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Selling my home with St. Joseph

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I’m moving this summer. I’m moving whether I sell my current home or not, but everything will be easier and better if I sell my current home before I move.

I have a wonderful home in a great neighborhood, and we clean it well before each showing, and we’ve kept it in good shape all eleven years we’ve lived here. It’s priced reasonably, based on the local market. We’ve had eight or nine visitors who’ve looked at it, but we haven’t yet had an offer. The anxiety is building.

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 10.17.56 PM
My home looks even better now! This was taken before spring had arrived. photo credit: Leo Turissini

My neighbor Barb was the first person to suggest burying St. Joseph in the front yard. Near the “For Sale” sign. Upside-down. Facingthe road, not the house.

The advice has been repeated many times, by many people, usually accompanied by a story about someone getting a good offer three days after burying St. Joseph. Yes, three days. Not two, not four. Three.

And occasionally people will tell stories of St. Joseph being buried incorrectly. In these cases, the house takes a long time to sell. A long, excruciating time.

When I first heard the advice, I thought I’d do it. If you know me, you might be wondering why. I was raised Catholic but am now Unitarian Universalist, and I don’t even know whether I believe in god. I don’t generally pray to saints. Even when I was Catholic, praying to saints was not my thing. And my family and friends from outside of Northeast PA would be likely to laugh and scoff rather than suggest something like buying and burying St. Joseph.

But I liked the idea of using a ritual common in my local community to transform my anxiety into something else—a kind of trust or faith that things would work out. Put another way, it was about letting my anxiety go, allowing St. Joseph to take it away because it has been doing me no good, and it certainly doesn’t help with selling a house.

I didn’t act on it right away, but I finally made a point of finding St. Joseph after my friend Jill told me the place to go to purchase St. Joseph was in Dunmore, on Drinker and Chestnut. Sure enough, when I parked near the cupcake shop on Chestnut, a small store called Building the Kingdom of God was right around the corner.

I went in the store and glanced around just a bit as I made my way to the woman at the counter. “Can you tell me where I might find…” IMG_8612

The woman was smiling before I even finished my sentence: “…a little St. Joseph to help me sell my house?”

“I have to tell you,” she says, “every single person asks for St. Joseph in the same way.” She holds her fingers in imitation of my hand gesture. “It’s like it’s the universal sign for St. Joseph.”

Ah. You see? The community element that appeals to me is a real thing. We speak a universal language when it comes to St. Joseph.

The woman notices that the usual counter of St. Joseph home-selling kits has been emptied, but she goes to the back room and returns with one for me and several to set out on display. We chat as she takes care of the inventory and begins ringing me up.

“Do customers let you know if it works?”

“Oh, yes. I hear a lot of stories. But let me tell you,” she says, “people think it’s all about burying St. Joseph, but it’s not.”

Huh. IMG_8592

“First, what’s most important is that you get St. Joseph blessed. Second, you need to say the prayer. It’s the prayer that matters. Burying? That’s just a tradition. But prayer—that’s the answer.”

“Where do I get St. Joseph blessed?”

“Well, you can ask your parish priest. But if he won’t do it, just take it down to St. Joseph’s. Do you know St. Joseph’s, right down the hill?” I nod. Some of my students have done community service work there. It’s a center that helps people with a variety of needs. “Just go to the door and ask one of the retired priests to bless it. They’ll do it for you. Or sometimes they’re sitting outside and you don’t even have to go to the door.”

I pay for St. Joseph and the woman asks for my first name to add to their prayer list. I loved that woman. She took very good care of me.

I stopped for cupcakes on the way back to my car, and as I drove to meet friends, I thought about the blessing. My inner dialogue went something like this:

Laurie 1: “You aren’t going to go out of your way to ask a priest to bless St. Joseph, are you?”

Laurie 2: “No. I definitely don’t feel comfortable with that.”

Laurie 1: “Well, couldn’t you just go ahead and bless St. Joseph yourself? Don’t you believe that people can communicate directly with god without going through some intermediary?” (Notice that my inner dialogue didn’t include any doubt about god existing. I cannot explain that.)

Laurie 2: “Maybe I could. That would certainly make life easier. But isn’t that a little arrogant—thinking that I have the power to bless St. Joseph?”

Laurie 1: “Well, if it were someone else you wouldn’t find it arrogant, would you? because you do believe that each person is part of the divine, each person is sacred. If you believe it of other people, you should believe it of yourself, too.”

And the matter was settled. I would be the one to bless St. Joseph. But after my resolution, I still found myself driving around St. Joseph’s Center to see if a priest was sitting outside. If there had been one, I would’ve stopped and asked for the blessing. But there wasn’t.

I headed to work where I was meeting friends to go out to lunch, and as luck would have it, two more friends joined us. We carpooled, and Mary Ann ended up in the front passenger seat while I drove. Mary Ann, I should mention, is a nun. I pointed to the bag holding St. Joseph, and she picked it up.

