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Over the past week, I’ve been watching the grief over two deaths unfold in real time. My college community has been mourning the loss of our friend Jeff McCain, and many people I know from Twitter and the blogosphere have been grieving the death of Lisa Bonchek Adams.

Both of them had cancer; both of them died far too soon. And in the wake of their deaths, many of their loved ones have taken to social media to express grief and to honor these two lives.

Jeff and I were friends before Facebook existed. (It came into being during our college years.) Our mutual friends are people we know in real life, from that patch of ground in West Texas where we studied, sang, laughed and cried together. My husband lived across the hall from Jeff our freshman year; my sister and her circle of friends all know him, too. And since we’re scattered all over the country and can’t gather to mourn in person, we come to Facebook to mourn together.

Dozens of people have posted brief sentiments or shared photos. Some of us, like me, wrote longer tributes and shared them as a way of marking Jeff’s death and, yes, celebrating his life. (He was, as I have said, a person who carried joy around with him. I have no doubt he’d approve of us recounting all the funny stories we can think of.) I’ve seen a similar trend with Lisa’s death – dozens of tweets and a fair few blog posts honoring her life, as well as mixed (but passionate) reactions to a couple of pieces in the New York Times.

Besides wishing we didn’t have to do this – because these deaths are fundamentally unfair and heartbreaking – I’ve been thinking about how we grieve together, in the age of social media. These sites where we share so much of our lives have become a new forum for public mourning. I’ve seen it happen after several tragedies: the Boston Marathon bombing, Hurricane Sandy, the events in Ferguson. We come together on social media to share our hurt, our outrage and our deep sadness.

It can be cathartic and helpful – a way to reach out to one another and say, “Me too.” It can also, eventually, become overwhelming. My husband and I have both felt the need to step back from Facebook at various times this week. We’ve sat at our kitchen table for hours, trading stories about Jeff and talking through our emotions. Eventually, we’ve needed to step away even from that. Grief has a saturation point, and it’s not something you work through in a couple of days.

I’ve also been turning back to a few beloved poems, including Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do.” But, fittingly, I discovered another poem this week via Twitter – “The Mower” by Philip Larkin. Its last lines sum up, for me, what this communal grieving is all about:

The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
This. Always this. We should be kind, and careful to honor the tender places in each other’s lives, the wounds and blank spaces opened by grief. Sharing our sadness on social media is one way to do that. These sites can be loud and contentious places, but when they are avenues for sharing grief (and joy), they become beautiful – even holy – ground.
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katie jeff sing song 2006 acu

Last week, I found out my college friend Jeff was ill with late-stage lung cancer. On Monday, I found out he had died.

I hadn’t seen Jeff for years, maybe since we graduated from college. I don’t know much about his life in recent years, or the events that led up to his death. That story doesn’t belong to me. But what does belong to me – what I am remembering this week – is my friendship with Jeff, and the joy he carried around.

Jeff was one of those small, skinny guys with a big personality – effervescent, exuberant, larger than life. He was restless, energetic, constantly in motion. Maybe that’s how he managed a kind of magic trick: he seemed to be everywhere on campus, for four years. You could hardly walk across campus without running into him. And if there was a big event – Welcome Week for new freshmen, Homecoming, Spring Break service trips, Sing Song (our annual campus variety show), Jeff was there. Usually in a leadership role, and often in a wacky costume.

He had hundreds of friends – from every social group, every class, every academic department. He pledged a popular fraternity and loved those guys fiercely, but he never let his popularity become a barrier: he greeted everyone with the same level of enthusiasm. And it wasn’t fake enthusiasm but genuine joy: I knew he was always glad to see me, and I was always glad to see him.

Jeff dove headfirst into Sing Song as a freshman (he co-directed our class’s winning act), and his Sing Song fever never let up. He participated in seven different acts over four years. (The photo above is of Jeff and me before our senior show, when we and a hundred or so of our classmates dressed up as Jedi knights.) No one loved Sing Song – arranging music, sewing costumes, making up wacky, ACU-themed lyrics to popular songs – like Jeff.

He co-led the Spring Break service trip that ended up being my first visit to Boston. My husband (who was in the group too) and I still laugh about how Jeff made our group walk three miles – uphill, in the snow! – from Harvard Square to Fenway Park, because “it’s not that far on the map, guys.” He could be a flake and he had (obviously) no sense of direction at all, but it was impossible to stay mad at him.

Singing – not just Sing Song but singing a cappella hymns in daily chapel – is a big part of life at ACU. Jeff had a surprisingly deep bass voice, and we sang together in freshman chorale and on many praise teams over the years. He loved music and would burst into song at any opportunity. He sang – as he did everything else – with such joy.

As I said above, there’s a lot I don’t know about Jeff’s story: I know it’s darker and more complicated than what I’ve written here. I know there are others – his sisters, his close friends – whose grief runs deeper than mine. But I also know this: the world is a little less bright without Jeff in it.

