Friday, October 09, 2020

Ask Aunt Dorcas: Obligations, Conversation Openers, and Children's Purity


Aunt Dorcas borrowed her son's medical scissors to take 31 stitches
out of her husband's head.
Today she snips your questions apart.

We have three questions today. The first one came as a comment on a recent blog post:

 Dear Aunt Dorcas,

 I have a hard time discerning which obligation I take on for my sake and which are obligatory. I have a bad habit of viewing everything as necessary, and it's hard to break. Any tips for gaining clarity?


 Dear Lucinda,

I don't have a lot of advice, because, as I stated in my post, it took a bad accident to really clarify what I wanted to do and what I didn’t. However, before that I had started seeing that I took on duties because people had placed them on me without ever asking my permission. There were things I did because others thought that my role as pastor’s wife, mom, writer, family member, or whatever, required it. Once I saw the unfairness of that, it was easier to start saying No.

A good place to begin is to monitor your reaction. If you do it but feel resentful, trace that back as far as you can. Resentment means you're saying Yes because you don't feel that No is an option. Why do you feel you can’t say No? The best Yes is one that’s freely given.

 I'm still learning.

--Aunt Dorcas


Dear Aunt Dorcas,

I'm not good at small talk when meeting new people. What conversation starters do you suggest other than weather and other cliche topics?

--Mrs. Pepper

Dear Mrs. Pepper,

I shared this question with my daughters. Jenny passionately advocated that the weather is a perfectly fine topic of conversation. It’s a connection and a shared experience! It’s something you have in common with everyone around you! Don’t denigrate the weather!

All right then.

I told them about the time I was in Minnesota in January of 2013. My brother and I went out for breakfast at a local truck stop to talk about Mom and Dad. It was about 20 below zero outside, and snowy. As we ate, these big hairy Minnesota guys in Sorel boots and parkas would come in the front door of the café, puffing clouds of mist with every breath, and stomp the snow off their boots with a relish and delight that’s unique to Minnesota people in severe cold. Then they’d walk past our booth with their parka and insulated gloves making swishing sounds, and they’d nod at us and murmur, “Cold out dere.”

Weather is definitely connection, especially if you live in Minnesota.

But let’s say you live in milder climes and there’s not much to say.

Everyone has a story to tell. I find that if you look like you want to hear it, people will probably tell it to you, in great detail and at times for far longer than you might wish. All you have to do is keep nodding and saying “Uh-huh.”

Except you can get in trouble doing this, because every so often I’m nodding and repeating Uh-huh, meaning “I hear you. Yes, I hear that too. I am tracking your narrative,” and suddenly they’re saying, “And I learned through my chakra from Swami Nanda that we are all One with the earth’s energy and we become Light and Being with the unique vibration of our celestial identity.”

I don’t always put the brakes on my nod in time. Or I nod, meaning, Ok, I am listening to you, and my daughters say I come across like I actually agree. 

I think Jesus understands.

Amy said, “Sometimes you already know something about the person you're talking to. You should ask about that. Maybe something you saw on social media. It means a lot when people remember specifics, like maybe your car broke down or you took a trip to Idaho.”

“Some people say, ‘How is your dad doing?’ and I don’t know how to answer, because I don’t know what they already know. But others will say, ‘Is your dad still in a neck brace?’ or ‘Has he tried driving again?’ and that’s easier to answer.”

When I’m sitting beside someone on a plane, I like to say, “Are you heading home?” I understand TCK’s don’t like this question, but most other people do. Either they’re happy to say, yes, they’re going home, or they’ll tell you that no, they’re going to visit the grandkids or attend a conference. Then you have lots of opportunity for further conversation about grandkids and work, assuming that you are reading the vibes correctly that they actually feel like talking.

People like to talk about their injuries, hobbies, children, grandchildren, gardens, dogs, memories, bargains, and travels.

Several years ago, Jenny had some of her physics-class friends here to study, and one of them, a young man I had pre-judged because he had a topknot, asked me what I’ve been reading lately. He immediately became my friend for life. What a wonderful question to ask someone, especially your friend’s old-fashioned mom. He can topknot all he wants.

My sister Margaret Koehn is the world’s leading expert at conversation starters, so I asked her how she’d answer Mrs. Pepper's question.

She says:
It is my firm belief that we can do so much better than we do when it comes to small talk. It all comes down to how unselfish do I want to be? How much do I even want to enter into the other person's life and go deeper and truly feel for them and look them in the eyes and CARE? It’s easy to do the fast, easy version...Hey, how yew doin, hows yo mama 'n em? (Thats the southern version.) Inside you are saying either let me get out of here, let me go on to a cooler group, or a more fun person. But if God is asking you to take time for someone, enter into their life and listen well.

Hey, Rachel. I loved what you said in Sunday school.

How is Shanna coping with a new teacher?

How is your neck since last week when I worked on it? Did you get it checked out?

I need new ideas. What have you been making for supper?

Or the visitors at church:

Hi, welcome here! 

So good to have you. Where do you live?

