Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Mothers Day Column


I stood in the morning chill and sold my mother’s fabric.

She is well-settled in heaven, I am sure, yet her presence felt near and real as I arranged her collection of vintage linen tea-towel calendars and laid out the calicoes from the 1990s, all country blues and mauves in tiny florals.

I also arranged my own fabric collection on the plastic tables in my friend Patti’s driveway.

Mom left baskets and tubs and boxes of fabric when she passed away, and dresser drawers stuffed too full to open. I dug through her stash for my favorite pieces and added them to my own vast collection, which accumulated in the attic and sewing room and, eventually, in places where fabric didn’t belong, such as the chicken shed and laundry room.

Like Mom, I had purchased each piece with specific ideas of what it might become. Also like her, I magnetically attracted other people’s outdated castoffs, in which we saw scrap quilts and stuffed toys and ruffled pillows.

Finally, though, I admitted I had so much fabric it was actually stifling my creativity, so when Halsey had its annual garage sale day, I asked Patti if I could set up at her place. Then I measured, bundled and priced hundreds of fabric pieces — knits, quilt fabrics, denim, velvet and much more. Much as I hated to let it go, I felt Mom would understand.

As I handled the pieces my mother had purchased and enjoyed, I remembered her.

Like many mothers and daughters, she and I had a complicated relationship. A private soul, there was so much she could never say out loud, communicating instead in hints that I seldom caught. In contrast, I always felt compelled to clarify everything in plain words for the world to hear, which she found horrifying. She was impatient with my dreamy impracticality and frustrated with my sketchy work ethic.

As a child, I internalized her dismay into dark conclusions about my value and her love for me.

Yet we always connected in our enjoyment of crafts, stories, humor in simple things and bargains.

One of the best gifts she gave me, near the end of her life, was far more valuable than all the skills she taught and all the fabric she left. We had a conversation in which I was finally able to tell her about the hardest parts of my childhood and how abandoned and unloved I felt. By quietly listening, she gave me permission to say it out loud. Then, calmly and without defensiveness, she affirmed that she understood how it had affected me and went on to explain what had been going on in her life then, and in her marriage and the church community. She had loved me very much, she said. But she was completely overwhelmed with trying to survive. She was so very sorry I got the messages I did.

As an adult and a mother of daughters, I could finally understand and heal.

Parenting is far less a checklist of dos and don’ts than it is a glaring demonstration of who we are. We mother out of our tangled unresolved issues combined with a fierce love and a determination to get it right. Often, we are only beginning to figure out adulthood ourselves, and we desperately want to do our best with our babies. Meanwhile, we also struggle with finances, take care of elderly parents and work too hard.

Our kids pick up unintended messages from the messiness of our lives.

“There’s no point in talking about it,” I’ve heard people say, “because it’s done. You can’t go back and undo the past. Deal with it and move on.”

Yet I found, in the conversation with my mother, that when she let me revisit the past and explain how her actions had affected me, and then clarified without being defensive, it was as though in some mysterious way we went back and redid things, as they should have been done.

“My brothers and I talk about our childhood a lot,” a woman told me recently. “But we can’t talk to our mom, because she starts crying and says ‘Oh, I was such a failure.’ And then we focus on comforting her, and it really isn’t helpful.”

So when an adult daughter asked to speak to me recently, I had a chance to put my philosophy into practice. We sat down with a pot of tea and I listened quietly, which is far harder than you’d think.

“I always felt like you thought I was incompetent, like I didn’t have what it took,” she said, “with chores or doing homework or anything. Now, I’m always trying to compensate in weird ways, like I still don’t see myself as having what it takes.”

It hurt.

I thought of Mom, doing this for me, and I didn’t burst into tears and insist on being reassured. Instead, I acknowledged what had happened to her and then carefully explained who I was at that point in my life, what was happening, what I was afraid of, why I did what I did, and how I would do it differently today.

“Thank you so much for doing this,” my daughter said as we sipped our tea. “It really helps. And it’s almost like going back and redoing things, even though that’s impossible.”

At the garage sale that sunny Saturday in Halsey, I watched with delight as women with my mother’s passion and determination marched in with large handmade shopping bags and gathered armfuls of fabric.

My daughters walked all over town, sniffing out bargains, then came and watched my sale so I could eat lunch. They were as pleased as I was over the shy little girls who picked out pretty pieces from the scraps I was selling by the ounce and proudly paid the 30 or 50 cents by themselves.

