Monday, June 22, 2020

Oh Be Careful Little Ears What You Hear



When I was about 19 and teaching in Oregon, my friend Katherine and I used to go visit at the state prisons in Salem. In the Bible studies and chapel services, we got to know a number of prisoners by name.

Sometimes we’d speculate about their previous lives. We imagined their stories, even if we had no plausible information to go on.

One day we got to talking about a young man we had met at OSCI, the medium-security prison. He was tall, blond, quiet, and intriguing. I’ll call him David.

For some reason I thought Katherine and I were both in a speculative mood, and I began yarning a long story about where David was from, how he fell into a crime that put him at OSCI, when he came to faith, and how he had one sister, a bit younger, who was really nice and who faithfully came to visit him.

I made it all up, and I thought Katherine knew that. I was just having fun.

Later we attended a gathering at a friend's house of probably fifty people to hear a speaker from the prison. As we ate afterwards, I noticed Katherine in deep conversation with one of the men. She came over to me. “Hey, I was telling Harold what you told me about David. Can you remind me, did you say it was his sister that comes to visit him? Do you know if he has other family support?”

I was so horrified I could hardly speak. “Katherine! Didn’t you know? I made it all up!”

No. She hadn’t known.

"But! I thought we were both just imagining! For fun!"

Let’s just say that some awkward conversations followed.

Here is something you should know: it is easy to make stuff up.

We who read and watch and listen tend to be a believing bunch. I’d hate to call us gullible, heaven forbid, but we tend to take in articles or videos or books and assume the author or speaker is credible.

Malcolm Gladwell addresses this in his book Talking With Strangers. 

Essentially, we default to truth, he says. We assume people are telling the truth until we find out otherwise.

The alternative, he goes on, is to go through life with deep suspicion of everyone and their words and motives. That’s an exhausting way to live, sustainable only if you isolate yourself and remove most of the joy from your life. 

The internet trolls who always comment on anecdotes and interesting stories and photos with “fake!” and “obviously photoshopped!” don’t add anything of value to the world.

However. A little bit of suspicion, or at least critical thinking, is good.

I am not only a taker in of words, but a producer of them. While I am more cautious than I was at 19, I’ve been shocked at how easy it is to make stuff up and have people take me seriously.

For example, years ago I wrote about evaluating literature and was trying to sound as pretentious as literary critics do. So I wrote an airy paragraph about finding the “thematic juxtapositions” in a piece of writing.

It was so overdone that I was sure it was obviously concocted out of thin air. But no less a personage than a well-known Anabaptist internet personality took me seriously and wanted to know more.

Granted, that was a long time ago, and he wasn’t very old. But other and older people also took me seriously.

Then, more recently, in a blog post about the mommy wars, I wanted to make up an example of an earnest theory that moms might encounter. What should it be? I needed something so “out there” that everyone would know it was made up, yet with parallels to real examples, with “facts” and “expert” and “research.”

The next day that same mom posts a long thoughtful post on Instagram featuring her baby all cuddly in a thick cream-colored knitted blanket, with only his round little face showing. She writes in the caption about how important it is to surround our children with warmth, that this teaches them bonding and comfort, starting in the womb, when they are safe and loved at your core body temperature that God made at the optimal degree where a child’s brain absorbs the greatest sense of security. Half a degree down and they show signs of distress and you know, she just wants to kindly speak out about moms who gauge a baby’s comfort by their own and don’t consider that babies have a much smaller body mass, so they get cold faster, and they don’t have the words to communicate this discomfort. The damage can show up years later in children who always need a security blanket and adults who are nervous and anxious and always pulling sweaters on and off, like women during menopause, or men who pull all the blankets to their side of the bed, trying to recreate the security of the womb. She’s done her research. There’s a connection. She knows about this.

Some people believed this was actually a thing until they reached a footnote that said I made it all up. If you were one of them, don’t feel bad. One of my own brilliant daughters thought it sounded plausible.

If we encounter someone who sounds like they know what they’re talking about, but it’s all new to us, we often fear looking stupid if we question them or don’t quite believe them. What if they look at us like, you didn’t know this?? What if all the heads in the room swivel our way in shock and amusement? What rock has she been living under?

You don’t have to be a scowling, suspicious hermit or an internet troll who takes all the fun out of unusual stories, but it’s ok to push back just a little bit, to ask questions, and to verify from other sources.

Gary Chapman’s theories on the five love languages have permeated every course on family life and relationships in the Christian world in the last 30 years. You can recite them all, right? Quality time, physical touch, words of affirmation, and so on.

His basic premise resonates with most of us, I think: of course we all perceive and communicate love differently.

How many of us have stopped to ask: Why only five love languages? Why those five in particular? Who gave Mr. Chapman the authority to decide how things are?

