Learning to Not Be the Star of the Show

This is a picture of me twelve years ago, standing in front of Sight and Sound Theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


This is a picture of me last night, trying to re-create the first picture. I once again visited Sight and Sound, for free this time, thanks to a miracle in a theater two weeks ago.


In the first picture, I was barely seventeen years old. I didn’t know that my life would, within a month or so, crash down around my ears as I battled West Nile virus. I was just about to start my senior year of high school, and was already dreaming of the great things I would do with my life.

Back then, I adored acting. I kept roping my friends into doing silly skits with me. But I almost never got the chance to see a “real” theater production, and knew very little about the acting world in general. I didn’t know if acting was an attainable dream.

Yet here I was, experiencing the most breathtaking play imaginable. The story of Creation and the Fall, brought to life in brilliant detail. And it was a Christian production. I knew that acting in a play like this would not go against my values.

I imagined myself as the star of the show.

Twelve years later, as I watched the story of Jesus unfold on stage, I again felt my imagination take flight. But this time, there was a subtle difference.

I didn’t imagine myself as the star of the show. I imagined myself writing and producing plays that could bless people, the way I was blessed that night.

I found this shift in my thinking interesting, because it reflects an enormous shift in the way I’ve learned to view myself in those twelve years between those two pictures.

I’ve always loved being the center of attention and the star of the show. You may notice this even if you read my old blog posts that sometimes get recommended at the bottom of my current posts, or if you read the book I wrote ten years ago. I was forever more trying to sound as interesting and unique as possible.

One of the hardest but most necessary life lessons I’ve had to learn since then is, you’re not actually that special. You’re not actually that unique. 

Coming to terms with not being special is life-changing.

When I didn’t have to be special, I didn’t have to tell my unique and interesting stories, which meant I had time to hear other people’s interesting and unique stories. I got to watch them be special for a change.

Learning to step aside and let other people be special eventually bled into my acting work as well.

Besides a little bit of “real theater” in college, most of my experience with acting comes from someone–a school teacher, a VBS superintendent, a Kid’s Bible Club coordinator–wanting some sort of drama produced and happily handing the reigns of the project over to me if I wanted to take them.

I love every step of the process, from writing plays to crafting costumes and sets out of cast-off items to, of course, acting. I’ve been doing this kind of thing ever since I was about fifteen, and of course, in the beginning I often played a starring role. Usually the bad guy, actually. I was Goliath, with throw pillows from the nursery padding my shoulders under my Biblical robes. I was the wicked stepmother when my friends and I did Cinderella for Sharon Coblentz’s birthday party.

Now, though, I’m rarely even in the plays. I’ll step in if we need another actor, but I’ll play a minor character.

Because I discovered that shining a spotlight on myself feels great in the moment, but it’s nothing compared to the quiet satisfaction of creating a spotlight for someone else. Someone who wouldn’t normally see themselves as a star of a show, but who shines in the role.

Given the chance, the father of 6 from your church might pull out a winning performance as Nebuchadnezzar that leaves the audience in stitches.

The energetic troublemaker kid, when suckered into playing Jesus, might make you re-think your entire conception of who Jesus was. Maybe Jesus was funny and energetic with a wide grin on his face. Why do we always imagine Jesus so stoic?

Right now, just like twelve years ago, the world seems full of exciting possibilities. I dearly hope I’ll figure out how to incorporate writing, producing, and/or directing plays into my future.

But one big thing has changed: I no longer dream of being the star of the show.

P.S. I’ll have an announcement on Tuesday about some changes coming to my blog. Stay tuned!

Miracle in a Theater


Sometimes I just want a sign that God has not forgotten me. This is the story of how I received one such sign.

In downtown Lancaster there is this beautiful historic theater called the Fulton Opera House. When I realized that they were putting on a production of the musical Once, my heart began to ache. I’d never seen the show, but I have the soundtrack and it is breathtaking.

Let me just insert a couple songs here, for reference.

(Although let me just note, in case you want to go see it yourself now, that there is bad language in it.)

Right. Well. I live off of a very strict budget, because at this point I don’t make a huge amount of money by writing. So there’s not much room for extra things like watching beautiful musicals in historic theaters.

Still, I’d feel the ache every time I walked past the theater, and finally I just prayed about it. I told God that if watching this musical was something that He wanted me to do, that he’d make it work somehow. In retrospect I realize that it was kind-of a weird prayer. Why would watching a musical be something that God “wants me to do”? But nevertheless, that’s how I phrased it.

Today I went to Prince Street Cafe to get some work done, and right across the street was the theater. Looking at the dates I realized that today was the last day I’d have time to see it, before the show ended on Sunday.

It was starting in like, an hour.

So I impulsively went across the street to see if they still had tickets. And they did. They were in the cheap section of the theater where the view wasn’t as nice, but still. I handed them my credit card.

While this transaction was taking place, a girl walked up to the other box office window to pick up her ticket.

“You have two tickets,” they told her.

“Oh, I just need one,” she said. “Give the other one to someone else.” And then she walked off.