Mom would have loved it all.

This complicated task of mothering is not something we will ever do perfectly, but I’ve found that enjoying the things we have in common, whether it’s tea or quilts or garage sales, will help us find our way through our relationship tangles.

Most of our influence as moms will be unintentional, and we should work not so much on shaping our children as on becoming the person we want them to be.

We can’t undo the past, but giving our children permission to talk about our mistakes and misdeeds is one of the best gifts we can give today, a way of reaching back and gently rearranging how things were to how they should have been.

Monday, April 30, 2018

ABC Day 30--What about Amos? [Your FAQs Answered]

This is the final installment of our April Blogging Challenge. Thanks so much for staying with the four of us. It's been fun but we are all ready to move on to blogging only when we feel like it.

Last Saturday I spoke at a luncheon at Bethany Church of Franklin, a lovely little country church south of Cheshire that reminded me so much of the little church in Minnesota that we attended and where Dad still goes. Both were originally Methodist churches and built in the 1800s, so maybe all the little rural Methodist churches of that era were built to the same pattern.
Bethany Church. Just beyond it is a near-identical church that was built when
the members divided over methods of baptism.


This is from a cookbook and the only picture I could find of our old
church in Minnesota. It has been added on to several times
but you can see the original church and steeple in the center.
Another similarity was that they both had one big room in the basement that was always subdivided with curtains for Sunday school. However, the basement of the Oregon church always flooded in winter.

That bit of history has nothing to do with this post, but the lovely luncheon ladies had a bunch of questions for me and wanted updates on various things. The questions were almost identical to the ones they asked at the retreat in Montana a few weeks ago and at Emmaus Lutheran a few weeks before that.

So, just in case you've been wondering too:

1. I hear the Register-Guard was sold. What does that mean for your job?

The RG has gradually let go of its freelance columnists, one by one, over the last ten years-- Maryana Vollstedt the recipe columnist, Bill Sullivan the hiker, and others. Recently, after being in the Baker family for 91 years, the RG was sold to GateHouse Media, and I think about a third of the employees were let go. I asked my editor what this means for me, and she said she hasn't heard, and that I should keep writing until I hear otherwise.

I don't like the uncertainty of this, and I've been thinking a lot about how long I should continue the column if they don't lay me off first. On one hand, it's great to have an established venue and deadlines, so I actually get something written. On the other hand, it's been 18 years. That is a really long run. Our children—otherwise known as my reliable story generators—are all grown up. Maybe it's time.

The ladies at Saturday's luncheon said they're going to write to the paper and tell them to keep me on, which is great for job security.

We will see.

2. How many kids are still at home?

At the moment, the three girls are at home. Amy came home last fall after almost four years in Thailand. She and Jenny are in college. Emily is working at our church school.

As for the guys, Matt is still in Washington, D.C., Ben lives in Corvallis, and Steven lives at the fire station in Junction City.

3. How is the daughter that was sick for so long?

That would be Emily, whose health is still a bit fragile but who has powered through and made a very good life for herself and figured out how to work around her energy limitations.

4. What's happening with that cabin?

Paul has gradually been restoring and installing windows and doors. Before the windows were in, he covered the openings with plastic, so I was able to heat the cabin and work out there a lot this winter. I really really [really really!] like it. There's something about having a dedicated space for writing that makes you sit down and WORK without getting distracted.

These days, in addition to about four new building projects at the warehouse, Paul is working on the floor of the loft, putting in the wood that used to be above the bagger at the warehouse. He's trying to preserve the famous footprint, so that will be special.

After that, he'll put the pretty restored old wood on the "downstairs" floor.

5. What about that novel?

La la la LAAA I CAN'T HEAR YOUUUU. Oh look! Squirrel!

6. Has Steven been back to Kenya?

Not since 2011, but we would all love to go back for a visit and he would like to go back to work there someday. No specifics yet.

7. Whatever happened with that incident where you were out chasing chickens in pajamas and a guy in a truck was taking pictures?

The pictures never showed up on social media or anywhere else, thankfully. It turned out that if you type a certain neighbor's address into Google maps, it actually points you to our place. So it might have been a case of mistaken identity.

