Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Guest Post-- 22 miles down Peoria Road: The challenge of living in disconnected worlds--by Ben Smucker


Ben Smucker

It seems strange to think of a stoplight as a portal between two worlds. Yet for the last decade of my life, the stoplight at Peoria Road and Highway 34 has been the invisible border between my Mennonite world and my academic world. 

From the small farming town of Harrisburg, Peoria Road runs 22 miles until it tees into Highway 34 just outside Corvallis, a college town of about 60,000 people and home to Oregon State University. The road itself is a beautiful drive. It gently weaves its way between fields, occasionally giving glimpses of the Willamette River, but mostly giving views of distant hills, cottonwood trees, and the greenest grass you ever saw. (It is also home to Country Bakery, which is the most common Mennonite reference point for many non-Mennonites in the lower Willamette Valley).

But metaphorically, Peoria Road is the portal between two
distinct worlds that I have spent a significant portion of my life in. I grew up just outside of Harrisburg as a part of the Mennonite community there. I have spent the last 10 years of my life at Oregon State, first as an undergraduate, then for seven years as a graduate student while I got my Ph.D., and for the last year as an instructor (a faculty member who teaches classes but does not do research) in the mechanical engineering department.  

Anecdotally, when most people think of the conflict between these two worlds (Mennonite and academic), it’s often thought of in theological terms, as a conflict between faith and science. While those tensions do exist, they are often overstated, particularly in the sciences (on a side note, in conversation with Christian professors older than me it seems that the sciences have become notably less hostile towards religion in the last several decades, but that’s a subject for another day).

Instead, the divide is much more cultural: these are worlds that are foreign to each other. They effectively speak different languages. They value different things. And as a result, few Mennonites know anything about academia, and few academics know anything about Mennonites (“They’re kinda like the Amish, right?”).

But like C.S. Lewis's Digory and Polly in the Wood Between the Worlds, there is an inherent tension that comes with trying to occupy two worlds that seem to have little to do with each other. Ultimately, there will come a point where we will need to resolve the tension. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in an increasingly lonely place, where you are never fully known or understood by either world.

I highly doubt the idea is original to me (few good ones are, and I’m not even sure this is a good one), but I like to think of our social lives as a series of spheres. The number, size, and overlap of these spheres depends on the individual, but would include family, neighbors, church/religious community, work/school, social activities, etc.. Some spheres may be very interconnected (such as when your friends all go to church with you) or completely disconnected (like when you work with people you never see outside of work). 

As spheres increasingly overlap, they can become indistinguishable until they effectively meld into one single sphere. The Fellowship in Wendell Berry’s Port William is a classic example of this, where folks within the tight-knit community grow up and grow old together. They work, worship, and weep together. The Shire in Tolkien’s world is also representative of this, where everyone knows everyone, and where you explain who someone is by how they are related to you or to someone you know.

It’s no coincidence that both those communities are agrarian and either pre-industrial or not fully industrialized, where one is connected to the land and to each other in ways that seem foreign to the modern suburbanite. One’s identity is forged not so much by who they are individually, but by who they are relative to the rest of the community. While these communities may have some individualistic tendencies (particularly in the U.S.), they often operate much more as a collective.

In many ways, this describes the Mennonite community I grew up in. My dad was my boss, my pastor, and my high school teacher. My school friends were my church friends. And with a mother who was a famous Mennonite writer, to the broader Mennonite community I was “Dorcas Smucker’s son.”

On the other extreme, you can have the post-industrial suburban commuter who works in a large city 40 minutes away, lives in a cul-de-sac with a dozen other commuters who work at 12 different companies, and who attends church in another suburb 30 minutes away, if they attend church at all. This person’s social networks exist largely independent of each other, such that if they died or some tragedy occurred, people they see on a routine basis may not know about it for weeks or months.

However, the suburban commuter has an individualistic autonomy that is just not available to those within the tight-knit community. She can pursue whatever career she wants, choose whatever religious community she wants based on reasons that may range from very Biblical to very superficial. If she feels a calling towards a particular occupation, she can choose to do that without alienating the community.

Corvallis has many people in this mold. While they may live close enough to work to commute by bike, they probably don’t have deep roots here, though there are a pretty substantial number of people who have lived here for a decade or more. The number of people in Corvallis who are from Corvallis and the surrounding area is pretty small. Among faculty at Oregon State, it’s even smaller. And on the whole, it is highly individualistic, and people generally live pretty disparate lives where their spheres of life don’t overlap a lot.

There are beautiful things about the sense of belonging and identity that can come with a strongly collective community, but it can be really challenging and exhausting to be the outlier (or the outsider) within that community. In the individualistic group, being an outlier is seen as an inherent positive, a means of distinguishing yourself from the normies. Yet people often miss the sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.

At its best, I believe the church has the opportunity to cut across the dichotomy posed by individualism and collectivism, valuing both the individual and the community. As we “go into all the world,” we will need to step out into spheres that seem disconnected from our tight-knit communities, yet we have the opportunity to forge close communal bonds with our fellow believers, even when they come from different ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Fully fleshing this out would probably be the subject of a book that I would be unqualified to write, but the following paragraphs describe how this tension has been working itself out in my own life.

For better or for worse, when I chose to pursue academia, I was largely guaranteeing that I would never live in some modern-day equivalent of The Shire. However, I did not understand that as a Mennonite in academia, I would increasingly feel like an outlier within my Mennonite community, and that it would become an increasingly lonely place. But when COVID came, I realized how disconnected I had become from my Mennonite church, and I ultimately left that church. 

By the grace of God, within my first few months of graduate school in the fall of 2016 (four years prior to leaving my Mennonite church), I got connected to a Christian grad student group on campus. It was (and is) a small student-led group of 5-10 grad students that met weekly for prayer and Bible study, while taking advantage of the fact that we were all young and childless to do fun things together on weekends. It has been among the most life-giving groups I have been a part of, and some of my strongest friendships have come from that group.

