Monday, September 29, 2014

Letter from Harrisburg

Letter from Harrisburg

Racial issues are like anything else: There is always more to the story

Some years ago I had lunch at Clackamas Town Center’s food court with a friend who worked at Macy’s.
A young black man walked by. My friend said, “Hmmm, security’s going to be watching him.”
I said, “Because he’s black?”
She said, “No, because of how he’s dressed.” His outfit included a baseball cap, a loose jacket, and pants with the crotch just above the knees.
I said, “Would security watch Steven?”
She said, “No, because of how he dresses.”
Steven dresses in a mix of farmer, Mennonite and athlete. He is our youngest son, 19 years old, adopted from Kenya at the age of 10.
My husband is blond and freckled. I have skin that, even at the end of summer, a friend described diplomatically as “alabaster.” Having a son with black skin has made us aware of issues we would never have examined otherwise.
I would not, for instance, have given a second thought to whether or not it was right for “security” to watch certain customers more than others or whether a young man in slouchy pants bears the responsibility for the impression he leaves and the scrutiny he invites, or what is just and fair in such a case.
Thanks to our son, I have read about racial issues, followed news stories, confronted attitudes in others and asked many questions.
I also have come to realize that we all make assumptions about people, every day, based on what we can see: color and size, clothing and piercings, evidence of poverty or wealth, facial expressions and behavior. We often judge a whole group by the behavior of a few. We all suffer or benefit because of the impressions others of our age, gender or culture have left.
“The Lord does not look at the things people look at,” the Bible says in an Old Testament story about choosing a new king, and continues, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
The problem is, we aren’t God, so we have only the outward appearance to go by.
As a Mennonite woman, people often assume I possess a level of holiness and gentleness that is far above the reality. In a strange dichotomy, the same people probably look at my son and, based on his age, gender and color, make assumptions as far off in the opposite direction.
I’ve found that the more you examine issues of race, history and people groups, the less you can generalize. The story is always more complicated than it appears at first, and so are the motives of our souls.
I wonder about many things. For instance, if my kids are respected for how they dress and behave, is that a lucky perk for fitting society’s expectations, or is it a natural consequence for good character? Should young people feel obligated to improve the reputation of whatever group they belong to? Should they dress differently in order to be treated with respect? How can we encourage wise behavior without insisting on everyone being just like us?
While judgment by appearance can affect all sorts of people and aim in many directions, the conflicts in America that get the most attention are racial, particularly black versus white.
Plenty of people feel eminently qualified to speak on the subject, and plenty of others think the speakers should be quiet because they don’t have a clue what it’s like to be on the other side.
It’s confusing, especially for someone like me who grew up not only in a predominantly Caucasian part of the country, but in a religious community as well.
Now, with a son from a different background, I am aware, first of all, of how much I don’t know. I’m also extra vigilant about racist jokes and attitudes.
My daughter was once part of a church youth group where the kids would sometimes discuss slavery and how it wasn’t that bad, seriously, and “My great-grandparents had slaves and were nice to them and the slaves were happy.”
“You Northerners just don’t understand,” my daughter was told when she objected.
They had a point, in a way. When you grow up in the North, you might watch a video in the ninth grade of three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and you get the sense that every white person in the South was oppressive and cruel, and every black person was oppressed and brave. But if YOU had lived there, oh my, you would have been heroic and noble, and would have DONE something about it.
Then you visit the South as an adult and realize that things were and are much more nuanced and complicated. People made, and still make, individual choices, and few of them fit into a stereotyped box.
And yet, there’s no question of the general injustice, even if your great-grandparents were nice to their slaves.
My dad’s parents met and were married in Mississippi, back in the early 1900s. One day this summer my dad said, “Now this is very gruesome but it’s something I remember. My father used to say that in Mississippi, if a white man killed a black man, he had to pay a fine of maybe $10. But if a black man killed a white man, a mob would go after him and kill him. They would burn him at the stake. It was terrible. But it’s better now, at least some better.”
Surely, a knowledge of past cruelty can nudge us toward valuing justice today.
Thankfully, Steven has grown up in the Willamette Valley in a happy cocoon where his race has never, to his knowledge, affected his friendships, education, work or activities.
He sacks grass seed like his brothers and cousins, takes firefighter classes in Harrisburg and goes fishing with his friends. His color is a non-issue in these situations.
However, I went a bit crazy with protectiveness when Steven learned to drive. True, this is Oregon, not exactly a hotbed for race-based police brutality. But anyone who reads the news would understand my fears. No matter what it took, I wanted him alive and safe. So, no hoodies when you’re driving, I commanded. Hands on the steering wheel if you’re ever stopped. “Yes, Sir” or “Yes, Ma’am” out of your mouth.
None of us could have predicted what actually happened. Steven has found himself in a variety of scrapes, both literal and figurative, when he’s driving. Almost invariably, he slides out of the situation without any trouble because he’s, “So honest, so polite, so respectful.”
He is praised and affirmed by law enforcement people, over and over — even the time he obviously caused the incident with the signpost and the lady’s car.
His sister shrieks, “AGAIN??? That is NOT FAIR. I didn’t do HALF of that and I got this HUGE FINE!”
I am mystified. Was I misled by dramatic news reports or is this part of Oregon an exception? Or is this simply the same good fortune and charm that helped Steven survive life on the streets as an orphan in Kenya? Or is there another dynamic at work that I’m not seeing?
As I said, racial issues get more nuanced and complicated the more you examine them, and even the nicest of us are not immune to unsavory attitudes and simple thoughtlessness.
Steven went on a road trip to points east last year. It was his first adult venture out of the safety of home and Oregon.
I said, “Did you encounter racist attitudes anywhere?” expecting him to say, “Well, there was this crazy dude in Indiana ...”
Instead, he said, “A bunch of us were hanging out, and this guy told a black joke in front of me.”
Appalled, I was ready to phone the guy’s mother and call fire from Heaven.
Steven said, “Mom, let it go.”
I finally caught on that there was more to the story, and I insisted on hearing it.
“Well, actually, a bunch of us were just joking around, and I had told this racist joke first, about another kind of people, and then he told that one about blacks, and he didn’t really think about me being there, but then later he apologized.”
We had a discussion then, Steven and I. I did some soul-searching and took back what I had wished on the other guy’s mother. Steven was wiser than he had been before, and so was I, and I was humbler, too.
We all need to listen to each other, no matter what we look like and what our stories have been. We all have a bent toward selfishness and unfair judgment, and we need to look beyond the surface, try to understand and be kind.
There is always more to the story. There is always something to learn. There are always things of the heart that we cannot see.

