Hope is the Thing With Feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me. 
                                  –Emily Dickinson

For the first part of the year I was hopeful for a job and to pay off debt. Now I’m hoping to leave my job, work for myself, and jump back into debt by buying a house. I’m also hoping to stay in a church I’ve found after years of searching, finding, backing away, and restarting the search.

Advent is a season of hope for me. It’s the tipping point into the New Year. It’s hope for the long-expected coming of the infant Christ. It’s the time of year I like the best. Contemplation, choral music, commercial cheer, even Walmart becomes a beautiful place to me for the first week or two of Advent.

Hope is the thing with feathers. It perches in my soul. I have always assumed that my life is the sum total of my experience in the world. That I’m a hopeless distance from attaining the wisdom and experience I should have. On my worst days, I believe life WILL probably end today, right now. But I look at Dan and see how quickly a year and a half together has gone by. That there has been such healing for me inside my marriage, and I hope and trust that we have many more years together ahead of us. Hope is like a cold I keep catching and giving to myself.

On Saturday, Dan took to our church a huge paper mural he created for the members to color on through Advent. We don’t know many people there yet and I hope we will stick it out before wanderlust and the old feelings of being at odds with church set in. It’s hard to enter a new compact with people we don’t know well. To show up week after week with others and say, “Hello, I’m here for you even though I don’t know you very well and we keep forgetting each other’s name.” To look longingly at others’ children and wonder if it’ll happen for us. But we keep showing up, hoping for Advent and for friendship. The paper mural is part of that. Hope, as Emily Dickinson says, is the tune without words that never stops. It’s the song stuck in your head you wish would go away, even as you hum and tap your fingers to it. wall-mural-2

The mural is a thing of beauty. It is the best of Dan’s art. It’s whimsical and playful, big and generous, and the priest loves it. Everyone immediately began to draw and write prayers on it. It’s public but intimate—just like Advent. The mural was pristine when we put it up Saturday and on Sunday it became imperfect. It was covered with the eager fingers of children who colored in the Star of Bethlehem with black Sharpies, ignoring their parents’ requests to color in the lines and to please use the eighty beautiful hues of markers and pencils available. Like the little bird in the poem, these children are unabashed. They hope they can finish the coloring job unimpeded, by the end of Advent.


This morning at church I spoke with a woman I met last week. It was a glad meeting of recognition. We’re trying to become friends. I even remembered her name, Sarah. Our greeting was formal, warm and over too soon. I walked away out of countenance. But it’s the hope of friendship that makes me press forward. We’ll talk again. We might even let slip one or two revealing opinions about the election or other people we know, and we’ll wonder if it’s alright to say them out loud in church. And we’ll look at each other sheepishly and our friendship will really begin. Hope doesn’t need anything from me, not even a crumb. Just belief. It will precede every friendship and every encounter in this church, in this city, in this life.

People of the Red Willow

Picture a hot, bright, red sand landscape. High trees surround it and there’s a sacred mountain in the distance. There are adobe dwellings, five stories high like an apartment building, but with walls three or four feet thick. A creek cuts the reservation in two. Dogs run aimlessly across the sandy clearing. You can call them but they won’t stop to be cooed at or petted. The people living there ask, sometimes angrily, not to have their pictures taken.

Dan and I visited the Taos Pueblo, a dwelling that has been lived in continuously for 1,000 years. I went with feelings of trepidation and eagerness that I believe are common for white people shouldering the invisible knapsack of our privilege. Our tour guide, White Feather, had his hands full with us, a mixed crowd but mainly well-heeled retirees.


Taos Pueblo

The Taos Pueblo is the home of the Red Willow People, he explained. Named after Red Willow Creek, the stream that crosses the reservation. He told us that the Pueblo was first conquered in the sixteenth century by the Spaniards. Then there was a revolt and a reconquest several times over. Even though the Puebloans in the end accepted colonial rule and the accompanying Catholicism, they retained their secret religion. That and their language they have kept guarded from linguists and scholars for years. They don’t need anyone to disseminate cultural findings on them. The Red Willow people are content to preserve their own culture, never minding the imperialist mindset that says all research should be available to anyone.

“What about your taxes?” one tourist asked.

“What about them?”

“Do you pay taxes?”

“Yes, of course. We are United States citizens. We all pay our taxes.”

The woman hung grimly on to the subject. “But how do report how much you’ve made? Word of mouth?”

White Feather explained that all Puebloans report their income on the standard forms. “Just like you,” he said.

The woman pursed her lips but backed off. White Feather returned to his talk about the exodus of many Puebloans from the reservation when the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 incentivized leaving the tightly knit community in favor of separate housing.

It was easy for me to feel sorry for the Red Willow people, so obviously at the mercy, for the past nearly 500 years, of foreign rule and cultural imposition. But another idea crept in. They  have an unbroken, continuous history. A deep understanding of their past. The narrative has everything to do with rootedness, unlike the story of most of us in the western world.


Iglesia de San Gerónimo – Taos Pueblo

Some of us spend hours in libraries, doing complicated genealogical research, trying to make the silent record speak to us. Some of our ancestors were ashamed of where they’d come from. They changed their names and concealed their family history with skill. They invented themselves anew. The Red Willow people, protecting their culture, families, and religion have safe-guarded against fragmenting. They keep both their Spanish and native names. They are the richer for it, even as they face twenty-first century problems–especially the abandonment of the Pueblo by the younger generations.

We spent an afternoon there that I will remember for the rest of my life. It was not a happy time. But it was one of deep meaning and eventual prayer.

I don’t know how to pray for the Puebloans but I remember them to God. The sorrows are entrenched in the richness of the place.

Isn’t that how it goes?

Library Girl

The first job I ever had was in a library. I was seventeen, bored, and in need of cash so I put away books for a whole year. The library was small with one large main room with computers in the center, a children’s nook and video shelves to one side, and fiction stacks and study carrels to the other side. There was a dark little room off to one side with biographies and Sci-Fi and probably every single book L. Ron Hubbard had ever published—no small amount of wall space for that collection.

I spent a lot of time shelving in that little back room—Howard Stern’s Private Parts, Fran Drescher’s Enter Whining, Piers Anthony’s omnibuses, and at least three times a day, multiple copies of Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. It was the nineties and people were gobbling up books written by stars and adapted for the big screen or television by the same stars. It’s funny to think that these books have likely been carted out many times over the past ten years with fifty cent stickers on them at library book sales.books-1617327_1280 (1)

In that back room, I was accosted by a man wearing what could only be described as a strap-on. It was plumed and colorful—almost a holiday outfit, if you could outfit that particular zone. He told me he was taking a survey of people’s reactions. At first I didn’t know what he was referring to. He was obliged to gesture at his varicolored nether regions. I laughed because I thought it was funny and shelved two Battlefield Earth’s. He disappeared. I told a librarian about the encounter, and she let me know that that was not OK. It was not OK at all. An interview with the police after my shift rounded out my education on how not OK it was to be flashed.

In graduate school I worked in a research archive. I catalogued children’s books in an enormous cement basement with motor-powered movable stacks. I was often the only person there for hours at a time. Patrons stayed safely behind glass doors upstairs in full view of the archivists. There was no way anyone who did not have business there could cause a commotion. The librarians and archivists stayed in their offices, oblivious to the public; what mattered was the materials, not people. Patrons came in to look at Charles Olson’s personal papers, or eighteenth century chapbooks. There had to be a specific reason to hang out there. I determined that I would never work in any other kind of library.

    * * * * *

Seven years later I found myself without a steady job, living in a new location, but with seven or eight applications submitted to libraries in the area. “This time it’ll be different,” I said to myself. “I love libraries. Always have.”

Of course I love them. I have only worked in libraries for a total of three years, but I have spent time in libraries my whole life. After months of applying, I received an invitation to work as a substitute library associate on the weekends. I found myself wheeling around the wooden cart, shelving books, and being schooled in how to alphabetize properly by a well-meaning associate. I was right back in high school. There were no flashers—that might only happen once in a lifetime—but there were many confounding problems of the twenty-first century to negotiate.

One patron asked me to help him write a letter to Donald Trump: “Dear President Trump” it ran, “I suggest you consider Russia as a top tier ally when you take America.” Another patron explained to me that he was allowed to visit the Ukrainian brides website on the library computers. It wasn’t porn. He’d already gotten the OK, alright?

I stayed for three months. It was all I had in me.

* * * * *

IMG_20160831_191540There’s nothing more exciting to me than backpacking in the library, carrying around tiny papers with call numbers written on them, finding the corresponding books in the stacks. Just today I picked up Barry Fell’s Bronze Age America and America B.C. on a whim. Alternative, badly received pre-Columbian history might help me write my book. Who knows? Libraries are pools of glorious random finds.

But there’s one thing I now know. Visiting a library and working in one are two different things. They might as well be two completely different places.

* * * * *

Elena bio YAH

Holiness Standards

Jesika, Jamie and I sat outside Sweet Frog, eating frozen yogurt. I dug down into the yogurt with my spoon and found a gummy bear. I chomped down on the sweet candy using the safe side of my mouth, but it still found its way to the cavity on my left. My mouth zinged in pain.

    “Dammit,” I said around the gummy. “That hurt.”

    “Just get it taken care of,” Jesika said.

    “Yeah, I know. I hate the dentist, though.”

Jamie pulled out the lipstick she’d just bought. “Isn’t it hot?” she said. She painted on a layer over the pink she’d put on at Sephora earlier. It was hot. It was an opaque neon pink. A Cyndi Lauper pink with electric attitude.

“You gonna wear it at the office?” I asked.

“Maybe. If I feel like it,” she said airily. It looked great on her tanned face. I looked over at Jesika whose face was powdered like an aristocrat, peach circles of blush painted on each cheek, blood red lips. She looked like a kewpie doll crossed with a vampire.

“Oh my gosh,” said Jamie.

“What?” I said looking up. “Oh.”

A group of young women were walking toward us. My stomach tightened a little as I put down my yogurt cup. The gummy bears smiled up at me. “Busted,” they said.

There were five of them. Each was dressed in what I could only call a uniform: long jean skirts–despite the 90 degree heat, long-sleeved tops and blouses, and uncut hair past their knees or carefully done up in pioneer women knots.

The girls wore no makeup. My own face paint, courtesy of Jesika’s industrious applications of the makeup counter’s free offerings, was starting to melt. I wished I wasn’t wearing that stupid purple eyeshadow which looked cool at the store and now felt merely ostentatious.

“Hey guys!” Jesika spoke. “How are you?” She smiled up at the girls and they came over and sat down with us. She and Jamie started talking with them at once. They’d all gone to the same church together in high school. I smiled at them and said nothing. Kept my eyes down on my dessert of drowned gummies. Thought about these girls. Thought about the many accusations, frustrations, and the general confusion in my own heart. Two months earlier I might have chosen to be one of those young women.


Whenever we talk about these girls, the many girls we know who are “in” this mode of dressing, Jesika laughs and rolls her eyes. She was brought up in that religious movement. “They’re just confused,” she says. “If they knew how great it feels to cut your hair and wear shorts and smoke Black & Milds, they’d be doing it. They wouldn’t think twice about their salvation.”

What she means–and what we who have been introduced to that particular faith know–is that the young women believe that their salvation hangs in a precarious balance. Along with their Christian beliefs come proscriptions against outfitting one’s body in a modern way: no makeup, no haircuts, no shorts or pants, no short sleeves. These admonitions are a part of the church’s holiness standards for its women.

Standards by which to measure a woman’s holiness.


I dated one of the men from this faith for a year. Though I railed hard against the prohibitions, my own hair was growing longer–longer than I liked, my skirts were getting longer, my makeup got lighter, my decisions deferred more and more to him.

     “Don’t cut your hair–promise me you won’t cut your hair again this summer,” he’d said to me.

    “That’s not something I’m going to promise you,” I said.

But I never cut it again until we broke up. I wanted to fit in. To belong with him and his mother and sisters. When we broke up, I looked horrified at my closet. I piled up all the “modest” clothes and threw them in a dumpster. I bought the shortest shorts I could find, had Jesika hack off my hair to the chin, and applied black eye pencil like it was medication. Round and round my eyes I drew in deft circular marks, writing my own standards with each stroke.

*  *  *

We said goodbye to the girls and threw our empty foam cups into the trash.

    “My house or yours?” Jamie asked, looking at us.

    “Yours!” Jesika and I said as we walked to our cars. In my rearview mirror, I saw the girls in their jean skirts disappearing into the shop. I shivered. Then my eye caught Jes powdering her face again in her own rearview mirror. I giggled. I tried to wipe off some makeup but it only made a mess.

The standards we live by vary. They are confusing. Chilling, even. We women are taught how to look and how to be from infancy. Those young women come to my mind often. But my own friends come to mind much oftener–the women who’ve shown me that feminine standards are variable, mercurial, and dependent on what we believe about ourselves at any given time.

*  *  *

Elena bio YAH

Cante Flamenco

I never took formal dance lessons or music lessons. Other little girls took their dancing shoes and leotards with them to school in their backpacks for lessons right after school. I merely tried to keep up with their tap routines on the blacktop at the playground when we played “dance class.”

When I went home, I got my scarves—two or three gauzy little things that needed a good wash—from under my bed and skipped down to the living room. I put on my favorite record, a 101 Strings Orchestra 33 from my parents’ record collection, entitled The Soul of Spain. My mom, who is from the north of Spain, from Barcelona, and doesn’t care very much for southern flamenco music, laughed and watched me dance.  The thrilling melodies, the sheer drama of classics like Malaguena, La Paloma, and El Relicario enthralled me. I danced my own flamenco all the way through elementary school.


In college, I studied Spanish literature. I learned to read (very slowly and with a dictionary under my hand) Old Castilian and Golden Age Spanish, and I immersed myself in the rich and prolific mix of Arabic and Jewish and Christian folklore and songs, the texts that inform modern Andalusian culture. In a later class I read parts of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Romancero gitano, a book of poetry capturing the essence of nineteenth and early twentieth century gypsy culture. The romantic verses electrified my imagination. My favorite movie at the time was Carlos Saura’s documentary Flamenco, a series of performances of different categories—or palos—of flamenco music, song, and dance, of which there are over fifty.

I spent my last semester of college at the University of Granada in southern Spain. I took a flamenco dance class and every opportunity to explore gypsy culture. Gypsies—Roma people—face a difficult problem in Spain. They are both reviled and revered—reviled for what many consider to be the unscrupulous lifestyle of swindlers, and revered for their artistic endeavors and accomplishments as musicians and dancers, practicing and renewing an ancient musical form.flamenco-1046485_960_720

Early on, my friend Melissa and I went to a tablao de flamenco, a cabaret performance in a dark, humid little bar in Seville. The singers and dancers and guitar players sat facing us on folding chairs in a semicircle, forming a miniature stage in front of them. The women wore traditional polka-dotted red and green dresses with sturdy-heeled shoes, heavily kohled eyes, and fringed shawls. The men all wore loose, double-breasted suits and had long, shaggy hair. The guitarists began to play, setting the rhythm by alternately tapping the soundboard and plucking the strings. The singers clapped in a series of complicated syncopations with the guitar, and a man stood up to perform the song.

The cante flamenco is the saddest, most mournful sound I have ever heard. The voice of the Gitano is one of despair and longing, of lost love and brokenness leading to death. The songs are lyrically simple, but the interpretation is not. In fact, a singer is freed by the power of his own interpretation. And when that happens, his fellow musicians cheer and cry out because the pain of his song radiates outward and pierces them.

Melissa turned to me and asked, “Why are they shouting and clapping? That’s so weird and interruptive for another performer to do. They’re literally cutting him off in the middle of his song.”

“Yeah,” I said. I did not know how to deal with the ache in my own heart as I watched the singer. I resorted to a sort of xenophobic explanation: “I think it’s ok, because it’s part of their culture to do that.”

Melissa looked unconvinced.


In the months afterward, I walked through the public parks of Granada, where there were performers in abundance. I looked for groups of Roma practicing palmas, the rhythmic clapping so essential to flamenco. Five, ten, or fifteen of them would set up a complex clapping rhythm and keep it up for a half hour at a time. One would lift his voice and sing about aloneness or a dead sweetheart. I sat nearby with a book, pretending to read but soaking up every bit of the energy of the performance.


When I was little, the dance was my favorite. Now it has become the song—the poetry. I listen to The Soul of Spain for sentimental reasons, but it no longer holds the same resonance. It is too polished, too symphonic. I prefer the harsh, energetic vocalizations of the singers who enter through song into the passion and pain of the Gypsy who is at the center—but always at the margins of Spanish culture.

I close my eyes and open my ears to a fandango de Huelva:

Mis lágrimas voy echando

En un vaso de cristal

Ahora las hecho en el suelo

Porque de tanto llora

el vaso lo tengo lleno


My tears were falling

Into a glass

But now my tears fall to the floor

Because I’ve cried so much

The glass is full

Elena bio YAH

Forks Over Headaches

Last month I was at my first doctor’s visit since moving to Colorado, with a list of complaints the length of my arm.

I’ve been dealing with chronic pain for a while now. Headaches that last for days, gastritis, asthma, mysterious bladder pain. It’s nothing I can’t deal with but sometimes my complaints whip themselves up into a perfect storm of sickness and I’ll lose half a day’s work. Then the next day I’ll be right as rain. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting, so I thought I’d have a doctor check me out and prescribe some nice pain medication to help me through my weeks and months.

The doctor listened to me sympathetically, and then, before I could ask for the drugs, she stated flatly: “You need to try a gluten-free, dairy-free diet. For two months. Can you do that?”

I gulped and said yes. I’d done it before, but as ice cream and pancakes are my weakness, the commitment was rife with infidelity.

I’m noticing a big difference between medicine in Connecticut and medicine in Colorado. In Connecticut, if you tell a doctor you’re feeling “off”, they’ll whip out a prescription pad right away. “You cry a lot?” one doctor asked me, busy scribbling away on his pad. “Zoloft should work.” Here in Colorado, health professionals tend to tout dietary restrictions and hefty amounts of exercise to combat illness and pain, prescribing drugs as a last resort.

Needless to say, I have always poo-pooed other people’s dietary restrictions—perhaps because there’s a small part of me that gets angry when I see someone else exerting more control than I do over food. Now I’m on the other end of that. I say no thank you when pizza is offered, and then face the same kind of impatient, weak smile that I used to give my friends when they refused the pizza I offered.

Yet, surprisingly, having this particular restriction has not been all that bad. In fact, it’s been a relief. I love pizza and chips and ice cream, and I do get uncomfortable and conflicted inside when I see them.  But I know and Dan agrees that a migraine is not worth any amount of ice cream.


Dan and I decided right from the beginning that whatever changes I’d need to make, he’d make as well. We know some couples that maintain separate diets and dining schedules but neither of us wants that. I didn’t want to conceal any of my illnesses from Dan when we married and that’s made it easier to make changes—as big as a whole new eating plan—without grief or guilt or dividedness.

I began reading up on what kinds of dishes I can make so we won’t feel deprived. We decided on a mostly plant-based diet, thereby eliminating most dishes that call for cheese or milk (and so we wouldn’t end up choosing a kale-and-kale-only diet out of ignorance of what vegans and vegetarians really eat). I bought the Forks Over Knives cookbook and a food processor and threw out the leftover flour, white sugar, and cheese. I bought nutritional yeast, which we’re convinced is really goldfish food but it doesn’t taste too bad in dressings. My friend Pam, a vegan, told me all about soaking beans and rice before cooking with them so they’re more digestible. And, although this was originally to be a wheat and milk-free diet, we’ve found ourselves making all sorts of little tweaks and changes. Reading labels, trying to buy cage-free chicken.

How do I feel a few bags of dried beans, tamari, kale, sweet potatoes, almond milk, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and a little salmon later?

Pretty good.

It’s been four weeks and I’ve only had two minor headaches. We don’t talk to many people about our diet because, you know, there are a lot of naysayers. But I’ve learned that I can destroy my health very easily if I don’t pay proper attention to it. It’s nearly impossible to describe a migraine to someone who’s never had one.

I’ve decided not to give up ice cream. It’s been a faithful if not-so-great companion for too long. I make it out of frozen bananas and peanut butter and coconut cream. It’s still too early to tell if the restrictive diet will be a life decision. I can’t imagine never eating cheese again! But limitations, I’m finding, are actually ushering me into a new kind of creativity. Not a bad trade off.

Elena bio YAH

Riding in Cars With Myself

Some people affectionately name their cars. I vow to drive my car into the ground.

I am not impressed with color or shine or seat warmers or the increasingly techy sound systems or those commercials where silver-tongued announcers say words like “driving experience” or “performance” or “driving modes.” These are all lost on me. I’ve always said as long as it gets me around I don’t care what it looks, feels or smells like.

When I was little, my parents drove my brothers and me around in a blue ‘86 Chevy Celebrity station wagon. The paint job couldn’t hold up, and it ended up peeling and curling in long strips down the hood. I was so embarrassed by it I asked my father over and over again not drop our family off in front of the church on Sunday mornings. “Please, can you just park in the back and then we can all walk in?” I begged. My dad would give me a quizzical look and kept right on dropping us off at the door.

When I was in high school instead of being embarrassed by a car, one embarrassed me. I was at a youth group picnic when one of the new youth leaders drove up in his car. It was small and black and so shiny it blinded me in one eye as I went up to greet him and the other kids. I leaned casually against the hood. He promptly turned white as did several of the boys.

“What? What’s wrong?” I asked.

“You’re leaning on my car.”

“So?” I got up and the group gave a little collective sigh of relief. One of the boys saw the shame and confusion on my face and explained to me that it was a Maserati 3200 GT, a special object costing over a year’s salary that was allowed outside for car shows only. I backed away and tried not to roll my eyes. I thanked heaven I was going away to college the next week where presumably no-one would drive a $90,000 car for me to smudge accidentally.

Without having the money to afford a nice car, I have always simply driven hand-me-down little four-doors. In college I drove two cars: one that had been abandoned so long a nest of mice had taken up residency in the engine (there was a small, unpleasant surprise for me when I had to replace the dome light), and a navy Celebrity wagon so like my parents’ car, I nicknamed it “The Blue Bastard”. Cars have alternately been a source of embarrassment and a source of indifference to me over the years.


For the past ten years I have been driving a tiny Corolla. There’s nothing very special about it—but then there is something special about it to me. This was a car I bought at 22 and had a very long payment plan on, but I managed to pay it all myself in my twenties. It became a badge of adulthood for me. Responsibility, too.

For several years, I had a job where I would spend my lunch hour in my car. I sat in the parking lot reading books by Lauren Winner, Susan Howatch, and Rob Bell, thankful for a whole hour inside a quiet, familiar space with beloved authors.

Some of my coworkers would go to mid-day Mass, some would spend the hour shopping at the mall the next town over. But my spot was in my car. It was a place to pray in, to reflect, to take time out from hard or boring work situations. If I had a late night, I’d eat my sandwich, crank the seat down and take a nap.

Eight months ago, my husband Dan and I drove my little car from Cape Cod to Denver. I was doubtful it would make it. It’s now fourteen years old and New England winters are tough on cars, with five months of gravel and salt under the wheels every year. But we decided to put our money into repairs, rather than buy a new car just yet.

You see, I’m really attached to it.

I’ve never cared for cars because of what they stand for. Wealth or poverty. You can tell by looking at someone’s car how they live, possibly guess at their monthly payment, and judge what they value. I value my four wheel fortress of solitude. The paint is peeling so that’s a little embarrassing—the old feelings of shame well up! But I’ve reclaimed my car and cars in general because of their potential as a quiet box, a room I can take anywhere with me. I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to my car because she and I have had a lot of good moments together. It’s a bit of home that’s with me still even as everything else has changed.

Elena bio YAH

A Mess of Pottage

I get Esau. I don’t get Jacob.

They’re brothers, bursting through the pages of the book of Genesis. It’s likely they hated each other for a good bit of their lives. Jacob, the smarter twin whose name means “supplanter” has tremendous presence of mind to take advantage of Esau’s weakness, not once but twice. First the birthright, then the blessing due to the firstborn son. Esau falls so neatly into Jacob’s trap. I imagine him as a rough and tumble man, boisterous, and dedicated to his own work but ultimately vulnerable in the hands of an opportunistic brother. Sadly, history and my Sunday School teachers remember Esau as something of a doofus. A mess-up. Sneaky Jacob gets to be a patriarch from whom King David, and eventually Christ descend.

A phrase from these stories has stood out to me over the years: “Sold for a mess of pottage.” Pottage, the archaic term for porridge, is what Esau is said to have accepted from his brother Jacob in exchange for his birthright. Since then, selling something for a “mess of pottage” means to behave shortsightedly, ready to trade something valuable for momentary comfort.


Wenceslaus Hollar – The Mess of Pottage

I can’t say I’ve ever sold my birthright for a mess of pottage. My family isn’t rich. Even though I’m my parents’ firstborn, there’s no blessing or birthright attached to the position. But my attachment to Esau remains. I guess I like underdogs. But I also think most of us go through bouts of bad decision-making and eat pottage when we should say “no thank you, I’ve had enough.”

The past seven months have ushered in some major life changes for me. I have written about starting over in a new city, marrying after a long sojourn as a singleton, attempts at a new career as a writer–which some would consider achingly white and middle class, and trying to redeem lost time pursuing things that would make other people happy.

In the past seven months I have sat in front of the computer screen, bursting with ideas for short stories and novels, ready to drill down and invest hours coaxing half-formed ideas into solid ones, to invest myself in the practice of writing daily so that it becomes the most important thing I do. Then I suddenly switch screens to the comforts of Netflix.

Why do I (we) self-sabotage like this? Why sell ourselves, if not for a mess of pottage, then for something less that what we know will bring us life? Time, if nothing else, may show us how much pottage we are actually eating. How much we thwart ourselves. I don’t really have a crafty twin brother—but I am scared of pushing myself into uncharted mental territories with writing. And I do have high-speed internet.

For Lent this year, I’ve given up YouTube, Netflix, and yes, embarrassingly, the British Daily Mail, the tabloid rag I can easily spend two or three hours on per day. The DM is easily the biggest mess of pottage in my pool of indulgences. But it’s bland and unworthy of a dedicated reader–well, any reader, really. So I am giving it up.

Katherine Paterson’s beloved book, Jacob Have I Loved, retells the story of Jacob and Esau. It is set on an island in the Chesapeake Bay. The players are twin teenaged girls, Caroline (Jacob) and Sara Louise, called “Wheeze” (Esau). Wheeze is angry at Caroline for most of the book, believing her sister has stolen her birthright. Caroline is a gifted singer and the darling of the island. Wheeze, consumed with jealousy, is a cold presence. Only fishing and nature can soothe her inner tumult. Toward the end of the book, her mother presents the now grown-up Wheeze with the idea of leaving the island, where so much of her unhappiness is mired. The island is sinking anyway, her sister has left for Julliard, and Wheeze has always known she’d rather see mountains than the sea. She begins to realize that a person can make her own decisions, independent of her feelings. That one can reject the pottage, jealousy, and dissatisfaction (no substitute for real life) and begin afresh.

I hope that the pull of all-consuming distractions will lessen over time and I can get off the island, away from the pottage and into a space where my true desires and my reality become one.

Elena bio YAH

I Went to the Woods

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Put in a category for laundry money.”


“Ok, put in a category for candy!”

Dan looks at me sidewise. “Ok, done.” He types for a moment and voila, there it is, a category for candy.

“Just kidding,” I say.

“I know,” he says, already deleting it.

We nod at each other–the nod of agreement where we’re both saying ok, we are doing a budget. Not just any budget, but a balls-to-the-wall zero-based budget where every single dollar, cent, and haypenny needs accounting for. In other words, goodbye gum, nice lotion, and comic books–basically all stuff I buy on a whim. There’s no “Whim” category and if there was it wouldn’t be big enough. Hence our need for a budget.

We recently bought a monthly subscription to “You Need a Budget” or YNAB for short. And we’ll be taking Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University class starting this week. It’s our second time through.

You see, we’ve both got a little history with debt. Student loans, credit cards, mortgages: we are like most others in our age group in the present day. We have carried some debt of one form or another since we were eighteen.

Five years ago I lived in a cabin in the woods. It wasn’t strictly a cabin but it was in the woods near a lake. I’d been reading Walden and when the cabin fell into my lap, I said yes without hesitation. With Thoreau-ian enthusiasm for living deliberately, to “drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms,” I signed the lease. I wanted and needed to write alone. I was done with roommates (I thought) and their aggressive pint-sized dogs and the ensuing drama. Little did I realize that I had plenty of drama inside. A lot of it had to do with money. Not very Thoreau-like, I’m afraid.










I lived there a month and then calmed down a bit. I was lonely and a little stressed out. Especially when I saw the second month’s rent looming ahead. My paycheck, doled out weekly, couldn’t come fast enough.

“How have I already spent my paycheck before it’s in the bank?” I wondered one Wednesday afternoon. I counted out grocery money and rent and saw to my dismay that there was no way I’d be able to meet my friends for sushi that Friday night as planned.

I went anyway.

I paid my rent. Then to my surprise, my student loan was due the second week, which I’d forgotten about. I stood in the doorway of my cabin in the woods and surveyed my domain–my prohibitively expensive domain.

“What have I done?” I murmured. What would Thoreau have done? Here I was, slap up against my reality. I could not pay my rent and be a social animal, buying expensive lotion, candy, and comic books. I had already pulled out my credit card, dusty from disuse, to pay for fun extras. I wanted a Thoreau-ian existence of deliberate living, but what a cost. My mind went frantically between ideas of self-imposed isolation or doing as I liked and racking up debt.

In the end, I opened up a second checking account and divided my rent in quarters for each of the four paychecks in the month. It was the only way I knew how to insure the total amount. I was justifiably horrified at my credit card statements and chopped up my card the third month of cabin life and tried to live slim thereafter.

I couldn’t go to every concert or sushi date available. I stayed home and read, or walked down to the lake, or invited my friends over. I went on a few sushi dates of course, and sweated through the ensuing weeks til my rent was due. I soon learned I was not like Thoreau. Deliberate living was hard and I wanted and needed friends to soften it. My cabin became a retreat of sorts. My friends and I sat on the floor around the fireplace, talking and drinking cheap wine. I got very little writing done but it hardly mattered. At the time, nothing tasted so good as wine and friends around the fire.

I’m still a renter. I will be for a while yet. With the help of zero-budgeting and YNAB, Dan and I are (literally)  paying for our past debts, incurred both out of necessity and fun. But, we can pay our rent. The rest is hard work and sacrifice.

Elena bio YAH

A Fit of Adolescence

When I was twelve I began my confirmation into the church. In a class with eight other twelve-year-olds, we met on Tuesday afternoons for a couple of hours with the pastor. We stayed in a room decorated with mulberry, rust, and pine green accents. It was cold and always smelled of a craft store with its synthetic flowery stiffness, fake frosted berries in vases, and mini sepia portraits of past ministers. They sat in rigid chairs, unsmiling, staring at us from the past, some of them with a wife in a frilly blouses standing behind them. “Behold us,” their eyes seemed to say, “for we are the church.”

bible-study-1312533-1280x960The eight of us sat at a conference table directly under the overhead lights while Pastor Ahearn presided at the head. We read large portions of the Psalms each week, along with post-Reformation church history (no-one cared about pre-Reformation history for some reason), and learned rudimentary apologetics.

There were eight of us and one pastor in the low room behind the sanctuary. As very young aspiring members of the church, we were talked to regularly about our attitudes, our compulsive eye-rolling, and our desire to grow up too fast. One Sunday School teacher told me she liked that I was a soft-spoken young lady and the soft speech of women was a virtue in this day and age. I couldn’t for the life of me explain the ire that rose up in me.

“Thanks,” I said and gave her a tight smile. I ran off to the women’s bathroom with my friends so we could laugh our heads off at being “soft-spoken.”

It’s likely we deserved every talking-to that came our way.

Confirmation was always on the verge of a disaster. Our gentle and generally unflappable Pastor Ahearn was probably least suited to give lessons to a group of half-grown children who’d been equally preparing for adult faith and sarcasm.

As it was, we cracked.

* * * * *

After two and a half hours of Bible and church history on an afternoon in late January we stood up, stretched and rubbed our eyes, and went to stand in a circle with the other confirmands and Paster Ahearn. We bowed our heads as Pastor Ahearn extended his hands to a kid on either side of him. He motioned for the rest of us to do the same. We grasped each other’s hands and bowed our heads while the pastor began: “Gracious Heavenly Father, we thank you for…”

With that first sentence a strange thing happened. Someone snorted. There was a split second of silence. Pastor Ahearn resumed his prayer–”We thank You for each fine young woman and fine young man in this room”–but it was too late. The giggles had descended. After a few seconds I was horrified to find I couldn’t stop. None of us could. I opened my eyes and encountered the watery gaze of my peers, puffing and blowing to stop more giggles from erupting. I shut my eyes fast. The pastor went on relentlessly and so did we. “And we thank You for bringing each young person here to study every week in preparation for their confirmation…”

young-girl-4-1251377The praying went on.We giggled on. If the ground had opened up to swallow all of us, I would not have welcomed it more. Tears ran down my face. I opened one eye. My friends’ faces were teary and bloated. I sighed heavily through my giggles.

“Amen,” he intoned.

The giggles vanished. We dropped our hands and stared at one another with red-rimmed eyes. Pastor Ahearn smiled vaguely at us and wished us a good week and reminded us about our homework on Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.

Then we all filed out and into the dark parking lot where our parents were waiting in their cars for us. 

Elena bio YAH