Fee Glade: Why I Pray

Among the gifts of summer is my daily morning walk with Chris. In the slower summer season, we walk for 30 minutes before he has to open the Center, and then I continue my walk to Fee Glade where I pray before the rest of the day.

If I were a better person or a more spiritual person, I’d make that meditative visit all year long. Instead, I’m a person who’s doing her best to have herself at work before 7 AM during the school year. So this practice of prayer at Fee Glade remains a summer gift in my life.

Why do I visit Fee Glade?  Because it represents the heart of truth and wildness at the center of our lives. In the very center of a landscaped, planned campus where history uplifts and weighs down, behind a black metal fence lies chaos and utter wildness. No cultivation, no plan, but trees and vines curling among each other in an impenetrable mass.  Wild morning glories twine their way through the fence to catch the line of daylilies cultivated on the side of civilization.

I’m fortunate to inhabit the wild place where it all comes together in Berea, our divided space.  Married to the college but living and working in town, I get to see the best and worst of both. It’s a rare position, and I’m thankful for it but it takes prayer to make sense of this place so informed by an American history of conflict and resistance.

As I look into the glade each morning, I try to hold in my heart all of Berea. A spider casts a 20 foot line of web from tree to tree, and I imagine that web holding us all together. I imagine each of dozens of little churches, each of our neighborhoods, each of our hidden trails as part of one whole, “brothers and sisters in Christ” as our Sunday morning prayer at church reminds us.

I imagine all the factions, all the departments, and all the squabbles at the college and at my school, and I remember that at the heart of our disagreements are our wild hearts. We can try to manicure ourselves into civilisation. We can attend trainings to be better colleagues, and we can work hard to be better together. It’s best not to forget our wild human hearts at our core that bring out emotions and fears we don’t understand. If we can remember that no matter our professional faces, that we each inhabit a different entwined overgrowth of millenia of humanity, then I think we can forgive each other and keep working together for good. Maybe we can learn to love each other’s wildness.

Last week, Chris and I visited the reading room at the Library of Congress. It’s a remarkable monument to learning. It’s gorgeous mosaics and classical statuary surrounding bookshelves and desks with little lamps. The room reminded me that scholarship and learning are glorious pursuits. Besides standards and outcomes, there is value just in finding out something, learning it, and committing it to our shared knowledge.

What moves us to study, though, are our wild hearts, our passion for this life and world. Behind the reading room lies chaos and humanity. Our minds drive us to find a path through the mystifying and dense layers of the vines of history. Just like Fee Glade, that preserved spot of wilderness that reminds us what we are about.

That’s why my feet draw me there daily in June and July.

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The gift of time travel

DSCF0339The minutes seem short when you have a teenager. You feel like you’ve got your own personal doomsday clock: it’s reached 11:59 before you even realized it.  Having a child grow up is not the end of the world though; most days of living with a teenager, you wonder if you will make it to your child’s adulthood or whether your brain, heart, and temper will explode before then.

There’s something cruel about arriving at middle age as your child arrives at adolescence. Here you are questioning what you’ve done with your life so far and now you’re also questioning if you’ve done any good as a parent.

Here you are about to teach someone to drive a car, and you wonder if you have done even a fraction of what you need to help this person live independently on her own.  Is there still time to teach her to roast a turkey, change a tire, always keep an eye on her drink, spot bad men and women from a distance, and do hospital corners on a dorm bed? Hell, I’ve never changed a tire in the wild .

Sometimes when I need it and I’m panicking about the last years under our roof (dear lord, so we hope), the gift of time travel arrives.

This morning, driving Elly to work, I plugged my phone into the car, and the phone and the radio contrived some magic between them. Out of the blue, the radio started playing one of the old Sesame Street songs that I’d downloaded a dozen years ago on a different phone.  Unthought of for years, here were Ernie, Big Bird, and Herbert Birdsfoot serenading us about harmony. Elly was incredulous. She surely hadn’t ever wanted to listen to this terrible song. She had surely never heard it before, she thought.

For me, time stopped. In my panic that time races, I forget how much time there has been.  Caught up in the era of makeup, AP World History, and fighting the fallout of toxic masculinity, I’ve forgotten the years in which Big Bird was the most important figure in our lives.

The song brings me back to little Eleanor and all the time we’ve had.  Listening to old Herbert Birdsfoot — Herbert, how can I have forgotten that you were even a character? — I feel like a young mother again.

