A Catholic and a Mennonite Walk into a Plane

I have flown domestically and internationally dozens of times, and I can think of only one meaningful conversation I have had with a seatmate. That is, until last week, when I had my second most interesting in-flight conversation.   

A 20-something young woman fell into the seat beside me on a budget airline on a flight to Florida. Her accessories seemed expensive, and she apologized as she climbed over me, balancing bags, a hot sandwich, Starbucks, and a loose pair of pale pink heels. “Sorry!” she gushed as she arm-wrestled her posh belongings under the seat in front of her, disappearing under her blonde hair. Before consuming her sandwich, she very noticeably crossed herself, and I admit that I was not expecting this religious expression based on her appearance. 

I pulled out a conspicuous book to read. (I was wading through George Marsden’s brand-new third edition history text, Fundamentalism in American Culture.) It’s a thick book, and the bold headings throughout make it very clear that one is reading about religion. 

Half-way through the flight, she couldn’t resist: “May I ask what you’re reading?”

Me: “It’s George Marsden’s Fundamentalism in American Culture. It’s his new third edition where not only does he highlight how evangelicalism has been shaped by fundamentalism in American history, but he brings it all the way up through the Trump administration and discusses fundamentalism in America even in the last decade.” 

I couldn’t read the look on her face when I mentioned Trump, so I chalked it up to her breeding that she did not comment further on that reference.

“I see it says Christian civilization there on the cover.” She pointed to the cover art. “Are you an evangelical?” 

“Oh, um, I suppose, kind of. I participate in a Mennonite church. Do you know what that is?” 

She nodded yes, and then smiled brightly: “I’m a Catholic missionary.” 

I couldn’t have been more surprised, nor less wrong in my judgment of her appearance as “wealthy, entitled, Gen-Z spring breaker.” 

“I serve as a missionary to students in [certain big city] at [unmentioned Ivy-league school]. So I’m in ministry to Greek students. You know fraternities and sororities?” She laughed. “I minister to students in these societies and come alongside them and do life with them and answer their questions and I invite them to mass, like they can go to daily mass with me if they want, and we do Bible studies, and normally, within that, I connect with just a few students who have the capacity for leadership, and really build them up, and then they are able to lead out in their own Bible studies. We really adopt the model that Jesus used. I mean, he interacted with hundreds of people, but really only 12 of them knew him well, and within that there were the three. So that’s the model my ministry follows. I just, it’s so wonderful, because I came from West Virginia University,” 

I butted in: “Cool, I graduated from Ohio State!” 

“Really?” she gushed. “I totally applied there! It was one of my top three schools! Anyway, I came from West Virginia University, which is an affluent party school. Like only 60% of people graduate. It has to do with wealth and partying and drugs, and, I don’t know, it’s great to be a part of a ministry at [unmentioned Ivy-league-school] that actively enters that world. I mean, I kind of know that world just from being at WVU. Greek life is a lot!” 

She talks about her experience in Catholicism at WVU, and her spiritual director who had a profound impact on her, and how she ascribes to traditional Catholicism. I ask her if she attended grad school, and she says that she is looking at Augustine Institute, as her ministry offers scholarship to students to attend there. She mentions that for now, her work is part of the re-evangelization efforts within Catholicism to its own youth. As she speaks, it becomes clear that she found Catholicism as an adult. I ask her what drew her to Catholicism. Her eyes widen, “Do you know ‘Theology of the Body’?” 

Me: “It sounds familiar?”  

“Basically, Pope John Paul II (that’s three popes ago) – like, his whole life work was about the body and human sexuality, and how it points us to God and how we learn about the divine through the body and human sexuality. (The people at the Theology of the Body institute are so wonderful! I learned so much about marriage, faithfulness, sexuality, to include masculinity and femininity…) Anyway, I found it so compelling, partly because I came from a broken family, lots of sleeping around, and we had none of that, and I found it so, so beautiful. That, and also the Eucharist and everything in John 6. Do you know John 6?” 

I mean, yes, I know John 6, but couldn’t quote it. She speaks about how strange it was, how strange in Jesus’ culture it would have been for him to tell his disciples to eat his body. 

“And I mean, you don’t really get this unless you read it in the Greek, but it has this idea of ‘gnaw on my flesh,’ this really active, thoughtful action. And then there is the incarnation. Do you all take communion?” 

“Yes, we do.” I smiled, thinking about our rare spring & fall communions compared to regular mass. “We take it twice a year.” 

“And is it substantial or symbolic?” 

“For us, it is symbolic.”

She nodded, smiling. 

“Anyway, tell me all about Mennonites! I know nothing about them. And where are you guys? Like in the U.S.?” 

“We’re all over. Name an American state, and I’ll tell you in what city there are Mennonites.” 

“And what are guys?” 

Grasping, I mumbled something about Menno Simons and Zwingli and the Reformation, and then I highlighted some key distinctives which separate Anabaptists from Catholics and possibly other groups, including believers’ baptism and a decentralized church governance which (supposedly) steps away from church hierarchy in favor of consensus-style leadership and more democratic ways of being. And of course, pacifism and nonviolence. 

“So what is your dogma? What are your creeds?” 

“Welp,” I said, “we have them, but I argue that your regular conservative Mennonite, that is, your regular lay person, would not know what they are or be able to quote them. There are confessions of faith, and deeply buried historical catechisms (like the Waldeck catechism), and there are creeds, but your average daily Mennonite is not familiar with them. I happen to have a keen interest in what will happen to the future of our movement if these elements are not resurrected. I am very interested in liturgy, and I believe that we are getting to the end of something, if our people do not get back to some of these things.”  

Later in the conversation, I told her that our pastors don’t go to seminary, and she thereby lost her mind. “How in the world does that even work?!” 

I smiled and perhaps my eyes twinkled for I have had the same question at times. I also added, “To our people, orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy.”

I mentioned that these dynamics are similar in our educational institutions. “I should explain to you the state of our schools.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. 

“It is common practice in our conservative Mennonite schools for teachers to begin teaching right out of high school. Most teachers do not go to college.”

Her mouth dropped open. 

I went on, “I mean, some schools are working to change this. For example, I taught at the only accredited conservative Mennonite school in the United States. I also helped to start the first A.P. program at a conservative Mennonite school in the United States.” 

“Yeahhhh!” she cheered. 

Later she asked about the difference between Amish and Mennonites and said how her grandmother knew a Mennonite man, and also about marriage practices with the Amish and if they really are allowed to sleep together before they get married. And I said that there are a whole heap of things that I don’t know about the Amish, and I couldn’t say. 

Of course she asked about the Bann and how that could even be Biblical, and I told her that excommunication, as it is practiced, probably comes from readings in Paul where it says to expel the immoral brother and treat him as you would an unbeliever (that is, of course, after Matthew 18 reconciliation had been attempted). 

(At that point in the conversation, I couldn’t remember if Paul actually says to “expel the immoral brother,” or if that was just the heading of that passage in my study Bible growing up.) 

“Well yeah, but how do you treat an unbeliever? Why would you treat him differently?” 

