Friday, July 3, 2015

A Time for Healing

I just got back from Mo Ranch. Last year I posted a blog about thin places and how Mo Ranch does that for me (Thin Places). This year I decided to think a little more about why this place is so important to me. And while I go into it some in that old blog I linked above, after taking some time to think it over I have come to realize that there's more to Mo Ranch for me. Ultimately, I believe that Mo Ranch has served as a place of healing for me. Or at least a place where I truly take the time to begin to heal.

In February of 2005, the summer before my last summer attending JHJ as a middle schooler, my family was in a really gnarly car accident. It's a bit to explain and I'll never fully know what happened because I was the one Pappas not in the car for the accident, but here goes nothing:
  • A woman trying to cross three lanes of traffic guns it as a semi pulls forward, however what she didn't realize was that the family mini van was sitting on the other side of the semi. She effectively t-boned my mom's car, sending it into a light pole.
  • Everyone in the car gets really banged up.
  • My dad (who was not wearing a seatbelt at the time) crushed one hip and broke the other. In addition, he broke a couple of ribs and he tore is aorta (a major artery for the heart). While the artery itself tears, there is a lining that surrounds it, which holds. This is one of the reasons why my dad is alive today, a complete tear causes a person to bleed out in seconds.
  • My sister (she's 5 at the time) decided to loosen up the middle seat belt in the far back seat of the car. Because of physics and not being properly belted her intestines are punctured and she breaks her back. She spend the next 3 months in a full body cast (it starts just above the knee and ends at the top of her chest, below her arms).
  • My mom, who is wearing her seatbelt, come out in one piece. She does sprain her right ankle, an injury common for drivers in a gnarly accident. Something about physics where basically she stomped on the break, so her mass was going against the mass of her car which was coming towards her (in my very simplistic terms, it makes sense I swear).
  • After a couple of scary CAT scans it turns out that my brother is actually fine (he is also wearing his seatbelt).
  •  I get to spend the next couple of weeks at a friend's house, going to the hospital when I can.
  • My dad spend a while in the hospital, then a while at a rehabilitation center where he learns how to get around in a wheel chair and gets linked up with a physical therapist who teaches him how to walk again.
  • Eventually the Pappas family is united under the same roof. But it takes a lot of time and patience.

So yeah, that happened to me when I was 14. So not only was I not processing this because I was 14, I was also not processing this because I was am great at compartmentalizing things in order to cope with situations that I have no control over. I don't think I had the opportunity to truly slow down and think about what happened to my family until I got to Mo Ranch. Obviously through out the preceding 4 months I had cried at some points, but mostly all I remember is being so busy that I didn't have too much time to worry. 

But then you get to this ranch where you spend every night at vespers enveloped in the quiet and stillness and you can't really compartmentalize anymore. I don't remember the exact details, but I do remember having a moment where there was a break and it was like I finally realized the load I had been carrying around. It was like "wait a minute, my body is heavy and I didn't even realize it. And I don't know how to not be tired but maybe just saying that I'm carrying an impossible burden is a good start". And it was. 

Coming back to Mo Ranch in 2010 was a similarly healing experience. All I will say is that while I was there I realized that just because on person doesn't care about you, doesn't mean that you are any less valuable. Going away to Mo gave me the space to take a step back and realize that 1) there were a lot of toxic things that happened my freshman year. And that 2) I actually don't have to feel cornered by those things and people. I may not have control over much, but I can seek out what truly makes me happy. If you want more than that you will have to go check out my blog about Mo Ranch from last year (the link is in the first paragraph of this post).