I kid you not, that is what happened. So they gave me her other ticket, and I not only got in free, but I got a better seat.

I went in and found my seat. The prelude music started, and it was so beautiful, and I was so moved by what had just happened, that I started crying silently to myself.

Then a girl came in and sat next to me. I recognized her from the box office window. “Are you the girl who had the extra ticket?” I asked.

“Yes!” she said. “Oh, I’m so glad they gave it to someone!”

We got to talking. It turns out that she works as the stage manager at Sight and Sound theater. So I asked her questions about finding a career in the theater world, and we chatted some about our lives.

And then, to top it off, she gave me two free tickets to see the show Jesus at Sight and Sound.

I. Kid. You. Not.

It’s very hard to explain what this meant to me, because it’s hard to explain what theater has always meant to me. I remember the first (and only) time I went to Sight and Sound, and what an impact it made. At that point I’d only ever seen a small handful of “real” plays.

Anyway. I was so excited by this that I had to share the story immediately. I filmed an Instagram live video about it, but the sound was out of sync with the video. So I’m deleting it and making a blog post about it instead.

But just…with some circumstances in my life right now, I really needed to know that God had not forgotten me.

And now I know.

Lancaster Pennsylvania

For the month of April I am in Lancaster Pennsylvania, in a little house behind a hot dog factory. Sometimes I get a good whiff of hot dogs as I walk up the street on a warm day, or when I open the bathroom window to get some air circulation while I shower.

The windows at the front of the house are so close to the street that it feels like if you don’t pull your blinds down, anyone on the street can watch your every move. But the side windows face the brick wall of the house next door, and especially on the second floor, it feels like no one could look into them unless they squeezed between the houses and set up a periscope.

I’ve felt quite busy ever since I arrived here on Monday, with errands and friends and keeping up with writing projects.

When I left Philadelphia on Monday, Rosalyn sent me off with a bag of donuts. I arrived to find that Bettina, my new roommate, had furnished my shelf of the fridge with some yogurt, eggs, and fruit, anticipating that I might need to eat before I had time to grocery shop.

Indeed, I lived off of donuts, eggs, and yogurt for half the week before I finally found time to go grocery shopping yesterday.

I went to Aldi. I had heard that Aldi is a good place to shop, though I’d only visited once, with a friend in Ohio. We don’t have Aldi in Oregon, and lets just say my ignorance showed.

Mostly with the grocery cart setup.

I wasn’t completely ignorant. I knew that you had to have a quarter to get a grocery cart, and that when you returned your cart you’d get your quarter back. Now, I didn’t have a quarter but I didn’t let that stress me out. I only needed a few things. I’d just use a basket.

I couldn’t find a basket. I walked around the store trying to find one, and presently realized that the store was set up to funnel people through in one direction, and I was walking the opposite direction and bumping into people.


I thought about putting everything in my backpack, but didn’t want to look like I was stealing. So I got produce bags and used those to carry my stuff.

It didn’t take long for my hands to get full, and my produce bags to get uncomfortable to hold, and my cell phone (which had my grocery list) to get dropped from my full hands multiple times. Fine. This would be enough. I could buy more groceries another day.

When I went to check out, I realized that there was a very specific system to the checking out process, and it required everyone to have a grocery cart. Here I was, messing up the system and holding up the line while I shoved all my now-purchased groceries into my backpack, since I didn’t have a cart to wheel them to the self-bagging station.

Oh well. You live and learn, I guess. Bettina said that most people who shop at Aldi just keep a quarter in their car.

Today I walked to Central Market to buy some bread and jam. It was very nice. I went to Central Market once, years ago, and I remember it being crowded and overwhelming. But today it wasn’t. Maybe because it was raining? Or maybe because I went in the afternoon? Not sure.

The reason for the bread and jam purchase is that I was invited to “The Cabin” for the weekend, and was asked to bring the bread for one of the meals.

When I was in Philadelphia I overheard Theresa, Rosalyn’s roommate, and Ted, a friend from their church, talking about their love of hoagies. They both agreed that the corner store had the best hoagies, and they’d often buy hoagies for lunch from the corner store.

Well I knew that Theresa had worked at a school, and I knew that Ted worked at a school, so this conversation made me assume that they’d worked at the same school. But when I told Rosalyn this she quickly corrected me. No, they’d worked at different schools.

“But are their schools close to each other?” I asked. “I mean, if they both go to the same corner store for lunch?”

Rosalyn laughed. “They go to different corner stores. It’s just a Pennsylvania thing to refer to all corner stores as ‘the corner store.'”

Then, “It’s the same with ‘the cabin,'” she said. “All these Mennonites in Pennsylvania talk about going to ‘the cabin,’ and for a long time I couldn’t figure out what cabin all these people were going to. I though they were all going to the same cabin. But no, they all have their own cabins, but no one says ‘I’m going to my cabin,’ or ‘my family’s cabin,’ they just say ‘the cabin.'”

I thought this was really funny.

