Monday, December 23, 2013

Cheri & Taylor [sneak peek]

I had the pleasure of capturing the lovely wedding of a friend's daughter in southern Illinois this past weekend. Congratulations to Cheri & Taylor, and merry Christmas! ~

Friday, October 11, 2013

Go, Cheetahs!

I enjoyed photographing my friend Jennifer's little soccer team last Saturday. Despite thunderstorms earlier that morning, the Cheetahs all showed up and appeared to have a blast. Here are just a few highlights from the shoot. Kids are funny.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

St. Louis BWorks celebrates 25 years

Nonprofit’s family-friendly anniversary event set for Sept. 28 

Bicycles, books, and computers may be ordinary things at first glance, but for the kids and volunteers that work closely with them at St. Louis BWorks in Soulard, they take on a deeper significance.

For nearly a quarter century, the BWorks organization has been turning donated bikes, desktop computers, and writing and illustration supplies into much more, providing free programs that improve the lives of hundreds of local children each year. As the kids learn to fix flat tires, communicate their ideas on paper, and operate and care for a computer of their very own, they gain confidence and practical life skills—as well as tangible rewards for their efforts.

"It’s really about helping to make kids' dreams come true," says local graphic designer Anna Nowotny, who has helped lead Book Works and Bicycle Works programs since signing up as a BWorks volunteer last year. "The dreams may seem modest to some, but for many of the kids who participate in Bike Works, for instance, the bike that they earn is not only a cherished possession that they might not otherwise have access to—it’s also a symbol of and reward for self-empowerment, delayed gratification, and dedication."

Now located at 2414 Menard Street, BWorks has grown substantially since its founding in 1988, with the Byte Works and Book Works programs added in 1996 and 2011, respectively. Bicycle Works, the charter program, has also expanded over the years and includes a bike shop where refurbished bikes and parts are sold, with proceeds benefiting the BWorks programs.

On Saturday, Sept. 28, BWorks will celebrate its 25-year history with a family-friendly birthday party hosted at its unique facility from 6 to 10 p.m. Featuring a silent auction, tours, drinks, and activities for children, the event is free and open to the public. Patrick Van Der Tuin, BWorks' executive director, notes that the party, like so many of BWorks' efforts, is primarily volunteer-driven and is a special opportunity not only to raise awareness and funds but also to celebrate the dedicated people that pitch in to help the organization succeed.

One of those people is Melissa Leavy, an attorney and mother of three whose children each completed the Bicycle Works program. But their involvement with BWorks didn’t end there. Both Leavy and her oldest child, Jessica, have returned as volunteers, finding the emphasis on earning something and working together toward shared goals particularly appealing.

"My daughter gets a lot of self-confidence helping others, and I appreciate so much that she has this opportunity," Leavy says. "Natalie [another adult volunteer] has been wonderful about involving Jessica and making her feel important. She gets to work one-on-one with other students who need special attention, and it’s perfect for her."

To learn more about BWorks, see or call (314) 827-6640.

... and of course come to the party on the 28th! :-) Here's the event page on Facebook.

(Photo courtesy the parent of one of our wonderful students this summer.)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Just desserts

It was somewhere along Mabry Street in Selma, Alabama, that the incident occurred. My sister, three years older than my six- or seven-year-old self and infinitely tough and brave in my view, stood her ground as a fellow Byrd Elementary student approached.

“Give me your Twinkies,” the girl ordered. I started to panic. Sometimes Johanna and I managed to save the treats in our packed lunches until after school as a snack. The other girl had figured this out, and she eyed our lunchboxes hungrily. But we’d already devoured them that particular day, and we told her as much. She didn’t believe us, required proof.

We obliged, opening up our respective lunchboxes for inspection. Johanna’s metal one featured an image from the Annie movie, where the orphan is caught in a tug-of-war between Miss Hannigan and Grace, Daddy Warbucks’s assistant. My white plastic one was, more predictably, dotted with teddy bears dressed in pink ballerina attire.

I don’t remember what this small but menacing bully did next, but whatever it was, she made it very clear that our paths would cross again—and that Twinkie tribute would be expected, or else. And as brave as my sister had been, while I cowered at her side that afternoon, we were both frightened sufficiently enough to talk to Mom and Dad about it.

