Our Beloved Birdhouse

Dear Birdhouse,

After fifteen months of living together, you are not only the one we come home to, you are our home. From your moldy basement to brick attic, you’ve been our ride or die. What other house can accommodate eight wild girls and handle the shrieks, the stress and the splattered spaghetti sauce inside our microwave? Tucked on the corner of Old South High and Ohio Street, you represent our legacy here at James Madison University.

When I think of all the blissful moments we’ve spent with you, feelings of gratitude and nostalgia wash over me. Remember the snowpocalypse during the winter of 2016? Those few days when Harrisonburg got slammed with several feet of snow that forced JMU to shut down and sent students into frenzied shenanigans? For the Birdhouse girls, that meant whipping together lavish brunches of sticky cinnamon buns and egg casseroles. It meant long afternoons playing board games with the Dude Ranch guys or jumping off nearby parking decks onto mounds of ice that we thought were snowdrifts. Snow days meant squatting on the radiators to stay warm, sporting fuzzy onesies and watching horror movies with the worst ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.

And remember the mega-bed? That night when we dragged every mattress into the living room, lit dozens of candles, dipped popsicles into champagne and belted to Phantom of the Opera? In that moment, with tiny flames flickering all around us and surrounded by the people I love, I knew you were the one for me. I knew that I could never go a day without you—that I wanted to spend the rest of my life within your walls.

Never have I laughed so hard, danced so wildly or shared more meaningful moments than with you. During these past fifteen months, I’ve learned that pain always passes and that when the sun shines, it shines out all the clearer. I’ve learned that true friends stand by your side in the best and worst of times and ceaselessly believe in the gritty, vivacious person you’re becoming. No final exam, troublesome family member, uncertain future career or ex-boyfriend can shake the sisterhood of the Birdhouse. We resist fear, withstand change and are resilient against failure.

From today until infinity, we stand together because four wooden floors, thin walls that carry instead of keep out noise, dim bathroom lights and a kitchen sink from the 1800’s, turned eight girls into a family.

Your Bird Forever,

        Rachel Denison

My Top 5 of 2016

As I sat down on New Year’s Eve counting down the minutes until 2017, I suddenly felt anxious for the year of 2016 to be gone forever. In my opinion, 2016 was a tough year to swallow. During some instances throughout the year, it appeared that 2016 would just be a barrage of bad news, a compilation of natural disasters, and an increasing deficit of respect for one another. In addition, we left behind some important people in 2016, including legendary music artists. Music often carries us through the worst of times and propels us to through the best of times, which is why I would like to highlight some of my favorite works of music of 2016.

These were chosen based off of my personal music preference so there may be a lack of diversity in my music selection. These are also listed in no particular order.

  Awaken My Love

Childish Gambino

I know that I said that these are listed in no particular order but if I absolutely had to, I think that this would be my number one pick of 2016. Donald Glover has consistently shownus his versatility as an artist, whether that be through acting, writing, standupandnow music. I was surprised and delighted to find that there was very little rapping on this project and Childish Gambino virtually sang the whole album. Not only did he impress me as a composer and producer but he also surprised me with his singing abilities. I feel his vocal skills are best highlighted in my two favorite songs “Me and Your Momma” and “Redbone.”


Anderson Paak

Anderson Paakis setting a new standard for thehip hop artist, if you can even call him that. Similar to Childish Gambino, Anderson Paakis a multitalented artist and is part of the reason I feel that one-trick-ponies are on their way out. Anderson is a part of a select groupof rappers (actually none come to mind) that can rap, sing, and play an instrument… all at the same time. His soulful voice and classic style are evident in this album and as Dr. Dre’s new protégé, I think we will be seeing more from him. My personal favorite from this album is “The bird.”

  24K Magic 

Bruno Mars

I have said this before and I will continue to say it again. Bruno Mars is the baddestcat in show business. I mean, the guy is swagger personified. I’ll admit that this is a bold claim but I think that Bruno is Michael Jackson reincarnated. He’s that smooth and this album shows us why. Now personally, pop music is my least favorite kind of music but I can’t ignore the funk that he brings to the table. I challenge anyone not to danceand sing alongwhen “24k Magic” comes on the radio or when the DJ plays “Chunky.” In addition, this album had to make the list just for the sheer number of workout songs on here.