All of Rosalyn’s friends were going to go on a trip to “the cabin,” and I got invited along, which was really cool. That’s where I’m going this weekend, which is why I bought bread.

Like I mentioned earlier, I returned from Philly and moved into my Lancaster City house this last Monday, April 1. On Tuesday I drove back up to Myerstown to return some sheets I’d accidentally stolen, and was able to chat a bit with my Myerstown roommate, Rochelle.

“I needed these sheets back because I’m going to the cabin this weekend,” Rochelle told me.

For a few seconds I forgot Rosalyn’s teachings on PA vernacular, and I thought Rochelle was going to THE SAME cabin that I was. “Me too!” I said.

But of course she was going to an entirely different cabin, with an entirely different set of people.

Since Rochelle, unlike Rosalyn and I, is a PA native, I asked her for more clarification on “the cabin.” She told me that PA people use it the same way you’d say you were going to “the beach,” even though it’s not all the same beach.

In fact, according to Rochelle, lots of Mennonites built cabins in the woodsy/rural parts of PA in order to try to keep their young people from going to the beach for vacations. So now they go to “the cabin” instead, where there’s almost zero chance of seeing a stranger in a bikini.

For some reason I found that really funny. I guess that’s one advantage of Oregon beaches–or “the coast,” as we’re more likely to call it–it’s too cold to show much skin, even in summer.

In closing this blog post, let me make a few remarks about spring:

Is spring in Pennsylvania always like this? Is spring in places that are not Oregon like this? If so, then I have been woefully ignorant my whole life on what spring is actually like.

The first week of March was decidedly still winter. There was snow on the ground and everything.

The last week of March was decidedly spring. With things blooming, and sunshine on over half of the days.

That means there were only two weeks of dubious between-winter-and-spring days.


In Oregon, it feels like there are at least two MONTHS where it feels like spring is just around the corner, but it never quite arrives.

It begins in the middle of February, when the daffodils and camellias bloom. From then on, there’s always something new blooming. Trees blossom and sprinkle the sidewalks with pink petals. Enormous walls of rhododendrons burst into bloom at once.

So you think you’re on the edge of spring. You get one sunny day, and you think, yes! The long winter is over! And then you get two more weeks where the sun doesn’t peep out once.

Ever since that first morning in Philadelphia where the world dripped with sunlight, I’ve been waiting for it to disappear in a week and a half of solid rain. But so far, it hasn’t happened. Rainy days come, but never more than one or two days of solid rain in a row.

Pennsylvania spring feels like suddenly getting a surprise gift, while Oregon spring feels like sitting in a room full of presents but not being allowed to open them yet.

Adventures in Philadelphia

Rosalyn is an old friend from SMBI days. We got along swimmingly 9 1/2 years ago, but 9 1/2 years is a long time, and we hadn’t really kept up. But when she heard about my travels she invited me to come stay with her in Philadelphia. I decided to visit her for a week.

I showed up on her doorstep at 6:45 am on a Sunday morning because I’d gotten up early to take Ben to the Philly airport. She met me at the door, groggy, in pajamas. We had a groggy pajama-clad greeting and then she helped me haul my stuff inside and we went back to bed.

When I woke up it was late morning. Sunshine was pouring in the windows and pooling on the floor. I made a mug of tea and sat on the window seat and read Jane of Lantern Hill.


Something about the quiet morning sunshine filled my soul. Subsequently I’ve spent every morning in Philly this way, just chilling at home before venturing out around noon.

I’d usually visit a coffee shop or tea house and get some writing done. While I have a thing for Starbucks, I also really loved a little place I found called The Random Tea Room.


The tea is expensive, with a pot of it costing between $7 and $9. The pot, though, was huge. It filled my bladder twice, with enough left over to fill my insulated mug to the brim.


It was too expensive for me to go more than once, but the tea was marvelous. They didn’t leave the grounds in the pot and expect the customer to know when to remove them, but rather made me wait five minutes until they’d brewed it to perfection.

I’d like to go again sometime, though, with a group I could split the pot with. Maybe 3 or 4 people. I’m pretty sure even people who dislike tea would have no problem drinking that stuff straight with no sugar. It was that good. Although I would perhaps have wished it a bit stronger.

After spending my afternoons writing, I’d usually meet up with Rosalyn and we’d hang out with friends or go sightseeing. Or both. I saw all sorts of places. Like the Fairmount Water Works.


We didn’t go inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but there was cool stuff outside as well. Some lovely cherry trees had just burst into bloom. Hello, Spring!



We walked around Old City one afternoon, which is just bursting with colonial/revolutionary history. Everywhere you looked there was Benjamin Franklin’s grave, or Independence Hall, or the spot where George Washington’s house/later John Adam’s house stood, or the church that was attended by fifteen of the Declaration of Independence signers.

Then there was the Betsy Ross house. Now, the tale of Betsy Ross sewing the first flag cannot be proved by any written documents, but she was a real person who made flags and probably lived in that house. If not there, then right next to it in a house of the same era.


