Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Post 5--Poverty and Wealth--How Anabaptists Help

This is how Anabaptists will help you with material/physical/financial needs: throw a grocery shower, help you pack up and move, offer you their extra garden produce, loan you their pressure canner or wood splitter or RotoTiller or van, plow your garden, help you paint your walls, fix your roof, offer you a job, and give you their children's outgrown clothes.

This is how Anabaptists will not help you: hand you money.

The exception to this is when there's a disaster—medical, fire, car crash, or flood. For instance, when we hit a moose and our van burned up, back in 1994, five churches took up collections and we were able to buy a minivan.

But for normal expenses like rent, food, tires, normal doctor visits, medicines, and tuition, you are expected to take care of your own responsibilities. There's an unspoken rule that you never go begging or hinting for cash to tide you over. 

My sister once taught me the useful Arabic word "aib," pronounced "ibe." It translates as disgrace, stigma, ignominy, dishonor, blot, mortification, slur, and smirch.

In this case, "aib" is a good word for both handing an irresponsible person money and also asking for it, in the Amish or Mennonite culture.

So, even though we were so poor when I was a child, the church people wouldn't give us money. Instead, local farmers hired my brothers to work for them. Also, in Ohio, the church men would come for "frolics", an odd name for a work day, and they built an addition to the barn so we could have a milk tank and hopefully Grade A milk. The idea, of course, was to improve our finances by improving our facilities.

Dad organized and appreciated these work days, but Mom found them embarrassing and shameful. Also, she was expected to feed all these hardworking men with hardly any resources which was extremely stressful.

Later, when we lived in Minnesota, people found roundabout ways to help us out, such as offering us their extra sweet corn.

One family hired me to babysit, once in a while, and had my brothers help with haying. I am quite sure they wanted an acceptable way to help us kids, but Dad told me I'm not allowed to take any payment from them. They tried hard to pay me, and I desperately wanted the money, and it was all acutely awkward and complicated.

In a future post I'll elaborate on our family's poverty of spirit, good sense, and care for each other that made financial poverty that much worse.

But now I'm thinking about church people not giving us cash despite our obvious lack. I think they wanted to preserve our dignity, which was a good thing. Not so good was the fact that our level of bad decisions and poor management was so shameful that it could not be spoken out loud. If they would have given us money outright, it would have announced the dark truth in plain words.

And that would apparently have been worse than desperately gathering up every penny in the house, including emptying our piggy banks, so Dad could try to pay the interest and keep the farm.

I grew up and married Paul.

We spent eight years with a mission in Canada where, as I explained previously, our housing and medical care and much of our food was provided, and we had the tiniest stipend to cover everything else.

But our mission friends were in the same situation, so it was mostly ok.

It wasn't so ok when we came back to Oregon. We had four children, a minimum of furniture, the minivan that we had bought with donations, and the clothes people had given after our fire.

Suddenly we had to pay rent, buy a lot more groceries, furnish a house, buy school uniforms, pay tuition, and pay for all our medical expenses. Paul got a job right away, but it paid only a bit more than minimum wage.

What made it worst was that now we were surrounded by our prosperous peers who had been investing in houses and businesses and vehicles all those years that we were gone. 

Twice, medical emergencies swallowed every dollar we had managed to save. But we didn't ask for help.

However, it was very different from my childhood poverty. [Come back tomorrow for that.]

It took about five years to climb out of that desperate place.  The fact that we managed this at all without turning to government aid was due to the church community, the connections, and all the roundabout ways they helped us out.

Of course, they didn't give us cash, and we didn't ask for any. In our case, though, there was no shame attached to our poverty, because everyone understood we had been on the mission field.

First we rented a house in Albany, from Paul's brother's wife's brother, who had a rental that needed some repairs, so he didn't want to rent it to just anyone, but he found out about our need when we were at a mutual nephew's birthday party, and he knew we wouldn't mind the broken things.  So we lived there for a few months until an elderly couple from church moved to their daughter's place and then we moved into their house.  They had lived there for 48 years and hadn't repaired much for the last 20, so the pipes were so full of mineral deposits that the water barely trickled out and the floor had holes and the kitchen cupboards were full of mice.

But that was just fine, because the rent was extremely cheap in exchange for us improving the property 20 hours a month.

Somehow these deals happen only with people you know and trust.

Church friends and family members came and papered walls and painted woodwork and swept mouse droppings out of the cupboards.

Paul gradually replaced the pipes, installed a furnace, mowed down the blackberry bushes, and put in new kitchen cupboards.

We loved that house.

People from church also babysat for free, invited us to come pick the last of the green beans, and gave us outgrown clothes. 

Paul was ordained to the ministry in 1995. That is an unpaid position, but after that we would get part of the quarterly ministry offering, and people would slip money gifts into Christmas cards. When I was pregnant with Jenny, an anonymous person contacted the birth center and paid our entire bill. If that was you, please know that we are still grateful.

A minister should never ask for money, but thankfully it's ok to give him gifts now and then.

What finally hauled us up and out of the pool of poverty and onto dry ground was when Paul took over his dad's business. It would have been nearly impossible for someone in our circumstances to get a bank loan to finance such a purchase. But we were family, so we paid what it was worth—dignity, you know—but Paul's dad arranged a payment schedule between us that we could manage.

I can't imagine how we would have gone from there to here if not for the incredible support and opportunities from family and the Mennonite church community. It's a type of wealth that exponentially surpasses the value of mere money.

So now we are comfortable Mennonites who can afford new shoes and travel. We give money to missions and charities and medical expenses, and donate to scholarship funds, and give clothes and household items to people who are having a hard time. We listen carefully at CAM talks. We hire people to work for us, sometimes creating tasks just to help people out.

But we are typical Anabaptists in that we think it's "aib" for people to ask us outright for money for routine expenses, and we almost never give money in that way. I hope, in the long term, that that is the right decision.

