Walking away the heaviness of 2020

When my spouse asked me over dinner yesterday what I’m grateful for this year, my responses were as predictable and mundane as they were sincere — a warm home, a partner and catter who consistently brighten even the darkest days, sleep, family and friends we miss, income, music, and delicious things to eat and drink, among other good things.

The ability to go for long walks was also high on the list, because rambles around St. Louis have truly been a kind of salvation for my restless soul in 2020. I ended up taking what turned into about a two-hour, five-mile stroll this morning, and that’s not uncommon for me on the weekends these days. I simply find it so soothing and head-clearing — and tiring, in the best kind of way.

A lot of times I just walk around our neighborhood and the nearby park, admiring the charming architecture and glorious trees. There’s also the cemeteries, another strikingly abundant green-space-exploration option in this town. Today was a bit more industrial as I walked the greenway along a highway and the River Des Peres.

I find myself wondering now and then if this is a weird habit, and a growing form of procrastination for me. I could have spent this morning cleaning the bathroom and getting some holiday decorations out of storage. Instead, I slept in and then walked until I was exhausted. And I still don’t want to clean the bathroom, and likely won’t.

But while there is probably some truth to that aspect of it and moderation in all things is wise, excessive walking during a pandemic is surely among my lesser vices. So I shall carry on with my ambulatory shenanigans for now.

A tale of two remarkable, relatable and often discouraging lives

For my 37th birthday this spring, I received a copy of John Matteson’s “Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father.” This dual biography is a dense one, and I took it in only bit by bit, finishing up the last chapter just yesterday. I’ve been clinging to it in recent weeks, I think, and not just because I’ve long loved Little Women.

The lives that Matteson details — Bronson Alcott’s and his daughter Louisa’s in particular — resist easy summary or resolution. About two-thirds of the way through, at the point in the story where Louisa is a few years older than me and her father well into his final decades, it struck me that I ought to have a handle on these characters by now, start to be able to sense their next moves in life. But page after page, I was surprised.

20200517_202731I’d be on the brink of reluctantly concluding that Bronson’s well-meaning philosophical pursuits were ultimately useless and, on a practical level, downright damaging to his family when suddenly he would redeem himself in big ways and small. 

As one striking example of the former, he was finally gaining some modest cultural traction with his idealistic school for young minds in the first half of the 19th century when he admitted an African American boy. The vast majority of supposedly enlightened New England parents and benefactors promptly withdrew their financial support, without which Bronson could not support his household. Yet their pressure did not sway his resolve, even as it led to the failure of the entire enterprise (and even deeper poverty and debt weighing on the shoulders of his wife and daughters).

To hold this moment up as emblematic would be easy (and line up nicely with my impressions of Bronson’s fictional alter ego, the kindly if rather absent Mr. March, a la the 1994 Little Women film adaptation that is forever printed in my heart). But the full truth about Bronson is less rosy and more complex — and Matteson isn’t interested in heroes or villains anyway. His subject is a fiery and deeply flawed pair of human beings who, despite having lived in an era that we may think of now as being somehow simpler or calmer, spent much of their time on Earth flailing around and feeling thoroughly stuck.

This seems to have been especially true of Louisa, who remained pretty disappointed in her literary endeavors to the very end. She was proud of eking out a living (and eventually a fortune) for those she loved, but she frequently expressed a longing to publish more serious writing, perceiving much of her actual output as the stuff of a sellout. While I knew she felt this way about her readers’ insistence that she marry off Jo March before the end of Little Women, it was a surprise to learn of this deeper, ongoing sense of regret. It also makes me love her more.

What to make of it all? And why does this book, so riddled with failure and heartbreak (not to mention disease and mercury poisoning and Louisa’s decades of debilitating headaches), feel oddly comforting of late?

Maybe it’s partly that there’s a kind of magic in these two intertwined lives that still peeks through it all, from the day Louisa is born on her father’s 33rd birthday to the week 55 years later in which they quite remarkably both die, within 48 hours of, and unbeknownst to, one another. But I think it also has a lot to do with how very relatable and compelling Louisa and Bronson each are in Matteson’s rendering of their remarkable, fleeting and never-really-resolved lives.

Here in 2020, I find myself hungry for solid reminders that life is worth living, and love and justice and human kindness worth striving for, even when things feel like an unending tunnel of awful. The story of Bronson, Louisa and the entire Alcott family is in many ways just that. And we are so much richer because they lived.

Trading some thoughts on money, shame and Jubilee

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what exactly it is that has me pretty down lately, and certainly a good portion of it is grief. Like everyone else, I’m mourning the devastating COVID-19 headlines, feeling the absence of regular activities and rituals, and sitting helpless as people I care about have their lives upended by this catastrophe. But I also feel something between guilt and shame when it comes to the financial impacts of all this, and I’m curious if others sense this in themselves as well.

My household is doing OK so far, and is fortunate to have the majority of our income still intact. But we certainly are not rolling in dough or investments, and our savings remain very modest. That fact has at times felt like a moral failure, even before the pandemic. And the other day — when someone randomly said to me over the phone, “I wish more people knew about saving for emergencies like this,” seemingly judging those who have been hit so hard — I kind of wanted to scream.

Here’s the thing: I think most of us are trying pretty hard to save, and have been all along, just with very mixed success and in wildly different circumstances. People aren’t generally lazy and reckless and uninterested in building wealth; we’re busy paying rent, buying groceries, getting the aging car repaired, paying ever-rising insurance premiums, dealing with student loans — and hopefully helping support local businesses and nonprofits and maybe saving up for trips to see family with what’s left. Yet instead of feeling pride in what the majority of my earnings over the years have funded (a place to live! food! good causes I care about!), so often I feel shame about the rather shabby accumulation left over.

Then my mind turns to the countless coffees I’ve purchased on the way into work a few times a week over the past decade and a half. And even though those coffees quite literally have helped me complete daily tasks and earn a living, I think I’ve begun to internalize what folks say about us millennials when it comes to coffee spending versus retirement savings.

