Monday, September 11, 2017

Letter from Harrisburg--Our Eclipse Day

Eclipse traffic jam is a godsend

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
SEPT. 10, 2017

None of the normal rules applied that day.

On a regular day, the sun stays bright in the sky, only a few cars pass our house, and I stress out about hosting guests.

But that day was different.

I first heard about the solar eclipse of 2017 from our son Matt, an engineer and astronomy enthusiast in Washington, D.C.

“I’m coming home for it,” he announced. He sent me a map showing that the outside edge of the shadow’s projected path lay four miles north of us.

We live on Substation Drive, an oddly situated little country road that has so little traffic it’s tempting to back out of the driveway without checking for cars coming.

Paul’s sister Rosie invited all the Smuckers to camp at their place, well within totality, the night before. Traffic was going to be terrible, all the reports said.

I ordered 35 eclipse glasses.

As night fell, we gathered in spontaneous groups in Rosie’s backyard and talked. Matt held forth on politics from his insider’s view in Washington.
Simone and Matt
Paul and Aunt Allene
Anne and Amos--Paul's mom and my dad
Cousin Darrell gives Jenny advice on OSU's education degrees

Matt demonstrates how an eclipse works while Cassie holds the earth's orbit

Randy the nephew scoffed at all the warnings about heavy traffic. If anything, there was less traffic than usual, he said.

A few of us discussed spiritual gifts, those out-of-the-ordinary abilities given to Christ’s followers. I mentioned hospitality. “I realized I like to minister to people, and I also like to stay at home,” I said. “So I’ve been praying that God would bring people to my house that I can minister to, even though I’m not a natural-born hostess.”

The others nodded in affirmation.

We settled into tents and campers that night, eager and expectant for morning.

Rosie set out a brunch soon after sunrise, and Matt gave us minute-by-minute updates. Our daughter Jenny laid a white sheet on the ground, hoping to see the “shadow snakes” she had heard of. I handed out the protective glasses as though dispensing communion. Then, suddenly, for us and for thousands of others in Oregon, the first sliver of black encroached on the upper edge of the sun.

All ready for the eclipse
United in excitement, we watched the slow progress of the determined moon until suddenly it clicked into place, the sun was impossibly dark, and we took off our glasses and looked around, up, everywhere.

From my 100-year-old father seeing the first total eclipse of his life, down to giddy and slightly confused children, we all felt the same amazement, wonder and pure joy.
Too quickly, it seemed, a burst of light appeared. The sense of awe gave way to a strange urgency to get going. Jenny left for her job, Paul left for the warehouse, and we moms gathered dishes and put blankets and people into vans.

All the way home, we stopped at intersections to peer through our glasses at the sun as the moon slid off, left and downwards.

We were surprised to see that Highway 34 was packed full, and so was the onramp to Interstate 5. We took the back roads home, a clear benefit to living here and knowing the alternative routes.
Interstate 5, from Highway 34
As we neared our house, I exclaimed, “Four cars on Substation Drive! That has never happened before!”

We hauled coolers and blankets inside, constantly distracted by the increasing traffic past our house and at the intersection nearby. A pack of cars passed on Powerline Road. Another pack waited for them on Substation.

We kept going outside to watch. So odd, we said, but surely they’ll clear out soon.

Before long, both roads were filled with closely packed cars, and Highway 99, which angles across both Powerline and Substation roads half a mile away, was also packed, forming a triangle of traffic congestion never seen before.

I felt sorry for all those people, stuck on unfamiliar country roads for probably hours. I wasn’t sure why or how, but I sensed it was imperative that I do something for them.

What did I have on hand? A big tub of Smuckers lemonade powder and lots of tea bags. All right then. I stirred up a gallon of lemonade and grabbed a package of cups from the pantry while the water boiled and the tea steeped.

Then I set up a small table at the end of the driveway, feeling conspicuous and a bit embarrassed. What if no one wanted what I had to offer?

On the back of old book-publicity posters I wrote in large letters: “Free tea and lemonade.”

There is an invisible barrier between traffic on the road and the perimeter of a home. I was shy about crossing it, about actually offering my gifts to those anonymous people behind their reflective windows. I made a “Help yourself” sign and considered leaving it at that and going into the house.

Suddenly, Simone showed up beside me. Our neighbor and relative, she had heard that our daughter Emily was sitting outside, watching traffic, so she decided to walk over and join her. Instead, she found me at the table. “What a great idea! Can I help?” She grabbed two cups of lemonade and turned to the nearest cars. “Free lemonade! You want some free lemonade??”

Windows opened, people smiled and reached. “This is great! Thank you so much!”

Emily appeared soon after. “I’ll help too!”

I poured, and they approached cars and offered drinks, which was the best possible arrangement.

Me, pouring.
Emily, serving.
Soon both pitchers were almost empty. I went to the house and made more.

And more.

A woman in an SUV declined the drinks and said, “What I really need is a bathroom!”

“By all means, come in and use ours,” I said. She pulled into the driveway and followed me inside. When she left, she thanked me and said she’s heading back to Pennsylvania, having driven all the way to Oregon for the eclipse.