It also opened my eyes to the breadth of Christianity that existed beyond the tradition I grew up in, but it also made me realize just how important embodied Christian fellowship is. I now am a part of a small Anglican congregation of about 80 people, largely composed of younger families. They are an amazing group of Christ-followers that I am blessed to be a part of, and they make me feel included even if I am one of about 4 single people (me, my two roommates, and one other guy), and if I’m the only one who grew up Mennonite.

My present world feels less disconnected than it has in a long time, probably since high school. I live, work, and go to church in the same town for basically the first time in my life. Two of my roommates also attend the same church, and are also a part of the Christian grad student fellowship. Two of my best friends from the grad fellowship go to church with a colleague I will be working on a project with next year. The leader of the Christian Faculty group also goes to my church. I meet monthly with a retired professor from the Christian Faculty group who was in the mechanical engineering department for 30 years. If I meet a fellow Christian who has been in Corvallis for at least several years, I can probably find a mutual acquaintance.

But this level of connectedness has not come easy. It has come from being a faithful presence in the same place for an extended period of time. It has come from showing up every week to groups I am committed to. It has come from going out on a limb to talk to people (or more commonly in my case, from other people going out on a limb to talk to me). And sadly, it has come at the cost of leaving the community I grew up in, which I feel a twinge of guilt about every time I read Wendell Berry. Yet I believe this is where I am called to be, and those sacrifices are worth it.

While I was working on this blog post, my parents and my sister Amy came and visited my little Anglican church in Corvallis. This was the first time any of my immediate family members had come to church with me there. When my worlds collide, I tend to have a (probably illogical) fear that both sides will find the other strange, and find me strange in the process.

Instead, we found how much we have in common. Most of the songs that Sunday were hymns that we sang growing up. We read the Lord’s Prayer together, just like we used to recite it prior to meals. We worshiped the same triune God I worshiped in my Mennonite church growing up; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Afterwards, the people at my church extended the same warm welcome to my family that I had received when I first started going there. 

But in a strange turn of the tables, I was no longer known as “Paul and Dorcas’s son.” This time, they were known as “Ben’s parents.”

Dr. Benjamin Smucker

Monday, April 15, 2024

Ask Aunt Dorcas: When Birth is Traumatic and It's Not Ok to Say So


Aunt Dorcas, Amy, and Ben--1993
in the hospital, soon after Ben was born.

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

  I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy about two years ago. Prior to his birth, I heard many women share their birth stories both online and in person. Their comments about the pain level ranged from "I would describe it more as pressure than pain" and "It was intense but definitely manageable" to the occasional "Labor was incredibly painful." I averaged all these comments and decided that the birth process must be fairly painful but not terrible.

  I found labor to be shockingly painful and transition felt almost unbearable.

  I have two questions about this.

   (1) Why is it so common for women to downplay the pain of childbirth? I realize that so many factors play into the intensity level and I believe there are some women who truly don't find it to be that painful. But I don't understand how someone can experience the level of pain I did (or worse, in some situations) and consider it "uncomfortable but definitely manageable."

  I want to view birth as the beautiful experience it is, and I agree that we as Christian women should be among the most positive voices when it comes to talking about babies and birth. What does it look like to be honest about the hard aspects of birth while fully appreciating the beauty of it and the miracle of new life?

  (2) I've heard many conversations about the practical aspects of childbirth but very few about the emotional impact of birthing a child into the world. One of the factors that plays into many events that are considered traumatic is the powerlessness to stop the unpleasant event (in abuse, an accident, etc.) While labor is different from those incidents in the sense that there is a purpose for it and it is expected, it still feels as though there can be something traumatic about the very nature of contractions- wave after wave of intense pain that you are powerless to stop or escape from. I've never really heard anyone talk about this so I'm not sure if this is a real thing or if the only trauma that can come from birth is from complications such as emergency c-sections, hemorrhaging etc. I had a fairly short and straightforward labor so I struggle with feeling like I don't own the right to be traumatized by my experience.


Dear Lydia,

Yesterday my daughter was talking to a new mom about her baby’s birth. She said she figured she’d be fine having her husband with her as the only non-professional support. However, she soon realized that when you’re having a baby, you want someone with you who’s also had a baby.

In her case, that was quickly arranged, luckily for her.

Paul said, “As the husband, you take all the classes and you think you know what to do. Then it turns out not to be what your wife wants you to do.”

In our case, he had perched eagerly beside the bed while I was gasping in mortal pain, leaned over me, and said cheerfully, “Ok, breathe! Come on, breathe!”


Can you imagine me yelling at him like that? Probably not. But labor brings out what you didn’t know was there. Local legend has it that one of the sweetest young women in Oregon threw a washcloth at the nurse during labor.

Labor is an experience that takes you to the edge of reality. For many of us, it is a tunnel of pain and overwhelm that feels like the valley of the shadow. Lost in waves of pain and pressure that we are powerless to stop, we lose track of who we are, what is going on, who is with us, and why we are doing this. We become someone else, a wild woman with no filters or tact, both weak and strong, fighting and conquered.

With a couple of my five births, I completely forgot I was having a baby or that this would not last forever.

Of course it’s traumatic.

And then, in an instant, we are taken from the depths of agony to the heights of joy. There’s nothing in the universe to compare. One second, we are bearing down in the middle of the hundredth contraction, lost to reality. The next, the pain is instantly and entirely gone, and there is a baby! A new little person, come from heaven, red and slippery, the most wondrous creature you have ever seen. If you’re like me, you think, “Oh that’s right!! This was all about a baby! I forgot there was a baby! And there she is!” You feel a joy that is surely a glimpse of Heaven and feel like the veil between is sheer as an organdy curtain and the light is shining through.

If you’ve been through it, tasting the worst and best, you have a story to tell. Childbirth and stories are connected like salt and pepper, like thunder and lightning, like frogs and puddles.

Eve didn’t have women to be with her or to talk to afterwards when she birthed those first babies, poor thing, but ever since then, women have supported each other in labor, and they have told each other their birth stories.

My mother used to repeat the stories of how the six of us were born. “Oh, girls, it’s just the most TEEEEEEERRRRRIBLE pain! Oh, you just can’t imagine. Oooooh, I can’t even describe it, it hurts so bad.”

