Unnecessary beauty

High Bridge Trail, depot in the distance.

One blistering, humid, high 90s day in the middle of the summer, I hiked a couple of miles on the High Bridge Trail with my family. The trail is a converted railroad bed and the bridge is a very high passage trains once made over the trickle of the Appomattox River far below. Until you get out into the middle of the bridge where you can peer down and see that trickle, you walk level with treetops. At intervals across the bridge, there are train-depot-style platforms that jut out slightly from the rest of the bridge, with off-center-peaked roofs sloped over benches facing out over the drop. As we hid from the baking sun, eating our picnic lunch on one of the benches, I noticed how much detail went into making the depots.

Fed, watered, and cooled down a bit, I examined our depot from all angles. It could have easily, predictably been nothing more than a bench with an unadorned roof. But these were made of bolted metal and grooved tin roofing, with gentle arched supports underneath that lit up all the train depot recognition areas of my brain – areas I wasn’t aware of until those delightful sparks of recognition.


The depots could have been merely utilitarian and expedient, enough to provide rest and shade. Instead, someone decided to delight. Someone opted for unnecessary beauty in a place where relatively few will see it and where you have to work to get to it – a place where rest and shade are the only necessities or expectations.

When the latest bad news spreads, I hear people say, “Fight back with beauty.” I know what they mean. I appreciate the battle cry but I am weary.

I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

When my grandfather was old and blind and my grandmother was still cooking in her own kitchen, I was trying to help set the table for lunch. With my grandmother, even a simple un-cooked lunch of sandwiches involved ten full minutes of table preparation. I was trying to speed things up and wash fewer dishes later, so I grabbed the empty glass from beside my grandfather’s chair in the living room where he sat listening to the television. When she saw me putting that glass at my grandfather’s place, tears welled in my grandmother’s eyes as she replaced it. “I always give him a fresh glass with his meal.”

Maybe a clean fresh glass doesn’t normally count as beauty but it did then. It was as unnecessary as the delightful depots on the trail – his previous glass wasn’t dirty and he would never see the difference between the two glasses. But she knew – she could see – and the fresh glass was one in a long line of her simple, daily, loving acts of unnecessary beauty.

I keep saying “unnecessary.” When you swim two miles and get out of the pool growling for food, it doesn’t matter whether the table is set properly or the food is a balanced meal. You need calories, plain and simple. Calories are necessary; gourmet is not. I can think of other similar but less obvious routines in my life when I opt for the utilitarian and expedient.

But is beauty an option? Is delight really “unnecessary”?

After the presidential election last fall I re-watched the entire West Wing series. I also decided it was time to purchase my own clergy collar shirt. Beauty, fantasy. Beauty, calling.

There is so much to do and sometimes I choose the crappiest way to do it. Once, when friends asked to use our ministry’s fellowship hall for a birthday celebration, I hastily dumped a bag of ice into a cooler and threw the cooler up on a table next to the drinks. The elderly mother of the birthday guest looked at my attempt and asked if there was a nice bowl we could put the ice in instead. In the kitchen, I grumbled to a friend about how unnecessary that was and wasn’t the mother being a little too much – my friend looked at me as if I were an idiot and told me I was being an idiot. Of course the ice should go in a bowl.

Beauty is relative. It’s still beauty.

I haven’t written much since the election. I want to hide constantly. I mostly don’t.

Here’s what I know: The day we hiked High Bridge Trail was brutal, even for a Virginia summer day. The food and water would have been enough to make the hike and make it back to the car. But the delight of the depot – detailed, intentional, unnecessary beauty – is what has stuck with me. Maybe it had more to do with making it than I thought.








Photos © Woody Sherman, used with permission.

Swimming at the JCC

As I’ve mentioned, I’m determined to keep up my physical-mental-spiritual-emotional practice of swimming my butt off this winter. As I’ve also mentioned, I’ve had to make special arrangements to swim while out of town for work, something I often do with the help of this handy guide for finding a pool wherever you might find yourself.

In both January and February I spent most of a week in Richmond, and I’ve swum at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center each time. I didn’t grow up in towns with JCCs and had never been to one before my first January swim there. I asked my friend Jake if there were any cultural things I should know about being a good guest in the space and he patiently explained it would be pretty much like using the YMCA – not everyone at a JCC is necessarily Jewish and I wouldn’t stand out immediately as the obvious Christian in the mix.

From the membership coordinator I spoke with on the phone to set up my guest pass, to the front desk guy ready with a “Good morning” and a dry wit, to the concierge-style lifeguard, this is a place that does hospitality well. And I’m not kidding about Pete the lifeguard. He greets each swimmer by name when they enter the pool deck (he knew mine by the second day and remembered me when I showed up again in February) and gets off his chair to assist swimmers adding into lanes when they are all full. Seriously, he motioned and directed me to my lane, as he walked over to the swimmer already in the lane, saying, “I’ll let him know you’re joining him,” and then he tapped the other swimmer as he approached the wall to let him know he’d have company. It was like being shown to my table at a fine restaurant. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, necessary, since swimmers mostly work these things out on their own. But it was oddly nice – especially standing there, vulnerable, in only a swimsuit and my weak-prescription goggles – to be treated like a valued member of the pool community and offered a particular place within it.