  The Coloring Book

Chance the Rapper

And we back!This album right here is heavenly. Not just because most of the production was based in gospel and soulful roots but because if I imagined an angel rapping, it would sound like Chance.The man is like water on a track. His lyrics, flow,and adlibs are like no other. This album is what it sounds like when secular music and gospel make a baby. I respect Chance for paying homage to his rootsbut also being able to sustain a modern sound. I also appreciate this album because it exudes energy and it is contagious. It’s hard to listen to this album and stay in a somber mood. Just play “No Problem” or “Blessings” and your head will be bobbing in notime.


Frank Ocean

Where have you been Mr. Ocean? This album was the most anticipated album of the year in my opinion. Frank Ocean fans have been waiting for years for this album to come out but I have constantly been met with delay and disappointment. This album makes it on the list for some of the same reasons as The Life of Pablo. It’s almost like a legacy award. Frank is too good forme to leave him out. It wasn’t his best work but it still was pretty good. It sounded more like a summer mixtape than a full length album but we still gotsome gems. For example, “Solo (Reprise)” featuring Andre 300 and “Ivy” are songs worth remembering.


Comeback Fashions of 2016

Oh 2016. You will be remembered for political turmoil, worldwide tragedies and the deaths of many beloved stars. But as we post on social media with “#seeyounever2016,” let us remember the silver lining—the comeback of 90’s fashion trends.

All About That Neck 

Just as your mom purges the last turtleneck from your closet back home, they explode back into clothing stores. Yes it’s back—the sweater that extends up and around your neck to keep you feeling slim and strangled all at the same time. It’s finally socially acceptable to dress like Rachel, Monica and Phoebe from Friends, so pull out those faded, high waisted jeans and squeeze into a turtle neck and you’ll blend right in.

Not only have turtlenecks made a comeback, so have chokers. Like the name implies, chokers are necklaces that tie around your neck like delicate dog collars. They can be paired with almost any shirt, except of course a turtleneck.

Burst of Berry Lips 

Berry lips were a fad of the 90’s but because history has a habit of repeating itself, celebrities and civilians are sporting the bright lipstick once again. Thankfully, this is a cheap and easy to maintain trend since all it requires is a quick trip to the nearest drug store and a steady hand to apply the makeup. Whether you’re wearing a dress, t-shirt or jumper, berry lipstick will compliment any lips and any outfit.

Rebirth of the Bomber Jacket  

As street style again invades every guy’s wardrobe, the bomber jacket has made a re- appearance. Also called flight jackets, they were originally designed for military pilots during World War I and World War II, but became a fashion trend from the 70’s through the 90’s. In fact, they were worn as the “national costume” of the United States at an APEC meeting in 1993. With the help of certain celebrities like Kanye West who wear these jackets as staple items, the bomber coat has been re-introduced into men’s fashion in the typical navy colors but also in neon colors as well.

Denim is the New Black 

Layers of denim on denim on denim are once more flooding the streets. Typically, it’s acceptable to either wear jean pants or a denim shirt but it’s okay again to wear both. Together. And if the weather is chilly, you can even throw a jean jacket over that denim shirt and no one will bat an eye. If washed-out blue is your color or you enjoy the coarse feeling of this material, then 2016 was your lucky year. Layer away.

Although seemingly marked by grim upheaval, 2016 has also brought back some saucy styles that will surely spill into 2017 as well.

I Think I’ll Have Another

As the holiday season arrives, traditions old and new emerge from the boxes of memory to brighten homes once again. For me, the holidays mean eating great food surrounded by even greater company.

And for decades, a staple of holiday fare for my family has been homemade shortbread cookies.

I’ve made them with my mother every year for as long as I can remember, as she made them with her mother, and her mother before that, who first made the cookies with her own mother (though the recipe has evolved over the years). Though the recipe has evolved over the years, it has maintained its delicious Every time we gather the ingredients together, the roots of the past grow up through the years separating us and sprout blossoms as colorful as the many shades of sugar we decorate the cookies with.

Making shortbread cookies is a serious undertaking in my family – we tend to make three batches of the delicious treat in just one setting. We compile the ingredients, get out the necessary utensils and cookware and pull out the containers of cookie cutters and decorative sweeteners. Dozens of silvery cookie cutters litter the counter, and countless shades of sugar sit ready at the decorating station. A few hours later we emerge from the kitchen, congratulating ourselves on a job well done, our taste buds singing in agreement after sampling a cookie, or two, or three right out of the oven.