DO NOT ASK WHO THEIR PARENTS ARE UNLESS YOU KNOW THEY ARE FELLOW MENNONITES. Many ppl have sweetly asked and basicly shut off comments when I explained who I am and they soon realized that I had no pedigree. Always left me feeling funny.

But people are doing much better! I have often heard questions like “What is your story?" or younger people will ask,"What is your passion?" What a wonderful springboard to more questions!

“So, do you think you will ever buy a pottery wheel? I will pray for you that it will work out for you! And the classes sound so fascinating!"

Then there are the mothers. How do we ask them good questions? I loved it so much when an older mom was interested. "Oh honey, I felt for you tonight listening to Emma. Hang in there! You are a good mama!" What is your baby doing that's new? Sometimes just a quiet, caring "How's it going, really?" In the back of the nursery was enough to bring tears down my face.

We have one youth girl, Ashlyn, who is so good at great conversation and doesn't chafe and itch WISHING she was talking to somebody younger and cooler. I love to visit with her...Hey Ash,what kind of project are you doing lately? A few weeks ago it was mixing stuff in an old blender and making paper. Which led to Thai women walking behind the elephants, picking up dung, washing it in the river and making these cool paper book markers. And her delight over this. Engaged, delighted, interested.

I like to ask older women questions like, so what changes to you see in your children because of tech? What would you like to do /accomplish in the next 10 years? What is your project this winter?

Little kids? Oh my!

Who is your best friend?

Where did you travel to last?

Oh why do you have a bandaid? What happened?

Tell me about your scars.

Tell me about your pet.

Tell me about your baby.

I think you are really smart.( nobody tells this to kids,and it shows).

 These are a few of my thoughts. I am passionate about good dialogue and that we need to cultivate it. 

--Aunt Dorcas and Aunt Margaret

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

Is it possible to put too high of a premium on our children’s purity?

If you have been abused, I am sorry that this probably sounds naive and terribly irresponsible. But I feel like I have to ask someone because I feel clueless about training my children about molestation or Too Friendly of Family Members.

My parents and particularly my mom were excessive in protecting their children, especially their daughters, and yet my mom struggled terribly to communicate about sex. And no, there was no sexual abuse in my mom’s home either, just thick Victorian curtains and cobwebs. I grew up thinking of sex as nasty and embarrassing and sexual abuse just waiting to pounce on me from any passing male. My mom relaxed visibly with every daughter that married.

How can I train my children to be aware and yet confident that they will be protected by their parents and not wallowing under clouds of confusion and fear of What Could Happen Even Though I Am Bumfuzzled As To What IT Is?

--Confused Catherine

Dear Catherine,

Bumfuzzled is a wonderful word.

I’m not going to address your original question right away because I think maybe that’s not actually your question.

Yes, sexual abuse is horrible, and you don’t want it to happen. But let’s talk about giving children dire warnings about vague threats.

Some of us have ancestors who were impressively skilled at talking to each other in undertones, maybe about that young couple that had to get married, mmm mmm MMMM! or that young man that went wild, and then giving you that certain look and saying, “Now you be careful, ok? Behave yourself!”

If you asked for specifics, they’d shake their heads just a bit, then glance at each other. You learned not to ask, but you sure wondered.

This approach leaves a child with these messages:

  • 1.      There’s a terrible threat out there, waiting to pounce on me.
  • 2.      I have no idea what it is, exactly.
  • 3.      I am not allowed to ask for specifics. It must not be spoken of.
  • 4.      It is up to me to protect myself, even though I don’t know how.
  • 5.      If the threat gets me, it will be my fault.
  • 6.      If it gets me, I will be shamed and ruined for life, spoken of in undertones by other people’s aunts. Again, it will be my fault and my burden.

Vague warnings instill fear but give a child nothing concrete to work with.

Let’s talk about Bad Things that happen to children.

If you are a normal person living on this planet, bad things will probably happen to you. Disease, car crashes, terrible storms. Bullying, verbal abuse, injustice. Sexual abuse, physical abuse, exposure to evil. Loss of loved ones. Hunger, neglect, abandonment. Misunderstanding, false accusation, undeserved punishment. Not all these things, God forbid, but a few, or many.

Parents and other adults are supposed to protect children as much as possible, but things still happen. Sometimes children heal from their wounds, move on, overcome, develop courage, and grow strong. Other times, they don’t. They go through life wounded, shamed, fearful, frightened, triggered, resentful, beaten down, and defeated.

While parents need to protect their children, they also need to let them learn and explore. Hovering endlessly might do as much damage as neglect. How can they possibly find a good balance?

This is where parents need to be honest about danger. Not vague, hushed words full of insinuation, but plain speech. Having armed their kids with information, they need to let them take appropriate risks. Yes, you can walk to Keith's house. Don't get in cars with strangers. 

Even the best parents can’t foresee and prevent every possible awful thing. So parents need to ask not only, “How can I protect my children?” but also, “How do I teach my child to handle danger?” and “How do I teach my child to heal and move forward if something bad happens?”

Trauma responses are subjective and unpredictable. Two children can have the same experience and have vastly different reactions. A child getting separated from you at the store or getting bit by a dog might have panic attacks for life, or they might not. You can’t assume either.

