Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Late Night Writing

Most posts on this blog start with some variation of the sentence "It has been a while since my last post." This post is no different; in fact it's even more the case, since it has been over three years since the last time I wrote anything! And while I would love to claim that the reason it takes so long to write something is genius can't be rushed, the reason is more often and more simply that I forgot I had a blog for a while. And even when I remembered it's existence, Netflix was often much more appealing late at night. I mean, have you seen season 8 of "24"!?

I have noticed over the years that whenever I write something or make up a song, it's often late at night. Currently it's 12:46 am, and I'm going to wake up at 6:15 to go for a run, yet here I am. From people I've asked, this seems to be a common theme. What is it about the late hours of the night that inspires some mix of passion and creativity? Somehow the knowledge that there is nothing else to do before sleeping, the darkness, the quiet, and the gradual feeling of drowsiness combine in weird ways to breed pockets of motivation. There are many ways to pray, and there's a window at night when prayer is much easier. There is a self awareness that leads to an awareness outside of self and a gratitude for life.

"Gratitude" strikes a tone with me right now. Holy Week has culminated in resurrection. Pain, darkness, and doubt have been endured, but light triumphs. I love melancholy music. There is catharsis that comes from dwelling in sad thoughtful harmonies that somehow convey a sense of stubborn hopefulness and the will to do better. It's late, so these things that make sense to me right now may be foreign concepts when I wake up in less than six hours. Maybe it's a good thing that I'm a night owl. Though I hate feeling tired when I don't get enough sleep, I really enjoy this time between work and bed and don't want to lose consciousness for as long as possible. I will lose that battle once again in about five minutes. Till the next late night; hopefully sooner than April, 2015...

Monday, March 9, 2009

University of Pennsylvania Admissions Essays

This may be pretty lame, but I'm going to post the short essays that I wrote for the UPenn application. The first question was simply asking if I had been put on academic probation for cheating in college. The second is about how I became interested in Environmental Studies. The third describes conceptually what I expect out of the curriculum in the program. The last one deals with how I would apply a Master's degree in Environmental Studies to my career. I thought this may be a relevant thing to post, since it pretty much gets into my head and very briefly explores my thoughts about environmental issues. Does is pass the "haha" test? If anybody actually reads these, just remember that these are admissions essays to a grad school program, so they may make me sound like I'm a little full of myself. This is the nature of the beast...

1) No, I have never been placed on probation, dismissed or suspended from any college or university for reasons pertaining to academic integrity or any other reason.

2) I have always loved biology and nature. I was fortunate to live in Monterey, CA during the beginning of elementary school and spent a lot of time around the tide pools, finding banana slugs in the woods and exploring Monterey Bay Aquarium. At the College of William and Mary I majored in biology because I enjoyed learning about living things and how they work together. During high school and college I was also drawn toward community service. In college I was the service coordinator for our campus chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I organized service projects for approximately 100 students, which included working with kids at the juvenile detention center, volunteering at homeless shelters and working with organizations similar to Habitat for Humanity. I was also learning about global social justice issues in our chapter of International Justice Mission. A meaningful event that we facilitated was the Alternative Gift Fair. This was an event during the holidays when we invited various organizations to come to campus and sell gifts to students who wanted to buy things that were made in an environmentally or socially conscious manner. This could be anything from fair trade chocolate and coffee, to buying livestock for an underprivileged family in another country, to buying carbon offsets.

I did not make a deep connection between my interests in social justice, service, and nature during college, but had every opportunity to do so the year after graduation. At that time, I participated in a program called the Young Adult Volunteers (YAV), which is a service mission organized through the Presbyterian Church (USA). I lived in a house in Tucson, AZ with six other volunteers, who each had a full time volunteer position. Mine was to work with a Mennonite organization that did emergency home repairs for low income residents around the area. I saw a lot of depressing living situations and learned how to fix swamp coolers, furnaces, roofs, plumbing, water lines, some electrical, build decks, tile bathrooms, and hang drywall. Each of my housemates received a $300 stipend every month and contributed a portion of that to a communal pot, which paid for food and utilities. We drew up a house covenant, promising to strive for an ecologically low impact life style, to get involved in our community and to solve our inevitable conflicts with civility. Our lifestyle involved riding bikes as our primary mode of transportation (a ten mile commute each way to and from work for me), buying locally and organic when possible, recycling, harvesting rainwater, composting food scraps, utilizing a gray water system, getting a portion of our hot water from a solar heater, hanging our clothes to dry, and experimenting with a composting toilet system. These practices made us think deeply in a whole systems manner and allowed us to consider ways to close loops of consumption, which would otherwise create an unnecessary waste of resources and energy.

