Author: Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

Slowing down, catching up

Slowing down, catching up

September began for us with HarmonyFest, an annual festival celebrating our community’s diversity that happens right in downtown Three Rivers where we live. That’s also the weekend we celebrate the anniversary of the fair trade store we helped start, and we did so this year with a drum circle in the store. HarmonyFest takes place the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, which is also a weekend that Kirstin’s family often comes to Three Rivers to spend time at the family cottage, so it was fun to hang out at the lake on Labor Day with the fam.

Drum circle at World Fare

After the holiday, September has been a month of catching up on things after the busy summer, like food preservation and back yard maintenance (it was starting to look a bit like a jungle!). September is also Kirstin’s birthday month, and we celebrated this year with some down time at GilChrist Retreat Center, where Kirstin works. It was nice to spend some intentional time in reflection in the beauty of nature after a very busy summer.

Our backyard
Making salsa from our tomatoes
Community celebrations

Community celebrations

Our summer busy season continued into August, with further Imaginarium work in preparation for the wedding of our friends Alek and Deborah, which was be the first major event there besides Future Fest. These two dreamed up a beautiful wedding and had perfect weather. At Deborah’s request, we performed a sweet little song during the ceremony with Rob and I on vocals, Rob on guitar, and our friend Elisabeth on violin. It was fun to reconnect with many friends at the ceremony and reception, several of whom came to Three Rivers, like Deborah did, through our summer internship program.

2019 *cino community

August is often a month of saying goodbye and this year was no exception. We transitioned this year from a less formal program to an AmeriCorps summer associates program and were grateful to work with Sugan, Anna, and Jacob for ten weeks. Our good friend Emily also came to join us for the summer between semesters of grad school and she helped out immensely with special events, including a thank you dinner and house blessing for all those who helped with the community house renovation in the spring. Even though it’s always hard to say goodbye, we’re so very thankful for all of the friends who have brought a fresh perspective to our work in Three Rivers and thrown in their energy alongside ours to lift up the gifts of our community!

Thank you dinner for 208 volunteers
Unveiling the Imaginarium

Unveiling the Imaginarium

Well, it was a race to the finish line and we gave it all we had! The new community space, called the Imaginarium, came together about 95% of the way before our big annual community festival at the Huss Project at the end of July. While we wish we’d gotten everything finished, it was certainly enough for visitors to Future Fest to catch the vision for this vibrant new space.

Imaginarium under construction

Launching the Imaginarium was just part of Future Festival. Along with dozens of volunteers, we hosted a rummage sale, farmers market, bake sale, live music, an art show, and a Community Carnival with hands-on activities and free school supplies for kids and families. This was actually the tenth annual Future Festival, chaired by our good friend Julie. A lot of friends, both local and out-of-town, come together to make the Fest happen every year and it’s always an amazing celebration of creativity and friendship…and then we crash!

Rob taking a break with his parents at Future Festival
A view from the second floor
Family, renovations, farming

Family, renovations, farming

Between late May and early June, we enjoyed several opportunities to visit with Kirstin’s sister Alyssa’s family while they were visiting from Idaho. Alyssa and her husband Dave have two kiddos, and this was our first opportunity to meet the youngest who was born in March. They’re growing up so fast! We also grabbed a couple of days away to visit Chicago in celebration of Rob’s birthday, taking in a Cubs game and lots of good food.

Visiting Chicago

In between out-of-town adventures, we’ve been hard at work on another renovation project. This was actually the one that we PLANNED on doing this year before the community house project came along. Basically, we’re taking two rooms in the historic elementary school our organization owns and turning them into a new community space for all sorts of programming. Rob has a gift for designing spaces, and he had the idea to cut a hole in the floor between two levels and install floor-to-ceiling bookshelves made out of old barn wood. In addition, the old barns we had taken down at our friends’ property will be furnishing most of the wood for a new pavilion as an outdoor extension of the community space. Among other things, the pavilion will provide a space for our summer lunch program that provides a mid-day meal for any school-aged kid in our neighborhood. We’re also working hard to get everything rolling for the season at the farm. Thankfully, we have a lot of help from volunteers and contractors!

