How a piece of gingerbread changed my life

Unlike a number of college sophomores, I wanted to live in the dorms.  I had such a fantastic experience in the residence halls my freshman year.  It was like living with all of your friends.  And there were so many fun and silly antics we got up to, as well as the reassurance that there was just someone nearby staved off any loneliness.

Sadly, as a sophomore transfer student coming to a college where the residence halls were barely able to hold all the freshmen, I was left out in the cold.  I moved into an apartment with a girl I didn’t know, and we barely talked to each other all year.

I needed community.  I needed friends.  I knew this.  It would be crucial to surviving college – and just surviving life.  So I did what seemed to be the most reasonable thing to me at the time: at an information fair I went straight to the Religious Campus Organizations table and grabbed one of [almost] every brochure.

I went to several of the larger gatherings first, the popular ones.  I sat in huge lecture halls with a hundred other students while we sang praise songs and listened a speaker.  But no one talked to me – beyond the mandatory, “Turn and say hi to someone around you.”

And then one Thursday night I went to a smaller group.  I barely found it because the room where they met in was in a stairwell – no joke.  Instead of hundreds of people, there were a dozen.  So it was obvious I was new.  I talked politely with a few people, trying to put my introvertedness aside, before we got to the programming of the evening.

Afterwards, before people dispersed, one of the girls I had talked to came back us to me to continue our conversation.  And she asked me a question that changed my life.

“Would you like to go to the tea house with me to get some gingerbread?” 

It was such an absurdly specific request.  Not, “want to get coffee?” or “we should hang out sometime.”  I didn’t know this girl at all beyond her name.  I didn’t know anything about this group I had wandered into.  I didn’t know where this tea house was.  And I didn’t even like gingerbread.  But it was such an absurdly specific request that I found myself responding with an answer that changed my life.


So a few days later I found myself at the Dushanbe Tea House ordering tea and gingerbread with this girl I didn’t know.  I found out she was named by her hippie parents after the mountains where she was born.  She wanted to be a midwife.  She had a big smile with crooked teeth and a soft, gentle voice.  Also, thank goodness, the gingerbread turned out to be more like ginger cake rather than the cookies that you break your teeth on at Christmas.

And because she had invited me for gingerbread, I came back the next Thursday night to that little room in the stairwell.  And the next.  The girl left at the end of that year and we didn’t stay in touch (pre-Facebook days…).  But I stayed with that little group of people who over time became friends.  We went to church together and out for lunch afterwards.  We’d get together for movie nights.  We went sledding and ice blocking.  We had Super Bowl parties.  We went to Denny’s all. the. time. and not for the cuisine.  Even after I graduated college I stayed on as a volunteer with that campus ministry, putting in seven years total in those small classrooms.

I had found a community.  And here’s the more amazing thing: it’s still alive and vibrant.

Two of the people I met 14 years ago are still my closest friends.  Over the years we grew as more trickled in.  Things have gotten more complicated as we’re no longer all living in the same college town and people have gotten married and started having kids, but we still get together.  One person holds a standing movie night once per week for anyone to drop in, and there are usually at minimum six people there.  Sometimes I’ll go a few months without seeing some of them, but when we get back together we just click.  One couple moved out of state for several years, and when they came back they fit right in like they had never left.

I’ve seen many news articles saying that most adults have only two or three close friends.  If you define a close friend as a person that you could call at two in the morning if you are having a crisis, I have over a dozen (and that’s just in this group – not even counting friends from my current church or Bible study or work).

Throughout the years, these people have shaped who I am.  They have accepted me with my flaws and forgiven me time and again when I say or do stupid things.  They have selflessly shared their time, money, and possessions with me and not expected anything in return.  They have stood by me and supported me when I went through dark days of depression.  They have prayed for me and challenged me to grow in my faith.  And if I were in a car accident tonight I have no doubt that I would open my eyes in the hospital to see them gathered around my bed, probably cracking jokes and playing Munchkin or Cards Against Humanity.

We’re not perfect, of course.  We get on each other’s nerves from time to time.  But I know that they’ve got my back, that they’ll always accept me and stand by me.

