On Mother’s Day: Two Women Remembered

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There is a quiet debate these days about the politically correct word for mothers who give birth and then place their child for adoption. It’s good to describe these adoption realities with sensitivity, but honestly, I lose track of what’s in and what’s out. As for my youngest daughter’s circumstances: instead of being abandoned, she was “left in a place where she would be found.” And instead of giving a child up for adoption, the birthmother “made an adoption plan.” And so in some circles, a birthmother is now referred to as a “first mother.” Which, in my mind, means that an adoptive mother – regardless of what you say – is a “second mother.” I’m passing on these terms, just so you know.

I have a birth mother. And I have an adoptive mother. And they are both gone, which always makes Mother’s Day a little bittersweet for me. It’s not the hardest day of the year, but it’s not one that I get gushy over either. And yes, I have children, but let’s face it: most of our kids need a little prodding in order to 1) remember Mother’s Day, and 2) do something about it. A friend of mine posted a photo of her Mother’s Day gift wrapped in toilet paper with a sticky note in kid writing that said, “Sorry.” This is so real and so perfect, and it was the only Mother’s Day post on Facebook that made me feel all warm and fuzzy. (As a side note, if Mother’s Day is a little rough for you, skip Facebook on this day.)

I lost Mom five years ago in April. I lost my birthmother hours after I was born. And I think about both of them on Mother’s Day. In fact, on most days, each of them crosses my mind at some point, either during waking hours or in my dreams. My house is filled with things Mom gave me and so I am surrounded by her with gifts and possessions passed down to me. And every time I look in the mirror or wonder why I have that little physical imperfection or notice my short stature (when I’m hanging with tall people), I think about my birthmother who passed these things to me, and then without realizing it, passed some of them on to my biological children. And yes, I miss both of my mothers and feel the empty space their passing has left in my heart.

I celebrated this day with my own children, but it feels odd to be unable to turn around and honor the woman who gave birth to me and the woman who raised me with absolute selflessness. It seems as though I should be saying Happy Mother’s Day to someone. Perhaps this is enough for me. Writing usually quells the restlessness.

To my birthmother: I know it was difficult to hand over your baby and walk away. Thank you for physical life – for taking care of yourself during pregnancy, for not being reckless with your health, and for whatever good thoughts you chose to focus on during those nine months. I have a sense that you were tenacious but calm as you waited to deliver and then give away your child. I’m confident you were strong. And I am proud to be your daughter.

To Mom: I know you wanted to live to see so many things, but you made the most of every moment that we had together. Every day, you chose a life that focused on others. You tormented me with little quotes like “It is better to give than to receive,” but you were speaking absolute truth. It just took me a long time to get it, and an even longer time to begin to learn how to live it. But I have more than adequate footsteps to follow in.

So I honor you both today, in my own way. Happy Mother’s Day my two mothers. You are deeply loved…forever.

How I Talk To My Daughter About Terrorists (and other tragedies)

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Alison and I watched CNN together the night of the Boston Marathon bombings and the night the suspect was captured. I know that family therapists and child psychologists would probably warn against exposing a 12-year-old to coverage of such a horrific event (especially CNN coverage), but I’ve learned to happily ignore the parenting experts. We did spend a little time snickering over Anderson Cooper’s choice of attire on Night #2, so it wasn’t all heavy-loaded. But the event was tragic and there was no way to spin it otherwise. So I didn’t try. I answered her questions as honestly as I could while we watched the events unfold. Over the past week she has been especially concerned about the young man who was taken into custody that evening. For some reason, she has focused on his injuries and how he is healing. She asks about this regularly and I am unsure what to say, so I tell her that he is in a prison hospital and that is all I know about his physical state. Yesterday, she wondered if he was scared in the boat. Her tenderness towards this individual seems out of place.

I read a post from someone a few days after the event. Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t want to know his name. I don’t want to see his face. I don’t want to know his life’s history, his back-story, who his family is, where he went to school, or what he liked to do in his spare time. I don’t want to know what “cause”, if any, he was fighting for. I don’t want to know why he did it, or may have done it, or what possessed him to carry out his actions. I don’t want to know. Because that’s what he really wants. I’ll be damned if I’m going to give him what he wants.

I completely understand  and share in the anger that is felt toward this person. But when my daughter asks about him, I also understand where she is coming from. We have told her that every person is loved deeply by God whether they are the worst person in the world or the best person. We have quoted the verse “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and then talked honestly about how near-to-impossible it is to do. But yet, we are asked to do it. We have told her that every person matters and that grace is not out of reach for anyone.

But what about terrorists? Shouldn’t we share the sentiment of the person who cheers the death of Osama Bin Laden or the person who says “I don’t want to know his name or see his face?” That seems fair, except that we are told that God cherishes his created ones so much that he knows the number of hairs on their head. This verse rolls off the tongue when we’re telling the loveable how loved they are, but it’s a little harder to comprehend when we’re talking about the unloveable. You might say to me at this point that if a relative or dear friend died at the hands of a terrorist I would feel differently. And you might be right. But according to what God says, I wouldn’t be entitled to feel differently.

