Thursday, April 02, 2020

April Blogging Challenge 2020--Post 1--These Hazy Days

My daughter Emily and I are doing the ABC [April Blogging Challenge] again this year. We’ll be posting on alternating weekdays. I plan to post family updates, book reviews, current projects, and random thoughts on Coronavirus--that tsunami that has swept over all of our lives--and we’ll examine bits of debris the wave has washed onto our shores.

In a recent Patreon post, Emily wrote:

The world is strange, and scary, and sometimes I feel like I’m not living in the present at all, but rather a memory. 

I thought that was the best description I’ve heard yet.

Six of us are living in our house right now. Some, working essential jobs, leave the house more than others, but we all distance and isolate. Paul and the kids are especially protective of me, since I have asthma.

So I stay home, and non-family members don’t come into the house.

I’m starting to feel like an elderly person with dementia. I move through the day in a bit of a haze, not  sure what day it is and not quite certain what is now and what is past and future.

The day’s little milestones take on great significance. I believe I will go on a walk now, between rain showers. The mail lady has come! Oh, wonderful--it is time for dinner! And now I must tuck the chickens in for the night.

Yesterday, after two weeks of isolation, I felt vague emotions stirring up mud long settled at the back of my mind. It was like smelling a scent you hadn’t smelled for twenty years, and then you got a whiff and it immediately brought back a memory.

Our first two years in Canada, from 1986 to 1988, were spent at a boarding school way out in the bush. It’s hard to describe the experience of coming from Oregon, with its thousands of people, miles of interconnected highways, and endless places to go, to Stirland Lake.

True, it had a road, so one could drive in and potentially out. But the nearest town was over a hundred miles away.

When you were at Stirland Lake, you were very much THERE. You saw the people in the compound. The same people were your neighbors, co-workers, students, Bible study group, and friends. You played volleyball with them on activity nights, worshipped with them on Sunday, and met them in the lane when you went on a walk.

You couldn’t escape.

If one of them had, say, a whiny voice or maybe a bushy beard growing from the horizontal area under his jaw that everyone knows ought to be shaved, and you found this irritating, you couldn’t conveniently avoid that person and their whiny voice or beard. Especially in the dead of winter, with the cold and the miles all around, pressing you hard into this little pocket of community in the middle of the wilderness, you were very much there to stay and so were they.

I wasn’t particularly irritated at anyone yesterday, although I do at times get provoked at the people I live with, especially when they talk too loudly too early in the day, but I had that same suffocating sense of being very much HERE, in this place, with no place to go, as though the rest of the world were a thousand miles away, and these people in this house were the only people left.

That brought with it another sensation that was both current and memory—a vague longing to go secondhand shopping.

I remember this not only at Stirland Lake but also at Weagamow Lake a few years later and even in Kenya in 2003.  It was like a pregnancy craving for acorn squash—suddenly I longed to poke around a good dusty thrift store like I hadn’t wanted anything in a long time. The knowledge that I couldn't do this made the longing much more intense.

The reservation of Weagamow had over 800 people, and I marveled often at what a blessing it was to live somewhere where there were always new people to get to know. But it was even further north than Stirland, and fly-in only for most of the year, so the sense of isolation was still huge.

I used to dream about trains. Trains symbolized connection. They had come from one place and in my dreams they were going past me to another and yet another, honking their beautiful horns.

I would wake up and, of course, we were still at what felt like the far fringes of the universe, tethered only by the thinnest of threads, and the nearest train was hundreds of miles away.

We live in a farmhouse in Oregon today. I would love to go to garage sales and secondhand shopping, those vague longings in my memory that stir to life in isolation. Even more, I want to have friends over for tea in my cabin. I want to go camping at the coast, hike to a waterfall, visit Aunt Allene at the nursing home, and have a big table full for Sunday dinner. I want to hug the friend who is grieving and hold my friend and neighbor Kayla’s baby.

When those gifts return, I don't think I'll ever forget to appreciate them.

Meanwhile, I deliberately appreciate the gifts of here and now.

We live out in the country, so the landscape is mine to wander across and through, unhindered by snow, cold, or potentially contagious people. I’ve been taking more walks than normal and taking time to really look at sheep in a green field and acorns sprouting in the ditches under the oaks, near the cabin.

The insides of these acorns are a bright red when they split open. How have I never noticed this before?

There are neighborhood pigs and goats to visit.

Cars and trucks still drive by. Sometimes the drivers wave.

And the trains are still running. They sound their beautiful horns in the night as they rumble by on the tracks a quarter mile away. They are coming from somewhere and going somewhere else. The world is still connected.

We are not isolated at the edge of the universe.

Someday this time will be a memory stirred up like the mud at the bottom of Muddy Creek when a gently swimming duck suddenly flaps into flight.

My view of Muddy Creek from a cabin window.
There are two ducks in this picture who inspired the analogy.
But now, right in the hazy middle of it, I want to live it fully, with every possible grace.

The lambs' tongues are blooming.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Blizzard Syndrome and the Current Social Distancing

This morning our daughter Emily said we should make Prune Loaf.

I said, "Yes. We should."

We have a malady known as Blizzard Syndrome, and Blizzard Syndrome calls for Prune Loaf.

Back in 1975, we lived in Minnesota in an older house that didn't have any running water or indoor plumbing. The water came from a pump about a hundred feet from the house. We had an outhouse and also strategic buckets indoors when the weather was nasty.