My sister Rebecca and I found out, years later, that in large groups of people we both used to look around wide-eyed and think, “For every one of these people, some poor woman went through the most unearthly, unthinkable pain.”

However, as I got older I realized my mom’s stories didn’t really make sense. She also told of having a chemicalled cloth laid on her nose and being completely unconscious when she gave birth and also presumably during the worst stages of labor. How did that compute with the insane pain?

By the time I had my first baby, times had changed. We went to a little hospital one night a week for probably two months and learned all about pelvises, dilation, contractions, exercises, and Lamaze breathing. We ladies lay on the floor and breathed long slow breaths in our noses and exhaled out our mouths with earnest hoo hoo hoos and ha ha ha’s while the hovering husbands coached us.

We were taught that the perception of pain changes when we are informed and prepared, when we have support, and when we feel that we have choices and volition.

That, I was convinced, was why Mom’s births were so agonizing. She was completely at the mercy of the medical system and especially Dr. Sattler, a sadistic man who scoffed at weak American women because, as a refugee in Germany, he had marched with a flood of desperate people and had seen women drop out of the line to give birth and then get back on their feet to keep going.

[Edit--That was what I remembered from Mom's stories, but I saw an article online that indicated Dr. Sattler may have been with the American military and observed refugees in Europe, rather than being one of them.]

When Mom was 8 months pregnant with her first child, Dr. Sattler decided the baby was breech and needed to be turned. He called in a helper, and the two of them pushed on Mom’s stomach as hard as they could. The pain was unbearable. That didn’t stop them.

The baby didn’t move for 24 hours, and then Mom went into labor and was taken to the hospital.

She woke up all alone in a room. No husband, no nurse, no baby.

She thought, I must have had my baby, and it died.

After a while, a nurse came in with a bundle. “Would you like to see your baby?”

Oh! She had a baby? And it was alive?

Well, yes.

No wonder Mom was traumatized. I feel like her daughters were maybe not the best audience for her tales, but I hope we bore witness to her hellish experience. Certainly, we wanted something better for ourselves.

As I see it, there are three factors to a good outcome with childbirth.

1.      Skilled care: someone present who knows how to deliver a normal birth and who has resources when things go south—breech, bleeding, and a hundred other complications.

2.      Volition: a sense of choice, control, power, and ownership for the mom. She gets to choose place, position, people, interventions. She can make requests and they are granted.

3.      Support: people who are there for the care and keeping of the birthing woman, who listen to her and grant her wishes. Also, people who will listen to her story afterwards and validate it all. And people who will care for her in practical ways.

We are always trying to find the perfect combination of these three ingredients, and we are always reacting to the generations before.

In the late 1890’s, when my grandmothers were born, women gave birth at home, in familiar surroundings, and had support from other women. New moms stayed in bed for six weeks, fed and cared for by others.

However, many of them lacked skilled care, and every family has stories of women who died in childbirth. We still see this in places that don’t have access to medical care.

The reaction to that was to maximize hospital care and completely minimize the mother’s choices over what happened to her, as well as the support from others. By the 1950’s, doctors called all the shots, women had no options, and husbands were relegated to waiting rooms and ushered in when Mom was all cleaned up and tucked in bed with clean sheets. I’m told my father-in-law was always skeptical of his wife’s descriptions of childbirth because, after all, she looked pretty good when he finally got to see her. Some of us are still annoyed at him for that.

In that era, women like my mom survived births that might have killed them in earlier days, but they had lasting emotional scars from the inhumane methods of the medical world.

Maybe my generation had the best combination. We were allowed to put together the birth plans we wanted, we could have husbands and moms and friends in the delivery room, and we could tell our stories to other women and be affirmed and believed. I’ve been at many women’s gatherings when the conversation wandered into childbirth and we all told our stories, while the rest of us laughed or gasped by turns.

We recognized that every woman’s experience is different. I have a sister-in-law who just “loved that feeling of puuuuusssshhhing the baby out!” Others of us, in great contrast, were ripped from stem to stern pushing the baby out and didn’t know if we’d ever have a normal bowel movement again.

It was all valid and validated.

When I was having babies, there was already a trend to minimize the danger of childbirth and maximize the normality of it. “Your body is made for this,” those midwives said. “Welcome the pain. Breathe through it. We are here for you.” This was far better than what my mom endured, but had its own pitfalls.

My impression is that that movement has expanded in the 25 years since then, accelerated by Instagram and a young-mom peer pressure that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. My guess is that the pressure to minimize the pain of childbirth is a wish to maximize a sense of control over the process. This is your body, your choice, your quest, and you are strong and brave and you can do this amazing thing.

Unfortunately, this can cut off the other two legs of the stool. An unrealistic perception of your control of the process often means not making contingency plans for medical emergencies.

It also means, as Lydia said, that women downplay the pain, presumably because if you had a hard time, that means you “did it wrong.” So stories aren’t told, heard, or validated, and the trauma isn’t healed or processed. It wasn’t supposed to be more than discomfort and pressure, so the unbelievable pain must be their own fault. If all the other ladies in the hot tub felt empowered and strong all through labor, how can you admit you were asking for a knife to kill yourself? [True story of someone I love.]

We all make birth decisions based on the stories of sisters and friends. Maybe we choose their midwife, doctor, or hospital. Or we take castor oil to get the process underway when we’re overdue, as my one sister-in-law swore by.

I had heard glowing reports from friends about the wonder of giving birth in a tub of water. “I hardly felt anything,” said one.

What a gift that would be! So I planned on a water birth at home for my fifth baby. We placed a new stock tank in the dining room and filled it with warm water. Paul was there along with three professional midwives.

It was horrible.

The pain was beyond all endurance, and then when it was time to push I didn’t feel the slightest urge, and I was so far gone mentally that I couldn’t think which muscles to activate and how to make it happen. Things got a bit desperate and dicey for all of us, with Paul and the midwives leaning over and practically yelling at me to push, before Jenny was finally born.

So the water birth was a bust, but I felt good about the home birth, the midwives, and all that. My friend Rita Baker came over soon afterward with a pot of chicken soup, and a few hours later Paul went and fetched the other children at his parents’ house, and we all snuggled that amazing baby.