8. How is your dad doing, and is he coming out for the summer?

Dad/Amos is 101 years old and by all reports has had a good winter. My sister Rebecca just spent a few days with him and took him up to Duluth to see the sights. At this point we don't plan to have him come to Oregon this summer. He was getting so fragile, and I think he needs to stay home. But we'll probably go visit him.

9. What's happening with all your fabric? And just how much is "a lot"??

I'm not ready to divulge just how much fabric I own. Actually, I have almost as much as ever despite doing a bunch of sewing the last couple months.

However: If you want to see an unspecified percentage of my stash, come to the Halsey yard sales this Saturday. I'm going to borrow a friend's garage at 1320 West 4th Street and I will offer a "lot" of fabric for sale. Please come buy it.

10. Do you have other writing projects going on?

Articles, yes, here and there. Books, no. But I have a few ideas percolating.

Quote of the Day:

Ben: What have you been cooking recently?
Steven: I made honey mustard chicken last night.
Ben: Did you use butter or bouillon?
Steven: Actually I used both!
Ben: That's actually better. Last time I separated out the fat afterwards and used it to make grilled cheese sandwiches and to put on bagels.
Steven: Really??
Ben: Yeah. It's got some curry in there…it's actually pretty good.

Mom: [thinks] My boys are talking about cooking!!!!!!




Thursday, April 26, 2018

Day 26--ABC--21 Shocking Things Your Pastor's Wife Will Never Say Out Loud!


1. She never applied for this job.
2. Some of the ideas in that sermon came from her. She won’t ever take credit for them.
3. She might influence sermons, but she has very little influence on church and leadership decisions. But sometimes she loses friends or sees her children struggle because of leadership decisions.
4. The #1 lesson of her life is trusting God with all the things she can’t control.
5. She doesn’t like everything about every sermon, whether it’s her husband’s or another pastor’s or the visiting speaker’s. But she acts like she does, knowing the courage and vulnerability it takes to get up there and preach.
6. She loves to hear positive reviews of her husband’s sermon or how he handled a situation.
7. If you have a criticism about leadership, you should talk directly to the pastors. She doesn’t want to be a liaison, passing your complaints on to her husband because you’re scared to go talk to him.
8. She can tell when her husband wanders off his notes, and she prays hard and maybe panics a little. No doubt you do too.
9. She might be making a grocery list or sketching plot ideas for a novel, and not taking sermon notes, in that little notebook. But she looks awfully attentive, doesn’t she?
10. 20% of the people take 80% of the time and energy. Or maybe it’s more like 10/90. Many of the 80-90% are energy replenishers. God bless them.
11. Those gift cards at Christmas are far more valuable than the Olive Garden dinner they represent.
12. People sometimes talk to her about “the church,” and its shortcomings and outdated policies and unwelcoming atmosphere. These things are out of her control, yet she feels vaguely responsible, and tries to explain and justify. It is awkward.
13. She is pretty sure that if you have a complaint about “the church,” God is calling you to do something about it. You have what it takes.
14. Friendship with other women in church can be complicated because of the discussions in #12, loyalty conflicts, and confidentiality issues. But it's hard to find energy and time for friendships outside of church. She can be lonely.
15. She is mostly a good person but she has moments of being malicious and cynical.
16. She needs a life and role that are totally separate from church. So don’t begrudge her the nursing job or photography hobby.
17. She knows that the least spiritual-looking person in church might well be the bravest and kindest and the one who has overcome the toughest odds.
18. She prefers real flaws to fake perfection.
19. If you write her an encouraging note, she will read it over and over and cry and tuck it in a cookbook for safe keeping. 
20. She wants her children to be allowed to be normal children rather than PK’s.
21. You might be a character in a story in a password-protected file in her computer.
22. She empathizes with Pilate’s wife, Abigail, Priscilla, Esther, Jezebel*, and every other Biblical wife of a man in leadership. 
*Yes, Jezebel. Sorry. Sometimes you just want to take charge and fix a situation.

Monday, April 23, 2018

ABC Post 23--Everything You've Wondered About That Funny Thing On My Head

For today's post, I'd like to address the most common questions I've been asked about head coverings. 

1. Would you be offended if I asked a few questions?

No. Not at all. As long as you are considerate of the hungry baby in this shopping cart, and as long as you don't reference the Amish Mafia tv show.

2. What is that thing on your head?

It is a head covering and a religious symbol. We are Christians who are part of the Mennonite denomination. We believe in obeying the Bible, and this practice is based on verses in First Corinthians 11:3-16—primarily verse 5.
". . .every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head."

