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
Truly

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

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Shoe scuffs

I travelled nearly halfway across the country last week to sit on the end of a wooden bench in a shoe-scuffed middle school gym alongside a dozen middle school girls basketball players.

Am I crazy?

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I should start by being honest; while I loved the sport, I was never that good of a player. My high school teammates can attest to that.

I fouled a lot.

For those of you who don’t watch basketball, this essentially means I hit people.

I think it was because I was angry. Probably less so at the person I was tackling and more so at myself. Why was making my body do what I saw so clearly in my brain that difficult?

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The long and short of my high school basketball experience, in one picture.
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HS basketball with one of my younger sisters.

My younger sister was and is the better athlete, with multiple knee surgeries that I believe earn her the title permanently.

She’s a certified coach and the coach that extended an invitation for me to join the elite ranks of middle school coaches last winter.

My certifications?

For starters, my team pep talks in high school were a thing of legends. Certainly they must discuss them still today.

More notably, the team voted me “most inspirational” all 4 years of high school. That includes the year I quit the season early to be in a musical.

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“Most inspirational” coming into the game with my best friend and my sister.

I’d like to think that these very noteworthy achievements are the reason my sister felt I deserved to join her team.

Though I kid, I did give a lot of pep talks last winter during my inaugural season as assistant coach.

There’s nothing like funneling more emotion into an already emotionally-charged middle school sporting event.

After rejoining the bench this last week, I quickly fell back into my old role, my pep talk spirit still perfectly intact, seemingly untamed by my newfound East Coast sensibilities.

“That isn’t an injury,” I proclaimed to the player who had limped off the court with a painful-looking floor burn that covered half her lower leg. “That’s a battle scar!”

“And what do you do when someone gives you a battle scar?!” I barreled on. She looked up at me with wide watery eyes, sniffling, gasping, tears streaming.

“You score on them!!” I roared.

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Unexpected experiences are the most delightful thing, aren’t they though?

If I had my way, I’d never sign up for them. Yet, these experiences come charging at me.

Thank God, too, because I can’t imagine how dull my life would be otherwise.

Coaching is Exhibit A. While on paper or in the summary version I’ll give folks in Lancaster, it may seem obscure to travel so far for something so trivial, I beg to differ.

This was an experience I value, then and now, because it was an experience I didn’t know I could have. It was an experience offered graciously by someone else and shared with a mighty fine group of ladies.

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The ‘A’ team welcoming me back last week.

I recently took a personality test that told me that my personality type, when at its healthiest, is self-creative, “able to transform all their experiences into something valuable.”

I like to think that, at least sometimes, this is true. Today’s post is a good example. Here’s an unlikely experience I found value in. Enough value, in part, to travel 500 miles westward in hopes to hold onto it, to relive it again.

Today, though, I also acknowledge a new challenge. This is one I have to keep pushing myself on–and maybe you do, too.

The challenge of letting go of the past is something my personality type isn’t so keen at, so say the results.

I’m severely sentimental, what can I say.

However, It’s time to let other experiences come at me and to embrace them.

I guess a starting point will be my new job. For those of you trying to keep tabs on me, you may have noticed I joined the staff at PRiMA. I’m passionate about this company because they have ‘skin in the game’ (sorry, couldn’t help myself) trying to ‘cultivate culture’–to  use theatre as a way to create lasting experiences that enrich the community and, simply, inspire.

They’re (we’re) looking forward, which I think is pretty neat and, actually, super ambitious.

So hey, if you get the chance to coach a middle school sports team, I triple dare you to do it. Go out there and yell your lungs out, and come back and realize that this little thing was the best thing.

…and that now it’s time to move forward.

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A farewell candy-themed note from last year’s MS bball team.

The Top 12

How do you begin to process a year of life?

By looking through thousands of low-resolution cell phone photos, apparently.

I leave 2015 with an odd feeling in my stomach and a lot to think about. It wasn’t as though it was all perfect. But amidst so much hardship in our world, I feel uncomfortably grateful.

Here’s my meager attempt to make sense of how I’ve gotten from point A to B, and to celebrate, just a little, last year’s milestones.