Thanks to the coronavirus, I am finally making a lot more of my own coffee these days, and that’s probably a good thing. But the shame and guilt, I’m convinced, are not.

Where does that come from? I’m not certain, but it seems embedded in our capitalist ethos as a nation, and in the underlying philosophy of money-focused gurus such as Dave Ramsey. He’s clearly in money-coach-overdrive mode right now. In late March he tweeted, “You are stronger than you think. Don’t quit. You got this. Hustle, grind, until you are winning again.” This week, he was LOLing at rumors that his organization had applied for a forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loan from the Small Business Administration. “Of course not,” he wrote, followed by more LOLs.

There are also a lot of tweets encouraging generosity and pushing for hope over fear, as well as Bible verses. And I know he’s been helpful to a lot of people in finding a path to financial success. But the language is rather striking, and actually feels so divorced from that of the scriptures — particularly the notion of “winning” when it comes to money.

Consider these practical words of wisdom, by contrast, from Leviticus: “Do not take advantage of each other. … If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit.” To me, the economy of the year of Jubilee seems like a better world to work toward than one marked by winners and losers.

There’s also this line in the Lord’s Prayer, which feels more relevant than ever: “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Has there ever been a policy proposal based on Jubilee, this sabbatarian concept of giving people — and the whole land — a real rest every 50 years? A true reset that benefits the most vulnerable among us? It sounds refreshing and beautiful. And this is a time where, in the midst of so much misery, there is also more openness to fresh ideas.

The other day I listened to this episode of an NPR podcast, titled “What We Value.” As I walked block after block, trying to ease an anxious mind, I felt renewed energy listening to this conversation progress. Another world truly is possible.

I often return to these words from Jessa Crispin, and hope more than ever that we will attempt answers to the urgent questions implicit in what she says here: “We need to define what it is we value, how we express that value, and what we ask society to value in us. Money is currently how we express value, particularly through our unconscious association between income and worth. … We must imagine a world where value is expressed with things like love and care.”

From St. Louis to Paris, Nantes and Barcelona and back again

I was initially torn on whether to bring my camera, as opposed to just my smartphone, on our trip to France and Spain. Despite limited space in our carry-on bags, I ultimately decided I valued higher-res photos over more outfits — and that my worry about taking pictures instead of just being in the moment was probably overblown.

I’m glad I brought it, in the end. I only took my Nikon out at certain times, but I still ended up taking several hundred photos over the course of about 12 days. And while most of them depict sights that the postcard images in tourist shops present far more professionally, it really was fun to document our trip in this fashion. I’ve selected a handful of my favorite shots for this post, in roughly chronological order.

This one probably needs no introduction:


Nor this one:


It was definitely interesting seeing all the construction on Notre Dame and thinking back about six months ago when the cathedral was in flames.

Much of our time in Paris we spent walking. One day we logged about 34,000 steps! We also took the trains a good bit (this was all just about a week or so before the general strike that’s now underway in France).


Perhaps my favorite experience in Paris was simply strolling along the Seine. I kept thinking of the song I love, that talks briefly about the river, in “La La Land,” and even (or especially?) in the rainy, overcast weather it really was so picturesque and romantic.


Here’s what it looks like from a boat on the river at night (although my pictures are blurrier than I’d hoped).


The Eiffel Tower was gorgeous at night — that’s definitely the way to view it if you are just getting one look. During our daytime stroll around the Eiffel Tower Joe goes, “The [St. Louis] Arch is better.” And I had to agree! But at night … from the Seine … different story:


We took the Metro up to Montmartre and its famous and stunning Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur one day. This is Joe on the spiral-like, seemingly never-ending stairs leading from the village back down to the train:


After a weekend in Paris, we zipped west a few hours to Nantes, where we met up with my parents who were house-sitting for some friends who live near a village about 45 minutes away from Nantes. This is Dodger, who my parents were hanging out with along with some wonderful chickens and cats at their friends’ lovely rural French property:


Mom and Dad had use of their friends’ car while in France, so they took us around a bunch of villages around Nantes.


I absolutely loved seeing so many smartcar-sized automobiles everywhere. Oh that we in America would go smaller instead of bigger with our vehicles, too!


Every little town we visited seemed to have the most picturesque cemeteries, churches and castles.


This is Château de Châteaubriant …


Another image from there:


And a few from another town I’ll try to look up later:




We spent a quiet but fun Thanksgiving with my folks before the next day trekking back to Paris to catch a train to Barcelona. If I’m remembering correctly, it would take about 10 hours to drive between these two major cities, but it was just over six hours on the high-speed train, which was pretty reasonable in terms of cost. I loved the train so much, and got lots of good reading done, too.

I knew we were headed south, but somehow I didn’t realize just how much warmer Barcelona would be. It was a welcome change of climate after some really chilly, rainy days further north.


The big reason we chose Barcelona as a second destination (in addition to France stuff) for this trip of a lifetime was because Joe really wanted to explore the architectural work of Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926). And explore it we did.


From magical lamp posts to his hilltop Parc Guell, we were blown away.



We also happened to be staying *across the street* from his famous Palau Guell, one of his earlier masterpieces. It’s breathtaking inside and out (and on its rooftop). This is the stable on its lower level:



And here’s just, you know, your average bay window:


This is another shot from the interior:




We walked to Casa Batlló, one of Gaudí’s wildly imaginative residential projects, and while we didn’t go inside this one, just the exterior is really amazing.


I may have been most excited, though, to see percussive dancers busking right outside. Clogging(ish) in Europe, you guys!! 🙂


We got to go inside (and above) Casa Mila (La Pedrera), another famous residential project. The audio tour was fantastic, and Joe was clearly in his element.


I’ve never seen anything like that rooftop.


The entire project embodies earth, water, fire and air and other aspects of the natural world, which Gaudí drew on heavily as an artist.





