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!

Los especialistas

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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.

Sign me up for your webinar.

I’m living in Lancaster, PA, now. It’s no secret that I have a moving disorder that requires I pack my things and transport them someplace else every 6 months. So please don’t feel bad if you’re behind. Just come visit me.

I work at a theatre where I share a cozy office with the director of my department. The view from our window is brick door brick, brick window brick. More brick. I can go all day without seeing a tree–except that I can’t–so I leave my office for dinner.

Usually, I walk home. I live in the smack dab center of this little, not-so-little Pennsylvania city. There’s always something happening, something to hear–construction around the block, traffic, people yelling. Twice, an excellent brass band. On Sunday afternoons, the apartment below blasts loud music with heavy bass for approximately two hours. It rattles my things, I try to ignore it, I get annoyed, it stops.

Having gone to school with a number of folks from Lancaster County, I feel less like I’m somewhere new and more like I’m just late on the scene.

I have discovered, though, that if you want to throw yourself into a new environment, working in community engagement is a pretty sure option. “I’m just here to engage in the community” has become my no. 1 line at all networking functions and whenever I’m in awkward conversation with strangers, which is often.

I attended an event for a community business during my first week at work. I went with a couple of coworkers. It should be noted that they used that same pick-up line to convince me to come. “You’re in community engagement, you need to engage with…

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More brick. It’s a beautiful city, I promise.

When we arrived, we did the proper thing to do and avoided all people to stake out the food. While waiting in line for what we think was Doritos with hummus, we casually bumped into someone. My coworkers started chatting with her.

From my tag-along vantage point, I could easily watch as the casual chatter slowly died out, crept in my direction, and then, perfectly on cue, “Oh yes, you should meet Vanessa, she’s new in community engagement.”

“Ah,” the woman said, smiling, “we’ll likely be working with one another from time to time.”

“Really?” I asked, trying to seem sweet and also like a kick-ass business woman who stands up for herself and is older than 24. “That’s super,” I said. “And, sorry, you work at?”

Then there was this really long pause. Like something written in a play–but no, really. She cocked her head slightly to the side, lifted an eyebrow, and said through a plastic smile, “This,” she gestured to the band, the bar, the people, the sparkly hipster-shabby-chic hanging lights, “is mine.”

I apologized. I sort of half-laughed. She didn’t. I complimented her on a really super nice party. And that was the end of that awesome conversation.

So ‘engaging in the community’ has its road bumps and will clearly require a little more time until mastery.

Though there are aspects of Lancaster life that I’ve found take very little time at all. I’ve discovered access to new knowledge and a corresponding thirst for learning that, honestly, I haven’t felt since burning out a bit in undergrad.

There is so much to learn about education and Arts education and the way we learn and why we learn how we learn–and then just nonprofits in general, the business–and then just regional theatre–and oh, my brain is on a continuous buzz. I’m reading new books and constantly signing up for blogs that use hooks like ‘young professional’ and ‘cutting edge’ and ‘Arts education matters’ and I am attending live webinars, and all of this is such a delightful, delightful thing.

With everything happening in Lancaster–a growing Arts scene, a growing yuppie scene, etc.,–I feel like the city is just rooting me on. Check out this! Learn about this! Come to our event!

And along the way, I’m feel I’m (slowly) picking up the little stuff that makes living here living here. I can now tell you which stands at Central Market are worth your dollar (and which accept credit card) and how to pass an Amish buggy on the road. I can tell you a thing or two about tea, incidentally, and give you a great tour of an excellent (haunted?) theatre.

You’re invited to visit, or heck, just move here already. Test my knowledge (or please, please don’t). If you’re already here, we should say hi to each other. Why not? Let’s engage in this community! Just don’t interrupt my webinar.

A brush full of paint

I walked into Menard’s today and I wanted to die. Have you been there recently? These places are huge. With all that space they should at least grow something. Raise some livestock. Start an indoor herb garden. But just to sell things when farmland is at such a premium? What sort of strategic planning is that.

Clearly my brain is still in Farm World. I’ve left home, but heart and mind appear to be traveling a little slower. They are likely putzing down I-80 right now, distracted by a corn field somewhere between here and God-forsaken Iowa City.

My time at home was a time of family. It was a time of realizing that I’m growing up, and that means everyone else is, too. It was a time of sunny day after sunny day after sunny day and paint. I painted a shed for my dad, and hence, I also painted my hair, my arms, somehow my stomach. Paint everywhere.

