It Was My Hogwarts

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I rarely struggle to write. I struggle to talk, especially in situations where I’m nervous or don’t know anyone well, but writing has always come easy to me. That said, I’ve been working on this post for the better part of a week and having an awful time coming up with what I wanted to say.

To make a long story as short as possible, the board of trustees at my alma mater, Saint Joseph’s College, recently made the decision to suspend operations at the Rensselaer campus for the 2017-2018 school year due to a dire financial situation. Alumni, faculty, and students are shocked, angry, and upset.

I realize that it’s “just a school”, as a few well-meaning people have pointed out over the last week. But on the other hand, to those of us who had the privilege of being a student there, it’s so much more.

To quote a friend, “It was my Hogwarts.”

My four years there were a life-changing adventure.

In my four years at SJC, I learned to embrace my love of history. I was encouraged in my creativity. I was forced to get over my paralyzing fear of public speaking. I still don’t love it, but I can do it. It was there that I was first encouraged to pursue playing the piano after a music teacher overheard me playing for fun. I eventually took lessons for a few years.

In my experience, the faculty truly cared about the students. When I met one on one with my academic advisor, he took the time to speak into my life, and not just regarding school and classes. We talked hopes and dreams and goals. (Dr. Posey, I did make it to Russia!)

With small class sizes, it was easy to build genuine relationships with teachers. I was the only student in my French class for most of the time I took it. I was invited to dinner at more than one instructor’s house. The band director hosted the whole band at his home for cookouts when we had to stay on campus over fall break because of a football game.  

I made some of the best friends I will ever have during those four years. Through good times and bad, we have stayed connected. They stood by me when I faced a life-threatening illness with prayers, encouragement, care packages and sarcastic memes.

I still have the pen that was used to sign my degree while I stood there and watched. The pen doesn’t write anymore, but I’ll never get rid of it.

SJC is a unique and special place. It was my home for four years. When I go back to campus, it still feels like home. Even if efforts to save it aren’t successful, it will always be home.

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Hey Grad School! Here I… Can’t Come

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One of the other things we did for fun on the Gettysburg Volunteer Service Vacation was go on a tour of Barksdale’s Charge with a licensed battlefield guide. (No, Pickett wasn’t the only one who charged at Gettysburg.) I’ve always wanted to take a tour with a licensed guide so I was super excited to do this. Actually, I’ve been interested in becoming a licensed guide myself, but I wasn’t sure what steps to take to get there.

I do know there is a long application process before someone gets their badge and license, and most people aren’t able to get through all the steps. So I’ve always been able to talk myself out of trying. However, after the trip to Gettysburg I was determined to go for it. If I failed, at least I’d tried. Since my undergraduate degree is in International Studies, I decided to look in to grad school programs with a focus on Civil War Studies. One of the things I learned in Gettysburg was that a lot of people trying to become licensed guides come with a fantastic knowledge of Gettysburg, but don’t know much about the rest of the Civil War and that’s where they get tripped up in the process. The program obviously wants people who know Gettysburg well, but knowledge of the war as a whole is important too.

I talked to a few family members and friends, all of whom told me to go for it yesterday. Once I had some gentle encouragement and one Gibbs’ head slap (Thanks Amy.) I started really looking for programs. I found what seemed to be a good online program and asked my college professor sister to take a look at it. Once she said it looked good I applied. I was accepted right away, and the financial side of things fell into place pretty easily as well. By the end of October, I had everything squared away for my classes to start in December. I needed to order the books, but they weren’t all listed on the website yet. I knew ordering books wouldn’t take long once I knew what I needed and I’d have everything ready to be a student again.

I was a little nervous about going back to school, but I was excited to take the first step towards my eventual goal.

So everything was going great, right? Here’s where I got black flagged on the last lap

In November, about two weeks before my first classes were going to start, I got diagnosed with breast cancer. After talking to my oncologist and coming to understand what all was going to be involved in my treatment, I made the decision to withdraw from my grad school classes. I was upset but I realized that this was a postponement, not a cancellation.

