More Than A Cup Of Coffee

About 15 years ago, in the pre-dawn darkness, I stood outside the brand new Starbucks in Dulaney Plaza and waited patiently for them to open their doors for the first time. I enjoyed being a part of the coffee store’s grand opening, and for years I frequented it often, learning the names of the new baristas and managers, getting to know our neighbors a little better over a cup of coffee, and being a part of the ambiance that defined the origins of that cafe.

Years later, we moved to Loch Raven Village, and I didn’t spend nearly as much time at the Dulaney Plaza location. I became lazy and used the drive-thrus in the Towson University and Timonium Fairgrounds locations. I lost touch with that community feeling that I had established at Dulaney Plaza. I forgot how important that was to share words with friends over freshly brewed coffee.

IMG_4038Well, today, our neighborhood Bel-Loc Starbucks opened just down the street from where we live. The outside of the building is unlike any other Starbucks that I have seen. It is retro, and it has retained some of the flavor of the old Bel-Loc Diner that it replaced, an iconic restaurant that had defined the corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road for decades.

The decision to place an internationally franchised coffee house on the same corner as a local landmark was met with some resistance. And even today, after its doors have opened, there is still push back from some residents who are completely against a chain cafe that serves “overpriced” coffee.

But Starbucks has to be acknowledged for creating a low-key cafe that really adds an aesthetic enhancement to our little “village.”

IMG_4039Once I entered the small store, I felt as if I were in Harry Potter’s Goblet of Fire at the Quidditch World Cup, when Harry steps inside the Weasley’s tent. It’s as if the store had magically expanded inside, offering a variety of tables and bars to work, commune, or just relax.

Immediately, I felt at home in our new, local cafe.

Even before I ordered my Grande Pike Place coffee, I noticed a friend in the southwest corner of the store, seated with his work spread out as if he had been here for weeks. As we placed our order and waited for our drinks to be made, we spent a few minutes chatting with Pat, and I felt the old habits returning ofIMG_4043 making and meeting good friends at the Dulaney Plaza location many years ago.

The interior is spacious, clean, and filled with natural light from two walls of windows facing south and west. Some of the chairs, in fact, were originals from the Bel-Loc Diner.

Both inside and out, there is a mingling of the old and the new, a respect for tradition with a touch of the 21st century coffeehouse encouraging a community to come together.

Maybe their coffee is a couple quarters more than its pre-fab competitor in orange a few blocks west, but I will gladly make the sacrifice for the opportunity to forge new friendships and share words with my neighbors, especially in a coffee house that has gone to great lengths to respect the legacy of Bel-Loc Diner, where our parents spent similar mornings communing with neighbors over a cup of coffee.

I look forward to spending my mornings at our neighborhood Starbucks, writing, reading, and conversing with my new and old friends. After all, it’s what we make of it. For generations, family members and neighbors did the very same at the Diner; let’s do our part to savor the spirit of the old as it merges with the new. IMG_4042

More Than A Moonrise


I do not know whether to trip over the light of the moon,
Or walk gently along the beams that find their way,
A cool, quarter-million miles to where I stand
This invitation to abandon stress, release the burdens, and follow play.

I marvel at its simplicity,
Framed in the silhouette of a Maple tree’s silk–
Long limbs cradling the brilliant orb,
A babe in nature’s womb, rebirth’d every 28 like the fate of the phoenix.

It is enough to be alive, a witness to beauty,
A gem polished again and again by the swirl of the sun,
The spin of the Earth,  the push–pull game of gravitational love;
The opening of a heart, receiving love rising along the light-dancing horizon.

~lines composed at moonrise, 8/7/14, rus vanwestervelt

Where I’m Writing: Prospect Hill Cemetery


I spent the afternoon at Prospect Hill Cemetery here in Towson, six acres of burial grounds on preserved land just feet from the hectic circle joining five of Towson’s busiest streets.

I am working on a feature that will be published September 10, just two days from the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore.