“Love your neighbor” has resonated more than any other goal or descriptor of our life and ministry at Wesley this year. Not because we are doing it well all the time, but because we don’t know a better way to respond to hate and xenophobia than with this simple, all-encompassing, daily reminder from Jesus (Matthew 22: 36-40). I’m here to tell you that being welcomed as a guest, greeted by name, and offered a place in the pool is a fantastic embodiment of loving one’s neighbor.  

In the first weeks of the New Year, before I swam at the WJCC the first time, a rash of bomb threats began at JCCs around the country. They are still happening. The first day I navigated my way to the unfamiliar pool in January, in the dark early morning on nearly empty streets, a pick up truck followed closely behind me for several blocks before I arrived. It went its own way before I got there but in this time of threat and hate, I noticed and briefly worried. By my February visit, I’d seen news reports of JCCs being evacuated during bomb threats, and I considered what to have ready in my poolside bag in case we had to evacuate in the middle of my swim. I didn’t consider not going.

This past week, the lobby was full of preparations for Purim celebrations, the Hamantaschen-laden holiday when Esther’s story is remembered and humorously re-enacted. It’s a short book and worth the read, if you don’t know it or if it’s been a while. Esther ends up in a position to make her voice heard and influence a king. She needs a little convincing that sticking her neck out is worth the risk. She’s told her silence won’t guarantee her safety and, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this?” (Esther 4: 12-14).

My neighbor-loving neighbors at the WJCC know how to stick their necks out. Given the national climate and current threats, I wouldn’t have been surprised or angry if they had closed ranks and temporarily stopped offering guest passes to unknown non-JCC members just passing through town. But they know Whose and who they are, and what they have to offer at just such a time as this.

Frankly, even if the Swimmers Guide showed me a closer pool somewhere else, I’d choose to keep going back to the WJCC when I visit Richmond for work. Not just for laps or for the kind and gracious lifeguard, but because these are my neighbors.



photo credit: “Lifeguard jumping into action in Ocean City, Maryland,” © 2007 by flickr user dbking, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus Promises They Will Hate Us


Walking into Oceti Sakowin Camp with the sun rising, Standing Rock Sioux Nation, 11/3/16

A sermon preached on Luke 21: 5-19 and Isaiah 65: 17-25, on November 13, 2016, at the Wesley Foundation at UVA.

As I think you all know by now, last week I traveled to North Dakota, to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. I had been watching the news for more than a month, learning about the multiple Native tribes who had come together to camp out on the prairie to protect the water of the Missouri River, where a company from Texas has been making its way across four states with an oil pipeline (called the Dakota Access Pipeline), including plans to tunnel under the Missouri River, just north of the Standing Rock reservation. I had read about the original route for the pipeline, which was supposed to cross under the river north of Bismarck (about an hour’s drive north of the reservation). But the people in Bismarck thought that sounded dangerous and risky to them and their water, so the plans changed to avoid that town – but not to avoid the risks to water contamination all together. I had read about the peaceful prayerful protests and about indigenous people from all over the globe traveling to North Dakota to support and stand with the Standing Rock Sioux. Since last April, thousands of people have been camping and protesting and trying to protect the water. In the last month, a highly militarized police and security force began shooting rubber bullets at peaceful protestors and at even at their horses. A private militia hired by the oil company set dogs on protestors, some of whom were mauled. Authorities in riot gear have used pepper spray and sound cannons on peaceful, prayerful protestors exercising their first amendment rights – protestors and water protectors who are bathed every day in prayer and who pray daily for those officers. Authorities have locked up journalists who have tried to cover the events and have thrown over 400 people in jail on contrived charges in attempts to intimidate them into stopping and disbanding. In jail they have needlessly strip-searched people in order to humiliate and further intimidate them. They have shipped some of those in custody to jails several hours away, to make it harder to get back home again or find rides when they are eventually released, sometimes on bail as high as $1500 per person. When their court dates come around, they will be required to travel hours back to those other towns to appear. Police are using helicopters and drones constantly circling overhead and they have road blocked the main highway between the reservation and Bismarck. They constantly stand guard at the roadblock with additional forces keeping watch from the nearby ridges.[i]

