brown sugar

I’m making an effort to write and post some different material on my blog in the coming months. This particular entry is a short work of fiction that I wrote for a creative writing class in college. Hope you enjoy!

Brown Sugar

The comfortable aroma of freshly baked bread cascaded into the air and fluttered through the tiny kitchen. Annabelle watched her mother from the bar stool she perched on, entranced. It was always a dance when Mama baked, a swirl of finely tuned, well-worn moves. All the ingredients were choreographed into a polished routine as she spun through the kitchen, adding pinches of this and that here and there, knowing exactly how to make it just right. She flipped the oven door open with ease, pulled a loaf of bread out and added a tray of cookies, pausing only to take in the sweet smell of a job well-done.

Annabelle thought Mama still looked much the same as she had the last time she had seen her five years ago. She still wore her old apron, the one reading “Sweets to the Sweet!” in faded pink letters, and her graying hair was coming loose from its usual haphazard up-do. She had a few more wrinkles and her eyes had grown dimmer, but Annabelle noted with pleasure that Mama’s smile always brightened whenever she looked at the child standing on the step stool next to her. Annabelle was glad she had come back.

The kitchen was a mess, as it always had been, but it was an organized chaos. A fine dusting of flour covered each counter, riddled with piles of dirty bowls, wooden spoons, and every ingredient imaginable. On the island in the center sat platters of the day’s endeavors: blackberry turnovers, cranberry ginger scones, six different varieties of bread, almond pistachio cookies, and Mama’s famous cheesecake swirl muffins. The only thing untouched was the extensive pile of cookbooks in the corner, gifts from friends who didn’t know Mama well enough to understand that she never used a recipe.

Annabelle munched on a scone absentmindedly while she followed Mama’s dance with her eyes. She had once been Mama’s apprentice, back when she was the fiery-haired, wide-eyed child balancing on the step stool in order to reach the top of the counter. She had loved any recipe that called for brown sugar, and she always requested that Mama let her pack it firmly into the measuring cup. She would watch it fall with a thud into the mixing bowl, maintaining its perfect shape, just like the sand castles Daddy would make on those days at the beach. And when the last batch of goodies was in the oven, Mama would put a white smudge of flour right on the tip of her freckled nose and bet her she couldn’t lick it off. She let the cat do it for her.

But these days Annabelle simply watched. She helped when asked — checked the center of the white chocolate brownies or refilled the flour bin — and sang along anytime Mama broke out into renditions of her favorite Cat Stevens songs, but she had moved on from the days when she would check the eggs for pieces of shell. She had grown up. Besides, Mama had a new helper now.

Annabelle looked down at the redheaded child who was now tugging at her skirt.

“Nana said we can lick the bowl!” she said, beaming. She handed Annabelle a mixing bowl filled with the last of the sticky cookie dough. Annabelle lifted the girl onto her lap and took a small taste of dough. “I added the brown sugar,” the child boasted as she scraped every last bit of dough out of the bowl with her tiny hands. Annabelle looked up and saw Mama grinning as she watched them.

“That must be why it’s so yummy,” Annabelle told her daughter. She pecked her on the cheek and smiled as she noticed the flour spot right on the tip of her nose.

“every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied”

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on relationships lately. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Josh Ritter, my favorite singer-songwriter. For some reason, during a routine listening session recently, the following line in his song “Kathleen” stood out to me, more than it ever had before: “Every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied.” Though I had heard this song countless times before, I finally really listened to this line, and I stopped what I was doing and thought, Damn. This guy’s got it completely right.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been struggling with a few of my own personal relationships lately, or maybe I’ve just never fully understood the weight of Ritter’s words before now. But I started thinking about the knots that had been tied around my heart and who had tied them. Beginning a relationship with another person, be it romantic or just a friendship, involves a certain amount of trust. You are agreeing to let them see the vulnerable sides of you, the ugly sides that you sometimes can’t control. You are also agreeing to let them have a permanent impact on your life. You will make memories with them, you will be connected with them in some way for the rest of your life. Yet when we form relationships, we don’t think of it in this deep, heavy way. When I meet someone new, my first thought isn’t You are going to make a lasting impact on my heart, am I ready to let you? That would be weird. But it is funny to think about how seriously our relationships with other people impact our lives. For some people, one failed relationship can mean a whole string of other relationships that lack trust and honesty. For others, a solid relationship can make the rest of life seem to fall into place. For me personally, a couple rejections and “friend zones” have given me many insecurities about entering into relationships.