Surely there would be others who needed a bathroom, I thought. Two or three people, maybe. I grabbed another poster and wrote “RESTROOMS AVAILABLE” and hung it beside the other signs. Then I ran inside for more drinks.

A few minutes later, I turned around from the kitchen sink and saw about 10 people forming a line from the bathroom door all the way out the back hallway.

As they left, more came. “If you’re desperate, you can use the upstairs bathroom too,” I said. They laughed. “We’re all desperate!”

Soon, we had an efficient system. Simone and Emily handed out drinks and directed people to the back door. I showed people to the bathroom downstairs. Our son Matt directed others to the bathroom upstairs. I stirred drinks and hunted for more cups.

Outside on the road, people opened their windows, took photos, accepted drinks, offered money and thanked us profusely. Smiles and laughter abounded.

When we ran out of cups, Emily biked to Simone’s house and found more in her pantry. Simone’s daughter Dolly came back with her and assisted as well.

I chatted with the people standing in line. Probably 75 percent of them came from California — Los Angeles, San Jose, San Bernardino. Most of them had watched the eclipse at the coast. On the way back to I-5, their GPS programs had directed them on an alternative route down Peoria Road and east on Substation in an attempt to avoid the congestion on the larger highways.

One family was from Japan. They and many others used the restroom and then lingered outside, expressing their thanks and enjoying the break.

A family from China stood in the hallway, speaking in a language I couldn’t understand, but I understood their relief in finding a restroom for the grandma of the group.

Many people seemed reluctant to leave, as though drawn to the strange magic of this day and this place, when nothing was as it normally is, and something special crackled in the sunny air.

An hour passed. The cars were still creeping along all the surrounding roads.

I ran out of ice so I quit making tea, but I kept stirring up lemonade with cold water from the faucet. After 10 gallons, I ran out of powder and we gave people cold water, gallons and gallons of it. It didn’t seem like enough, so I brought out all the cookies and brownies I could find in the pantry and freezer.

The line in our back hall was almost continuous. Some people pressed money into my hand when they left. “To help with your water bill,” they said, and walked out before I had time to explain about farmhouses in Oregon that have wells and septic systems, but no water bills.

Another hour and the traffic still hadn’t diminished.

The joy in the air was almost tangible. “Why are you so nice?” people said. “God bless you!” “Thank you!”

We were having the time of our lives, laughing, giving, pointing and helping.

Finally, the cars decreased in number and moved a bit faster. The roads slowly cleared. Simone and Dolly went home. We left the drinks and signs on the table and went inside. Emily and Matt and I plopped on the living room couches and rested.

“Wasn’t that just the most fun ever?” we said. “Wait. Did that really just happen?” “Amazing.” “Bizarre.” “Can you believe it?”

“How many people do you think came through the house?” I said. Matt calculated 120 and I guessed 75, so we settled on 100. And how many drinks did we give out? At least 400, we guessed.

How had we had enough cups, enough toilet paper, enough capacity in our septic tank? It didn’t seem possible.

I suddenly remembered my prayer of weeks before, and goosebumps rippled up my arms.

“Did you realize,” I asked the kids, “that a few weeks ago I asked God to bring people to my house that I could minister to and bless?”

Matt laughed and quoted from Genesis, regarding the great Flood: “The same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.”

Among the day’s phenomenon, I realized later, was that all the kids and neighbors who showed up immediately plunged into this spontaneous project, without question. If anyone had asked, “Really? Why are you doing this?” I couldn’t have explained and, likely, I could have been talked out of it.

Instead, they had said and done only an enthusiastic “Yes!”

It was a day when none of the normal rules applied. The sun set that evening in a strangely glowing pink sky, a final affirmation to a day of holiness and joy and miracles.

The surprises continued the next day.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Trusting God in the Way Too Much

At 4:00 this morning I suddenly had a desperate sense that our hedge was dying. And I needed to save it. NOW. I almost couldn't get back to sleep, I was that desperate.

So I got up at 7:00 and started a sprinkler, which reached about 5% of the hedge, but it helped my conscience feel better, until I gave the hose a yank to move it and popped the end right off the faucet, and that was the end of saving hedge lives today.

The hedge is dying because the weather has been just WAY TOO MUCH--too hot and too dry. I mean, here it's September and we haven't had any fall rains.  Also, they keep predicting 100-degree weather, but it never quite reaches the predicted heights because the air is full of smoke from a dozen forest fires. The smoke hangs thick in this valley, looking like fog but with an ominous feel and none of fog's moisture and coolness.

The sun hangs hot in a distant sky and casts a strange pink light on the world. 

The air is bad for everyone, but for those of us with asthma, it's horrible.

Last winter, the weather was also TOO MUCH. It rained and rained and rained. We seldom saw the sun. I longed for a day of sunshine like it was a far-from-home child. The world was chilled and dark and wet and miserable.

And now we are overwhelmed with sunshine and warmth and dry weather, and we long for a good rain to put out the fires and clear the air.

It makes me wonder about gratitude, about contentment, and about needing good things in just the right quantities, neither more nor less.