As things came to a head and became violent in this past month, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and other Native groups I’ve been following began asking explicitly for more people to join them. We need numbers, they said. We need them to see we won’t go away and we aren’t alone. Please help us. I kept reading and following and praying. I didn’t really think about going. It’s the middle of the semester. It’s a really long way away. Wouldn’t it be better to send them money for winter supplies? It didn’t seem reasonable or feasible. Then Rev. John Floberg, a feisty crusty old Episcopal priest who’s been serving in the communities on and near the Reservation for 25 years, sent out a call to clergy. It’s time to come, he said. I know it’s inconvenient and this is short notice but this is it. They need us. We can provide a protective witness for their struggle. He was hoping to get 100 clergy and over 500 of us answered the call. But I told colleagues and friends who were going “no” at least twice before I changed my mind. I told God “no” more than that. But it wouldn’t leave me alone. All the same “reasonable” things popped up – money, time, effort, inconvenience, family commitments… As I pondered and said “no” and delayed, the airline tickets kept going up. Wouldn’t it be better to send them $1000 for food and warm clothes and winter camping supplies? What am I going to do? But the Holy Spirit would not leave me alone and the people of Standing Rock kept saying, We need help. We need you to come. At some point in that epic week of wrestling with God about this decision, I realized that, unlike so many many things in the world, this is something I am qualified to do. I am a person who prays; I am a visible sign of the church; I have a body and I’m able and well enough to travel. I don’t know what to replace pipelines with or how to implement renewable energy plans. I don’t know how to map an alternate route for this pipeline. I couldn’t convene a meeting with President Obama or film a documentary about this struggle. But I was absolutely qualified to put on my clergy garb and say “yes” to my far away neighbors who needed help I could provide, and spend some money and travel in the middle of the night and stand in the middle of the prairie with them and pray.

I am not telling you this so you will praise me or come tell me after worship how amazing it is that I went. I do appreciate the support and prayers from Wesley folks and others in Charlottesville as I answered that call, but that’s not why I’m telling you this now. I’m trying to let you in on, as best I can, how inelegant and clumsy and wrestling-match-like my discernment was – and how blessed I was by choosing to go where and when I was asked, to offer what was asked of me, and not to rationalize or monetize my way out of it.

Most importantly, I am telling you this in the hopes that when you hear someone’s request or see someone in need of help and solidarity, you won’t take as long as I did to wrestle it out.

The pipeline may or may not be stopped or re-routed and you may or may not think pipelines are a bad idea – but there are not “two sides” to this situation. For Christians, the only side is to stand up for and to stand with those who are being beaten and jailed and harassed and intimated without any just cause.

This sermon is not about the election, exactly. It’s about how Christians are called to act no matter who is in power, no matter how prosperous and peaceable the times, no matter how war-torn and uncertain.

Luke records Jesus saying, as the disciples admired the stonework and the architecture of the temple, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” When Luke writes down those prophetic words of Jesus the temple’s destruction is already 15 years ago for Luke’s own audience.

Jesus says, This is impressive and beautiful but it will be dust. It will not stand the test of time. It will be destroyed. He stands in the shadow of the empire and the religious institutions of his day telling his band of followers that everything will crumble and war will break out and they will be arrested and persecuted – but that, even in the midst of all that, God is still counting the hairs on each of their heads. By enduring, holding tight to God alone, they will “gain their lives” (v. 18).

Jesus does not promise wealth or peace between the nations of the world. He does not promise that the institutions and the things they love about the current regime will be spared. He promises natural and human-made destruction, famine, health epidemics, kingdoms collapsing, prison, religious persecution, and betrayal by loved ones. Jesus promises that people will hate us because of him.


Since Election Day incidents of hate speech, graffiti, and intimidation, targeted at Muslims, Blacks, immigrants, and women, have increased. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center and as of 5pm on Friday night, there were over 200 such incidents since Election Day. People have been approached in the street, found graffiti on their apartment doors, been directly put down and threatened in school cafeterias, and more, told to “get out of our country” and “If you aren’t born here, pack your bags.” A Black woman was standing at a traffic light in Louisiana when a truckload of white men pulled up and shouted at her, “F*** your black life!” They laughed and chanted “Trump!” as they drove off. According to Inside Higher Ed, at New York University’s engineering college someone defaced the door to a designated Muslim prayer room, by scrawling “Trump!” across it. Even before Tuesday’s results, we here at UVA have experienced a spate of hateful speech and harassment directed towards Jews, the LGBTQ community, Black students, Muslims, and women. We have seen enough of this here that a collection of student organizations has come together under the name Eliminate the Hate and they are sponsoring a week of activities and events on Grounds this week, to speak out and up against this rising tide.

In the middle of another tumultuous and destructive time, Isaiah wrote (Isaiah 65: 17-19):

For I am about to create new heavens

and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered

or come to mind.


But be glad and rejoice forever

in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,

and its people as a delight.


I will rejoice in Jerusalem,

and delight in my people;

no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,

or the cry of distress.


Isaiah wrote these words to the war-torn remnant of Israel who were finally returning home after 60 years as captives in Babylon. They are words of hope but they must have been a teary and anguished hope to the people’s ears as their eyes took in their destroyed homes and vineyards and towns. Nothing was intact or as they had left it. They had to start over again. “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind”…”be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating”…It must have seemed impossible to those returning exiles that they would forget what had happened, that standing in the rubble of their former lives they could ever forget the world-shifting loss or that moment or any of those long 60 years. It must have seemed insane to stand in that situation in that moment and be told to “rejoice” in what God was creating. Where, God? Exactly where in this mess is your beautiful handiwork?