My sister’s primary love language is empathy. If you feel with her and tell her so, she is your friend for life. For me, it’s attention. If you make eye contact and affirm my existence and value, or if you notice that I need something and try to help me, I feel more loved than if you gave me a hug and a hundred dollars.

Some of you, at this moment, are taking my sister’s and my love languages and trying to shove them into one of Chapman's five categories, like a kindergartener trying to fold up a dollar bill and shove it down the slot in the globe bank in Sunday school, while the class sings two full rounds of Dropping dropping hear the pennies fall.

“Empathy would come under words of affirmation," you say. "It’s all about affirming who people are and what they’re feeling.”

Or maybe not.

Gary Chapman gets the credit for putting the love languages theory into words and coming up with five categories. But let’s remember that he probably had six or eight or ten, to begin with, but then his wife and his editor said, “People are going to get bogged down. You’ve got to condense these to no more than five.” So he did, and we’ve taken those five as seriously as the Seven Ordinances ever since.

It’s ok if you have your own love language. You get to differ from the Original Five, if you like. Gary Chapman doesn't get to decide about you.

Then, around the same time that the love languages came along, someone else came up with the brilliant strategy of improving communication in relationships by using "emotional word pictures."

If I recall correctly, I heard both Bill Gothard and Gary Smalley speak on this, in person. As they elaborated on this brilliant technique, something bubbled in the back of my brain. “Wait. ‘Emotional word pictures?’ Isn’t that like. . . stories?”

Yes, my friends. As nearly as I can tell, emotional word pictures are just stories. Maybe tailored and crafted to fit the moment, but still stories.

See, authors and speakers get to say whatever they want. They can give new words to old concepts, shape ideas to fit their agenda, or totally make stuff up out of thin air.

Why would they do this? Well, someone who comes up with a great new idea and explains it well will sell lots of books and get lots of clicks on YouTube. So will someone who puts a new, intriguing twist on old ideas, or who convinces people that they are in danger and he/she has the insights to rescue them. Or that they are lacking in some significant way and the YouTube expert can fully supply.

If selling lots of books is a bad thing, then I have the wrong aspirations. I'm just saying that it’s always a good idea for readers and watchers to think about what people are saying and what they might be getting out of it.

You don’t have to go around scoffing in scornful superior derision at everything you hear and read and see. But don’t take authors, YouTube personalities, self-proclaimed experts, or people on TV too seriously either.

Some of us have great imaginations. We are good at making things up.

It's good to question what we say.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

A Sweet and Unexpected Season

The Corona virus came roaring around the world like a freight train gone rogue, bringing widespread disruption, sickness, financial disaster, isolation, panic, death, and confusion.

Who would have thought that the virus would bring us a sweet little gift, like a package of chocolate hidden in the corner of a freight car on that runaway train?

Our six children have come and gone from home for the past fifteen years. They've moved out, moved back, done voluntary service, lived overseas, gone to Bible school, gone to college, worked at faraway jobs, and traveled all over. I had expected that their outward trajectory would continue, and our times together would become fewer and shorter.

This was the unexpected gift: the virus brought us all together. When Matt moved in with Ben to continue working for NASA, but from Corvallis, Oregon, instead of Houston, we were all within a half-hour's drive of each other. For these last two months before Matt's wedding, we've had many gatherings with all of us here. I never asked or hoped for this--it was utterly unexpected and delicious.

In addition, Oregon State's decision to hold all its classes online meant that Amy and Jenny were home all the time instead of zipping out the door in the dark wet mornings with heavy backpacks and coffee.

I've decided the themes of my life are: You Never Know and Who'd Have Thought?

I will be relieved when Covid 19 and its restrictions and repercussions are in the past, but I will always be grateful for the hidden gifts it brought.

Here are some pictures of our times together:


We had family Zoom calls on Sundays when we couldn't get together.

I happened to win this Phase 10 game:
Yet another way that Corona turned the universe upside down.


Mother's Day

Mother's Day


Sometimes college students need a tea break.
We hiked at Finley Wildlife Reserve on a Sunday afternoon. Here we're exploring an old homestead.

At Finley Reserve.

A random Sunday evening

You shouldn't use the word "cute" with grownups, but sometimes you just want to.

This is also kyute.



Here's Ben admiring a snail on the new block wall the girls helped me build.
Jenny is helping me appreciate snails just a bit more.

A few have asked if the Ask Aunt Dorcas feature is returning. The answer is yes, after the wedding, since I still have a list of questions I'd like to answer.

If this season has been especially brutal for you and anything but restful and pleasant, please know that I care. Our roles could easily be reversed with the next freight train that comes barreling through. You never know. May the grace of God carry you, and may the crazy turns of events bring you small gifts that you never thought to look or ask for.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Ask Aunt Dorcas: Wedding Preps, Screen Addictions and Diverse Readers

Aunt Dorcas and Nephew Conrad, at the Smucker Christmas dinner.
It is exactly as it appears.
Dorcas was tying her shoe and asking personal questions, and Conrad was skillfully avoiding them.
Shortly thereafter, he began dating a lovely young lady, and Dorcas was as surprised as anyone.

