Because Kansas

Touching down on the sizzling tarmac in Wichita, Kansas two weeks ago felt like coming home. While I was a little apprehensive for the upcoming two weeks of intense choir tour with Oasis Chorale, I was excited to be returning to Hutchinson, KS, home of my young college adventures (some of which you can read about on very old posts here.)


For the past seven years, I’ve spent time every summer singing with the Oasis Chorale, a 40-member Anabaptist a capella choir. This year’s tour started and stopped in Hutchinson, KS, the same town that’s home to Hutchinson Community College, from which I earned my Associate of Arts degree before transferring to The Ohio State University. Moving half-way across the country as a 20-year-old to attend a community college is among one of the weirder decisions I’ve ever made, but it also stands as one of the best decisions, for the Mennonite community there is one of my absolute favorites, and it was my pleasure to call Hutch home for two years.


Driving from Wichita to Hutch and passing miles of razor flat, wide-open green fields, the sun burning through the pale blue sky and humid, windy air, I giggled in glee, “You can see for miles! You can see the horizon! I can finally breathe deeply again!”

While most easterners and Mid-westerners have driven through Kansas, few of them have come to love the plains, and find beauty in them, like I do. I don’t have much of a chance; I was born in Plain City, Ohio, named so for its extremely flat geography. And I do. I love the plains. There’s something about the sunsets, the miles of fields, and (in Kansas) the unrelenting wind, that I find deeply comforting.

Waves of memories came pouring over me as we sailed down highway 96, past the “honking tree,” and past Yoder, KS, the tiny town where I worked during college. We turned on highway 50, heading toward Pleasantview, following the familiar railroad tracks, and I had a flashback to driving home late one night in tornado-like conditions, all alone on the open road, save for a railroad engineer and the piercing headlight of his long black train.

I hopped out of the van into the warm, windy air and breathed deeply again, an impossibly large smile on my face.


The next few days became a blur of Oasis Chorale ritual—warm-ups, arpeggios, vocal fry (“Less pitch! Less pitch!”), finding space, unifying vowel, working pieces start-and-stop mode, and recording an entire hymns album (apart from our choral rep for tour), all the while darting in and out of Hutchinson, with its wide western street grids and period homes. I even managed to drag my choir buddies to Metro, the coffee shop I visited every week during my first two years of college.


Reconnecting with Kansans, I was pleasantly reminded why I love them so much. You know how in every Mennonite Sunday school class there’s at least one lady who is refreshingly honest, unforgivingly practical, sharp as a tack, and very forthright, with absolutely no qualms about calling a spade a spade? Multiply that lady by ten, and that’s basically Kansas. (Readers of Shasta’s Fog will know how I can appreciate those qualities and find them more useful than the guarded, calculated East.)

How fantastic to share with them in song at our first Hutchinson concert, for which, miracle of all miracles, I had my breath under me. (For all our rehearsal days, I just could not make my breath work, but right before concert, my breath returned, and I enjoyed the full concert with, well, another smile on my face.)

Recording over, we began tour with a workshop with Dr. Bartel, a professor at Friends University, and the president of the Kansas Choral Directors Association. Great feedback, including small things like how to sing the word “the.” We were throwing it away, not giving it (and other words) “is-ness.” Such a small detail, but choral musicians know that these tiny significances matter.

Another tour highlight was our choir’s pre-concert chat in Illinois with Westminster student Douglas Byler, composer of this year’s new commission “The Spirit of the Lord.”

pc: Jason Martin

And our second IL concert featured these special guests, my baby nieces!

Meeting baby Holly for the first time.

We spent our day off in St. Louis, and furiously googling free things to do, I found that St. Louis is home to the Cathedral Basilica, the largest mosaic-ceiled building in the world. It was stunning.


A small group of us began our adventures at Kaldi’s, a glass-walled coffee shop nestled beneath Citygarden’s trees, and we enjoyed gluten-free dining.


Next, we maneuvered the city bus system for a 30-minute ride to the Basilica. It was then that I discovered St. Louis to be one of the friendliest cities I’ve visited. Our bus driver got out of his bus at the bus exchange to point us to the correct bus to the Basilica, and he let my friend ride for free when she only had a $20 and no change. He also added an extra hour to our bus passes. The Basilica’s tour guide offered tacky jokes and an amazing amount of history for the overwhelming mosaics.


Not a painting; a literal mosaic. (!)

Dinner was at Three Sixty, the restaurant atop the Hilton, where we had a (warm) view of the entire city and the famous St. Louis arch.



The next morning, our choir slipped inside the Old Courthouse, just a few blocks from our hotel, location of the famous Dred Scott trials, who sued the federal government for his freedom. Permitted by a security guard to perform a single choral piece beneath the famous dome, we sang Hawley’s “Not One Sparrow” in dedication to the historical significance of the courthouse.

pc: Wikipedia Commons

Not one sparrow is forgotten
Even the raven God will feed
And the lily of the valley
From His bounty hath its need
Then shall I not trust Thee, Father
In thy mercy have a share
And through faith and prayer, my Savior
Rest in thy protecting care?

Most of tour, however, is a rat race of hydrating properly, eating properly, guarding your rest like nobody’s business, focused personal rehearsal and memory work on the bus (outside of group rehearsal), and stealing as many gummy bears as possible from the basses. (Gummies = OC’s candy of choice. The urban legend? They’re good for your throat.)

Another immensely rewarding experience was performing a set of songs at the Kansas Choral Directors Association convention in Topeka, KS to a congregation of choir directors, musicians, and All-State high school choir kids. It’s one thing to share your gift with local church audiences; it’s another thing to perform for a room-full of musicians. (You can catch this performance over at OC’s facebook page.)

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The other side of Oasis Chorale is collaborating with local choirs, meeting hosts, making new friends, and net-working. Performing in the green-hued, hundred-year-old sanctuary of First Christian Church in Fulton, MO, I met a lovely elderly lady who reminisced about the congregation’s past:

“It’s changed so much. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s our church was so full, you couldn’t find a seat. There was a women’s college in town, and the girls were required to attend church. Wherever the girls went, the boys showed up! But it’s changed so much. It’s not near as full.”

At a local Hutch concert, I also reconnected with middlewestpenandpage after we had worked together in KS seven years ago!

One of the most inspiring moments of tour was meeting Dr. Jana Nisly, to whom was dedicated our commissioned piece, “The Spirit of the Lord.” Director of La Clinica de las Buenas Nuevas in rural El Salvador for 25 years, Dr. Nisly has held Luke 4:18-19 as her clinic’s motto, and this text was adapted by Douglas Byler for the new commission.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor,
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
To preach deliverance to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are bruised
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.


It was a pleasure to meet Dr. Nisly, to be regaled by doctor stories over a meal, and to hear the mission of her work: “The poor are disregarded in the medical field in El Salvador. To be able to touch them, to treat them, to listen to them… there is no greater joy.” And in her Kansan way, she added, “Now, there’s also nothing more tiring, and it’s too much for me!”


Slowly and quietly the circling gyre of tour floated to the ground, and we found ourselves at our last concert in Wichita, surrounded by friends, family, and the lovely folks at Eastminster Presbyterian. We performed our last concert as the western sun sparkled through the stained-glass windows. We swallowed our emotions, encouraged to perform “just another concert.” I had the most freedom of breath in that concert that I experienced all of tour.


The community of Oasis Chorale is something that amazes me. every. year. It’s a stunning moment to prep breath, vowel, and space, and to be backed by (but also to lead) thousands of vocal muscles that synchronize into a thunderous, unified downbeat of “All Hail.” I don’t take this richness for granted. Nor the spontaneous bus conversations about theology and vocation. Nor can I ignore how singing in choir is a metaphor for the way in which God wants to lead us into more perfect beauty. The experience of being led, and of following, of disciplined rehearsal, of vulnerability and trust within the community of choir mid-concert, and of flexibility to follow new gestures that can only come through the growth of being together… these are things which somehow mimic community led by the Spirit.