That January a blizzard blew in. Even for Minnesota, it was extreme-- a storm for the history books. It brought tons of snow, bitter cold, and days of wild wind that, they said, lifted the topsoil off the Dakotas and blew it our way, piling huge drifts of gritty gray snow. We'd wake up in the morning to little drifts of snow on the windowsills that had blown through tiny cracks and crevices. If there was any opening at all, the wind found it.

Mom and us three girls, aged 13 (Rebecca), 12, (me), and 6 (Margaret),  were home alone for most of the blizzard. To stay warm, we curtained off the living room and cranked up the oil stove until the metal cylinder inside glowed red hot. We must have hauled enough water before the storm hit, because there would have been no pumping in that weather. We also had propane for the kitchen stove.

Blizzard Syndrome is a peculiar fidgety agitation that takes possession of the soul when you're stuck inside in a blizzard.

First there's a sense of excitement as you check supplies, watch the gathering storm, and make sure everyone is at a safe place to wait it out. Then, once the storm locks you inside, you pace the floor, look out the window, and call people to see how they're doing, such as your brother Fred who is over at his co-worker's house because he couldn't make it home.

You can't go anywhere. You are stuck here until the danger passes.

None of the normal recreations appeal. You don't feel like reading or playing games or painting your paint-by-number kit, all the things you'd love to do, normally, when there are dishes to wash.

We had a bad case of Blizzard Syndrome.

Finally, I believe it was Mom who suggested we bake something, so Rebecca and I poked around in our cold kitchen , looking for ingredients and leafing through a cookbook.
This isn't the actual recipe, but it was a cookbook from this era.
We didn't have a lot of ingredients to work with, and certainly nothing fancy, because we were poor and also because we were in the process of moving to another house, but we found a recipe for something we could make:Prune Loaf.

Dad liked to eat prunes, so they were kind of a mockable food. But this recipe lifted those humble fruits into something slightly exotic.

We steamed the prunes and mixed a sweet dough, then rolled out the dough and wrapped a circle of it around each prune. We rolled these balls in sugar and stacked them in a baking pan.

And baked the resulting loaf, of course, and proudly served it.

Blizzard Syndrome was staved off for an hour or so, at least.

I look back and think I would have been paralyzed with fear if I'd been Mom. Home alone with three daughters in a cold house, short on supplies and clean water, far from neighbors, and utterly unreachable in an emergency.

Later, she said she'd been most afraid that red-hot oil stove would burn the house down, but she didn't let us know. Instead, she gathered us around on Sunday morning, the third day of the storm, to hold a little church service in the sort-of-warm living room. And, of course, she encouraged us to keep busy.

When the storm passed, we found a door that wasn't drifted shut and went out into a bizarre world where we could walk on top of the hard-packed snow over drifts that were like swirling mountain ranges over the fields and up to the top of the chicken house.

A day or so later, the snow plow pushed through, backing up to take a run at the section in front of our house and piling up snowbanks that turned out to be as high as the school bus, when the school bus finally came again and we scrambled up and over to meet it.

We compared stories with everyone we knew and rejoiced that we had all survived.

And "making Prune Loaf" entered the family lore as a code for doing something about that strange and unique restlessness that hits when danger keeps you at home.

Today our world is restricted by coronavirus. The girls are home from college. Events are cancelled. Restaurants and coffee shops are closed. Paul and Jenny teach via the internet, because there are no children at school. All sorts of plans are indefinitely postponed.

Mostly, we stay home.

We are all feeling a mix of that peculiar fidgety excitement, apprehension, and agitation that takes possession of the soul at such times.

We have Blizzard Syndrome.

It's time for our own COVID-19-Quarantine version of Prune Loaf.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Stories, Soul-searching, and Such

We plan to remodel the downstairs bathroom before Matt and Phoebe's wedding in June.

I'll copy what I posted on Facebook last week:

Condensed version: What is the best, most durable and scrubbable, easiest to care for bathtub material?
Long version: An upcoming wedding makes for a great excuse to repair, replace, replenish, and even remodel.
Twenty years ago, we remodeled the downstairs bathroom before we moved into this house. The tiny bathroom that had served the house for probably fifty years, accessible only through Paul's parents' bedroom[!] remained a bathroom with the same configuration, but we took out the clawfoot tub [foolish foolish!!] and put in a fiberglass tub/shower combo.
We put in a different doorway.
The back porch next to the old bathroom, which had been a rough-hewn laundry room for about a hundred years, that became a bright room with a long counter, two sinks, lots of drawers, a big mirror, about 10,000 watts of light to please the husband, and plenty of room for a crowd of school kids to brush their teeth on a Monday morning.
In twenty years, the tub is tired, the edges around it are crumbling, the varnish on the cabinets is peeling, and the corners of the room are moldy.
Actually, the whole bathroom looks exhausted.
The wedding and lots of guests are coming.
The time has come.
This means decisions. Decisions about colors, styles, and accessories.
About components that ought to last for thirty years and others that can be easily changed in two.
Most of this falls on me.
It fills me with dread.
So. We begin with the tub. The current fiberglass is a delicate prissy material that gets scummy and dirty but hates to be scrubbed with anything a little bit gritty or effective.
Meanwhile, ten years ago I got a new kitchen sink that seemed as durable as a dump truck--enamel on cast iron after all--but it scratched sickeningly easily, right from the start. I couldn't get a refund because this is considered "normal wear and tear." [Two weeks after we got it, my sister-in-law said, 'I see you decided to get a secondhand sink.'] The injustice of it all.
So. What is the best material for the new tub? Porcelain? Enameled steel? Acrylic? Something else we haven't thought of?
Again: Long-lasting. Scrubbable. Impervious to wear and tear.
Thanks in advance.