Now the brushstrokes change color and direction. Now the world around me swirls all sorts of new shades, shades that quickly drip and bleed together as I zoom pass unfamiliar hill and mountain, tree and field, house after house after house. As I drive East.

East to a new job, a new apartment, a new part of the country that is somehow so much smaller and yet so much fuller.

East with a new haircut and a new shower mat and a new comforter for my new bed and a new (but not-so-new) pledge that this time, this time I will stay a little longer than last time.

Wherever last time was. Whenever last time was. I guess just take your pick.

I’m not convinced moving ever gets easier, and yet, here I am, halfway between home and a new home, typing this mini post with all the optimism and confidence of a fresh-from-college grad. Even though I don’t really fit that mold anymore.

Here’s to new adventures; at every stage, at every age. Again, and again, and again. Whether you are on the farm in South Dakota or somewhere between there and the Atlantic Ocean. Stay tuned!

That crooked nook

I feel pressured.

Sometimes my brain crawls into this odd crooked nook where paper becomes empty canvas. When I arrive here, I find it feels better, best even, to extract thoughts and opinions from the secret space in my head and to throw them onto the blank board (also known as Word Doc). To pull out useless thinking and twist the thoughts with my fingers like play-dough, to twist them into curves and lines, into words.

When I don’t write for a while, not for myself specifically, the crooked nook becomes trickier to find.

Yes, even with modern technology offering empty canvas with just a tap tap.

A good writer, I think as I stare at the blank word document, ties everything up. They have a theme. 

Good writers are the ones that take an entire twelve months of happenings, birth, death–the big stuff, yes–and somehow, God only knows, squeeze everything into a paragraph-style Christmas letter. A holiday hello complete with hook opening, sexy edited body, and a closing thought that contains not only a summary but a new nugget that you can take home with you.

A nugget-sized idea like a personalized party gift at an over-the-top wedding you didn’t dress quite right for.

The past month has been this hodgepodge of experiences, all of which I feel are worth mentioning, but none that I am easily linking.

Hence, the pressure.

I accomplished things. I suppose that this, at least, is certain.

I finished teaching for the time being–which was weird. Kiddos were saying, “see you next year, Miss Hofer!” and I didn’t have the heart to say, “I will likely never see you again. Never. Ever.”

I didn’t hate being a teacher. Sometimes I loved it. But mostly I knew, and I knew early on, that I needed to commit to the career. I didn’t and still don’t feel right continuing on in a classroom setting on this half-in, half-out basis. It’s too important a role. It’s too exhausting a job.

Accomplishment two, I ran a half-marathon. It probably goes without saying that this was less ‘weird’ and more so just ‘difficult.’ Hans, my boyfriend/running partner/person-to-blame-for-convincing-me-to-sign-up told me on many-an-ocassion that, “it would be easy!”

“By the end of our training, you’ll be cruising!” he said. He’s a very encouraging guy.

But I don’t think I ever cruised, per say.

In fact, by Mile 8 I felt like a sort of hippo who was more or less dragging my thunder thighs from mile marker to mile marker.

I did cross my very first finish line and eat a pancake breakfast by some port-a-potties, and I did feel like a complete boss in my slinky new Chicago Half t-shirt afterwards. So that’s something. That is definitely something.

Accomplishment three, I decided what I want to do next, more or less.

I’m still writing. Actually, I’m writing more. I write for work and I write quite a bit. Most recently, I started writing for Mennonite Health Services. This is my first Mennonite-related gig, and that’s significant to me. It’s one thing to write for real estate in Canada (a fine endeavor, thank you!) and it’s another thing to write for your home church.

For now, I’ll do both and we’ll see how it all comes together when I move to Pennsylvania in August. When I move to start a job at a well-respected theatre in Lancaster County.

I feel the transition. I feel it a lot. I didn’t know you could feel all your things in boxes–yes, this is getting bizarre–but gosh, I can.

Will I have enough qualifications by the time I turn 25 to start a business as a professional mover? I wonder to myself.

My wandering feet feel a little off balance as I visit hilly Pennsylvania this week. I am oddly nervous to go home the week following, I am wondering what will come the week after, I am considering and reconsidering the weeks after that.

Adventure looms.

Go ahead, wrap your story in a cute theme. Put a bow on it. Ship it around the world to friends and family and don’t forget a pic.

In December. Do that in December. Because today, it’s June. And in June, this June, anything goes.

Perfection, unnecessary.

The world is churning and turning and the future seems ever-more far away from the past.

