Unfolding Here: advice from people on the road

Greetings from DesMoines, Iowa!


For the last few days I have been driving across the country with Caroline Catlin.

We’re collecting handwritten pieces of advice from people we meet along the way, because why not?!

unfoldinghere1unfoldinghere2unfoldinghere4You can read more of that advice here and follow along on Instagram.

This mini-project is unfolding into beautiful, face-to-face interconnectivity on the move. I’m grateful for this time to stop and reflect.. and to catch up on episodes of On Being.

In San Francisco I’ll be attending a meet-up of climate activists going to Morocco this November as part of the youth delegation with SustainUS. Then it’s back to the northeast for a few months of coaching rowing at Phillips Exeter before packing up the bicycle and flying to Marrakech.

What piece of advice would you give to your past, present, or future self?



The nightmare: I am in CVS, browsing the conditioner aisle, when it happens. The fluorescent lights go black. The friend I am shopping with reaches for my hand and I give it a squeeze.

A manager’s shaky voice comes over the loudspeaker:

“There is a shooter on Route 35. Take cover. This is not a drill.”

We look to the other shoppers in the store, their expressions barely illuminated by the still-glowing lipstick displays and a sliver of light coming in under the front door. Someone drops to their knees to pray. Another person lies face down with their right ear to the carpet, as if it could offer answers.

We are all scared.


In the wake of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, gun issues were thrust uncomfortably into my life. I didn’t grow up around firearms, nor had I ever laid hands on one, but within hours of the shooting, it was all anyone wanted to talk about when I brought up my home state.

“You’re from Connecticut?”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Do you know anyone who knows anyone who died?”

“What will you do when you go back home?”

The worst was, perhaps, dealing with people who didn’t know or didn’t care, people who lived their lives as if nothing had happened.

I felt broken. This wasn’t my tragedy. This wasn’t my hometown. And yet it was. I grew up a mere two exits on the highway away from Newtown. I have two younger sisters, one of whom was then in elementary school. When I went home, I heard stories of Connecticut mothers locking themselves in the shower to cry so that their children didn’t have to see them unravel. The water was their comfort.

It was too much. Not here. Not my state. Not my country. No.


And yet guns seem to go hand in hand with America, at least as the outside world sees us. In my current travels in Fiji, the theme has come up more than once. The conversation goes something like this:

“How do you like America?”

“The states? It is my home.”

“What about all the shootings? The guns?”

I take a sip of water and look my questioner straight on. “It is pretty fucked up.”

I don’t know what more I have to say on the topic. How can I, one person, begin to get to the heart of it all?


C pulls his pickup in the front lot of the hunting club and shuts off the engine. It is quiet. Too quiet.

“You ready for this?” he asks, pulling the rifle out from beneath the seat of his truck.

I shiver into the warmth of the Mississippi August night. “I don’t think so, but I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

He reviews the safety lock, the kickback, and the size of the bullets.

“So you just pull back and release.”

I nod, though C can’t see me in the dark.

“It’s going to be loud, but with only one shot your ears should be okay.”

“What if I hit a tree?”

“A tree?” he laughs at my concern. “The tree will be okay.” I doubt it but go along with his certainty.

The gun is heavier than I had imagined. C helps to balance it in the crook of my arm.

“Now?” I ask.

“Go for it.”

I pull the trigger, and something metal explodes into the night. My ears ring. I want to go and pick up the bullet, to apologize to whatever I just hit.

“How do you feel?” C asks, light shining through his eyes even in the dark.

“I––I’m not sure.”

“Did you love it? Do you want to take another shot? I love breaking in new people.”

“I think I’m done. Thanks. I don’t ever want to do that again.”

Why anyone would want to hold that much power in their hands is beyond me. I can see its appeal, but I don’t understand it. The America I want to know has no gun violence.


Interview with Story Collector Monica Niki Elenbaas

Do you have a story about Hurricane Katrina to share? 

August 29th, 2014 marked the 9th anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.


In reaction to the fact that she heard almost nothing in the news about the anniversary, Niki was inspired to collect stories. Her work focuses on people who volunteered in the aftermath of the hurricane, as well as those who were helped. Niki’s goal is to ensure that this part of the story is told for the 10th anniversary next year.

Here’s to storytelling as a form of activism and memory.


What is motivating you to collect stories about Katrina?

I have held a variety of roles—from small to national—leading volunteerism. And I have a very personal connection to what happened during Katrina because of family members. I feel like the national attention of the 10th anniversary provides an excellent time to gain attention for the win:win:win of volunteerism.

What is your own Katrina story?

My brother-in-law and his wife prepared for Katrina as best they could, by “buttoning up” their home and her dental practice. When we talked with them on Sunday, we were concerned that they planned to stay slightly inland from Pass Christian (at her parent’s house). When the storm finally arrived, I was glued to television and the internet while the rest of the world went on, not realizing the magnitude of what was going on.

It took two days before we were sure they were fine. It took a month before we could fly into New Orleans and then drive through roadblocks and devastated (and yet uncleared) area after area to get to Pass Christian to help them with recovery. Even typing this now makes my anxiety level rise in a disconcerting way.

America went on with professional sports and stupid television and news of terrorism. By the time I was back home (after a week of helping with recovery), no one cared. I couldn’t sleep. I was so anxious over the fact that our country had moved on.

We have been back about a dozen times since the storm. People outside of the area think the disaster was in New Orleans, and they think recovery is in the past. We know better.

How do you see Katrina as linked to issues of water and climate change?

I see Katrina, as well as issues of water and climate change, as all related to the damage created by our culture of greed.

What do you hope for the future?

I hope that the best keeps coming out. Countless Americans have given their time and energy to disaster recovery, and their work goes largely unsung. I hope that we stop glorifying terrible role models like Justin Bieber or the latest NFL abuser in favor of our best heroes.

What is the power of storytelling in creating this future?

Each of us needs to tell and tell and tell.

If someone wants to share a story with you, how can they be in touch?




nikiAs past national director for volunteer service and learning for the YMCA, Monica Niki Elenbaas has seen over and over how service benefits both the giver and received. Personally, helping family with recovery after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast led to a life-changing experience with the clean-up. Nearly a decade later, the recovery is far from over and that the storm’s continuing impact reveals a great deal about the best and worst of our country. Niki is collecting stories about people who volunteered in Katrina’s aftermath, as well as those who were helped, to help ensure that this part of the story is told for the 10th anniversary in 2015.