I said that I supposed it had to do with the passage about doing good especially unto the household of faith. (Or that that is how some would explain it.) 

“That’s like indicating you wouldn’t do good to an unbeliever. To me, that just does not make any sense, because Jesus’ whole ministry was one of invitation and hospitality!” 

“Ah,” I said, “but don’t you practice excommunication?”

“No!” she said. 

“But you have closed communion, don’t you?”

“What do you mean, ‘closed communion’?” 

Me: “Not everyone can take communion at any time. There are things which keep people from taking communion.” 

Her: “Well yes, but in that moment, you are still Catholic!!” 

She explained how communion is only for members of the Catholic church because of what is believed about the Eucharist. “We wouldn’t want to give you Jesus’ body and you not know what you are eating!!” 

Then she explained venial sins versus mortal sins. That is, if you sin by not picking up your trash and littering, you won’t go to hell for it. But a mortal sin is where you know something is wrong to do, like very very wrong, like murdering someone, and you choose to do it: “I am going to do this thing.” While you are in that state of unconfessed mortal sin, then no, you do not take communion. 

I mentioned that some Mennonite churches have closed communion and some have open communion (related to church membership), and that I grew up with open communion. 

A bit later she asked about attire and head coverings and dresses, and since she seemed comfortable throwing around Scripture, I mentioned where Mennonites draw their teaching: I Corinthians 11. 

“Oh yes,” she said, “I know. As a traditional Catholic, I cover my head, too, in church.” 

Now it was my turn to be surprised!

At one point, feet-washing came up. “Do you practice feet-washing?!” she asked excitedly. I assured her we did. 

“I have to show you this video!” she rummaged for her phone. “Do you know [unmentioned sports team that is regularly in the news because of dynamics of gender]? I actively work with that team. So, so many good things are happening. I can’t tell you everything, but I have to show you this video of ______________ getting their feet washed.” She played a video, showing high church ornamentation, and a priest kneeling and washing the feet of several people wearing skirts. 

In the conversation, it became clear that she comes to her work honestly. She would ask simple conversational questions, and then very quietly ask bold, direct questions, to which you felt compelled to respond. Like her very carefully asking, “How do you experience singleness?” 

Which I quickly turned around on her because I was dying to know how she sees singleness being viewed in the Catholic church, and whether she thinks singleness holds a higher position in Catholicism compared to evangelicalism, due to beliefs about vocations like being a nun or being a “consecrated virgin living in the world.” (If you don’t know what that is, Google it!) 

There isn’t time here to bat around her response, nor to discuss our next topic – what it is like to be a woman in a traditional community – but I can say that she listened very carefully, asked probing questions, and at the end said, “I want to be clear. When you use the word ‘traditional’ to talk about your experiences as a woman in your community, I mean something completely different when I use the word ‘traditional’ when speaking about being a ‘traditional Catholic.’ You must know that I am referring to theology and orthodoxy.” 

I smiled knowingly: “Oh, for SURE. I’m completely aware.” 

I was struck, though, by her nearly instant ability to discover similarities and differences in our use of terminology and to graciously and humbly recognize our different experiences of that word. 

I wondered, then, if that is how some of these memorable and meaningful connections are formed. And if that – as I asked in September’s blog – if that is one of the keys to connecting with those on the margins.

How I Came to Be Polish – and Other Stories

Four weeks ago I discovered a pretty incredible Polish ancestor. I was quite thrilled with my discovery, for I would be traveling to Poland in a matter of days.

It all started with my great-grandmother who lived to be 102. Here’s a picture of her reading me a book.

Circa 1991


I have clear memories of her, and I’m so delighted that she lived to be so old. (I plan on living just as long. Also, how fun is it to be able to say I met someone who was born in the 1800s?! 1893, to be exact.) I remember the way she conserved water when washing her hands by turning on the faucet to only the tiniest stream, and there are stories about her traveling via horse-drawn wagon from Iowa to Oklahoma.

What’s interesting about my great-grandmother is that her mother was adopted from the Ukraine. You must know that this is significant; my family has very solid Swiss and German roots, so a Ukrainian ancestor is a bit of an anomaly. My great-great grandmother’s name was Mary Ratzlaff, and I was always convinced that she had an interesting Russian heritage.

Russian? Ukrainian? Polish?

You see, I have always wanted to be Russian. Because of this, I exaggerate my Ratzlaff family history. Some of you also know my affinity for Tolstoy. Once I spent the weekend in New York City and bought tickets to see The Great Comet on Broadway, Dave Malloy’s musical adaptation of War and Peace. I was pleased as punch with my nosebleed seats to see Josh Groban performing as Pierre, but more so by an Asian family who asked me how much it meant for me to see the play since I was obviously Russian. Earlier that day, a Russian family on the street stopped my friends and asked me for directions, and please could I give them in Russian.

“Why are you asking me?!” I said.

The man replied: “You look like you speak Russian!”

My family tells the story this way: Mary Ratzlaff arrived to America as an immigrant whose parents had died. She was taken in by the Brennemans, a childless Mennonite couple in Oklahoma. She never learned to read or write, but perhaps she enjoyed looking at pictures in the Brenneman’s German family Bible. (My father is in possession of this Bible, and I will inherit it.) The Bible includes a letter, written in my great-grandmother’s hand, on her mother’s origins.

Papa and I have done a bit of digging to discover more of Mary’s past, and we connected a few dots in Ukraine, but the trail goes cold in Poland, right around the time Mary’s parents and grandparents were marrying very Jewish sounding names – Koehns and Schmidts. (!!)

Dad and I lost our minds – what if we are Jewish?!

Last year, I posted about this on Instagram, and my Belarusian friend Kristina (who is living in Poland) mentioned: “Yes, her name sounds a little bit Jewish!”

Me: “Okay, is it Jewish? My dad and I have always wondered!”

Kristina: “For me, it sounds very Jewish. Both name and surname.”

Dad and I were so intrigued. A year later, this December, I did the final uncovering. Using all the free tools at ancestry.com, geni.com, and wikitree.com, I discovered the following:

Slavic?

The earliest known Ratzlaff relative was a Swedish soldier, of Slavic origin named Heinrich, who lived from 1590-1631. (Actually, his first name is unknown, but genealogists have nicknamed him thus.) He may have been a Swedish soldier in the European Civil War (the 30 Years War in 1618-1648), or perhaps a contract soldier (mercenary) of Slavic origin fighting for the King of Sweden. He was born is what is now Szczecin, Poland, a major seaport near the German border and the Baltic Sea. (This city was found by West Slavs in the 700s).

Reportedly, this Ratzlaff ancestor was moved by sermons he heard in the Mennonite church and determined to join the church. He pulled his sword from its sheath and thrust it into a hedge post and broke it off at the hilt. Jacob Wedel (1754-1791), a Mennonite of Przechovka, Poland, who traced family names back to their origins in his Przechovka-Alexanderwohl church record, relates that due to the laws in Prussia of the time about converting to the Mennonite church, Heinrich could not immediately join the church. He had to leave for the Netherlands before returning to Prussia to join the congregation. Heinrich Ratzlaff married Caterina Alcke Vogt, and his only son is described by Wedel as “by our people’s standards, a very wealthy man.”