At one point during our weekend in Barcelona we walked up SO MANY STEEP STREETS, and I wanted to quit, but then this was the view:


You can see above at left Sagrada Família, Gaudí’s unfinished (but progressing!) basilica, which is truly like no other. It’s hard to get the whole thing in one frame. I like this following image because of how it shows where the late architect left off and where additional work has been done:


Along with all of this artistry, we thoroughly enjoyed the food in Barcelona (I consumed SO much paella!). And like in Paris, there’s just so much to see simply walking around. The holiday lights were really incredible all around Barcelona. This picture doesn’t really do it justice, but every street had a different design/theme, and it was magical:


I have many more photos, but these were just some that really stood out to me, and yikes, this post is still a lot longer than I meant it to be! If you made it this far, thanks for reading/viewing. 🙂

Some reflections on leaving church, caring about it and the legacy of RHE

WyomingThe other day, while reading a book by a person I’ve long admired, I came across the following lines.

“If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm,” the author wrote. “With Scripture, we’ve been entrusted with some of the most powerful stories ever told. How we harness that power, whether for good or evil, oppression or liberation, changes everything.”

Placed at the end of a chapter on stories of deliverance as well as how the Bible can be, and has been throughout history, bent to support everything from racial and gender oppression to genocide, this concluding thought struck a chord. It fit so well with the spirit of what Jesus, according to scripture, told the religious gatekeepers of his day when they tried to quiz him on theological things: “All of the law and prophets hang on these two commandments [about loving people and god].”

I stopped and read the lines back over a few times: “With Scripture, we’ve been entrusted with some of the most powerful stories ever told. How we harness that power … changes everything.”

Now if I were her, I thought for a quibbling moment, I probably wouldn’t have capitalized the S in scripture, that cherished text I once took to be infallible and directly inspired by the god of my youth and then, in my early 20s, began to struggle with so deeply that I eventually left the church. But that’s my agnostic side talking; another side of me knows, in my heart of hearts, that at the same time there are truths in this particular collection of ancient writings that will always help to guide and inspire me, always be with me. It’s not a choice; this tradition, this religious text, is a part of me at this point.

For years I’ve had a hard time believing that’s OK. It’s somehow easier, or at least less messy, to fully embrace the identity of the apostate (a word I quickly learned to associate with myself once I openly admitted deep doubts about key tenets – bodily resurrection, existence of hell, troubling views of women and LGBTQ people, etc).

And so I tend to hold many of the great good things my childhood faith and upbringing gave me at arms length, telling myself that it’s strange I still sometimes find comfort, on sleepless nights, in the songs I grew up singing (“Unto the hills I lift my longing eyes; whence comes my aid? My safety cometh from the lord, maker of heaven and earth”). That my particularly fond memories of church and preschool inside the predominantly black congregation we were part of in Selma when I was very small are to some degree suspect now, and that I’m a little bit of a fraud for returning there for worship, and being moved to tears (and not volunteering the fact of my apostasy to the dear remaining saints there), on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. That I don’t get to care anymore, or really get to have any kind of say, about how Jesus is invoked and represented in the 21st century by people who claim to follow him.

But Rachel Held Evans, the author of the book I’ve been reading in recent days, consistently found a way to embrace the messier path, and invite others alongside her journey of faith, doubt and just being a human doing her best. Throughout “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again,” she does just that, and I wish I could tell her the gift this book has been to me. Like so many people, I still can’t quite fathom that she’s gone.

Within an hour or so of reading RHE’s “how we harness that power … changes everything” passage, a friend happened to alert me to an unusual development on a social media page I’d been following just a bit about a year ago. At that time, a really wonderful person within my extended family was being basically defrocked for gently and thoughtfully (and quite carefully, it would seem, in terms of going through the appropriate church governance channels) suggesting his peers consider the case for allowing women (not just men) to become elders. Like with so many things having to do with my “past” self, I felt a bit sheepish about weighing in at all. But I also felt like, “Hey, this is someone I love, and he doesn’t deserve this, and it doesn’t matter at some level what we do and don’t agree on – this is just wrong.” And so I did share some thoughts and felt I could do so a bit more freely than some associates still within the denomination and subject to church discipline themselves (speaking from experience, I can say threats of excommunication aren’t fun).

But the other day, when I was alerted to the page once more, it wasn’t about that specific denominational drama (which did indeed wind up sending a clear message of formal punishment and exclusion for any elder who would dare to speak up for those who don’t have a voice and have long been excluded from the church’s governing body). This time the attention was on the fact that an ordained (and outspoken) pastor was saying publicly that the “exegetical work wasn’t done” before the denomination, well over a century ago, decided to allow women deacons. He chalked up that inclusive course of action, at least in part, to a wrongly progressive spirit of the age, suggesting the move was hasty and not properly, “exegetically,” done.

This development was not going well on the social media page my friend had alerted me to, suffice to say. The fact of women deacons, in place long before the time I was born into the denomination, is definitely among the many good things about how I was raised. The women deacons around when I was growing up did amazing, practical work (alongside other great deacons of course) helping those in need, fixing all sorts of maintenance issues, you name it. Jesus’-hands-and-feet kind of stuff. Now some of the pastors with current sway in the church are suggesting women probably shouldn’t have been allowed to fulfill that role, either?

All this is simply to say that the topic drew my attention, even as an outsider now to the denomination. It’s not that I intend to return, but I can’t help but care about where things seem to be heading. And once again, I pushed back against the feeling of being an imposter and decided to share some thoughts. Not everyone is as free to.

RHE’s words were still ringing in my head: “With Scripture, we’ve been entrusted with some of the most powerful stories ever told. How we harness that power … changes everything.” Thinking that it might make for a gentle yet pointed response to the male pastors who were telling concerned women on the page to “grow up, ladies,” complaining about the “feminization” of the church and generally belittling everything they said, I posted the full quote by this thoughtful , recently departed person of faith.

