Thursday, October 30, 2008

Briar Patch

Whatever you do, do NOT throw me into the briar patch!

I'm kind of in a tight spot. In all my mad preparations for my oral exams and my marathon, I've slipped into a funk. One of those "I do NOT like being where I am" funks. I'm tired, I'm grouchy, I'm critical, I'm lonely, I'm overwhelmed, I'm flabbergasted. I've got books and papers and 3x5 cards all over the place, not to mention the fragments of information flying around my brain that I can't seem to reign in.

Was the Great Awakening an actual movement?
Discuss the debate between women's history and gender history and how each contributes to the master narrative...
What were similarities and differences between the three big reform movements of the 20th century?
Define the construction of slavery and race. How do Native Americans fit in?
The New Deal: conservative or radical?
How do you define the long 19th century?

Be specific!

Use hard soundbites from the books you've read!
Show us how you think and talk like a historian!
Connect patterns across the centuries!
Tell us what scholars have said and then how you concur!
Prove that you could teach an American history survey course!

And I remind myself that I chose to be where I am (was I crazy? really tired? on ambien?). I love the ingenuity of Brer Rabbit. After his encounter with the Tar Baby and threat of Brer Bear to have him for dinner, Brer Rabbit quickly recognized his tight spot; he remembered his home base and used it to his advantage. He challenged Brer Bear to throw him in the middle of the briar patch.

You can skin me alive, you can hang me from the tree, you can roast me over that fire. But whatever you do, do not throw me into the briar patch!

And so I say to my orals committee, to all the disgruntled people around me who are puzzled by my banishment to the basement library for hours on end, to the unanswered emails and text messages and phone calls, to my own discouraging demons who seem to be winning battle after battle with my psyche, to every little thing that seems to be the end of my world: bring on the briar patch. I'll show you where I was born and bred.

And then I have to remember where I was born and bred and draw upon that with every ounce of my being.

So I came home from work and before settling into study, I found a package in the mail from my sweet mom: the book Hip Hip Hooray for Annie McRae [or Jenny Reeder as per Mom's nursery school teacher instructions]. Delightful. Perfect. Then I made our favorite family tacos for dinner, wrapped myself up in my great grandmother's green apple tree family tree quilt, turned on some Tchaikovsky under Grandad's tutelage, and set out to attack colonial provincialism. Yes, I can call up my crazy briar patch even on the East Coast.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The World is My Campus

I can't shake that big white sign at the entrance to BYU--the one that says Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve, and The World is Our Campus. It's so true.

One of my favorite experiences at BYU was a semester abroad in London. So many good memories and great friends who follow me everywhere I go, and whom I seem to find in every corner. (Let's just make a list: Sunday Dinner on a Bun, It's an Emily Christensen Christmas, Yahoo Doray, Halloween escapades dressing up as each other, traveling to Paris, Dublin, Edinborough, the Lake District, and countless day trips across the country, jumping in the leaves in Hyde Park, hearing Diana's helicopter, seeing Prince Charles & sons at a Shakespeare play at Stratford, attending ridiculous contemporary British & Irish theater) It was one of the best things I did as an undergrad. I loved studying about something and then actually going to the place: Versailles, St. Paul's, Canterbury, and let's not forget the play Famine at the Abbey Theater in Dublin or the James Joyce Tower. Ok, some were better than others, but still... it was immersion in learning.

I experienced a similar sensation this morning on my last long run. I was so happy it wasn't pouring rain as forecast, so I headed for the Mount Vernon trail and planned on heading up to the C&O. However, as I took in the brilliant color on the gray day, I decided to detour to Rock Creek. Then, as I crossed Memorial Bridge, I caught sight of the Lincoln Memorial. Seeing as I'm cramming like crazy for my oral exams and I clutched my 3x5 cards all about the New Deal, Reconstruction, slavery, and so much more, I detoured again along the National Mall. There's something about memorizing legislation and dates and people as you run past their monuments. I like to think of it as an invocation for their spirits to carry me through this ordeal. As I ran past the Supreme Court, I imagined the celebration on the front steps following Brown v. Board of education in 1954. Along the capital I thought of the caning of Charles Sumner, leading to the sectionalism of the Civil War. Of course then I ran up Rock Creek Parkway and thought of Chandra Leevy... but at that point I was becoming a bit delirious and chafing. And it started raining so the flashcards went into my pocket and I focused on my jellybeans and just running. Home. To an ice bath. Ahhhhh...