The next day, Dad met us outside Byrd to accompany us on the walk home. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. There was no way the girl would mess with us now.

But then, when we pointed said girl out to Dad, something unexpected happened. Not only did Dad introduce himself to her, but he went on to tell her he was so glad his daughters had a friend like her, to walk home with them. He told her he’d appreciate it if we could all look out for each other. I think they shook hands, maybe, and we all walked together, with Dad, that day.

I was horrified. The Twinkie thief would now be a staple of my elementary existence, already so fraught with gargantuan (i.e., miniscule) trials. What kind of solution was this?

It worked, though, quite brilliantly. The girl became something of a pal for a while, though I don’t remember her name, and she never threatened us again.

These days, I wonder if she was actually going pretty hungry as a kid, and why I didn’t think to voluntarily give up my precious Twinkies now and then. Or maybe she was just mean.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Some thoughts on Rosaria Butterfield's unusual book

After several requests that I do so, I finally read The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English Professor's Journey into Faith by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, and I'm glad that I did. It's the story of the author's move into the close-knit fold that is the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), the same denomination that I moved away from several years ago after growing up firmly rooted within it.

I think that whenever we take the time to record our stories, or hear someone else's with openness, it is time well spent. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, as Joan Didion put it. And memoir is a way of making some sense of the experiences that shake our lives and also of making ourselves vulnerable. It's also riddled with inherent pitfalls and limits, as the impulse and intent to be honest and fair and all of those things competes with the desire to make our case, to preserve our take on situations, to win our reader's good opinion on some level.

The first third or so of Secret Thoughts really struck a chord for me, as the emotional fallout that accompanies Butterfield's conversion to a conservative Christian faith as she describes it is not so very different from the feelings of devastation, guilt, and disorientation experienced by many of those who depart from such a faith. As a reluctant stray myself, I recall feeling a great deal of this"comprehensive chaos," to borrow Butterfield's phrase, especially in the months after really owning up to the depth of my doubts and dwindling belief.

Butterfield emphasizes feeling like a traitor to the LGBT and academic communities that she'd poured so much energy and passion into at Syracuse University. While my un-conversion was far less dramatic or professionally debilitating, I continue to struggle with what is I think a somewhat similar sense of betrayal--damage wrought by me on my family and spiritual community as a result of my decision to leave the church and to be open about why I was leaving. Their sorrow was painful, palpable. I remember telling a family member that it seemed like they thought I'd committed spiritual suicide and that it would almost be better if I had died before losing my faith. I'll never forget my loved one's response, as he folded me in a hug since I was crying: "Oh, no, of course we're glad you're here. We want you here with us. But you're right that it is on that level of seriousness." Butterfield's story doesn't underestimate the intensity and the darkness of such a shift, and she's quick to acknowledge that her decisions, her choices have impacted other people's stories and lives, not always in happy ways. This is admirable and brave, and it kept me reading.

I also appreciate the way Butterfield testifies throughout the book to the value of things like diversity, failure, and the courage to be wrong, to embrace risk. In fact, it's that openness to difference on her part that makes a lot of her theological and philosophical conclusions by the end such an enigma to me. After rendering a number of her former LGBT friends in anonymous but nuanced detail--really giving a sense of several people as individuals--Butterfield's description of her former lesbian self as "a case of mistaken identity" feels surprisingly hollow. She doesn't address other potential interpretations of her lifestyle shift, such as the idea that she may be bisexual (she had straight partners prior to her many years in a committed lesbian relationship and is now a pastor's wife in the RPCNA). Nor does she discuss what her conclusion about "mistaken identity" might mean for LGBTs that have always been attracted to the same sex.

As the book moves along, its focus feels more obviously geared for like-minded souls--other conservative believers perhaps looking for counsel on how to respond to the cultural shift on LGBT issues, how to share their faith with outsiders in a winsome way, or why Butterfield found some of the RPCNA distinctives (like exclusive psalmody) especially convincing. Overall, it's an excellent argument against proselytizing, at least as it is traditionally practiced. Butterfield's story is an example of how for most people it's not primarily or solely a lack of information or knowledge that keeps them in or out of a given community but rather has a lot to do with belonging, love, personality, and circumstances. One more clever sales pitch is not going to change someone's mind or heart.