Friday, September 19, 2014

My First Fashion Post

Bloggers like Shelley the niece and Emily the daughter sometimes post fashion posts where they model a creative and coordinated outfit and explain where everything came from.

I think we would all agree that I am not the fashion-post type.

Let's see.

summer: shirt from garage sale
denim skirt from Goodwill
comfortable sandals

We note this Paris-fashion-week ensemble I wore while rummaging through some of the stuff at Dad's sale in June.

In winter it's:
long-sleeved T-shirt from Lands' End.
Big corduroy shirt from Goodwill.
Long denim skirt from Goodwill.
knee socks
comfortable shoes

A post for another day: am I the only person in the country who still gets cold feet and wears socks?  My friends wear sandals year-round.  Advertisements always feature bare feet in anything remotely non-running-shoe.  This bothers me.

But, moving along, since we won't solve that dilemma today:

This morning Jenny showed up looking--in my biased motherly opinion--so charming that I grabbed the phone and took some pictures for a post.
She has been sick with an odd virus for a week, so it was a happy occasion when she came downstairs all dressed for school and looking bouncy instead of the draggy miserable half-closed-eyes look that lasted so long.

And she was wearing the skirt she made last evening.  At the Brownsville garage sales in July, I had picked up some stretchy knit fabric that looks kind of like denim.  Jenny immediately claimed it for her own, and last night she measured a skirt she likes and proceeded to replicate it.

All by herself, except when she stood on a tall kitchen stool and I marked the hem.

In an hour.

Side note: this is why it's worth it to teach your kids some basic sewing and cooking skills, even though at the time you may think you'd better hide the sewing shears or one or the other of you will not survive this ordeal--because all of a sudden they'll get an idea, wildly beyond anything you would have thought of, and they'll have what it takes to make it happen.



veil from Verba's Veils
polo shirt from JCPenney
sweater from cousin Stephy cleaning her closets before she got married
book bag from a garage sale
lumberjack lunch box from Emily who I'm sure got it free somewhere
homemade skirt from garage sale fabric
shoes from a friend for a birthday gift


 Quote of the Day:
Jenny: [comes into the kitchen wearing an old Star Wars t-shirt]
Uncle Fred: Star Wars??  Oh, I guess you are half Yoda.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Amos Yoder Looks at More Things

Two days ago my brother Fred arrived in his truck.  He had just delivered a tanker trailer to Portland and was here to take Dad back to Minnesota.
It took a few hours for Cleo to warm up to Fred, but then she was smitten for good.

They decided to leave today to pick up a load in Salt Lake City.  I took Dad to the warehouse to look around one last time.  He's been intrigued with the rebuilding of Steve's pellet mill that burned in May, so we nosed around there, too.

Thus, another set of pictures that's a little bit like Kim Jong Un Looking At Things.

The boxy building in the center is where the pelleting machine will be.  And just so you know, two people are watching us from the highest window in the warehouse, way back there against the blue sky.
Here they were lifting a beam into place.  There's a special emphasis on metal and other fire-resistant materials in this building project.
This reminds me of something at Cape Canaveral but it's actually another shot of the pellet-making building.
Inspecting a pile of screenings.
Here Dad is back in our warehouse, inspecting the grass seed.  The pallets are sitting around like islands because the bags just got tagged, and they're waiting to get stretch-wrapped.

Ben and Amanda are up in the highest window on the right side, waving at Grandpa and getting very dusty.

Fred was exploring the bagging area where he spent many hours in 1997.
I still find it hard to believe that it actually worked out to have Dad here for the summer.  For the last ten years or more, we had tossed and mulled ideas for getting Mom and Dad out here for a visit or to stay, and it never worked out.

And then it suddenly worked to have Dad here.

If we had had too much time to over-think it, I'm not sure it would have happened.  But we said yes, let's do this, and then we did it, and it all worked out astonishingly well.

Dad was very grateful to us for "taking care of him," as he put it.

I am so glad we could and did.

How many 97-year-olds do you know who are eager to travel a few thousand miles in a semi truck?
There they go.
Quote of the Day:
[I served spaghetti and broccoli and muffins for supper.]
Fred: Do you buy muffins from strangers?
Me: Ummm, I don't know.  I don't think so.
Fred: Oh, so you DO know the muffin man!

[Poor Fred. I am terrible at tracking his offbeat humor.]

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Grapes and the Pain of Proofreading

This is a good year for grapes.

We have a grapevine that I tend the way I tend the apple trees, the pear tree, and the roses, and that is that I pretty much leave it alone except when I suddenly feel guilty along about February and randomly whack off arms and legs.

And yet, the grapevine always bears fruit, some years 30 fold, some 60, and some an hundred.