At our Fourth of July party this year, as I ate my brat I looked around at all of these people on the porch trying to trace back how I knew them all.  A few had married into the community, but all of the rest of us could be traced back to that tiny campus ministry that used to meet in a stairwell.

One that I may not have given a second thought to if it hadn’t been for an invitation for ginger bread from a person I haven’t spoken with in 13 years.

There’s a quote that’s attributed to Helen Keller:

I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.

I doubt that when the girl invited me to tea that she had any idea she would put me on a course that would introduce me to some of the people who would shape my life so profoundly.  She didn’t set out to do something grand and noble.  She just shared a moment of her life with someone who was lonely.

We all have the incredible power to makes someone’s day or to ruin it through our interactions.  If you’ve ever worked in customer service, you know that to be true.  But more than that, our words and actions have the power to redirect someone’s life.

What are some small things that you can do today to reach out to someone?

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Nine pieces of advice for college freshmen

CU Boulder students attending new student convocation.

CU Boulder students attending new student convocation.

Recently a woman who is entering my alma mater this fall asked what advice I would give to a college freshman.  After over a decade in higher education, I’ve got some.  I’ve got a lot, actually.  But I’ll boil things down to nine overarching principles.  Some have to do with school, some have to do with the general transition to adulthood and life on your own.

1. Get involved.  Ninety five percent of the time, community will not find you; you have to go out looking for community.  Go to events.  Introduce yourself to people.  Even just talk to that person sitting next to you in class – “Need a study buddy?”  And watch the sidewalks for chalkings about events.  Really, sidewalk chalk is how I learned about the majority of things happening on campus.

2. Try something new.  This goes with the point above.  College is an awesome time because there are sooooo many options laid out neatly in front of you – whether student groups, university clubs, or free events.  Someone gave me a free ticket to one of our college football games, and there I saw the marching band.  They looked like they were having more fun than anyone else in the stadium.  So despite never having tried it before, the next year I signed up.  And made a lot of friends and had a lot of adventures.

3a. Go. to. class.  At my freshman convocation, the president of the college gave these three words of advice.  When I was a high school senior I asked some of my friends who were college freshmen what the biggest difference was between high school and college.  Their answer: “You don’t have to do anything.”  That is, you are being treated as an adult and no one is checking up on you.  Professors usually don’t take attendance.  Parents won’t nag you to work on a project.  You will need to find the self-discipline to get things done yourself – because you’ll need them in post-college life, too.  You can start building good habits immediately by going to class.  Every class.  Even if you can only manage passively paying attention.

3b. Go. to. office. hours.  This falls right on the heels of the one above and I quickly discovered as a gold mine to academic success in college.  Nearly every professor holds office hours (and posts those in the syllabus).  So if you’re confused about anything, go to office hours.  It’s like getting free tutoring from the person who’s writing your test!  Go to TA office hours, too; they’ve taken this class and know this professor.  And don’t wait until the last minute before a test or project to do it – it could be so crowded you can’t get in, or the office hours may have unexpectedly been canceled due to someone going home early with a cold.

4. Get your money’s worth.  Most students are paying for part if not all of their college expenses.  In addition to going to class because you’re paying for it, take a look at all the other stuff that your school offers for FREE!!!  (Well, not “free”, but that’s covered by tuition and fees so you’re paying for it whether you use it or not.)  Recreation center?  Flu shot?  Career counseling?  Bus pass?  Student legal services?  Off-campus housing services?  Events?  There’s so. much. stuff. and I didn’t take advantage of half of it when I was a student.

5. Don’t neglect your school email address or your literal mailbox.  Yes, I know you don’t care about that email about a scholarship you’re not eligible for and that flier for the concert you’re not interested in, but in between all those emails and fliers are notices your school (and landlords, utilities holders, etc) will send out about important things involving deadlines and fees.  Pay attention so you don’t miss them.  Speaking of which…

6. You’ll mess something up eventually.  Accept responsibility, learn from it, and move on.  Like parking tickets.  Or overdue books.  Or late fees.  Or missed deadlines.  Once when I moved from one apartment to another I forgot to cancel our electricity and didn’t forward the mail and since no one moved into that apartment for four months I was billed for four months of electricity that then was turned over to a collection agency.  Oops.  I paid the bill (which was not fun) and started over.  It sucked, but I chalked it up as a learning opportunity.  (I still wish it hadn’t happened, but it did.  So time to move on.)

