Scholarship dollars, the great motivator

It’s scholarship application season for one more week in my corner of the world.

What this means is that until March 31, students in my region can apply for local scholarships to help them pay for college next year. The scholarship application window runs from the middle of December or first part of January (depends on the scholarship) and closes in the middle or end of March (again depends on the scholarship). Students wishing to seek national scholarships follow the deadlines for those scholarships, but most of the students I interact with shoot for just the local stuff.

It’s certainly a busy time of the semester for me, as I go to classrooms and talk to students about scholarships and help them apply and review their essays. And of course, the students are busy doing this work too. I work at a two-year tech school that costs just under 20K for the entire degree for many of the associate’s degrees offered. When I tell high school students that with the aid of a Pell Grant and a few scholarships they could get college paid for, some of them are quite motivated to figure out how to get this golden ticket. However, this week I read an article about Daya Brown, a senior who has been accepted to 54 colleges and has received more than one million dollars of scholarship offers. I am not sure any of the students I talk with are as motivated as she was. And no judgement– I was not this motivated as a high school student!

This accomplishment took some serious dedication. Not only did Brown spend much of the last three years applying, she’s spent much of her life working toward the goal of being the best college applicant possible. Good Morning America also has a piece on her success, and in that interview, she talked about what this required of her:

“’No, it wasn’t easy. Yes, you have to stay up many nights to get the work done if you want the GPA, but at the same time, it wouldn’t feel like such a burden, if it’s your passion,’ she said. ‘I wake up every day, happy about what I do.’”

I enjoyed high school, but I didn’t know how to prepare for college as much as Brown clearly did. I started receiving marketing materials in the mail my sophomore year, and by my junior year I knew I wanted to go to Augustana College, in Sioux Falls, SD. (Since then, my alma mater has become Augustana University.) I applied, I got in, I applied for some scholarships through Augie and some provided by entities in my Northwest Nebraska community, and off I went. Today, having been in higher ed for more than a decade, I know infinitely more about the process than I did then, and students like Brown amaze me. I’m excited to share her story with the high schoolers I’ll talk to next fall, the juniors and seniors who should be starting the process. Some will no doubt skip this process–and skip college all together–and some might go all out in applying, getting a boost of excitement from the story of this motivated senior.

International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day and it feels very fitting that yesterday my alma mater, Augustana University, published the schedule for fall classes. I’ll be teaching a women and ecology in literature class, and I’m so excited to spend a whole semester having challenging and meaningful discussions about stories of women and our planet and the various ecosystems that stitch us all together.

I took an ecofeminist literature course during my MFA program and it was the most challenging and interesting course I had in that two year spread. My travel writing class was great, and I really enjoyed looking at expressive writing in an independent study of trauma and writing. But thinking about how women and nature are commidified, oppressed and labeled in certain ways was mindblowing. I hope to offer at least a sliver of that experience to my students next fall. My course won’t be as heavy on the “feminism” as the course I took, and although it will center conventional agriculture and things my Midwestern students might know–we’ll be reading Rachel Caron’s Silent Spring and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres — my students will travel to India and Colombia and other countries to experience life and ag and what it is to be a woman there.

The good fortune I’ve had to learn to read and write, to earn not one but two degrees, to own property, to go out on my own– to live in safey– all of these things are goals I wish for all my sisters across this earth. On days like today when there’s special attention paid to women, I hope it’s a goal we can al work toward in our own small or large ways.

One thing that scares you

In 1997, Chicago Tribune journalist Mary Shmich wrote an essay about the value of advice. She set it up like a graduation speech, giving advice to young people getting ready to go out into the world:

“Inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out, some world-weary pundit eager to pontificate on life to young people who’d rather be Rollerblading. Most of us, alas, will never be invited to sow our words of wisdom among an audience of caps and gowns, but there’s no reason we can’t entertain ourselves by composing a Guide to Life for Graduates.
I encourage anyone over 26 to try this and thank you for indulging my attempt. Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97:
Wear sunscreen.”

