Go Stick Your Face in a Cake

It was February 14th, 2009, and we were finally hosting our first daughter’s first birthday party–a full month and a half after her January 2nd birthday. Our first excuse for this procrastination was obvious: we had a year-old baby. Our second excuse was known only to me and my husband: I was already pregnant with her sister.

In an attempt at fleeting sanity, we ordered her cake from a local bakery, and the morning of the party, I drove to pick it up. I was surprised when the clerk handed me two white boxes, one big and one small. Seeing my confusion, she smiled confidingly. “Smash cake,” she explained, “It’s for your baby to destroy.”

And so it was. In the smaller box was a tiny pink cake, a mini-me version of its twin. It was created for destruction, and so, we sang happy birthday and let her at it.

Smash cake, smashed. Check. Though she was surprisingly neat about it.

I like the smash cake, which I suppose tells you something about my personality. I don’t mind a bit of fun chaos every once in a while. I encourage my kids to get their hands dirty and their boots muddy, and I try to do the same. To me, it’s not real exploration if you’re afraid to make a mess.

Which brings me to another smashing celebration.

In August of 2014, six writers met in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a couple of months later, in October 2014, we launched the You Are Here blog. Our first year has been full of… ahem… learning opportunities, and lots of messy exploration. Along the way, stories have been told, and told well.

And we are grateful.

We are grateful for deadlines, for themes, and for a community of writers. We are grateful for guest posters, for Laura (who designed our banner), and Jason (who fixes our technical problems and inspires most of Kristin’s food-related posts). We are grateful for the words when they finally come, and for stories that are continually given. We are grateful for you, because again and again, you come back to read more.

So happy birthday readers and writers of You Are Here! Now get yourself some cake and go to town.

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Some numbers:

166 posts


48 guest authors

1 year

A Week on Deer Isle

My shoulder muscles were crying as I lugged two five-gallon buckets of water, one in each hand, up the driveway. “Almost there, almost there,” I panted, trudging the width of the massive garden on my way to the front door. Three steps up, and… there! Stepping into the hostel, I sighed long and grinned, wordlessly confessing my exertion to everyone gathered in the kitchen. The other guests returned my smile—none of us were really used to this. We were off-the-grid tourists, short-term visitors from a planet with running water, hobby gardens, and cellphone coverage.

We were not sure we could keep this up for very long.

But we were glad—so very glad—that our hosts did. And we were grateful to be welcomed into this place. this place where you watched your dinner grow and pulled your water from the ground.

It was good to be on Deer Isle.

* * * * *

It seems ironic that I discovered the Deer Isle hostel on the internet. My husband and I had longed to visit Maine for most of our ten-year marriage, and our anniversary was the perfect excuse to make the trip. I started at the state tourist website, clicking the ‘hostel’ tab mostly out of curiosity. We were cheap, yes, but we also wanted our own room.

Deer Isle Hostel was a top choice, and as I clicked through, my curiosity grew. It was owned and run by a married couple, Anneli and Dennis, who were named ‘Homesteaders of the Year’ in 2013. It was off-the-grid, hand built, and 17th-century inspired. It was solar powered, with hand-pumped water and a hot outdoor shower.

I wasn’t sure I knew what all these things meant. I kept reading.

Every night there were communal dinners from the garden. It was a short hike from the ocean. There was an inexpensive, secluded hut for two. Now we were talking.

I sent an e-mail, a reservation, and then a payment, still having very little idea what we were getting ourselves into.

* * * * *

When we arrived at the hostel in early August we were greeted by Dennis, who turned out to be a wiry man-of-Maine with a smile covering half his face. He greeted us enthusiastically, showed us our hut, and then introduced us to the bathroom facilities. The toilet, which was actually a five gallon bucket in a toilet-like frame, was accompanied by a big sack of sawdust. We read the cheerful sign:


We also noticed that the bathroom smelled pleasant, not at all like the outhouse we were expecting, but like peppermint hand soap and clean sawdust. It smelled better than our bathroom at home–so much for roughing it.

The shower was next. It was, indeed, outdoors, with high wooden walls and a view of the sky. Dennis pointed to a huge (and again, not smelly) compost pile next to the shower, and showed us the end of the black tube winding its way through the pile. “This is what heats the water,” he announced joyously, almost as if he had come up with the idea yesterday and is still shocked that it works, “and the hot water tube comes out here, next to the cold.” Now he unhooked a silver watering can from above our heads. “Just mix your hot and cold in this. Then hang it back on the hook, and tip it forward when you want water. It’s that simple,” he declared, and he was right.

These people, I thought, have got this down.

* * * * *

We stayed for nearly a week, and I was surprised by how easy it was to settle into the rhythms of daily life. The things that I thought would be challenging, or at least notable–the toilets, shower and all other things water-related–turned out to be surprisingly unremarkable. There were systems in place long before I got there; the patterns of life were well-established.IMG_2279

There was something so good, so refreshing, about stepping into rhythms of life that made sense.

Every night before our communal dinner, everyone gathered near the long table. We grabbed each other’s hands, paused for a moment of silence, and then went around the circle, introducing ourselves and stating something we were grateful for in that day.