Rosalyn and I both fully appreciate charming old houses and charming old stories. We were utterly enchanted. As we walked through, I was imagining just how I would set up the house if it were my house, and Rosalyn was imagining being magically pulled back in time and meeting Betsy Ross on the stairs.

But as much fun as Rosalyn and I had wandering around the city, seeing the sights, and having good conversations with old and new friends, we also had our share of strange and stressful moments.

The first Dramatic Incident happened on Thursday. We’d just spent the latter half of the afternoon in Old City, and I turned off my data and my wifi because my phone was running out of battery. Then we got on the subway to go visit our old friend Eugene and go to a hole-in-the-wall Indonesian restaurant near his house.

We had a great time with Eugene, and the food was delicious. We discussed all sorts of interesting ideas. But it was getting late and Rosalyn had to get up early, so we cut the party short and Eugene walked us back to the subway station. Rosalyn carried my backpack because I was having some back pain.

As I was headed through the turnstile, there was a rumble beneath us. “That’s our train!” exclaimed Rosalyn. So I hurried towards the stairs, but she was not beside me. There was a bit of a frustrated commotion behind me, and I turned around just in time to see Rosalyn vault over the turnstile.


An alarm went off. We ran down the stairs. The train doors had just closed, and it was pulling away from the station.


The alarm was still alarming.

“Why did you jump over the turnstile?” I asked, glancing up the stairs to see if someone was marching down to arrest us.

“I swiped my card and it took my money but the turnstile didn’t turn!” she said.

So we just stood there calmly waiting for the next train, and after awhile the alarm shut off. We got on the next train, and that was that.

Our calm didn’t last for long. After a bit our train made another stop at a station, but something seemed off. No one seemed to be getting on. Then engine shut off.

“Oh, I think we got an express train. It stops here, and we have to get off and get onto a different train,” she said.

So we got off, and then, oh! The train rumbled to life again! Rosalyn leaped back onto the train, and the doors began closing. Oh no! I panicked. I have bad dreams about getting caught in subway doors. Rosalyn grabbed the doors and frantically tried to pry them back open, but it didn’t work. They stubbornly shut anyway, and the train began to pull out of the station, leaving me behind. Rosalyn pressed her face up against the window.

“I’ll come back for you!” she mouthed.

My backpack, with all my money and stuff, was on the train with Rosalyn. But I glanced down at my hand and saw that I was holding my cell phone. At least I had this, even if it was dying.

I figured there would be no signal in the subway. My data never works in the DC tunnels. But maybe the Philly subway isn’t as far underground, because when I turned on my data I had a bunch of messages from Rosalyn.

“Hey i got off at city hall. Catch the next train and i will get on with u. Eitjer train on either side of the track ur on. Local to fern rock or to city hall.”

She told me later she was typing this frantically, wanting to relay the message before my phone died.

Everything was fine, though. I got on the next train, and messaged her that I was in the front car, and when we got to city hall Rosalyn got on with me.

Although it had been a bit startling at first, being left along with no money and a dying phone, and the dramatic “I’ll come back for you!” as the train pulled away without me, I wasn’t too worried. Even if my phone had died completely, she would have come back for me, right? And it’s not like I’d never ridden a subway before.

But Rosalyn was pretty shaken up, having managed to lose the one person she was trying to shepherd safely around the city.

We had many good laughs about it, though. And we had more good laughs Saturday night, when we decided to walk to Chinatown late in the evening and get bubble tea. It was too nice of a night to stay indoors. Weirdly warm still, despite the darkness.

I didn’t pay any attention to where we were going. I just followed Rosalyn. But after we’d gotten turned around a few times, I pulled out my own phone.

I had my data turned off again, because after the subway incident I forgot to turn my wifi back on and went home and watched a few youtube videos. Oops. There goes my allotment of data for the month, LOL.

But despite not being able to look up the place we were going, I was able to see the little blue dot on the map that indicated where we were.

“Isn’t Chinatown south of us?” I asked.


“Then why are we heading north?”

“We’re not heading north, we’re heading south.”

“Really?” I watched the blue dot intently. As we walked forward, it inched up the map. “No, I’m pretty sure we’re heading north. See? We were just at Spring Garden, and now we’re at Green St.”

“What?” She looked up at the street sign. “How did I get this turned around? I hate Ridge Avenue! It always confuses me!”

We turned around and headed the other direction.

A couple of Rosalyn’s friends met us at the bubble tea shop, and they were endlessly amused by the “going north and thinking it’s south” story.

“South. You know, towards the skyscrapers,” joked Ted.

“We couldn’t see the skyscrapers,” said Rosalyn indignantly. And to be fair, we really couldn’t.

All Rosalyn’s friends left eventually, and it was just her and I, talking about how the music and atmosphere made us feel like we were living in a Korean drama. Presently we left too, and as we were walking towards the door we saw that the tall windows at the front of the building were wide open, welcoming the warm night. There weren’t even screens in them.

“We could jump out the windows!” said Rosalyn.