There are things I really disliked about the book, some of that simply due to the fact that we see the world really differently and some of it a result of how various characters are rendered, including a particular handful of Christian humanities faculty dear to my heart (and my education and emotional development) that are described in Butterfield's book as basically petty and grumpy in their more liberal-leaning concerns. But then there were also moments like the one where all of a sudden my deceased aunt, Mary Lou Hemphill, appears. And at first I'm ready to be really angry, as a non-believing reader and as a niece, because Butterfield seems to be using my early-widowed aunt's experience of finally being matched with a much-needed liver donor as evidence of God moving and working in this congregation (my aunt's) that she is visiting, when I know that the transplant failed and this lovely woman died soon after. But then I keep reading and soon enough, in a later section, Butterfield mentions the rest of the story, describing my aunt's congregation's sorrow over the conclusion of the transplant they'd hoped so long for, even saying it seemed a cruel trick on the part of the divine. And then I'm just crying, and we're all just people, and I'm glad to be reminded that here's one more person who knew and appreciated my aunt. So, there you have it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


Lately I've been stunned by a few different documentaries, ranging from Ken Burns stuff to Gasland to The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. But perhaps most affecting was Jim Crow to Barack Obama, which premiered at the Tivoli last week as part of the annual St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. The mainly local crew and subjects seemed to bring the film's topic closer to home, and many of those featured in it were among the large crowd viewing it for the first time Tuesday night.

Directed by Washington University art professor Denise Ward-Brown, Jim Crow to Barack Obama puts a handful of African-American young people in conversation with much older African Americans, including a 104-year-old, to discuss their experiences with regard to race in America. As the youth interview their elders and listen to these individuals' stories about growing up in the Jim Crow era, there's a quiet, even mundane, quality about it all that carries great weight.

One woman recalls her experience at about the age of 12 being taunted by a white peer and finally hitting back. When she told her mother what had happened, the response was that she must never fight back again or the family would have to move away. Another speaks of shopping in stores where salespeople would wait on her only after first serving white customers, even if she was there first. A St. Louis man recalls going to a Cards game as a boy. He befriended another little boy, who was white, on the bus ride there, but when they approached the gates, the two boys weren't allowed to enter together and became separated. The black boy was sent to an entrance on the other side of the ballpark. There are also several interviewees who recall traveling to Chicago to attend the open-casket services for Emmett Till in 1955.

While Ward-Brown's film includes stunning recollections from Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, who was with Dr. Martin Luther King in the hour prior to his murder in 1968 and whose five-year-old daughter was one of the Memphis 13 in 1961, mostly the voices in Jim Crow to Barack Obama are those of far more ordinary folk, their stories embodying the many simple and suffocating ways that racism manifests itself. And the stories don't end in the 1960s--the youth involved in making the film share their own more contemporary experiences. One local teenager, who it turns out was sitting just a few rows behind my husband and me at the Tivoli showing, recalls being barred from foursquare at recess for being "too black" according to several of her peers. Charles Churchwell, who was the dean of the Washington University Libraries (where I work) from 1978 to 1987, touches on a number of issues, including what it was like to be one of the only African-American administrators on campus.

Watching this documentary only a few days after the conclusion of the discouraging Trayvon Martin case, I think what really sticks with me about this film is how it points to a looming need for more such oral history to be preserved and shared. As Churchwell notes at one point, "You don't hear about the smaller things." And it's hearing about and beginning to understand and empathize with the ordinariness and insidious damage of those things that can help illumine the big stuff. 

Also striking are the closing credits, where a handful of "in memory of" tributes feature images of several of the people whose interviews are woven together into this vital documentary. That especially left me with a sense of urgency and renewed motivation as I consider what I might revisit and help record and share. A trip back to Selma, Alabama, where we lived until I was eight, is on my mind. The days and years go by so quickly, and Ward-Brown's film and aging subjects are a brutal, beautiful reminder that there is no time like the present.

Following Tuesday's screening, Ward-Brown received a standing ovation and took some questions and comments from the audience. Mostly everybody kept wanting to know when Jim Crow to Barack Obama would be available for purchase and urging Ward-Brown to show this in schools. In addition to sharing the stories and insights recorded in her film, Ward-Brown said she wants to help other young people think about doing similar work and see what they discover "if they just turn that video camera on their grandparent, a church member, their neighbor and just listen. Listen."

