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.

img_1505.jpg

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.

IMG_4220

Advertisements

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.

img_4874
1>> The childlike joy of a snow day is simply something special. 
img_5282
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.

 

img_5102
3>> Hans’ brain is amazing, so he dreamt this old office space into a destination cafe, and a few months later…
img_7033
4>> ..there it was! I completed a lifelong goal of becoming a snobby barista and even gained some new best friends in the process.
img_5848
5>> Christina ended her college career with a zillion accomplishments, which we welcomed as reason to reunite the Hofer clan.
img_5137
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).
13335611_10208039453361509_821713411570745594_n
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.
img_5195
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… 😉
img_6356
9>> Best friends wedding equals best friends reunion. 
img_7236
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. 
img_7646
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.
img_1505
12>> Then there was Hugo, the worlds cutest Airedale Terrier, who is now a million pounds heavier than pictured here.
img_7993
13>>Lancaster Mennonite entrusted me with the best kiddos in the world. I directed the Lancaster debut of “Peter and the Starcatcher.” 
img_4773
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.
img_0746
15>> A solid best friend for every single day of 2016 is a special thing, indeed.
unspecified-2
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. 
img_7557
>>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

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.

IMG_1063

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.

meadow lark in song

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?

dsc_3869

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.

dsc_3878

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.