Remodeling is a big and potentially overwhelming deal for me. Last week Paul and I went to Jerry's, the enormous home-supply store in Eugene, one evening to look at bathtubs and countertops.

Oddly, there weren't a lot of choices in tubs, but there were hundreds, if not thousands, of options in tile and countertops.

Paul, who is becoming wiser every year, briefly mentioned a few potentials and options, but also spent time not talking so I could think. Well, he maybe got a bit carried away with the big nearsighted red-aproned salesman that one time, but other than that.

Ten years ago, we went shopping at that very same Jerry's for kitchen cupboards and counters, and both Paul and the helpful salesperson talked at me the whole entire time, pointing out the advantages of this and what did I think of that and wouldn't this feature be nice and oh no, I don't want that because it'll be hard to clean.

It felt, as Stephen King says in his wonderful book on writing, that I had had jumper cables attached to my head for two hours, but in the moment I didn't have the skills to put into words why I was losing my mind. Also, I didn't want to tell Paul or the salesperson to JUST STOP TALKING, because that's dramatic and rude, so it all ended with tears and a slow hashing out in the car on the way home of what was going on and what I need and other terrible, dreadful, laborious cracking of the mental walnuts and picking out the meats.

If you're an INFP married to an ESTJ, which is the COMPLETE OPPOSITE personality, these conversations are necessary but oh so exhausting.

BUT. This time we went shopping and Paul didn't talk! I could browse in peace.

See? We are getting somewhere. He knows what I need and is happy to provide it. I have the skills to recognize that I need quiet, and to ask for it.

I was surprised at how many people commented on Facebook that actually we shouldn't get a tub; we should get a roll-in shower. Because [cough] we are getting older and all.

Paul said, and I agreed, "This is a home for a family. If we need a roll-in shower, we're moving to a Daudi Haus*."

Happily, enough people shared their specific experiences that I got a good idea of what we want. There's nothing like the experience of a cleaning lady, a plumber's wife, and others who remodeled their bathrooms and survived.

But I am still open to suggestions.

Speaking of Stephen King: I would never read his novels. Not if you paid me. I hate creepy, dark, horror novels. But his writing how-to and memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is excellent. I read slowly and underline. I'm not sure how that works.

He is very big on authenticity. The hard-drinking miner isn't going to say, "Oh dearie me," if he hits his thumb with a hammer. So he writes what the guy actually says.

Cussing hasn't been an issue for me in my laborious fiction attempts, because I don't know too many Mennonites who use "bad words." 

I've found, though, that the Mennonite world is full of nervous readers who do not like anything about the culture to be portrayed negatively. At all, in any form. You can be as authentic and real as a rainy day in Oregon, and everyone knows that this is true to life, but they won't be ok with it. We all have difficult people in our lives, if we are anywhere near normal. If we are Mennonite, at least some of those annoying people will also be Mennonite. Also, some of us don't have our acts together. We are discouraged, we talk too much or too little, and we wonder if we were actually at peace with God and man last communion.

But we seem to have a cultural taboo about being realistic about this. I wonder why this is so, because most of us are drawn to people who have a few good honest flaws.

In a story I just started for my writing group, we have two teenage girls and their great-aunt:

“Have you girls thought about teaching the Kindergarten One class?”
Aunt Martha’s shrill voice was right in our ears, startling us both. Allison and I turned from the bulletin board in the church foyer where we’d been inspecting the signup sheet for vacation Bible school teachers.
“Oh hi, Aunt Martha!” Allison said. “We were just talking about maybe signing up. Maybe Jenny could take the littlest class and I could take the next one.”
Aunt Martha tucked her black leather clutch and three Sunday school papers under her left elbow. “Oh, I don’t know. That’s a lot of responsibility for a young person, and the truth is neither of you is very responsible, you know, but we do need teachers.” She chuckled. “I think you two should teach one of the kindergarten classes together! That way, what one forgets, the other one can remember.”
Aunt Martha always made me feel like I was about six years old, trying to be grownup but actually silly and ridiculous. I looked at Allison. She raised her eyebrows just a bit, and the corner of her mouth twitched. I knew she wanted to roll her eyes as badly as I did.
I smiled and patted Aunt Martha’s arm. “We’ll make it a matter of prayer.” If that line didn’t impress her, nothing would.

Now. When you were a teenager, you had an Aunt Martha in your life. I would almost bet money on this.

But if this story ever sees the light of day, I will get letters telling me that I'm bitter and unforgiving toward someone who was an Aunt Martha to me.

Stephen King says he gets this sort of letter all the time when he writes the things that people say and do. He's learned to disregard them.

I was thinking a lot about this oversized fear of accusation if and when I ever publish fiction. I realized it came from a long history of believing that other people get to define me, and whatever they say about me is true.

That is a terrifying way to live.

So I had to make that a matter of prayer, and the Holy Spirit had some things to tell me about who gets to see and define what's in my heart, and who does not.

So between remodeling the bathroom and writing, there is no end of soul-searching and growth.

*a traditional Amish house for grandparents

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Musings about Missions and Me

We were nudged toward missions from an early age.