I really wish I'd had a camera to capture it all, but I already looked like a homeless person with my pockets full of notecards, Cliff bars, and my ipod. Just imagine...

marathon: 15 November
oral exams: 21 November
flight to Colorado: 22 November
Regaining of my sanity: who knows...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Geographically challenged

On so many levels...Six months ago I was invited to participate in a panel for an Oral History Association conference on utilizing digital oral history in the classroom. While I've worked on a bunch of history websites and I've presented on some of them at various inservice meetings, this is new territory for me. So it all happened last week.
Add that to the fact that the conference was in Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive from DC. Never been there. Never realized how close Pittsburgh is to Cleveland, where my good good friend Debbie lives. Two hours, my friends! We hadn't seen each other in over a year and a half, and it was the perfect days for Deb to meet me and introduce me to her darling 1-year-old Ethan. We laughed and laughed and laughed--so good for the soul. We watched the presidential debate together and we stayed up late and got up early with Ethan. So so great.
The view from the Incline--supposedly the 2nd best view in America, according to USA Weekend. It was great!

Add that to navigating your way around a new city, one with three rivers and a whole bunch of bridges and exit numbers that have changed apparently several times. I drove in with Sheila from CHNM, and Deb drove in from Cleveland, both cars searching for exit 5c, which somehow didn't exist. Then just navigating around the city for dinner and to see the sites, from the Incline to Oakland (and Deb, you're right--no u-turns around the triangle--it's not the same as a roundabout!). Thank goodness for a combination of googlemaps, a handy I-phone (lucky Sheila's), a hotel map, and street signs.

And who knew an old mining and steel manufacturing town could be so cool? Sheila and I stopped at the Carnegie Mellon Art Museum on our way out of town and discovered ourselves transported to Italy, France, and Greece with all the casts of incredible architecture. So delightful.

There's something exciting and thrilling about finding your location on a map, of knowing where you are. Of knowing where you want to be. Of mapping out the most direct course between the two. Of navigating one-way streets and bridges and construction and traffic. Of recalculating detours. Of being your own personal GPS. Of arriving at your destination. Of feeling like you can plan and reschedule and arrive and conquer and know. And remember that you can find it.

And the Pennsylvania countryside is breathtaking this time of year! All the colors and rolling hills and trees your little heart could ever need...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Good Morning, Baltimore!

Rebecca, me, Autumn

Woke up today, feeling the way I always do,
Hungry for something that I can't eat when I hear that beat.

That rhythm of town starts calling me down,
it's like a message from high above

Pulling me out to the smiles and streets that I love...

Good morning, Baltimore!

On Saturday Rebecca, Autumn, and I made the trek to Baltimore for the half marathon. It was the perfect day--here are some highlights:

  • Weather: high 60s at the start, up to the low 70s. I even got a sunburn! Felt good.
  • Speed and strength--despite the hills (and boy, was it a hilly course!), I maintained my pace. There is nothing like the exhilaration of feeling strong and feeling fast. I must remember... I'm storing that feeling up for my slow, weak days...
  • A HUGE fan club--the streets were packed with people cheering us on. I love sideline spectators--they fuel and energize in ways that I don't know if they realize. Even if the signs cheering on a mom or dad or a friend weren't for me, I felt like they were in a small way. I loved the people passing out gummy bears or dancing or rocking out. They gave me strength to be strong (see above). I want to be a good spectator...There's the flasher that lives next door;
    There's the bum on his borrowed stool.
    They wish me luck on my way to school
    Seriously awesome to see all those people--homemade drums, cheering us on through their morning coffee...