So what do I tell my daughter when she expresses concern for a terrorist who perpetrated a senseless, cold-blooded killing? Do I tell her tell that we are not supposed to care about him and that it is permissible to spew hate for those who have carried out hateful actions? Do I allow her to cheer the death of those who caused death?

Here is one thing I tell my daughter about terrorists and tragedy: There is good in the world. There is also evil in the world. And God cares deeply about our response to both. 

We’ll never be able to love like God loves, but when tragedy is in front of us we have an opportunity to practice that kind of love if we will choose it. I keep going back to the prayer Jesus uttered before he died:  Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. It is beyond comprehension that he prayed this with his back shredded and nails in his hands and feet. I easily spout off these radically difficult verses and treat them as if they are platitudes. They are not. These are the very actions that show the world what God looks like. Love. Grace. Forgiveness. And they are hard to live out, which is why most of us don’t do it. Does my daughter’s response of tenderness toward the perpetrator reflect the character of God? I can only answer with this:

“But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:44-45. That’s what Jesus said, among many other mind-blowing things, when he was sitting on the side of a mountain talking to a crowd of people. So I’m going with that, even if most of the time I find it very difficult to do. When I talk to my daughter about terrorists and the tragedy in the world, I can find no better words to use than those of Jesus. Because I’m pretty sure he was talking to us as well.

Why I’m Ditching These Accessories

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So it’s come to this. I can’t imagine why a dog would allow herself to be so demeaned by a 12 year-old who claims to love her, however this is too good not to share.

But there is another reason I’m posting this photo. It may be a stretch, but it illustrates something I’ve been tossing around in a jumble of thoughts over the past couple of years. Those thoughts have slowly taken shape and led me to believe that I’ve spent too many decades of my life wearing a cupcake necklace and bow headband when I should have ditched the whole ensemble. Okay, hopefully you get the point. I’ve actually never worn these accessories, but I’ve worn others. Haven’t we all? I would blame this on my gender, the part of the country I live in, and my childhood churches, but this is not unique to female Evangelicals who live in the Bible belt. Those of us who fit into those categories, however, just might have a harder time believing that God could have a different ensemble for us to wear.

Here is a for instance:

In college, I majored in journalism and went on to work for our city newspaper as a desk reporter, and then features writer. I loved the world of journalism. I was a newspaper fanatic and still treat myself to the occasional print version of The New York Times on a Sunday afternoon. But back in the days when I worked for the newspaper, I almost never talked about my job with church friends because I didn’t want to have to defend myself as a part of the “liberal media.” So when I moved in those circles, I donned my cupcake necklace and my bow headband and pretended that I wasn’t passionate about things I was passionate about. And conversely, I pretended I was passionate about things I wasn’t passionate about because they seemed more “right” than being a newspaper reporter.

Another for instance:

I don’t like Women’s Conferences. There. I said it. And I should tell you that if you love them, I have no problem with that. There isn’t any principle involved, I just don’t care for them in the same way others don’t care for New Year’s Eve parties (not saying the same things go on at both events). I would just rather stay home. But, once again, I spent a decade donning that necklace and bow and going to some Women’s Conferences because there were a bunch of Godly women there and I thought that maybe if I went it would make me Godly too. It didn’t.

It’s interesting how we assume everyone in our spiritual circle likes the same things we like, or that they believe in the same things we believe in. We’ve come to expect that we’re all on the same page, and so those who aren’t either end up slinking away or donning the ensemble to keep the peace. There was an older gentlemen in the church I grew up in who would say, “Let’s just keep the main thing the main thing.” These days, however, it’s hard for many discern what the main thing is because we’ve taken so many things that don’t matter and made them paramount to being “people of faith.”

What if our circles consisted of variety and diversity? What if our churches were filled with people of differing passions, opinions, ideas, styles of clothing, likes and dislikes? Is it okay to turn up Mumford & Sons and turn off Casting Crowns? Can I admit that I care about the environment? What if I’d rather hear Rachel Held Evans than Beth Moore? Can I like some different things? Have some different opinions and persuasions and not feel like I have to wear the accessories that everyone else has on? Or will I just end up looking out of place without them? I hope not, because I’m in the process of ditching the accessories that don’t  fit me and am trusting that all of us who say we are following God will allow one another to do the same. I want to encourage the people around me to be who God has made them to be, even if that looks different. Even if it makes some of us uncomfortable. Let’s not force anyone to wear things that don’t fit them. Sometimes, as you can see from the photo, it just looks wrong.

Let’s Lean in Close and Listen

On this day, I feel like I should say something instead of just staying silent. I would prefer to stay silent, however, because the moment I open my mouth about this I’ll be slapped with a label, shoved over to one side of the culture war, have my spirituality questioned, and be viewed with wariness (or pity) by certain people – and if you’re one of those people, you’re hearing clanging alarm bells right now. All good reasons to end this post here, but I’m trying to learn courage and this will be a good push.