I had made my birth plan based on real people, reading, and my own experiences with previous births.

What’s troubling is when pregnant women make high-stakes choices about childbirth based on persuasive social media characters and online information with no connection to real life, such as a young missionary overseas making a birth plan based on advice from Instagrammers in the US.

Here’s my advice to women having babies:
1. Acknowledge the high stakes of childbirth. Yes, it’s amazing and life-affirming. It’s also dangerous. It can be traumatic. It can be the highest and lowest points of your life. Be honest about this.

2. Seek a balance of skilled care, personal choice, and support from others, in your birth plan and afterwards. Be aware of the risks of every approach.

3. Get information on preeclampsia and stretch marks online, but learn about birth options from real people. Sisters, friends, aunts, midwives, doctors. They know how far it is to the hospital and what the weather might be like around your due date and whether or not your husband will make a good coach. They can also tell you real experiences with birth centers, midwives, and epidurals.

4.Own your own story. Choices, mistakes, feeling empowered or guilty or defeated. It’s yours, it’s real. You don’t need to change it to sound good.

5.  Listen to each other’s stories and affirm and validate every one. Every woman is different, every child is different, every birth is different. Each deserves affirmation. Ask young moms questions and listen to the answers. Don’t say everything you might think. Affirm their story even if, like one memorable young woman, they say giving birth was really awful, and no, actually, they can’t say that it hurt, but it was terribly miserable because it was just so much pressure. [True story. To my eternal credit I didn’t slap this woman but nodded and listened and affirmed her experience without telling her about mine WHICH HURT LIKE BLAZES, JUST SO YOU KNOW! “Just so much PRESSURE!” WHAT EVEN???]

Sometimes women keep talking about experiences that don’t sound that traumatic on paper but seem to have left a lasting, haunting, impression. Listen, make sympathetic noises, and, if the woman seems stuck there for a long time, refer her to a professional. Any part of the process can be traumatic, whether it’s the lack of control over the process, complications, medical interventions, or an unmet need for support. Sometimes we need extra help.

I wish my mom could have seen a therapist to talk through her birth trauma.

We are strong women, and we can do this unearthly task of bringing a new human being into the world.

Let’s erase the expectations and gather around and support and affirm. Most of us in Mennonite communities have the best possible combination of medical care, plenty of information, community support, and the means to choose what works best for us. Let’s celebrate these resources and not complicate an already complicated process with expectations that most of us can’t meet.

Birth can be traumatic for many reasons. We can bring healing by supporting other women and allowing them to share their stories.


Thursday, April 11, 2024

Guest Post--Notes on Poetry Workshop--Hudson Kropf

[Hudson Kropf is a young poet and writer whose workshop on poetry received lots of positive feedback at the Western Anabaptist Writing Conference in February. I asked him if I could share his handout and he said yes. 
So here it is.
I love his poetry selections, including one he wrote himself.]

Here's Hudson leading singing at the conference.

Ephesians 2:10

For we are his workmanship (ποίημα poiema poy’-ay-mah),
created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath
before ordained that we should walk in them.

I. Rhymed and Bound verse.
(Has a specific rhythm and rhyme.)

II. Blank Verse
(Is bound with rhythm, but does not rhyme.)

III. Free Verse
(It doesn’t have to rhyme, and nor is it bound by a certain beat.)

I. Rhymed and Bound Verse.

The Destruction of Sennacherib


The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

U = This represents the unaccented beats.

— = And this represents the accented beats.

Iambus: U — (This kind of Poetry is called, Iambic.)

Trochee: — U (This kind of Poetry is called, Trochaic.)

Anapest: U U — (This kind of Poetry is called, Anapestic.)

Dactyl: — U U (This kind of Poetry is called, Dactylic.)

U U — U U — U U — U U —

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,

U U — U U — U U — U U —

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;

U U — U U — U U — U U —

And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,

U U — U U — U U — U U —

When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Each segment of meter is called a foot…

Monometer: A one foot line.

Dimeter: A two foot line.

Trimeter: Is a three foot line.

Tetrameter: A four foot line.

Pentameter: A five foot line.

II. Blank Verse

Everything that is true about rhymed and bound verse, is also true of blank verse, except for one thing.

Blank verse doesn’t rhyme, it is only bound.

A Poem’s Advent

When poets birth their words,
They bring their message forth
All trembling, wet.
And lay their glistening ink
In swaddling paper.
Then use their poems as mangers.
For there’s no room in common prose
To accommodate
A thought that comes from God.

— J. Hudson Kropf 2/22/24

III. Free Verse Poetry

Go Down Death
(A Funeral Sermon)

Weep not, weep not,
She is not dead;
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.
Heart-broken husband--weep no more;
Grief-stricken son--weep no more;
Left-lonesome daughter --weep no more;
She only just gone home.

Day before yesterday morning,
God was looking down from his great, high heaven,
Looking down on all his children,
And his eye fell on Sister Caroline,
Tossing on her bed of pain.
And God's big heart was touched with pity,
With the everlasting pity.

And God sat back on his throne,
And he commanded that tall, bright angel standing at his right hand:
Call me Death!
And that tall, bright angel cried in a voice
That broke like a clap of thunder:
Call Death!--Call Death!
And the echo sounded down the streets of heaven
Till it reached away back to that shadowy place,
Where Death waits with his pale, white horses.

And Death heard the summons,
And he leaped on his fastest horse,
Pale as a sheet in the moonlight.
Up the golden street Death galloped,
And the hooves of his horses struck fire from the gold,
But they didn't make no sound.
Up Death rode to the Great White Throne,
And waited for God's command.

And God said: Go down, Death, go down,
Go down to Savannah, Georgia,
Down in Yamacraw,
And find Sister Caroline.
She's borne the burden and heat of the day,
She's labored long in my vineyard,
And she's tired--
She's weary--
Go down, Death, and bring her to me.

And Death didn't say a word,
But he loosed the reins on his pale, white horse,
And he clamped the spurs to his bloodless sides,
And out and down he rode,
Through heaven's pearly gates,
Past suns and moons and stars;
on Death rode,
Leaving the lightning's flash behind;
Straight down he came.

