spot where I took my first photo with Santa, and my siblings did as well. 

I haven’t been a regular shopper at the mall in years, so I’m a contributor to the decline of such establishments, but I found myself mourning the end of the kind of memories I made in that building. Many people see malls as monuments to consumerism, but those walls created a social space that we no longer possess. The gathering areas in the center of the mall and in the corners by the anchor stores became places for people to chat and hang out while their kids had safe places to deplete their rambunctious energy. Most of my memories are not about money spent, or things purchased, but about people and quality time in that space.

I haven’t created new memories there in quite some time, but I’ll miss being able to walk through and reminisce – to point out those memories to people who are new to my life. So, I’m going to share some of them with you now. 

Let’s start at the very beginning:

The day of my birth: Mom went into labor. My Aunt was working at the mall, and Grandma called to say she’d be there in 10 minutes so they could get to the hospital before I was born. 90 minutes later, Grandma finally pulled up to get my Aunt who was frantically wondering what had taken so long (this was before cell phones, kids). To this day, no one knows what Grandma did during that time. She called it the missing hour and a half for the rest of her life. 

Other memories I cherish:

  • Countless hours of playing in the middle of the mall with friends and kids I’d just met.
  • Eating Jerry’s pizza after hours of playing. 
  • So many family photos at the Sears studio.
  • My high school senior photos (also at Sears)
  • Grandma’s illegal parking spot in the service lane at Sears – no one ever stopped her!
  • Walking many, many laps around the mall with my mom when she was pregnant with all three of my siblings.  
  • Family dinners and celebrations at Chi-Chi’s.
  • The clerks in the women’s department of Hecht’s knowing me by name because I walked my sister Amanda to the bathroom there so many times. 
  • Turning all the rain sticks in the Natural Wonders store at once to make the waterfall sound as loud as possible. 
  • Wandering through the music box store and always playing the ones from Phantom of the Opera. 
  • Shopping at Claire’s and KB Toys. 
  • Saving up all my money in 6th grade to buy one “cool” outfit at Limited Too. 
  • Being trusted to shop with my friends while my Mom was somewhere else in the mall. 
  • Buying cd’s. 
  • Getting an egg bagel toasted with cream cheese and a Mystic drink from Bagel Time. 
  • Sitting in the couch alcove under the staircases with a book and feeling like I’d found a hidden oasis.
  • Tasting my first caramel macchiato – the real thing, not the Starbucks version. 

I could write pages and pages of things I did in that mall. It was quite normal for our family, when I was growing up, to spend a day just being there. We always ran into people we knew. 

I snapped a photo of Santa, knowing this is probably his last hurrah in Lakeforest…and mine as well. My mom asked if I wanted to wait in line and sit on his lap for old times’ sake, but I chose instead to capture an image of the center of the mall…and the place of so many memories.  

We’re closing another decade. It’s hard to summarize all that’s happened in ten years except to say that things have changed – just like the mall. To call it a tumultuous decade would be fair, but that’s not the whole picture. I’ve experienced the deepest valleys accompanied by the most inexplicable joys. It’s been far from safe, but it’s been good. 

Here’s to the twenties. 

What I Read in 2019

Each year I  keep a list of the books I read.  It’s fun to look back and see what I read and how it corresponded with my personal and emotional journey. It’s also a nice record-keeping tool. 

At the beginning of every year, I create a basic list of things I intend to read. I do this knowing that I will inevitably add many more titles along the way. Sometimes I’m in a store or a library and a book just calls to me. I cannot ignore it. So, it gets added to the pile for the year. My basic list this year was more of a goal than a collection of specific titles. I wanted to be intentional about reading works written by people of different faiths, cultures, and backgrounds than my own. I wanted this for both fiction and non-fiction choices.  It is a practice I will continue. 

I am a firm believer that fiction can teach you things you’ll never glean from non-fiction, so I’ll never shy away from including both categories. The power of story can plumb the depths of your emotions and insights, so don’t discount fiction! 