This was a different lifestyle and a different slice of society than I was exposed to in college or growing up in suburban neighborhoods. Despite the close living quarters and very different personality types, we became a very close community by the end of the year. I realize now how important that sense of community is to me and how it is closely tied in with environmental issues. We used a fraction of the resources in our house per person last year than the typical single family home. Riding bikes everywhere gave me a greater appreciation of the distance between places and actually gave me a better understanding of our local environment. The weather, when and in which direction the sun set, which direction the wind usually came from and slight changes in altitude become much more noticeable and important when experiencing them outside the confines of a car. I found myself thinking of ways that it would be easier and safer for pedestrians and bicyclists to get around the city, and the impacts that these changes might have on a sense of community and the amount of resources consumed.

This year I am an intern with the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive in Washington, D.C. In this position I have been able to observe how the Federal Government imposes regulations on itself to green its operations. Dealing with over twenty agencies and trying to get them onto the same page is always a challenge for our office, but it has been valuable to me to see how this system operates. It has also allowed me to have exposure to numerous organizations that develop green standards for buildings, cleaning products, electronics, transportation, office products, travel, hotels, and nearly any other household or industrial item. I have seen how important Executive Orders and legislation are when guiding the government towards environmentally friendly policies.

A degree in Environmental Studies is a great fit with my various interests. In mid April I will begin work on a local organic farm to learn sustainable agriculture techniques and how local economies, especially Community Supported Agriculture, operate. I am interested in looking at the issues of restoring and preserving nature from a social, economic, and policy making perspective, in addition to exploring the environmental science behind the issues. It's important that these various perspectives communicate so that solving environmental issues does not cause the economy unnecessary harm or cause the working class to suffer.

3) As an MES student I hope to pursue an interdisciplinary curriculum that explores environmental issues from the natural science, land use management, policy making, social and economic perspectives. As environmental consciousness becomes a major part of mainstream thinking in all fields, it will be important to understand the effect of environmental policies on the economic and social realms. We have to find a way to live in a sustainable way within our environment without destroying the business world or putting low income citizens at a disadvantage.

It would be easy to develop a policy that only hybrid and electric cars will be allowed to be sold. However, without providing reliable access to mass transit or gradually restructuring the automobile industry, this policy would bring down the car companies and put lower income people at a severe disadvantage. There would be no way for a huge portion of the population to afford these expensive vehicles. Multiple policies and components need to work together in order to have effective solutions for environmental issues. Development of mass transit, implementation of policies that favor pedestrian oriented urban development, building infrastructure for renewable sources of energy, researching new battery technologies for vehicles and policies to protect biodiversity are just a few examples of initiatives that could work together to lower our impact on the environment.

While taking this broad, interdisciplinary approach to learning about environmental issues, I also hope to be able to concentrate my studies on classes that deal with the urban environment. I am excited about exploring how integral our largest built creations, cities, can be in lowering our impact on the environment and approaching a sustainable existence. I can also see synergistic opportunities in urban development to facilitate a sense of community and place, while reducing some of the physical or geographical barriers that currently separate various social groups and economic classes much of the time. This type of whole systems approach is what I am hoping to pursue in the curriculum as an MES student.

4) Upon completion of the MES program, there are several related career paths which I would be happy pursuing. The specific career options I consider will undoubtedly evolve while I develop in the program, but I am sure I want to work to improve our built environment. This could be accomplished by working with a non-profit organization, such as Smart Growth America, which organizes and advocates for growth policies that will reduce dependence on cars and create more pedestrian friendly urban settings. I would also be open to the possibility of working with an environmental consulting firm, which would provide advice to businesses and developers to reduce their impact on the environment. This job could involve not only evaluating the services provided by those businesses, but also the operation of their businesses. By pursuing higher LEED certification, implementing Environmental Management Systems and purchasing EnergyStar certified office equipment, among other things, a business could conceivably save a substantial amount in their operating costs.

