Sunday, April 28, 2013


Yesterday I rounded up (easily rounded up) several friends to make peppernuts (aka pfeffernuesse aka paypanate) for my launch party next week. I hadn't actually made peppernuts in about five years--and it was an all-by-myself affair. I swore that I would only do it again with a group. And so I did. We finished over a gallon of peppernuts within 90 minutes. David and I did the dough beforehand, but it's the cutting and baking that's the tedious part for the solitary baker, so that's what matters. Some folks asked for the recipe, so I've pasted it below. 

There are many different types of peppernuts; this recipe is the one my paternal grandmother made. I got the recipe from one of my aunts, who got it from her mother, who got it from her mother, right back into the days of Russia.

Peppernuts (Pffeffernuesse) 

from Helen Siebert Penner, Lena Groening Siebert,  Aganetha Klaassen Groening and "beyond"  to Russia

Makes well over a gallon of peppernuts.

8 cups sugar white (Helen)
2 cups butter
1 cup cream (or I have sometimes used unsweetened evaporated milk)
2 cups milk
1 cup flour

Mix the above ingredients together and bring to a boil on the stove. Let it cool. You can keep in fridge for up to three weeks; however, it is easier to work with if you use it after it has “room” cooled.

Add the following to the above cooked mixture:
6 eggs
1 T Baking Soda
2 t cloves
1 t cinnamon
1 t nutmeg
1 T ginger
1 t vanilla
2 cups crushed nuts (walnuts)
NOTE: I “double-plus” the amount of all the spices.

Mix and add flour to handle--up to 14 cups
Roll into pencil or finger-like strips and cut into small pieces.  Place on baking sheet separate from each other.

Bake 400--375 for 8 minutes (according to the original)

Monday, April 22, 2013


This semester I've spent a lot of time on the third floor of Carrier Library on JMU's main campus. There's an entire wall of windows that look out on the strange, rotund building known as D-Hall and a common area with benches and plenty of smoking spots. As I've graded or tapped on this laptop, I've watched students walk back and forth, and I've wondered where they are headed--in the literal sense and otherwise.

Like probably every teacher ever, I search for a duplicate of myself at that stage in my life. I try to remember that feeling I'll never return to and treat my students the way they need to be treated. Not to mollycoddle them, but to attempt to understand where they are at in the world. Not that this will protect them from the reality of the world. Two of my students will have to leave our program for various reasons, and it's been interesting (in a sad way) to see how they've dealt with this failure. One has accepted responsibility--the other not so much. I feel that the former will learn from this failure. Gain wisdom from suffering. 

Tom has introduced a book to me: A Year to Live: How to Live this Year as if it were Your Last, by Stephen Levine. I have yet to crack it open, but I've looked up quotes from the text. One of many struck me: 

“There is nothing noble about suffering except the love and forgiveness with which we meet it. Many believe that if they are suffering they are closer to God, but I have met very few who could keep their heart open to their suffering enough for that to be true.”

If you haven't noticed from my previous posts, this rings true to my experience. I've had to deal with a lot of things--tough things--but it doesn't necessarily make me any holier. Perhaps it makes me more responsible, since I've had a "threshold of revelation," to quote Angels in America. My student that has accepted failure can now actively choose what to do with it. I need to take what I've learned with love and forgiveness. I need to keep my heart open, rather than sit in my castle of superiority.

Not that this forgiveness and love should be considered equal to the "forgive and forget" model. I have realized over the past few months that certain relationships will never be what I want them to be, and I have to adjust myself accordingly, or I'll constantly be in a state of unrest. A state of "if only X happens, the relationship will become what I need." I can forgive, but I can't--shouldn't--forget. If I forget about what I did or what was done to me, I can't truly move on. I'd be constantly stuck in that one moment of mistake. That one day in the movie Groundhog Day.

I don't necessarily need to love this threshold of revelation. A threshold is just that. Not a path. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

what they don't teach you

For the past month or so, I've been learning the side of writing a book that they don't teach you when you're starry-eyed with your materially worthless MFA: how to sell the damned thing.

