Saturday, October 31, 2020

New Book: The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea

Yes, that's Emily and her trusty car on the cover.

Our daughter Emily has an excellent imagination. Sometimes it's hard for dreamy, imaginative people to navigate the practical realities of making their great ideas take tangible form and actually happen. If you're hampered by poor health and a lack of money, it's even harder.

But Emily also has a growth mindset, and she's learned to take a wild and seemingly impossible goal and break it down into manageable, incremental pieces. And then to accomplish each step, one by one. That was how she finished college, traveled overseas, and learned to sew and alter clothing.

She wanted to earn a living as a writer. She also wanted to spend a year living in different Mennonite communities around the U.S. because, she said, Oregon is very far away from everywhere else, and she wanted to know what other communities were like.

So she figured it out, and did it, wandering to Tennessee, Ohio, Delaware, and many more locations, writing advertising copy and business articles as she went. Then she wrote a book about it. The book is not a travelogue of miles covered in a day and sights seen. Instead, it details both an outer and inner journey. The back cover says:

When Emily Smucker decided to spend a year traveling around the United States, living in a different Mennonite community every month, the world seemed exciting and limitless. She was ready to find her place in the world and begin her career as a freelance writer and editor.

Emily’s trip took many surprising twists and turns: visiting an Amish church in Ohio, swapping travel stories with homeless people in Delaware, and attending far more funerals than she expected. But through the adventure and excitement as well as loss and loneliness, Emily clung to her faith, experiencing a deep connection with her Heavenly Father.

The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea is a story of adventure, exploration, identity, heritage, community, faith, and loss. Follow Emily’s story as she embarks on the road trip of a lifetime, haphazardly finding her way through community after community in an attempt to figure out where she truly belongs.

We published The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea through Muddy Creek Press, my self-publishing venture that now also includes my dad's book and Emily's. The book is $14.99, and shipping is free in the U.S. So far, the book is not on Amazon, but it may be in the future.

You can pre-order the book on our website now. We will ship them out, God willing, on November 16. 
["God Willing," because the book is still being printed, and production and shipping are hard to count on these days. But we'll do our very best.]

I think you'll like this book. For sure, if you're Mennonite, you'll know someone mentioned in it, and you might even be in it yourself.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Ask Aunt Dorcas--Singleness and The Forbidden Words

Aunt Dorcas likes to talk about things she knows.

I've been surprised at how many questions I get about dating and marriage. That suits me fine, as I have plenty of things to say on these subjects, based on up-close observations. Readers' conclusions may differ, but let's agree that we all need to think about what life is like for singles in the Christian/Mennonite world.

--Aunt Dorcas


Dear Aunt Dorcas,

Why is online dating looked on as so dangerous? If a lady meets a guy at a singles retreat and they start dating, it’s acceptable. If they meet at church, work, or social gatherings, it’s okay. No one raises eyebrows or labels her as desperate. But as soon as she "met him online on Menno Meet or Christian Mingle," the eyebrows go up, and how terrible that is....and she’s whispered about in low tones.

How is meeting someone online any different from the other scenarios I suggested? Please enlighten me. Thank you!

--A Believer

Dear Believer,

Every time and culture has its rules about What Must Not Be Spoken. When my sisters and I would freely discuss at the supper table which ladies in church were pregnant, our parents would tell us how such things were never spoken out loud in their Amish youth. I think they were glad we were a bit more liberated, but they always found it hard to actually form words about Such Things. Mom forced herself to tell us about our changing bodies when the time came, but she used awkward terms and was obviously embarrassed.

Today’s under-30s discuss periods and bras with a casual frankness that makes me cringe.

In 1994, we moved into an old house that was being vacated by a lovely old couple named Bud and Mary who had lived there for 48 years. Mary used to call me up for long conversations. She told how a relative had died of cancer. “Well, back then no one said ‘cancer.’ You didn’t say that out loud. People would say it in other ways, like they ‘had a growth.’”

I thought, surely you’re not serious.

We consider ourselves so liberated from those outdated rules, but we modern folks have our own rules about What Must Not Be Spoken.

You can’t admit that you long for marriage and children. You don’t dare say out loud that you’re available and looking. You’ll be mocked if you ask for help getting matched up.

This results in awkward conversations, weird pretending, contorted decision-making, and lots of silent grieving.