My husband, in a tribute to Jeff on Facebook this week, said simply, “I always felt welcome when he was in the room.” I hope that wherever you are, Jeff, you are being made welcome, as you welcomed others. We’ll miss you.

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It’s been two years since I last visited Oxford, and four years since I moved there to begin my yearlong sojourn as a graduate student. In so many ways, I am very far from that (relatively) carefree, travel-filled, single student life.

However, there are certain times of the year where my body, almost on its own, seems to remember where I was and what I was doing at this time four years ago. Late August means my arrival in Oxford with two bulging suitcases; early November and early April both mean Paris; the first weekend in February always means Whitby. And so I’ve been thinking about where I was four Septembers ago – climbing onto a tour bus with a fresh-faced, excited crowd of ACU students, and heading off for a weekend in Wales.

We began with visits to Bath and Bristol, both somewhat known quantities to me since I’d been to them before. But after wandering Bath Abbey, touring a lovely Georgian home, and absorbing as much information as we could at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, we headed west to a new place: a charming, rambling old farmhouse-turned-hostel just outside the wee village of Brecon, tucked away in the hills of the Brecon Beacons.

Over the next two days, we did some hiking, some browsing in the village shops, some eating together in the hostel’s cozy dining area (I remember the hot apple crumble), and – my favorite – lots of just hanging out in the sunny front yard, with a view of these hills:

I held an unusual position with that group of students – as a 24-year-old grad student, working part-time for their study abroad program, I was not quite a faculty member, yet not quite a student. I’d just met the new crop of students (and was sharing a kitchen and bathroom with five of them, all male), so I was a little nervous about heading off with them for a whole weekend.

That weekend contains, in my memory, no earth-shattering moments – no deep revelations, no particularly surprising conversations. (Those would come later, usually late at night, often in the basement kitchen where we cooked and studied and washed dishes and became part of each other’s lives.) But I do remember walking to the village with Nick, down a dark road (only one streetlight for three miles), our way lit only by the flashlight he held, and meeting some other students at the village pub. We sat at picnic tables outside, and then we walked back together in twos and threes along the same dark lane, tipping our heads back every few feet to look at the stars.

Most of all I remember sitting on the hillside that evening, Moose stretched out beside me and Nathan sitting on my other side, the dampness soaking through our jeans as we watched the fog roll in over the hills. We talked of nothing in particular, still a bit shy with one another, still feeling our way into these friendships that had just begun. Inside the hostel, there was warmth and light, board games and laughter – and we eventually got up, stretched our stiff muscles and went in to join our friends.

But for that brief space of time (an hour? Two hours? An eon?), I remember sinking deeply into the green damp grass and the crisp night air and the warm, solid, safe presence of the two boys next to me. We were new housemates and even newer friends, but somehow, that quiet hour on the hillside five thousand miles from home forged a deep bond between us. And when we got up to go inside the hostel, I knew we had come home in an entirely different way.

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We had another stint entertaining strangers last week – a group of 15 students came from our beloved university in Abilene, Texas, to spend their Spring Break sightseeing and doing service projects in Boston. On the day they arrived, they’d been up since 3:30 a.m., to catch a bus to Dallas, a flight to Boston and a long T ride from the airport all the way out to Brookline, where a group of us were waiting for them, with pizza.

Despite their exhaustion, we all ate pizza and chatted, and then J and I took our two guys, Zach and Lucas, home via the T. I expected them to fall straight into bed, but instead we poured ourselves glasses of water and stood in the kitchen and talked. And then moved into the living room and talked. For hours.

It went on like that all week – chitchat over coffee and breakfast in the mornings, or sometimes just greetings on our way out the door, and a nightly catch-up in the kitchen after each day’s work and play. J and I were usually in our pajamas when they came in, but we’d stand there asking them about what they did, and the schedule for the next day. J even took a rare Friday off to tour Fenway and wander around Cambridge with the group. And on Friday night, five students and their hosts came back to our place for cookies and a hilarious, hours-long game of Catchphrase. I haven’t laughed so hard in weeks.

Most of us at Brookline didn’t know any of these students before – though Daniel was friends with one of the group leaders, and one of them was a former student of Shanna’s, to her surprise. But we had the common bonds of faith and ACU, and – as Zach put it – “the Texas approach to Boston.” We know what it’s like to be strangers here, so we could nod along with the guys’ first impressions of a city both foreign and fascinating to them. And we fell easily into talking about our common ground – professors, chapel, Abilene, Sing Song.

We speak the same language in so many ways, which is perhaps why I’m missing our guys this week. We’d never met them before and only spent a week with them, but we learned to love them pretty quickly. And should they ever decide to come back to Boston, our door is always open.

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(photo by Jessalyn Massingill)

That’s Amber, my coworker, next to me. And we spend a lot of time doing this. Not “meditating” on top of the file cabinets, per se, but laughing and being silly and generally goofing around. We do it in between all the jobs our office handles (nearly 1,000 separate projects each year), ranging from simple postcards to big, complicated issues of ACU Today, our alumni magazine. I don’t talk much about work on this blog, for various reasons, but as I’m leaving this job, I will say: I’ve loved it here. And I’ll miss my coworkers.