As I mentioned before, I am also interested in service learning. I would find it very fulfilling to work for a non-profit or some other organization that facilitates service learning opportunities for kids, which would be based around exploring our impact on the environment. We could work to remove invasive species from an area and then learn why they can be harmful. Another project idea is to restore riparian buffers of streams and then learn about the ecological functions these buffers serve. One more idea is to develop an organic garden on the grounds of a school or in an abandoned lot and learn about sustainable agriculture. My hope is that these kinds of activities would allow the kids to develop an understanding of how much we rely on nature in our own lives and to learn to make a difference through service work.

I want to become a professional who will have an impact on promoting policies for sustainable development or connecting youth with nature and planting a seed of responsibility in them to care for it. There is no doubt that a Master's degree in Environmental Studies would make me much more qualified to pursue these goals.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


It has been a long time since I wrote anything on this blog. I've come to realize how important it is to my mental well being, however, to be creative in some way or another. Since then I have picked up my tuba again and joined the Loudon Community Band, made a more conscious effort to read books, tried to maintain some kind of a workout schedule, and finally, have started writing letters to people and entries on this blog. All are great outlets of creativity to make something unique and personal.
Over the past year I've noticed how many blogs are places for their authors to rant about things that make them angry, but I want this to be different. It's easy to rant about things under the cloak of anonymity that is the internet, but is that really healthy? Is it true that you feel better if you punch a pillow? Or does negativity pretty my always beget negativity? No, my goal here is to try my hand at creative writing, an experiment with which I have little experience. Don't get me wrong, I love trying to solve the world's problems, but there is a place and a time for everything. In all likelihood I will contradict this sentiment many times in the future, but that doesn't make the sentiment any less true.

In 45 minutes (even less by the time this is posted) it will be Thanksgiving day. Around this time of year Garrison Keillor always pops into my head; it never fails. He embodies a spirit of nostalgia and pastoral sentiment that I feel when the weather starts to turn cold, the leaves turn picturesque shades of red and yellow, the marching bands start winding down, family becomes a more prominent presence in our minds, and football can be seen every night if one tries hard enough. Garrison has a way of telling these meandering stories about the interactions between the imperfect people that live in his home town that brings a feeling of warmth and comfort. He describes events and relationships in a reflective and melancholy way, yet it always seems to put me in a more joyful frame of mind, reminded of the satisfaction that comes with close community.
How great it is to have a holiday that is dedicated to giving thanks for the blessings that we have. How often do we have a day set aside to be content with life? It's a day when we don't have to think about getting ahead, winning the rat race, building the resume, or climbing the corporate and social ladders. When we can stop struggling against the current and enjoy our God given gifts. And when asked what kinds of things do people say they are most thankful for? Health, family, friends, freedom. We're thankful for our relationships with other people and the basic things that sustain us. Simple things.
I've noticed how central a role food can play in community building. There's just something about preparing food with other people and then eating it that is crucial to building a tight bond between people. Maybe it's just that cooking is a good excuse to interact. Maybe it's that preparing a meal for someone is an act of love that takes effort and receiving a meal cooked by someone else takes humility and graciousness. Giving, receiving, reciprocity, grace, humility, appreciation; all are strengthened in a community that cooks and eats together.
It's my hope to set aside some time at least once a week to bask in this spirit of contentment and thanksgiving. Have a happy Thanksgiving and remember to be content, watch the Detroit Lions and eat plenty of food.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Animals love our house

I found a black widow spider in my closet a few days ago. This is just the most recent in a long line of animal friends that have decided to visit, or live, in our house. I ended up trapping the spider in a tupperware container, after typing "black widow" into google images for a quick ID check, and letting it go in the wash behind our house. Apparently, the vast majority of the time the bite of this spider is not fatal. Female spiders are the only ones who are poisonous, and they are attracted to places that are dark.

In other news it got up to 103 degrees and I was wielding a shovel most of the day. Dang, it was hot. I drank more water today than I've had in the previous 9 months combined. I was told that this is how hot it is throughout all of June. I need to prepare for this mental and physical challenge and come up with some ways to stay cool while working on roofs and in ditches.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Thoughts from Cascabel

This is just my February newsletter copied and pasted onto the blog:

Greetings family and friends!

