Sticks and Stones

(No, this is not an ode to the essential pop-punk album by New Found Glory…but that is an excellent album, if you’re into that genre.)

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

That phrase is such a lie. I’m sure we all know that by now, but I learned it early on in life.

See, I was a preteen when the “blonde jokes” were at the height of their popularity.

You know.

How do you confuse a blonde? Put her in a circle and tell her to go to the corner.”

I mean, it’s sort of funny.

Unless you have blonde hair and are even just a hint of gullible. Which, incidentally, I was. I also was a new student at a new school in 6th grade. Perfect combination.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of humor. Give me a comedy over a romance film any day. I’ll pick watching The Office or Parks & Recreation over dramatic television series nearly every time.

But the problem I had with those blonde jokes wasn’t that they weren’t funny. They could be entertaining at certain points.

The problem was that as a girl with blonde hair, I believed the jokes to be true.

As a kid in elementary school, I was tested for learning disabilities. I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder with the Hyperactivity (basically, ADD but the technical diagnosis was as I stated) as well as learning disabilities in math and writing (Ha. Take that, testers!). My intelligence is in the gifted range, but the learning disabilities affected my grades and overall performance in school. I was in a fragile state.

So when the unaware and typical preteen boys told blonde jokes in school, it felt very personal, even if it was unintentional. If I didn’t get a joke or missed something in a conversation I heard

Karen, you’re such a blonde.”

I was so ashamed of my hair. I wore it up a lot to distract from the color. When I was teased for being a dumb blonde, I defended my hair color as “LIGHT BROWN”. I pointed out other girls with the same shade hair as mine in an effort to distract them from my blondness. Nothing changed.

The worst part of the whole thing was that I truly believed I was dumb. Logically, I knew my hair color had absolutely nothing to do with my intelligence. It was as ridiculous to believe my hair color made me less intelligent as it is to believe that those with a certain skin color are better than other groups of people. It has nothing to do with who I was as a person, but I let myself believe it anyway.

It was a terrible time.

That shame and utter hatred of my hair color followed me all through middle and high school. The blonde jokes petered out eventually, but those comments stuck with me for a long time. School was still a struggle, but I found a love in English. I began to write and eventually that became my biggest strength in academics

But then sometimes, I would play up the dumb blonde act for attention. It worked and I liked the attention, as much as I am ashamed to admit. In the moments afterward, I’d berate myself for stooping to such a low level. Even though I was well read and educated, I acted like I wasn’t. What if those jokes weren’t really jokes? What if I was really dumb and just thought that I was smart somewhere deep down inside?

Finally, as a junior in high school, some friends and I decided to change something about our hair. I think we did it as a youth group girls bonding time. Everyone decided on highlights.

Not me.

Here was my chance to FINALLY break free from years of being the dumb blonde. I chose a dark reddish brown.

It was a good look on me, to be honest. It brought out my blue eyes and contrasted with my pale skin well.

I didn’t hear blonde jokes anymore. I do think I was taken a bit more seriously. I wasn’t called a blonde ditz.

But, as I am sure you have guessed already, I didn’t feel better. Changing my hair color didn’t change my perception of my intelligence.

I wish I could tell you my perception changed really rapidly. That I had some lightbulb moment of “Oh, you ARE smart!”. It took awhile to get there.

There was one time when I knew I wanted to go back to college. I was working in Canada at a vey conservative Mennonite mission. Typically, (not always, but in some circles) college is looked down upon. As my time there was winding down, I mentioned I was considering college after I moved home. One guy had the audacity to ask why I would ever go to college when women are supposed to stay home with their children.

I was livid. Nothing convinced me to go to college more than that generalization of what a woman is supposed to do. I do know after that moment, I decided to drop the dumb blonde act. I think it was a whiplash moment for the staff I lived with. Gone was the ditzy blonde girl and in her place was a girl who read a lot and liked history and had opinions on politics and religion and society. It was the fire I needed.

I think sometime after that, it clicked that my hair color didn’t dictate my intelligence, I did. I control how much I push myself to engage in deeper conversations, to search out answers to questions I have, and to keep learning.

After many years of growing up and nurturing, I came to embrace my blonde hair color. Sometimes it takes years to overcome the things we have despised about ourselves for so long. By now, I can hear the rare blonde joke and roll my eyes, confident in myself and who I am, blonde hair and all.

 

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Oh, Virginia

As I have written many, many times before, the beach is my favorite place to be. It doesn’t matter where this beach is, as long as it’s an ocean beach. I love lakes, don’t get me wrong. But there’s nothing like the beach along the glorious Atlantic or the vast Pacific. When you know the water before you leads to another continent, the ocean feels so magnificent. That’s the beauty of it.