Most of the people I work with weren’t here when I worked in this office for three semesters as a student.  Greg, one of the graphic designers, is still here, as is Ron, my supervisor, who’s been running this office since 1983 – the year I was BORN. (Sometimes his sheer knowledge and expertise intimidates me, especially when I remember that he’s been running this office for my whole life.) The rest – Tessa, Amber, Amy and Todd – are new since then, and it’s been a joy to work with them this time around.

I feel blessed to have had this job not once, but twice – to get my feet wet as a student and come back full-time as a “grown-up.” I’ve learned a lot about writing, editing, research, fact-checking and AP style in this office. And I’ve learned other things too. How to put together a museum-style display case. How to research and write a historical book (during the ACU Centennial). How to manage several huge databases. How to interpret Ron’s hundreds of scribbled Post-It notes (many of them say “Ask me”). How to sort through and enter hundreds of alumni news items (I like to refer to myself as the “ACU gossip columnist”). How to navigate the campus phone maze, or call five offices before getting what I need. How to put together a commencement script. How to proofread at 90 miles an hour. And I’ve learned more ACU trivia than anyone else I know (except Ron).

I’ll miss eating dark chocolate in Amy’s office, laughing with Tessa about everything and nothing, hearing Greg’s vacation stories, trying to make Ron laugh, and our gossip sessions in Amber’s office when Amy and Tessa and I plop down and shoot the breeze. I’ll miss the office inside jokes, the way my co-workers make me feel appreciated and loved, the way Amy says “Can you work your magic?” when she needs me to edit something, the way Amber calls me when she needs an ACU trivia question answered. I’ll miss Amber’s cleaning frenzies and our jokes in meetings and watching ACU Today take shape, from conception to printed product. I’ve learned so much here, and I’ll take the lessons with me wherever I go, but I’ll also take fond memories of these coworkers who are also friends.

So thanks, Creative Services. It’s been a good run. I’ll miss you.

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My new job at ACU ResLife is full of entertaining moments. For example…

Mauri to Darren: Thanks for answering my pinecone, dude!
Darren: What?
Mauri: I threw a pinecone at your window when I realised I was locked out of the building! Didn’t you hear me?
Darren:  Oh. I thought it was a squirrel.

And later this morning…

John to Kevin: It’s you who’s goin’ to hell, man, not me [for considering buying a new, expensive car].
Kevin: You went to a Motley Crue concert.
John: Yeah, but I repented.
Kevin: There’s not enough repentance for a Motley Crue concert.
Me: But there’s enough repentance for an American Idol concert [to which Kevin is going]?
John: Wow. That was the uncomeback-able comeback.

Stay tuned for more…

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I’m finally back at my little house in Cowley, after two nights at the ACU houses that turned into five. I spent Wed. night over there as we were leaving early on Thursday, and crashed there on Friday night after we returned from Wales. And the weekend was just so chill, and so fun, that I couldn’t leave. I absolutely adore living in the basement with the boys (see previous post), and as the evenings stretch on I find it harder and harder to leave. I love sipping tea with them in the morning as they drink their coffee, joining in their outrageous travel plans, listening to them jam out on their guitars, and being a part of the cozy craziness that is dungeon life. I am quite glad to be back with sweet Lizzie tonight, though. (I needed a dose of femininity…and some non-pasta food. She was an angel, and made salmon and new potatoes for dinner.)

Here, finally, are a couple of photos from the trip, and a brief outline…

We left Oxford around 7 a.m. on Thursday, and drove to Bath, our first stop. I had been to Bath once before, on a frigid February day when I was nursing a bad cold. We quite enjoyed ourselves in spite of all that, but it was so much nicer this time. The weather was cloudy but quite pleasant, and we so enjoyed ourselves just walking around.

The boys and I visited beautiful Bath Abbey:

We found an incredible breakfast special – full English breakfast for 2.75 pounds – at a sidewalk cafe afterward, so took a mid-morning break:

From left, meet Moose, Bryce and Nick, three of my beloved basement boys. They’re mellow, sweet and fun, and they don’t seem to mind having a girl in their midst quite often. 🙂

We went from here to the Georgian House at Number One Royal Crescent, which is the only house on the block kept up in period style. The guides in each room were all charming little old ladies, quite knowledgeable about the house and its contents.

Darling Jacque and I wandered a bit after that and then got delicious fresh takeaway buns at Sally Lunn’s. Mmmmm. I have the recipe for that bread somewhere…must make some more soon.

Drove to Bristol and spent two hours going through the Empire and Commonwealth Museum. Quite fascinating, especially the current exhibit on slavery around the British Empire and the world. A bit of sensory overload, but some profoundly interesting stuff. And it’s amazing how much more interesting the history of Zimbabwe is now that I know someone from Zimbabwe. (That would be Mike, Jacque’s sweet boyfriend. He has some amazing stories.)

The rest of the pictures refuse to upload, so I’ll try again tomorrow and save the rest of the story for then. Happy Monday!

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