“St. Joseph,” she said, “I’m sorry you’re being used for commercial purposes. But my friend Laurie is feeling stressed about selling her house, and she’s trying to take care of her family, so I’m sure you can understand and are willing to help her out.”

That’s my paraphrase. I’m sure it’s a little off because I was driving rather than taking notes. But inside I thought, “I believe St. Joseph is now blessed.”

When I got home later that day, I took St. Joseph out of his box and read the prayers that came with him.

I then did internet research to think through the burying options. Three things happened during this internet research that led to my decision about what to do next.

  1. I found many conflicting directions about how to bury St. Joseph, so that made the task trickier.
  2. I also read some testimonials from home-sellers who prioritized large profits in their transactions. That kind of greed didn’t feel right to me. Is this why I was going to bury St. Joseph?
  3. I finally read the following prayer, and my decision about burying St. Joseph became more clear:

I wish to sell this [house/property] quickly, easily, and profitably and I implore you to grant my wish by bringing me a good buyer, one who is eager, compliant, and honest, and by letting nothing impede the rapid conclusion of the sale.

Dear Saint Joseph, I know you would do this for me out of the goodness of your heart and in your own good time, but my need is very great now and so I must make you hurry on my behalf.

Saint Joseph, I am going to place you in a difficult position with your head in darkness and you will suffer as our Lord suffered, until this [house/property] is sold. Then, Saint Joseph, i swear before the cross and God Almighty, that i will redeem you and you will receive my gratitude and a place of honour in my home.

(full version found here)

Ugh. If I hadn’t read this prayer, I would’ve been able to bury St. Joseph in a respectful ritual; I probably would’ve even buried him upside-down. But now that I read it, I couldn’t divorce the burying (especially upside-down burying) from a kind of torture: Do what I want, St. Joseph, or you’re gonna be stuck upside-down in the ground! You will suffer like Jesus on the cross until my house sells, so hurry it up already!

Can you imagine? That would feel worse than the regular anxiety of waiting for my home to sell. I just cannot torture a saint to bribe him to make something happen. It has bad karma written all over it—instant karma more than anything, because there’s no way I could feel peaceful while torturing a saint.

Yeah, I know it’s a statue made in China, and it’s not actually a person or a saint. But he’d been blessed, and he’s standing in for the person / saint, so bad energy and torture and that twisted prayer are a bad way to go no matter how you slice it.

Once I knew I would not be burying St. Joseph, I felt better. I have had a few people worry about my decision since then, with a kind of certainty that it’s all meaningless if I don’t bury St. Joe. But I believe there’s a way of respecting a community ritual while also making it your own. If you’re going to do any ritual involving a saint, you gotta find a way to do it with integrity or it’s bound to fail, burying or no burying.

Back to that night. My statue was blessed, my prayers were said, my research was conducted, my decision made. I was ready to complete the ritual.

I held St. Joseph as I walked through rooms at the front of my house, looking for a good spot for him. I found one. I stood on a chair to put him in place, and there he sits. Or stands, rather. St. Joseph is looking out the window, inviting people into this home the way he wishes his family had been welcomed when Mary was big with child. And he’s looking out to the place where my family will head when we move. He stands between the old and the new with his values of hard work and care of family.


I think of my love of manger scenes as I look at him. Until now, I thought it was all about the way babies are celebrations of life and reminders that we must care for one another. But maybe it’s also about Joseph. It’s about adults who are vulnerable, looking for homes, trying to take care of young ones, working to build things for the future, trying to resist greediness,  anxious about all that cannot be controlled. It’s about adults who don’t have it all figured out, but we do the best we can. We turn to one another and care for one another.

St. Joseph is in my window, and I may leave him or I may take him to my new home. Either way, he’s about more than relieving anxiety and he’s more than a magic trick to make my life easier. He’s a reminder of what mattered to him and what matters to you and me today, still. It’s the universal St. Joseph, the language that we all speak, the motion that makes the woman at the Christian shop smile.






“Mother” as a verb

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On Mother’s Day, I can’t help but think about
a) those without moms
b) those without a healthy relationship with a mom
c) those who want to be moms but aren’t
d) my friend Kathy Pivak’s dissertation

Yes, that last one fits in! Kathy and I were dissertation partners, so I got to hear about some of her research on representations of mothering in the novels of Mrs. Humphry Ward. And it helped me think about mothering in ways that have stayed with me.

