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Archive for the ‘school’ Category

(Note: I’ve been tagging and retitling lots of old posts, and some subscribers have seen an influx in their Google Readers. My apologies – things should be back to normal soon!)

Seven years ago, I spent a cold February afternoon at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, exploring and absorbing hundreds of years of colonial history (or trying to) with about 30 other American students. We stayed after closing time to listen to a few British scholars (and one poor, beleaguered American) hold a panel discussion on the topic “Is America an Empire?”. (This was in 2004, at the height – or the trough? – of the Bush administration, and certainly at the nadir of anti-American feeling abroad.)

My friend Meg, a history buff, had recently read a book by one of the panelists – a handsome, well-spoken Scottish historian by the name of Niall Ferguson. We all teased her about being smitten with him, and asking him to sign her book afterward (which he did graciously) – but we were all impressed by his knowledge, his powers of persuasion, and of course, that Scottish accent. (Not quite Sean Connery, but close.)

A couple of weeks later, Niall made a guest appearance in one of our classes, thanks to two of my girlfriends. Angela made up a talk-show theme song involving his name and words like “world domination” and “unilateralism” (the man does have some interesting views on colonialism), and served as interviewer, and Andrea (blonde, pixie-like and definitely not Scottish) played Niall. Her role basically consisted of sitting properly in a chair and answering all Angela’s “interview” questions with “I wrote a book. You should read it. It’s very good.” (In a fake Scottish accent, of course.)

Fast forward to about a month ago, when I received an ARC of Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization (already published in the UK, out Nov. 1 in the States), to review for Shelf Awareness. As I picked it up and read his name on the cover, I remembered being in that dark, chilly museum hall, sitting on a hard wooden chair, listening to that Scottish accent wind itself around the complexities and ethical questions of empire. I remembered Meg, grinning, clutching her book, and I saw Andrea nodding sagely at Angela’s questions and repeating, “Yes. I wrote a book. You should read it. It’s very good.”

Of course, I let all my Oxford friends know, via Facebook, that I was reading Ferguson’s latest book (and, for the record, it is very good), and when I added the book to my Goodreads shelf, I found out that Roxanne was a student of his at Harvard. I also talked about the book so much at home that J borrowed it after I finished, and happened to ask our friend Ryan, who teaches chemistry at Harvard, if he knew Ferguson.

“Niall?” Ryan said casually. “Yeah. He hangs out in our house’s common room sometimes. Why?”

Mind. Blown.

I doubt I’ll ever actually meet Ferguson (and who knows what on earth I’d say to him if I did!). But after seven years, thousands of miles, five more books (for him) and one book-review gig (for me), there is now only one degree of separation between us.

Sometimes the world is very, very small.

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I’ve been an avid reader – and rereader – almost since I learned how to read. (Just ask my parents, who swear they read Ned’s Numbers to me a million times when I was a toddler.) I’ve read – and reread – hundreds of books since then, but a few of them have truly, powerfully changed the way I see the world. This list is not exhaustive, but contains a handful of the gems that marked some important shifts for me. (Inspired by Roxanne’s Books Well-Loved series.)

1. Little Women, first read when I was seven – the first story that completely, wholly absorbed me and made me want to read it again and again. (Which I did.)
2. Walking on Water, my “back-door” introduction to Madeleine L’Engle (now one of my favorite authors) and her oeuvre of beautifully written, thoughtful, moving books. (And, eventually, a topic for my master’s thesis.)
3. Watch for the Light, a book of Advent reflections that has shaped my relationship to liturgy, and indeed my faith.
4. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which constantly pushes me to be more honest in my writing.
5. The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron: given to me as a college graduation gift by J, it has powerfully shaped my creative life.
6. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, which revolutionized the way I think about food and seasonal eating.
7. The Cool Girl’s Guide to Knitting by Nicki Trench, which helped reinforce a lot of the basics for me.
8. A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren, which introduced me to the concept of postmodern Christianity.
9. The reading list for my World Lit class, my senior year of college – most notably Saramago’s Blindness and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Horrifying, heartbreaking, powerful stories with pitch-perfect writing, and so many different ways of seeing the world.

What books have changed your life?