But God promises that the houses and vineyards they build will not be in vain. They will make it through to live in them and to harvest the fruit. Their hard and faithful work of rebuilding will not be in vain. God promises to answer before the people even ask, before they call out again.

Spoken into a broken time of uncertainty and great fear, Isaiah proclaims that even though you may not be able to see it yet, God is still working. What looks ugly and destroyed is the fertile soil for what grows next. Hang on and hope, because here’s what you will see soon.

Sunrise over Oceti Sakowin Camp, Standing Rock Sioux Nation, 11/3/16

One of the things I noticed at Standing Rock was how the Native people referred to others as “relatives.” There is a loudspeaker in the camp and as the morning was getting started around the sacred fire, someone came on and said, “Good morning, relatives!” When indigenous people from around the world arrive at Standing Rock, they say, “Our relatives from New Zealand and Hawaii are here.” This deep recognition of their connection as indigenous people, across country and landscape, is the basis for this huge gathering of tribes (nothing like this has been seen in more than a hundred years).

Since I returned home, I’ve been following Lyla June Johnston, a Navajo woman who spoke to the clergy group and joined us in our prayer and protective action. She impressed and humbled me when she described the Walk of Forgiveness she was organizing for the Sunday after we were there. She talked about how important it was for all of us to join them in their stand and encouraged those of us who are white, descendants of colonizing settlers, to be proud of our own family lineage but also to admit to what our people have done. She said, “Your job is to acknowledge what happened and Native peoples’ job is to forgive.”

This week after the election she posted this prayer to Facebook:  “Creator may you bless my dear uncle Donald Trump. May you help him to heal. May you help him to feel Your Love. May you help to ease his fears and help him to sense Your True Blessing. Help him to forgive himself and others so he may be free. And most of all, just give whatever blessing you would have for Your son, and my uncle. May we continue to retain our nature in the spirit of Your unconditional and restorative love and forgiveness. May we continue to work for health and justice with love for the unhealthy and the unjust. #NotMyPresident #JustMyUncle #Ké” [K’é means kinship]

This is the result of seeing one another as relatives. This is what a Christian prayer ought to sound like. This prayer has meat on it and it’s more daring and courageous and faithful than the mere lip service we sometimes give to the theological understanding that we are “brothers” and “sisters” in Christ. This is the kind of prayer that seeks to create connection and solidarity with some people – and might also make others hate you. Just as Jesus promised.

I don’t think it is a surprise to many of us that we live in a divided country. But it seems this week that we were surprised by just how divided. Almost no one thought Trump would win the election. No one thought the vote would be half and half.

However you voted, half of our brothers and sisters, our relations, voted differently than you did. What I’ve heard most Americans saying this week is “They” didn’t know how many of us there were, or, “They” didn’t know how dangerous their vote was. I have not heard most Americans this week confessing that we have been just fine up until now not knowing or caring about those other relations in that other half. Those aren’t my neighbors.

Rev. John Floberg, who called us out to Standing Rock, reminded us on the night before our protective witness with the Native people, that the police officers we would see across the divide, that barricaded highway bridge, were not our enemies. He reminded us that on the cross Jesus did not rebuke, he forgave – with his dying breath. So, John Floberg said, “We greet the officers with prayer and love and compassion, too.”

This is hard.

Those stones are beautiful but they will be rubble one day. This will not stand.

My life is not in the Democratic Party or even my personal shero Hillary Clinton. My neighbor’s life is not in Trump or the Republican Party or Bernie or any candidates or parties. Our lives, patriotic and democracy-inspired as they may be, are not in these United States. Or in the dream of moving to Canada or making this country “great again.”

Our lives are in Jesus Christ.  They will hate us because of Jesus. Keep going. All this destruction and despair? Raw materials for the beautiful new creation of God.

This is not the time to keep your head down and wait for the uneasiness to pass. This is not the time to think I’m not a racist/ I love Muslims/ I don’t sexually assault women/ I welcome immigrants / I care for the disabled and then be done with it as if you have completed your task. This is not the time to think I’m happy with my vote and I’m nice to people and that’s enough.

The election may or may not have gone in the direction you hoped for – but there are not “two sides” to this situation of increased, targeted hate crimes and speech. For Christians, the only side is to stand up for and to stand with those who are being harassed and intimated simply because they are Black or Muslim or immigrants or people with disabilities or women or….

This is not the time to put your head down in prayer and hope it will pass. This is the time to lift your head up, take in the destruction you see, and stare straight in the face of hate while you proclaim and enact and witness to Love.