I have now been in Tucson for six months and have started to realize how short a year can be in reality. We have had enough time to get firmly established in our jobs and in house life, but it now seems as though we are beginning the process of leaving. One of the big questions each of my housemates are asking is “Where do I want to be and where am I called to be next year?” I have applied to three grad schools: U of Maryland, U of Florida, and U of Georgia. Each of these schools has great, cross-discipline programs in conservation ecology and sustainable development, which is a topic that I have been exposed to numerous times this year. Though the year seems to be flying by, my hope and prayer is that I am able to view this not as a year outside of my life, but as a year shaping the direction of the rest of my life. It is now hard to imagine the rest of my life without a central focus on community and the commitments and blessings that come along with sharing one's life more fully with others.

On a couple separate occasions this year we have been able to visit a place called Cascabel. This place is beyond any of our definitions of “rural,” taking thirty minutes on dirt roads to get there, and has been a great inspiration to me. The people in Cascabel display true community with one another, which is built around growing most of their own food and trying to live in sustainable ways at a different pace of life. One couple we met there, David and Pearl, lives at an amazingly high standard of living, yet they are completely off the grid. They lift all their own water, which comes from a well pump that is powered by a wind mill, use a wood-burning stove for heating water and keeping their tiny house warm, have a solar panel that powers their one light bulb and laptop computer, and they have a composting toilet. This last item made me pause at first, but after a thorough tour of the system, it is a perfectly sanitary way to reduce water use and to return nutrients to the land. Feel free to e-mail me if you're grossed out or want to know more about it (srgill@wm.edu).

But the thing I appreciate most about Cascabel is the quiet and stillness that you can't help but experience throughout the day. I had the opportunity to take a three day sojourn into the desert wilderness of Cascabel and fully experience this stillness. I hiked up the wash with two gallons of water, a tiny tent, a Bible, a journal, and a small bag of food. This was a time to have absolutely no distractions for an extended period of time. On my first full day I picked out a hilltop way off in the distance and decided to find my way there and back. Don't worry, I had food and water and had several visible land marks (not to mention the sun) for cardinal directions. I also always knew how to get to a stream with palpable water if my jug ran low. Who thought one could get so sun burned in February!? During my journey I ran into a herd of javelina (wild desert pigs), a herd of white-tailed deer, rabbits, chipmunks, numerous birds, colorful insects, and plenty of cacti and wildflowers. It's amazing how abundant life can be in an arid desert. This is an area the size of one and a half Rhode Islands that is protected from development, so the wildlife is largely unaffected by humans.

The second and third days were spent doing absolutely nothing with the intention of leaving room for God's voice to be heard and for personal reflection. I climbed up on top of a hill and looked out on the beauty of the desert for hours. I read a couple chapters out of my Bible and sat, trying to clear my mind of any distractions or stray thoughts. One of the chapters I read was out of First Kings, where Elijah flees for his life across the desert and takes shelter in a cave. In this passage God tells Elijah to prepare for the passing of God in front of the cave. There is a violent wind, an earthquake and a raging fire, but God is not in any of them. Then there is sheer silence and God's still, small voice can be heard. Taking my cues from this passage I sat there silently for a good portion of the day, trying to listen to the small voice that would bring me some ridiculously mind-blowing revelation. Fully expecting to hear God's voice telling me my life's direction or offering a prophetic vision to change the world, I became frustrated in the hours of the late afternoon. My bubble burst, I descended to the sands of the wash below and sat on my sleeping pad with my journal. The landscape was not nearly as impressive or awe-inspiring as the one from which I had just come down, yet this is where I felt most connected with God. My humble surroundings allowed me to focus inward to listen. It was here that I heard my revelation from God; that no mind-blowing revelation was needed. I also heard that maybe my motivation for wanting to have a prophetic vision was so that I could share it with my housemates and impress them with how deep-thinking and spiritual I am.

Maybe when God talks to us it won't always be in life changing, bedrock shaking ways. Maybe what is said is the most simple and ordinary thing in the world, but that makes it no less from God. This is both a comforting and frustrating thing to realize. Everyone battles with pride in one way or another, and this is just one of my latest ways to confront it; realizing and actually believing that self worth does not come from anything except God's love alone. It doesn't come from insights, deep conversation, accomplishments, or good looks, but from God's love alone. My prayer is that I may remain open to the small voice that calls me to do things that may be unimpressive or mundane (or maybe huge and very impressive!), but that need to be done with great love. I'm looking forward to the second half of the year and to sharing my experiences with you all during this time.