So the custom is two-fold—having long hair and wearing something on it.

Here's the entire passage from the NIV Bible--

But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own[c] head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

3. Do you wear it all the time?

The idea is to be ready for prayer and prophecy (speaking truth about God) at any time. Generally, though, we put it on when we get dressed for the day and take it off when we get ready for bed.

I know women who wear a scarf at night, since we all tend to pray a lot when we can't sleep.  But that's up to the individual.

4. You wear a black thing and I see women with white caps. How does that work?

Every congregation decides what their members should wear. The traditional Amish and Mennonite head covering has been a white cap, a holdover from European tradition. When a Mennonite talks about a "covering," they're usually referencing a white cap. In Amish novels, they call it a "kapp," pronounced "cop."

Our congregation in Brownsville chose to have more options for head coverings, so I wear a black piece of fabric called a veil.  Sometimes my daughters wear different kinds of scarves.

In the Amish and Mennonite world, head coverings are symbolic not only of honoring Christ, as in the Bible passage, but also of where a woman belongs in the vast Anabaptist spectrum. How big is her covering? Is it a cap or a veil? Does it have strings? These all tell a story.

Lots of variety here, but we are all eating together.

Women wearing veils.
5. When does a girl or woman start wearing one? Did you give your daughters the option of wearing it or not?

I was an Amish child, so I wore a kapp the first time I went to church, at six weeks old, and it was never really an option for me until I was an adult and deciding if I wanted to leave the church or stay. 
I married a Mennonite man, and we have been part of a Mennonite church ever since.

The Mennonite custom is to begin wearing a covering when you come to faith in Jesus for your salvation or, if not then, then for sure when you get baptized.
Young men and women at our house. Some of the girls like lacy black veils that fit snugly on the back of the head.
Trusting in Jesus, baptism, covering, and becoming a church member are all decisions that a young person makes for themselves, but they're kind of a package deal. We would discuss these things with our daughters but tried hard not to pressure them.

In our congregation, covering is required for women members, so they didn't have the option of being a member but not covering. 
Our daughter Amy likes to wear a black scarf tied bandana-style.
6. I don't think that passage is meant for the church today. Do you still consider me a Christian?

There's quite a bit of variety among Mennonites on how we answer that question. I had a roommate once who felt that once a person came to know Jesus, they should figure out within two years that they need to cover, or they're not really saved.

Different congregations have different expectations for how you need to look in order for your husband to be invited to speak.

Personally, I appreciate Elisabeth Elliot's books even though she never wore a head covering, and I have family and friends who are wonderful Christians but don't follow this practice.

7. So why bother? 

If you feel like God is asking you to do something, you should do it. Sometimes it's the right thing for the place and time and people he's called you work with and minister to. Sometimes he will ask you to do things that he doesn't seem to ask of anyone else around you. That is His business. You will be blessed if you obey.

8. So you've been blessed?

Yes.

For example, I think it gives me credibility. I write for a newspaper in Eugene, Oregon—one of the most unchurched cities in the country. I often write about my faith. I've had other Christians ask me how I get by with this, and the only answer that I can come up with is that non-Christians in Oregon tend to be skeptical of anyone claiming to be Christian, but wearing distinctive clothes and a veil somehow convinces people of my authenticity.

In 18 years of writing about family and church and faith, and quoting Bible verses, I've never been told that I should tone down the religious content.

9. Can I come visit your church? Do I need to wear a cap?
Yes, you are welcome to visit. No, you don't need to cover. If you are a woman and want to wear a hat or scarf, out of respect for our customs, we will appreciate it. And we like it when guys remove their hats.

10. In studying the Bible, I think I should cover my head. My church and husband are opposed to this. What should I do?

You have to be cautious, because a covering is symbolic of being under authority. So it doesn't really make sense to go against your church and husband's wishes in wearing one.

My advice would be to discuss it with them, find out their concerns, and then do your best to find a solution you can all work with. For example, you might wear a hat or scarf to church services, and cover your hair when you have your private worship times at home.

11. I used to wear a chapel veil when I went to a Catholic high school. Is this the same idea?

Yes. Women have worn hats and scarves and veils for worship services for hundreds of years, and it's only recently that the practice has died out in Christian churches. This is also why men always removed hats indoors, in restaurants and such, and women didn't. And it's why, when people still did invocations at graduations, the guys took off their mortarboards and the girls didn't.