Love in these times means refusing to eliminate half of our country when you consider who your neighbors are. That means you don’t have “elite” and “uneducated” neighbors; you simply have neighbors with different life experiences than yours and if you don’t understand those, it’s time to learn and to meet some new people, and work on loving them. Love in these times means resisting and standing up to hate in its many insidious forms. Speak out, stand with, and offer to walk alongside those in this community who are targets of bigotry. Literally, offer to walk with students in unsafe situations around Grounds. Use the Just Report It system. Call for help. Keep watch when something seems off. Do not remain silent when people are degrading and demeaning and intimidating and targeting others in speech or action. State unequivocally that hate speech and “us” and “them” commentary is not OK with you. Attend the Eliminate the Hate teach-in to learn about your own blind spots and to walk across some of our community’s divides to meet your relations.

No matter how uncertain and fearful the times, no matter how unfamiliar the landscape, no matter how unknown and un-relatable our neighbors, our relatives – God is creating a new heaven and earth, right now. In the middle of this huge mess. Believe it.

The only temple that will not fall – not even in the face of death itself – is Love. Let’s work with God to build it.

Thanks be to God!



Photos are my own.



[i] This is a compiled account from months of reading and following the news. A few good places to learn more and follow the ongoing stand are: https://www.facebook.com/Indigenousrisingmedia/









I feel bad about what I’m about to say, but the first time I watched When Harry Met Sally I didn’t like it. I was in college and trying to like Woody Allen and be “cultured” and I claimed it was a rip off of Annie Hall. I think it was because of the montage sequence showing Harry and Sally ordering in a restaurant, dropping mail at the corner mailbox, and lugging a Christmas tree home through the streets of New York. Something in there – along with Sally’s high-waisted baggy pants and the brimmed hat she wears walking through the park being reminiscent of Diane Keaton – reminded me of Annie Hall. I can remember claiming to think Annie Hall was a much better film, probably because I had just seen it and back then people only used sophisticated revered tones when talking about Woody Allen.

But this is not about him. It’s about Nora Ephron, and so I have to come clean about that embarrassing and off-base first impression/pose I adopted in my misguided youth.

I don’t know how long it was until I gave When Harry Met Sally another try but from then on I have done nothing but love it more and more. I guess that’s appropriate, given their description of the evolution of their own relationship:

Harry: “The first time we met we hated each other.”

Sally: “No, you didn’t hate me, I hated you. The second time we met, you didn’t even remember me.”

Harry: “I did too, I remembered you. The third time we met, we became friends.”

Sally: “We were friends for a long time.”

Harry: “And then we weren’t.”

Sally: “And then we fell in love.”

Sometimes you do not just know – at least not at first – the way you do about a good melon.

Drop me down in this movie and I can find my way out. Just start me on a line of dialogue and I’ll keep going, like being plopped down in a familiar liturgy or hymn, one you weren’t sure you had memorized until it bubbled up from within. I once bet a lawyer friend who loves When Harry Met Sally as much as I do (and who shall remain nameless in case this is searchable in court documents somewhere) that he couldn’t find a way to slip an actual line of dialogue into his oral argument. Granted, he didn’t go for a laudable degree of difficulty with something like the “stupid, wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table” but he did manage to say to the other lawyer, a la Harry on the airport moving sidewalk, “I’ll just let you go ahead.”

But this isn’t really about When Harry Met Sally, either. It’s about Nora Ephron.

I have a deep vein of kinship with Nora though we were generations apart, geographically mismatched, and the only religion she ever wanted to claim was her adherence to the principle that you can never have enough butter. She was a funny feminist, a sensible artist, a die-hard New Yorker, an astute cultural commenter, and a damn fine writer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Nora recently, after watching Everything is Copy, the documentary her son, Jacob Bernstein, made about her. In the film, several of Nora’s friends confirmed my belief that her great and final film, Julie & Julia, is her love letter to love and partnership and marriage, especially her own to Nick Pileggi. I stayed up late to watch the documentary and felt like I’d visited with an old friend when it was over. In the way of devotees, I spent a few days afterwards reading articles about her online, re-reading her essays, and buying books I didn’t already have.

In my internet oblations, I came across this NPR interview I’d never heard, part of a series in which they asked writers to name a scene they wished they had written themselves. Nora chose a scene from another of my all-time favorite movies, Tootsie. Strangely, my relationship to Tootsie, as with When Harry Met Sally, also began with my own stupidity and stubbornness. I was in high school when it came out and I irrationally and snobbily decided that since all of America was raving about this movie, there was no way I would be interested. So I wasted about four years until I saw it in college and then promptly loved it and began a long term relationship with it, too. The point being, of course Nora loved Tootsie.

I don’t know if I have an inner New Yorker, but if I do, she’s named “Nora.” And she probably exists at all because of Nora. I grew up watching and re-watching I Love Lucy with my mom but whenever Lucy picked up the phone to order a side of beef delivered to the apartment, I zoned out when she gave the address, “623 East 68th Street.” It didn’t sound like addresses where I lived (and yes, I know now that it’s a real street but not a real address, unless they lived at the bottom of the East River). There were too many numbers. It didn’t mean anything at all so I simply heard “numbers, numbers, address.”