At the next family gathering, our extended family shares in the mouthwatering goodness. Kids’ eyes widen, chewing slows, smiles brighten, then eyes close, savoring the flavor as the cookie melts in their mouths.

The recipe is simple, the joy it brings, profound. Allow me to share it with you.

Nannie’s Shortbread Cookies: 

  • 1 egg yolk (save the egg white)
  • 1 cup of butter, softened but not melted
  • ½ teaspoon of vanilla
  • 2 ½ cups flour
  • ¾ cup of packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda

Roll out the dough and use cookie cutters to shape the cookies.      Use the leftover egg white and paint it across the surface of the cookies before decorating with colored sugar.                                              Bake at 350 degrees for 7-10 minutes.

You’ll never go back to store-bought shortbread cookies again!

An Anderson Thanksgiving

Every few years, my mom’s side of the family, deemed the rowdy Andersons, gather at my uncle John’s log cabin nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. An architect and engineer, Uncle John designed and built this rugged masterpiece as a getaway home for himself, his wife, and their daughter. Using the foundation and bare bones of an original settler’s home, he reconstructed a grander and more comfortable version of a log cabin.

As I envision Thanksgiving Day in this cabin, warm feelings of nostalgia wash over me. The crisp smell of pine compliments the wafting aroma of nutmeg and butternut squash. Aunts bustle and bump into each other as they scramble to mash up potatoes, roll cheese balls and pull chocolate pecan pies out of the oven. I stand in the corner of the kitchen popping shavings of turkey into my mouth and asking futilely if I can help. Of course I don’t want to, but I can’t pull myself away from the mouth-watering feast. So I bounce from one foot to the other, watching as seasoned cooks conjure up sweet country ham and corn relish.

“Everyone to the kitchen—it’s ready!” Someone walks around to each room hollering. Uncles and cousins tumble inside laughing and wheezing from a lively game of football in the field bordering the cabin. In his quiet and steady voice, my dad prays over the food and expresses his thankfulness for family. Eyes peek open during the prayer to survey the array of scrumptious dishes. “Amen.” In a flash, a train of people forms, and we file along the counters, scooping here and grabbing there.

During previous Thanksgivings, I always resented being placed at the children’s table, but now I make a beeline for it, knowing that they’ll be no talk of politics or the economy. However, throughout the rest of meal, I mentally prepare my answers to the inevitable series of questions:  “Senior at JMU…PR and creative writing…I want to be a copywriter…no I haven’t been into photography since middle school.” My younger siblings and cousins shove food into their mouths and slurp red punch from plastic cups.

Allie, one of my cousins who’s five years my junior, never fails to stare at me the entire time and ask questions like, “Have you seen The Ring? Because I have,” and, “Do you like go out with your friends all the time since you’re in college?”

I force my brain to painfully remember the high school mindset and answer, “Yes, it’s total freedom.” She just smirks. I choke a little into my punch thinking about the overwhelming responsibilities and adjustments that also come along with college.

As the afternoon sun wanes, someone pushes us outside for some “family raking,” so we groan and rake dried leaves into piles until football comes on TV, and we all dash back inside to claim spots on the burnt red sofa or bear rug. Eventually, each family heads back to their respected motels and recharges for Friday, which always consists of devouring leftovers and pushing over dead trees in the surrounding woods.

Reflecting on past memories makes me long to creak open that log cabin door, feel the rough oak beneath my fingertips and listen as my relatives burst into applause as a touchdown is made. In one week, I’ll be savoring the old stories, cherished moments and faithful love that drifts along the foundation of this cabin tucked between mountains and seeping with warm smells and rolling laughter.




What Does Fall Taste Like  

There is a certain kind of nostalgia that comes when the weather changes and the leaves drop like unevenly weighted balloons down to browning grass. There seems to be memories sparked by the smells of faraway snow and burning wood. The taste of apple cider sits along the back of my tongue and makes swallowing seem thicker than usual, like tears could be called up a little easier this time of year. When I write, I have a habit of putting my hand over my mouth to read back what I have written, and somehow my fingertips are always colder than the rest of me now that October has blended into November. It is a funny thing, nostalgia. I simultaneously feel that I am too young to have much of a life to look back on and think “those were the days,”  while often wishing I was a child again.