This year held a similar space for me. 2015-2016 has been a tumultuous year for me for a lot of reason. Between a break in, a break up, adjusting to being a full time adult and juggling two part time jobs I have been shouldering a lot. And I have been shouldering a lot more than I care to recognize. I have been in and out of New Orleans all year traveling for pleasure and for work (Houston x3, Austin x2, Dallas x4, Montreat x1, Mo Ranch x1, Tulsa x1, Auburn x1). When I am in New Orleans there's always one more thing to take care of. Whether it's dealing with a crappy housing situation,  things blowing up at work or friends leaving the city to pursue their careers, it's been a hard year. Also, as someone who loves plans an structure, the fact that I only have about 1 year planned out is stressful. What if I actually am totally terrible at my jobs? What if I am %100 not cut out for my chosen career? What am I doing in New Orleans anyway? What if Valentina's predictions are correct and I end up living alone for the rest of my life with my 10 dogs on a ranch in west TX and all I ever wear is flannel and mom jeans (obviously she is joking, but still! That's a lot of flannel...)? What if, when I decide to leave New Orleans, I can't find a job anywhere else? What if someone break into my house again? What if that happens tonight while I'm home alone (unlikely)? What if I don't want to go to seminary? What if I do? What if I am torturing myself for absolutely no good reason at all? 

Ya'll, I am not good at being a fun loving young adult. Just saying.

Yet again, being out at Mo Ranch helped me take a few deep breaths and center myself. Yes, I am carrying a heavy load. So are a lot of other people. I don't have to do this alone. And, if we are being honest, so many things I have listed are not important. I am 24. Instead of making graphs to determine the feasibility of my next life step, maybe I just need to enjoy things for what they are. 

I got to spend a week with these awesome middle schoolers, all of them unique and funny and all in all I just tried to enjoy each moment for what it was. While there were a few bumps (memo to self, never check work emails while you are out of the office, you're begging for a potential panic attack) I came out of my week feeling serene and focused. Sometimes you don't have to fight. Sometimes you just have to be. Mo Ranch has a way of bringing me back into 'being', which I am forever grateful for.










-Alec



Sunday, June 7, 2015

Raku for Me and Raku for You

So as I'm sure a lot of you dear readers are aware, I take classes at a ceramics studio in New Orleans. And I love it. And I have no doubt there are some easily drawn metaphors between ceramics and life.

For example, sometimes when you are making pieces on the wheel you have all these grand plans. And then your clay is like "oh no, no way, I'm not even going to get centered for you today". So you try to muscle it into behaving and all you get is a wobbly ash tray for your efforts.

Or sometimes you make the best piece ever. It's like you've made a mug that Jesus would drink coffee out of. It's perfectly balanced, the handle is just right. You have this vision for the finished product so you dip it in your glaze of choice. You drop it off on the "To be glaze fired" shelf. When you get it back a week later something is off in the kiln and your brilliant green piece turns out a horrible, disappointing brown. Because if the temperatures aren't just right, or if your piece doesn't have enough glaze it pretty much looks like poop.

See what I mean about easily drawn metaphors about clay and life?

What I'm really here to share about is this awesome firing technique called Raku. I don't know how it works, all I know is that the studio owner, Martin, has students over to his house on the north shore and we use some special clay and some special glaze and we fire in these special kilns that don't get to live in the studio. Here's the thing about raku, the pieces can turn out absolutely stunning BUT it's really a crap shoot on how it will all go. Ideally, lots of raku pieces look kind of like gasoline that is sitting on top of water. It's shiny and mercurial. The payoff is big, but the risk is high. High risk, high reward.

Today I got to attend my first raku session. And my pieces actually turned out pretty great! I went in with very low expectations, so when the pieces came out of their metal trash cans I was so happy! This time I'll go ahead and spell out that metaphor: Life tends to work best when you let go of your preconceived notions and expectations.

Kiln with neat pulley system. 


These are pieces that are still molten hot. To get the right coloring you put them in a metal garbage can with newspaper. Apparently this has to do with oxidation and reduction. I don't know what that means, but it makes them look cool!

Two of the three pieces I fired today. See what I mean about gasoline on water look?

The finished products. Like I said, it's kind of a crap shoot about what turns out how. Technically I used the turquoise glaze on my vase, but I wanted it to have more of a luster so we didn't give it too much time to oxidize. Or something.



-Alex




Monday, April 13, 2015

When We Fail

Sometimes I get unexpected looks at the uglier side of New Orleans. I know, that sounds terrible, I have been singing New Orlean's praises since I moved here. But there have been a handful of times when I've been confronted with some of the deep seated problems that plague a city I hold so close to my heart.