While we were watching round her bed,
She turned her eyes and looked away,
She saw what we couldn't see;
She saw Old Death. She saw Old Death
Coming like a falling star.
But Death didn't frighten Sister Caroline;
He looked to her like a welcome friend.
And she whispered to us: I'm going home,
And she smiled and closed her eyes.

And Death took her up like a baby,
And she lay in his icy arms,
But she didn't feel no chill.
And death began to ride again--
Up beyond the evening star,
Into the glittering light of glory,
On to the Great White Throne.
And there he laid Sister Caroline
On the loving breast of Jesus.

And Jesus took his own hand and wiped away her tears,
And he smoothed the furrows from her face,
And the angels sang a little song,
And Jesus rocked her in his arms,
And kept a-saying: Take your rest,
Take your rest.

Weep not--weep not,
She is not dead;
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.

—James Weldon Johnson

IIII. Literary Tools in Poetry.

Similar consonant sounds at the beginning of words.
“Poets make pets of pretty, docile words:”

Repetition of similar vowel sounds.
“Gilded and sticky, with a little sting.”

Words that sound like their meaning.

Pretty Words

Poets make pets of pretty, docile words:
I love smooth words, like gold-enamelled fish
Which circle slowly with a silken swish,
And tender ones, like downy-feathered birds:
Words shy and dappled, deep-eyed deer in herds,
Come to my hand, and playful if I wish,
Or purring softly at a silver dish,
Blue Persian kittens fed on cream and curds.

I love bright words, words up and singing early;
Words that are luminous in the dark, and sing;
Warm lazy words, white cattle under trees;
I love words opalescent, cool, and pearly,
Like midsummer moths, and honied words like bees,
Gilded and sticky, with a little Gilded and sticky

—Elinor Wylie

Friday, April 05, 2024

ABC Post 3--Amy's Update from Thailand

 [Our oldest daughter Amy teaches English in Mae Sariang, Thailand, and is home for a visit. She gave me permission to share her recent update as a guest post. If you want to be on her mailing list, please contact her at . You can follow her on Instagram at @amysmucker]

[Her roommate, Lori, writes at]

March 23, 2024

Hello, everyone!

Almost 4 weeks ago I sat down and started to write an update, since February was almost over and according to the schedule I’d planned, I’m supposed to send an update in February. I wrote about 15 words, and downloaded a few pictures--and then promptly forgot about it. It’s been a flurry of activity ever since—lots of finishing up grading, celebrating graduation, school activities, getting ready to go back to America over break, and so on. It doesn’t sound like much when I write it out, but in the moment I had too many other things to think about to even remember that I was supposed to write an update. And now I'm back in my old room in the farmhouse where I grew up, looking out over the green, green grass fields and listening to the raindrops on the roof and the train going by, with no pressing demands on my time, so I have no excuse to put it off anymore.

So yes, I’m home for a visit! I arrived March 19, and will be here until April 24, so 333please let me know if you’d like to get together! This year I’m not planning a fundraising dinner and don’t currently have plans to speak at church or anything, but I’d love to sit down and chat with any of you who are nearby.

I’ve just finished my third year of teaching at Mae Sariang Boripat Suksa School. It’s gone by so fast, yet when I think about when I first came, I feel like I’ve come a long way. Yet I still have a lot to learn, especially with classroom management and finding ways to connect with students.

I posted selfies that I’d took with some of my classes, and several people commented to me on how many students there are. I think it hits you more when you see their faces. But yes, there are around 500 students that I personally taught last term. If you count all the students I’ve taught at least 1 term in the last 3 years, it’s probably over 2000. I only remember a few names, and can recognize some of their faces, but I really struggle to remember who is who, let alone develop a relationship with them. Once in a while we have a chance to connect outside of class, and those times are really special. A couple of times recently a student has come into the teachers’ office and started to chat, and then just sat down next to my desk and talked for a while. Or sometimes they’ll come up and ask questions after class. After I made brownies for an activity with the Christian student at school, several of the girls told me they really wanted to learn how to make brownies, so I invited them to come over last Saturday. In the end only 1 of the 3 girls was free, but she brought 2 of her friends along. They didn’t want to go home when it was over—they stay in a dorm in town, and have strict rules, so they’re not allowed to get out very much, and it was a treat just to be in a real house that’s a little more out in the country. It would be fun, and a good opportunity, to start some kind of regular activity for dorm kids. We’ll see if Lori or I has the time and energy for that next year.


Making brownies

Me with one of my grade 7 classes

Anyone who’s come to Thailand in March or April knows that it’s generally very hot and smoky. Chiang Mai is often on top of the list of most polluted major cities this time of year, and the smoke seems to come out of nowhere. But in our town we can see it—during the day, sometimes, there are billowing pillars of smoke rising from the neighboring mountains, and at night you can see trails of fire. One evening last week I heard the snap and crackle of a fire, and could see the orange glow on the hill behind our house when I looked out the back window. It was a little scary, but as annoying as it is to know that the fires are set intentionally, the one good thing is that you know someone is monitoring it so it’s not likely to come burn your house down. For the most part, the fires just burn the leaves and underbrush, but aren’t strong enough to burn down the trees. Sometimes, however, the fires do get out of hand and burn uncontrolled, and then they are more likely to burn the trees too.

I’m not entirely sure why they’re burning so much, but I know that one reason is that burning encourages the growth of a certain type of mushroom that is very valuable and fairly prolific in the hills in our area. These mushrooms only pop up at a certain time of year—I think maybe it’s in June. In Thai their name is “Het Top,” but I don’t know what they’re called in English. I’ve had them before at church potlucks, and they’re really good, but not significantly better than other mushrooms in my opinion. And certainly not worth having unhealthy levels of smog for weeks on end. Anyway, I’ve heard they also burn just for general forest maintenance, getting rid of the fallen leaves, etc. They also burn the straw after rice harvest, but I don’t think that’s part of the problem now, because that was months ago. I think the biggest issue is that everyone thinks, “I have these leaves I have to get rid of, and my one little fire isn’t going to make much difference,” but a lot of little fires DOES make a difference, unfortunately. Some of the smoke also comes from agricultural burning in neighboring countries like Myanmar and Laos.