And about trusting God for the quantities He sends.

The reason I neglected the hedge was because my summer, especially August, was just WAY TOO MUCH.  

I love having people around me, but I also desperately need time alone. I need action and things to do--they give me goals and purpose. But if there's too much going on, the connections in my brain start shorting out. Wires unplug and sparks zap as I try to think ahead to the next meal or Sunday's lesson I need to teach.

It quickly feels like TOO MUCH.

And yet, a few days of leisure with no deadlines and few people, and I get fidgety and restless and lonely.

Can I trust God for the quantities he sends?

So--August. My 100-year-old dad was here, his fourth summer in Oregon. That was such a privilege, going berry picking with him and seeing him interact with his grandchildren. It didn't seem like such a privilege when I kept bumping into him at 6:30 a.m. as he was shuffling around the kitchen in his pajamas, making hot water with prune juice, and I was also shuffling around the kitchen, wanting to make tea, and we both needed the electric kettle at the same time.

My nephew Austin, my sister Margaret's son, came --oh happy day-- to work on my writing cabin. That was wonderful as well, but it meant a lot of cooking and keeping groceries on hand to feed a hardworking teenager.

The last two weeks of August were quite simply insane. And absolutely wonderful.

Matt flew in from Washington, DC, to be here for the eclipse. We all went to Paul's sister Rosie's house and camped there in the totality zone. It was simply a miraculous day, which I plan to write about in my newspaper column.

On the Friday after the eclipse, a lot of hard work and giddy expectation came together as my long-awaited cabin got hauled to the site by the creek and a big crane lifted it up and set it on the concrete pillars Paul and his nephew Keith had prepared.

I was overwhelmed. A longing fulfilled is a tree of life.

Matt left on Saturday. I always miss him when he goes. Then my sister Rebecca and her husband came on Monday.  It is always refreshing to have them around. On Wednesday, Rebecca and Rod took Dad and Austin to the airport early in the morning, and Austin escorted Dad safely back to Minnesota.

On Wednesday evening, Amy came home to stay after 3 1/2 years in Thailand.

Rebecca and Rod left for a visit to friends in Medford, then returned, then left for a few weeks in the Seattle area.

There was a great shuffling of belongings with all this, and switching of bedrooms, and stripping of beds, and moving of furniture, and washing of sheets.

It was all blessed and wonderful, but it was all just very much. I thought a day with no one talking to me would be just about right, but we have three daughters in the house now, and they have the most fascinating conversations that I always want to be in on.

Ben, who has moved to Corvallis, came home for the weekend. He said, "I saw how hot it was supposed to get, and I thought, 'Even the servants in my father's house have air conditioning.'"

So with all that action, the hedge never got watered. But I managed to keep the chickens alive.

People like to say that ridiculous phrase, "God won't give you more than you can handle," as though it's actually a Bible verse, whenever life feels like Too Much.

Like that will make it all do-able and better.

I suppose it's easier than coming alongside someone who is wrestling with the reality that she dearly loves all the people in her life but doesn't have the brain power to keep up with them all, and who feels guilty for being overwhelmed when the tsunami of stuff in her life is all positive--sunshine and family and writing cabins and grapes from the vines--rather than sickness and loss and disaster.

So the hedge didn't get watered, and it looks awful, and I feel bad about that.

But I had conversations with all the people, and they all had places to rest their heads, and food to eat.

"My grace is sufficient for thee," the Bible says. "For my strength is made perfect in weakness."

It must have a divine purpose, this sense of not being enough. And it takes a lot of trust--more than I usually possess--to be ok with all the blessings that never seem to arrive in the perfect manageable quantities at the perfect time.

Meanwhile, it is Sunday evening. The house is quiet except for Paul getting a snack just now. The air conditioner is filtering out the smoke. No one is talking. My brain wires are reconnecting.

I am thankful for these moments of Rest.

This week, I need to write an article for the paper and finish editing my new book. People are coming by to pick grapes, Uncle Milford merits a visit, church camp is this weekend, and I need to rearrange the sewing room that we turned into a bedroom for my dad.

And I need to fix the hose, water the hedge, and trust God for a good purpose in the quantities of everything He sends my way.

Monday, August 14, 2017

August Column: Talking, Doing, and Old-fashioned Letters

What we truly believe will show

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
AUG. 13, 2017

I envy my dad: He gets letters in the mail.
Paul and I get bills, Fabric Depot fliers and seed-germination results.

 The college kids get credit card offers and updates on financial aid or grades.
Dad gets letters. They come from Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota and elsewhere, with stamps canceled in small towns, handwritten addresses on the front and often a few fun stickers on the back. Last week, he got three letters in a single day’s mail.
He pulls out his yellow pocketknife and carefully slices open the short end of the envelope, just as he has for probably 90 years. He blows a quick puff at the sliced opening to ­separate the sides, then reaches in and pulls out greeting cards, newspaper clippings, photo­copied articles and, of course, letters: pages of ink and words and love and connection, folded in thirds.
Settled on the living room loveseat with his glasses on his nose, he peruses these missives from friends, former students, his many nieces and nephews, his children and his brother Johnny. Then, as he stomps through the kitchen on his way outside to work on my apple trees, he leaves the envelopes on the kitchen counter with a note — “Read if you want to.”
I want to, so I do.

