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.

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.

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1>> The childlike joy of a snow day is simply something special. 
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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.

 

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3>> Hans’ brain is amazing, so he dreamt this old office space into a destination cafe, and a few months later…
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4>> ..there it was! I completed a lifelong goal of becoming a snobby barista and even gained some new best friends in the process.
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5>> Christina ended her college career with a zillion accomplishments, which we welcomed as reason to reunite the Hofer clan.
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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).
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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.
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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… 😉
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9>> Best friends wedding equals best friends reunion. 
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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. 
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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.
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12>> Then there was Hugo, the worlds cutest Airedale Terrier, who is now a million pounds heavier than pictured here.
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13>>Lancaster Mennonite entrusted me with the best kiddos in the world. I directed the Lancaster debut of “Peter and the Starcatcher.” 
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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.
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15>> A solid best friend for every single day of 2016 is a special thing, indeed.
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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. 
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>>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,

-Vanessa

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.

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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.

A Bold Bandana

I was driving home from Indiana last weekend with my boyfriend’s mom when suddenly, two vehicles ahead, a car veered a sharp right and zoomed off the road.

It plowed down the ditch, up the ditch and across a plain of grass until it smashed into a tree.

In just seconds, the car had reached its final destination, vastly different than where it had set out to go that morning. Though the car was stopped, the wheels were still spinning.

A young woman, a middle-aged man–they jumped out of their vehicles and sprinted through the ditch and across the grass. They tried to yank open the car door, but it was locked. They pounded on the windows, again and again, fists hitting glass hopelessly.

No one answered, but the tires kept circling, around and around and around.

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It’s late on a rainy Monday night, and I should be going to bed.

Instead, my mind is living in that fantastical (and absolutely crazy) third-eye place, where it narrates my thoughts as though I were writing them. My thinking is floating text in my head, begging to hit paper.

This happens when I write all day. When all day I think in terms of writing.

This happens when I have a lot of things to figure out.

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I had the chance to meet and grab coffee with two supporters of the theatre where I work  the day after I got back from my weekend trip. He was an outspoken man, a bulldog with a big heart who apologized upfront for his biting humor. She was spirited, albeit gentle. She sat across from me modeling a bold bandana, a sweet smile and an honest opinion–given only if you asked.

30 minutes in, she told me that she had cancer.

Like a switch going off, I abruptly noticed him. I noticed him watching her. I noticed how he listened–really listened. How he never interrupted. How he smiled when she smiled. I noticed the shimmer in his eyes when I said, “I’ll be thinking of you.”

And the way he–not her–replied to me, so simply, softly, “Thank you.”

Have sincerer words ever been spoken?

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I am a 20-something living a very different life than my parents, my grandparents or their parents before them. I am thousands of miles from my ancestral roots, my family’s homestead, my prairie upbringing. Presumably many of you can relate.

The world keeps getting bigger, the more I see of it, yet despite knowing firsthand that there are thousand of paths to choose from–all that end the same–I find I’m still terrified at the multitude of mistakes that await me. Of the pain down the path.

I see the stopped car and those wheels spinning, spinning, spinning–so tragically, so pointlessly. I see the illness behind the bandana and the raw heartache of just one smile and just one ‘thank you’.

I see this all, and I want to freeze the clock, here, on this rainy, rather unremarkable (and completely safe) Monday night.

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Life is fragile. I imagine that if I can be taught this firsthand twice in 24 hours, each of us will learn this and relearn this thousands and millions of times in our lives, God willing.

When I grow up, whenever that dreaded day might arrive, I hope I can face the reality of life’s precariousness with bravery. I hope I can look at the future, its big unknowns, its unavoidable pitfalls and inevitable heartbreaks, and rise to meet it, regardless.

Tonight, though, spring rain falls, and my mind like wheels spins.

Tonight, I give myself a little grace. It’s Monday, after all. l’ll let myself soak in these memories and try to make sense of these moments.

I’ll stand still in this one spot, as though standing in a rain puddle during a thunderstorm, watching the thousands of droplets around me, fall.

I’ll stand here and now and wait to see if tomorrow I choose otherwise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tomato slicer

I was reminded tonight of one of my first ‘real’ jobs in high school.

I was one of, I don’t recall exactly, perhaps ten or so locals who were selected to be sandwich artists at the very first Subway to arrive to my hometown.

We were interviewed and selected amidst plywood, power tools and tarp, as the building, tacked onto the end of the town shopping center along Highway 81, was not yet finished.

On the first day of training, I cut my finger on the tomato slicer. Not wanting to embarrass myself in front of the Subway elite (they’d come up from Nebraska to train us), I tried to hide the injury. I kept my eyes glued on the presenter teaching us 101 kitchen safety and meanwhile pushed paper towels against my finger to try to stop the flow of blood.

My friend Lori, who was also in training, had a better angle on the stack of paper towels. She casually slipped me sheet after sheet, as a I discretely slipped the bloodied ones into the trashcan beside me that was holding the tomato discards.

I remember it took a long time for that cut to go away.

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photo: Marnette Hofer

Homesickness is a funny thing. When I first left for school, I anticipated it. Now, going on eight years later, I don’t see it coming before it arrives.

Homesickness slips its way through the seams into those cracks of anxious anticipation, quick change or slight hesitation. It drips and it drools, and I don’t really know what to do with the mess.

Mostly, it frustrates me. It feels like an Achilles heel, for lack of a more original comparison, and I become irritable, feisty even, about this reoccurring weak spot.

I’ve learned so much about you, Pennsylvania, and now and then I want to shove it back your direction. I want to tell you a thing or two about South Dakota, because you don’t know.

In South Dakota, when you see a line of cars coming down the highway you know that a ball game just finished. And when Dad has to wait for a car to turn off our gravel road onto Highway 81, he grumbles, because waiting for traffic is not normal.

In South Dakota, you don’t call your aunt an ant, because that would be an odd reference to her size.

In South Dakota, appetizers are only for holidays and dessert, 9 times out of 10, contains flour.

In South Dakota, the beach is at the river, keeping your gold-level rating at Starbucks is impossible since the nearest is an hour away, and hugs are just for family and close friends that you haven’t seen in a long time–and Grandma, always.

In South Dakota, spring is dictated by the weather, the moistness of the ground and district basketball games.

Daylight savings changes when you eat supper, because it effects how late the farmers can stay outside working.

Geese signal the turn of the season clearer than billboards.

Sunrises remain as beautiful as ever, but the air–uninterrupted by noise or building– carries a palatable freshness your lungs have been craving.

And you step into that beauty and breathe deep, knowing soon, new life will spring in the fields that surround you. Soon, the days will grow longer, and you will fill each fuller to accommodate.

I hate that my childhood home is somewhere that is not near anyplace anyone is going.

Yet, if it were any closer, I fear it would lose its desolate charm.

Oh, how strangely amusing and absolutely enchanting it is to have unintentionally frozen this soft, sweet place in my mind as though it were a golden twilight never to be had again.

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photo: Marnette Hofer

Here is a horrible comparison:

Sometimes homesickness feels like a cut from a tomato slicer.

It’s just the most ridiculous thing to miss something so imperfect, and yet, I keep holding the paper towel to it, trying to pretend it’s not there,

secretly terrified it will never stop bleeding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Twenty-eight days came and left and forgot to take the cold along with her. Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset