A Note About Aaron Housholder

One fall day in the middle of the Indiana cornfields, many years ago, I walked into a college class called “Imaginative Writing” taught by Aaron Housholder. He was clean-shaven and approachable, his head bald and smooth. His voice was not loud, but it somehow managed to get everyone to lean forward and pay attention. I always took copious notes. He hadn’t been teaching there long. Neither of us knew that it would soon be wise to plan ahead if you intended to take a class with him.

I’d intended to take a year off before attending college (if I ever went), but the thought of creative writing classes beckoned. I received glossy flyers promising author events and workshopping sessions. Between my HR job at a national grocer and those circles of workshopping bliss, I attended a local state school, catching the bus during the six am hour to make it to classes in time. I had a year and a half of college under my belt before I walked into that classroom, but it felt like everything was just beginning.

Aaron told us to call him by his first name (something I’ve only now become comfortable with, over five years past graduation). He assigned us poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction (my genre of choice in those days). He once assigned us an essay to read: A Note About Allen Tate by Kelly Cherry. I couldn’t tell you what we were supposed to glean from it, but I’ve never forgotten that winsome creative nonfiction about a student who learns about life, and about paying attention, from her Literary Criticism professor. Later, one of my writing professors mentioned that it usually takes about five years past an event before you’re ready to write about it. “So in five years you can start writing about college,” he said. When he said it, I remember thinking about that essay, and five years later, I’m still thinking about it.

A Note about Aaron HousholderMy time at that small, private university was brief. My year at the state school and my willingness to take an overload made it possible for me to be in and out in two and a half years. During that time, the English department went through a major transition, so that I started as an English major with a writing concentration, and ended as a Creative Writing major (which was what I wanted to be anyway). Now, “Imaginative Writing” is called “Intro to Creative Writing” and Reade Center, where we had all of our English classes, has been surrounded by cheerful landscaping.

Aaron taught me a great deal about writing. He taught me to think before I wrote, and after, but not at all during. He taught me to pay attention to what I wanted to write about. He taught me to accept when my writing changed. I’m sure he brought some of this in his notes, but other things he lived out in front of us.

I used to write romantic scenes to compensate for the fact that my college experience wasn’t like the movies. There were cute guys in polo shirts and Sperrys at my school, but they weren’t interested in me. I lived in the dorm rumored to be the home of girls you date, across the street from the one where you look for a wife. I lived in both of these dorms and evaded both stereotypes, much to my chagrin. In my writing classes, my classmates would sometimes refer to me as the romance writer. I did my best to defend myself against these charges at the time, saying that I was just writing about men and women talking, relating. Now, I wonder if those classes didn’t need a little romance to go along with the existential angst, and exploration of sexual identity.

Aaron would often read us pieces, or tell us stories about his son. I looked forward to those stories the way I’m told people looked forward to the next installment of a Dickens novel, delivered in serial form. What would this precocious boy do next? I wondered.

When my first long-awaited love visited me at college, I introduced him to Aaron. Though we planned to marry after graduation, and had settled on a date and begun fighting about the color of bridesmaid dresses, very few people had met him, not even my parents. His home was in Chicago and mine in Washington State. His school was in Texas, and mine in Indiana. I can count on one hand the friends I’ve had who have known me through all of my romantic relationships, hopes, and breakups. When I submitted a short story to an undergraduate conference, he was the only one who knew that it was reality thinly masked in fiction, in which I dealt with my boyfriend’s mother, who hated me.

Recently, Aaron and I caught up after too long. As usual, conversation turned to story, to writing. It was as if I was in his office again, meeting to discuss my senior project, getting feedback on a short story. In those days, I bemoaned my singleness often (not much has changed). This time, Aaron made a suggestion which has stuck in my head. “You’re always looking for a relationship which will make a good story to write,” he said in that calm voice that always made us pay attention. “Maybe instead you should be looking for a story that’s too big, too good, not filled with the dramatic elements and tensions that make a good story. Maybe the story you’re looking for is one that you don’t want to write.”

All that time, in “Imaginative Writing,” “Fiction Writing,” and in those talks about my senior project, I hadn’t just been learning about writing. I was learning about writing because it’s my most reliable way to learn about life. Sometimes, the writing is important, lauded, exceptional, but the writing pales in comparison to the actual point: a life, one that is too big for words, no matter how we rush to capture the gossamer.

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New Lessons From My Hometown

I grew up in Claremont California, a town often called the “City of Trees and Ph.D.s” for its well-known colleges and graduate schools and the matching tree species that lined the streets, including my favorite, the periwinkle-blossomed Jacaranda.

After high school, I moved to the east coast for college and graduate school, on campuses with buildings and foliage reminiscent of my hometown. Eventually I landed in Williamsburg, Virginia, pursuing my editing career and training to teach yoga classes on the side. Ten years on, I was a married mother of a twelve-month-old baby boy. I was settled in my career and the very best nest, but in spring 2011, something out of my control lured me back to my lifelong friends in Claremont. I had always known the town was filled with academe, but my recent leukemia diagnosis soon opened my eyes to a different type of learning: I needed to learn the real meaning of kindness.

  *   *   *   *

image (1)One day about a year after my diagnosis, when I was feeling tight and uncomfortable in my own body from the lingering side effects of treatments, I wandered into Mint Leaf Thai Massage near Claremont’s railroad depot. I asked the lovely woman at the front-desk for a gentle massage. The petite Thai woman, my mother’s age, stood up and beckoned me to her massage room. When I pointed out the port protruding under my collarbone beneath my skin, she knew all about the tough road of chemotherapy because she had gone through breast cancer. She gave gentle, thoughtful massages that would lengthen my tight muscles. After several monthly visits, she insisted I come to her twice a month. When I explained I did not have the budget for so many massages, she offered to give me free massages until I felt better. And she did. Her kindness gave me a safe place to face my changed body after enduring chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem-cell transplant. Often, I would be crying with relief by the end of a session, thanking her for her caring touch.

I began taking classes at Claremont Yoga in summer 2012. Out of shape and with “chemo brain,” I quietly introduced myself to each teacher, explaining my circumstances. The teachers took me under their collective wing, adapting and accommodating poses I could not do because of my port or lack of flexibility or stamina. Other students in classes came to know me, my son, and at least some of my leukemia journey. At Claremont Yoga, where the teachers and students support me with encouraging words, I’ve been able to laugh at moments when I blank on a pose or name. From my hometown yoga community, I’ve come to embrace the light, joy, and kindness that yoga has brought to my life.

unnamedDown the street from Claremont Yoga in the Village is a store full of singing bowls, fountains, incense, gongs, flags, books, figurines, and all types of jewelry. Called Buddhamouse Emporium, the shop intrigued me. At first I would visit for heat relief in the form of air conditioning. Soon, I came to know shop owner Charlotte. During our wide-ranging conversations surrounded by art on the walls by local artists, she and I would talk of gratitude and generosity. She encouraged me to put together strands of what I called Pranayama Beads, with each string of beads following a breath pattern. I showed her several, and she liked them so much she wanted to sell them in her shop. It was a creative endeavor that I never would have pursued without Charlotte’s friendship.

In summer 2013, I followed another passion all the way to a writers’ workshop. Filled with creative people as enamored of the written word as I am, these folks have helped unlock my creative writing juices. Though I had written short professional pieces before, I had never followed my writing passion on a more personal level. In the workshop, I shared essays about the harrowing first year of my leukemia journey with the group. Members gave not only constructive criticism but also encouraging words, hugs, and chocolate. Their feedback on my work always left me feeling strong and courageous about my writing life. For the cost of admission—photocopies and a dollar or two donation per session—I’ve been buoyed by a camaraderie I had missed from my publishing days.

  *   *   *   *

Today, I’m a die-hard Claremonter. My son and I visit with longtime gal pals and their families. I am teaching in a limited capacity at Claremont Yoga. And next month, I will give a reading from my newly self-published book at Buddhamouse.

I’m also embracing a whole new community of intellectually engaged parents at the elementary school where my son just started kindergarten. Like my son, who is progressing from a toddling preschooler to a more independent youngster, I am moving beyond my cancer identity, transforming into something better and kinder. Just as this village will help raise up my son, I’ve learned that it takes a village to heal a person physically and spiritually. I’m grateful to all who have taught and loved me along the way.

  *   *   *   *

image“New Lessons From My Hometown” is by Erin Michaela Sweeney. In February 2011, Erin was diagnosed with ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia), a rare and aggressive blood cancer. This story is an adapted excerpt from her self-published memoir: Every Breath Is a Gift: Reflections on My Leukemia Journey, which she is releasing in September to coincide with National Leukemia and Lymphoma Awareness month. Erin is now a writer, mommy, yogini, daughter, editor, sister, and napper extraordinaire who lives in Claremont, California. For more information about her memoir, visit www.ErinMichaelaSweeney.com .

Photo credits: Welcome to Claremont courtesy of the Southern California Violin Makers Workshop; Pranayama Beads and author profile image, courtesy of the author.

All the Unavailable Lives

It was the smell of old paper. Of dust and must, history and mystery.6927396329_ec18eb6669_o

Where did these books come from? What journey had they been on to end up piled high on the table, just waiting for me to stop by on a Saturday morning and add them to my bag?

We wandered the tables, my dad and I, used books piled high. There was nothing like enduring to the end of the sale, claiming the prize of an all-you-can-fill bag for $2. The books we sought were the kind that you open and smell, inhaling the knowledge and wisdom resting in their dusty binding. They were books that, upon grabbing, you first turn to the front, looking for the published date, buying it if the year was before 1920, even if you had no intention of reading it. I loved the feel of the old cloth-bound covers. I grew up with my dad always asking ‘are your hands clean?’ before we touched the very new or very old books. Books were a treasure, a cheap vice, and we were rich.

There was nothing I liked better than curling up on the couch with my purchases. The out-of-print Landmark and Chimney RockSignature books were the most treasured. I learned about everything from my piles of pages. I know where the Catskill Mountains are and what spelunking is from Trixie Belden. Thanks to her, I still have an inexperienced fear of tight spaces in caves. I learned what Geiger counters were from the Hardy Boys, and I know ‘misle’ isn’t a word from Encyclopedia Brown.  I’ve loved pieces of furniture with secret spots and unfolding parts, ever since I first read about Jefferson’s writing desk. I crossed the ocean countless times with Pilgrim Stories, cheered the defeat of Custer, mourned the death of Pocahontas over and over again, and I still think Jo and Laurie should have gotten married.

As I aged, my tastes changed, and I read more mature works, even if they were beyond me. I read The Great Gatsby in high school and didn’t understand it. It took me 6 months to read Gone With The Wind, and I only read one chapter of Crime and Punishment in 8th grade before giving up. Yet, I kept trying. I read The Stranger in college, most of it going over my head, but relived my love of the prairie with O Pioneers. I constantly wanted to be exposed to new people, new ideas. I wanted to live all the lives unavailable to me.

Platte RiverMy love for reading meant I was present at so many historical events, and it’s utterly embarrassing how many of these events occurred under the category ‘Christian Historical Fiction’. The Battle of Shiloh with a side of Jesus, right down the fiction aisle, shelf ‘Morris’. But the Battle of Gettysburg was more impressive because I began when Abe was formed by splitting rails. I rode the length of the Pony Express. I traveled the Oregon Trail more times than I can count, not dying of dysentery once. I visited Fort Laramie and the Platte River as an adult and thanks to all of those prairie romances it was more than crumbling concrete and a calm, thin slice of water for me.

These are cornerstones of American mythology, and walking through the Oregon Trail cemetery on Rt. 92 reminded me that myth is rooted in fact. These people, their histories, and their experiences are all true even if learned about in fiction. They formed me as I grew.

Reading filled me with a sense of independence and grit. If kids can hide themselves in heavy kettles in King Phillip’s War, surely I can mop a floor without complaining. I remember saying things to myself like, “if Laura and Mary were here, what would they do?”. If Laura could clean the house and air out the tick mattresses while Ma was gone, then I could move a bookshelf by myself, hole in the plaster wall be damned. If people ask me to help them with something I think should be a solo job, I want to yell “if you lived on the prairie, you might not have anyone to help you!” But I resist the urge. Usually.

So, if you decide to stop by your annual book sale, and you grab a book off the table for a dime, just be aware that while you might think it’s just a book waiting to be discovered, it’s actually waiting to discover you.

* * * * *


A midwest native transplanted to Virginia, Caris Adel is passionate about justice and is continually looking for ways to disrupt her status quo. A homeschooling mom of five, she is also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in American Studies and Public History.

Book photo by Bernard Walker, Chimney Rock and Platte River photos by Caris Adel.


To See Through A Different Window

She was sitting in her rocking chair facing a large picture window overlooking a wide field with a break of trees in the distance.

The late afternoon sunlight traveled from sky through window, spilling over the pale, green floor which had been polished to a high glossy sheen by the kind janitor with his buffing machine.

There were clean linens on her bed, and the top sheet, blanket, and quilt were folded at the end. Clean incontinence pads, used to protect a bed’s mattress from bodily fluids, were stacked on the lid of the potty chair at her bedside.

“Aunt Mary, how are you today?” I pulled up a chair. “I’m Lisa, your sister’s grand-daughter.”

“Hello Mildred,” she said.

She raised one of her hands to her brow, as though she was trying to grab the tail of a thought before it flew away.

“Donnie and the boys better come in from the field. There’s a bad cloud moving in.”

* * * * *

It was the summer of 1979, and I had completed my first year of college. The beakers and bunsen burners in a college chemistry lab, and the cultivation of bacteria in petri dishes were prerequisites for a nursing degree. I longed to interact with patients—human beings—who were more than sodium, potassium, Staphylococcus, or Clostridium.

Though I did not have the credentials to work in a hospital setting, an administrator at a local nursing home was willing to interview me. She struggled to maintain a consistent staff of caregivers. The work was hard and the wages low. She may have been desperate for help, or perhaps my stories about growing up with my maternal and paternal grandparents convinced her of my regard for the elderly.

The following week, I arrived to work the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, dressed in a freshly pressed uniform, hoping to present an image of a confident caregiver. The only registered nurse who worked those same hours—the rest of the staff were L.P.N.s and aides—gave me a brief tour of the facility, showed me the hall of patients for whom another aide and I were responsible, and sent me on my way. She walked backwards away from me, rubber-soled shoes squeaking, and told me to holler if I needed help. With a quick turn, she waved and trotted to the nurse’s station.

* * * * *

I stuck my head in the door and called: “Mr. Charlie, did you have a bowel movement today?”

“Come in here, pretty girl,” he replied. I stopped the beverage cart at his door.

Mr Charlie treated me like I was his daughter, using affectionate names and grilling me about the boys in my life. A short conversation.

His room was dark except for the flickering fluorescent light above his bed. Mr. Charlie was seated in his brown, suede recliner with his walker stationed nearby. He was clad in a two-piece set of men’s pajamas and corduroy, sheepskin-lined slippers.

As I checked his water pitcher, we chatted about the events of the day: bingo in the activity room, another patient’s fall—and the death of Mrs. Sally.

Mrs. Sally was a spunky presence on our hall. Her hair was a fluffy, white coiffeur spritzed daily with Aqua Net hairspray stored in the top drawer of her bedside table. In the afternoon, I often used a pick to fluff her hair, heeding her instructions to cover up the thinning spots on top. We’d giggle like teenagers as I guided her trembling hand while she “painted” her lips with her favorite color.

She walked the hall by steadying herself with the handrail on the wall and a cane. Her laughter drifted into every room, and I wondered if the bedridden patients—knees drawn to chest in a fetal position, diapered, and fed with a tube—heard it.

Earlier, I had found her during rounds, unresponsive on the floor. My supervisor came running after I pulled the emergency cord and called for help. Mrs. Sally had loved to talk about the “stepping over” that was ahead for her. I imagined she had died with an easy, girlish step.

Sadness shrouded the room. I squeezed Mr. Charlie’s shoulder, placed a Styrofoam cup of water on his side table, and pushed the beverage cart to the next room.

* * * * *

Aunt Mary sat on the side of the bed as I pulled the flannel gown over her slight body, then guided her matchstick arms into the sleeves. We sat in the silence; I took her small hand, put it in mine, and gave it a kiss.

The soft, shallow lines on her face seemed like the delicate stitches of her quilt, wrought by hand when her fingers were nimble, unhindered by degenerative disease. As I tucked her into bed, her blue eyes, still unclouded by age, looked into mine. I was not Mildred, but she knew I was someone who loved her.

After securing the bed’s side-rails, I walked to the window and closed the blinds.

FullSizeRender(25)Photo by Lisa Phillips

Choosing a College for your Four-Year-Old

“When I was in school,” I have been explaining lately, to anyone who will listen, “There were two choices. One, Catholic school. Two, public school. And we weren’t Catholic, so…”

At this point, I raise my eyebrows and shrug my shoulders, as if to say, back in my day, things were simpler. Then I lower my eyes, shake my head, and sigh.

“But. For my kids,” I continue, voice rising as I get to the impressive part of my proclamation, “there are at least fifteen options, and that’s just for elementary school. Fifteen.”

I pause, and look up. And whether or not my friend has the decency to nod sympathetically, my opinion is evident. Fifteen. I widen my eyes, and this says: all of these choices are driving me crazy.

* * * * *

During the preschool age of our lives (preschistoric?), our two girls went to a lovely, small center where the teachers spoke in low voices, and the children set out the napkins for snack. We parents dropped them off in the morning, and, three magical hours later, we picked them up. At the door, the gentle teachers told us things like “Susie and Matthew built a zoo today out of egg cartons and pipe cleaners,” or “Olivia rode the tricycle the whole time she was outside. Her legs are getting so strong.”

And we parents would smile and say thank you in low voices, herding our children out the door. Once outside, the children shrieked and raced for the sidewalk, re-assuming their imitation of maniacal savages now that we were back in charge. With minimal safety-instructions, we let them go for a moment–stop poking your brother with pipe cleaners, Susie!–and gathered near the stairs. We had important business to discuss.

2933195848_7ab077df23_oKindergarten. There was so much to consider; we needed to compare notes. What did you put as your top choice on the magnet application? Linden has Mandarin and German, but it’s not immersion; I’ve heard that Liberty does a good job with Spanish. Did you even bother to apply for the Environmental Charter School? I heard that so-and-so is moving to Aspinwall so that her kids can go to Fox Chapel. How many kids are in a class at the Montessori?

Kindergarten. We thought about it all the time; it was like choosing a college for your four-year-old. It felt critical. Because, as we told ourselves over and over again, preschool was three hours a day, just a few days each week, but kindergarten was eight hours. Every day. And it was all up to us where they would spend all that time.

Eight hours. Fifteen schools. Is it any wonder that we were a little maniacal too?

* * * * *

School choice, as an issue, is not without controversy. It makes for a good discussion on the high school debate team. Pros: schools can be tailored to meet the needs of particular students; competition among schools may lead to better outcomes; low-income students are given (some of) the same options as their wealthier peers. Cons: an application process privileges children whose parents have/take the time to choose; neighborhoods no longer have local schools that involve the whole community; schools may ‘adjust’ outcomes in order to compete.

I know these arguments. I was an elementary education major in college, and, then and now, I can see both sides. All of this seems to play out differently in different districts, and for different families. I have no grand theory. However, now as a parent in this process I know something that I didn’t know in college–as the choices grow, so does the pressure on parents to ‘choose well’ for their children.

But maybe some of that pressure is false.

* * * * *

It’s been several years since those preschool conversations, and I’m still surprised by how everything shook out. Our two daughters are in two schools, seven miles–and seemingly, worlds–apart.

Our sensitive eldest is enrolled in a small, private, Christian school with a creative, flexible curriculum and a small (about 16:1) student-to-teacher ratio. Her school promotes service and love of learning, writes and performs an annual all-school musical, and scholarships over 85% of their students.

Her younger sister, whom a friend called “a miniature Hillary Clinton,” attends our neighborhood ‘feeder’ school–a large, loud building with state-set requirements and free lunches for all. Last year, she had thirty students in her kindergarten class and they were from fifteen different countries–her best friends are Samoan, Russian, and Iranian. At recess, she ‘organizes’ them, and they all pick up trash because “It’s bad for God’s earth, Mama.”

And it works, mostly, which makes me grateful for the school choices we have. Both places are good fits; the girls thrive in their respective schools.

But. In my time of dual-school parenting, I’ve learned something very important–the two schools have a lot more in common than I ever imagined. Good teachers, for example, and bullies. Family fun nights, and inconvenient teacher in-service days. Reading out-loud every day, spelling tests, and math drills. Gym class and music. Fundamentally, they’re both like… elementary schools. Imagine.

Are there differences? Yes, and some of them are significant, but the pros do not all lie with one option and the cons with the other. From the way we talked after preschool, you would have thought we were choosing between maximum security or the Ivy League, chaos or order, success or failure. You would have thought that this one decision determined our children’s futures.

And it’s just not like this. Please, someone, tell the preschool parents: Consider the options, make a choice, and then relax. It’s kindergarten. You–and your child–will figure it out along the way.


Photos by Thomas Hawk

Learning the Mystery

Mystery is not the absence of meaning,
but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.
~ Eugene Peterson

*    *    *    *    *

When I was a girl sitting in church pews—a girl still small enough that my feet swung back and forth because they didn’t reach the floor—I learned that God was holy. Being with God meant spending Sunday mornings in a space like no other in my life, with ceilings reaching three stories high, painted blue like the heavens, and walls of stained glass to my left and right. In that space I learned that mystery and rituals matter in equal portion—that Sunday after Sunday we did the known things we could do in hopes of glimpsing the edges of the unknown things shrouded in mystery.

unnamed (1)I learned very early on that God is loving and accepting of all, but also that my own potential to sadden him had no bounds. Through unison prayers of confession, I became aware of not only of the many things I could do wrong, but also of the “right” things I left undone. Between the sins of action and those of omission, how could I possibly get through a day unscathed?

The God of my childhood was not a God of fire and wrath, but a God of head-shaking and disappointment. It seemed he was always looking down on me, wishing I had made a different, better choice.

*    *    *    *    *

At high school church camp, I learned the night sky could be the ceiling and the northern Michigan trees the stained glass of a different kind of church. I learned that God could be met anywhere, apart from pastors and acolytes donned in robes, and even apart from my family sitting alongside me in the pew.

I also learned, through the testimonies shared around campfires by leather-jacket-wearing ex-convicts and -addicts, that God’s love is bigger than his disappointment, and that he’s in the business of changing lives, not critiquing them.

*    *    *    *    *

During my senior year of college I sang in a gospel choir at a diverse urban church whose style of worship couldn’t have felt more different from Sunday mornings in the stained-glass church of my youth. In addition to learning the importance of clapping the off-beats, I learned my alto part by listening to the choir director sing it—I learned that God could be found outside of music staffs and key signatures, and beyond written confessions inked on pages at the back of hymnals.

In that place people wept their confessions, which were scripted in their hearts. I also learned that God made people raucous and joyful, and that I could get caught up in that joy for a moment or two, but faking it wasn’t the same as making it. My understanding of God had broadened over the years, but now I could see it was still flat, easy to see right through.

*    *    *    *    *

At a church in St. Louis, a couple of years into my marriage, I learned how God works in the lives of grieving people. We arrived just months after the sudden death of the church’s beloved pastor, and while that could have easily been a reason to leave the church, it became a reason to stay: In that place I first glimpsed an entire church full of people being raw and real in the presence of God.

I saw a broken community of people trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy, and trying to hold one another up. They worked out their anger with God over months, not hours, and I learned that God accepts our anger, like a father who lets a grieving child beat upon his chest until, finally exhausted, the struggle becomes an embrace.

*    *    *    *    *

But when my own life was falling apart, a handful of years later in another city, my new church presented me with a different God—one who wasn’t there to absorb and then transform my pain, but to deflect it back on me, to multiply it with guilt and regret in order to help me learn the hard, unforgettable way.

In that place, I almost unlearned everything important I had learned about God—the loving and holy mystery that can’t be contained by stained glass, the God of transformative power, who meets us in our raw pain and failures. Instead, I was learning why so many people walk away from it all, as I finally did one bright spring Sunday morning.

*    *    *    *    *

Until one day a few months later, when I walked into a space that felt nothing like a church, with its coffee stains on the carpet and institutional ceiling tiles above. It was in that place—filled with unpredictable, moving, awkward, painful, and joy-filled people and worship—that God taught me about grace, and about all of the learning I have yet to do.

You don’t have to wear a skirt to follow Jesus

It’s always in the in-between spaces where freedom seems to creep in unnoticed, filling up cracks and crevices of latent longing.

My final year of college, I left my fiancée, boarded a plane with my black umbrella, and touched down where the Inklings once walked. I was spending a semester in Oxford, and I planned to drink it all in–the architecture, the academic rigorousness, the living on my own.  The main dorm was full, so I was placed with six other young women in a tiny, run-down flat a few miles from The Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

We rode our bikes back and forth between classes cutting through Christ Church Meadows. There we met Zoe, an old woman draped in the velvet colors of wood nymphs. She could always be found on her bench, communing with a reality we couldn’t see, her eyes full of poetry and fire. She sat with the tree branches bending back towards the water, their designs on the cards she sold. I slowed down to hear her voice.

In all of the in-between spaces, there was time to meander home each day, to make dinner in our closet of a kitchen, to see deer grazing at Magdalen College.

We’d tape up medieval history timelines on our living room wall between the stenciled fleur-de-lis; we covered it in 5775852977_bc6eb9c7fe_ocolored post-it notes and memorized until we were bleary-eyed. We’d have brilliant thesis statements for papers on Spencer’s Faerie Queen or Jane Austen and forget them in the morning. We quickly learned the routes to and from the city center, hopping on bikes to seminars and spreading out around the city, often leaving bikes in a tangle at the Bodleian Library.

We were thirsty for knowledge and we drank our fill.

Some of us came from more fundamentalist Christian colleges, where women were still required to wear skirts to chapel. Others, like me, came from classically evangelical colleges, where following rules made you holy. If we kept our doors open when our boyfriends visited, if we didn’t skip out on chapel, if we got A’s, then we’d have the boxes checked on the list of Good Christian Woman. We were all caught right in the middle of all of the “if…then’s…” and we hadn’t even known it.

Sometimes it takes moving places to see where you’ve come from. It was in that land of willow trees and spires, where C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein seemed to haunt our Christian memory, that we gingerly stepped into freedom.

We moved out of rules, out of guidelines, and out of cultures that told us how to be a Christian woman. We said goodbye to boyfriends, we jumped on planes to France, and we toured Scotland and the Isle of Wight. We figured out train timetables for ourselves. We drank wine and cooked together.

Slowly, over the course of weeks, our walking, biking, and traveling created intimacy. Then, it was the scholarly living-in-community I valued, where I was finally surrounded by a cohort of similarly serious women. Now, I realize it was my first foray into womanhood and freedom. 

You didn’t have to wear a skirt to follow Jesus.

You could discuss postmodernist literary theory and the practices of St. Benedict in one breath and not be looked at askance. You could be smart and thoughtful and strong and beautiful. You could be everything.

We didn’t want to choose between love and family, and living a thoughtful life. We imagined more for our futures than the version of stay-at-home motherhood our Christian subcultures told us was the epitome of womanhood.

We craved a grounded womanhood, a womanhood rooted in the poetry of the land, with ideas that mattered and voices that were heard – no matter what we did for work or family life. We wanted a womanhood where we could stand sure-footed, warrior-strong, and wear our gentleness like a glorious garment.

We flung our hands from covering our own mouths.

We were women whose voices were no longer silenced, but freed. At the end of the semester, we met around a table in a pub that used to be a church and affirmed one another, our womanhood, and our personhood. We knew it to be a bit silly even then, but with our umbrella drinks in hand, we reclaimed the evangelical rites of testimony. Our words were thick with feeling as we testified to the goodness of each woman, to the Spirit within.  We pushed back our individual darknesses, the lines in sand that said this was how you were to be a woman. We saw one another while the fading icons watched from the walls.

There was more holiness around that table than in the rules we had left.

When I took a plane across the land and across the ocean, I thought it’d be the seminar rooms and the spires of Oxford that would stay with me. It was to be a sort of squeaky clean, pristine memory of old musty libraries, endless cups of tea, the solitary scholar behind a desk, and reams of notes signifying academic progress.

But freedom was somewhere in the spaces between. It was in the orange walls of a run-down flat, and the hallowed halls of pubs; it was the paths between our home and seminars, and it was in a group of women finally released to affirm their personhood instead of static gender roles. It was in all the little particulars – it was in all the places of imperfection where I found freedom, and wholeness, and how I, too, had a voice.

* * * * *

ashleyAshley Hales describes herself as a recovering good girl who’s been caught by the wide mercy of Jesus. She clings to stories, hot cups of coffee, and “me, too” conversations with girlfriends. She’s mama to 4 littles, wife to her church planter husband, and holds a Ph.D. in English. She writes at Circling the Story and The Mudroom and loves to make friends on Twitter.

“Oxford in the Mist Photo” by lorenzaccio

Things That Go Bump in the Night

Newlyweds have the best stories. The travails of the freshly married are used at cocktail and dinner parties as an amusing source of friendly one-up-man-ship. Who has the worst story? Whose honeymoon was the biggest disaster? From the cliche (“It rained the whole time!”) to the strange (“Bears ate all our food!”), fun messes are what happen to other people, certainly not to calm people like me.

Dan and I married a month ago. We had a quiet wedding in Connecticut and honeymoon on Cape Cod. Then we drove to our new home in Colorado for four days, listening to a Game of Thrones audiobook and talking about how we’d do life on one income while I looked for jobs in Denver. Our driving time was leisurely and as I’d never really been off the East Coast, I found the American interior both a marvel and an education. Pennsylvania so long!  Kansas so flat!

We got into our new apartment a couple of weeks ago. We were delighted with it.

“I won’t have to clean that much!” I crowed to Dan.

I loved its freshly painted beige walls and brand new carpets and the trees that shade timage3he patio and windows.  “Looks a little bit like Connecticut,” I mentioned off-handedly.  

We hung a big painting of his over the mantelpiece and felt at home.

Our friends moved us in and we all sat on the carpet afterwards eating pizza and drinking soda.   The next morning Dan went to make coffee and I sat in bed reading a novel. He came back a moment later and sat down next to me.

“Don’t get upset,” he said. “I think we may have cockroaches.”

I blanched. I’d seen a couple of reddish fast-moving little bugs in the kitchen when we moved in but had no idea what they were. We tiptoed to the kitchen and Dan showed me four he’d killed in the sink, next to the new pizza cutter we’d neglected to wash, with a couple of shreds of cheese still on it.  

“Those aren’t roaches!” I cried.  “Roaches have hard black shells and live in New York City!”

I pulled out my phone and Googled “cockroaches.” As we suspected.

One thing I’ve learned: roaches are the bugs nobody wants. They’re not helpful like ladybugs or praying mantises. They leave their droppings everywhere, help spread salmonella, and cause asthma attacks.  They breed at an amazing rate. Once you’ve got them, they’re nearly impossible to drive out. The archaic word “pestilence” comes to mind.

Everyone we have spoken to about our problem has been horrified.  So we don’t talk to many people about it. I can’t help feeling there’s an implied judgment in others’ responses. “We are clean people!” I want to say. “We aren’t gross!”

I’ve started to blame the neighbors.  This makes it all the more difficult to live in the place. To accept what is happening. To receive the pest control treatments and wait for the roaches to lessen and die.

On the practical level, we have learned to clean our new space like it’s never been cleaned before.  Like I’ve never cleaned before. We use bleach regularly on all counters, after every image2meal we eat, after every snack. We vacuum like mad and hand-wash dishes so they can be put away immediately. Our dry food and silverware we store in airtight containers. We use only two coffee cups and one pot and one pan. We are living by deletion. We accept dinner invitations from friends but let them know we can’t return the favor yet.

Neither of us is particularly house-proud. In fact we’ve both been pretty indifferent home-makers before marriage. Dan is fine artist who needs precious studio time and I’ve always resisted housework because it cuts into reading and writing time. These days, it would not occur to me to leave an unwashed dish in the sink or crumbs on the counter. My past kitchens and bathrooms have never been so clean as this one.

A couple of years ago I heard the poet Luci Shaw talk about embracing the “slow pleasures.” Washing dishes. Ironing. Using chore time to set the mind free, slow down the self, and make room for contemplation.

Until I find my new job, I spend lots of time cleaning the kitchen, keeping pests at bay, disrupting old habits of haste and carelessness. Accepting a slower pace. Accepting the pride that comes of a task done thoroughly and well.  

We’ve joined the ranks of the newly-married horror-story tellers. When the pests recede, we’ll throw a cocktail party for all our friends and tell our story. And pray they’ll come back for more. Our guests, that is.


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“Things That Go Bump in the Night” was written by Elena Shekleton. Elena lives in Denver with her husband. She is currently working on a book of fairy tale short stories and is learning how to get around in her new city without getting lost.


A Song for the Live Wires & Burning Bushes

Somewhere deep where we have no program our next discovery lies.

                                                                                                  – William Stafford


I don’t remember what I expected or wanted that evening in 1992, the night I first bumbled into J.C. Dobbs. I imagine I was too embattled by nerves and anticipation as I entered the venue to hazard any expectations. Back then, I hadn’t ventured solo into Philadelphia, hadn’t pushed past the border of my neighborhood at the city’s edges with any frequency. The World was out there, and all the dreadful, dangerous, hot bloodlust associated with it, and we’d come to understand early on – falsely – that to keep close meant we could stay safe. And while I had seen the bar area at different restaurants before, until that night I had only ever been inside one actual, real bar. That first time, a couple years earlier, I was only let in to see the show if I wore a wrist band and my dad accompanied me. Somehow, I managed to convince him to serve as my chaperone.

img_2749_JCDobbsDobbs was smaller than that place. When you walked inside, it looked like you were staring down a dimly-lit, roofed alleyway. The stage rested at the center of the small room and while all the band’s gear appeared onstage, it was hard to imagine how more than one person could fit up there. From the entrance at the back of the bar, the stage resembled the narrow plank of a pirate ship. An absurdly thin hallway curled past the right of the stage, leading to the bathrooms and a stairwell reaching to the second floor.