Q: How are the wedding preparations coming?
--Curious in Columbus

A: Actually, dear Readers, I made up that question myself because I felt like talking about the Wedding! Matt and Phoebe stayed with the original date of June 14 and will get married in a farmer's field west of here. They'll have a limited number of guests seated on chairs and everyone else in cars, listening to the ceremony on an FM frequency. 

I've had lots of time to think as I planted the garden and cleaned the oven this week* and decided to tackle the questions that follow.

*because one's son can't get properly married if the oven is dirty.

Q: I spend WAY too much time on my phone on YouTube/Instagram, etc. to the point where I sometimes don’t go to sleep until 4 in the morning. I just can’t stop. Help!
--Sleepless in Sugarcreek

A: I’m so proud of you for putting your situation into plain words, admitting your helplessness, and asking for help.

I don’t think I’ve ever been on my phone until 4 a.m., but I’ve had times and periods of being online way too much. Here are some things I’ve learned and observed about screen addiction. I also learned some of this from a young man named Justin Doutrich who did a lot of studying on the subject of addictions and shared it at church.

1. You are not alone. Many many people feel the same way you do: I just can’t stop!

2. You’ve taken the huge and significant step of saying the truth out loud. Applause for you!

3. In one sense, of course people can stop, in the moment. If they smell smoke, they can quit scrolling and run. But in a very real sense, you are absolutely right: you can’t stop. It is an addiction involving many of the same patterns and brain chemicals as an addiction to alcohol or eating or hoarding. The habit becomes bigger than you can handle on your own.

2. Addictions involve a chemical called dopamine. It gives you a happy little boost. When you get a message on Instagram or get notified of a new video on a channel you follow, your brain gets a little squirt of dopamine. Soon, you get addicted to that little kick. You crave it more and more, but it takes more and more visual input to get the same boost. So you scroll and scroll until 4 a.m.

3. Your experience shows that YouTube and Instagram are working exactly as they were designed to. I am not kidding. They were specifically designed to get you hooked, just like the nicotine in cigarettes was calculated to get people addicted. In both cases, it’s about money. Online sites live on advertising which is driven by clicks.

4. Isolation, guilt, and shame are a big part of any addiction. What a failure you are, what a bad excuse for a Christian, an adult, a mom, whatever. So you try and try to do better, but keep failing. What if someone finds out? So embarrassing!

Speaking the truth and admitting you have a problem is a huge and important step. Asking for help is another. It ends the isolation.

5. That habit/addiction has actually made physical changes in your brain. So changing your situation will involve training new pathways in your brain. It’s hard, but it can be done as you make better choices, over and over.

6. My theory is that certain types of brains are more susceptible to screen addictions and have more trouble undoing the damage. I’ve always had the ability to get utterly lost in whatever I was reading. So I’d be dusting the living room on a Saturday morning at age 12, and I’d pick up a Family Life magazine and start reading. Before long I would be so immersed I’d forget about the dusting, the rest of my chore list, and all the fun things I had hoped to do that day.

A long time later I would come out of the fog and realize I had been reading for a very long time, and the free time I had hoped for was unlikely to happen after all. So then, of course, I’d feel so disappointed and berate myself and resolve to do better, only to do it all over again the next Saturday.

Reading things online has the same effect. I can read an article and go clicking on to the next one, so utterly absorbed that I have no sense of time passing. If you have that sort of brain, I sympathize. Recognizing this weakness is important.

7. Castigating yourself and feeling bad won’t go far in making lasting change or new grooves in your brain. You need to dig deeper. For example, going online is often an escape from real life. 

So if I’m struggling with too much time on my phone, I ask myself, “What is it about my life that I’m trying to escape?” Often I’m overcommitted and feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes I have disappointment I don’t want to think about, or relationships that aren’t going well. Scrolling through Facebook distracts me from those realities, which feels good for a short time, but doesn’t solve anything.

So I need to work on actually fixing the things I’m trying to escape.

8. Another question to ask is, “Where am I going for comfort, and why?” We are made for community, and we need other people and the connection and belonging they provide.

Ultimately, Jesus is the true source of peace, comfort, belonging, and purpose. In the depths of our souls, only Jesus can truly satisfy those needs.

Going online to meet those needs is idolatry and self-destructive. 

Repentance and God’s forgiveness help to break the power of your addiction.