I have to be honest, I don't work in an atmosphere where I am directly confronted by some of the harder realities of New Orleans. All in all I'm pretty isolated. Project Homecoming builds homes in some neighborhoods that people outside of New Orleans would consider dangerous. We are usually a welcome site when we set up shop. At PHI we've had some tools stolen, there once was some gunfire a few blocks away from a house some of our Americorp were at, but all in all we are pretty contained. I don't even do the construction, just stuff around the office. The most I have to worry about is making sure I don't leave my purse in my car.

It's easy to wane philosophical about our country's social failings. America is deeply flawed. So many aspects of what we do poorly feeds into other things that we also do badly. It's hard to extract a single thread and follow it. No one thing is the source of all problems. The ways in which teachers and students are held accountable in school is broken, our incarceration system is laughable, I have a relative with a serious mental illness who is a shining example of all the ways we as a society ignore/shun/castigate those like him. This country has failed him.The people that we elect to represent us in the government have failed all of us. Finally, we continue to fail each other in pretty horrible ways without even realizing it.

Thankfully, I just get to think about these things.

But sometimes I have the unpleasant experience of being confronted with the reality of these failing systems. Today, after school, a man opened fire on a bus stop full of students. I know this because my housemate works at the school those students attend. She was not as the shooting, but to quote her "My kids shouldn't have to go through this. They shouldn't be afraid to ride the bus home." And she's right, they shouldn't be afraid to ride the bus home. Or ride the bus anywhere for that matter. My housemate works in a high needs school. She frequently breaks up fights between students. A lot of afternoons she comes home burned out from working with students who don't understand how to manager their anger. I have no doubt that each and everyone of her kids needs to spend time with a counselor every week to even have a fighting chance at being something more. But that support, and the funds necessary, just don't exist. Not for those kind of kids, not at that kind of schools

I wish I could end this on a positive note, but I'm tired and sad and I don't have much more to say right now. Those kids deserve better and we all continue to fail them. Right now all I see is a long tunnel with no end in sight. Here's to hoping that tomorrow I can see a little more light, give myself a little more grace and find the strength to continue to offer this city my best me, whatever that may look like.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

PYCC (or my new awesome extended family)

As I started my job with PSL, we (as in me and my advisory board) began to throw around this idea of a youth council. First of all, let me preface this by saying that PSL only had a youth coordinator position for about a year before I was hired. So everything down here is new. Very new. Anyway, when I began my job in early August, the idea of a youth council was brought up. As I was exploring what this could look like for a presbytery that is smaller (about 50 churches) and very spread out (it takes about 4.5 hours to get from New Orleans to Lake Charles) one of the board members sent me information about the youth council in New Covenant Presbytery. Maybe it was purely luck, I like to think it was more than that, the name on the front of the packet was one I am very familiar with: Caressa Holloman.

Just a little bit of background, Caressa's aunt is the pastor at my home church in Dallas. Her uncle was the assistant director at Synod Youth Workshop the year I was on planning team. Her husband was my small group leader one year at SYW and her parents did all the behind the scenes planning for SYW while I was attending in high school. When the packet was presented to me I knew Caressa pretty well, maybe not as well as most of the rest of our family but to say that our paths crossed on occasion would be an understatement.

Naturally I sent Caressa an email just asking for a feel of how PYCC works. It's a youth council that has existed for a very long time and led a successful weekend retreat for all of the youth in New Covenant. Through out the conversations I was invited to attend the planning retreat for PYCC back in late August (or early September, I can't quite remember).

PYCC is the youth council in New Covenant Presbytery (so Houston area plus some). Every church is eligible to nominate 1-4 youth to be on the PYCC. Every spring the entire council nominates 2 youth co-moderators for the following school year. In addition to youth there is a whole score of adults who volunteer their time and talents, so there are also 2 adult co-moderators (or co-mods for short) as well as adults that help with the various teams. The youth are broken up into a bunch of different teams, with an adult and a youth serving as the team leaders. In turn, all of these wonderful people put on a retreat in late February called Conclaves. The youth not only lead music, come up with the theme, perform keynote skits, lead worship, come up with a mission idea, take care of all the a/v  and lead rec, they also all serve as small group leaders. Pretty neat in my opinion. All of the adults provide guidance, but in general try to be as hands off as possible. They basically serve as an awesome support system.