One or two years I lost all the grapes to the starlings who somehow know when they're ripe and suddenly appear and strip things down like a plague of locusts.

This year I was amazingly on top of that, and went up in the attic and got a long roll of shimmery netting that I may or may not have gotten with dreamier purposes in mind, and Jenny and I unrolled it along the grapevine and clothes-pinned it in place.

It has worked wonderfully to keep the birds away.
Somebody had to take a section of netting and put it to good use.

And, as I said, it is a good year for grapes.

 We have two kinds, a "white" kind that looks green that's seedless and wonderful for eating.  And a purple kind that's wonderful for juice.

The green ones are a bit over-ripe and the purple ones a bit under, but I decided to do them all together, just so they get done, since we have lots of camping and travels coming up.

Did I mention it's a good year for grapes?

The last two days I have been picking grapes, washing grapes, stemming grapes, steaming grapes, and canning grape juice.

I have been hustling the kids out to pick yet more dishpans full.  I've been getting Dad to stem them for me, which he loves to do, until his shoulders ache and his fingers get "boppich."  (Sticky)
Here's Ben, helping with harvesting.

I use a steamer, which my dad thinks is just the coolest gadget.
I like it too.  You pile the grapes in the hopper on top, and the steam gently extracts the juice, which comes out of the hose into the jar, and then you put the lid on and it seals and you're done.

When you do green and purple grapes together, it makes the prettiest grape juice you ever saw.

I've done about 45 quarts so far.

There's a lot more still to do.

I am physically exhausted.

I am also mentally exhausted because yesterday and today I have also been reading my new book through AGAIN making sure that it's typed up and laid out exactly right before it goes to the printer tomorrow.

Would you believe that even now, like the 4th time through, I found about 25 errors?

Some of them were things I had dithered about, unsure if I should change them or leave well enough alone.  Then, facing a deadline, I panicked and whacked off arms and legs like I do to the grapevines every year.

I don't know why I find it so hard to read my own stuff over and over, but we all have our personal challenges I guess.

When you publish a book, this is the point that feels like climbing Mt. Everest, where you are running out of oxygen and your legs are cramping and the end is in sight but it's still a long climb to get there.

It's also the point where you are appalled at the soupy, lukewarm pan of words you are offering to the hungry public.

In fact, come to think of it, reading your book would be a great punishment, you decide.

Jury: We find the defendant guilty of swindling widows out of their homes and life savings, and of murdering their pet cats.

Judge: I sentence you to a daily read-through of Footprints on the Ceiling, for a week!!

Criminal:  Noooo!!!  Please, please, have mercy!!  Anything but that!!

Quote of the Day:
John 16:21 (KJV) "A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world."
[And that explains quite well how I'll feel when the book comes out and I hold it for the first time.]

