My Mother in Blurry Shadows

My biological mother in high school

There is an app called Blur Photo that allows you to safely post a photo that will, no surprise, blur faces. This Mother’s Day, I downloaded the app so I could safely hide my mother’s identity while writing an entire post about my mother’s identity. It’s been a strange year, right?

Actually, it’s been a strange two years and three months, since the day an email from Ancestry DNA came through my inbox. It was cheery and terrifying at the same time.

You’re about to discover your ethnicity estimate, get a unique look at your family’s journey through generations, and maybe even connect with long-lost relatives. We’re so excited for you!

I waited five decades to find these long-lost relatives, specifically my biological mother. I assumed that my biological father would have no interest in learning that he had a daughter out there he likely never knew about. Wrong! But that’s a different story.

I found my biological parents through the miracle of spitting into a vial. And also connecting with two searchers who can take DNA matches and build a family tree in ten days. Which is exactly how long it took to find the paternal side of my family, and two days later, the maternal side.

They found Father alive and well.

Mother died in 2007.

It gets tricky here. If you are adopted and you find your biological mother and she is dead, you can’t be certain if she told anyone about you. If she did, you would naturally want to connect with all those second or third cousins that appear in your “matches.” But you don’t know, so you wait until your searcher fits all the missing pieces into place and finds your half-siblings and uncles. Searcher will give you the contact information for these relatives if you want it. But still, you don’t know. If your biological mother never told a soul that she had a baby in secret and gave that baby up for adoption, then you risk causing big drama in a family you have never met. Many birthmothers keep the secret to their grave, because they were shamed and blamed and told they were going to ruin the family name if they spoke of it. And what man would marry a woman who had this backstory? So, the women stayed silent.

Maybe my mother made peace with the truth of her story and told everyone she had a baby, gave her up for adoption, and moved on with her life. I don’t think so. My searchers have detective instincts, and are adept at digging up information and assembling facts, and it doesn’t appear that anyone knew about me. It’s a messy story, and in the end, I decided it was best to stay silent also.

But it feels like it’s time to acknowledge this woman, whose name I can’t share and whose face I have to obscure. She was nineteen and liked a good party, and she and my father did what the kids do. And then she discovered that what the kids do can get the girl in big trouble. She had to leave college and get a job, and because she was resourceful and determined to find a solution, she married a man (not my father) when she was pregnant with me. Unfortunately this husband found out the truth and the marriage ended two months before I was born. Some people in this story are still alive, and these are their secrets also, so, again, the face-blurring app.

But, it’s Mother’s Day, and I want to talk about all the mothers of the Baby Scoop Era, which you can look up. Between 1945 and 1973, over 1.5 million white, unmarried mothers gave up their newborn infants to adoption. Depending on who you talk to, these mothers lost their infants through the “ubiquitous, fraudulent, unethical and coercive practices of churches, maternity home administrators, adoption caseworkers and the public social welfare system.” Those are not my words, but are from Karen Wilson Buterbaugh’s book The Baby Scoop Era: Unwed Mothers, Infant Adoption, Forced Surrender. After reading this book, I was convicted about the whole idea of “Adoption Rocks”, a term we tossed around the first few years after we adopted our own daughter. I’m now convinced it’s important to acknowledge birthmother stories with sensitivity and honesty. Adoption doesn’t rock for everyone in the triad of birthparents, adoptive parents and adoptee.

As the daughter of my adoptive mother, I also see the other side of this story. My adoptive mother was Type I Diabetic and wanted a family, but after losing a son in the ninth month of her pregnancy, adoption was the only option. She and my dad were thrilled to finally be parents, and I may be biased, but they were darn good at it. So I don’t view the Baby Scoop Era as a one-dimensional negative outcome. But I do believe there is a generation of mothers out there who were never given the information, resources, or opportunity to find a solution to their dilemma so they could raise the child with whom they shared DNA. Many of them, like my birthmother, have already died, but also lived with the trauma, shame, and repercussions of never knowing what happened to their son or daughter. If you are a parent who has ever lost your child for a short time in the supermarket or in a department store, then you have a minuscule understanding of what this feels like. These mothers knew their children were out there, but thanks to court systems that locked away vital records, they couldn’t find them. And the same went for the adoptive children. I was fortunate to obtain my records, but most adoptees of this era can’t.

All emotionally healthy mothers want their children safe, well-fed, unharmed, clothed, happy, and loved. The mothers of the Baby Scoop Era wanted this also, but most were in a perpetual state of forced loss that affected them in a variety of ways. My mother suffered through a decade of bad personal decisions, health problems, and a sudden death in her early 60s. I can’t say definitively that the shame of being an unwed mother and giving me up for adoption caused her issues, but the statistics make it likely.

It’s strange to have a mother you can’t pull from the shadows. She’ll probably remain there for the rest of my life, because I’ll protect her from what she wanted to keep hidden. But on this Mother’s Day, I want to give her a moment-face hidden, name withheld-and say that she was brave and resilient, beautiful and caring. Thanks to information from my searchers, I’m relatively certain of these things.

My adoptive mother also possessed these qualities, and because I know her, my list of what I loved and still miss about her could fill pages. Her face is clear and unobscured, pressed against mine, because we came together through the miracle of adoption. In her eyes, it was a miracle. In my biological mother’s eyes, it was something very different. I’ll make space for the opposite realities, and celebrate these two women on Mother’s Day. I see myself in both of their beautiful faces.

One Year of Love Letters

“I think these are love letters,” my daughter said as she sat cross-legged on the floor of a storage unit that held the last of my parents’ belongings. We were finally cleaning it out after three years of my grief-laden procrastination. Parting with the tangible memorabilia was an economic decision. Since Dad’s death, we had been paying a monthly bill to store things my parents had parked in their own attic, which no longer made sense after we tallied the yearly storage cost. On a warm November Saturday, we sifted through the travel knickknacks purchased during Dad’s business trips, Mom’s cookbooks with dog-eared pages and notes scribbled in the margins, framed photos of relatives I didn’t recognize, and musty Christmas decorations no one wanted. We had our three piles, keep, toss, donate, two of which were almost empty. The keep pile kept growing.

“Why would they have someone else’s love letters?” I asked, and my daughter shook her head as she read.

“They aren’t someone else’s. Grammy and Papa wrote these to each other,” she said, not looking up.

I dropped a stack of photos in a box at my feet and joined her on the floor. The box was filled with envelopes that had been slit open at the top holding a letter with handwriting I immediately recognized. My husband continued to sort items into the piles while my daughter and I remained planted on the concrete floor. It took only a few minutes to realize that the letters were not sporadic. During the year 1954, my parents, newly engaged, had written to one another every day. We couldn’t find a skip in the correspondence, and some had even been air-mailed to make sure they arrived on time.

The sun was moving behind the row of attached garage units across from us, signaling that it was time to finish the sorting so that we could get to the donation center before it closed.

“Take these to your house,” I told my daughter as I put the lid on the box, “and sort them again by date.” They were out of order now, and I was feeling that familiar dark grief that creeps in slowly to remind you that the people you have lost aren’t coming back. I’ve been hit by it many times when I least expect it, but the hardest blows come when I can, see, touch or smell something that belonged to my parents. These letters contained all of that, but something else kept me from carrying the box home. I could hear their voices, young and hopeful, ready to launch a life together. I needed some time before I listened to those voices.

My daughter sorted the letters the next week and brought them back to me on a Sunday morning. That afternoon, I set the box on the dining room table and took a deep breath. Those scribbled words on paper were weaving the story of a young couple from Arkansas, eager to move on and start a life together but unsure how to make it all happen. Dad was away at college, studying horticulture but thinking about dental school. Mom was back in Van Buren, working in an optometrist’s office until the wedding, and trying to assure him that it was going to work out. Back and forth it went, both of them pouring out their fears, hopes, dreams and goals. They had a picture of their future that went something like this: a dentist and his wife living somewhere far away from the small towns where they were raised, a house full of children, and a long, healthy life that took them into old age.

Their voices were young, and Mom was uncharacteristically mushy, peppering her letters with the repetitive sentence, I love you so much I can hardly stand it. There were letters that bordered on steamy, while others just shared the news from home or the toil of college life. These people were vaguely familiar, but not exactly the parents I knew. That afternoon, I felt like a time traveler, wishing to write my own letter that warned them not to get so attached to their dreams.

It didn’t work out like they had written about in those letters. My father never did become a dentist. Or a horticulturist. He enlisted in the army and they did live far away from their hometowns, but only for a while. When his military service ended, they moved to Oklahoma and Dad took a job with the electric utility company where he stayed for 32 years. He ended up being a company man, and he loved every minute of it. That house filled with children didn’t happen either. My mother was diagnosed with Type I diabetes the next year, and the baby boy she delivered four years later was stillborn. Her doctor told her to never try for another and to consider adoption, which is how I came to live with my parents as an only child, always with a room to myself. Mom died at the age of 71 after fifty years of living with diabetes, cared for at the end of her life by Dad who drove her to dialysis and watched her suffer the final blow of double leg amputations. He was stubborn though, still dreaming of their yearly Colorado vacation, and he purchased a handicapped van so they could continue their mountain visits. She never made it there, dying in his arms two months later. She went too early, but had survived longer than most diabetics, proudly displaying her fifty-year pin from the American Diabetes Association on the fireplace mantel for the last five years of her life.

My husband and I weren’t a couple who wrote love letters. Our written correspondence in college and law school consists of apology letters after a fight or the occasional ramblings from our lonely post-graduate apartments. We preferred to talk openly – usually with my parents – about our dreams for how we wanted our shared lives to look, which included working for Amnesty International, traveling to China as missionaries, and adopting children from all over the world. There were other plans and goals scattered within those early years, and my parents listened patiently, encouraged appropriately, and took us in when the dreams didn’t work out so well – or didn’t work out at all. At the time, I was sure they thought we were crazy, but the letters are proof that they understood better than we could imagine.

Despite the surprising box of daily love letters, my parents were never very romantic, and neither are we. My husband and I eschew the commercial hype of Valentine’s Day, and I’m too frugal for the anniversary cruise. We could stand to be more vocal with our sentiments, hold hands for no reason, and maybe write a mushy letter now and then, but I don’t worry about these things. Over the past 32 years, our shared road of detours and dead ends has taught me that the best marriages are not lived out by couples who dream big together, but by the couples that stay put when dreams go unfulfilled. The marriage I want is the one where you look the other person in the eye while the storm is endlessly raging and declare, “I’m not leaving.” And then, when the clouds lift and the sun breaks out again, you dream another dream, make a few more plans, and set another crazy goal.

I keep my parents’ love letters in a decorative box in the space where I write. It reminds me how beautiful love looks when it is decades old, rough and worn, strong and doggedly determined to keep dreaming together. Sometimes, I can almost see my parents riding into the Colorado mountains in a white van with a lift gate and wheelchair in the back, maybe laughing about dental school and wondering whatever happened to the box filled with all the old love letters.

