Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Christmas Letter


 A family picture was mandatory this year. The group shots at Matt and Phoebe’s wedding didn’t turn out, so in October we hired Jenny’s photographer friend Janane and assembled in the dry weeds by Muddy Creek. Paul maneuvered down the steep bank with the help of his cane, and we all lined up as instructed. The year’s gains and losses are all there, in our faces, in the stiff left arm, in fresh lines and gray hair, in Paul's bent and slightly shortened stature, and in the lovely new addition.

So I sent out photos to a long list of people, but I didn’t get around to writing a family letter. If you want to know more of what the photo tells you, here it is.


Dear Family, Friends, Readers, and Strangers who cared for us this year,

2019 ended with our family managing to get together for at least part of the holidays. For our globetrotting bunch, this is always an accomplishment.

Our youngest son, Steven, finished a paramedic internship in Las Vegas and planned to fly home just in time for Christmas. Shortly before, he discovered that his driver's license had expired, and he wasn’t sure he could fly.  So we mailed him his passport so he’d have current identification. Unfortunately, the package was placed in his landlord’s mailbox, and the landlord was out of town for a few days.

We were more frantic than Steven, as usual.

But he flew home, chill as ever, right on time.

“What did you do for identification?” we said.

“Well, the mailbox had this slot in it, and I could just see the edge of the envelope, and I could juusst get my fingers in the slot. So .  .  .” Shrug. Grin. “You do what you gotta do.”

Our oldest son, Matt, and his fiancé, Phoebe Penix, were also in Oregon for the holidays, and we all discussed dates and details for their wedding.

We waited a long time for a wedding in the family and could hardly believe we were comparing venues and discussing dresses.

So, as I said, our family was all together, which, in the last ten years, has often seemed like a miraculous feat. We’ve had children living in various states and countries, coming and going, and very seldom all together at once. We rented a house at the Oregon coast for a few days, a family tradition.

2019 ended well, and 2020 looked bright and promising.

Ben, our second son and a grad student at Oregon State University, agreed to have a fun competition with me. He hoped to publish three papers on smoldering combustion, and I hoped to publish three books. I made a fun racetrack chart to keep us on course.

Just before Christmas, Matt, who had worked in Washington, DC, as an engineer for the Navy for seven years, flew to Houston for an interview with NASA. He was soon hired as a systems engineer for the Lunar Gateway project which aims to have a station orbiting the moon by 2024. We were so happy for him. He's always wanted to go to space, and helping to get other people there is almost as good.

Matt moved to Houston at the beginning of February. In the middle of this process, he got miserably sick with a fever, cough, and general overall awfulness.

“Oh how sad,” we said. “Dear me, right when you’re moving.”

Now, of course, he and we suspect he picked up a case of Covid-19 on DC’s crowded Metro from one of the thousands of foreign tourists.

Like the rest of the world, we had no idea what was coming.

On March 6th, I was scheduled to give a talk at a local senior center. The day before, the activities coordinator called me. “I’m afraid we’ll have to cancel your talk. There’s a case of this new coronavirus at one of our facilities in Washington, and in an abundance of caution, we’re canceling all our events. I’m so sorry. It seems like overkill, but it’s policy.”

I assured her I understood.

Only a week later, Oregon State University halted in-person and on-campus classes. This immediately affected three of our children.

Ben had to leave his lab and work from his house a mile or so from campus. He could work on the computer from results of lab work he’d already done, but of course he couldn’t burn lignin or glucomannan in beakers in his kitchen. 

Amy, our oldest daughter and a senior in the Family Studies/Human Development program, as well as Jenny, our youngest and a junior in Mathematics, both began studying and tutoring from home.

"Ok, now type in your email address."

At the time, Paul and Jenny were both teaching at Pioneer Christian Academy in Brownsville. Paul taught math and Jenny, science. They had to switch to online teaching. It was tough for both of them, but especially for Paul, at age 60, to learn the ways of iPads and filming and online homework. Jenny did a lot of coaching him through it.