Besides this metaphor is the actual musical beauty of my extremely talented friends, whose music-making, in rare moments, makes me feel that dull, physical ache, that only true beauty can. For we know that we are not made for here. As C.S. Lewis says, “We do not merely want to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” It seems that every summer there is at least one memorable solitary moment in which I experience this ache for beauty, a beauty, it seems, that I cannot inhabit. Lewis goes on: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in the world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We singers regularly discuss the chasm there seems to be between our beautiful two weeks of music-making every summer and the “real world,” as it were, or our vocations, which are more closely touched with earth’s brokenness. It’s therefore a grace to perform, to worship, and to inhabit these texts every evening. Yet we would be remiss to make it all about art. Our director gently reminded us to take time daily to know who we are apart from the choir, apart from the music.

Our pitiful goodbyes being said, we flew home this week, but not before I had one amazing day-on-the-town in good ole’ Hutchinson. My friend Trish and I took a gander around campus, and warm memories washed over me as I walked through Lockman Hall, the campus building where I worked as English Department Scholar, discovered my love of literature, took the hardest exam of my college career (World Mythology), and met some of the finest and most caring English instructors. It’s summer, so professors were out, but I penciled in a note to a professor, met the new secretary, and walked all my favorite routes, including the short-cut across the tennis court.


My ramble across the empty campus was one of the most healing walks of my life. To remember dropping down into Kansas as a shy, scared Mennonite kid in order to maneuver what felt like the impossible unknown, and to look back now… I see that what was, at the time, one of the scariest decisions I had ever made, was one of the safest decisions. While at the time it seemed risky, I now know beyond the shadow of a doubt that enrolling in college in Kansas was unquestionably the best, and safest, decision for me. My experience with faculty and students at Hutchinson Community College and my interaction with the Mennonite community in Hutch unquestionably impacted the person I have become. Kansas was exactly where God wanted me.


My day in Hutch ended with one of my favorite iconically Kansan experiences… a night walk on Kansas dirt roads. My friend and I quietly crunched over sand and gravel, in the darkness, breathing deep breaths of sweet hay, and dust, til we reached Trails West, the only paved road for miles, and we lay down in the middle of the empty road, with our backs on the warm pavement, staring through the darkness at stars, the moon, and shooting stars and fireflies, and talking about all the secret things that girls talk about.

The next morning I rose early before my flight to make my last Kansas dream come true—a run down West Mills, my familiar running route, the dirt road where I became a runner. Trish and I ignored the distant thunder and lightning in the gray summer morning, as we jogged down the lane to the dirt road and headed west.

In one sense, Kansas, and its big sky, is a place where you can think more clearly. You feel closer to God because there’s nothing between the you, the prairie, and the open sky. It is at the same time safe, and terrifying. Lonely, yet inspiring.

With the rolling wind at my back and the miles-wide gray thunderclouds pregnant with lightning resting low above the shadow green fields, I picked my feet up faster, grinding them along the top of the dirt road. I ran on, in freedom, stopping only to spin and spin in absolute joy.

How to (Properly) Celebrate Easter

Since I posted about Lent two weeks ago, some of you have been asking how else we can commemorate Easter, the Christian celebration of the Resurrection. I mentioned that it is my personal agenda to increase all hype around the Easter holiday because it is excruciatingly under-celebrated in Christian circles, even though it happens to be our most important holiday! Here are a few ideas for thoughtful celebration.

1. Do a 40-day fast. (Lent, obviously.)
Tradition states that Lent is normally a time for prayer, repentance of sins, mortifying the flesh, and self-denial. Putting oneself in this state better prepares the believer to receive the Easter message with joy. (Note that Lent is actually 46 days long from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Therefore, if you choose to practice the Episcopalian way, you do not fast on the six Sundays because each Sunday is recognized as a celebration of the Resurrection.) I cannot recommend this practice enough. One learns so much about oneself. Regular, regimented discipline is simply life-giving. Denying yourself a simple pleasure or a selfish pursuit for 40 days is the basic idea.

2. If you can, read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church during the 40-day Lenten period.
It is quite possible that your life will change, but that is just a risk you’ll have to take. In the book, Wright doesn’t so much present new topics as he reminds us what we’ve always known according to the Bible, but have sometimes let contemporary society drown out. What happens, for example, after you die? There is a bodily resurrection, and Wright explains why this is so important and how that changes how we live here on Earth. Wright’s explanation of the meaning of the Resurrection (both to the early church and the pagan society at the time) is thorough and fascinating. He also explains its import for us today living on earth life. In some ways, it’s as if Wright notices that Christians seem to miss the LIVING ON EARTH part. Perhaps he is perplexed by separatist Christians jamming fingers in their ears, determined they’re “not listening” to the world, seeking only to “endure” this life until they get to the real one, heaven. Wright complicates this, determined to explore the mystery of “Why are we here?” and he does so by “rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church.” By the end of the book, one begins seriously examining the notion of God’s intention to redeem all creation back to Himself and, against all odds, His inviting us to join Him in that work. Certainly, it’s a book best read around Easter time.

3. Listen to Handel’s Messiah in its entirety.
(If you are lucky, see if you can perform it with a local choir!) I will never forget my freshman year of college in which I practiced the choral selections of Handel’s work all winter long before performing alongside classmates, a community choir, and Wichita soloists in a spring-time performance. Handel set music to entirely Scriptural texts, and his grasp of the Christian message is profound, demonstrated through his text-painting. My connection to this work means that every time I read John 1:29, Isaiah 53:4-5, Matthew 27:43, I Corinthians 15:21, 55, and Revelations 5:12, my Bible comes alive with orchestral strains.

4. Commemorate Palm Sunday.
If you’re like me, you’ll notice that not all churches make a big to-do of this one, but I think we can do better. As a child, our church had a children’s choir, and the director somehow managed to coax all of us to brightly sing, “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna to the son of David! Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna! This is Jesus!” Part of the performance which I especially enjoyed was that each child was given a real live palm branch to wave. (Growing up in Ohio, this was probably the closest I ever got to the Middle East.) I remembering handling my branch with great care as I waved it triumphantly in our little march down the center church aisle.

5. This may seem superficial, but decorate your house with touches of spring.
Put away that fuzzy winter-colored blanket and those dark red placements. Set out fresh flowers. Buy tulips, harvest forsythia, and note the new buds on the trees out front. Color hard-boiled eggs with the kids. Eat Peeps, chocolate bunnies, and those peanut butter eggs (unless you gave up sweets for Lent, that is!). These are obviously silly little seasonal things, but they remind us (especially the younger ones of us) that something special is happening, that time is passing, and that this time, as it were, has something to do with new life.

6. Attend a Good Friday service.
Better yet, organize and perform a Good Friday service for your church. In the moving around that I’ve done, I’ve been hard-pressed to find Anabaptist churches that hold these special Friday evening services. Yet as a child, the Good Friday service was an important part of my Easter experience. Many times our church included drama in the service, a simple acting out of narrated Scripture. No, it wasn’t Sight & Sound quality. We understood that Mr. Hoover wasn’t actually Jesus, and they actually weren’t nailing his hand into the cross (but those real-life carpenters dressed as soldiers sure made it look like it!) But as 10-year-olds, we were struck by the “beatings” Jesus received. We asked, “Did they really do that to Jesus?” We sang the hymns “Lead Me to Calvary,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and the spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” (but never the last verse on Good Friday!). I heard of one church that ends their Good Friday service with dimmed lights and a solemn tone, and church-goers leave quietly in order that they can contemplate the solemnity of the crucifixion.