Friday, May 03, 2013

"It is a Remington Hand Portable, and I am crazy about it."

Yesterday, while revisiting the oral history that Grandma and I compiled about her life a few years ago, I stumbled back across the following letter she'd kept from my late grandfather, Willard Hemphill, written to family on the Kansas farm during World War II:

"You mentioned in your letter of 29 June, which arrived yesterday, about this rain. Come over to Normandy and I’ll show you some real rain. We have certainly had our share since arrived. Today has been an exception, though, and it has really been nice all day.

"You would enjoy watching these French farmers making hay, with their little one-horse, two-wheeled carts and their big awkward wooden forks. They seem to manage quite nicely, however. Often their orchards and their hay fields are combined.

"I just got a new typewriter. It is a Remington Hand Portable, and I am crazy about it. I have worked for a long time to get a decent one. My old one was really beat up. I can no longer blame my mistakes on the machine.

"Jean [Grandma] seems to be very happy in her new work in the Employment Office. It seems to me that they are keeping her mighty busy though. I was so glad to hear of her promotion. She certainly deserves. She is meeting an awfully lot of people she knows there in Wash. I am so glad. It will help her keep from becoming too lonesome.

"If you are worrying about the part that you are playing in this war, Dad, you can stop right now. You folks back there are doing a big job and doing it very well. You are seeing to it that we, over here are getting good food and lots of it. We can’t ask more. Love to all."

We miss you, Grandpa.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The infinite space

Even in my most committed stages, I never experienced what is called "assurance of salvation" in Calvinist circles. I was never sure I was eternally saved. So to hear others speak of their own assurance of my salvation is intriguing. How can they know this?

"I believe that God is sovereign, and I know that whatever you are doing, whatever journey you are on, God is at work in it." The older woman, a member at a church where I no longer attend, cried as she told me this over lunch four years ago.

"I know you are one of His, and He will draw you to Himself."

When I first confessed to a close friend that I thought I was losing my faith, she wrote back saying that it was not possible, for Jesus had me "etched on the palms of his hands," and he would never leave me or forsake me. She knew this, offering for my comfort her certainty of it.

Perhaps certainty is not the best word to describe this assurance to which she attested. She is more content with, maybe more enraptured by, spiritual mystery than me. 

"Evie, you say—and I agree—that Christ did NOT die to give us epistemological certainty," she wrote. "You also say that mystery is greater than certitude. You clearly know this—and yet I feel like you are still seeking certitude in the territory of mystery. You recognize the mystery but do not accept it."

This was accurately and excellently put by my friend. But it didn't enable me to say "I know" or "I believe" with an iota more of the necessary conviction. I wouldn't have really meant it. My inner metaphysics were increasingly agnostic, akin to those surprisingly espoused, at least at times, by the author of Ecclesiastes. God "has also set eternity in the hearts of men," Solomon (purportedly) concludes halfway through his ramblings, "yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that nothing is better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God."

The basics are intact, in a statement of faith like that. I still believe, or know, or trust, that loving mercy and doing justice and savoring life are worthwhile. Most of the rest remains a mystery indeed.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines mystery in a wide variety of ways, but the first definition given is not what I'd expect: "Mystical presence or nature; mystical significance." Much further down I find the things that I typically associate with mystery—hiddenness, secrets, conundrums, obscurity.

"You recognize the mystery but do not accept it."

I am not so sure I even recognize this presence. Is it that which occupies the infinite space between knowing and not knowing, filling the dark expanse of Kierkegaard‘s leap with light enough to see by?

Mystery has to do with something or someone "evoking awe or wonder but not well known or understood." But the idea itself is a mystery to me, a label attached to things cloudy and foggy and charmed.

When we recognize mystery is with us, is the next step to identify it? To declare Immanuel, that God is with us? To claim it, to name it, to pin it down?

"You recognize the mystery but do not accept it."

What if, in accepting mysteries, the point is to leave them be? What if, in naming God, as Lia Purpura suggests in her book On Looking, we are "refus[ing] to be speechless in the face of occurrences, shapes, gestures happening daily, and daily reconstituting sight"?