The feeling here is strong. I am struck with a certain reverence for the men and women who shaped our communities and gave us the opportunities that we now have. Had it not been for the Hillens, the Jarrets, the Bosleys (among others), I doubt we would be so proud to call this our home.

The picture above is, perhaps, the most haunting. It is known on the grounds as “Babyland,” a burial place for infants and toddlers who were taken from the arms of their mothers and fathers long before their time.

These grounds are a part of our familial and community roots. When we release our fears, we begin to embrace that which has always been deep within us, around us, to bring us unconditional strength and love.

Embracing The Vision Of An Unparalleled Life


I have just returned from one of the most powerful spiritual experiences in my life with Church of the Nativity, compared only to a late summer afternoon 23 years ago at Chesapeake Presbyterian Church in Calvert County, MD. At Chesapeake, we were running a summer camp for kids, and our theme for the entire week was Beauty and the Beast. As the Beast, I had the powerful role of transformation. That experience, in itself, was both humbling and uplifting.

At the end of the week, all 700+ children joined us together in the auditorium for a culminating celebration. As I stood on stage with the rest of the cast, we were brought to tears from the song of 700 voices as they stood, waving their hands, in grace and gratitude. The energy and excitement we felt in that church was beyond any connection I had ever made, anywhere.

I have experienced great moments of solitude on the top of mountains; I have worshiped quietly among the natural sounds immersed in the woods. I have even stood in meditation on the edge of the ocean, with the subtle roar of the water coming and going, washing my feet and feeling the push-and-pull of the tide in the moving grains of sand. Each of these experiences has brought me great strength, and they will continue to provide energy in the years to come.

These moments serve a genuine purpose in our lives; they allow us to return to the core of who we are. They quiet the noise that has surrounded us, pulling and pushing us this way and that for whatever reason – noble or otherwise.

These bigger experiences, with hundreds or thousands of people, are quite similar. We find ourselves surrounded by an even greater energy, a collective spirit that abandons pain, suffering, and anxiety.

Yesterday, I felt such a communion with about 5,000 others at SECU Arena on Towson University’s campus, where Church of the Nativity held their Easter Mass in an event that took me back to Chesapeake and those 700 hand-waving, singing children who filled the auditorium with love, life, and energy.

The service began with a “warm up” that included sports-like introductions, electric guitars, a lip-syncing contest, and a social media scavenger hunt. This was not your typical Roman Catholic Easter Mass.

It worked. The crowd was engaged, laughing and celebrating as the two hosts, Kristin Costanza and Chris Wesley, welcomed everyone to a service about resurrection and establishing a vision for living purposefully, authentically.

SECUEaster3As the band concluded the warm up and Father White watched on stage, I was struck with the beautiful fusion of traditional worship and contemporary praise for recognizing the power of the present, leaving behind the past and all of the pain and suffering that are wrapped up in the archives of those moments long gone. The picture here really captures that fusion for me.

For years now, I have focused on mindfulness and awareness of the energy in the present moment. We carry so many heavy burdens with us from our pasts, and they anchor us into the ground. For some reason, we keep looking to others to break the chains for us; worse, we often feel like we are deserving of the pain, and we become resigned to an existence tethered to what is in the past.

The story of Jesus’ Resurrection reminds us that the past is gone. Rebirth is all about leaving behind what has anchored us from our past.

Still, although we have been released from its pain, its suffering, we wallow in this status quo of what has happened to us, to the ones we love, and to the world. We base our existence on pain and memory. There is great fear in this way of thinking, of living. Unfortunately, it is the premise of an existence for many millions of individuals, struggling every day with depression, anxiety, and pain.

It doesn’t have to be this way for any of us.

At one point in Father White’s sermon, he said, “Excitement overcomes fear; that is what Vision is all about.” This vision that we have for ourselves has to first come from within. The energy that 700 children or 5,000 individuals creates comes from that personal belief, that energy of self-worth and excitement for living today and letting go of yesterday.

