Tuesday, June 21, 2016

My Life, These Days, At Home

After three months of travel, deadlines, celebrations, more travel, graduations, and other wonderful but completely exhausting things, I have been at home for a long time, like three whole days.

I love being at home.

And I love how being at home isn't boring because all these little stories happen when I'm at home, especially if I have some of my wonderful children around, such as Amy, who is home from Thailand for a far-too-brief time.

Anyway.  These are the sort of things that are happening to me these days:

We used to have chickens, and then they got old, and we didn't have chickens any more for I forget how many years.

But now I have chickens again, since Coastal Farms was giving away chicks on Easter Eve, and Paul got me fifteen.

I love having chickens again.

The nests have sat empty for all these years and needed to be cleaned out before this batch of hens decides to start laying.  They weren't that terrible, with just a few years-old dried up literary awards, as my sister Margaret used to call them.  [Pullet Surprises]

What I needed to clean out the nests was a scheifly, otherwise known as a pancake turner.  But one doesn't just grab a pancake turner out of the drawer to clean nests.

My girls always think I need to declutter and downsize, so I had a bright idea.  I would see if there were any scheiflen way in the back of the drawer.  If so, I'd know that I hadn't used them in a while, and I could safely relegate them to henhouse duty.

Win, win.

So I riffled in the back of the drawer and sure enough, there was a big stainless steel scheifly.

I took it to the shed, cleaned the nests, and laid it by the feed sack to use in the future.

Meanwhile, the girls were getting ready to go camping.

About two hours after I'd taken the scheifly outside, Amy was riffling through the drawer.  "Do we have any long-handled, metal pancake turner we could use for cooking over a fire?"


*     *     *

This evening I went on a walk in the lovely summer eveningness.

My brother-in-law Kenneth's field, just to the north of us, is all windrowed, a lovely golden sight in the fading daylight.


What was that, right by the third row in?

A black shape, still and furry.

No no no, surely not a dead cat.

I walked over to Powerline Road and then turned in the field approach.  Over the bare dirt, through the trees, up to the cut grass, and then I could see it better.  Yes, definitely a cat.

Oh NO.  We've lost a cat to a windrower both of the last two harvests.  It's no fun to lose cats in any way, but dying by windrower is especially nasty, not that I have experienced it, but just from observing.

I hesitated before I crossed the windrow, which is basically a three-foot-wide line of cut, piled stalks of grass, because I wanted to give any snakes underneath a chance to go elsewhere.  And while I paused I looked at the cat, still about 20 feet away, to see if it was breathing.  No, mercifully, no sign of life, so at least it wasn't lying there suffering.

I don't have long enough legs to straddle the windrow, so I stepped right in the middle of it with a very loud dry-stalksy CRUNCH.

The dead cat leaped in the air and ran for the house in a black blur.

I also leaped in the air and felt like I might be having a heart attack, which would still be a nicer way to go than being caught in a windrower.

Happily, the cat and I are both very much alive.

*     *     *

On the way back to the house, I picked up the broom that I'd been cleaning the playhouse with, before I cleaned the chicken coop, and I carried the broom into the kitchen.  Paul was working on his computer.  He looked up and asked, casually,

Quote of the Day:

"So, how far did you fly?"

[Did I mention that I love being at home? And clever husbands.]

Monday, June 13, 2016

Sunday's Column: "They Grow Up So Fast"


Graduation brings mist of wistfulness

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
JUNE 12, 2016

I have become that well-meaning but annoying older woman who looks wistfully at babies in church or the grocery store and comments, uninvited, “Make sure you enjoy them while they’re little. They grow up so fast.”

I wasn’t ever going to say that. In the swamp of exhausted young motherhood, those intrusive words were accusing mosquitoes buzzing around my head, a dank whiff of guilt, a splash of worry that everyone else had just loved this stage and I was the only one who didn’t.

Of course I adored my children and delighted in kissing their exquisite baby cheeks and writing down the brilliant questions they asked at age 4. But the enjoyment was an intermittent thing, slotted between the realities of chiseling off the mashed potatoes super-glued to the high chair tray, 2-year-olds bent on destruction, overly verbal preschool sisters putting each other down with subtle nastiness, and, in those pre-Google days, trying to find out if the English ivy leaf the baby had just eaten was poisonous.

“Mine are all grown up now,” the older women always said, there in the McDonald’s restroom as I jostled the fussy baby and shooed the toddler into the stall, or in the foyer after a church service in which our kids wrote in the hymnals or shot a rubber band across the aisle or asked in loud voices if the lady in front of us was pregnant.

“This too shall pass,” people told me during the weeks of chicken pox, the months of morning sickness and colic, the reckless insanity of small boys pulling Crock Pots or hot coffee on their heads.

It didn’t help.

I found the chicken pox photos when I was hunting for pictures for the slide show at Jenny’s graduation. April, 1994: four miserable little children covered in pox. Amy looked like she’d been dunked in boiling water. Emily was blotched with big oozy spots. The boys were thickly polka-dotted in red. I recall blurred weeks of exhausted days and frightening fevers turning into long impossible nights, crying with weariness.

Incredibly, I found myself examining the chicken-pox photos with just a bit of nostalgia. Look at what we survived! I was so needed, so indispensable, and we were all a lot tougher than we knew.