    The rats on the street all dance around my feet--I literally saw a dead smooshed rat on the street, with this nasty tail that I can't even begin to describe, and just thinking about it brings a little bit of throw-up into my mouth...
  • The sights. I've not spent a lot of time in Baltimore, other than Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor. There were like 3 really pleasant stretches on this course. The rest were a little sketchy--I had memories of Harlem rushing back at me. Perhaps the scarey folks and the boarded up windows pushed me to run a little faster?!? At any rate, I was grateful for the cops on every block and the 17,000 runners rushing down the street with me! It was great to see Johns Hopkins and Lake Montebello and the view of the Harbor.
  • The finish line flourish: running toward Camden Yards was incredible--I LOVE love love that last burst of energy when you see the finish line and you pump past everyone in sight to reach it. Incredible. I'm a finisher.
And of course I had to come straight home (after a stop at Wendy's!) and buy the Hairspray soundtrack because I couldn't stop singing, "Good morning, Baltimore!"

Don't hold me back because today all my dreams will come true...

Don't make me wait one more moment for my life to start...

My feet tell me GO!...

Coming up... Richmond marathon... 15 November... just you wait...

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Today is MY day

Once when we were wee ones, my little sister Lisa wrote the following entry in her journal:

"Today is MY day. Everything is going MY way. The sun is shining, the birds are singing. It's MY kind of day."

She went on to describe all the great things that would happen to her that day. She even included several enlightening illustrations.

This morning Lisa called and left a message: "Today is my day. It's going to be a good day." Bless her heart. She just had a baby and is sort of going through some postpartum junk, and I guess yesterday was a horrible day. The thing that I value about Lisa is that a couple of weeks ago she saw herself going down this path. She realized what she needed to do to help the situation, and this morning she took drastic steps to help herself. It IS her day today.

I had a similar experience yesterday. In the middle of work frustration (php or html? hrefs with extra quotation marks, elusive thumbnail images... are we ever going to get the history quizzes up and public? and, oh yeah, I have to give a conference paper next week in Pittsburgh and I guess I'd better figure out what I'm going to say about oral history in the classroom!), study stress (I really don't think I know anything about World War I or World War II, and how can I twist what I DO know about the 20th century into a coherent answer about foreign diplomacy?), and just overall annoyance with people (so sorry... so so sorry... why is it that I allow the actions--or lack of action--of one person affect me and then affect other people?), I realized I needed to take a break.

I walked up to the Johnson Center for a frozen yogurt, chocolate and vanilla twist, and I noticed the beginning of fall patchwork--you know--how the leaves are beginning to turn. They go in patches on some trees and then slowly the whole herd is on fire and you are in the middle of its crispness. Well, we're just on the verge. I looked up into those trees, still mostly green but with a few fireworks blasting out, and I realized. It's starting.

And then I started thinking of fall and harvest and reaping fruit and the law of compensation spoken of by Joseph B. Wirthlin this weekend. And I realized the power of recognizing and choosing and reaping my choices--of taking responsibility for where I am and where I'm headed and where I want to be--and what I'm going to do about that.

Yes, indeed, it IS my day...

And ironic that so many more leaves had turned today... and they are turning earlier out in Fairfax than in Arlington, and I forgot my camera, but figured I'd pick up leaves from the ground and scan them in... aren't they beautiful?