Tomorrow: how the Gospel affects the family economy.

Post 4-Poverty and Wealth--The Anabaptist Enigma

What makes conservative Anabaptists so financially successful?

A couple months ago I sat with some 450 other people in Halsey Mennonite's gym and listened to reports on the various ministries of CAM-West.

Based in Ohio and organized by the Beachy Amish in Holmes County, Ohio, Christian Aid Ministries has become an enormous charity. They funnel the vast resources, generosity and efficiency of conservative Anabaptists into a central organization and then distribute aid all over the world. They send homemade comforters to North Korean tuberculosis centers, gather truckloads of almost-expired medicine and send it to clinics, pack food parcels for emergency aid, and dig wells in Kenya.

They package and distribute thousands of seed packets so people can grown their own food, rebuild after natural disasters, teach women in Eastern Europe to sew, and slip quietly into places like Yemen and Iraq to offer emergency aid.

And a lot more besides, in eye-popping numbers.

CAM-West is a branch of CAM, founded a few years ago. Mennonites in the West had lots of willingness and resources, but we are a long way from the CAM warehouses in the East.

So now the North Korea projects are centered here, and also the assembling of thousands of hygiene kits for Syrian refugees and food parcels for Eastern Europe.

I sat in that crowd of Mennonites, all deeply engaged in the reports, and recalled the Atlantic article about wealth inequality in America.

I thought: By most measurements, we ought to be poor. True, many of us are white and our families have been here for generations, but there's a significant percentage of Hispanics and other non-Caucasians, and we are rural and uneducated. I doubt that half this crowd has finished high school.

And yet, I knew there were lots of deep pockets in that room—farmers and business owners and landlords and contractors. I knew most of them were willing to donate in impressive numbers if they were convinced it was for a worthy cause—hence, the rapt attention to the reports from bearded gentlemen on the platform.

How does that work, and what is it about Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and other derivatives) that turns the American economic charts upside down?

I am not an economist, having inherited my dad's mystified view of anything financial. But I'm trying to learn, and I've observed a few things.

[I have much more knowledgeable friends, such as Merle Burkholder, who are welcome to weigh in with comments.]

Some time ago I read Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich.

She is a professional woman who went undercover and took various minimum-wage jobs to see if and how a person could get by on minimum wage in America. The short answer is definitely No, it just can't be done with any quality of life.

Ms. Ehrenreich details the harrowing lives of waitresses, cleaning ladies, motel maids, and others. She shows the snowballing effects of poverty and how short-term solutions derail long-term goals. If you don't have money, you can't afford a deposit on an apartment, so you end up in a motel. You can't cook in a motel room, so you have to buy prepared food. There might be cheap rent a long way out of town, but then you have to figure out transportation back and forth. You're working two or three jobs so you smoke cigarettes for the energy boost. And so on.

What struck me over and over in the book is that the only measurement of wealth that she looked at was money and property. From that perspective, there is no possible way to have one person, working for low wages, have their needs met. If there's a child or two, it becomes even more impossible. 

As I read, I kept thinking, "WHERE are these people's PEOPLE?" It seemed like everyone was bobbing around in their own little bubble, trying to take care of food, clothing, medical care, transportation, and everything else entirely on their own.

Once in a while, Ehrenreich offhandedly mentions someone who, for example, didn't have to pay child care expenses because her mother watched the children. But the author never looks at that factor in depth, and to me it seemed like she kind of resented when someone had their mom babysit or their uncle fix their car, like they weren't quite playing by the author's rules.

So of course I would mentally rearrange their lives. Those three waitresses should live together in one apartment and try to carpool. They could take turns staying home to watch all the children, cook rice and beans in the crock pot (from Goodwill) and do laundry for them all.  If there was a neighbor who could fix the car, maybe one of them could give haircuts or cook something in exchange. If one got sick, the others could take her shift.

Or SOMETHING! If they would only help each other!

But they didn't ask me, obviously.

This is my spitballed explanation of the Anabaptist economy:

As a denomination and subculture, we have embraced frugality and hard work and hands-on skills, but mostly I think we recognize that people and relationships are of great value. It's not that we don't like money (trust me) but we know that people are even more valuable. So we live in clustered communities and have lots of children and go to church and turn out by the hundreds for weddings and funerals.

Paradoxically, this system has resulted in financial wealth.

The basic requirements for a job are not education but gumption and connection. In this area, it's easy for a young person to get a job. You can drive a combine for a farmer during harvest, teach at various church schools, sack seed for Paul or another seed cleaner, build mini-barns for whats-his-name on Peoria Road, or work at Grocery Depot, the Mennonite-owned discount grocery.  If you call Loren at Grocery Depot and say you're Paul Smucker's daughter, you'll be hired. He won't ask if you have a high school diploma and might not even ask for references, but he'll expect you to work hard.

If you do a good job at a construction business, you can work your way into a better position and eventually a business of your own. And then you hire your children and nieces and nephews and the guy who came out for harvest but wants to stay on in the fall, and eventually he marries your daughter and expands the business.

It's not a perfect system, as demonstrated by our family's experiences, which were likely attributed to a low gumption level. But on a macro scale, the system works.

However, there must be more to the robust Anabaptist economy than simply valuing people, because other subcultures such as Native Americans also value community but have different economic outcomes. 

Why do you think Anabaptists have done well enough to finance CAM's huge budget?

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments, which I will post if you sound humble enough.

You might be wondering why our family didn't get more financial help from the church community. Tomorrow: how Anabaptists help, and how they helped Paul and me find our way out of poverty.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Post 3--Poverty and Wealth--Dad's Disappointing Degrees

I'm going to quote an email referencing an article reviewing a book, which is kind of like a repeating decimal, as D. E. Stevenson once said.

This is from a Simple Dollar email from Trent Hamm, and is typical of what you find when you look up "How to escape poverty."