Because we were there for a week, I started to notice a pattern in Anneli’s responses. Everyday she was grateful for her guests, her husband, Dennis, and her swim in the pond. The first two I expected, but the third seemed more peripheral, even trivial, especially when she said it for the fifth day in a row. Then, one day, she explained.

Anneli grew up in Northern Sweden and thus knows what it means to savor the summer. She brings this appreciation to her life in Maine. “There are one hundred days of summer,” she said, “and I have committed to swim on each of these, each and every one of them. Summer will soon be over, and so I am grateful for every swim.”

Later, as I reflected on her response, something new occurred to me. I had been admiring Dennis and Anneli for creating this place called Deer Isle Hostel and for organizing their lives (and mine, for a week) around sustainable practices. But, while these things are true, more is going on here. They are not only creating place; they are receiving place.

In choosing to live so closely to the rhythms of the very specific place they inhabit, they are not only vulnerable to its quirks–destructive storms, long winter months, hungry groundhogs, invasive pests–but they are also open and receptive to its very specific gifts–one hundred days of warm air and cool pond water, a garden big enough to feed hostel guests in the summer and still eat throughout the winter, and a compost-hot shower covered by sky.

And though I don’t see a sawdust toilet anywhere in our future, I do carry this question with me:

Now that I’m home from Deer Isle, how can I receive the place where I live?


Thankfully Torn to Leave

At a mindfulness yoga retreat I attended a while ago, I was instructed to shake my body for fifteen minutes and then dance for fifteen minutes–all to help prepare for breath work that would follow after.

I closed my eyes and found solitude even though I was surrounded by the other women who were doing the same thing. Just a few minutes into this bizarre but radical shaking, I wanted to give into the ridiculousness of it and sit it out, but an inside-of-me voice said, “Just shake.  All you need to do RIGHT NOW is shake!”

And so I shook. I gave myself permission to just be there, shaking my arms, shoulders up and down, legs in motion. I was waking all of the space inside of me, inviting body-mind-spirit to meet in one place. My body was moving in this tremendous, medicinal-healing way, while I noticed its capabilities and boldly declared in my heart, “You are powerful. You are strength. You are beauty.”

Next we breathed deeply, lying on our backs with mouths open and jaws aching all the while. In and out. Heavy. Noisy. Breath became thought and rhythm: Holy Spirit/within me. In and out. Holy Spirit/within me. In and out.  The yogini came over with calming burnt sage, and while resting her hands momentarily in the space above my heart, she whispered, “You are doing a good job.”

As she walked away, I tried to accept her motherly words, tried to take them in with my breath. “I am doing a good job.” But I wasn’t convinced. Months later, with the day quickly approaching that we will once again uproot our little family after three years in Qatar and stick our feet back in American soil, I feel regret. You see, I didn’t do a very good job as an expat at first. I was so eager to wish it all away and kept looking forward to the day we’d move back to our familiar place. But then I learned to notice–the ordinary and the vibrancy of life–and to put down roots and find sources of water.

post picNow I’ve supported other new expats, reassuring them of how they too will fall for this place. I’ve said to those women, “Notice how strong you are and notice those small victories.  Tell yourself regularly, ‘I am doing a good job.’ Notice what is in your everyday that you will never have outside of the Middle East.”

I am also reassuring myself, especially in these last days. When you begin to leave a place, you see these things and capture them to store in that space of your mind labeled, what-I-took-for-granted-when-I-lived-here-day-in-and-day-out. You begin to take great care to notice what you’ve come to love:

Noticing: My everyday contains the soothing hues of Filipino skin, Turkish eyes, Dutch fairness, the fluidity of the black abaya, multilingual children, and normalcy.

Noticing: Tamil on the tongue, labor camps and families who live countries apart.

Noticing: The aroma of turmeric and za’atar, karak and exotic incense.

Noticing: The beauty in the cream, sandy colors in our part of the world, pierced with the brilliant blues of saris, the sacred covers of black, patterned dashiki of rich purple worn on Fridays, the holy day.

Noticing: The most stunning of life’s mysteries witnessed in the form of my two small littles growing out from baby and toddler into thinking, independent children in all of the grace and sweetness that offers those who abide in this mystery.

Noticing: The friendships that were unexpected, healing, and that gave me belonging; and those I’d wish to have known deeper. The regret of depth missed in using this place to draw nearer to God, who shows up, even in the desert.

There is weight and beauty in the noticing.

And I am getting ready for movement again. Not the kind of shaking to prepare for breath work, but the kind of physical tiredness one goes through to move their family halfway around the world. In this move, I go with my packed little heart full of all that I’ve noticed. I go with my, “you are doing a good job” valediction. I go with thankfulness in feeling torn to leave this place.

* * * * *

bio-pic_smallLisa Collier moved from Pittsburgh in 2012 and is currently an expat living in Doha, Qatar as a lucky trailing spouse. Her husband, two girls and dog make this place a home. Lisa took on the challenging but wonderful experience of homeschooling this past year.  Lisa has traveled quite a bit, but the view from inside the train on the way from Milan to Zurich was one of the most breathtaking scenes. Read more at www.onceyouarereal.com.