Monday, October 06, 2008

A Mighty Work

Once upon a time there was a girl who always wanted to go on a mission. She always knew what she believed in a religious sense and she had an innate desire to share that with others. She also desired to learn more about tender mercies. So she put in her papers (fearing that she would be called somewhere as scarey as Japan or Idaho), and was delighted to be assigned to the Italy Catania mission.Her mission didn't turn out exactly as she had always pictured. The language was difficult (bless the hearts of those who actually went to Russia or Hong Kong!). It was really really really hot and humid (again, bless those in the rain forests and much worse climes). The companions were sometimes challenging, sometimes a barrel of laughs (consider "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota" sung every day on the streets of Foggia). Her family at home presented all sorts of strange new configurations. And the people were passionate, crazy (Laura di Bari), warm and welcoming, downright rude (think stones and spit), hilarious, wonderful, nurturing, and incredible. The work was exhilerating, heart-breaking, exhausting, slow, and invigorating. Just nothing like she had expected. She learned all about patience and charity, about hope and faith, about work and walking and work and more walking, and prayer--a lot of desperate, heart-felt, heart-rending prayer.

The tender mercies were small but steady in coming. Like she learned she could do hard things. She learned how to laugh at ridiculous situations (you try having no water for a week in humid September in Palermo). She learned how to figure things out (like Italian and Siciliano and mafioso). She learned how to eat A LOT. She learned how to sit through church meetings with kids swearing really loudly or crazy ladies giving crazy speeches, or people doing really crazy things. She watched some people come to church and some people leave church. She learned how to deal with rejection. She learned how to love and to give and to hope. Oh she learned a lot. But she still did not come home with all the incredible mission stories that so many missionaries bring home. Just a lot of really really funny ones. And she still did not come home to the life she thought she would come home to. And though she was really really really grateful for the experience, and she knew it had somehow changed her, she sometimes wondered what it all meant and how all the craziness fit together.

Well one day, years and years later, she turned on general conference, only to hear President Monson announce a new temple to be built in Rome, Italy. At first she thought she heard wrong, because after all, she had just run 22 miles and was joining the session a tad late. Then she wondered if any of those men in Salt Lake City had ever been to a sacrament meeting in Italy, and how in the world they would be able to staff a temple and deal with the laws of the land (and the laws of the Micky Mouse Club running the land) and just keep it open with enough patrons when the bus doesn't even run regularly and where in the world can you find air conditioning other than gelato freezers.

Then she remembered the people that she had come to love: the Spatolas and the Simoncinis and DiSalvos, Fratello Aloisio ("c'e una scrittura scritta nel mio cuore!"), Sabina Mattia, Mary Minichetti, the Valentinis and DiCarlos, the Ferrezanos, Elisa and Esther and Nunzia, all the dear, dear people that she had prayed for and worked for and cried for and spent time with and ate with and loved. All the people who stayed in Italy when she came home. All the people who persevered and pressed forward and struggled and tried their hardest, even in the craziest of circumstances. And she realized that this, indeed, was a Mighty Work. That God knows these people and He loves them and wants to bless them, even in the far corners.
And then the girl realized that she had planted seeds, that they had grown, and that they were good, many of them. She realized, so many miles away and so many years later, that fruit must have come from some of those seeds, that a temple would be built. That it was partly her temple. And those were her people.

And she realized that seeds take time and that good things do come accordingly, and that time does tell. And she walked a little taller and looked ahead, once again, with hope.

(And I promise to never again wear a dress that looks like a tablecloth. Oh how I loved that pink dress back in the day!)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Hit the Road, Jack

New pair of shoes that make you run really fast: check
Beautiful fall day: check
Ipod, tuned to OBX tunes (thanks, Mauri! you know they made me dance!): check
Flash cards, full of amazing American history tidbits (including FDR's 100 days legislation, the Mexican American War, some of the effects of the Revolution, and notes on Edward J. Larson's Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion): check
Bananas, gatorade, clif bar, yucky vanilla goo that was on sale at REI (but really did give me a burst of energy): check
Ibuprofen: check
Ice bath (yikes!): check
Route: Gravelly Point at National Airport, along the Potomac on the Mount Vernon Trail, under the 14th St. bridge, past the Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln, under Memorial bridge, past Roosevelt Island, across Key Bridge through a corner of Georgetown, along the C&O canal trail
Miles run: 22 (although I meant to run 20 but I lost the mile marker where I meant to turn around and ended up going an extra mile each way)
Friends seen on trail: Emily Johnson
Shin splints: nary a one due to new shoes and strenuous stretching and countless prayers
Victory meal: 5 Guys cheeseburger and fries
State of Jenny Reeder: spent but victorious

Friday, October 03, 2008

Welcome to My Office...

