thoughts on food, culture, and community

30×30: Lesson 21: The face behind the apron


Kathy’s Deli, 2008

On-and-off for seven years, I was one of the faces behind the aprons of Kathy’s Deli in Shippensburg. When I first began working at Kathy’s in 2002, I was the quiet one who made your hoagies on a wheat roll with just a tad too little mayonnaise; during college breaks I mixed your cole slaw and sliced your house-roasted turkey and learned to smile a little more. After college, you may have seen me busing tables at any number of local weddings. Perhaps you passed me delivering hot lunches in Carlisle. Morning danishes and coffee in Chambersburg.

Kathy’s Deli framed my life before and after college as well as before and after two trips to France. In doing so, it taught me not only my present-day knife work, the secrets behind efficiently prepping a large meal, and the laughter that can come when working in a kitchen so crowded that you only have a few square inches for your cutting board and cabbage.

For a few summers, I worked almost exclusively with women double my age, who told me that I might as well wear a bikini with confidence while my body still looked okay, offered boy advice while stirring kettles of simmering soup, and remarked on the fact that even in 2005 a strong man is considered confident whereas a strong woman is considered bossy. We nibbled on broken cookies that were unfit to sell, took breaks that were too short in relationship to the length of the days, ran to the grocery store for missing ingredients, organized crates of dairy deliveries, took phone orders, assembled paninis, ran more than stood, finished slicing where someone else had stopped, garnished platters, told stories about our families, went home exhausted, and returned the next day.

I never played organized sports, but Kathy’s Deli was my strongest team.


But beyond the deli, I was just a delivery girl with a slightly-frizzled ponytail who smelt vaguely of cooked ham. The job required that I carry platters of assorted wraps, Kay & Lays Chips, and gallon jugs of raspberry lemonade up flights of stairs into your office, that I silently smooth a plastic tablecloth outside the conference room, that I speak in hushed tones to your lunch coordinator, smile, and hand her the bill, folded in thirds. I didn’t mind this part of the job, but I always wondered if you noticed me — you who were making the more impactful decisions than the amount of mayonnaise in the chicken salad, you whose white sleeves could always stay air conditioned and clean. Did my apron lesson me to you? What about the ache in my arms?

As my life moved away from Shippensburg, I also left the deli. But I still sense Kathy’s in the way I thank the workmen in the Cathedral of Learning, the way I talk to the guy who empties the trash on the 13th floor, and the way I greet Liz who makes my tea at Hillman Library almost daily. Everybody matters.

This is a perspective that I cannot dare to lose.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 20: Leave it to chance

Santiago, Chile 2012. A standby venture

Santiago, Chile (2011)

My friend Lynn was walking me to my car in Lewisburg, PA, after just having finished eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I don’t remember what why I was in town or when this story took place, but I do remember I was carrying the plastic bag that held our leftovers, divided between two paper cartons.

Just before we said goodbye, I exclaimed, “Oh! Do you remember which box is which?”

Lynn picked up the carton nearest to her. “I don’t,” she said, “but let’s not check. Life’s more interesting if you leave some things to chance.”


If you haven’t sensed this from this series so far, I am generally not okay with the unplanned. Some would say my love for organizing my days stems from my perfectionism, but I would also offer that sometimes it’s survival (grad school and living in two cities) or respect (if I want to have your time, I want to make sure that I can give you mine).

But — as Jon Hoey constantly shows me — spontaneity is healthy. So is balance. For the three years that I had the privilege to fly standby due to the graciousness of my flight attendant friend Emily Orner, the days (usually once a summer) in which I arrived at Harrisburg International Airport with the uncertainty of knowing if I would have arrived to Philadelphia or Phoenix or Anchorage by nightfall (or Charlotte, Miami, or Santiago, Chile, as the photograph above shows) always evoked soul-crunching fear.

But spontaneity allows experiences to grow organically and more triumphantly. In being more vulnerable, I have found myself more grateful.

I can no longer fly around the world on a whim, but Lynn showed me that most attitude shifts must start small and exercise daily, like a muscle that needs to be strengthened.