I made sure Jenny, our youngest, got the vaccination. Jenny is 17 now, taller than me, lively, energetic, gracious, freckled, ambitious and funny.

And grown up, so suddenly it stuns me.

As I knelt in the attic and sat at the computer, sorting through hundreds of old photographs in a hunt for 50 to represent Jenny’s life, the wonder of her childhood, of all their childhoods, of any childhood, plunged me into nostalgia.

“Oh my word! Look at her. She was just so CUTE! So alert, looking right in your eyes at 3 months old! And that curly red hair. Unbelievable.”

In stacks of photos, she was watering flowers, playing with the dog, running, climbing, painting, writing, exploring, dressing up, making terrible happy messes.

Later, in digital photos, she was shooting a homemade bow and arrow, posing on the shed roof, holding a pink basketball, biking, celebrating with friends.

And always grinning.

How did it vanish so fast?
Jenny at 3 months old and as a 17-year-old graduate.
[Grad photo by Janane Nguyen Photography]
In some ways I enjoyed Jenny more than the others, not only because she was less defiant and got only a mild case of chicken pox at 10 years old, but also because by child number six a mom knows what to expect, what to freak out about (not much), and what to let go (most things.)

We know how quickly each phase will pass.

Today Jenny has a driver’s license, a high school diploma and a college student aid application. With her sights fixed on community college and Oregon State University, she wants to be a mechanical engineer like her big brothers. She likes to sing, write and skateboard with her friends.

God help me, when did this happen? I want her back, just for a little bit, that wild red-headed little girl that giggled during her bedtime prayers and studied bugs and leaped fearlessly off the porch rail onto the trampoline.

Her graduation means that all of my six are adults. I’m finished with braiding hair in the morning, replacing boys’ jeans, and conducting lizard and cat funerals. My 22 years as a church-school mom are over as well — no more signing off on homework or sewing angel costumes at Christmas or rooting for both teams at the student vs. alumni softball game.

In fact, I want all six back for a day or a month, noisy and dirty and full of questions, arguing about turns and front seats and whether a horse or a helicopter would be better for going to work at our grass-seed warehouse.

Maybe it’s the unknown that scares me, moving into this vague new phase.

“Your life is so defined,” a single and childless friend told me, enviously, when the kids ranged from 1 year old to 14. “You know your purpose. You know every day exactly what you’re supposed to do.”

If I’m like my grandma, I have 50 years ahead of me, full of possibility but forcing me to define my own roles, my own avenues of ministry, my own investments of time.

A good and exciting stage, but it lacks the crucial essence and purpose of the past.

I look at the young moms around me and see their bulging diaper bags and exhausted eyes. But more than that, I see the fleeting moment of that baby in their arms and his or her smooth plump squishable kicking legs, the endlessly curious eyes and grasping hands — and the words come out of my mouth, unstoppable. “Enjoy them while they’re little. They grow up so fast.”

The intrusive grandmas were right: It’s a miraculous time of life, it all goes by in a flash, you never get it back again, and you miss it like crazy once it’s gone.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Just a Few Thoughts

I am always signing up for things because they need to be done or because I'm hungry for fellowship, then I get overwhelmed, and I think, "I don't think I prayed enough before I said yes." So then I pray more deliberately and still feel like I ought to say Yes to events and people, because I know I'll regret it later if I don't. Maybe God knows I'd never get anything done if I didn't feel overwhelmed.

So I didn't have time for that Smucker-Sisters-In-Law coffee time today, what with planning for a ladies' retreat, a trip to the coast, a girls' trip while Amy's home, and Ben's graduation open house. But what a delicious time of chatting and catching up and planning it was with the Smucker ladies, as always, and I would have been sad if I missed it.

Sometimes I wonder what scale of life would be manageable. Maybe living alone in a 1-bedroom house with 1 cat. Two flower beds. A bike. No writing or teaching. Meeting people for coffee once a week. Living off of tea and Cheerios and fresh berries and peanut butter.

I think I could manage such a life efficiently, and feel organized and PUT TOGETHER which would be glorious. And I could also feel terrifically bored and lonely and pointless.

On Sunday we had a college friend of Emily's here for lunch even though I was as overwhelmed and overcommitted as always and so exhausted I kept falling asleep during Paul's sermon which I almost never do. The friend is from Korea. Before he left, Emily showed him the newest kitties in the banana box on the porch. He was thrilled.

Later I learned that this was the first time in his life that he had held a baby kitten. It was almost a spiritual experience for him.

Well. If I had waited to have company until I felt ready and the hedge was trimmed, JB from Korea might have gone his whole life without holding a 3-week-old kitten.

I averted a great tragedy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Letter from Harrisburg--Orpha, Moms, and Other Unselfish People

Uncle James and Aunt Orpha, at their house, last Christmas

The quiet heroism of motherhood
By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
MAY 8, 2016

I knew Aunt Orpha’s phone number by heart.

She and Uncle James lived less than half a mile south of us in the brick house that my husband’s grandpa built, back in the 1930s.