9. Also ask, “What else is going on in my brain?” When I wake up at 3 a.m. with my thoughts racing and all kinds of regrets about how I mothered 30 years ago, like that time I served the kids a snack and forgot that Emily was still out in her little yellow swing and couldn’t get out, I have to stop the whirling if I want to go back to sleep. What works best is a few minutes of word games on my phone. Somehow that works. I’m ok with that solution as long as it’s only a few minutes and I go back to sleep. If it ever turns into Too Much, I'll have to re-evaluate.

When I find myself zoning out online a lot during the day, especially in fall and winter, it’s a signal that my SAD is getting worse. If I take steps to improve the depression, such as taking walks and taking Vitamin D, I’m far less likely to get lost online.

10. Telling someone about your problem, asking for help, and being accountable are all huge steps in forming new and healthier habits.
I find that not only does too much time online make me feel stupid, but involving others makes me feel silly, like seriously, I can’t control this impulse on my own? 

But it works.

Accountability, for me, generally involves my daughters. I tell one or all of them that I need to be offline for a specific amount of time, and I specify the consequences if I fail. So I might send a group text: “Hey, I have to stay off my phone until 9:00 tonight or I have to put $5 in the girls’ fun money.”

The fun money jar is where we collect money for our annual trips with the three daughters and me.

That all seems ridiculous for an adult woman to have to take such measures, and maybe it’s kind of a dumb consequence. But, like I said, it works. Thankfully, the girls are very chill and non-shaming about it.

You need a person to tell and a silly punishment for them to apply if you mess up. I promise, it helps.

And I hope this post helps you. You’ve already done the hard step of saying the truth out loud. Get some real-life supporters and explore some of those hard questions.

Q: How conscious are you of the reader and the diverse backgrounds and perspectives that they have when you write? And do you reword your thoughts to reach that broad range? 
--Cousin Floyd

A: Interesting questions!

I am quite conscious of my diverse readership, and yes, I’d say I reword my thoughts to reach both the Horning Mennonite housewife in Pennsylvania and the single, secular professor in Eugene.

Someone told me once that you need to assume your readers have enough brains to figure things out. You don’t have to explain every little detail of Mennonite or farm life. Much can be gathered from context.

Thus, I can usually write a story of my mom or grandma, throw in some Pennsylvania Dutch words, and mention Amish customs, and people can get the gist of the story without laborious explanations.

However, some things can’t be easily gathered from context, and I’ve learned by lots of trial and error what they are. After we adopted Steven, I wrote in an article that he “had a heart for animals.” My writing group was confused. They thought it was a cool phrase, but what did it mean, exactly?

Thus I discovered this term was used mostly within the Christian world.

Mennonites talk about VS, coverings, layered desserts, Beachies, the lot, and blowing the pitch. You can’t expect a non-Mennonite reader to track you very well if you don’t explain. So, when I write non-fiction, I'm careful with tossing those terms into a paragraph.

We also refer to whole families by the husband's first name, pluralized, ["Are Johns and Philips coming to the reunion?"] and to ministers by their first name. "Paul is preaching today." No Reverend, Pastor, or even Mr.

However, I’m running into a few quandaries with the fiction I’m working on, because I want it to be authentic without laborious explanations. Maybe Aunt Martha says, “I hear Ellie is going to VS at Hillcrest.” You know that’s authentic cultural language. But Englisch readers won’t know what she’s talking about. It’s tricky and I haven’t found a good way to navigate it all.

[But I think readers can pick up from context that Englisch means non-Mennonite.]

It doesn't usually work the other way, where I explain terms from the Englisch world so that Mennonite readers will understand. As a minority culture, we're all exposed to their language and know enough to get by.

Mostly, though, readers are surprisingly similar at heart, and a good story is universal. If people don't understand all the details, at least they understand the basic plot and the emotions beneath it.

Thanks, Floyd, for being part of that diverse readership.


Friday, May 15, 2020

Ask Aunt Dorcas--Trains, A Rant on Dating, and the Poof


Aunt Dorcas finds that she likes answering questions. It gives her a good excuse to ramble and rant on her favorite subjects. So she will plan to continue these Saturday posts until she uses up all the questions people have submitted, with a break for her son's wedding of course.

These are her conclusions. You may draw your own conclusions with the good mind God gave you.
---

Today we begin with a fun question:

Q: How many times a day does the train go past your place? My 3 year old loved a story you posted of that.
--Amberly

A: Hey, someone else likes trains! We live about a quarter mile from the main track down the West Coast, so lots of trains go by. The Coast Starlight is a silver Amtrak train that runs from Los Angeles to Seattle. Another passenger train is the Amtrak Cascades, which has a long, sleek, striped look that always reminds me of a garter snake, but it's still pretty.

Then there are lots of freight trains hauling lumber, grain, tanks of unknown liquids, and lots of normal freight cars with mysterious contents.

I'm going to guess that trains pass fifteen times a day, but it could be eight or twenty. We've gotten so used to them that we even sleep through the train horns blowing at night. Then we have guests who look exhausted in the morning because the trains kept them awake, and we think, “Oh yeah. Trains.”