I don’t know when I’ll sign up for school again, but I will. In talking with a friend she suggested other leads for programs of Civil War study. I haven’t explored them yet but I’m going to check on her tips before re-applying to my original school choice.

And as it turns out, I learned a lot over the past 9 months of cancer treatment, though it is a whole different kind of educational program. But more on that another day.

Fence Building and Presidential Farms

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So I recently discovered that I can still log in to this thing and as it’s been a year since I posted anything I thought I ought to either dust it off and start writing again or shut it down. I’ve decided to try option number one first.

Since my last post referenced a failed attempt to skip going to Gettysburg last year, I thought I’d start there.

The Volunteer Service Vacation in Gettysburg was awesome. They aren’t offering it this year and that would really bum me out if I thought I’d be able to go. More on that some other time.

As this was a working vacation, we had various projects throughout the park to keep us busy during the day. We got to build fences near General Meade’s headquarters. We built split rail and Virginia worm fence, and per the park rangers who helped us those fences will stand in place for about the next ten years.

We also did a lot of scraping and painting picket fences. Scraping and painting fence is boring unless you have really good company. I had a fabulous work group and our fence scraping and painting was fun. We mostly worked on the fence around the Snyder Farm. What was really cool is that one of the ranger supervisors let our group walk through the farm house, which is normally locked and not open to the public. Per the guy who supervised us on that project, he worked at the park for ten years and didn’t get to go in that house until he went in with us. Our fence also faced the Round Tops, so we couldn’t have asked for better scenery.

As I posted updates on our activities on social media, a friend asked me how any of this constituted a vacation as it sounded more like an Amish nightmare. All I can say is that I was so happy to get to be a part of helping maintain the battlefield that I didn’t care much what they had us doing.

On another day we went to President Eisenhower’s farm, which was the only home he and his wife ever owned themselves. When we got there we were greeted outside the house by the head housekeeper, who was very stern in her explanation of how those of us who would be working in the house had to be super careful with everything because the entire contents of the house were priceless and irreplaceable. As she talked, I think a lot of us were getting uneasy about going to help inside. The leaders explained that they were splitting us in to two groups and when they called for volunteers to work outside in the barn almost every guy in the group went running that way. A few brave guys and all the ladies ended up working in the house.

Once we had our protective booties on inside the house, they further split us into three groups. My group’s first assignment was to assist a housekeeper in President Eisenhower’s library. Yes, I got to dust some of his books. That was easily one of the coolest moments of my life. Bookworm + touching books that belonged to a president = day made. We had to wear gloves but I can still stay I held some of President Eisenhower’s books in my hands. We also found one that he apparently read while eating a chocolate bar and we all agreed that this was a bad move on his part.

I also got to polish a silver cigarette case and dust silk roses that belonged to Mrs. Eisenhower.

Funny story while I was dusting roses. We were there to help the housekeeping staff get the house ready for a big World War II event happening the following weekend. Lots of people coming for the event got there early and wanted to tour the house before it was too crowded. So I was sitting on the floor on the restricted side of a velvet rope dusting flowers and minding my own business while groups of people walked through the room on tour.  As each group walked through, a park ranger would offer some information about the room and some of the various items on display. At the end of each presentation, the ranger would ask if anyone had any questions. I got a few curious looks, but most people smiled politely and kept walking.

It went fine until a group of elderly people on tour came through. I could hear a few ladies whispering even as the ranger was talking. The minute he asked for questions the loudest whisperer pointed right at me and said “What’s she doing?!” From her tone you would have thought that I was spray painting the walls. The ranger explained why we were there and that I was dusting silk roses that had belonged to Mrs. Eisenhower. Once she understood why I was there, Ms. Loud Whisperer changed her tone to something much nicer and asked me if I ever thought I’d get to do that and I answered honestly that I never dreamed of something like that, but that I was thrilled to do it.