The last weekend of October, I got to spend time at a very special beach.

My Dad’s family roots are in southeastern Virginia. Chesapeake, Norfolk, and Newport News are all cities I’ve grown up hearing about almost as frequently as Lancaster and Harrisburg. In that part of Virginia, water is always visible. The canals, rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and the beach were all important parts of their lives.

I’ve always been fascinated with that part of the state. The beach pulls me there. I love the history of Williamsburg and Jamestown. Maybe it’s because Grandpa and Grandma always talk so wistfully about their life there. Whatever it is, I always want to go there.

As a girl raised in Mennonite Land, otherwise known as Lancaster County, I’m surrounded by people whose ancestors have been here even before America became a country. This applies to my mother’s family, but not my father. My mom can trace her lineage all the way from Switzerland to America, well before 1776.

My dad’s family hails from all over states like Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio, but Virginia finally became home in the 1800’s and 1900’s. In some ways, southeastern Virginia is like Lancaster County to my dad’s family. Roots are deep there. Not as deep as most families’ roots in Lancaster, but relatively deep.

When I told my grandma I was visiting her hometown as well as Virginia Beach, I saw that wistful glimmer in her eyes. She excitedly told me where all the family sites were located and where to find the best milkshakes. She said how much she loved visiting the ocean and wished she could go with me.

On Saturday after a glorious few hours on the beach, my friends and I parted ways. They went off to watch the highly anticipated Penn State University versus Ohio State University football game and I drove toward Chesapeake.

I’m not sure how to explain the phenomenon of driving those roads leading to Chesapeake. I never grew up there, so why did it feel like returning home? I recognized road names, all because I had heard Grandma talk about the other Mennonite Church nearby that they’d occasionally visit.

I finally found myself on Mount Pleasant Road, where Grandma grew up. I visited her church, where her grandparents and parents are buried. It was slightly awkward because there was a fall festival happening at the church and there were a lot of people around. I felt like I couldn’t really spend as much time looking at the gravestones as I would have otherwise.I then headed to Bergey’s Breadbasket, an adorable cafe that was originally a large dairy. My grandpa worked there for years as a herdsman and milkman, delivering milk in the early morning hours, surely with a song as he went about. There was a corn maze happening so yet again, there were so many people around. I had wanted to introduce myself to the owner, but my social anxiety in crowds prevented it. Later when I told my grandpa about trying a milkshake, his eyes lit up and he exclaimed, “wasn’t it delicious?” He was right, it was delicious.

I also had done some extensive research into finding the spot where my great great grandfather was murdered. I found the spot, originally a lumber mill. But when I drove closer, there were large “NO TRESPASSING” signs posted. Because I am mostly a rule-follower, I stayed away. But according to a friend I saw the next day, that was basically an invitation to go explore. Maybe next time. Definitely next time.

I think as I continue to watch my grandparents age, connecting to their life down in Virginia fels more pressing than ever. At this point, they’re still well enough to make at least one more trip to see the few family members who still live in the area. I don’t want the memories and love of Virginia to die with them.

After I came home, I stopped in to see Grandma and Grandpa. I showed Grandma pictures of the beach, the church, and the gravestones. That same wistful glimmer crept into her eyes and a few tears, too.

I am well aware that Virginia Beach is nothing special. It’s pretty average, as beaches go. I’ve seen the beauty of California beaches and the Italian beaches along the Mediterranean Sea are breathtaking. But something about the Virginia coast feels like home.

This beach feels like home because it is home. Not my home, but my grandparents’ home. And that makes it feel like home to me. My grandparents are aging and my time with them is running out. Maybe not tomorrow or next month, but for sure in the next few years.

I think that’s why I’m so drawn to their past life in Virginia. It’s a way of connecting to them. If I have my own personal connections to Virginia, I will have a link to a tangible place. I will always have Virginia to remind me of them.

Down to the River

Rushing.

Changing.

Sweeping.

Roaring.

taken by Karen Layman 2017

Sitting by the Susquehanna River always brings back a flood of memories that don’t usually surface in my everyday thoughts.

This river has always been a part of my life. Growing up on the outskirts of Elizabethtown meant the river was an easy 10-minute drive away.

I grew up hearing my mother tell of her escapades on this river. She and a friend happened to be out “rock hopping” because the river was quite low one summer. They kept following the rocks and eventually came to a dry dam. They thought it was a great idea to walk along the dam until a security guard appeared. Turns out the dry dam they were walking on was on the property of Three Mile Island. The power plant sent out their guards and kindly escorted my mother and her friend off the property.