“I suppose most of you know that Nadine and Luella are coming out for the Kropf reunion,” she wrote in an email last summer. “Some of us thought we should have a Smucker get-together while they are here. You are welcome to meet here in our yard. I feel rather busy with five grandchildren here and would be glad if someone else would go ahead with the planning.”

She never used the prefix “step.” I notice that now.

I organized that “Smucker get-together,” as it turned out. While two of the nephews grilled, Orpha and I consulted in the background, her teenage grandchildren ran inside for more serving spoons, and we had a lovely picnic, despite the wind, out under the big tree in the front yard.

She and I also organized Thanksgiving dinners at church for friends and relatives who didn’t have any place to go, and I always asked her to bring her famous spicy marinated Caribbean turkey.

Orpha and I borrowed ingredients from each other, and they used our van when the family came to visit. She always offered me the last picking of green beans, and the children and I would pick them from vines twining up the carefully stretched strings in her prosperous and capably cared for garden.

It was easy to forget that Orpha hadn’t always been there. The most selfless people are often the easiest to ignore, and we don’t realize their remarkable influence and value until they’re gone.

We got the news from a deputy on the front porch, late on Good Friday evening. James and Orpha, on a long road trip to visit friends and relatives, had been in a car crash in Wisconsin. James was killed, Orpha seriously injured. The sheriff there traced the license plate information and called the local police, who went to James and Orpha’s house first, found no one there and came to tell us.

Despite desperate measures and the care of the children who flew in to stay with her in that Wisconsin hospital, Orpha did not recover from her injuries.

We read novels of people who reinvent their lives, stepping from one life into a completely different one. Orpha actually did it in real life. It wasn’t until the funeral that I realized how drastically her life had changed at 50 years old.

Before that, she helped raise seven younger brothers, graduated from a Mennonite college in Virginia and worked as a teacher in this country and as a missionary and teacher in Puerto Rico. She wrote elementary-level curriculum in both English and Spanish.

Uncle James had lost his wife to cancer in 1992. Some years later, a mutual friend introduced him to Orpha. Her brother quoted her as saying to James, “You’re as dedicated to farming in Oregon as I am to teaching in Puerto Rico. I don’t think this will work.”

No one knows exactly how it happened, but she soon closed the door to that part of her life and became a farmer’s wife, a mom and a grandma in Oregon.

She took on her husband’s life — his five grown children, the farm, friends, church, history and extended family. She even wrote for the family circle letter, a round-robin letter that’s been circulating among James’ siblings every week for over 50 years.

“I always read Orpha’s letter first; it was so interesting,” one of the aunts told me. “I hope it’s OK to admit that.”

It was easy to see Orpha’s devotion to her family as she embroidered pillowcases for the granddaughters’ birthday gifts and spoke in almost every conversation of “the children” and plans for a visit either to or from.

In more recent years, the older grandchildren descended on her house — six one summer, five in another — making it their home base while they worked in the grass seed harvest.

“She was just this bubble of love that took in everyone around her,” says Simone, a daughter-in-law.

Most of us take on motherhood and its requirements gradually, such as my young friend Esta who is expecting her second child. “When you’re single and you choose to do something unselfish, it’s kind of a big deal,” she says. “But when you’re a mom, it’s just what’s expected of you.”

Orpha took on marriage and motherhood all at once, excelled at it, seldom referenced her old life and saw no need to impress us with her past accomplishments.

I took her for granted, which is, unfortunately, what we often do to the mothers of our lives — all those unselfish givers who discard their own ambitions to nurture us and ensure our success. And afterwards we think, “Wow. That was really amazing, what she did.”

Immersing your own life in another’s isn’t especially valued or paid well or honored in our society. No teenager nervously asks permission to pose with a neighborhood mom and then posts a proud selfie on Instagram.

On the other hand, no mom that I know seeks to collect the recognition or gratitude she deserves.

The evening before the funeral, while the family was still at the visitation, I went to the house at a daughter-in-law’s request to pick up a load of towels and sheets because the washer had quit working at the worst time.

I found the house full, not only of the family’s suitcases and belongings but also of a strange, heavy emptiness.

I still feel it today — the loss, the sense of something special once there and now gone, when I work in the yard and glance at the brick house to the south or think about calling to borrow a dozen eggs.

We are not all called to be mothers, but we can all choose that essential selflessness of motherhood, the giving, the self-forgetful investing of our lives in others. The maturity this choice requires reconciles us to the truth that much of our sacrifice won’t be appreciated until long after we’re gone. But after we’ve received that kind of loving involvement ourselves, we realize how immeasurably it mattered.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

MOP April 26--In Spirit and Truth

One goal I had for our two days in Washington, DC, was to attend a service at the National Cathedral.

So we did, Paul and Matt and I.

It made me wonder if I was born for liturgy and pipe organs and high stained-glass windows instead of long sermons from lay ministers, a capella congregational singing, and CLP quarterlies.

Sitting there in the marble vastness of the cathedral, following the printed bulletin, responding half a beat behind the right time [Mennonites aren't made for liturgy, says my sister-in-law Rosie], and gazing up at those high soaring pointed arches in all directions,  I felt my soul lifting up up UP in a deep sense of worship that I had previously experienced only in nature, such as the time I walked home in the dark from a women's prayer group meeting in Canada and stood still in the snow, gazing upward, as a phenomenal display of Northern lights swirled and swooped with joy.