"'God,' the very attitude of the word—for the lives of words were also palpable to me—was pushy. Impatient. Quantifiable," Purpura says. "A call to jettison the issue, the only issue as I understood it: the unknowable certainty of being alive, of being a body untethered from origin, untethered from end, but also so terribly here."

Thursday, April 25, 2013

For the love of bikes

Tuesday's bike commute was maybe my rainiest yet. I typically opt for the bus when it's precipitating, but this time I just put on an extra layer and decided to give it a shot. Not only did I somehow get to and from work faster than usual, but I really had fun. I lifted my feet up from the pedals to ford the deeper puddles in deserted Forest Park, squinted into the chilly raindrops pelting my face, and even acknowledged good drivers (and there really are a lot them out there--sometimes I forget) with the occasional smile or wave.

In the Grove, across from Sweetie Pie's, one not-so-awesome driver a good 30 yards behind me accelerated quickly after I signaled and took the lane to avoid a line of parked cars on the right. Pulling into the opposing-traffic lane to zoom ahead of me as we neared the stopped traffic at Manchester, she just barely beat me to the red light. As we waited for the light to change, I scooted up beside her sedan, waving and motioning for her to roll down her window. I wanted to remind her that cyclists are permitted to take the full lane as needed. She pretended not to see me. I tried again, but still nothing.

At Earn-a-Bike class a couple weeks ago, one of the students told us about his dream bike. Among other fabulous features, it would include flotation tires (for biking on water, duh) and a force field. The force field would be better than a helmet, this little guy explained, because "it protects more than just your melon." :-) He had a point, and sometimes I wish my bike had one. Then again, not being enclosed in a metal moving house on wheels--or a super-protective force field--is part of the appeal. You experience the road, the neighborhoods, the wind, and your fellow creatures, instead of blasting through somewhat removed from it all.

Last weekend, I watched as a helmeted tricyclist stopped at the stop sign near our apartment. A car on the cross street approached the quiet intersection at about the same time. The driver smiled at the little fellow and his dad (presumably) perched on the bicycle behind him and waved them across. The tricyclist placed his feet back on the pedals, lifted one arm up off his handlebars, and waved sweetly at the patient driver, as he slowly wheeled his way across.

"When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking." -Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Saturday, February 23, 2013

In defense of things staid, slow, stitched

Lately, whether it's a growth-focused state-of-the-union address or a bandwidth-obsessed commercial or a line of got-important-places-to-be customers in line for this or that, the messages are blurring together into a monolithic one that leaves me somewhere between weary and panicked. I often feel disillusioned about the increasing emphasis on things like multitasking, perception, innovation, and efficiency, and a general disgust for our economic system as I learn more about its associated inequalities and indignities.

Probably I am quite late to the party on all of this. Coming to grips with "the way the world works" seems like a life lesson that hits many in their teens or early twenties. But as I watch my third decade rapidly draw to a close, I know I have a ways yet to go as far as accepting and working within (and against) various disturbing realities and constraints. I've struggled to write, and I think that has something to do with this. It can all be a bit paralyzing.

But if Mother Theresa was right about anything, it's the idea that we can do no great things--only small things, with great love--and whenever a frustrating combination of powerlessness, sadness, and anger is present, I think I'd do well to remember that thought of hers. Try to do small things, with love--and, if I may add an addendum to her wise advice--without thinking so much. Thich Nhat Hanh's words have helped me, too, when I feel overwhelmed with things to do or full of dread:

"To my mind, the idea that doing the dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in warm water, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have a cup of tea, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle ... If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of drinking the tea joyfully. With the cup in my hands I will be thinking about what to do next, and the fragrance and the flavor of the tea, together with the pleasure of drinking it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment."

Looking back through the photos on my phone today, I realized that, along with walking and biking a lot, I've done much more crocheting (and some tatting) this past year than I have in a very long time. On a day when my to-do list would appear to be growing far longer than any possible list of accomplishments, I'm taking some comfort in these images of completed projects, however small or ornamental they may be in the grand scheme of things. Part of their value, in my mind, is their blatant inefficiency and time-consuming quality. They are a quiet protest against the impatient spin of this mad world, a small departure from the grid that helps me to simply be.