12. Don't you get tired of the rules? What would happen if you suddenly decided to wear your hair down and not wear a veil? Would you get in trouble?

My hair and veil are two small pieces of a very large package that includes our investment in church, Paul's role as a pastor and mine as his wife, how we understand the Bible, our role in the community, family traditions, cultural norms and expectations, and much more, all of which we chose to be part of, being adults of sound mind.

I am very unlikely to suddenly decide one day, willy-nilly, to go off to town with my hair cascading down my back, hairpins clattering in all directions, like the girls in Amish novels do. That is just weird.

Let's say you're a nurse at Sacred Heart Hospital. What are the chances you'll suddenly decide to throw off the rules and come to work in ICU smoking a cigarette and wearing a Les Schwab Tire Center uniform?

That would just be weird.

13. You apparently believe in your husband's "authority." Isn't that oppressive?

We believe that Paul and I are equal in value before God but have different roles and responsibilities. I feel like my husband and our church have made sure that I have a voice and am treated like an "heir together of the grace of Christ."

So I don't feel oppressed.

Not all women are as fortunate, but in general I think Mennonite women are less oppressed than a lot of "worldly" women.

Mennonite women don't have to fit an impossible body model to be considered beautiful. Being a wife and mom is considered an honorable and admirable occupation. They are encouraged to be creative. If they like having babies, it's fine if they have a lot. Mennonite men
for the most part get married, stay married, are faithful, and are expected to support their wives and families well. 

More types of head coverings.
14. Is it ok if I ask you more questions in the comments?

Certainly.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

ABC Post 19--Eleven Reasons I Envy My Daughters

My three daughters and I are all taking turns blogging for the annual April Blogging Challenge. If you want to read their posts you can find them here:
Amy
Emily
Jenny

Monday was my day to post on the ABC, and I was out of ideas. So I asked on social media and got enough suggestions to keep me writing for months. Today's post is a takeoff on Elsie Mae Lapp's suggestion—"7 areas that my daughters do life better than I do." Minutes after she posted, I got texts from two daughters saying I should take her suggestion. All right then.

Jenny, Amy, me, and Emily--in Seattle in January

Here's what I envy about them:

1. They have a confident and quirky fashion sense. Fashion is a great puzzle to me, but they put together pieces that it would never occur to me to wear together, and they go out in public looking like a million bucks. If I would try to put a similar combination together, I would look like I put on the random leftovers from the Habitat for Humanity rummage sale.






They even have an Instagram account.


Also in Seattle. That yellow coat gets compliments
everywhere.


Would you think of wearing those shoes with that dress?
I wouldn't. But the effect was quirky and cute.
2. They have skinny waists. I like 50s shirtwaist dresses, belts, and full skirts. All of the above look amazing on my wasp-waisted daughters.  I, on the other hand, am kind of like Mt. Hood—small at the top and gradually getting wider as we drop in elevation. This shape doesn't look so good in gathered skirts and defined waists.



3. They have immediate clarity and a short, smooth channel from brain to mouth. I on the other hand am painfully slow in figuring out what someone is saying and in formulating a reply—up to three days, sometimes. All my life, people have taken advantage of this in the most frustrating and infuriating and intimidating ways. 

My daughters, on the other hand, can immediately recognize rude or ridiculous or illogical speech from rude or ridiculous or illogical people, and JUST THAT QUICK they can THINK and SAY a reply that will instantly put to silence the ignorance of foolish men, as 1 Peter 2:15 says.

They aren't as convinced as I am that this is something to be envied. In fact, they have to work hard at reining in those runaway words because sometimes they would really be unkind. One of the daughters told me she knows she'd have the power to devastate a husband, and that scares her. Well, good for her, but just ONCE I would like to have the option of instantly putting a rude person in their place, seeing that stunned and confused look in their eyes, and walking away victorious.


Two intimidating women
4. This sort of goes with the last point. My daughters are fearless. They are not intimidated by people. And they are impervious to shame. When I was their age, I let everyone else define my worth and spiritual health, so an unctuous rebuke about dating a guy who wasn't a church member, from an older woman at church, sent me into a tailspin of agony and anxiety for days. In my mind, I would EXPLAIN and JUSTIFY and even tell her it was NONE of her BUSINESS! Never in the moment, though, and never to her face.