The post-Easter liturgy, with its carefully chosen Scriptures and prayers, and our responsive Amens, fit perfectly with the formal and ornate setting.

The homily was a nice little speech, but it lacked the specific exposition of Scripture that we get at our home church, and the congregational singing was such that I was singing louder and better than anyone around me, which is never the case back at Brownsville.

So I've thought a lot, since, about the different ways we worship, and what is meaningful for us, and how much we ought to deliberately combine beauty and worship.

Before we went to DC, we spent a few days in Virginia, staying at my sister's place with my nephew, Jason, who grew up a solid Presbyterian but has chosen as an adult to attend an Anglican church.  Normally the Anglican church in America is called Episcopalian, but due to doctrinal differences with the American headquarters, some churches have pulled away, and his at least is a daughter church of the Anglican church in Africa.

Jason says that someone studied the demographics of his church--and I don't recall if it was his congregation only or the entire denomination--and the third-highest-represented group was artists.

Which tells me that maybe the practical farmer types respond to an unadorned service and building, and we creative types feel drawn to something more elaborate and visually and verbally pleasing.

Never fear, I don't plan to leave Brownsville Mennonite for more liturgical pastures.

But I'm thinking I could incorporate elements of it into my private worship times.  Maybe some deliberate beauty in a vase of flowers nearby and the Book of Common Prayer.

As you can see, the Cathedral is beautiful.

It is also huge--one of the ten largest in the world, I'm told.  The Washington Monument could lie down in the center aisle.

After the service, Matt took us through doors and down stairs and around columns and past little rabbit-warren hallways, into smaller chapels the size of our sanctuary at home, past crypts in the basement walls, and Helen Keller buried in a column.

I found the crypts somewhat disturbing.
It was fascinating.

You should go see it.

In one of the rabbit warrens down below, I saw this
mysterious little door, with a glow behind it.
What ever could it be?

Oh.  This.
For more MOP posts go to Emily's blog here and Jenny's here.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

MOP April 20--Finding My Great-Grandpa's Grave

The last few years, I've been intrigued with family stories, and this sad tale of my great-grandpa in particular.  Here's the brief version:

Aaron Miller was a fine young man living near Charm in Holmes County, Ohio.  At 28 years old, he was married to Mary and had two little boys, Enos and Adam.  Mary was pregnant with a third boy. Aaron was known to be a capable and hardworking farmer.

No doubt all these things factored into the church ordaining him to the ministry in the spring of that year.  Unfortunately, the church was having serious problems.

One day, at about noon, Aaron told his brother he's going out to see if the clover was ready to harvest.   The afternoon wore on and he didn't return, so the family went looking for him.

He had taken his own life, hanging himself in a tree.

Such a death carried such terrible shame in the Amish culture that he was buried outside the cemetery, on the other side of the fence.

We heard the story from Mom, never in a lot of detail, but at least it was honestly told.  I thought about it a lot more after I lost a nephew, Leonard, to suicide almost ten years ago.

What are these dark threads weaving through our lineage, I wondered, wreaking such unspeakable pain?  Was there hope for our children?  Did our story go on?  Were we doomed to terrible secrets and continual shame?

The reason for our trip to Ohio last month was to speak at a women's retreat.  But what a great opportunity to take a side trip into our family history.

A few years ago, I heard a hint that maybe the fence had been moved to include Aaron's grave inside the cemetery.  Strange how that news gave me a lift of hope, for myself now, for the future, and even back into the past.  I was determined to find his grave and see for myself.

I emailed my brother Marcus who contacted our second cousin Marvin for directions, and in the morning, before the retreat started that afternoon, we followed the directions out of Berlin and down ever-narrower back roads until we were back in the hills creeping along a one-lane dirt road, looking for a lane to the north.

Finally we asked an Amish girl on a bike, and she pointed us to the lane we had passed twice.  "Follow it on back," she said, "Past the house."

So we did.  It went from gravel to mud to a grassy track, and there on a bit of a rise was the little cemetery, beautiful and old and quiet and looking out over a valley with fields and a sawmill.

We opened the gate and went in, and within minutes we found it, a small, tilted gravestone for Aaron Miller.

Suddenly I was in tears, thinking of that terrible terrible day, the horse-drawn hearse slowly trundling back that long lane, the long line of silent people, that desolate little widow, 25 years old, rounded with child, holding the hands of two frightened little boys, and the overwhelming sense of disaster, of darkness, of abandonment, of condemnation, of loss.

Then, in a final twist of pain, her young husband that she loved and desperately needed was buried outside the fence, because his deed was too bad to ever be atoned for, and the whole community saw her and her boys as the tainted leftovers of his sinful choice.

So I cried for her, and for all of us since who have lived under any cloud of shame and rejection, and did not know that there are words for this, and truth, and hope, and help, and even, impossibly, redemption.

I don't know how or why the decision was made, but at some point in the fairly-recent past, the cemetery needed to be enlarged, and they moved the fence so that it now encloses Aaron's grave, and he is now buried with his community and his people.
At the far end, on the right, you can see where the new part of the fence begins.
I wished I could tell my great-grandma about it.