In an article in The Atlantic, Gillian B. White writes about inequality in American society. She reviews a book by Peter Temin called The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy

Temin argues that, following decades of growing inequality, America is now left with what is more or less a two-class system: One small, predominantly white upper class that wields a disproportionate share of money, power, and political influence and a much larger, minority-heavy (but still mostly white) lower class that is all too frequently subject to the first group’s whims.

Temin identifies two types of workers in what he calls “the dual economy.” The first are skilled, tech-savvy workers and managers with college degrees and high salaries who are concentrated heavily in fields such as finance, technology, and electronics. . .. The other group is the low-skilled workers, which he simply calls the “low-wage sector.”
. . .
[And especially this:]
And how is one to move up from the lower group to the higher one? Education is key, Temin writes, but notes that this means plotting, starting in early childhood, a successful path to, and through, college. 

You can find lots of insightful material on overcoming poverty, coming from many angles and proposing many solutions. But they all promote education. Many imply that to really leave poverty behind and get somewhere in the world, you not only have to finish high school but also go to college, and a college degree is a pretty sure ticket out of poverty forever.

Which brings us to my dad and the strange Anabaptist economy.

Most Amish people attend school only through the 8th grade. The same is true for other conservative Anabaptist branches, such as the Fellowship and Holdeman churches.

My dad was, in his day, the only Amishman in history who got a college degree and stayed Amish. It seems he had a bishop who recognized that Dad was unusually gifted academically but didn't have a rebellious bone in his body, so the bishop gave him permission to go to college. He not only got a Bachelor's degree in German at Eastern Mennonite College, but he also studied at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and got a Master's in elementary education.

All the while, he wore his Amish clothes and didn't drive a car.

In Iowa and Ohio and Minnesota, we lived in Amish or Beachy-Amish or Fellowship communities where everyone else had quit school after the 8th grade. In addition, English was their second language, and it was sometimes shocking how poorly they read and spelled and spoke.

With the "worldly" experts' emphasis on education, you'd think Dad would have been powerful in such a community, wealthy and admired, and maybe even ordained minister or bishop.

Instead, we were always among the poorest, struggling and scratching and desperate among efficient carpenters and prosperous farmers. 

The Amish economy had no place for someone with his education. Why pay him what he was worth as a teacher if you could just as easily hire an 18-year-old girl putting in a few years before she got married? Either way, your children would learn to read and do basic arithmetic.

The Amish respected physical strength and hard work and a good head for business. Dad was small and in fragile health and not, as they said, a "good manager."

When we lived in rural Minnesota, Dad quit teaching and focused on farming, instead of trying to do both. He was far more educated than our Englisch neighbors and most of our public school teachers, so he could probably have walked into a local high school and gotten a teaching job with a salary that would have seemed astronomical.

But he really wanted to farm. I don't know if he really loved farming that much, or if he wanted to prove that he was a real Amishman, but his farms never thrived like everyone else's. 

In the H.G. Wells story, "The Country of the Blind," a mountaineer happens to find an isolated valley where all the residents are blind. From Wikipedia:  Upon discovering that everyone is blind, Nuñez begins reciting to himself the refrain, "In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King". He realises that he can teach and rule them, but the villagers have no concept of sight, and do not understand his attempts to explain this fifth sense to them. Frustrated, Nuñez becomes angry, but the villagers calm him, and he reluctantly submits to their way of life, because returning to the outside world seems impossible.

Eventually the mountaineer realizes that the blind people in this community have figured out how to fully live life, and he is actually at a disadvantage despite this phenomenal gift of sight that he has and they don't.

I think that's kind of what it was like for Dad. He really wanted to teach and reach his own people with this valuable commodity of education that he brought with him, but they liked their lives just as they were, thank you very much. And who can blame them, when their children had new shoes and a big box of crayons apiece?

Tomorrow: more on the Anabaptist economy.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Post 2--Poverty and Wealth--Childhood

I was probably in ninth grade when Mrs. Carlson decided to do a poll to demonstrate some point about economics. She had a list of items that kids our age or our families would probably own--normal American things, she said. We were to raise our hands if we did NOT own this item.

I sat in the front row and thought: Oh. No.

A tv.

I raised my hand, the only one in the room.

A stereo.

I raised my hand.

A radio.


A musical instrument of any kind.


A baseball and bat.


She listed various sports equipment like a football, cleats, running shoes, and a basketball hoop.

Me, me, me, me.  This was getting awkward for everyone.

A snowmobile.

Up went my hand.

Fishing gear.


A tent.


A 35 mm camera.


A slide projector.

Me of course.

This torturous exercise went on and on.

Mrs. Carlson marched down through that entire lengthy list, and my conscience wouldn't let me lie, so I kept raising my hand every blessed time. Sometimes a scattering of other people did as well, but often I was the only one. Snickers erupted behind me.

Finally Mrs. Carlson laughed and said to me, "You're probably the most contented of us all."

Not in that moment I wasn't, believe me, which might be why it's branded into my memory.

Granted, a few of these items were forbidden by the Beachy-Amish church we were part of, but mostly we didn't own these things because we were so poor.

Our relationship with money and possessions was characterized by worry, pinching, saving, stretching, economizing, waiting, wanting, needing, longing, wishing, mending, making do, hand-me-downs, and acute shame.

Dad was an impractical, dreamy, scholarly Amish farmer, which is as contradictory as it sounds. Money was a nebulous something that drifted in and out of his life. He could never quite grasp it and make it work for him. He was endlessly burdened by debts, haunted by a looming day of reckoning that made him say No to almost anything we wanted to do or get or see.

So we learned not to ask.

Mom was a miracle worker with her gardening and sewing and about fifty other skills that kept us fed and clothed and clean.

But she worried endlessly and carried heavy burdens. She never said this out loud, but now I realize that she could have handled the finances much better than Dad, being of a practical and enterprising nature. But that would have destroyed Dad's last shreds of dignity.