Somehow I was very enchanted by the idea of exiting via window instead of door, so without really thinking it through I climbed up on the bench and jumped out the window.

“Plop!” I landed right in front of a startled Chinese grandmother.

“Ta da!” I said.

I mean, what do you say under such circumstances?

Rosalyn sensibly exited through the door and we walked away together very fast.

The Chinese woman called after us. I don’t know what she said, but I was too embarrassed to fully inquire so we just waved politely and walked on.

Several blocks later, we realized that Rosalyn had left her cell phone at the bubble tea place. Oh dear. We hurried back. Thankfully, someone had turned it in. Rosalyn had left it right there on the bench in front of the window.

“I’ll bet that’s what the lady was telling us,” said Rosalyn.

Poor lady. First she has a strange girl leaping out a window in front of her, and then when she tries to let us know we’ve left a cell phone behind, we wave her off and hurry on.

That was the end of the very dramatic incidents in Philadelphia, but there were loads of fun times I didn’t have time to mention. I feel very much like a week was too short, and I need to return someday.

I’ll see if I can figure out how to put that in my schedule.

That is the end of this little serious about these very eventful last few weeks. If you would like to catch up, here are all of them, in order.

Part 1: Living with Uncertainty

Part 2: The Great Health Crash

Part 3: REACH 2019

Part 4: A Moldy House and a Dying Car

And then this one, Adventures in Philadelphia, is Part 5. The final.

I should also add, since today is April 1, that I guess my sisters and mom and I are not doing the April Blogging Challenge this year. It’s a bit sad, I guess. We’ve done it for so many years. But oh well. I do feel like I could use a bit of a blogging break after this series.





A Moldy House and a Dying Car


I hate being overwhelmed. It’s why I pack like a minimalist, and why I don’t bother with face creams, and why I don’t make to-do lists longer than five items at a time.

Needless to say, the REACH week was full of overwhelming situations, from uncertainty about my living situation, to ill health, to the masses and masses of Mennonites at REACH. But through it all I managed to not panic, by focusing on one thing at a time.

Get my oil changed.

Clear out of the Myerstown house.

Text Bettina about moving into her Lancaster city house after Philly. Answer the phone when she calls back. Work out logistics.

And, not to sound like a special-snowflake-helicopter-parented-millennial, but having my parents around was very comforting. I felt like they’d get me out of any jam I happened to fall into.

But when I left REACH Friday evening and tried to drive my car to our new Airbnb, I was officially completely overwhelmed. Because this car was not acting normal, at all. I mashed on the accelerator as hard as I could, but going up hills I could barely do 35 mph.

“Just make it to the Airbnb,” I told myself. “Just make it there, and then Dad will know what to do.”

And I made it, albeit slowly. I made it to a rutted lane that ran past junky outbuildings until it ended beside dingy trailer house sitting in an unkempt yard.

Um, this is…interesting…I thought as I made my way up the sagging porch steps.

Mom opened the door for me, and I stepped inside. Mismatched, over-crowded furniture. Awkward family photos all over the walls. Dusty knick-knacks everywhere.

“Did you notice the smell?” Dad asked.

“I smelled mold as soon as I walked in,” Mom added. And when I sniffed, yes, there was a definite mold odor in the air.

“Is Phoebe going to be okay?” I asked. Phoebe, my brother Matt’s girlfriend, has sensitivities to some molds and perfumes. She and Matt were planning to come spend the weekend with us.

“I don’t know,” said Mom. “I’m worried about both of you. Maybe we should get a hotel room or something.”

We held off on that decision until Matt and Phoebe arrived, and instead the discussion turned to the matter of my car. I told Dad my acceleration issues, and he looked worried.

“You can’t drive to Philadelphia until you get it looked at,” he said.

Sigh. I had feared that would be the case.

Oh one hand, it was nice to have Dad around to help me solve my car troubles. But on the other hand, it was awfully inconvenient timing. Car troubles two days after I took it to the mechanic? Really? And with that oil change, I’d had to schedule it a week in advance. It was currently Friday evening. How the bunnsylipper was I supposed to get my car fixed by Sunday morning?

If I couldn’t get it in to a mechanic on Saturday, where was I supposed to spend Sunday night? Crash randomly on a friend’s couch, I guess? Would it be okay to drive to a friend’s house?

How much was this thing going to cost me, anyway?

It was just a big mess.

But Matt and Phoebe arrived, and I put it out of my mind for a while. First, because we switched back to the discussion of whether or not the house mold was a deal breaker. Then, after both Phoebe and I insisted that we’d probably be fine, we had to argue a bit about who got the room with the air purifier. “You take it!” “No, you take it!”

Then, finally, we put unpleasant topics behind us and drank tea and ate donuts and had good family time.

And good-naturedly mocked our poor sketchy Airbnb.

Saturday morning, Dad valiantly called around trying to find a place that would look at my car. With very little luck. Mechanics generally aren’t even open Saturdays, it turns out.

Finally, late in the morning, he found a quick oil change place that was willing to look at it. He got in my car and backed it down the lane, headed to the mechanic.