The river is a place that is so close, yet so far away. Most of the time, I find myself conscious of the fact that it’s there, but I don’t take the time to sit by and observe.

But when I do find myself by the river, I breathe it all in.

The slight breeze blows by my ear, tousling the flyaway hairs. A child nearby is jumping in and down on the boat ramp, splashing his less than impressed older sister.

It reminds me of the countless times I spent down on the same boat ramp. My mom’s friend (the same one from the TMI escapade) used to watch me while my mother was working and my dad was writing his dissertation. She lived right in Bainbridge, a few blocks from the river. In the summer, we used to go down to the park and pavilion. We’d have a snack, and then I was free to explore the water. I knew I was only allowed in the water up to my knees, but that was enough.

For a child who always had a healthy fear of water, I deeply loved water too. I was fascinated with where the water eventually went. I took my dad’s advice and opened up the Encyclopedia to read about the Susquehanna River. I learned that this mighty river in Pennsylvania eventually reached all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.

Life is full of connections. This river so close to my home leads right to another part of the country that is so special to me.

My grandparents were both born and raised in Southeastern Virginia, with the Chesapeake Bay close by. Grandma told me stories of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel construction. She and her family were so excited for the tunnel as it made traveling to Delaware much more accessible.

Grandma and Grandpa always talked about the bay as if it was such an important part of their lives. Once I started learning about it in science classes, I realized that it was integral to not just the bay area, but our country as well. It is a life source for many who live by the bay. It provides jobs, food, and recreation. What a beautiful and sacred place.

Back on the river, a hawk flies overhead. I have no idea what kind of hawk it is, but it is a beautiful sight, watching it soar and glide overhead.

Just like the bay, this river is also a life source. Many creatures survive because of the river. The water helps provide power to many homes through Three Mile Island, which also provides jobs.

As I sit and continue to observe, I remember my parent’s engagement photos. Taken when the river water was once again low, they chose the rocks as a unique setting for photos.

At the moment with the water at a higher level, I cannot comprehend being able to jump from rock to rock all the way across the water. I must admit a twinge of jealousy that my parents experienced that, and I have not.

Not every memory from this river is happy, however. When I was younger, a friend invited me to spend a few days with her and her family on their houseboat on the river. I was fine until darkness set in. Then homesickness came sweeping in like a mighty wave and I was distraught. It was so terrible I ended up going home the first night.

Every few months, I read stories of bodies pulled from the depths of the river. It’s a reminder that this river is not always calm and kind. On the surface, it’s glassy and smooth, but underneath is the current that pulls the water out to the bay, and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. It can be deadly to those unaware of its strength.

This river has provided much adventure and exploring as a child, teenager, and adult.

My cousins have a tradition of biking to our house every fall. They live about 35 miles away, and grew up near the Conestoga River. Every year they visit, a stop at the Susquehanna is inevitable. They love the majesty of the Susquehanna. They are much braver than I, jumping in and swimming around for a few hours. After a few hours of biking, I imagine it was quite refreshing.

After a rail trail was built along the river leading out to the White Cliffs of Conoy, I spent time exploring the area. There’s a railroad track that runs parallel to the trail and there’s a section of old building ruins. It almost resembles old Roman ruins I saw last year. Whenever I miss Rome, I wander out there. I can pretend I’m not in little Bainbridge, but a world away in Italy. Escapism is a beautiful tool some days.

When stress levels reach too high, the White Cliffs provide a source of calm. High above the river, I find serenity in watching the river flow by. The best time to go is on a weekday, middle of the day, especially when schools are in session. The fewer people around, the better time I have. Hiking down to the water ensures less company. Seclusion and quiet bring peace. As someone who finds water to be calming, this place brings that solace.

Another place that I hold dear is Chique’s Rock. Just like the White Cliffs, I usually go to Chique’s Rock during stressful periods in my life, but not always. In high school, my friends and I would go to the lookout some days. It was an easy meeting place and was an inexpensive alternative to our usual coffee shop hangouts. We would sit out on a ledge and talk about our lives and our hopes and dreams. We’d speculate about the future and if we’d still be friends. We decided that friendship is almost like a river. Ever changing, but still yet the same.

Every once in a while, I have the deep desire to be by the water. One day after class, I spontaneously pulled into a lookout over the river in Columbia. The view was stunning and glorious. I was struck by the fact that this view is never the same, but at the same time, it is. Just like the river.