I went in August and had an amazing time. I picked their brains about what works, what doesn't work, what seems to be the key to PYCC (I'll get to that in a minute), how the teams are decided, how they come up with the theme, how many meetings they have every year etc. I had so much fun getting to know the youth and adults. Seriously, it was a great weekend. It was so great in fact that when Caressa invited me to come back for Conclaves (their all youth retreat in the spring), I couldn't say no. I had the opportunity to see all the plan, now was my chance to see them all in action.

Conclaves is all sorts of awesome. First of all Camp Cho-yeh is a well run retreat facility. I was so impressed by their staff, their buildings and by the activities they offered. Secondly, it was amazing to see so many youth in leadership positions. When I was told that high schoolers got to lead small groups with other high schoolers in that I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical. That was silly. The youth on PYCC did a great job in all aspects. I swear, I'm not exaggerating. They have tons of energy and are so excited. The theme was on point, the activities were engaging, all 250 people in the room were interested in what was going on.  Not only that, the adults were so generous with me. I had multiple people offer to come to New Orleans to help me get my own council together. Seriously, these people are already volunteering for PYCC and they want to help me get my own program off the ground in their free time. How amazing is that?

So, what makes PYCC so successful (in my humble opinion):

1. The youth are nominated by their home churches. As Caressa put it, these churches know the youth best. Also it creates a system of accountability for not only the youth, but also for the home churches. It's one things when a youth is picked from a stack of applications, it's another when session has to take the time to nominate a youth to represent their congregation. This model impresses an extra layer of responsibility on the youth while also involving the home congregation.

2. There is a core group of youth sponsors who are willing to give up a handful of weekends throughout the year to be on PYCC. In my experience you're more likely to have a stressful youth event because of adult sponsors, not youth (not all the time, but most of the time). Having a core group of adults that support and serve as the leadership and are truly dedicated make a world of difference is integral.

3. The youth maintain a lot of control. Don't get me wrong, the adults are clearly key assets to PYCC, but the youth did a lions share of the work. It was truly inspiring to see how much high schoolers can do if you just give them the space to do it. Seriously, instead of micromanaging, the youth were given the space to make the important decisions. I keep relearning that youth will surprise you in the most wonderful ways. 9 out of 10 times they will basically kick your ass with how awesome they are.

Speaking of youth kicking ass, the two youth co-mods, Danielle and Marco, gave the sermons at the Sunday worship service. They were both completely different in their presentation and they were both wonderful. They were insightful and personal, connecting with everyone in the room, (confession, I may have texted my dad saying: "I think my crisis of faith just got its ass kicked by an 18 year old").

Thank you PYCC for taking me in! I feel like I have an awesome extended family in New Covenant Presbytery. You all are awesome. I learned a lot and I hope that someday PSL's future youth council can work with ya'll. Wouldn't that be great?

-Alex
This is my only picture from the weekend.
A selfie on the drive out to Houston. I swear I'm excited!


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Scortez Celebrates Mardi Gras

Yeah, you read that right. Scortez. Originally our house was going by the name Cortez Estates, but Scortez just has a certain ring to it.

How did we celebrate Mardi Gras you ask? Well in about a million ways. First of all, Mardi Gras is a magical time when the city of New Orleans shuts down so the residents canget free stuff thrown at them and drink lots of beer. And grill out. And generally have a great time. I LOVE Mardi Gras. Check out my blog from 2014 Mardi Gras if you want to get a better idea. For now, I'm going to give you all a bunch of pictures. Enjoy!


The infamous mardi gras tree in full bloom

Me, Valentina and Maggie


Me, Valentina and Alyssa

These are my friends

One of the many awesome floats this year

Anna Leigh and Thomas preping for a game of stump

My view for Endymion.

Endymion selfie

Best seats in the house

Post Endymion lunch, Anna Leigh accidentally got 2 salads



Life in New Orleans is kind of beautiful right now. Things are going to be chilly the next couple of days, but seriously! Look at that blue sky! I'm all about this life.