Paul also began preaching Sunday sermons to a near-empty church and a video camera.

Steven had moved home and was working at a transport service in Eugene as well as a second internship. This sort of work can’t go online, of course, but they had to adapt to all the Covid precautions.

Life didn’t change so much for Emily, our middle daughter, who was living at home and working on a book about her year of travels around the country, and for me, the mom, except I had to adapt to having lots of people around all day.

Before long, NASA told all its workers to go work from home. Except, Matt said, the people on the International Space Station, who were pretty much the only ones working like normal.

Phoebe had moved back home to her parents’ place about ten miles from here. Matt decided he could work from Oregon just as easily as from his lonely apartment in Houston. So he came to Oregon and moved in with Ben and his roommates.

The wedding plans went every which way. The beautiful venue they had booked cancelled all its summer events. Bridal and jewelry shops closed. The governor restricted group numbers.

It didn’t have to be either/or, Matt and Phoebe decided. It could be both/and: a celebration with family and friends that followed all the state mandates. So they put together an outdoor, drive-in wedding at a friend’s farm. Relatives and friends joined us. It all worked amazingly well.

Paul preached the wedding sermon and performed the ceremony. That was special at the time, of course. But, looking back, it feels even more so, a memory to encase in glass and set in a special shrine in our minds.

Matt and Phoebe left on their honeymoon. I rested from all the action and worked in the garden. Paul got ready for the grass seed harvest.

The newlyweds came back from the coast and prepared to leave for Houston.

Amy finished college, but graduation was canceled. She had hoped to return to Thailand, but they weren’t allowing Americans in.

All three girls started on harvest-related jobs.

On July 7, I got a call saying that Paul had fallen at the warehouse, and life as we knew it tilted sideways and everything slid off.

His injuries included a fractured skull, two shattered wrists, five broken vertebrae, a bruised spinal cord, broken ribs, a small brain bleed, and a huge gash in his head.

At the hardest and darkest time we had ever faced, all of our children were in the area. After all those years of scattering, they were all here.

At the children’s insistence, we brought Paul home after a week in the hospital instead of sending him to a skilled nursing/rehab facility. Matt and Phoebe bought an Airstream travel trailer and moved into the front yard. Everyone helped bring Paul back to health. It was unbelievably difficult and rewarding, exhausting and full of hope.

In the middle of healing and bonding, hard things followed hard things.

Like everyone else, we dealt with Covid’s interference in daily life, but thankfully only on a nuisance level and not in tragic loss of life, health, or business. But eventually Covid’s repercussions upended our lives in unexpected ways. At times, following our consciences required a great personal cost for various family members. We faced dilemmas, disappointment, division, and disapproval in ways we were unprepared for and still don’t fully understand. We wished that more situations could be resolved like Matt and Phoebe's wedding, where we were able to make it both/and rather than either/or.

In September, a dry summer ended in days of orange smoke-filled dread as huge fires ate up miles of Oregon forests, taking lives, homes, livelihoods, breathable air, and beautiful places.

The only thing staged or filtered with this photo was the mask. I was wearing it because of all the
smoke, but I took it off and put it on Paul so the picture would show the full story of 2020--
fires and smoke, electricity out, Covid, and Paul's injuries and trying to do normal work again.

Paul and Jenny did not return to PCA to teach, but Amy got a job teaching a small “pod school” with children from two families. Jenny found work tutoring physics students online and also began her senior year of college at home. It was hard. "You want to look at a classmate in a math class and see that they're just as confused as you are," she said. 

Steven moved to Corvallis to live with Ben and got a job as a fire engineer at the Junction City fire station. He is dating a lovely young lady named Abby Smith who is also studying to be a paramedic.

September also brought positive change for Paul as he was finally released from his casts and braces. He began going to physical therapy every week and slowly regained strength and skills. Dressing himself, doing bookkeeping for the warehouse, showering, peeling potatoes. Who knew, though, that zipping a jacket is almost impossible without two fully functioning arms?

