With only one ear

As an actor, I know how to fake it until I make it. Or at least, I like to think I do.

In the days leading up to my departure to Nicaragua, a lot of faking was at play.

Of course I was excited. Of course I was ready to go. Of course it was no big deal.

At the non-profit in which I work, MEDA, my colleagues are routinely boarding flights to far away places in the world. When I logged my flight on our company-wide “Travel Tracker,” I noted scouting trips to Tajikistan and Indonesia and month-long excursions to East Africa.

Nicaragua? No problem.

Beneath the faking, however, was a thick, sticky layer of apprehension. My mind was certain disaster was imminent.

“See you never,” I told my housemates upon departure.

This would not be a solo adventure, but it would be a single adventure. I was not traveling with a buddy or a boyfriend, and other than two colleagues much older than I, I did not know the other participants.

I was off to adult summer camp for the first time. Who would I sit with? What if I wanted to explore–who would I go with? What if I didn’t fit in?

Yet the one characteristic stronger than my anxiety was my supreme dislike of dependency. Completing this trip felt like an important marker in proving personal competence.

I popped a Pepto for my stomach, zipped up my lightweight backpack (Let it be known, I am an excellent packer.), and left my winter coat in the car. Onward.

IMG_4076 2

Upon late-night arrival in balmy Managua, something was off.

A brooding cold paired with multiple flights proved a bad mix. I swallowed, I yawned, I stretched. My left ear was completely clogged. I took Advil and every cold medicine I had with me, an impressive and colorful assortment.

Try though I did, lefty would not recover.

Poor hearing does not discriminate, though it will make understanding a foreign language pretty tricky. Despite the disorienting reverb and constant crackle, I was thankful for the handheld microphone on our small bus amplifying our tour guide’s accent-coated voice.

Off the bus, it was less easy to disguise my struggle. It was a continual guessing game as to whether I was talking at the right volume.

“HELLO!” I announced during introductions. “I AM VANESSA. I’M SORRY, I CAN’T HEAR YOU. HOW ARE YOU?”

I hate to think how many times someone asked, “Are you feeling better?” and I replied, too loudly or too softly (who knows), “What?”

Luckily, it was a forgiving crew. I was travelling with MEDA supporters interested in seeing our work in action.

MEDA uses business solutions to eliminate poverty. Rather than temporary fixes or immediate relief, we specialize in sustainable systems that spur lasting growth for the most vulnerable (often women and youth, often farmers).

MEDA has been active in Nicaragua since 1990. In 2004, we invested in a microfinance institution (MFI) called MiCredito. MiCredito is a true MEDA success story: In Nicaragua, the company is one of the country’s top 10 MFIs, providing financial services to 4,500 clients with small businesses. MiCredito’s ever-growing loan portfolio includes 6,100 loans totalling $6.8 million. They’re opening new branches every year–including one in Costa Rica in 2018.

On this trip, we visited loans recipients to hear their stories. (We also visited some MEDA projects outside MiCredito. Another blog for another day, perhaps.)

Insert here a story about a white girl realizing, again, how ridiculously privileged she is, by no merit of her own.

Irritated, stuffy and fake yawning (thank-you-ear), here I was, being told about God’s abundant blessings from a shoemaker whose bustling shop had only half a roof and rooms divided by tattered sheets.

Here I was, visiting a dusty pupusa restaurant managed by El Salvadorian immigrants who didn’t want pictures taken because they were afraid of the gangs they fled from back home.

Here I was, surrounded by dozens of handmade piñatas, miniature superheroes, dinosaurs and princesses. Each piñata–and there were hundreds–so carefully made that the business owners will travel to your home to personally install.


The testimony was clear and strong: They had nothing. MiCredito provided essential capital at a reasonable rate that they otherwise could not get. Their lives were changed.

Now they were paying for their children to go to school. Now they were providing employment in their neighbourhood. Now they were increasing the reach of the services they provided. On and on.

What a privilege to be welcomed to their homes and businesses.

Oh the lessons here.

By some incredible coincidence, I was reading “Emotional Agility” by Susan David while on this trip. I finished the last chapter while my ears were prickling like needles on the final leg from Atlanta to Harrisburg.