Quarantine Goal: Ace the Citizenship Exam

A few weeks ago we were having a pleasant family dinner on the front porch and when the conversation lagged a bit, my husband thought it might be fun to play a game. It was a quiz actually, and the idea was to see how a few of our family members might score on a mock exam that applicants take to become a U.S. Citizen.

It didn’t go so well.

This game could come in handy if you have a social gathering you need to bring to an awkward and abrupt halt, or if Thanksgiving gets testy and you want to throw some verifiable facts into the conversation. However, it’s possible your guests will politely excuse themselves and grumble all the way home.

Before Kyle and I began teaching a Citizenship class two years ago I took a practice test, which like the actual test consisted of 100 questions that cover government and history. I’m terrible at memorizing facts, but because I was raised and educated in the U.S., my confidence level for acing the test was high. Around question 50, I realized that much of what I learned in history class was forgotten. And did I ever take a civics course? If I did, none of it stuck. Here are a few humbling questions that revealed how little I knew:

  1. What is the “rule of law”?
  2. When must all men register for the Selective Service?
  3. The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
  4. There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Describe one of them.
  5. The House of Representatives has how many voting members?

That last question had tripped me up before. My answer was always, “somewhere around 400 and something,” which would not be acceptable if I was sitting across from the USCIS officer who was administering the exam. My score on the 100 civics questions was 70%. Passing, but definitely not the result that made me feel qualified to teach a class for green card holders. So I decided that I would take the humble approach of learning along with our students and make a commitment to gather context as the class progressed. I’ve learned more than I expected during five semesters of Citizenship class, but not all of my lessons have been history and government.

I’ve learned that the students who take our class are not casual about their desire to become Citizens. They have waited years to fill out their application paperwork (also known as an N-400 form). This usually gives them the opportunity to save up the $640 it takes to file the application, although the current administration has hiked the fee to $1,170 so in October new applicants will have to find the additional $530 in order to file for Citizenship. Students spend two semesters in our class, and they are diligent about attendance and homework. Most of them are not content to simply memorize the answers, but instead want context for why and how our democracy works the way it does, and when it doesn’t work so well they want to know how it can be improved. We don’t always have answers for those questions, but we don’t back away from them.

In addition to the civics portion of the test, there is a reading and writing component. If you are bi-lingual, then you will understand how difficult it is to read another language, and writing is even more of a challenge. Equally daunting to our students is the 20 page N-400 form they must fill out and be prepared to answer the follow-up questions. Some samples:

  1. Did you ever receive any type of military, paramilitary (a group of people who act like a military group but are not part of the official military, or weapons training)?
  2. Between March 23, 1933 and May 8, 1945, did you work for, or associate in any way, either directly or indirectly with: a) The Nazi government of Germany, b) Any German, or Nazi or S.S. military unit, paramilitary unit, self-defense unit, vigilante unit, citizen unit, police unit, government agency or office, extermination camp, concentration camp, prisoner of war camp, prison, labor camp, or transit camp?
  3. Have you ever been a: a) habitual drunkard, b) been a prostitute or procured anyone for prostitution? (the list of nefarious possibilities continues through the letter I.)

You get the idea. Watching a 58-year-old Burmese grandmother answer these questions is a bit tedious, but at least we’re keeping out the Nazis and the prostitutes.

The officer goes through each applicant’s N-400, asking questions and requiring them to clarify some of their answers. Kyle has accompanied many of our students to the USCIS office in Oklahoma City and watched their nervousness on the way there, and the relief and joy on the drive back. The students in our classes who take the test have all passed, and before COVID we were able to join them at their swearing in ceremony, held at various locations around the city and always a positive and celebratory event. If this was an easy attainment, our students wouldn’t take as seriously their status as citizens once they had passed the test and were sworn in. And I have learned that they do take their new status seriously. They want to contribute, be respected, and join with others to make our communities strong.

Which brings me to the point that continues to nag at me as we work with immigrants and the material they are required to learn. I wonder why we don’t take seriously our own civics and history proficiency so that we can connect that knowledge to current events. Would we ask more questions about executive orders if we better understood the concept of checks and balances? (Question #14) Would we be more protective of our democracy if we understood the concept of self-government as evidenced by the first three words of the Constitution, “We the People”? (Question #3). And would more of us vote in between presidential elections if we understood who actually makes federal laws (Question #16) and what powers belong to the states and not the federal government? (Questions 41 & 42)?

Our students are surprised when we tell them that many U.S. citizens would struggle with some of the questions on the exam. Some of us, I tell them, would need an “open book” exam to pass. It’s funny at the time, but when I look around at the polarization, the distrust of government, and the increasing dismissal of facts and attraction toward conspiracy theories, I wonder if there is a connection. Author and activist bell hooks said that “privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege.” Those of us who were born here don’t have to wait years and then pay exorbitant fees to take an exam that allows us to stay in the U.S. That’s a privilege. But if we are so privileged that we can ignore the truth of our history and the implications of civics on our current events, then we might have something to learn from our newest citizens sworn in each year. That number in 2019 was 834,000.

“Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege.

bell hooks

I’m putting a moratorium on citizenship quiz games during family dinners or gatherings, but I will issue a quarantine challenge for all of us. Let’s rise to the level of our citizenship students and work our way through the 100 questions on the test, which you can find here. If you make a passing grade, like my 70%, here’s something to know: our students are only asked 10 questions during the official oral exam in the USCIS offices, however, they don’t know which 10 questions they will be asked so they must be able to answer all the questions correctly. In other words, by the time they leave our class, they have to score a 100% on their practice tests.

Up for the challenge? If you take it on, let’s discuss quartering during the Revolutionary War, Poor Richard’s Almanac, and Publius (it will all make sense soon).

Quarantine Survive and Thrive: Journaling

March 10 was the last semi-normal day I remember. After an eye doctor appointment, I went back to work then stopped by the store on the way home because we needed toilet paper and bananas – nothing unusual there. The paper goods shelf was empty and when I checked out with my bananas the cashier wished me luck with the toilet paper search. Then everything got weird.

I’ve spent the last five months of quarantine wishing we had a playbook, or a manual for how to navigate through it. Maybe a hotline would help for those days when I’m wondering if what I’m feeling is normal, and if what I’m doing is sane. Poet Antonio Machado had it right when he said, “There is no path. The path is made by walking.” We’ve all been walking this path, finding ways to not only survive, but thrive. It seems counterintuitive that we could actually come out of this with some tools that might serve us well going forward, but we can actually choose that path.

Journaling has been one of my sanity-savers during the past two years, so I’m sharing some tips that might make this practice less intimidating and more accessible. First, some reasons why journaling is helpful, especially during anxious times. University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker contends that regular journaling strengthens immune cells, called T-lymphocytes. Pennebaker believes that writing about stressful events helps you come to terms with them, acting as a stress management tool thus reducing the impact of these stressors on your physical health. The act of writing accesses your left brain, which is analytical and rational. While your left brain is occupied, your right brain is free to create, intuit and feel. Writing removes mental blocks and allows you to use all of your brainpower to better understand yourself, others and the world around you. But studies have also found that writing in a journal can lead to better sleep, more self-confidence and a higher I.Q.  Mostly, I’m in it for the sleep, and I’m happy to report that most of the time it works.

My history with journaling is this: I loved buying journals but rarely filled more than a few pages before I quit. This went on for decades until I finally broke the cycle several years ago. I bought a journal on January 2, 2019 and determined that the hardbound red notebook would be my only journal for the year, even if it had one entry and 60 blank pages. I started with this sentence:

“Day two of 2019. Back to work, but cooped up here in my “office” – the dining room table doing bookkeeping, emails, tracking down a donation that is lost.”

I run a non-profit, so I should update the post by letting you know I found the donation. Moving on, my first tip for journal writing is this:

1. Don’t go deep

At least not at first. Don’t pressure yourself to fill pages with profound insights or revelatory ideas. Most of our days (especially now) are filled with mundane moments in between repetitive tasks. It’s okay to write about them, and I’ve discovered that it’s actually interesting to go back and read the posts that were more diary and less memoir. Self-discovery often comes when we least expect it, and in this case might show up when we’re recapping the weather. I did this quite a bit in my first journal – mostly complaining about the cold, which has shown me that my mood in winter is largely dependent on the thermometer. Re-reading these pages helped me own this fact about myself. It’s helpful when deciding on a winter wardrobe and how many crocheted blankets to keep in each room.

2. Don’t use a screen; find a journaling pen you love

Enough with the screens! At least for this. I tried journaling online, then with an app, but because I’m face-planted in screens most of the time, I need pen and paper. I have one pen that is only for journaling, a Pilot fountain pen. If you haven’t tried using a fountain pen, I highly recommend it. Yes, I have to change the cartridge every 40 pages or so, but I love the smooth feel and my hand isn’t cramped after several pages of writing. I have a friend who uses a Bic four-color pen – the chunky kind with blue, black, red and green ink. She assigns a mood for each color and writes in the corresponding ink, depending on how she is feeling. When she goes back to read her entries, she immediately knows her mood on that day. This is an indulgence, so find a pen you don’t use for any other writing. And yes, gel pens are allowed.

3. Write for yourself, not others

It’s tempting to self-edit or write in a tone that assumes someone besides you will read your journal. Don’t do it. Give yourself permission to vent, worry, work out emotions, daydream and toss out crazy ideas and plans. The more you write in a tone that is reserved for your eyes only, the more natural it will feel. Diaries had locks for a reason, right? Keep your journal in a safe place so that you can write for an audience of one: you.

4. Don’t be legalistic about it

Skip a day. Or a week. It’s fine. Forced daily journal-writing makes your journal just another box to check on your task list. That’s not what it’s about. It’s been interesting to discover the correlation between journaling and my own well-being, and how that sparks an inner motivation to write even one sentence each day. So my practice is daily, but it took about a year to get there. It wasn’t a goal though, so if you are only an occasional journal-writer, that’s enough.

5. Go beyond prose every now and then

If you want to experiment with drawing, sketching, or poetry, then do it and remind yourself that no one will see this but you. If you’re like me and not an artist, don’t worry if your pencil drawing of a Colorado mountain is horrible. You’ve used a part of your brain that might not engage again that day. I also write terrible poems in my journal that won’t see the light of day, but that’s the point, right?

6. Be cautious about a multipurpose journal

I know there are options out there to combine your journal with a planner, goal-setting, or daily prompts. If this is helpful for you, then try it, but I’ve found that I don’t do as well with the “fusion” approach. It makes it feel less like a journal and more like an assignment from someone who doesn’t know me. We could probably debate this, but I think the planner/journal is someone’s idea of a bad joke. My own experience has been that a blank page, lined or unlined, gives me the freedom I need to construct my journal in a way that is true to me.