My daughters can't even comprehend this. In fact, other people are kind of afraid of THEM! If meddling people ever have the nerve to rebuke my girls for silly things, they either smile and nod politely and then laugh indulgently afterwards, or they whip back a reply that utterly confuses the other person. "Ok, thank you for pointing that out. I'll be sure and look up those Bible verses you mentioned about not wearing a denim skirt to church and sitting in the foyer."
"Wha. . .? But I didn't mention. . ."
"Goodbye!" 
That sort of thing.

Once again, they rein in their impulses and say maybe 5% of the snarky replies that immediately come to mind.


Jenny in Jamaica in 2012, grossed out but fearless
with the frog she found in the toilet.
5. They are good at decorating. Once again, they trust their own tastes and don't endlessly second-guess themselves, and the results are beautiful. Amy's room is all whites, creams, natural wood and green plants. Emily's has more of a Victorian flavor, with pale greens and pinks, antiques, and flowers. Jenny painted her room white but chose a very deep dark blue-gray for one wall, which I would never in 50 years have had the courage to do, and then accented with metallics and arrows and black and white. All three rooms are pretty and welcoming.



6. They know their way around electronics and technology and social media. From Instagram stories to downloading podcasts to burning cd's, they just sit down and do it. It is impressive.

7. They are disciplined and efficient. Their mornings are planned and scheduled down to the minute. They get homework done on time and get to bed at the right time so they can get up early to make coffee and exercise and get off to school or work on time. This is also impressive. Maybe they get it from their dad.

8. They can all go merrily marching that long ascending path up to Horse Rock and enjoy it and keep up with their brothers. Jenny is the most athletic, I think, and is an excellent volleyball player and stays in great physical condition. But they are all excellent walkers, as Miss Bingley said of Elizabeth Bennet. I envy them.



9. They can sing.
Amy sang in the Riverside Community Choir
[As Mr. Bingley said, at least in the older P&P series, "But all young ladies are accomplished. They sing, they draw, they dance; speak French and German, cover screens, and I know not what."]

10. They surpass me in certain creative pursuits. One makes lovely watercolor paintings, one writes excellent drama and fiction, and the third makes magical food.


Jenny painted this card


Some of the characters in Emily's Christmas play.
Amy's Easter cake

Amy cutting Thai peppers for this soup that I call blizzard soup,
because if I am ever lost in a blizzard, I want her
to feed me this soup when I'm found.
11. They have a dad who is a great life coach and who loves to discuss their finances, help them get a better phone plan, work on their cars, solve problems, and figure out how they can pay for college. I think it made a big difference in my daughters' readiness for adulthood. My dad could have given great advice on buying a horse or figuring out if we were related to Levi Detweiler's first wife, but he could barely find his own way through the modern world, much less advise his kids on college, cars, courtship, or careers. 

Here's the whole family. Paul is proud of his kids but I don't think he envies them.

 "Envy" implies just a bit of resentment, so maybe "admire" would be a better word. Either way, I am blessed beyond all explaining with three fun and talented and kindhearted daughters.

Monday, April 16, 2018

ABC Post 16-How I Became a Writer

Letters have been a theme of my life.

I give my mom much of the credit for the fact that I'm a writer today. We were Amish when I was little, so we couldn't pick up the phone and call Grandma (Mommi) in Iowa or Kansas. So every few weeks, Mom seated us around the dining room table with pencils and lined paper, and we were supposed to write to one Mommi or the other.

Sigh. All right then. 

One of these specimens was saved and I saw it years later. "Dear Grandma, How are you? I am fine. Are you very busy these days?"

Mom wrote lots of letters, and when she got a letter from her mom or her sister Vina, she read it out loud at the supper table. Except with Vina's letters she would sort of hmmm hmmm hmmm over certain parts that, I later found out, involved pregnancies and scandals and such. Iowa Mommi would draw pictures for us, usually of ducks on a pond. 

So letters were funny and tantalizing things.

I credit Dad with giving me an eye for the proper things: usage, punctuation, grammar.

From age 8 or ten on I collected penpals like I collect fabric today. Cousins I met at family reunions, old school mates, daughters of stern preachers who came for revival meetings, people who passed through on their way to somewhere else, friends of friends who were in the same circle letters.

I wrote and wrote and wrote letters.