When pastors of the church in which I was raised quickly responded with “laughing” emoticons, I was floored. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised; RHE herself would be considered by many of them to be a heretic, an apostate. But really? Laughing emoticons? About a thoughtful passage by a kind fellow human being, who died only weeks ago? Is this what Jesus wanted his followers to be about?

It went downhill from there; another pastor posted a gay-bashing meme (which I probably stupidly tried to call him out on … just got more laughing emoticons), and still another wrote that people like myself “have nothing to contribute to a discussion of how women can best serve in Christian churches.” That particular line sounded a lot like what I think I tend to tell myself, consciously or unconsciously.

Ooph. This is all so small, in a way, and yet I still think on these things sometimes, and then I worry I’m just dwelling. But when I consider what an enormous part of my life church was for so long, I guess it’s not crazy that it still comes up now and then. I still think Jesus was on to something, and I still love my family and friends, and I still have thoughts and ideas and things to contribute to the universe, which includes the church that raised me.


“He drew a circle that shut me out –/ Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout./ But Love and I had the wit to win:/ We drew a circle that took him in!” –Edwin Markham

“If you are looking for Bible verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to honor and celebrate women, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to wage war, there are plenty. If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, there are plenty more.” –RHE

A brief jumble of thoughts on silence and truth, anger and gratitude

TowerGroveParkJuly2016I was raised to know deep in my soul that actions speak far louder than words, that talk is often cheap. At the same time, I was and am still a preacher’s daughter (and a journalist), and the human ability to speak out, and to be heard, has long captivated me.

Over the past six weeks I’ve tried to draw on that first lesson of my youth, reminding myself (and listening to kind reminders from confidantes) that with silence come dignity and strength. “Saying nothing … sometimes says the most,” Emily Dickinson once wrote.

Other times, I imagine the tell-it-slant poet adding in a postscript, you have to express your heart and spread some truth.

And right now, I’m weary of taking the high road through this sad saga and seeing an ego-fueled lie continue to win the day.

In recent weeks, my full name has been used outside of my control in shitty ways, on air and on TV, in service of a wildly false narrative. I’ve had some clowns proactively seek me out online to tell me what a terrible person I am. Several local broadcasters have made very public fun of my Twitter feed, haircut and general “look.”

It all feels so small when I type it out like this. I feel weak for letting it get to me, for feeling real anger at times (as well as sadness and anxiety) over an ultimately minor and passing travesty. I know this mild experience of b.s. pales in comparison to the trolling and defamation (and worse) that so many others have endured.

It’s useful to turn my focus to what I’ve learned through this little dust-up. I have gleaned some lessons I won’t soon forget – about the nature of confirmation bias and the considerable horrors of the internet (turns out whoever first said “don’t read the comments” was really onto something!), as well as the power of ego and privilege.

I feel a great deal of gratitude, too, by the way. This sweet song expresses it better than I ever could:

A film acquainted with grief

“First Reformed” pretty much had me (a strayed Reformed Presbyterian pastor’s kid) at its title, along with the fact that it stars Ethan Hawke. And then Paul Schrader’s new film went straight for my spiritual jugular with an early reference to a much-loved Heidelberg Catechism question.

“What is your only comfort in life and death?” Rev. Toller (Hawke) asks in the first scene, from the pulpit of a historic and mostly empty church.


The big screen at the Tivoli, where “First Reformed” is currently playing.

“That I am not my own,” both he and his handful of congregants collectively respond, “but belong in body and soul, both in life and death, to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ.”

Those words remain imprinted on my mind and infused with emotion despite a full decade of expressed doubt and apostasy. And clearly the passage resonates with Schrader, who also has roots in the Calvinist tradition. Over the course of “First Reformed,” the filmmaker offers a dense portrait of both some of the best and the worst sides of contemporary religious life — plus a deep dive into one particular character’s extended inner crisis.

The film felt uniquely and satisfyingly familiar, a rare instance of my theological background finding representation on the big screen. From small details like the pamphlet/resource rack in First Reformed’s foyer to Toller’s thoughtful critique of the prosperity gospel and his affinity for the works of Kierkegaard and Merton, there’s so much to love about the film’s rich approach to its subject matter.

There are no broad strokes or lazy critiques to be found in “First Reformed,” even when the camera is focused on various members of a neighboring megachurch. Instead of predictably skewering this or that character into a Ted Haggard-esque caricature, Schrader gives us scenes and interactions between Toller, his own congregants and other community members that feel authentic and complex.

Chief among those, at least for this viewer, is the counseling scene during which Toller meets with a relatively young environmental activist who attends First Reformed with his wife but has despaired for the future of the world that their soon-to-arrive child will inherit.

“Will God forgive us for destroying his creation?” the man asks. That question, Toller’s response and the sincere back-and-forth as a whole here will stick with me for a long time, as will the devastating turn of events that follows their conversation. This is pastoral work at its absolute finest and most critical, in my view: pondering deep and even desperate questions alongside fellow mortals, never pretending toward a lot of answers but content to stumble alongside others through the dark.

Compared to “Higher Ground” (one of my all-time favs, starring Vera Farmiga) and certain other films I love that take a close look at the state of our souls, “First Reformed” offers significantly less catharsis. Here, instead of focusing solely on the drama of individual experience and conviction (though that’s there too), the state of the physical world is urgently and realistically disconcerting even as Toller’s inner turmoil also grows.

My husband put it well afterward: The film is not so much about a crisis of faith as it is a crisis of conscience. That sets “First Reformed” apart in big ways  (as well as some very sad and scary ones, just fair warning) as an essential picture for our time, and I highly recommend it.

The irresistible double step rock step

I wrote this several years ago for an evening class I was taking and then never found a good publication home for it (but did end up joining the Thunder and Lightning Cloggers and am still a member to this day). Tonight, on my drive home from practice — now held in Columbia, Illinois, by the way — I was thinking about what it is exactly that keeps me clogging. I don’t have a short answer. But here’s a long one, if you’re curious.