Mom occasionally conjured a sense of abundance, such as when she hauled us all to the back 40 to pick blackberries or secretly sewed warm, ruffled pink flannel nightgowns for our Christmas gifts.

But most of the time we felt impoverished.

After I went to a public school in the fifth grade, we would get a paper at the beginning of the year with a chart listing family sizes, income levels, and who qualified for free lunches. The amount at which a family of our size would get free lunches was far more than we ever made. But we never utilized this benefit. Handouts from the Government were unthinkable.

We either made things ourselves or bought them secondhand. Mostly, we did without. We didn't buy new clothes or ready-made food. We never went out to eat. A box of 64 crayons was something to envy and long for, knowing we could never afford it. Something as fun and cool as a banana-seat bike, which was the ultimate fun and cool thing in its day, was as out of reach as Mars.

But, for some reason, it was important to Dad that we regularly went to the dentist. So I got a mouthful of fillings, which I have reason to believe I didn't always need, while at the same time we "couldn't afford" adequate gear in Minnesota winters, such as the tiny little lightweight chore gloves I wore to school in subzero temperatures.

My sister Margaret remembers having cold feet all winter because her boots had holes and the snow got in. She never had decent warm socks. It wasn't only because we couldn't afford new ones. It was also because no one noticed or cared, and she knew she shouldn't ask. We were going through a horrifically stressful time as a family, and Mom and Dad were preoccupied with just trying to survive the financial struggles and mental illnesses and chaos and conflict.

So we had a poverty of nurturing and attention as well, which fed us those crippling "truths" that we were on our own, no one was going to look out for us, these things could not be said out loud, and the good things in life were for everyone out there, but not for us.

Except, of course, we got our teeth checked twice a year, without fail. 

Poverty and wealth are strange things to quantify and evaluate, they go far deeper and wider than mere income levels and family sizes on a mimeographed chart, and they are far more nuanced than the overall patterns of education, jobs, and costs of living. Parents' relationship with finances affects their children's view of the world and themselves in a dozen odd and seemingly unconnected ways.

What's really strange is that by one key metric, we ought to have been better off than anyone else at church and most people in the community.

Come back tomorrow for that.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Thoughts on Poverty and Wealth--Post 1

When I wrote an article last month about canning sausage, I mentioned that Paul and I have had times when our income was very low. For example, right after we got married in 1986, I was going to college and he was making $600 a month as a Christian school teacher. Rent was $250 a month. We tithed $60 a month and saved $60, and what remained after taxes was stretched a long way. When I got pregnant a year into marriage, $60 a month went to the doctor instead of savings, and we were just barely able to pay for the hospital bill and all.

Later, when we were working in Canada, our housing and food were provided, and we got a stipend of $60 a month to cover transportation, clothing, postage, phone calls, gifts, cosmetics, household supplies, and so on.

"Extreme frugality" is an understatement for how we lived.

Eventually, things changed and now we are middle-class by the official government charts but compared to back then, I feel like we are astonishingly wealthy.

Canning that sausage and writing about it made me realize that the government charts tally only one type of wealth, and that is dollars.  Actually, there are probably a hundred different factors and resources and types of wealth that make all the difference and can either compensate for a low income or make it all a lot worse.

Such as: 
community support
family support
financial sense and skills
DIY skills
distance from work and family

Somehow the charts and the government solutions never seem to take these things into account.

I had lots of notes left over after the article was done so I decided to do a few blog posts on poverty and wealth, not to draw any real conclusions or to tell anyone what they ought to do or to try to "fix" the poor, but just as a platform to observe and cogitate.

Recently one of my daughters said, "I was reading about the teachers' strike in West Virginia, and there was a picture of the governor talking, and there was something different about him. Finally I figured out it was his teeth! You almost never see people at that level of government with bad teeth."

I think that in American society there's nothing like teeth to divide the comfortable from the struggling. I am extra aware of this because of my mom's obsession with teeth ever since she got dentures at age 17, but research backs me up.

This is a fascinating article by Sarah Smarsh about how teeth denote our class in America.

She says,

‘Don’t get fooled by those mangled teeth she sports on camera!’ says the ABC News host introducing the woman who plays Pennsatucky. ‘Taryn Manning is one beautiful and talented actress.’ This suggestion that bad teeth and talent, in particular, are mutually exclusive betrays our broad, unexamined bigotry toward those long known, tellingly, as ‘white trash.’ It’s become less acceptable in recent decades to make racist or sexist statements, but blatant classism generally goes unchecked. See the hugely successful blog People of Walmart that, through submitted photographs, viciously ridicules people who look like contemporary US poverty: the elastic waistbands and jutting stomachs of diabetic obesity, the wheelchairs and oxygen tanks of gout and emphysema.

I still have crowded, crooked, overlapping front teeth, a relic of a childhood of poverty. I sometimes wonder: should I get them straightened because we could afford it now, or should I keep them as a symbol of solidarity with the poor?

Or is it simply silly to think of spending thousands on straightening teeth at age 55 just because the society around me says it's important?

As the paragraph by Ms. Smarsh says, it's more than teeth that physically defines poverty.

My three daughters and I took an overnight trip to Seattle a couple of months ago to see a play. It was an adaptation of a middle-grade fiction book that the girls loved, and was held in a small theater at the Seattle Center.

We all like to observe people, and after the play one of the daughters remarked, "I was looking around, and I realized everyone looks exactly the same. I just knew they all had plenty of money, and not just because they could afford to attend a play.  They just had that LOOK."

A few weeks previously, when I attended Jenny's choir concert, I had looked at the singers onstage and thought, "They look like they're poor." It wasn't only because they were community college students—they also had a certain Look.

What is it?

Well, their teeth, at least sometimes.

And body weight. 

And also hair and makeup, which I don't know that much about, but the Seattle crowd looked more understated.