Monday, September 08, 2014

Sunday's LFH--Welcoming the Inefficient

Letter from Harrisburg

The inefficient can have a precious purpose in our busy lives

We are a family who values efficiency. My husband said not long ago that doing many things at once, such as working, eating, listening and planning, gives him a great sense of accomplishment.
A son designs and builds compact furniture for his apartment and figures out how to get the most calories and nutrition possible into a single shake.
A daughter prides herself on being minimalist and packing everything for a three-week trip into a single small backpack.
I like to have Sunday dinner in the oven when I leave for church, and I love to see everyone briskly slotting into their roles when we get home. This one sets the table, that one slices bread, another dishes up the corn and adds a pat of butter, and in a few minutes we find our places around a lovely table and fragrant meal.
One starts to think of efficiency as a virtue and a value. Everyone ought to be like this, really, and wouldn’t it be nice if the rest of the world operated like we do?
We don’t think this consciously, of course.
Significantly, we are almost all adults and all in good health.
So, every now and then, one of the most inefficient folks in the world is sent into our lives, just long enough to upset our smooth routines and jostle our smug suppositions.
Because no one is as utterly inefficient as babies and the elderly.
When our son Matt was home for a visit, we invited his old friend Justin over for Sunday dinner, along with Justin’s wife, Esta.
Only a few weeks before, Esta had given birth to a lively little red-haired boy named Merek, who fought his entrance into the world in the most difficult way he could manage and who didn’t settle into life outside with any readiness either.
Just as the pot roast was placed on the table and the water was poured in the glasses, Merek insisted on eating. Esta took him to the bedroom.
The rest of us waited.
You’d think a mom of six wouldn’t forget, but I had, and suddenly it all came back: the overwhelming demands of a newborn; the way they take over your life, your plans, your schedule; the long, exhausting process of learning to sense their needs and form a routine of eating and sleeping; the way everything pauses and everyone waits until the baby finishes eating and — maybe — goes to sleep.
Later, after we ate the no-longer-very-hot pot roast, I took little Merek, his newborn warmth molding into my hands, and I held him against me and gently bounced until he went to sleep.
How quickly one forgets the astonishing preciousness and helplessness of a tiny baby; how good it is for productive adults to be reminded.
My 97-year-old dad has been with us all summer.
Like every Oregon family, we have our traditions and a well-defined description of what “going to the coast” involves. Walking on the beach — that’s the most important. Hiking up Mary’s Peak on the way out or driving south for a hike up Cape Perpetua. Maybe walking across the Newport bridge.
Despite Dad’s excellent health, I knew we couldn’t be that ambitious when my daughters, Emily and Jenny, and I took him to the coast one Saturday. But still, we could do a little walking on the beach, and then he and I could sit on lawn chairs and watch the waves while the girls went on a walk. Then we could have a picnic lunch on the beach as well.
Trying to be prepared and capable, I checked the Newport weather online: 66 degrees and mostly sunny. Not perfect, but a nice break from the hot Willamette Valley weather.
It would be fun.
We parked at Nye Beach, got out, and were immediately blasted with what felt like a gale off the North Sea.
Emily shrieked and hopped back into the car. I helped Dad into my husband’s winter coat and lamented that I hadn’t brought a stocking cap for his ears.
He said he’d be fine.
A huge gray bank of fog sat ominously on the ocean, close in, obscuring all but the nearest waves. The sun made a timid attempt at shining, but the fog bank obscured most of that too.
Slowly, haltingly, we shuffled toward the water. Dad’s cane pushed down into the loose, dry sand. He lurched unsteadily. I shivered in the wind and kept an arm out to assist him.
Eventually Emily joined us, wrapped in a picnic blanket.
Dad stood and looked at the water for a few minutes and then we shuffled back. The black shoes stepped carefully in the sand, step by step, and finally we settled back into the warmth of the car.
With all my preparation, why hadn’t I realized how much walking we do at the coast, and how weary Dad would get?
No doubt this has happened thousands of times, Oregonians proudly taking out-of-state visitors to our beautiful coast, finding the weather intolerable, and escaping to the Hatfield Marine Science Center, which is warm, dry, interesting, and free.
And which requires more walking. Such a long distance from the parking lot to the door — somehow I’d never noticed that before.
Thankfully Dad is still an avid reader and learner, so he found the displays fascinating — albatross routes and whale migration and tsunami zones.
We were able to sit and rest while we watched an instructive film about dolphins.
Now — lunch. I remembered a sheltered spot on the beach, near the south jetty. I drove as close as I could and we again lumbered slowly along, burdened with camp chairs and blankets and food.
We soon gave up on reaching our destination and found a somewhat sheltered dip in the sand dunes instead. We set Dad in a chair, laid out a blanket, and discovered that a quart jar of iced tea had broken and spilled over everything in the cooler.
A second jar had survived, so I salvaged what I could and handed Dad a plate of food and a small cup of tea. He led us in prayer and seemed surprisingly grateful for the day.
A few minutes later, across the blanket from me, Dad’s chair gave way in the deep sand and began to topple sideways. It was like watching something in slow motion as he gently laid over and Emily frantically tried to stop him.
It all happened so slowly that he didn’t spill a drop of tea, and all the food stayed on his plate. We hauled him upright again, and then all of us, including Dad, laughed until we were almost in tears.
A slow and bitterly cold walk brought us back to the car. Dad was exhausted.
Disappointed, we saw that the only sensible option was to give up on our plans and ideas for a perfect day at the coast and go home.
Dad had a wonderful attitude about it all, with no complaints or hints that we should have been more accommodating of his limitations.
And that evening, around our picnic table on the porch, he suddenly told a story.
The dolphins in the movie had reminded him of this, he said. Back in the late 1940s, he and a few other Amish guys got passage on a freighter to Brazil, and then they took a riverboat to Paraguay to help settle Mennonite refugees from Russia.
But first they were on the freighter for a month as it made its way south. Sometimes he and his friends would stand at the rail on the front of the ship, and a bunch of dolphins would come by and swim alongside.
He and the other men would stand there for a long time — hours, he implied — and watch the dolphins play with each other and leap out of the water, down below at the prow of the boat.
We were astonished, imagining it.
This is why it’s worthwhile to slow down our busy lives and alter them for the inefficient: because sometimes a little child will snuggle on your chest and close his delicate red-blond eyelashes down onto perfect pink cheeks and make you forget everything else in the world.
And sometimes at the end of a disastrous and disappointing day, your children will be silent around the table as they stand on a long-ago ship with their grandpa, watching dolphins leap high in a sunny and faraway sea.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Snapshots of Our Summer

Sometimes I feel like my Main Role in Life is to get other people ready to go places.

Emily left this morning to visit Amy in Thailand, which required my expertise in deciding which 44.5 lbs. of things for other people should get packed in, in addition to Emily's sparse 5.5 pounds or so of stuff for herself.

You've done this, no doubt--stuffing, zipping, stepping on the scales, hoisting the suitcase.  Five pounds over!  Unzip, shuffle, debate, check the list, make decisions, repack.  Half a pound under!

And so on.

Last week I packed up great quantities of things and sent the Wilton Smucker Warehouse guys down the river.  They put in on the McKenzie at Armitage Park.

Eric the bag tagger, Keith the manager, Austin the bagger, Paul the boss, Steven and Ben the baggers.

"Didn't you want to go along?" someone asked me.

I said, "Well, yes. Lovely river, beautiful evening, good-looking company--that was all tempting. But sitting in the sun not talking while they fish? Sleeping on the ground? Making food for them all? Ashes and spiders on soggy potato chips? Not so much."

This conversation involved that new fly-fishing rod, I think.

They got out at Peoria.  Things look pretty tidy here only because almost everything was loaded up already.  And yes, Ben was soaking wet.  He and Steven had both accidentally dumped their kayaks shortly before.
 *     *     *
Kristi Smucker of Kristiann Photography came by one day in July and took Author Shots of me.  It turned out to be the Funnest Shoot Ever and that is saying a lot, because I don't enjoy posing for pictures.

Kristi, if you're wondering, is Paul's cousin Brian(and Twila)'s daughter.  Her sister Hannah helped corral the props, as did Jenny.

I was very happy with the results.