I have gay friends. Some of them are out and others are still inside. Some are single, and some are married. All of them I love dearly. Right now you might be focusing on the first three sentences of this paragraph, but please listen to the last sentence. I love all of them dearly. Many of them I have known since college, so we have a long history of friendship that goes way beyond their sexual orientation. We have laughed together, cried together, and talked openly about what it means to grow up in a part of the world that isn’t friendly (and often cruel) to gays and lesbians. We’ve talked about God and church and I’ve watched their pain and witnessed the hurt they’ve endured at the hands of people who claimed to “hate the sin and love the sinner.” They aren’t fooled. They know that there are plenty of people who identify the sinner as the sin. If I didn’t have these friends, maybe I would keep my mouth shut about this. But I have these friends and because I love them I’m speaking out.

I’m tired of this war. I’m weary of those who claim to be defending God’s position against homosexuality. I’m done with hearing about battles and the things we must fight against. There is a line in a U2 song that says, “Stop walking God across the road like He’s a little old lady.” Can we? Please? I think perhaps God sheds tears over how little we love and how much we preach. In his essay titled It is Time for the American Christian Church to Surrender the Gay Marriage Fight, Apologize, & Share Love, Ian Ebright writes:

What would it mean to those individuals willing to share that being gay is all that they’ve ever known, if members of the church would respond by wanting to hear more of their story rather than rushing to tell them its the wrong story to have?

Could it be time to close our mouths and listen? Maybe our gay friends have a story to tell and we should lean in close and listen carefully. Are we brave enough to do the leaning in? And do we love them enough to hear what is being said? It’s amazing what happens when we listen. I have a framed quote in my office that says, “It’s hard to hate anyone whose story you know.” The quote is attributed to Doris Bresnick-Perry who was born before the Holocaust in a small town with a large Jewish population in Eastern Europe. Maybe she knew something about slapping on a label without hearing the story.

It’s time to end this war. Time to stop shouting, preaching, and trying to help God cross the road. He’s already crossed it, far ahead of us. He’s leaning in closer than a heartbeat and listening to the stories of those He loves. And He’s waiting for us to catch up.

The Peddler’s Post

I used to buy my home decor items from a big box store, usually with a 20% coupon in hand. I’ve never fussed much over decor, so this worked fine and it helped fill our walls and shelves. At one point I had the same dining room print of giant fruit as three other people I knew, which seemed odd. But it was a great price and I’m a lazy shopper, so there it stayed. Then we started traveling, and it was great to pick up things here and there to replace the items purchased with the coupons. Away went the big box decor, and now many of these items are in storage for the apartments we will help our college kids furnish when they are out on their own. Although I somehow think both kids would prefer a blank wall to giant fruit.

So now, we have original paintings from China, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan. We have wall hangings from Russia and Colombia, vases from South Korea, carvings from Ghana, and an incredible painting above our fireplace from the U.S. – done by the artist C.S. Tomlin who also happened to be my kids’ art instructor in elementary school. We didn’t travel far for that one, but it’s my favorite.

I also used to purchase much of my  jewelry and purses from a big box store. I’m not a designer bag person, so this was fine and there is nothing quite like the smell of imitation leather. Then, I began to receive pieces of jewelry that rendered my “costume” jewelry to the junk drawer: a butterfly necklace given to me by cousins in honor of my mother, a pair of earrings my best friend purchased on a trip to Peru, a necklace Kyle bought for me on Alison’s birthland trip to China. I decided that these pieces trumped anything purchased at Target, so I reduced my jewelry inventory. Every piece of jewelry I wear has meaning, and I like that.

So why should you care about my home decor, jewelry, and purses? Two reasons:

First, I sincerely believe that life is too short and we should spend far less time shopping. Okay, I come at that with a bias because I hate shopping. But I also know that I’ve spent too much money on things that had little meaning simply to fill up spaces, when it would have been better to have a few things with great meaning. I’m working on that. Recently I purged a lot of that crap I bought over the years and it felt wonderfully freeing. And I did it knowing that I would not replace these items. If I’m going to have things surround me, then I want those things to have beautiful stories behind them that can be shared and remembered. We have two paintings from China that we purchased in 2001 from an artist who kept all his work under a bed in his apartment. When we told him we were interested in buying a piece of art, his wife scurried to the adjoining room and got down on her hands and knees and began pulling out stacks of his paintings.

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I look at those pieces every day and remember the province where my daughter was born. That’s meaningful.

The second reason I’m telling you about our house decor, jewelry, and purses, is because I have officially become a peddler of goods. Meaningful goods. Specifically, home decor, jewelry, and purses. Honestly, this is not my personality. I’m a horrible salesperson. I hate asking people to buy things because I know that I tend to run from people who ask me to buy things. I now notice those people who begin to back away from me when I start talking about how the Krobo bead bracelets help resource a school computer lab in Ghana, and the bags help support a seamstress apprentice in Ghana. They smile politely and I know what’s going through their mind: “Please don’t ask me to buy something from you.” So because we have this blog relationship-thing between us and you can click off this post at any moment during the sales pitch, you’re in the driver’s seat. But here goes:

You can buy silk string art pieces that were created by a street artist in Kumasi, Ghana named Emmanuel Tettah. I know him. He’s a good guy and he’s going to give half of the proceeds to Africana Children’s Education Fund (click here to see what we do.) If you purchase a piece of string art, I can provide you with endless stories of life-change that is happening for women and children in Ghana, and you can look at your piece of art every day and know that it has meaning.