It was more than all that, though. Some people have always had a clear path before them, an assumption that their needs would be met as they came up, and an expectation of success. Others overcome astonishing obstacles just to attend the local community college this term. And it shows.

I feel more at home among struggling and poor than around educated and successful, but I connect most with people who have had difficult times but found a way to thrive.

So I have crooked teeth as a relic of poverty, but I also have lots of fillings, because of my dad's strange priorities. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Review: Fledge: Launching Your Kids Without Losing Your Mind

Here's one thing I got right, as a mom:

One of my daughters says that at the ends of summers, when the other moms in the checkout lines would be sighing that they can't wait for school to start again, I would tell the children that I like having them home, and it makes me sad when school starts.

At our current stage, I know that leaving is good. It's what adults do. They grow up, find their way, and leave home--not necessarily in that order.

Even though the process is right, this also makes me sad.

If you're with me on all these mom FEELINGS, I want you to know that there's someone who Gets us.  Brenda Yoder launched a new book today, and I agreed to review it.  It's called Fledge--Launching Your Kids Without Losing Your Mind.

The title has two significant meanings. "Fledge" is what young eagles do as they leave the nest. It's also the process of attaching feathers to prepare an arrow for flight.

Appropriate, right?

Arrows are for warriors, she says, and it takes a warrior to equip a child for their God-designed journey.

Also, isn't that the prettiest cover you ever saw?

Brenda and her husband have four children. Some have left the nest and some have not, so she writes from the perspective of still being a hands-on mom at the same time as she has kids leaving for college or mission work.

Brenda's style is detailed and meditative, so it isn't a fast read. There are Scripture verses to study, personal stories, professional perspectives from her work as a counselor--although these are subtle, as she wanted the book to be mom-to-mom--and questions at the end of each chapter, called Building Up and Letting Go, to help you process your own life and stage.

Here's one of my favorite lines:

Yet with all the focus and preparation on the fledgling, no one really checks on Mama Bird and all the changes that happen when your quiver starts emptying—changes for you, your child, and your family. 

This is a book that cares for the Mama Bird. It understands the grief she's feeling, the joy, the regrets, the hope, the frustrations, all of it.

One of the author's goals was to be "real" in her writing, and I don't know her personally but I get the sense she succeeded. She is honest about family life, and I won't list all the things that struck me as having happened at our house also, except to say I could relate to what she said about those impossibly busy years and the regrets that lurk after they're over, of short tempers and trying to do way too much, and the lingering effects on relationships with our children. She also writes about all kinds of dilemmas you face, such as when three children have three different events in a single day, and how in the world do you decide who you're going to "be there" for?

Everything is written from the standpoint of God's overarching plan for us and our children. This is not about us floundering helplessly until we manage to shoo them out the door. It's about a divine calling for both us and our kids.

In the chapter on control, she talks about how God wants us to lead and guide our children, neither hovering nor ignoring, but then there's a gentle process of releasing that control.

The final chapters come back around to taking care of the Mama Bird. Self-care, identity, mid-life stuff, and so on. Giving yourself grace. Accepting. Looking forward.

This book is about launching your children, and if you're a mom at the fledging stage, it will make you feel understood. Even better, it will help you see a thread of God's plan leading all the way through your mothering journey. You will understand more deeply and you will think hard about how you got to this place and where you want to go from here.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Letter from Hburg--Farewell to an Old Van

Old Van Was Like Part of the Family

March 11, 2018

They emptied out the van last week, removed the wheels and hoisted it onto a trailer. It looked hollow, tired and a bit lopsided. You couldn’t see the stories it contained, the adventures, the accumulated trips and experiences and conversations stuffed to the ceiling, seeping out the doors and trailing behind as it was hauled away.

It was a big piece of red and white metal that rattled and clanked and devoured too much gas, but it was much more than frame and wheels and seats.

Back in 2000, we needed a big family vehicle because we had five children and, with Paul being both pastor and church school principal, we often wanted to transport lots of children besides ours.

My parents were visiting at the time, and we took them along to Portland to look at this 1992 Ford Club Wagon. Mom, as I recall, mended my sons’ jeans as we drove. Dad was impressed with Paul, who not only knew what questions to ask the dealer but also paid for the van in full that day.

“Are you OK with saying that this is the Lord’s van?” Paul asked me after we brought it home. “We won’t consider it ours, exactly, so we’ll let it be used for all kinds of things — church, school, loaning it out to other people, wherever it’s needed.”

“I’m fine with that,” I said, “except I don’t think the Lord is going to clean out his van. So if everyone is going to use it, let’s rip out the carpet and put in something that’s easier to wash.”

Paul said, “I don’t think you can do that.”

I said, “I am sure you can.”

We located a vinyl mat, shaped to fit, that could be swept and washed. Whenever I swept sand out of the corners after a trip to the coast or wiped up sticky Mountain Dew puddles after a school field trip, I was grateful I had insisted on taking out that impractical carpet.

For years, we took the family to church in the van on Sundays and filled it with school children twice a day during the week.

“It was always quiet in the morning,” our youngest daughter, Jenny, recalls, “but in the afternoon everyone would be talking. That’s one of my favorite memories: all the conversations, coming home from school.”

Even when the roads were icy, I could safely haul the children to and from school. Despite its ungainly size, the van was cooperative and easy to handle, like a gentle Clydesdale. I could tell that it liked me, so I liked it back, and we got along well. I even drove it to Portland, full of sisters-in-law, when we went secondhand shopping on 82nd Avenue, and then back home again, stuffed with Value Village and Deseret Industries bags and also laughter, empathy, and shared stories of life with Smucker men.

When I walked out of WinCo every other week with two heaped and heavy shopping carts, pulling one and pushing the other, the van always was easy to spot in the parking lot, its red top rising head and shoulders above the other vehicles. I could easily fit the groceries inside, but I had to do it strategically or the bags would topple and the soy sauce bottles and cans of pineapple would roll away under the seats.