I would write letters to my friend Millie at church and even to my sister Rebecca, slipping them into her locker between classes.

I think that's where I learned to milk an awful lot of words out of a simple and boring life.

When I moved to Oregon, I bought a bunch of lined paper and a few ringbinder notebooks. I kind of neglected my parents and the rest of the family and documented my life in letters to Rebecca, who filed them all in the notebook for safe keeping.

They were very angsty and emotiony and full of deep pondering self-absorbed thoughts and also crushes and crises of conscience, so much so that when Paul read them, some 15 years after we were married, he said it was probably a good thing that he hadn't read these before we got married. Bless his heart.

I wrote letters when I sat in the car waiting for tract distribution and I wrote letters in church, and late at night when I had to get something out of my system before I could sleep.

Then I wrote letters to Paul, who lived two hours away.

And he wrote to me.

The first letter from him was waiting for me when I came home from school one day. My landlady, Marilyn, and her daughter Laura—who is now my sister-in-law—had taped it to the kitchen counter along with a freshly-picked flower.

We got married, eventually, and I wrote Rebecca such vivid details of our honeymoon that, when she found the letters 30 years later, she read them aloud at a family gathering and didn't hmmmmm hmmmm like she should have, and we laughed so hard we nearly passed out, but first I turned beet red in utter ghastly horror.

No one should ever document honeymoon details on paper in a letter to your sister. That is something I've learned.

With our new baby, Matthew, we moved to northwestern Ontario and Paul taught at Stirland Lake, a boarding high school for First Nations kids from the northern reserves. 

I soon saw that, much as I loved letter-writing, I would drown in the task if I didn't streamline things. Both of our families, our church in Oregon, supporters, and friends—how could I keep in touch with them all?

I began writing monthly form letters. First, Paul would photocopy them at the office. Eventually we got a primitive computer and printer. Once a month, in our house at the high school or out in a remote northern village or back at the mission headquarters further south, Paul would put the children to bed and I would type out my life into words and sentences and paragraphs.

Sometimes I think that's what kept me sort of sane those years. There was no internet, of course, and often no phone contact with family or friends.

Soon after we first arrived at Stirland Lake, I found out there was a small inter-mission newsletter called the Grapevine. Every month, someone from each mission outpost and division—Beaver Lake Camp, headquarters, the print shop, Thunder Bay, and so on—wrote a little update of their activities and news, and it was distributed to everyone else.

Within a year I had the job of writing the Stirland Lake news. I took the job seriously and wrote newsworthy news.

Summer came. The students all flew home. Many of the staff left on vacation. Only a few of us were still on campus, which is how we got the job of taking care of our friends Dave and Ilva's goats.

Stirland Lake didn't lend itself to agriculture, but Dave and Ilva made a brave attempt. So when they left on vacation, someone had to feed and milk the two goats. One person got the job, then they left on vacation as well, until finally the job was passed to Paul.

Then Paul went fishing with the two other men remaining on campus.

The day wore on, and I knew I would have to milk those goats. One was cooperative and one was not. I recall horns lunging at me, running around and around that little shed as we both leapt over straw bales, and finally bracing my feet and dragging that horrible goat back into the pen, inch by inch, while she made strangled choking noises and I no longer cared.

I decided the stupid thing can just go without milking, but then when I had time to think it over, my conscience got the better of me, and with dread and despair I headed back to try again….and just then a boat came puttering into the dock.

Paul has a knack for saving the day. That is another theme of my life.

So. It was summer. There was not much news. The Grapevine deadline was upon me. So with great detail I wrote the story of trying to milk that goat.

The Grapevine was distributed, and suddenly I was hearing from other people in the mission. "I loved your story!" "I laughed and laughed!" "We read your story in the ladies' dorm and we were howling!"

It was amazing, new, astonishing, exhilarating! I had never experienced anything like it. I had turned an event into a story and sent it out in a newsletter that went to all kinds of people. They read it. They liked it! They laughed! They came back to tell me they enjoyed it!!

I was addicted.

So the Grapevine articles grew more personal as time went on, and the monthly form letters got distributed to more and more friends and family.

We lived in Canada for eight years. 

It was probably the last couple of years in the North when Ilva, yes, the Ilva of the infamous goat, started telling me that I really needed to write for a bigger audience. I had talent, she insisted, and things worth saying.

"Ilva," I would sigh. "I would love to, but I have all these little kids, and I'm overwhelmed, and we live out in the bush, and . . ."