When I love someone, I love them completely. I invest so much of myself into the relationships I make with people, romantic or not, and sometimes, I let my feelings dictate my actions more heavily than I should. I can’t help it, I just love deeply. But that sometimes complicates things or leaves me disappointed. Not everyone can commit so fully to relationships like I do — it would be weird if they did. It’s how I love, and I can’t change that about myself. I think sometimes I feel stupid about it because we are often taught not to be the one who loves the “most” in any given relationship. It means you are weak, or clingy, or dependent, or any other negative adjective that describes a person who can’t function without others. I hate that. Just because I really love someone, I’m the weaker person in the relationship? I agree that there is a healthy level of attachment for a human being to have, and when you become too fixated on yourself in relation to someone else, then something needs to change. But I don’t believe we should ever think less of ourselves based on how much we love.

When you love someone, you are allowing them to tie knots around your heart. You are also, in turn, tying your own knots for them, but blindly. You don’t know how your knots are going to affect the shape of their heart or the ability for them to love others. You just do it anyway. I don’t think a heart can ever be a perfect package, with a single string tying it all together simply. Maybe, depending on the nature of the relationships you form, the knots on your heart aren’t very tangled. Maybe they are, but someone else will come along and be able to slightly detangle them while gingerly adding their own knots on top. Maybe you’ve closed your heart off enough so that no one else has been able to tie any knots in a long while.

I think right now, my knots are a mess. I’ve tried to untangle them with my mind, analyzing and criticizing my own relationships, each knot in relation to the others, but it just made the problem worse. And maybe someone else came along and tried to untangle the mess I had already made, but the knots just turned into a bigger, more condensed knot. It won’t ever go away — it’s like the knots are tied from some permanent material — but I can choose how I’m going to let those knots affect the rest of my relationships. It doesn’t matter that it’s not all a nice, neat package. All that matters is that I have space for new knots to be tied.

the thankfulness project

Earlier in the school year, a coworker and friend of mine challenged me to find three things I was thankful for every day for a week. She had read that this kind of gratitude related to happiness, and while I was intrigued by this assertion, I kind of forgot to keep up with it. (Sorry, Maggie!) Until now, that is. So I tried it out, and here are the things I wrote down…

Tuesday, January 15th
1. I am thankful for a job that makes me feel fulfilled and has brought so many meaningful relationships and lessons into my life.
2. I am thankful for a family that will always be there to have my back if everything turns to shit.
3. I am thankful to live in a place where I can revel in the power of the arts every single day.

Wednesday, January 16th
1. I am thankful for a coffeeshop that offers a small coffee and a donut for $1 every Wednesday, my day full of meetings.
2. I am thankful for a good friend who I can talk to and cry to and laugh with on a regular basis.
3. I am thankful for cheesecake.

Thursday, January 17th
1. I am thankful for a comfortable bed which makes sleeping in on my days off not only possible but enjoyable.
2. I am thankful for the voice that I have and the ability to make music with it.
3. I am thankful for beautiful music made with people I am just getting to know, and the hospitality and kindness of people in northern Michigan.

Friday, January 18th
1. I am thankful for my little sister Olivia, who made me a big sister when I was only two years old and always provided me with a friend to play with while we were growing up. (Happy birthday, Liv!)
2. I am thankful that I can spend my Friday evening off-duty dancing to live music on campus and have the time of my life doing it.
3. I am thankful for karaoke.

Saturday, January 19th
1. I am thankful for hot tubs.
2. I am thankful for coworkers who know how to work hard and play hard at the same time.
3. I am thankful for men’s pajama pants because they are the comfiest pants I own.

Sunday, January 20th
1. I am thankful for naps.
2. I am thankful for pink nail polish.
3. I am thankful for my extensive music library and the thrill that comes with rediscovering old favorites that I haven’t listened to in forever.

Monday, January 21st
1. I am thankful for full nights of sleep.
2. I am thankful for dark roast coffee.
3. I am thankful to live in a place that actually has seasons, even if right now I hate winter and the ridiculously cold temperatures I have to brave just to get a hot meal in the cafeteria.

So there you have it. Seven days of thankfulness. And it really did help me see the happiness in my life. And as much as I’d love to keep doing this every single day, I know that I can’t commit to it (I have a hard enough time updating this blog semi-regularly!). But I do think it’s beneficial to take some time every once in awhile to examine my life and see the good in it. In the middle of winter in Michigan, it’s easy for me to get into a funk, feeling sorry about the hard things in my life or the things that could be better. However — and I know this entire post has been cheesy and it’s probably stating the obvious — I know that it’s my perspective on everything is what dictates my happiness. This exercise was proof of that. So I’m going to keep being thankful, because it’s obviously not hurting me. 🙂

how a cheap ukulele made me learn to love music again

I’ve been an artist my entire life. When I was a child, I painted without worrying what the outcome would be. I put on plays that didn’t have an ending and made my family watch them. I sang songs and built cities out of the set of wooden blocks in my basement. My parents surrounded me with ways to create, to grow as a young artist. I explored, I performed, and I learned.

As I progressed into adolescence, I discovered my love for theatre. As a shy, introverted kid, I was intoxicated by the ability to be someone else onstage. I loved the smell of stage makeup, the warmth of the lights beating down on the heavy costumes I had to wear. I found people who were like me in the casts I was part of, and finally it seemed normal to be the artistic kid, who chose late night rehearsals over sporting events, script memorization over making out in someone’s car, and cast parties over trips to the mall. Theatre was essential in helping me discover who I was.

I finally chose an art form that I knew I could cultivate well into my adult life when I decided to focus on singing. Choir was my safe place and voice lessons were my release. I knew this was something I could do for years and years and not tire of it. I chose my college and future career path based on this (which you probably read about earlier). I loved it. I had tried other instruments — the clarinet, the bane of my existence until ninth grade, and the piano, with which I had a love/hate relationship — but nothing compared to the power of the human voice. So I went on to study classical voice in college as an innocent, fresh-faced 18 year-old. I sang all the standard Italian songs and arias, I tried to fit my voice into the operatic mold that my school expected me to adhere to. I loved singing, but I realized that I loved singing for myself, and not for others. That was when I started falling out of love with it.

I’ve been struggling a lot lately with what it means to be an artist. Naturally, at a school like the one I work at, this question comes up a lot, both among the young artists I mentor and my coworkers/friends, many of whom have artistic backgrounds themselves. What does it mean to devote your life to an art form? How do you find a balance between artistic fulfillment and personal achievement? For me, artistic accomplishment and professional recognition were never the goal (which is probably why I chose the music education path, but that is a separate topic). Sure, it was great to hear from a professor that I had come long way on the Liszt piece I had been rehearsing for two semesters, and when I got a callback for the top choral ensemble at my school, I did feel like all my hard work was being recognized. But I wasn’t in it for the success of it all. I was in it because I loved singing.

I will always love to sing — that part will never change. But I lost sight of why for awhile, especially toward the end of my college career. As I began to realize that teaching wasn’t the profession for me (again, a topic I’ve explored previously), I also stopped using music as my form of release. As a college student, I sang. Every. Single. Day. I went to rehearsals, I practiced my voice repertoire, I sang in the shower. When I graduated, I lost that commitment to my art. I no longer had a “reason” to sing, because I wasn’t preparing for a recital or a concert. And I realized that all I really knew how to do was stand in front of a piano and sing an aria. And even then, that wasn’t what I was happiest doing. I think I knew all along, all throughout my college experience, that classical voice wasn’t where I fit. I wasn’t an opera singer. I would much rather sing something I connect to, that holds real meaning in my own life, than a bunch of French words I can barely remember how to pronounce.

About a year ago, I picked up the ukulele. I bought a relatively inexpensive one since I wasn’t even sure I would like it. I started learning basic chords and practicing strumming and singing along. I taught myself easy songs and I started listening to my own voice again. It made me happier than any form of music had in a very long time. I had taken quite a bit of time off from singing and making music, and suddenly, I remembered why I loved it in the first place. I played for myself, not for others, and I just did it for fun. That was what I had been missing. Such a simple, easy instrument suddenly added life to my musical identity again. I loved it. I still do.

But I do continue to fumble with what it means to be an artist for me here, right now, at this point in my life. I don’t stand in front of my studio class and spout out a bunch of German every week anymore, and I don’t have specific songs to practice and memorize. Nothing I work on is culminating in some big performance, where I will be publicly recognized for my work. I don’t do anything musical because I have to do it. I do it because I want to. Does that make me less of an artist? No. Does it still make me feel like I should be working toward something concrete? Absolutely.

I got a mandolin for Christmas. (If you don’t know me well, I’ll just tell you that the mandolin has been one of my favorite instruments for a long time and I greatly admire any person who can play it.) I am slowly but surely learning to play it. Sure, it would be great if I could eventually become good enough to jam with my friends here (because currently all my skills allow me to do is strum occasional chords on the uke and throw in some harmonies…) but I am in no rush. I’ll learn it as I go, it’s just great to have something new to work on. And when I get upset or frustrated or tired, I can pick up my uke and remember how it feels to love doing something. Music has become a much more personal thing for me, and I think I’m finally realizing that. And while I miss the discipline and focus I once had as a young voice major, I’m accepting that I can make music take whatever role I want it to take in my life. I just know it needs to be there.

what am I going to do without a building full of teenagers next year?

Anytime I try to explain my job to a person who isn’t familiar with my school, or even boarding schools in general, I end up babbling like an idiot.

Me: “Well, it’s, um, I live in a dorm and I’m responsible for a bunch of teenagers who live at the school.”
Them: “So, you’re an RA.”
Me: “Well, yeah, but it’s full-time.”
Them: “But…what do you do?”
Me: “Well, I work most of my hours at a desk. But I check in with my kids, and, uh, plan programs for them, and design a bulletin board every quarter. And I make sure they make it back to the building on time, and you know, enforce policies and stuff.”
Them: “So, you’re an RA. For high schoolers.”

Over the past year and a half, I’ve had too many variations of that conversation to count. The truth is, this job is just hard to describe. After doing it for this long, I feel like I really do understand it and try hard to do it well, but it’s not the type of job that easily fits within a cookie cutter definition. It’s a job and a lifestyle, that’s for sure, and I’ve really settled into it by now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about where I’m going next. (It’s funny, now that I’m leaving here at the end of May, I almost feel like I’m graduating all over again. I constantly get the “what are you doing next year?” interrogation, and I feel just as lost as I did when I prepared to walk across the stage two years ago.) I have zero plans, tons of options (which I’ve already alluded to in previous blog posts), but lately I’ve been thinking just as much about the past year and a half at this job as I have about what I want to move onto next. And what I’ve come to realize is…I’m really going to miss these kids.

When I studied music education in college, I trained myself to think inside a classroom. I was learning to be a young professional, and I had clear, set goals. I was going to be a teacher. I was going to mold the young minds of artists, thinkers, singers, kids who were like me in high school, whose only release was the transcending power of music. I was going to be the person pulling the intertwining harmonies out of a choir, teaching my sopranos to transition into head voice, crying at the end of the final concert of the school year. I was going to be inspiring. I was going to change the world.

…I was naive.

Then, when I suddenly realized that teaching was no longer the path I wanted to take with my life and I accepted a position in residence life at a boarding school, everything kind of went to hell. I didn’t have this clear vision in my head, and all I had been working toward for my entire college career suddenly seemed obsolete. Sure, I would be surrounding myself with young artists, but I wouldn’t be the one helping them advance in their art. I was going to be their “mom,” the one asking them how school was at the end of the day, not the one teaching them about perfect authentic cadences and diction and through-composed song forms.

But I started this job. And I learned the ropes. And I met new friends, some with similar stories to me, others with very different ones. And I felt okay with my decision to uproot my life, move to Michigan, and live in a dorm again.  And I began to love this job. And I realized that I can still teach kids and have an impact on them without being in a classroom. And I treasured the relationships I was building with them. And I realized that living and working with kids outside the confines of a classroom was pretty great. And I learned more than I ever thought a job like this could teach me.

Sure, the job gets hard and frustrating and exhausting, and when I’m making my fifth hospital trip in about as many weeks, or mediating a roommate conflict at 11pm with a miserable cold, or stuck on campus with homesick kids for three extra days right before Christmas because a monstrous winter storm cancelled all the flights out of our tiny northern Michigan airport, I sometimes ask myself “WHY DID I SIGN UP FOR THIS?!” But it’s rewarding in a way that I never found teaching to be. I have real relationships with the kids who are under my care here. I am their support system, their authority figure, their listening ear. I ask them how their day was. I make sure their shower drain gets fixed. I call them out when they start shrieking and waking up the building at 12:30am. I hug them and make them tea when they’re nervous about an audition. I drive them to Target when they need to buy tampons. I am here for them. (Are you beginning to see why I have such a hard time describing my job concisely?)

