Thursday, August 27, 2015

Return to the Plaza Prayer Station

I have one word for my return to the Plaza Prayer Station -   Gratitude.  Today I arrived with so much more confidence than the first day last year.  I had my sign and my chairs, and my spot picked out.  In front of the topiary surrounded by yellow marigolds, near the doors to the David Student Union, but not so close to crowd people.  As I sat down I had a twinge of sadness as I thought about the seniors who had graduated and would not be coming by to say hello or share their lunchtime with me.  I pulled out my rosary and said the Lord's Prayer and began my ritual of praying for Administration, Faculty, Staff, and Students.  I didn't get very far before a staff member who I knew from last year came up to request a prayer.  Then one of the Episcopal Campus Ministry leadership team came up and was joined in conversation with me by a student who may become part of ECM.  One of my guys from last year, the first one who ever spoke to me, dropped by for conversation and prayer.  A couple of new students eagerly came up to ask what it was all about and to request prayer for a prosperous school year. 

I sat and gazed out across the Plaza, smiling, as I prayed for blessings on the CNU Campus.  Last year on the first day no one came up to me.  This year I not only had prayer requests and conversation with new and returning students, but many people smiled and waved, and several read the sign and said, "Thank you," or "That's cool!"  I got to speak with the Catholic priests when they passed by on their way from Mass to lunch and chatted with both the new Baptist Campus Minister and the United Campus Ministries Campus Minister.  Lots of turnover in campus ministry at CNU this year. 

The newly finished Christopher Newport Hall Administration building with its gold dome peeked out at me from behind the Trible Library.  A cool breeze and mostly cloudy skies kept the temperature comfortable.  It was a perfect day to sit outside and pray.  Tonight we have our first ECM meeting.  I baked homemade chocolate chip cookie bars as a bribe snack.  I'm eager to see if any new students will decide to join us this year.

When I was explaining what I did to one of the new students, I said, "I'm the Episcopal Chaplain and I work with Episcopal Campus Ministry.  This prayer station is my ministry to the campus."  And it is.  I don't do it to advertise.  I don't do it to recruit new students for ECM.  I do it as a ministry to the whole campus.  As my mentor the Rev. Dr. John Kerr says, the ministry of a college chaplain is to faculty, staff, AND students, not just to a particular group of students.  I'm so grateful to be able to offer this ministry and to have the privilege of sharing the lives of the students, the faculty, and the staff.  May God bless the Prayer Station ministry this year and help those who need it to find it.
New Christopher Newport Hall

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Following My Dream

Since I was a child making up pretend stories and acting them out, I have wanted to be a writer.  I used to start writing down the stories that I liked to pretend, but I never got very far.  At the end of junior high I began keeping a journal and have continued that practice off and on throughout my life. 

As a teenager I wrote angsty poetry about whoever I was in love with at the time and had a few of them accepted in the school literary magazine.  Occasionally I talked my teachers into letting me write something in place of a regular assignment - for my entry in the 10th grade Math Fair I wrote a short story about math.  To my shock and chagrin, it won the fair.  I was embarrassed to take my project to the regional fair because the other projects had something to do with math while mine was creative writing.  Once I convinced my English teacher to let me write a poem instead of an essay, and I got an A.  There were lots of creative writing and journaling assignments in high school as well.

In high school I also wrote a play that got an honorable mention in the state Thespian Club playwrighting competition.  I think I was 4th out of 5.  It didn't matter to me how I placed as much as it mattered that I finished the play.  In college I wrote plays in the place of final papers for my Comparative Religion Class and my Contemporary Theatre class. I still can’t believe I got away with it.  Maybe the professors were as sick of reading essays as we were of writing them.

In my early twenties I took a correspondence course from the Institute of Children's Literature on writing short stories children.  I took the course while working at my full-time job as a stage manager for Virginia Stage Company.  I often had to send my assignments in late.  I did manage to write a few short stories and started to research where to send them for publication.