12 tops moments from 12 months

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(1) I taught K-5 music in the Goshen Public School System beginning in January 2015. On weekends, I commuted to Chicago to continue work in the theatre scene.
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 In Goshen, I  (2) reconnected with some of the most significant people in my life and learned, again, that I am absolutely a horrible skier.
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I had the crazy opportunity to (3) assistant coach MS girls’ basketball with my sister. This involved driving a minibus.
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A new season signaled new adventures. (4) Spring trips took me to WV, PA, OH, IL and even to the top of a creaky wind tower in SD.
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(5) I ran a half-marathon in Chicago. My first race of any kind, ever (and it sort of kicked my butt).
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I spent some time in SD over the summer, during which (6) I organized a theatre camp in my hometown, with gracious help & support from many.
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(7) I officially became my own business, VM Writing Services, LLC. I feel fancier now, yes.
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(8) I moved to Lancaster, PA, over the summer and (8.5) discovered a new theatre scene I’m jazzed to continue exploring.
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(9) Autumn on the East Coast included first-time trips to NYC, the Chesapeake Bay, Phili and the Atlantic Ocean.
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I loved going back to Goshen to (10) see my sisters, visit dear friends in ChiTown and (10.5) ride in a two-person plane for the 1st time, flown by Niles, in which I got to see my alma mater from above.
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(11) A trip to Peru with Hans & Niles was one that I will never forget, during which I surprised a dear college friend, Brook…
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(12) …saw spectacular views, explored the jungle, struggled with Spanish, tried new food, thought I might die on multiple occasionsand met new people I look forward to seeing again soon.
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And finally, a bonus, because you don’t do any of this fun stuff without the guidance, love, mentorship and support from many. Any moment with family and friends is a moment to be cherished…especially when dealing with this crazy crew. 😉

The adventure certainly continues.

A humble and heartfelt Happy New Year from me to you!

Things I learned in February

Cold is cold, is cold, is cold.

The sun does not shine in Feburary, but that does not mean life cannot be bright.

Your eyes are the blue the sky does not have and every time you hold my hand it is like a hug after a long day–a hug squeezing, squeezing, squeezing my palm, touching knuckles, nails, fingertips, finger pads, the skin creases in-between.

It is not what you say, it is how you say it, and no, no, no you may not all go to the bathroom at once, and no, no, no, I will not babysit you, even though I wear the same boots as your mom.

Fifteen minutes is enough. It is enough to get ready for class when you wake up fifteen minutes prior, enough for an apology, enough for a middle school girl’s basketball team to give up or to make a comeback. It is enough to run out of things to say and enough to say too much.

Fifteen minutes is enough for me to summarize things I learned in the twenty-eight days of February.

But twenty-eight days?

Twenty-eight days is not. It is not enough. It is short and curt and practically rude. And now, gone.

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Top of the World

The fear of falling thousands of feet. The fear of being attacked by an angry mob of deadly wasps. The fear of a twelve-inch needle. The fear of being buried alive. Of tornados. Of rats. Of spiders. Of snakes.

Oh, how life has its share of scary.

Yet, somehow, these fears all pale in comparison to one:

The fear of the Beginner’s Ski Slope.

The world is a ball of shimmering wintery white. White interrupted by annoying blurs of grey and black and red. These are the statewide colors of Winter Coats 2015, it would seem. They fly and land like the ladybugs on the windowsill of the chalet.

And skiing is a skill these coat-wearing Indianans are born with.

Here I stand:

The classroom could not hold them all; Little People have exploded onto tree, hill, lodge, gravel muddy parking lot. Little People born with skis attached to their feet.

And this, my friends, is the top of the world. This is the top of Bunny Slope.

I am bundled in borrowed gear: a too-small winter coat, too-big winter pants, little fragile 7.5-sized feet locked tightly inside the torturous, the infamous, the impressively uncomfortable, ski boots. 

 “Ready?” he asks.

“You can do it!” she cheers.

“Just remember to stay low.” he instructs.

Friends with good intentions and yet, I hesitate.

