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.

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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.



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,


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.

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?


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?

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

“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.


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.

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.

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

Los especialistas


There were so many shadows, it was as if the moon was shining down on trees.

This time, though, the countless lines and shapes on the dirt–spilling one on top of the other, indistinguishable–were not from the jungle, but from unfinished building beams, windows without glass, plastic chairs and bricks and a red sofa with a sinking middle cushion.

The shadows were from the cat, the dog, a pig carcass roasting over a smoldering fire–and from people. Us.

A dozen farmers–women, children, men–sitting around us in a circle and a half.

Though jungle was on all sides, the closest trees were meters away from our group, and the brightest light not the moon–not yet–but a sole lamppost covering us and all of the clearing in an unnatural orange.

“They want us to talk about the importance of sustainable farming practices,” Hans translated to me quietly.

I am transfixed by the color of Hans’ face and skin, an odd mix of its natural hue and the light overhead. The color reminds me of the juice I drank earlier that day. The freshest that I have ever had.

Time segues without me realizing it. It does that here. I catch words, I catch phrases, but I can’t quite catch the timing, and before I realize it, the chatter has tapered and Hans and Niles are cued to speak.

I watch them more than I hear them, piecing together the few words DuoLingo gave me, trying not to let the little Moroccan Arabic that I know filter in.

Thank you, they say, for what you do. It is so important. What you do–how you do it–it is so important.IMG_0048These are farmers with worn hands that have tended orange trees, coffee trees, yucca and mangos. These are farmers with wrinkled faces and shoes that have treaded up and down steep slopes, shoes that have seen lots and lots of dirt.

Dirt that crumbles and falls after rain.

They trigger memories of farmers from my South Dakota home, not so different, yet not so much alike, and I wonder to myself what it must be like to hear these two boys, these two men–especialistas–as they were introduced, thank them not just for their work, but really, for who they are.

This is traveling:

Going someplace entirely foreign, being wowed by its beauty and mystery, overanalyzing the smallest things that people say and do, and trying–without trying–to connect this collage of things to the life you perceived, until a plane ride ago, as normal.

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After the Americans finish, he stands up. He, the gatherer, the business owner, the native.

He, who grew up here and knows every backroad and every cowpath, where to cross the river and when, who to talk to and why and what the perfect coffee plant looks like.

He stands and he welcomes the co-op.

He then gives his battlecry–a long-winded rally speech, from the sounds of it. By the end, we’re impatient,  farmer and gringo alike, wiggling in our chairs–or stools, or cement blocks or what have you.

He asks, but there are no questions afterwards. We migrate indoors as a pack, crowd a single table and feast on all-parts pig.IMG_0096The next day I am sitting in the back of a pickup, watching trees and palm branches and rocks and boulders and birds–yellow-tailed birds with strange songs–fly by me at an inhuman speed.

Thrilling speed.

As the wind plays with my hair and the bumpy road tips and pushes and pulls me in every single direction, I try to imagine if these people–the famers I ate with yesterday–and the people I grew up with–the farmers I have known my whole life–were to meet.

I wonder what my life would be if my dad farmed on a jungle mountain instead of on an endless prairie.

I wonder what my day, this day here and now, would be like if only I spoke the language a little better.

I wonder where the road ahead is taking us, where exactly we are going, and if this road is really a road at all.

I tighten my grip around the edges of the pickup, and I take a deep breath of all the air I can possibly breathe in.

And I exhale.

I exhale gratitude and joy and yes, a little fear, for this is new terrain, adventure and experience unlike any yesterdays before.

Because I know that, before long, it will all be over. And it is. Now a dream, a blur.

An image preserved only in my mind of a dozen farmers in a circle, lit by a single orange light, and a faint but lingering feeling of jungle wind in my hair.