My daughters outfitted me for the occasion and even coached me through a costume change.
This picture speaks of timing, imagination, and luck.  Kristi took my ideas and went to amazing place with them.  The calves were quite cooperative and No, there was no grain in the teacup.
This shot makes me remember, and laugh.  Such action and efforts behind the scenes.
 *     *     *
 My column was due today and as always I was short of ideas.  Jenny insisted I should write about zucchini.  Well, zucchini being zucchini, it's pretty tough to come up with 1200 words about it unless you include recipes, which I didn't feel led to do.

So I began casting in my mind for some sort of contrived correlation between zucchini and something else in my life, which is how too many of my columns come to be.

Hmmm.  Zucchini doesn't have much flavor.  It serves as a solid reliable filler in other foods, such as soups and cake and stuff, and takes on the flavor around it.  A bit boring, but serves a good purpose.

Like some people!  Hey, there was my analogy!  So who would fit that description?

"So you're saying it's like people who come to church but just sit there and fill the pews and don’t do anything?" Emily said.

I said, "Aack!  It was supposed to be a POSITIVE thing!"

I wrote about taking my dad to the coast instead.

Emily wrote about the day here, but she failed to mention that detail about the quart jar of iced tea breaking in the cooler right before lunch.

*     *     *
On Sunday evening we went up to Washburne Heights and had a great view of the valley.  Of course I asked Dad if he felt like Moses and he said no.  But that place always makes me think of, "Til from Mt. Pisgah's lofty height, I view my home and take my flight," so I've been humming it ever since.

Dad, Ben, and Paul a.k.a Moses, Joshua, and Aaron
*     *     *
Today was the first day of school, which means the end of summer in my mind, even though the sun is shining and the zucchini are still out there growing fatter by the day.

Jenny is a junior.  Paul is the principal.

And look at who DROVE!

Quote of the Day:
Grandpa: What kind of animal?  Well, I think I'd be a cow.  A cow is a useful animal.  They give milk, and then butter and cheese.  You can eat the meat.  And you can make leather with the hide.

[This is what Jenny and her grandpa have in common: you never know what they'll say next.]

Friday, August 29, 2014

What Qualifies Me to Speak?

This is a question for today: what qualifies me to speak on an issue?

I once posted a picture and paragraph that were meant to be humorous but unfortunately they sort of got their humor from people who are overweight.

I heard back from a number of people on this, and was educated on what a volatile and painful topic it is.

Thankfully, most people were kind and felt that I had said it ignorantly in unbelief and would do better in the future.  It was a good education for me.

Others weren't so nice and that's all I'll say about them.

Some said, in essence, "You are not qualified to speak on this subject, because you've never been obese."

I countered, privately and somewhat defensively, something like, "Well, true.  But I thought I was fat, and my brother convinced me the F.D. on the little Fisher-Price fire truck stood for Fatty Dorcas, and the neighbor lady told my sister that I was "plump," and Mom used to say I was "bissly meh braet" [a little wider], and I was always filled with self-loathing regarding my weight, counting calories, and using such means to lose weight as made me later realize I had bulimia.

So, does that qualify me to speak on the subject with any authority?  I would tend to say yes, but the truth is that it was a problem of perception more than reality, and the highest weight of my life was a hugely pregnant 150 lbs. so I have never known the humiliation and ridicule of real obesity.

But can I speak out of similar struggles, listening to many stories, and the accumulated observations of 50 years?

May I say, "It would seem to me..."?

I would like to think Yes.

Actually, this post isn't about weight.  It's about race.

Because racial issues are constantly in the news, specifically white vs. black racial issues, and plenty of people feel eminently qualified to speak on the subject, and plenty of others think they should be quiet because they don't have a clue what it's like to be on the other side.

And so I am asking some of the same questions I wonder about weight.

I am not qualified to speak with any authority about something like the racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri.  I will say that right off.

But I am qualified to think and to collect stories and wonder about things, so that is what this is.

And I have a son who is a young black man, the exact demographic slice that seems to be the lightning rod for racial incidents. But we live far away, both in miles and lifestyle, from any kind of American-Black culture or community.

My daughter was once part of a church youth group in a different part of the country where the kids would sometimes discuss slavery and how it wasn't that bad, seriously, and "My great-grandparents had slaves and were nice to them and the slaves were happy."

"You Northerners just don't understand," she was told when she objected.

Well.  I get that part, sort of.  When you grow up in the North, the narrative you're taught in school is pretty black and white, excuse the pun.  You watch Mississippi Burning in the 9th grade and you study history and you get the sense that every white person in the South was oppressive and cruel, and every black person was oppressed and brave, but if YOU had lived there, oh my, you would have been heroic and noble, and would have DONE something about it.

Then you visit the South as an adult, and realize that things were and are much, much more nuanced and complicated.  Like the one county in Florida where education was segregated in the 1950s, but the forward-thinking superintendent sensed that things were going to change, and the black young people needed to be educated and prepared, so he made sure that the county paid for a big, new, well-equipped high school for the black kids.

And as mentioned, black people don't fit into any oppressed-but-noble box.  My sister told the story of a white friend who grew up in a black neighborhood and was harassed by a group of black girls who eventually knocked her down and ripped her earrings out through her earlobes.

So you can't generalize about either race.

But still.  Much of the system was inherently unjust, however things varied in different parts of the country, and surely you can see that injustice, even if your great-grandparents were nice to their slaves.

My dad's parents met and were married in Mississippi, back in the early 1900s.  The other day my dad said,  "Now this is very gruesome but it’s something I remember. My father used to say that in Mississippi, if a white man killed a black man, he had to pay a fine of maybe ten dollars.  But if a black man killed a white man, a mob would go after him and kill him.  They would burn him at the stake. It was terrible.  But it’s better now, at least some better."

