I love birthday cake

Celebrating my 19th birthday with a homemade double-chocolate cake, layered with heavy whipping cream, fresh strawberries and dark chocolate ganache. WIN.

I was immensely spoiled growing up, in many ways, but my mom always went above and beyond with birthday cakes. As you know, I take cake very seriously, and if I have high standards for creativity and presentation and sugary deliciousness, it is undoubtedly due to my history of perfect birthday cakes. Each one was a masterpiece, reflective of my interests, decorated artfully and baked for me with love.

The bunny cake that my mom made for my 16th birthday, to reflect an old nickname that I had as a baby. This would be embarrassing, except that the cake is so darn cute!

Growing up, I’m not sure I realized exactly how much time and effort went into making these cakes. I knew that my mom was a great baker, and that everything tasted perfect and looked incredible, but my awareness of her extraordinary cake-making feats stopped about there. Now I’d like to think I have a better idea of her dedication to birthdays, to our childhoods and to her family. Funny, how cake has helped me understand my mom.

My 9th birthday party, complete with all of my best friends and a starfish-shaped, strawberries-and-cream flavored cake. At least the cake looks good!

I know how much work it takes to make a cake from scratch. I know how difficult it is to get the frosting right, the decorations festive and the layers stacked up straight. Usually, by the time I’m done extracting the cake painstakingly from the pan, I have just enough patience for a can of frosting and some haphazardly-strewn sprinkles. But my mom’s cakes were extravagant, with hand-whipped frosting and hidden raspberry layers, themed decorations and whimsical shapes. It must have taken her hours upon hours to perfect her cakes.

The princess castle cake for my 5th birthday. Incredible, right?

And I can tell you now, who has time for all that work? By the weekend, I’m exhausted from keeping the house clean, my work productive, the bills paid and our kitchen stocked. AND I ONLY TAKE CARE OF MYSELF! My parents threw me spectacular themed parties, with games and gifts and treats and friends. For my princess-themed 5th birthday, we dressed up in ball gowns and made glittery tiaras. My dad set up a “fishing booth” downstairs with prizes, and created a cardboard castle for us to have our “royal procession” through. I’m exhausted just imagining having to cope with that many five year olds (in frilly dresses, on sugar highs, no less). My parents were thankless warriors, there is just no doubt about it.

Holly, me, Caitlin and the watermelon cake at my 6th birthday. Has anything changed?
At my tropical-themed party there were paper palm trees and colorful streamers, and I’m pretty sure we did the limbo. I am not really sure why, but it was awesome.
Did I mention that my mom made this special outfit for my party? It was out of control.

This is an obvious reflection on my readiness to be a parent (NOT READY), but when I imagine celebrating the birthday of a one year-old, I can’t help but think: “let’s take advantage of the fact they won’t remember anything and stick a candle in a donut hole”. The thing is, I can’t remember my earliest birthdays, but I know that my parents treated them the same way they treat me now: with joy and celebration, thoughtfully-planned details and immense and endless love. Also, there’s photo-evidence of fantastic cakes.

There is also photo-evidence of my three-year-old finger sneaking frosting from Annie’s first birthday cake. I think this is hilarious.

What I am getting at in these reflections upon my bella piccoli pezzi is my gratitude for the constant care and attention I’ve been shown by my parents. Not just on my birthdays, of course…but that’s when their love is accompanied with cake. And if there is still any doubt in your mind how I feel about cake, this link pretty much sums it up. I love birthday cake!

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I love weddings

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A family friend’s STUNNING wedding cake

Confession time: I love weddings. Who doesn’t, right? No, I mean I really love weddings. There is no way to put this that won’t be at least a little humiliating, but here are the incriminating facts: I’ve been planning weddings (not just my own, mind you) since I was ten years old and I consider myself a veritable expert. I have a waist-high stack of wedding magazines at home, four design blogs bookmarked on my computer, and an image drop-box dedicated to all things bridal (a sacred and safeguarded collection of my best ideas).