One last word about journaling. Social media has made many of us overly conscious of our image and not conscious enough about how vital it is to live authentically. We’re not brands, we’re people. And people are complicated beings with vulnerabilities, weaknesses, wild ideas, and secret longings. The more we are in touch with these deep places in ourselves, the more we can live as the same person outside and inside. We need that desperately at this moment in history. So this is your permission slip to order a journal and a pen, and free yourself to fill your pages with rich content that no one else will ever see. Let me know how it goes. I’m cheering you on!

Helpful shopping links:

My journal

My pen

Other great choices:


Budget Friendly


Mood Pen

Alternative Mood Pen

A Pandemic Lesson from Grace

My dog is terrified of storms. They are debilitating for her. Her legs shake, she can’t eat, she can’t sit or lay down and she pants as if she has been running for days. She is a bundle of nerves and anxiety. A real mess. The hardest part to watch is how quickly this fear descends on her. She can be fine one minute, sprawled across the floor peacefully snoring, maybe even passing gas. Suddenly an ear perks up, she lifts her head, stands quickly and begins to shake, starting with her back legs. In only seconds her entire body is trembling and she has this look in her eye that I can only describe as a plea for immediate rescue. But there is nothing I can do to help her. We’ve tried the trendy thunder jacket and CBD chewies. Advice from friends led us to give her melatonin and slather lavender over the veins in her ears. We’ve put on music, but that only helps drown out her deep-throated panting – a moment of peace for us, but not so helpful for her. For the length of the storm, my dog is on the edge of sanity so we have learned to wait it out with her, and know that when the storm passes she will lay back down and all will be well. 

Here is the difference between my dog and me: when something causes me this level of terror, I worry about it coming. I project horrible scenarios and play out the ways that this could destroy me. My brain reminds me that I have things to fear that I should be thinking about. But my dog doesn’t do this. I’m confident she doesn’t spend her happiest moments of taking a walk, playing fetch, or getting belly rubs with a constant under-the-surface buzz of anxiety about the next storm. My dog doesn’t project doomsday scenarios and then plan how she will respond. 

And so here we are in the midst of a pandemic, racial tension, leadership crisis, and social isolation. We’re on edge as we watch numbers of the sick and dying climb, wondering if we or someone we love will becomes the next statistic. We’re not sure if there will be enough hospital beds and no one seems to be coming up with a workable solution for our children to return to school. North Korea might be building a nuclear warhead and there are murder hornets. I’m sure I’ve left something out. 

It’s becoming apparent that I have lessons to learn from my dog. This actually isn’t a new revelation. Animal experts tell us that our pets can help assuage our anxiety because they live in the moment. They don’t worry about what happened yesterday, or what might happen tomorrow. These days I’m needing more mindfulness, which means focusing on what’s happening in the present moment. This has been a lifelong struggle for me, but for the past two months I’ve been overloading on thoughts of both yesterday and tomorrow. If I’m not wishing for the days when we could throw a party and hug each other, I’m worrying about what happens if my husband’s immigration law practice doesn’t survive the crisis. I ping between the past and the future, rarely paying attention to the moment I am in. 

I’m working on this, and my dog is helping me. Her name is Grace, by the way, and she is a beautiful old woman with a gray beard, terrible teeth, and a little pudge belly. Also, her tail is crooked because she broke it years ago wagging it against our dining room wall. True story. She just turned 70 in dog years, she has never had puppies, and she eats cat poop when she gets the chance. All of this could be a source of regret or worry for Grace, but she is quite happy in the moment until the storms come. And every time the storms come, they also pass. 

Today, I spent some time thinking about all of this as a heavy rain rolled in. It feels like 2020 has been a constant storm that keeps my legs a little trembly and my breathing shallow. Should we look to the animals to help guide us a bit? I think so. Maybe their “in the moment” vibe can help guide us toward more mindfulness. As Eckhart Tolle famously said, “I have lived with several Zen Masters – all of them cats.” Grace and I spent some time in my home office listening to the rain. I tried to talk her through the momentary anxiety, and then when the rain stopped she sat down on her corduroy dog bed and stared at me like she was lovestruck. For her, the storm was forgotten as if it had never happened. I decided to spend the rest of my day without my thoughts hurtling too far back or forward; paying attention, not ignoring the current crisis, but hanging on to what I can control and doing good work here in the present. My dog returns the favor and shows me what it looks like to stay centered in the now, even though a storm could pop into my life at any moment. You’re a good teacher, Grace. I’ll keep the lavender nearby for the next clap of thunder. 

Here for the Imperfect Days

My mother died 12 years ago today. I’ve been thinking about her more than usual, which means instead of five times a day, it’s ten times. Like you, I’m in a slight state of shock that my life has been upended by quarantine, working from home, distancing from family and friends, and having no real idea where this is all going. We don’t like it, do we? Some of us are whining on Facebook and others are in the streets protesting that their second amendment rights are being violated. Wherever you fall between those two extremes, this moment requires diving deep to find patience, resolve, resilience and wisdom.

My mother lived with diabetes for 52 years. She existed in a body that could betray her at any moment and one that put her at the top of the hierarchal “at-risk” category. If she were alive right now, I would never let her step foot out of the house. After twelve years gone, however, my mother is still teaching me. She lived her life without guarantees, but with a steady peace that often rubbed up against my restless complaining. “This too shall pass,” she would say – which used to really piss me off. I thought it was far too sanguine for a life motto, but as it turns out it’s a courageous and resilient way to live. And it’s also true, which I didn’t learn until enough terrible things did indeed pass and I was still standing. My mother didn’t throw a fit about how she got stuck with a body that kept her chained to insulin shots and dialysis three days a week for the last ten years of her life. She lifted her chin, took a deep breath and did what she had to do to stay healthy and alive. I saw her do it hundreds of times in the 43 years I knew her. It wasn’t convenient, easy, or what she wanted, but she did it.

This is a time for all of us to learn how to live with the tension of “this too shall pass” and the resolve to be diligent and wise until it has passed. I’m going to wear my mask, keep distancing, learn to be content at home, help my neighbors when I can, and find a little bit of good in the imperfect days. None of this is going away soon, so it’s time to learn how to be stronger than we ever thought we could be.

Steady on, friends. 

About That Costume (and Trick or Treating)

The only photos I have of my childhood Halloween are the two years I was dressed as a clown. My mother was an excellent seamstress, but she was not frivolous. Purchasing fabric, notions, and taking time out of her day to stitch a costume worn for one evening went against everything Betty Jackson believed in. In her mind, that was a luxury reserved for people who didn’t clip coupons, recycle coffee cans into cookie tins, and transform the back patio into a hair salon once a month. Never mind that the cost difference was probably pennies, my mother preferred the off-the-rack, no-frills costume from TG&Y. And obviously, clowns. Then, on November 1st, she handed down those colorful vinyl pieces to my one girl cousin. I’m almost certain my Aunt Becky sewed whatever my cousin wore on October 31st, so my practically disposable Halloween costumes were probably never worn again.

When I had children, they also donned store-bought costumes every Halloween. In mid-October, after I had spent far too much money decorating my house with garland leaves, scarecrows, hay bales and pumpkins, I trekked to Walmart to buy an off-the-rack delight for the little ones. Over the years, our oldest two children wiggled into their costume around 4 p.m. on Halloween. The annual photos show them as an array of the year’s most popular Disney characters, a fact which only adds to my own lack of creativity. The lowest point in the “dress-up holiday” – as my daughter referred to it – was the year we moved to Phoenix on October 30. Somewhere around noon on Halloween we rushed to a local discount store to purchase the very last of the costumes left on the rack, the rejects: a wrestler and, of course, a clown. By the way, there is almost no way to make a clown costume appear feminine, so we count that year as a complete fail. 

It was two years later that I caved to the pressure of my mommy peers and began attempts at creativity, which basically meant scrounging around for old clothes to pair together, painting their faces, and purchasing a corresponding accessory at the dollar store. The costumes in this era consisted of a pirate, hippies, a farmer, and Minnie Mouse (ears for a buck at the Dollar Tree!). These two older children dressed for Halloween and carried a plastic bucket for candy, reminiscent of my own childhood, but with one notable difference: I walked through my neighborhood as a child on Halloween. For their first several Halloween years, they did not.

As a young mother who had grown up with no siblings, my parenting mentors consisted of other young mothers who were in the church we began attending soon after our son was born. Until his birth, my husband and I had enjoyed lazy Sundays, much like we did in college and graduate school. We had been content to leave the fold of church until we were blessed with a surprise pregnancy and a baby 11 months after our wedding. Soon after his birth we admitted to needing a little support, comfort, advice and a place to yell for help. So we stepped back into familiar territory and settled in. 

One of the trade-offs of our comforting social circle of parents was an abandonment of traditional trick-or-treating on Halloween. Instead, my husband and I dressed our children in their uncreative costumes and loaded them into the minivan to drive to the Fall Festival at church. There, our little Disney characters enjoyed games, candy prizes, and an evening of reuniting with all the friends they saw on Sunday, Wednesday and during weekly playdates. In effect, we gave Halloween a cold shoulder. We all agreed that it was scary for the young ones, and had historical undertones (and overtones) of pagan and satanic rituals. We attributed all kinds of evil to this day, and a trek around the neighborhood with the plastic bucket was like embracing the dark spirits that permeated this non-holiday. We were suspect of the parents who didn’t show up to Fall Festival, and a little concerned about those who took their kids trick-or-treating during the early hours and showed up at the festival midway through. Also, that arrangement was a little like double-dipping. These days, many churches have graduated to something called Trunk-or-Treat, which allows kids to actually walk from car to car and still get the thrill of shouting out something (“trunk or treat!”) in exchange for candy. But still, no tricks allowed.

All those years of turning away from the dark side of Halloween left me missing the neighborly part of it. The people who lived closest to us were people we rarely interacted with, and when we finally returned to the trick-or-treat tradition with our youngest daughter and the older kids helping us escort her, it felt right. We passed by these houses every day and would sometimes wave at our neighbors or engage in quick small talk while walking the dog. But the act of ringing their doorbell with our youngest daughter, allowing her to cry out for candy and be complimented on her princess costume (sadly, we didn’t get any more creative with the dress-up part of it), felt like a return to something I needed from my small-town childhood. Instinctively, the neighbors pulled together to give the little ones the best night of the year. The candy was purchased, the houses were decorated, the porch light was on and the door was answered – sometimes with the adult wearing their own costume. 

And yes, there were scary places along the way. For a while, we lived in a neighborhood where our kids were both frightened and fascinated by the dentist who turned his garage into a haunted house, complete with a speaker for scary sounds that could be heard five houses away. But we talked them through it. We walked beside them and laughed to lighten the frightening moments and high-fived them when we escaped unscathed with chocolate bars and a toothbrush in hand. I like to think this was better preparation for the world ahead, which also turned out to include some scary moments for our kids, complete with ugly laughter and some unexpected events that jumped out from behind closed doors. We’ve tried to make sure they know it’s essential to have people walk beside them, and we’ve celebrated when they emerged from tough places and survived the darkness (chocolate included, always). 