So, a lot has changed.  But a lot hasn't.  A young person I know told me of camping with a bunch of Mennonite young people south of the Mason-Dixon line when one of the kindest, most thoughtful guys--they had thought--started telling racist jokes, and nothing happened.  Then the same guy told one about Jews and the Holocaust that, when it was repeated to me, reluctantly, made me want to throw up.  And again, no one had protested.

"So I couldn't go back to that church," the young person said.
"No," I said. "You couldn't."

So, ignorant Northerner or not, I have my lines of what's appropriate and what isn't, based on Scripture and basic decency and common sense. I am sure I don't "get" all the nuances, but I'm still qualified to have a few opinions.

Or so it seems to me.

This is one of many things I don't know: Is my obligation as a white person to simply support and be quiet?  Something in me deeply resents the dismissive "check your privilege" phrase of the moment, as though I am immediately disqualified from speaking into any racial situation because of my race.  I would like to think we are all qualified to teach each other something.

We lived on a Native American reservation in Canada for three years, an interesting experience in being the racial minority.  I remember sensing a deep resentment and almost hatred from a couple of women in particular, just because I was white.  Now if any racial group has cause for bitterness and anger, it's the Native Americans from that generation.  Part of me thought, "You know, when you were at that boarding school getting a needle stabbed in your tongue for speaking your native language, I was a little Amish girl in America. I had nothing to do with it!"

But then, how could I not also think, "Lord, have mercy on our people for the unspeakable things we did to theirs."? And: "What could I possibly say that she could begin to hear from me?"

Even in Scripture, there's such a thing as guilt for your people even if you yourself didn't do anything.

I also wonder: what about behavior, attitudes, dress, and being realistic about stereotypes?

When my sister-in-law Geneva worked at a big mall, I had lunch with her in the courtyard one day.  A young black man walked by.  Geneva said, "Hmmm, security's going to be watching him."

I said, "Because he's black?"

She said, "No, because of how he's dressed."  He was wearing the "skater" uniform, including those pants with the crotch just above the knees.

"So," I said, "Would security watch Steven?"
And she said, "No, because of how he dresses."

Steven dresses in a mix of farmer, Mennonite, and athlete.

Is it wrong to target the skater types because of how they dress?  Probably.  Is it ok to tell young people that sometimes "being yourself" in your clothing is less important than "the message people are going to see."?  I think so.

Do the few exceptions have to live with being judged according to the reputation of the many?  Unfortunately, yes, says the Mennonite lady who tries to be extra cheerful to counter the "dour Menno lady" stereotype.

I went a bit crazy with protectiveness when Steven learned to drive.  True, this is Oregon, not exactly a hotbed for racial tension and police brutality.  But still.  I want him alive and safe.  So, no hoodies when he's driving, hands on the steering wheel if he's ever stopped, Yes Sir out of his mouth.

Granted, I taught the other kids the same things, but with much less urgency and intensity.

This is what has happened.  Steven gets stopped and he gets into interesting scrapes [literally] and he hits the curb and blows a tire.  Over and over, even when he richly deserves a fine, he glides out of the situation with nary a singed hair because he's, "So honest, so polite, so respectful."

He gets praised and affirmed by law enforcement people, over and over, even the time he was obviously the cause of that little incident with the signpost and the lady's car.

His sister shrieks, "AGAIN???  That is NOT FAIR. I didn't do HALF of that and I got this HUGE FINE!"

What is it?  Are polite young people that unusual?  Is it a sort of reverse racism and they're going out of their way to not target him?  Is it that he's so good-looking? [Yes, I'm biased, but Hollister asked him to work/model for them--no lie--and he thankfully had the good sense to say no.]

When Steven was stopped in the middle of Montana in the middle of the night this summer, driving the van and the family back from Minnesota, and was doing something like 70 in a construction zone, he once again got off with only a warning because he was so nice, polite, and honest.  My sister speculated that it may also have been the charming sight of this obviously African kid driving the family van, and the tall blond dad in the passenger seat.

But still.  You and I would have been fined good and proper.  But then, you are I aren't as charming as Steven is, either.

If every young black man dressed and acted like Steven, would they all be so fortunate?

Should they be obligated to conform in this way in order to be treated respectfully? No.

But would it behoove young people of every race to have an honest heart and a gentleness and a humble attitude that shows in their face?  I'd say yes.

So, I may have mentioned that racial issues get more nuanced and complicated the more you examine them.

Steven went on a road trip to the Midwest last year.  It was his first adult venture out of the safe cocoon of home and Oregon.

I said, "Did you encounter racism anywhere?" expecting, "Well, there was this redneck dude in Iowa..."

Instead, he said, "There were a bunch of us together, and this one guy told a black joke in front of me."

I had a cow, people.  I was ready to write letters, get hold of the guy's mother, call fire from Heaven.

Steven said, "Mom, let it go.  Really.  It's ok."

I was not about to let it go.

Steven acted very ill at ease. I finally caught on that there was more to the story, and I insisted on hearing it.

"Well, actually, a bunch of us were just joking around, and I had told this racist joke first, about another kind of people, and then he told that one about blacks, and he didn't really think about me being there, but then later he apologized."

Oh Readers.  We had some words then, Steven and I, and I did some soul-searching before the Lord, and I took back what I had wished on the other guy's mother, and Steven was wiser than he had been before, and so was I, and I was humbler, too.

I wish everyone who is talking so loudly on every angle and side of racial problems would be quiet and listen for a bit.  Maybe your worst enemy has something to say to you.

We all need to learn from each other, no matter what color we are and what our stories have been.  We can't just dismiss others' views. We are all a bunch of sinners with selfish and inconsistent motives at heart, and we need to learn to listen, and understand, and be kind.