This is not easy to do. We are inclined to believe that our pasts have defined us, that we are where we are today because of who we are. But this is not true. This is only who we believe we have been all these years. We have allowed our past experiences filled with pain and suffering to define us. Our perceived self has been a self-fulfilling destiny because we have believed it as if it were truth.

It isn’t. It is nothing more than a false image of ourselves built on fear. Once we realize this, we can begin to diminish the hold this fear has on us, and we can let go of the chains. We can free ourselves to see the beauty and the power of the moments in our present lives.

When we are able to do this, a different kind of fusion happens — the fusion of the self and the greater spirit that is available to all of us. That fusion happened yesterday, as it did all those years ago at Chesapeake. There is a great message here for all of us. We must silence the noise of our pasts and find solitude in quiet worship, but we must also return to our friends, our communities, and share that excitement for our vision of living an unparalleled life.

I offer my thanks to Church of the Nativity for sharing their own vision, bringing excitement back into our lives, and giving us all courage to let go of the fear that has gripped us for so long.

Enjoy this short clip of the final song of yesterday’s Easter Mass, and may you feel the energy and excitement of resurrection in your own life today!

2011/365/028: Friday Focus on Brian Truax and the TAC

(photos courtesy of Brian Truax)

A long-time friend of mine, Becky, told me about Brian years ago. She had nothing but great things to say about him and his work as president with the Towson Art Collective (TAC). Brian and the TAC show up on my newsfeed all the time on Facebook, and every time I see his name, he’s doing great things for artists in and around the Towson area.

I thought that Brian would be a good person to interview for my Friday Focus feature, especially with a Silent Auction event coming up on February 10th to celebrate the arts in Towson, as well as raise some money for the TAC and for the artists who lost their artwork in a robbery last October.

Very recently (January 27), Brian and the TAC were featured in the Baltimore Sun for the Collective, his own Framing Gallery, and the break-in. You can find that article here.

Brian is the co-owner of the Towson Framing Gallery at 410 York Road. They are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. It’s a little hard to find; in fact, Brian mentions on the TAC Facebook page: “If you can find The Green Turtle restaurant you’re getting warm. We’re the next door down, tucked away in the alcove. Keep searching and you will find us.”

Here are the questions I sent to Brian a few days ago. His responses are in italics. Stop by and see Brian and support him and the Arts throughout Towson. He’s really doing some great things for all of us.

rvw: I have always believed that Towson is missing that great opportunity to be the best art-centric town in Baltimore County. So, when I read your statement from the founders and the board on your website, I was thrilled with how aligned we seem to be in the essential role of the arts in a community: The letter states: “We feel gratitude and validation as a group to build and maintain that vehicle which aids in reinvigorating the soul of a society, nourishes the intellect of individuals and cradles the hearts of all those that believe that creativity is the source of innovation that drives all humankind forward.”  Can you elaborate on the founding of TAC in relation to the state of the Arts in Towson, and if you perceive a constant threat to the arts in our community (or in any community in America, for that matter), what else needs to happen for a cultural shift in the Towson area?

bt: People view Towson as a suburban city and a college town. During the day, office workers, lawyers and professionals occupy the downtown district. There is a little happy hour or dinner crowd. And, then the college students come out to eat and drink.

As for the cultural landscape of Towson ten years ago, the Recher Theater has been an amazing destination for music. Also, there has been a Towson University gallery in the commons. There has been a slight shift since then. I opened Towson Framing Gallery about nine years ago. Daniella Troia opened Zia’s, a juice bar/cafe that features awesome “slow food” and displays local artists. Towson Arts Collective started over three years ago. And, in the past couple years, French Press Cafe/ Bread and Circuses has emerged to be a great spot for local art, music and fresh culinary pleasures. So, I’m seeing a lot more demand from people for arts which is reflected by the growth of businesses that started from a “hep” seed. This has happened all over the country. It’s slowly become more mainstream to listen to local musicians versus the local pop station. Or, people writing poetry, or painting, or whatever creative outlet people have has become less peripheral.

