All posts by rachelmariadenison

My King


During the summer after my junior year of high school, I went on a ten-day mission trip to Oradea, Romania with dozens of other teenagers to host Vacation Bible Schools (VBS) in Romani villages scattered along the outskirts of the city. As we trained at the Global Expeditions base camp in Texas, practiced Romanian words, and finally flew over the Atlantic Ocean, the expectation that we were being sent to help people in poverty grew.

After stepping off the bus that transported us from a Hungarian airport, our team turned to face rolling hills and a local church, Biserica de Hristos, confident that we would bring hope to the natives. Chanting songs and practicing various parts of our VBS, we re-assured one another that we were “world-changers.”

Until we went to Tinka.

As the poorest Romani village, Tinka sprawled across acres of trash and human waste. Songs shriveled in our throats when we witnessed a young woman stick her hand down her throat, throw up, and then eat her vomit out of hunger. Suddenly, our skits seemed foolish and our trinkets, trivial. We performed anyway and prayed with excruciating humility that our insignificant efforts would make a difference. But playing with the kids and exchanging broken Romanian with their parents only exposed our inability to really help them. Amidst trees that formed a canopy of brilliant green over rickety shacks constructed from metal scraps and bamboo, we discovered our own inner poverty.

A few days after visiting Tinka, we stood on the summit of Mushroom Top Mountain and lifted our hands over red tiled rooftops and crystal skies. Stretching our bodies toward a Spirit that whispered with the wind, we wept at the realization that Someone could already save them – and He wanted to save us too.

Jesus didn’t come to rescue us with petty programs or lofty speeches. He came as a human, for humans. He came with compassion so scandalous that kings and religious leaders tried to suppress him, his own people discriminated against him, and we murdered him. But death could not defeat him, and he spread himself across the trash and human waste of our lives and offered his life for our freedom.

As I stood on Mushroom Top Mountain, Oradea gleaming in afternoon light, I felt God’s faithfulness in the sky, in the people around me, in the plan I knew He had for my life. The profound love I experienced in that moment set me free from my own poverty.

The following poem speaks of this fundamental transformation, which renews my hope each passing day:

There is a crown within this earthquake –

A glazed, glinting headdress

Golden as a yoke.

Break the egg

Tear down the mountain

There is a crown within this earthquake.

Sanctuaries are shattered and dead

Hands pull back the curtain

No rip it to shreds

From top to bottom

Expose open air to the holy of holies

Where no man should go

Without a rope wrapped around his ankle

And bells to clink and clank and signal

Yes you are alive and still walking.

Go to the tomb, I tell you

Gritty bits of rock and jewels lace the mouth

Open in after-shock, shaken and empty.

Murky chamber, peer in: For the man

Is not here. He left only linens

From his two-night stand with sour sponges and satan

Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani?

Raise a hand and touch the scars seared with

Nails gnawing at flesh, pound them deep for

My King: He is not here.


A Lucky “Brake”

Silhouettes of trees and sprawling fields swept past us as we sped along a back road in Amelia, Virginia. The last purple and blue shades of twilight sunk into the night sky, and darkness settled on the landscape around us. Desiray’s royal blue Camry whipped gracefully around each bend as we neared a local gas station.

We were seniors in high school with nothing better to do on a sticky summer night than lay on Desiray’s couch or raid the nearest store of soda. Undaunted by our isolation in middle of cow-county nowhere, we hopped into her car and pulled out of their long gravel driveway onto the two-lane road. Windows rolled down, we stroked the rushing air with our fingers spread wide as we sang into the darkened woods.

After running in and out of the gas station for our drinks, we swung back onto the country road in the direction of her house. Antsy from the lack of adrenaline, I asked Desiray to roll her sunroof down. “I’m gonna stand out of it,” I said.

She laughed, clicked the button and a panel of glass slid open exposing roaring wind and the moon glistening through low-hanging tree branches.

As I pulled the majority of my body outside the sunroof and mounted my legs inside her car, Desiray picked up speed – 35 mph, 40 mph, 50 mph. The air no longer felt crisp and inviting as it shoved against my torso, yanked at my clothes, and brought numbing tears streaming down my face. Shrieks and songs shriveled in my throat, and I swayed there, arms outstretched, speechless in horror and vicious delight.

“Sit down,” a firm voice in my head whispered.

I glanced again at the black road stretching to meet us like the gaping mouth of a snake and slipped back into the front seat. Seconds after clicking my seatbelt, Desiray slammed the brake as a deer leapt directly in front of the car. Anti-lock brakes jolting, we flung forward, and time halted as we seemed to float for a moment, vaguely clutching at the dashboard.

A minute later, the deer had darted back into the forest, but we sat in her motionless car panting, unable to look at each other.

“If I had still been standing out the sunroof…” An image clouded my mind as I pictured my body crumpled and wet with blood on a country road in front of my best friend’s car, a wild animal bounding into the nearby woods.