I ended up with her food, by the way.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.


30×30: Lesson 19: Family comes first

Over the summer I visited my family in the Netherlands after having helped lead a six-week study abroad program in Nantes, France. The night before my flight home, my aunt Colleen and I walked to a local tennis club to sip wine and watch my uncle play doubles. Afterwards, we crowded around a table with the tennis partners, neighbors, and friends, and one woman’s smiling eyes shifted from my face to Colleen’s face and back to mine.

She turned to Colleen said something like this: “Ze is zeker je nichtje.” She is definitely your niece.

I understood and smiled. “Ja,” I said. Yes because the woman was right; but also yes because, due to my family, I can be a million miles away from where I belong and still find a place that is home.

Collen and I, 2008

Colleen and I in France, 2008


I am humbled by the loyalty of my family, especially when traveling. Knit by something more than a shared dairy farm, my family challenges one another, begs to differ, and then opens its arms anyway.

Countless times have I stepped off a European train into the waiting hug of a cousin I haven’t seen in years. In August 2009, my siblings, Andrea and Jordan, and I took the train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia just to sip coffee, browse markets, and gab like crazy. A few months ago, my aunt Dena invited me to attend an information session on Foreign Service careers in Washington, D.C.; we sat together, asked each other questions, and discussed everything later with my uncle Floyd over a home-cooked dinner. Just yesterday I just received a text from my cousin, Laura, who asked if she could stop in Pittsburgh on her way back from Wisconsin.

My heart resonates when I am with family far from home.

If family is loyalty, family is also priority, graciousness, and forgiveness. Family is learning from your mistakes, apologizing, and being there when you are needed anyway. Family is where you’ve come from and being open to where you’re going. Family is learning to accept love as much as it is learning to give it. Family is a choice — but it can be the most beautiful one.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 18: Winter tea and the worth of water

January 2012

January 2012

Adapted from “Counting Down,” a post from January 3, 2013.

On January 21, 2012, my roommate Dan left for Philadelphia on the snow-covered turnpike and never returned home. He was in the hospital in a coma when I interviewed for entry at the University of Pittsburgh, and he died two days before I got the email stating that I was recommended for acceptance. I do not remember the winter of 2012 very well except for the time when I finally stopped thinking about Dan every hour of every day, by the time I had cleaned out his toothbrush and shaving cream from the bathroom, that I was living a whole month behind the rest of the world, writing the wrong date on my classroom whiteboard and missing deadlines for the Patriot-News with clockwork regularity.

Behind him, Dan left some weights for lifting, some glassware, and a massive, tightly-sealed Tupperware of Tetley’s tea that I still drink almost daily in Pittsburgh. But he also left behind two lessons, the first from when he lived among us, and the second from when he did not.

When living, Dan showed me — among other things — how to open yourself up to people, to draw in those around you, to create community, to cultivate love.

But when Dan died, he made me think through life in a completely different way, causing me to question if I had fully appreciated this bright-eyed roommate while I had had the chance. Had I truly listened to him when he needed to speak? I had shared the crisper drawers in the refrigerator, but to what extent had I done so with my time? Had I ever thanked him for loving my cat and paying his rent? In other words, had I really known the worth of him? His life? Human life?

I struggle with being grateful for what exists in the moment. I find it really difficult to see the process over the destination. To be grateful for the ability to learn instead of focusing on the agony of being in school. To say “thank you” for the life that allows me to live in two cities simultaneously instead of complaining about the exhaustion of shuttling between them both.

But what changes when I can understand what I’ve already received? Can I say “thank you” daily for my own life, every time I steep Dan’s tea?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 17: Lifelong listening and love

I couldn’t sleep after my first ballet performance (in case you were wondering, it was Laurel Valley Studio’s second rendition of “The Lost Children,” sometime around 1990). The heat of the lights and the swirl of the costumes kept me awake long after bedtime — as well as the memory of my favorite dancer named Crystal who broke her wrist onstage during her solo. Sometime in what seemed the middle of death (as nighttime always seemed to me as a kid), I crept over to my parents’ room.