Later that day, I found a genealogy book about my ancestors in the Anabaptist  Heritage Center. Several pages were devoted to Aaron's death.  An old account reads, "The deceased . . . left a wife and 2 children, father, mother, brothers, and sisters, who are deeply sorrowing over this rash deplorable act."

This is a broken world, and we are broken people.  Depression is genetic and really awful, and sometimes it overpowers a person and wins.

But it isn't the end of the story. I am sure of that. Here we are, Aaron's descendants, and there are lots of us, and we are survivors and storytellers and moms and dads and students and singers, and we get to see sunsets, and we fight hard.

We still grieve for Leonard, but we know that Jesus takes away not only guilt but also shame, and He heals.  We have moved on, and we have redeemed his death by talking about depression in honest words, by asking for help, and by a deep and continuing compassion for hurting people.  We are not ok with "fine" when we ask "How are you?"  We are adamant about wanting the truth.

We believe that the story goes on.

I wish I could go back and tell my great-grandparents that the word is depression, it isn't their fault,  there are things you can do for it, and it's ok to ask for help.  I'd like to tell them that the shame their community placed on them was not from God, and that Jesus takes our shame and gives back His glory.  I want to tell them that silence is wrong and unnecessary, the truth will set them free, and they are unimaginably loved.  And they have a hope and a future.

Since I can't tell them, I am telling you instead.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

MOP April 14--Obedience, Words, and Miracles

Today I'm plucking a memory from my trip to Virginia and Christian Light Publications' annual Writers and Artists Conference.

I don't normally agree to more than one out-of-state speaking engagement in a year, and I had agreed to speak in Ohio on March 10.  Agreeing to two trips in one month was a little crazy, but the CLP opportunity doesn't come around every day, so I said yes.

I had two of my talks prepared but the third just wasn't happening.  Actually it was my second talk but the third one to get written.  When I found a spare moment, I drew a bubble map like Ben and Matt taught me and sketched out my ideas, with the main idea in a circle in the middle and others spidering out.

Then, between the two out-of-state trips, we went to the 4-day ACE school convention in Newberg. In a spare minute, I stopped in at Goodwill, bought a notebook, and tore a bunch of pages into recipe-card-sized pieces.  During the rallies, I pulled ideas off the bubble map and wrote one idea on each paper.  And when the hipster songleader* had us all stand to sing slow praise songs I tried not to scatter paper bits all over the auditorium.

*Hipster + ACE is kind of like tennis shoes + a silk dress--it Just Doesn't Go.

The idea was to get home late Thursday night, arrange these papers and my thoughts in order, write like mad, pack like crazy, and prep like fury from Friday to Tuesday, since we were leaving Wednesday.

Preparing three talks and numerous handouts is a HUGE job. 

Friday night we had a deputy on the porch telling us that Paul's Uncle James had died and Aunt Orpha was seriously hurt, a story I will tell in a later post when I feel ready to tell it.

From then on I was in that weird, shocked, suspended mental state that is typical when a loved one dies, plus I got very little done except talk on the phone over and over and over again.   But on Monday, by God's grace, I was able to type up my talk and also the handout.  We flew out Wednesday with no major glitches, unlike the trip to Ohio.

Thursday we went to CLP and I picked up the stacks of handouts they had printed for me, tested the microphone, and got nervouser by the minute.  As everyone arrived and the main-assembly session began, I felt rattled and scattered and unprepared.  Then, minutes before the first talk was to begin, I flipped through my binder and discovered that somehow I had forgotten to print out that second talk.

What to do??!!  Well, at least I had my flash drive.  I snagged Rachel the nice secretary and asked her to print it for me.  She was very helpful but came back in 5 minutes and said that talk wasn't on the flash drive.


I frantically tried to call Ben, Emily, Jenny, SOMEBODY.

Finally I called school, and Mr. B. said Jenny had gone home sick, which was providential, as it turned out.

Everyone left for their workshops at the end of the morning announcements except for the 85 people who were taking mine.  I started my talk, feeling kind of like that dream where I got up to speak and didn't have any notes.

I think I told them what was going on with the missing notes.

Halfway through my talk, Jenny called me.  I made the hasty and desperate decision to answer my cell phone and immediately felt ridiculous, talking on my phone in front of everyone, and told her I'd call back.

Real professional and cool under pressure, that Mrs. Smucker.

As soon as I finished the first talk, I called Jenny back. Praise God she was home by the computer.  She found the file and emailed it to Rachel the secretary.  Rachel printed it out minutes before my talk. The talk went swimmingly.

But I felt So Dumb And Unprofessional.

Let me turn down a side road here.  I don't know if it's like this for all speakers, but I've found that if good things come out of my talks, it's entirely a God project and not something I orchestrate, plan, or scheme.

I've seen astonishing things happen to people who listened to me talk, but I'm always as surprised as they are.  It's always a matter of their hearts being open to a miracle, and all they need is a nudge.

This is a strange example, but you know how, when you're a frazzled and hormonal young mom, and you just really need a good cry, then invariably something happens to push you over the edge.  It doesn't seem to matter what it is.  Maybe the son dumps the potted plant or the baby wakes up after only a ten-minute nap, and that does it and you burst into tears and pretty soon things look a lot brighter.