[Note: It’s been many years since I heard about all this from Kathy, so you can give her credit for anything smart that I say, but if I’m being dumb…well, just go ahead and blame Kathy for that, too. I’m sure she won’t mind!….jk! I actually want credit for anything smart, but Kathy can hold onto blame for the rest of it.😉 ]

I used to equate mothering with nurturing. You know—the momma bird feeding worms to the baby birds, or Caillou‘s mom never losing her temper and wearing those god-awful outfits as if she existed just to be a soft comfy person for her two annoying children and never cared even the tiniest bit about being hot or having a style. Nurturing. Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 11.40.56 PM

And you’ll notice in this paradigm of the nurturing mother, the mom (whether a bird or an animated mom) is biologically predisposed to nurture her young.

Then along comes my friend Kathy. And she points out some radical ideas! Except once you spend any time thinking about them, they’re not radical at all. They make a helluva lot of sense.

  1. Anyone can mother!
  2. Mothering is more than nurturing!

Anyone can mother
When I say “Anyone can mother,” I’m using “mother” as a verb that means nurture, care for, support, and so forth. (I know I just said above that mothering is more than nurturing, but I first want to use this definition that is a bit of a cultural default. Stay with me.)

The point here is that we can nurture, care for, and support one another without being biological moms. As a matter of fact, sometimes biological moms may be less good at this kind of mothering than people who are not biological moms. Mothering in this sense is open to all genders, to all ages, to all relationships. Mothering may be part of a long-term permanent relationship, or it may be something that happens short-term.

Sure, the traditional idea of the biological mom who is good at nurturing her kids is often a wonderful thing. I’m not dismissing it. But I am saying that it doesn’t always work out this way, and it’s certainly not the only wonderful opportunity for a nurturing relationship. It would be a way suckier world if people couldn’t mother one another in all sorts of situations.

Mothering is more than nurturing
So, in addition to opening my eyes to the ways people could nurture one another, Kathy also showed me that being a good mom (a.k.a. “mothering”) is not simply about nurturing. Yes, I’m switching up definitions mid-conversation.

The best moms are role models—taking care of themselves, standing up against injustice, allowing themselves to be cared for at times, taking risks (and sometimes failing), continuing to grow and learn, challenging others to step up—the list goes on.

Nurturing is certainly part of being a good role model, but without these other pieces, the mothering fails. The baby birds hang out in the nest all day waiting to be fed. And as Caillou and Rosie grow up, their mom wonders who she is without her children to provide her with a role, an identity, a clear definition.

Along with these sorta abstract ideas, I’ve been thinking of my own mom and the way she has been both a source of comfort and a role model. It’s worth writing about, actually, but I will do that on another day. Weighing in at about 100 pounds, my mom is too big to fit into this blog post and needs one of her own.

I’m also thinking about others who have been “moms” to me, not only supporting me but also standing up for themselves and for others; not only being kind and sympathetic, but also being strong and willing to set limits; not only nurturing but also allowing themselves to be nurtured.

Do you see how “mothering” means so much more than nurturing? Our limited definitions can create odd expectations of moms, expectations that are not good for anyone.

Therefore, to all of you who have mothered me or others in your life, I say Happy Mother’s Day! And keep up the good work!


political rallies in PA–Bernie & Trump

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On Thursday, 21 April 2016, I decided at the last minute to hear Bernie Sanders speak at the Scranton Cultural Center, and I just heard Donald Trump speak tonight, Monday, 25 April, at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre.

I’m kinda overflowing with thoughts, so I’m going to chip away at some of them. I’m imagining Bernie fans and Trump fans reading this. Here are the upcoming sections so you can skip anything that doesn’t interest you:


Note: I’m sorry I didn’t hear Hillary Clinton speak. I partly think she’s awesome but partly worry she’s not….It is difficult to discern much when someone’s identity is so fully mediated. It’s tough to tell what is “real.” Being so fully enmeshed in public representation tends to hide rather than reveal truth. But, for whatever it’s worth, I think she can get the job done.

MY BASIC STANCE~~way to the left

First, to get this out there from the start: My views are aligned closely with the perspectives of Bernie Sanders, especially the basic principle that

The greatness of a nation is judged not by its number of millionaires but by the way it treats its most vulnerable members.

And I feel incredibly uncomfortable with the ongoing chant from the Trump rally,

Build the wall! Build the wall! Build the wall! Build the wall!

Ever since reading John Donne’s Meditation XVII when I was in high school, I’ve believed that people are connected. To the degree that some people are suffering, we all suffer.

Or maybe I already believed that and Donne just expressed it well. Or maybe I was convinced by that line “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me” that comes from the Bible (Matthew 25:40), or maybe it was that song by Joan Osborne, “One of Us,” which makes me think about how weird it would be if god was someone that really bugs me, and that makes me think I ought to be tolerant and kind even when people annoy me. Sometimes I’m successful with that. Sometimes I’m a horrible person, but you should be nice to me just in case I’m god. Not really. I’m definitely not god. Just be nice to me because it will make you happy, okay?

And that’s what I believe. I think it’s unhealthy to be in communities with big disparities in power, with an extreme divide between the have’s and have-not’s; and to the degree that we are governed by fear or hatred or other negative feelings toward others, we lose.