A few years after completing the correspondence course, I read Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, given to me by a dear friend.  I began doing timed writings about a variety of subjects including school lunches, things I wanted, things I didn't want, etc.  I moved on to Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way.  A key component of that book is doing what Julia calls Morning Pages, in which you write 3 pages long hand every morning when you wake up.  I worked my way through Artist Dates and the Week of No Reading (not sure I could do that one today!)  To this day I will occasionally do morning pages as a way of clearing my head at the beginning of the day.

Shortly after The Artist's Way I had a month off from Virginia Stage, and I declared it my Month o' Writing.  Never has my apartment been so clean.  I cleaned the kitchen, including my 3/4 size oven and stove.  I cleaned the refrigerator, the claw-foot tub, underneath the furniture.  I had meals with friends and took breaks for walks.  Another writer friend of mine says that when she is supposed to be working on her next writing project her cats start looking at her with their heads tilted because their crazy human will clean the litter box three times in the same hour.  Sounds about right.

By the end of the Month o' Writing, I had written a poem and a short story.  Maybe I had started another short story.  Mostly I would write on my back deck in the evening when the air had been cooled a bit by a breeze.  I sat in my forest green plastic chair that I got from Wal-Mart and covered the matching round table with a dish towel to minimize smudges from dirt or bugs.  About the time that I had found my rhythm, it was time to go back to work.  I decided that I didn't need to quit my day job.  

In the fall of 1999 and the spring of 2000, I began writing prayers in a journal as I prepared to go on a pilgrimage to Israel.  I compiled some of them into a book, A Cup of Tea and a Prayer, that I gave to friends and family members as gifts.   After I returned from Israel I wrote my first real creative non-fiction piece about my trip, Stones that Speak: Stories of a Pilgrim's Journey.  I had never written nonfiction before (except perhaps for a school assignment.)  I didn't like reading it, and so I didn't think I'd like to write it.  I wanted to capture my trip, so I gave it a try.  I also wrote a short story around that time called The Sun Fairies, the last one I have written.  I submitted it to Fantasy and Science Fiction and maybe one more magazine, but it wasn't accepted. 

In 2001 I decided that I wanted to be a writer for real, for real, so I applied to the MFA program at ODU.  I had only taken three English classes in college.  On the application I wrote that I wanted to write science fiction and fantasy (because I love reading them).  I went to an interview.  I received two different rejection letters.  At the same time, my priest invited me to join a group of women discerning a call to ordained ministry.  It seemed clear that God didn't want me to be a writer.

As I prepared for seminary and began my first attempts at preaching, I discovered I had a knack for writing and delivering sermons.  Ah-ha, I thought.  That is what I need to be writing.  Sermons.  For the better part of ten years I have focused my writing attention on sermons (plus paper-writing during three years of seminary.)  Sermons are not easy to write many weeks, but they do have a set length - mine are usually four pages space-and-a-half - and I have scripture texts from the weekly lectionary that give me a jumping off place. 

I'd pretty much given up on being a "real" writer - you know, one that gets published and paid.  I have known since the Month o' Writing that I don't have the discipline to make a living from my writing, even if I did have a piece accepted for publication.  Writing sermons is fairly relentless, even for someone who doesn't preach every Sunday.  It has seemed like enough.

But something has been missing.

I still want to be a writer.  For real.  With a book and everything.

This summer I discovered the Muse Writer's Center in Norfolk.  I signed up for a class on Creative Nonfiction.  I have loved every minute of it!  Except the part where I have to drive through Hampton Roads rush hour traffic and both tunnels are blocked and what should take about 45 minutes to drive takes more than two hours.  Sometimes it's taken almost two hours to get home because of tunnel closures and construction.  But other than that, I have loved it.  Assignments, readings, detailed feedback of my pieces, in-class writing exercises, instruction on craft - it has been fabulous! 