We now live in a very different kind of neighborhood than the one our children grew up in. It’s a more economically and racially diverse part of town and as a naive young mother, I probably would have avoided a neighborhood like this in order to keep my children “safe.” But here is what happens in Owen Park every Halloween: We all buy multiple bags of 250-piece candy, stay home, gather on our front porches even when it’s cold, and wait for our neighbors to walk their children around in their homemade creations. Some of our neighbors have a lot of resource to dress up their kids, and some have almost none. We also don’t mind that people drive their children to our neighborhood from other parts of town that actually aren’t as safe. Tonight, the children are all equal. They get to become whoever they want to be for an evening, and they will be handed candy and hear the gushing compliments of the neighbors for whatever they wear – even the kid dressed in the plastic clown costume. It’s magical, and I’m all in for the frivolous excess of Halloween. In neighborhoods like ours across our city and country, hand in hand with the adults in their lives, in costume for one glorious night and anticipating armloads of candy, there isn’t a better place to be on October 31st. Maybe tonight we can be reminded of generous, neighborly acceptance for the year that is in front of us. We could use it.

Baking Like 1973

I’m a little edgy the week between Christmas and the New Year, trying hard to “take time off” but also feeling a looming sense that I should enter the upcoming year by sweeping out old messes. So I organize.

Today, it was our bedroom built-ins, which I have not touched since the day we moved in almost two years ago. This is where I stored most of the sentimental books, papers, letters, and photos that weren’t already organized in the plethora of basement bins. My reason for finally getting around to the bedroom shelves had more to do with how cold the house is than a desire to get the shelves organized. The high was 38 degrees and heat rises, so up the stairs I went.  

In the middle of one of the old journals I was thumbing through I found a random recipe card for Carrot Pecan Cake. It was my mother’s handwriting on one of her 3×5 lined index cards, and in the top corner, she had attributed the source of this recipe as Joy Barnes. I have never heard of Joy Barnes. I have also never eaten Carrot Pecan Cake. Mom had a slight addiction to recipe cards. She loved to collect them from people or cut recipes from magazines and copy them by hand, then file them in metal index card boxes that she labeled alphabetically. After she died, I found four of these metal boxes stuffed with recipes – most of them for desserts or dishes she never actually made. I suspect that my mother spent more time writing out the instructions for these recipes instead of actually in the kitchen making them. I get this. So in the spirit of planning things in order to avoid actually doing them, I decided to honor her and make the Carrot Pecan Cake. So much for the organizing. (Side note: holidays are hard when you miss people, so little grief projects are permissible).

It occurred to me after I made the grocery list that because I have no memory of this cake, it was possible that Mom made it once, got the thumbs down from Dad, and filed it away along with any recipe that included green peas, lima beans, blueberries or cherries. My mother was a 1960s/70s housewife. Enough said. I decided to do it anyway. I make plenty of things that my husband doesn’t like, and so just in case she was prohibited from ever making the cake again after a taste test from Dad, I was also honoring how far we women have come since my mother’s baking era.

I’ve never made a carrot cake, which is just fine with my family since most of them don’t like it – including my husband. But, of course, this didn’t stop me. We had two bags of Knight Creek Farms pecans that I’ve been popping like candy, and I wanted to use them in a baking project.

So here’s how it went:

First, when the recipe calls for “grated carrots”, that means that you actually get out your grater and not your carrot peeler. These are two different kitchen tools that produce vastly different results. I was happily distracted listening to the year-end episode of All Songs Considered, and peeling my third carrot when I realized the difference. So I pivoted and began to grate, but because I wasted three carrots by peeling them I was short one cup. So the husband who doesn’t like carrot cake went to the store and bought a bag of shredded carrots. This should have been done in the first place, but assuming there is a next time I’ve already made a note on the recipe card. If my mother had to grate three cups of carrots, I’m adding that to the list of possible reasons I have never eaten this cake. She did eventually get around to baking after all the hand-copying recipes, but I’m picturing her losing patience with that one. 

Also, a tube pan is the same as a bundt pan, oleo is butter, and salad oil is vegetable oil. These are simple but necessary translations to be aware of when reading a recipe written somewhere around the early 1970s. This cake baked 10 minutes quicker than the recipe and the cream cheese icing was strangely thick, but I finished it about an hour before our guest came for dinner. Oh, I should mention that our guest was a boy who our youngest daughter likes very much and it was our first time to meet him. I gave everyone permission to not like this cake and assured them my feelings wouldn’t be hurt. It’s freeing to be able to say that the recipe came from someone who possibly never even made the cake. My daughter gave it the thumbs down (texture issues) and my husband said that it was “actually not that bad.” I know what this means, and if I was my mother in 1973 I wouldn’t be making it again after that comment. But that boy ate every bite of that Carrot Pecan Cake, then told me he wouldn’t choose it if it was on a dessert menu. I asked him to be honest, and he was. I like him. 

Making that silly cake was just another way I’m maneuvering through the holidays – balancing the joy of being with family and new friends with some grief about missing other important people in my life. But darn if I didn’t want to call my mother at the end of this evening just to find out if she ever really did make Carrot Pecan Cake. Doesn’t matter. I made it for her, and I thought it tasted magnificent.

In case you are in the mood to make a cake from the recipe file of Betty Jackson, via Joy Barnes (wherever she may be), here’s the recipe. But please– it’s not 1973, so splurge and buy the shredded carrots. 


  • 1 1/4 C. salad oil (canola oil)
  • 2 C. sugar
  • 2 C. sifted Flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. soda
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 3 C. grated carrots
  • 1 C. chopped pecans


  • 1 stick oleo (real butter)
  • 1 8 oz. cream cheese
  • 1 lb. box powdered sugar
  • 1 C. chopped pecans

Combine oil and sugar and mix well. Add dry ingredients alternately with eggs. Mix well after each addition (add eggs one at a time). Add carrots and mix well. Add pecans. Bake in lightly oiled tube pan at 350 degrees for 1 hour, 10 minutes (my baking time was only 1 hour). Cool slightly and turn cake onto plate. Cream together icing ingredients and ice cooled cake.

What Came Across My News Feed in Sewing Class

Yesterday we welcomed 13 new students for the fall session of our Refugee and Immigrant Sewing Enterprise. They came ready to sew, but also were eager to share with us about their lives, meet one another, and learn a skill that will allow them to contribute to their community and their families. They were all smiles and so were we.

During the evening session, in the middle of an explanation about seam gauges, a news alert came across my phone so I walked over to silence and put my phone away. A number caught my eye. 


And the word Refugees.

I knew exactly what the news alert was about, but I set my phone aside until class was over. After we said our goodbyes to the ladies with hugs and words of excitement about next week’s lesson, I looked at the details of the news alert. The president had set the number of how many refugees can be resettled in the United States next year. 


It’s a cut to an already drastically scaled back program for people who seek to enter our country because they are fleeing violence and persecution. (Last year’s pathetically low cap was 45,000.) And this comes at a time when the numbers of forcibly displaced people around the world have reached a post-World War II record: 68.5 billion. In his announcement about the cap, Secretary of State Pompeo called the reduction a response to a “daunting operational reality”, referring to a backlog of asylum seekers. He overstated the numbers and linked two types of immigrants who are processed differently in order to create a misleading justification for the low cap. But this is only one example of how the administration is controlling the narrative with misleading facts and skewed numbers. Their argument: “We need to prioritize hundreds of thousands of people who have arrived at the U.S. border who are claiming a credible fear of returning home, rather than refugees overseas who have already officially qualified for protection and resettlement in another country.” Which is interesting and up for debate after the administration failed to protect unaccompanied minors at the border, separated families, and sent thousands of people from our border back to places where their lives are in danger. Instead of effectively administering the two separate programs (asylum seekers and refugees), the narrative seems to pit the two programs against one another in order to justify slowly gutting the refugee resettlement program. Just to be clear, this was a goal from this president’s first days in office. The travel ban was imposed a week after he was sworn in, halting the program and limiting the number of refugees that could be resettled from 110,000 to 50,000.

As for the 30,000 number, that’s a cap. Remember the 45,000 number? Only 20, 918 have been admitted for this year and it’s September 18th. So expect a number more like 15,000 for next year. If that.

The reasons, justifications, and arguments for lowering the cap are shrouded in concern for the safety of our own country and a plausible-sounding regard for responsible vetting procedures. Don’t be fooled. The foreshadowing of everything surrounding the crisis at the border and the dismantling of the refugee resettlement program was clearly stated in campaign speeches before this president was elected and in the rhetoric against immigrants and refugees that accompanied his campaign. Current events have little to do with these decisions. 

The irony of this announcement on a day when we were welcoming new women into our Refugee Sewing Enterprise is not lost on me. I’ve been silent on this, deciding that my path of resistance against the questionable policies of this administration will be to do good work with those in the refugee community. I teach a citizenship class each week to 20 refugees and immigrants from all over the world who are eager to call themselves citizens of the United States. It gives me hope and makes me feel closer to the kingdom of God to be surrounded by the beautiful mix of language, culture and religions. The students love this country, are proud to be here, and they work hard to contribute to our local community. I’m deeply distressed that the direction we are moving sends a message to the world that we are closing our borders to keep out those are not us. It is contrary to the heart of a loving God who welcomes everyone. There is no us and them. There is only us. 

So here is my voice, pitched as loud as possible but in the nicest way I know how to say it: If we accept this administration’s narrative of fear, racism and nationalism, we are complicit in what will be viewed as a historic turning away of those who are in serious need of safe refuge.

Tomorrow night in our weekly citizenship class, I’m going to welcome each student who walks through the door. And on Thursday and Friday, I’m going to welcome the sewing students again. I do this each week, but now I’m going to do it with more intentionality. More passion. More determination. And more resistance. If you want to join voices, let’s raise them together on behalf of all of us

And Now, the Rest of the Story

Before we moved into our house last year, we constructed a long list of things we needed to purge and cable television was one of them. It doesn’t take up space, but we also threw in things that took our money without giving us much in return, and cable easily made the list. So now we have an antenna that sits inside one of our front windows and gives us two local stations and about ten stations that make no sense to me. So we don’t watch any of it, but we have it if we need it.

Last night we needed it.

One of our local stations did a feature on the RiSE Sewing Program that Rising Village launched last month. In 135 seconds they told the story, which is actually not possible. We are tempted to believe that the news we get in short spurts is enough, when most of the time it isn’t. I’m grateful that the local news decided to cover our program, so I’ve linked the story at the bottom of the post, but please read this first. I want to tell you the rest of the story before you see the snippet.