Only by the love of God,

Steve Gillard

Please keep the young adult volunteers and the communities they serve around the world in your prayers. If you're interested in serving as a young adult volunteer or know some one who is please visit: www.pcusa.org/yav If you'd like to support young adult volunteers with financial gift please make tax deductible checks out to:
St Mark's Presbyterian Church
("YAV support" in memo line)
3809 E. 3rd Street
Tucson AZ, 85716

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Desert Sojourn

This morning the Tucson house leaves for a five day retreat in Cascabel. This is a community that exceeds what most people think of when they hear the word "rural." It takes about half an hour on a dirt road to get there, they grow most of their own food, live largely off the grid and you won't find anyone else around there for miles and miles. We will be completing a sojourn in which we hike up to some secluded spot, pitch a tent and then sit there for three days or so. It's a chance to clear the noise out of our heads and to see what thoughts are there when there are no other distractions to be found. I'm bringing granola bars, water, bagels, a jar of peanut butter and some trail mix, but nothing that will take a lot of time to prepare. I'll also take a Bible and a journal to reflect and record thoughts. In the past people have had a whole variety of experiences on this trip, from extreme boredom, to deep revelations about oneself or one's calling. I'll write about my experience when we return on Sunday. Cheers until then.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


It has been quite a while since my last blog update, so I think for this one I'm just going to give an overview of what's been happening over the past month or so. The major event was taking a trip back to northern VA around Christmas time. What an awesome time to spend with friends and family and to visit with my girlfriend, Bethany, for much of it. One thing I really like about my group of friends from high school is that whenever we see each other after long periods of time it always seems like we are able to pick up where we left off. This happens despite major changes in each of our lives.

December 23rd marked the first time I had shaved since leaving for Tucson at the end of August. As I looked in the mirror I couldn't help feeling like a sheepdog after a trip to the groomer, who looks like half its body has disappeared. It was a sad moment, but also a very refreshing moment. Tippy, my old dog, used to dread taking baths. She would whimper and look pathetic during it, but she was so invigorated afterwards that she would jump in the air and turn circles and then sprint laps around the yard. Of course the next thing she'd do was to rub her face and body in the dirt as quickly as possible, but I, fortunately, had no such urge.

Work at Community Home Repair has been going well. I tend to go in cycles between loving every part of work and not feeling motivated to drag my bike eleven miles along the path every morning and afternoon. I have noticed that I have started gaining a little bit more independence at work recently. This feels very good, but at the same time takes quite a bit more energy. There are some new volunteers hanging out at CHRPA for the winter. Older Menonite couples drive RVs down from their home states (usually colder, northern states) and park them in the CHRPA parking lot for the winter. They are snowbirds, but instead of coming to Tucson to play shuffleboard, they are fixing houses. I can only hope to be so energetic and giving by the time I retire. Last week I went to a job with one of those couples, Ted and Eleanor, way out in the middle of nowhere. This mobile home was from 1970 and had busted aluminum wiring (which has been illegal for a couple decades now), no hot water, a leaky roof, no working toilet, no plumbing under the bathroom sink, and a material kind of like cardboard and particle board mixed for shower walls. Needless to say there was plenty of work to do. I was put in charge of the bathroom and installed the sink, replumbed under it, fixed the toilet and the leaky shower. It can be tough to work with a mobile home that is that old.

Over the past month I have completed my grad school applications to U. of Maryland, Georgia, and Florida. I'm not entirely sure what career path I want to pursue, but know that I want to combine my interests in biology and helping marginalized members of our society. There are programs at each of these schools that take a cross-discipline approach to conservation and sustainability. It would be sweet to be able to facilitate some kind of service learning about nature and sustainability for underprivileged youth. Who knows though? A lot could change.

I have also recently been reading a lot more than before. I just finished The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne and am starting in on a book called Suburban Nation and another called The Motorcycle Diaries. Claiborne's book had some crucial ideas that I need to explore further. I'd love to post some thoughts about them soon and see what reactions come from them. Sorry this post wasn't exactly the most insightful thing ever written, but I think it will at least give people some sort of context for future posts since it's been so long since I last wrote. Thanks for sticking with me.