I always enjoy watching trains, but your question made me start noticing them a lot more. 

---

Q: Should a guy feel super strongly about a relationship before asking her out or is it ok to take the plunge even if he isn't head over heels obsessed?
--Farmer Melvin

A: This merits a short answer, a long answer, and a rant.

Short answer: No, a guy doesn’t need to feel super strongly. Yes, it’s ok to ask even if he isn’t obsessed.

Long answer: Feeling “super strongly” and “head over heels obsessed” before asking a girl out and, presumably, getting to know her well, seems just a bit alarming.

Here’s what seems healthier to me: 

A guy gets to know a girl well enough to be intrigued. He mentions this to the Lord, and asks for guidance, but he doesn’t deem it necessary to pray for a year or two.

He doesn’t send the girl mysterious, half-flirty texts and DMs for 3 months until she finally asks awkwardly what’s going on.

No. He asks the girl out so they can get to know each other better! He makes this clear: he is inviting her to go out for coffee. [We assume the virus is now history and coffee shops are open.]

The girl, being an adult and in tune with the Holy Spirit and maybe a teeny bit aware of the guy before this day, is allowed to say “Yes” or “No” that very day, if she wishes, without praying about it for a week. Or if she wants to wait and pray, that's ok too, as long as she doesn't do it just to sound spiritual, like I did once upon a time.

They meet for coffee, assuming she said Yes.

If the conversation doesn’t lag too badly, and he doesn’t slurp his coffee, we assume they meet again, and again, and before long they have a discussion about Defining the Relationship.

Once they know each other well enough, we hope they fall head over heels in love, get married, and live happily ever after.

The key factors:

Both are adults.
Everyone is honest about their intentions.
The guy takes action rather than dithering for a year or two while she takes on an imaginary Fairy Goddess Angel persona in his head, which no mortal woman can sustain in real life for very long.

Here comes the Rant:

While the guy is creating this fantasy character in his head, the young lady is trying to figure out what he’s thinking and what to do with her life—the inevitable dilemma of the single Mennonite woman. Maybe she kind of likes him and would give him a chance, but nothing is happening except a few odd indecipherable messages, so should she go ahead and pursue college and a career? Because it sure looks like she’ll be supporting herself for the rest of her days.

But then, most Mennonite men don’t go to college and seem to be intimidated by women who do, so that will shrink the pool of potentials that much more.

But she might not get married either way, and does she want to clean houses until she’s 35 and then go to college and pursue a job that will put new tires on the car without anguished budgeting?

I’m assuming that Farmer Melvin is over 25 years old. For him and so many like him, and older, both men and women let me just say: It’s hard. 

This post is not an auction poster for my many single adult kids. Without any help from me, they have experienced enough dating, drama, DMs, discussion, disappointment, meddling, matchmaking and mystery to merit many Sunday dinner discussions, evening chats in the living room, and sisterly confabs upstairs.

I am not free to tell any of it. I hope they appreciate that I am sitting on dozens of stories that are like squirming cats, scratching to get away, but I sit tight and don’t let them go. 

So this isn't an advertisement. But it's still about my adult kids, because they have made me aware of many other single Mennonites and of trends in that demographic.

If you’ve seen the new Little Women movie, you might remember the part where Amy explains that marriage is mostly an economic arrangement. I would add that it’s also a social/relational structure. If you follow Biblical values, it’s also the only means of sexual intimacy and babies.

So dating and marriage are about dreamy things like Romance and Finding the One, but mostly they’re about forming a partnership, economically and relationally, for the long-term benefit of both partners and the next generations.

Of course it’s crucial that you choose wisely who you will share a bed, budget, and babies with. But the process has been tragically complicated by years of focusing only on the Deep Weighty Decisions and Discerning God’s Will. It hasn't been ok, somehow, to be plain and practical about it.

I was about 19 when I was chatting with my friend Heidi’s mom, Noah-Lizzie. We covered the local gossip, including the fact that “Glen Hostetler” had gone on a date with “Velma Yoder.”
“Glen is different from his brothers!” Lizzie said.
“How so?” I wondered.
Er macht sich rum!” she pronounced, which means, literally, he makes himself around, or, he gets things done!

I thought, “Lizzie! How Amish of you!”

Well. I am now as practical and Amish as it’s possible to be. Bring on the discussion, strategy, matchmaking, plain language, and making yourself around.

In practical terms of finding a suitable mate, younger people have it easier. There are many more options in place to facilitate meeting and matching.

Some meet in high school, date as soon as they’re old enough, and get married. I can think of three such couples who were my kids’ classmates.

