Author Archives: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Riding the Rails

Riding the Rails

I’m on the Amtrak Northeast Regional, headed for Scotch Plains, NJ where I will preach at Willow Grove Presbyterian tomorrow morning and lead a workshop for the community in the afternoon. (Many thanks to my friend Denise Anderson for preaching for the good folks of Tiny Church tomorrow morning!)

It was a stressful day getting to this point—I’ll spare you the boring details—but there’s nothing like a train ride to calm the mind and lull a person into a lovely Sabbathy space. I can see why Amtrak’s writing residencies are so popular. Some day…

I write and talk in workshops about creating margins in our lives. I get a bit frantic without a buffer between this thing and that thing. Unfortunately, I have not done well at margins lately. But as grace would have it, my host in NJ suggested the train, even though I could easily drive. And I’m glad she did. Train travel is a buffer experience. (Oh look, there goes Wilmington!)

October is a big month for our household. Robert has some travel, I have a couple of speaking events I’m really looking forward to in Alexandria, VA and Austin, TX, and our church’s 100th anniversary is happily upon us. Oh, and did I mention our 20th wedding anniversary? It will all zip by if we are not intentional about creating some breathing space in between those good but immovable objects. Wish us luck… and I wish you luck & grace too, for the living of your days.


photo credit: …-Wink-… via photopin cc

Run, Drive, Sleep, Get Rained On: #RagnarDC Recap and Tips

The 2014 DC Ragnar Relay is a wrap, and the Steeple Chasers (seven pastors, three elders, and two significant others) blasted their way through 199 miles from Cumberland MD to Washington DC. It was insane and exhausting and exhilarating, and I’m already scheming about 2015.

Here is my 8 year old’s rendering of the weekend’s events.


Yes, “some guy” is drowning, and we’re running so fast we’re skimming the water. Kind of like Jesus, or Dash from The Incredibles.

A friend of mine asked for a blog recap, so here it is, followed by some logistics for people looking for guidance on a future relay. In Ragnar, each of the 12 team members runs a leg of about 4-8 miles, then you repeat that twice, so each person runs three times for a total of 36 legs. Total distances per runner range from 13 to 23 miles. I ran 15.1.

Race Recap

Van 1 (aka the RagWagon) gathered Thursday night after work for van decorating and packing up. (Van 2 would come the next day, since they didn’t start running until after we’d completed our first set of legs in the early afternoon.) Being the Steeple Chasers, we went with a churchy theme:

photo 1

photo 3

photo 4

In case you can’t read that, it’s Isaiah 40:4, “Every mountain shall be made low.” We wish…

We drove up to Frostburg MD, about 20 minutes from the starting line, where we spent the night at a Days Inn full of fellow Ragnarians. The next morning it was up bright and ugly, and off to check-in and safety briefing. Everything was run very well, especially considering what a huge effort this is. Lots of Ragnarians are repeat runners, and that speaks to the quality of the experience… if you call running your butt off for 30 hours and driving all over the country in an increasingly pungent van “quality.” And I do.

We were there an hour early as required by Ragnar, but I wished we’d allowed a little more time. It was a lot to get the checkin/safety briefing done, plus visit the Ragnar swag store, plus get runners 1 and 2 fueled, bibbed and ready. But it went fine, and Linda was soon off!


Then it was Andrea’s turn, followed by Roy, who ran the hardest leg in the entire course and got a commemorative belt buckle for it. Shelby came next, then yours truly, then Andrew. Andrew got to pass the baton (actually a slap bracelet) to John, the first runner in van 2. And look how happy he is to do so!


After John it was Drew, Jessica, David, Don and Christine.

Then we repeated that two more times. When one van is “on,” the other is on break and can eat, buy supplies, sleep, etc. Van 1 rolled into exchange 24 for some shuteye around 2:30 a.m., with most people on the ground in sleeping bags and me in the van. (More on that later.) Van 2 had a much harder schedule in terms of finding time to sleep, but the timing worked such that when we relieved them Saturday morning, we were in suburban Maryland so they could go to an actual house to shower and doze.