The Colonial Parkway is a road constructed by the National Park Service throughout the 26 years of pre-depression through post-World War Two America. Its 23-mile, stone roadway blends the harsh marsh into the sandy, crumbling edge of the York River, where on her best day she flows into the Chesapeake Bay and her worst she sits stagnant and mosquito filled. My thoughts turn to this road in Yorktown, Virginia when asked about November and nostalgia. Because along this stretch of two-way road is where the leaves change first in my town. Where the air turns lighter with the absence of humid river salt and the smoke from the wood fires at Jamestown float to mingle with the cloud cover at the mouth of the bay. When I was young, my family would bundle up into sweaters and swishy-fabric jackets and drive along the parkway to get to Colonial Williamsburg. I would always sit behind my mother on the passenger side, press my face up against the window and watch as the yellow-stone road blurred underneath the tires of my Father’s truck. The closer we got to Williamsburg, the more wilted the Yorktown Onion flowers got, the darker the horizon line of pine trees felt and the more orange the sky bled.

Williamsburg in the fall is where the ghosts of the colonies come to make the blacksmiths forgery ring out and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves a common sound. The rows of brick houses from 1600’s have modern style house paint adorning their front doors, and local garden club wreaths hanging prettily from brass knockers. We would walk our small group of four up and down the dusty streets and breathe in the new fall air and listen to the interpreters tell the tourists the stories of my hometown. We could always spot the tourists, wide-eyed and easily swayed by the claims of “George Washington spent the night here” and
“This is the original pot-pie recipe of the south,” always clutching onto children’s hands and bedecked with backpacks. However, as locals we knew that if you turned down a small light-brown dirt path after the Kings Head Inn but before the old Parliament house you would enter a sort of colonial speakeasy. This small structure housed the best hot cider you ever burnt your tongue on, and cookies that may have been the size of my head but tasted like the finest crafted morsel of dough and chocolate ever made.

Remembering Williamsburg and the parkway while a candle flickers on my window sill, feels very adult-ish of me, and it reminds me just how ready I am to go home. So when I take the turn (exit 235 off 64) to the Colonial Parkway in a few weeks, I’ll roll down my car window, motion to my little sister in the passenger seat and hope that my next breath tastes like wood ash and cinnamon.



Big Boys Don’t Cry

She offered that we watch a movie. I should have let her finish before I smoothly interjected, “Yeah that’s cool. I mean, whatever you want to do is fine with me.” She then began to thoroughly explain her affinity for horror films. “Okay, this is going to be a problem,” I thought to myself.

We hadn’t reached a point in our relationship when I could sit her down and explain to her that I  had made the conscious decision to abstain from all things “scary.” If I deemed something to be scary in nature, you could count me out. There are an assortment of things that fall under my imaginary umbrella of scary which ranges from turning on every light in the house in order to take a late night potty-break or refusing to take the trash out past sundown. Call me crazy all you want, but there is no way you can prove that someone isn’t lurking in the woods by the trashcan just waiting to make me a murder mystery. Watching a horror film ranks somewhere between visiting a location where someone  inexplicably perished and adhaljdjaslsgjsglksglkj ljsljsagjlsdg (I still don’t really know to say here. Any suggestions).

She had her heart set on watching a movie called “Deliver Us From Evil.” I recall the synopsis saying something about “a thrilling rendition of a true story about a cop and unconventional priest who team up together to perform an exorcism in an effort to solve a string of crimes.” Okay, there is a major distinction that I make between scary and thrilling. They both engage similar aspects of adrenaline and both involve a subtle fear of death, but the discrepancy manifests itself in how death finally takes me. There is an undeniable difference between being thrown off a roller coaster and quickly falling to your death and being axe murdered by a satanic children’s doll because you forgot to switch on the hallway light on your way to tinkle.

Also, what was this based on a true story hogwash? Are we talking loosely based, mostly based, or this definitely happened? The margin of error in discerning this fact was too wide, and as far as I was concerned, the error involved a gruesome death. Yet, I conceded. I agreed that we should watch “Deliver Us From Evil” because, and I quote, “The plot seemed like it had an interesting story line.” Oh the moronic lies I tell myself when I’m scared.

The next two hours involved calculated measures of extreme excuses and avoidance. Some of the evening’s highlights include me pretending to be asleep so I wouldn’t have view the particularly scary parts, faking an unexpected important phone call from work, and conveniently having a very active bladder. Needless to say, the evening did not go how I expected. However, I must add that if we would have watched Disney’s “Enchanted,” which was my movie choice, the evening would have ended with tears of joy from a thrilling love story of a fairy tale princess who found true love in the real world.


The Heart and Soul of James Madison University