1 day on the way to school--obvious fires on the hills // next day view from the exact same spot--can't see the hills at all // night view of the fires on the hills, from our house.

A few random highlights since my last update:

There’s a place about a 2-hour drive from our house where there’s a whole hill covered in Mexican Sunflowers. (They look kind of like big yellow daisies). They always bloom in November, so Lori and I too a quick trip to see them one weekend. The glowing yellow hill of flowers in the light of dawn is stunning—well worth the trip. We also got a pleasant surprise when we ran into our pastor’s family with a bunch of the kids who live at church. We’d both made plans to come without telling the other.


All of Thailand celebrates “Buddhist Lent” which starts around July/August and ends sometime in October, based on the lunar calendar. But in our town we have a special festival to celebrate the end of Buddhist lent. There are vendors who come in to set up booths selling all sorts of things, a mini amusement park for kids, a parade, concerts every night, and other activities that last for several days. It’s always beautiful because they put up colorful lanterns all around town.


Another religious holiday, one that more people are familiar with, is called Loi Krathong. For this one, people make little floats with banana stalks, decorated with flowers. They put in a stick of incense and light it, and float it in the river, as an offering to apologize to the river for using her water the rest of the year. It’s also common at this festival to light sky lanterns and send them off into the sky. The lanterns are supposed to carry away your bad luck. In Chiang Mai, this festival is stunning, with thousands of lanterns rising into the sky, and many tourists come to see it--although for the Thai holiday the floating the offering in the river is the point of the holiday, more than the sky lanterns. Here in our little town, it was much more laid-back, but we did have a market/walking street along the river with lots of food vendors, and it was really crowded. Lori was busy studying, so I went by myself, and ended up seeing a lot of students, and sitting and listening to the school band play for a while. Once again, the lanterns in the night and all the lights along the river were beautiful and magical, but it’s sad to think of people depending on these things to take their troubles away and never really finding true peace.


Lori has finally finished her course to get her teaching license. She still has to take some exams, but the bulk of it is done. So it’s really nice for her to have a bit of free time again. You might be wondering what’s happening for me, with studying and licensing and stuff. I’m still trying to decide for sure, but I’m probably going to take the course from the Thai education department. The complicating factor is that it’s still really new, and so far I haven’t heard any reports from people who have taken the course, on what it’s like. The course Lori did seemed good, but pretty intense to try to squeeze into a schedule that’s already pretty full—and also pretty expensive.

Lori’s parents and sister came to visit soon after Christmas, so over New Year’s day she went to Chiang Mai to pick them up, and I was home alone. The pastor and his wife invited me to go with them to the mountains, to the home village of one of the 2 college-age girls who are doing ministry internships at the church, who both went along on the trip also.

They’d told me it was about a 4-hour drive away, and we were late getting left, so I was bracing myself for a long trip. I knew the pastor was driving fast, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up because nothing makes a trip feel longer than when you think you’re almost there but you just keep going and going for another hour or two. Well, this time, about two hours and 15 minutes after we left, we stopped in a village and the pastor said we had arrived. I thought he was just joking, but he wasn’t! So that was a pleasant surprise.

The church had kind of a big combination Christmas and New Year’s celebration. It was in the church building, which was just this big empty building, and everyone sat on the floor. When the introduced our group, the pastor told me as we were walking up, “You should sing a special song” and I was stumbling around trying to gently decline, when he picked up the mic and announced that I was going to sing. He played the guitar and the two intern girls helped sing, so at least I wasn't entirely alone as I stumbled through “Here I am to worship” in English and Thai.

Then the pastor preached a sermon, and for the rest of the night we had a gift exchange and performances. It was a typical Thai gift exchange—everyone who wants to participate brings a gift, and they put a number on each gift. Then they put all the numbers on slips of paper, and each person reaches into the box and chooses a slip of paper, and whatever number you get, that’s your gift. I never know quite what to give, but I try to get a variety of things, including snacks, so no matter what age or gender of person gets my gift they will enjoy at least part of it. The gift I got, this time, was some body wash and lotion and a pair of socks. Other times I’ve gotten laundry detergent, a towel, or a pillow. Anyway, they would have about 10 people choose their gifts, and then they would pause for a song or dance from a group of people, usually kids. I think there were about 150 gifts all together, so this took a while. I bowed out eventually and went back to the house to sleep, so I wasn't around to see how long the program lasted. 

The next morning, soon after I was up, our hosts had breakfast made for us, but the pastor’s wife warned me not to eat too much because we had been invited to several other houses and would probably eat there also. Breakfast is basically the same as any other meal in Thailand—rice, with several side dishes—usually at least one of which is soup. So we did our rounds of visiting in the village, and actually only got served one more breakfast, but stopped and chatted at a couple of places. Then we packed and loaded all our stuff, they said we had just one more place to go—the other intern girl, Tida’s village, not far as the crow flies, but maybe a 20 minute drive away.

At this point it was about 9:00 a.m., and all our morning visits and meals so far had passed rapidly. I figured by 10 or 10:30 we’d be done and on our way, and be back home again by early afternoon, so I would have time to get some stuff done at home or go to a coffee shop. So we got to the village, and went to this little store that Tida’s family owned, which had a little bamboo room on the side that had a lovely view over the valley. We sat down, and someone brought some drinks, but nothing was really happening. Then after a while the intern girls came with a group of young people from the village said they were going to go sing Happy Birthday for their friend, and invited me to come along. So we went, and sang for this girl, with some candles stuck into a pile of snacks. It turned out that I knew her—she had come to our school for area academic competitions a few months previously, and had competed in the storytelling contest that I helped judge. So we hung out and ate snacks in her house for a while, and then I went back to the store where the pastor’s wife was, and took a nap and read a book. There was still no sign of the meal we were supposed to eat at this place (I wasn't really hungry after all that breakfast, but they had said we would eat there) and no clue of how long we were going to stay.