The bottom line is, I care so deeply for My Girls. I call them My Girls, and while I know they don’t “belong” to me, that I am merely one person in a long line of mentors/big sisters/watchful adults they will have in their lives, I still think of them as My Girls. I use that phrase commonly in conversation, with people who understand my job and with people who don’t, and sometimes I consider changing the terminology to something more professional, but it just feels right. My Girls are My Girls. They are inspiring and hilarious and vulnerable and idealistic and honest and I love them. And I have probably learned more from them than they have from me.

I know that when I look back on this job later in my life, I won’t remember the discipline situations I had to deal with or the wacky sleep schedule the most vividly. I’ll remember the times I sat on my living room floor with My Girls, discussing the intricacies of dorm room cooking or hearing about their boy problems or debating which dwarf in The Hobbit was the hottest (totally Kili, by the way). I’ll remember tea parties and late night pudding and watching them get into college and seeing them grow up. I don’t just have 28 students, I have 28 daughters and 28 little sisters. And to be honest, the thought of leaving them in the spring is starting to kill me a little bit. I need to move on, my life needs to go in a different direction, but my heart wants to stay here, in this place that has taught me so much about what it means to be human, and with these people who love and give so much of themselves so freely. I don’t want to leave behind deep conversations at the front desk and delirious late-night gigglefests. I can’t believe I’ll have to say goodbye to them, and to all of this job that was my first out-of-college experience, my first professional plunge, my New Start. I owe so much of my now-self to this crazy decision I made, two months out of college. And I owe so much to these kids, who taught me to love others, to find balance in my life, to find something new I was good at that I enjoyed doing.

This job may not have given me a clear direction for the future, but it certainly gave me the knowledge and affirmation that something new and different can be more than worthwhile. This is probably the weirdest, most unique lifestyle I will ever have, and I’m so thankful to have gotten to live it.

dear future somebody

Dear Future Somebody,

As I’m writing this to you, I can’t picture who you are or what you look like. I don’t know when we’re going to meet or how long we’ll be together or how I will know that you’re The One but there are a few things that I hope will be true about you…

I hope you’re my best friend. I hope that we still have our own lives, but I don’t mind mine getting tangled up in yours every once in awhile. I hope you’re the kind of person that I want to go thrift shopping with, for chipped squirrel figurines and oddly proportioned frames that we place in random places around our apartment. I hope you don’t keep me from buying yet another $3 old man sweater because you know I need one in that particular shade of dark green. I hope you know which beer I’m going to order before I order it because you know how predictable I am in that way. I hope you don’t mind that I religiously use the Chip Clips on every open bag in the kitchen, so you draw faces on them just to make them more interesting. I hope you know how to make a cup of coffee that’s just strong enough. I hope that when we share a grapefruit in the morning, you give me the bigger half. I hope you secretly borrow my Chapstick even though I bought you your own three-pack at the drugstore after I saw you sneak it out of my purse the first time. I hope you write messages on the foggy mirror in the bathroom — not “I love you” messages, but lines like “in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” because we both appreciate things like that. I hope you help me choose between two colors of paint for the bedroom based on the name of the shade, and not what it actually looks like.

I hope you understand my fear of parallel parking and phone calls. I hope you tell me your own fears, because men have them too and you’re just man enough to admit that. I hope you don’t mind me hitting the snooze button 3 times before I actually get up in the morning, and that I will probably borrow your razor or Old Spice when I’m in a hurry (or even when I’m not). I hope the one picture of us that you choose to display in your office is the one where neither of us is looking directly at the camera and that weird piece of hair on the back of your head is sticking straight up. I hope you’re proud of the fact that you can only successfully flip an omelette half of the time. I hope you let me listen to Highway 61 Revisited on our road trips, even if you can’t stand Bob Dylan. I hope you swear as much as I do when we play Mario Kart and you don’t let me win because you care that much about it.

I hope and wish for all of these things, but mostly I hope that I am all the things you want me to be, too. Because I know that as long as I’ve waited for you to come along, you’ve probably done the same. And I recognize that it’s the little, tiny parts of a relationship that make it special. So even if our relationship isn’t just like this, there will be other special things about it. And I’m sure all of our little things will make this waiting worth it.

Love, Me