I have to admit that working on the silk roses was also a little bit scary. I was working about a foot away from a beautiful black table with a mother of pearl design on the top. It was priceless and irreplaceable and had been a gift from a foreign leader to the Eisenhowers. Putting someone as clumsy as me near that table probably wasn’t a good idea. Just off to one side was a Persian rug that had been given to the Eisenhowers by the Shah of Iran. I had to strategically plan my moves so I didn’t get too close to the rug or the table or anything else I could have bumped or stepped on while I was in there. But I left the room in the same condition I found it, except that the silk roses weren’t as dusty.

To be fully honest, I’d seen the Eisenhower Farm tour buses in Gettysburg for years, and was never all that interested in going out there. Now that I’ve gotten to tour the house and the barns, I wonder why I waited so long. And to be honest, since I got to work in the house I’m kind of biased now. Anyone who goes to Gettysburg with me in the future better plan on a trip to the Eisenhower Farm and a complete tour of the things I got to work on while we were there.

One of the fun activities they planned for us was an underbelly tour of the Visitor’s Center museum. We got to go behind the cyclorama and see the weights and temperature sensors that hold it in place and constantly monitor for changes that would indicate a problem with the painting. I love the cyclorama so this was another day made moment for me. It’s hard to tell from the front just how massive the painting is, so to see it from behind was amazing.

They showed us the control room for the various multimedia presentations that play in the museum. We got to see the control center for the HVAC system and got a brief demonstration of how the computers regulate the building temperatures. The building director told us he can control certain things through his cell phone from home. We jokingly asked if there’s an app for that and he said there is. We discovered just how environmentally friendly the museum and the surrounding grounds are.

Going back to the Eisenhower Farm for a moment, those of us who worked in the house were pleasantly surprised by how nice the head housekeeper turned out to be. She takes her responsibility of preserving the house very seriously and that’s why she came across so stern at first, but she was super helpful and very supportive of us once we got going on our tasks. The chickens guys who worked outside didn’t believe those of us who worked in the house when we told them how nice she really was.

So as we walked through the underbelly of the museum, we walked past a staff break room and heard a loud voice go “ARE THOSE MY PEOPLE?!” The head housekeeper from the Eisenhower Farm came running out of the break room and started hugging everyone. Getting to tell the guys “I told you so” was fun and I’m not the slightest bit ashamed to admit that I said it. The guys who hadn’t believed us when we said she was nice looked a little shell-shocked as she hugged them too.

The best thing about this trip was the people on our team. At the end of four days of working together on projects and hanging out in the evenings it started to feel like a family. We went to dinner and got ice cream in groups. A few of the guys took a bunch of chairs from the pool area so we could sit outside our hotel rooms and chat. Those of us with Facebook still keep in touch and share pictures that way.

I don’t know that I’ll get to visit Gettysburg this year, so I’m thankful for the memories of last year. It was truly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, anywhere.


My Best Laid Plans…

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Over the winter I decided that as much as I love Gettysburg, I needed to find new destinations for vacation this year. I’ve been to Gettysburg so many times now that I don’t even need directions to get there. I discussed it with a friend, asking for help finding other fun historical places to visit. She talked to her mom, who booked us a condo in Williamsburg for a week. (THANKS MOM!!) Yes, I’ve been to Williamsburg. But I haven’t been to Arlington, Mount Vernon or Petersburg battlefield, and we are planning to do all of those as well. We will be in Petersburg for the 150th anniversary of the battle. We can’t honestly say that we planned it to work out that way but we are excited to be there for it. Plus I’ve never met Thomas Jefferson in Williamsburg and I’d like to. Please don’t tell Patrick Henry.

Anyway, I have an amazing trip coming up that’s just a day or so away now. And I’m super excited.

So far so good right?