This was the case until my early 40s when we stayed at my in-laws’ apartment on the Upper East Side and walked everywhere. That weekend I was reading Nora’s I Feel Bad About My Neck for the first time. In the chapter called “The Lost Strudel or Le Strudel Perdu,” Nora shares her quest for a savory cabbage strudel she once had in Manhattan but which had since disappeared. She tried for years to find a bakery that made them until one day a friend gave her a tip about a Hungarian bakery “on Second and Eighty-fifth Street.” I looked up from the book and out the window, thinking about the cross streets and how many long blocks we were from Second. I hollered out to my husband in the other room, got my shoes on, and we set out to find cabbage strudel, returning within the hour with our prize. It was the single most New York moment of my life, thanks to Nora.

If Nora herself had been in the bakery that day, I probably would have been too shy or too play-it-cool-with-celebrities to speak to her, even though I am intensely jealous of Lena Dunham and would love to have been taken under Nora’s wise wings. Even so, I’ve known Nora and her work for a long time and, thankfully, this is the sort of relationship that continues past death. I’ll be re-reading her essays and watching When Harry Met Sally and Julie & Julia until my own end. I’ll keep wishing I’d written any single one of the many oft-quoted lines she penned.

I’ll also continue to feel a little bit bad about my first impressions, but I think Nora would understand.


photo credit: “Katz’s Deli=When Harry Met Sally,” © 2006 by Aaron_M, CC BY 2.0

Working and Resting Revisited

resting hotel door hanger

I’ll admit this woman looks like she’s having fun.  But I was almost as dismayed with this hotel door hanger as I was with the all-working version we encountered in October.  I’m sure she’s working up a sweat with all that jumping.  I might even be willing to call it “rejuvenating,” but restful?

Why can’t she be taking a nap?  Or be snuggled beneath a blanket reading a book?  Why can’t she be listening to music with her feet propped up?

It seems one of the many causalities of our overworking is our resting.  When we deign to rest it now looks like a competitive sport rather than an afternoon spent dozing or meandering through a music collection.

Yeah, I know, it’s just a door hanger.  It’s some hotel marketing department’s creative answer to standard equipment.  I get that I’m allowed to rest how I want to no matter what the picture shows.  I just think we deserve work that looks less like a constant war and rest that looks a lot less like work.  We deserve cycles of work and rest rather than one-speed-fits-all living with the labels changed every now and then.

Do Not Disturb

door hanger sign in hotel

Come to think of it, “working” is more prominent than “do not disturb.” Pretty disturbing.


We went to the beach in October to rest, just the two of us.  We ate an amazing meal, got our feet wet in the ocean, walked in the sand, watched and listened to the surf from our beachside balcony, took naps, watched baseball, and slept all night with the sliding glass door open to the cool air and the constant rumble of waves.  Aaaaah.

So imagine my surprise to find no resting option on the “do not disturb” door-hanger at our hotel.  Both sides said “do not disturb” but they also both offered the explanation  “working,” accompanied by a picture of a very frazzled, business-suited man standing on his head, tie like a floppy noose, in front of a stack of papers and his cell phone.  The only way to ask folks not to disturb you at this hotel was to claim the excuse of working.  Not sleeping or resting or enjoying passionate sex.  Nope.  Working was the only acceptable way to claim undisturbed time and space.

This makes me so sad because I’m sure it wasn’t a printing error.  Though I flipped the door-hanger back and forth several times to be sure I wasn’t missing something, I’m sure they didn’t mean to put a different message on the opposite side.  Why bother asserting my right to some down time when I’m just in the room reading email on my phone?  Why bother claiming to sleep when that seems so much more disturb-worthy than working?

This is what it’s come to, folks.  Choosing work all the time means eventually it’s the only choice left.

This sad revelation made our pre-vacation decision to stay off email even more meaningful.  For me, it was a total offline weekend, no email and no social media.  Woody stayed away from email but checked into Facebook here and there.  That’s what worked for us on this trip.  The point is, we thought about it and talked about it in advance.  We set up our perimeter so we could enjoy the pace and place and each other.

If you don’t set and practice your own boundaries, no one else will do it.  Even in a beachfront hotel room on a day off.

Gone Fishin’ (and great news)

There comes a time in every woman’s summer when she has to step away.  Out of the routine, off the treadmill, away from work, offline.  That time is now for me.

I thought about loading up the Kindle for ease of packing and lightweight luxuriousness during my travels and time out.  Then I thought again.


I want to feel the heft of a book in my hands and hear the crinkly plastic covering of a library book.  I want to smell the pages and feel them turn between my fingers.  Most of all, I simply want to be attentive to my physical surroundings rather than being distracted by pings and messages and stories from other far away places while I’m trying to read.  I anticipate the pleasures of lingering over a page wondering where that town is without the incessant invitation to open a browser window and look it up on a map.

Far away stories will have to come through the portal of my imagination, mingling with a writer’s words, put down in black and white on paper.  No hypertext (or email or Facebook) for this vacation.