Then, a few minutes later, he called me.

“So Emily, when you were having trouble with your accelerator, did it feel like it was really hard to push in?”

“Yes!” I said. “I didn’t know how to explain it, but now you know what it feels like, since you’ve driven it.”

“And did you feel like it wouldn’t go into second gear when you were going uphill?”

“Um, I’m not sure,” I said. “It would hardly make it up the hills.”

“Well, I think I know what your problem is,” laughed Dad. “Your floor mat is shoved up under the accelerator, so you can’t really push it down.”

Simultaneously, I felt intense relief and also like an idiot.

It turned out that when Ben had borrowed my car Thursday afternoon to drive it back to the Airbnb we had at the time, the non-sketchy one, he decided not to bother putting the seat back. It was just a quick drive. But his long legs shoved the floor mat forward, wedging it so firmly under the accelerator that it was difficult to press. Going uphill, the accelerator wasn’t getting pushed far enough down to kick into a lower gear.

After my car issue was sufficiently resolved, I had a fantastic day. In the morning, with the brilliant sunlight flooding everything, the sketchy Airbnb didn’t look so terrible. I slept in and ate donuts and drank tea. I had good satisfying conversations with my family.

And now, I had plans that were a bit more stable. I would get up early Sunday morning and drive Ben to the Philadelphia airport, and then zip over to Rosalyn’s house. I’d stay in Philadelphia for a week, and then drive back to Lancaster and move in with Bettina.

Actually, interesting note, I was able to meet Bettina at REACH. Briefly. But it was nice, and again made my life feel a bit more stable, being able to chat a bit with my future roommate.

Furthermore, I was able to solidify plans to move to Kansas after Lancaster. Which will probably be the last stop on my year of travel, since I’ve always planned to go back to Oregon for the summer. Oregon has the nicest summers of anywhere I’ve ever been.

After that, everything went according to plan. At this very moment I’m at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, feeling the subway rumble beneath me. I’ve been LOVING the city so far. And goodness, I have so many Philly stories, I can’t possibly end this blog series yet.

So. Stay tuned for a city blog post.

In keeping with tradition, let me see if I can come up with a juicy teaser:

In my Philly post I will tell the story of how someone I was exploring the city with panicked, impulsively did something illegal, and set off an alarm. Shortly afterwards I found myself alone in the city late at night with no money and a dying cell phone.

REACH 2019

Before I talk about my two days at REACH, I should mention that there was even more drama regarding my family’s travel plans. Originally we all had an Airbnb until Friday. Friday evening I’d go to Philadelphia and Ben would go to his friend Daniel’s house, and Mom and Dad would drive to Baltimore for their early flight home.

Then Mom and Dad’s flight was mysteriously canceled, and they were re-booked for a Sunday flight. In some ways this was a good thing. It meant Matt and Phoebe could come spend Saturday with us, and I could delay my Philly trip and take Ben to the Philly airport on Sunday.

But the unfortunate thing was that our cute Airbnb in the old stone house ten minutes from the REACH conference was booked over the weekend, and we had to find someplace else to go.

Actually this information won’t be important until the next blog post. But keep that in your head.

So, REACH. We went over on Thursday morning for the opening session, and I have never seen a larger or more overwhelming group of Mennonites in my life.

Like, over there was a girl I knew in Virginia who ended up marrying my brother’s best friend’s ex-girlfriend’s husband’s brother.

And there’s the guy who, 9.5 years ago at SMBI, told a gross joke about diarrhea.

Oh! It’s the lady we knew in Kenya! I stayed with her parents in Florida! I’d love to talk to her, but she’s going this way and I’m going that way!

People I met last fall, and people I knew years and years ago! People I’ve interviewed over the phone but never met! Second cousins I’m friends with, and second cousins I don’t know if I’ve ever talked to! So many people from so many corners of my life, it’s like a bad dream!

During the opening talk I thumbed through my booklet and tried to decide which breakout sessions looked most interesting.

Some, like “How the Heavenly Father Can Meet Your Deepest Longings,” or “Finding Identity and Security in Christ,” or “Emotional Phases of a Women’s Life,” I had absolutely zero interest in. I’ve been in enough women’s Sunday school classes to know that I won’t relate to most of it, but the assumption will be that everyone must relate to these things, or else they are barely human. And then I’ll feel annoyed and bitter and maybe even a little superior, which is never healthy.

Instead, as I mentioned earlier, my greatest interest lies in cross cultural communication. So after the opening session I went to a breakout session titled “Maintaining the Dignity of the Poor.” And it was so good. The speaker did PR work for CAM, a major Mennonite relief organization.

He talked about the importance of getting to know people before snapping pictures of them, and rigorously fact-checking heartwarming stories before repeating them. About not doing things for people that they could do for themselves. About not assuming that you know what people need…about assuming, rather, that you don’t know, and humbly asking. About avoiding sensationalism when speaking about the poor.