David talks about living your values as “walking your why.” She warns that this type of walking isn’t always comfortable: “If you’re socially anxious…and a friend invites you to a party, the easiest response might seem to be to send your regrets.” She continues, “But if you truly value friendship and let these values guide you, you’ll make a forward move instead and says yes.”

Going won’t necessarily feel awesome. At least, not right away.

“But this initial discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life,” says David.

I was invited, don’t ask me how, to a party in Nicaragua, of all places. Despite my travels to many countries and cities, anxiety kicked in. When I got there, the party was, as Ms. David predicted, pretty uncomfortable. (I still can’t hear out of one ear and clearly need to go to the doctor.)

In going, I found meaning. And it didn’t take two ears to hear it.

In the spirit of the wise Winnie-the-Pooh, I am ‘braver than I believe, stronger than I know,’ in ways I can’t say are either good or bad. I felt my privilege as I stood in thriving businesses forever grateful for $100. I felt my power as I traversed Nicaragua, single. What I do with this strength, in its many forms, is a lifelong challenge I must continue to explore relentlessly.

“Choose courage over comfort by vitally engaging with new opportunities to learn and grow, rather than passively resigning yourself to your circumstance,” David advises. “Courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking.”

I couldn’t hear everything, not there, not now. Today, though, I see a little more clearly.



Whirly Wheel

Do you know what a whirly wheel is?

I love whirly wheels, but I had no idea what they were actually called until about 30 seconds ago. I’m still not convinced ‘whirly wheel’ is the right name.

Before the appendix and the gall bladder it was the kidneys and the bladder. When I was in elementary school, during some routine hospital visit, I was introduced to the hypnotizing magic of the waiting room whirly wheel.


I think my parents bought me one for home some Christmas soon after.

Here’s the reason I bring this up:

I’m trying to determine why it is I haven’t kept up with this blog. I really do love writing. Perhaps even more than writing, I love pretending that other people enjoy reading what I write. 😉

So where have I been?

The only image I can come up with is this silly whirly wheel. Watch one. See how it buzzes, back and forth, looping up and down, hitting the end only to launch yet again?

Like a whirly wheel, I get close to the end of my to-dos, and I look for a way to spin back. At the time, it seems like productivity. By the end, it seems like pure stupidity. What was I thinking?

Case and point: At the top of the year, I directed two shows at the same time. I promised I would never do this again. Then came the fall.



I’m tired in a way that sleep won’t easily fix. I’ve learned that this type of tired is quite common. Are you feeling a little like a whirly wheel, too?

I write to you now from Seattle (!). I’m thankful to be here on multiple fronts: First, because it’s Seattle (!). Second, because this last week in the PNW has slowed my whirly-wheel routine. Physical space creates mental space. I believe in this.

Though I can’t credit miles alone. I heard Dr. Samantha Nutt talk at MEDA’s convention, the impetus for my PNW adventure. I absolutely recommend her and her work and her book and pretty much anything she’s ever touched or walked upon.

It was so humbling to be reminded of the bigness of our old world, a world that creeks and moans under our fat, smelly feet. The stories she told–ah, be still my heart.


All of a sudden my little whirly wheel felt like what a whirly wheel is: A toy. A small, nameless child’s toy used for a time, in a waiting room, perhaps, and then forgotten.

How can I live a life outside my own habits? How can my wheel spin outside the confines of my self-made to-do list, my too-many commitments, my stress and worries?

Give me some time on all those questions. 😉 Sounds like I may need a few years in the PNW to get them all answered.

But, for starters, I think I need to keep traveling. I know I need to keep reading. I need to keep listening to people smarter and wiser. And writing. I need to keep writing, not for the accolades, for the perspective.

You do it. Try summarizing your life with a toy metaphor. Try explaining your problems to the brokenhearted world.

Perspective has power. I find mine in the space between words.

The World Didn’t End Yesterday

“I go to the gym to watch TV and not feel guilty.”

Aubrey is delightfully honest like this.

She is also a mathematician who just finished her first year towards her Phd in theatre directing.