Our team did great. Ragnar DC is very hilly, especially in the early legs, and many of us were worried about our pace. Ragnar uses a 10K pace to predict when you’ll finish each leg and the overall relay, but their projections seemed overly aggressive to many of us, so we made up our own spreadsheet. Guess what? We finished within five minutes of Ragnar’s predicted time.

Vicious hills vanquished!


Van 1 got into a cool groove in terms of cheering each other on. We’d send a runner off while the previous one took time to stretch, pee, hydrate, etc. Then we’d head out and catch up to our runner, cheering out the window (and for other runners) as we passed. Then we’d try and find a place to pull to the side so we could get out and cheer again as they ran by. That encouragement helped a lot on those brutal hills, and especially at night.

I <3 these folks:

photo 5-1

I love starting lines and finish lines of races. I find them very inspiring, whether it’s seeing someone take those first strides with a smile on her face or pound out the last quarter mile to finish strong. So I was pretty much in heaven during this event, which features 36 starts and finishes. And relays add a layer to that. I had a lump in my throat many times, watching a smiling and exhausted runner snap that slap bracelet onto the next runner’s wrist and send the person on their way. Together we can.

(Which makes it all the more cruddy that we had two runners arrive at their exchanges before we did. What can I say? They were just too fast for us! Sorry Linda and Drew. Ah well. We got it right 34 times.)

The exchanges (where a van waits  for one runner to arrive so another can leave) were like mini-reunions. It was fun toget out and walk around, debrief, admire other vans’ decorations, and get ready to do it all over again. As a side note, some of the big exchanges (where van 1 and van 2 come together) had access to flush toilets, but the portapotties along the route were some of the cleanest I’ve seen, and always stocked with TP and Purell. I only saw one gross one and that was due to… umm… user error. The big exchanges also had food, showers, and other amenities, but as we got closer to civilization we started to rely more on convenience stores and gas stations. I’m not too proud to admit that I gave myself a sponge bath and changed clothes in the bathroom of a Panera.

We had good weather on Friday, though it was getting warm (low 70s) when van 2 started. But it was sunny and gorgeous. What a way to view the landscape!



Saturday was soggy and fairly miserable, with many of us getting rained on. Still the Steeple Chasers pressed on.

As for my particular legs of the race, I feel good about what I did. My first leg involved an 11% grade for the first half of the run. Geez, is that a run or a hike? I decided to swallow my pride about needing to run the run and walked up about half of it, conserving my energy so I could sail safely down the other side.

Made it!

photo 2-1

My second leg was around midnight: 7.3 miles of rolling hills. That one went five minutes slower than projected, but I enjoyed the quiet country road, lit by moonlight. Here I am glowing at the end of that one.

photo 3-1

Ragnar is very specific about safety, especially at night, though van 2 reported one of the legs seemed overly treacherous, with runners and Ragnar vans sharing a too-narrow road. Signage was mostly great, though we heard several people got off course in leg 30 when a sign got turned around. I can’t imagine. One woman ran an hour out of her way. I think I’d die. Die!

My third and final leg was in Bethesda and was an easy 3.7 miles of paved trail.

photo 4-1


The rain started during this leg, which wasn’t fun, but I was mainly thinking about the team members who’d have to run in the rain… especially Andrew, whom I’d be sending off to run 8.6 miles, the longest final leg of the whole relay. Imagine running almost 9 miles on tired legs and two hours’ sleep. Yet he did it like a boss:




By the time we finished around 4:30 the sun was out at National Harbor. It was so exciting to wait for Christine, our anchor and best cheetah, who volunteered for the 23 mile distance which included 11 miles in the middle of the night.

Andrew watched for her through the telephoto lens of his camera and announced her arrival to an excited group of Steeple Chasers. We all lined up and as she passed, we fell in behind her to cross the finish together. Then it was time for medals, beer and pizza, then home, Icy Hot, and early bedtime (for me anyway).