I've gotten a crash course in cover layout, head shots, interviews, venues for my launch party. I sneak in emails between classes discussing the pros and cons of this layout over that, whether my design for my book launch poster is any good, who I haven't contacted about this or that. I'm also hoping people at Kirkus, Bookslut, etc. will review the book.

It's all very annoying. When you're sitting in your garret or local coffee shop, you imagine your genius will be easily recognized, or at least someone else will take care of such matters.

But yes, I know. I'm one of the lucky ones. My book is out, which doesn't happen to everyone. I have to remind myself of this nearly every day. Theses are problems I was jealous of a little over a year ago.

Today, the cover of my book was finalized and sent to whoever deals with them. It's just so nice to look at it and realize it's finally come true.

I'm tempted to just get a crate of them and pass them out on the street. Wonder how my publisher would like that.

Sunday, March 31, 2013


John Lennon wakes us every morning on Tom's cell:

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

When I was young, I was horrified by those words. Imagining there was no heaven (or hell) was equal to denying God. To me, imagining was on the same footing as believing. I more or less believed all of my pretend life. I knew intellectually that that wasn't the case, but I felt in my heartests of hearts it was all true. I knew my stuffed animals were soulless, but I sensed the fear they would have when the world came to an end and they hurtled towards the sun. I specifically remember this picture from a dream: the earth, now bereft of its people (or at least of true believers), with nothing to keep it in existence anymore, racing towards the swirling black red golden red black of the sun. The added terror was that I was along with them, because I was yet to be "saved." An error quickly mended one sultry summer night with my mother and brothers as witnesses.

I laugh now at the fact that I felt it was an "error" on my part that I was yet to be saved. The three-year-old me was to blame for my lack of salvation. I couldn't even tie my own shoes and already I felt the weight of worldly sin on my shoulders.

I laugh now at my misunderstanding of Lennon's words. I was paying attention to the words that offended me rather than the words that explained the previous ones:

Imagine all the people
Living for today...
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

What I don't laugh at is my ignorance of those words. It took me a long time to truly understand this idea: pretend as if there is nothing to reward or punish us and act accordingly. Be good for no reason other than to be good.

As with most things, I came to this realization slowly and painfully. I thought I knew everything about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, until I lived there and experienced life on both sides. I thought needle exchanges were just an open door for further drug addiction until I saw how they saved people's lives. I thought gay people were evil and that gay marriage would destroy the world until I knew some gay men and women and saw that none were more evil than the straight person next to them and if they wanted to get married, the world would not end any sooner. 

I don't feel I was a horrible person before I changed my mind. I don't even think I was a stupid person. I just hadn't met those people yet. I had no idea about their lives--as they had no idea about mine.

When I was getting my ESL training, we were assigned to teach our classmates a simple skill and to use "show rather than tell" as our pedagogy. I decided to teach my class one of my favorite hymns: "What is this place." It wasn't because I felt I needed to save their souls--in fact, one of the reasons why I chose that hymn over others is that the lyrics are fairly innocuous--I wanted to simply share my love of music:

What is this place, where we are meeting?
Only a house, the earth its floor.
Walls and a roof, sheltering people,
Windows for light, an open door.
Yet it becomes a body that lives
When we are gathered here,
And know our God is near.

Later, towards the end of the program, one of the teachers confided in me that he had assumed I was a crazy evangelical because of that lesson. "But," he said, grinning, "You've turned out to be the coolest Christian I've ever met."

I don't recall even mentioning anything about my faith during those five weeks after my lesson. Through no machinations of my own, I had become a sample to one person of the fact that all faith people are not alike. I doubt he's suddenly become a Christian, but his perspective changed, and I think there is more hope in a person's change in perspective than in a person's conversion.

One of the few advantages a fiction writer has over others is that they are encouraged to be someone they're not. I can be a tiger-who-once-was-a-girl-who-once-kissed-another-girl. I can be a young man freeing a truckload of cattle in a strip-mall parking lot. I can be an elderly woman chasing after a head of blond hair through a fairground. When you're used to shedding your skin for someone else's, you see the world differently. 