7. If you’re the brave, curious type, attend a liturgical service.
Have you ever visited a Greek Orthodox church? Twice I’ve attended a Greek Orthodox church for Easter services, and let me tell you, it is a party! When I lived in Kansas, my friend’s brother dragged us along to this Greek Orthodox Easter service that began at 11:00 p.m. the eve of Easter. When we entered the St. George Cathedral, the lights were low, and the service began, with all the a cappella music in a minor key. Around midnight, we began an outdoor candlelit procession around the perimeter of the church, led by a priest. As we arrived back to the front of the church, the priest knocked on the large wooden doors, quoting from Psalm 24, “Lift up your heads, you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!” A voice from within quoted back, “Who is this King of glory?” The priest replied, “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle! Lift up your heads, you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!” The voice responded, “Who is he, this King of glory?” The priest: “The Lord Almighty—he is the King of glory!” We were now inside the church, early on Easter morning. The lights shone brightly, and ancient texts were now being sung in a major key. The service lasted for several more hours, after which we were ushered into a lively fellowship hall where Greek food, wine, and conviviality flowed freely. I fondly remember this experience, and I’ve attended other Orthodox services since then. (Or rather, I’ve tried to. There was that one year that my friends and I showed up the eve of Easter at 11:00 p.m. at St. Andrew Greek Orthodox in South Bend, IN, only to discover that the Orthodox church is on an entirely different calendar, and their Easter service wasn’t for another week!) This year, I will be attending Catholic services at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec!


8. Attend a sunrise service.
(Though, perhaps, not recommended the same year that you choose to stay up all night going to church and making Greek Orthodox friends. But it’s totally possible!) As a young girl, and even today, nothing is more exciting than waking up at the crack of dawn, carefully donning a new Easter dress, and creeping out at dark to silently watch the sun rise above the trees and quietly consider the meaning of the Resurrection. If your church does not offer a sunrise service, CREATE YOUR OWN. It is not that hard to find some friends, read some Scripture, and sing a few hymns. I remember one Kansas Easter tip-toeing in tiny dressy flats over frozen mud-clods in a barren field to a spread of blankets where sleepy Mennonite youth girls welcomed me with a steaming mug of chai as the sun wavered through low clouds. Scripture, songs, and cold sun.

9. Eat an Easter breakfast with friends.
Preferably at church, right after your sunrise service. It’s wonderful. In fact, Jesus and the disciples ate together on the beach after the Resurrection (see John 21).

10. Last but not least, wear new clothes.
I distinctly remember my grandma sending us new dresses every Easter. (Three of us sisters got the exact same one, mind you.) Nothing was more exciting than wearing that fresh new dress and donning white sandals for the first time of the season (even though it was always entirely too cold!) I don’t intend to recommend a materialistic embodiment of an inner celebration, but it does make sense that if we are ever to look our best, it should probably be on the most important Christian holiday, when we celebrate a physical, bodily resurrection of our Lord. And since it is the Resurrection that allows us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as it were, I think that there would be nothing wrong in polishing up those leather shoes, ironing a crisp cotton shirt, busting out those pastel florals, and receiving this holiday (that is, holy day) with pure joy.

Now let’s go celebrate!


I think everyone is surprised by spring. We would have not expected the sun to shine so brightly and so warm. But why are we astonished? Why is spring such a surprise? Do we not expect it, though it comes every year?

We go on and on about it. Spring has come. It always does. Why is it such a surprise?

With this fantastic weather, I’m realizing once again… that if there’s one thing I need, one thing I NEED… it is to be outside. I love being outside. Like my days when I worked at the greenhouse.

With this atmospheric upturn, I’ve finally gotten back to the trail to do a bit of running. And I’m blind-sided with memories of running in Kansas.

Living in Kansas brought many dynamics into my life, and one way that I liked to relax (or regroup, I should say) was to run.

I would come home from school, grab my shoes and my ipod, and run dirt-road miles. Weather in Kansas was somewhat ideal for running. Eighty degrees from March to October. Or at least it seemed like it. I remember running even in the winter… jogging around slushy mud-holes…

I think people think the Midwest is ugly. Especially Kansas. Recently, my uncle commented that one has to have an imagination to live in the north. Maybe I do have an imagination. But how can that be a bad thing?

Everyone knows that the sky is bigger and bluer in Kansas than anywhere else. And in Kansas, even in the winter, the fields are green like summer, the winter wheat laughing at the gray world that tries to choke out every bit of life. The winter wheat tells the story of spring when everything else has forgotten.

I was running the other day, listening to one of my running playlists, one that I listened to a lot in Kansas. I listened to it so much, that certain songs began to become associated with certain places in my run. Past the school… cresting the “hill” where the mile roads meet… the cows, and their unblinking eyes, between the evergreens… beyond the abandoned house… to the fields… where the green wheat shines brighter than the blue sky… and finally to Trails West…

I would stand in the middle of the black-topped road… and turn… turn… it seemed like there was no one for miles…

The sun beat down on me as I turned around, and I heard the gravel and dirt crunch under my tennis shoes…

Here are two poems I wrote my first year in Kansas one day after running. I didn’t realize the first one’s somewhat egotistical double-meaning at the end until later, but I kept it, because I feel like it is fresh and expresses my exact sentiments.


Sandy Dirt Roads

These land-locked narrow beaches…
For running on…
Damp clay, soggy mud,
Dusty, bumpy, sandy beaches—
by acid sweet stagnant waters
and milo fields with corn-smelling air…
Following their thin track, and wide,
that disappear once blade-raked after the rain,
And Green growing fences,
scrubby sages, and tan grasses
straw mud mounds, and brown fields
occasionally a little
yellow flower…
The western sunlight diffuses through wheat-colored grasses.
I am running for black-top.
I am the only person as far as I can see.
my very own Middle-Earth
to discover, and explore.


You empty land and giant sky, a western blue, and scrubby trees, and soggy muddy skidding sandy dirt roads, with fields of sunflowers, milo—that funny cone-shaped plant, and wheat (nothing is more beautiful than winter wheat fields—green while the world is sad) and all your fauna—those metropolitan prairie dogs, blinky screech owls, guineas, oh! those awful screeching ugly birds, and egrets. Little delicate white egrets that pasture by the cows (only sometimes idyllic) and the two horses, when, viewed with the flying egrets is much more idyllic… wonderful, beautiful, and, in my post-modern mind, like something from a movie. Kansas, you are frustrating. You are unpopulated, ugly, full of interesting people, and I can’t get you out of my mind.


Right now I am reading Pulitzer prize-winner Willa Cather’s 1913 novel, O Pioneers!, which is set in Nebraska. It’s a unique read, probably much more interesting to me because I’ve actually experienced life in the Midwest prairie-lands, and I feel like some of her observations are my own. It begins with this frontispiece, a poem that I adore:

“Prairie Spring,” by Willa Cather

Evening and the flat land,
Rich and sombre and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

Year in Pictures

Here are a few pics from 2011 taken with my (trusty) five-year-old Kodak. Enjoy!

2011: Casual Scenes–Some of the Best of the Midwest

Okay, so this was actually taken in 2010.Very common Kansas winter scene.

This pretty much describes the gray Kansas winter.

Bringing snow day parties like this one.

…ironically, they are reading “Pearls Before Swine.”

Spring always comes. Visiting Indiana. Blues skies… and then…

(chilly) spring break: Chicago!

“Birds and Buildings.” …lovely trip! A whirlwind adventure with a great friend.

Kansas wheat.

Another shot from 2010. (Cell phone shot.)

Who knew they keep Apollo 13 on the plains? 🙂 The Kansas Cosmosphere. The tan building on the right is my college’s science building.

Classical guitarist at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas during my trip to the Great Plains Honors Conference.

Lockman Hall, Hutchinson, Kansas.

Concert Chorale.

Cell phone shot #2.

Blue sky. Yellow train. Kansas.

Blue hats.

Perfect summer morning. Ohio landscape.

Garden fresh peonies.

Faith Builders College Student Summer Retreat.