*    *    *    *    *

I met Lun at a local ice cream shop in South Tulsa. We spent the lunch hour talking about the new ESL class we were both participating in and listening to each other’s stories. Lun is from Myanmar (formerly Burma). She is a refugee who fled an oppressive regime that continues to persecute people groups based on their religion. Like many refugees, Lun has thrived in the U.S. She has a career, volunteers with people in her community, and contributes to our economy through paying taxes, being a consumer, and helping the local business she works for thrive. She is a U.S. citizen now and is passionate about helping other Burmese refugees in Tulsa assimilate into our culture in healthy ways as they continue to respect and retain their own. I immediately connected with Lun because we are alike – angsty people who share a desire to fix all the things going wrong in the world. As we swapped contact information at the end of the lunch, she looked at my card and asked about Rising Village. As I told her about the seamstress apprentices in Ghana who are learning to sew as a way to provide for their families, she leaned across the table, eyes wide and slapped her palms down on the table. “We need to do that here,” she said. That day, we found our common passion: women in the margins who need a way to emerge from the shadows and contribute to their community.

I don’t live in Ghana and never have, so my work there has consisted of almost daily messages with our staff in the villages across the country and one or two trips a year. I raise funds by writing and speaking about the issues women face there and the success stories we’ve had along the way. I connect with donors here but have little opportunity to really touch the work there. I’ve always considered my distance from Ghana a good thing since I’m not Ghanaian and generally naive and ignorant about the culture. I’m probably capable of doing far more damage than good if I was present with my white Western fingers in all their business, so I’ve been grateful for a Ghanaian staff who understands how to do good work in this African country in the most culturally appropriate way.

When Lun leaned across the table that day, I resisted the urge to respond with, “Yes, let’s do it now.” I have a board of directors to answer to, and a very impatient voice in my head that must be continually tamed and sometimes bridled. So I pondered, researched, talked to some of the women Lun had in mind for sewing classes, consulted with a woman who started a program in North Carolina teaching refugee women to sew, and sat on my hands until Lun had worn me down. “The women are excited and ready to start,” she kept telling me every time we saw each other. After a few times of hearing this, I asked how many women she was talking about. She pulled out a notebook with a list of names and did a quick count, although I knew she already had the number in her head. “Twenty-six and I’ve put some on a waiting list.” She smiled. I nodded.

I went to our board of directors with a request to launch the new program, they voted yes, and we started four weeks later. In one month we were ready to go, which was a small miracle and a big risk.


The local news reporter I talked to endured my long storytelling about our organization, our mission, the program and the women. I was aware that much of what I said would be cut, and there were things I didn’t have time to mention that are important parts of the story. I knew that after the story aired, I would want to add more. So here’s what didn’t make it into the short news clip (Again, super grateful! Just also aware that local news doesn’t have the air time to go in-depth).

  • We have opportunities to welcome people from around the world who are already here and working hard to assimilate into our culture and contribute to our communities. No one leaves their home and culture casually or thoughtlessly. The privilege of welcoming is, indeed, a privilege. I’m celebrating the opportunity to open our hearts and hands to these women and make something beautiful with them.
  • Make Welcome in Charlotte, N.C., is the organization that was an inspriation for our model.  One of their first students had recently moved to Tulsa and was teaching a few women in her apartment. I found this out by creeping their Facebook page, so I immediately called Make Welcome’s director, Beth, and she put me in touch with her former student. Ciin is now teaching in our program and has brought her students along. We’d be a little lost without her. She speaks the language and is a graduate of a similar program! It’s all these surprising moments along the way that have given us affirmation and the motivation to begin.
  • When women are shut out of opportunities to create, earn and help provide for their families, I consider that an injustice. We have worked hard in Ghana to identify women who are the most in need of one helping hand to lift while they do the rest of the lifting. They are successful at this. They want to work. Again, I consider it a privilege to walk alongside women as we all work hard to contribute to our communities.
  • The women have goals. Some of them want to learn to sew so they can mend or make clothing for their families. Others want to earn extra income by making products that could be sold on our online store or at pop-up shops and craft fairs. Other women would like to work for a local business that needs stitchers.
  • The women in our communities who are living in invisible places because they don’t speak the language or feel incapable of assimilating often have amazing skills and talents that they are unable to use. When we unleash their creativity and capability, everyone benefits. I believe we have nothing to fear from people who come to our country to succeed. They make it a better place for all of us. A scarcity mentality is small, narrow, and dangerous. I want us to create wide spaces for everyone to succeed.

So there is the rest of the story, at least as it’s unfolding right now. I have hopes and dreams for the RiSE program – that we can reach more women with opportunities to make something beautiful for themselves, their families, and their country. I’m grateful to South Tulsa Baptist Church for providing us the physical space, volunteers for providing the instruction, and donors for providing the resources as we continue to watch our friends from around the world rise.


If you want more information or to join our RiSE team, email

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Generous People and Amazon Shopping

A while back, before I lived in the non-profit world and realized how truly generous most people are, I decided to ditch the corporate empire of Amazon because it was putting all the independent bookstores out of business. I didn’t need it. I gave this resolution my best effort, but just like trying to buy your file folders at Target, it doesn’t appeal to those of us who are penny-pinching. So I’m full in on Amazon – the prime account, non-profit donation button, the wish list. Let’s talk about that wish list. And let’s talk about generous people.

This past week, I restocked the Rising Village Amazon list with dressmaking scissors, needles, pin cushions, thimbles and other sewing supplies. This involved some research and consultation with people more knowledgeable about these things because, unfortunately, I don’t sew. I grew up with a mother who was a seamstress, so I was immediately moved by the idea of making this list. And I hoped others would be moved by shopping from this list because beginning the first week of June, Rising Village will start a local program called RiSE (Refugee Sewing Enterprise). We have 25 women who want to learn to sew or use their sewing skills to earn income. Our organization has embraced the African proverb that says, When you pray, move your feet. Sometimes, it’s good to pray for needs to be met, but most of the time it’s best to ask yourself if you’re the one who’s supposed to meet that need and then get up off your knees and go meet it. You can pray, but you can also do. So we’re doing. You can learn a little more about the program here, or read our latest newsletter about it here.

As it turns out, there were quite a few people who moved their feet and shopped our list.

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And because of that, we’re almost completely stocked with what we need for our start-up. There are still a few items remaining, so if you need to head on over there and finish this post after you’ve shopped, please do!

For the past three days, boxes and big yellow envelopes have appeared on my front porch. If you’ve never shopped an Amazon wishlist, then you might not realize that you have the opportunity to let the recipient know who the gift is from (if you shop the wishlist, please do this). Inside the package is a little slip of paper with your name and a short message, and today I was completely overwhelmed by the names and the messages. 


There is something about having a tribe of people behind you when you do this kind of project. Remember when you were a kid and riding your bike up a hill, and that person who gave you a much-needed push every eight or nine pedals just when you needed it most?  Those pushes were enough to get you a little further up, and reminded you that someone was back there to save you when the wheel started veering around and your legs got shaky. Yeah, it’s like that. So many times, I’ve wondered how we were going to pull off a wild-idea project. And then along comes our bike-pushing, big-hearted tribe to get us a little further up the hill.

It makes me love Amazon even though I never planned to, but there is no easier way to communicate what we need and then offer people an easy way to shop for it. So I’m a fan on behalf of the women who will enter this sewing program in June. I’m a fan on behalf of their children who will see their mothers learning a skill that helps provide family income and assimilate even further into our culture. I’m a fan because sometimes it’s okay to use big corporate entities on behalf of those who are marginalized and need resources to help them move out of those margins.

If you’re reading this and aren’t a part of what we’re doing yet, we’re looking for volunteers, donations, prayers, communicators, bridge-builders, and networkers. A little something for everyone. Are you in? Want to move your feet? Email me and let’s make something beautiful!

Do the Right Thing: Some Thoughts on the Walkout


Our middle child, Erin, started kindergarten at a large public school in a suburb of Tulsa. On her first day at Jenks East Elementary,  I packed her Disney character lunchbox, slipped her plastic pink and purple backpack through her two little outstretched arms, and told her that this was the best day of her life so far. I was only repeating what she had been telling everyone for months, that her first day of kindergarten – real school as she called it – was going to be the “best day of my life.”

She started school in 1996, when many schools in Oklahoma still had half-day kindergarten. At pick-up time, she trotted down the hallway with the other morning kindergartners, carrying her bright backpack, and her little silver hair clip barely hanging on a few wisps of bangs. She stopped when she saw me and stomped one little foot in frustration.

“Is that it?” she asked.

While many children were running to their parents after the three-hour separation, my daughter was feeling cheated out of the best day of her life.

Thankfully, she adjusted to the short days. For the next thirteen years, the daughter who had played school with stuffed animals and cried when her older brother trudged off to kindergarten the year before her, thrived in the public schools she attended. We handed over each of our three children to that public school system, never for once believing that there was a better alternative. Kyle and I are both products of public school. It was in those buildings that, as children, we learned to live in community. We were in classrooms, lunchrooms and on the playground with students from different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, income levels and family structures. Our schools were a reflection of the larger communities we lived in, never completely homogeneous, but bonded together through shared social structures. Our parents, like us, believed in the kind of democracy that puts value on quality education for all children, not just the elite who have the means to afford it. We pay our taxes so that, in theory, everyone can enjoy a quality of life that includes health services, ease of transportation, city parks, and most importantly, education for our children, your children, and their children.

It’s flawed, however. As often happens, power and politics entered the room, and over the years, money that should have been appropriated for the good of our children is redirected to benefit big business and tax cuts for those in upper-income levels. Not surprisingly, what was designed to jump-start the economy, has served only to constrain the state’s revenues.

This siphoning of money away from the services that are necessary to build healthy communities results in a very undemocratic distribution of funds, so that children who rely on public education are crammed into overcrowded classrooms with underpaid teachers and decades-old textbooks.

Many people weren’t paying attention over the past ten years. And our underpaid teachers (heroes) walked out of classrooms and into our state capitol to demand that our legislators fix the crisis and fund education at a dignified level. On the first day of the walkout, our youngest daughter took her handmade sign to Oklahoma City and joined her teachers, administrators, and other parents to demonstrate the frustration over these realities: Oklahoma now spends $1 billion less on K-12 education than it did a decade ago; one in five school districts has opted for a four-day school week; the base minimum salary for educators hasn’t been raised in nearly a decade; and emergency credentials are being awarded at a record pace to help fill teacher vacancies. Funding for Arts programs have been slashed and many of those programs are gone. Some schools are consolidating their sports programs with other schools to save money. Even the best public schools in our state rely on teachers to supplement classroom supplies by using their personal funds.

Six years ago, I began traveling to Ghana, and during my first two years there I observed classrooms where children were sitting three at a desk and without textbooks for any subject, while teachers took 10 minutes at the start of each class to write the entire lesson on the board with stubs of chalk. A mandated part of the curriculum was Information Technology, but most children had never seen a computer and teachers were forced to teach that course using the chalkboard. They started the unit by drawing pictures of computer screens, floppy disks(!) and a mouse. It was no wonder they were constantly begging for chalk.

When I told them the schools in our state were also underfunded, they were incredulous.

“How could that be?” one of the teachers asked. It was too complicated to explain, so I just told her we were having a difficult time prioritizing.