My folks had caved that evening and allowed me to drive the Country Squire – that faux-wood-paneled beast – down to South Street, though not without reminding me that someone had recently been shot in that part of the city. My mom, discomfited that I intended to make the journey to South Street solo, asked more than one time if I really had to go down by myself. But who would I have asked? My hometown friends had all returned to their different colleges. I was still languishing at the community college, resigned to living at home and working – part-time at K-Mart, part-time as one of the church janitors – absolutely clueless about where to direct my energies, or how to put the next steps of my life in motion, much less know what to be when I grew up.

I can’t tell you today where I first heard of the Killing Floor album, or how I even came into possession of 81bfe86fd6d253b38f3b78ad17f8b944the record on a blank cassette. I only recall now that the magic words, “Athens, Georgia” and “…co-produced by Peter Buck” appeared in the press around the album – news that immediately yanked me into its orbit. At that time in my life, any and all association with R.E.M. compelled an urgent drive to seek out an artist’s material. Any artist that stood even a mild chance of doing to my heart and skin what R.E.M. albums did to me was worth a try. In fact, that’s what I must have sought out of this experience, from this evening’s nerve-addled journey: I wanted these ambassadors from R.E.M.-country to bring me to life in real time; I wanted in a live setting to feel the red clay of Georgia on my skin, to feel something similar to what Athens’s luminaries could do to my loneliness through my headphones.


(R.E.M. l to r: Buck, Stipe, Mills, & Berry)

Maybe you can remember a time when you were someone’s biggest fan, too. Maybe you can identify on some level with my admittedly-juvenile adoration, devotion, and logic here.


I don’t remember how long I stood in the back of the bar that evening before the band I had come to see took the stage. What would  they even look like? I had seen the album cover in a magazine, so I knew the lead-singer/songwriter wore glasses.


I can’t remember now how long I stood in the shadows in muted, wide-eyed anticipation.



Did I emerge hours later? Days? Moments?

Whatever the case, spilling out the door of JC Dobbs and back onto South Street, I may as well have stumbled out of the wardrobe from Narnia. For all I knew, years could have passed on the other side of the venue’s door.

What had I just witnessed? Lived through? No – not lived through. I had survived. And just barely.

The four members of Vigilantes of Love had not performed on the bar’s narrow stage that evening so much as “Gone Off.” Walked onstage, picked up their instruments, and then exploded like a malatov cocktail in a fireworks factory.

I’d never seen anything like it.

True, I had not seen much until that time in my life.

But how did they pack up and drive away after that anyway? How did they sleep?

And, dear Lord, who in the world let them get away with that?


(photo, Michael Wilson)

At the same time, Bill Mallonee and company were not even doing a job that night – or on many of the other nights I would watch them over the years that followed: It became apparent that whenever the Vigilantes of Love walked onstage and leaned into the evening and their songs, they set to the urgent task of saving their lives, and STAT. And in their excruciating, vulnerable, death-defying, Evil Knievel approach to rock and roll, they converted me to something. But to what exactly? It’s taken me at least this many years living with that question to arrive here: I still don’t have an answer for you.


I found my breath and rose above the evening’s surface. I knew only one thing as I fumbled around for my keys outside: Everything I’d heard until then – which was admittedly not much from within the bubble, the subculture of my origins – proved a gelatinous, soft-butter imitation of men daring to pretend they played rock and roll. Whatever other bands I had seen were doing, they’d left their turning signals on. They drove through songs too carefully, with a donut, hazard lights blinking. At best, other bands onstage resembled zombies craving their own souls; ghosts hungry for the warmth, the heat of their own flesh.


I have seen many concerts since that night. Some of which have perhaps rivaled or surpassed that lone 1990’s bar-burner. I couldn’t say.

But I was a walking matchbook right then. And lonely. Adrift at sea. No compass. If you’d held my hand under starlight, played me your favorite song, or asked me to tell you the deepest desires burdening my heart in those days, we likely would have exploded into a cosmic supernova together.

That night, four men came dangerously close to setting me ablaze. And I do know – I can tell you – there were sparks that evening.

And on some nights, I can still smell the smoke.


(xoxo Bill Mallonee, Newt Carter, David LaBruyere, & Travis McNabb…)

In memoriam, Robert Newton Carter, 1966-2015…RIP



Pic of a 1989 schedule of shows at J.C. Dobbs in 1989 found online…you’ll notice a couple acts here went on to become household names.