Wedels are not only 18th century Mennonite record keepers; their German counterparts started the Polish national chocolate brand: E. Wedel!

Kenneth Ratzlaff, in his 1998 A Mennonite Family’s History, raises some interesting questions regarding the possible Slavic origins of the Ratzlaff name: “Where did this ‘Swedish’ Ratzlaff come from with his Slavic-sounding name? Several sources have pointed to Pomerania, a region of northern present-day Germany, on the Baltic Sea west of Danzig [Gdansk]. Pomerania at that time was under Swedish control, and Sweden had been at war with Poland and Russia. Consequently a soldier from that region might have had contacts around Przechowka, and someone from Pomerania could have been identified as Swedish. A similar name, Retzlaff, is common in the area around Stettin [Szczecin] in Pomerania. The name Retzlaff could have been changed to Ratzlaff to fit the Low German dialect of West Prussia. That leaves another question: Ratzlaff sounds Slavic; why would a Slavic name come from a Germanic area? Centuries earlier, Pomerania had been occupied by Slavs. Though Retzlaff is not a Serbian-sounding name, a possible origin in the present-day area of Serbia has been suggested. The Slavic identity had been lost, but the name Retzlaff was possibly a relic of that occupation.”

(Interestingly, wikitree.com indicates that “no known carriers of Heinrich’s DNA have taken a DNA test.” Presumedly doing so could prove these Slavic roots. Me: HOLD MY MENNO TEA. My DNA test just arrived in the mail today!)

For eight generations, the Ratzlaffs resided in what is now Poland. They participated in Mennonite congregations in Prussia throughout the 1600 and 1700s, and if we follow the line, it is Heinrich, Johann V Hans, Elder Berent, Berent, Hans, Heinrich, Andreas Heinrich, and Andreas, who moved to Ukraine. Andreas’s son Tobias, and Tobias’s daughter Mary Ratzlaff (my great-great-grandmother) were both born in Antonivka, Ukraine.

Indeed, to have discovered these possible Slavic origins only days before a short trip to Warsaw, Poland, was immensely gratifying. I imagined my trip to be a kind of home-going, a visiting of the motherland. I imagined 6-year-old Mary Ratzlaff boarding a ship for America, leaving behind the flat plains of Antonivka, never to return again. I imagined her on her deathbed, at 44 years old, learning of her great-great granddaughter whose entire occupation is teaching language and reading. I tried to imagine the Polish landscape, a land my ancestors once inhabited.

No words on any Jewish origins, though. Many female maiden names in the family line sound quite Mennonite (Dutch Mennonite, for that matter): Voth, Funk, Kornelson, Unruh, Dreier. (However, a DNA test should be able to identify Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, if there is any. I will know soon!) I was also shocked to discover that Mary Ratzlaff’s father Tobias did NOT die, leaving her an orphan. Rather, he dropped her off in Oklahoma, and went on to Kansas where he remarried a Helena Schmidt, and proceeded to have 13 children! Both Tobias and Helena are both buried in a Mennonite cemetery in Kansas. I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS. How could he leave his little daughter, and was he estranged from her? For my great-grandmother’s letter mentions nothing of her mother’s father remarrying or ever visiting Mary after she was taken in by the Brennemans. So fascinating.

Story #1: Warsaw holiday

Some of you who follow me on social media know that I planned a short trip to Poland over Christmas to visit two dear friends, Lizzie who is teaching English in Minsk Mazowiecki, and my Belarusian friend Kristina, who is living in Warsaw, who I met on Oasis Chorale tour in Ireland in 2014. (A crazy connection! We met after a concert in the Waterford cathedral, and we’ve stayed connected on Instagram ever since.) When I mentioned that I might be in Warsaw over Christmas, Kristina graciously invited me to visit her church and have a meal with her family.

I traveled with an old roommate of mine (you remember my scientist friend who accompanied me to the Mennonite History conference in Winnipeg) and her husband, and we had a magical time exploring the most festive bits of Old Town, for we arrived at 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

(Interestingly, Tobias and his little daughter Mary arrived to Philadelphia from Europe on Christmas day in 1874. One hundred forty-seven years later, I traveled from Philadelphia to Warsaw on Christmas Eve.)

Mary’s passage documents that I found on ancestry.com: “Maria Ratzlas, 6, female, child, Russian” aboard the S.S. Vaderland in December 1874. (Note the two little girls’ names after hers. Mary had several little sisters on the ship!)

Christmas day was spent with Lizzie and her friends, and Lizzie put me on a train back to Warsaw in the afternoon to meet my Belarusian friend Kristina, who I had not seen for seven years. I was so nervous about getting off at the correct stop, but I managed to find my way, and soon I was in the middle of a Belarusian house party, laughing my way through games played in Russian. Kristina took me back to her apartment, and we drank tea and talked late into the night.

It was an honor to attend her church on Sunday (I may or may not have sung a duet with Kristina in the service), and it was a privilege to meet her parents and 12 siblings. We shared a meal, after which the house was filled with music and singing (in Polish and English), and it felt nearly familiar, with rich four-part harmonies.

Evening came, and more conversation, and soon Kristina and I were sipping coffees at the train station, waiting for my goodbye train.

It is conversations and connections like these that bring us back to “where we are” and remind us of God’s good earth the world over. Sometimes I find that my life feels very in-grown, so very small, at my tiny school in a rural county. But that evening, it was as if, for a moment, I turned slowly in place and surveyed the whole landscape, instead of fixating on that broken hilt.

Story #2: A Man with a baby cat

On my train back to Minsk Mazowiecki, a Man with a Baby Cat began walking through my train, asking everyone to pet it. Everyone cooed at the baby cat. Even though he was well-dressed, I did NOT want to be bothered by this stranger. I got off at my train stop, and he sidled up to me near the stairs:

“Chcesz pogłaskać kociaka?”

I tried to ignore him, and put my head down and kept walking, a little scared to find an empty train platform with my friends NOWHERE in sight.

The Man with a Baby Cat, who was still wearing a huge smile, toddled off to find other victims. I couldn’t remember how to get back to Lizzie’s apartment, so I was left to shiver in 7-degree weather on the train platform and furiously text my friends.

Ten minutes later, they arrived, and all the way home, I gushed about my freshly-made Warsaw memories, and hollered about the Man with the Baby Cat, and right when we were crossing the street to my friend’s apartment, the Man with a Baby Cat dashed up behind us and asked in English, “DO YOU WANT TO PET THE KITTEN?” and we squealed and ran for the apartment and dashed inside and locked the doors.


Story #3: Ice Skating

Indeed, my Warsaw holiday was a gift, thanks to the hospitality of Lizzie and Kristina, and my traveling companions Janae & Justin.

One highlight was exploring Kazimierz Dolny, a historic town filled with art galleries, along the Vistula River.