She says she’s studying theatre because she loves the way the art connects people, but I prefer to believe it’s because of her relentless, heroic quest for honesty.

I pretend Aubrey believes that there is a right answer to characters, to people, just like there are right answers in math. I pretend the ever-courageous Aubrey is ready to strip away at a show and its characters until it’s exposed and honest and alive and conquered.

We did summer stock together in Middle-of-Nowhere Indiana and then lived together in the best gay neighborhood in Chicago. Last weekend, she visited me in Little Lancaster for the first time.

As we sat at a coffee shop together on a disappointingly drip-droppy day, and I asked her, “So, what do you think?,” certain she would tell me she was as disappointed in me giving up my big city endeavors as she was in the rainy spring weather.

Of course, a good story requires a twist, so here’s my first: She didn’t tell me that. She said, “You have a lot of things going for you,” as if I should know that, “I can see why you’ve stayed,” she said.

I still don’t see myself as someone who “stays,” so this is the first oddity, but not the greatest.

My therapist, who is the only person I have yet to meet whom I can’t talk circles around, tells me, “Today the world is not going to end.” She says, “You have a complex trauma history. When you’re triggered, you jump outside the window. We’re trying to get you back inside.”

I don’t know where the window is she is referencing, let alone how to go inside it (is there no door?), but I go with it. I’m more comfortable here, in this imagery, than I am in Aubrey’s world of right-and-wrong numbers. I’ll find that stupid window soon.

I jump on my bike and pedal to work and repeat to myself, The World is Not Ending Today, just like the crazy person that makes me out to be.

It is a beautiful day.

There is sunshine and there are birds. Everything is green. Lancaster smells like spring flowers, plus one layer of sausage. I don’t know where that’s coming from, but they picked the right cook.

Grandma emails. She asks when I will blog again. I sigh. Not because I’m unhappy she wrote–my heart doubles in size hearing from her–but because the thought is overwhelming.

How do I write about what I’m doing and where I’m going when, mostly, I’m surprised that being is staying. Mostly, I’m trying to surviving biking scrunched one-way streets without bike lanes. Mostly, I’m happy the world didn’t end today.

That Hollow, Empty Place of Grief

I’m writing to you now from that hollow, empty place of grief.

This is new territory for me, and so I write to you not knowing quite how or where any of this will lead.

What does this place feel like? I’m discovering it. Though the snow is melted, it almost feels as though everything around me is covered in a deceptive, thin layer of smooth ice.

I am cold; I am attentive.

As I move through place and time, I notice color pallets, the brown of Walnut Street, the grey of the coffee shop floor, the peach of my hands.

Through the window I see the pink streak in the horizon, courageously holding its own far past dawn.

The trees–do you think about the trees? The way they simultaneously ground down and shoot skyward…how the branches yearn for the sky and sun yet the roots could not be more terrified of leaving the warm sticky dirt they’ve settled for.

Trees with bellyaches, I muse. Because certainly pulling yourself in two directions would give you an upset stomach.

Or a heartache, perhaps.

People are funny, too. Moving about in this one room: hushed conversations, loud banter, chattering, chatting. Drinking. Munching. Just moving. Just doing. Just going.

Foggy Frosty morning

I didn’t get the first phone call about Hannah because I was in the middle of directing the scene in “Into the Woods” where the Baker’s Wife dies.

I was trying to explain to high schoolers, specifically my Baker, what this moment might feel like. It was our first time working the scene.

“This is so sad,” my cast said. “Everyone in the audience is going to be crying,” they said.

Were those genuine tears from my wide-eyed freshman Cinderella?

I was glad to go home. It was one of those weeks–you know–when your Baker’s Wife comes down with strep (and tonsillitis) and your boyfriend and you can’t find more than 10 minutes of quality time, the dining table still needs assembly so you keep eating standing, and Trump is going to be president.

So I learned about the accident on Facebook.

Hannah had just finished designing the poster for my production of Into the Woods. Just–a few days ago. I’d asked her if she wanted to do the gig because I had fond memories of a similar collaboration in college for my senior show. It had been a wonderful reconnection in a time and place that was very dark for me.

When I heard yesterday that her car had been struck, that she had died–that–that stupid Into the Woods poster was the first thing that came to mind.