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Making a birthday wish last year

I am a big fan of lists, as you all know, and in recent years I’ve loved the idea of making a list on my birthday – of things to accomplish, enjoy, start and/or finish before my birthday. Twenty-eight sounds awfully grown-up – but here I am! – and here’s my list:

1. Try out the Project Life system to document either some of my time in Oxford or our first year in Boston
2. Go to New York to see Ben in The Lion King (and visit friends)
3. Plan a trip to Europe/Oxford
4. Hang out with my family in Texas
5. Dig into some classics I’ve never read
6. Visit a place I’ve never been (this one comes up every year for me)
7. Clean out my desk at home (currently full of stuff I don’t use)
8. Visit my loves in Abilene
9. Go apple picking again
10. Knit some swoon-worthy autumn accessories
11. Buy a new pair of black high-heeled boots
12. Keep in better touch with far-away friends (stolen from Bethany’s list)
13. Explore more of New England
14. Try at least 2 new recipes a month
15. Visit half a dozen area bookstores I haven’t been to yet
16. Go see The Civil Wars in concert with my Jeremiah
17. Take another writing course (at Grub Street or Emerson)
18. Take a financial management course with J
19. Put together new outfits from pieces I already own
20. Schedule a checkup (it’s been far too long)
21. Start or join a book club
22. Buy a sassy red handbag
23. Drive up to New Hampshire or Vermont to see the fall foliage
24. Fill a new notebook with a super-secret writing project
25. Get a Massachusetts driver’s license
26. Learn to pay attention to one thing at a time
27. Send 28 handwritten letters (Christmas cards don’t count)
28. Go to a literary festival/conference/event

Do you make lists like this? If so, I’d love to know what’s on them!

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I love surprises of the everyday variety; I don’t always relish big life surprises. But here, a handful of the most delightful:

1. Loving my first job out of college – an admin job on campus – as much as I did.
2. Bethany moving back to Abilene, for a year and a half of wonderful “borrowed time.”
3. Finding another family in Abilene (and staying there as long as I did).
4. Becoming a total tea addict. (I never touched the stuff until college.)
5. Interning in Hawaii for a month one summer. (Surprises every DAY.)
6. Learning to navigate traffic on a bike in Oxford, and loving that, too.
7. Moving to Boston – the difficulty and the richness, and lots of other things besides, have surprised me.
8. Actually writing a novel in a month in 2008.
9. The surprise party Jeremiah gave me when I turned 21. (Yes, I was totally surprised.)
10. Singing a brief solo in the Les Miserables medley during a choir concert in college. (I was so sure I hadn’t gotten it – but I ended up with a solo from “On My Own,” my favorite Les Mis song.)
11. Writing a cover story for Radiant magazine – how surprised I was to be asked!
12. Being told (not asked) to learn to play the piccolo for a high school band concert in London.

How about you? Any wonderful life surprises to share?

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I’ve got a whole crop of friends who graduated from college this year. Many of them are part of our beloved small group from our Abilene church; they are smart, capable, kind, funny, utterly wonderful people. Some of them have plans, but a few are still waiting, sending out job applications, bunking with friends or family or staying in college houses for a while, crossing their fingers and worrying and hoping. And even those who have plans – for grad school or a first job or internships – aren’t entirely sure what’s around the next bend.

And I want to say to them, and to you, if you’re there: I remember how that feels.

I remember the last few weeks in my college house, after the flurry of tearful post-graduation good-byes, packing books and dishes and furniture, trying to keep Bethany laughing as we worked so neither of us would cry. I remember sending out dozens (which felt like hundreds) of job applications, to places like New York and Nashville and Austin, and walking every day to my student job on campus, because they were keeping me on for the summer, and I sure didn’t know what else to do.

I remember watching Bethany drive away in her yellow moving truck, so tiny in the huge high cab, back to Longview to stay with her folks while she job-hunted. I went into the house and sat in the empty living room and cried. And then I called my friend Stephen, and we went for a Cajun cone, and I tried to drown my sorrows in shaved ice with raspberry syrup.

I remember the tentative first few weeks in my sister’s house, living with one of her roommates and assorted other girls who stayed for a week or a month, and the unexpected joy of Bethany moving back to live with us for the summer, and the two of us relishing our “borrowed time” together. (With Leigh Anne, the roommate mentioned above, whom we quickly came to adore.) We did a lot of worrying and some weeping that summer, but we did far more laughing – and we watched movies and hung out at coffee shops and borrowed each other’s clothes, and held each other in that tender space of not knowing, of in between.

