Saturday, March 27, 2010

Encounter 2010: The List

At the International Arts Movement Encounter Conference in 2010, I encountered:
(The order of this list is random and does not reflect the ranking of those items!)

New York pizza
...and other classy food. The lay of a land often shapes itself around the food we eat in that place. While New York is so sprawling and finding a characteristic food is impossible, there were certain foods that were so wrapped up in my first impressions of the city that I felt they were worth mentioning. There was my first NYC Starbucks in Astor Place, the safe haven for my frazzled and shaking self to rest and recoup from my first metro ride and my first solo walk through some city blocks (I ordered a caramel frappacino); $1 pizza with Cameron, Courtney, and Forest near Grand Cooper Union (we discussed that there was some beauty in making pizza so fast and well that you could price it like that) in the back corner with the junior high kids with words on their shirts in glittery letters I couldn't read; the other pizza at the small store the first night on the way to Alphabet Lounge; Magnolia Cupcakes, the surprise Cameron and Courtney wouldn't tell me about until half way up the street in Greenwich we smelled heaven on the breeze; peanut butter sandwiches from Allie's house on my morning metro rides; the goat cheese on my sandwich at the coffee house where we went so often that the owner gave us a free latte; the chocolate cheesecake and mint tea around the corner from the IAM space when our feet were so tired.

Winthrop Artists
The first people I laid eyes on when I dragged myself and my suitcase into Grand Cooper Union were two curly headed chaps who looked about my age. When I registered behind them, I wondered if perhaps they were part of an answered prayer I prayed in the smelly Chinatown bus: I needed friends for the next few days. And they were. Cameron and Stephen came over not a minute later and sat down beside me on the only couch in that lobby area and introductions were made. In a few moments, Calli and Courtney came up and I had been offered their company for the duration of the conference. I took them up on it, following Cameron and Courtney around for pretty much all of it. They were from Winthrop College in Rock Hill, SC, each having lived in NYC before or visited the conference itself. Photography, non profit arts teacher and administrator for youth, and illustrator. Students and a graduate. They thought differently than me and I learned from the way they doodled their notes and expressed their thoughts. The first hours we spent together were in a coffee house, sharing stories and college experience, where our theology leans, our love of the arts and our craft, and reading aloud passages from "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" and "The Writing Life".

The Metro
This was the scariest, most challenging, and, therefore, my proudest aspect of the trip. It is strange even now how all my fears about this stand out as part of the things I learned from the trip as bearing the red, "most significant" badge somewhere in my mind. I encountered the unique mosaics that each station has along the walls; my favorite was wandering through a larger station where the mosaics depicted tree roots coming into the ground and the station and finding a way to live there. I encountered performers, one really good violinist, and an Italian band that people started dancing to. I encountered the homeless; my final day a man got on the metro and began to yell at all of us for taking up space in his "home" which turned into a folk tale about his wife who beats him and a way for him to ask us for money (definitely was ready to freak out during that one). I encountered the fun of traveling in a group; the most fun I had was when I read aloud the poetry winner for the Encounter (quietly) in a crowded subway to Courtney, and then when the PBU folks were there and we traveled for a bit. I encountered New York at night through my trips alone back to Allie's apartment. I encountered how scared I was of many things and the ability to fix my mistakes when I went the wrong way. I also encountered my own racism and this is the part that I am most ashamed to admit; there is no way to avoid that I considered myself "safer" the more "white people" were on there with me.

Fantasy Fiction
Yes, I revisited my beloved genre through Jeffrey Overstreet's "Auralia's Colors". I read it the last morning on the metro and on the bus ride to Philadelphia. It is not a genre (when well written) to be outgrown. I have missed it.

I did not stay in one place very long. I did not even get to go into any museums or very many tourist spots. But we wandered, taking the metro from one city into another (it seemed) and wandering the streets and finding interesting things to notice and remark upon. It was good for me to wander. My thoughts were wandering just as my feet were, trying to learn a city and a new way of thinking about art and faith at the same time. Again, I followed Courtney and Cameron in this and we went many places that had no remarkable name or appearance (mostly because there were too many things to notice) , suddenly rounding a corner, and finding something very worth exploring. We wandered the floors of the library this way (Hannah and Mom, do you remember doing this so long ago?), found the Guttenburg Bible and tried to read its print. I wanted to get caught sliding down bannisters but didn't have the courage to do it. We also wandered to the IAM space and helped an artist carry his installation up the stairs. We wandered purposefully through Grand Central so I could see it (it was rather a flabbergasting sight). Cameron made us wander at a rapid pace through Greenwhich in the dark for a very long ways so he could find a photography gallery. I wandered with the group from PBU and the ever dear Tim Hurd through a rather different, older, shorter part of NYC down towards the bay and wandered on the Highline, an old raised railway that has been turned into a boardwalk of sorts. Some stress and worry disappeared in those streets, easing out my tired feet, my head heavy with walking and sleep each night.