Stupid thoughts–what do I do with the invoice? What do I do with her unanswered emails? Do I hang this around Lancaster? How can I hang this around Lancaster? Should I write a tribute to her on it? If I write on it, would that tarnish her artwork? Wait, was this poster her very last piece of art?

It was even the topic of first email I received after calling my mom, Alicia & Jake, mutual friends. It popped up on my phone. An email I was CCed on, confirming we could send her poster to print.

I panicked. I shot off texts to staff asking if we should halt it all. Hold up, hold the phone, wait, wait, wait! No!

This is hers and she is gone and how could we possibly move forward!?

All the while, the lyrics from the show spinning in my head on repeat, “Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the wood…”

I don’t know. I’ve met and known a lot of people, and I gotta say, Hannah was gold. She could weave in and out of your life and bless it in the meantime–and that smile. That laugh. She made me wonder, how could someone be so joyful?

I imagine my pain is only a fragment of her family’s, her young husband’s, the friends that were nearest and dearest to her day-to-day life since college.

I imagine, too–though how trivial it seems–that Into the Woods will feel different now. I haven’t looked at the script. Her poster is on the front of my binder and I’m scared to see it. But when I go back to rehearsal, and I open that binder, and I watch as the Baker loses his young wife in the woods…

I wonder.

The story doesn’t stop there, of course. Though Lapine and Sondheim are too kind (or not kind enough) to fake a cookie-cutter ending, they at least turn the page and keep writing.

I hope, after this time, here, after the nonexistent ice thaws around me and the all-too real rain stops (but of course it is raining now), I’ll be ready to continue with the score. To go to the next song.

The part that sings,

Nothing’s quite so clear now
Do things, fight things
Feel you’ve lost your way?
You decide, but
You are not alone
Believe me
No one is alone
No one is alone
Believe me

Thanks Hannah. From me and a lot, lot of other people. You made our Woods a more beautiful place.

Goodbye, 2016.

In my personal social media echo chamber, everyone is talking about how much 2016 sucked.

I’m not disagreeing.

So what do we do about that.

Though there’s no going back now, I tried anyway, and to my surprise uncovered a number of special little moments that I’d forgotten amidst this month’s tweets about nukes and Israel.

I share these moments now for a couple reasons:

  • To get back up-to-date on my out-of-date blog. (Oops.)
  • To remind myself that, despite a year full of global tragedy, political mayhem, personal overcommitment, and pulling weed after weed after weed in a mint field, good stuff happens.

Unless we make an effort to both curate and celebrate that ‘good stuff,’ I think we risk missing it.

Given our current cultural climate (and well, the climate, period), I don’t feel we dare do that. In a world so fragile, we dare not waste a single beautiful moment, however small, however trivial.

So here are 16 moments from 2016 that remind me, anyway, to celebrate and savor that fleeting crazy ‘good stuff’ that’s going to keep our world spinning, God willing, come January 20.

From me, to you, may your holiday be filled with love, love, love.

1>> The childlike joy of a snow day is simply something special. 
2>> With Hans’ sister & brother-in-law relocating to Brooklyn, 2016 brought many trips to the big city for long walks, Broadway shows, and summer night concerts.