I also enjoyed ice skating in Old Town Warsaw. (Indeed, I hadn’t gone ice skating in years!) Admission to the rink in the center of Old Town is free, and renting skates costs only $2.50. The rink is lit by festive lights strung dazzlingly across, and in the amber light, I shoved my feet into hockey skates while my friends sought out hot drinks and grilled sheep cheese with cranberries.

I slowly warmed up on the ice, weaving in and out of Polish strangers until my body remembered the movements, and then I skated fast like a little girl, darting in and out of the bundled skaters. I skated around and around, changing directions when the announcers called it, lost deep in thought, not realizing my time had wound down, much past my rental. As I swirled around on the ice that night, an old woman with gray hair, across the rink, caught my eye. She stared into my eyes, smiled, and waved and waved. I circled the rink again, trying to find her face to see if she was actually waving at me or someone else.

I kept scanning the spectators warming themselves with hot drinks by the fire heaters, but I couldn’t find her.

Had she slipped into the crowd?

It doesn’t matter. I will always imagine her to be my ancestor welcoming me home.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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pc: Jason Martin

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Springtime in Quebec, Part 2

Last time I ended by discussing language politics in French-speaking Québec, so I thought it would be appropriate to start with a few visual representations of those politics, in Quèbec’s Old City.

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Here is the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the first Anglican church in Québec. In 1804, the Brits were sure to build its spire just a few feet higher than the neighboring Catholic Notre-Dame de Québec. French Quebecers: “We can take a hint.”

Holy Trinity held Easter services in both English and French, but Notre-Dame de Québec’s services were entirely in French. Deciding between the two, we decided “when in Rome”… and found ourselves at a French-speaking Holy Saturday evening service. (I took my English Bible along for some hard-core liturgical sword drills.) The service was exactly what I hoped it would be—lowly lit, contemplative, bathed in music and a few bells, and filled with joy.

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Il n’est pas ici, car il est ressuscité, comme il l’avait dit!

Obviously, the French component made it quite the adventure as I’m already non-Catholic and therefore unfamiliar with service traditions, but my friends as I managed to participate somewhat, following along in the readings. The only really awkward moment was when we got to what was called the échange de la paix (exchanging of the peace). Immediately, I remembered that in some conservative Anglican traditions, this is equivalent to the holy kiss (is it for the Catholics??!!), so when the French-speaking young woman in front of me turned around and leaned toward me, I visibly started, unsure if this complete stranger would be kissing or hugging me!

(She shook my hand.)

Another French/English side-by-side pair in Old City are two prominent libraries, the Maison de la Littérature, and the Morrin Centre. (Can ya guess which one is for books printed in English?) Our tour guide explained, though, that the beauty of these two side-by-side libraries is that it represents how the two languages can coexist alongside each other.

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An old sofa in the Morrin Center featured this adorable sign: Ce divan est probablement plus vieux que votre grand-mère. S.V.P. vous asseoir aussi dèlicatement que vous le feriez sur ses genoux.

“This sofa is probably older than your grandmother. Please sit down gently, as you would on her knees.”

The afternoon we visited, I spent time reading devotional poetry by John Donne and found this gem in his Holy Sonnets.

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Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she is embraced and open to most men.

Welcome, by the way, to Old City, the part of Québec City that’s voted one of the “Most Romantic Cities” world-wide.

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First, you have the Chateau Frontenac, which is described as the most photographed hotel in the world. We were told that you have to take at LEAST thirty-five pictures of this hotel. I did my best.

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This romantic city also delights in its food. I enjoyed Cochon Dingue’s (The Crazy Pig’s) French onion soup, and another time I had a duck terrine starter, salmon tartare (for the first time!), and a lovely little complimentary dessert.

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One morning, I tried a delicious crepe made of asparagus, prosciutto, and brie, topped with a side of local maple syrup. (Quèbec is the world’s largest producer of maple syrup!) Don’t get me started talking about poutine, eggs benedict, macaroons, and croissants. (I obviously ended Lent in gastro-heaven.)

Also home to the talented Cirque du Soleil, we found this sculpture + poem welcoming us to the city.

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“To you,
Coming from here or elsewhere,
Day or night
Summer or winter
Welcome.”

Hee hee, our tour guide told us, “We have only two seasons, summer and winter. And summer is the nicest week of the year.” While we were blessed with gorgeous sunny days during our short visit, we certainly felt winter’s chill in the shade of stone in the afternoons and in the St. Lawrence River’s mist during our ferry ride.

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If I had to summarize my trip in one sentence, I would write, “You should go.”

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But if you want something a little more poetical, I’d probably whisper something about

“Europe’s old city,
cigarette smoke and cologne on cold cobblestones,
boots and mittens on marble stone,
bright sun on blue skies and dirty snow,
marathoners running,
church bells and waterfalls laughing,
St. Lawrence River mist,
and French accents on chocolate croissants, spicy peppers, and cooked fish.”

Springtime in Quebec, Part 1

Ever wanted to visit Europe but didn’t have the cash for a plane ticket? Quebec is the spot for you! Shasta’s Fog visited this charming French-speaking province for spring break this year, so I wanted to share some trip highlights for anyone needing a beautiful getaway on THIS side of the pond.

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How is Quebec still so French, you may ask? To be honest, it’s kind of the Americans fault.

Quebec City was founded in 1608 by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, and while France’s presence continued in Quebec for 150 years, in 1759, France ceded its control of North American possessions to Great Britain after a few battles and the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Quebecois were not exactly ecstatic about their new rulers, and Great Britain became a little nervous about this due to the unrest in its southern colonies (hello, rebellious American colonies!). Great Britain was afraid that unhappy French Quebecers would start up a rebellion and join the Americans, so they supplied the “Quebec Act” to pacify all French-speaking Canadian subjects—recognizing and promoting French language and French culture, allowing them to keep French civil law, and offering freedom of religion (allowing them to remain Catholic). Shockingly, England was saying, “Yes, BE CATHOLIC, ye Quebecers. Be French. Be ANYthing except American!” And Quebec was happy, and stayed ish-French. And a good thing too because now we Americans can go on vacation and eat croissants and macaroons, and enjoy rich French heritage without crossing that annoyingly large ocean.

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Our first stop was Montréal, and we visited the Notre-Dame Basilica, decorated in the Gothic Revival style in the 1880s. Fun fact: Celine Dion (native to Quebec) got married here.

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My friends and I had terribly much fun dashing into as many bakeries as possible. This one called the Crew Collective is a co-working space housed in the 1920s headquarters of the Royal Bank of Canada. (Little bit of gold Art Deco for the win.) Eggcellent Americano and croissant. Or as the French say, “Ameri-ken-oh.”

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We were also sure to visit the Maison Christian Faure Patisserie, where the “Best Pastry Chef in the World” hosts curious travelers. I ate an éclair for breakfast. I do not even apologize.

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PC: @lorida.burk

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Besides the city’s amazing architecture, I also enjoyed fun street style, though most of the time, I was too slow on the draw with my camera.

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Girl, work it.

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’90s was big.