(Note: Although Donne and the Bible focus exclusively on men in their passages, I translate both to be about people in general. Because duh.)

COMMONALITIES~~Trump on the same page as Bernie

I was surprised at how many things Trump said tonight that echoed what I heard at the Bernie Sanders rally. You can read thorough explanations here and here. (Thanks to Kerri T. for pointing these out to me.)

I’ll just make a quick list of what I noticed both candidates saying.

  1. The political system is rigged. Lots about this.
  2. Manufacturing has been leaving our country and going to China because of NAFTA. This needs to change.
  3. Lots of taxing is necessary, but in different ways, to solve different problems.
  4. Against war in Iraq when it started way back in 2003.
  5. African Americans are facing more difficulties with unemployment than people from other demographics. (Sanders said a lot about minorities; this was the only thing from Trump.)
  6. Health care should be reformed.
  7. Education is important and we’re not doing enough to prioritize it.
  8. A lot of emphasis on doing right by veterans.
  9. We need to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure in the U.S.

EXPECTATIONS of BERNIE~~in which Laurie gets inspired

I went to the Bernie Sanders rally without strong expectations. I knew I matched most or all of his political stances, though I hadn’t fully engaged in the campaigns.

Why have I held back? The primaries have annoyed me this year—the politicians’ views seem warped when they talk to only Democrats or only Republicans, and the most moderate Republicans had no chance in such an environment.

Also, I’m registered as an independent, so I don’t vote in the primary elections, and that means I have less motivation to decide who my favorite is. And one more reason: The other three members of my immediate family all have strong political views that go in a variety of directions, and sometimes it’s easier to talk to everyone if I remain open. Even though we all know that I lean way to the left. Anyhow.

I ended up appreciating Sanders’ ideas and the way they all fit together. I felt like I wanted to publicly express my support, and I’ve done so several times. I wasn’t expecting to be inspired, but I was inspired.

When I heard Bernie’s platform in a fuller way rather than fragmented through interview or debate questions, the injustices of wealth concentrated in the hands of a few seemed more obvious and more clearly in need of being addressed.

Once you start with the way the political and economic systems are rigged to privilege the few at the expense of the many, you have an opportunity for change. And what good things can come from that change? Acknowledge that in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, good things are possible: Pre-K education, benefits and care for veterans, more job opportunities, a higher minimum wage, healthcare for every person, care of the environment. There was more, but I didn’t take notes.

When Bernie said he was against fracking, the crowd stood and cheered for him. I looked around and thought, “He’s speaking to these people about their homes. The water they drink and the land they live on. They feel like someone cares. They need someone who cares.”

I also liked the way Bernie talked about both local and national history, both in terms of difficulties and in terms of grassroots movements and the way any kind of positive change comes from the people.

Yup. I felt far more inspired than I expected.

EXPECTATIONS OF TRUMP~~in which Laurie is pleasantly surprised

My expectations for Trump were low. I’ve seen him perform in debates on TV, and I’ve seen a number of clips of his speeches and rallies, with some of these involving violence. And I’ve noticed the same kinds of things others have: misogyny, racism, name-calling, violent and bullying rhetoric, and a lack of clear plans and policies.

Yup: my expectations were low.

Here is how I was pleasantly surprised.

  1. The crowd was passionate but not violent.
    Individuals were polite—it was incredibly crowded, but I experienced minimal pushiness or rudeness. Honestly, there was only one overly aggressive driver I encountered as we all tried to leave the venue.
    And one guy in line made a comment about people without teeth always showing up on the local news, and that sort of class-based snobbery bothers me. But I also know I can easily fall into that kind of obnoxious thinking myself.

    Note: I was not openly anti-Trump or pro-anyone else. My son and I didn’t cheer for anything we didn’t support but were otherwise quiet.

  2. Trump did not display any misogyny or sexism.
    Granted, he didn’t speak about women at all. And ignoring the wage gap is not cool. But, still—no direct and obvious sexism.
  3.  Trump did not display any extreme racism.
    He actually mentioned African Americans specifically at one point in terms of unemployment being higher for African Americans, especially African American youth.

    Note: I have more about racism below.

  4. Trump did not incite violence.
    At least I don’t think he did. Sometimes I struggled to understand what he was saying because the sound system made his voice very loud but somewhat difficult to understand.
  5. Trump described some of his platform and revealed a bit of common ground with Bernie Sanders.
    I already discussed this above. It surprised me. It really surprised me.
  6. Trump sometimes seemed admirable.
    He said that he was leading the polls in Rhode Island so his campaign managers told him not to waste his time going there, but he insisted on visiting his supporters because they matter. I liked that.

EXPECTATIONS~~in which Laurie remembers that she should have high expectations of presidential candidates

I was so excited that I wasn’t completely stressed out for the entirety of the Trump rally that I started thinking that maybe my earlier extreme opposition to his candidacy was misplaced.