From there, she went on to talk about appreciating youth and beauty, singing, appreciating the nice things people say and more. But what stood out to many was the line “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

This line has been misattributed to at Kurt Vonnegut and Eleanor Roosevelt, and probably other notable people, and no wonder. It’s a damn good line.

I didn’t graduate from high school until 2001, but starting just about the time Smich’s piece came out, I definitely lived by her guidance in this area (not becuase I read her essay, just becuase I was young and dumb). I started high school in 1997, and many days I did things that should have scared me, dumb things like drive too fast, drive high or drunk, or have unprotected sex. It was stereotypical high school stuff, but even after high school I kep up some of the silliness.

Today, as someone working in higher education in a state where legislators have little love for education, I live this line in new ways. Talking about diversity scares me, but I know it needs to happen. Pushing people to do the right thing, even if it’s not the cheap or easy thing, scares me, but must happen.

So Schmich’s advice is often on my mind, and I use it as a tool to nudge myself forward when I feel afraid. And today, I used it to nudge myself forward and apply to give a Ted talk during my region’s TedX event.

I’ve participated in high school and community theatre. I’ve given speeches and presentations. I’ve played piano and answered questions on a stage in front of an audience. So I think I can get up on a stage and give a Ted talk, but maybe I only think that becuase at this point it’s just a dream. But I know that dreaming and being afraid must often go hand-in-hand before any action can take place, so I’m hopeful and optimistic and looking forward to a chance to scare the bejeezus out of myself on a Ted stage one day. That’s sort of like giving a speech at a graduation, eh?

In the line of duty

When I was a journalism student many years ago, my college profs encouraged me and my fellow classmates to think about ethics in every class. History of the Press, Newswriting and Reporting, Critical and Editorial Writing, Layout and Design… each course introduced us to discussions about what was ethical, what responsibilities we had as journalists, and what our role was in the telling of an objective story. Should we get involved if we saw someone getting hurt? How do we blow the whistle, if that becomes necessary? What would make it necessary? Should we, truly, report just the facts and not interfere? If we did, how large an impact would/could/should we leave?

That one was hard for me; at times I thought journalists should absolutely intervene although they didn’t. Other times, I saw them do so at great risk. And in still other discussions, the focus of which I can’t recall now, I remember thinking it’s definitely not a reporter’s duty to step in.

In the years since I started having those discussions, I have thought about them regularly. I read The New York Times every day, and I read The Argus Leader, my “local” rag as much as I can (there’s only so much high school sports coverage a person needs). I see how other writers are doing this, or not, in their work. When I teach, I think about responsbility and ethics and “truth” from a literary perspective now too. And in the DEI work I currently do as a full-time gig, I’m always thinking about how the truth is shaped and curated and the questions and answers we leave out and what kind of impact that has on “the story.”

Today as I was reading the Argus I thought about a journalist’s responsibility and my (still) murky feelings on how much to be involved, or how to get involved, in the telling of the news. And I thought about how a skilled journalist can help steer a story. However, even as I write this post, thinking as I do now, I’m not sure if a journalist “should” steer a story, and yet in this case it’s hard not to think that.

Maybe you’ll help me see more angles here?

The article I read details a new $5000 incentive being offered by my local police force to draw people to law enforcement. The reporter touches on the realities of workforce challenges for all employers, notes that law enforcement is facing those issues and provides some background on previous incentives and where staffing sits currently for our local PD. The chief of police is quoted (from a previous interview) but the article draws heavily on police spokesperson Sam Clemens. Finally, the article ends by noting that the department is trying to bolster diversity.

It was a fine enough article, and I agree that being a cop has probably always been hard and probably isn’t any easier today than it’s ever been. I agree any workforce suffers when it isn’t running at full capacity. And I definitely don’t believe “all cops are bad.” So I’m sympathetic to the outcomes the PD hopes for and what this article could have done for those needs. But where the article lost me, and where I began wondering if the reporter could have/should have done something different boiled out at me in the eighth paragraph (of 17).

