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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shoe scuffs

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

Am I crazy?

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

I fouled a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

My certifications?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You score on them!!” I roared.

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

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

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

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

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

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The ‘A’ team welcoming me back last week.

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

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

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

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

I’m severely sentimental, what can I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Top 12

How do you begin to process a year of life?

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

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

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

12 tops moments from 12 months

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

The adventure certainly continues.

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

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.

The Notorious Nomad Settles

I’m just, just getting resettled in Chicago. Blogging right now is a little risky. Anything I write sets me up for a definite (and now public) whoa, that’s really what you thought? or a little did you know…a few weeks down the road.

But I’m blogging anyway. Here’s why:

I was trying to get on the ‘L’ (the train) the other day and it wouldn’t let me. I beep-beeped my little Ventra card and I pushed my weight against the entrance gate…and nothing.

Really? I thought to myself. I tried walking through again. The bar didn’t budge. What on Earth!?

Anyone who has been in this situation (which if you live in Chicago, is you) knows that there are few worse feelings in the world.* It’s like. The Ventra card failing causes instant panic, I don’t care who you are. Because there’s always someone behind you and there’s always a train coming and because that’s just the power of the evil Ventra card.

At that dark moment though, on this particular day, a man walked up and in one sentence and with one effortless movement saved the day.

“You’re trying to go through the wrong gate,” he said matter-of-factly.

He reached his card across the way to my entrance, touched his card on the correct corresponding touch pad for the gate that I was trying to enter, and then left through his gate–the gate that I had unintentionally opened for him.

In one beat. Just like that.

It took me a split second to realize what had just happened.

(And about ten tries to explain that in words right now.)

Forgive me, but yes, I’m going there. I’m turning this embarrassing little story into a metaphor. Because this is a bit how I feel about moving back to Chicago and it’s just too perfect.

First, the obvious: I’ve run into some annoying gates.

Stomach problems? Check! Losing vision rapidly in one eye? Check! Feet randomly bleeding from my shoes so that I am dripping blood and incapable of walking without a significant limp? Check! Temping at a law firm and the first sentence from the boss being, “WHAT. YOU DON’T KNOW LAW. WHY ARE YOU HERE.” Check!

Transitions are tough.

Even despite earning a reputation as a nomad, since I’ve lived in 4 states for longer than a month in less than a year (holy crap, I had not counted that til now!), it still is an adjustment being back in the city.

However, I feel energized and ready. Ready for whatever! Ready to delve into my craft. And even though I might struggle a little at the gate, I have a pass and a sense of which train I’m trying to get on, and some truly amazing people who are there for me.

Because it would seem that you really only need one quick thinkin’ somebody to help you out.

And at the very least, I do have that. A rather important Somebody, actually, who is watching out for me as I explore, wide-eyed, this bizarre city-world so foreign to me, so completely different than the world I grew up in.

So today, in the face of the inevitable little did you know to come, and despite every gate I’ve faced, I’m choosing optimism.

*Hyperbole.

Precancerous Moles

I am going to tell you about one of my favorite kids at camp this summer.

Not that I had favorites.

I will call him Henry.

I thought Henry was a bit of a punk.

Not that I ever think such things of campers.

It might’ve been the way he dressed. Possibly? He wore a graphic design t-shirt and baggy-ish cargo pants and was always wearing a hat. Not a baseball cap, but a ‘cool’ cap, the kind that isn’t a freebie at a John Deere event. The kind of cap with some strange symbol that stands for something that’s cooler than anything in my wardrobe.

I had ambitious personal goals of getting to know every. single. camper at camp.

Including Henry.

And especially Henry.

Because Henry was a loner.

As someone who despised camp growing up (shh, don’t tell!), it was the loners that tugged hardest at my heartstrings.

I got my chance when Henry ended up on my all-day hike. Or more so, I ended up on his all-day hike. Every Friday at camp we packed up PB&Js and we hiked. All day.

I was assigned to help supervise the hard-level hike that week–which I was quite enthusiastic about doing–until a group of sleep-deprived preteens decided last minute that easy sounded better. Against my will, I was sent right past medium level to ground zero to help balance the numbers.