The biggest barrier to recovery was the paralysis in his left arm. It hung useless, causing a near-constant ache in his shoulder. Gradually, though, his thumb was able to touch his fingers, his hand learned to grip, and some of the muscles in his forearm came alive.

In October, a car accident took the life of a wonderful young man, Tanner Zehr, a former student. Paul preached the funeral sermon, and, like the wedding sermon, it took on a sense of large significance. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away,” he said. “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

We held our breaths in November and December, waiting for another devastating shock. Nothing terrible happened. We slowly exhaled, worked on healing, and enjoyed time with our family.

Emily published a book called The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea. I helped her with the publishing and printing process. After lots of delays, 36 boxes of books showed up in mid-November. To our relief and delight, half of them sold before Christmas. Her goal is to support herself with writing. This is a huge step in that direction. You can buy a copy of the book at

A family west of Junction City gave us a hot tub. The sons helped set it up, and Paul has spent many hours in there, pushing, flexing, and bending with his arm.

He learned to drive again, with one arm. I supervised him like a fierce driver’s ed teacher and soon learned that he knew what he was doing. The independence this gave him was a relief to all of us and a taste of a return to normal. Going to Harbor Freight by himself and poking around looking at tools was more healing than a week of therapy, I think.

At the last visit with the neurosurgeon, she said that Paul’s bicep had gone from a zero to a two (out of five) in terms of nerve activity and muscle function. Other muscles had gone from two or three to five. That was incredibly encouraging.

However, the difficult news was that the deltoid, up at the shoulder, and the supinator, in the forearm, were both still at zero. The supinator rotates the forearm, so that means his arm and hand always hang a quarter-turn from normal.

The doctor also talked about surgery. The damage to the spinal cord was from the fall, of course, but specifically from the fact that the channel is really tight at vertebrae 5, 6, and 7. This puts him at high risk of further paralysis if he would fall again or be in a car accident.

So Paul is scheduled for surgery on Wednesday, December 30. They plan to remove two bulging disks and replace them with little titanium spacers. He’ll have to spend at least one night in the hospital. Because of Covid restrictions, we can’t be with him.

I feel a certain dread about this, of course, but I also look forward having it and the inevitable setback in progress behind us. There’s a level of risk, of course, but it’s probably smaller than the risk of paralysis if Paul would slip on that wooden ramp into the chicken shed.

I published a few articles in 2020, but neither Ben nor I met our publishing goals with scientific papers and books. Lots of other projects and goals remain unfinished--sewing, organizing, repairs, and travel. But we survived, and I feel we all ought to get lots of points for surviving. As Steven said, you do what you gotta do.

Last week, I realized I don’t hear as much about Paul’s shoulder aching. “My arm doesn’t feel as heavy as it did,” he said, “like it’s not such a dead weight any more. It somehow feels lighter.”

Unbelievable, what good news that was.

Matt and Phoebe continue to live in their Airstream at our place and will be here to help after Paul’s surgery. NASA hasn’t announced when their workers are returning.

So this strange, happy, terrible year draws to a close. We see God’s hand in sparing Paul’s life, in His protection during the fires, and in His incredible timing in having all our wandering kids close by when we needed them most.

We also saw the love and compassion of Jesus in the many many people who helped and encouraged us in 2020. We end the year feeling exhausted and about ten years older, but with an expanded faith, compassion, and sense of wonder. We survived. Imagine that.

We are loved, held, and kept in Eternal hands.


Yes, laughter is the best medicine. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Ask Aunt Dorcas: The Reluctant Caregiver

When Paul came home from the hospital.
Dear Aunt Dorcas, 

I have a question about the times when you feel resentful at what really must be done.