In a storybook castle.

Franklin Park Conservatory, Columbus, Ohio. Wonderful reunion! Great friends… and an international guest! 🙂

Grand Reading Room, William Oxley Thompson Library, The Ohio State University.

I loved this colorful October shot. Ohio.

November wedding, the Prizery, South Boston, Virginia. (cell phone shot.)

Christmas Banquet 2011. With a new friend.

So where did 2011 take you?

Happy New Year!

A Working Trust

Two years ago I uprooted my clinging hands from central Ohio soil, packed my bags, loaded my car, hugged my family goodbye, and drove off down the road to a new life in Kansas.

Spreading my wings sounded like a good idea at the time. I became less certain as the mile markers flew past and as my tears dribbled down onto the steering wheel.

“Wait, so why are you going all the way to Kansas to go to a community college?” people would ask with a frown.

“Well,” I offered, “there are some really great people there. Great professors. Some of them are dedicated Christians even though the college is a secular. Also, I might even be able to work at the college in the English department for the professors.”

“What a great opportunity!” their faces would light up, “Go for it!” they would reply, as if it wasn’t even a question for me to do otherwise. “You’re young and single. You should do it.”

Their next question would inevitably be, “So do you have a lot of friends out there?”

“Well, actually…” I would explain, “I don’t know a soul.”

“You mean you don’t know anyone at all?” they would ask me incredulously.

“No, not really, except some family friends of ours who I will be living with,” I replied.

They would stare at me.

“You are a lot braver than me.”

I would smile bravely (and proudly). (Proud that I had convinced yet another person that I wasn’t in fact  shaking (in my boots) like a helpless rodent in a determined canine’s mouth. )

For the most part, I wasn’t worried. While I had initial concerns about college course work, in the back of my mind, I knew the academics would probably come as easily as it had in high school. Academics would be a success: just a lot of hard work. Friends? I figured it would work out. There were several churches in the area and youth groups that I could participate in.

Money was another story. After high school, I worked full time for two years. I saved my money, sure, but I traveled as well, and somewhere in there I went to a Bible Institute. So when I finally decided that I wanted to go to college, I was at a loss for how to pay for it. In fact, my financial situation almost kept me from going to school. Since college debt was at the fore front of my mind, I chose to begin at an affordable community college. Admittedly, out-of-state tuition in Kansas cost a little more than in-state tuition in Ohio, but there were several opportunities at the community college in Kansas that I couldn’t pass up, including getting personal advice from some alumni friends, being able to participate in choir, and procuring the English Department job. While this seemed like a good choice financially, along with the out-of-state tuition, I would also need to pay for room and board. And buy my own groceries. All of these responsibilities seemed a little daunting. I worried. A lot.

“What if my car breaks down? Where will I get it fixed? Where will I buy groceries? How will I organize my time so I have time for buying groceries? Will I eat healthy food on my own? What kind of people are in Kansas? Will I make any great friends? Ew, what if there are boys? What about my family? Will I get homesick? What about school? What if I fail? What will it be like at school socially? I’ve gone to a Christian school my whole life. How will I survive out in ‘the real world’? Will I make any friends at college? How will I pay for everything? I’ve heard college textbooks are extremely expensive. How will it all come out in the wash? I have to buy a laptop, too, before I go. Where am I going to get all this money? What happens when it snows and my car goes in the ditch? WHO WILL PULL IT OUT?!”

My friend Camille, always the voice of reason, looked at me and frowned.

“UHH, Esther!! People don’t decide not to go to college because they don’t know anyone who will pull their car out of the ditch. You just don’t make decisions that way. But in answer to your question: a kind little Mennonite man.”

Nevertheless, I did decide. I did go to college. And I lived on my own. (Kind of.) And actually, grocery shopping became one of my favorite bi-weekly activities.

I moved to school a week before classes began. I had many things on my to-do list. 1. Move in. 2. Stop crying. 3. Write mom a letter telling her I got here okay. 4. Look brave. 5. Buy an iron. 6. Get a library card. 7. GO GROCERY SHOPPING. 8. Go job hunting. 9. Climb Mount Everest.

My sister had driven out to Kansas with me. I don’t know how I would have otherwise made that fourteen hour road trip. Rachel was to fly out the next day, however, so I drove her to the airport the next morning. At the airport, we hugged goodbye, and I tried to make it very light and cheery, and we acted like it wasn’t a big deal at all.

Before I left the airport (to drive back to the great unknown), I committed the first of a kind of action that is well-known to independent travelers. These actions are derived from a sort of survivor impulsiveness. It is an action that is driven by curiosity, but once it is committed, it seems almost premeditated in its brilliance. It is definitely an “Oh yeah, I meant to do that” moment.  What I did was, as I was leaving the airport, I wandered past an information booth, stopped, backed up, and proceeded to grab a stack of all kinds of free Kansas maps. I returned to my car and calmly unfolded the first one to try and figure out how to get back to Hutchinson. Once I had figured out my route, I did the second unpremeditated act: I deviated from my route (while on the freeway) and recalculated from what I remembered of the map and changed my route to include… Walmart. Yes. Survivor indeed. (Actually, I just needed to buy an iron.)

Next on the agenda was to find a job. While I had told many people that I would be working as the English Department Scholar, that opportunity would not actually begin until the second semester of my first year. So at the outset, I needed some other sort of job to pay the bills. My friend Maria recommended that I become a waitress; there were several family-friendly restaurants in the area that would be looking for good, honest help. She also recommended a babysitting job. There were also a couple of gift shops in the nearby thriving metropolis of Yoder (population 200) that might be options. For me, the idea of becoming a server seemed appealing. I knew I could make a lot of money that way. But I knew it would be stressful because I would have to learn a complete new set of skills.

You see, I had worked at a gift shop in Ohio before coming to Kansas. Now I know gift shops have a certain stigma attached to them, but my gift shop was a little more than calendars and lace. It was not Cracker Barrel. In actuality, we were an 8000 square foot retail store. We sold Vera Bradley handbags and Donna Sharp. We had Heritage Lace and Thomas Kinkade. We had furniture and (one) Amish-made quilt. We had cards and gifts and textiles and toys and music and florals and candles and a boutique section and solar-powered light-up key chains. We also had a designer who presented us like the design-conscious home interiors store that we were. It was… a gift shop of gift shops. It was a “gift shop” because of its location within a restaurant complex, but it was actually a retail store. So then, retail was my background.

Anyway, I recognized that serving might be a better option financially even though it would just one more “new” thing for me to conquer. I figured a new college, a new church, new friends, and a new town would be enough. But I left it up to God. I figured He would show me what job I was supposed to get.

I was cruising down the highway at 75 miles an hour. The blazing Kansas sun beat down from a big blue sky. It was a hot 100 degrees. I cranked up the tunes and pushed down on the accelerator. I was perfectly happy driving an hour home, content to survey the wide open fields. Well. It wasn’t home yet. But it would become that (though I couldn’t have known it at the time).

As I drove along, I saw a sign for Yoder. I knew that was where one of the restaurants was, and it was also the location of another store that my friend had worked at while she was going to college. I committed my third act of curious impulsiveness for the day: I stopped in Yoder to pick up a job application. Mind you, I had just been planning to take my sister to the airport. My first day in Kansas, and I’m coming home with free Kansas maps, an iron and ironing board in my trunk, and job opportunities. And it was barely 10:00. I got off the exit and drove to the restaurant.

I entered the “Amishy” restaurant, reminiscent of the one back home. I wandered into the gift shop. I smirked. It didn’t hold a candle to OUR gift shop. It was tiny. They had T-shirts with birdhouses on them, some quilts, and a few calendars. Presentation was poor, and the lighting was dim. To put it simply, there was nothing hip at all. No chandeliers that looked like the ones at Restoration Hardware. No boutique section with leather handbags and pricey jackets. It just didn’t compare.