I found it especially interesting that this came from a PR person. I feel like mission PR people have done a poor job, in general, of maintaining the dignity of the poor. If you’re trying to raise money in the US, undignified pictures and sensational stories about poor people are going to earn you more money. So having him humbly talk about his own mistakes and what he’s learned was fascinating.

When the breakout session was over I met up with my parents and we went to lunch. Ben was actually back at our Airbnb. He’d borrowed my car after the opening session because he wanted to get a little work done. Mom, Dad, and I all wanted to go back to the Airbnb for various reasons, and since lunch was cold and served in boxes, we just took them and left in my parent’s rental car.

I was very tired. I crawled into bed. “Can you three just take the rental car back, and leave my car here for me?” I said. “I’m not sure how long I want to stay.”

Then I fell asleep and slept until 4 pm. Should I go back for the final breakout session and the closing session? But all those people. All those masses of Mennonites. And I was still so tired.

I stayed home.

Yes, wasted money and such. But sometimes rest and aloneness is so nice.

Friday, I slipped in just as the opening session was starting and slipped out before it ended, so there were no obligations to stop and politely chat with that guy I hung out with at the Faith Builders College Student Retreat in 2012. From there, I headed to the book signing mom and I were having at a nearby coffee shop.

Mom had strategically planned it so that our signing would draw people who were attending REACH. It was a much less overwhelming environment in which to chat with people. I had a good conversation with Katrina Hoover Lee, who is also a writer.

Slight tangent. Do you have those emails that sit in your inbox, and you’ve marked them as unread because you know you need to reply to them, but you don’t reply to them and then you feel guilty whenever you open your email?

As I was talking to Katrina, I realized with horror that she had written me one of those emails I never replied to. I tried to explain myself. “You asked me how I was making it as a freelancer, but at the time, I had no clue what I was doing,” I said.

She laughed. “It’s fine.”

Now my inbox is a little less guilt-inducing.

The most dramatic moment of the book signing was when a small child puked up a belly full of magenta tapioca, right inside the front door. I alerted the employees, who poked around not doing anything for a good while, while dubious customers entered the shop and gingerly stepped around the mess.

Finally a young employee came along with a substance that looked like brown-ish kitty litter and smelled like juicy fruit gum. He slowly sprinkled it over the pile of puke.

“Take a picture,” whispered Dorcas Stutzman, who was hanging out with us.

So I did.


After the kitty litter stuff had soaked up the puke, the poor chap tried to sweep it up. He held a dustpan with a long handle in one hand, and a broom in the other, and tried to sort-of poke the kitty litter into the dustpan.

It was hard to watch. You just wanted to grasp that broom firmly in two hands and make short work of things. I saw Mom grow more and more agitated until finally she stood up.

“Why don’t you hold the dustpan there, and I’ll sweep it up for you?” she said.

Whisk, whisk! The job was done. Now the young man set to work wiping the floor with Lysol wipes.

I went back to REACH in time to eat lunch and attend another breakout session. This one was a panel discussion called “Anabaptists Respond to the Refugee Crisis.” I walked into the main auditorium and sat near the front and center.

But then, what was happening? No panel was getting on the stage. Instead, a well-known counselor was climbing up the steps. The screen above him showed the title of his talk.

Finding Identity and Security in Christ

Oh great. Really?!? My first instinct was to bolt. But how rude would that be, marching away, in my lightbulb-yellow coat, just as he’d begun to speak?

“Identity in Christ” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, and it’s never made a lick of sense to me. But it’s always said with this assurance that everyone will understand the meaning, and it will resonate with them.

But if you don’t understand the phrase, maybe you can learn something from this session, my practical side reminded me.

Besides, I am planning to at some point (April maybe?) write a blog series on identity. A reader requested this topic maybe six months ago. So maybe this session would be helpful?

And it was helpful, in some ways. I did feel uncomfortable and like my own experiences weren’t valid, because I don’t respond emotionally in the same way that “normal” people apparently do. Which is a feeling that I hope to explore more when I eventually do my identity series.

On the other hand, I think I understand the phrase “identity in Christ” somewhat now. While the phrase doesn’t appear in Scripture, the phrase “in Christ” actually appears many times. We’re made alive in Christ, there is no condemnation for those that are in Christ, etc. From what the speaker said, it seems like many people, if they can believe these statements about who they are in Christ, can then (somehow?) keep from placing their identity in other things, such as their job or their ministry.

When it was over, I went sleuthing to figure out what happened to the refugee panel. Turns out it was in the “chapel,” and I was in the “sanctuary.” Oops. This was a HUGE CHURCH, the likes of which I’ve never seen, okay?

Anyway. The last breakout session I went to was called “Essential Character Qualities for Communicating Cross-Culturally,” which was more up my alley. Although, maybe I didn’t learn as much as I did from the identity in Christ one, if I’m going to be honest.

I skipped the last general session and instead had a good conversation with an old friend from Mission Training Center days.

Overall, despite the overwhelming nature of REACH, and despite the fact that I missed probably half of it, I had a really good time. I miss school, and it’s so great to be able learn again. And it did give me a chance to have a few good, deep conversations with people I wouldn’t normally run into.