Finally someone came and told us to come eat, and we had a late lunch inside one of the village homes. Then we went back to the store for more reading and relaxing. I went on a walk with one of the girls, and when I came back, the pastor said we were going to have a worship time with Tida’s family, and then leave. But we had to wait a while until her parents got there. When they arrived we sang some songs, and the pastor shared some Scripture and we prayed together. I thought we would leave then—but no, the pastor said he wanted to take a shower before we go. I just laughed when I heard that, but thankfully he didn't take long too long, and about 15 minutes later we were on the road. We did have to make one more stop on the way out to pick up some goat meat someone wanted to give us. By the time we got home, it was after 7 p.m., and dark. It would have been a lovely day if I'd known from the beginning we would just relax all day--I just got a little stressed when I kept expecting that something would happen any moment and it never did. But that’s just how it tends to be, when traveling with Thai friends—you never know what’s going to happen. It’s good for me to learn to be more flexible and patient and trust that things will work out even when I don't know what's going to happen.


One of the morning visits: Jiu the intern is on the far left, and next to her is the pastor's wife

 Lunch in Tida's village (in a house like this you can just drop your orange peels or chicken bones through the cracks in the floor)

It was fun to meet Lori’s family! Her sister was here last year, and is actually joining the Igo team in Chiang Mai, but it was her parents’ first time in Thailand.

Our Thai friend Max, Lori, her parents, sister Sara, her friend who also came along, and me.

I taught some of my classes about Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving day, and made them mini pumpkin and apple pies. Christian-based holidays are a great way to talk about Christianity within the scope of what's expected in English class, since it's part of American culture.

Every year in December I pull out my suitcase full of blankets and sweatshirts and warm socks, and re-arrange my closet for the 2 months of cold weather.

The young people who board at the church bring so much joy

I love getting away to quiet, beautiful places on weekends or holidays


Once again, thank you to each of you for your interest in Thailand and what I'm doing.

Please pray:

--That my time at home would be refreshing and I would return with lots of energy and motivation and ideas for the new school year

--For connections with students, to build relationships and have opportunities to share the Gospel

--For the salvation of the students and staff at Boripat school

--For our local church, Pamalaw New Life of Peace church, as we reach out to the local community

Blessings to you all,


Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Belize--Touches of Familiar in a Foreign Place

 [We are once again doing the Smucker April Blogging Challenge. Expect a post every other day from Emily, me, or a number of guests.]

On a warm Sunday morning in January, at the Greendale Mennonite Church in Spanish Lookout, Belize, I settled into my seat beside my friend Darlene, looked around, and had a sudden sense of being back in the little Beachy Amish church in Minnesota that I attended growing up. It certainly wasn’t the very modern padded chair I sat on that awoke the memories, as we always sat on hard 100-year-old wooden pews. But men and women sat on separate sides of the church, and the women carried Bibles but not purses.

 No one ever told us to sit separately or not to take a purse to church, back at Believers Fellowship in the 1970s, and I suspect the same is true at Greendale. They were simply unquestioned traditions. As teenagers, we managed to take many of the contents of a purse—tissues, pens, paper, cough drops, ChapStick,  notes to and from our friends, and who knows what other necessities—stuffed inside our Bible covers.

 When the congregation at Greendale turned to a German hymn and began singing, that felt familiar as well. The song was printed in normal letters rather than the old-fashioned Fractur script of the Old Order Amish of my early childhood, so I could easily follow along and even translate in my head as we sang. In a new place in a new country, those touches of the past warmed my heart and made me feel at home.

I think it might be a Midwestern trait to look for the familiar in the foreign.

My sister Rebecca used to mail photos from their home in Yemen: spice markets, ancient stone buildings bright in the sunshine, and dark men in robes with curved knives strapped to their waists. Everything looked utterly strange, from another world.

Rebecca would also mail pictures of her little boys sitting on the sunny front steps playing with their pet kittens. “Ei, sie gooka gdawt vee Minnesota katze!” my mom would say in wonderment. [“Why, they look just like Minnesota cats!”]

Maybe Mom's precious grandsons were still on this solid Earth after all.

When we went to Kenya in 2003 and again when we traveled to Thailand for three weeks in 2012, I found the strangeness deeply unsettling. Not only were both places hot and humid, but the languages, food, landscapes, cultures, and everything else felt like I’d landed in a different universe.

However, one day I happened to walk down the street in Kisumu, Kenya, behind a small herd of cows. True, they had huge humps at the shoulder, unlike the Holsteins and Jerseys of my past, but they ambled along with their straight back legs stepping stiffly, just like the cows in the pasture in Minnesota when I brought them in for milking.

That touch of familiarity settled the agitation in my soul. I was going to be ok.

In Thailand, I also walked down the street, past empty lots with lush jungle growth that looked like it would reach out and grab me, and elegant terracotta birdbath-like pools lush with goldfish and water lilies. And then, there it was, a frightened but determined gray cat, pausing in her excavation of a garbage can to give me a cold glare.

It was a touch of home, a look I’ve received a thousand times from fearful,  judgmental Minnesota and Oregon cats. 

Having lived in numerous places and traveled to many states and maybe eight countries, I now see not only the Minnesota-like cats and cows, but pieces of everywhere I’ve been before.

That’s what happened in Belize this past January.

Last year, two women named Anna and Alvina asked me if I’d come speak at the Mennonite colony of Spanish Lookout. Alvina had served in missions in Canada with us when our children were little and remembered Matt’s endless curiosity. She and Anna started organizing an annual ladies’ conference about five years ago.

I had never been in Central America, so I didn’t know what I’d be walking into, but how could I possibly say no to the Caribbean in January? Also, it meant that a door of opportunity was re-opening, and I was relieved and grateful.

Our daughter Emily lives in Houston, Texas, with Matt and his wife Phoebe. She was willing to accompany me as a traveling companion, tea-maker, supporter, and scheduler, so Paul and I flew to Houston, and Emily and I went on to Belize.

Leaving the airport, we walked into the warm, damp tropical air, met our lovely hostesses, and set off for a short tour of Belize City. We saw bright painted concrete storefronts like they have in Kenya and Mexico, over there were groups of students in tidy uniforms, also like Kenya, and over it all was the warm and lively Caribbean ambiance I remembered from Jamaica.