I feel like a horrible person to admit this but old people are not my thing. I love children. Give me anything to do with children. God’s sense of humor, or else just my rough edges that need smoothed off, have brought quite a few old people who need help into my life. I helped care for my grandma, my mom’s mom, when I was still living at home, until she passed away.  My husband and I helped take care of my dad for months after he had a stroke. He was at my sister's but we were there two or three days a week. And now my elderly mother-in law needs care and I am feeling obligated to take her in, just because of the family situation. My husband’s sisters can travel to help out sometimes but the main work will fall on me.  I know from experience with my dad and grandma how burned out the main caregivers get. My husband had to sacrifice so much for me to care for my dad that I owe him help and support with his mom, but honestly I feel resentful at being in this position. I hate to express this to my husband because it puts him in a very hard position. How can I keep a cheerful attitude when frankly I’m burned out?


Dear Brenda,

I thought I knew about caregiving. After all, I birthed five babies and raised six children, so I knew all about the bone-weary exhaustion, the endless needs, and the utter dependence.

I also watched my parents grow old. This process was filled with endless impossible dilemmas, countless discussions with siblings in which we couldn’t find solutions, numerous flights across half the country, and far too many times when both my children and my parents needed me, and I could not take care of both of them at once.

Then my husband was horribly injured in a fall, and I learned about caregiving in a whole new way, when all the relationship rules and patterns are suddenly ripped to shreds and you have to figure it out on the fly. When a strong person is suddenly weak, and the previous support person has to grow a rigid spine overnight and give stern orders to the previously in charge person. And when an independent person, in one instant, is in severe pain and can't even rub his eye or feed himself.

Caregiving is done out of sight. It takes every ounce of your energy, time, and resources, yet it earns little applause and usually no money.

And yet, we take it on because it is right, because we know that a human life has value, and a helpless human deserves care and kindness. We do it because we love.

We do what needs to be done, and, in the process, we find out we are much stronger than we thought.

And we are weaker than we knew. Sometimes the utter physical weariness overwhelms us, and the emotional exhaustion threatens to put us in such dark places that we are close to needing care ourselves.

My children are adults, and my parents have gone to be with Jesus, so I’ve had time to process those caregiving roles. My husband has recovered astonishingly and can brush his own teeth again and even drive a car, yet he is still healing, and we are both processing what we’ve been through and who we are now.

Here’s my advice. Keep in mind that it comes from an unfinished story.

1.       Discuss options with family members. Can Grandma’s care be rotated? Does she need professional care at a nursing home? Does the county provide in-home respite care?  If you take on caregiving out of guilt, because someone else could do it but you feel like saying No isn’t an option, the resentment later on will eat you alive. Grandma doesn’t deserve that.

2.       If you see that the only option is for you to take on the caregiving, then set your face like a flint and do it. You are a strong woman. You can do what needs to be done. You can not let this precious life be abandoned to bedsores and reeking Depends.

3.       However. You need to ask for help. Repeat after me: ASK FOR HELP. Other family members, church people, Medicare programs, Hospice, and friends. Your husband’s sister needs to come for a week in June so you can go to your niece’s wedding. Your mother-in-law’s church people should provide respite care and occasional meals.
My brother and his wife, who were our parents’ main caregivers, let us know when they needed to travel and needed one of us to come stay with Mom and Dad.
When Paul was injured, I felt terrible asking my children to get up at night with him. But I did it anyhow. I had been through my own trauma, and there wasn’t that much of me left.

4.       Talk to someone else. Not your husband, in this case. Maybe your sister is a good safe person to vent to about your mother-in-law and how her false teeth click when she smacks her oatmeal, and you think it will drive you clear out of your mind by next week, if not tomorrow morning. Plus she drools! You can handle Depends but drooling is going to be the end of you.
Find your person. Talk to them. Go back to doing what needs to be done.

5.       Take care of yourself. Shower. Brush your teeth. Eat good food. You need to do this. Monitor your mental health. Your heroism has a limit. There are other options. None of them might be pretty, but sometimes we only get to choose between really distasteful options.

6.       Choose to embrace this season as God’s call for you. There will be times when you want to escape this life so desperately that you’ll fantasize about grabbing your purse and walking out to the car, right now, and driving off to California.  That level of desperation is usually a sign that you need more support, but it’s also a chance to deliberately embrace this season as a clear calling and exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. Think of it, all the people out there wondering what God’s will for their lives might be. Well. You know. This right here. God sees and knows. You are not abandoned. It’s going to be ok. Choose to embrace instead of escape.