I walked back to the restaurant and talked with the people at the front desk and received an application. I would be back in a few days to drop it off (and possibly get an interview).

I left the restaurant, still excited that I had found it myself. And now that my job hunting work was begun, I would begin exploring.

This is a view of Yoder in 1915. The view hasn’t changed much since then. Main Street, is paved, now, but dust blows down it the likes that you ain’t never seen, so much that you might think you done walked onto the set of an Old West movie, yes sirree! Complete with board walks!

I stopped in Kansas Station (a bulk foods store) and another little grocery store on Main. I walked across the street to cute little store called the Mercantile Shoppe. I smiled at the name. I stepped inside (out of the heat) to a familiar gift shop ambience that made me feel at home. It was small, yes. But right inside the door they had Miche handbags! Those were just coming out with those when I left Ohio, and to see them in this little gift shop in this tiny West town surprised me. A young woman cheerfully greeted me at the door. I browsed the tiny gift shop, marveling at the amount of product that I recognized. There were Woodwick candles, Park designs, Donna Sharp handbags, and Carson plates. It was nicely arranged, too. A little cramped, but someone knew what they were doing with the presentation.  A middle-aged lady came around the corner.

“Hello! Are you finding everything okay?”

“Oh, I’m just looking around today,” I smiled.

I hesitated.

Should I talk to her?

It would be my first Kansas interaction.

“Actually, you have a really great shop,” I commented.

“Well, thank you!” the woman said, looking genuinely pleased.

“It actually reminds me quite a bit of the shop I used to work at back home. I just moved here from Ohio.”

“You did? Wow!” She exclaimed. “So, when did you get in?”

“Well… just yesterday,” I offered, “So I’m out today just sort of looking around… exploring.”

She looked at me and cocked her head.

“Are you looking for a job?”

I jolted.

“Yes?” I said sheepishly. “Why? Are you hiring?” I was incredulous.

“Well,” she started, “I am looking for some more help…”

I was floored. There I was. Not even in the state 24 hours and someone was offering me a job. Nevermind an economic downturn. Nevermind that I had been planning on having to learn an entirely new job. Nevermind that I was expecting to look for a job for several weeks.

She walked toward the register to get me an application.

“So what kind of hours are you looking for?” she asked.

“Well, you should know that I’m in college. I’m going to HCC. That’s why I moved.”

She stopped short.

“But I can work on Saturdays and holidays,” I offered.

“Well, I do need help on Saturdays. And maybe you could work in the afternoons if you ever get out of school early or something. Take the application. We’ll have an interview on Thursday, then?”

I was ecstatic. I nearly danced out of the store. Who needs waitress tips? I wanted the gift shop job. (Thank you, God, for my new job!) I still had the interview, of course. And I continued to pursue and interview at the restaurant. But the way that the gift shop opportunity was presented to me made it seem like the best choice, and I took it.

My gift shop interview went well. She hired me on the spot. We talked retail and design. It was a lot of fun. I talked about my Ohio store, and she was all excited. She thought that I would be able to introduce her to new products. She also asked if I ever do displays. While I had done a little bit of setting back home, I downplayed my skills to her because I didn’t have much experience and I didn’t want to disappoint her. That lasted until one Saturday when I got bored and started re-setting a hutch. She walked around the corner and stopped short.

“I’ll go get you more coffee,” she said, leaving me to my work.

And so began my lazy Saturday job in Yoder, Kansas.

This story represents God’s provision for me in one small way during my two years in Kansas. Finding a job that I liked was a major answer to prayer. It was so nice to continue doing the work that I used to do in Ohio. But the thing is, that job found me. That first day in Kansas, in that gift shop, meeting that woman, was what I think is referred to as, “a God moment.”

There was a second such moment during my first week in Kansas. It is a moment that I think I will always remember.

I drove to campus with a perky little to-do list. I had to buy my textbooks, get my student ID, and get my parking pass. I entered the Student Union and followed the signs to get my student ID. Heeding the advice of seasoned peers, I had dressed up so that my student ID picture wouldn’t look like death. The picture turned out well. And the photographer liked my outfit.

“I like your outfit,” the photographer said.

The couple behind me in line, looking on, commented,

“Nice teeth.”

I suddenly felt like an exhibit at a horse show.

Next I bought textbooks which was a long process involving long lines, impatient students, confusion, stressed out cashiers, and me, who finally got ticked off because I stood in line for an hour, and when it was finally my turn to check out, they wouldn’t let me use my financial aid to pay for my books. In the end, I went to the financial aid office, and a very nice lady immediately made my problem her problem, and she made some phone calls and had me sign some documents before sending me back to the bookstore to the front of the line to finish paying for my books. Ahhh victory.

Next I went to the Information desk to get my parking pass. After obtaining one, I pulled out my little green notebook with hummingbirds on it and crossed yet another thing off my to-do-list.  The receptionist noticed my little green notebook with hummingbird on it and tried not to smile. I suddenly became very self-conscious of my little green notebook with hummingbirds on it. Stupid to-do-list.

Before I left campus, I had another brilliant thought that became one of those impulsive unpremeditated actions. I decided that I should walk around campus to get my bearings and find all of my classrooms so I wouldn’t be lost on my first day of school.

After scouring Lockman Hall, I headed over to the Fine Arts building where I would be taking speech and also singing in choir. (Or course I was a puddle by the time I had walked all the way there. It was so hot that day.) I walked in the west entrance. I remembered that the music director’s office was right inside the door. I glanced toward the open door and noticed him sitting at his desk. I walked past, but I remembered my friends had recommended that I talk to him as soon as possible about getting a book scholarship. My friends (the ones I was living with) had sung under this illusive director before and knew that it was possible to get a $100 book scholarship for singing in choir. This scholarship would be added to whatever financial aid I had and would pay for my books; I, in turn, would return the books to the college as “used” at the end of the semester. Every little bit helps (in regards to money), so in that split-second after walking in the door, I turned around and knocked on the side of the door.

“Come in!” he called.

“Hello!” I said, “My name is Esther, and I don’t know if you remember me or not, but I visited last spring… I just moved here from—”

“Oh yes! Iowa? Indiana? Yes!” he exclaimed softly.

“Uh, Ohio,” I corrected.

“Yes, and your last name?” he prompted, as he picked up a clipboard with a list of names on it and began scanning it.

“Swartzentruber,” I replied.

“And what can I do for you today, Miss Swartzentruber?” he asked quickly, looking up from the clipboard.

“Well, I was wondering about a book scholarship? I heard you can get one for singing in choir.”

He began shuffling papers.

“Yes… yes… you can. You’re probably a little worried about money, aren’t you? Moving all the way from home. Now, are you living in the dorms or off campus?” he asked.

“I’m living off campus.”

He picked up a sheet of paper.

“Yes, Esther, we can get you fixed up right away. I’m just going to make a phone call, if you can give me one second.” He proceeded to call the endowment office. The lady at the other end wanted to make sure I had filled out a scholarship application. I was sure I had, but she checked my grades anyway. Once I was cleared, he named my amount to the lady.

“Yes, I have a student here, Esther Swartzentruber, and we’re looking at some financial aid today. Yes, go ahead and put her down for one thousand dollars,” he said with a hint of a smile.

I blinked. Had I heard him right? One thousand dollars?

For me?

Now, understandably, that amount may seem small to anyone going to a private school. But for me, that was about a third of my tuition. Paid. Like that. With a phone call. I wasn’t really understanding what was going on. I don’t think I really believed it until I reviewed my financial aid later in my online account. The music director had, in fact, handed me a $1000 scholarship on top of handing me a book scholarship to pay for all my books for the coming year. I was weak.

He finished up on the phone, and while he did so, I picked up a copy of music from stacks he had sitting on his desk. Trying to look important, I browsed the song. It was a setting of “Ubi Caritas.” Now, I don’t sight-read music really well, but I could tell it wasn’t the version I was familiar with.