I've written two pieces that my teacher says with more revision would be good to submit for publication.  I won't lie - I do hope I'll be published at some point.  Most of all, I'm happy to be working toward my dream of being a writer. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Back to CNU - Moving in the Freshmen

At CNU, Freshman Move-In Day is highly orchestrated.  Faculty, staff, and upperclass students meet the incoming cars, stuffed with student belongings, and unload each one while the new student checks in and a parent moves the car.  Student club members have the opportunity to put on club t-shirts to advertise their group while helping with move-in.  They also earn service hours.  As the chaplain for Episcopal Campus Ministry, I get to participate, too. 

Staff members in florescent yellow shirts direct cars into open spaces in front of the main entrances of the freshmen dorms.  Three to four cars can be unloaded at the same time while waiting cars line up on paved pathways that are usually reserved for walking.  When a car pulls into place, a group of volunteers drags over a bright blue rolling bin or cart like the ones hotels use to transport laundry or luggage.  Three pieces of masking tape, each marked with the student’s room number, hang off of the driver’s side mirror.  I have no idea how they get there, but I pull them off, let the driver know that we’re going to unload the car and then stick the pieces of tape on each rolling bin or cart so that those unloading the car will know where to take the belongings.  I also call out the room number several times so that everyone working with that student knows where to go.

Large heavy boxes, trunks, and luggage come out first to go on the bottom of the bins and carts.  As we pull out the belongings, I sometimes wonder how the items will fit into the small, shared dorm room.  Especially when I pull out furniture.  Some bring chairs and small tables, book shelves, or flat-screen TVs.  Almost every car includes a floor length mirror.  Fortunately they tuck well into the sides of the bins. 

Posters, clothing, plastic containers of toiletries, field hockey sticks, skateboards, bedding, toilet paper, cases of bottled water, soda, and Gatorade, lamps, husband chairs, computers, printers, books, plastic boxes, bins, and shelving units full to bursting with needed items.

My shift this past Saturday was from 12-5.  Before half an hour had gone by, the elevator on one side of the dorm had ceased working.  This meant hand carrying each item from the cars to the rooms – in that particular time frame, only students with rooms on the 3rd floor arrived.  Up the stairs we went with luggage and boxes, electronics and clothes on hangers, totes and backpacks.  Up and down, up and down.

One of the clubs assigned to my shift was the male acappella group, Expansion.  Those guys were able to lift entire rolling bins or carts filled with stuff and carry them up the stairs to the 3rd floor, emptying them and bringing them back down.  They were my heroes. 

My most embarrassing moment of the day was when I asked for help getting items carried to the 3rd floor and two students said they’d take care of it.  Turns out, I sent them to the wrong side of the dorm.  They carried items up the stairs only to find the room didn’t exist because it was ON THE OTHER SIDE!  Mea culpa!  When I carried up my next load of stuff, I apologized profusely.  Hard enough to carry things up once!  No problem, they said.  At least they could use the elevator on the other side. 

I met one Episcopalian during the day.  Hopefully she’ll check us out at the club fair next Sunday.  Much of the day I worked side by side with the new Baptist Campus Minister.  I appreciate that the different groups can work together for a common purpose.

It’s a hard day for entering students and their families as they pack up all their belongings, trying to guess what will be needed or wanted.  They travel through traffic all morning and then arrive in a new place.  They have to squeeze all of the stuff into the space allotted.  Many make Target runs to pick up last minute items.  At some point in the weekend there will be good-byes.  Parents try to hold back tears.  Students do too. 

I’m glad the CNU administration makes the move in process as easy as possible.  At least there’s one part of the "going to college" process that the parents/students don’t have to orchestrate. 

Maybe a few of the students who worked beside me unloading cars and hauling stuff up stairs will stop by the Plaza Prayer Station this fall and say hello.  Or maybe one of the new students will recognize me from Move-In day and be brave enough to ask for a prayer.  I hope so.   

May God bless them all with a smooth entry to their new community and a fruitful year ahead.