We loaned it out to Gospel quartets touring churches in the Northwest, to Uncle James and Aunt Orpha when their children came home for visits, and to the church youth group to take on mission trips to Mexico. When Paul’s cousin Caroline and her family flew in from Ohio and borrowed it, they were driving on Interstate 84 near Multnomah Falls when a rear wheel suddenly came off. Somehow they pulled safely to a stop while the wheel and tire plowed through blackberry bushes and vaulted over the railroad tracks, never to be seen again.

It soon was repaired, but the miles accumulated, and the dents and rattles increased.

For almost 20 years, we hooked either a pop-up camper or a trailer of gear to the hitch, loaded the seats with hyper children and patient adults, and left for three days of Bible Memory Camp, our church’s reward to the 9- to 14-year-olds who memorized 50 Bible verses.
Bible Memory Camp, 2008

2016 I think
Afterwards, I cleaned out sand and battered flip-flops and little cards with printed verses: “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Ephesians 5:15 and 16.”

Two or three times a year, Paul stuffed the van with students and took them on field trips — to OMSI in Portland, almost every year; to Mount St. Helens to the north and the Wildlife Safari to the south; to the aviation museum in Eugene and the carousel in Salem. Once every winter, I set a bucket of homemade hot chocolate mix and a large insulated tub of boiling water in the back, and Paul drove the school kids to Tombstone Pass to play in the snow.

Soggy mittens and socks lurked under the seats afterwards, and sticky cups and crumpled lunch bags.

We drove on long trips as a family, sometimes with an extra cousin or two. On the way home from a Christmas trip to Minnesota, we inched along an icy Wyoming highway while the teens in the back seat quietly repeated the 23rd Psalm until we finally reached a safe place to spend the night.

Our daughter Amy and her friend Carrie cooked for a harvest crew one summer and used the van to haul groceries from the store and hot food to the field. One evening, our huge old dog, Hansie, disappeared. Overnight and into the next day, we worried and searched. Finally, I felt a strange compulsion to look inside the van. I slid open the door and there he was, having slipped inside and behind the back seat while Amy was unloading groceries.

In an old photo, I see our children climbing into the van, parked under the oak tree on a snowy day, with Hansie looking on.

Acorns dropping on the roof of the van were always the sign of summer’s end. One night, the oak tree quietly fell over, sprawling its gnarly branches over the driveway and yard, engulfing the van in its heavy embrace. Miraculously, when the tree was cut up and hauled away, the van still could be used. We replaced the broken windows and tried to pry out the dents. It served us for another eight years.

Soon after the tree fell, Hansie also collapsed. Friends helped me place him on blankets behind the back seat, and I drove him to the veterinarian to be put down. Then I drove him home to be buried, crying all the way.

One by one, the kids grew up and bought their own cars. We still loaned out the van, but it grew less and less reliable, and when the engine finally gave out, we decided it was too old to repair. A friend bought it and hauled it away to be recycled.

A faithful and reliable means of transportation is no small thing, nor is taking a group of people from here to there and back in warmth and safety. The van was the Lord’s, but the experiences were ours, and the travels and destinations. The stories are ours as well, and all the conversations, and 18 years of memories still trailing on behind.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

At the Widow's Warehouse: A Story

This story has a few limbs that all must be examined if it is to make any sense. I admit, it's a stretch, even then.

1. I want grandchildren someday. Some obvious miracles need to occur before these gifts can arrive, and I'd like them to happen in the proper order, if possible, so I pray about all this. My faith does better with visual reminders, so I've collected a few little animals, from garage sales and such, as faith seeds. Someday I want to keep them in my purse, as grandmas do, and pull them out at the right times to entertain the little descendants.

2. Meanwhile, I keep these animals on the desk in the little corner where I do my Bible study and prayer every day. With time, they have taken on personalities, and they always seem to be in the middle of a story. When I rearrange them, another story takes place.

3. I have a really terrible time with the discipline of writing, so I set a timer and reward myself with some kind of visual reward every 15 minutes, whether it's coloring in a square on a chart or pinching another clothespin to the top edge of my laptop. Today the only place I could find some peace and quiet to finish my column was in my Bible study corner, so I transferred one little animal from the pasture on the right to the one on my left whenever the timer beeped.

4. So, of course, their story began and progressed at the same pace as my column, in 15 minute intervals, one animal after another, a bit unevenly. Also it was supposed to be a bit of "Amish" fiction (covering strings and the name "Emory") but it was hard with all the trucks and combines that showed up.

5. Just for fun, I decided to share each chapter on social media as it developed. Just to be clear, this was not the same writing I was doing for my column. That was something else entirely.

6. It is very hard to follow five different posts on Facebook or Instagram, so I'm sharing them here for the people who wanted to see all of them in the right order.  I'll try to fill in a plot hole or two while I'm at it, as pointed out by my daughters.

7. If you are thinking I'm actually a small child in a 55-year-old body, you would be correct.

At the Widow's Warehouse

Characters, left to right:
Sadie, the young widow.
Her son Emory.
Uncle James.
Henry the truck driver.
Mary the farmer's fluttery wife.
Cousin Randy from the pellet mill.
Amanda the combine driver.

Chapter 1--
Sadie looked on with a mixture of curiosity and concern as Henry, the big and strong (but not handsome, to be honest) new truck driver and warehouse manager showed her son Emory how to clean the pit before the next load came in. 

It wasn’t easy for a young widow, raising an adolescent and running her late husband’s business. Emory thought Henry hung the moon, that was for sure, Sadie thought as she tucked her dusty covering strings down the back of her dress and tried not to look like she was listening.

Would Henry’s influence be as good as his gear-shifting on the old Ford, that was the question. Ach vell. There was another load of fescue coming and dinner to put on the table.