Instructor Robert Kennedy spied the clogging shoes tucked under my arm as I ventured into the old schoolhouse in East Carondelet, Illinois, that chilly Monday night. There to watch the Thunder and Lightning Cloggers’ practice session, I’d brought my old taps along just in case.

“Do you remember basics? Triples? Fancy doubles?” Robert said. I did, and after admitting as much to him, mere observation was clearly no longer an option, however rusty my memory and footwork might be. “Molly here is just back from two weeks in Ecuador, and you can learn ‘Pitkin County’ right along with her.”

10387135_680830838892_8784199431647028857_oI tied the dusty laces, stood up and crept as inconspicuously as possible—an exercise in futility given the steel taps nailed to my soles—onto the plywood dancing surface. A floor-to-ceiling mirror stretched from one end of the makeshift studio to the other, and as Robert called out the step sequences he kept a close eye on the movements of our feet.

“Double-step, double-cross, step-rock-step, double-step, double-cross, step-rock-step. Stomp double-step, double-step-rock-step … two rocking chairs … and a cowboy … now two turkeys!”

In just a few minutes we’d covered what Robert described as parts A, B, and C—the entirety of the routine when the three sections are performed in the order A, B, A, C, A, B, A, ½ C. To my relief, I actually managed to keep up okay. Robert then fiddled with a fancy-looking deejay machine in the corner, hopped back to the center of the dance floor, counted the introductory beats aloud and led Molly Diehl, me and the four other cloggers in the room through the routine again, this time with Steve Martin’s “Pitkin County Turnaround” banjo pouring through the speakers.

The Thunder and Lightning Cloggers are one of just two such groups active in the St. Louis region. The other is the Missouri River Cloggers, who meet each Wednesday evening at the Olivette Community Center out west of the city, in a tile-floored room that hosts an adult day care by day. The practice locations are unassuming spaces, the attire casual, alluding in a way to the inherent simplicity of this enduring folk art form that takes the ordinary sound of a shoe against a hard surface and works a kind of magic.

All told, the two clogging groups amount to roughly 20 people, ranging in age from Molly, a high school senior, to Anita, a woman in her seventies who is seen as a mentor to newer members of the Missouri River Cloggers. Local nurse Kim Evans joined that group about a year ago, and at the age of 47, she laughs that she is one of the younger ones. A relative newbie to the percussive dance form, she told me not to watch her as I observed the group moving to everything from an Irish jig to a rendition of “Gangnam Style” one night. But it was quickly obvious that she’s already picked up the basic elements and much more, and she loves it. From the moment one week’s practice ends, she’s looking forward to the next one.

“I get the opportunity to tune out the rest of the world—no phone calls, no emails, no texts—and let my body move to the music,” Kim says. “It is like my two hours of heaven every week. We do dances to traditional music, pop, country and everything in between. Now and then, I will be in the grocery store and hear a song over the store’s speaker that we dance to at class. Chances are, if you pass me at Schnucks, you will see my dancing feet moving me down the aisle.”

Clogging is perhaps best understood as “a dance of the people,” as Jeff Driggs puts it. Jeff is an accomplished teacher of clogging—he’s taught workshops in all 50 states and around the world—and has also singlehandedly written and produced Double Toe Times magazine since adopting the monthly publication in1996. He started clogging in his home state of West Virginia in1980, and over the course of the last three decades, he has seen the dance undergo swift evolution.

“All dances go through change, and clogging is a melting-pot dance that grew from other dances anyway,” he tells me over the phone one Friday evening, taking a break from packing for one of his many weekend travels. “I think the biggest shift is that because of popular culture, so many influences have crept in—Riverdance, Canadian step dancing and hip-hop.”

The choreographed, flashy and, as Jeff puts it, “strictly constructed” style of clog dancing that has become popular at competitions and captured the spotlight recently in shows like America’s Got Talent has a different look and feel than its Appalachian predecessor, where the original focus was on individual expression. Before the line-dancing craze took off in the 1970s, at which point groups began practicing and performing planned-out step sequences all together, cloggers approached the pastime in a freestyle manner. Much like a skilled musician who, in turn with his fellow players, breaks off from the standard score for a spell to contribute a set of improvised, harmonizing bars to the number, a clogger’s instrument was simply his feet.

“As the Appalachians were settled in the mid-1700s by the Irish, Scottish, English, and Dutch-Germans, the folk dances of each area met and began to combine in an impromptu foot-tapping style,” Jeff writes in his “Brief History of Clog Dancing,” a helpful overview that many clogging websites borrow verbatim. “Accompanied by rousing fiddle and bluegrass music, clogging was a means of personal expression in a land of newfound freedoms.”

African and Native American dance elements—such as shuffling and dragging of the feet— enriched early clogging as well, the former infusing the somewhat stiff European-based styles with a fresh combination of energy and restraint. As author Mark Knowles explains near the beginning of Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing, “Although appearing wild and full of sensual abandonment to western eyes, African dance always blended spontaneity with control and stayed firmly inside the norms set by tradition and proper custom.” The resulting quality of explosive balance has remained central to clogging as the dance form has developed, like some primal force connecting today’s clog dancers with those from decades and even centuries ago.

My own experience within the tradition began in the late 1980s, as a young kid in Alabama. Mom would pack my sister and me, nine and six years old at the time, into the Oldsmobile each Monday afternoon for the hour’s drive from Selma to Montgomery, the nearest gathering place of cloggers that she could find. Musically inclined and familiar with counting out beats thanks to piano lessons, all three of us picked the rhythmic dance up quickly, stomping out our first double-step-rock-steps to the country tune of “Amos Moses,” a Jerry Reed song that had something to do with an alligator in a swamp. We enjoyed clogging so much that when we moved to Colorado in 1991, Mom started a new group in the apparent absence of any in the Denver area so that we could keep dancing. Friends from the community and the church my dad pastored there soon joined in, along with my little brother, and we started performing at nursing homes, local festivities and the annual Colorado State Fair.