 Johnny irrigated his fourth planting of corn and hopes the cows don’t get into it. Cousin Barbara says the mice are eating her cucumbers in the garden — she didn’t know they did that. My brother Marcus and his wife are headed to Canada to visit their daughter and hopefully find some hungry fish as well. A ­historian cousin sends the shocking news that a long-ago acquaintance’s death may have been murder rather than an accident.
In this era of text-­message communication, where even emails are becoming outdated, I have a nostalgic fascination with letters.
Colorful stationery waits in one of my desk ­drawers; envelopes and address labels in another. I have just the right fine-tipped black pens, an old recipe tin full of addresses on file cards, and pretty stamps from the post office.
I even follow letter-­writing sites on Instagram. Full of shots of elegantly addressed ­envelopes, hand-decorated paper and inspiration, they turn an old-­fashioned art into modern creativity.
Sadly, though, I seldom get letters in the mail. Because, to be harshly honest, I seldom actually write them.
Hosting my dad forces me to think about the things I say, the decisions I make, and the results I get. He is 100 years old, and this is his fourth consecutive summer with us in Oregon.
Thanks to his deliberate ­personality, his Amish ­theology and the reality of growing up in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, Dad has an unusual ­clarity about choices and results, sowing and reaping, and the huge difference between thinking about doing something as opposed to actually doing it.
Like most of us, he knows about nutrition and exercise. Unlike many of us, he deliberately eats small, nutritious portions and goes for a walk every day, forcing himself to go outside even though it’s hot, he’s sleepy, and his legs are stiff and unsteady at times. Knowing, by itself, doesn’t keep him healthy and limber; only heaving off the couch and thumping outside with cane in hand, drinking mugs of hot water, and eating piles of lettuce and broccoli does.
“Faith without works is dead,” the Bible’s Book of James says. We Amish and ­Mennonites, ­sisters under the Anabaptist theological umbrella, quote it a lot. We are skeptical of talk, opinion, pretension and insistence until we see how a person lives. “Show me, don’t tell me,” the writers’ mantra, could be our denomination’s as well.
We live in a strange era in which beliefs and opinions seem to count as much as action, and an emphatic Facebook post about prison reform or preserving our forests qualifies as having done something about it.
Our daughter Emily went to Oregon State University every day with a mug and tea bags in her backpack. She knew where all the hot-water ­dispensers were located and often arrived in class with a comforting cup of hot black tea.
She didn’t have an ­ideological agenda. It just seemed like the right and responsible thing to do instead of spending money on daily doses of tea in throwaway cups.
Emily had one young professor who, she said, didn’t try terribly hard to hide his political preferences. “How does that work, you bringing a mug to class?” he asked Emily one day, bewildered and amused, as she settled into her desk.
She explained. He listened kindly but still seemed confused. Then he took a swig of coffee from his daily ­disposable Starbucks cup and went on with the class.
For a Mennonite student, it was an eye-opening moment.
“I realized then,” Emily said, “that everyone who believes in human-caused climate change is living exactly like everyone who doesn’t.”
My dad would be utterly bewildered by my Instagram feed with the pretty ­calligraphy on white envelopes and the ­butterflies cut out and glued on lined paper. He sees the clear line connecting decision and effect, and the worthlessness of opinion without action.
You aren’t into letter writing if you don’t write letters, and you won’t get any letters in the mail if you don’t send them. I’m sure that would be his ­philosophy, should he choose to put it into words.
Dad doesn’t talk about ­writing letters. He writes letters.
When he comes in from his walk, he sits on the loveseat, places a lap desk on his thin legs, and taps a piece of lined notebook paper into the correct angle.
He clicks his ballpoint pen, an invention that is still a marvel to him.
“Dear Truman,” he writes. “Dear Lydia Mae; Dear Marcus; Dear Johnny.”
Slowly, with perfect penman­ship, he fills the page with ink and words, weather and news and stories, harvest and apples and family history. Soon, he and his cane thump to the mailbox. He sets the envelope in the little groove, closes the flap and raises the little flag. That afternoon the letter is on its way, full of paper, ­promise and connection.
He comes inside, knowing that Truman, Johnny and all the others will, most likely, soon write back.
That is how it works.
I know better than to ponti­ficate to Dad about my interests and passions — Jesus, justice, responsibility, orphans, stewardship, creativity and many more. For one thing, Dad has a hard time hearing me. Much more importantly, he is sharply observing my life. He knows what I really believe, because he sees what I do. Emphatic opinions are like the dandelion fluff blowing in the hot wind and ignored as he heads to the mailbox, letter in hand.
It’s the doing that tells the truth about what you believe. Do I really want to get ­letters in the mail, and am I truly interested in renewing the art and skill of letter-writing? If so, I will, before long, be ­following Dad’s footsteps to the mailbox in the early afternoons, envelope in hand, sending ink and paper on its way, sure of a soon reply.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Conversations: Men vs. Women; Your End of the Table vs. Mine

At the end of my last post, I said, “I don't know why it makes me so happy to know that he was curious about our conversation. Maybe because men so often have more interesting conversations than women, which is a rant for yet another day.”