Others, not being too tied down to jobs or college, spend a winter in Bible school and meet someone there. My older kids’ friends and cousins who didn’t meet their future mate in high school often met at Bible school or a similar venue, such as the Shenandoah Music Camp or voluntary service. If you’re from a faraway place like Oregon, Bible schools and such do a good job of introducing young people to each other.

But let’s say someone meets a special person at Bible school, and they start dating, but after a year it doesn’t work out. Or no match is made.

Our Mennonite young person gets older. They start college or a business or a job that doesn’t allow flitting off for weeks at a time.

The potential meetings of potential mates dwindle in number.

Think of the Corona virus, since that is on all of our minds. If we are all out there meeting and mingling, the chance of the virus getting transferred is exponentially greater than if we’re all hunkered down, hardly seeing anyone outside of our tiny family circles.

Every Mennonite community seems to have a few unmarried people who are not right for each other but would be just fine for a compatible soul a few states away. Sometimes the compatible people actually live in the same community but go to different churches and socialize in different circles.

There are so few good, acceptable ways for them to meet and get acquainted well enough to make an informed decision about a relationship.

If they’re active online, they can get to know each other in a limited and heavily curated way. The rules are a bit fuzzy as to what’s really ok as they open the gates of friending/following, liking/commenting, and finally messaging.  Is it ok for a girl to follow a guy if it’s a private account? Can she message him, or, in the current lingo, slide into his DMs? Is it inappropriate if the guy comments on her posts all the time but never tries to get to know her by other means?

Online interaction can be a segue to real life interaction and even romance, as illustrated by my friend Luci. Ivan began following her blog, then commenting, and finally emailing. Then he declared his intentions and pursued a real life relationship. They are now married.

It keeps coming back to these:

Real life.
Supportive community.
Doing something.

Apparently, this isn’t only a Mennonite phenomenon. Our son Matt tells of attending Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and seeing dozens of other young men there, all with the same slightly desperate look that he recognized from having had the same look. If you want a nice Christian girl, you go to church, right? Isn’t that the best place to look? Capitol Hill Baptist even had an impressive written policy advocating Christian courtship and marriage.

It looked great on paper, but it didn’t work in real life. There was no opportunity for singles to meet and talk and get to know each other. Sunday school classes don’t allow for relaxed conversation. After church, there was time for only furtive glances before everyone dispersed and got back on the Metro.

This is what I propose [ha ha]. We all need to get involved. This requires a community solution.

I’m not saying we should all be deliberately matchmaking, although a few Christians have that spiritual gift, such as Jenny’s employer Don Smith, who matched Paul’s sister Rosie and her husband Phil, plus a few other couples.

Mostly, we should be making it easy for singles to meet and get to know each other. I know of numerous grateful couples who got a nudge at the top of the hill from a parent or friend, who then let go of the sled and let the couple steer it to the bottom on their own.

Of course, my favorite example is Matt and his fiancee Phoebe.

Matt said there were a number of widows at Capitol Hill. He thought it would be a great idea to ordain a few Deaconesses of Matchmaking among those widows. They could regularly invite a variety of singles over for food and games. People could get to know each other in a comfortable homey atmosphere. Even if no matches resulted, these young people, almost all far from home, could get a bit of mothering and socializing.

Most of us with a home and a living room or kitchen can invite people over. A group of older singles, at times, or a variety, since people living on their own often miss out on interaction with children and grandparents. The goal should be hospitality and helping.

Once upon a time, Anne Smucker invited half a dozen teachers from Mennonite schools in the valley to her house for dinner. She said later she wasn’t matchmaking, but before everyone left the table, her son Paul thanked her for the dinner, and a certain young lady took note of it. That evening the same young lady dropped a scoop of ice cream in her lap and calmly picked it up and put it into her bowl, which Paul didn’t notice, but things worked out anyhow.

But what about overt matchmaking? The word from the singles I know is: Ask. Don’t assume.
It’s easy: “How would you feel about me setting up a blind date for you?”
“I’d like to have you and the new teacher over for dinner, to get to know each other. Are you ok with that?”
They can say Yes or No or Tell Me More—what a concept!

Years ago, I wrote that a bunch of us moms should get together and bake whoopie pies. You know those chocolate sandwich cookies? You bake a whole bunch of them, then match them up, two by two, with a nice swoosh of gooey frosting in between.

Some cookies come out of the oven looking uniform and perfect. Those are easy to match up and are the first to go into the Tupperware happily glued together until death do them part. But others are too big or too small, or oddly shaped, or too flat.

It takes a bit of work to find a good match for those. But it can be done.

In the last year, a few people have quietly mentioned to me that a Mennonite moms' matchmaking group on facebook would be a good idea. Matt even offered to do the spreadsheet work for it. Singles could send in a profile and the moderator moms could verify the details through one of our nieces or friends from the same community. Then we could have a Zoom meeting and frost some whoopie pies, so to speak.