Colorful incense: Photographed by Lisa Collier at Souq Waqif, Doha, Qatar.


My Bad L’Attitude

We stand and shiver in the northern latitudes of a tilted planet. It is February in Pennsylvania, and we are huddled as close together as is decent and comfortable for adult acquaintances. The wind whips over us, then through us, finding every uncovered inch of skin. “Where are they, now?” someone asks, “Do they bring ‘em out a minute later for every degree the temperature drops?” I nod mutely and smirk with my mouth closed, commiserating but not willing to expose my teeth to this wind. Together we stare intently at the school doors, waiting to walk our children home.

When the kids come, we push up and out of our shells, greeting our children after eight hours apart. The kids are, predictably, half-zipped, with gloves in their coat pockets and scarves trailing behind. The younger ones hone in on icicles hanging from the iron fence and break them off quickly, trying to suck the cool liquid before their grown-ups scold, “Put that down! That’s dirty! And put your gloves on!”

No matter. They are off, like puppies in snow, and now we break our huddle. “See ya tomorrow.” “Have a good night.” “Stay warm.” We are trying to stay warm, but our kids are far ahead, so we trade our protective shuffle for purposeful strides and call out, “Wait up!”

Don’t they know how cold it is out here? It seems not, and even I forget-for a moment or two-when I finally catch up with my daughter. She veers off the cleared sidewalk for the icy crust of snow. Crunch. Crunch. She finds a pile of salt and stomps her pink boots into it. “Listen, Mama!” she exclaims, “It sounds like Pop Rocks when they’re popping in your mouth!”

She’s right. I find my own pile and grind it under my heel. Crunch. Pop. Who knew?


As any good third-grade science textbook can tell you, the earth’s relationship to the sun has two aspects. One, we spin on an axis, making one rotation every 24 hours, and this is why Pennsylvanians are just waking up when the Brits are having their midday meal. Spinning on an axis creates time zones and jet lag, romantic sunsets and the possibility of standard clocks.

However, we do more than spin. We move, in a great not-quite-circular orbit around the sun that drags us (by gravity, apparently) 584 million miles every 365.256 days. And all this motion plus the fact that we’re tilted in space (at a 23.4 degree angle, if you were wondering) means we open up a can of worms called “The Four Seasons.”

Third-graders understand this much better than you do because some enthusiastic science teacher just showed them what this looks like with a lamp and a Styrofoam ball. The students sat in a big circle, and the teacher stuck a lamp in the middle. “Imagine that this is the sun, in the middle, like the hub of a bicycle wheel.” Then she stuck a chopstick into the earth, tilted it, and began spinning the ball while walking around the lamp. If she was really good, she may have even taken out a sharpie and marked the students’ current Styrofoam location. “Here. This black dot is Pennsylvania. Watch it as I walk around the circle, and tell me when we are having winter and summer.”

In other words: Life as a black dot on a spinning, tilted, orbiting planet is a seasonal event, most especially for those on the top and bottom of the ball. And the current show for the Northern Hemisphere, running sometime through late March, is called winter.12350251755_e4b73a3fa5_z


Inspired by my kids’ enthusiasm, I try to not have a grass-is-always-greener attitude about summer in the middle of winter (though it is), but my longing for warm months persists.

This morning I went running, buried in layers of fleece and synthetic wicking material, and passed the spot where we set up lawn chairs for an outdoor jazz concert last August. As I avoided the icy patches, I remembered face-painting, warm grass, and finding a spot in the shade. The outside world is just so darn hospitable in the summertime, as if you trade ceilings for sky and living rooms for lawns.

“Appreciate today,” I chided myself, trying to enjoy the brisk air as it burned my lungs. I tried to recall the discomforts of running in the summer, of over-heating and being forced to run in the early morning. As I pulled down my hat to cover my stinging ears, I tried to remember the longing for air-conditioning, hot car seats that stick to the back of your thighs, and the high-pitched drone of mosquitoes, closing in. Life was not all roses when my little black dot leaned in to the sun.

Still, as I took in the familiar outlines of a world that once was green, I felt homesick for a place that was under my feet, and realized that distance can be measured in months as well as miles. The salt crunched as I ran and I thought it like a hopeful mantra, “Pop rocks, pop rocks, pop rocks.” It didn’t do much good.

Later, when I stopped running, I took a few photos. And as I walked and looked at the way the snow dimpled, some spark sidled up to my homesickness and burned there. In that moment I did not come to love winter, but maybe my perception just became a bit more nuanced–instead of bitter and frigid, I saw quiet and clean.

It was time to go back inside. Carefully placing each step, so as not to slip, I noticed footprints pressed into the crunchy snow.  Their icy edges gleamed in the sunlight; I took another picture. “Maybe I will remember these,” I thought, “when I sit and sweat on the lawn.” Maybe.

We’ll see. Sometimes, when you live on a whirling, tilted planet, you just have to hold on for the ride.


Photo from space by NASA; Photos of playground not by NASA