People go to Bible school to “make friends” and “draw closer to God.” They go to widows & widowers retreats at Penn Valley for “encouragement” and “spiritual input.” They attend lots of weddings because oh, well, they just like to travel and it’s important to be there for your friends.

If anyone suspects that their motives aren’t quite what they say, and they might be going to meet potential spouses in addition to the spoken reasons, the long-married folks at church nudge and chuckle. “Well, Joe is off on another missionary journey. Heh heh heh. Poor guy.”

Signing in on a dating app means you can’t couch your motives in vague high-sounding terms. You can’t pretend. You want a boyfriend/girlfriend and hopefully a husband/wife.

Gasp. God forbid. The very act of getting on MennoMeet is Saying The Unspoken Out Loud.

I will grant that back in the early days of the Internet you never heard anything good come out of meeting an online character in person. It was the Wild West, and we were all suspicious of it.

However, those days are long gone. Most of us have learned what and who and which are legitimate. We meet strangers to buy or sell canning jars. My daughter tutors physics students online and would meet them in person if Covid allowed. I’ve connected at book signings with women I had only known online.

I think the stigma against meeting someone on Christian Mingle or Menno Meet is not because it’s online. It’s because you didn’t use a ruse, like Bible school or Penn Valley, to make it happen.

Let me contrast that with a story my daughter Amy told. When she lived in Thailand, she often attended a Thai church. A 30-something gentleman would always request prayer for himself, that he could find a wife.

Now imagine the giggles among both grandmas and teenagers if someone did that in your local prayer meeting.

But no one giggled at the Thai church. It was treated like any other need you might pray for, like a job or a new apartment.

God eventually answered his and their prayers with a sweet little wife.

From Isaac to Joseph to Moses to Ruth and on and on, the Bible is full of people who found a spouse in the most practical ways, from the resources at hand, usually facilitated by family members, without any snickering or pretending.

How about we all work to change the culture in this regard? Marriage is a legitimate desire. We all ought to be able to say that out loud and use the available resources to make it happen.

Maybe our children will tell their grandchildren about all the codes and contortions we used about finding a spouse, and the kids will think, surely you're not serious.

--Aunt Dorcas


Dear Aunt Dorcas,

In our culture, widows typically get considerable support. They are affirmed in their sorrow. And it is a deep sorrow. If they have young children that is an added burden. If they have children, however, they have hope of someone taking care of them when they are old. People visit them.... much more so than never-married singles. Even Scripture teaches that we should visit the widows. So widows are affirmed in their sorrow for what was, should singles be affirmed in their wistfulness about what could have been? 

And when a couple sets up housekeeping, they generally get gifts from a bridal shower, a wedding, and a grocery shower. And I'm not saying that we should change that. But when singles set up housekeeping someone might do a housewarming for them.

Is it fair?

How should never-married singles feel about this?


Dear Lisa,

Never-married singles should feel exactly how they feel. If they’re happy and content, great. If they are grieving, the grief is legitimate. If they feel they are treated unfairly, they're allowed to feel exactly that.

Your question very much ties in with the previous one. The things our culture doesn’t allow us to say out loud means that singles are seldom, as you put it, affirmed in their sorrow.

When a nephew and his wife lost a baby at birth, the grief was intense. However, one woman had the insight to say to me, “We don’t think about the sorrow of those who can’t have babies, like “Alice” who is infertile or your daughters who are single.”

It meant the world to me to have that unspoken sorrow affirmed.

The conservative Anabaptist culture values marriage and children, as we should. But sometimes we don’t know what to do with never-married singles, so we pretend they will be fine if we just ignore them. So they struggle financially, and no one comes to repair their sagging eavestroughs. We assume they are ok emotionally because it’s too awkward to have a conversation about it.

We need to acknowledge the needs and realities of singles, in addition to taking care of widows and orphans. It’s not either-or.

Widows are allowed to post their grief on Facebook, and we all reply with hug emojis and comforting Bible-verse memes.

Of course the losses of the never-married are different, but what if they were allowed to post what they felt in honest words, and we all replied with affirmation?

I suggest we change the rules about What Must Not Be Spoken, and we have the awkward but necessary conversations with single people about what they feel and need.

If Mom could overcome her past enough to tell her daughters about "menstruation," we liberated people can ask the singles at church the hard questions.

That's what I think.

--Aunt Dorcas

Saturday, October 17, 2020

How to Visit the Sick

Caring for Paul since his fall has been an intense education, and in a short time I've become an expert at subjects I barely knew existed before.