Pavilion at the Huss Project
Planting futures

Planting futures

As the weather warms up, it’s been delightful to get outside and start working on the farm. At the beginning of the month, we got a crew together to plant several varieties of potatoes, which is always a big job and definitely wakes up the muscles after the long winter rest. Our tomato and pepper seedlings have been struggling in the basement this year for some reason, so we’re trying to figure out how to work with our local farmer network to make sure we have plenty of summer vegetables to share.

Planting potatoes at the Huss Project Farm

This has been a big month of transition for our community development organization. For many years, we’ve been hosting potluck dinners on Friday nights at our community house, and we had our very last potluck there before our big move on May 18. Prepping the new house involved some heavy-duty teamwork to move an old player piano out of the foyer and over to the home of a local piano tuner, among other tasks. But we managed to get settled in in time for orientation for our new AmeriCorps program. We’re excited to be taking this step as an organization because it will spread out the labor among a larger group of people and help us develop our vision and capacity for the next phase of our work.

AmeriCorps orientation
Moving a player piano
Concerning resurrection

Concerning resurrection

April has been a big month for working on the new community house as we anticipate moving day in May. Thankfully, a whole crew of people from our church have volunteered to pitch in, including skilled trades people. The house was converted to a bed and breakfast at some point, so most of the bedrooms have a bathroom attached, but only one bathroom was in working order. We actually ended up demolishing that bathroom to combine it with another one and create a wheelchair-accessible bathroom on the main floor. Besides that one, we got three other bathrooms up and running as well. Removing old wallpaper and putting a fresh coat of paint on most of the main floor has made a huge difference. This house is going to make a wonderful space for overnight hospitality and group gatherings.

Painting at 208, the *cino community house

We also celebrated Easter this month, which is an important holiday for us. Nearly every year, we attend the Easter vigil at St. Gregory’s Abbey, which is a Benedictine monastery just west of Three Rivers. The service starts at 11pm with readings of Bible stories leading up to the life of Jesus. At midnight, the bells ring, the lights come up, and we celebrate the first communion of Easter together, followed by a delightfully subdued party (remember, this is hosted by monks who are usually in bed by 8:30pm every night!). Then we head home around 2:00 a.m. to catch some sleep before driving to northwest Indiana to spend time with both sides of our family.

New beginnings

New beginnings

Well, we got some unexpected news: the community house we’ve been using for ten years for our volunteers, interns, and partners in community development work is no longer going to be available to us. This word sent us scrambling to figure out another place for our current residents to live, as well as those planning to come in for the summer. After exploring several possibilities, including one house full of trash with no heat and a caving-in ceiling, our organization ended up purchasing what we lovingly refer to as “the haunted mansion.” It’s going to take a ton of work to get it ready for people to live there, but it’s a gem of a house with a long history that deserves some TLC. There are a few squirrels in the attic who will need to be evicted…

*cino community house
Beginning bathroom renovations

In the meantime, we’re also beginning to get ready for the next growing season at the Huss Project Farm by starting seeds in the basement of World Fare. It’s fun to get our hands in soil and spend time with green, growing things while the cold and snow continue outside.

Seedlings!
California and New Orleans

California and New Orleans

This was definitely a month for travel adventures! As much as we enjoy winter, we were fortunate to escape the Michigan ice and snow for a bit. Kirstin went on a work trip to Commonweal in Bolinas, California, which is in a gorgeous spot right on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. The gathering was part of a three-year project she’s involved in to network retreat centers across the U.S. and Canada. The project has been an incredible opportunity to learn about the work that so many good people are doing at the intersection of contemplative, spiritual practice and social justice. In addition to enjoyable work on this trip, Kirstin was grateful to see SanFrancisco at night by trolley with her friend Jean, who lived there for several years, as tour guide.