So I made a trip to the library, like we did every week when I was growing up.  Since I don’t do this much any more, maybe part of this book-in-the-hand longing is nostalgia.  So be it.  In the week leading into our vacation, we’ve buried a family member and will toast a longtime family friend at her wedding.  If a stack of library books and a little nostalgia is the result of this swirl of events and emotions, I’m good with that.

As I make room in the car for the giant stack of books, I am making room in my spirit for the people and stories right in front of me.  Here’s my gone fishin’ sign.  I’ll see you again back here in a few weeks.


And now for the news…

I’m so pleased to announce Snow Day has been accepted into the CCblogs network.  You’ll see the bright and shiny new logo on the home page and you can click on it to head over to the CCblogs site at The Christian Century, where you can peruse other network sites and see selected posts highlighted by The Christian Century editors.

Ode to Aspens

loren kerns c 2013_aspens and sky pic

John Denver was on the radio when I was growing up.  Living in Virginia as a non-skier who’d never been west of Texas, I can’t think of any other reason I would have known Colorado names like Golden, Aspen, or Boulder.  With his silky bowl-cut, round wire glasses, and guitar, he ushered into my life the idea of “coming home to a place you’ve never been before” and gliding on a “Rocky Mountain high.”

I don’t know when I figured out aspens were trees and not just an exotic-sounding ski town, but I first saw them on my way to the Telluride Music Festival in my 20s…

[Click here for the rest of the story at catapult magazine.]


photo credit: “Day 194: Aspen leaves on a lazy summer day…” © 2013 Loren Kerns, CC BY 2.0


“Life surprises us every day, and some days more than others. One day, hour, or even minute can change everything. The unexpected can throw us for a whirlwind adventure – physically and emotionally. Whether it’s winning the million dollar lottery, the untimely death of a loved one, a traveling adventure, or meeting ‘the one,’ crazy things happen, and we want to hear about yours.”  So came the invitation from former student Maggie and her grandmother Jouette, as they embarked on their fall project to compile a collection of personal stories into a book called When IT Happens.  This was Jouette’s longtime dream and Maggie helped pull it off.  They published the collection last month and are donating proceeds to Sprouting Hope Community Garden.  Here’s a picture of the proud editors and here’s my IT story, a version of which is included in the book.

*      *      *

When IT Happens book with editors

Jouette and Maggie Graham with their book

I stood at the payphone outside the ranger station in Glacier National Park, calling a hotel room in Vancouver, hoping he hadn’t left yet.   It was maybe eight in the morning and I’d awoken by at least five that day with the unshakeable certainty that this was it and I was willing to drive all day through Canada to get to him.

I was in the middle of a two-week road trip, camping and visiting national parks with my good friend Anna.  When we made the plans months before she suggested we consider driving into Canada.  I was against it.  Limited time, limited money, had to make tough choices.  Blah, blah.  We went over this several times and I never budged. 

During the trip she spent a few days with other friends in Glacier while I detoured through Yellowstone.  I made the long, remote, signal-less, dusty drive in to rendezvous with Anna at Glacier’s Bowman Lake Campground the night before the early morning call – the six miles from the ranger station took half an hour on the bumpy gravel road. 

This at the end of a day driving through Montana saying “Good God!” at the beauty around every bend, the truth settling in my bones with the miles:  I was in love.  Deep.

Woody and I had been in almost daily contact during the trip.  In the serendipitous way of things, he was embarking on his own travel adventure, to Canada.  We thought about trying to meet somewhere but plans were set and distances were long.  We weren’t kids anymore (I was 39 and he was 51); we could wait.  It was sensible to do our own trips and see each other again at home.  We had decided.  Done.  Resolved.  Blah blah.

But when I woke up in the tent that morning at Bowman Lake, I immediately sat upright with an elaborate plan fully hatched, apparently in the incubator all night while I slept.   I couldn’t wait another week to see Woody.  I didn’t give a hoot what we had decided.  I could barely wait for my friends to wake up so I could run this plan past them:  We were going to abort our previous plans and drive to Nelson, British Columbia (where Anna’s friends lived and she had wanted to visit all along), and which was roughly half way between Glacier and Vancouver.  Woody was going to meet us there – he just didn’t know it yet.

Once the other campers woke up and heard my outrageous plan (and wondered if I was just a little crazy), they agreed and I left them packing at the campground and drove as fast as I could those bumpy slow six miles to the first and only phone I could get to back at the ranger station.  I had no idea if he would be gone for the day already but I stood in the chilled early morning air, phone clenched to my ear, hopeful with my whole being that the rest of the day would take me closer and closer to the love of my life.  And the rest of my life.

When he picked up, I said the most simple direct true thing I could:  “I’ve lost all resolve.”  I married him ten months later.


photo credit:  © 2013 Maggie Graham, Used with permission

Lake George from the Porch

view of lake george in summer from the porch

I’ve been visiting a 100 year old house on the shore of Lake George, New York.  It reminds me of the lodges you find in National Parks out west, mainly because of its stacked stone pillars and the design cut into the balusters of the porch railings.  Built out of solid materials and with an appreciation for beauty, it’s gracious the way I imagine some future house of mine will be whenever I read something like Southern Living or This Old House….