Of course I knew about visiting the sick, but in three months I've gone from a 10th grade level to a Ph.D.

Some of us know we should visit the unfortunate, but we're never quite sure how to go about it.  So I'm going to share a few how-to's. Let's remember, though, that it's like making a pan of brownies. The important thing is to do it. Just show up. Even if you mess up an ingredient or two, it will still taste really good.

1. Remember that you are dealing with fragile people. Tread a bit softly, go gently, speak carefully. The sick person is hurting, the caregivers are stretched to their limits, and the family members are dealing with lives turned upside down and loved ones not being quite who they used to be.

2. Phone ahead. Caregiving takes a lot of time. Hospitals have specific expectations. Call first. No one wants a visitor in the middle of transferring to the restroom with their hospital gown flapping in the breeze.

3. Ask about restrictions. Should you wear a mask? Is it ok to hug? What are the best times to visit? How many visitors can come at one time?

4. Keep it brief. Showing up is what matters, not the length of the visit.

5. Having said that, read the cues and listen well. Patients sometimes love to recount every detail of the injury or sickness. Listening to all the gory details is a great way to serve and love, even if it takes an hour. Some of you heard more details of Paul's accident than you ever asked for. It was healing for him to talk about it. Bless you for listening.

6. Make it about them. Ask questions, listen, nod. This isn't the time to spout about the election or how the car repair guy tried to talk you into a new alternator. People who are barely surviving a crisis have forgotten that elections even exist, and they couldn't care less about alternators. Remember, they are emotionally fragile and physically exhausted. You are the strong person in this story. Handle them with care. They don't have the strength to take care of you, or to dredge up sympathy about car repairs.

7. Don't delay a visit just because you don't have food or flowers to bring. Your presence is enough. Food and flowers are awfully nice, though, if you want to bring them, even if it's a bag of oranges you pick up at the grocery store on your way over, or handpicked wildflowers in a coffee mug. In fact, anything you give will be deep with meaning. CD's to listen to. A card from a child. Books. A snuggly blanket. Anything. Most of all, though, your presence, showing up. The caregiver will cry. It will mean that much.

8. Mentioning your own medical experience is a bit of a gamble. Sometimes it's encouraging, such as when my friend Hope told us how she survived a broken neck and, for the first time, we compared stories with someone who truly understood. However, if you're talking with someone who just broke 15 bones and is trussed up in casts and braces from head to hips, you might not want to elaborate on the time you hit your head on the swing and needed five stitches. Just saying.

9. Leave your answers at home. You might "know" all about what God is trying to teach them or how he's going to redeem this situation. You have a deep sense that this is God's discipline to keep them from a bad decision. You had a prophetic sense that this would happen. Keep this information to yourself for now. The Holy Spirit is good at doling out information in the right doses at the right time.  The sick person needs you to show up, listen, nod, and read the 23rd Psalm.

What if you have the answers on which supplements the patient should be taking? Whether it's Vitamin D, oregano oil, or Plexus, you're convinced it would help them heal. The best option is to give them your specific potion as a gift. A patient or caregiver in crisis mode can't make good decisions about purchasing supplements and is probably worried about finances. Suggesting they buy your product at this time is in poor taste. If you really believe it would help, give them a bottle and instructions, and let them decide if they want to take it or not. If it works wonders, they'll be back for more, and they'll be willing to pay.

10. Believe that your presence matters. You might think you're not a relative or pastor but only a mom stopping by for a minute while the kids wait in the car, or a farmer parking a seed truck beside the road and coming in for a visit. Those brief visits mean more than you'll ever know. What you have to offer is valuable and meaningful. Just show up.

Don't ever let the fear of doing it wrong keep you from visiting the sick. These are only suggestions to make a good experience even better. I'm sure that Paul's many visitors will never know how much their presence meant to all of us, and especially to him.

Matthew 25:34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Quote of the Day:

"We pray for the aged, the sick and the afflicted, all those who need thy prayers."

--Alvin H., a minister in my childhood. We got annoyed at the lack of logic in "those who need thy prayers," but we did learn to think of the aged, sick, and afflicted.

Friday, October 09, 2020

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


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

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

 Dear Aunt Dorcas,

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


 Dear Lucinda,

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

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

 I'm still learning.

--Aunt Dorcas


Dear Aunt Dorcas,

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

--Mrs. Pepper

Dear Mrs. Pepper,

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

All right then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think Jesus understands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is Shanna coping with a new teacher?

