A 21st Century Candlelight

Remember sorority candlelights?

You'd get all the girls in the chapter together to stand around in a circle, sing sorority songs, and pass a  candle. Then, after the candle had been passed around the appropriate number of times, one of your sisters blew it out, signifying the big news in her love life. She'd been lavaliered, pinned, or gotten engaged. It was one of those quintessential college moments. And, for those of us who were single, or not serious about our boyfriend, or whatever the situation may have been, it was more than a little alienating. Most of the time, we were happy for the sister who had the good news. Many of us, and I certainly counted myself among these ranks, had no interest in settling down in our early twenties. Still, for all of us who weren't blowing out the candle, there was a moment of feeling left out.

A few weeks ago, my sorority sister Shannon had some really big news to share with us all. Shannon, an Owensboro native, lives in Minneapolis with her partner, Ruanita, and their three adorable children. After fifteen years together, Shannon and Ruanita can legally be married in their state. Even as a mother of three, Shannon has promised us, she's going to be a full-on bridezilla. She's certainly earned that right.

As Shannon kept us all updated on the status of the Minnesota same-sex marriage bill via Facebook last month, I joked that I would find a way to throw her a candlelight if the bill passed. I was thrilled when the Minnesota legislature upheld their end of that bargain, and some of us immediately began brainstorming a way to make a candlelight happen. We settled on one of those invitation-only Facebook groups, to which several of our sorority sisters were invited. 

Now, you can't have a candlelight without songs. We "sang" our old familiar songs by typing them out, verse by verse. It was a beautiful juxtaposition -- a group of retired Southern sorority girls upholding our oldest traditions, but with a decidedly 21st century twist. 

As the words of a traditional candlelight song came back to me -- "Phi Mu in a word is love" -- I realized that it didn't matter that the flicker of a candle had been replaced by the backlight of computer screens across the country. And, while it was monumental that we were celebrating our friend's long-overdue right to marry the woman she loves, we weren't really even taking a political stance. We were just telling our smart, funny, awesome friend that we're happy for her.

For once, it felt like a candlelight where nobody was left out.

{You can read more about Shannon's adventures in parenting on her blog, Chronicles of a Clueless Mom.}

Everything I Really Needed to Know About Ministry, I Learned as a Sorority Rush Chair.

HerKentucky is thrilled to welcome Erin Smallwood Wathen for another brilliant post! I first met Erin when we were sorority sisters at Transylvania; I love this beautiful essay on how our Phi Mu days prepared her for her work in the ministry! -- HCW

I used to want to be a dancer. Preferably on Broadway. I wanted to be an English teacher. I wanted to be the boss of a newspaper or magazine. I wanted to write children’s books. I dabbled in the idea of sociology, and had a brief affair—you know, college experimentation—with what life might be like in the non-profit world.

But never in 800 years would it have occurred to my pre-adulthood self that, “Hey, I’m going to be a preacher!”

Yeah, God’s got a sense of humor like that. This calling sneaked up on me like an April snow in Kentucky—you know it can happen, but you never quite let yourself read the signs, you know? Anyway…I spent my youth, and even my college career, utterly oblivious to the signs that I was headed for a life in ministry.  And yet, I was being shaped for this calling at every moment along the way.

I look around at my life every now and then and say, you know, I really caught a glimpse of this pastor gig when I was teaching dance. Or waiting tables. Or when I found my first real soul friend in 7th grade. Or sitting on the porch with my Mamaw. Or reading the first few books that really blew the top off the world.
Growing up Kentucky, I learned the sacred nature of hospitality, especially where food is involved; I developed a sense of place, and a love of the vernacular; I valued music, art and literature that is engaging, authentic, and unfussy; and really, I just took in the truth that air, soil, and even the moisture in the air smacks of something holy. Every breath of the place—making me ready for this time in my life, whether I knew it or not.

And while it may not sound as spiritual as, say, tobacco hanging in a barn or good bluegrass music or real fried chicken: everything I really needed to know about ministry, I learned as a sorority rush chair.

1. If it fits on a t-shirt, it’s probably not that important. But
2. matching tshirts are still important, in a philosophical sort of way.
3. Fake it til you make it. The appearance of a growing organization will actually evolve into a growing organization.
4. Sleep deprivation is a bonding experience. (Rush week=mission trip, church camp, leadership retreat, Holy week, etc)
5. A beautiful, welcoming space is not an extravagance; it is hospitality.
6. Singing loudly is more important than singing well.
7. Manners, manners, manners.
8. Put the pretty people in front.
9. We’re all pretty people.
10. As long as there’s food, people are happy.
11. The more important a ritual is supposed to be, the more likely you are to laugh at inappropriate times.
11.5. Laughter=also a sacred ritual.
12. Voting people out will always come back to haunt you.