If the following statements are true for a child, it will make a huge difference in if/how they recover from pain and trauma.

[I am not a professional, and this isn’t an exhaustive list. It’s gathered from my own experiences.]

1.      I am loved and cared for.

2.      I am listened to and heard. I have a voice. I am safe and free to Tell.

3.      I am allowed to feel what I feel.

4.      My pain is acknowledged with compassion.

5.      What happened was not my fault. I am not the bad person.

6.      Adults will take steps so this doesn’t happen again.

7.      Adults will speak truth to me.

8.      Adults will bring justice on my behalf.

9.      Adults will tell me about danger that I have the power to avoid.

10.  I am able to sense danger if I have the right information.

11.  I can trust myself to make good choices.

12.  I can say No. Not every adult must be obeyed.

13.  If hard things happen, I will recover and learn from them.

14.  Even if bad things happen, good things will also happen to me, eventually.

The event is significant, but the context in which it happens is even more so. Does the child feel loved and heard? Is he or she free to ask questions or discuss concerns? Do they know they can “tell” without being shamed or silenced?

Ironically, a child who knows they will be supported and believed if something happens is actually at lower risk of sexual abuse. Perpetrators look for victims who are emotionally lost and abandoned.

I noticed you used the words “our children’s purity.” Part of this whole equation is that when a culture places a higher value on a girl’s purity than it was ever meant to carry, an awful lot of things go awry. Also, my daughter Emily points out, things get weird when we think of purity as a valuable commodity that can be snatched from us in a moment, over which we have no volition. 

In conservative Muslim cultures, the honor of the family rests on the purity of the females. As a result, girls face huge restrictions in dress, associations, and opportunities. Blame for sexual indiscretions is minimal for men and maximal for women. Often, neither are taught what healthy sexual boundaries look like or how to draw them.

Of course we condemn that. But there’s a streak of the same spirit in the conservative Christian world, where aunts talk in hushed tones over the applesauce strainer about the girl that was out of her place, the way she pranced around in front of her married employer, and well, we know what happened to her. She won’t ever get a good man.

Talk to both boys and girls in basic but sufficiently specific terms about what’s healthy and what’s not with bodies, touching, and private parts. Emphasize dignity and respect. Discuss what’s ok and what isn’t at slumber parties. Tell them to trust their instincts about everyone, even fun Uncle Alvin. If they tell you something that happened to them, try to keep your voice calm and your eyebrows level. (Afterwards, you can go in the bedroom and fall apart.)

That’s what I think, having raised children who survived bad experiences.

Aunt Dorcas


  1. Good questions and substantive, very helpful answers. I love how you're able to demystify these vexing problems.

    1. Thank you, Miriam. Passing age 50 helps to clarify things.
      Still have lots to learn, though.

  2. Excellent answers! For question one, I learned way too late to delay my answer and ask my husband. He does not make decisions tied to the emotions I may have and he sees what I have on my plate clearer than I do most of the time. I still make the final decision but it helps to have input.

    1. I have also found a husband’s input and support so valuable in saying no.

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  4. Dorcas...when I read your advice and your everyday chronicles, they are written with such understanding and clarity. I honestly wonder why you are so intent on writing fiction when you do what you do so brilliantly.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Look at it this way. I’ve sewed so many little girls’ dresses in my life I could practically do it in my sleep. But even though I’m good at it, I like to branch out and try new things like quilts and t-shirts and denim skirts.

    2. I can see that. But do you see you also came up with such a perfect metaphor for the issue...? Your ability to do that is absolutely top-notch. My metaphors are more like...poetry. People look at them and think, I'm sure that means something to her, but I don't get it. :)

  5. On conversation openers: If I am not sure how much a person wants to say about a subject, sometimes I ask a safe non-threatening question. For example if a friend has recently been in the hospital and I don't know what the problem was, I could ask how long she was in the hospital or when she came home. If she wants to say more, that's her chance. If not, we can go to the next subject.

    1. I like that approach. You show interest but don't probe where you might not be wanted.

  6. These were such great question and I really appreciate your answers. I, too, have difficulty with small talk...your daughters and sister's responses were very helpful to me.

  7. Great stuff, Aunt Dorcas. Two questions Id love to see you address:

    1) What place does yoga have in the life of a believer? No, Im not talking about endlessly emptying, emptying oneself or some sort of mystic Eastern religion. Yoga does have some relaxation poses though, that can be helpful and some breathing exercises that can help to calm one's body.....helpful if one is a trauma survivor. Please speak on.

    2) Why is online dating looked on as so dangerous? If a lady meets a guy at a singles retreat and they start dating, its acceptable. If they meet at church, work, or social gatherings,its okay. No one raises eyebrows or labels her as desperate. But as soon as she "met him online on Menno Meet or Christian Mingle", the eyebrows go up, and how terrible that is....and shes whispered about in low tones. How is meeting someone online any different from the other scenarios I suggested? Please enlighten me. Thank you!

    1. Well. Aunt Dorcas has some thinking to do.

    2. Sounds great! I likw the way you think and will look forward to your reply.��

  8. In the summer my Minnesota relatives talk about relatively cool nights as "good sleeping weather." It cracks me up.