The Sky
The sky in NYC is hidden and focused up and thin above the tall buildings. It is hardly noticable, as if the city carries its own sun that runs through the streets and allies at certain times, turning dull electric orange with its fatigue. It was hard to notice the sky. Cameron noted when we had been blown about in dust and trash on a late night walk to the metro, that a city like this almost created its own weather patterns and ecosystems. It was its own living order and the sky and wind reflected that. There were no stars at night. There was never much reason to look up and the crowded sky scrapers held each peripheral vision.

Dreaming, Visioning
I'm not sure that "visioning" is a verb that is actually to be used but it is one of my favorites anyway. I was definitely in the company of dreamers during those few days. Some of those dreams I'm  hoping to talk about more on this blog. I was able to talk to some of my Nav staffers this morning and they asked about my break and realized how little I've been able to see how all of what I was learning could apply to Penn State. I rather miss having the people around me looking ahead 10 years and asking, "How then shall we live and make art?" What is success? What is making art with love? How shall we tell stories? It was a visionary group of people and it began to rub off in those hours of talking and thinking we did together. It was also how I love to spend time, trying to see ahead, trying to plan and dream up crazy plans that could change the way everything works. There is something very exciting and comforting simultaneously to write and think about these things in a group of people.

... more to come!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


  • Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan A hard book that made me wish I could close my eyes and stop the images I was reading. Powerful doesn't cut it. Devastating might work. (Please ignore the Oprah Stamp of Approval)
  • Auralia's Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet It can never hurt to read some good fantasy. I've heard the sequel is even better!
  • The Collected Poems of Wendell Berry, Lovely in all respects and may be one of the best things that has happened in my life in the past two months.
  • Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher An old Sonlight Classic! Still just as good as I remembered.

Highly Recommended: The Readers List of the IAM Reader's Guild

What are you reading? Any recommendations or books to stay away from?

Thoughts on "Roadblocks": A Panel Event

This past Monday, the work of several months culminated in an event for the Schreyer Honors College: "Roadblocks to Conversation: A Panel Discussion on Faith and Student Life." I've been helping brainstorm and vision out this event since January, working with another friend and Steve Lutz, a campus minister with the Coalition for Christian Outreach here at Penn State. (Just to jog your memories, CCO is the group that was responsible for the project/community I lived in last summer in Ocean City). Together, we created a format, a topic, a vision, and gained the approval of the Honors Community to host it in the area that I live and work as an RA. I've been excited about this since we started. There is starting to be a shift in the way ministry is done here, focusing more on location and cultural groups rather than on the isolated ministries drawing people in. This also involves other ministries working together. The panel was to accomplish both of these things; drawing on the residents of Atherton and Simmons and designed/organized by folks from Navs, Cru, CCO, and the Honors College. The Dean himself acted as our moderator, being as he is fluent in these kinds of discussions from his academic role and his position as an Episcopal priest.

My job the night of was to be on the panel itself. We were looking at the role of faith in student life. Define that last term as you will. There were five of us: Andy (atheist), Katie (Catholic), Mattie (Jewish), myself (Protestant), and Munjireen (Muslim). We had met the Thursday before to decide on some opening questions. We didn't beat around the bush:

  • Why do you believe what you believe?
  • How does your faith/worldview impact your approach to schoolwork, jobs, life plans, etc?
  • If you could change a stereotype of your background, what would it be?
As much as I've thought and wrestled with these questions throughout my life, I found them incredibly difficult to craft into an answer that I could give out in two minutes in front of a group of my peers. That irked me a great deal but was excellent practice. Saturday I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to say the first one. My response was to want to give them a list of books to read to get my answer. That wasn't enough. Here was I, proud and haughty WVA alumn, and I really couldn't come up with anything worth saying! Lesson: never assume you know why you believe anything until you've actually practiced saying it. Outloud. To people who will most likely think you are crazy and/or dumb for saying so.

But the night was a success, my panic not withstanding. There were soft pretzels to consume, good company to talk with, great answers from the panelists and even better questions from the audience. There were about 35 folks there. I'd put about half of them as Christian, another portion as skeptics, another portion as atheists, another (small) portion as community leaders (like Dean Brady, Elizabeth Estell, Steve Lutz, etc). They were willing to discuss respectfully, passionately about everything that came up. We were faced with questions like, "Do you think it is ever okay to reevaluate a religion?" (I said, yes, because I'm a protestant and a big fan of the reformation), "What if you're wrong and you die" (yes, that was from another wva alum in attendance), "What happens if a person is not pursuing their calling", "How does science fit into all of this?" "Have the Israeli/Palestinian conflicts influenced your life as a student?" "How about the Iraq war?" "Can there be a just society as long as religion still functions?" I was impressed. There is an unfortunate tendency for such questions to never be asked. Who knew that there would be so many living on the floors around me who want to have these conversations across religious and ethnic lines, and really want to hear the answers? It was crazy and amazing and I could hardly sleep afterwards. Folks stayed for 45 minutes after everything was officially over, discussing the differences in Catholic and Protestant thought, what is the after life, why would a God design the world so that everyone is required to worship him, if there is such a thing a free will, and where to find more of these conversations that everyone had been wanting to have.