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You can purchase Krobo bead bracelets with beads made in Ghana from recycled glass (bottles, jars). The creation of these beads is a long process and no two beads are exactly alike, which I love. Can’t find that in the big box store (or the jewelry store). Every penny of the purchase goes straight to help us continue building the computer lab for SDA School in Ankaase, Ghana. This village school had no access to computers, which does not prepare students for success. So we’re building a computer lab because receiving a quality education moves people up and out of poverty, in case you hadn’t heard. More about the lab here.

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And the bags. Before I tell you about these amazing bags, you should know that we are sold out but we’ll be bringing more back in June. To get you excited about what’s coming, here’s the story: My college roommate and dear friend, Steffani, designed these bags. When we parted ways after college, she went on to Tulane University and got an M.F.A. in Costume Design, then she went to Hollywood and designed clothes for movie stars and television shows (big names like Debra Winger and Third Rock from the Sun). I brag about her because she’s brilliant and talented. She is the only person I’ve ever known who sat on the floor of a college dorm and stitched clothes on a sewing machine. When I asked her to design a bag for our seamstresses in Ghana to stitch, she did it in about three weeks and sent us a prototype bag, instructions, and a pattern to take with us to Ghana. Since it is an original pattern, she even let us name the bag. I carry my Ankaase Bag every day and can’t imagine carrying anything else. When I look at it, I remember those apprentices at the seamstress shop on that red dirt village road, sitting outside with their hand crank sewing machines stitching these bags. I’ve never seen anything more amazing.

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You can learn more about how these bags help our seamstress apprentices here.

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So there it is, the peddler’s blog post. If I didn’t believe deeply in the meaning of these items, I wouldn’t have burdened you with 1,158 words about them (bless all of you who stuck with me to the end).

So here is where you can shop differently. And with meaning. So I give you permission to go shopping!

In Praise of Dumb Phones

I’ve been thinking about cell phones over the past week. Specifically, smart phones. For 12 year olds. It all started when our youngest and I were sitting at the dining room table working on jewelry to help raise money for the school in Africa. Suddenly, her nose got red and I saw tears in her eyes. She hates to cry in front of me, so she leaned her head back to try to keep the tears from sliding down her cheeks.

Me: Are you crying?

12 Year Old: Some kids at school are making fun of me.

(I thought I could guess where this conversation was headed, but I was wrong).

I put down what I was working on and looked in her eyes.

Me: Honey, why are other kids making fun of you?

12 Year Old: Because I don’t have a cell phone or an iPad. (The irony of this conversation and what we were working on at that moment was not lost on me.)

Me: Excuse me?

12 Year Old: It makes me sad.

Me: They’re making fun of you?

12 Year Old: And it’s annoying.

I shook my head because, honestly, I was confused.

Me: You actually have friends who are making fun of you because you don’t have a cell phone or an iPad?

I realized that I was a few steps behind in this conversation because tears were now streaming down her face and I was still trying to wrap my mind around what she had told me. When I was in sixth grade I was also made fun of at school, but it was because I wore gaucho pants with red Converse tennis shoes almost every day. Although that sounds comical, it hurt terribly when I realized kids were laughing behind my back, and so I don’t ever ignore the “making fun of me” conversation. But really, this one made no sense. Here was my beautiful, friendly, social, stylish daughter telling me that she was being teased because she didn’t own a cell phone or an iPad. Apparently kids bring these devices to school and flash them around like, oh, I don’t know…status symbols. In sixth grade.

Forgive me if I seem behind the times. We thought we were indulging our older kids when they were 13 and 14 and we bought a flip phone (with no texting capability) for them to share. And they weren’t allowed to take it to school. What has happened in nine years? So now, my kid is out of step because she isn’t carrying around a device on which she can access the Internet 24 hours a day. I know I sound like my mother, but I don’t care. After empathizing with my daughter’s feelings, I firmly explained to her why she was not going to get a smart phone for a few years. In the course of our conversation about all the “whys”, I told her this: Grownups have enough trouble behaving themselves on social media. I don’t expect that adolescent kids do any better.

There is something about social media sites that makes some people feel like they can say things and express opinions that should never be uttered in a face-to-face conversation. I’ve watched people slam other people in the comments on Facebook with an ugliness that makes me cringe. And I’ve seen exchanges (arguments) escalate until the original person who posted had to step in and ask that everyone please stop the conversation because they had not intended such ugliness to be splattered all over their page. This really isn’t intended to be a rant on Facebook behavior (although some might argue it’s time), but instead, a plea.