He hung up the phone.

“Well, I think you’re all set then!” he announced. I awkwardly thanked him and set the piece of music back on his desk.

“That’s a beautiful piece,” I said, “But it seems to be a different version than the one I’m familiar with.”

“Ah, yes,” he said as he began to dump like a master, “There are over 700 different musical settings to the text ‘Ubi Caritas.’”

I stood amazed at his knowledge.

“Well, we’ll see you Monday,” he dismissed, “Unless we’re all baked like sausages on the sidewalk til then.” His sarcasm was becoming apparent.

I left his office… richer. $1000 richer. I didn’t even notice the melting process that occurred on the long walk back to my car. I was so excited. Another exciting provision. From God. I felt… secure. It felt… so miraculous. It felt like a little nudge from God. It was like a little bump from the nest: “Go on out there! Go. I’m here. I’m sending you out. This is where I want you. I love you, and you are mine.” I immediately called my mom to share with her the good news.

This was the second “God moment” from my first week in Kansas. Both of those incidences served as great confidence boosters. They seemed like confirmation that Kansas was where God wanted me to be. I feel like I hung on to these experiences as living proof that I was supposed to be there. And I would need that confirmation because the hard times surely came.

My time in Kansas came and went. I wasn’t sure by the end if I actually was supposed to be there. It was hard. It was gruesome. But it was doable. And I made it. We made it. God and I made it together.

But now that I’m looking to start a new school, it seems as if I am dealing with the same things all over again.

“This campus is so huge! How will I ever find my way around? I went to small schools all my life! What will it be like at one of the biggest universities in the U.S.? Will I make any friends? Will I have nice Christian friends? How will I pay for school? I always had a book scholarship before! I’ve heard college textbooks are extremely expensive. I also have to pay for gas. Where will I get this money? How will I even cover tuition? How do federal loans work? What kind of non-federal loans are available? How will I be able to wing this financially? Do I even have any business being in school right now? What about commuting to the downtown area? What happens in the winter when it snows and my car gets stuck in the ditch? WHO WILL PULL IT OUT?!”

Oh yeah, that’s right. A kind little Mennonite man.

As I continue on toward Ohio State, I’m praying that God would supply my needs. My needs, not necessarily my wants. So I’m trusting in Him.

The previous stories were from two years ago, right when I began a particularly new chapter in life. I find myself in that place once again, returning home, but coming back to a community different than when I left it, and going to a new school all over again.

Is it any surprise that God had another “moment” waiting for me? I have been putting off Ohio State to-do list for some time now. I need to buy a parking permit. I need to figure out my financial aid. I need to go to a bank and take out a loan. I need to buy my books. I need to have some kind of special counseling for my federal loan.

This all seems a bit daunting, especially after an especially taxing “orientation day” this summer when I went down to campus, got lost and depressed and ended up not even going to my last appointment because I had had too much city, too much heat, and too much information for one day.

Fast forward to me randomly checking my OSU account late at night last week to look at my financial aid information. It was then that I found… the Lampton scholarship. Completely unannounced. No email notification. Completely hidden. Until I clicked on my financial award package, and there it was. Along with some other numbers that were much higher than previously reported.

It was a complete answer to prayer. It was God being faithful. Once again, he bothered to come alongside me and say, “Go. Go on out there! I’m sending you. I love you, and you are mine.”

(Of course, it’s not as if I have a full-ride scholarship. It’s not even a prestigious academic scholarship. It’s need-based. And I still have to work. And I still have to work hard in school. I will still have debt when I graduate.) But God has put money right here and right now for me. And I’m awestruck. I’m flabbergasted. I’m surprised. I’m happy. I’m thankful. I’m overwhelmed. I’m… awed.

This is a little reminder, then, of some of the physical things God has done for me.

But be reminded of the things God has done for you. We must never forget. We must never forget what God has done for us. What God has given us.

Jehovah Jireh, My Provider… His GRACE is sufficient for me.

He also owns the cattle on a thousand hills.

Kansas Corn Fields


*Includes Eight General Impressions in One Tell-All Feature that’s Long enough to be Rude


…which apparently, there are none. This was my one of many faux pas. I, not being a native to Kansas, addressed the student giving me a campus tour:

“So, yeah, there are just a lot of corn fields around here, I guess?”

“Wheat. We grow wheat here.”

I mentally kicked myself. Seriously, Esther, how could you mix up the two? Ohio grows corn. Not Kansas. Kansas grows wheat. The bread-basket and all that.

I should have remembered.

Not that I’m a farmer or anything. (Though everyone at my college assumed I was. In all my biology classes, the instructors would ask,

“Now, who’s involved in agriculture?” and then they would have everyone raise their hands in order to ask them questions about how much cattle a certain amount of land would support. I think my instructors kind of expected me to raise my hand and talk about living on a farm. But I didn’t and I don’t. My dad isn’t a farmer. He builds caskets. Sorry.)

There were, though, several “agricultural” experiences that I happened upon in Kansas.

The first “farm-y” thing I noticed was this odd crop I would see in the fields. It was yellow, orange, and red, and it was a little taller than beans. It had a funny cone shape, and I had never seen anything like it before in my life. I found out that it was “milo,” and they feed it to animals.

Another field phenomenon was sunflowers. I always knew that Kansas was famous for them. I never knew why. Apparently, they grow them. At least, I passed a field of them on my way to school every day in the fall. They weren’t yellow, (rather, brown and withered) but I imagined that they could be yellow, and it would be very beautiful.

Another farm experience was one of my first encounters with my (lovely, faithful) youth group. One Sunday evening we went to someone’s house for games. It was my first Kansas social encounter. It was a carry-in. Nobody told me. There was so much food. And I had already eaten supper. I had no idea there would be food. And we, like, sat down at a table. For a full meal. Burgers. And sandwiches. And potato salad. And green salads. And desserts. The table was fully-laden with several different kinds of the same dish! It was incredible. I was a bit astonished. I was not expecting all this food just for a game night. But it was great! Sunday nights would become my favorite night of the week. Day, actually.

That night after playing games, we took a walk on the dirt road. (Dirt roads. Another aspect of Kansas. I guess Ohio has them, too. Just not near where I live. Perhaps we’re a bit too metro-country, ha ha.) The whole group. Walking. Well, it wasn’t exactly the whole youth group. Most of them were in Mexico for a mission trip. The “leftovers,” however, were walking under a starry, breezy Kansas sky. We walked down to the neighbors and weighed ourselves (the group) on the giant farm scales. I smiled smugly to myself. Oh, so this is what they do for fun, I thought. At that time, I certainly still clung to my “country” stereotypes. J I did not know that I would come to love my Kansans!

In thinking about stereotypes, I certainly had some about Kansas. I remember one of my first descriptions of Kansans to my friends upon returning home to Ohio: “Everyone there listens to country music, lives on a farm, and drives a big truck, and basically, they’re all Republican rednecks.”

Kansans will forgive me, because, obviously, a stereotype is just that. A mask, which we must remove. We must see the individual. (At least, that’s what I learned by reading The Invisible Man and a hundred other whiny academic narratives.)

Rednecks? What was I supposed to think when, on the first day of second year, three cowBOYS showed up at school wearing daisy dukes. I think, that, they didn’t think that one through. I’m sure that it was funny very late at night when one of them thought, “Hey! We should totally wear teeny-tiny daisy duke shorts to the first day of classes! Ha ha! Wouldn’t that be SO funny! Ha Ha!” But, I’m pretty sure that, even they lost a little of the humor as the day wore on. And most assuredly, ALL of the spectators certainly did.

This little post is supposed to be about impressions of Kansas, not necessarily stereotypes, so I will continue with… impressions.