7. Ask for help.  Even though most students are 18 so legally considered responsible adults, colleges know that most students are living on their own for the first time and could use some guidance.  And unlike many agencies you’ll encounter out in the real world (DMV, landlords, insurers, creditors, power companies…), part of the official or unofficial job description of staff at universities is to help teach students how to navigate the unfamiliar waters of adulthood – like managing all of these new responsibilities.  So seek people out and ask questions.  Ask them to define terms or outline processes.  If you’re in a sticky situation ask about how you can keep from getting into it again.

8. Never forget long-term goals for the sake of short-term gratification.  College is a blast.  Really.  Go out and enjoy it and have fun.  But stay smart.  It’s very easy for the newfound freedom of college to cause people to push boundaries much further than they should have.  Small failures (and you will have some) can be great learning opportunities; large failures can drastically alter your future – especially if they have legal, health, or financial consequences.  You can absolutely still have fun while staying smart.

9. Be authentic, and stop trying to be what you think other people want you to be.  Okay, so this is actually advice for everyone regardless of age.  I had a bit of a breakdown my freshman year when I thought that even though I was a nerd in high school that no one in college would like me as a nerd.  I was too worried about what others thought of me and less willing to stand up for myself and say, “This is who I am, and I’m okay with it.”  Silly me, I found out that not only do I like being a nerd but that there were plenty of nerds in college that I could be friends with – and am still friends with!  The same thing goes for your faith (thankfully, that’s something I chose to hang onto).  You will meet a lot of different people in college with a lot of different viewpoints.  You can learn something from all of them, but you don’t have to make all of them happy.  You don’t even have to make all of them like you.  Some people won’t like you, and that’s okay because there’s seven billion other people on this planet.  Don’t change who you are in an attempt to fit in.  You will find your niche – maybe not the first week, maybe not the first month, but there are people who will accept you for being you.  Accept nothing less.

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Ironman was in Boulder last weekend.  It was awesome.  I’ve been excited ever since the announcement was made last year that it was coming to Boulder.  I was so excited that I specifically blocked time in my coworker’s calendar so that she could get online to register the hour it opened up.  (And she did.)

On Saturday I got out a roll of butcher paper and started painting signs.  “Go Michele, home field advantage!”  “Just keep swimming (check), biking (check), running!”  “Hey random athlete, I don’t even know you but I am SO PROUD of you!”  I taped them up on the fences along the course.

I was awakened at 4:30 by the sounds of cars circling my neighborhood, trying to find a place to park.  All morning, I kept thinking, They’re out there right now.  While I’m here eating breakfast / reading / cleaning, they’re moving.  Swimming.  Biking.  Starting running soon.  At 1:00 I went to the creek path to start cheering the runners on.

I was surprised how many spectators were out.  I mean, I know the Ironman is a big deal, but it’s also a long course.  Yet there were so many people with signs and cowbells.   If I could see their name on their bib, I tried to encourage each athlete by name.  “Good job, David.  Good job, Kelly.  Good job, Christine.  Good job, John.”  Even after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112, many still managed to grunt “Thanks” when I cheered.  I rang my cowbell until my hand got tired, then switched to the other hand, then back again.

The further along in the race, the slower the athletes were moving.  At first everyone was running.  Then jogging.  Then there were some walkers.  Then a lot of walkers.  Then people with tears in their eyes.  Eagle-eyed medics on bicycles were going up to athletes asking the last time they peed.  Cheers changed from high-energy “Woohoo!” to reassuring “You ARE making progress.  Just keep moving forward.  You WILL make it.”  Some stared at us in disbelief, in too much pain and exhaustion to comprehend the sounds coming out of our mouths.

I popped back to my apartment to make more signs.  “Run, walk, crawl, whatever it takes!  You made it this far.  Just don’t give up!”  “What do they call the last person to finish an Ironman?  AN IRONMAN.”  Amidst the cacophony of noise and people and stimuli, many glanced down to read, and smiled.  Some even said, “I love that sign.”