Chapter 2--

Slowly, Henry turned and shuffled back to the truck with his dusty jeans sagging. Emory looked around for the broom as Sadie turned to leave.

“Ooooooh, Sadieeee!” It was Mary, John Yoder’s young wife who drove the seed trucks when John was on the combine. She hopped out of the truck, fluttered her hands and giggled. “You won’t believe what I just heard on the field radio! You know I told you how Jacob Miller hired that skinny little girl from Idaho that’s here visiting Sam and Ella for the summer because she teaches in the winter and wanted to work in the harvest this summer and I don’t know what Jacob was THINKING because here she was in that 80-acre field over by Pete and Carol’s and of all things she. . .”

Blessedly, Uncle James showed up beside Sadie just then, clearing his throat. “Uhhh…excuse me…Sadie…” he said in his slow deliberate way, “…but….are you aware…..that the….cleaner….hopper….appears… to….be…..overflowing…..??”

What?!? Sadie shrieked and ran, leaving Mary standing there, mid sentence, still fluttering her restless hands.

“Chapter 3--
"Relax, Sadie, it’s ok, I took care of the cleaner hopper,” said Cousin Randy just as Sadie puffed to a stop by the bagger. “It was my fault. I had asked Jason to bring the forklift over and help me load a truck, and he didn’t realize how full the hopper was. We got it cleaned up. It was only a little bit of seed, really.”

“Thanks!” was all Sadie could manage to say. She liked Randy, who ran the pellet mill next door and was always ready to help but didn’t make her feel stupid. “In…my…day….,” said Uncle James with a chuckle, “my…father…was known…to occasionally…take a nap…and…overflow the…hopper.”

“Ooooooh, Amanda!! Are you ok?? What in the world, sweetheart?!” 

Good grief, why was Mary still here? And who had showed up beside her but Amanda herself, Jacob’s skinny little combine driver from Idaho! “What did I HEAR about you almost dumping your combine in Muddy Creek??” Mary exclaimed.

Poor Amanda looked about to cry. “Has everybody in the valley heard about this?!” she said.

Mary just giggled.

“It was that clutch!” Amanda wailed. “I’m serious, there’s that little bit of slope in that field, and all of a sudden I was rolling, and I COULD NOT get it in gear, and I was trying to radio Jacob with my other hand, and …” She was really crying now.

“Dear me,” said Sadie. She walked over, patted Mary on the arm, and said, “Didn’t you get a call from John that the next load is almost ready?”

Then she turned to Amanda.

Chapter 4–

Mary ran for her truck, knowing what John was like when he had a full load on the combine and she wasn’t back yet.

Randy went back to the pellet mill, and Uncle James headed home for dinner.

Henry parked the truck and checked the scales. “We’re losin’ a lot on that ryegrass,” he thought. He was not thinking about Sadie even though you, dear Reader, hoped he was.

“Listen, Amanda,” said Sadie, “we all do dumb stuff our first year on the combine. Mary set her dad’s orchardgrass field on fire when she wanted to make the combine pretty and lit a candle and propped it by the gearshift and it fell out when she turned a corner.”

Amanda smiled shakily. "Oh! I almost forgot!" she said, "I have something in the car for you. Jacob asked me to drop off the tags for his Marshall while they're pulling my combine out."

"Thanks," said Sadie. "I was wondering when they were coming."

“Mom! I’m hungry!” said Emory.

“All right,” said Sadie. “Let’s go eat.”

So they did. But first Emory turned and waved at Henry, who grinned and waved back with a large and hairy arm.

The end.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Happy Pursuit of Staying At Home

I wonder how long I could stay at home without going a little dotty.

The first year I was in Oregon, teaching at Lake Creek School at the tender age of 19, I had something going on every single evening of the month of December. Programs and practices and youth activities and out to dinner with my cool friends and family gatherings with my landlord's family and church and many other wild and happy activities!

I was out of Minnesota and off the farm, and I had a life!! At last!!

Some years later, we have the last few weeks of January, 2018, in which Paul and I drove an hour and a half one Sunday morning to go to Dema Chupp's funeral, then that afternoon we went to a fancy AirBnB house for a retreat with the church ministry team for a couple of days.

We had exactly one day at home before we flew to Pennsylvania for a school administrators' conference. The following weekend I was gone again, to the church ladies' retreat at the coast.

"Do you like doing this sort of thing, or would you rather stay home?" Emily asked me before we went to Pennsylvania.

I said, "To be honest, I'm already thinking, 'Only one more week and I'll be home again, making tea in my own kitchen!'"

Paul said, to Emily, "I think she goes away just for the thrill of looking forward to coming home."

Since the ladies' retreat, I have stayed home a lot. I make tea in my kitchen, with the best water in the world in my own sturdy kettle. Every time a planned activity gets canceled, I do a happy little Mennonite-lady dance.

Every day when there's nothing scheduled away from home, I feel blessed and grateful.

One day I gathered every smidgen of tea from two pantries, one cupboard, the gift drawer, and the countertop, and I sorted and evaluated it all. Then only one of each type went into the kitchen cupboard, and the rest went into the pantry, sorted by type.

I've found that you can read all about downsizing and efficiency, but the key ingredient that is often missing for me is staying at home to do it. When you're gone a lot, you lose track of where you put the box of mint tea, and you're all rushed, so you buy more. Also, the white jasmine tea that no one likes migrates to the back of the top shelf, where no one sees it, and sits there taking up space for years.

So while it was alarming to see how much tea I actually own, it was utterly satisfying to get it all in proper order, and to get rid of what no one uses.
"Don't judge," as worldly people like to say when they know they are being ridiculous.
I've also been setting up my new sewing room upstairs, now that the old sewing room is a guest room. This has been a long process, starting with boxing up and storing my sewing stuff when Dad came last summer, and only recently picking through it again. My pattern stash is a lot like my tea stash, with some of the same unfortunate duplicating and also there's that whole boxful I got from my friend Sharon when she moved, which never got sorted and put away.