3>> Hans’ brain is amazing, so he dreamt this old office space into a destination cafe, and a few months later…
4>> ..there it was! I completed a lifelong goal of becoming a snobby barista and even gained some new best friends in the process.
5>> Christina ended her college career with a zillion accomplishments, which we welcomed as reason to reunite the Hofer clan.
6>>Little did I know, 2016 would be the year of out-of-town guests. 6/7 of my immediate family made the trek to Lancaster, plus other relatives and friends from across the country–including dear Brook! I did my best to curate a true Lancaster experience (note, cows).
7>> And for all those days that my family and friends couldn’t cross the miles to reunite,  I felt grateful for the Sommer-Weaver family’s support and love.
8 >> Do work trips make me officially an adult? Multiple jobs took me on multiple work trips to Colorado, California, NYC, and above, a PRiMA trip to Washington D.C.  We don’t have that Tony yet, but we’re working on it… 😉
9>> Best friends wedding equals best friends reunion. 
10>> Alicia came to Lancaster for a solid month-and-a-half to help bring the Menno Tea Mint Field and Cafe to life (and to be the best friend to me that she always is). Our time together ended with a special trip to dear Jake’s hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio. 
11>> When my parents came to Pa., they reminded me of how fun first-time experiences still are as an adult. This included kayaking and the U.S. Open.
12>> Then there was Hugo, the worlds cutest Airedale Terrier, who is now a million pounds heavier than pictured here.
13>>Lancaster Mennonite entrusted me with the best kiddos in the world. I directed the Lancaster debut of “Peter and the Starcatcher.” 
14 >> I could easily make top 16 moments just from this November trip to Peru. In addition to Machu Picchu (#15), we visited coffee farm/ers (pictured above), spent a few days at the northern coast near Ecuador, and explored the sprawling city of Lima with (new!) dear friends Andrea and Scott of One Village Coffee. Maybe I’ll blog about this in upcoming days.
15>> A solid best friend for every single day of 2016 is a special thing, indeed.
16>>Broadway tenor Adam Pascal marked the close of the PRiMA 2016 season–my first full calendar year on staff here. It’s a little fun to be a little starstruck. 
>>And a bonus, just for me. Sometimes something as silly as chopping off your hair and shaving half your head signals a personal victory of self discovery, self care and growth. 

Life’s not so bad. Here’s to the year ahead,


Hipster bemoans having to attend birthday party for one-year-old with no shared hobbies.

I’m proud to share I grew up some more this summer.

My favorite growing up moment happened about a month ago on a very ordinary August weekend in my current home of sunny Dutch Country, Pennsylvania.


A couple friend of mine threw a birthday bash for their one-year old, and my boyfriend Hans and I were invited.

Before we left for the park, the BF joked lightheartedly about his lack of relationship with the birthday boy.

“We don’t even know each other that well,” Hans sighed dramatically, hiding a silly smirk. “We have no mutual interests or hobbies. And we’ve hardly talked,” he said.

It sounded like something found in an Onion article: “Hipster bemoans having to attend birthday party for one-year old with ‘no shared hobbies.'”

Upon arrival, the aforementioned one-year old, still mastering the technique of walking, tottered right past Hans with remarkable ease–and without the slightest acknowledgment. I couldn’t have directed the scene better if I’d tried.

In his defense, the little guy was no doubt on a mission to the more exciting bubble machine. Hans and I exchanged glances.


Despite this obviously blatant putdown, Hans and I did our best to keep our composure. The BF and I escorted ourselves to a picnic bench and struck up conversation with a (married) couple.

We joined the conversation readily, adding our wildly engaging two cents about small dogs as though we knew a thing about them. As we chitchatted, there were bubbles and babies all about, a cute birthday banner fluttering in the wind, blue cupcakes, presents, I-phones glimmering…


Here I was, an adult. Doing adult things.

About then, a giant bubble popped in my eye.

I guess these are the natural risks of having biggish eyes.

This fierce burst of pain took over my left eye ball. Without delay, watering and wincing began. I knew pretty quickly there was no way I was keeping this a secret.

“I’m sorry,” I said, interrupting in a panic, “But a bubble just popped in my eye.”

Someone at the table quickly fetched a plastic water bottle. “Dump water in your eye,” the BF instructed knowledgeably.

Most of the water landed on my clothes. The rest of the water didn’t really make a difference. So I decided then to try taking out my left contact. Maybe it was locking that bubble soap in there somehow, right? I threw the daily lens on the grass with defiance.

But that didn’t help either.

My eye was still watering profusely, still stinging, and now I couldn’t see clearly.

I spent the rest of the evening under the shaded park shelter with my sunglasses on. Concealed by my plastic pink frames, I squeezed the left eye shut in a permanent and very un-sexy sort of wink.

I carried on in conversation. I sang “Happy Birthday,” and I clapped as the little guy opened his third alphabet letter set. (I knew I should’ve gotten that baby bike helmet.)

When it was time to go home, I felt as though I’d cried all evening.



Being an adult is an emotional affair, I decided.