I was bitter.

What fun is Prehistoric Valley when you had your eyes set on Eyebrow?

(In hindsight, I ended up in the hospital 2 days later. So…fine.)

I got to talk to Henry.

All. day.

Henry, who started out walking slowly by himself in the middle-almost-back of the group.

I slowed my pace to his and asked what he liked to do for fun. “Computer game programming,” he said softly, his eyes watching his feet.

Don’t be deceived.

It wasn’t long until Henry took charge as both the asker and the answerer.

“Do you want to hear something weird?”

“Do you want to hear something awesome?”

“Do you want to hear something funny?”

“Do you know what?”

Cool cap aside, here was a freckly light-haired, bright blue-eyed kid. A skinny middle schooler at camp with a million dollar smile and a fierce nerdy streak that probably means he’ll end up richer than my income and your income combined.

A kid who secretly contains a zillion and two one-of-a-kind stories and can preface every one of them–every. one.–with a question mark.

“You know what’s great?”

“You know what’s not so great?’

“Have you thought about dragons before?”

“Guess what?”

“Wanna hear something gross?”

His favorite subjects in school are technology and engineering (which apparently exist in junior high these days). He’s designing his own video game. He knows he wants to major in computer science in college (in six years). He loves, loves, loves camp and the best hike of them all is Raspberry. The kids at his school do a lot of stuff they probably shouldn’t on their computers.

His mom is sick.

Her illness changed his life because they had to close the family business.

And then:

“Do you want to know why I always wear a cap?”

“Why do you always wear a cap?” I asked.

“The doctor found a precancerous spot on my head.”

“What?” Was he being serious?

“Yeah. So they had to cut it off. My parents let me decide if I wanted the surgery and I heard all the statistics and stuff and I was like, definitely. Absolutely. Skin cancer is in my family and so now there’s this very sensitive skin there so I always have to wear a hat.”

“Wow,” I said, “I wouldn’t have guessed that.”

“Yeah. And there’s a scar you see. See? Like other kids steal my hat ‘cuz they think they’re being funny but it’s not so I try to tell them.”

“That would…” I trailed off. “Suck” is not a staff appropriate word.

“Or when I go to the beach. I can take it off to go like swimming under water and stuff but that’s really it…and it gets really, really annoying. I wish I didn’t have to wear it all the time.”

“Yeah,” I offered. “That would be…tough.”

“I sorta hate it sometimes but it’s okay. I’m glad I don’t have cancer!”

I heard some pretty intense stories from campers. More intense than Henry’s, sure. But something about Henry’s story hit me in a way that no one else’s quite did.

The next day as the campers were leaving, I sought out Henry to say goodbye. It turned out, however, that my one-day friend had found a pal to hang out with until his parents came. He was preoccupied with their (gaming) discussion. I knew better than to interrupt.

In my head my thoughts were swirling.

Want to hear something?

Want to know something crazy?

Want to know what’s on my mind?

Want to know what you taught me, Henry?

I misjudged you.

Just a little.

I had the best intentions to be your friend at camp, but I had no concept of what you might be dealing with. I had no idea that you had a sick mom and I had no idea how much camp meant to you and I didn’t know that you were so hung up on your fashionable caps because of a precancerous mole.

If I had to wear a hat every day of the week, I’d probably spend some money on some nice ones, too.

I came to camp wanting to serve, serve, serve. This was my mantra on day one. But was my mantra more about me, or about you?

I wanted to serve, serve, serve because of some difficult times I went through a year or two ago. Difficult times that prevented me from working at a camp. That left me feeling sort of guiltily indebted to everyone who was there to help me out. Which was. Everyone.

It doesn’t take much, does it, to realize that everyone’s got their precancerous mole.

Me. You. All of us.

It doesn’t take more than a day and a conversation with a twelve-year old to be reminded that everyone has that spot that they try to hide and a story as to why they have to hide it. That there’s always more that meets the eye and dang, that’s a lesson we all have to commit to learning and relearning.

Again and again.

Thanks, Henry.