One of the reasons we first got involved had to do with clogging’s perceived wholesomeness as compared to other forms of contemporary dance. My sister and I had begun taking ballet and tap classes, but that ended after our parents were mildly appalled at the modern dance recitals: the older, more advanced girls gave scantily clad performances that Mom and Dad found to be far too suggestive. By contrast, clogging exuded a family-oriented quality, with groups comprised of all ages, costumes that stretched past our fingertips and dance movements more likely to trigger rhythmic clapping from the audience than an objectifying gaze.

This impression isn’t uncommon; in the brochure given to me by Ruth Zerface, who heads up the Missouri River Cloggers, the following lines in comic sans jump out from the pastel-colored page: “We would like to expose people of all ages to this type of wholesome, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, and healthful exercising form of dance. It is an ideal activity for the whole family.”

It’s fascinating that this connotation persists, especially considering the religious contexts within which European step dancing developed. In Ireland, dancers held their arms tightly by their sides—traditional Irish dancers still do—likely because of strict rules intended to guard against licentiousness. As Tap Roots notes, “Most experts believe that the arms were held by the side by the order of the Church which wanted dancers to practice self control as well as prevent upper body movement which might be too sensual or provocative.”

Nothing about the yellow brochure’s description of clogging as a wholesome, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, family-oriented, health-friendly activity is inaccurate—the dance is undoubtedly all of those things. And yet its appeal runs deeper than that, both for cloggers themselves and the audiences that behold them. People are repeatedly mesmerized by the strangely alluring combination of sight and sound.

At the Monroe County Sheep Festival in Waterloo, Illinois, this April, a few weeks after attending clogging practice, I bounced and clapped along with a crowd of about 150 people as the Thunder and Lightning Cloggers put on a high-energy show. Robert and crew had lugged their own sound system to the fairgrounds, and instead of a stage, the dancing area was comprised of dusty gray cement—the floor of a spacious dairy and beef facility reconfigured for the festival and dotted with food and craft booths as well as small pens containing black and white goats. The nine cloggers arranged themselves inside the large circle of audience members of all ages, with a cluster of toddlers inching in towards the dancers, jumping and trying their best to imitate the movements. A core group of six cloggers danced to the fast-paced “Bit by Bit” number, their stomps and drag-slides and quick turns perfectly executed. The only people in the vicinity that did not appear transfixed by the spectacle before them were a few men unceremoniously sheering an extra-large-looking sheep sitting awkwardly on a tarp. Located not more than 30 or 40 feet beyond the entertainers, the sheep’s baa-ing competed with Robert’s remarks between songs. It was, after all, a sheep festival.

“It’s contagious,” fellow audience member Joe Goley told me when I asked what he finds so appealing about clogging. “I love it. It sort of reminds me of older things and small towns.”

David Foster Wallace, in his famous essay about the Illinois State Fair of 1993, described the cloggers as “erotic in a way that makes MTV look lame.” Four years later, in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, he reiterated that the live clogging performances were in his mind the unrivaled high point of the entire fair, and he was still grappling with what had transpired on that stage.

“I’d always thought [clogging] was a kind of Jed Clampett, you know, goony people in boots,  real slow—and it turns out it’s much more like this thing ‘Riverdance’ which is now sort of ubiquitous on PBS,” Wallace explained to the radio host. “Very fast and very cool, and there’s no kind of hideous Michael Flatly sort of ego person at the front of it … it’s sort of like country tap-dancing on methamphetamine.”

Jeff chuckles when I suggest that last memorable line of Wallace’s as appropriate shorthand for describing clogging to the uninitiated: country tap-dancing on methamphetamine. Jeff’s own phrase of choice—“a melting pot of dances”—is another fitting, if less flamboyant, summary of an American dance form that seems increasingly difficult to pin down. But despite the widely varying styles of clogging today, a set of basic building-block steps unites them to a certain degree in the form of cue sheets, which make use of a generally accepted step-notation code to communicate routines to cloggers scattered across the country and the globe.

Cue sheets resemble crochet patterns, or the periodic table: They contain clusters of short, consonant-heavy acronyms that take practice to decipher with ease. The first line of a full page of instructions for the “Rocky Top” routine, considered something of a national anthem among cloggers, reads like so: 2 Slapbacks—DT(b) S(ib) DT(b) S(ib) DT(b) DS R S Repeat.

The letters L and R alternate immediately below this line, indicating whether the left or right foot is the one tasked with the particular motion listed above it.

Despite its longwinded opacity, the cue sheet’s methodical record of steps appears to serve its purpose of step-notation standardization within the evolving clogging tradition. When Ruth urged me to join the Missouri River Cloggers for an impromptu performance of the number at their Wednesday night practice, I was pleased to discover how consistent our geographically disparate versions of the choreography were. Where I pivoted four slur steps and moved forward during the words, “Ain’t no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top/ Ain’t no telephone bills,” these cloggers performed the four slurs in place, in individual circles, making a quarter turn with each drag of the toe. Otherwise, our movements throughout the dance were in sync, even the timing of the hand claps that accompanied the chain and stomp-kick step sequences.

While most of us likely learned “Rocky Top” through observation and repetition rather than close study of a complicated cue sheet, it’s an important resource and record. Many instructors keep a folder or binder of such cue sheets close at hand, referring to the documents from time to time to resolve a small question or memory lapse among the group.

The full names of complicated clogging steps, distilled and described according to their most basic parts in the cue sheets, are something else entirely: flea flickers, rocking chairs, washboards, joeys, fancy doubles, outhouses, mountain goats. Lacking the sophisticated, minimalist nature of the terms describing a dance like ballet, these names speak volumes about both their cultural origins and the very moves they denote. Flea flickers, for instance, combine the staple double-toe move—a rapid brushing forward and then backward of the toe on the floor—with a suspension of that same leg immediately after the double-toe, holding the lower leg up behind the body for a brief moment before stepping back down onto it. It doesn’t take too wild of an imagination to conclude that a flea flicker amounts to almost exactly the sort of gesture one might perform in an effort to flick an insect from a floor.