Maybe the media has painted Trump unfairly, in ways that have played on my concerns about misogyny and racism. Maybe my fears that Trump would embarrass the U.S. and alienate other nations were off? Maybe the strongest nation in the world wouldn’t end up looking like (and acting like) a violent bully under Trump’s leadership? Maybe Trump as president wouldn’t lead to the escalation of violence from those who already perceive the U.S. as hogging the world’s resources?

Or maybe…

1) I’m so busy trying to find common ground with Trump supporters and
2) I was so nervous about being exposed to violence and direct racism and misogyny

…that I am overlooking the problems.

  • Trump made fun of Kasich for the way he eats pancakes (and mispronounced his name once, which I’ve done myself, but I’m not running for president).
  • The crowd, prompted by Trump, chanted “Lying Ted” to keep Ted Cruz in his place.
  • Trump said Clinton will open the borders, and we don’t know who these people are or where they come from. Isis? A Trojan horse? I don’t appreciate preying on people’s fears. There but for the grace of god go I. Or you. Or Trump, for that matter.
  • But building a wall will work better. Here, there’s a play on fears of Mexicans, whether it’s fear of people of color or fear of job loss. The chanting of Build a wall! really makes me feel sick.
  • Trump called people “babies” and regularly used phrases like “what the hell.” I’m progressive in a lot of ways, but I don’t appreciate that kind of talk from a presidential candidate, with little kids all over the place. Honestly, the name-calling is worse than the light swearing. It’s inappropriate.

Those are some of the problematic moments from the rally. And they are not isolated moments. They are part of ongoing rhetoric of bullying and belittling others.

In addition to Trump’s ignorance about what’s actually going on with immigration and the likelihood that his ideas would make things worse; in addition to Trump’s ridiculous one-sentence promise to fix the healthcare system that simply said it will “be better” than Obamacare; in addition to my extreme opposition to anti-choice legislation that Trump supports; in addition to my problems with the ongoing sexism & racism Trump has displayed in public spaces:

I believe all of us—and I do mean all of us—expect presidential candidates to speak thoughtfully and respectfully at most if not all public events, without ever relying on the belittling rhetoric of playground bullies who gain power by name-calling, making fun of others, and pushing around those who are weaker but who are misperceived as a threat.

We expect more from our candidates. I know we do. And I have no idea why or how our expectations are squelched enough that we are heading into such a bizarre scenario.

I tried to understand, Trump fans. But I don’t.







contemplating creation

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If you were challenged to capture examples of creation once a day for a week, what would creation look like to you?

That was the prompt that called to me in this month’s Soul Matters challenge. And here are the images I captured. I offer explanations of each creation individually, and then I try to pull it all together at the end. So if you’re not much of a reader, skim the images and read the end reflection.

Day 1

This hot pink squishy ball rests in a crystal bowl on my dining room table. I love the texture, the color, the silliness of this object. It keeps me from taking myself too seriously. It feels inviting, like it’s asking to be picked up and played with.

I like to imagine someone coming up with this design. I wonder if the designers were inspired by sea urchins or octopi or jellyfish? Did they picture the product in toy stores, in backyards, in the chubby hands of children? Could the designers visualize their creation in a crystal bowl on my dining room table?

Day 2


I bought this holder for eyeglasses in Galway from a street vendor in 2012. I love the beauty of the carved wood, the fun of having a head come to life once the glasses are put in place, and the usefulness.

I should point out that eye glasses are a pretty awesome creation as well. The ones in this photo are my son’s athletic glasses—they help him see, have a strap to stay in place, and are unlikely to break.

Both this photo and the photo above show that certain creations are likely to be part of my life only because of extreme privilege. Having a dining room centerpiece is normal in my world, and having a holder for eye glasses does not usually feel like the luxury it is. For most people in the world, these kinds of creations must seem frivolous.

It has felt ironic to me for a long time that much of the beauty of creativity is possible because of economic privilege and leisure time. It’s what I think about whenever I read “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather. And “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner. And “Beyond the Peacocks” by Alice Walker.

How often are the beautiful things of this world built upon the backs of laborers? laborers who are denied the privilege and the leisure time to enjoy the products of their labor?

Day 3


I started packing up some things in my house, and I was tickled when these books fit inside a cereal box perfectly. Well, not actually a cereal box, but a box that originally held boxes of cereal. My husband joked about the people planning the box design and their genius ability to make it fit not only cereal boxes but also a certain standard-sized book.

What’s the creation I’m celebrating here? The box? The books? Or maybe just the way they fit together so nicely. Maybe it’s not actually a creation. Whatever. It’s what I chose for Day 3. It was satisfying.