I heard an interview with Danny Boyle before the Trainspotting sequel came out, and he said that one of the great gifts of middle age is learning that time doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t exist in the way that we thinking, heading forward.  We can go back in time in our minds.

I write about the gift of time travel this morning because I want to remember how it works as we head into the rush of January and school tomorrow, all the pressing moments of adolescence and approaching adulthood. I don’t want to forget that sometimes the radio gives you a gift on a Sunday morning. Muppet birds sing on the radio, bringing the gift of reassurance that there has been enough time and all will be well.


Despite growing up in the eighties, in the middle of a horror movie boom, my brothers and I always knew that Friday the 13th wasn’t unlucky. Our beloved mother, at the center of our lives, was born on Friday the 13th.  As children we could not have understood  how lucky we were to have her, but we knew that she turned the bad news of Friday the 13th on its head. She brought — and brings — joy everywhere. There was no way that a number associated with her could be unlucky.

As I reach midlife and see how many of my friends have lost their mothers or who have difficult relationships with difficult mothers, I do realize exactly how lucky I am to have the mother I do.  My mother, Sheila Hobson, is one of those people who have a gift in conversation for making people feel not just like they’re the center of her attention as they talk, but like she sees and values exactly who they are. Coming away from a talk with my mom, we all feel like we are loved for who we are right now, that she sees the path that’s brought us to the present, and that we are now exactly who we should be.

My mother embodies what we think of when we think of Divine Love. But being always a practical person at heart, I find it much easier to envision that sweet love of my mother than the love of a distant God.

Of course, when I was a teen and a young adult, we had our struggles. Being the ever typical adolescent, I thought my mom was TOO nice, TOO kind to people, TOO generous in her outlook. Stereotypical teen angst against the world! That dark vision didn’t last as I lived long enough to grow up and mature, to see much of my dark outlook tempered by experience, brain development, and a mellowed hormonal stew.

My mom has a birthday this week, and I’m grateful to have her for another year. I’m thankful, too, that her birthday comes at the beginning of the school year. In August, I emerge from the solitude of summer.  Summers of my early thirties and forties were taken up by the arduous, lonely care of young children. This summer’s isolation has come, by choice, from the pursuit of sustained creative work. Regardless, August is Back to School and back to work for me. It’s the time for me to cast off my natural introversion and misanthropic cynicism for the meaningful work that I love.

As we celebrate my mom’s birthday right before the year starts, I ask myself “What Would Grandma Sheila Do?” Every year, more and more, I want to be more like my mom. How can I give my coworkers, my boss, and my school families my complete attention? How can I greet and value them exactly as they are? How can I make each person come away from our time together feeling loved and cared for? I’m not that good at it, but each year I try harder. In addition to having my mom as a role model, I’ve been lucky to have coworkers like Diana Van Horn and Diane Smith who have showed me how to better show care in the unique and eccentric environments that are schools. Each year, I set my goal to think every day about “What Would Grandma Sheila Do?” (or Diana and Diane) as inevitable conflicts and annoyances arise.

In August, it all comes back to my mom.  How can I be more like Sheila Hobson? How can I pass on some of the gifts she’s give to me as her daughter? How can I pass on the love that she nurtured in me from minute one?

Happy Birthday, mom, Sheila Hobson.  The 13th will always a lucky day for us who have the grace to know you.FullSizeRender (3).jpg

Home Truths

— “Shoo,” said the man at Action Rental as I returned the pressure washer from the weekend. “It’s a hard job keeping a house together. I don’t know if it’s worth it.”

— That reminds me that, as the virtuous glow from getting the house washed fades, I still need to shovel the rest of the mulch under the swing set and refresh some spackle on the house. I need to call the plumber to re-grease the faucet in the kitchen sink. I need to hire someone to replace one of the door thresholds. I need to paint all the woodwork and the doors in the house. And of course, it’s always time to prod the teenager to mow.

— Helping Paul clean his room on Saturday, I told myself that the main reason I’m happy that Chris got tenure at the college is NOT that I can’t bear the thought of another move with a child that still loves Legos. It’s not the main reason, but it’s big.

— Then Chris took me for a Sunday drive in the country. We must be reincarnated 80 year olds from a more innocent time, the era of the Sunday drive. Of course, driving around in the country made me immediately want to put our house on the market and find a way to live out of town.