Non-fiction

Pure – Linda Kay Klein

White Mughals – William Dalrymple

The Color of Compromise – Jemar Tisby

A Year of Biblical Womanhood – Rachel Held Evans

A Forever Family – Rob Scheer

Hillbilly Elegy – JD Vance

Pastrix – Nadia Bolz Weber

Faith Unraveled – Rachel Held Evans

The God Who Sees – Karen Gonzalez

All the Places to Go – John Ortberg

The Very Good Gospel – Lisa Sharon Harper

The Ultimate Exodus – Danielle Strickland

Everything Happens for a Reason – Kate Bowler

 

Fiction

Rise of the Mystics – Ted Dekker

Dear Martin – Nic Stone

Sundowners – Lesley Lokko

Little White Lies – Lesley Lokko

Where’d You Go Bernadette – Maria Semple

The Forgotten Garden – Kate Morton

The Tree Bride – Bharati Mukherjee

Paris by the Book – Liam Callanan

A Discovery of Witches – Deborah Harkness

Shadow of Night – Deborah Harkness

A Private Affair – Lesley Lokko

Big Stone Gap – Adriana Trigiani

This is how it Always is – Laurie Frankel

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf – Mohja Kahf

The Book of Life – Deborah Harkness

Time After Time – Lisa Grunwald

Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

Drowning Ruth – Christina Schwarz

The Identicals  – Elin Hilderbrand

The President is Missing – Bill Clinton/James Patterson

Summer of ’69 – Elin Hilderbrand

A Spark of Light – Jodi Picoult

What did you read this year? 

Growth Cycles

For the first time in years, I have a backyard.

In the spring, I cleared all the debris and made plans: hammock, string lights, and a vegetable garden. I did all kinds of research to find the best planting containers, the ideal crops for my climate, the right soil to use, and the best times to plant each crop. I got all my necessary supplies and told all my friends of my intentions. 

I planned all kinds of posts for this site to document my progress, my harvests, and yummy recipes created with my produce. 

I marked the planting dates in my calendar…and when the time came, I put seeds in dirt. 

It felt meaningful to plant seeds and care for them. Every day after work I went out to the yard, anxiously waiting for something to sprout. 

And then…seemingly overnight the planters went from dirt to luscious greenery. 

I had this overwhelming sense of accomplishment as the plants grew! 

The excitement was short-lived. 

We had flooding rains for weeks followed by extreme heat.

In the end, none of my plants produced any vegetables. 

I was frustrated. The venture failed. 

But did it really fail? I learned things in the process. I have more knowledge about planting and soil conditions than I did last year. I know that I’m capable of growing things- plants did sprout- I just have a couple adjustments to make. I know what to improve next time. 

The whole process seemed like a lesson for certain aspects of my life: So many seeds planted, so much potential – yet nothing grew. 

I’d grown weary of getting my hopes up, sharing the anticipation with others and then having to share the let-down. Mourning dreams is a grisly business. 

But every once in awhile, I’d take a look around and notice a few things. My dreams may not materialize in the manner I expect, but the essence of what I hoped for shows up in various ways – A dream for a family manifests itself, for now, as a solid community of trusted friends who share in my journey. A dream for a fulfilling career manifests itself, not in a new job, but in role changes and support from my supervisors. 

The spirit of Advent reminds us that the things we hope for, the things we wait for, may arrive in ways that are wholly surprising. 

What’s caught you pleasantly off-guard lately?

 

 

When Our Cathedrals Burn

The title of this post came to me weeks before I knew what the content would be. I thought I’d be writing about Notre Dame and the collective response to it, but I was wrong. While we were all glued to the news and watching the fire, a woman I’d never met was fighting for her life. I say I’d never met her, but I feel like I did. Her writing and social media engagement made many of us feel as though we knew her. For weeks, I checked twitter several times a day for her health updates, praying for good news. She had to recover. We needed her to keep writing, to keep questioning, to keep inspiring us toward openness.

…and then suddenly she was gone.

I was helping with a youth retreat and didn’t look at my phone until late at night. When I saw the news of her death, I found myself sitting in a bunk crying and grieving for someone I’d never spoken to.