Day 4

I saved some of the paper bags from my recent visit to Ireland because I found out that plastic bags are not used in Ireland in any shops. In the whole country. Huh.

I think it’s awesome that instead of seeing the environmental concern as a limitation, many shops use the paper bag as an opportunity to create an identity. These bags aren’t just throw-aways. They’re cool pieces of design. I love them! And I really do appreciate the way the shop owners were likely faced with a challenge and used that moment as an opportunity. I am sometimes good at doing that. And sometimes it’s a challenge for me. (Do you see what I did there?)

Looking at these bags makes me happy. I feel like a kid who likes the box more than the gift that was in the box.

Day 5



When I was at church, I was inspired to take a photo of the quilt that Shirley Thomas created that hangs behind the alter. Shirley died recently, and she was a member of my Soul Matters group. I look at that quilt every time I go to church. There is so much to see. It’s way better in real life than on the computer screen.

Sometimes I think about learning to quilt because the patterns appeal to me so much.

After I photographed the quilt, I felt compelled to take a photo of the chalice tapestry that hangs on the front of the lectern. Here, I like the way a variety of universal religious symbols come together to represent Unitarian Universalism. It’s a combination of the prepackaged and the unique…a kind of remixing of materials to create new meaning.

One other thing about church and creation while I’m here. The music. I don’t feel like I have musical talent, but I’m good at enjoying music. Some of the music at church is familiar from other times and places—John Denver, Madonna, Les Mis, and so forth. When this music is played in church, it’s a bit of a re-mix, with familiar materials having new meaning. Today, it was “Edelweiss.” It moved me to tears because I’m going to be moving soon, and I kept thinking of the Captain singing that song with his local friends at the festival near the end of The Sound of Music, knowing that he was about to leave Austria forever. Heartbreaking.

Day 6


My daughter Callie made this model of DNA. I think it’s a cool creation in itself, and I also like the way DNA itself is a building block of creation. It’s kinda like the familiar materials that get new life when they come together in new ways. Or maybe my analogy is faulty because it’s been a long time since I learned about DNA, so most of my impressions of DNA are now from episodes of Law & Order and the like.

At any rate, I thought this model was a lot of fun, and it made learning about DNA seem more attractive and enjoyable—a pleasure of exploration instead of a chore of rote memorization. I also appreciated that the science teacher asked the students to create their DNA models from material found around the house instead of going out and buying supplies. More re-mixing of materials to create something new.

Day 7


This is an image of me from a SnapChat filter. I love the way various apps and programs allow lots of creative experimentation. I’m a creation, and this version of me is a whole different creation. The latter is a kind of collaboration between whoever created me (if “whoever” is the right term) and whoever created SnapChat and whoever created this particular filter for SnapChat and me (because I’m the one who used the app).

Fun stuff. And cool to think about all the layers of creation.

Also, a former student recently wrote this piece in defense of SnapChat’s puppy dog filter, so I guess these filters were in my head.


End Reflection

When I look at the whole series of images together that all spoke “creation” to me in some way, there are several commonalities I notice.

  1. Most of the creations involve color, brightness, something eye-catching.
  2. Most of the creations are part of everyday life. It would be easy to overlook each item or to avoid thinking of it as something that a person (or people) created.
  3. Most of the items of creation are frivolous, made for reasons that are so far from basic needs that their very existence indicates easy times—at least for some of us.
  4. Most of the creations are purposeful. That is, someone created a plan and executed the plan. The books that fit perfectly into a box may be the exception. That just happened, and it made me happy.
  5. A lot of the creation work involves remixing known elements (rather than starting completely from scratch). That’s awesome to think about!
  6. Many of the creations inspire me or teach me.
  7. Many of the creations made me think of the creators, and it felt right to feel grateful and appreciative towards these people. I also felt connected to the designers or creators of each piece, which is cool.
  8. All of these creations make me happy.
  9. The only part that’s difficult is the part about creation often occurring at the expense of a laboring class who don’t get to enjoy the fruits of their work. It makes me think of my waitressing days—welcoming guests, serving the food, facilitating the ease that allowed dinner guests to connect with one another and enjoy themselves…but not partaking of the good times myself, at least not while playing that role.

I think creation can and does happen without it being at the expense of a laboring class, but I believe it is more rare and difficult than I would often like to acknowledge.



Learning how to fall

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In Tae Kwon Do class this morning, the instructor, Brent Stouffer, began teaching us how to fall. The first fall we are learning is a side fall. The lesson was practical yet metaphorical.

The principles are simple and

Once you feel yourself fallingIMG_7786-2
commit to the fall.

Tuck the head
land with the left leg and left arm stretched out
perpendicular to the body
parallel to one another,

spreading the impact over the greatest possible area
to minimize the damage.

The right leg—the supporting leg—should be
bent, the foot on the floor.

Avoid landing on the elbow.
That’s how Marsha broke her arm. I repeat:
Avoid landing on the elbow.
No matter what else you do, don’t land on the elbow.