As I mentioned, I’m mostly on the other side of the caregiving assignments. I have no regrets about immersing myself in caring for my babies, but I didn’t take care of myself like I should have. I had seasons of depression that got really bad before I asked for help. I regret that.

Sometimes I wonder what we could have done to make Mom and Dad’s care easier, and I still don’t know. Should we have insisted that they come to Oregon and live with us? Should we have moved them into assisted living? They wanted to live in their own home until they died, and I am all about giving the elderly as much autonomy as possible, but it sure put us in some impossible situations.

I also have no regrets about bringing Paul home from the hospital instead of putting him in a skilled care facility like the doctors thought we should. By God’s providence, our children were all in the area and able to help with his care. I think it will go down in family history as a very precious time. Others helped with meals, the family business, and so much more.

Because of the help we got, I was able to take a nap in my cabin every day. I couldn’t get out much, but I was able to call people and talk about what I was going through. For example, my friend Hope had also suffered a broken neck, and my friend Sharon is taking care of her elderly mom.  Both felt like lifesavers.

You are in a hard season, and you didn’t ask for it. If this is God’s assignment, he will give you what it takes. But you need to monitor how you're all doing and speak up about what you need.

I wish you well.

Aunt Dorcas

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Gathering Signs and Mopping Up

 A while back, some of Paul’s students came by one night and stuck some political signs in our yard. TRUMP-PENCE. ART ROBINSON FOR CONGRESS.

Paul thought it was funny. And so do you, if you know him at all.

I saved the signs, thinking they might be useful someday.

I have friends and relatives in the medical field, and I get the feeling they’re not doing well. One of them sent me a disturbing message the other day:

“I'm home indefinitely.  We have over half the staff and half the residents full blown cases.  The staff is working  until they just are too sick and I am so prone to hospitalization I’m home for now, my boss said until the immunization is in our building. Sigh. So far the staff are not in the icu.  

We lost 3 so far. One resident died within 12 hours of first symptoms—no sign except she couldn't breathe.  Her only underlying condition was age and dementia with severe behaviors. 

I’m still struggling with anger at the pooh poohing of no mask, let us do what we wanna do attitudes. 

I’m sharing because I pray you are letting others shop and do the away from home things for you.  Please. This is so awful.”

I thought, I’ll bet she speaks for many in the medical field who are burning out. Poor things! I’m going to share this on Facebook.

I hesitated over including the line about anger over masks and attitudes, because I come out from under my rock enough to know that that subject is controversial. But I decided to include it. It’s part of her story. Anyone who’s out there watching people die is allowed to be angry at whatever they choose, I’d say. So I’ll let her say it.

I thought, Everyone will know it’s her talking out of where she’s at. 

I’m sure they will understand that this is her own conclusion.

They are smart enough to know that I didn’t write it myself, and that’s not how I would word my thoughts on the matter.

Wrong wrong wrong.

The comment section blew up, of course. Not about nurses, but about masks. Almost entirely about masks. Yay and nay, close up and far away, all day, all the way, wheat straw and alfalfa hay. 

Those of you with long experience in social media can predict the kinds of things people said. Passionate paragraphs with DOUBLE-BLIND STUDIES in all caps. Links to videos about forbidden but effective medicines. Personal attacks. An earnest entreaty from the guy who never comments except to drop down the chimney once a year like Santa to set me back on the strait and narrow. People who are clustered in the center, just trying to make it through these times.

First I deleted any comments the medical friend would find hurtful. Then I deleted a few that kind of agreed with her but were polarizing and off topic. Many of these were from friends I know and respect. Ouch.

Please, I begged wearily, this is about the nurses in your life. Make sure they’re ok.

I felt violated. But why, when I had obviously put it out there to be seen and read?

“It’s not fair. This is YOUR platform, and they’re using it to push THEIR agendas,” explained our daughter Emily.