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

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

Or the visitors at church:

Hi, welcome here! 

So good to have you. Where do you live?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little kids? Oh my!

Who is your best friend?

Where did you travel to last?

Oh why do you have a bandaid? What happened?

Tell me about your scars.

Tell me about your pet.

Tell me about your baby.

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

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

--Aunt Dorcas and Aunt Margaret

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

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

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

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

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

--Confused Catherine

Dear Catherine,

Bumfuzzled is a wonderful word.

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

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

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

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

This approach leaves a child with these messages:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.      I am loved and cared for.

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

3.      I am allowed to feel what I feel.

4.      My pain is acknowledged with compassion.

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

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

7.      Adults will speak truth to me.

8.      Adults will bring justice on my behalf.

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

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

11.  I can trust myself to make good choices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Dorcas

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Rebooting Our Lives

In this new normal, we take walks to the cemetery.

When Paul fell off a platform three months ago, we all fell with him. From the high meadow of normal, busy, everyday life, we fell off a cliff and into a turbulent river. Since then, we’ve all been swimming out of the river and clawing our way up the cliff on the other side, to what looks from here like another meadow of normal life, but a different landscape than before.

In those first days and weeks after a shocking event, you don’t process much, mentally or emotionally. The predominant emotion is grief, when someone you love has died, or gratitude, when they somehow survived.

Later, you feel a wider variety of emotions and think about what happened and how it affects you. My uncle was killed in a logging accident when I was twelve. His widow told me, years later, how she was in shock, at first, and it was a mercy from God. As time went on, it was like a window opening, little by little. She realized more, felt more, understood more. Feeling and knowing it all at once would have been more than anyone could handle, she said.

Paul requires very little help at this point. I am gradually getting back the brain that disappeared when he fell, and I haven’t lost my drivers license or anything of equal importance for at least a week. He works on warehouse paperwork at home. I’m back to deadheading flowers and writing.

That doesn’t mean that we’ve returned to how things were. Instead, we’re still climbing that cliff to the meadow of a new normal life, but it’s still too far off to get a clear look at it.

Other things, however, are clearer than ever.

Life’s big, terrible events seem utterly without redemption in the moment, but I’ve found that they are not without blessings. One of them is clarity.

When you’re powering along every day and making most of it work, a fog can rise around you, imperceptibly. You ignore the parts that aren’t working, the mistakes you keep repeating, and the weird ways you try to appease the difficult people.

Tragedy blows away the fog and makes things clear.

It reminds me of the control-alt-delete feature on a computer that, according to “reboot[s] the operating system (ha[s] it shut down and restart itself).”

When we hit a moose and our van burned up in 1994, I was insanely grateful that we all survived. Later, I realized how much that shaped my appreciation of an ordinary day and my belief that people are infinitely more important than things. It provided an ongoing guide in making decisions.

My nephew’s death by suicide in 2006 convinced me that we all need to talk about mental health and family history. I probably have a reputation by now as the meddling woman who asks young men straight up if they’re doing ok and expects an honest answer. My reputation in this regard is of no concern to me. That grief made me see clearly that no young person should suffer alone like Leonard did, and no family should experience such a loss.

My parents’ passings in 2013 and 2019 were gentler and more expected, of course, but not without deep grief. They also brought a new clarity about how I had perceived my place in the family. It was time to put aside the “facts” I had absorbed as a seven-year-old and not questioned enough since. My older siblings didn’t get to dictate the ultimate truths of the universe, and they had actually been children themselves, trying to make sense of the world, when these truths were declared. Not everything was my fault. I had actually been a normal child. Mistakes were not sins, nor sins mistakes.

For years, I’ve been busy with activities and duties I chose and others I didn’t--hobbies, projects, people, obligations, and responsibilities. When Paul was in the hospital and then later at home, needing fulltime care, I dropped all of my former commitments without hesitation or apology. As I adjusted his pillows and doled out medicine, my own wishes and needs began to sprout like radish seedlings in a bare, tilled garden. I realized I wanted to do certain things. I definitely didn’t want to take on others. As Paul recovers, I can say yes or no, decisively.

You make the choice to hit control-alt-delete when your computer is sluggish or stalled. You don’t get a choice when tragedy shows up. However, as you process the losses and changes, you get the choice to accept the little gifts that disaster brings, and then those hard, hard times are not useless, wasted, or without redemption.