This afternoon I was drawn from my basement labyrinth up to the sunshine (images of Plato's cave--I don't know if I can ever go back). I quickly created my own portable office on my back patio. It was a delightful afternoon, surrounded by flowers and fall light, the sounds of birds and an occasional Pentagon helicopter, and, of course, all my books on slavery in early America.

As the sun goes down... still trying to finish just one more book...

How cool is my life?!?
(and I say that in all seriousness...)

Thursday, October 02, 2008


She would hate this picture up, but she NEVER checks my blog so she'll NEVER know!

I spent a week in Colorado with my sister, waiting for a baby to come. She wasn't due until September 25, but the 9th through the 16th fit perfectly into both of our schedules. It seemed like a great tender mercy on so many counts. She always (ok, 3 times) delivers early--never past 36 weeks. I found the perfect flight with less than a week's advance notice. It was in between class and I worked out work very easily. She needed me there and I needed to be needed. She wanted me to be in the room when he was born. I needed that connection between heaven and earth. I jumped at the chance and prayed that he wouldn't be born before I got there.

Once I arrived, I prayed and prayed that he would come. I prayed that I would have the amazing spiritual experience greeting a new baby into the world. And of course faith without works is dead, so I worked hard to serve Lisa--cleaned the house, cooked, played like crazy with Grant and Sierra and Savannah. We did everything we could think of to get that baby out--we went running and I actually made Lisa push the stroller up long hills. We painted the nursery a lovely shade of blue. We went shopping and we ate spicy foods. We laughed our heads off at the movies in between contractions that did NOT dilate. We shared heartaches and cried together. We danced and did yoga. We had Aunt Claudia zone Lisa's feet in the magical pre-labor manner. We begged the doctor to induce, citing problems with ripping and scar tissue. Nothing.

And then I remembered Elder Maxwell's talk on patience. He says it is not indifference--it is caring very much but being willing to submit to the process of time. He says it's tied to faith in the Lord and in his timetable, accepting the Lord's omniscience over our own limited views. He defines self-control as true possession of our souls, and patience as a friend to agency.
  • "Patience makes possible a personal spiritual symmetry which arises only, brothers and sisters, from prolonged obedience within free agency."
  • "Patience is a willingness, in a sense, to watch the unfolding purposes of God with a sense of wonder and awe, rather than pacing up and down within the cell of our circumstance."
  • "Patience helps us to use, rather than to protest, these seeming flat periods of life, becoming filled with quiet wonder over the past and with anticipation for that which may lie ahead, instead of demeaning the particular flatness through which we may be passing at the time."
  • "In our approach to life, patience also helps us to realize that while we may be ready to move on, having had enough of a particular learning experience, our continued presence is often needed as a part of the learning environment of others."
  • "Patience permits us to cling to our faith in the Lord when we are tossed about by suffering as if by surf."
My prayers were answered in a very different way. I love that a perfect God allows for and even creates opportunities for me to learn patience--and in the process, to learn Him. And that, my friends, was the greatest tender mercy ever.

And so I welcome into the world, my newest nephew, born the day after I returned to Virginia. He comes on the Lord's timetable and he comes with perfectness, with a brightness of hope and reeassurance, with news of his cousins waiting to be born (I cannot WAIT to ask him all about them!), with light and love and just plain perfectness.
Luke Stuart Swensen
affectionately known as "Dady Wuke" by his older sister, Toot Toot

Until then, I'm learning patience. I'm learning that babies come on their own time--the right time--and that hearts mend on their own time (I'm so ready for this one to mend--but I'm learning to care for it and let it happen on its own accord). I'm learning to embrace that moment of waiting and make it into a constant act of submission. After all, it's all I can do.