That clicked. Yes. It felt like hundreds of people milling around our property, pounding political signs in the yard. It wasn’t funny like teens pulling a prank. It was scary.

Thankfully, a handful of nurses said, “At last I feel understood,” and another handful of people said, “I will pray for the nurses in my life.”

But I removed the post, along with a subsequent post that fared even worse. Some of this was me not communicating clearly. I take full responsibility for that. But some of it is the nature of social media.

These are the problems with Facebook:

1. The Facebook format encourages people to see any post as an invitation to argue. I see facebook as a handy way to chat, converse, keep up, tell stories, and share thoughts and information. Debates make me curl into a fetal position and freeze, for reasons I won’t go into here. My posts are not invitations to argue. This makes me look wimpy and overly sensitive, I’m told. So be it. There are better ways to change my mind or to show your support for me. Pounding signs in my yard is not one of them. 

2. There’s no way to monitor comments except to sit there with a fire extinguisher aimed at the computer screen all day. You can’t turn off comments for a few hours while you clean the house. I tried. 

3. If you have more than 100 friends, you apparently have a “platform.” It’s assumed you worked hard to build this platform, everything you post is pushing a specific agenda, and you are “somebody” in a way that someone with fewer followers is not. It is weird. Instead of simply saying hello and moving on, people feel compelled to push either with or against you.
I have never tried to build my numbers, and I don’t know how many followers I have. I am a storyteller. Sometimes I just want to share a story because I’m worried about nurses. I’m a mom. Sometimes I think people should think about how today’s actions might play out. 

I don’t know yet what that means for me and social media. I do know that I shouldn’t allow on my online pages what I wouldn’t allow in my front yard.

The signs that the kids put in our yard are sitting in the carport, upside down. Paul asked why I still have them. “The sticks will make great dahlia stakes,” I said. He examined them. “I think those screws will work to hold the loose boards on the hot tub.”

“And the signs are that nice foam stuff,” I said. “Maybe I can stack them up and cover them with fabric for a bulletin board in the sewing room.”

This is what I’m realizing: what you put on social media might be a sign stating your position but even more, it’s a big sign telling us who you are. You are holding it up high. “LOOK. This is who I am. SEE? Right here! Clear as day!”

I would like my sign to say, “I think your story matters, even if telling it gets me in trouble.” 

I wish every online comment came with a nice 4-foot wooden post, because I’m hoping to have a huge dahlia crop next year.

And I'm wondering how others navigate these waters.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Ask Aunt Dorcas--A Discovery, and A Mennonite Girl's Fears

First, a fun discovery:

The Aunt Dorcas title originally came about because I wanted to distinguish my advice-column posts from the others. Since I’m an aunt, by birth or marriage, to over fifty people, and most aunts have opinions about what people ought to do, it was an easy choice.

This week I was astonished to discover that there’s actually an Aunt Dorcas character in literature. Despite loving Beatrix Potter and nearly memorizing some of her books, I had no idea that she wrote a book called The Tale of Little Pig Robinson in which this pig lives with two aunts named Aunt Dorcas and Aunt Porcas.

I seldom run across my name in literature, so to find not only Dorcas but also Porcas, which I’ve been called many times, not only in elementary school but also in my adult life, by people who called Paul and me Doll and Porcas—well, that was, as I said, astonishing.

I even kind of fit the description: "Aunt Dorcas was a stout speckled pig who kept hens."

So now I want to not only keep the title, but use this for the profile picture--

Aunt Porcas is on the left and Aunt Dorcas on the right.

Now, a less-fun discussion:

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

What is your opinion on all these recent abductions and kidnapping attempts of teenage girls,especially Mennonite or Amish girls? Are there things that we girls should be doing differently, so that we aren't so vulnerable?  

Miss Fifteen

Aunt Dorcas replied by email:

Thanks for the question. I will give it some thought.

So I know about Sasha Krause and Linda Stoltzfoos. Are there other kidnappings or attempts that I haven't heard of?