It is that moment before—exhaling, not inhaling—taking off, not landing—that causes my jaw to clench, my stomach to tighten, my unhappy trapped little feet to press hard against plastic boot.

Ready, get set, go. 

“First time,” I told the small child I accidentally knocked over.

“First time,” I said–adding a click of my tongue and a knowing nod for dramatic effect–as I tried to explain to the middle-aged gentlemen stuck behind me why I was waiting and waiting and waiting to grab onto the towrope intended to jerk me back to ground level.

“First time,” I said to the instructor–Trish–half-mountaineer, half-human–whom my desperate friends paid (bribed?) to try to help me.

But truth be told?

This was trip #2.

As soon as my friends disappeared to some scary, unnatural-sounding thing called a chair lift, I ran into the chalet and hid by the brownies and nacho cheese dispenser. Just close enough to a window to keep a lookout into the white world beyond without being seen.

“Mom.” I started before she could say hello. “This is awful. I am horrible. I mean. No. Really horrible.”

“And please don’t tell anyone that I am hiding in a ski chalet and calling you.”

It turns out there’s not much Mom can do for you when you suck at skiing and are hiding from your friends by gatorades and lasagna-to-go.

Oh, the woes of adulthood.

Here I stand:

On top of a bunny slope called 24-years-old. A bunny slope that, right now, seems larger than life itself.

Preparing for a take off. The exhale. The go.

Feeling like my shoes are a little too big, my coat a little too small. Feeling like my parents are far, far away and my friends are anxiously waiting for me at the bottom.

Here I stand:

Walking into a music classroom for the very first time. (Assistant) Coaching my very first basketball game. Auditioning for grad school. Starting a new relationship.

Deep breath. Eyes ahead. Back straight. Lean forward, but not too far forward. Crouch low, but not too low. Relax, relax, relax. Ready, get set, go.

I will fly, I will soar, I will tumble my way into what’s next. I will grab onto the towrope. I will close my eyes. Exhale. And I will pull myself back to the top again.

And again.

And again.

But only metaphorically. Of course. For your safety and mine, I’ll give the slopes a 365-day hiatus.

In the chalet, we sit around a square table the size of a chair. We are surrounded by dying ladybugs and soggy humans drinking beer. We talk about which Shakespeare play is our favorite, how Macbeth is a hot ticket right now, how the service could not be any slower and how dry our eyeballs are from sunshine. We laugh about that one time and make plans for backpacking and hiking and camping trips to come.

Time has stilled. I breathe easy–steady inhales, steady exhales.

I’ve survived!

In spite of my new collection, bruises, wounded ego, and all.

And now, with the fears behind me, I can’t help but think: Oh, the adventures that await. One exhale. One take-off. That’s all it takes.

Was I really that scared? Is it really that easy?

One ready, get set, go. 

And look at the places you’ll land.

Welcome to the Safari

Breath in, breath out. Black glove, grey door handle. Brown boots, white snow. Shuffle, not walk. Slosh, slosh, slosh, steps squish-squash; I’m Vanessa-style skating through mud and snow.

Breath in, breath out. Black glove, black door handle. Snow-covered boots, water-covered entry. Children, not adults. Little people 90% winter clothing and 10% body weight; I’m Stephen Sondheim’s giant.

Breath in, breath out. Black glove, black door handle. Wet boots meet thin, blue carpeted office. Smile, Hello, introductions—

Interruptions.

A stampede of water buffalo or a showing of Lion King in the next door classroom?

A herd of Disney snow boots fastened with velcro and winter hats with animal ears, poofy gloves double the size of the hands inside them, snotty noses and endless chatter, arrives.

Shazam! The school office has magically shrunk to the size of a closet.

“She threw snow at me!”

“I have to go to the bathroom!”

“The bus broke down, the bus broke down, the bus broke down, the bus broke down, the bus…”

My, conversation this morning is buzzing. 

I glue myself to the wall, back straight, limbs tucked in, narrowly avoiding a Mufasa-like ending. Chaos, will subside, I tell myself. Stand, wait. Breathe. Chaos, will subside. Stand, wait…

But it didn’t.

And it wouldn’t.