“In a perfect world, you’d have an unlimited number of cops, but the realistic side of that is, there’s a cost that comes with that,” Clemens added. “So the chief works closely with the mayor and the city council and trying to find that balance of what that number of employee is provided.”

“In a perfect world, you’d have an unlimited number of cops…”

The line burned in my brain, and with it came a set of questions: In whose perfect world? Unlimited? Why wouldn’t you have unlimited mental health support, or translators, or afforable housing? Or addiction and rehab services?

I knew Trent Abrego, the writer, was just doing his job, quoting Clemens. But in the paragraphs that followed, which focused on the importance the PD places on diversity, I did not feel like things were matching up. I knew, logically and practically speaking, the PD rep was saying that in ideal circumstances, there would be enough officers so that no one would have to work too many shifts back to back, and that more patrols might mean safer streets, and that all employees feel better when their teams have enough people to do the work.

But given the nature of who’s envisioning a “perfect world” with “unlimited cops” and who we often see behind bars and why, this line felt to me at best like a bit of an injustice to the police department and more starkly, a totally tone deaf statement issued by the person hired to speak on behalf of the force.

But who’s job is it to make sure optics and output match up? Is it the reporter’s? No. Is it Clemens’? He certainly works for the police department, whether or not he’s a cop. It’s more his job than Abrego’s to make sure things sound the way the PD needs them to. But had Abrego asked for clarity or a rephraseing of that statement, might I have finished the article without feeling hot over it? Might he have asked some other questions, such as, “what if it’s not unliminted cops we need, but other resources?” He might have put down his pen or stopped his recorder and said “Dude, do you realize how bad that sounds, after you just spent 20 minutes telling me you want to do a better job supporting diversity?”

But that’s not his job, either.

Well, that fucked me up

New year, new things on the horizon!

Today I was featured on an episode of the podcast “Well, that fucked me up!” produced by Like Colson and Kyle Wise. Billed as a “bite-size personal stories of surviving life changing experiences,” on this podcast hosts spend time with with people who have experienced intense traumas and lived to talk about it, not just in general, but with some insight as to how they worked through the experience and its fallout. Of course there are dark moments, but the end goal is to shine some light on how an event effed up a person but didn’t keep them down.

Luke interviewed me at the end of 2022, right around the 18th anniversary of my stroke. The end of the year is always a poignant time for me becuase of that near-death experience, but it doesn’t hit the same every year. This year, because of this interivew, I reflected on whether or not the lessons I had learned initially have stayed with me, nearly two decades later. At times I think I have lost some of my appreciation for life and health, so far away from the struggles I faced as I recovered. Other times I think I’ve lived up to my goals as I recovered to push myself every day to use my talents to do something with my life. But this back and forth sort of made me wonder if I was really the right person for this season’s opener. Am I still living in a way that would allow me to offer advice and insight to anyone working to overcome their own dark moments?

I’m excited to be a part of this podcast becuase Luke and Kyle take tough topics and try to find humor, light and joy in the look back at the incidents they discuss, and I hope you’ll check out this episode here, and give some of the others a listen.

Curated: IRC’s “Five ways Disney’s ‘Encanto’ celebrates refugees”

As the daughter of a Colombian immigrant, I’m deeply interested in the ways immigrants and refugees are displayed in the news, and one of the organizations I follow for multiple perspectives is the International Rescue Committee. This nonprofit was convened at the urging of Albert Einstein, and today it supports more than 40 countries in crisis, helping more than 31.5 million people in these countries.

I was reading some news on their site tonight and stumbled across an article about Disney’s Encanto, the delightful and poignant movie about the Madrigal family and their whimsical gifts. Set in Colombia, the movie make me cry every time I watch it because of all the little details they got right about the country, big and small.