There is always more to the story.

At least that's how it seems to me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Books and Zucchini and Overheard Conversations

I've been working on my next book, Footprints on the Ceiling.  It involves finding all my columns of the past three years, copying and pasting them into one document, grouping them by type, editing out all the stuff that made people mad when they were first published, and giving them titles.

I really am terrible at titles but I don't have a choice.  Numbering the chapters doesn't really work for a collection like this.

I also don't have a choice about editing.  There's something really torturous about reading your own work over and over again.  About the second time through, the little voices start up.

Jane Kirkpatrick calls them the Harpies, the little gremlins that sit on your shoulders and chatter in your ear.  "Boring boring boring."  "Nobody wants to hear about this." "TMI!"  "Cliche!" "Too wordy!" "Too choppy!" 

["Too beady, too bumpy, too leafy, too lumpy," as the hat book says that I used to read to the children.]

This is why I sometimes don't read my own books for a couple of years after they're published, and why I am astonished that nice people buy my books and read them.  I love you readers, more than I can say.

*     *     *     *

In Goodwill the other day I overheard a conversation between a younger lady and a woman my age.  The older woman was the wise-soothing-mentor type, and she was catching up with the younger woman's life.

Younger woman: I left my job at the courthouse.  I was tired of pushing papers.  I wanted to help low-income people.
Older woman: Well, good for you.
Younger: And I divorced my husband.  He just wasn't supportive.
Older: Oh?
Younger: [starts crying] Yeah, he just wasn't supportive.  So I divorced him.
Older: Well, you can't waste your life on people who aren't worth your time.

I came home and recounted this conversation to my patient tribe who puts up with their mom overhearing Goodwill conversations and repeating them at home, followed by a 3-point sermon.

Jenny said, "Do I sense a blog post coming on?"

Well, yes.  But I've found that if you write a blog post on divorce, you get emails and comments saying, "You have a good man.  You don't know what it's like.  I had no choice.  You don't know what you're talking about.  Nobody should have to live like I did."

No one ever says, "Wow, if you've stuck it out for 30 years, one sinner married to another sinner who is opposite in personality, surely you've had to find your way through some tough challenges and had some really hard conversations and made some interesting sacrifices, and yet you seem happy together today.   So teach me, Oh Wise One."

They never say that.

So.  I will just say this.  If you are the sort of person who feels that "not being supportive" is grounds for divorce, maybe you shouldn't bother getting married.  Because you are both going to have times when you think your spouse's latest scheme is insane.

*    *    *     *     *     *

Garrison Keillor wrote about zucchini a few times.  He says July is the only time Minnesotans lock their cars in the church parking lot, to keep people from putting their extra zucchini in the back seat.

Minnesota is somewhat limited in the things it will grow.  Cherries and peaches and okra do best in other climes, but corn and ground cherries and zucchini do astonishingly well there.  Keillor had a great line about zucchini lying there, snuggling quietly under the cool green leaves and growing to the size of beached whales.

Which is what mine are doing these days.  I was late getting a garden in and didn't have the best seeds, so the carrots are sparse and 75% of the tomatoes died.

But Oh, Reader, the zucchini.  I turn my back for a day or two and then, while hoeing in the vicinity I sweep back the large bristly leaves and there they are, enormous and quiet, cool and green, swollen to the size of baseball bats, sea lions, hippos.

Today Jenny made two loaves of zucchini bread and also liver and onions with zucchini.  She didn't even use up one squash.  Naturally, she found the recipe for the zucchini bread in the cookbook from my folks' church in Minnesota.

It also has a second zucchini bread recipe, two recipes for zucchini muffins, plus zucchini apple pie, zucchini jam, and a "squash casserole" that takes 3 cups of grated zucchini.

*     *     *
Matt was home for a few days, thanks to an assignment that took him to the Kitsap Navy Base in Washington, close to where we had gone for our anniversary trip.

Matt and Ben had long, extended arguments about such things as what would have happened to the Blazers if Brandon Roy and Greg Oden hadn't been so plagued with injuries.  And whether it would be better to meet a grizzly bear or a black bear if you had only 30 seconds to react.

Each of them will take one side, and they will argue with congenial intensity for a long time, quoting more statistics than you had any idea existed on the subject, and bringing in principles of physics and engineering and calculus, in addition to tidbits of history and finer points of geographical knowledge.

I couldn't hold up my end of such a conversation for three minutes, but I enjoy listening to them.

Quote of the Day:
"They're not poofing so well.  Sorry!  I'm speaking your language and not my language.  Their volume is not increasing as they get hotter."
--Ben, about the frozen marshmallows over the campfire

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Anniversary Trip

Here's last Sunday's Letter from Harrisburg column, plus photos of our trip to Washington.

Marriage built on routine can still take turns of sweet surprise

My husband’s phone buzzed at 1:45 a.m., over on the table in the tasteful studio apartment near Puget Sound, where we were spending our 30th anniversary.
I had slept uneasily, with strange, colorful shapes battling in my dreams. Since the phone didn’t wake Paul, I got up and answered it.
One wonders, at such times, what’s wrong back home, who crashed a car, and what’s on fire.
“Uh yeah, I just got off at Exit 216, and I’m lookin’ for the Wilton Smucker Warehouse. I got a load to drop off.”
I thought, groggily, “What sort of insane truck driver calls at this time of the night?”
He went on. “I went through this little town, and I’m seein’ a sign that says ‘Harrisburg 3 miles’.”
The world seemed tipped the wrong way and answering him took a huge effort.
“Did the town just have one stoplight?” I finally said.
He asked someone beside him, “Did the town just have one light?”
The someone else didn’t know. I didn’t know why I’d asked.
I tried to remember where Exit 216 was, but I was distracted by a strange sensation in my stomach. The valves in my esophagus were opening, from bottom to top, and a seething something was pushing rapidly up the pipe.
The truck driver was still loudly demanding that I tell him where he was and where he should go.
I handed the phone to Paul, who mercifully was now awake. Then I grabbed a nearby wastebasket and threw up.
Paul finished directing the driver while I went to the bathroom and finished what I had begun.
I had a happy thought in the middle of this dreadful episode: My life isn’t boring after all.
Even 30 years into this marriage, the plot takes unscripted turns. How lucky I am.
We found this place through VRBO and stayed in the apartment above the garage.