“Children are too important. They must come first,” she replied. The irony of her statement wasn’t lost on me, but I think those words sum it up whether you live in Ghana or Oklahoma. Educated kids grow up to be educated adults who help make our communities, cities, states, and country a better place to live. But it costs money. It requires prioritizing.

Each day that for the past two weeks, the images of our dedicated teachers rallying, demonstrating, speaking out and seeking out conversations with legislators remind me that our public schools are worth fighting for. Since we talk so much about constitutional rights, this is a good place to insert Article 13 of Oklahoma’s Constitution, which says,

The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated.

My teacher friends in our district are going back to the classroom on Monday and students will join them on Tuesday. There is a sad, collective sigh of despair in that statement. We all feel a sense of defeat at the reality of what really did get funded.  It’s not enough. Teachers had initially demanded the repeal of a capital-gains tax exemption, which applies to wealthy individuals. Instead, many of the new taxes will be paid by middle-income to low-income Oklahomans. The Legislature didn’t do the right thing.

But here’s the rest of the story: On the first day of filing for candidacy in statewide elections, 458 people -most of the teachers and other pro-education individuals filed and will be running against incumbents in November. Those numbers already surpass the total House and Senate candidates in both 2014 and 2016. Our daughter’s history teacher, Mr. Waldron, and our neighbor, Rusty, are among those who filed. Between now and November, I’m going to campaign and then take my passion to the ballot box, because that’s how democracy works best – or at least it should. I still believe in it. I still believe in public school education for all. And I still believe that if we do the right thing, we can give all children the opportunity to walk into school with the excitement of a six-year-old who says it will be “the best day ever.”


Lenten Deep Dive



My proclamation a few weeks before Lent began –  that I was giving up grumbling for the six weeks – was probably a relief for the people who live in my house. While everyone else was depriving themselves of chocolate and soda, I was going to simply stop whining and groaning about every little winter thing that had been crawling under my skin for the past three months. Cold weather is becoming my cranky catalyst, and it had gotten so bad that even I was tired of listening to myself.

Having settled the question of what would be given up, I was ready for Ash Wednesday. Then, the Sunday before Lent began I ended up at a venue in Oklahoma City with a group of passionate advocates who had gathered to talk about the immigration and refugee crisis. I was tagging along with my husband who was interested in how his law degree could be put to good use on behalf of this particular population. I was happy to take a short road trip on a Sunday afternoon. It would be fun. We’d drive and talk, and after it was over we would find a quaint coffeeshop.

For six years, I’ve had my head, heart, and sometimes my body in Ghana, working to help provide income sustainability and education to marginalized women and children in tiny rural villages spread across the West African country. The issue of immigrants entering and living in our country, and the global refugee crisis was something I had only seen out of the corner of my eye. I began to pay closer attention to it during the presidential campaign as the rhetoric increased, culminating in the president’s travel ban in February, 2017. But still, I was too distracted to realize that something was building.

At the event, we heard from refugees, DACA recipients, advocates, immigrants, and those who were helping to resettle and serve people newly arrived to our country. I was given some facts and statistics, along with a few harsh realities. I got angry and sad. And then, when I realized how little I knew about an issue that was swirling in front of me, I got  motivated.

Also, I won a book. This is significant because this never happens to me. I don’t win stuff. Ever. I’m the one who drops her name into the bucket and it’s never drawn and I’m never surprised. This time my name was called, and I was handed a tote bag with the words “Daring Hope” and a book with the title, Seeking RefugeI took it as a sign. If I had been lucky enough to win this book, then I had better read it. I flew through it in less than 48 hours, but I needed to know more. I decided that for the Lenten season, I should do more than just give up grumbling.  Instead, the six weeks would be spent doing a deep dive into the immigration and refugee crisis.

I immediately began building my own syllabus. It would include books, articles, Google alerts, documentaries, TED talks, historical documents and podcasts. In addition, I would observe ESL classes, meet immigrants and refugees, and listen to their stories. I signed up to receive the UNHCR Morning Brief by email, and researched the countries where conflict was driving people from their homes and into camps along with other forms of displacement. I discovered the Pew Research Center and spent time studying charts, graphs, numbers and statistics.

The Catholic activist Dorothy Day said, “our greatest danger is not our sins, but our indifference,” to which I humbly offer the possibility that our indifference is the sin. This Lenten season I discovered that moving from indifference to informed can be a spiritual experience, and for me it is the prerequisite for any calling that involves doing the work of justice. So is prayer, lament, and meditating, which became more necessary as I read the stories of what people are enduring in conflict areas and refugee camps, and what they are facing daily in our own communities.

My work in Ghana continues as Rising Village provides resources so people can rise up and out of the margins. But I am also paying attention to what is happening in front of us – in our own community. My Lenten deep dive has moved me to join the courageous voices here, and then, in the spirit of my favorite African proverb, look for ways to “move my feet”.

In case you are curious about the Lenten Deep Dive syllabus I followed, I’m posting it below, acknowledging that it is not a definitive list of resources, or even the best. It did allow me to hear from a wide range of voices and see the issue from varying angles. All are trusted sources and I found them to be incredibly informative. I’m continuing to learn, so if you have resources to suggest, feel free to post them in the comments. 


Seeking Refuge by Matthew Soerens

The Middle of Everywhere by Mary Pipher

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence

Stranger: The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era by Jorge Ramos

Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli


The Human Flow (Amazon Prime)

Dadaab: The Documentary (YouTube)

From the Frontlines: The Global Refugee Crisis (YouTube)

Historical and Reference Resources:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Refugee Act of 1980

Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees

Pew Research Center  (search immigration/refugee)

The Refugee Brief from UNHCR (weekday morning news brief)

Ted Talks:

David Miliband: “The Refugee Crisis is a Test of Our Character

Alexander Betts: “Our Refugee System is Failing. Here’s How We Can Fix It.”

Luma Mufleh: Don’t Feel Sorry for Refugees, Believe in Them.”

Websites: (World Relief) (International Rescue Committee)  (We Welcome Refugees)



The Risk of Listening


This blog post is about Nambia. Yes, I’m going there. Not literally, because there is no country of Nambia. In a speech to African leaders at the United Nations last week, the President referred twice to the country of Nambia with regard to an increasingly self-sufficient health care system. To be clear, there are countries in Africa where the names have changed: Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, Gold Coast to Ghana, Belgian Congo to Congo to Zaire to Congo. And countries have split so that one becomes two: in 2011, the government of Sudan gave its blessing for an independent South Sudan. But, there is not, and never has been, a country of Nambia.

I realize it’s easy to jump on this one, point the finger at the President, shake a fist at his questionable diplomatic skills and geographical disregard. After joining in on the jokes, tweets and retweets that ensued, I realized that I shouldn’t be too smug about this. Many of us (include me in this) might do well to take a step back and reflect on exactly how much we know about the places we purport to care deeply about. I say this as someone who regularly stands up in front of groups and dispenses historical facts, relevant information and stories about the people our non-profit works with in Ghana, West Africa. I’ve read stacks of books and articles on the country, its culture, history, and challenges. I’ve traveled back and forth over the past six years and have daily communication with Ghanaians working in the communities where the corresponding NGO is located. And still, I’m more like someone who makes claims about the progress of Nambia than I am someone who has a handle on the complexities of Ghana. Not that long ago, this would have sent me into a paralyzing crisis of confidence, but now I find it to be a necessary confession.

For the first couple of years, despite my attempts to study up and travel frequently so I could understand the culture I was working with, I was constantly offending, confusing, and, yes, angering a few people in Ghana as I stumbled my way forward. It was humbling, and although I’ve learned a little along the way, I’m still amazed that our staff there puts up with me. This recent news-making event by our President (and yes, I realize that we’ve moved on to other shocking current events) has me thinking about our Western culture and the way we land in countries with our brilliant ideas, savior mentality, and words of wisdom. We perceive ourselves as great teachers, but concentrate little effort on becoming better learners, and yet if we truly want to be people with an effective level of global consciousness, we must move from talking to listening.

Swedish novelist Henning Mankell moved to Mozambique, Africa because he wanted to finally experience life outside of a Western egocentricity, and because the plane ticket was the cheapest. He ended up staying for 25 years. Although most of his personal writing about Africa is centered around the differences in storytelling between the Western and African mind, he says this about listening:

In Africa listening is a guiding principle. It’s a principle that’s been lost in the constant chatter of the Western world, where no one seems to have the time or even the desire to listen to anyone else. It’s as if we have completely lost the ability to listen. We talk and talk, and we end up frightened by silence, the refuge of those who are at a loss for an answer.

I want to believe that those of us who work cross-culturally care deeply about the work we are doing and the people with whom we work, and yet it seems we spend so little time learning from them. We talk and talk, and then we board a plane and depart, knowing little more about the depths of the culture we have been in than when we arrived. So I’m going to slowly and carefully ease out on the limb and say it: This is not an issue of how informed you are. It’s an issue of how much you care about how informed you are.

Being informed can be risky. If you listen and learn, then discover that your good works might actually bring harm or are not as effective as you had hoped and promised, then what do you do with that information? Some just continue to stumble down the road with their message and methods because, to be honest, we may not want to discover that our work benefits us far more than it benefits the people we seek to help. And what if, after all that listening, we’re at a loss for an answer?

Here’s my proposal: For a while, let’s lay aside our brilliant ideas; tuck away our prepared spiel and glad tidings; tear up our agendas and rethink our missions. And then, let’s be quiet and really listen, learn, and posture ourselves in humility and radical solidarity with all people in real places.


Good with Imperfection


Shims. These are little pieces of wood that you purchase when the floors in your old house slant in three different rooms. I know this because we now have them under most of our furniture in an effort to combat the “funhouse” effect. In the photo above, ignore everything except the thin leg on that piece of furniture and notice where it meets the floor. See the little squares of wood? Now you know what shims look like.

People ask how the house is coming along and I’m never sure what to say. “It’s coming,” is usually my answer. The boxes are unpacked, which is an accomplishment, but the furniture has been moved and rearranged and ultimately judged as too big to fit into most of our downstairs rooms. Our pieces have puffy arms and they are ridiculously deep and wide, so we’re in the process of downsizing most of our furniture, which wasn’t in the plan. It feels like we’re in house survival mode – troubleshooting weird problems we couldn’t have predicted and discovering strange quirks that the house has been hiding since October. These are small problems in a big world, but this is the world we happen to be living in right now on Rosedale Avenue.

This is my first go round with an old house so I’ve been looking at photos of other homes that have been renovated and resurrected. At first it was fascinating and inspiring, and then it wasn’t. After so many images of sterile, stylish, bright and white rooms, I wanted to see a little reality. I wanted to see the shims. Or at least some evidence that somewhere in the midst of the perfection, there was a little pitch in the floor. We have varying degrees of slanting floors in three rooms in our house and there is nothing we can do about it. We gutted the kitchen and the master bathroom to redo ugliness and former botched remodeling projects, but the floors are not a fix-it project.