I often wonder why I’m so fascinated with weddings–after all, I’m not religious, I object to traditional gender stereotypes, and I don’t plan to get married anytime soon–but here’s what I came up with. First of all, I love event planning. I like hosting parties, I planned my high school prom and Olaf’s President’s Ball, and I enjoy bringing together creative ideas with meaningful details to design a memorable event. Furthermore, I’m a romantic idealist who thinks that love should be celebrated, and what better way than with family and friends? Finally, I’ve been to my fair share of weddings and all of them have been GREAT.

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My first wedding (Annie and I were the flower girls)

I hadn’t realized how many weddings I had been to until I started to count them up…family friends, cousins, neighbors, a speech coach, pals and relatives of ex-boyfriends (I cried at those too, this woman knows no shame). Most recently, this list has included a few of my own close friends. In total, I have been to thirteen weddings. Flower girl twice, bridesmaid once, and a brief stint as “official program distributer.” I’ve honed my critical evaluation skills, established standards, and cultivated my qualifications as a wedding connoisseur. So this is why weddings are bella piccoli pezzi for me, here is what I love to celebrate…

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Our first high school friends to get married: Lindsey and Brent with the whole Mounds View crew at their August 2011 wedding

The walk down the aisle, the commitment, and the love. Regardless of how laid back you are, how informal the ceremony is, or how long you have known each other, I will still cry as you walk down the aisle. As a fifteen year-old bridesmaid in my cousin’s wedding, I sniveled into my bouquet in front of 200 people. This summer I watched my study abroad roommate tear up when she saw her fiancé down the aisle, and I promptly became an inconsolable mess. It was perfect and beautiful, so naturally, things got sloppy (on my end).

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My roommate Anna and her dad, October 2011

And then there is the opportunity to dress up in endearing collections of matching formal wear. Thanks to a cousin’s wedding, I have a cute, candy-red cocktail dress hanging in my closet (with matching necklace, shoes, and nail polish) just waiting for a fun night out. The dress is great, but there is really no beating my (second) flower girl outfit. My mom coordinated floral headpieces, ribbon wands, ballet slippers, and handmade pink dresses with wings on the back, so Annie and I could dance down the aisle like angels. With two young flower girls, it was the perfect way to work our outfits into the overall ethereal, whimsical style of the wedding, and to complement the laid-back ceremony.

Valeri's wedding

Bridesmaids (and a reader) in my cousin Valeri’s 2004 wedding

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Flower girl “angels” in our family friend Heather’s wedding

Cake! So many flavors of wedding cake and buttercream frosting with fondant decorations and edible flowers. I’ve seen the occasional cheesecake or cupcake or decorated cake pop, and as long as it comes between dinner and dancing, I will definitely be all about it.

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Robin and Andy’s gorgeous four-tier masterpiece

Fresh flowers. I love colorful bouquets and artistic floral arrangements, but I rarely get to enjoy them. Yet another reason weddings are the best (unless you are buying the flowers).

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Bridesmaid bouquets from Taylor and Kayli’s wedding

Furthermore, weddings are like giant high school dances (hilarious and awesome) minus the awkwardness, plus better social skills, and everyone is generally better looking. Besides being an important day and a very moving ceremony, my friend Brent’s wedding this summer was a fantastic excuse to dress up and get down with all of our best friends.

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The boys fighting over the garter at Brent and Lindsey’s August 2011 wedding

There are so many creative and beautiful wedding planning resources to explore (read: get completely addicted to), and they are coming in handy now that I have a number of engaged friends (read: unwitting future victims of my design-crazed schemes). One of my lovely friends just announced her engagement and said, “hey, I hear that you really like weddings. Do you have any ideas for mine?” and all that I could think was omg-you-have-just-opened-Pandora’s-box. But in a good way. Like if the box was full of cute DIY projects and personal touches and decorations and love. Anyways, here are four blogs that I’m currently obsessed with (I dare you to spend less than an hour drooling over them):

  • Ruffled: DIY projects and real wedding profiles, with extra love for all things vintage
  • Project Wedding Blog: real wedding profiles plus couture and boutique coverage
  • Style Me Pretty: my absolute favorite (check out the local blog networks at the bottom and the “little black book blog” tab at the top…they are to die for)
  • Capture Studios: a photography and videography company that makes the most beautiful videos (the video of the couple who met in Spain made me cry)

Just a few more: Juliet Marries Romeo, My Wedding Chat100 Layer Cake, Elizabeth Anne Designs, Glamour and Grace, Love and Lavender, Once Wed, Snippet and Ink, Green Wedding Shoes, and Grey Likes Weddings. Besides blogs, I love my subscriptions to The Knot, Martha Stuart Weddings, and Minnesota Bride magazines, and I cannot get enough of shows like Say Yes to the Dress, Four Weddings, and My Fair Wedding.