At the end of the summer, I moved in with friends – because I didn’t want to go home (which felt like admitting failure), and I still had no “real” job. I kept sending out applications, including one to a job on campus at ACU, even though I thought I didn’t want to stay in Abilene.

As fate, or God, or something would have it, I got offered that job, accepted it, and spent a very happy year working in the Bible department at ACU, living in my own apartment for the first time in my life, making the odd transition from student worker to grown-up colleague, and laughing at the antics and witty comments of the faculty members I worked with.

It wasn’t the job I wanted to do forever. (I’ve never yet had a job that fitted that description – unless it was being a barista at the Ground Floor.) It wasn’t technically “in my field,” and it certainly wasn’t what I expected. But it was good. So good. And it gave me a year to grow up a little, to stretch my wings in the safe confines of Abilene, to breathe a little and get my feet under me before embarking on the next phase of my life and career (which turned out to be graduate school in Oxford). And the next phase, too, was good.

So to all new graduates, or others, who are feeling unsteady, like you don’t have a clue how to navigate this new grown-up world or use that shiny new degree: I know how you feel. Five years ago, I was there. (A little secret: I’ve been there many times since – and I’ve spent a lot of time there this year.)

But it’s all worked out okay for me, at least so far. I have a job, a wonderful husband, dear friends and family in multiple cities on two continents, and I still get to play with words all the time. Not bad, really, for an English major who spent a whole summer terrified that some or all of those things might not work out.

Where were you five years ago? Is it radically different from where you are today?

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Last Thursday night, I did something I rarely do: tuned into ESPN live online – not to watch the Mavs game, as my husband was doing on the other couch, but to watch the finals of the National Spelling Bee. Although I never came close to winning, I am a proud two-time participant in the Bee, which takes place every Memorial Day week, featuring spellers from around the country (and now, apparently, Canada and several other countries).

I started participating in spelling bees in third grade – the first year I was eligible – and kept it up until eighth grade, the final year of eligibility. That’s right, folks. Six years of spelling, studying, looking up definitions (and pronunciations!) of obscure words, and spelling again. My parents were my patient study partners and coaches (thanks Mom and Dad!), and we spent hours upon hours reviewing those words, on car trips and sitting around the kitchen table, my massive navy blue Merriam-Webster dictionary (itself a school Spelling Bee prize) at the ready. (For the record, I still have that dictionary. We haul it out pretty much every time we play Scrabble.)

I admit I wasn’t quite as hardcore as some of these kids. I never spent eight hours a day studying the etymological roots of words, like the girl who won the Bee the first year I was there. I played flute, and volleyball, and did activities at church, and spent time with my sister and friends – so the Bee was never the only thing in my life. But for six years, it was a pretty important thing. I loved it and I worked hard at it, and it dovetailed nicely with my passion for books.

Of course, a major perk of qualifying for the national bee was traveling to D.C. (for free! Twice!) and spending a whole week sightseeing and hanging out with my family and the other spellers. And on Bee Day that first year, I chatted with the guy sitting next to me for three hours. (We then made utter fools of ourselves singing “American Pie” and “She Moves in Mysterious Ways” with a group of friends at the spellers’ karaoke party, and danced to “Stairway to Heaven” at the spellers’ dance. And then we became pen pals and wrote letters for YEARS.)

The Bee was such a fun thing for me – a chance to prove my mettle, build my confidence, and show I’d learned something from all those hours spent reading and studying. (It also became my local claim to fame – there are still people at my parents’ church who refer to me as “that speller girl.”) Even now, I’ll occasionally run across an obscure word I recognize from those years. And my husband is still so jealous that I’ve been on ESPN.

I don’t always remember to tune in to watch the finals – but when I do, I’m always so impressed by these kids. They have courage and dedication and prodigious memories, and lots of determination and heart. And no matter if they get out in the first round, I’m proud of them for being there. Because I know how it feels to spell a tough word in front of a roomful of people, most of whom are older and better educated than you. I know how it feels to toss off the easier words like they’re nothing, and to shake your head over the totally impossible words and then get them right (and, okay, occasionally miss one). And I know that feeling of triumph – even if all you’re conquering is an oddly arranged group of letters.