And so, feeling full, I got into my car and drove to our new Airbnb.

“Hmm,” I thought as I drove my car. “Something is very wrong here. Hope it lasts all the way to the Airbnb, at least.”

And then, after 45 minutes of driving struggle, I arrived.

“Hmm,” I thought. “This place looks extremely sketchy.”

But am I going to tell that story now? Oh no. This blog post is already way too long. You’ll have to come back for it tomorrow.


The Great Health Crash

Living with uncertainty might be good for my faith, but it’s terrible for my health.

I’ve written before about my ill health on this long journey of mine. Generally I have about a week of dubious health whenever I move to a new location. But once I get into the swing of things my health usually improves.

With Pennsylvania it was the opposite. Except for a bit of fatigue when I first arrived, I had great health for the first four weeks. Then the last two weeks I was hit with something I couldn’t quite shake.

At first it didn’t matter so much. My work was flexible. But as the days passed and I couldn’t shake it, I began to fear that it would spoil my fun-and-family-filled final week.

See, when my brother Ben heard that I was going to the REACH conference, he looked at his schedule and decided that he’d be able to come as well. It would be a chance to see both me and his buddy Daniel who also lives in Lancaster. And he thought the conference looked interesting.

Then my sister Amy decided to come too. Her schedule wasn’t as flexible as Ben’s, since he’s in grad school and she’s an undergrad, but it was her winter term final’s week and all her finals were either at the beginning of the week or were take-home finals.

Then my parents decided to come too. They were going to be in Lancaster the weekend before REACH, because they were taking counselor training. So they decided to just stay an extra week in the area. Maybe Mom and I could do some book signings together!

With my brother Matt and his girlfriend Phoebe a quick hop skip and jump away in Washington DC, I was going to see the majority of my family.

Just so long as I could stay healthy.

My parents were super busy the weekend they arrived, but on Saturday we were supposed to get together and visit some of Dad’s Mom’s relatives. But when I woke up that morning I felt awful. Sore throat, headache, and I was so tired I could barely stay awake long enough to tell them I couldn’t make it. Then I went back to sleep and slept until 4 pm.


Sunday I felt better. I met my parents at church, and after the service we set off on the winding southern Pennsylvania roads, heading to Washington DC.

To be honest, this overnight stay in DC was really more about family than sightseeing. With REACH coming up, the last thing I wanted to do was overdo it and have my health crash again.

The only sightseeing thing I did was tour Phoebe’s boardinghouse, which she jokingly calls “The Baptist Convent.” The true name is Thomas Markward Hall, and it’s a female-only boardinghouse. Walking into it feels like walking into an old novel. Wide spaces. Fancy couches. Old pictures in gilded frames. A library full of old books. No men allowed above the ground floor.

Despite my valiant attempt to take it easy on our short jaunt to DC, my health crashed again on Tuesday. Mom and I were supposed to have a book signing at 2 pm, and she’d mailed a lot of books to my Myerstown address in advance. It was all I could do to make myself presentable, haul the books to the car, and drive them to my parent’s Airbnb. I had no strength to go to the book signing.

Later, Mom said I didn’t miss much. Barely anyone showed up.

Meanwhile, back in Oregon, Amy wasn’t doing so well.

Her temperature had skyrocketed, and she felt awful. She went to class and finished her finals, wearing a face mask so she wouldn’t infect anyone, and slept the rest of the time. Finally, she went to the doctor, where she was told she had influenza and would be contagious until Friday.


So at the last minute, she decided not to come after all.

My dreams of a perfect REACH were beginning to dim. For four years, I had hoped and dreamed of coming. And then, for a while, everything was working out perfectly. My parents, and Ben, and Amy, all able to come too! Book signings! Trips to DC!

But illness always has a way of reminding me that in the end, I cannot control my life. And I have to be okay with that.

Thankfully, I was feeling better by Wednesday morning. I drove back up to Myerstown, took my car to the mechanic for an oil change, and then went back to my Myerstown house and officially moved out. I packed everything up once again and shoved it into my car.

Ben arrived, sans Amy. We all hung out with my cousin Annette that evening, because it was March 20, which would have been her brother Lenny’s 36’th birthday. We released balloons in his memory. All of us except for Annette’s daughter Liberty, who clung to her pretty purple balloon. I mean, why would you get rid of something pretty when you could keep it instead?


Balloons for Lenny. Pic by my cousin Annette Stoltzfus (@3littlearrows)

I went to bed super early that night.

Maybe my health wouldn’t crash again. Maybe I’d find the strength to get my money’s worth out of the REACH conference. Since I’m no longer a student, I didn’t buy student tickets, and it felt like a lot of money to me.

And the next two days, the REACH conference days, were…well…eventful. In both good and bad and overwhelming ways.

But for that story, you’ll have to return for my next blog post.

P.S. I’m not intentionally trying to make everyone mad with curiosity, it’s just WAY too much story for one blog post. LOL.