Well.  Sometimes people's hearts are just ready for a change, a turn, a new understanding, or an outright miracle.  All they need is a little push and God does the rest.

Sometimes, the words I say are the nudge they need, and I think this is astonishing of God to let this be so.

Like I said, it's the Lord and not me, because often people hear things in my talks that I never put there, at least not consciously, or I just mentioned it in passing, on the way to more important points.  So I always pray ahead of time that people will hear what they need to hear, and for God to instigate the change they're ready for.

Back at the conference, we fast forward through a panel discussion I was on, a second day of sessions, a third talk, and many many intense one-on-one conversations with women who just needed a mom.

By suppertime on Friday evening I was so deep-down exhausted in body, mind, and soul I wanted to collapse.

Ruth Kuepfer is a lady we met in Kenya years ago who lives in an apartment right next to CLP and works as an artist.  She had invited me over for chai but we hadn't set a time, and I kind of lost track of her.  Things were winding down and people were leaving, so I found out where Ruth lives and slipped away and knocked on her door.  She had a bunch of girls over and they were talking and laughing and eating, but they welcomed me anyhow.

I sat on the couch and Ruth handed me a cup of chai, and I can't tell you how thoroughly ministered-to I felt in body and soul as I sipped that cup of hot sweet milky dew from heaven.

A nice girl sat beside me on the couch.  We got a bit acquainted--I'll call her Faith.  She kind of impulsively said that she enjoyed my talks but her very favorite thing was that episode of forgetting to print my second talk.


Faith said she is also very scatterbrained and always forgets things and leaves her sweater behind, stuff like that, and she felt like it was a flaw that would keep her from ever making something of herself.  Yet here I was, obviously scatterbrained also, but up there speaking and doing fine.

I sipped my chai and thought, "!!!You have got to be kidding me!!!!" 

My worst moment, suddenly redeemed.

Then Faith kind of paused and said she wants to tell me something else.  She used to love to write and journal and express herself in all kinds of words.  She just wrote wrote wrote.

But then something really bad happened--she didn't specify--and she thought she could never write again.  And for several years, she didn't, not a word.  She just couldn't put pen to paper.

Recently a friend talked her into writing a little bit of poetry, but that was all she could manage.

Then, she said, I told them three times on Thursday that if you're a Christian, then you have something to say, and you need to say it.  It went right to her heart and she thought, All right then.

(Did I really say that?  Three times??)

That night she sat down and wrote in her journal for the first time in years. Pen on paper.  Words and thoughts flowing onto the page.

Then she called her mom and told her what had happened.  Her mom started crying and said, "You have to thank her."

Faith said, "Mom, there's no way, with all those people, and someone is always talking to her."

And then I walked in and sat beside her on the couch and drank tea.

*     *     *

I still get tears in my eyes, thinking about Faith's story and the timing and that sense of her and I being on the inside of a big light-filled soap bubble that was popping right now.

God is always working behind the scenes, and He is under no obligation to show us what He's up to.  We are to trust, believe, and obey whether we see the results or not.

But once in a while the curtain is briefly pulled aside and we get to see the unseen.

I'm pretty sure that the only way to be eligible for God's surprises is to walk in faith and obedience.

This is why I do what I do, working with people and words, doing what I feel called to do.  Because when you walk the path God sets you on and go through the door he puts in front of you, even if you're scatterbrained and a little crazy and don't know what you're doing and get so tired you can't focus your eyes, sometimes God picks you to be the nudge to set a miracle in motion in someone's heart--a turn, a change, a sudden hope, and maybe even restoring the voice and words that they were sure they'd lost forever.

*     *     *
When I emailed Faith to get permission to tell this incident, she said, "I've been keeping a consistent 'story journal' (or what ever you wanna call it) every evening of every day since that. I have been surprised by the grace and healing this has worked in me."

Sunday, April 10, 2016

MOP Extra--Letter from Harrisburg on the Crazy Trip


Speaking assignment gets a stern test

I should have seen it coming, because any inspirational speaker knows that you will be brutally tested ahead of time on whatever subject you’re assigned.

As I prepared to speak at a Mennonite women’s retreat in Ohio, I didn’t catch on. I only thought, “Wow. This is a lot of weird obstacles in my way.”

Three weeks before the retreat, my aging laptop computer with all my notes crashed and died, refusing to respond even to my techie son and husband.

However, in our office was a book-sized device intended to keep the household’s computers backed up. Our son Matt had set it up for us, and I wasn’t sure it was still doing its job in his absence.

I clicked around on the desktop computer, found the file, and there it was — all my work, up to date. What a relief.

Next came a few days at the coast, writing like mad on my tiny Netbook. While I was gone, my husband mentioned his plan to run an efficiency-increaser program on the home desktop computer.

OK, I said.

Two days later, I came home with the worst sore throat ever, razor blades shredding my swollen tonsils. Soon, it was a full-blown case of strep throat.

The retreat, with its 350 women waiting for inspiration, was only a week away. I emailed Mrs. Wengerd from the retreat committee, asking for prayer.

When I recovered enough to work again, I found that the password to the backup had disappeared when Paul ran the cleaner-upper program, and I had no idea what it was.

Desperately, I typed in former and current email and Amazon passwords, and suddenly one worked.

Crisis averted.