“Mommy?” I said.


I remember searching for words to explain why I was awake. “I’m glad Crystal’s okay.”

“Me too. How about you sleep with me for a little while?”

And so I climbed into the warm space of the bed that my dad had left empty when going to milk cows, and I fell asleep with the sense that my mom would always be there whenever I needed her. For anything.


Is listening an art, a craft, or a choice? Is it the ability to be on the same wavelength as someone anytime they need you, or is it a skill you hone in order to read the longing in somebody else’s eyes?

For me, listening, like silence, is trust. But it is also peace. For me, growing up with a mother who would put down the phone, turn off the vacuum, and allow me to talk was fundamental to my ability to work through problems, express myself, and learn that I needed to lean on others beyond myself. And this way in which she allowed to breathe also founded my understanding of the friend, partner, sister, and teacher I want to be.

But what is incredible about my mom — about both my parents, actually; as well as my family; and especially my boyfriend, now that I’m really thinking — is the way in which not only has their ability to listen continued, but the way in which their love is followed up by selfless action.

“Just tell us when you need us,” my dad says each time I return to Pittsburgh for a new semester, “and we’ll be there.”

And they all have been. Such support — in action, in patience, and in the words at the end of the phone — give me a foundation on which to stand. Strength to go on. And love to share with others.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

Three of my favorite people in Pittsburgh, 2014

Three of my favorite people in Pittsburgh, 2014

30×30: Lesson 16: Already okay

I have a headache today: one of those caused by the combination of bright sunshine and restless sleep. I went for a run yesterday afternoon because I’m training for this half marathon on October 19, but lately I can barely run four miles without waking up in the middle of the night with throbbing thighs. It’s concerning. I wish I have been running more, but these past weeks have been nothing but emotional races between due dates and grading papers and class presentations, like the one I gave last Thursday that barely made sense, even to me. What can you do — there’s no use telling the professor that your river of things to do has not yet abated. Aren’t we all constantly attempting to find ways to be more than what we actually are? My boyfriend is visiting this weekend, and I’m choosing time with him above making certain that I know what readings I have for Tuesday, kind of like I’m choosing to eat the entire bowl of pho from Tram’s Kitchen because I haven’t had enough time in a grocery store in two weeks to plot anything more than meals of scrambled eggs and tuna sandwiches. Today before my headache got bad, down in the Strip District I bought $8 worth of homemade goat cheese and a cold brew from 21st Street Coffee, even though I didn’t need either. Or maybe I did? How does expensive cheese and good coffee fit into a hierarchy of grad-school choices? How does life go down when there isn’t a lot to change?

One day last summer, I blurted out a similar monologue over tea with my friend Anne Parmer. She listened. She said there wasn’t anything wrong with wanting to fix problems, and she offered to help me through anything that she could. But then she added, “Remember: you’re already okay.”

For none of the above are or will ever be moral failures. At the end of everything, I have nothing I need to prove other than being honestly who I am.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 15: Intermezzo: My older brother

I’ve reached the halfway point of this 30×30 series. Kind of crazy. There have been some themes: my lessons so far include a lot about fear, letting go, and patience. A lot of them, like Lesson 8, are deeply about how I view myself; others, like Lesson 5, are about how I consider my positioning in this world. On certain days, I find myself writing about what I’m struggling with at that moment (Lesson 14); other days, I write about a lesson that has impacted me repeatedly (Lesson 12). My goal has been to tell stories, reflect at where I am and from where I’ve come, honor the individuals who have allowed me to live my life beside theirs, and maybe impact the way you guys, my friends and readers, think of yourselves.

As I thought through this project as I approached its halfway point, in addition to realizing I have a lot of growing to do I noticed that Lesson 11 was the only post that spoke toward a tangible realization — appreciating that I can walk. Not that the other realizations don’t have tangible results — they bleed into the way I act and choose in very physical, daily ways — but I began wondering what other direct, physical skills I have gained throughout the past 29 years.