This was—oh no, not Day 1—but the day before Day 1—and here it was, the tempo of the week for the new music teacher. Ready?

Fast, fast and faster.

Get ready, get set, go! Go, go, go…

go to Goshen.

This is why I am teaching part-time elementary school music from now through May in Goshen, Indiana:

90% luck/timing/mysterious life force and 10% skill.

I was a block from my Chicago studio, walking home after what had been an hour of rejuvenating ujjayi breath and a savasana that had put me to sleep (oops), when my sister, Alicia, called.

“I turned down a long-term sub. el. ed. music position,” she said, using the hip teacher shortened lingo, “because I accepted a position in my content area at the high school.”

“But,” she continued, “I told the school with the el. ed. music temp. opening all about you. And they really want you to apply.”

“Oh,” I said. “You did?” Wow. “Huh. Well. It’s pretty unlikely I could make that work…it’d be a mess to figure out…”

I’m not certified, I rambled. I want to stay in one place for 12 months. I’d need to find a subletter. I’d need to move all my crap. I sorta had a life in Chicago. I would get in your way if I came back. Blah blah, blah blah.

“I really think you’d be good at this,” she pressed.

I hung up and I cried. Yep, I did this weird little sniffly cry on the corner of Wolcott and Wilson because somehow I knew that all my plans had changed again, even though I was far from making up my mind on whether or not I would pursue the job.

But I did. And so it began:

Interviews, plural. (Those education people can really drill a person!)

Looking for a subletter who wanted to move in the middle of a Chicago winter. (Were my Craiglist Posts desperate-sounding? Yep. Did I care? Nope.)

Leaving home, finding a new home.

Quitting some jobs, renegotiating others.

Moving plans for what must certainly be the best day of the year to move (January 2! Try it!).

Tough conversations with dear friends who were not only used to regularly seeing me, but regularly seeing me after only a 5-minute walk.

And my timeline?

Today. Answers needed, now, please. ASAP. Hurry, hurry!

So this is how it all happened:

Smoothly.

Job, offered.

(How can I prove I can lead music without an instrument? Alrighty, staff, let’s sing together right now! One-two-three!)

(I didn’t do that, but it crossed my mind.)

Chicago theatre endeavors? They’ll continue.

(Long weekends in the city, here I come.)

A miracle subletter who signed e-mails to me, “XOXO SUBLETTER SOULMATES”.

A balmy January 2nd (certainly the warmest day 2015 has given us so far).

A best friend also moving to Goshen.

…to live with in an awesome apartment…thanks to her Goshen-based BF…who is also myotherbestfriend…who has mad apartment searching skills…whose mom is an el. ed. music teacher…who has decided to mentor me step-by-step through teaching…

And ridiculously supportive friends.

What I know about teaching elementary music:

If you are a certified music teacher, less than you.

But I do know a bit about dealing with people, including small people. I have directed children in music before. I’ve also hung out with children from time to time, managed children, prevented children from injury, entertained children, and occasionally even been a child.

I do care about Arts education, a lot. And while it has been and continues to be a  ‘super goal’ to teach at the college level, hey, teaching in the Arts is teaching in the Arts and I feel there are few things more important for me to do in my life.

So if I get a chance to do it, I’m going to.

Oh yeah, and I’ve done music here and there, ya know. But, anyway.

Breath in,

Breath out. Pale fingers, silver laptop, black keys. Brown boots, wood floor. Process, then write. Write, then process. Tip tip, tap, tip tip tip tap, this is Vanessa-style music making.

I took acting coaching this fall in the city. I picked monologues that ended with the best-of-the-best adorable sentences like, “I’m not going to do that.” and “He will love me!” and “Yes, that is what I feel, dammit!”

My coach told me, “the end of monologues shouldn’t have a cute little button ending. Make us want more. Leave us hanging. Go against that impulse of yours to wrap things up.”

So today I’m just breath in, breath out.

Just process, then just write.

Tip tip, tap, tip tip tap, music making on electronic paper…as I get ready to make music with hundreds of kiddos next week.

Bring it on, stampede of Disney snow boots. I’ve always loved the Lion King, anyway.

my autumn favs//snapshots