Brent lies on the mat, describing his position.

Then he stands, calls us onto the mat, one by one.
Danny goes first. Brent takes him down with an easy sweep
Gently lowers him,
points to limbs out of place,
places them where they belong.

Judy and I look at one another.
Who will be next?
I step forward. Brent lowers me,
I’m on the mat, my right foot too far back,
my hand palm up when it should be palm down,
my left leg not yet parallel with my arm.
My head on the mat! Aargh. I should know better.
I self-correct, lift my head, tuck my chin into my neck.
Then I stand, ready to go down again.
Brent sweeps me off-balance:
my limbs reach out with hand palm down,
my head tucked and off-mat,
my legs still wonky and needing post-fall correction.

We practice falling more
from a sitting position, sprawling to the mat,
hitting it hard with arm and leg,
committing the form to muscle memory.

We end with a story of a man who resisted falling.
His partner said, “You either make me look good
[that is, you let me take you down]
or you end up in a lot of pain.”
The resister surrendered. He fell. And he could get right back up again.

Once you feel the fall coming,
commit to it.
Control it.
Land on side/arm/leg/foot allatonce
Minimizing the impact
minimizing the pain
so you, too,
can get right back up again.


Class ends. But
we never discussed the feeling. That feeling when
you know the fall is coming. How to discern? How to
commit in
time—not too
early, and, please
god, not too





Reading the secrets of someone you know…

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I regularly tell students that learning involves taking risks. I quickly qualify my point with the phrase “appropriate risks” so that I don’t end up with people jumping from rooftops or robbing banks.

Writing, especially, involves taking risks. If we play it too safe, we are not saying what matters. When we write, we gotta get beyond the surface, beyond the first thought, beyond the obvious.

And any autobiographical writing worth its weight most certainly involves going places where we are most vulnerable, most uncertain, most ugly.

Most human.


In the last six months, I’ve read four published books by people I know. All books were good reads that kept me engaged from start to finish, thank goodness. It would be so awkward to dislike a book written by someone I know!

Three of the books were fiction, and I don’t know any of the writers well but instead by association—we have friends or relatives in common:

  1. Barb Taylor’s Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night
  2. Emily Bleeker’s Wreckage
  3. Meg Mitchell Moore’s The Admissions 

The most recent book I read by someone I know was not fictional but instead was a memoir: Fat Girl, Skinny. I know the author as a colleague and potential good friend: She has taught in my department, her young daughters participated in a creative writing campd570d2_49e25116f5de4b78b15a658f17c7a226.jpg_srz_p_264_420_75_22_0.5_1.2_0_jpg_srz I led (and they have great personalities that made me smile countless times that summer!), and we have lots of friends & colleagues in common. We’ve never spent oodles of time together, but I feel like I kinda know Amye Archer.

Amye is warm and funny and welcoming. And so is her writing.

I first heard Amye share some of her work at a student-led evening of poetry. She read a poem that included a bit about seeing a group of toddlers walk across campus and wanting to eat them all up. I loved it. We all laughed and wanted to eat Amye’s poem right up.

I also heard Amye read from a volume of poetry she published called Bangs. The poems were personal and focused on Amye’s teen years, so you can imagine the kinds of issues they explored….and Amye’s parents and husband were at the reading….but it was all good because the poems were there and then they were gone. There was never time to feel uncomfortable.

There were also buffers during that poetry reading that kept the personal disclosure from being awkward: Amye invited her former students to read their poetry, which was awesome. And she also had some of her friends read the lyrics of heavy metal songs aloud. That part was hysterical. If you want to add an element of fun to a gathering, it’s something worth doing. Really.


And then I read Fat Girl, Skinny, and I felt really uncomfortable.

Suddenly, I knew more about Amye than I had a right to know. Suddenly, I knew how old Amye was the first time she had sex. I knew about her desperate behavior when she felt rejected, even though she didn’t ultimately want the person (people) who rejected her. I knew her need to be needed.

I know these kinds of things about a lot of people and am not usually uncomfortable with the knowledge. The difference? I’ve shared my secrets, my weaknesses, my foolishness right back.

It turns out that it feels odd to read about someone you know without sharing your own secrets in a kind of friendship exchange. So what do I do with this discomfort?


I admire the hell out of the writer. That’s what I do with my discomfort.

I recognize the power in the writing, the bravery of the story. I feel grateful for Amye’s willingness to lay her conflicts on the page.

I appreciate the way Amye tells a story that makes me want to tell a story right back. She’s not just the human protagonist of her own story. She’s the human protagonist that allows her readers to process our own stories, our own struggles. She gives space for readers to recognize how each of us is the protagonist in our own messy, embarrassing journeys—our journeys filled with insecurities and uncertainties and shame.