I often find myself complaining about the fact that I don’t live near an ocean. But here, only ten minutes from my house, is a glorious, rushing river. It’s not the same as the ocean, but it leads there. And on some days, that will have to be enough for me.

Rushing.

Changing.

Sweeping.

Roaring.

Orange

Yesterday instead of working, I got to hang out with some of our kids and youth ministry leaders and volunteers from church and attend a conference in Lancaster called Orange Tour. There were so many great speakers all in one place and it just what this semi-newbie senior high Sunday school teacher needed to hear. The theme this year focused on what it means to be a neighbor. It comes at a very fitting time in our world today. With so much division and hate, I think we have forgotten what being a neighbor looks like.

Because I’m still processing (as usual…), I thought I’d just throw out some of the things that really jumped out at me.

While all the speakers were excellent, one of my favorite speakers was Jon Acuff. I have been following Jon’s work for a few years and he’s quite the inspiration to me as a writer and editor. (Side note/shameless plug: My friend Sheri wrote a book called Dear Ellie and I had the joy of editing it! You can find it here: Dear Ellie.He has some great books out right now such as Finish, Start (ironic that those followed each other), Quitter, and Do Over. His main session talked about goals and how we are terrible at following through with goals. 92% of New Year’s resolutions fail by the third week of January! I don’t even make resolutions because of that fact. It was really awesome to put a voice to a writer and he was as funny as I expected. Here are some of the high points from Jon’s talk.

  • “Starting is fun but the future belongs to finishers.”
  • “You remember the goals you don’t finish. Goals you don’t finish don’t disappear. They become ghosts that haunt you.”
  • “Nothing attracts new ideas like trying to finish an old one. Don’t let “what’s next” distract you from “what’s now.” Don’t shame the new idea. Put it aside until you’re finished.”
  • “Make it fun if you want it done.”
  • “There are things in your day that aren’t fun. Let’s be honest- kale isn’t fun.” (I disagree.)
  • “Atheists don’t say “I don’t know your Lord, but man do Christians have fun!”
  • “Nothing demoralizes a team like a leader who picks the wrong size goals.”
  • “If you can’t stop everything, simplify it.”
  • “Borrow someone else’s diploma. Learn from others. Ask other churches how they grew.”

There was much more to the conference than just Jon’s sessions. I also went to hear Tasha Morrison talk about “Coming to the Table” and how that ties into being a neighbor. She talked a lot about how to do this in terms of racial reconciliation. She stressed how important it is to listen. It is so key to just listen to concerns and hear about people’s experiences. She has a great curriculum out about racial reconciliation that I’d love to dive in to. Something she said echoed what I learned in my psychology of racism class.

Don’t be color blind. Be color caring. Be color caring.”

When we’re color blind, we’re essentially ignoring cultures and things that the cultures bring to our world. We need to celebrate those things. Being color brave and color caring means looking beyond something like skin color and embracing each person for who they are as people. If we ever hope to bring reconciliation, we need to start seeing each as people. And the church needs to step up and get things started. We unfortunately are not doing nearly enough as we should.

I came away from this conference feeling more renewed and also excited for all that God has planned for our church. We have a lot of changes happening, but I think they are good changes, even if I hate to see certain people move on. I’m there are bigger and better things to come and I’m excited to see what they are.

 

 

 

Silence

I started working for my church in June. Back when I was working at another church, I always wished to work for this church. It honestly makes things so much easier. I can’t claim to know nearly everyone who attends this church, but I have a much better idea of who people are compared to the last job. I get to work with people I have looked up to in leadership and that has helped me feel more at home in the congregation. We even have a courtyard, which is pretty cool. Have I utilized it yet? No. But I will.

I also have the opportunity on very quiet, slow days to take a few minutes to just sit in silence and think. On most week days, the sanctuary is empty and eerily quiet, perfect for contemplation.

Last week, I was brooding over things  while working in the office. I had gone outside to get the mail, and wandered through the sanctuary on my way back to my office. I’m not entirely sure what led me to walk through the sanctuary, possibly the fact that earlier it was full of energetic children practicing for their upcoming musical.

I slowly wandered through the room, only lit by the sun streaming through the windows. It struck me how much different it can feel on a Wednesday afternoon than it does on a Sunday morning. There is a rush of activity and so many people in the sanctuary before the service begins. But on Wednesday afternoons, there is stillness and peace.

I almost felt as if I shouldn’t be in the sanctuary. But at the same time, a calmness swept over me. I sat down on a bench for a moment and then decided to lay down on my back.