Miss Fifteen said:

I heard about quite a few attempts besides Sasha and Linda. I just want to be careful because I found out some of these stories through Budget readers and chatline listeners (hotspots for rumors! ) and can't assure you that all the details are correct.

Such as an Amish girl in PA who went to the hardware store with her dad and wasn't around when he was ready to leave. Two men had already gagged and drugged her but were caught before they could get out of the store.

A worker at Glenwood Foods in PA saw a man taking pictures of her coworker and told her boss.When her coworker went outside to leave two men were waiting for her . They were caught but their phones showed they had  already sold her.

There are more stories along the same line. I was just bothered by the fact that most of the victims were Mennonite or Amish.

Dear Miss Fifteen—

I don’t blame you for being alarmed. Linda and Sasha’s stories shook us all, and I would imagine it was worst for young women such as yourself. Having your sense of safety shattered is a cruel experience. Suddenly, everyone you see is a potential attacker, every car and corner hold a threat, and everyday places and activities no longer feel safe or fun.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Many of us were taught that dressing modestly would protect us from evil men, and wearing a head covering gave us another level of angelic protection. If we dressed right and behaved ourselves, all would be well.

Also, we lived far from big cities and all their vague dangers and sins. We took walks alone and went on long bike rides on country roads.

Then, in two highly publicized cases, young, head-covered, modest Mennonite or Amish women, doing normal activities, far away from the big city, were abducted.

In addition, as you said, other stories circulate. As you recognized, some are unverified by the news media but might well be true. It's scary.

Things have changed.

There’s a bizarre fascination with Amish and other Plain people. It wasn’t like this when I was your age, back in 1977. It’s not only tourism in Holmes County and dozens of best-selling “Amish” novels. It’s also lots of people with a weird obsession that makes them try to look Amish or get to know Amish people. Sometimes they send me gushing facebook messages or emails. They just looooove the Amish, they say. They want to see my house and be my friend—even though I’m not Amish and haven’t been for many years.

It is weird.

I have reason to believe this obsession extends into the underworld of sex soliciting and trafficking as well. If so, this means that the very things we were taught would protect us, actually make us more of a target.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't dress modestly, only that we need to change some of our thinking.

Another difficult truth about the world is that men have a lot more upper-body strength than women. With most other traits, such as fine motor skills or musical ability or pain tolerance, one sex might have a bit of an advantage, but there’s a lot of overlap. Upper-body strength is the exception. The average man, says our son Matt, is as much stronger than the average woman as a silverback gorilla is stronger than the average man.

This makes good-hearted men excellent protectors, but it makes evil men a serious danger, and women at a serious disadvantage.

You’re a young Anabaptist woman. What do you do?

The answer is not to hunker down in terror in your bedroom or never do anything the rest of your life. Please know that you are not powerless and helpless before an evil world. Girls like you need a sense of confidence that comes from knowing what to do and not do. You need information, tools, and options. 

First, though, I think our Plain culture needs a complete change of attitude.

When I get Ask Aunt Dorcas questions, I often crowd-source the answers at the dinner table. This one was no exception. My daughter-in-law, Phoebe, told us about a self-defense class she took at the University of Oregon.

Apparently the class wasn’t so much about throwing the right punches and that sort of thing, but about knowing how to discourage a potential assailant. For example, you can say a firm No. If someone is following you in a store and making you uncomfortable, you can even look at him and yell “NO!” as loud as you can. Everyone in the nearby aisles will be alerted, and the person is likely to run away.

The very idea of doing such a thing goes against every cultural expectation that’s ingrained in our bones:

1.      Be nice.

2.      Don’t make a fuss.

3.      Don’t draw attention to yourself.

4.      Be quiet.

5.      Be sweet.

6.      Smile.

7.      Be kind.

8.      Don’t say no.

9.      Be obedient.

10.  Be submissive.

11.  Be ladylike.

12.  Don’t stand your ground.

13.  Don’t push back.

So, it seems the first step of dealing with this new threat is to change our attitude. We need to recognize what makes us uncomfortable and be willing to speak up about it. Often, we've been taught to minimize or deny what we see and feel. We need to be in tune with our senses that pick up danger, and we need to be ready to do or say something.