I went downtown to see my coworker run across the finish line, but instead of heading home to bed then I went back to the path.  Now dark and deserted by most of the fans,  the occasional athlete still hobbled along adorned with a headlamp or glow necklace.  I smiled at each one that passed.  “You can do it.  You still have time.  You’re going to go to bed tonight as an Ironman.”  They smiled at that realization, or nodded while choking back tears.

I knew I was excited to cheer at the Ironman – just like I was excited to cheer at the Olympics or at my students’ choir concerts and tennis matches and theatre performances this year.  I’ve always like cheering for people, but I’ve never really known why.

Until I realized that it’s the hope you see on their faces.  Encouragement is a way to show love by giving people hope and support.  There’s something addictive about the look in their eyes when they realize that someone – anyone – supports them.

I realized how many people are looking for support.  Looking for encouragement.  Looking for hope.  Looking for love.  Whether it’s at something formal like a race, or just after a hard day answering calls from angry customers.  And most’ll be happy to take it any way that they can get it – even if it’s from a five-second interaction with a girl sitting in the grass with a sign and a bell.

I sat exhausted and alone under a street lamp waiting full minutes between athletes wanting nothing more than to go to bed.  But I couldn’t go to bed, not yet.  Not when more were still out there.  Not when it was easily within my power to give hope to just a few more people and I’d get to see their faces light up.

The privilege of giving a brief moment of encouragement to someone, really, we have so many opportunities to give that but we often don’t take advantage.  It’s something that costs us nothing.  Just a little bit of time, and a genuine love for others.  It could be as simple as a text message saying, “Was thinking about you today.  You’re pretty awesome.  I’m glad you’re in my life.”

The opportunity to encourage is addicting.  Next year I’ll have to call in sick on Monday so that I can keep cheering all the way through midnight.

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Secretary Tales, issue #12

So.  Last week twenty of us planked until we dropped.  (And another fifteen or so cheered, coached, smack talked, judged, and timed.)

photo 1

That’s me in the front.  I set a new PR of 3:30!

There were nineteen other participants.  The winning time was 8:10, and she only stopped because she knew she was the last one still going.  She also did the Boulder Ironman over the weekend.  Even more impressive: there were THREE competitors that made it to eight minutes or more.  Eight minutes!!!  I have a new target for our next Plank Off in January…

My coworkers are awesome.

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Releasing expectations

“Don’t let your expectations steal your joy. Today my focus will be on the beauty of what is, not on what I think it should be.”

A friend recently posted this on Facebook, and I thought it was incredibly profound and spot on.  Because I have a tendency to focus on what I don’t have rather than what I do, what I wish something were instead of what it is.

I over think things.  A lot.  Which is actually probably why I blog – as a release valve for some of those thoughts.  It’s rare that I can look at or be in a situation and just accept it for what it is without overlaying expectations on it, for better or for worse.  In work, in friendships, in relationships, in running, in travel, in teaching Sunday school…  I always find myself taking things out ten steps down the road instead of focusing on today and now.

I believe that God has a long-term plan, but I think most times he doesn’t choose to reveal it.  It’s an exercise in trust.  Will my dreams be fulfilled?  Will my nightmares come true?  Will I succeed?  Will I fail?  Most often things end up somewhere in the middle.  Today,  it’s just about daily bread.

And I’ve been convicted about releasing all of these worries and anxieties and resting in the Lord.

God, Today I Give You My Expectations.

IMG_20140731_082441And I choose joy.


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Secretary Tales, issue #11

(One day I’m no longer going to be able to keep track of what issue I’m on.  That day is probably coming soon as for this issue I just ran out of fingers and had to start using toes to count…)

Conversations that happen around the office: 

K: “Only 1400 more until the drinking fountain counter hits 10,000!”

Me:  “Woohoo!  We’ll have to keep a close watch so we don’t miss it.”


* * * * *

J: “What with all the black today?”

Me: “Well, I had a grey skirt on but it’s long and since it’s going to flood tonight it would get soaked when I walk home.  So I just grabbed this one and ended up in all black.”

J: “You have a reason for everything, don’t you.”

Me: “Yeah. It’s a curse.”