So then I had several people say, “Yes! Please post about this!”


You know how it is when you “know” something is true, but you’ve never examined it closely or had it tested on Mythbusters, and then you do, and the results aren’t quite what you expected?

When Mennonites get together, they tend to migrate into gender-specific groups. Often it’s men in the living room, ladies in the kitchen.

So the ladies talk among themselves, and the men talk among themselves. Usually, I can hear what the men are talking about and my impression was that their conversation is just so much more interesting. I’ve had plenty of times when I wished it was ok to leave the ladies and join the men, but usually it would be odd at best and impolite at worst.

Such as that one time the ladies’ conversation was lagging and fluffy, and I could hear one of the guys expounding on this book he had just read about World War II and the Holocaust, and it was terribly fascinating, and I wanted soooo bad to be in on that conversation.

This is where some of you are thinking that this ought to read like a good Amish novel, where the smart and sassy heroine is stuck in this patriarchal culture, poor oppressed her, but she is so plucky and courageous that she finds the passion to break all the conventions and go flounce onto the couch with the guys and join the conversation and let the fluffy little birds in the kitchen gossip in shocked whispers about her.

To you I say: Please move along. You don’t get it.

Moving on.

I decided to do some informal research.

Paul’s nephew Justin and his friend Jon did a series of vlogs last February on a trip they took to Europe. Last week they were both in Oregon so they posted a new one in which they compared Plexus’s Pink Drink, coffee, and kombucha.

I’ll link it if I can figure out how.

I took the time to watch it, for research purposes. It was interesting, in its way, but maybe didn’t make the best case for guys’ talks being erudite and stimulating. They used more words than I deemed necessary. “Wait wait! If we drink this, how will we know if Plexus was efficacious?” says Justin at one point.

Paul’s brother Steve and his wife, Bonnie, had a few out-of-state children at home last week, so they invited a whole raft of relatives over for dinner.  We ate outside, and when I got my dessert and returned to my picnic table, it was full of guys.

Steve, who reads my blog on occasion, said, “Yeah, Dorcas, you should sit here. Where did I hear that you think men’s conversations are more interesting than women’s?”

So I sat down and took notes on a napkin.  “Is it true that someone offered 43 cents recently?” said Paul to Phil. I think he was talking about fescue seed.

Others talked about straw. “So’d you hear about the new straw baler? Ben Rediger supposedly has a baler that presses the bale so tight that you can skip the press. Cut out the middleman.”

“I bet the straw people are gonna buy them all up!” said another.

“Naaahhh,” said a few more.

“Then the Derstines and Hostetlers can just be brokers.”

“Just think, all the straw sheds, they can store twice as much!”

“We’ll need half as many straw sheds!”

I went inside and joined the ladies’ conversation in the living room. Bonnie and Stephie were talking about how the nieces and nephews love Chris, Stephie’s husband.

Stephie said, “We told the kids that Chris was leaving before I was. Charlotte looked all sad, and she said, ‘I wish that Stephie would go and Chris would stay!’”

Bonnie said, “Chris is just a gem with kids. He is going to make an awesome dad.”

Of course I leaped to a conclusion. “Stephie, are you telling us something?”

“No, no.”

Then Byran’s wife, Amy, and Bonnie’s sister Nancy talked about nursing exams, and passing state boards, and how the tests are set up on computers, and when the test questions stop coming, you don’t know if you’ve done really well or really bad.

Frankly, I liked the ladies’ conversation better.

Men tend to talk in facts and data, numbers and forceful opinions.

Women tend to talk about people, experiences, relationships, dilemmas, and feelings.

But not always.

Sometimes you get a happy combination of men and women who can toss the conversational ball in a lively mix of ideas, history, good questions, helpful conclusions, and personal stories, all with that indefinable essence of wanting to affirm one another and hear and learn from each other.

Those conversations are a rare gift.

But chatty conversations about everyday life are good gifts as well.

What I’ve concluded is that maybe it’s not so much men vs. women as it is my group vs. theirs and the grass on this side of the fence vs. the other.

 You know how some of us have a gift for always getting stuck across from people who sit in silence and let the conversational ball clunk down like a flat basketball, over and over, and down the table, close enough to overhear but too far to participate in, everyone is friendly and talkative and smart and engaged, and the words get tossed back and forth as rapidly as the tennis ball in a Wimbledon match, and there are bursts of wild laughter?  Ooooo it is just painful.

The key to an interesting conversation, in my opinion, is to make sure that the ball gets tossed around, people all around contribute,  and everyone has a chance to speak.  That’s more important than the actual topic.  Silence isn’t good, but neither is dominating the conversation.  Balance is key.