So, I’m actually quite positive about the state of the arts in America. I think people are becoming more aware that they need to do something that is more enriching than watching TV. Arts employ abstract reasoning in people. Math does, too. So, one should not be diminished by the type of talent or skills that they have been gifted. So, as people strive to improve mentally and emotionally, that segment of humankind evolves. I’m not saying that you have to be a TV bashing, artist hipster, but I think that the more people appreciate and accept a creative class, then the more accessible it will be and the more it will improve peoples’ lives.

rvw: Many times, Alliances and Creative Councils like TAC feel like they are “preaching to the choir,” where they hold events for existing artists who are grateful for an avenue or a place to display their work; unfortunately, the events are not necessarily having a significant impact on the community beyond the choir. How is TAC reaching out to the previously untapped group of up-and-coming artists, and what differences have you seen in Towson/Baltimore County toward the arts since TAC’s inception?

bt: I love that you want to address this, because the art world can become a little insular. I see Baltimore as being a little cliquey, anyways. But, that is why bringing art to people is so important. TAC does a lot of outreach into the community. Chris Casamassima runs the “Cruellest Month Poetry Reading Series” every April at the Towson Library. He’s got a new project with Doug Mowbury that will plant poems in local establishments–a poem could be sitting on a table or mounted above a urinal, and  people will have to read it. There is a spring and fall arts festival at Cromwell Valley Park that has poetry, art and fine craft, as well as local food and wine. There’s an open mic at French Press/ Bread and Circus every second Tuesday of the month. So, it’s almost inevitable that someone takes a friend to an event and they say,” Huh, that IS pretty cool.” Slowly, people start to see that not all art folks are stuffy or their art esoteric. If someone has a bad experience, then they need to move on without letting it color their next experience.

TAC also works with as many groups as possible. We just had a show for the art education students at Towson University. We have a show coming up with the Optimist Club and one composed of art from the security guards at the BMA. The theory is to bring different people in and diversify.  There can be a lot of choirs of any size and type as long as everyone is singing.

Actually, the Creative Alliance is a pretty amazing story of gentrification and new growth. Baltimore owes a lot to Megan Hamilton and those that started it. That neighborhood has grown increasingly popular and the blight is starting to diminish.

rvw: Tell me YOUR philosophy on what you are doing for the arts in Towson and beyond. How does framing relate, possibly, metaphorically? When you were living out in CA, did you grow up in an Arts-intensive community that you might be using as a model for Towson? If you could elaborate either way, that would be great….

bt: I don’t think I’m doing anything more than help cultivate and nurture a creative environment. The artists are already here.

During my last year at Humboldt State University, I lived at the Ist Dentistry Institute for Performance Therapy with a bunch of writers, musicians, actors and visual artists. It was in an old dentist’s office off the square in Arcata, CA. Behind the receptionists sliding glass was a drum kit and recording studio. So, if we weren’t studying, then we were playing music, doing improv games or something fun like that. There was massive love and support for each other. Everyone I’m in touch with from the Dentistry is doing something in the arts. It was an extreme creative environment.

I took a train out here in the winter of 1998 after living at my mom’s condo in Los Angeles en route to Prague to teach English, play music and write theater. I stayed here for family reasons and picked up a framing job at Towson Arts Supply. I was looking for a coffee shop open mic like they have in California and couldn’t find any. I had been going to one every night of the week in the beach towns; Redondo, Hermosa, Manhattan, San Pedro . . . Then, I was freezing on the street, busking in Fells Point, when I walked into an open mic at a bar. I hung up my coffee cup for a beer mug and started hitting up bars for entertainment. I have not stopped since I got here to be active in the arts. Of course, it has morphed in many directions, but it’s a reason to wake up every morning.

~~Friday Focus is a new weekly feature on my blog that showcases individuals or organizations that are doing some pretty awesome things for their community. If you know of someone that would be a good fit for a Friday Focus, let me know!