Mom introduced us to missionary biographies such as Through Gates of Splendor and The Triumph of John and Betty Stam. I still remember that glossy black and white picture of the Stams and the story of the baby left in the house while they bravely went to their deaths.

When we didn't appreciate the unusual foods that Mom served and Dad loved, such as corn bread with goat broth, Dad would say, "Oh, but you might be missionaries someday!" In other words, if you can bravely chow down this today, you'll be able to casually pop grubs in your mouth in New Guinea twenty years from now.

Mom had great respect for her friend Bertha who was a missionary in Somalia for many years. Dad taught us Spanish words at the supper table.

Eventually, my sister worked overseas for many years. Paul and I worked with a mission in Canada for eight years, served on the board for a few missions in Mexico, and did short-term work in Thailand and Kenya.

There's no question that missionaries had a revered status in the North American church for hundreds of years. Lucy Maud Montgomery's books mention talks by returned missionaries who were welcomed as honored guests. The Young Pilot magazines of my childhood implied their super-Christian status. In Paul's years at a Wesleyan Methodist college, foreign missionaries would come to speak and urge the students to feel a call to missions.

At some point, however, we got a look behind the honorable aura. The internet and social media facilitated those revelations. We also got to know many missionaries personally and heard their stories. Then there were books and articles by the emotionally abandoned children of missionaries and news stories of the horrific cases of sexual abuse that have come to light in recent years. Finally, there was re-connection with people who were the "natives" we and our fellow missionaries had gone to "reach." We heard stories that made us see the experience through their eyes and sit silent in shock. How were we so blind?

I don't want to be cynical about missions. Sharing the good news of Jesus is a basic tenet of Christianity. God didn't commission a fleet of sky-writing angels to let everyone know. He assumes that people will tell people. If that was God's strategy, we assume it to be the best one.

I've met many missionaries who seem to get it right. They seek anonymity rather than platforms and power, speak the local language like they were born into it, and serve with grace and humility and skill.

This isn't about them.

When I look at our experiences in Canada and also the most notable cases of missions gone wrong, it seems that often things go awry when a system becomes more important than individuals. Not that a system is unnecessary--it makes sense to have mission boards to coordinate, recruit, train, and place missionaries. Imagine each of us, individually, trying to arrange visas, housing, transportation, language learning, donations, and support staff.

Like so many missionaries, we were young and idealistic when we went out into the isolated reaches of northern Ontario to work at a boarding school for high school kids from the northern First Nations reserves. Paul taught science and math classes.

In addition to the culture shock of moving from civilized Oregon to a compound of about 100 people over a hundred miles from the nearest town, I was facing the personal identity shock of being a new mom. Only months before, I had been a college student, involved in all the extracurriculars I could get my hands on--busy, productive, successful, fulfilled.

Now, I was the mom of a fussy, demanding baby who took all my time. While everyone else was busy getting ready for classes to start, I was marching up and down the lane with a crying baby in a stroller. The school needed an English teacher and an advisor for the newspaper. I had to say no. Mothering came first.

I remember feeling troubled, a few months in, about the culture of the school. It seemed we had created a little American Mennonite enclave, and the students were the outsiders. Food, language, dress, rules, consequences, entertainment, concepts of time--"they" were expected to conform to "our" ways.

Some of these things were decided by the leadership of the school, but many were decisions handed down by the mission directors hundreds of miles away. The directors' decisions were increasingly dictated by the churches even farther away who supported them financially. One night, months of frustration resulted in violence as the students attacked structures and staff on campus.

Things got sorted out, sort of, and we were there for a total of two years. Paul enjoyed teaching there, we made lifelong friends, and we both grew up a lot. But I felt that, as a young, inexperienced woman without a specific task on campus, I had no voice to express misgivings or to effect change.

I couldn't budge the system.

An uncomfortable truth is that, in a technical and legal sense at least, we were part of Canada's unspeakably evil residential school system. True, Stirland Lake was probably the last such school, and one of the best. It wasn't an arm of the Catholic or Anglican churches, the students weren't kidnapped off the reserves, and there was no mass grave in the back yard. But Paul and I were part of a school that is on The List, and that is a truth that deserves to be wrestled with.

After that, we spent two years at the mission headquarters, where Paul managed the office, and then we embarked on something very different. A chief on one of the isolated reserves was determined to establish a Christian school in his village. Two other couples had helped to get it going. Could Paul, as an experienced teacher, take over? We said yes.

We lived on that reserve for three years. It was hard, lonely, cold, difficult, inconvenient. . . and wonderful. We were the only family from our mission, so instead of living in a little American Mennonite pod with others like us, we were the anomalies and outsiders, endlessly watched, talked about, and chuckled at. The first year, we had three little children in a tiny little house with no running water. The temperature dropped to 50 below.

But it felt right. We were still under the mission system in terms of finances, emotional support, and transportation, but in most other ways we answered to the chief and the local school board. We did things their way. Promptness wasn't important in that culture, so Paul was flexible with what time the kids showed up at school. Tea was important to them, so Paul fixed a big kettle of Red Rose tea for their morning break. Discipline issues were brought to the parents and the school board and handled according to cultural customs, which were very different from American Mennonite customs.

I stayed home with the children and served countless gallons of hot tea and truckloads of homemade cookies to people who stopped by.

I have no idea if we did any lasting good, and I'm sure we got lots of things wrong. For example, I took pictures of people in the village and let the mission use them in their publications, and I didn't ask the subjects' permission. I regret that. However, I don't think we made heinous blunders that brought trauma or deep loss to anyone, and whatever mistakes we made were ours, not the edict of a faraway supervisor that we felt obligated to obey, despite our misgivings. 

Maybe that's the way to do missions: a system to coordinate and facilitate, but most decisions left to the wisdom and good sense of the people on the ground.

I know there are missionaries who have enough freedom to do lots of damage despite being part of a mission. In the cases I know of, the mission would have had the authority and ability to terminate their service and send them home, but their destructive behavior was allowed to continue for fear that the system itself would be damaged through bad publicity, fewer donations, or work left undone. (Somehow, these rogue missionaries are always the ones who get a lot done without a lot of supervision.)

I still believe in missions as a concept but I'm conflicted about our role in the past and what missioning should look like today. Of course, we look at it from a perspective of years later, knowing all we know now, and of miles away, settled in an American farmhouse.

So I wonder: Is it better to do foreign missions and get some things wrong or to keep farming in Lancaster County or the Willamette Valley and not even make an attempt?

Would it have been better for certain systems or missions never to have begun at all? Do those [in my opinion] poor decisions handed down from high up the ladder, the cultural dominance, the cluelessness, and the times the system took precedence over individual needs and good sense negate any good that was done?

Some of the damage that missions have inflicted is so egregious that absolutely, without a doubt, it would have been better not to ever go anywhere or start anything.

"Meaning well" justifies only so much. After that, "they meant well" or "they had a heart for these people" means nothing.

But then there's "meaning well" with an honest heart. We are called to go and tell, and we go with good intentions. We are fallible beings, sometimes perilously ignorant and naive. We're bound to get some things wrong, but surely if we are walking humbly with God, doing justly and loving mercy, his sovereign kindness will compensate.

Missionaries make lots of decisions in the moment, on the ground, in a foreign culture, with limited information. Those of us observing from 30 years or 10,000 miles away can't fully understand.

However. Surely if we become proud of the system we've built, are too proud of our own culture to learn from another, refuse to adapt or flex, refuse to study methods and history, or use the poverty of another group as an opportunity to exploit and dominate, then we bear the full and terrible responsibility for the results.

In all our online discussions, personal reflections, and refereeing from thirty or a hundred years later, perhaps this quote from Teddy Roosevelt is good to keep in mind, side by side with the caveats in the previous paragraph:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

― Theodore Roosevelt

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sleeping Bags and Stages of Life

My stage of life is best illustrated by the sleeping bags.

They are rolled up and tightly tied like well-behaved sleeping bags ought to be. Some are sleek, nylon, lightweight, and efficient--perfect for backpacking. Two are big, heavy, old cotton bags that would keep you warm in the Klondike. One or two are "mummy" shaped. Most are rectangular. Some are slipped into swishy nylon bags with drawstrings at the end.

They are piled on top of the two upright freezers in the back pantry and also on a shelf on the north wall. In among the sleeping bags, we have at least four foam mats also rolled up into cylinders.

Those sleeping bags have been everywhere: on the trampoline on lovely summer nights when siblings watched for shooting stars and cats came snuggling in the morning chill, spread all over the inside of a pop-up tent trailer out at the coast, down by the creek on boys' adventures [and washed down the creek inside a tent on one memorable occasion], up in the mountains, on road trips, on airplanes, across the country, and on youth-group camping trips.

And back home again.

Our son Steven moved home recently after living at a local fire station for two years and completing an intense out-of-state paramedic program.

I was happy to have him around again, and not only because he lifts heavy objects and comes up with good puns. Like all our offsprings, he is just a good person to have around.

As adult children do, he brought his things with him. And I felt an ancient panic rising.

Many many years ago, we moved to a 20 x 24 foot cabin on a reservation in Canada. We had three children aged 4, 2, and 8 weeks. We also didn't have running water, which I am saying only so you'll feel sorry for me and not because it is really relevant to this story.

A big challenge was Where to Put Things. I had pared down to the very basics of course, since we had to fly in all our belongings. But still. We had kettles, diapers, a radio, flour, soap, pajamas, and such things. And no dressers.

One weekend, early on, Paul went to Winnipeg for a teachers' meeting and managed to come back with a sack of shelf brackets and a stack of laminated boards. He lined our little restroom with shelves and put up a few more in the children's bedroom. I filled the shelves and put underwear and socks in our suitcases and slid them under our bed. It all fit. I was happy.

However. Whenever we got something new, such as when someone sent us a care package of clothes and gifts, I was happy for the much-needed stuff but a little panicky. Where would I put it?

For the next day or two I would fuss and poke and rearrange, and somehow I'd find a place. There. It had a home and a place to be, and I would feel settled once more.

In the last fifteen years, I've had grownup kids moving in, moving out, leaving for short times and medium times and long times, coming for visits, coming for summers, coming until they graduate, leaving again with a sleeping bag and sandwiches tossed into the back seat, 

Often, I've faced that little panic. Where are we going to put everyone and everything??

Before Steven came home at the end of December, I was nosing around the house like an agitated mouse, sniffing with quivering whiskers. How would we do this? What could I get rid of to make more space?

In the back pantry, I looked at those sleeping bags. Surely the time had come. "Everyone pick out which ones are yours, and we'll get rid of the rest," I said.