Oh yes, did I also mention that my incredibly talented friend Caroline is Editorial Intern and just had her first article published in Minnesota Bride? I am surrounded by inspiration.

MN Bride

No big deal, Caroline just has a staff heading and byline in here!

Simply put, I love weddings. I am beyond thrilled that I have FIVE more weddings to look forward to this upcoming year…so many bella piccoli pezzi in this charmed life of mine!

I love the Caribbean

My love affair began with my first study-abroad trip, an Interim course with the St. Olaf College English Department in 2009. When I discovered that English 270: Literature of the Eastern Caribbean was being offered my sophomore year, I immediately drove home–armed with pro/con lists, extensive informational charts, and a practiced oration on the merits of this study program–and I boldly laid out my proposition. When I told my parents that I wanted to spend the month of January studying poetry and culture in Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and St. Lucia, their first response was, “Yeah. We bet you do.”

Epic persuasion WIN. Me and Caroline in Tobago.

Six short months and a large loss of dignity later (I’m not going to lie, there was incessant nagging, desperate pleading and the occasional gnashing of teeth)…I arrived at the University of the West Indies campus in Cave Hill, Barbados. Aaaaannnnd I fell in love.

Our open-aired dorms at the University of the West Indies, facing the cricket pitch and located about one hundred feet from the Caribbean Sea.
Chasing a chicken on campus. Hilarious.

We spent the month reading, writing and exploring the islands. Highlights include touring a sugarcane plantation, snorkeling in the Caribbean Sea, hiking up to an old naval fort, attending a lecture on the banana trade, learning traditional stick-fighting dances, and meeting the Nobel Poet Laureate Derek Walcott. It was the happiest, most adventurous month of my life (this probably had a lot to do with the rum and vitamin D), but the trip sparked within me a curiosity and appreciation for the region that hasn’t receded since.

Learning stick-fighting and traditional Caribbean dances in Barbados.
Me, Romeo and Anna after our day of snorkeling with turtles
Our St. Olaf group atop Pigeon Point in St. Lucia. This December, we just celebrated with our third annual reunion party. I absolutely love these people!

In the time that has passed, I’ve contemplated my love for the Caribbean. I know it is impossible to separate my nostalgia for the trip and memories of friends and our touristic forays from my reflections on the place, but there are some clear facts about why the Caribbean is incredible. For one, it is warm. And sunny. And you never have to scrape the ice off your car. In fact, you probably don’t even own a car, because you can walk everywhere you want to go. Secondly, there are very few bugs. Third, it’s the birthplace of rum. And Rihanna. Additionally, the scenery and topography are absolutely breathtaking.

Case in point: sugarcane fields rolling down to the Atlantic.
Soufriere Bay in St. Lucia. Unspeakably beautiful.

The islands have a complicated history of colonialism and exploitation, but the cultural legacy is subsequently rich and diverse. While in the islands, our group attended poetry readings, dramatic interpretations of historical events, art and museum openings and steel pan concerts. We walked through an English parish church that was hundreds of years old, tasted roti from the East Indian districts of Trinidad, wandered through a crumbling French-immigrant cemetery, and visited the Hindu Temple in the Sea. I could spend a lifetime in the Caribbean and never stop learning. OH WAIT that is my plan!

St. John’s Parish Church, balanced atop a cliff in Barbados. First built in the 17th century, it was rebuilt in the 1800s after extensive hurricane damage.
A pan yard in Trinidad (late at night, thus a terrible picture). They were rehearsing for Carnival, which happened a few weeks after we left.
We met the limbo champion of the world. Seriously. She is literally on the sides of her feet, under a flaming bar. THERE ARE NOT EVEN WORDS.