Grandma Grove taught me to roll a pie crust. Peggy Grove taught me to play the piano. Julia Child, voiced through Jon Hoey, taught me how to cook eggs (“low heat and lots of butter”). I am extremely glad to know these things, just like I am grateful to the bottom of my soul to have learned to a foreign language, how to eat with chopsticks, and how to properly pour a beer.

But everything else I really care about, I learned from my older brother.

Two years older than me, Chris Grove was my original partner-in-crime, my original best friend. Together our domain was hay forts and four-wheelers, star-gazing and math problems. As a current student in the humanities, I’m often not called to make sense of elementary chemistry, but everything else I’m so relieved to know — how to climb trees, jump a car, swing a hammer, braid bailer twine, change oil, discuss space voyages, grasp basic physics, properly hold a flashlight for someone who is working, differentiate between screwdrivers, and drive an automatic vehicle — I learned from him. (And all that time, I thought we were only playing.)

Because of Chris, when I am faced with problems outside my league, I feel less unarmed and more secure. The lessons he taught me remind me daily that I am a much more complex individual than just a French student, life partner, a writer, and a daughter. Instead, I am the intricacies that make Sylvia.

When thinking of life’s lessons this tangibly — down to the nails we drive in and the computer programs we run — I am even more impressed by how different we all would be without the other people who frame our lives.

It’s humbling. It’s beautiful.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

Pine Grove Furnace, 2010

Pine Grove Furnace, 2010


30×30: Lesson 14: This too shall pass

When I was younger, I didn’t fully grasp how my mom could be so in touch with the fact that life goes on. I would sigh with frustration over a botched physics project or a friend who was driving me crazy, and I would wonder aloud what to do and fix and change. Meanwhile, after having listened to me carefully, given advice, and understood me deeply, my mom would say, “Well, this too shall pass.”

I don’t think I heard my mom out until I went rafting (which I didn’t know actually meant “white-water rafting” until I arrived at the river) last fall at Ohiopyle, PA. After listening to instructions on how not to drown, I strapped on a helmet and a life vest, climbed into a rubber boat with four friends, and was plunged forward almost instantly into a pitch of frothy water.

The 7.5-mile stretch of the Lower Yough was surrounded by trees colored blissfully by autumn, but beneath the sky, the river roared. From the tops of boulders, guides yelled out directions. I sat at the helm and screamed, “In! In!” to keep my group’s strokes in unison. Eventually, the current slackened to a bubble, and I giggled nervously, but in reality, I was terrified with a soul-clutching fear, paralyzing and deep (you can sense this in the photos). Around the bend, the current only picked up, and my valiant group dug back in, was tossed back, and then heaved forward.

But at the Swimmer’s Rapids about 2.5 hours in, the worst of all worlds happened: our boat began careening toward another group of rafters who had gotten themselves lodged on the crest of a small waterfall. In a brave attempt to not hit the group with our paddles, my friends and I all did what you are not supposed to — we leaned away from the oncoming collision. It only took half a second for our boat to flip.  A powerful, icy claw of water whisked me backwards, choking and gasping, downstream away from the others at an unimaginable speed.

Never (and I’m quoting my original post from 2013) have I felt as helpless as I did when the sound of my own splash was lost amid the roar of the rapids. There was nothing to grab onto. Cartoon-like, I imagined myself being tossed a tightly-secured jungle vine that would go taunt and hold me firm, but my hands only closed around icy water. My mouth coughed out foam.

Water was in my contacts, my ears, a knife in my chest. I careened toward boulders only to be whisked around them by the current. I could barely see above the surface. I knew enough to keep my feet up as to not get caught on hidden rocks; I knew there was nothing to do; but my heart was pounding. I had to remind myself to breathe.

Eventually, my body drifted into a pool of calmer water where other teams of rafters had paused for further instruction. People were yelling out instructions and extending hands and paddles tauntingly beyond my reach. Eventually, two women grasped the straps of my life vest and heaved me, dead-fish like, onto the red rubber of their raft floor.

And I finally understood my mother.

Sometimes in life, there will be rapids where there is nothing to grab (I’ve felt this way all month). It’s going to be scary (it has been). You may not know how long the rapid will go, but at the end, there will be a pool of calm (I’m waiting for it).