The community Rachel Held Evans fostered online and through her writing was one of my cathedrals. It was a safe space where I felt welcome to work through my questions, doubts, and misunderstandings.  It was a place where I found other people who felt the same way. Once she passed, it became evident how many thousands of people are at a loss now. It was all so sudden…and so many strangers are part of this bereft family.

Rachel went public with her questions and her journey to find a faith that addressed the very real problems in this world. She articulated things I couldn’t put into words, but had felt for years. She did not shy away from expressing her views even when she knew the critics would vehemently attack. She was not afraid to be wrong. And she was not afraid to apologize. She fought tirelessly to encourage people to keep their faith…because God was bigger than any human construct or behavior. She gave the outcasts a place to feel loved and welcome. She used her success to lift up and draw attention to other voices who needed to be heard.

When our cathedrals burn, we don’t abandon the cause. We rebuild.  

I’ve written and deleted so many posts over the years because I didn’t want to be misunderstood. No more. I’m ok being misunderstood by hundreds of people if it means one person feels known. I will be vulnerable with my thoughts and writing…and if it means I have to apologize for getting things wrong along the way, so be it. Rachel may be gone, but she influenced thousands of us who need to carry on the cause.

I’ve dreamed of being a writer for my entire life. The fact is: I am a writer. I don’t get paid for it, but I have a voice. I will use my voice to draw attention to issues that matter, to encourage people to think about new perspectives…and to build cathedrals where all are welcome.

Puddle-Wonderful Spring

Bonus cool points if you know the reference in the title of this post. 🙂

No matter how hard I try, every year there’s a posting gap on this site after my February 27th post.  This time it was only a month so I guess that’s progress. You’d probably think it’s because the post about my grandma takes a lot out of me and robs me of the ability to write. In actuality, I’ve been writing quite a bit…but in a notebook rather than on the internet. Emerging from the end of February is an awakening of sorts for me every year.

In the spring, I take time to enjoy the life I have. Choosing to spend my free time with friends or exploring new things is fulfilling. I pick up a book before I pick up a screen. It is freeing to enjoy the sunshine and laugh with people who matter to me.  I didn’t give up social media for Lent or even intend to step back from it, but focusing on other parts of life resulted in a natural reduction.

It’s important to remember that digital quietness does not equal dormancy. I have many projects in the works and goals I’m working toward. There are also posts for this site waiting in the wings…they’re just not quite ready yet. For now, you get this little update.

Do you have any traditions or routines you pick up in the spring?

Until my next post, on nice weather days you’ll probably find me outside somewhere soaking up the sunshine.

The Fourth February 27th

I wrote my grandmother a letter on her birthday in 2016 – the first birthday after her death. It has since become a tradition. It’s a way for me to honor her memory and document the evolution of my grief.

Recently found this photo…

It’s been an eventful year, and there were moments where I felt your presence in the midst of it all.

You would’ve loved this year’s family wedding because it was a beautiful reflection of love. I made a fool of myself on the dance floor in your honor. We all did.

I shaved my head…again. You’d be thrilled at the fact that I raised so much money for a good cause, but I know you’d still say, “Your beautiful hair is gone!” You’d laugh-cry about it.

I got a tattoo. I know you would’ve thrown a fit because I remember how you reacted when Mom got one. I can imagine the scene: I would tell you I got it and you would start lecturing about how they’re permanent and I’m probably going to regret it, and what if it’s in a spot I can’t hide. But then I’d remove the bandage and you’d smile and cry. Because you see, I chose to permanently mark myself with the name you gave me at birth. You said you couldn’t remember life before I was born, and I can’t imagine living life without an external representation of the truth you spoke into my soul.

The tattoo on my left arm.

I have roommates now. You’d approve of them and our house. It has lots of natural light, and I catch myself staring out the window and thinking about how much you loved the sun. Your Michelangelo print hangs in my hallway. I spent so many hours staring at that frame in your house, and now it hangs in mine. Maybe next year I’ll finally get to see the original in Italy.