I’m not sure where I had absorbed the idea that married life was boring and single life was not — maybe from watching my overworked parents and their peers, stuck in their small circumscribed lives of repetitive sameness. Oatmeal for breakfast, “singings” at church on Sunday nights, milking the cows twice a day, green beans in July, sewing circle on the same Tuesday every month.
It looked like imprisonment to a 16-year-old eager for adventure, quivering with anticipation for life in the real world.
When I got married, some years later and a few degrees wiser, a touch of that fear remained.
Thirty years in, swamped with blessings, I understand the appeal of sameness, the contentment of routine, but at this stage they are not often mine to enjoy.
We have six children — four still at home — my dad with us for the summer, a house in the country, a business, several jobs, and more remarkable opportunities than we could ever take on.
Blessings bring responsibility and responsibility brings work and decisions, and it all leads to stress that makes you forget how fortunate you are. It’s easy to focus your stress on the foremost blessing and most convenient target — your spouse.
So we took off to celebrate and rest, because our lives could change very quickly, we know that, and when the dust settles we want to still enjoy each other’s company.
We chose the Olympic Peninsula because it intrigued us both and was within a day’s drive. It proved to be exactly what we needed, the astonishing natural beauty healing our exhausted souls, the historic sites and local attractions keeping us busy and entertained.
We went out to a Chinese restaurant for dinner one night, fortunately not knowing what would happen a few hours later.
Maybe our lives are still a little too narrow, because we both like to — subtly, we hope — observe other people and “figure out the dynamics” as Paul says.
“That group. Is it a family?” Paul asked. “It’s all ages, but it doesn’t come out right.”
Happily for our curiosity, they explained it all to the waiter when they left — birthday child, mom, two grandpas, three aunts. Ah yes, of course.
There was no question about the nervous couple who sat at the next table, both polished up for the occasion, eager to please. They talked loudly enough to let the surrounding guests know that this was their first date, he was 61, and she was 10 years younger.
Would she like some wine, he asked. No?
Maybe some tea, she said.
He talked about his ex-wife. “She liked all this special stuff. I’d drive all over town trying to find what she wanted. Nothing was good enough.”
The woman said, “Oh, I’m not like that. Eating a hot dog outside, that’s good enough for me.”
He said, “Really?”
We sat there, 30 years in, soaking in the joy of familiarity and history and knowing each other this well, thinking what a burden it would be to have to start all over.
A cool garnish.
It was a virus and not the dinner that made me sick that night, I figured, because by morning I had a fever.
I slept most of the day, aching all over like I had camped on rocky ground in a cheap sleeping bag, but knowing that I didn’t have a single responsibility waiting for me.
“Can I do anything for you?” said Paul, who acted restless and confined but refused to go on the whale-watching excursion without me.
“A back rub,” I suggested, even though he isn’t the back-rubbing type. Eager to help, he attacked my spine like he was scrubbing a greasy oven rack.
“No, no,” I said. “You’re a farmer, spraying a field. You want to make sure all the acreage is covered.” So he did. Then he drove to McDonald’s and bought me some iced tea. I drank it and slept again while he worked on the stack of paperwork he’d brought along.
My 15-year-old daughter called me. “Oh, Mom, I’m so sorry you’re sick. Is Dad taking good care of you?”
I told her about the back rub and the tea.
“Awwww, that’s so sweeeet!” she gushed, referring to Paul and not the tea. I agreed.
The next day I felt much better, so we went on a long ferry-and-road route to Whidbey Island and over to the mainland and then back to the western side and north to our welcoming little apartment.
On Sunday we went exploring again, hiking to three waterfalls in the Olympic Mountains and the relentless sunshine.
Looking down from a bridge on a series of waterfalls.
Another waterfall.
 We returned on Monday, replenished, rested, refreshed; knowing each other again; ready to come back to home and all it entailed.
Back in the daily swirl of responsibilities, I have a renewed sense of awareness, of gratitude, of astonishment, even, that I, who asked for and feared all the wrong things back then, was given this life, this man, this marriage, this abundance of blessings, these crazy turns in the story that keep me forever surprised.
Betty MacDonald wrote The Egg and I and the Mrs. Piggy-Wiggle books, among others.  She lived along this road.
Another ferry, with Mt. Baker behind.
This boat looked like it could tell lots of stories.

The ferry.  It was huge, full of cars down below, with room for hundreds of people up above.
What do you know--they're serving "me" at Elmer's!

The Olympic Peninsula scenery is amazing.  Ten miles from Puget Sound, the mountains are 6000 feet high.

We managed a smiling selfie on a hike.

Port Townsend

More Port Townsend

There are all kinds of ships in the bays, and, I'm told, the occasional nuclear submarine heading out to sea.

A squinting couple on the ferry.

A cool view while waiting to get on the ferry.

Maybe this belonged to a relative...
Maybe I should go away and leave Steven in charge of the kitchen more often.