No links, no ties, no summaries. Just twist the words and let them fly.

4,000 Miles (Almost)

“A year from now we’ll all be gone
all our friends will move away
And they’re goin to better places
But our friends will be gone away…”
—rivers and roads from the head and the heart

When you drive four thousand miles (almost) in less than one month, you assume that, somewhere in one of seven states, you will encounter a great blog post waiting to be written.

But even the longest car ride is too short when in good company.

I guess I was too busy talking to listen—or too busy listening to others talking—that I failed to hear what was happening around me.

It takes a special intentionality, after all, to catch a story.

So I write today not because I have a great story to tell, but because the greater story of my day-to-day is unraveling quickly. If I don’t write, I feel I will most certainly miss out on marking what was, and what continues to be, a spring of four thousand adventures (or more).

I do not know where I will be or what I will be doing three months from today. I wonder aloud how I always end up in this situation while acknowledging in secret that it is my own doing.

“I am continually amazed by the richness of life that just waits to be noticed, to be experienced,” I wrote in my journal last week. “This knowledge is like a rapid heartbeat in my mind, pushing me onto the next, the next, the next…”

I am currently training for a half marathon. Hopefully, come mid-May, there will be a triumphant blog post in which I explain how me, the girl who hates—HATED (past tense, positive thinking only)—to run, completed my first race. And not some fifty-meter dash warm-up. This is go big, or go home, half-marathon style.

But today, I’m just training.

Most days in Indiana, training in the spring means running in mud and getting rained on. One of the perks of traveling then is getting to run in places other than good ol’ I. N.

I spent Easter in Lancaster County, PA. While there, I learned two particularly important lessons, among many:

The first: Just because you are in PA–and eating Amish ice cream and going to farmers’ markets where you eat food from around the world and then eating candy while dyeing Easter eggs–does not mean that you can skip a training day for your upcoming race. It also will not improve your running time.

And just because you have been training for a half marathon since January does not mean that you are capable of running up a hill.

There is absolutely no part of my body that enjoys running up a hill. I don’t care how fun it is to come down.

From what I can deduce, my body is simply baffled by the entire concept.

Stop, it says. Something is wrong. You are trying to go up. Why are you trying to go up? That is impossible. 

I will also note, running up a hill is an entirely different thing than hiking up a hill. Colorado or no Colorado experience, hill or mountain, I don’t care. It’s the wrong direction.

But with Mr. Boyfriend toughing it out beside me (and looking great, dammit), what choice did I have?

So this is the second lesson I learned in Lancaster County, PA: Sometimes you have to run up a hill even if run is just about the least-accurate descriptor of what you are actually doing.

It felt like I was pulling, maybe walking while semi-crouched, perhaps better still, failing. But needless to say, not running.

Making progress is such a matter of perspective, isn’t it though?

I feel like I am relatively apt with words. Sometimes it seems to me that if you only phrase something right you can make anything sound like it is progress. 

(Oh yes, watching this popular TV show is giving me additional common ground so that I can better chitchat, enabling me to network with new people, who will potentially lead me to my dream job.)

After driving four thousand miles (almost) in one month, I tell myself that this is progress.

I made big decisions, I met new people, I shared significant time with significant others.

But as I’m running up this life-hill, some days it feels a little bit more wandering. The muscles are stretching and pulling and people next to me are somehow still beating me, and my entire being is asking, What are you doing?! 

Today, though, I pause.

I pause and breathe and re-ground myself. I pause and choose, intentionally, to look at the miles. You can’t argue with them. At least, I can’t. Four thousand miles (almost) is still (almost) four thousand miles, and the journey I’ve travelled in one month alone is one that I am proud of.

It is progress, because I choose it to be.

I don’t know where I will be in three months.

And really, you don’t know where you will be either.

But I think we share a mutual hope that we’ll both be moving, whatever that might mean, in whatever direction that might be. Maybe we’ll be trying something new, eating something delicious, completing something important, telling a friend how much we care or sharing a feeling we have never shared before. Maybe we will just be letting life unravel as fast as it damn well pleases and enjoying the ride all the while.

Even if the journey down isn’t quite worth the hellish run upward, perhaps the view from the top will help us see something that we could not or did not see before.

The options are endless (almost). And exciting (always).

“Been talkin’ bout the way things change.
And my family lives in a different state
If you don’t know what to make of this
Then we will not relate…
Rivers and roads
Rivers and roads
Rivers til I reach you…”