"But that one is good for backpacking!" they said. "This one is mine, and that other one is good for camping, and those are handy when we have guests, and you use that one on the couch when Dad snores."

So I kept them all.

That defines my odd and unusual stage of life, I thought, that none of my many adventurers are settled enough to take their backpacks into their own dwelling to stay. [Or maybe Matt has his, I'm not sure. But he is getting married this summer and then he will get whatever sleeping bags he has left here, the box of Calvin and Hobbes books in the attic, and all that.]

So Emily cleaned out her things in the sewing room closet and put them into her little bedroom. My book inventory and packaging supplies went from the guest room into the sewing room closet. The VCR went into Amy's room. Steven moved his duffel bags and gigantic fireman boots into the guest room.

It all fit. 

The panicky insides and the nervous whiskers settled down again. Everything had a home. All was well.

So it's a strange phase of life I'm in, with so many adult kids around. Very few women my age can relate, it feels like. But it is thick with humor, good conversation, and unexpected blessings.

Amy cooks delicious Thai dinners on Thursday nights. Emily clears dead iris stalks and live snails out of the flower beds in preparation for spring. Jenny leaves early and comes home late, full of emphatic hilarious stories. On Saturday, Steven singlehandedly put the old lamb shed on a wagon and hauled it out of the field for me.

We all have a home here, it is a safe place to be, and we even have hot and cold running water.

I am the Keeper of the Sleeping Bags.

Quote of the Day at a Sunday dinner:
Me: Fall-apart tender! That's exactly what a Sunday roast is supposed to be.
Jenny: Fall-apart tender? That's what my emotions are.
Ben: Did you just roast yourself?

Friday, January 10, 2020

Book Review: My Other Name is Mom

I was first alerted to My Other Name is Mom when Lisa the niece sent me a WhatsApp note: "Have you read this new Mennonite mom book on the market? It's one of the more realistic, relatable, and inspiring. I get tired of the type with formulas and cliches. This lady has . . . lots of hearty stuff to chew. It's mostly about the more typical young and middle stage of parenting."

"Interesting!" I said.

Serendipitously, the author herself contacted me two weeks later. Could she do a guest post and introduce her new book?

I said yes.

Mary Burkholder talks to you like you're a grownup. You know how to think, and you don't need to be either patronized or revered. You might not have known what you were in for, but you chose this mothering path, and you want to do it Biblically and well.

This was the book I needed thirty years ago. It might well be exactly what you need right now.


Now I Am a Mom
by Mary Burkholder

“When I grow up, I want to be a mommy,” a second grader I know wrote. It struck me as very sweet. I don’t remember all my aspirations as a girl, but I know mommy wasn’t at the top of my list—though I did make preparation against that day by creating a list of twelve names, just in case.
I really wanted to be either an artist or an author. By the time I was eighteen, I had settled on author. I recall an alluring fantasy of remaining single, living alone, and producing best-selling novels. I’ll be the first to admit that I was a prime candidate for feminism; I craved independence. I wanted to follow my dreams. Why should I choose to tie myself to a family?
What if I never got to do anything I really wanted to do?
That was eighteen years ago. Now I am a mom. I do not live alone. And I have yet to write a novel. I still love to write, and I still dream of writing best-sellers, but somewhere along the way, my priorities have changed: being a mom has shifted into first place.
Do I mind?
Let me tell you about a night of my motherhood I’ll never forget; I remember it for two reasons.
The first is because we were taken unsuspectingly by an epic flu epidemic. Four of my five children were ill with the stomach flu on that awful night. I had tucked them in and gone innocently to my own bed for much-needed rest—rest that proved elusive. It seemed just a few short moments later that somebody called, “Mo-om!” Somebody was crying.
I have never seen such a wretched flu, before or since. It had no end.
I trekked upstairs and downstairs, into my bed and out of it again. I changed their pajamas and their bedding. I scrubbed the bedroom carpet and the bathroom floor. I situated buckets that remained largely unused. Even my breastfed baby—I always thought they’re not supposed to get sick—regurgitated everything all over me, the crib, and herself as soon as I stood up to place her back in her crib. After every cry, every call, every re-tucking in, I thought, surely this will be the end of it. Hope springs eternal, and unrequited, springs yet again.
The other adult in our home was incommunicado. Far, far away in another part of the house, he did valiant battle with his own insides. I suppose I should have been deeply grateful I was not sick that night. I suppose I should have joyfully consoled myself that at least one of the children was not throwing up. But at 2:00 a.m., fog-brained and lethargy-limbed, all I could feel was utter hopelessness when someone called Mo-om once again.
It was a night of despair and dismay; an unending saga of dragging myself up from fragmented dozes to stagger to the rescue. I longed for Mom to take over, but I was Mom. At one point, crouched on the carpet with Lysol-scented rag in hand, I had a single clear thought: I never signed on for all this. This is the second reason I remember that night.
This moment of clarity made me think about how I had gotten here: Is motherhood something I’ve chosen? Or did I blindly follow a path of expectation patterned for me by my mom and her mom and her mom? Did I fall unsuspectingly into a trap laid by a church group that promotes motherhood? Do I believe in the importance of my role, or do I just have to like the place I’ve found myself in? How did I get here?
It began when I said yes to a certain dark-haired, dark-eyed young man, and we went out for supper on a Tuesday night. He asked for a second date and I said yes. And much later, he asked me to marry him and I, enamored, said yes. Why had I ever thought I wanted to be single anyway?
We planned a small Friday-night wedding. We bought a little house on a hill in the woods. We honeymooned like the two kids we were and came home to try to navigate realities of an adult world. We were in love and happily unaware of ever-after affects. Children were on the distant horizon—little unknown someones out there who would likely enter my life at some point. I am not a big planner, and I did not have a projected timeline—insert child here. Temporarily freed from other responsibilities, I was writing.
As the years of our marriage went by, one by one, they came along: cute, sweet, funny, endearing, exasperating little additions to our family. And before I knew what was happening, I had become a real mom.
“Mom, help me,” they call. And “Mom, it hurts,” they cry. And, “Mom, look at me,” they shout.
I hug them and spank them and kiss them and read them thousands of stories. They eat up my time and energy. And I don’t want to imagine my life without them.
My children have stolen my sleep, worn me down physically, worried me, aggravated me—oh and they’ve puked in their beds—but they bring me so much joy, and I love them with my heart and soul. My only regrets about mom-life are times I did not show the love, did not feel the love, did not love the moment; because no matter how dreadful, moments are fleeting. I have found identity and security as a very loved, very tired member of this family—even through the gorier bits. I have chosen this. I keep choosing it. And I do believe in it.