The other day I was browsing the Gettysburg Foundation website. Bad move, I know. But I was reading up on the Civil War soldier remains that were supposed to go up for auction soon. To make a long story short, the auction is cancelled and the remains have been donated to the Gettysburg Foundation. Once they are authenticated the soldier will be buried with honors in the national cemetery. There was a press release on the site announcing these things. Since I was already there, I decided to browse other press releases on the site when I noticed an article talking about the fall volunteer vacation at the national park in Gettysburg. I read up on it and was instantly excited. All thoughts of skipping Gettysburg this year have been scrapped. The way the program works is that volunteers work at the park during the day and they have fun tours and activities planned for the volunteers in the evenings. So, I’m registered for the volunteer vacation and I’m going back to Gettysburg this fall.

I love Civil War history, and hope to visit as many battle fields as I can in the coming years. I also hope to work to help preserve Civil War sites someday. But Gettysburg holds a special place in my heart, so I’m excited for the opportunity to contribute, even in a small way, to helping take care of the battlefield.  

I Suck at Plants

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Last November after my grandma’s funeral, my family had several plants that we needed to figure out homes for. We divided the flowers, but when all was said and done there was a large leafy plant that nobody wanted to take. My aunt lives in another state part of the year and wouldn’t be able to take care of it. My parents explained they didn’t have any room for another large plant at their house. Both my parents turned to look at me.
“Do you want this one?” Mom asked me, gesturing to the big plant.
I stared at her, pretty sure she had suddenly confused me with someone else.
“You can take it,” my dad said. “We don’t have room for it.”
“This is ME,” I reminded them. “I don’t do plants.”
“You did good with the ones you had last summer,” my mom said.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure how that happened,” I said. They both stared at me silently, waiting for me to cave in. Which I did.
“I guess I could take it,” I said, offering a silent apology to my latest victim.
So, still feeling guilty for sentencing this poor plant to death, I took it home. I found what I hoped was a good spot for it and made sure to water it. Then I waited for it to wither and die, as all plants tend to do in my presence.
See, I’ve never had much of a green thumb. Years ago, someone gave me a cactus. I killed it. Not sure how that happened to this day, but yes, I killed a cactus. I had another plant that I left with my mom when I moved to Arizona. It did so well while I was 1800 miles away that she had to split it in to two pots. I’ve been asked not to go to a local greenhouse because I wilted a whole section of flowers just by walking past them.
Anyway, for reasons beyond my ability to comprehend, the leafy plant from grandma’s funeral is doing fabulous. It’s growing and getting flowers and I have no idea how this has happened. I water it, I cut off the dead leaves when they appear and I talk nice to it. Those are the only things I know to do. And I’m the only one who thinks that talking nice to it works.
This week, I was gifted a beautiful new plant with purple flowers. I explained to it on the ride home that I wasn’t real good with plants but I would do my best. Evidently, the plant wasn’t fussed by my confession. It’s doing just fine so far.
I’ve checked my thumbs for a hint of green, but they look the same. Since I have no idea how I made amends with the plant god and was granted the ability to keep these things alive, I’m going to keep doing the things I know to do and hope for the best. But yes, I still think talking nice to the plants has helped.

Elizabeth’s Story

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One of the things I love about studying Civil War history on purpose is learning more about the people who lived during these events. Not just the generals and famous spies or politicians, but everyday people whose lives were forever changed because of a battle.

Last summer in Gettysburg I heard the story of a girl named Elizabeth. She was a teenager during the battle of Gettysburg. Though she didn’t die during the battle like Jennie Wade, the guide who told us her story considered her to be a casualty of the battle just the same.

When war went to Gettysburg during the summer of 1863, Elizabeth’s parents took their family and fled to a farm south of the town. The move was especially hard on Elizabeth, who had a heart condition.

However, in the days and weeks leading up to the battle, Elizabeth’s condition was slowly getting worse and she was becoming more of a burden on her family. During the stress of the battle and its aftermath, her parents quietly made the decision to let nature take its course with their daughter.