Click here to read more over at We Said Go Travel, where my entry in their Gratitude Travel Writing Contest is published today.

Study Abroad, “Before Sunrise,” and the Beauty of Snow Days

snowday flavor beer

It’s not even time to “fall back” but I’m already dreaming of our first snow day in Virginia.  I revel in the permission a snow day grants.  Permission to stop adhering to the schedule, to take a pass, to stay home and off the roads, to make cookies in the middle of the day and nap just because I feel like it and I can.  I could give myself this kind of permission more often, but it’s harder when there’s nothing external forcing my hand.  This is the beauty of a snow day, when permission to be takes precedence over the obligation to do. 

These days I sometimes go online during a snow day, if we still have power.  It’s fun to see what other people are doing with the unexpected time and space.  But in some respects, staying offline (imposed or by choice) is better.  It helps me stay present in the day itself, with however I am filling it or emptying it.  I have to rely on my own resources.

Back when I did it, studying abroad was like this, too.  It was 1989 and I had barely heard of a fax machine.  I was only able to call my parents three or four times the whole semester.  My main mode of communication with friends and family back home was through letters squeezed onto every inch of the blue, striped aerogram paper which folded up into its own envelope.  I was homesick and spent copious amounts of time in coffee shops writing home while gazing out the window and sipping a café crème.  I’m sure if we’d had email or cell phones or Facebook I would have checked in incessantly and in real time, as today’s study abroad students do.  I often have trouble remembering these students are gone when they’re away for the semester, since I spend just as much time liking status updates from Zurich as I do from across the campus. 

Before Sunrise came out six years after my semester in France and, like a band you stick with over the decades, I’ve been growing up with this story, told now over three movies and decades.  When I re-watched Before Sunrise a few years back, I was struck by the certainty this movie couldn’t be made now.  Both of the young and footloose characters would have cell phones now, through which they would stay tethered to conversations and posts and people time zones away, no matter what ancient city they were in.  When the characters in that first movie meet on a train there’s a long, quiet shot of Ethan Hawke looking out the window at Europe blurring past.  I remember doing that through France, Italy, Sweden, Ireland.  The movement of the train lulling me deeper in thought.  Fabulous plans for the future were hatched on the train and in journals when I was alone and out of touch in Europe.  The whole adventure of that film began out of un-tethered solo travel and that slim, delicious bubble of time before sunrise.  Today, the characters might be so immersed in updating their Twitter accounts they’d never meet – and, if they did somehow strike up a conversation, surely the cell phones would ring and interrupt that lovely lingering night in Vienna.  What was out-of-time but deeply grounded in one place and another person would surely be dissolved, jerked back into splintered time and attention with the ring of a far-off call or the beep of a text.

I know today’s parents and students would never consider a semester abroad without the availability of constant contact.  But some of what was hard and strange and scary and wonderful about the time I studied abroad was precisely how out of touch it felt.  The connections were largely distant and time-lagged.  Letters I wrote took time to make their way into the hands of my friends and family.  My observations were considered and honed before they were shared – or they were forgotten.  The night my train hit and killed someone in Sweden and I missed the next train and had to rely on the kindness of a Danish woman who helped me find a hotel in Copenhagen for the night – that night was experienced without Google Maps or Trip Advisor or Facebook.  I had to be where I was and trust a stranger and try to get a good night’s sleep anyway. 

A lot of my time in Europe I felt small and inexperienced.  Sometimes I felt scared.  And, though I relied on my parents (and asked them to wire money – more than once), I also spent a lot of time relying on my own resources.  By the time I came home I felt changed.

If I’m honest, I wouldn’t recommend students plan study abroad trips without cell phones.  But I do recommend taking technology breaks on purpose – here and abroad.  There are times and places better absorbed without the rest of the world watching.  Like an all-night stroll through Vienna, standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, the birth of a baby, a walk through the woods, or a snow day.  And when one’s not forthcoming, you can always declare one for yourself.  You might even call it Sabbath.

Arches, Aspens, and Another Pause

I didn’t plan ahead.  Thank God.  Grand Lake Colorado

I didn’t mean to leave you hanging without any posts or set-to-publish pieces ready to go, but I just took a break.  I followed my own last post and took a sacred pause.  A long one. 

sunset near Windows, Arches National Park, Utah

Rosy clouds, red arches, pewter blue sky



Balanced Rock and others at Arches National Park, Utah

If these keep silent, even the stones will cry out. (Luke 19: 40)

I wrote in my journal a lot during our sojourn through Colorado and Utah.  I reveled in the aspen trees and walked among the arches but I’m still mulling and reflecting and not quite ready to write for public consumption.  So I’m just popping in to say “hi” and share a few words and images.

beneath sand dune arch

Cool in the shadows, Sand Dune Arch

I hope these can be a sacred pause for you today.

aspen trees against orange building

Aspens, my favorite tree.