This too shall pass. Just breathe.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.


The First Rapid, October 2013


30×30: Lesson 13: Expression over performance



I’ve already written before in this series that I was a pretty horrible dancer until I learned to let go. In the context of that previous post, “letting go” meant being willing to take risks, both physically and emotionally; but for the sake of this post, I’d like to add a different lesson — that “letting go” within dance also meant a certain pouring out of the arabesque, the leap, and the turn from somewhere deep in the heart.

I’ve sensed this pouring out in other dancers by the look in their eyes. When a dancer’s body lifts into an attitude, when her arms extend, when her head tilts — her eyes shine with longing, her soul infinitely extends. The best dancers I’ve known are ones that dance not just to perform but to communicate this hope, peace, and beauty through the arms, the poise, the grace.

Laurel Anspach, my dance teacher, once said that all of life was to be an expression instead of a performance. As a grad school student, I wear so many performances daily: that of the good grad student who did do all the reading. That of a teacher who is not frustrated by her own shortcomings. And — when I’m abroad — that of a European urbanite who is trying desperately to ensure that she can properly use the bus and order coffee instead of betraying that she really is the daughter of an American farmer, a million miles from home.

While there is value in understanding your roles, what would happen if I lifted the curtain between who I’m trying to be and who I actually am?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.


30×30: Lesson 12: It’s about the process

I’ve written about this multiple times before, but I’ll write about it again: those two weeks in July 2010 when Lynn Palermo and I backpacked in western Europe in order to follow what had been the Western Front of World War I.

Those fifteen days beneath France’s cloudless skies still rank among some of my most eye-opening and humbling experiences. Lynn and I had begun our trek in Dunkerque, France (after not having seen each other for a year or so), then carried on to Ypres, Belgium (a city that was 90% destroyed in battle), and entered back into France by foot. From Amentières to Reims, we carried our packs along shadeless highways and between beet fields, zigzagged from village to village by following the church steeples, and stumbled over cemeteries tucked in forests and chapel yards.

We took the train whenever it was most logical, washed our clothes in hotel sinks, asked for directions and occasionally got lost, spent hours in silence only to pass hours more by singing, and cooled off in the dairy sections of grocery stores whenever the heat got too intense. We talked with strangers, slept in the shade, biked through forests, and wandered around public squares.

And I fell apart.

I wish this post was about the lessons I learned amid the grass-grown trenches, the damp caverns, or the threadbare villages with memorials to their fallen sons — although those places did provide strong, tangible evidence toward the pointlessness of war. (A discussion on peace merits a different post.) Instead, the greatest struggle for me during this trip was the seeming aimlessness of our wandering by foot, day after day, for hours on end, not knowing exactly — although this was the point — where or when we would land.

It was in Compiègne, France (where the Armistice was signed) when Lynn asked me what was wrong, and I blurted out that I really wanted to make a plan. Did she have any expectations for dinner? Did she wanted to remain in Compiègne for two nights or did she want to leave tomorrow? Where were we going afterward — was it Reims, or had I heard her say something about the Chemin des Dames? Was there a bus or train to either of these places? Had either of us checked the weather?

Lynn was genuinely surprised. “For me, it’s about the process, not the destination,” she said. “I’d rather not plan because then you’re open to whatever happens.”

In my life, I almost always curse the process. The training that goes before the half marathon. The schooling that comes before the degree. The climb before the summit. Too often, I brush off these moments as time wasted — obligatory dues to be filled before I can attain that which I feel I merit.

However, Lynn was suggesting that the process is almost more important than the place you end up. In other words, can the pain of the run be more important than the finish line? Can I look at the fatigue of grad school and realize that these days are actually moments to be treasured? Is it possible that I’ve already attained what I’ve been waiting for?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

Exit Glacier, where I inscribed "It's the Process, Not the Destination" on the wall. 2012.

Exit Glacier, Alaska, where I etched the phrases “It’s the Process, Not the Destination” into the emergency shelter wall. 2012.

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