I have been a parent long enough to know better than to question, judge, or hand out opinions on anyone else’s parenting. I didn’t birth or adopt your kid, so it’s not my place to get into the business of how you raise your kid. But here is what I would ask: If you choose to get your 12-year-old a smart phone or a nifty tablet device, kindly inform your child that not all children have one. Let your child know that there are cruel parents out there depriving their kids of these necessities, and that instead of making fun of these poor souls, they should treat them nicely. Ask your child not to wave their electronics in the deprived children’s faces and then inquire of them why they do not own cool things. These deprived children are not going to take up the parent’s rally cry for no smart phones or tablets. Although my daughter seemed pretty okay with our logical reasons why she will not get a smart phone or tablet for a few years, I doubt she gathered her school friends around the next day and gave an eloquent, stirring speech about cyber-bullying and bad behavior on Facebook. I’m sure she didn’t inform them how much it costs for the data plan or that her parents would like to wait until she’s older before they have to endure her face buried in a screen at the dinner table every evening. She’s probably still slinking around the playground and hallways, avoiding the question, “Why don’t you have one of these?”

I’m chained to my smart phone, as is my husband and our oldest daughter. And it will be that way from now on because it appears these devices aren’t going anywhere. We can’t live without them, so why rush our children into this bondage as well? So I’m letting it be known that I will happily trot to the phone store this fall when our daughter starts middle school and buy her the dumbest phone on the market. I’m gathering she’ll be one of the very few at her school brandishing one of these terrible sliders or flips, so I’m preparing her for this and hoping the middle-schoolers don’t give her too much grief. Parents, if our kids end up in school together, thanks for giving your child a heads-up that not all kids with dumb phones are dumb. Just deprived.

Another Amazing Woman Whose Genes I Don’t Share

This is my Granny Flonnie – the grandmother with the most sing-song name a kid could ask for.

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Her maiden name was Cromwell, but do not mistake her for a Victorian-era shrinking violet. I suppose her given name was Florence, but no one ever, ever called her that. She was Flonnie, a woman who was over 40 years old when she had twin babies – a boy and a girl. The baby girl was my mother.

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The year was 1936, which still holds the record for the hottest summer in the U.S., and Flonnie had those two babies on the front porch while someone poured buckets of water on the wood to cool it down. My mother once told me that she and her brother weighed over seven pounds each when they were born and that sent a shiver across my spine. Thirteen months later Flonnie’s husband was killed by a drunk driver and she was left to raise six children alone. My mother and Uncle Bob were surprise babies, born 13 years after my Aunt Margaret, who was the youngest until the twins came along. So my grandmother, now a widowed mother, took a job at the school cafeteria and brought home the leftovers for dinner on many evenings. She raised her children and then when grandchildren began to come along, she helped take care of them too.

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She had developed diabetes by the time I was born and the circulation in her legs wasn’t good. She had a hard time getting around. When I was a baby, she came to visit once and spent an evening with me while my parents went out. They had put me to bed upstairs, assuring her that they wouldn’t be gone long and there would be no need for her to climb the stairs. But sometime during that evening I began to cry. She couldn’t make it up the stairs, and when they came home they found her sitting on the bottom step sobbing while I screamed in the room upstairs. She had tried to climb the stairs, but couldn’t make it. Not long after that she was confined to a wheelchair. Then, she went to a nursing home. This was the late 1960s when nursing homes were like…nursing homes, and that place is the setting for most of the memories of my Granny Flonnie. She aged quickly in that place, and most of what I remember is a metal bed in a small cinderblock room with a bell on the nightstand and another twin bed on the other side. No single room option in that nursing home.

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I’m not sure my grandmother had one easy moment in her life, but she didn’t seem to believe that she was entitled to easy moments. This is a big deal for me – people who have every right to throw themselves a pity party and don’t do it. My mother was this kind of person. I, however, have quite the comfortable life so I can’t compare myself to these women. But I want to. I want their courage and fortitude and the character to face challenges without pouting or stomping my feet. I don’t want to raise my voice to a whining pitch every time something doesn’t go my way. I want to stop obsessing over how good I look in the eyes of others and start looking into the eyes of others so that I can serve them. Sometimes I tell myself that if these women’s blood ran through my veins, then I could say that I quite naturally inherited all these attributes. They weren’t perfect women at all, but they did possess some character traits I’d like to claim as my own. But these women and I are not genetically linked. And yet, I know that doesn’t matter and so I’ve tried to walk in the footsteps of both of my grandmothers and my mother. And, more importantly, I’ve shared all these stories with my girls so that they will want to walk in those footsteps also. This is another big deal for me. May I say this: I don’t want my girls to be princesses. And I didn’t buy the t-shirt.

I was raised by women who did not quiver over hard times. They weren’t afraid to bring the leftovers home from the school cafeteria or wear homemade clothes. They got their hands dirty (my mother and father cleaned every single used brick for a house they built in the 1970s) and wore out their oven mitts taking meals to people who were sick. These are the women I long to emulate. In my book, these were real women who taught everyone around them how to be both gentle and tough at the same time. You can’t do much better than that.

The ring my grandmother is wearing in her nursing home bed is her wedding ring, given to her by the husband she lost. That ring is now in my jewelry box and I take it out every now and then and try it on (it’s too big for me) and imagine myself to have the amount of fortitude that was in the ring finger of my grandmother. I’d be lucky to have that much. Gentle and tough. I’m working on it.