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“Today in microfashion…”

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And a Satan suit, for good measure. (??)

When I got home, my mother asked me, “But what did you eat BESIDES pastries?”

…I admit I had to think for a bit.
Obviously, poutine, since Quebec is famous for it. At Montreal’s famous La Banquise, I had the original—fries, covered in cheese curds and gravy!

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You know you’re in Canada when there are outdoor heaters for patio seating.

Another Quebecian delight we discovered was dipped ice cream cones. I’ve never had a dipped cone where the chocolate is so thick and so flavorful!

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We lodged well in two Airbnbs, one night in Montreal and three nights in Quebec City. Recommend!

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NW view from our 9th floor apartment in Montreal.

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NE view: old + new

One thing that worried me was the language barrier, especially since we had heard about how strong the French language politics are in Quebec.

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Marc-André J Fortier’s “The English Pug and the French Poodle,” featuring a woman dressed in the French-designer Coco Chanel, lifting her nose in disdain toward a Canadian bank, representing the influence of the English.

But a very nice waitress at Creperie Bretonne Ty-Breiz allayed our fears. Unbothered by our Nutella crepe instagramming and delighted giggles, she acknowledged that food is art, and in her French accent, said it is “the art of making friends.” She told us that Quebecers know English, and they’ll use it with you. She said, “Maybe a few won’t speak English, but they are 5%, and they are stubborn.” Three hours away in Quebec City, our tour guide Sam from afreetourofquebec.com told us the same thing. “In Old City, they’ll speak English to you! They know English. Outside of the city, they’ll speak the English that they know,” he smiled. His wry statement indicated that while many Quebecers are willing to use English, their English skills are not all the same.

But we found it to be true that Quebecois used English. Most restaurant servers and shop owners easily switched to French-accented English, and the only awkwardness that occurred was our own fault, when we failed to produce a polite French “Bonjour” greeting, or awkwardly stared at rattled French, rather than announcing, “Désolé, je ne parle pas François.”

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This is my taste of Montreal! Stop by later this week for “Springtime in Québec, Part 2” to hear about our time in Québec City!

Hi, It’s Nice to Meet You

Hello all! The calendar reading March 14th leaves me scratching my head for two reasons—how has winter steamed by so quickly, and how am I ever going to dig my little VW out of a FOOT of snow?! (Winter storm Stella’s been a doozy!)

Today I want to welcome the newcomers to Shasta’s Fog! A few of you are showing up for the first time, and today I’d like to discuss four types of posts you can expect from Shasta’s Fog in the future. (And for faithful readers, this post is for any of you who haven’t had a chance to read my recently updated About page!)

1. One type of post I usually write is literary in nature. (Last year 50% of my posts were in some way related to literature or poetry!) These posts are normally the brain-child of literature I’m currently teaching (I’m a high school AP lit teacher), books I’m currently reading, poems I’m pondering, or poems I’m writing.

My most recent literary post included thoughts on C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, and if I were to write a literary post right now, I might include a poem I wrote sitting in a graveyard by the North Sea in England, after a 5 a.m. jaunt along the cliffs, past the bombed out Whitby Abbey, a strong monument to the history of monastic life, English poetry (Caedmon DID live there after all), and the church of England.

(I found this poem after digging through my 2014 U.K. photos and journals, which I was perusing in order to co-teach a mini-term called “Urban Exploration.” Every winter, my school cancels all classes for 7th-12th grades for one week and hosts a week of Mini-terms, where students can take career-oriented or personal interest classes.)

Whitby

Fair morning whispers to the child of light.
She rises early who farewells the night.
Pink sky, brown rooster—white, the gulls which cry,
salt wind, green cliff, stone monument nearby
wet grass, thick wheat, stone pathway for her feet
small bird, fat slugs, three snails—all these do meet
the sun above the cliffs at Whitby’s shore,
smooth North Sea, tugboats, church bells, gates, and more.
Light’s morning glimmers, puzzling beauty’s flash
amiss—“For safety, stay on this, the path.”

2. The second type of post I write is spiritual in nature, though many of these posts are literary posts in disguise. (For example, I discussed N. T. Wright’s book After You Believe, but it felt more like a personal spiritual credo than anything else.)

If I were to write a post relating to spirituality today, I would write about my foray into observing Lent, how I’m observing the Episcopalian kind this year (mainly because they get to cheat on Sundays), how I eagerly champion the virtues of Lenten fasts in all my literature classes, and how that basically flows from two agendas: (1) It is my personal agenda to increase all hype around the Easter holiday because it is excruciatingly under-celebrated in most Christian circles, which in no way relates to the God-created fasting and feasting tradition of Old Testament Judaism, nor to what I imagine God intends for healthy faith communities today, and (2) I basically just don’t want to be the only one walking around admitting that I actually am addicted to Netflix, Youtube, and snacking. You have vices too.

3. The third type of post I write is travel posts. I recently traveled to Central America and posted some photos and poetry related to Nicaragua.

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Upcoming travel posts will be in honor of my personal conviction to properly celebrate the Easter holy day, as I will be celebrating in community by traveling with friends to a new city—Québec City! Let the party begin! (Not that breaking my fast there will necessarily include Netflix or Youtube, but it may include some exquisitely divine food (poutine and macaroons!), architectural wonders, crisp river walks, and a cathedral Easter service.

4. Last but not least, I also write about cultural issues, including but not limited to:

(1) those issues relating to geography (Pennsylvania: a place to where all women wear maroon, guys still wear deck shoes even though everyone else stopped wearing Sperry’s in 2012, and where chip aisles do not exist and only pretzels are munched!)

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(2) issues relating to Anabaptism (including snarky posts about Mennonite culture), and

(3) those issues relating to singleness and marriage (you all seemed to really like [and really hate] this post).

If I were to write a cultural post today, I would write about some thoughts I’ve been thinking relating to single women in the church and this idea that all women ought to submit to all men in general, whether on a committee, whether at a job, whether at a hardware store, or on a co-ed soccer team. (Here it goes. Friends and family: keep your fire extinguishers nearby.)

Deep breath.

The cultural milieu in which I find myself has this unstated (and sometimes stated) belief that all women must submit to all men. Were I to write a post about this cultural topic, I would (1) take a close look at the Scriptures from which this application is normally derived, (2) I would note when those Scriptures are speaking to women in marriage relationships and when they are not, and then ask if there are any “submitting” passages left over, (3) and then I would ask my favorite current question: “Why are some people so intent on making sure that all women (single or married) know their place as “submitters” when, in my experience, single women in the church do not practically live under any especial authority that differs from that of married men in the church?” Because that would be a fun conversation (though one probably best had in person).

So there you have it, new readers! Feel free to use my blog’s category guide as well to find content most suited to you: Teach (education topics), Read (books and literary posts), and Travel (cultural posts).

I look forward to reading your feedback, and I welcome suggestions for new posts in the comments!

Nicaragua: An Oral Photograph

I didn’t take a picture of bike taxis or red motorcycles, Nicas riding double, triple, or of tanned faces staring out of full, dusty buses.