I’ll be touching down in Bogota, the country’s capital in two weeks, and I can’t wait to see family. My versions of Casita, the magical house that comes alive in the movie, are all long gone, but memories of my own abuela live on. Whatever her traumas may have been (I wrote about my perception of some of them in a poem published in this 2022 anthology by Flowersong Press) my abuela did her best for her family and encouraged all her kids to find their own glow. My mom’s immigration story is not one of seeking refuge in the way that move is prompted for so many others, but it has its own lasting impacts, bad and good and almost always mystical.

I loved reading the article “Five ways Disney’s ‘Encanto’ celebrates refugees” on the IRC website tonight, and I hope you will too.

The sweetest season

It’s that time of year again: apple season. Living on a farm that supports around 2000 apple trees, it always feels like apple TREE time, but in the fall when those growing trunks bear their fruit, my sentiments shift and I am reminded that the trees are actually doing things for us, too.

Our trees are young, ranging from five years in our ground/7 years old to trees we planted this year to replace trees lost. This means we don’t get a lot of our own fruit, but we do get just enough to have it feel like we get something special out of all the time and money that goes into these trees.

I enjoy seeing the trees grow and giving tours and walking past the spot where we planted our baby’s placenta while planting the orchard a week after he was born. That spot is at the entrance to the orchard and always feels special.

But what’s fun for me this time of year is when we pick up apples from our friend Chuck Nystrom at Ocheda orchard. He runs a commercial orchard and within it a trial orchard, meaning he’s got thousands of trees he’s grown from seed, just to see what they end up tasting like. He’s still planting seeds today, knowing he may never know if the promise of that seed came to fruition and leads to a popular new apple.

This isn’t how the apples you eat or know are grown; the Golden Delicious or Pinata you eat are not grown from a tree planted as a seed. Yes, that cultivar started as a seed at one point, but once they hit the commercial market, those apples are grafted from a tree and the fruit is basically guaranteed to stay the same over time.

Growing an apple from seed takes a lot of time and it doesn’t guarantee any worthy results. But every year Chuck lets us wander around and find some apples that taste good. These are apples named things like “N-125.” This establishes the row and the tree’s place in the row. Every now and then, Chuck finds that one of his unknown little trees yields a real winner, and he sells that apple and the marketing process begins. This is how Honeycrisp came about (not in his orchard but at the U of M) and how other cultivars are bred, “found” and developed for mass markets.

My partner and I are not trying to develop the next great apple, but we do have fun walking up and down Chuck’s rows, pulling a red orb from a tree, taking a bite and tossing the fruit to the ground in hopes the next one will be better. Like a whiskey, wine or cider tasting, getting just a swish of flavor is key so that we don’t load up before sampling the bounty before us.

I didn’t get to go on the apple run to Chuck’s this year, but tonight Sean and I sat on the couch and sampled the best of what he brought back to the farm. Yellow apples, pink-fleshed apples, Russet potato-textured apples, an apple so snappy and bitey that my jaw felt like it was on auto-chew and couldn’t stop. I choose my apples on taste over texture, and the texture of that one was fun but the flavor was flat.

These were the best of the best for us this year, but not good enough that Chuck is going to market with them. He does have a few hundred potential winners in the works right now, so maybe that’ll be something I can write about in another year, sharing a logo and zippy name like Zestar or SugarBee –which started out as B-51 in his orchard.

Apples are such an essential part of history and lore in so many ways, from Biblical myths to the Americana that is Johnny Appleseed that being a part of this process in some small way feels as sweet as that first, cold bite of a fresh apple.

Beware the evils of Trunk or Treat

I was in fourth grade the first time I read Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, a novel that takes a group of kids on a swirling adventure through space and time to find and save a friend during the spookiest of nights. It told, like many of the books I read then, a story bigger than my young mind could fully grasp. Even then, though, I could tell Bradbury’s craft was something mystical and enchanting, even if I didn’t quite know I wasn’t seeing all there was to see.

A couple years later, my friends and I watched movies like Candyman, Troll I and Troll II (NOT the Trolls movies you’re thinking of) during sleepovers at my house, and my poor parents put up with us chanting at midnight “Candyman, Candyman” in the bathroom mirror next to their bedroom a couple times before screaming and retreating to the basement, over and over.