Desiray gulped for air. “A voice, a voice told me you needed to sit down.” The white of her eyes reflected hazy moonlight.

I looked over at her. “Me too.”

In silence, we made our way back to her house astounded by a stroke of luck that saved my life. To this day, I believe that it was something bigger.

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

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.

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.




Where Cinematic Horrors Come True

There are few local haunts that send chills down your spine like Western State Hospital—also known as the abandoned insane asylum off Interstate 81. It turns out that the horrific depictions of insane asylums in movies and shows are actually not too far off from the truth.

Looming atop a peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Western State Hospital is located in Staunton, Virginia. After passing this abandoned building countless times, I decided to dig into its history, and what I discovered is truly ghastly. Originally called Western State Lunatic Asylum, the government-sanctioned facility received its first patient in 1828. Dr. Stribling, the first hospital director, believed in moral and medical therapy, which entailed healing through human relationships. He taught his staff to encourage mental patients to find vocations, hobbies, exercises, and to engage in fun activities.

However, Dr. Stribling represented the silver lining of Western State Hospital’s gruesome past. In 1905, renowned physician Dr. DeJarnette became the new hospital director. As a fierce advocate of eugenics, he wrote a poem, which included the stanza:

This is the law of Mendel,
And often he maken it plain,
Defectives will breed defectives,
And the insane breed insane.
Oh why do we allow these people
To breed back to the monkey’s nest,
To increase our country’s burdens
When we should only breed the best?

DeJarnette facilitated the sterilization of hundreds of his patients who he deemed “unfit” to reproduce. One could get sterilized for being poor, unintelligent, mentally unstable, or promiscuous. Basically, if you weren’t of a certain skin color, social class, or mental state, you were at risk of undergoing a forced sterilization.

Not only did DeJarnette enforce sterilization, he also administered electroshock therapy, lobotomies, isolation, and physical restraints. Imagine being strapped down and shocked until you have a seizure or picture doctors plucking at nerves behind your eyes while you’re still conscious. This was the every day life for patients at Western State Hospital. Thus, the asylum morphed from a haven of healing to a decrepit ward where despicable practices were implemented. Sterilization and these unethical “therapies” continued to grow in popularity after World War II and even after Americans witnessed the devastating genocide as a result of the eugenics movement propagated by the Nazis.

In the 1970s, Western State Hospital was converted to a penitentiary and residence for children with extreme behavioral disorders. By 2002, the city of Staunton finally boarded up the building with the hopes of renovating it into condominiums, offices, and a shopping mall. However, the abandoned insane asylum still looms among the Blue Ridge Mountains casting a shadow that whispers of unspeakable horrors.

Walk along the grounds or crawl through a hole into the building, and you will still discover black handprints scattered across the walls, boxes of teeth, hospital beds, and solitary confinement rooms. And who knows, you might just find some old crusted wires used in electroshock therapy or the medical tools used to scrape behind patients’ eyes.

So beware JMU students, Dr. DeJarnette may still lurk the hallways waiting for his next patient—his next victim—his next…you.




Fighting Back…One Bug at a Time

Amidst mushroom desk lamps, cheeseburger backpacks, edible alcoholic bubbles, and Pokémon bath bombs, I drifted into another dimension of reality on ThisIsWhyI’ A reality where I could keep secret stashes of money in my flip-flops and amuse myself with floating fireballs. A world where geeky gadgets are a normality and where the Dark Knight’s Batpod is a perfectly acceptable purchase (and only for a mere $106,350.08).

After gazing and scrolling for much too long on a couch in Carrier, I finally picked my desired item—a rechargeable bug vacuum. As I read the description for this nifty tool, my mind filled with fantasies of twirling around my bug-ridden house sucking them up and laughing hysterically.


No more squishing bug guts on your foot or using precious toilet paper to smash them. And let’s be honest, in those moments we all chuck the dead bug—toilet paper and all—into the toilet, flush, and run frantically out of the room. Gone are the sleepless nights where you lay awake waiting for a giant spider to crawl across your face. Who made insects the master of us? It’s time to take back control of our living spaces and rid our residences of these horrendous creatures.

Not only can the rechargeable bug vacuum protect your home, it’s small enough to fit in a backpack. That means you can transport it into your classrooms and whip it out any time to defend yourself. You will automatically be the coolest kid at school. Also, wearing it in a holster around your waist will hands-down guarantee more friends.

For only $22.99 this must-have weapon of self-defense can be yours. It includes a built-in LED to enhance visibility in the dark, and it’s USB charged. If your broke college bank account can’t handle it, use a credit card—disclaimer: that’s what they’re for. Debt ain’t got nothing on you. So click the link, take a leap, and join the masses of people combating bugs efficiently and without the squishy mess. Let’s take back the fight against bugs and suck them up—one bug at a time.