Race Logistics

Group Building: Thankfully many of us knew one another, and everyone knew at least one person in their van, but I wish we’d gotten together more. We had one gathering and lots of email chatter. Ideally I’d love at least two get-togethers, a social/planning time and a group run.


Divide and Conquer: The race is a relay, and the logistics should be shared too. I was de facto captain by virtue of registering the team, but there were other jobs too. Each van had a designated coordinator of supplies. These people kept track of the packing list and made sure the vans didn’t have six foam rollers but no bottled water. We also had a designated photographer for each van–very handy. One person made the hotel arrangements. Another put together our Ragnar playlist; another was the keeper of the cell phone list. We took turns driving, but to make things easier on the driver, we always had a navigator, so the driver didn’t have to both decipher directions AND stay on the road at the same time.

Volunteers: Each team that’s local to the race is required to recruit three volunteers, or pay $120 per volunteer slot to offset the cost of staffing that position. Start this process as early as possible. We were able to get two (and we LOVE our volunteers!), but couldn’t find a third, so we had to pay. As captain this was stressful, because Ragnar threatens to disqualify you if you don’t get three. If I do this again, I might ask people to pay $30 up front, which is the cost per team member to offset three volunteers. If we don’t get enough then we’re set, but if we do, that money can go toward communal supplies and gas.

Vans: I’ve worked in youth ministry and done the 15 passenger van. I hate driving those things, so I was motivated to make it work in a minivan. It can be done just fine if people are judicious about packing, tidy up the van regularly, and are willing to sleep outside rather than in the van on breaks. (That said, I slept in the van–it was cold in the wee hours and frankly I was too delirious to move from my seat.) We used a car-top carrier for the sleeping bags, ground cover and a few other items, and that seems essential to making a minivan work. Van 2, also a minivan, longed for more space, so your experience may vary. They also had a lot of tall dudes in their van so it was harder to get comfortable.

Hydrate and Fuel: I’m used to traditional races in which everyone starts at the same time, and I subconsciously take my cues on eating and drinking from seeing other people munching bagels or guzzling water before the start. But with Ragnar, you have to be on top of your own fueling schedule. My first leg was around lunchtime, and I didn’t realize until halfway up Hell Hill that I hadn’t eaten anything substantial since 8 that morning.

Team Spirit: This is something we’ll do more of next time. We supported one another and decorated our vans, but as a first-time captain I kept it simple, mainly out of ignorance. Next time we’ll get team shirts (or at least team headbands) to wear at the finish line, some magnets with our team name so we can “tag” other vans, and megaphone and other noisemakers for cheering people on. One team had a roll of toilet paper they would stretch across each person’s final exchange so the runner had a finish line “tape” to break. Very cute.

Also, we Scottish Presbyterians decided that next year we’re going the full Braveheart with running kilts and war paint. If our Lutheran pastor-runner joins us again, we’re thinking modified dirndl for her.

Ragnar Packing List

We had two packing lists, one for the van as a whole (coordinated by the van supply person) and the other for each runner. The starred (*) items are things we didn’t have but wish we had.

Packing for each van:  

  • 2 headlamps (4 total for our team) – You do not receive your bibs without these
  • 2 LED tail/butt lights (4 total) – same as above!
  • First-aid kit – instant cold packs, mole skin, tape, ace bandages, band aids, pain pills, etc.
  • Gallon Ziploc bags for used running clothes—cuts down on the “aroma”
  • Large trash bags
  • Toilet paper and Purell
  • Paper towels*
  • Baby wipes for quick cleanup when shower not available
  • Foam roller
  • Stretch bands*
  • Printout of leg maps for the entire course (if you want an extra–Ragnar gives you a RagMag with this information)
  • List with cell phone numbers for entire team, medical/emergency contact information, Ragnar emergency number (661-RAGNAR1)
  • Cell phone chargers and car adapter (useful to have a multi-port USB so you can charge multiples at once)
  • GPS (or use cell phones)
  • Food: we had bagels, peanut butter, bananas, homemade trail mix, no-bake cookies (the oatmeal/peanut butter ones), oatmeal butterscotch cookies, mini banana muffins, lots of water, sports drink, and chocolate milk, the best recovery drink ever
  • Tarp or ground cover(s) to put under sleeping bags
  • Tent (optional, if you have room and/or patience to fuss with it on little sleep)
  • Car top carrier for sleeping bags, tarps, tents, and other infrequently used items