Above and beyond what we could ask or imagine? Yes.

It was so incredibly humbling to be up there and talking about my faith like that. It was exciting and joyous too. This is my heart's love and it is very hard to find when the right time to talk about such things freely is. In a place like this, all is allowed to be discussed. There are not the constraints of the authority figures in the classroom to prevent this, even subconscious fear of saying something wrong or offensive. We didn't even get to touch on why such a fear exists for all of us! But I have also been reminded in the reflection process, as if with a fading but potent echo, of something that Steve Lutz reminded us of as we sat around a table beside the tea counter in Redifer commons: are we out to have conversations? Or are these conversations out to preach the gospel and present Christ to the world? Do we want to have exchanges or do we want them to awaken to the truth that is the salvation of the world? No, we are out there talking and engaging because we are convinced with every ounce of our being that God has opened our eyes and made us new and that He has made the world good and that we need saving. I want that. It comes over pretzels and around panels and in the back corners of coffee houses and over dinners and late nights of Apples to Apples and movie discussions and homework and this shared life we have. We have been told: "Preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words." There is merit to that but not full truth. We must use our mouths. We must speak. We must listen and know those that we are being taught how to love. I have to learn how to do this in a more winsome and effective way, not letting my own ignorance and foolishness get in the way of Christ being seen. But words will be used.

I'm really looking forward to having these threads start spreading out and seeing where they lead. I'm excited for more folks to show up at Websters on a Thursday night to have more conversations and hear the truth even as I hear their thoughts. I'm looking forward to more panels and official events and seeing how God keeps moving in this wacky, wonderful world of Penn State.

PS. If you want to hear another take on this, Steve Lutz posted about it on his blog. He is discussing some of these changing ministry norms and talks about the panel in the last paragraph.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Philadelphia Walk

Written Yesterday Evening

I just returned from my walk with Lindsey. We wandered for three hours over the city, packing a dinner and getting tea at Coffee Bean on the same street as Independence Hall. I saw the liberty bell and toasted it with my peppermint tea. The day tasted like melting snow, wet earth, the rivers on either side of the city, trees brushing the air still-ly, and peppermint. We brought girl scout thin mints with us and ate them by the river, near the Irish statue, in the last bit of golden sun before it truly turned into sunset. There were lots of couples walking today, lots of runnings, a group doing a faux band photo shoot with a friend, dogs, and one couple playing loud music and slowly making out while sitting on a short cement barrier. Very awkward. The loveliest, most charming, walk came through the old parts of the city. All the red brick homes, the cobble stone streets, and the trees that lean across the roads to link fingers. There are old churches and opened iron gates to let us into graveyards and old history. There are small paths between buildings, one way paths between the rows of houses that are quaint and clearly loved. There was a park full of children and their parents, just a small jungle gym with some trees and benches in the middle of the houses. No cars seemed to exist back in there. The kids were running and screaming in their brightly colored coats, hats, and stockings. Even the winter coats seemed to hint at spring. I was nearly run over by a young lad in a blue sweater and flying hair, racing a pink baby doll stroller along the cobble stones.

The buildings in Philly are short enough for the sun to fall between and find its way along the streets. It is good for the soul on these days to see such sun and walk in it.

Breaking for Spring

This year looks a tad different from past years. Instead of heading off  (usually south) for Navigators Spring Break, the right pieces fell into place for me to attend an arts conference in New York City. And so I went. Last Thursday, I abandoned the last two days of classes before break, rode a shady white van to New York, and made my way around the city for the IAM Encounter Conference. Now, I am hanging out in the lovely city of Philadelphia with Lindsey Smyth (and company), seeing a CCO metro Philly area director at work and loving every minute of it. I wish I could explain more of how exciting, challenging, and restful these days have been. I'm more and more sure that I am not a city girl, but it takes spending time in the city (and even loving that time) to see such a thing. I'll be glad when I take the train to Harrisburg and then to Hershey and our house on a hill where the night times are so quiet that they hang heavy outside our windows, almost louder than any city noise. (Though I would say that cities are not half as loud at night as State College on a weekend. Epic Fail SC, epic fail).

To come: my list of "encounters", Makoto Fujimura and a meditation on Love and Art, my Philadelphia afternoon walk, poetry and craft, Cities and Dana Ray, and more.