At an open-air restaurant near the beach, this iguana befriended us.
I love the bright colors of the Caribbean.

We drove off into the countryside, through small villages and bigger towns, past resorts and swamps and hills, caught behind large slow trucks until Alvina casually zipped around them.

Belize seems like a gentle place. There were none of the police checkpoints of Mexico or Yemen or Kenya, where intimidating armed men watch your car with all the glowering judgment of a cat on a garbage can. Instead, the brightly-painted bus stops and fruit stands and tire shops had a relaxed feel, like anyone was welcome to stop in or pass on, as they wished. And no one was in a rush for any of it.

Belizian views--see the Sleeping Giant?

We left the coastal swamps and traveled to higher ground, with more hills and trees. Then, suddenly, the forest and undergrowth gave way to well-maintained highways, large cultivated fields, neat houses with tidy lawns, and huge businesses featuring construction supplies and farm equipment.

This was Spanish Lookout.

Founded by Mennonites from Mexico in 1958, Spanish Lookout is an agricultural, religious, and economic island carved out of the jungle of western Belize. I’m told the first settlers struggled to survive, but with the help of American Amish and Mennonites who sent a planeload of cows and other assistance, along with Hurricane Hattie in 1962 creating a market for Mennonite goods, the fortunes of the colony changed. It is now the agricultural backbone of Belize, supplying the country with eggs, chicken, and grain, and employing thousands of workers from the surrounding villages.

Driving down the main street feels like going down the center of Shipshewana, Indiana, or other big Anabaptist communities. In the Midwest, the signs say Yoder Mini-Barns and Miller Plumbing and so on, while in Belize the names are Dueck and Penner and Friesen. But the air of hard work and success is similar.

While most residents still speak the dialect of Plautdietsch and attend one of the Kleinegemeinde Mennonite churches, some have left the church but remained in the colony, and others have joined by adoption or marriage. Friendships and work relationships outside the colony are becoming more common as well, so the women’s conference was the most racially and culturally diverse that I’ve ever spoken at.

It was also the most attentive audience I’ve ever had, an advantage of speaking in an isolated place where women’s events are uncommon. In Holmes or Lancaster Counties, I'm sure you can pick an event out of numerous options, suiting your wishes and schedule, and your expectations for the speaker are proportionately higher. In places like Belize, anyone who is willing to come and teach is appreciated. The women welcomed us in every way, making sure Emily and I were cared for, fed, talked with, invited, and driven to and from. It was more than duty and obligation, a heart-deep warmth that I will never forget.

Women in Central American Mennonite colonies have in the past faced a lack of information and opportunity due to obstacles of language, distance, and tradition. I was encouraged to learn that the internet has brought access to books and other influences. Also, far more women can speak, read, and write English than could 30 or 50 years ago.

I have a feeling, though, that even with more outside influence and options, they won’t lose their innate hospitality and warmth.

Even though so much of my experience in Belize was foreign territory, in one way it was returning to a familiar place that I thought I might have left for good.

For almost twenty years, I had been speaking at out-of-state women’s events at least once a year, plus frequent local events. I enjoyed it enormously and saw it as my reward for the sometimes agonizing work of writing. Then, Covid hit, Paul had a bad fall, and almost all the speaking invitations stopped.  I did one women’s event in Canada via Zoom in the middle of Covid, but as the months passed after that, it felt like a door had closed and might never reopen.

I didn’t know what my calling was supposed to be, or how to find out. But all right then. I found other things to do—sewing, hosting, joining a writing group.

Months later, I heard the creak of rusty hinges and a door slowly opened. A group in Kentucky asked me to speak at their retreat, and I heard from Anna and Alvina.

I was back in familiar territory, scribbling ideas onto post-it notes, buying tickets, messaging the organizers, and praying for the women who would attend. Once again, I shared my stories with groups of beautiful women who were under no obligation to sit there and listen, or to laugh and cry and tell me their own stories afterwards, but did anyhow.

I decided I will never take this for granted. Never.

So Belize, for all its newness, reminded me of other places and gave me the gift of a calling renewed and affirmed. I am so grateful.

Here are some pictures and stories.

Esther and her husband and part of the family took us out for lunch on Sunday. She made a list of all the things we have in common--
--married 39 years
--six children--three boys and three girls
--we like to read, sew, grow flowers, and go to the beach
--our very busy and active pastor/teacher husbands were disabled in the last years, hers by a stroke and Paul by a fall. Her husband has more lasting injuries, however. Both of them were incredibly determined patients who amazed their physical therapists.
--our moms died about ten years ago
--our dads would always talk to strangers
--both lost loved ones to suicide
--we have a hard time asking for help 


Ronnie [pronounced Roe-nee] was a local girl who married a Mennonite guy and moved onto the family farm.

Alvina knew I wanted to see some cows up close, so when Ronnie told Alvina she'd like to have a private conversation with me, Alvina did the math and sent us off together.
Ronnie took me to her house and we got into her Gator.
She drove us down a long grassy lane to a large gate. A dozen lovely Brahma cattle were on the other side and came to see what we were up to.

I patted a few noses and then turned to see that Ronnie had brought two camp chairs and set them on the grass. We sat down and talked and watched cows. It had been a hot day, but the afternoon sun was behind the clouds and it was pleasant and cool.

Speaking publicly is fun but exhausting. I had given two talks that day, toured the colony, and talked with a lot of people one on one. Sitting quietly there by the pasture with Ronnie, enjoying the cows, and taking in the immense green world and the dramatic sky was absolutely and by far the most relaxing thing I've ever done after speaking.

A memory to keep and treasure. 

On Sunday afternoon, we went to the Mayan ruins not far away.

The Mayan ruins were beyond comprehension and so ancient that few explanations remain of how and why they were built and used.

Returning from the Mayan ruins, we crossed the river on a ferry.
Emily took a selfie with Alvina's son Usher.

Emily was invited to a local high school to talk about writing. I loved the breezy, well-lit classroom. Even more special was the students' enthusiasm about writing creative stories.

Teacher Tina introduces Emily

After the weekend conference, we spent a day at the beach.

The committee in Belize asked me to come back next year.
Of course I said Yes.