Price Milner taking advantage of a photo op

Finally, some words of wisdom from the bathroom at Twelve Mile Limit.



-Alex

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Quarter Life Crisis

I used to think that was basically a load a garbage, this idea of a mid (quarter) life crisis. And yet, I think I may be experiencing one. Don't worry, I haven't spent an extravagant amount of money on a sports car, or decided to run away to Dubai. My quarter life crisis, like me, is pretty controlled all things considered.

Although, the more I think about it, the more I think I could be experiencing a quarter life awakening. That sounds pretty pretentious, but I'm not sure how to describe what's going on in my head and in my life.

Everything feels so much closer to the surface. I'm not sure how else to describe it. I've always enjoyed a good book, but recently the books I've invested in carry more weight. Maybe I've been reading some really wonderful novels. I think that's a part of it, but I don't think that's all. I'm not the teary type, but I was reading this novel called Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel and I started tearing up at some of the passages! Also, Swamplandia! (Karen Russell), completely captivated me in a way that hasn't happened since the first time I read American Gods (Neil Gaiman, my junior year of high school). I am simmering in feelings which is not a bad thing, but it is intimidating.

I blame Station Eleven for triggering what I have jokingly referred to as my existential crisis. At 3 AM. On a Wednesday. Hear me out. In the novel, a strain of avian flu sweeps through the world and kills just about everyone. That's kind of the precursor. The real meat of the story takes place 20 year after the pandemic, following a troupe of Shakespearean performers. This band of musicians and actors travels from hamlet to hamlet performing different plays. Because, when the whole world gets wiped out by an avian flu, Shakespeare still captivates. What really got me thinking was this passage where a man who lived in the world pre-flu, sees what will probably be the last plane take off from the airport. The last plane, ever, flying away.

There is a second part where this kid who was 7 when the flu happens basically ends up leading this crazy sect of people who go around enslaving others and making all the young women his wives etc. etc. when he grows up. Medieval, and evil, stuff.

Which brings me to the existential crisis part. Just follow me for a minute. When you take time to think about it, pretty much everything we as human beings find valuable actually does not have an inherent value. Money, religion, systems of government, art, love, even gender and so many more things only hold value because we have decided that they do. Here's a great example that I'm still thinking about days later. The color red. There is nothing that is the actual color red because at some point along the way a person noticed that this things was different then that thing visually and came up with the idea of color. Nothing is actually red, we just decided that this is what we want red to be. Fair warning, it's easy to fall down that rabbit hole, especially if you really examine so many structures that we take for granted (capitalism, consumerism, gender conformity, art, even religion).

I blame Plato's allegory of the cave and multiple english theory classes. If you don't know about Plato, look him up. Check out his ideas on perfect forms and Plato's Allegory of the Cave (look, I even supplied some of the text for you). Maybe I should have been a philosophy major, but I think that might have damaged my brain. So maybe all of these important facets of my life are actually completely meaningless. Talk about having the ground under your feet shake.

But maybe not. Maybe, in order to be more than cavemen, we have to watch the sun go down and think about how shocking and otherworldly that array of colors is. Maybe, words strung together can be so beautiful you could drown yourself in them (in Station Eleven Shakespeare has the ability to captivate and challenge audiences even when the world has pretty much come to an end). I have experienced love in all kinds of forms and I have to believe that the connection I have to other people is more than just a desire for protection, or the natural need to go forth and multiply. Even the crappy stuff is important. Heartbreak, that's real people. When someone let's you down so hard you feel the weight of it all grinding your joints together, there is something inexplicable to all of that.

Sometimes, when I'm feeling restless, I go for a late night drive by the bayou. I play some music, sometimes it's Fleet Foxes or the Head and Heart. Sometimes it's Childish Gambino. A lot of the time it's Explosions in the Sky. I roll down the windows and for a few minutes I feel like my soul is pushing at my skin, trying to get as close to the surface as possible.