Bless them, my parents, for letting me read whatever I wanted and for renting movies with creepy sleeves they couldn’t be bothered to read. And bless them, for driving me through snow drifts and for miles to get an orange plastic pumpkin’s worth of Halloween candy. Homemade popcorn balls, homemade caramels and other homemade oddities from the “neighbors” we lived miles apart from in rural, rural Nebraska were still safe back then, in those halcyon Children of the Corn days. They allowed spooky season to be all that it could be, enough to scare me within healthy limits and feel fearless (for better or worse) as I grew older and had to confront real fears.

Thirty+ years later, I am now an adult and parent, and I’ve gone trick-or-treating with my four-year-old twice, if we name the real act of trick-or-treating as such. His first year was a simple Trunk-or-Treat, the carefully curated events where people stand by a car trunk full of candy and hand you one piece in the setting glow of the sun. That was not trick or treating.

His second year was a walk down main street, also a fun but sterile and crowded Trunk-or-Treat. Years three and four have been actual walk around the block trick-or-treating. And he has loved it. This year he dressed up as a “skeleton swamp zombie,” and he made the whole mile loop without getting too cold.

I liked Trunk or Treat during year one, when he couldn’t do anything by drool, and during year two it was fun to see him waddling around in his dinosaur costume in broad daylight. Last year, his first year of trying to remember to say “Trick or treat” dressed as Tigger, was super cute.

This year, Trunk or Treat took over the rural Minnesota town I live outside of, and there were hardly any other kids out on the street. The people sharing their candy and some laughs with us (and even a couple of adult beverages!) commented on how they received few kiddos. In the online mom groups I’m part of (can you believe it?), so many moms commented on how much they loved the expansion of Trunk or Treat this year, how safe and organized and clean it was.

And this demise of trick or treating and the rise of the Trunk or Treat has made me sad. Little kids aren’t going to get the exposure, the spookiness, the slight chills of encountering someone dressed in a costume on the street in the dark on this night once trick or treating proper goes away. Are we a society so afraid of things that go bump in the night that we’re losing any ability we had to be safely curious about those bumps?

As Bradbury showed us (time and again), as any good horror movie illuminates for us, fear plays a role in shaping us, our societies and our points in time. I understand that this particular point in time IS a scary one in so many real, heavy ways. And maybe I’m just old, approaching 40. But the fear I’m worried about is that we’ll become so untrusting and so weary of our neighbors that we won’t engage in a tradition that has often allowed us to look at something other than, at something scary, and things misshapen and odd in an appreciative way and now see them instead as yet more bogeymen from which we need to protect our children.

The buzz of being done

Last week, after two years of writing and revising an essay about beekeeping, post-partum depression and acceptance, I was able to let the process go: The piece was published on the website Lion’s Roar, in conjunction with the Buddhist Justice Reporter. Lion’s Roar is an in-print and online magazine devoted to exploration of meditation practice and Buddhism. Other topics find their home here, too: stories about skater culture and Buddhism or the Disney movie Encanto bring new perspectives to both topics and hopefully inspire people to contemplate things in a new way.

That was one of the goals of my essay, to push others to think in new ways, as all the articles in Lion’s Roar inspire readers to do.

The idea of writing about Buddhism and beekeeping came to me in 2019, when I got my first hive of bees and the small creatures stung my right hand seven times. I was so lost in the changes of motherhood that I mostly felt sorrow that summer, sorrow and depression with little pops of joy.

The day the bees stung me, I was transferring them from their “nuc box” (a small, cardboard travel box) to their permanent hive on my farm. I was wearing a pair of thin fabric work gloves and picking up and moving frames loaded with bees, larvae and honey. The bees were slightly agitated, and when I felt the first sting, I tensed. It was a hard way to come into my body, which had felt so foreign, so not mine, for the past year, and yet at the same time, the zing of pain felt good. It was MY body I was feeling. Then another sting came, and another. I stopped moving the frames and stood in place, watching the bees on my hand lower their rear ends into the glove and administer melittin, an acidic venom. I could feel the pierce of the stinger, and then the burn of the venom, and then a slow heat radiating out from each puncture.