My daughters all worked at the local discount grocery store and learned to deal with customers behaving inappropriately. There was a double barrier to pushing back, said Jenny. First, there was the Mennonite emphasis on being nice and compliant, and second, the expectation in retail jobs that the customer is right and must be appeased.

They never yelled No, but they learned to draw lines, such as not engaging in customers' attempts at flirty conversation and not giving their phone number. They told the manager and owner, if needed.

As I said, it's time for Mennonite girls to gain a lot more confidence, information, tools, and options.

Let me emphasize, though, that knowing more won’t magically keep bad things from happening to you. As Phoebe said, “Assaults are caused by the presence of an assailant.” If you are threatened or hurt, it isn’t your fault. No one should ever say, “Well, why didn’t you just run? Or throw something? Your skirt was too short. You should have just . . .”

The sin is the fault of the person who sins.

However, knowing more would give you choices of something to do in dicey situations besides freeze in fear, and that would be a good thing. Knowledge gives you tools and options.

You need to learn common sense tips that every college girl knows, such as locking doors, carrying your cell phone in your hand, walking with a buddy, and knowing which parts of town to avoid. Some of us are shockingly naïve.

Recently my daughter Jenny was on a walk on a country road when a pickup passed her and then stopped. Immediately, she assessed the situation, held her cell phone ready in her hand, and decided to confidently walk on.

Then the person in the pickup called her name. She kept her distance but had a conversation. It all turned out fine. I was proud of her for having a plan and knowing what to do.

Jenny could decide that it’s too unsafe out there and she should stay home or always walk with a buddy. But she feels like she needs a daily walk for her own physical and emotional health, especially with doing her senior year of college online from her bedroom, because of Covid. So she weighs the risks, makes a decision, and learns safety measures.

You can learn from books, classes, or knowledgeable people about personal safety the same way you learn fire safety or driving safety. I’m not giving lots of particulars here because I’m realizing how little I know. But I can learn.

Working at being safe doesn’t violate scriptural principles of nonresistance or femininity.

Also, accept protection from good men. Having volition over your own life doesn’t mean you don’t let your dad and brothers show their concern for your safety or go across town with you to buy something off a Craigslist ad.  Ask a store employee to walk you to your car if you have misgivings. Know that a good man will want to keep you safe without controlling you.

Remember that while the stranger-abduction stories get the most attention, you are far more likely to be assaulted by someone you know than by a stranger. Here, again, girls need confidence and resources. You are allowed to push back, speak up, and act on your intuition.

If you have ever been molested or assaulted by someone, even a family member, you need to tell and keep telling until someone believes you. It should be reported as a crime. You are allowed to say out loud what happened to you.

Again, this goes against our cultural tradition of being quiet and not making a fuss. It’s time for this to change.

Mostly, I want you to know that you don’t need to be frozen with fear. You don’t need to feel helpless and vulnerable. While none of us can be sure that nothing bad will ever happen, you can gain information and tools that will give you confidence and help you make wise decisions. You are not powerless.

We all have a lot to learn. You and I can even learn to shout NO! in a grocery store if someone is following us. Imagine that.

That’s what I think.

Aunt Dorcas

P.S. Phoebe adds:
Some examples I would give of non-violent assertiveness strategies we learned are: 

—firmly saying “No” (could be yelling, but maybe in a setting where yelling seems more reasonable)
—repeating the gross thing some creepy person muttered at you out loud so everyone can hear and calling attention to them as the speaker
—telling the person directly what they should be doing/not doing (“Stand over there. Don’t touch me!”)
—interrupting their plan of attack (for instance in a case where someone is running toward you menacingly, throwing keys or a handful of change at them, or waving a jacket in their face. The idea here is that you’re signaling that you aren’t going to comply with their plan.)
Here's a related article.