I didn’t take a picture of clay roof tiles, bright pink walls, turquoise paint, sky blue everything, pottery-colored walls, emerald, yellow, brown ones too.

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I didn’t take a picture of animal flesh, hanging in market, the dark stalls under roofs, to protect in rainy season, narrow aisles, of a man spinning his knife-sharpening wheel, sparks flying into the soft cotton of his shirt, under the hanging canastas, piñatas, effigies.

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I didn’t take a picture of ladies’ beautiful,manicured feet, nor my culturally-inappropriate dirty ones.

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I didn’t take a picture of stepping through dimly-lit hallways into melon-colored rooms where exhausted mamas clutched tiny newborns, and baby bundles and Antorches that we gave them, and glowing fathers, lying with women on single beds, five families in one clinic room, murmuring gracias.

I didn’t take a picture of córdobas, gym-sacks, mochilas, and back-packs.

I didn’t take a picture of the Nica lady, who daily paraded by the front gate, head laden, nasal voice selling comidas.

I didn’t take a picture of tiny, heaped, road-side fires, small ash heaps sending smoke into my nostrils.

I didn’t take a picture of roosters crowing, of lavender sunrises, of reading Scripture early on quiet hammocks.

I didn’t take a picture of dumping Nicaraguan coffee into a pot, cement countertops, drying dishes with rags, of setting out fresh bananas, slicing papaya and scooping out the moist black seeds and tasting fruity flesh, of sweat rolling down my back and legs at 9:00 a.m.

I didn’t take a picture of tacos, Ricardo chicken, chilaquiles, hamburguesas, or Fresca. Of water in a bag, jello in a bag, rice in a bag, plantains sold by a girl in Central, topped with cabbage and dressing, so sweet.

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I didn’t take a picture of a Catholic funeral we barged through at Catedral, the confused old Nicaraguan woman muttering to us about a boat in the street, the girls flocking into world’s most beautiful McDonalds, and me not buying any because WAIT. Are the missionaries buying ice cream?

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I didn’t take a picture of the ugly Santa pictures, curiously covering holes on the back of the bald bus, wind whipping our hair to Latin rhythms, beats.

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I didn’t take a picture of boarding a 12 passenger van forty times, of policía with batons, of homeless people sleeping on cement, of a well-dressed woman on a motorcycle.

I didn’t take a picture of gringo tourists, sun-tanned legs embarrassingly naked, of an americano scoffing, and my pride at her acculturation.

I didn’t take a picture of a university man in crisp khakis and a beret reciting love poetry to my friends and me in Central.

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I didn’t take a picture of the English-speaking man on top of Catedral, who was surprised to find that Mennonites live in León.

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I didn’t take a picture of the jewelry vendor in the shade under the flowering yellow tree in Central, the only time I tried to barter, him laughing at me, because it’s real turquoise, doesn’t even scratch with a pliers. Doscientos, por favor.

I didn’t take a picture of Nicaraguan children singing Spanish hymns, of girls teaching me “Choco-choco-la-la” hand games, of playing kickball in the street with a small ball, of six o-clock sunsets.

I didn’t take a picture of William and me exchanging verses, in line at four-square, the kind I played in grade school, when I made a boy cry. Jehová es mi pastor, nada me faltará, Mas Jehová Dios llamó el hombre, y le dijo, ¿Dónde estás tú?

I didn’t take a picture of the Nicaraguan man whose bicycle screeched to a halt and our soccer ball rolled right up to his front tire, resulting in a glare.

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I didn’t take a picture of Yolanda, Yessenia, Selena, Karina, Julio, Omar, y David.

I didn’t take a picture of missionary men, preaching in Spanish, of missionary mothers and their flocks, their quiet tables, of their cares behind kind eyes, of south-facing blue kitchens, opened to little courtyards and plants, just like the one from Prada to Nada.

I didn’t take a picture of chickens, a small Nebraskan boy clutching his chicken, like his father must have clutched wheat, nor his sandy smile.

I didn’t take a picture of Moron, the missionary cat, nor Pip.

I didn’t take a picture of cows in the road on the way to Cerro Negro, bells ringing, horns in a filed line, wood loads in the carts.

I didn’t take a picture of my hand pressed into the darkened soil on Cerro Negro, and it springing back as the sulfur steam heated the earth, my skin.

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I didn’t take a picture of a scorpion I tried to kill, the ant farm in the cabinet I cleaned.

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I didn’t take a picture of narrating “El foso de los leones,” of working with a missionary to tweak the Google translated script, and his 8-year-old daughter surprising us both with her translation skills.

I didn’t take a picture of a woman sweeping her dirt in the Nicaraguan equivalent of the Projects, or her glare when I forgot my face, shocked at her neighbor’s smoky, chimney-less house, and turned, and locked eyes.

I didn’t take a picture of pulling a number at the meat counter of a grocery, ordering “cuatro pechugas con alas.”

I didn’t take a picture of painting a little boy’s sticky face who must have had a snack earlier. “El fin. Eres un gato.”

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I didn’t take a picture of a beautiful young girl, shyly hiding her smile, at her gate, waiting for the Pied Piper of Hamlin to take her to children’s church.

I didn’t take a picture of Raquel pulling a dictionary out of her gym sack to look up embutidos (means sausages).

I didn’t take a picture of houses with dirt floors.

I didn’t take a picture of León’s zoo, or spider monkeys, and the one whose hairy palm I held, fed a banana.

I didn’t take a picture of the senior girls playing the ukulele, Lancaster caramels melting in our mouths, lying on sandy beach towels.

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I didn’t take a picture of bobbing in the powerful Pacific waves, white-washed pinks, blues, and grays reflecting off the golden foam, salt water in my mouth, the sun ducking behind clouds, swimming and swimming, silence…

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I didn’t take a picture of the drunk man, tottering under the orange street light toward the line of children, seated on a cement embankment, waiting for church to begin, moved along by a missionary.

I didn’t take a picture of the Spanish social kiss, warmly given after el culto. Dios te bendiga.

I didn’t take a picture of my heart, congealing on the sidewalks, of it bubbling in the sunshine, or cooling in the Poneloya ocean, moistened by wave after wave… Of it being pried apart, and a new, fresh memory being lovingly planted, like an unsuspecting oyster, tossed on the beach, a piece of sand finding its way inside…

Who knows what pearl may grow from this beautiful, divine irritation.

My Ancestors, Singing, and Oasis Chorale

So the last three weeks have been FANTABULOUS.

I spent a weekend at a family reunion in southern Virginia. In case you don’t know, a Good family reunion consists of:

  1. Exquisite four-part hymn singing.
    How am I blessed with this heritage?

  1. Obligatory “Good” puns.
    “It’s ‘Good’ you made it.”
    “It’s a ‘Good’ reunion this year.”
    “These are my ‘Good’ relatives.”
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  1. Meticulous research and history prepared by our family historian, Evelyn Bear, who traced our family tree as far back as the 1500s to our Swiss roots THROUGH FOUR LINES (the Resslers, Goods, Brennemans, and Hubers). The Brennemans and Goods were Swiss Anabaptists who emigrated to America through Germany due to religious persecution, settling in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (of all places!), Melchior Brenneman in 1709, and 20-year-old Jacob Good on the ship Samuel in 1732. (Surprise, surprise, I now live in the land of my ancestors! Except both families moved to the Shenandoah Valley several years later.)