But also filled with an un-cheesy kind of hope and the sense that sharing our stories is one way of moving these stories forward in positive directions.

I take my discomfort and realize that it is the direct result of Amye’s risk-taking. She went to the place where she was most vulnerable because that is the place that makes the writing matter. She did it for herself, I’m sure, but she also did it generously for her readers.

At the end of the day, my discomfort is because I feel like I owe Amye something, in a way that I wouldn’t if I didn’t know the author in real life. With an anonymous author, the gift of the writing and the self-disclosure would be remote, and the only exchange needed would be appreciation. But the dynamic changes when you know the author.

So, Amye, anytime you want, we can go out for a few drinks, and I’ll tell you my deepest and darkest secrets. I owe you.



Wax on…or, What’s the point of math that I’m never going to use again?

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[written in 2013. no idea why I didn’t publish it at that point. I probably felt guilty about not googling some info or something…or maybe I had a “long answer” in mind at the time. At any rate, here it is now, for whatever it’s worth!]

The inevitable happened the other night while my daughter was doing math homework.

Mom. How many times have you needed to graph inequalities?

A pretty graph of inequalities! [from]
A pretty graph of inequalities! [from
My mind immediately went to cultural studies writing and charts or tables my students and I have made to show how progressive or problematic a TV show seems to be in its portrayals of gender, race, class, etc. But that was not the kind of graph—nor the kind of inequality—Callie was talking about.

Callie had spent almost an hour graphing inequalities. She still had a few more problems to go before she could tuck her math book back into her school bag. And it was inevitable that at some point she would wonder, as most of us have: Why in the world am I spending time on this activity? What purpose could it possibly serve? It feels like meaningless busywork, so it probably is meaningless busywork.

I annoyed Callie with my answer because I kept coming back to it, and because she’s 14 and I’m 44, and because I’m her mom to boot.  But I kept coming back to my answer because it’s such a good question.

The shortest answerI don’t remember ever graphing inequalities except for in math class in my very distant past.

The  short (but not shortest) answerI don’t need to graph inequalities, but many people in many occupations do probably use this skill on a regular basis. I think I might’ve caught a glimpse of such a maneuver when watching The Social Network. So I’m sure it’s a skill that has a good chance of serving you well. 

[Note: I really have no idea what kind of math was going on in The Social Network. But I still think there’s a really good chance that graphing inequalities might be helpful for people who do computer programming. Please feel free to correct me and/or tell me the career fields that use this skill. I admit I’m being lazy since I’m not even bothering to google it. Or maybe it’s not lazy but rather that I’m more interested in the following answers. Don’t let me stop you. Keep reading. Go on now. You’re almost at the part that has my point in it.]

The medium answer (the kind that’s more my style of an answer):  It’s not about using the skill of graphing inequalities directly, Callie. It’s about laying foundations so you have a sense of how numbers and figures and data sets work. It’s sharpening your abilities. It’s honing your mental skills. 

It’s not The Social Network. It’s The Karate Kid. Mr. Miyagi knows that in order to be a strong fighter, Ralph Macchio’s character needs to develop certain moves and hone his muscles through repetition. 

Wax on. Wax off.

In order to be a strong fighter, Ralph Macchio’s character needs to develop the mental and physical discipline that will help him find purpose and drive, that will help him stand up and move forward even when faced with overwhelming obstacles.

Wax on. Wax off. Cleaning a car doesn’t look like fighting. Until Ralph Macchio’s character is fighting, and suddenly the audience can see that cleaning the car—all day long!—and using muscle memory to respond to an opponent look an awful lot alike.

I sorta hate to use a cliche and cheesy movie to make my point. But sometimes the things that I believe can’t help but sound cliche and cheesy.

I teach writing. And I believe that the only way for student to learn to write is to…write. Sometimes the writing is of a form that looks like waxing a car.

This car has writing on it. But maybe it needs waxing (and a bit of other help…). [from]
This car has writing on it. But maybe it needs waxing (and a bit of other help…). [from
And reading works the same way. When I was 21, I picked up Catch-22 and started reading it, but I couldn’t get into it. About seven years later, I picked it up again. I read it on my honeymoon. (That’s so random, isn’t it? You’d think I’d be reading some Danielle Steele or Nora Roberts or something.) I loved it–it made me laugh and think about all sorts of things, and it did so in a fresh and entertaining way.

My reading grew stronger from the time I was 21 to the time I was 28. The difference? A lot of time spent reading, including time spent earning my MA in English. A lot of focused, analytical, thoughtful reading.

The learning was in the experience.

I do believe in teaching students explicitly in every subject, so don’t get me wrong. But teaching how to do something is not enough. If education can allow students to have experience after experience after experience of developing skills and capabilities; experience after experience of applying explicit teaching; well, that’s the style of education that is not busywork. That is the kind of education that, quite simply, is most likely to work.

Wax on.