I still have my Bee polo shirt somewhere. And when someone asks me how to spell a word at work, or I help my team win a game of Cranium by spelling a tough word (backwards or forwards), I still feel a little glimmer of that triumph.

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(During last night’s class at Grub Street, I wrote about roommates during three different exercises. Which made me think about all the folks I’ve shared kitchens, bathrooms and general living spaces with over the years.)

1. Mom, Dad and Betsy, till I was 18. Lots of family dinners around the table, summertime road trips, Dad urging us to hurry before church on Sunday mornings, Betsy hollering for me to help her choose an outfit or type her English papers or bring her a washcloth in the shower.

2. Lindsey, during our first semester of college. Late-night laughter, pizza boxes, and so many bowls of ramen (left out to, ahem, ripen) that by Christmas I couldn’t stand it any more.

3. Akane, a quiet Japanese girl, during the spring of my freshman year. We didn’t talk much, but she never complained when I forgot to turn off my alarm clock in the mornings.

4. Jaime, in the fall before I went to Oxford. Red hair dye in the bathtub (freaking me out – I thought it was blood at first), and a few bonding moments over Friends and Saved By the Bell.

5. Joy, who shared my room, and 10 other girls, who shared our kitchen, in Oxford, spring 2004. So much cooking, traveling, laughing, crying, drinking of tea, sharing secrets and hopes and textbooks and recipes.

6. Joy and Bethany, junior year, in a little red-brick house on 16th St. in Abilene. (With Samantha, Joy’s beloved, snaggle-toothed dog.)

7. Kristin, Laura and Karen, in half of a Honolulu duplex, July 2005. We bought grapes for $10 a pound at Wal-Mart and tried to catch a gecko in Karen’s room and invited Scott over for breakfast on his birthday, and listened to Cole play haunting folk songs on his guitar.

8. Bethany, for our senior year in that same little house – repeated viewings of The Emperor’s New Groove, an impromptu party with no living-room furniture, playing Frank Sinatra before parties, and long evenings spent reading in the living room. (We were both English majors.)

9. Leigh Anne and Bethany (with brief appearances by several other girls), in my sister’s house the summer after college. Repeated viewings of Pirates of the Caribbean and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants; lavender bridesmaid dresses and broken air conditioners; lots of freaking out about the future from Bethany and me; and Leigh Anne’s despair over having to read Beowulf.

10. Moose, Bryce, Nick, Nathan and Jordan, in the “dungeon” of 9 Canterbury Road, during my first semester of grad school. Oh, how I loved being the girl in that crowd of boys – and oh, how they loved everything I baked for them.

11. Casey, Jaclyn, Eryn, Jessica, Katie and Mary Kate, also in the dungeon, the following semester. A totally different dynamic, but an equally fun one.

12. Lizzie, Jo and Grace, in a wee chocolate-box house in East Oxford, during my year abroad. We watched chick flicks and did puzzles in the dining room, moaned about schoolwork and laughed at the Muppets, helped each other dress for dances and costume parties, and curled up late at night with cups of cocoa, to set the world to rights.

13. Jeremiah. For nearly three years now (our anniversary is next month), first in Abilene and now in Boston. Those five boys (above) prepared me well to live with this one. And I must say, he is an excellent roommate.

Who’s on your list?

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My word for this year, as many of you know, has been BRAVE. I’ve been following it since January, and wearing it around my neck since May, when I ordered a custom necklace from Etsy. It has led to, and coincided with, a lot of things I didn’t expect to happen. Here are a few:

1. Moving to Boston with my J – at the same time as five of our friends – and loving it as we do.
2. Joining a group of amazing women for the Integrate Retreat in Brooklyn.
3. Teaching English classes at ACU this spring.
4. Celebrating my second-ever Thanksgiving away from family, and enjoying myself (even while missing them).
5. Showing my parents around a new city.
6. Knitting a wearable sweater and starting another.
7. Turning back to many, many comfort books – Anne of Green Gables, Mitford, Harry Potter and others (I do this regularly, but didn’t expect to reach for these books so frequently this year).
8. Being freshly pressed on WordPress.com!
9. Actually coming up with 52 lists for this blog.
10. Attending two fabulous concerts at SXSW in Austin – almost by accident – and falling deeply in love with several new indie artists.
11. Meeting so many blog-friends in person at last. (More to come in 2011, I hope.)
12. Going to St. Louis on a job lead for Jeremiah that didn’t work out – and having that be okay.
13. Morphing from a full-time ACU employee to a freelancer (I am so thankful for this one – they still need me/trust me, even though I’m far away).
14. Related: Having my name on feature stories in three issues of ACU Today.
15. Opening my own custom knits business/Etsy shop.
16. Being kissed by a llama.
17. Taking up yoga, and loving it.
18. Joining my first CSA, and being overloaded with fresh veggies for months.
19. My dad going into the hospital with a freak infection in January (he’s fine, but we were scared for a few days).
20. Blogging five times a week with astonishing (to me) regularity.
21. Finding community at Brookline – for which I am so thankful.
22. Buying a down coat – and snow boots!
23. Working my first temp job since I was 19.
24. Entertaining strangers who became friends.
25. Watching several seasons of The Muppet Show.

Whew. Small wonder, then, that I’ve had to be brave.

Anyone else? What unexpected delights/challenges/newness came across your path this year?

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you don’t have to know

We have lots of friends in transition right now. Fewer, perhaps, than we did this summer, when Grace and Kelsey moved into new houses and Jake and Sarah got married and Bethany, Nate and Abi, and J and I moved across the country. But, since Boston is such an academic center, we’ve met lots of people who’ve come here for school, which of course means they eventually finish and start pursuing the next step.

My friend Beth, who just defended her dissertation, is searching for work – possibilities at this point include universities in several different states. Like me, she has a tendency to what-if every scenario to death, analyzing each job/location in terms of her work, her husband’s work, church communities, climate, distance from parents and in-laws, possible schools/youth groups for their (future) children, and on and on it goes. (You do this too, right? I know Beth and I aren’t the only ones who tend to be slightly neurotic regarding our unknown futures.)

Anyway, we were talking the other night, and I finally told her what my friends told me just before we moved to Boston: Wherever you go, you don’t have to stay there forever. You may spend two years, or five or ten years, someplace and love it – or you may hate it, or simply decide to move on. And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s enough to just take the adventure that’s offered right now, knowing it doesn’t have to be permanent.

I thought back to my last semester of college, when I didn’t know what I planned to do, where I was going to live, how I was going to support myself, and was getting very tired of saying “I don’t know” to everyone and their dog. My friend Tracy, who teaches history at ACU, smiled when I repeated my refrain to her, and said simply, “You don’t have to know.”

I didn’t believe her then, of course. I thought I had to have it all figured out by May (this was in March or April), and of course, in a stroke of cosmic irony, my life didn’t really fall into place until August. But what Tracy meant was: it will all work out. Keep searching; take the next step and the next; move into your sister’s house for the summer, keep working at your student job, keep looking for the next thing; and it will find you.

As it turns out, Tracy was right, and she’s been right several times over, when I didn’t know what the next job/house/major life decision looked like. The philosophy of simply taking the step you can see in front of you, and waiting and searching for the next thing, has been true for me. And I think it will be true for Beth too.

I’m not saying she (or anyone) shouldn’t search, apply, do research, interview, seek advice, pray or think deeply about major life decisions. But I am saying it’s enormously freeing when you realize: I don’t have to know what the rest of my life will look like. I just have to take the next step, whatever that is. I just have to live today.

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unexpected quiet

Mid-February always spells crazy at my office. The third weekend in Feb. is what we call “Super Weekend” – Sing Song, the Board of Trustees meeting and a major campus visit (preview) day. Since we coordinate all publications, advertising and event programs for the university, we are all understandably a little stressed.

However, yesterday morning I woke up to this:

Snow! Big, fat, wet flakes that kept falling as my car crawled to campus over roads that were, to quote Caroline Bingley, “six inches deep in mud.” (Or slush.)

I taught my 8:00 class (and my students ALL turned in their papers), and when I left class, the Ad Building lawn was a fairyland:

We actually streamed the snow live from our front office window – and watched people driving by outside, and hoped no one got in a wreck. And about 11, we got word that we could go home at noon.

I went straight to United and bought ingredients for chili; then I went to Box Office Video and rented some Gilmore Girls and the newish Pride and Prejudice. And then I went home – for a cozy, blissful afternoon of tea, knitting, reading and good TV.

I love snow days. So much.

Happy Valentine’s Day weekend to you!

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