Bolinas, California
Bolinas, California

Right on the heels of the California trip, we headed back to the airport for a week of vacation in New Orleans. We’d gotten a taste of New Orleans a few years ago when we went there for a conference and had wanted to return for a deeper dive since then. We love seeing cities on foot, so we did a ton of walking, balancing activities that were educational and fun. We visited several museums, including the incredibly powerful Lower Ninth Ward Living History Museum and the Whitney Plantation. We also ate lots of good food throughout the city and saw some amazing music. It was a good winter rest to prepare for a busy year.

New Orleans, 2019
In New Orleans
Transitioning to the new year

Transitioning to the new year

As usual, we ended one year and started the next with friends at our apartment. We got married on New Year’s Eve, 2000 because it sounded like a nice time to bring friends and family together and Kirstin was between semesters for her final year of college. For many years since then, we’ve hosted a gathering at our place, which sort of doubles as a New Year’s Eve party and anniversary celebration. It’s also a fun opportunity to gather with friends after spending much of the holidays with our families. New Year’s Day usually finds us sharing waffles and resolutions around the dining room table, and this year was no exception. We shared (again) our hopes of starting a family, along with other personal goals. 

Shortly after the new year began, we began work to refresh World Fare, the fair trade store on Main Street below our apartment. Along with our board of directors and volunteers, we’d been anticipating a two-week closure in January (our slowest month) to upgrade our point-of-sale system, retrain volunteers, and make some aesthetic improvements to the store. It took a lot of cooperation, hard work, and detail organization, but we got it done and the store feels much brighter and more functional now!

Painting World Fare
Painting World Fare
Compassion and joy

Compassion and joy

One of the themes of the past couple of weeks has been WATER. We had about 16” of snow here in Three Rivers, followed by a big melt and lots of rain, leading to record flooding in our community. With downtown built on high ground, our home is safe, but our hearts hurt for our neighbors whose homes and businesses have been damaged.

Though several major roads are still closed, life has gone on mostly as usual in other ways. Rob went to a couple of meet-and-greets yesterday—one to welcome our new public library director, and one to discuss issues with our state representative, who periodically holds “office hours” at the local coffee shop. Issues we’re paying attention to right now are fair elections and safety in public places after the school shooting in Florida—another reason to grieve with our neighbors and reflect on our role in building the kind of world we want our child, and all children, to grow up in.

There’s a line in one of our favorite poems by Wendell Berry that we tend to think of in times like these: “Be joyful, though you’ve considered all the facts.” Rob and I feel that it’s very important to practice compassion—which we think of as suffering with those who suffer—and we hope to raise a compassionate child, one who reaches out to the lonely kid on the playground. And we know that in order to sustain compassion, we all need to play and spend time doing what gives us joy. So here are some of the things that have given us great joy in the past couple of weeks:

  • Seeing the Black Panther movie in the theatre…twice!
  • Tasting and voting at A Chocolate Affair, the annual chocolate bake off at the fair trade store we help run. Our friends Jean and Deborah took the lead on this event this year as I try to cut back my volunteer commitments and they did a great job!
  • Driving up to Grand Rapids for dinner with friends and a concert with Birds of Chicago and Valerie June.
  • A mid-winter warm-up that allowed me to walk the grounds at work and do some more planning for landscaping and trails around the large ponds that we installed last year.
  • A gathering that our friend Becca organized for local farmers to share ideas for the coming growing season.
  • Joining our neighbors at the bookstore across the street from our house to hear a talk about George Washington Carver.

In all of these activities and more, we continue to think about the ways our child will experience and learn from our community. It gives us great joy to think about raising our kiddo in a rich environment with diverse experiences of art and nature, with friends of various ages and colors and backgrounds. While we nurture our hopes for the future, we work to build that world in the present, for our family and for all of our neighbors.