Follow the Clothes, Part Two: The Purge

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It’s been closet-cleaning season at the Tresch house this week. To begin with, last Tuesday I filled two huge bags with clothes and hauled them to Goodwill, which lends itself to an amazing story, but be patient. Then, last night I went to that pesky book study again that I love/hate. This week we are examining ALL our possessions to see just how tied to them we really are. Of course, I already knew my answer: too much. Not only do we discuss our personal issues with possessions, but we talk about what Jesus has to say about all this stuff-love. Ouch. And then, as if that weren’t enough, we are supposed to come up with a plan for what exactly we’re going to do about each week’s excess. This week, three of us decided to purge 30 items a day. And yes, I willingly signed up for this.

So, here it is, Day One. And what did I decide to purge? Clothes, of course. Honestly, the purging thing is kind of addictive, but you must be careful that you don’t get on such a roll that you start giving away things that you might need (want). I’ve learned this lesson before, and my mother used to chide me for being too “eager to evict.” So I am going to be careful and particular with what goes into my 30-things-a-day pile. Especially particular.

I’m bothered by the idea that we’re giving away clothes that people in developing countries are paying for. My friend Brian did make some good points in the comments section of last week’s post, but I still tried to choose clothing that won’t add to the giant cubes that are making their way to Latin America and Africa. I really want to concentrate on what we (as developed countries) can do to encourage and sustain growth in the market sector of these (developing) countries. That seems fair, right?

But not easy.

I chose 30 pieces of clothing that were good quality and that I hope will be enjoyed by someone else. But here is what I realized as I purged: I must give careful thought to what I purchase at the outset, so that I avoid the cycle of buying cheap sale items on a whim that I don’t really care to keep. This is my problem, and maybe it’s yours. Ladies, do you shop at Target and find great deals you simply can’t pass up? Do you buy several of one type of clothing in various colors because it fits? Do you hit the sale racks at 80 percent off and not even try on the clothes because they are such a bargain? If so, chances are those clothes rarely stay in your closet longer than a year. Or if they do, you don’t wear them because you didn’t give your purchase careful thought and consideration. Do you know where your clothes were made? Some countries have lousy labor practices and the person who stitched your adorable tunic might work 14 hour days with conditions you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

So while I am committed to purging my clothes and getting educated about where they end up, I’m also going to make a promise to myself  that I will stop being ignorant about the process of purchasing clothes. I will find manufacturing companies that treat their employees well, and I will start by spending some time on the Free2Work website.

But as long as I still have this closet full of clothing, I will continue to purge. Maybe great stories like this one will come out it:

Last week, we lost one of our seamstress apprentices in our ACEF Women’s Sustainability Program, and we needed to replace her with another apprentice so that we didn’t interrupt sponsorship. Unfortunately, we needed $100 to pay for the new apprentice’s entry fee. This all transpired on Friday morning, the same day I took my two overstuffed bags of donated clothing to a good home. The good folks who sort clothing there were going through the donations, and they came across a pair of jeans that was in one of my bags. I was volunteering there on Friday, and one of them came out holding up my jeans.

“Are these yours?” Jonalyn asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Guess what we found in them?” she asked, and held up what was in the back pocket.

Two $50 bills.

Folks, this does not happen to me. I almost never find a stray dollar in any of my pockets because I am cheap, cheap, cheap. And so $100 in a pocket of my jeans simply does not compute. But this morning it made perfect sense. And if I had not been doing that pesky book study, I would have never cleaned out my closet. And because those jeans are a size I will not wear again, I would have never had occasion to look in the pocket.

And now, Francisca, our new apprentice in Ghana, has started her apprenticeship and is on her way to a new life. By the way, she is 17, has lost both her parents, and lives in a one-room dwelling with her grandmother and five siblings. I think she needed that mysterious $100 way more than I did.

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So I’m thinking that there is a lesson here. has something to teach me as my friends and I work our way through this study: Give it the crap away. You’ll be fine without it.

Well, I’m not going to purge it all, but I am unloading 30 items a day for one week. And I’m expecting more great stories as I continue to unload my excess.

Follow the Clothes, Part One

I’ve been wanting to write about clothes for a while, but it’s come to the surface thanks to Tuesday nights.

On Tuesdays, I go to a book study where some friends and I talk about the excess in our lives (food, possessions, media…clothes) and how we can fight against our Western culture’s message that we always need more. This week we talked about clothes and we were given the simple – albeit painful – assignment of counting the clothes in our closet. Ugh. I shall not expose the number, but I will tell you that after completing the assignment, I immediately began a purge session which resulted in four bags of clothing that I will take to Goodwill on Friday. Great, right? Yes, mostly. But it’s complicated.

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For about a year, I have greatly reduced the amount of clothing I purchase – to the tune of only about three pieces each season of new, purchased clothing (including shoes). Don’t you dare be a bit impressed because before I went on this clothes-buying sabbatical, I had accumulated a ridiculously large wardrobe. Ridiculously. Large. So I had room to purge. But honestly, my purging this week was really just trimming the fat. It was mostly the rejects that I stuffed into the bags – old t-shirts, some ragged jeans that don’t fit, boots that have seen better days. Some of these items will go on the racks at the Clothing Center. And the rest?