As soon as you think, ‘aha, I’ve got it!’ something ridiculous happens.

And I reckon, it usually is ridiculous, rather than tragic.

I know that “hard” and “challenging” happens as you grow up. But ridiculous? When you’re a kid, who tells you, “Hey, growing up is downright ridiculous. It’s hilarious, really. Get ready!”


Yes, there were more “important” things that happened this summer than an bubble popping in my eye.

My sister second-to-youngest visited for 6 weeks to help with the opening of the Menno Tea Café–which yes, opened! I saw friends. I saw family. I travelled a bit. I worked a lot.


I did a lot of self-journeying. I dug in deep with a counselor and read books and spent time reflecting.

And you know, in all the seriousness of learning to live with oneself, no lesson brought it home quite like the bubble incident.

Because nothing humbles you like the unexpected. Nothing reminds you more clearly of your humanity, of your childishness, of the importance of laughing and carrying eye drops with you at all times, than situations like that one little moment in the park.


Before we got in the car, the BF and I stopped at the dog park. Dog-less, we felt like we were breaking the rules welcoming ourselves inside the gate and finding a questionably sticky bench to share.

(Were we?)

Still squinting, unable to see out of one eye, I spent the next hour trying to convince strangers’ large dogs to come say hi to me while wiping away impressively relentless tears.

In that moment, I think I found it, at last.

I was an adult.


Sensitive skin

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Colorado Springs. It’s hailing. You know, like it does. There is light guitar and a sorrowful tenor playing on the stereo system. It’s afternoon here, but evening in my brain and body.

I try to keep my blog a friendly sort of personal. This has been a polite place for stories that feel okay to share with strangers, since strangers some of you are.

Today, though, I tiptoe across my own homemade line.

img_4654(rev 0)

It has been an emotional 2 months for me. I’ve been on a healing journey, I guess.

As I dig into it–it, this dreamlike piece of my past that I tuck far from your sight–I’ve found sensitive terrain. Like newly exposed flesh, it flinches with exposure, it stings when touched, it bleeds.

I don’t know how to make that sound less cheesy–or gross–except to assure you that the healing is significant, its impetus painful.

So here I am: in the midst of asking the whys, the hows, in the midst of some serious digging, some raw skin, some fresh tears. Then, a trip across the country to visit the Motherland, to step onto the home turf. Oh, but of course. What timing. This is how it goes, yes?

And then,

“You show many emotions, Nes, but weakness is not one of them,” Mom says to me.

We’re sitting on the porch, patio chairs sliding forward and back, forward and back. There are morning doves cooing and the faint sound of cattle in the distance. Wind ruffles my hair, because in South Dakota, there is always wind. And I feel my heart buckle, like ankles buckling under knees, knees buckling under thighs.

In this one moment with Mom, I feel so keenly my aloneness–then and now. I feel the sadness of lost opportunity because I see that I inadvertently left you behind in my time of need. And still–still now!–I do not know how to invite you in.

What is it about going home that strips a person of their carefully crafted facade? What is it about going home that demands you to see, not who you are trying to be or are today, but the person you always were and the person you will inevitably fail to become?

Oh, home of mine, how anxious I am to leave…and yet…how I want to stay here, hidden away from the world amidst your tall grasses and knobby wind-bent trees, nestled between creek and culvert, shielded by the glow of the sun and the sparkle of an endless prairie night sky.

Silver Lake sunset bike ride

Yet my journey, this journey, painful though it may sometimes be, has me elsewhere today. Maybe tomorrow, too. Maybe forever.

As much as I need you, I equally do not. For as much as I love you, I despise you, too.

For as much as you are a part of this time of healing–as much as I crave that knack of yours for making sense out of everything, for putting a Bible verse on every situation and a reason behind every misstep–this is not yours.

While I remorse that I could not have had you there, when I needed you so, and that I cannot let you in now, like I wish I could–perhaps it is for the better.

You’ve been where you need to be, maybe. Just close enough. Just a flight away. Just a car ride. Just a phone call. Just before the Rockies and just after the Mississippi.

Just sitting on the front porch, rocking.

Forward and back, forward and back.

Waiting for me to talk.