Do I need to pray about this for a year or two? Or should I follow my own advice and take action?

Back to Farmer Melvin: brave action is better than fearful dithering, no matter how much you spiritualize the hesitation.

Remember: Real life. A supportive community. Taking action.

Go for it, Farmer Melvin.

That's what I think.

---
Q: How do you get your hair to "puff" out like that on the top? I like it.
--Karen

A: This made me laugh because puffs are kind of out of fashion. 

I wash my hair and brush it out. Then, while it's still wet, I put a little bloop of hair gel on my hands and rub it in around the front of my head. 


I comb it straight back, then I lay one hand on top of my head and slide it forward, forming a poof in front. I clip it in place and repeat the process on the sides.

When it's almost dry but not quite, I put it up into a bun, take out the clips around the front, and comb it all into place, hoping it behaves.


--
I have enough questions for at least three more posts, but if you want to add to my stash, email me at dorcassmucker@gmail.com

Friday, May 08, 2020

Ask Aunt Dorcas--The Mommy Wars

Aunt Dorcas

Hoping to make my advice column a regular feature, I put out a call for questions and was rewarded with half a dozen that I hope to address on Saturdays to come.

This one struck a nerve:

How does one navigate this world of “mommy wars”? (Vaccinations, schooling, etc.)
--a mom of five

Moms have always been passionate.

When I had small children, the issues that mothers felt strongly about were using birth control or not, breast or bottle feeding, natural foods vs. processed, and spanking or not.

I don’t recall any heated arguments among my peers, but I recall feeling shame for disagreeing with the prevailing opinions in the room, all of which were strong and yes, passionate, but never hostile. There was always that one mom who had the book with all the answers, which she would give to you if your baby was fussy or you didn’t breastfeed.

So Mommy campaigns are nothing new. Dysfunction is not new either, and shame is as old as Eden. But in my opinion there’s a new level of crusading, dysfunction, and shaming in the online world, particularly in that swath of the internet where moms hang out.

Social media have been a blessing to moms, providing connection and communication at a stage of life when it’s hard to get out and do things with friends. I often look back at my children's baby years and think what a lifesaver it would have been to have email or facebook.

So, for moms today, the online world is where your friends hang out and your sister posts pictures of her baby. It’s the best source for new decorating and bullet journal ideas. Thoughtful people post interesting observations. Of course you want to be there.

Until everything goes south and the mommy wars begin. Here’s a hopefully-hypothetical situation:

One day you have your husband take a picture of you holding your baby outside on a windy autumn day. The baby is beautiful, the leaves are blowing, your hair looks nice for once. You feel proud and happy about this baby and that moment. You post a picture with a happy caption.

Suddenly the comments and messages pop up. Um, should you really take your baby outside like that without making sure he’s dressed warmly?? And even, what kind of mom are you? 

That mom on Instagram with the 10,000 followers and the refurbished log cabin and the five lovely kids all dressed like the Bride in Revelation, in fine linen, clean and white, every day, along with leather sandals of course, that you started following? And then you were so thrilled when she followed you back?

Well. That mom sends you a private message, just to encourage you to think about your baby’s core temperature and his sense of bonding with you and also his little ears and the possibility of an ear infection, especially if you bottle-feed, which she has kind of caught on that you do. No judgment, she says. Really.

The next day that same mom posts a long thoughtful post on Instagram featuring her baby all cuddly in a thick cream-colored knitted blanket, with only his round little face showing. She writes in the caption about how important it is to surround our children with warmth, that this teaches them bonding and comfort, starting in the womb, when they are safe and loved at your core body temperature that God made at the optimal degree where a child’s brain absorbs the greatest sense of security. Half a degree down and they show signs of distress and you know, she just wants to kindly speak out about moms who gauge a baby’s comfort by their own and don’t consider that babies have a much smaller body mass, so they get cold faster, and they don’t have the words to communicate this discomfort. The damage can show up years later in children who always need a security blanket and adults who are nervous and anxious and always pulling sweaters on and off, like women during menopause, or men who pull all the blankets to their side of the bed, trying to recreate the security of the womb. She’s done her research. There’s a connection. She knows about this.*

That’s when you hold your baby close, safe and warm, and start crying, feeling terrible, terrible, terrible, down to your core, where your body temperature has become icy cold. She’s talking about you. You’re a bad mom, a failure, who will never be good enough.

It isn’t safe out there.

Or maybe your mom used the Ezzos’ method for getting her babies on a sleeping and eating schedule, and you turned out ok, so you’re wondering if anyone still does that and if so, do they recommend it? All you’re after is information and personal experiences.

You post on Mommy101, a facebook group that I am not part of but I’ve heard plenty about.