I discovered a long time ago that Paul and I differ on our opinion of people who talk too much. I don't mind one person talking more than others as long as everyone gets a chance to talk if they want it, here and there, which is much better than cold and awkward silence. And sometimes I don't feel like talking, so I ask a leading question to unplug the dam, then I sit back and listen and enjoy.

But it bothers me when someone takes charge and never gives others a chance to talk, such as the guest we had one time from back East who talked nonstop through the whole dinner.

I expressed this, later, and Paul said, “But she was interesting to listen to.” He felt that this made her behavior at least tolerable, maybe even justifiable.

But that brings us back to the elusive “interesting,” which is a very subjective thing.

Paul and I agree on the types of monologuers who do not qualify as interesting:

1.       The blow by blow relationship dissecter. “So then John told my brother Ken that he wasn’t going to be at Bible study because he had to deliver a load to Portland, and Ken told me, and I was like WHAT? because I thought him and I were going to meet after Bible study to talk about the songs for VBS, so I was like what in the world because the next afternoon was the only time I had off to get the posterboard, and I like to get it at Hobby Lobby and the closest one is in Springfield. So I sent John a text and I was like, I thought we were going to meet after Bible study, and he didn’t answer until the next morning, and I was so mad, it’s like, he gives me all these vibes and he even told Mark that he felt like God might be leading us together, and then he doesn’t answer my text until I’m at work the next day, and Loren doesn’t like it when we text at work but I was like, I need to figure this out because VBS is next week.”
2.       The winner of arguments with people who aren’t present. “These evolution people, they always pull out their thing of billions of years. Like anything can happen if you give it billions of years. Ha! You really think if I put some wires and stuff in a bucket and left it for a billion years that we’d open it and pull out an iphone? I’d like to see ‘em answer that!”
And we think: helloooo, we all believe in Creation, no thanks to you.
Although I admit that *somebody* in this house has a tiny tendency to argue with people who aren’t present, now and then.
Me: Marcus said that some animal-rights people snuck into a mink farm by Eden Valley and released 38,000 mink last week. And thousands and thousands have died already, from thirst and stuff. They have no idea how to live in the wild. It’s really awful.
Me: Um. I know this. I agree with you.
3.       The single raging obsession expounder.  We had a guest one time who was sure that there were stray electrical currents coursing through farms and cow barns in the Midwest. There was some sort of conspiracy behind this, he just knew, and the solution was complicated and vaguely spiritual but also involved the government, maybe? I think this guy was also making money off the solution, which raised some question marks in our minds, in addition to the ones already there. He talked about this and only this all afternoon. Paul talked louder than necessary about the actual science of electricity and conductors and such. It was one time when I was happy to duck out of the men’s conversation.

So. I’m not really reaching any far-reaching conclusions of any sort, only that we should all practice the art of tossing the conversational ball back and forth. This includes me, because I can rattle on when I'm with a good listener. I am very fortunate to live in a world of people who have good stories to share and really, there are plenty of times when the wild laughter is at our end of the table and not at yours.

Quote of the Day:
[from our table in the fellowship hall today]
"Harold": I was sixteen and a half. And one Sunday morning my dad said, 'You take the pickup on to church. I'm takin' Mom to the hospital." So I did. I didn't know why Mom had to go to the hospital. And that boy there [indicating his brother across the room] was born that day. I had no idea!
Me: What?!
Harold's wife, quietly: His mother was kind of a large woman...

Thursday, July 13, 2017

On Friendship in Your Fifties

It's been one of my resolutions for probably the past three New Years:

Make time for friendships.

You'd think it would be easy. I love to sit down with people and listen, talk, tell stories, hear stories, affirm and be affirmed.

We don't have to DO anything. Table games are not my cup of tea. Shopping and going to concerts and quilting together are ok at times, but I love just being together and catching up with their lives. 

Even more, I love to have friends who speak into my life.

I like to be friends with wise women who think about who they are and why they do what they do, who flex with change, who try new things, and who listen to what God is teaching them.

That's what I crave.

And it is so hard to make it happen.

A few young relations have been analyzing friendship the last while, such as Emily a.k.a Otter over at The Girl In the Red Rubber Boots, and Shelley at Frame of Mind.

Why don't you go read their posts while I go make a pot of tea, then come back and we'll sip tea and talk about this vast and important subject?

I grew up in kind of a friend desert. At our little church in Minnesota, there weren't any girls my age until I was about 14. I had one best friend through high school, a Catholic girl named Carrie.

When I went to teach in Oregon, I went a bit crazy, socially. One December, between going out to eat with friends, Christmas caroling with the youth group, the school Christmas program, and I forget what else, I had something going on every single evening of that month.

[One wonders how I got any teaching done. Well, I guess when the school board hired a 19-year-old without vetting her well, they got exactly what they deserved, but that is a rant for another day.]

As a young mom in mission work in Canada, I formed deep friendships with other women, such as my cousin Kay Knepp, who lived on the other side of a duplex one year and then, a few years later, on the same lane. We walked together in the mornings and talked about things. It was wonderful.

But here in Oregon, the last number of years, it's been hard.  All the urgent things keep yelling at me, so many people need me, and it is just. so. hard. to deliberately make time for friends. 