Unfortunately for her parents, Elizabeth was old enough to understand what was going on. She didn’t make a big fuss with her parents, but quietly confided to her brother that she was furious with their parents. She also insisted that she would never forgive them for just letting her go.

The story of Elizabeth concludes with her death, roughly ten days after the battle of Gettysburg. She was buried quietly in a local cemetery, and this should be the end of her tale.

But is it? I haven’t found much to back up the story we were told on that tour. I’ve done some research but it’s hard to find information when you only have a first name and a rough guess as to when a person passed away. I know what cemetery they said she was buried in, but I don’t know if her grave is marked.

What I can tell you is that if the story of Elizabeth is true, then I saw her. Twice. In the woods near East Cemetery Hill, almost 150 years after she died.  

Breaking Free

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I moved home from Arizona a little over two years ago. I was so homesick in Phoenix that I couldn’t wait to get home and pick up my old life right where I left off. Lucky for me, this turned out to be impossible.

One of the first things I did when I got home was visit my old church. I had not always been happy there, but I did miss the people. To my shock and dismay, I realized my second week back that I couldn’t stay there anymore. I couldn’t explain it at the time, but I felt like I was suffocating in the building. A voice in my head was telling me to “get the HELL out” of that place.

I didn’t understand it, but I had learned to trust my instincts so I left. It was really hard at first! Most of my social life before I moved revolved around people there, and I was afraid to lose my friends. I thought I was going nuts for feeling like I needed to leave the place.

For about a year I struggled with my decision to leave. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I didn’t know WHY. It was really hard to explain to people when they asked me why I left because I didn’t have an answer for myself or anyone else.

As time passes, I’m learning why I had to leave. I’ve talked to others who left, and I realize that we were all feeling the same things but didn’t feel like we could really tell each other at the time. For me, I see now that I was trying to fit myself in to a place and a culture that I didn’t belong in. There’s been incredible freedom in discovering that I don’t WANT to belong there anymore.

Around Christmas time, a friend’s blog gave me the words to explain why I’ve left my old life behind and started to create a new one. In her post, Emma talks about leaving her past behind and forging the future she wants for herself. One of the things that inspired her in her journey is the song “Let It Go” from Frozen. I have not seen the movie, but I love music so I took advantage of the video Emma included in her blog post. (If you want to read Emma’s post for yourself it’s here: http://emmalinerose1863.blogspot.com/2013/12/let-it-go_17.html Actually, you want to read it. You really do. Go read it! Seriously.)

I fell in love with the song, so I decided to buy the soundtrack. No, I still haven’t seen the movie but the soundtrack was on sale. I listened to “Let It Go” several times, and then discovered that there was a pop single version of the song as well. I’m usually not a fan of the pop versions of the songs from Disney movies, but I decided to give it a chance.

There’s a few places where the lyrics are different between the two versions, and one set of lyrics in the pop version stopped me in my tracks.

“It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small.

And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all.

Up here in the cold thin air, I finally can breathe.

I know I left a life behind but I’m too relieved to grieve.” 

This is me!! When I realized I needed to leave some of my old life behind, I was so afraid to really walk away from it that I almost caved and went back. I would have been welcomed back with open arms, but by people who would never really know me as ME. I would have fallen back into the old pattern of trying to be someone I’m not. I don’t ever want to go back to that prison.

I can honestly say I don’t miss the old Jen. I don’t miss feeling like I have to perform or jump through a set of hoops to barely be acceptable. Have I lost contact with people I thought were friends since I’ve turned my back on much of my old life? Sure. But many of the people in that life wouldn’t like me now and that’s okay. 

I don’t have it all together and I won’t claim to. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know if I will ever really make it as a writer. I can’t figure out why my cats are nauseated by the smell of a clean house. I’m completely switching cell phone operating systems and I don’t know how to use android. I need classes to figure out Windows 8.

None of these are huge life issues. I know this. But even in the huge life issues, there’s freedom in learning who I am and how to be that person.

 

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