— I reminded myself that living within walking distance of work, with minimal acreage to tend, is what allows people with chronic illnesses to maintain their health while contributing to society through good work.

— Also,  I don’t want to move Legos again.

— Also, I’ve only got the garden about a third of the way to my vision for it.

— It’s a good thing I’m not single. If I were single and trying to find dates at this point in the garden year, I’d have to list this under hobbies: “Picks beetles off berry bushes and then drops them in soapy water to dissolve their hard outer shell.” Hobby-wise, that’s kind of creepy. Luckily, I already have a family who values summer berries and thinks I’m a badass for touching beetles with my bare hands.

— The tomatoes are almost coming on. We had one early tomato, and now more are starting to turn.

— That’s good because my approach to feeding a family in the summer is just cut a up a watermelon and let them graze.  Soon I can add home-grown tomatoes to their diet.

— If I could get away with it, I would never feed my children anything other than tacos and raw fruit. I would devote none of my brain to cooking, and we’d just eat tacos forever. So it’s a good thing there are tomatoes to add to the tacos.

— Shoo, as the Action Rental man said.

Goodbye to WNKU

In the summer of 1992, I had just finished my first year of college. I was living at home, driving every day to the Cincinnati airport to clean rooms at the Radisson. I was living through my first heartbreak, reading Middlemarch in the evenings and watching Days of our Lives on my days off, and depleting my lovelorn tears through exhausting labor. With a friend from high school, I shuttled my giant gray Oldsmobile to the hotel parking lot every morning. Could there be anything more small-town midwestern girl of the early 1990s than this?

This was back when hotels had restaurants, plants, and fountains. In the break room at lunch time, the housekeepers ate the leftovers uneaten by people we couldn’t imagine. I still can’t. Who went to the isolated airport motel for lunch? Most of the people staying at the hotel were pilots and stewardesses. Still stewardesses in 1992? Probably. Maybe they didn’t eat the chicken we later plowed through after a morning of cleaning bathrooms and making beds.  Lifting  mattress after mattress to tuck sheets into hospital corners is heavy work. I had bruises on my wrists from the repetitive weight of the king sized rooms.

At the Radisson, I was learning. The housekeeper who trained me showed me to pick dried shit off a toilet rim because “we don’t have time for that.”  I learned never, ever to drink from a glass cup in a hotel room. Guess what else we didn’t have time for? My fellow housekeepers were older white women. They were probably thirty-two. I would think they were so young now. My mentor in toilet cleaning had both an older husband (“m’old man”) and a boyfriend. She and the boyfriend met in the bar at the next town down river from where I grew up. I thought I had learned a lot my first year in college. I had had my heart broken, after all, but I couldn’t fathom adults who had both husbands and boyfriends.

I learned not to touch too closely on beds. I cleaned up eye-opening messes. So much blood and shit. Even today, I can see shit in a carpet if I close my eyes, even I still don’t know how a person shits on wall to wall carpet.

WNKU made my work and heartbreak bearable that summer. We weren’t allowed to watch TV while we cleaned, but we could to listen to the radios in the bedside alarm clocks. One day, I was tuning through stations and heard “Yucky Bugs” by Jeff Warner. “Come on down, let’s go out, we’ll have a bug squashing party tonight.” Folk music on the radio? I didn’t know that could happen. I started tuning all the alarm clocks to 89.7 whenever I entered a room. That was back before WNKU had a strong signal. I could only get the station on one side of the hotel. I could get it in my car for a few miles on the highway before we crossed back into Indiana from Kentucky. I learned all the catch phrase, “WNKU: your acoustic connection from the concrete campus.” I loved the Friday morning request line. I learned about musicians I still love today, like Richard Thompson.

Other people have more exciting WNKU stories. Nobody nurtured the local music scene better than WNKU.  They hosted concerts at Cincinnati bars and helped musicians make the leap to making a living at music.  My story is about cleaning up messes and making hospital corners to a soundtrack. It made me less lonely. It made me look forward to fall, going back to school and maybe looking for love again.

WNKU is shutting up shop, sold off to a Christian broadcasting station. In the last 20 years, they’ve been able to make enough money to sustain their work.  The world, too, has changed and what we think about the value of radio and the common good.

But I will never forget the way that WNKU sustained me in the summer of 1992, 25 years ago now.