So the patterns are to get categorized this week, after I get the box of mid-size children's patterns down from the attic, and I hope to send half of my collection to the MCC Relief Sale.

[Which still leaves plenty for me, trust me.]

Along with sorting and organizing, I've been sewing.  I finished an apron I started long ago, altered two blouses to make them fit, made a skirt from start to finish, and also made a little girl's dress just because I was in the mood to make a little dress.

No wonder my mom always looked so blissful and content, staying home and sewing while the snow fell.

But was I going just a little crazy? I watched for signs. Was I living vicariously through my daughters' adventures out in the big world? Well, I always do that, so that doesn't count. Was I arguing with people in my head? Not excessively.

I kept sewing and organizing and also staying caught up with our laundry, which is a wonderful thing. I made tea several times a day and read two books. I canned sausage like I was preparing for a siege.

One day I took offense at something Paul said, and over-reacted just a teeny bit. But we talked about it almost right away, and I didn't spend a week arguing with him in my head before I brought it up, so that was all ok in the end and not too alarming.

Then on Saturday I thought, "Hey! Tomorrow I can go to church and talk with people! That will be fun!"*

That was when I knew that staying home this much was good for me, and healing and healthy and life-giving. Because when things are far too busy and we are running, traveling, going, meeting, driving, flying, and just zipping hither and thither, then church becomes a heavy obligation, another thing on my endless list, and a duty to be dutifully performed.

I'm always glad I went, but getting out the door on Sunday mornings--that's the hard part.

*Yes, I also go to church to worship God, in case you're worried. But I was also happy about talking to his people.

We don't have much on the calendar for this coming week, either. I am starting to ask God who I'm supposed to call, write to, invite over, or meet for coffee. Certain people are coming to mind, women who aren't visibly needy, but they show up in my thoughts with a quiet nudge. Yes, her. She needs someone to talk to.

Because that is also a benefit of staying home: you feel like you have something to give to others, room in your soul for another, space in your mind for listening--instead of cringing when the phone rings or feeling overwhelmed at another email to answer.

There's a bestselling book called The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up. If I wrote my own version, I would call it The Lifechanging Magic of Staying Home.

But first I'll go have some more tea.

Quote of the Day, from Christmas vacation:
Jenny: Dad should learn to play the didgeridoo. It helps with snoring.
Matt: Jenny, be VERY. CAREFUL. what you wish for.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Review of Good's Online Store (and a coupon)

Some time ago I was asked to give a talk to a local business group about how they can meet the needs of the Mennonite community.

I said that Mennonites generally value self-sufficiency and thrift. So any business that will help us do things for ourselves, for a reasonable price, will be our friend. For instance, Detering Orchards or Horse Creek Farms and their you-pick fruits, or Territorial Seed and its amazing garden seeds, or Hurds Hardware and its custom metal fabricating that will build exactly the attachment for the forklift that Paul needs to do his job at the warehouse more efficiently.

Almost every Mennonite or Amish community of any size has a little store that sells bulk foods, fabric, cookbooks, and canning supplies. Almost always, they are carefully chosen items, of good quality, for a reasonable price.

Self-sufficiency and thrift, you know.

I love to shop at such places because you don’t have to dig through aisles of nonsensical throwaway gimmicky stuff to find what you really need, nor do you have to worry that this can opener will break after a week.

These places distill their inventory down to the basics, but they also have half an aisle of pretty candles and teapots that you can give your sister-in-law for her birthday.
You would like to shop at such a store, I'm sure.  If you live in or have visited Pennsylvania, you probably know all about Goods, which is a large version of the little Amish and Mennonite stores found further west.

If you don’t or haven’t, you can now shop at Goods online.  Right here.

I was given a voucher in exchange for an honest review. So here’s my assessment of their website and its offerings:

   1.    The site is pretty without being cheesy.  I appreciate that they don’t co-opt the Amish name in order to sell products, although you'll find a Pennsylvania Dutch cultural flavor throughout, such as the brass quoits set from Fisher's Harness Shop.

    2. I liked the subdivisions of merchandise on the main page. Lawn&Garden, Health&Beauty, etc. And my favorite: Fabric&Sewing.

3.      My one complaint about the website was at this point. You can find subdivisions by brand name, such as Dritz, Moda, or Schmetz; but you can’t click on product categories like fabric, thread, and scissors.  So your options are to do a search at the top of the page or to click through all the products and hope you eventually get past the fabric swatches and on to sewing supplies.

4.       Clicking through the fabric products is a treat because they have many colors and prints and solids, especially the Tropical Breeze brand. I don't know how the price compares to other sources, but they also carry Moda quilting fabrics which are about 30% cheaper than at Oregon’s Fabric Depot. I managed to click my way through this section without buying anything which took great resolve.

5.       Some other things that caught my eye on the website were the outdoor thermometers, pretty journals, canningsupplies, and women’s clothing. They even carry Carhartt jackets for women! At most retailers, women’s clothing is far less durable than men’s. Carhartt is a happy exception. But I didn’t buy the jacket because I bought a Carhartt hooded sweatshirt a couple of years ago, and it’s still my go-to cool-and-windy-day jacket.
I decided to use my voucher to pay for part of a new Victorio strainer. Mine has turned out many a quart of applesauce and tomato juice and is nearly worn out. I expect the new one to be of high enough quality to hand down to my daughters when I’m no longer canning.
If you use the following link, you can get a 10% discount off regular prices. This offer is good until March 17.
Or you can use the coupon code DORCASBLOG when you check out.


Quote of the Day:
"She also liked small, local shops, places where you were able to buy pins and candles and tins of syrup--the sort of real things that you needed, rather than the insubstantial clothes and flashy electrical goods that newer, louder shops sold."
--Alexander McCall Smith, describing Precious Ramotswe, in The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, number 15 in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series.