An all-out battle erupts in the comments. Some are certain you will spoil your child rotten if you let them dictate their own schedule. It’s all part of a liberal scheme to destroy the family, and a 4-hour schedule is the only thing that’s going to save us. This is how God designed it! We can tell from the Old Testament and the 4-hour work shifts in the tabernacle and also the symbolism in the names of Isaiah’s children. Maher-Shalal-Hashbaz. Swift to the spoil, hasten to the prey. It’s actually about how quickly a mother’s milk spoils in the child’s stomach when they eat on demand aka “hasten to the prey.”* See?

Others reply with shock, outrage, and horror. Babies are not robots! How dare you put your own agenda and the clock ahead of a baby’s hunger and need for bonding? It’s all because of the influence of Bill Gothard and homeschooling and conservatives and that judgmental controlling spirit that still pervades the Mennonite churches.

The flames shooting from the phone burn your hand and scorch your eyelashes. You set the phone down in shock. My livin’ stars. Where did that come from?

You only wanted to get some friendly advice.

It’s not safe out there. It’s wrong. It’s cruel to all the young moms who need support and a safe place to connect.

What do you do?

Here’s what I suggest:

1. Don’t contribute to the fray. Encourage, share your experiences, gently type your opinion. But don’t sink below that line into shame, hostility, and judgment. Even if you know what’s true. Even if you could obliterate someone else with your knowledge and logic. You know in your heart where that line is.

We don’t always recognize how shaming our words might be until they’re spoken and gone. I remember when my friend Kay and I both had nursing babies. One day she told me that she thinks she’s dehydrated, and her husband said maybe she should get in the habit of drinking coffee in the morning, just to get more fluids.

“Oh no! Not coffee!” I exclaimed with all the passion of superior knowledge. “Coffee dehydrates you even more!”

She looked a bit deflated. I don’t think I had the sense to apologize then, but I’m apologizing now. It was none of my business. Besides, recent studies show that coffee doesn’t dehydrate like we always thought it did. I could have smiled and nodded. My goodness. She was all about taking good care of that baby. That's what we need to affirm.

2. Pursue personal healing. You won’t have the clarity and the tools to deal with others if you are operating out of insecurity, unhealed abuse, and a shaky sense of self.

For me, one aspect of healing has been especially important both online and off: learning that others don’t get to decide about me. They don’t get to define who I am.

I have a deep-rooted bug in my internal code that has me believing that anything that anyone says about me is true. More specifically, anything negative that people say or imply, that is automatically true.

Of course it’s not logical, but the wrong impacts on a childish brain will have bizarre effects.

So, if Sally thought I was a bad minister’s wife because I hadn’t visited the new mom in church yet, then I was a bad minister’s wife. It was true. She got to decide. I had to try even harder to be good and jump through all the hoops.

If Harvey told his wife who told her sister who told me that he thinks women have no business being writers, and I ought to take care of my family better and take my laundry in from the line before everyone goes by on Sunday morning, then suddenly I’d be in a panic. I so badly wanted to write, but here was someone confident and influential saying I shouldn’t. And of course he got to say. So I would bring in the towels on Saturday night and neglect the gift that was in me. I let someone else define who I am, what I’m like, and what I should be doing.

Put in those terms, it sounds completely ridiculous. But this is baggage that some of us carry, and you would be amazed at how many people, particularly in the social media world,  are willing to step right into that weakness and inform us precisely and regularly who we are and what we’re like.

This is the healthier way:

Other people are allowed to have opinions. They can think whatever they want. They have that liberty.

But there is a line drawn between them and you. Their opinions don’t define you, nor are their judgments or their confident statements somehow the final truth on you and the universe.

Your own heart isn’t the most reliable metric either, being easily deceived and awash in hormones.

This is why you have the Word and the Holy Spirit. This is where the truth is found about who you are. That voice is gentle, persistent, nurturing, and kind. Learn to recognize it. It will keep your identity on solid ground.

3. Set boundaries. 

Others are allowed to think and say what they want on their own pages.

You get to decide about you and yours.

You are allowed to unfollow the cool mom in the log cabin, delete the negative comment on your post, miss out on the discussion that everyone else is talking about, and block the toxic people.

Monitor that feeling in your gut. Leave the conversation if you feel the tension rising. Separate yourself from the person who is out to destroy your joy. 

You get to decide and define. The healthier you are, the better you can discern between discussion and argument, toxic and merely clumsy, enough and too much, wise advice and foolish ideas.

If you’re dealing with hormones, depression, and not enough sleep, don’t engage in the wild discussions online. 

Even if you’re perfectly healthy and healed and on top of things, you should only engage if you’re sure you have something valuable to offer or learn, and the comments don’t derail your mental health.

Invest your passion into your family, your interests, and select people who build you up.

It’s time for moms to get passionate about making their online conversations safe for everyone.

That’s what I think.

*I made that up. My daughter Emily read this and said, "Mom! Is that really a thing?" NO. I promise.