A month before the retreat, I had contacted the publisher of my first three books and ordered 60 copies of each to be sent ahead.

Five days before the retreat, they still hadn’t arrived. I contacted the publisher again. They had forgotten to send them.

Paul, being less busy than he used to be, decided to go with me on this trip via a buy-one-get-one special.

He went to park in the long-term lot at the Portland airport while I went through security. Then, while I waited, he sent me a text. His driver’s license was missing from his wallet.

I am not proud of my reaction of panic, fear and too much imagination. Who goes to the airport without double-checking their license? This isn’t like him — maybe he’s getting dementia and is headed for that happy, oblivious state where people are healthy and strong but have to be watched every minute or they’ll wander downtown in their pajamas.

Paul got through security on his Costco card.

We were among the last ones on the plane. Toward the back, I saw an empty aisle seat and grabbed it before I noticed that the man beside me was very large.

The plane took off, and my seat mate fell asleep and gradually expanded, like a balloon, until his shoulder overlapped mine by three inches. His arm edged over the armrest and far into my territory as I folded myself into the remaining two-thirds of the seat.

I let down my tray table and let it rest on the Sleeping Giant’s arm. Then, hoping to get some work done, I placed my notebook on the tray, dug for a pen and panicked again.

My handful of carefully collected pens was still at home, lying on my desk. I had one pen. ONE! How would I make it? I have to have at least three pens or I feel shaky and scared. Would they have pens in Ohio?

Calm down, I told myself. At least I have this one.

I pulled the cap off the pen and it dripped ominous plops of black ink on my notebook, having exploded from the pressure changes of flying.

I sat with Paul on the flight from Las Vegas to Canton-Akron, near the front of the plane, still a bit jittery, wondering what would happen next.

About halfway through the flight, a silvery gray cat came walking up the aisle. The flight attendant turned, took one pop-eyed look, and shrieked, “Whose cat is this?!”

An embarrassed woman hurried up the aisle and snatched up the cat, muttering about letting him out of his carrier.

I thought, “Did that just happen?”

It must have, because the flight attendant kept talking. “Just when you thought this flight was going to be boring, he just came calmly walking up the aisle.”

I laughed and laughed.

Surely the tide had turned, from frustrating to simply bizarre.

At Canton-Akron, we got our luggage and walked out of the terminal well after midnight. Paul had made a reservation at a nearby hotel with shuttle service. He called them.

“Your reservation was for two nights ago,” they said. “Tonight we’re filled up.”

Never in 30 years had he done something like this. Dementia was at his door, I knew it, and despair was at mine.

Paul called the Hilton. They had a room and sent a van to get us.

The next day, I tracked down the book order. They’re sending 180 books, in one box, weighing 24 pounds, the website said, which I knew was impossible since each book weighs half a pound.

Eventually we arrived at the Amish hub of Berlin, Ohio, and booked in at the Grande Hotel, where I turned into a tourist, gushing about bonnets, buggies and dark billowing dresses.

The books arrived hours before the retreat. They had sent 60 each of two titles and only 12 of the third.

My talk went well, the retreat was refreshing, and after an eventful weekend, we flew home.  This time, Paul had his passport, which our daughter had sent via overnight mail.  At the airport, I went to baggage claim while Paul took the shuttle to long-term parking.

He got into the car and looked down, and there was his driver’s license, slipped between the seat and the center console.

Two hours later, we were safe at home. Paul was his capable self again; I let go of my fears.

The material is only a small percentage of reality, I am sure of that. If you speak out on a subject, unseen forces will test your authenticity.

Later, as I reflected on the strange events of this trip and its preparation, I finally made the connection.

Of course.

The title of the retreat was “Joy in the Journey.”

Friday, April 08, 2016

MOP 5--The Oldest Kid's Perspective on Parenting

Matt, our oldest son, lives in Washington, D.C., works as an engineer for the Navy, studies for his Master's degree in aerospace engineering, and schemes how he can get to Mars.
It's always fun to visit him.

He has a studio apartment that is gadgeted and efficiencied and streamlined from top to bottom.

He built a Murphy bed that he let Paul and me sleep on.  It pivots on a hinge and disappears up against the wall, and then swish and turn and drop--there is an efficient desk on the back of the bed that is now a wall.
If that makes sense.

His fridge is full of efficient little containers with just the right amount of asparagus or blueberries to make a shake.  Magnetic strips on the walls hold his utensils.  One hose by the sink leads to a half-size countertop dishwasher; another hose goes to his water filter.

He lives and dies by whiteboards that contain lists of morning and evening routines, weightlifting goals, and current weight and body fat percentage, both of which he tries to increase by way of a shake he makes that contain 3 cups whole milk, 1 1/3 cups peanut butter, 1 can coconut milk, and a bit of cinnamon.  He divides this three ways, into plastic bottles, and drinks one at work every day.

He attaches markers and vitamin cases to the whiteboard with little exotic-metal magnets--neodynim or something.

Then there's the huge weightlifting frame he designed and built.
And the bank of little light switches that switch on individually with 6 switches but off with a single switch.

What's most amusing to me is all the traits of his grandparents that manifest themselves.  Grandpa Smucker's inventiveness, Grandma Smucker's love of gadgets, and Grandpa Yoder's contentment with living alone with all these happy little rituals that no one interferes with.