Packing for each runner:

  • Reflective vest—see Ragnar’s Race Bible for acceptable/unacceptable styles. You do not receive your bibs unless everyone has one of these!
  • Personal supplies should fit in 1 backpack/duffel to save room in the van
  • Sleeping bag
  • Three sets of running clothes, underwear, socks etc. Put each in a gallon ziploc bag for easy changing after each run. You can also squeeze the bags to get the air out to save packing space.
  • Water bottle
  • Small shampoo/shower gel and towel. You can manage one shower if you time it right regardless of which van you’re in, two if you know someone in suburban Maryland who’ll let you crash at their house.
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush, other toiletries (and deodorant. Please)
  • Comfortable shoes/clothes to wear when not running
  • Medications
  • Money for meals (and ice cream at one of the exchanges!)
  • Music/headphones to pass the time
  • Sunscreen, hat, Body Glide, whatever else you need for your own comfort
  • Whatever you prefer for fueling. Our team had communal food for everyone, but individuals have their own favorite GU, sport beans, etc., so folks should bring what they need.


Bless You Auto-Correct


For a while now, I’ve been keeping track of pairs of words that get confused for one another on my iPhone’s autocorrect. That is, their letters are oriented on the smartphone keyboard such that you can intend to tap out one word and get the other instead. Of course there are whole sites devoted to autocorrect shenanigans (language advisory). My idea was to write a bunch of couplets using these words someday.

“If” and “of” are the worst offenders, and poor Siri never seems to guess correctly which one I need.

I’ve also gotten “gun” when I wanted “fun.” Trust me, I want way more of the latter in my life than the former.

Some make me smile, like “good” and “food.” There’s something wonderful about those words being so similar. Food is indeed a pleasure of life and very, very good.

Same with “kiss” and “kids.” Don’t mind if I do.

How about “shoe” and “show”? I’m not a big shoe person, but I have friends who would book front-row tickets for a shoe show.

I got one today that stopped me in my tracks. I have a friend who is between calls (clergy-speak for jobs) and is taking some time to regroup before the new thing begins. I sent her a text wishing for a time of “restfulness,” but it came out “tearfulness.”

Whoa, Siri. Whoa.

At first, those things seem totally opposed. But it’s true, isn’t it, that sometimes we get so busy we don’t even have time to feel? Sometimes we do it to ourselves, loading up our schedule with stuff to numb ourselves from feelings of discomfort. (Thank you Brene Brown.) Other times it happens through circumstances beyond our control. My father died 11 years ago while I was preparing to graduate seminary, take a call, sell a house, move to a new city, get ordained, and oh yeah, have my first child. I remember a conscious awareness that much of the grief work was going to have to wait until those big changes were behind me. I moved and was ordained at the beginning of the summer that year, and sure enough, the it all hit in August, when I finally had my feet underneath me. With restfulness came tearfulness… and it was off to the therapist for some much-needed grief work.

How about you? Have you gotten any messages from Siri lately?

My Friends Make Stuff

Two new books written by friends! Yippee!


blessed_final_one_400Sarah Griffith Lund‘s book Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church will be released by Chalice Press (publisher of Sabbath in the Suburbs) on September 8.  Description:

When do you learn that “normal” doesn’t include lots of yelling, lots of sleep, lots of beating? In Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family, and Church, Sarah Griffith Lund looks back at her father’s battle with bipolar disorder, and the helpless sense of déjà vu as her brother and cousin endure mental illness as well. With a small group study guide and “Ten Steps for Developing a Mental Health Ministry in Your Congregation, ”Blessed Are the Crazy” is more than a memoir—it’s a resource for churches and other faith-based groups to provide healing and comfort. 