Okay, maybe not the “entire lifetime” part, but I certainly want to go back. And not for some Imperialism-tainted, culturally-exploitative, touristic vacation (not that I haven’t taken part in my fair share of those), but to truly and humbly learn about a group of islands and cultures that fascinate me. In my work with St. Olaf, I have loved studying transnational Anglophone literature, questions of cross-cultural identity, traces of the subjugated and post-colonial, and issues of gender, race, sexuality and power. Thus, when I stumbled across a brand new Master’s program at the University of the West Indies entitled “Caribbean Studies: Literatures,” my heart skipped a beat. It’s a full-time, one year program at the Cave Hill campus in Barbados, and by January 31st, 2012, I will have completed and sent off my application. I could not be more excited about the possibility of returning to one of my favorite bella piccoli pezzi next year!

Most importantly, it has given me something to look forward to…more school, summer clothes and sunshine year-round!

I love cupcakes

It has been a crazy, stressful past few weeks and I have entirely neglected this blog. I’ve been torn between tough situations at work, applying to a graduate program abroad, pulling together last-minute presents, hosting long-overdue reunions, and writing our (painfully un-witty) family Christmas letter. Throughout the melodrama of my recently chaotic life, however, I’ve been enjoying one of my favorite bella piccoli pezzi: CUPCAKES.

Me and Annie at Gracie’s Cupcakes in Ft. Meyers, FL
Hazelnut cupcake with nutella ganache and hazelnut frosting from Gracie’s. YUM.

Cupcakes are probably my favorite food. Bold claim, I know, but I’ve really done my research (eating all the time, that is). They are small, they are cute, and they’re extremely fun to make, especially since I received a frosting piping-kit as a graduation gift (WIN).

Tiny cupcake from Harrod’s in London, with sparkles and a miniature bonbon on top. Basically the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.
First project with my new piping kit. Dense, shortbread-like lemon cupcakes with fresh raspberry frosting. Despite my undying love for all things chocolate, these are actually my favorite.

For work last week, we hosted a volunteer appreciation social for ThreeSixty Journalism, and I had the brilliant idea of serving champagne and cupcakes for our guests (probably one of my better ideas). Naturally, this entailed my baking 75 homemade cupcakes and then eating the leftovers for the next eight days. Point of this whole story being: I ate approximately five cupcakes a day for over a week, and I STILL LOVE CUPCAKES.

Raspberry Lemon, Chocolate Espresso, and Chocolate Peanut-Butter Twist. I’d say it was a successful volunteer recognition event.

I watch Cupcake Wars on the Food Network, bought a book filled entirely with cupcake recipes, and flip through the Martha Stewart cupcake photo gallery like the food porn that it is. I even found a way to serve cupcakes as a legitimate breakfast food last Easter by disguising them as bunnies. I will never say no to a cupcake.

Pecan cinnamon-roll cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, snuggled tightly into ramekins and served with Easter brunch.

After a great deal of experimentation (and Chris as my volunteer taste-tester), I narrowed down my favorite recipes and pulled out my flour-dusted cards of RECIPES TO SHARE. I think that baking is better together, and treats are always sweeter when shared.

A cupcake I bought at Ella’s Bakeshop in London. In all seriousness, this picture is framed in my dining room. I think it’s perfect, and it makes me really happy!

If anyone is interested in joining me over break, I look forward to tackling a few new recipes I’ve found: salted caramel chocolate bourbon, lemon cupcakes with a toasted meringue top, and lovely lavender and honey confections. I can’t wait to throw on the homemade apron my best friend Hannah made me, turn on the Kitchen-aid stand mixer (which I worship), and whip up another batch of bella piccoli pezzi! Cheers.

I love St. Olaf College

This weekend I jumped in the car, heard the opening bars of “Beautiful Savior” on MPR, instantly recognized the St. Olaf Choir…and promptly burst into tears. After the weepiest graduation weekend on record, it’s hard to imagine exactly how I had enough nostalgia and emotion left over to warrant this reaction, but there I was, driving down 94, wallowing sloppily in my love for St. Olaf College.