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Clockwise: My great-grandparents’ wedding photo (1904), their 50th wedding anniversary, my mother’s baby picture, my mother’s family in 1951, my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary.

  1. Fabulous coffee prepared on the spot by my coffee connoisseur cousin Paul Yates.
    Vanilla rosemary latte, anyone? (He creates his own rosemary syrup.)

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With my mama.

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There was also lots of niece-squishing.

I then drove north to the Shenandoah Valley to meet my favorite people, the Oasis Chorale, for our annual summer tour. This year we toured Virginia and the Carolinas and additionally recorded a second hymns project in conjunction with John D. Martin’s new Hymns of the Church. (Recordings will be available in October! Click here or here for up-to-date information regarding new musical releases.)

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Photo by Erin Martin.

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It’s no point trying to put into words what the experience of Oasis Chorale means to me, but I will try.

First, it is community. The more I sing with this choir, the more I come to love its individual members, the camaraderie that ensues, the spontaneous philosophical and theological discussions that we inevitably find ourselves in, and the way that we care for each other. People who aren’t conservative Mennonite may not be able to tell, but Oasis Chorale is actually extremely diverse. Our members come from a wide variety of Anabaptist, educational, and musical backgrounds, each with our individual experiences of Anabaptist communities and unique musical experiences within those communities. There is such strength in this diversity. For one, I think we are better equipped to minister to wider varieties of congregations. Second, it enables us to learn from and to support each other in our varying church, musical, and educational contexts.

THIS IS NOT TO SAY that Oasis Chorale is not first and foremost concerned about performing choral music well. It most certainly is.


You better have your pitches and rhythms learned. Along with your consonants, vowels, body alignment, proper breathing technique, appropriate tone, lifted soft palate, sense of line, inflection, suitable syllable stress, bright eyes, all performed with a sense of wonder.

But to me, Oasis is more than just a choir that sings beautiful music well. It’s a choir that strengthens its members for service beyond just a two-week summer tour. It encourages and refreshes singers, musicians, song leaders, artists (also a huffing lot of teachers) to pursue beauty and truth the REST of the year. This happens due to having a visionary conductor who expects discipline and personal musical growth (which is possible both within and without the choir) and who regularly invites us to contemplate the poetry of musical texts and the truth expressed therein. This emphasis on discipline and thoughtfulness is a haven for me.

Getting to be immersed in this convivial, contemplative, Christian community is something for which I thank God.
Every.
Year.

As a choir, we visited colonial Williamsburg this year and performed a candlelit concert in the historic Bruton Parish church. Definitely a highlight!

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Performing by candlelight in the historic Bruton Parish Church in colonial Williamsburg. Photo by Erin Martin.

One line from a hymn we recorded this year captured my attention and expresses a very particular worldview which I personally think aligns with the mission of Oasis Chorale:

“Crown Him the Lord of peace;
Whose pow’r a scepter sways
From pole to pole, that wars may cease,
Absorbed in prayer and praise.”

For these things, we sing.

Amen.

Pardon Me, Lancaster

Have you ever wondered what happens when your most average Mennonite visits Lancaster, the hippest “Mennonite” city on the planet? THIS. A series of apologies for showing up in public. And some pretty lame Instagrams.

I offer my apologies to all the truly trendy Lancaster city-dwellers. You must know that I’m not actually trying to fit in. (I’m one beanie and one pair of ankle booties short.)

Also, I showed up in public at one of your meeting houses with, of all things, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

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In this case, I should actually apologize to Russia.
Dostoevsky: Lancaster can’t even take you seriously. In fact, Lancaster, I have a question for you:

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Anyway, City of Lancaster! I visited! Apparently, it was kind of a big deal for you.

So pardon me.
*disgruntled huff
*situates skirt

One thing: it’s really not fair dropping me off and leaving me to figure you out for myself because I can’t tell your fake “English” from your real ones. I can’t tell who’s a “J.O.” (that’s northern Indiana dialect for “Jumped Over,” meaning those Amish who have “jumped over” the fence to the other side: being non-Amish.)

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You see, Lancaster, I’m an expert at picking out the “J.O’s” in Indiana. When my family (who does not live among the Amish) comes to visit me, they are surprised when I point at modern-looking teens walking around town and point out that they’re actually Amish youths, dressed up in their rumspringa clothes. My family sees a hipster, a prep, and a jock, but I see “Sadie Miller,” “Ida Hoffstettder,” and “Ray’s Johnny.” …Also, I can pick out  Mennonite and Amish J.O.’s on social media.

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No really, I’m pretty good. In this line, you see two people: an Amish lady plus a schlepped-up high school kid. But I know for a fact: it’s mother and daughter.

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#fact
#J.O.
#rumspringa

But in Lancaster, I can’t tell! Is that tattooed barista a closet Mennonite? Is that homeless guy actually an Amish hipster? Is the immaculately tailored businessman actually a wealthy Mennonite in disguise? How does one tell? It’s very unfair not to let me in on all your secrets.

I’ll tell you, Lancaster, that I started exploring at the Main Street Exchange, that Mennonite mecca of modest clothing goods. Off of 322 in Blue Ball, PA, Main Street Exchange is every Mennonite girl’s dream. Racks and racks of gorgeous, modest skirts. A-line, denim, maxi, and pencil. Tube, pleated, and midi. It’s all there. And artfully arranged, differentiated by style, texture, and material.

And so Lancaster, to try to fit in, I Instagrammed. (Don’t laugh.)

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Next, I headed off to Rachel’s Crepery, where I’ve made pilgrimages in the past.

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I was seated next to a light-colored brick fireplace and a curiously large palm. I hugged my mug of coffee, anticipating my Greek Omelette crepe. The blue skies and sunshine streaming in the window, my crepe, and my cheerful waitress did not disappoint. (You know, some businesses know how to hire workers who are unequivocally delighted to serve everyone who enters, no matter how dour and dawdy they are. Rachel’s Crepery in Lancaster and Jeni’s Ice Cream in Columbus, Ohio are two companies who do this.) My waitress smiled at me,  even though I was wearing a shirt from last season! Good job, Lancaster.

I would have photographed my crepe, but:

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Next, I scouted out a runing shoe store to look for new trainers. (NEW BALANCE FRIENDZ: HAVE YOU SEEN THE NEW 1080s?!!!) The shoes are turning out to be rather elusive, however, and I didn’t even find them.) Soon, I had the abrupt realization that I was shopping for athletic wear in LANCASTER.

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I’m pretty sure no one in Lancaster even wears athletic shoes.That, for you, would be so… basic. So much for trying. (See, even when I try to be Lancaster-y, I can’t even.)