And book trailer. Wow:


I met Angela Alaimo O’Donnell at Collegeville this summer when I was there for a writing retreat. She is an elegant person and writer—I gobbled up her poetry collection, Waking My Mother, in a single sitting one morning at C’ville.

Her new book, Mortal Blessings (September 30) is sure to be wonderful.


In this lyrical adieu to her mother, renowned Catholic essayist, poet, and professor Angela O’Donnell explores how the mundane tasks of caregiving during her mother’s final days—bathing, feeding, taking her for a walk in her wheelchair—became rituals or ordinary sacraments that revealed traces of the divine.

With Joan Didion’s grasp of grief, the spiritual playfulness of Mary Karr, and the poetic agility of Kathleen Norris, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell narrates the events that followed her mother’s fall and the broken hip that led to surgery. As O’Donnell and her sisters cared for their mother’s failing body during the last days of her life, they unconsciously observed rituals that began to take on a deeper importance.

Bathing her each morning was a kind of baptism, the nightly feeding of pie took on a Eucharistic significance, trimming and polishing nails became a kind of anointing. Beyond the seven there are the myriad sacraments they made up: the sacrament of community via cell phone, the sacrament of wheelchair pilgrimage around the nursing home, and the sacrament of humor and laughter. Mortal Blessings: A Sacramental Farewell is a deeply human portrait of loss balanced by the surprising grace found in letting go; it will resonate with any spiritual reader but especially caregivers and those currently in grief.

What are you reading and/or making these days? I’ve been taking a break from writing lately in favor of knitting and baking muffins. Yes, I’m ready for fall.

Art to Inspire… Plus a Giveaway!

The Blue Room is undergoing a few changes.

No, not this website—the actual blue room, our dining room-turned-office and craft space for which this website is named. The Blue Room is a symbol for the stuff in our lives that doesn’t work that needs to be reimagined to embrace the way things are, not the way we think they should be. With three young children, we never used our formal dining room. But I did need a study at home. And the kids would benefit from a place where they could play around with glitter, paint, glue and stickers. Preferably a place without carpet…

So during Snowpocalypse of 2010, our Blue Room was transformed from a useless place to a space for life and creativity.

I realized recently that despite the symbolism of the Blue Room, the walls have been adorned with the same artwork I’ve had for a long time. I don’t remember when I got this labyrinth poster (scroll down for the only image I can find online), but it was well before the 1999 gathering being advertised.

And Jane Evershed’s First Supper has been with me for many years. As a former Baptist who grew up with a blond Jesus and very male-centric images of God and Jesus’ closest followers, I love Evershed’s table, with 12 multi-racial and beautifully adorned women raising their glasses into the air. (Which one is the host at the table? Which one is Jesus? None of them. All of them.)

But life moves on. And now I have one of these, a rendering of the cover of Boston Magazine from last spring:


Peace, love, and running.

Here’s poster #2. Brain Pickings is one of my favorite sites, and Maria Popova recently published Seven Life Lessons from her work on the site. The folks Holstee Company came up with a beautiful graphical rendering of it. It arrived last week and is hanging on the nail I used for the Evershed poster. The placement isn’t quite right in the room, but I love it. A closeup from their website:


Which brings me to the giveaway. The Holstee company initially sent me their manifesto poster by mistake. The corrected the order, and asked me to keep the poster. But I want to share the love. So comment here or on my Facebook page with a recent “Blue Room” experience: either something you’ve reconfigured to fit your life as it really is, or something you know you need to reconfigure. (Or a general “hi” is fine too.) Each comment will be entered once. Submissions are due by Friday August 22 at midnight EDT.

Here’s Holstee’s manifesto poster (actual size 18×24″). Good luck to everyone!