* * * * *

E looks stressed.  Me: “Do you need some tea?  I have tea.”

E: “No, I think I need coffee.  Coffee is like a kick in the pants.”

Me: “Yeah, tea is more like a comforting hug.”

* * * * *

O goes into J’s office and the door shuts partway.  Curious, I go peek through the crack.

J: “We’re planking.  You coming?”

Me: “Let me get my towel.”

* * * * *

I walk into the IT office looking for S.  He’s not there, but I do a double-take at the conference table.  “Uh, is that an Atari?”

A: “Yes, but the TV is too smart to play with it.  It doesn’t have an RCA input.  Only HDMI.  So the graphics are even worse and only in black and white.”

Me: “Shame. That would be a fun way to spend lunch.”

A: “Yeah, Y came by the office and saw it and got really excited and asked if it had Frogger.  And then another time D came by and asked if we could play Pong.”

* * * * *

Me: “Here’s a copy of the jack map for your reference.  Unhelpfully, the jacks aren’t the letters labeled on the actual floor plan, but are over on the side under the reference columns.  Why?  I have no idea.”

G: “Because there’s always that one thing that makes you say, really, why?”

Me: “Bingo.”

* * * * *

J walks into my office: “Longmont has palm readers.”

Me: “What? Huh?”

J: “You just put your palm down.  Scan in.”

Me: “Oh, you mean like at the hospital?”

J: “Yeah, it’s pretty cool.”

Me: “What if the reason you’re at the hospital is that you lost your hand in a table saw accident?  Do you need to bring the hand with you?”

J: “Just use the other hand.”

Me: “What if you lost BOTH hands in the table saw accident?”

J: “I think they probably let you walk right past the check in booth at some point.”

Me: “Or what if you’ve never been to the hospital before so they don’t have a scan of your palm?  Do you have to go to a reader and get entered into the system before you can be seen?  (He starts to walk away.)  I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS!!!”

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Secretary Tales, issue #10 – Plank Off Update

So I know I’ve written a fair bit about our work-wide plank off challenge lately.  But seriously guys, this is amazing to see.  Because this randomly issued challenge seems to have brought our workplace together in a way that nothing ever has in the ten years that I’ve worked here.

Even prior to throwing down this gauntlet, this place is night and day different from when I started here – in a good way.  I mean, we weren’t awful when I started.  But we were disorganized and dysfunctional and there was no sense of a team or looking at the good of the overall organization and our customers.  We’ve revised processes, implemented new ones, tightened things up, and I can say without a doubt that we are probably one of the absolute best in the country at what we do.  (Unfortunately there’s no official ranking organization out there to confirm it, but I stand by it.)

Even with all that these amazing folks have accomplished and how hard they have worked, there has still been some discord.  We did a survey of staff a year ago and something that was brought up repeatedly is that people feel cut off from the rest of the departments – like there’s no interdepartmental collaboration and teamwork.

But all that changed on June 30 with the off-hand suggestion of a plank off competition.  The suggestion of a little friendly competition lit a fire under people.  And it’s so much fun.

One department is trying to win by stealth.  They act aloof when we bring up the plank off, like they don’t care – but we know they’re totally practicing in secret and will show up on the day of in force.  Makes it hard to do reconnaissance…

In another department a woman is trying to muster the troops to beat the stealth department and apparently they had a “practice” plank off yesterday – with rumors of a 4:30, 5:00, and 6:00! plank.  We’re uncertain if that 6:00 time is legit or just trash talk to scare us all…

Speaking of trash talk, apparently my department is trying to win that award.  I might have to bring some aloe vera to the competition for all those burns…

With this competitive edge now spreading beyond individual to individual, we’re thinking we’ll need to add a new award for department with the longest average plank – possibly throwing out the high and low times.  (And I’m trying to figure out the logistics of how we’d calculate that…)

At this point, though, I feel like no matter what we’re all going to be winners.  I know that sounds cheesy, but in addition to the health benefits we’re gaining a better work environment.  All from something that will last less than ten minutes over our lunch hour.

On a personal note, that 6:00 plank rumor lit a fire under me, and over lunch today I set a new personal best: a 3:00 plank.

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