I think everybody should give themselves permission to do this. When we're young, a tree becomes a sod house, a stuffed turtle we refuse to let go of in a garage sale has personal quirks. We all can do it. We all can pretend.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Yesterday, Tom, David, and I lounged outside the Blue Mountain Brewery in fall-like crispness of air and sunshine. Today, about an inch's worth (or more) blankets College Avenue in Harrisonburg, with more falling.

I was walking back from a friend's apartment when it began to snow. Big, soft, clingy flakes iced my coat, scarf, and hat. During the previous two hours, I'd sat and discussed experiences and frustrations of teaching life with two old college friends. All three of us are now teachers in different fields. All three of us used to talk about experiences and frustrations of student life a little over a decade ago. I thought about this change in perspective as I walked home. Essentially, it seemed like the decade hadn't passed, yet I  know each of us are very different people than we were.

Oliver Burkeman (whose writing a friend suggested I look at in response to my previous post) wrote about how people often look at life--even when they're young--as if a change in their personality was no longer an option. He wrote: 

We labour under what they call the "end-of-history illusion", imagining that the person we are now is the final version, and that we won't change much in future. The researchers asked 19,000 people to complete personality assessments, either recalling how they'd changed in the last decade, or predicting how they'd change in the next. Then they compared the recollections of, say, 40-year-olds with the forecasts of 30-year-olds, and found that people predicted far less change than others remembered. (To make sure that the people looking back weren't misremembering, they compared those results to existing studies of how personalities change.) As one of the researchers told an interviewer, "I have this deep sense that… the core of me [is] not going to change from here on out." 

It's easy to see how this might land us in trouble. When you assume your current preferences won't alter, you'll make bad decisions: embarking on a career or marriage, say, not with a view to its durability, but solely based on how it makes you feel now. 

Intellectually, I realize that we are always changing. Buddha, God, and about every counselor I've met has said as much to me. But emotionally, I see how I can fool myself into thinking: this is how it's going to be for the rest of my life. 

So what does one do with this knowledge? My friends and I are all at points where we're making decisions that will change our lives--physically in body and physically in place--for the foreseeable future and result in permanent change. When you're 24 you see these possible changes differently than you do at 34. "Oh, cool!" I thought. "Change is awesome! I don't ever want things to stagnate!" Now, I think: "Oh, dear! What will this change mean to X, X, and X?"

When we left New York, it seemed like the right thing to do--more money and a reunion with old friends. Now, I question whether we ever should have left. Trying to return to New York is more difficult than I'd previously thought at 29. If you look at the "now" feelings at 29, it made sense to move for the job, but in the "long-term" feelings at 34, maybe it doesn't make as much sense.

So, what's to say I won't regret moving back five years from now? Maybe my 34 self needs to examine my 39 self. But couldn't that be a trap in of itself? Constantly questioning a future that is hazy at best?

Burkeman concludes: "[C]hange is all there is. To be honest, it's all rather exhausting."

You said it, Oliver.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


I've been a malcontent the last several months, even though things have been going rather well: my book, Shaken in the Water, is out, I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for an essay in Bellevue Literary Review, and I had an awesome reading in Brooklyn at the venerable BookCourt.

My brother, David, and I agree that it's in our blood to be unsatisfied with our lot. To always think: if only this happened, I'd be happy. Maybe that's what brought our Mennonite family from the groves of the Ukraine to the deserts of Kansas to escape Russian assimilation and eventual persecution. Maybe it's saved us from time to time, but I feel it's more of a curse than anything else for me.

Only a year and some change ago it was for my book to be accepted for publication. Now I want it to sell well. I want people other than my friends and family to like it. I want to complete another book, but the busyness of my wonderful job is stopping it. Now I want another wonderful job that will allow that.

When we lived in New York, we wanted more money. We weren't exactly paycheck-to-paycheck poor, but we were close. In Harrisonburg we have money, but I want to return to New York. We have the friends we were lonely for in the city, but the streets of New York still call to me every time I visit. Whether they are a Siren song or something more life-giving is unknown.

One of my friends has referred to her present house her "forever home." Most of my friends in Harrisonburg own houses. They seem fairly content to contemplate growing old here. At times I am jealous of their commitment and contentment to this city.

Can one learn to be content wherever one is? Or is it a good thing that just has to be controlled, only to be whipped out when persecution rises?