Everyone has houseplants. A lot of them. Is it because of the lack of trees (outside)? It seemed like every home I visited had an indoor tree or houseplants… like aloes and cacti… or even flowers (like impatiens)… My hostess even was trying to grow tomatoes in her living room. (Now, Maria does try some extravagant things. And, the tomatoes never quite worked.) But nearly everyone had an abundance of houseplants. Even my professor did in his office at school. He grew aloes by the dozen. He even gave me a little potted one to take home. (Which, by the way, I named “Ellen.”)


Another peculiarity is that in nearly every home I visited, I was served pickles. I’m not sure why I noticed this. Or why it even happened. Maybe it’s just an easy food to serve along with youth group-y type fair (like chips and dip, for example). Maybe it’s because it’s a food common in the Anabaptist heritage. You know, “Amish heritage” and all that. In any case, I ate a LOT of pickles! It was fine. I like the occasional pickle. There were just so many of them!


I have been WAITING to write this chapter! One of the delights of Kansas was its food.

I’ve never necessarily been such a foodie. Perhaps it is that I’ve never noticed food as much because my mother has always cooked. She has always prepared food. Right next to her is my sister who bakes. I, apparently, have been too busy working (away from home) or messing around or reading or something to help in the kitchen much. That is NOT to say that I don’t know how to clean it up. I have spent MANY hours in the kitchen cleaning up their dishes. But as to actually working with food, well… let’s see. We have an espresso maker, and I’m the only one who knows how to use it. I make scrambled eggs, but they still don’t taste like my moms. I have tried a recipe from my Spanish class at school. And I make herbed artichoke cheese tortellini. That’s it. So when I moved away from home, I began to notice food more. It was not my mother’s cooking. Repeat, not my mother’s cooking. I pretty much ate granola and bagels for breakfast. With nutella. Lots of nutella. And I packed cheap rabbit food lunches. (This was the plan. I wanted calories and fiber on the go. I did not want to take a lunch box to school, because seriously, have you seen how big my backpack already is? And I was really trying to budget my spending since I was doing the whole college thing. So I packed yogurt. But how to keep it cold? I froze it the night before. I would keep the frozen yogurt in a little compartment in my backpack and pack string cheese right beside it. Then I had some sort of fiber bar, and either nuts or a banana. All very portable. And fiber-y. But I really began to miss sandwiches from high school days.) For dinner, I was privileged to eat dinner with my “houseparents.” Since I was not the one cooking I rarely complained, and I ate very well and was very blessed to be cooked for nearly every evening. (Try not to hate me.)

But really, one can only eat string cheese before too long, and the cravings come. For chicken. For chicken and rice. And lunchmeat. And cheese. And tossed salad. And tomatoes!

So I started to notice “real” food. And I ate it with passion. It became my passion.

“Real” food also quickly became associated with my Sunday evening youth group meets. Food and fellowship go together, and always have, where the church is concerned. But, as I was not prepared for the food at the first game night, I was not prepared for the food at Sunday night singings.

At home, we have youth group Bible studies in homes, too, with a snack. But there are only so many “snack” variations. Usually there is a dip and a “to-be-dipped.” Chips and salsa. Veggies and dip. And something like cookies and ice cream.

Kansas was a different story.

Let me first describe to you my weekly youth group experience. Every Sunday night, they would have a “singing.” Not like “Amish,” or anything, but it could certainly be a left-over from that, as fifty years ago, their church would have been Amish. But the youth continue to get together on Sunday evenings and sing. Sing! Forty-plus kids. Piled into farmhouses, singing hymns. I loved it. I love singing, and I love hymns, and I love choral music. And they sang GOOD hymns! Not the old 1920’s repetitive camp meeting ones, but the real hymns, the “new song” hymns, the meaningful hymns that unite music and message in a beautiful way. They continually chose the better hymns and sang them over and over. (And they sing well, I might add… meaning they were musically inclined.) Between songs, kids shared. They commented on the morning sermon. They would share a verse or some insight from the Bible that tied in with the song they chose. We would pick out our favorite hymns. Some of us picked out only ONE hymn, and it was sung at nearly EVERY singing (lol Darryl). We sang spirituals. We sang kids songs. Once we got out choral music and sight-read. Sometimes we sang for old people at the nursing home. Other times we gathered around the campfire. Each evening was ended in prayer. We had prayer requests and special prayer groups. Such sweet fellowship with some of the most sincere young people I have ever met. I absolutely loved Sunday night singings.

And there was food.

Outstanding food! Amazing food! A lot of food. “Food” is such a humble word. It was supper. It was dinner. It was a fellowship meal.

We got everything. There was always lots.

And it was “soooo gooooood.”

I continue to be amazed at the feasts that families from church would prepare for the youth in their homes. For one thing, it was an actual dinner. No “dips” here. We had meals. Mexican meals. Grilled meat. Breakfast foods. Pizza, soups, sandwiches, salads, taco salad, haystacks… lasagna and breadsticks… the occasional carry-in (with every home-made snack food under the sun.) I was a little starry-eyed at all this cookery. I just couldn’t get over how there was a full meal every week! These people (in the evenings) were preparing full Sunday dinners for forty kids! Everything was always home-made. Never taken for granted, and certainly always appreciated. Which I think drove some of them to go even farther. My one friend one night made cream puffs. Do you know how many cream puffs she made? Enough so that we wouldn’t run out. Can you imagine how many cream puffs it would take to feed over forty people who were meandering in and out of the kitchen? It was incredible.

I guess these meals written down don’t necessarily seem that special, but they were to me.

And these were just the main dishes. There was always a vegetable, starch, and bread (and probably pickles). Dessert was normally served later (completely delicious), with coffee and hot tea. As you can tell, I certainly admired every effort.

I was also very intimidated. I remember one of my first impressions of some of my Kansas friends. One girl’s mother had a birthday, and she and one of her friends organized a birthday party for her and invited not a few women, and they cooked them a whole meal, and there was chicken, and everything, and I mean, maybe even courses and things, and I was so surprised and aghast and impressed that I kept my little scrambled eggs secret to myself. I was terrified that at some point I would find myself in some Kansas kitchen and someone might ask me to actually, you know, “help.” So I clearly stayed away. Sipping coffee and thanking the host seemed the appropriate thing to do. (I mean, I’m the girl, who at sixteen years old, was babysitting and called home to ask my mother how to make macaroni and cheese. Mom said, “Well, can’t you read the box?” And I said, “Well yes, Mom, but… boil… water…. ?” That same day I managed to put a metal kettle in the microwave. One of the young girls pointed at the flames, “That’s a big fire!” … Sigh.)

My little group of Kansas friends are very industrious. And accomplished. I don’t know. Maybe everyone cooks like that. Maybe I’m the only one who can’t.

As time went on, though, my little secret came out. And some dear friends gave me some nice culinary-inspired grad gifts. One of my friends (she’s sixteen) designed herself and sewed me my very own apron. (Ugh. And that’s another thing. Sewing. Don’t even get me started.) It was beautiful. And she’s made other amazing things, too. Like a velvet elvish cape. And a cream tunic. It’s fantastic. Anyway, she and her sister also gave me recipe cards. Another dear friend gave me fun drink recipes and some syrups to try. (Yes, they all are so very helpful and encouraging.)

Oh. One of my *favorite food memories was one evening this spring when I was feeling particularly sad and vulnerable. I was babysitting, and my friend asked if she could stop by. She said she had made some soup and would bring me some dinner. “Aw, how nice!” I thought. I should have known. Again, I was not prepared. She came in with an entire tray… outfitted with a cloth napkin… There was meat… turkey, and soup, and a delicious salad, and a cinnamon roll. All freshly prepared. I was so touched. “Oh, the turkey?” she said, “Yeah, my brother shot that this morning. We put it up today, and I made the soup.”

You all now see now how fresh I mean. I couldn’t stop smiling. And she brought this for me! It was delicious. It was a labor of love.