One night we had a long talk about parenting.  Matt was not an easy child to raise and I have a million regrets, especially with how much I punished when it obviously wasn't working.  Our friends always seemed to be in on a system that worked, or a certain set of how-to teachings, or a book that had it all figured out.

We floundered, failed, and got frustrated.  Whenever we got something figured out for one child, we soon saw it wouldn't work for the next one.

Now, Matt feels he was far better off with our fly-by-the-seat-of-your -pants parenting than he would have been with any rigid system we would have tried to slot him into.

Interestingly, his superiors say he is better with "squishy" situations, where things are undefined and you have to figure it out as you go, than most people his age. Matt thinks the same is true of his siblings.

It is really nice to hear appreciation and vindication from your children.

I would guess that Amy would have been happy with more of a system.  I know that at times she felt like we were way too chaotic.

If, for example, a friend with small children came over, and I told Matt to entertain the little guests, he would take them to the kitchen and figure out snacks and drinks and such.  It might be chocolate chips and soup crackers on dinner plates, but he would figure it out on his own.

Amy always wanted things spelled out.  "What shall I give them?  Apple slices?  Shall I serve them on plates or would napkins be ok? With peanut butter?"

But, as Matt said, today Amy seems perfectly comfortable finding her own creative way in all kinds of situations.

It feels like vindication to think that maybe our parenting style of meaning well but not knowing what we were doing produced children who can find their way through unexpected situations.

In a Facebook conversation, I said, "We stressed way too much, especially with Matt, but --bless his heart-- he still feels like the model of "try something, see if it works, try something else" was better than doing it the One Right Way."

Matt chimed in with a long analysis on parenting, which I found interesting and I hope he puts to use himself one of these years:

1. Parents who think they have "The One Way to Raise Kids" are full of themselves. If there actually was a "One Right Way", what are the odds that you, of all people, would find it?

2. If I have "The Plan", I can go through parenting never being forced to make admit a mistake. I have the perfect plan, there will be no mistakes. (That pride thing again).

Parent A

-> A is 25 and just had his (or her) first kid

-> A is a little insecure about his (or her) parenting, and has difficulty with the idea of being an imperfect parent. A goes searching for the "One Right Way" to raise kids.

-> A believes that he (or she) has found the ONE RIGHT WAY To Raise Children. He heard BG (yes, that BG) preaching about raising Godly children. BG has a 25-point plan, and anecdotes aplenty how it worked for hundreds of parents. BG has Bible verses galore, backing them up. A has fully bought into the "One Right Way", making his/her friends feel inferior along the way.

-> Turns out, A is not raising the same children that BG is. Turns out, some of those 25 points don't have the intended result. 

-> Turns out, A was a little full of himself*, thinking that a "One Right Way" actually exists and that he had found it.

-> Turns out, the unintended results were festering for years, inside his children's minds where he couldn't see them.

-> Turns out, A is too far down this path, once unintended consequences start appearing

1. Following the 25-point plan was a mistake. But having made this mistake for 15-20 years, A is so invested that he can't swallow his pride and admit he was wrong (further damaging what relationship he could still have).
2. A's child is now 18-20, and everything festering in the child's brain has begun to harden...even if A manages to apologize, 15 years of damage won't go away overnight.

Parent B

- B is also 25, and just had his first kid

- B is every bit as insecure as A, but is inherently (and correctly) suspicious of the BG's in this world.

- B, turns out, has a little more humility than A. B is willing to admit mistakes and apologize to his child, if need be.

- For whatever reason, God has gifted B with a child that is more inherently difficult than A's child.

- B tries one thing after another, looking for something that works. Many of these are mistakes, and quickly dropped. 

- When B tells A, A tells B the he/she should follow The Plan...if B "just follows the 25 steps", his child will be perfectly well-behaved. B tries "The Plan". However, B quickly realizes "The Plan" doesn't work for his child. B drops "The Plan" quickly, and no damage is done.*

*To my knowledge, my parent's never followed BG

 Over time, several things happen
1. Mistakes get recognized quickly. If it warrants apologizing to his child, B apologizes to his child. B then tries something else.
2. Turns out, a mistake pursued for a month, coupled with an apology if necessary, is easily recovered from. 
3. Turns out, when many things are tried and failed at, something that works will eventually be found.
4. Turns out, admitting a mistake and apologizing pays huge dividends. Unlike A, B's child reaches 20 harboring no hurt feelings or resentment.
5. Turns out, a 20-year-old who harbors no resentment makes MUCH better decisions than a 20-year-old who does*.


 Learn to swallow your pride

 A book with parenting ideas, great. A book with lessons learned from other parents, also great.

 A Very Scriptural 25-point plan to parenting, not great. Burn it. Seriously. It will do more harm than good.

Solomon got wisdom directly from God. The rest of us have to make mistakes along the way...so long as your pride isn't one of them, things will have a tendency to work themselves out.

 One thing to point out: 

I am NOT saying that you should just go easy on your kids.

Parents who go super easy (no discipline, no structure) on their kids are making the same mistake as Parent A...they never take any action to train or discipline their kids, because their pride won't let them risk making a mistake.