"I know," she would say, "but you need to do this."

In God's Kingdom, everything is upside down and counter-intuitive.

Years later, I would read pretentious articles about how to be a successful writer, and I would go to writers meetings and conferences where everyone was trying SO hard to get it right.

Trust me, not a single instructor ever said, "Go way up in the northern Bush, in the wildest and remotest possible place, and have lots of babies, and survive without running water, and get pneumonia and stuff, and don't have much time to read and study, and live in another culture, and write form letters once a month."

How could anyone have known that those lifesaving monthly letters and Grapevine articles were teaching me to take note of quotes and personalities, to write things down, to explain life in the village to people thousands of miles away, and to take feedback from readers and use it to shape my communication?

And what a gift Ilva was, that quiet and persistent mentoring voice in those overwhelming years.

We moved back to Oregon. We had very little money, so I thought maybe I could earn some money by writing while still staying home with the children.

I tried to break into the Christian magazine market—Virtue, Today's Christian Woman, and so on, with no success.

Then one day a few years later I happened to read an article in the Eugene Register-Guard. They had a weekly feature called Write On, where anyone could send in contributions, and they would pick one essay and print it.

I thought, "I could do that."

So, impulsively, I did.

They printed it.

Again, the wild exhilaration was not to be described. My name! My words!! In the newspaper!!!

I cut out the article, made a copy, and sent it to Ilva. "See? I'm doing what you said."

A few weeks later the phone rang. The caller said he is Grant Podelco, the features editor at the Guard. "You got some fan mail, all the way from Canada!"

And he read me a note from—of course—Ilva. Not only had she praised my article, but she had also told this editor that he should think about having this author write for them on a regular basis.

It just so happened that Mr. Podelco was looking for some fresh new features at this time. "Would you consider writing a monthly column?" he asked "Sort of the same flavor as this piece we just printed?"

"Flabbergasted" is far too mild of a word. Ecstatic, stunned, overwhelmed.

"I thought we'd call it 'Letter from Harrisburg.'"

And so my writing life had come full circle. That editor had no way of knowing that letters had been my identity and my comfort and form of expression all my life.

"It had to be a 'God' thing," I always say here, relating this story, not only for the "letter" connection but because if you wanted a new columnist for a newspaper in Eugene, Oregon, you would not go 20 miles north to Harrisburg and look for a Mennonite minister's wife with lots of children and not much education.

I've written that column once a month for 18 years.  I'm on my fourth editor. I've heard from hundreds of people who connected with my ordinary family stories even though their lives were often totally different from mine.

That is also a God thing.

Every month, true to its name, the deadline just about kills me. I go a bit crazy and threaten to quit. Sometimes my kids do imitations of "Mom facing a deadline." I will just hmmmm hmmmm over the specifics of that because no one ought to see them.

And yet, so far, a subject always appears that I can write about, so I do.

A couple of years after I started writing the column, people were asking for a collection of all my columns. That led to my first book, Ordinary Days. Five more books have followed.

In 2005, not long after we adopted Steven, Paul's nephew Byran mentioned that he thought I should start a blog.

A….blog?

Yes. He had one. It was a place where you could write and post articles, thoughts, whatever you wanted. And people could discuss and comment.

I was going through a tough time with what felt like post-partum depression after Steven's adoption. Maybe this would help. I considered the idea, even though I knew almost nothing about the internet.

Byran persisted.

"How would I do it?" I said.

"Go to blogger.com and follow the instructions," he said. So I did.

And Life in the Shoe was born, thanks to Byran's quiet persistence.

Again, I experienced that indescribable exhilaration of putting words out there, and perfect strangers read and understood them.

It was addictive.

In the 8 years that Blogger has been keeping track, I've had over 2 million page views. I'm grateful to everyone who took the time to read what I had to say. That is no small gift.

The newspaper column reached a local and mostly secular audience, and the blog was my avenue to the broader Mennonite world. 

Facebook increased my connections even more and became an easy publicity and marketing tool.

I am finally comfortable calling myself a writer, but I am not blasé about any of it. I am still awed when I see my name in print. I still feel that addictive wonder and delight when someone out there in the big wide world reads my words, understands them, and writes back to tell me so. 

I still think it's a God thing, it still seems impossible, and I am always surprised.

And I still think letters are wonderful things.