There are other various food excursions that I remember with fondness, including certain Sunday afternoon dinners with some of the most exquisite home-cooking I have ever tasted (next to my Mom’s) and other things like verenika and cheese curds and ice cream at the Mennonite Relief Sale in Hutch.


Not to mention, everyone was really smart. And educated. And pretty happy about it. I mean, okay, at home when I tell people from my church that I’m an English major, they correct their grammar in front of me, or they’re like, “Wait, so do you, like, diagram sentences all day or what?” (Yeah… yeah… that’s exactly what I do in college.) No, but, like, in Kansas, I remember arguing with a youth group guy about the proper usage of adverbs.

Kansans are very well-read. They are stinking smart. As a whole. (Not wanting to be making stereotypes again.) They are very informational people and enjoy sharing their wealth of information with others (i.e. they love audiences). A lot of my friends’ parents have college degrees. I guess at home in my community in Ohio, it is not as much that way.

Basically, Kansans are educated and proud of it. I have found that they are “word” people and have a certain toleration for literature… and learning in general.

6. JEWEL: because Jewel wanted her very own chapter and because I told her she would probably get one.


I guess most of this has already seemed like a youth group chapter, but I have a few more comments about the Center Youth Group. Perhaps this post is more like a comparison of home communities than anything else. (Ha ha, by the way, does anyone notice how self-aware this post is? The post knows that it is a post! If I was sitting in a college literature class, I would get bonus points right now for noticing that. See, THAT is what I do all day in college.)

I would like to say that I was so impressed by the testimony of the youth group that I hung out with. Where I grew up, our youth group was for hanging out and having fun. Sadly, we rarely went deeper spiritually. And if anyone said anything about wanting to go a little bit deeper, boys with farmer tans would stare accusingly at you as if you were asking them to wear a tux to do chores or to become some sort of meditating monk. (No, you ninnies, but is it really necessary for 16-20 year olds to be playing Bible baseball? Get real!) There was a little bit of resentment about anything that did not resemble cowboy boots and green tractors, and oh please, never mention liking cities or the fact that you’ve traveled to Europe, Esther.

7b. [“Dumping Digression”]

Since I’ve hinted at a little cultural narrative, I’ll vaguely mention another. I have always said that Kansas guys dump on girls. (Yeah, okay, when I said this, all the guys started laughing because I guess “dump” means something else, but your western euphemisms can go back where they came from.) What I meant was, the guys from Kansas enjoy talking about things and explaining them in great detail and they love audiences, and (while their explanations can sometimes be extremely thoughtful, other times) they can be so needless that it is completely ridiculous. Really. We all knew that old trivia fact, and we *don’t care. Who needs a seven-minute explanation about the history of mail-order brides. We *don’t care. Certain guys would explain things in great detail as if we had never heard about them before, and I’m like, “What do you think I am, stupid?” But mostly everyone would sit patiently through their little narratives and make polite comments about the subject at hand. “Dumping” then refers to guys monopolizing group conversations with boring educational narratives. These narratives seemed to assume that their opinions or stories were very important (maybe even more so than a girl’s). Also, sometimes these guys were just downright feisty in proving their points in other conversations and arguments. This is also called “dumping.”

Now that I’ve always said this about Kansas guys, I would make a digression because the guys from my youth group were extremely chivalric, and I can think in one instance that it was especially the case: court-time at the youth retreat. Okay, I love basketball. As a young girl, I played with the boys at school. From fifth grade til eighth grade I played basketball nearly every recess. At summer camps I was the awkward child with the pony-tail who played basketball. In high school, we played it in girls P.E. Our school never had a girls’ team, though. It wasn’t until two years after I graduated that our school got a girls team. (No, I’m not bitter at all.) But I love basketball. And basically, no one else at home does. Some of my friends don’t play sports, and others of them don’t play basketball. I was always begging other girls to play basketball. But forGET trying to get any girls from our youth group to play. There was one time that I got a little game together at a church picnic one year and a pregnant mother from church played basketball with me.

Because I could rarely get a big group of girls to play, basketball normally became a guys’ game (as I got older)… which I resented (you can only imagine). So at youth functions, when basketball came up, it was usually a full-court guys’ game, and girls could watch (or knit). Maybe it was because there just weren’t enough girls who wanted to play. Maybe the small group of girls who DID want to play wasn’t numerous enough to justify splitting up that nice big court. In any case, I sat by, watching (steaming). Because, of course, “sensitive little me” always assumed that it was a gender battle of some kind. Once in high school, I particularly remember guys throwing basketballs at us girls to make us scared and run off the court so that they could have the court (instead of nicely asking us to move). I struggled greatly with that, as you can only imagine. (In other words, I did not remain silent but delivered a rather animated oratory of female martyrdom).

Imagine my surprise when I moved to Kansas, and I found an entire state that has never even heard of the sport of “football,” and girls play sports, and girls play basketball! Not only that, there are guys who let them play basketball! There are actually set times at youth functions where girls get half the court! And guys get half the court! And everything is equal! Suffrage for all! Hee hee hee! It made me soooo happy! The fall youth retreat was great for many reasons, but one of them especially were the HOURS spent in the gym playing volleyball, and the subsequent hours of basketball: girls basketball. It made me very happy. We stayed up playing basketball til 2:00 in the morning.

And I guess the point is that I can’t quite get over the fact that the guys let the girls play basketball because where I come from, that would never happen. So, even though they DO tend to dump on girls….

Beyond all of that, (because these are mostly surface impressions), I was shocked by the spirit of service and ministry with the youth at Center Church. Compared to other groups I know (especially my own) this youth group was superior. Sure we had fun. Sure we played basketball. Sure we were crazy. But the next afternoon at youth retreat, we went out witnessing. We talked to people on the street. We prayed for them. We told them about Christ. How REAL is that? (Some of the difference, I believe, was due to some incredible leadership and being peer-led.) I would like to to give praise to God for the work that is going on in that youth group as a whole. Those people were sincere, pure of heart, helpful, welcoming, and SO MUCH FUN. I love the body of Christ! As I was amazed by their cooking abilities, their abilities to wax long and lengthy, and their chivalry in court (wow, what an amazing pun!), I was amazed as my friends modeled Christ by discipling new Christians and each other, praying with each other and for others, and maintaining a Christian testimony. It put my own life to shame (so I felt at times).

I guess I met all kinds of people in Kansas, but the ones from my youth group probably had the biggest impression on me. (I mean, I certainly hung out with friends and acquaintances from college as well.)


Another impression (not necessarily from my youth group but more from my experience of meeting people in college) is how land-locked Kansas is. I seriously met some people who had never been OUT OF THE STATE OF KANSAS. In their entire lives. Now I know that I have been privileged to do quite a bit of traveling (even abroad), and I know that not everyone goes out of the country, but seriously…. never been out of Kansas? Where have you been are your life?!!! Okay, I guess the first reason one would go out of state would be to visit family. Apparently there are people whose entire families live in Kansas. My family, on the other hand, is all around the countryside and I have a ton of cousins everywhere, and basically, I grew up taking yearly trips south (to Virginia) or north (to Michigan). The second reason to travel out of state would be school trips. I mean, even in junior high, our tiny little Christian school took a week trip to an outdoor nature school in Pennsylvania. Extra-curricular can take you, too… with sports or music events. We traveled to A.C.E. Regional and International Conventions. I mean, our family has even done an “Out West” trip to the California coast and back. We’ve been in a bunch of states. And, then there’s weddings and funerals… And apart from family, school, and vacation… there’s just other countries! I mean, our little school took a Spanish trip to Costa Rica. My youth group went to Mexico. I went to, like, seven European countries on an amazing choir tour/adventure. I went to Canada to visit my friend and attend her wedding. There are simply other countries! And I met people who told me, “Yeah, I’ve never been out of Kansas before.” I honestly stared at them like they had a third nostril. Wow.