In an earlier decade of my life, this would have been unacceptable. I don’t know if I’m a perfectionist, but in every house I’ve moved to as an adult (it’s been eight), the first month was a mad push to unpack, clean, hang pictures, and do every repair and cosmetic fix that could have been spread out over twelve months. The people who lived in the house with me were patient and gracious, biting their tongues and allowing me to be needlessly picky and worried. It was imperative that the house look like the picture I had been painting in my mind for the previous 45 days. Mostly, I wanted perfection, and I wanted it fast. This house isn’t participating in the perfection game and here are a few reasons why:

The eight-foot opening into the dining room has an obvious sag in the middle.

The garage is not fit for cars or humans, but the feral cats love it. We store our junk in it and pray that the Oklahoma wind won’t level it.

There is no grass in the backyard, but there is dirt, scattered clumps of weeds, and an overgrown Koi pond that perpetually and mysteriously holds water, even during weeks without rain.

The windows are original and drafty, and there there are no two the same size. Also, I now know the train comes through with a blaring whistle between 4 and 5 a.m.

While this may all sound like petulant whining, it’s not. This is enlightenment.

Everything that will never be fixed in this old house is part of what makes it good. This is a new concept for me, because I like perfection. But perfection is stressful. It’s also impossible to attain, and it makes us competitive and sorrowful with our sad self when we look at photos and posts of lives and houses that seem void of flaws. Perfection makes us lament what we don’t have and feel a tiny (or looming) resentment toward those who appear to have acheived it on some level. We want everything in our line of vision to be tidied up and nailed down, clean lines and sharp edges. White and bright. That’s my problem. If it’s yours, I have some news.

No one, including you, wants to hear the perfect story. It isn’t interesting. It doesn’t move us in the deep places or draw us toward one another. What we want to hear instead is a good story – the one where your husband, while digging out the Koi pond in the backyard, finds a trash can with rocks in it buried four feet deep in the ground and almost gives himself a hernia pulling it up from the depths. This is the project that doesn’t get finished in an hour, or a day. Probably not in a week. A month? It’s messy and sloppy and ugly. It’s good. It’s life being lived and humans making the best of it. In the Hebrew language, the word for this is tov. It’s the kind of good that isn’t perfect, but instead embraces the darkness and hard moments, knowing there is also joy and light as well. And then the Greeks gave us a view of perfectionism with their statues and Olympics. Perfection was striving to be the ultimate human, which actually takes us far away from our humanity, and from what feels like home. Anne Lamott says that perfectionism is when we try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up – and yet it is the clutter and mess show that us life is being lived. This is the good story. Because we are all a bit of a mess, you and I, and we should have the freedom to live out our good story without the burden of making it a perfect story.

If you visit my house, I’m going to show you the sloping floors and the sagging doorway and the disastrous backyard. Oh, and the window seat in the dining room, which I’ll leave to your imagination. And I’ll show you the shims, beautifully stained so that they will blend in with the wood floor – our feeble attempt to clean up the mess. Come over and I’ll tell you the good story, because that’s the one that carries us home.

An Update from Rosedale and 64th Place


This photo makes it clear (or it should) that we have not moved to the Rosedale house yet. It’s way past time for an update, so here goes: We sold our Shadow Mountain house in one day to the most lovely couple who taught their little daughters to swim in our pool many years ago. In case I was in danger of forgetting that life is full of surprises, last month kindly reminded me. Selling to this sweet family was a huge affirmation and they will take our place here on February 2nd. We continue to pack and purge – and I continue to cry at dumb stuff. The word bittersweet fits most of my moments, but these days every time I walk into the Rosedale house I’m more amazed at the transformation. Someone saw the potential of this place through all the chaos, and that person wasn’t me. I kept wringing my hands, but Kyle never did. So I’m grateful for a husband and a contractor who had faith that when we scrape away all the neglect, this place will shine.

I can finally see through the remaining chaos, which means this photo is beautiful to me. The moving van is scheduled for January 27th. We’re surrounded by boxes and empty bookshelves and rooms with nothing on the walls. Some days I feel ready and other days I picture my arms wrapped around the tree in the front yard on moving day while they try to drag me away. Okay, being dramatic here, but I’m honestly not sure which emotion will prevail on that day. Also, I’m getting a little touchy about purging, since over the years my sentimentality has caused our closets to bloat with boxes of special things that I can’t (and won’t) release. These boxes are coming with us because I’m purged out. I can’t become any more minimalistic or I’m afraid I’ll disappear. I’m done. No more purging. No more sorting through stuff. No more decisions about what stays and what goes. That little foursquare house is going to have to hold what’s left of my stuff.

I love before and after photos, so I’ll be posting some as soon as we have a room that qualifies as an “after” photo. I’m told that will happen before January 27th, so I’m taking that on faith.

This new chapter is ours, and we have the opportunity to make something wonderful out of it, chaos and all. I really do believe that. I just might need a reminder if I start walking toward the big tree on moving day.

This Time, Last Year


On Friday, I’m leaving town. It’s not the best time for me to be gone because we run a retail shop and it’s almost Christmas.

And yet, it’s the best time for me to be gone because it’s almost Christmas. Dad died one year ago today, so I’m going to Colorado. It was Dad’s favorite place in the world and I’m hoping I can hold myself together until we get there.

For several weeks leading up to this day, I’ve been a falling apart and recovering in equal measure. On certain days, I wake up with dread and sit in a chair reassessing my entire life, and other days I’m peaceful and resigned. I’ve labeled it burnout, but I think it’s grief in disguise. Mostly, I’ve just been working hard to put one foot in front of the other with the hope that when this year anniversary has passed, I will be well. It’s true, I’m a bit raw.

So on a morning when I was feeling more sane than usual, I realized my need to be in a place that feels as close to Dad as possible. He loved the Rocky Mountains. During my childhood, we were all over the place: Aspen, Estes Park, Ouray, Ponderosa, Purgatory, and finally, Pagosa Springs. We settled in this small southwestern town and never left. For two weeks of each year, it’s our summer escape and haven. At one point in his life, when Dad was far from retirement and the reality of how Mom’s diabetes would make her dependent on living near a dialysis unit, he and my Uncle Bill bought a piece of land in Pagosa. They were going to build a big house so our families could spend more time in the mountains. It was on Antelope Drive, near a lake with a straight-shot view of the mountains. That’s what he loved – the view. He was particular about what condo we stayed in each summer, and when he finally found one that allowed him to sit on the patio with that view of the mountain, that’s the one we booked every year. Peregrine 7877

Mom started dialysis when she was 60, and the dream of spending the entire summer in Pagosa slowly faded away. Her life was different now – she had to be strapped to the dialysis machine three days a week in order to live. And Pagosa didn’t have a unit. So they sold the piece of land on Antelope Drive and waved it away with the realization that the dreams we have early in life don’t always intertwine with the way our life unfolds in the latter years. They found a dialysis unit in Cortez, Colorado and were content to give up the dream of being in the Rocky Mountains all summer. Instead, they drove three days a week over the mountains during our two-week stay in Pagosa. My parents were steady people, and they bounced back from adversity together. For ten years, dialysis was a part of our Colorado vacation, and they never grumbled, complained, or quit going.

Dad would start talking about Colorado in January, wondering what it looked like under a blanket of snow, proclaiming the obvious, “If we think it’s cold here, imagine what it feels like in Pagose.” (He had taken to dropping the a, thus giving it a little nickname). Around April, when the weather started to turn warm, he would let us know that it would only be a few months and we’d be in Pagose. And then, about a month before our late July departure he would talk about it every time we saw him, literally counting down the days and inventorying the food and cookware he and Mom were gathering to take – pancake mix, cereals, pasta, soda, griddle, skillet. He hated the cheap cookware in the condo.

When Mom’s neuropathy took her legs from her in early March of 2007, he shopped for and purchased a van with a lift and all the necessary handicap features, then proclaimed, “This will be perfect for Colorado.” She died in April and he sold the van. And then we went to Colorado that summer without her.

For seven summers he came to Colorado with us – or maybe we went with him. It always seemed like Colorado belonged to Dad. He continued to carry all the food and his cookware until the last couple of years when he only brought Diet Coke and pancake mix. He meant to  bring the griddle, but he kept forgetting it. He spent more time alone, staring at those mountains and doing more reminiscing about past trips. And then, last December 7, before he even started talking about the next Colorado trip, he died. It’s hard for me to add anything to what I say about his death. He just died. Suddenly. After rolling the neighbor’s trash cans to the side of their house and bringing in his newspaper. He fell over in his chair and died.

Colorado belongs to us now. We took our annual trip to Pagosa last July without Dad. It was heartbreaking, but also wonderful because for the first time I understood what tied him to these mountains and this place. All those summer weeks, the memories, the people and the traditions. And that air. Our trip this past summer came in the middle of a busy, stressful time for us and I needed that fresh, crisp, mountain air. I needed to breathe. I needed to see the absolute majesty and mystery of mountains and be reminded that I should be humbled by creation, and calmed by my insignificance. I need that again now.

We will return to Tulsa on December 13, and one month from that day we will move from our comfortable house in Shadow Mountain to the Rosedale house in northwest Tulsa. After twenty years in my childhood neighborhood, eleven years in this house, and countless memories of living within a half mile from parents, aunt and uncle, and cousins, we’ll pick up and move to the other side of the city. We’ve made choices – lifestyle and financial – that necessitate us giving up our home. Many of those choices were solidified last summer in Colorado. So I’m going back to say goodbye to Dad one last time, and to prepare for another farewell. As Kyle reminds me, we’re not moving across the country, just to the other side of town.

When one thing ends something new is beginning. Although I know this, endings and goodbyes always knock me to the ground. So I’m going to Colorado to breathe in the air, look at the mountains, and be reminded that there is something bigger than my small world. I’m going to allow myself to grieve again, and then I‘m going to stand back up and come home and pack our life in boxes for another ending, and a new beginning.

Owen Park’s Little Free Library

img_3015Things we haven’t done before: 1) haul a toilet around in the back of our truck for three days, 2) set off flea bombs (multiple times) in an empty house, 3) maintain a little library in our front yard.

This blog post is about the third thing.

During our first and only showing of the house before we made an offer, our wonderful realtor, Joy, ended it with an explanation about the structure on the corner of our front yard. It was a small box with a frosted glass front, a gabled roof with a tattered flag at the peak, and a floating fairy painted on the back.

“It’s a library – the neighbors can take a book and leave a book. It has shelves of books inside the box. Isn’t that cool?” she said as we stood on the front porch.

It’s possible this piece of information is what tossed us happily over the edge. We knew the house had charm peeking out from behind the long list of remodel projects, but the little front yard library made me swoon. When Joy said it had shelves filled with books, a little memory flashed across my mind of the days when I used to read books that required fingers for turning pages instead of swiping a screen. We have a fairly substantial home library with an entire wall of bookshelves in the living room and a front office with two walls of built-in bookshelves. But we started this purge thing and now we’re working to reduce our consumption, get rid of what we no longer use, and cease making purchases that take up precious space we won’t have in the new house. So our home library is being phased out. I have four small shelves of books that I will keep, but everything else is gone or is going. Hit me up for free books if you are starting your own home library.