When I was a child learning how to pray, I somehow picked up the habit of looking up to the ceiling or sky, depending on my surroundings. I know most people bow their heads. But as a child, I pictured God living above us in the sky. So naturally I looked above when praying.

As I lay on that bench, I stared at the white ceiling above me. I don’t know what I even said to God; I think he said more to me than I said to him. I do remember the calmness and serenity washing over me.

My life can be so busy that I forget to take the time to listen. I am a good listener to my friends, but I don’t always listen so well to the spirit. The spirit isn’t tangibly in front of me so it’s easy to forget about it. But taking even just those five minutes in the day to listen, nudged me to want that more.

Our world is constantly yelling at us. But in the sanctuary, there was none of that.

I realize not everyone can retreat into a silent sanctuary and just be still and silent. But taking just five minutes can drastically improve mental health. I hope to build those five minutes into much longer periods of silence and listening.

Just not at work, of course. ;)

Unending Grace

A few weeks ago things seemed very bleak as I processed possibly losing my grandmother. Her prognosis looked rather dim and there was a chance she wouldn’t be with us much longer.

She had surgery a little over two weeks ago to remove tumors from her bladder. However, when the surgeon reported back to our family afterward, he was happy to say he couldn’t find any. He took a few samples to make certain and those tests came back saying there is no cancer. They think her stubborn UTI was showing up as a mass on the scans, or it was simply a miracle. There’s still possibly a mass hiding behind her kidney, but that will be addressed later.

But for now, Grandma is doing great. Her energy has returned and this week she and my grandpa are taking a trip back to Minnesota to visit friends and family.

I think this whole process has really nailed down the idea of grace for me yet again. I struggle so much with grace. I can never quite grasp the fact that even though I don’t deserve grace, God still pours it out. I was in no place to even begin to think of losing my grandmother. Now we have been given the grace of more time.

I also experienced grace a lot this past semester. There was one particular day when I had two substantial papers due. It was any student’s nightmare. Especially an English major who is so good at procrastinating. I managed to finish one, and almost finish the other one, which I knew was a draft as we were spending time editing papers in class that day. During my first class that day, our professor said she herself had an intense week and that we could hand in our papers the following week. I nearly broke down in tears, partly out of relief, but also frustration.  I considered skipping the one class, finish the paper, submit it a bit late, and miss the editing process. But I went to class anyway, and was one of the 10 students who showed up. The final copy was due the final week. Grace was again poured out as I had an entire week to polish both papers. I pulled off exceptional grades on both, which I really didn’t feel like I deserved. I know I didn’t put as much time into them as I should have and both professors remarked that they could tell I put a lot of thought into the papers. That is partly true. I definitely thought about them a lot, but that didn’t always translate into doing the actual writing.

I think God realizes how much I struggle with grace. He continually finds ways to lavish it on me. After one summer job fell through, I was asked to be interim administrate assistant at my church. I never really wanted to be a church secretary again after the last time, but this felt so right. I know the staff well, and in general the atmosphere is light and positive. I’m looking forward to my summer spent in the office. Grace yet again.

All these things are helping me to accept grace. One of my favorite hymns has been running through my head the past few weeks:

Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace,
Freely bestowed on all who believe!”

His grace never ends, it never runs out.

Goodbyes

I have been dreading writing about this again ever since my maternal grandma passed away nine years ago. Grandma had always been a bit frail as long as I could remember, and with congestive heart failure, I always knew it was only a matter of time until I had to say goodbye. I was upset, yet prepared, when she left us.

I was left with only my grandparents on my dad’s side, and at that point in time, they seemed invincible. They travelled all over the country, lived easily on their own, and even made a big move back to the East coast a few years ago. I was elated to finally spend time with them on a regular basis. We celebrated Grandma’s 90th birthday a year and a half ago, and Grandpa’s 95th just this past March. As long as I can remember, they both have been energetic and healthy.

But in the last few weeks, my grandma has been having health issues. Pain, nausea, and general discomfort. The doctors say cancer. No one can agree on exactly what it is, or how much time she may or may not have left.

Typically, my grandma is very talkative, but after an appointment last week, we sat at her kitchen table in silence. I think we both knew time was winding down, but how do you even acknowledge that?

I am not ready for this. How does one ever prepare to lose someone so close and dear to them?

As cliché as it sounds, all I can do is make the most of the time left. It could be a few months, or longer. There are still pies to bake, and scones to try, and if we’re really lucky, a trip to Chesapeake, Newport News, and Virginia Beach. I suppose only time will tell at what memories are left to be made.

Memories… let them fill your mind, warm your heart, and lead you through.”