After joining in for “Pitkin County Turnaround” at the Thunder and Lightning practice session, I was permitted to sit on the sidelines and watch the group run through a couple numbers that they’ve recently been working to perfect for upcoming shows. Several space heaters cranked away in the converted elementary classroom, which still features a pint-sized chalkboard but has otherwise been transformed by Robert, his wife Susan and other committed members of the group into a humble yet remarkably suitable studio for clogging. They rent the room from the man living upstairs, who purchased the three-story schoolhouse after its academic days had ended, and each member pays $4 a lesson to help cover the operating budget. The shows the group performs throughout southern Illinois, including frequent gigs at the nearby Eckert farms, also help defray costs.

The insufficient heat in the schoolhouse became more apparent while I was seated, and when Robert waved me back on the floor to try “The Great Defenders,” their tribute to the armed forces, I didn’t argue since I needed to warm up. But the thing about being the only person unfamiliar with a given routine is that with clogging, not only can the others see you fumbling the sequence, they can hear you. It’s a sort of drum line, in effect, with mistakes in footwork and timing easily audible, thanks to the noise-enhancing taps. Not only that, but in this case the song I was learning involved hand motions as well as the complex steps themselves.

“Don’t forget to salute!” Robert said as I failed to do so for perhaps the 15th time. It had been about five years since I’d clogged more than a few steps around my apartment, and while much of the mechanics came back like riding a bike does, my brain struggled to grasp which step should happen when, let alone the accompanying hand motions, especially these military-esque ones.

That wasn’t my only issue with the hand motions, however. Something about them has always made me cringe a bit, wishing we could just let our impressive feet have all of the focus. JoEllen Hamilton, a lifelong clogger who attends both St. Louis clogging practices most weeks, knows what I mean. She’ll put up with some “silly hand gestures” to keep the peace, as will I, but they do strike some of us as unnecessary or aesthetically problematic. Equally debatable are some of the costumes clogging groups choose, involving anything from sequins and vests to billowing skirts.

“I think in a lot of cases clogging groups fail to make the dance form appeal to today’s more sophisticated audience,” JoEllen says. “My personal preference for shows is to dress very simply and let the dancing do the talking. A couple of my most favorite performances were done in a black T-shirt and jeans or black pants. That way, the audience has to sit down and take the dancing in before they write us off as dorky and throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

On the opposite end of the perceived-coolness spectrum are competitive clogging teams such as All That, an ensemble of five young men whose top YouTube clip invites viewers to “check out what All That is doing for the clogging industry!” The popular America’s Got Talent contestants traipse down to the stage amid wild cheers, wearing black T-shirts and ripped-up jeans. In another clip they begin the dance in black blazers and pants, only to rip off these outfits partway through, revealing army fatigues underneath. The televised crowd goes crazy. It’s like a trendy boy-band extravaganza, except that these are cloggers—cloggers who are, as they say, “trying to change the stereotype” of clogging, and stunning audiences as they do it.

Watching the videos of All That, I’m amazed by their incredible footwork and flawless delivery. They dance in machine-like unison. I feel proud to be included in the same dancing tradition, and if someone unfamiliar with the art form asks me what it’s like, I might be inclined to have them simply search the web for these impressive All That clips. But a better answer would take them right to the heart of clogging—to observe a practice or see a show performed by a local recreational group whose infectious love for clogging keeps the tradition alive in less glamorous, more grassroots ways.

Robert struck a helpful balance between having fun and dancing to the best of our abilities as he led the practice session. Sporting a purple Property of Clogging sweatshirt, this co-president of the Illinois Prairie Clogging Association kept the energy going—and us on our toes—while maintaining a relaxed atmosphere among a small community of people who are almost like family.

“I’ve danced with the same people, for the most part, for the past nine years,” says Molly, who is currently deciding between colleges for this fall. “I do worry about my future in clogging—by the time I return from college, I don’t know if the older adults in our group will still be doing it. I know there is a lot of work that goes into forming a team and keeping it running, and I’m not sure if the Thunder and Lightning Cloggers would still exist without Robert Kennedy.”

On the one hand, it does appear as though clogging may be past its peak in terms of recreational popularity, despite the publicity that All That and other highly competitive clogging teams have attracted. Jeff remembers national clogging conventions numbering somewhere around 10,000 people in the 1980s, and now those conventions draw roughly 1,000. His Double Toe Times once boasted 3,000 subscribers, and now that base has shrunk to 1,700. There’s an emerging divide—often generational in nature—between those interested in clogging for fun and those focused on mastering the most difficult steps and competing on the national stage.

“It’s hard to have both in one group,” Jeff says, “and that used to not be the case.”

Even as clogging evolves and experiences ups and downs, one by one people continue to be drawn to the percussive dance, often after a serendipitous experience of a live performance. And once the music gets in your feet, it’s a hard habit to shake. In Robert’s own case, it was his five-year-old son’s awe at the sheer sound of the dance that spurred him to enroll the boy in a class and then give it a try himself since he was driving to the lessons anyway. Twenty-three years later, clogging has become a central part of Robert’s everyday life.

Changing out of my taps and back into my tennis shoes at the conclusion of the practice that Monday night, one of the older women in the group told me I’d done a great job picking the clogging back up. I thanked her and said how much this had made me miss it.

She, Robert, Susan and I were the last to leave. We walked out of the cold brick building into the yard, where Luna, a large white dog, greeted us gently at the door. I knew I’d be returning soon.

‘It’s chaos; be kind’ and other takeaways from 2017

I began this year by cranking out a few, uh, wine-infused pointers for American women hoping to thrive in 2017. But now, as this particular 12-month saga draws to a close, I’m feeling a bit less snarky and a little more serious. Not about those tips – on the contrary, may we flout all of that nonsense until the end of time – but about navigating 2018 with renewed intention, empathy and gumption.