When you put your clothes in bags to carry to the big donation centers, you’re assuming that your items will be passed on to someone in need in your community. But everyone else is stuffing their clothing into bags too, and so the donation centers are absolutely inundated. Most of what they receive they don’t keep. A large Salvation Army donation processing center (which has smaller feeder locations) can process an average of five tons of outcast clothing every single day of the year. Only a tiny fraction of these end up at the donation store and upon their arrival have about one month to sell before they are pulled. And here is where it gets interesting. Those unwanted clothes (twice rejected) along with other items that never make the store in the first place, are pushed into a compressor that squeezes out neat cubes of secondhand clothing that weigh a half of ton each. Then those cubes are stacked high. One main distribution center for Salvation Army builds a wall made of 18 tons, or 36 bales of unwanted clothing every three days. And that’s just one location in one city. Use your imagination to picture how walls of cast-off clothing are being built in donation centers across the country.

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From there, where do these cubes travel? In case you didn’t know it, there are over a thousand textile processors that recycle clothes in a variety of ways. They come to the rescue of the donation centers like Goodwill and Salvation Army and take the junk off their hands and pay, oh, maybe three cents a pound. Yes, the waters of charity and tax write-offs get a little murky here, but don’t think about that. We’ll just continue our story. According to New York Times reporter George Packer, in his classic piece: “How Susie Bayer’s T-Shirt Ended Up on Yusuf Mama’s Back”, at many textile recycling companies, there are four export classifications: “Premium” goes to Asia and Latin America; Africa A (the clothes that have lost some brightness) goes to the better-off African countries like Kenya; Africa B (clothes with a stain or small hole) goes to the continent’s disaster areas such as DRC or Angola. Oh, and then there’s the Wiper Rag classification where they transform our clothing into cleaning cloths. To sell. After the clothes have been designated, they travel…again. Most of them go here:

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Packer writes,

If you’ve ever left a bag of clothes outside the Salvation Army or given to a local church drive, chances are that you’ve dressed an African.

Trade vendors wait at airports to sort through our stuff so they can haul it to local markets and make a buck. And what’s so bad about that? Nothing, until you begin to peel back the layers.Yes, people in the Global South are able to purchase our used clothing cheaper in the market than they would from say, a local textile manufacturer or a local seamstress. The local textile manufacturing industry in Africa is on life-support. In Ghana, there were over 20 textile firms that employed more than 25,000 people in the last two decades. Now the country has only four textile factories employing less than 3,000 Ghanaians. Is there a cause and effect going on here? Honestly, I don’t know, but I have a guess. And although local seamstresses make a decent living stitching the beautiful wax fabric dresses, skirts, and shirts that are still popular traditional clothing, they are always competing with the second-hand market vendors. If you could buy your little girl a pair of cheap studded jeans and a t-shirt that says “Flirt” on it for a fraction of the cost of a traditional wax fabric dress, maybe you’d take that option.

Children across the continent wear our cast-offs. While these clothes may be a good deal for struggling families in developing countries in the short-run, this is not a viable solution for the long-term economy of a continent. Developing countries need to have a healthy textile manufacturing industry to employ people and lower the cost of goods – not a steady stream of our cheap giveaway clothes hauled over in bales to sell at the local market. Most of the time, Africans assume the clothing was sold in the first place. When they hear it was given away, they bristle and wonder why they are having to pay for it.

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It’s an unfair business filled with some shady business dealings on the back end, and the people who shop the secondhand goods at the market are paying money they barely have for clothes that we were content to throw out. Something about it reminds me that the world can be a very unjust place for those with few resources and a lack of options. So how can one person like me possibly make a difference in a sea of 2.5 billion pounds of donated clothing? I can’t. But I can make a difference in my own sea of clothing. I’ve listed a few good options for places you might consider taking your cast-off clothing. For now, I think it’s good for you and I to at least think about where our unwanted clothing will most likely end up.

Is there something we can do about this on the front end? I’ll give you a hint what’s coming in the next post with this shocking statistic: Americans spent roughly $340 billion on clothing last year – about 25 percent of the global market. I’ve purged. And I still have a closet full of clothes – most of which I have purchased “on sale.” This just might be the best moment of my fashion-less statement life.

This Scarf and These Women

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I made this scarf yesterday. This is quite possibly the ugliest scarf that has ever been stitched anywhere, anytime, any place. Yes, the material is nice – you can’t go wrong with yellow and flowers – however, if you held it in your hands and looked at it closely, you would be very sad for me. It’s my first sewing project, and I think it’s clear that a seamstress I am not.

But these two ladies are on their way to becoming professional seamstresses and yesterday was their first day of apprenticeship at their sewing shop/school in Ankaase, Ghana. And so I stitched that messy scarf in honor of them.