It felt magical, like the first time I understood Buddhist philosophy and its promise that there’s a way to move past suffering in any moment. It also felt magical because I imagine being zapped in the hand by a magic wand would make one’s hand feel warm and thick and full of some other energy force.

In those moments, finding Buddhism or being stung, life slowed down and came into hard relief. Being pulled so completely into anything sometimes leaves me so focused I can’t see a way out of the thing–for good or bad–and Buddhist philosophy and meditation have given me a way to try and remind myself that this moment, any moment, will pass and something new will come.

I’m excited to have a byline in Lion’s Roar, but it’s also cool to have this piece featured in the Buddhist Justice Reporter, which publishes writing seeking to answer a complex question: How do and how can the values of truth, awakening, compassion, wisdom, skillful means, lovingkindness, joy, and equanimity manifest in these times?

The Reporter came about to explore the horrors and events surrounding the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Today, the publication has expanded beyond that moment in time to covering “Buddhist perspectives on justice” so that practitioners can “become skillful agents of social change in the interest of compassion and wisdom.”

I’m grateful for the opportunity to be part of the discussion about justice and Buddhism and “moving on,” even as I know that this too, shall pass.

Keeping bees with Sylvia Plath

I began beekeeping in 2018, the same year my son was born.

I’d been fascinated by honeybees for years before his birth, but that happened to be the year I committed and got bees of my own. He was just two weeks old when my first bees arrived, and the day I transferred them from their “nuc,” or nucleus housing to their actual hive, I got stung seven times.

Those seven stings felt so amazing, taking me away from the pain and depression of being a new, tired mom who saw her life fading away as her boy came more and more into the world. Those stings pulled me out of my body and dropped me squarely in the middle of some non-time, non-space existence. Those stings felt like the pure, non-corporeal enlightenment I’d been seeking all my life.

Those first bees did not make it through their first winter, and some of my second bees have made it thus far through their first winter. I’ve got my 2021 order of bees in place, and I’m looking forward to another year of beekeeping. My son has survived his first few years, and the week I get my 2021 bees, my boy will turn three.

Becoming responsible for another human life has been hard, and much of the past three years has left me in a state of suspended existence unlike the existence I felt the day I got those seven stings. The past three years have been filled with joy and laughter as much as they have with tears and sadness and depression, but the hard stuff always feels harder than the good stuff feels good.

To get through some of these times, I’ve been putting together ideas for a collection of essays that explores beekeeping, motherhood and post-partum depression. My first essay is almost ready to be sent out to the world, hopefully finding a home before May (I know, I know, that’s not much lead time in the publishing world!), but yesterday, I came across something that has me itching to get working on some research and another essay: Sylvia Plath’s poem “Stings.”

Although I really enjoy Plath, I don’t know her body of work well. I know what most people do: “Lady Lazarus,” “The Colossus,” “Daddy” and The Bell Jar. I know she married the poet Ted Hughes, they had a couple of kids and she put her head in an oven to end her life. I know she was brilliant but troubled. And as a mom who has wanted not to put my head in an oven but find an end in other easier ways plenty of times in the last three years, I have a newfound compassion for what I once thought was just crazy selfishness.

And with my introduction to Plath’s poem “Stings,” and the revisions housed by Smith College, I have a newfound curiosity for Plath and her work. Beyond that, I feel this sense that perhaps my ideas to explore beekeeping, motherhood and post-partum depression aren’t so weird after all, that the confluence of the three things isn’t something that speaks to just my moment on this planet.

It’s hard to feel the promise of Spring and new life when I look out my window to falling snow, but I know it’s there, like the promise of a new idea bubbling under the surface.