I think it’s fair to say that I did some backsliding in all three of those areas this last year, and I’d guess I’m not alone in that. Anger and worry have been hard to avoid – and warranted (and certainly productive at times) at seemingly every turn. Deep concern and even fury are pretty reasonable responses to a lot of the suffering, greed and overall trends we’re seeing.

The tricky thing, of course, is that all of that only gets us so far. And because there’s a measure of catharsis to be had in merely expressing outrage and sorrow, I’ve too often gotten stuck there.

In 2018, I’m aiming to direct more of my energy elsewhere. One first step toward that end? A list of go-to guides and reminders I’ll be keeping close at hand – mental resources to draw on when our world, in small or big ways, feels particularly cold and hopeless.

It’s chaos; be kind. These timely words of wisdom come from Michelle McNamara, as remembered by her husband Patton Oswalt in the wake of her unexpected death. His latest standup special, focused on that loss and Michelle’s simply stated perspective on life, left this here reluctant agnostic (and strayed pastor’s kid and lifelong worrywart) weeping – and also existentially consoled and convicted. It’s chaos (maybe…I might be wrong about the nature of the cosmos…but regardless of our guesses for this first bit or how long we may or may not live –>); be kind. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Nevertheless, she persisted. Everything about how people are treated matters, from the personal and mundane to the systemic and monstrous. We’ve got to pick and choose, day in and day out, where to focus our energy and thoughts. Sometimes this definitely means pushing for more fairness, even at some risk, and other times it means genuinely letting a matter go. To choose the latter can still be an active form of persistence – not necessarily a sign of weakness or complacent doormatting – in the larger scheme of things. Persist.

My friends [and family and community] are my estate. Emily Dickinson penned this line, minus the brackets, well over a century ago, but it feels newly relevant in light of new tax legislation and growing income inequality. (Recent articles about alternative things we might collectively have opted to give one-and-a-half trillion dollars toward have had me screaming inside at times – just imagine what it would do for our local, national and global community {and yes, the economy and innovation and all that good stuff too} if student debt were forgiven or child and health care provided for all.) My point is that, while for most of us financial peace of mind seems more elusive than ever despite our best efforts, there is more to worth and security than currency and assets. As the author Jessa Crispin got me mulling a few months back, how can we go about building a world where we express and provide and measure value apart from income? I don’t have the answer, but I think it has a lot to do with creativity and each other and spinning our mottled stores of straw into an alternative kind of gold.

Make America Pangea again. Flying in the face of #MAGA in my little corner of the world this past year has been a wonderful little poster from a friend. It’s printed in red, white and blue, but don’t be fooled: This isn’t a call for American greatness or patriotism but rather a return to Pangea. And while wishing to go back to when the world was a single, smooshed-together continent might just sound silly, I’m hoping that the #MAPA slogan might catch on in 2018. It makes me think of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,”but in a global way, and whenever I see this poster I can’t help but smile and maintain some hope and drive.

I found it utterly fascinating –and not a little heartbreaking. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with loved ones and acquaintances alike over the past year have touched on a shared sense of sadness, failure or just how to manage and keep perspective. A word of encouragement and understanding is a vastly underrated thing, and I’ve been reminded over this holiday week how such words have time and again saved me (I don’t think that’s too strong a term for it) in 2017 and all the years before. I have been given much in this regard of late, and I hope to be better about finding ways to give it back. One of those more recent chats included the line above, specifically the phrase “utterly fascinating – and not a little heartbreaking.” It had appeared in a completely separate and humorous context we were chuckling over and is too extensive to describe here, but anyway, as we were smiling about it, my friend said something to the effect of, “I also want to put that on my wall as a summary of life: Utterly fascinating – and not a little heartbreaking.” And I have to agree – that about says it all, and might actually be helpful to repeat to myself now and then.

Hello, world, it’s me, Evie. I am glad to be alive, and it feels good to breathe and also drink coffee and share a snuggle with Dash who keeps sitting between me and the laptop and making it difficult to type. 🙂 Also, world, you are utterly fascinating, and not a little heartbreaking. Here’s to 2018.

Because we are human beings and citizens of this planet

The names of a couple of the folks dearest to my heart begin with “Jo-.” It’s an objectively wonderful syllable to begin with and seems to attach itself to worthy subjects, including one of my favorite fictional heroines, Jo March. That particular Jo has been in my head a lot lately – specifically her lines as delivered by Winona Ryder in the Little Women film I grew up with.

There’s the endearing moment of wishful rage that she could “go to war and stand up to the lions of injustice,” the fuming and relatable “of course Aunt March prefers Amy over me.” And then there’s the sad yet hilarious exchange with sweet Beth, who sees her sister weeping late at night: “Are you thinking about father?” “My hair!”

bridge-oldThis week I’ve been thinking about another of Jo’s statements – what she says to a roomful of 19th-century New Yorkers waxing on about the issue of women’s suffrage.

“I find it poor logic to say that because women are good, women should vote,” she tells them. “Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are male, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.”

It’s a rather simple statement, really, and the fight for the right to vote is behind us now (ish). Yet Jo’s words are words for our time, too. There’s a place for complex case-making and persuasion, but there’s also the sheer fact that we are human beings, fellow citizens of this planet, with an obligation to treat each other accordingly. It’s not all that complicated, and we simply must do better.

One area (of many) in which that is painfully obvious at present has to do with sexual harassment and assault. Along with the awful revelations of despicable harm done by powerful men ranging from Hollywood giants to right-wing crusaders, it’s appalling to hear of the complicity of those around them who might have done something to help – but didn’t.

Do we have the will to act in the best interest of vulnerable others when we have something to lose? Such decency and courage seem relatively rare, judging from recent headlines and the halls of power.

We must find that will, in small and big ways and on lots of different fronts right now.

“We need to define what it is we value, how we express that value, and what we ask society to value in us,” writes Jessa Crispin. “Money is currently how we express value, particularly through our unconscious association between income and worth. … We must imagine a world where value is expressed with things like love and care.”

Why? Because we are human beings and citizens of this planet.