Anna, me, and our Ole the Lion pumpkin, 2009

In the time since graduation, I have reflected a great deal on what St. Olaf both gave and meant to me. It’s easy enough to think of the opportunities that any other college may have afforded me…independence, new friends, study abroad, or engaging classes. What moves me to tears six months down the road, however, are the elements of my identity, perspective, vocation and values that are inexorably tied to my time on the hill; the things that make me (with great pride and perhaps an inappropriate level of enthusiasm), now and forever an Ole.

Shannon, Kat, me, Anna, and Nora during Senior Week 2011

As I sip from my St. Olaf mug at work and think about the first alumni gift I’ll give to my cherished alma mater, these are the bella piccoli pezzi that I want to say thank you for; these are the things that St. Olaf gave to me:

1. An incredible network of friends, alumni, mentors, and peers–all of whom I trust and respect immensely. I know that the connections that I made around campus will span the time, distance, and changes that inevitably test the limits of our common ground. Furthermore, it is both reassuring and exhilarating to know that my service-oriented, socially engaged, creative and compassionate peers are moving out into society and indeed, across the world. I am constantly humbled by the integrity and work of my classmates, and I’m inspired by educators working in classroom and community.

Nora, me, and Natasha at the Lantern Ceremony

2. The Great Conversation, far and away the most rewarding and transformative experience of my college career. Two years of intense, critical study of the epochs of Western civilization–specifically classic literature, history, philosophy, art history, and theology–and I soaked up every single minute of it. As my bookshelf bowed under the weight of the Western canon and my hard-drive filled with dialectical inquiries, a fundamental realization settled firmly in my soul: I was born to learn and to teach. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, this is what I love.

The Natural Lands and Wind Turbine

3. A new and profound understanding of my personal identity. At St. Olaf, I became an English major, a choral member, a state-trained advocate for survivors of sexual assault, a tutor, an atheist, and a political campaigner. I attended my first protest, joined my first dance troupe, learned to speak French, and planned the President’s Ball. My commitments questioned my priorities, my relationships challenged my perceptions. I struggled with naiveté, depression, and fear of confrontation and failure, but my time at St. Olaf also affirmed my best strengths and convictions. Consistently and all-importantly, I was overwhelmed by support and love.

Me and my roommates under the wind-chimes

4. A million meaningful ways to give back. The St. Olaf administration, student organizations, and community members brought so many opportunities directly to campus, both in terms of campaigns to raise awareness, and chances to volunteer. The everyday climate of service inspired me to participate in numerous projects over the years: writing letters to local legislators, Feed My Starving Children, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, GLBTQIA pride events, Relay for Life, tutoring in the Northfield schools, Oles for Justice in Palestine, and serving as a safe-line and peer advocate for the Sexual Assault Resource Network. I absolutely detest fundraising, but I also chose to volunteer with the Senior Giving Campaign, because I believe so completely in the mission and work of my college. Simply put, I was able to succeed at St. Olaf because others before me led in this way.

Copyright (and many thanks to) Ben Hovland

I think of all the things I took for granted at school–all of the inherent, intangible privileges and opportunities–and I know that I could never measure the exact impact that St. Olaf had on my life. But I can show gratitude for my experiences and invest in the community that made me who I am. A small part of that project entails fulfilling the pledge I made to St. Olaf, and encouraging others to do so as well. I will never have the finances to donate large sums of money, but I can give back a gift that is meaningful to me, returning the trust and philanthropic optimism of the donors who invested in my education. The title of “2011 Class Fund Agent” doesn’t mean anything to me, but my identity as an Ole alumna does.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I am so proud, so grateful, and so glad to be an Ole. Even if it means occasionally sobbing on the interstate. Um Yah Yah!

I love my hybrid

After creepin’ around in my parents’ huge teal mini-van (complete with racing decals) for the entirety of my driving career, I had the profoundly satisfying experience of purchasing my first car this summer. I needed a car for my daily Minneapolis-St. Paul commute, and my qualifications were simple: I wanted it to be small, and I wanted a hybrid.

Like with any other big decision I’ve ever made, I started with a comprehensive list, then worked up a comparison chart, and engaged in some intensive cross-referencing. After literally hours and hours of research, I found the one. The 2012 Honda Insight LX.