No one lives close enough that we can chat over the back fence. I am not good at planning. I am always overwhelmed.

I still have a full nest and a lot of responsibilities. As Paul's sister Lois told me--not a direct quote but this idea--"You and I are the same age but in very different stages. I have so few demands on me that I could very easily become self-indulgent. I pack Eric's lunch in the morning and a few things like that, but mostly I CAN DO WHATEVER I WANT. I could take off and go to the coast tomorrow if I wanted."

I said, "Wow. I am not there."

She said, "No, you're not."

So I go galloping on, trying to take care of everybody and the chickens and cats and potted plants, until suddenly I just feel lonely. And I think, I haven't had a good conversation for a LONG TIME.

Or, I should say, a good conversation with a local woman-friend, the kind that takes deliberate decisions and planning ahead.

More than a single Best Friend, I've found I need a variety of friends. This one to discuss writing, that one with a similar spiritual gift, another to make me laugh, still another to help me through mothering dilemmas, yet another to feed my creative side.

Paul and whatever children are home like to talk and are good at listening, so some of those needs are met there. My sisters and I message a lot and talk now and then. My sisters-in-law and I have a coffee date once a month which is just balm and nourishment to my soul. I sporadically have coffee with a few others.

Maybe the key to real ongoing friendship is a regular date that is sacred, traditional, and cast in concrete, so to speak. 

Today, I am happy to report, I invested in friendship, and it was worth every bit of frantic preparation.  Paul's sister Lois's birthday is four days before mine. My neighbor Anita's is the same day as Lois's. Anita is 11 years older than Lois and me.

We have met for a birthday tea for....has it been ten years? Or more? You can't expect us to know this, because we had a round-and-round conversation trying to remember who hosted us last year and whose turn it was this year. None of us had any memory of when we last hosted, but we concluded it wasn't me, so I was happy to do it, plus the porch was relatively clean and I wanted to try a new chicken salad recipe.

I had a yellow themed decor. The sandwiches were delicious if I say so myself. It wasn't too hot or too cold. The cake was just chocolatey enough.

But the very very best part was the conversation with two wise and funny women who know me and my family and a good part of my history, who give me perspective, who are patient when I chatter too much, who accept others and don't try to press any of us into any sort of mold, who make me laugh, and who leave me better and wiser than before.

What did we talk about? Grown children and the multitudes of angles on that subject. Being 50 and realizing you don't care what people think, and how liberating that is. Our parents. Who to go to for the best machine quilting. Books and authors.

And so much more.

"We need to do this more than once a year," I always think. And then we don't. But I do make sure it happens once a year, because it is tradition, and we all plan for it, and it is important to us.

Finding ways to make this happen more, with various friends, is surely as important a resolution as walking more and organizing my paper piles.

I'll be like Shelley and Emily, and ask you to speak into my life on this subject. How do you pursue friendship when you're a busy pastor's wife and mom, especially when so many people need you, but not as many can replenish what you pour out?

How do you choose friendship, which is fun and rewarding but feels self-indulgent, over taking care of the sick and lonely and afflicted?

How do friendships change over time? How do you make friends with people in different stages and walks of life? How many friends are enough?

I'll sip tea and listen.

Anita and Lois
All ready.

One of our traditions is that Lois brings a sack of hand-picked second-hand books.
She has introduced both Anita and me to new authors that we have come to love.
Lois, me, and Anita when the party was nearly over, the tea was cold despite the cozies,
the books were chosen, advice was given regarding the quilt on the left,
and we still weren't talked out, but we needed to make supper.
Quote of the Day:
"Anything else you want to tell me about your party? I thought about sitting close and eavesdropping."
--Paul, this evening. He was inside doing warehouse paperwork while we had tea. I don't know why it makes me so happy to know that he was curious about our conversation. Maybe because men so often have more interesting conversations than women, which is a rant for yet another day.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