Mary Burkholder’s new book, My Other Name Is Mom, highlights the importance of a mother’s
role in the home and in society and counters basic feministic ideology with Bible principles. The
book is refreshingly candid about the tough parts of motherhood, but joyously expresses the
fulfillment and identity found in embracing the role. Mary and her husband Lyndon have five
lovely children of which they are most biasedly proud. Mary has written other books which you
can find on her website.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Mrs. Smucker Grapples With Hard Questions About Fiction Writing

The transition from writing nonfiction to writing fiction is like when someone goes from being Beachy Amish to being Englisch, and they want to put an outfit together.

The Beachy Amish woman has specific parameters. Solid color cape dresses. White covering. Pullover sweaters or cardigans, depending where she’s from. However, she can get creative with the details within those restrictions, maybe putting little pleats at the end of a sleeve or combining a black sweater with a summer-pink dress for a new look.

That’s like non-fiction. You work only with facts and your interpretation of them. That's it. You can't make stuff up, but you can get creative with structure and organization and message.

Now that I’m experimenting with fiction, I feel like the Beachy woman gone worldly. Anything is possible—tank tops, sweatshirts, blouses. Long skirts, pencil skirts, mini skirts. Leggings, jeans, shorts. Solids, florals, stripes. Endless options! I sit down to write and realize I can make up anything I want. Anything! 

It’s a whole new way of thinking—fun but also terrifying.

I’m facing a question that I’ve always faced with nonfiction, but not quite to this degree: How “real” can I be?

Maybe I’ll never get a solid answer that I can seal in a canning jar and leave on the shelf, settled for all time. Maybe this is something I’ll always wrestle with.

After a year and a half in a fiction writing group, I finally finished a story that I was actually happy with. Not a book, let me clarify, but a story. I had fun writing it, the group loved it, and Emily the editing daughter felt that it could go places.

Well, I was happy with it, except for one thing. “But it’s whipped cream,” I sighed. “All fluff and froth and sugar. Not deep. Not about the Hard Realities of Life that I was hoping to address in my stories."

“Yes and no,” countered the critique group. “It’s wholesome. It’s refreshing. And it’s not all fluff! Look, the main character is this single woman who’s made a life for herself. She’s not sleeping around, she’s not bitter. That’s not fluff.”

“Hmmm,” I said.

Soon after I joined the group last year, lacking specific direction, I decided to plunge into a book-length project. A woman I know has a difficult marriage, so I decided to write about her and fix her life. I would also mix in a mystery—my friend “Sara’s” missing pies a few years ago—and solve that while I was at it.

My goodness. That got deep and dark real fast.

The book characters and action veered from real life real fast too, which I found interesting. Ok, so Carol the character was in this tough place. What was it like? Well, her husband and kids didn’t respect or appreciate her. Why not? Hmmm. Probably she didn’t respect herself! And why not? Pretty soon there was a nasty family in her background and a bit of molestation happening in school.

I was hauling this story through mud up to the axles by then, and finally I quit. My group was rooting for Carol, but I was tired of her and her complicated life. I took a break and read one of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s collections of short stories.

It was lovely. Story after story of quirky characters and romances that ended in marriage.

Why not copy her, just for fun? With shocking speed and ease, the fluffy story of a Mennonite romance took shape.
As I said, the group loved it.

And I feel torn. Carol’s life is how some real-life people actually live. Part of me wants to dig in there and grapple with those tough issues, writing them out to offer voice and hope to women stuck in shame, blame, and regret.

But when I read a book, do I want that level of painful subjects or do I want a sweet escape from real life?

What is the purpose of fiction writing, for me? That’s what I’m wondering.

Then there’s the delicate matter of discretion. Which topics and details are appropriate? Should I write so that a child can pick up my book and safely read it, as my friend Hope’s little granddaughter likes to do with Fragrant Whiffs of Joy?

Yesterday a woman told me, “Your books take me to a wholesome place where there’s no swear words and no sex.”

“Hmmm,” I said, because honestly, what do you say to such a statement? Also, in the story about Carol, I illustrate the rift in the marriage in one scene by having Carol resist her husband’s advances.