There are no big moments, small moments, or waiting spaces. There is no downtime, and there is no endgame. It is all the perfect, winding way of grace, and it will always take us somewhere good, eventually…Someplace where the grass is blue, the people are real, and ‘fried’ is not a 4-letter word.

You can read more from Erin on her blog, Irreverin, and her Facebook page.

Tradition and Change at Transylvania

Every so often, I hear of a big change at my alma mater. A newspaper article, the alumni magazine, or a piece of gossip from a friend clues me in to something new and different at the old school. Sometimes it's interesting and exciting. Sometimes, it's perplexing. And, more often than not, it just feels a little unsettling. That just isn't how things are supposed to be.

via Transylvania University.
These days, many new and exciting things are happening at the school.  Last spring, Transylvania University welcomed its 25th President, R. Owen Williams, amidst much fanfare. This year's incoming class, the first who'll matriculate fully under the Williams Administration, were recently welcomed (three weeks earlier than we began the school year in the '90s!) with a formal induction ceremony and a commemorative coin.  It's a far cry from our orientation weekend dances and move-in days, that's for sure. Every time I hear of a change, I immediately rehash my findings with my beau with a little disbelief: Can you believe they're doing things that way? It certainly isn't how it was done when we were in school.  

Sometimes, I'm elated to hear of fun little changes to The Transy Way; the UK-TU basketball series is fast becoming a tradition among my friends.  Sometimes, my reaction to the changes comes out of a true desire to learn more. I'm interested to hear the mechanics of the new "August term": How does it impact GPA and tuition rate? How will three weeks of freshman-only classes impact the campus socially and academically? I approached the dramatically abbreviated recruitment plan with trepidation, for some of my fondest college memories involve late-night voting sessions and long hours of planning and practicing those over-the-top rush skits.   And, I suppose, some of my reactions are simply a by-product of my own era. When I heard of the school's quidditch team, I imagine my reaction came across a lot like Dame Maggie Smith's famous Dowager Countess line: "What ... is ... a week-end?" It was simply something so far out of my field of experience that I didn't know what to make of it. The truth is, I just want to believe that things will always be exactly the way I left them. 

I like to believe this is the last moment that Transy made any changes.
 Most of us have built a lot of our self-image around our school years. "I majored in Political Science", "I was a Phi Mu"; these choices stick with us for a lifetime. Our school years were momentous and filled with hope and unlimited potential. For most of us, the worst thing that happened in college was a grad school rejection letter or a bad breakup. We didn't yet know the banal realities of mortgage applications and entry-level jobs. We hadn't yet dealt with true disappointment and loss. We were young and perfect and unformed. High school had been about preparing ourselves to study, and professional school would be about preparing ourselves for real life, but college was about learning how to think and how to be. There's something magical about that, and it's only natural to want to preserve those years in amber, pulling out lovely memories on special occasions.
I spent four years locked in this basement.

From the moment you enter Transylvania's campus, you're immersed in over two centuries of culture and history and tradition.  Everywhere you turn, there's a reminder of famous names of Lexington's past -- the troublesome architect Shryock brothers, the mad genius Constantine Rafinesque, the infamous Belle Brezing.  It's easy to lose yourself in the idea that things have always been the same at old TU.  But, it's simply not true.  My Transy experience is undoubtedly different than John Marshall Harlan's was in the 1850s, or Ned Beatty's in the 1950s.  And, as a friend and fellow alumna recently reminded me, my experience is a good bit different than the current students'.  To be fair, I suppose most Transy kids aren't listening to Nirvana and wearing plaid Abercrombie shirts these days.  And that's a very good thing.

A couple of years ago, I found myself at a wedding reception at Graham Cottage, Transy's alumni house. As the festivities drew to a close, I jokingly texted some Transy girlfriends that I was thinking of crashing some fraternity parties while I was on campus. It was Saturday night, after all. Now, of course I knew that none of the guys on the halls wanted to deal with a thirty-something retired sorority girl busting up in one of their parties. Nor did I think that my palate was exactly up to the bitter, hoppy notes of Natural Light or Milwaukee's Best. (An anthropology thesis could be written on the complexities of each fraternity's choice of crappy beer, but that's another story for another time...) Sitting in Graham Cottage, looking out the window at the dorm-dwellers gearing up for Saturday night, I felt like I was 21 again -- young and carefree and pretty. (OK, probably not as pretty as I thought. See, e.g., Natural Light.) I didn't want to think about the fact that some classmates' dreams came true, while others' didn't. I didn't want to recall that a few folks aren't still with us. It was a convenient fiction to tell myself that the parties were going on just as I remembered. It's simply nicer to believe that things are exactly as I left them.