The forecast is 75 and sunny for the rest of the week. That may just be how certain hot
and cold fronts collide, but I like to think it's a combination of luck, timing and grace.
-Alex

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Hands in Clay

I've decided to spend a little bit of time talking about clay. Pottery to be exact. I've been posting a lot of pictures on instagram and Facebook and the positive feedback is great. I've actually been doing some form of pottery for about 10 years on and off, so it's become a pretty integral part of my life. It's been such an integral part of my life that I don't really talk about it that much. Or, I don't talk about how I got started and how I actually have quite a history with pottery, so I figure might as well start sharing now.

In 8th grade I took my first ceramics class. We made hand built pieces (so nothing involving the pottery wheel) that ranged from basic rattles to plates of food to slab form vessels. All pretty basic stuff. I like to consider that first class Mr.Huntoon's weed out class. If you can't take the time and have the patience to make a vase out of slabs (a process that would take at least 3 classes), then you definitely did not have the patience to work with the wheel (something that is still really challenging for me). 

Obviously something stuck because I worked in the studio in some form or fashion for my entire high school career. My teacher, Gary Huntoon (go google his stuff, he makes some pretty amazing pieces) and I had a great relationship. We have a very similar sense of humor, so when he called my first thrown pot a door post, I laughed, a lot. Because let's be real, that's about all that piece of junk was good for. 

The studio door was only locked after school hours, so I would head on in and work on the wheel whenever I could make time. Just to be clear, I made a lot of time. During the summer I would go up to Parish to work on projects and keep building up that muscle memory on the wheel. In retrospect I was pretty spoiled. I had free clay, free class time, free glazes and a free teacher. Mr.Huntoon is a talented, extremely creative potter who recognized my passion and decided to foster it. 

So, when I was at freshman orientation at Rhodes and was told that they did not have a ceramics program I called home and told my mom that I needed to transfer immediately. (Un)Fortunately my mom's logic won out, I could do things back in Dallas at Mr. Huntoon's studio and if I really wanted to take ceramics I should have checked on that BEFORE freshman orientation. The summer after my freshman and sophomore year of college I would spend some time with Mr. Huntoon at his studio, working on pieces, spending time with him, his wife and their two little Japanese Chin puppies. Then,  Mr. Huntoon decided to up and move to North Carolina. So for the next two summers I didn't touch any clay. Granted, during that time I did live abroad, pursue some great career building opportunities and fine tune my writing, BUT I didn't get my hands in any clay for two years.

During my YAV year we spent some time talking about 'self care' and what that looks like for each individual. As we were talking about what brings us joy, I kept circling back to pottery. It was a big risk, walking into a class full of strangers with a teacher that I didn't know, but at some point you have to take the plunge. I am so glad I did. I started my first class at Hands in Clay studio in November of 2013. I have not missed a single session since. It's more expensive this time around (what do you mean I have to actually pay for supplies?!), but I absolutely love the community that comes along with working in that studio. 

There are very few things that consistently fulfill me spiritually, emotionally and physically. Working on the wheel surrounded by kick-ass people does the trick every time. I know that sounds kind of crazy, but there is something so immensely satisfying about centering a piece of clay, or having sore shoulders because you've decided to throw with more clay than you're used to. Or finally getting a piece out of the kiln and having the studio owner leave a compliment on a post-it note on your shelf (that's happened approximately twice since I've started taking classes there, something I consider an accomplishment).  Wednesdays are my favorite days because I know that for two and half hours I get to hang out in the studio and (attempt) to make something beautiful and unique. I started working with this red clay at the end of the December, I can babble on for hours about it. If you want the nitty gritty details, let me know. For now, I've compiled most of the pieces I've made the past few months. I know they're floating around the internet, but they aren't all in a single place so I figured it was time to do that. Also, sorry about the formatting. Blogger is only so good with pictures.


Mug phase 1


Mug phase 2
    
I'm really into lidded vessels right now

Also learning how to carve things into things 



See what I mean? Trying all the carving things


Finished product from my first carving adventure


Glazing, the final step before the finished product



Finished bowl!
    

Another finished lidded vessel

Vessel with lid
And without lid!


Clock faces
The finished product 

Nothing more satisfying than eating breakfast out of a bowl I made


Yep, even made a couple of little hedgehogs.


-Alex