Proof that I used to stare at the art prints in Grandma’s house. The print in the top left corner is the one I have now. She framed it soon after this photo was taken.

We had a very warm day a few weeks ago. You know if it’s warm in February I drive to your park and spend some time. Since my last letter, I’ve taken a lot of photos in that park. It seems my clients enjoy the setting as much as you did. But on this warm, February day I did not bring my camera. I stood barefoot at the edge of the lake and absorbed the peace. I thanked God for the honor of sharing life with you. You gave me the privilege of being and feeling known; you fully saw me in a way I can’t explain to others. Even if I never feel that way again on this earth, I had it in the formative years when I needed it most. You helped instill resilience, and I’m ever grateful for the lasting effects.

I had a moment the other day. Those moments are fewer and further between with each passing year, but they still catch me every so often. This one transported me back to the last time we spoke. After several rounds of singing your favorite hymns and quoting from Tombstone, you saw us and we had you back for a few minutes. You grabbed my hands and I’ll never forget the look in your eyes – you knew you’d been freed from your prison and were on borrowed time. With an urgency as you held my hands you said, “I love you so much. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

In that moment, I couldn’t argue. It really wasn’t supposed to be like this. Silly me, I thought you’d be here in my 30s and 40s because you’d only be in your 70s and 80s. You weren’t supposed to die in your 60s. That amazing mind of yours wasn’t supposed to wither and rob us of precious time. I guess that’s the whole point: we aren’t promised any amount of time – regardless of our expectations.

One of our last photos. She always preferred making silly faces rather than smiling.

I started writing your story, and in a way, my own. It’s still in progress, but it’s been very healing for me. One day the world will know your story…or at least your life through my eyes. What a wild and redemptive ride.

Until next year, Sunshine loves you – infinity plus 72.

My Experience with Public Goods

A few years ago, I made the conscious decision to pay attention to the ingredients in the products I use. I started with food, and I do my best to buy natural and minimally processed items whenever possible.

Then I moved to medicines and cleaning supplies. I’ve found all-natural laundry detergents and household cleaners that smell great and actually work. It took some time to find the right items for me – there’s no perfect product for everyone. I use essential oils to help with headaches, allergies, and the occasional stomach issue…thus reducing my use of over the counter medicines. I’m not a doctor and I still firmly believe in modern medicine. I just don’t use as much Tylenol, Benadryl, or Pepto as I used to.

My last holdout for chemicals was hygiene. I love the effectiveness of aluminum-filled antiperspirant. Nothing ever got my hair feeling as squeaky clean as those sulfate-laden shampoos. (That feels terrible to write, but it’s true).

It took me close to a year to find an aluminum-free deodorant that actually worked. I’m still on a journey to find the perfect one, but I’ve at least found one that is adequate. The market is flooded with natural alternatives and this is, again, something that varies by person.

When it came to shampoo and conditioner, I could not find a sulfate-free alternative that didn’t make my hair feel gross. Until…

I heard about Public Goods on a YouTube channel, and signed up for a free 30 day trial. The whole idea is that you pay a yearly (or lifetime) membership fee and you can buy natural and sustainable products at-cost. I placed my first order quickly because I wanted to receive it in time to test things before my trial ended.

They had shampoo and conditioner for less than $5 each. I knew I had to try them because I couldn’t find any natural products in store for that price. My hair feels clean and I have zero build-up after several weeks of using the same products!

I loved every product I tried in that first shipment. I particularly loved the packaging. Aside from the simple aesthetic, the bottles are bio-degradable and they sell refills so you can re-use your bottles. They also have plenty of household products. Their glass cleaner, kitchen towels, and the ayate washcloth are all great.

I did the math and decided that even with the yearly subscription, I’ll save money by continuing to use Public Goods. I might even convert to a lifetime subscription. It’s sort of a Costco membership for home and body products.

If you’re curious, I highly recommend that you try the 30 free trial. I’m super glad I tested it. They even have travel size items, so I’ll be using them when I go on my next adventure!