Sunday, October 11, 2015

Today's LFH: On Finding Ways to Communicate

It’s about communicating love, no matter what the technology or platform

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
OCT. 11, 2015

 We were in the middle of making 50 quarts of applesauce when I suddenly remembered it was time to talk to Amy. I left kids on the porch washing and quartering apples, pots of apples hissing on the stove, and the Squeezo applesauce-extractor in mid-crank as I dashed to the computer.

Communication trumps canning, after all.

Every Saturday at 5 p.m. I sit down at the desktop computer in the office and open a program called Skype.

I type in my name and password. My list of contacts appears on the left, and I look for a green check mark by our oldest daughter’s name telling me she’s also signed in.

A click on the little video camera icon, a short wait and there is Amy, just waking up on the other side of the world in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I see her arranging herself and her cup of coffee against a green pillow in front of the curtains that I sewed for her a year ago.

She looks healthy. And happy. Praise God.

And then we talk.

Amy always wants to know what’s happening here. Is Jenny in choir again and how are Steven’s EMT courses going? Is harvest over and has JoNell had her baby?

I hear the tropical birds trilling outside her open windows, and a dog barks. She tells me about tutoring university students and about the funny neighbor who puts sweaters on her dog when the temperature drops to a chilling 68 degrees.

After an hour, she needs to get ready for church and I need to go make supper.

“Bye.” “Love you!” “Good talking to you!” “You too!”


“How has technology changed your life?” an email asked me recently.

My first thought was, “Communication.”

We were Amish when I was little, which means you can’t pick up the phone to call your relatives, so Mom would seat us around the dining room table, pass out papers and pencils, and tell us to write letters to Grandma.

I saw one of these specimens, years later. “Dear Grandma, How are you? I am fine. Are you very busy these days?”

As teenagers, we talked on the phone with our friends, which never had quite the charm of the girls in magazines lying on their chenille bedspreads chatting on their Princess phones, because we had exactly one phone, right in the middle of the house, and it was a party line to boot, so the neighbors could listen in too.

My parents never transitioned to technology and always preferred paper and ink letters. Writing, addressing, and mailing a letter seemed like a huge bother in comparison to email, especially when we had small children, so it was hard to stay in touch.

We even bought a fax machine and installed it in Mom and Dad’s basement, hoping to make communication one step easier. I wrote a detailed list of instructions and pasted little numbers and arrows to various buttons on the machine. They never grew comfortable with it.

“If you have a message to give, it’s your job to figure out how to make sure it’s understood,” we were told in a cross-cultural communication class while working with Native Americans in Canada. “this includes learning another language, if need be. You can’t expect them to learn your language.”

When your children are at home or your parents live nearby, communication can include hugs, big ginger molasses cookies, and help with raking leaves.

When they’re far away, communication is mostly words.

I love my family, and love is all about relationships, and relationships fade and even die without words. So, I need to continually figure out how to keep those crucial, life-giving words flowing back and forth between us, not only in a language they can understand, but in a medium they can easily use.

It’s my task to make communication a priority. It’s not mine to dictate how it has to happen.

My dad and I still write letters to each other, but otherwise the days of weekly paper letters are long gone, and talking on the phone is out of fashion with young people as well.

I need to adapt to the culture and learn their language and customs.

First I learned to email. Then, a few years ago, I learned to text. Before I discovered backspacing, I would type “oops” whenever I made a mistake, wildly amusing my daughters.

On Sunday afternoons I sometimes Skype with our son Matt. He shows me the latest project in his Washington, D.C., apartment, such as a wooden rack for his weights, and tells me about his work at the Navy Yard while I analyze the room behind him (messy), his beard (handsome), and the green smoothie he’s sipping (impressive).

At Matt’s urging, I bought an outdated iPhone from a Craigslist ad. “It’s more intuitive,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “It might work better with how your mind works.”

He was right. Slowly, swipe by swipe, I learned. I’ve even downloaded a few apps.

My sister in Oman introduced me to WhatsApp, an online messaging system that’s a few steps easier than email and works better than texting for communicating overseas.

“Plipp!” chirps my phone on the kitchen counter, and there is a picture of Rebecca’s tiled patio, ringed in greenery that must be hard to keep alive in the 120-degree heat.

Another day, the phone beeped and no words appeared, only a line and a triangle. “Oh! It’s an audio message!” I clicked the triangle and my sister’s voice, in our traditional Amish dialect of Pennsylvania German, came out of my iPhone in a bizarre bending of time, space and communication.

In the next week, I’ll probably text my high school daughter about picking up milk after school, Skype with the older kids, write a longhand letter to my dad, and have a long philosophical discussion as all of us wash the dishes after supper.

I’ll call friends my age, send Facebook messages, comment on a niece’s Instagram photo, and text a nephew about coming for Sunday dinner — words and always more words, pulling us together.

In this strange modern world of endless ways to communicate but increasingly isolated and lonely people, I feel an urgency to reach out, to connect, to include, to speak and listen, even if it means the applesauce scorches or the cleaning waits.

Words and sentences and paragraphs, again and again. Written, tapped, and spoken. Cut apart into electrons and mysteriously reassembled on another continent. No matter the method, it always comes back to the words that form the communication that makes the connections that keep alive the relationship, the friendship, the family, the love.


  1. This is lovely, Dorcas Smucker, and speaks to thoughts that have been running through my head in the last week in particular.

  2. As a daughter living overseas, I can't tell you how much a card or letter means to me now. I try hard to at least once a week write to someone, anyone, just so they'll get the thrill of getting a letter from a bazillion miles away.


  3. “If you have a message to give, it’s your job to figure out how to make sure it’s understood... ...this includes learning another language, if need be. You can’t expect them to learn your language.”

    I love this, Dorcas. So many folks my age or older just reject the new technology and expect the young'uns or society at large to hang back and stay connected to THEM. SOMEone has to make it work, and there's no reason why we can't be the someone.

  4. Wonderfully said, Dorcas. This concept truly applies to all ages. I am young but have always tried to keep letter-writing alive, even if I only get to it maybe once a month. But I also utilize texting, calling, the occasional Facebook message to reach out and connect with people I love, near and far.