“Is this allowed in Christian fiction?” I asked my group.

“Yes,” said Pat, who hosts the group. “Because they’re married.”

They’re married, it’s realistic, it illustrates a point. But I wouldn’t be comfortable with Hope’s little granddaughter reading it. 

Then there’s the scene where two moms are talking about Jane being pregnant again, so soon, and isn’t she still nursing Hayley? Well, we know how that works, they say, and laugh.

You know that conversation happens in real life. Yes, I could find another illustration, but in that scene, that conversation told you a lot in a few words.

I have no desire to get as “real” as the woman walking into Home Depot ahead of me yesterday. She wore flesh-colored leggings and, in the nature of leggings, ripply, bouncy things were clearly outlined. I thought, “That is far more than I need or want to see. Some things are meant to stay private," and I tried to look elsewhere without tripping over curbs.

At the same time, I'm not interested in the sort of story that wears a mask of perfection—tight smile, every hair in place, perfect outfit in a long coat, with only manicured hands showing.

Where and what is the balance that connects with the reader?

Another question I’m facing is how much I can pull from real life people and situations. I consider my imagination above average, but I have a surprisingly hard time making up characters and stories out of nothing. Why work so hard to make up people when the world is bursting all around with unique personalities, free for the describing?

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the annual Author and Artist Fair in Eugene, a fundraiser for rural library programs. If not many customers show up at these events, you get to talk with other authors, so it’s always a winning situation. Yesterday was a good mix of readers who came by to talk and breaks in the traffic long enough to dash over to a fellow author and catch up.

I seized the opportunity to get advice from the fiction writers around me. To my left was none other than Melody Carlson who has written some 200 books and is well-known in the Christian book world and beyond.  Across the aisle was Carola Dunn, who is now retired but wrote over 60 books in her day, mostly the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries.

“How much do you draw from real life?” I asked Melody Carlson who, just so you know, is nice and approachable despite having sold seven million books, and the collar on her dress was turned up wonkily in back, which made me really happy.

She draws from broad themes, she said, but not too many specifics. For example, she had a family member with schizophrenia, so she wrote a book about it, but changed all the characters and such, so that the mental illness and the family’s feelings about it were the only elements from real life.

She also mentioned that if Hallmark adapts a book into a movie, it’s not ok to have a divorced mom. She has to be edited into a widow.

Of course Hallmark shows are all about escaping from real life, but still, I wondered about that. There are lots of divorced moms in this world. When is it ok to be realistic about this in our stories? I’m not faulting Hallmark. They know they want happy fantasies in the falling snow, so they can do that all they want.

I’m just not sure if it’s what I want for me.

When I asked Carola Dunn for advice, she said to keep asking "Why?" "Why are your characters doing this? What's behind it?" She also said she pulls characters from real life all the time. The funny thing is, people say they find themselves in her stories, but they never name the actual character Carola based on them. It’s very odd. But it works out well.

Lucy Maud Montgomery, I am told, had a difficult life. Her diaries confirm that she encountered levels of frustration and loss that you’d never guess from her hopeful writings. However, notes of loneliness, regret, sadness, and even abuse show up in her stories if you look for them. But things almost always turn out in the end and I can close the book with a happy sigh and return to my complicated life feeling like everything will come out right in the end for us as well.

Montgomery's books endure a hundred years later. A child can safely pick them up and read them. Is that my answer that I can seal in a jar and cease to reckon with?

I doubt it. I think I’ll be wrestling with these questions as long as I keep writing. Maybe the wrestling is more important, in the long term, than the stories themselves.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Full and Empty: A Thanksgiving Poem

Empty oven.
Empty pans.
Empty roasters.
Empty plans.

Make a list of
Fifty goals
Write a guest list:
Fifteen souls.

Empty crock pots.
Empty case.
Clean the fridge and
Clear the space.

Make a menu.
Time to start.
Fill the WinCo
Shopping cart.

Peel potatoes.
Celery chop.
Fill the piecrusts 
To the top.

Crank the pressure
Cooker's vent.
Fill the kitchen 
With the scent

Fill the crock pots.
Whip the cream.
Work together
As a team.

Empty table
Stretch it long
Set the plates where
They belong.

Fold the napkins
Set the spoons
Guests will be 
Arriving soon.

Family, strangers
Covered miles.
Here they come with
Cautious smiles.

Empty stomachs.
Hard to wait.
Smells that make us

Bustling kitchen.
Joyful hugs.
Cream and coffee
In the mugs.

Pull the turkey.
Slice the meat.
It is almost 
Time to eat.

Stir the gravy.
Warm the rolls.
Unplug crock pots.
Fill the bowls.

Fill the table.
Fill the chairs.
Join the hands and
Offer prayers.

Pass potatoes.
Stuffing, dip.
Don't let the turkey
Platter slip.

Pass ideas.
Questions, ask.
Discussion is a
Worthy task.

Make connections.
Laugh together. 
Be a friend.

Groaning stomachs.
Drooping eyes.
Pass the coffee.
Cut the pies.

Empty dishes.
Stack the plates.
Can't believe how
Much we ate.

Fill the empty
Wash the china
With great care.

Fill the couch and
Comfy chairs
Nap like hibernating 

Pass the party mix
And yawn.
Bring on Settlers
Of Catan.

Hug the guests and 
Say goodbye.
House feels empty.
Night is nigh.

Hearts are full as
At this day's
End we whisper
Thanks and praise.