Wow. Also. Sorry, Lancaster! You guys have a LOT of rules about using credit cards! Several times people gave me the evil eye for whipping out my plastic. I’m sorry. In the rest of the world, we use credit cards for the tiniest of purchases, and no one charges our businesses exorbitant fees for processing. I mean, I can deal with your policies, but I’ll have to get used to it?

By this time, I was ready for more caffeine. Now, there were like a hundred hip coffee shops to choose from in Lancaster city.

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Obviously, I chose Prince Street Café because it’s so… central. Even though it’s kind of… basic. So I paid $3 to in Prince Street Café next to three “Chinese” men, a chemistry “student,” and a “guy” with a meticulously groomed mustache. (Not buying it. They were probably all just Amish.) I spent the rest of my afternoon in Lancaster reading Dostoevsky, but, in an attempt to fit in with the locals, I religiously kept checking Instagram. I didn’t TAKE that many Instagrams because I mean, I know that my photography isn’t that well composed, I know that it’s not white enough, and I know that you, Lancaster, would be embarrassed if I tagged you in pictures of my embarrassingly Midwestern self.

So, you’re welcome.

Soon, I left the city, heading south on 81, excited for my next stop, several states away. Later, I ended up stranded for over an hour in a traffic jam behind a car in which a man was stuck in the trunk and was trying to get out. I decided that it was highly metaphorical of my day in Lancaster city.

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Just kidding. (But thanks for reading.)
Peace, love, and authenticity to all.

The Post About Fear

My weekend adventuring found me smack-dab between wall-to-wall revelers at Chicago’s 20th annual Christkindlmarkt, an outdoor German Christmas market. Choosing not to brave the crowds alone, I invited my parents and sister to join me Saturday morning at this festive event, held on weekends throughout the month of December. I’ve always wanted to go, and this year I finally made it happen! I warned my family ahead of time about the weekend crowds, but even I was not prepared for the land-locked, stock-still standing in droves, and the bumping, inching, moving, but it was all cool because ALL THE SAUSAGES and ALL THE CHOCOLATE!

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I’ve mentioned before on my blog my crush on Germany (it’s where my parents fell in love) and how tiny bits of German culture have found their way into our family. Needless to say, we all enjoyed browsing vendors of authentic German goods, from nativities, to ornaments, to German Christmas pyramids (a beloved tradition of my childhood), to cuckoo clocks, and other hand-carved crafts. And of course we enjoyed fresh Bavarian soft pretzels, German marzipan, and sausage and sauerkraut! (All in all, a bit kitschy, but a good kitschy.)

Despite the crowds, my family did great! We all agreed that reserved parking was the way to go! (Thank you SpotHero App!) Ahead of time, I was able to procure for us a cheap parking space within one minute walking distance of the festival. (Located beneath the Block Thirty-Seven mall, we also had easy access to public restrooms.)

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These are literally the only three pictures I took. There were so many people, I could barely even raise my arms to get my smartphone in the air.

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But this is the post that’s not about Christkindlmarkt, but rather about fear. Because, honestly, I have to admit that my family was a little nervous about being in a large crowd like that in a major American city, considering recent current events. My family and I mentioned it before we went. Would we be safe if we go? I knew we would be less than two blocks from the location of last week’s Chicago protests (where three people were arrested). And considering other current event headlines… could it be possible that even Chicago could be the location of a terrorist attack at some point? (Normally, I’m not a very anxious person in large cities, but I have to admit that I did think about it before I went.) And the crowded spaces didn’t help either.

Interestingly, though not surprisingly, a piece of music offered a brilliant contrast to these fears and suspicions.

Creeping past yet another wooden food booth offering German sweet dumplings and bratwurst, I tuned into the holiday melody pouring out of the speaker of the tiny stand: Bing Crosby’s rendition of “Faith of our Fathers,” his respectable baritone and cheery orchestra weaving in and around the bobbing bevy of gray hats, black coats, and warm cheeks. My sister and I unconsciously began humming the familiar alto line… And as the lines of humans pushed me up against a wrought iron gate (behind which were free, liberated fat gray pigeons pecking at nothing, really), I thought about the words to that nineteenth-century hymn. Those words spoke to me in the midst of that slow-moving, confining crowd.

It spoke to me and to my questions of: What is the answer to all this violence? What is the hope for humankind? What shall we do for this injured and battered world? (Because I’m living a little heaven right now compared to the people of San Bernadino or compared to displaced Middle Eastern refugees.) What answers do I have for others? What answers do I have, especially in this world of bitter reactions to religious answers? What message do I have for the conflicts that seemingly abound on every front? Where, more and more, religion is aligned with fanaticism? And where fanaticism is aligned with violence, carnage, and death? Or where it seems that one cannot make any claim (especially about the relevance of God in these issues) without getting bitterly struck down?

The hymn spoke of something deep. Of a faith that gives resilience during times of antagonism. Of a love that is stronger than death. Of a love for our fearful friends and also our hostile enemies. Of a faith that gives one courage to follow one’s conscience. Of a faith that sometimes uses words. And of a love that always uses action.

(Interestingly, this hymn comes to us from a rather awkward time in Christian history, during the martyrdom of Catholics by the Church of England, beginning with Henry VIII. Inspired to memorialize these shattering, appalling events, Frederick Faber penned this memorable hymn in 1849.)

I can’t think of a more hopeless history, than of the church fighting with itself. Fighting with itself unto death. What despair these events must have initiated.

Perhaps this hymn has something to say about the multiplicity of conflicts in which we find ourselves today. (I’m thinking of the conflicts of politics, the conflicts of race and class, the conflicts of spirituality and nonspirituality, and the ultimate inner conflict between God and godlessness.) Yet instead of despair, these words offer hope (though it may seem harsh in its solidarity).

Faith of our Fathers! living still
In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword:
Oh, how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene’er we hear that glorious word.
Faith of our Fathers! Holy Faith!
We will be true to thee till death.

Our Fathers, chained in prisons dark,
Were still in heart and conscience free:
How sweet would be their children’s fate,
If they, like them, could die for thee!
Faith of our Fathers! Holy Faith!
We will be true to thee till death.

Faith of our Fathers! we will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife:
And preach thee too, as love knows how
By kindly words and virtuous life:
Faith of our Fathers! Holy Faith!
We will be true to thee till death.

This tune floated above the faces of the crowd that slipped past, and as I searched their expressionless, multiethnic faces, I hummed the alto line, and I became strangely proud. Proud to be a Christian. Proud of my faith. Proud that I am celebrating Christmas. Proud that I partake of a faith, that, truly expressed, loves instead of hates. Proud that I serve a God of mercy, Who teaches me mercy (even though I am a slow learner).

It is this faith and perfect love that casts out fear.

And as sour smells of Glühwein and spicy scents of sausages punctuated the air, and as little families formed human chains midst the puzzles of shoulders, as college students laughed raucously, as inexpressive elderly couples munched on potato pancakes, and as strangers pushed and shoved past, this realization of the surety of love casting out fear brought a moment of peace. And I smiled.