After seven years of sharing a huge mini-van with my little sister, I’m stoked to drive anything that doesn’t immediately scream “Soccer Mom”.

It looks like a spaceship on the inside, and Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec drives the same model, which is awesome. The stereo system gets loud enough to drown out my voice when I sing along to Adele at the top of my lungs (this is crucial), and there is a tiny, hidden compartment where I can keep my secret chocolate stash.

The spedometer glows green when I’m driving efficiently (relying only and entirely on battery), teal when I’m using both gas and battery, and blue when I’m stopped or using only gas. The battery recharges whenever I decelerate. HOW COOL IS THAT?!

Finally, it averages around 43.8 mpg around town (perfect for my 30-90 minutes in the car each day), and I made it up to 44.5 mpg driving down to Iowa earlier this fall. WIN. Although I have approximately zero savings left, I think it may have been one of the best investments I’ve ever made (second only to my education). I just passed 5,000 miles today, and I couldn’t be happier with my car. Just one more bella piccoli pezzi della mia vita!

I love literacy

I am an English geek to the core, unapologetically, through and through. During college, I studied English literature, took on critical theory, and explored the nuances of the written and spoken word. These are the things I am passionate about, these are the things that I know. I picture myself continuing in academia, teaching curious minds to read for race, gender, history, philosophy, and symbolism in text. But I have struggled recently to give my academic studies meaning in the “real world”. How does teaching English literature address the needs of my community? Can I possibly justify teaching in an (admittedly) specialized, privileged field, while simultaneously coexisting with the poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment I witness around me?

Furthermore, what good is literary criticism to those who can’t read or afford to attend college? Is “English language and literature” inherently better than ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages)? Can I truly find elements of Feminist or Postcolonial theory manifested in the interactions of the people and systems around me? These are the questions that sneak into my head at night, as I try to fall asleep.

In the months since graduation, I have been grasping at a way to fulfill my love of English with a personal call to service and a growing awareness of the immediate needs of my community. I am still debating graduate school and the ethics of a life in academia, but for now, I find reaffirmation, in a small way, through my work with the MLC.

As many of you know, I am four months immersed in my year-long commitment to the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Through the national funding that supports my position, I specifically serve as a member of the Minnesota Literacy Council (MLC).

This is fulfilling for a number of reasons: 1) I love reading and writing, 2) I enjoy teaching and tutoring, and 3) I can totally get behind a nonprofit entirely dedicated to literacy. I also believe that the MLC’s foundational values are insightful and enlightened. Each resonates strongly with the things that I believe are good and important in our world:

  • Promoting the power of learning. We believe that lifelong learning improves lives.
  • Maximizing human potential. We believe that individuals maximize their potential through teaching, learning, and community involvement.
  • Empowering communities. We believe we can break down barriers and build up communities by engaging all individuals in educational and service opportunities.
  • Welcoming cultural diversity. We believe that cultural understanding creates positive learning environments.
  • Enhancing equality and justice. We believe that open access to educational opportunities more just and peaceful communities.
  • Making a difference. We believe in providing excellent opportunities for individuals to make a difference through their ideas, talents, skills, and resources (©MLC)

The MLC provides incredible resources for diverse populations, and just a few weeks ago, it opened up a meaningful opportunity for me as well. Through the MLC, I found a volunteer position that perfectly addresses my passions, concerns, and my already-established work with volunteers and nonprofits. After only two more nights of training this week, I will be co-teaching an adult ESOL class, specifically in reading and writing!

My hope for the experience is that I will be challenged in my understandings of English, teaching, and learning. Instead of facilitating critical discussions of language and text, I will focus on the essential elements of reading, and on English language at its most basic level. In place of (yet inspired by) my study of literature, I look forward to studying literacy.

As I get more excited about these opportunities and bella piccoli pezzi in my life, these are the things that have given me inspiration, example, and hope:

As one final inspiration and call to action, I reflect on the words of President Clinton, spoken on International Literacy Day, 1994. The sentiment resonates throughout my purpose-driven consciousness and work, and is copied boldly on my desktop: “Literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century we must harness the energy and creativity of all our citizens.” Amen.