This is hard for me because I’ve always been able to justify books. If we were cutting back on our spending, I budgeted in a monthly allowance for books. Being surrounded by them brings comfort and security, but I can’t justify keeping them in mass quantities. Rarely do I read a book more than once, except for Catcher in the Rye and anything by Anna Quindlen (look her up, please). Those are on my stay shelf, but most of my books are there because I need them near me and they look really good, which sounds like the basis for a bad relationship. I like to think of it as an unnecessary relationship. But still, I do love books.

So we have this quaint little library that we’ll maintain and freshen up, replace the flag, paint over the floating fairy, and continually weed out the religious tracts and booklets that keep showing up on the shelves. I’m considering taking it a step further and registering our library with Little Free Library, a non-profit started by creative artisan Todd Bol and youth and community development educator Rick Brooks. Their social enterprise was inspired by Andrew Carnegie (again, please look him up), social empowerment movements in developing countries, Lutie Stearn’s “traveling little libraries”, and community gift-sharing networks. These are all things that make my heart happy. It started small, with Bol building a replica of a one-room schoolhouse that he filled with books. He put the box in his front yard with a sign that read, “Free Books”.  It was a tribute to his mother, a teacher who loved to read. He made several more and gave them to friends so the little library concept could continue. The goal was to build 2,510 little libraries through a network of people who would build their own library or order one through the non-profit and place it in a public space. As of November 2016, there are 50,000 registered Free Little Libraries worldwide and additional libraries that are unregistered and unaccounted for, including ours. Bol’s small project has turned into a worldwide enterprise.

Fernando, our amazing contractor who is bringing the Rosedale house back to life, told us that he sees neighbors stopping to take and leave books, so the little library continues to give back, even though the house is empty for now.

These days, my own life and the happenings in the world leave me feeling a little overwhelmed. I’m not one to start small, but instead usually like to jump in with big ideas and ambitious projects. I don’t have the patience for slow and small. I want to change the world and do it as fast as possible. But what they say is true – change often starts with people like you and me doing their part to make the space around them kinder, brighter, more grace-filled and joyful. So while I still have my eyes focused on what is across the ocean, I’m also learning to look carefully at what is close to home. Nothing is insignificant. Even a little box filled with books for my neighbors and their children.

The Most Important Room: Before




The kitchen demolition at Rosedale started two weeks ago but I wasn’t there to watch since the kitchen really isn’t my territory anymore. Last October Kyle took over the cooking and the result has been more creative meals, experimental dishes, general healthier eating, and happy humming that goes on while the meal is being prepared. I still saunter in to do a little baking when I have time, but we all know who we really want in the kitchen.

My mother taught me to cook when I was in elementary school, so I do have skills and did most of the cooking during our 27 years of marriage. There are two kinds of cooks – those who fearlessly mess around with the recipes, and those who use recipe card holders and never deviate from what is printed on those cards. My mother and I are the latter. Her recipe cards are stained and creased because she never winged it. Like her, in this area of my life I play it safe. My collection of cookbooks and recipes clipped from magazines – and later pulled from the Internet – got me through those 27 years of cooking. No one complained, except Colin, 15 years ago when I tried a new recipe for spinach burritos. He can’t let go of it and reminds us frequently how scarring it was for him. No one else can recall this meal, so I’m not counting it as a fail. But there’s a new chef now and I couldn’t be happier, which means I’m mostly staying out of the kitchen remodel decisions. He knows what kind of cook top and stove he wants, the configuration of countertop space, cabinets that will roll out and hold pots and pans. And on it goes. This is our first kitchen remodel and although we aren’t knocking out walls, it feels like we’re building something from scratch. We are replacing original upper cabinets, and when they were removed we discovered that the wall behind them needed both sheetrock and insulation. An earlier remodel had not properly prepared the walls, and so what we thought would be a simple cabinet installation became major wall prep. And a corner that was angled and held the refrigerator was taking up precious space, so the angle is no more and the refrigerator will move to the opposite wall.

Most of this was discussed and decided after we bought the house. I was content to leave it all strangely angled because it felt safer. But I was overruled and the angle has been replaced with a straight-line corner, which they tell me will open up the space. This kitchen is smaller than our current kitchen and has no room for a breakfast table, but we’re not willing to go big with this remodel. I’ve had moments of wishing for a little more space between the sink and the stove, but then I watched a few HGTV remodel shows and now I feel better about myself. I thought asking for a lazy Susan and a pantry wall was demanding. Not so. Our contractor has shared with us several stories of outrageously expensive kitchen remodels for people who rarely cooked. They mostly ate out and carried in, but paid big money to upgrade their kitchen to chef’s standards. I have no judgement on this (okay, maybe just a little), but it seems the thing that makes the kitchen is the people in it – preparing, anticipating, gathering around, saying grace over, and then, finally, eating the food. This can happen in beautiful ways with or without an island, eat-in bar, granite countertops or a sub-zero refrigerator.

The kitchen has always been the hub of our house for many reasons, but mostly because this is where the real conversations happen. It may not be this way for everyone, but in our family the kitchen is where big announcements have been made, arguments have been started and resolved, major decisions have been discussed (beyond what we’re having for dinner that night), and guests have lingered at the beginning and ending of an evening together – choosing to stand even though we have comfortable chairs in other rooms. When there were five of us living in our house, there were evenings when we stood around in the kitchen during dinner preparation to talk about the day, before we even got to the table.

In many cultures, it seems that the place where life-sustaining food is being prepared is where families gather. In Ghana, outdoor kitchens are common, and older children are often a part of the preparations while younger children play nearby. In many countries, the kitchen is in the center of a compound, and extended family members naturally gravitate to the place where food is being chopped, pounded (as in Ghanaian fufu) or slowly simmering. These kitchens are often nothing more than a wood fire, and yet this is where the action is. Food gives life, and so it makes sense that the space in a home where it is being prepared is where we want to be, even if it is only a subconscious desire.

So I’m looking at the blank walls in our unfinished kitchen and reminding myself that it isn’t islands, big spaces, fancy appliances and granite countertops that matter (we’re sticking with mid-range appliances and butcher block), but the warmth that radiates from a place where the cook hums, guests are welcomed and honest conversation happens. Whether recipes are followed or creativity is flourishing with the food preparation, our little kitchen will still be the most important room in the house. But I’m holding out for that pantry wall.





The Purge (Part One): The Clothes Closet


When I was five, we took our annual Colorado vacation in the hot month of July, and my mother left my packed suitcase with all my vacation clothes on her bed. She realized this about ten minutes on this side of Amarillo, six hours into the trip, and started sobbing as we pulled into the J.C. Penney parking lot. She and I hurried through the children’s section of the store where she chose three mix and match outfits from the clearance rack for our two weeks in Estes Park. Dad says she continued to sob in between naps all the way to Colorado.

I remember none of this, but the story is lore, and the photos of me during our vacation do look repetitive: sailor suit, white t-shirt/green shorts, blue romper. We had a very good vacation, and my rotation of three outfits for two weeks was actually not a big deal.  When we returned home my mother added the three new outfits to my closet full of clothes.

Which brings me to the current closet in the house we now live in. It’s a walk-in, not oversized, but adequate. My portion of it has built-in drawers and two rods the length of the wall where my clothes hang, color-coordinated and divided into occasions and seasons. In eight weeks, we will be moving to the Rosedale house, which doesn’t have a walk-in closet. The owner, who did some of the initial remodel, took an existing wall and added some built-ins where a few clothes can hang, and a few narrow drawers for things that don’t hang. The first (and only) time we looked at the house, I opened the reach-in closet door and saw the two short clothing rods and said, I can do this. But now, my recollection is that I walked through the entire house chanting that same sentence like a mantra, with glazed eyes and a dreamy smile.

Because we will now have to adjust our wardrobes to the reach-in closet, two weeks ago I designated a Closet Purge Day. About two-thirds of my clothes, shoes, and drawer items were destined to go, which is an exercise I’ve been wanting to do for about a year. Back when we had more money and I had more time, I purchased clothes and shoes from places where they sold them cheap. This seems like a paradox, but if you have more money, you might be more likely to treat clothing as disposable without thinking about how long it will last or whether you really need it. That’s me. The lure of shopping at a place where I could pick up mouthwash, a birthday card, raspberries and a marked down sweater was irresistible. It didn’t matter whether I needed the sweater. It was cheap and oh, so convenient. Hence, the walk-in closet with far too many clothes that I rarely wore.

The first pass at purging the closet was easy, because I had enough clothes that I knew were on the “outta here” list. The next purge, a few days later forced me to be honest with myself. Do you really love it and do you use it, or do you just want to keep it because you might need it someday? This is the question that determines the criteria for everything that is is being evaluated during The Purge, not just clothes. And it’s a question that forces me into other questions about why I can’t let go of stuff. Questions about why I keep buying things I don’t need, and why doing it makes me feel happier for a few minutes. It’s an uncomfortable place to go, but on Closet Purge Day, as I kept evaluating my clothes, shoes, and accessories, I realized that the purging got easier as the closet got emptier. I felt lighter and less burdened. It was a surprising feeling, so I planned another closet purge day for the next week.

I also started to look seriously at the Capsule method of building a wardrobe, which is whittling your wardrobe down to 33 items per season – shoes, accessories and jewelry included (workout clothes and sleepwear not included). Our closet wall at the new house is about right for this amount, so I’m giving it a go. This means no more cheap clothes, because fewer items of clothing means they have to withstand more wear. So when my clothes have to be replaced, I’m looking for better alternatives even if they are pricier. In the long run, it’s more cost effective. The other night Kyle noticed a hole in the seam of my shirt, which is an item of clothing that survived two purges. I bought it last summer at Target and have worn it only a handful of times (because I have so many other clothes to choose from).

Today is the third time I will have purged my closet, and the goal is to get my fall wardrobe to the requisite 33 items (which, by the way will not include jewelry. Please ask me about this). I’m far from a legalist and don’t like to participate in gimmicky goals, but I love a worthy and necessary challenge. And the closet in the Rosedale house is just the kick in the seat I need to do the necessary thing.

Some days this purging thing feels like my mother sitting in the front seat at the start of the journey, crying over what will be left behind and worrying that I’ve let go of something I might need someday. What if I let it all go and realize I’m unhappy without it? Of course, I know this isn’t the way it will work. My five-year-old self made it through those two weeks in Colorado with three outfits and my mother stopped crying about the clothes the minute we hit the Rocky Mountains. I didn’t need the clothes we left behind to enjoy the journey, and I don’t need them now. Most of them are already gone from my closet, and I don’t even miss them. So if my wardrobe starts to look repetitive, congratulate me. Or at least remember the size of our reach-in Rosedale closet.