July's Column: Those Six (Nice) Adult Children

From messy parenthood, neat kids

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
JULY 9, 2017

This is not like it used to be,” I thought as my three energetic daughters­ strode ahead of me down the wide trail at Shore Acres, fast and graceful,­ with their long skirts swinging, fairy-like, in the dappled sunlight.
Puffing along behind them and too out of breath to talk, I had time to think rambling and sentimental­ musings about being a mom, time passing, kids growing up, how did this happen and how blindingly fortunate I am.
And how walking with my kids is no longer what it once was.
My husband began teaching at a Native American reservation in Canada when Emily was a baby, Amy was 2 years old, and Matthew was 4. In a village of gravel roads and few amenities, we walked everywhere. It was always slow going, with the local grandmas stopping us to pinch the kids’ cheeks and exclaim to each other in Oji-Cree, Matt asking a million questions, and Amy hunting for pretty rocks.
With her brown eyes wide with awe, Amy would pick up every unusual stone, turn it over in her hand, admire it as though it were turquoise or amethyst instead of a piece of gravel, show it to me for additional affirmation, and carefully stow it in her pocket.
Going to the post office or the store was a painfully long ordeal, and we always came home with a precious collection of rocks in the pockets of Amy’s lavender jacket.
When Paul was home, I would leave the children and go on walks alone, marching as fast as I liked.
Amy is all grown up now and has taught English in Thailand for more than three years. She rides her motorbike all over the city and chats with her favorite food vendors in fluent Thai. She is efficient and energetic, a world traveler and a great cook.
For the past year, in preparation for our annual girls’ vacation when Amy came home to visit, I sold extra eggs from our chickens, posted garage sale finds on eBay, and collected the spare change in the laundry. It all went into a can labeled “Girls’ Fun Money.”
Intrigued with the southern Oregon Coast, we used my careful savings to reserve a small house near Port Orford. Amy offered to be in charge of the food. I packed lots of books and crafts and paperwork. Emily brought hiking poles. Jenny, the youngest, kept us entertained.
The house was old and small, with a quirky charm in its slanting floors. Jenny was dubious about the sliding barn door on the tacked-on bathroom and its resulting lack of privacy, and solved this problem by playing music loudly on her phone, as needed.
The girls soon discovered that the beach was close by, just across a small meadow and the nearest dune. For four days we relaxed on the sand, shopped at thrift stores and ate Amy’s extravagant rice concoctions or burrito bowls, heavy or light on the cilantro as our tastes dictated. We talked and laughed and discussed: college, romance, books, memories, future decisions. We cured Jenny’s hiccups, sat around a driftwood fire and read books on the beach, leaning against a large log. We pored over maps, read historical markers and took a tour of a lighthouse. Very little crafting got done, and no paperwork.
Often, we walked: up the hill and down the road to Paradise Point, out to the Heads and Battle Rock near Port Orford, north to Coos Bay and the clifftop trail to Shore Acres, and, one sunset, down the long grassy path to the beach at Cape Blanco. The girls would wait for me when the path intersected with another, then turn and continue their rapid pace as soon as I appeared. “Let’s go where it’s dangerous,” Jenny would say, staying on the trails but choosing the narrowest path above the highest cliffs, then posing for pictures, hand on hip, outlined against the sky.
I was the one who stopped and admired the scenery, stroked shiny leaves and delayed the others while I gave a lesson in identifying sword ferns. Mostly, I absorbed the wonder that my children not only survived to adulthood under my care, but remained people that I like to be around.
The day that seemed impossibly far off, back when we walked those dusty northern roads, has arrived. All of our six children are adults, ranging from 18 to 31 years old. I don’t know how it happened.
Oddly, every one of them was, or will be, in college in 2017. One just graduated from Oregon State, two are going for advanced degrees, one will be a freshman, and two are sophomores.
So far, none are married.
Surely I was the least-confident young mom ever, and our children had the widest possible range of personalities and needs. Of course, we had many good times, but we also had lots of tears and tension and noise, of poverty and worry and having absolutely no clue what was the right thing to do in this moment with this situation, problem, behavior or conflict.
Yet, to my astonishment, they turned into wonderful grown-ups who make good choices, care about others, laugh easily and fearlessly take on the world. They all pay for their own education, and are debt-free. Blessedly, they like to spend time with their dad and me.
More and more, struggling young parents ask me for advice. I am always surprised. I think, “Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have asked me, because obviously we didn’t know what we were doing.”
I can easily list the things we did wrong, but how do you isolate and quantify what went right? Even more difficult: How do you figure out what someone else ought to do?
So I lean toward empathy and support rather than specific answers or how-tos, and I generalize. Parenting is always a balance between freedom and boundaries, protection and letting go, I say. While we raised our kids inside conservative Mennonite expectations regarding media, dress, church attendance and basic behavior, we set them free in other ways. Our son Matt says, “You let us explore, climb trees, get chased by the cows, shoot bb guns, and do all the things that would give a helicopter parent an aneurysm.”
Ours are all adventurous yet purposeful, so this system worked for us, but I’m sure it’s not for everyone.
I’ve found that parenting is also a balance between discovering who your child is and shaping them into who you want them to be. We always felt they should be others-oriented rather than thinking only of themselves, but we also knew they would be most effective if they followed their God-given interests and gifts.
That was why I made our children be polite to the curious grandmas in that little northern village, and why I slowed our walks to unbearably dragging paces while Matt and Amy asked questions and picked up dusty little stones.
 “Don’t get stuck in a system,” I tell the young parents. “If it isn’t working, back off and try something else.”
“Make sure they know you love them.”
“Work on being a better person, because at the end of the day, they’re going to be an awful lot like you.”
Even as I try to answer their questions, encourage them and be helpful, the truth is obvious: What do any of us really know about this beautiful and terrifying work of raising a human being to adulthood?
There are no guarantees or easy answers, only love, hard work and the grace of God. If you learn and sacrifice and give your best, sometimes a surprising day comes when you walk down a sunny coastal trail with your charming daughters who want you along, the world is swinging with amazement, and your eyes fill up with an overwhelming gratitude.
The hikers--Emily, Jenny, Amy

Cape Blanco, one of my favorites

The house we stayed at. The ocean is just over that dune beyond the lane.