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I decided that if Afia and Doris were going to learn to sew using hand-crank Butterfly sewing machines and sweating their way through days in this un-airconditioned seamstress shop, then I could learn something about sewing as well. I want to be able to have a conversation with them about sewing when I visit Ghana in May, and until about three weeks ago I knew almost nothing about it. My mother tried, bless her. But as young girl, I was more interested in writing and reading and daydreaming than learning a skill that seemed so far beyond my natural abilities. Yesterday I had to fight  the urge to run out of my newly designated sewing room and throw myself back in front of the computer. But instead, I finished that devilish scarf and conquered the evil Singer ZigZag machine, circa 1970.

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Actually, the machine was free and it’s a cabinet model, which means it came with a desk that it folds into when not in use (which might be most of the time – just kidding). I am grateful for my machine because I absolutely love free stuff. I spent the first day with it learning how to thread it, which is no easy task. I’ve also learned how to wind the bobbin, replace the bobbin, and turn the hand wheel toward me ever so slowly to pull up the bobbin thread from under the throat plate below. If all of this means nothing to you, then I’m sorry. I’m just showing off. The truth is, I’ve spent quite a bit of time troubleshooting and pouring over this riveting piece of work:

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I somehow feel at one with the girls in the photo as I read all about flexi-stitch discs. Switch my stitch design with the touch of a button? No ma’am. That’s for the divas with the fancy-schmansy machines purchased within the past two decades. The gals from 1970 and I have discs that must be changed in and out of the machine in four easy steps. The discs are stored in the drawer of my sewing cabinet. I have yet to touch them because after reading that four-step process, I decided to stick with the straight-stitch. For now.

And just to keep things extra nostalgic, I’m using my mother’s sewing basket.

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Here’s a good story: My parents were married in 1955 and for their first Christmas as a married couple, Dad gave Mom this sewing basket. She cried. He thought that he had scored big, but unfortunately she was crying because receiving a sewing basket in 1955 as a gift from your husband was sort of like receiving an iron skillet. It was a necessity and did not send a message of romantic love, but rather a reminder that tomorrow you would be getting busy with the chores. Dad was a good man, and he learned his lesson well. I think he gave her perfume every Christmas from that point forward. But she never upgraded the sewing basket. When I opened it a few weeks ago, it still had all her sewing items in it – scissors, buttons, measuring tape, zippers, fabric scraps, etc. And I smelled the faint scent of my mother’s perfume – the kind Dad gave her every Christmas. I cried a little and left it alone, deciding that there will be a better day go through the basket. I don’t need most of that stuff yet anyway just to make ugly scarves from clearance fabric.

I’m not sure at this point if I’m more excited about the sewing or more charged up to win my victory over the machine. Either way, I’m not giving up. And I’m praying for our seamstress apprentices. For me, sewing is just a whim. I’ll make some scarves, maybe convert some t-shirts into shopping bags (found that easy-to-do project from Martha Stewart, go figure). But for our seamstress apprentices, this is an opportunity for a changed life. They’re stepping into a career, which for a woman in Ghana is like climbing a steep mountain. Fortunately, our apprentices have lots of climbing support from some other seamstresses who live here in the U.S. Thank you Diana and Janet for sponsoring them! I know that by next week, our apprentices will have far surpassed my skill level – in fact, that may have actually happened today. I’m so happy for them and excited for what the future holds.

And in May, I think I’ll take my sorry little scarf to Ghana so the three of us can have a good laugh.

The Seamstress Apprentices

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I wrote in a previous post that I don’t sew. My mother, however, was a dedicated seamstress for our family and she made quite a few of my clothes until I reached sixth grade and put my foot down: no more homemade attire. The wide-legged brown pants she made me that year garnered no compliments but only snide comments from peers concerning elephant legs. I was an adolescent with stocky thighs and calves (still have ’em) and so these were mortifying moments. I put the pants in the hand-me-down bag as soon as I got home and nicely requested to my mother that she not make me any more clothes. As I made my request, I ignored the thought of her hunched over that old black Singer sewing machine that was on the dining room table during sewing weeks. Of course, now that memory makes me only want to hug every homemade article of clothing my mother stitched – if only I still had even one of them.

I also wrote in a previous post that I was traveling to Ghana in honor of my mother. That first trip I took last May had my mother’s memory wrapped all around it for reasons I could not really explain. Now, I think have an explanation.

I returned to Ghana exactly two months ago and was sitting in the Methodist church in the village waiting for the services to begin. One of the pastors came to speak with me before the service to let me know that she had arranged a meeting of women who were interested in learning a skill: sewing. Word spreads fast in African villages and she had heard that we were interested in helping women begin small businesses that might help bring steady income to their families. “There will be many women here on Friday at 10 a.m. We told them you were looking for women who wanted to sew.”

That was true, but we were hoping to quietly find a couple of women we could match with experienced seamstresses who would help them learn to sew. We didn’t have a program yet, so we didn’t want to promise anything. However, it now seemed that a large group of women would be convening at the church in five days expecting something. I tried to explain our dilemma to the pastor, but she shook her head politely. “I’m sorry, the meeting has already been set.” Later in the week I tried again to cancel the meeting, but the pastor did not budge. The meeting, she repeated in her very measured and polite voice, “has already been set.”

So I gave in and decided that we would move forward because it seemed clear that the meeting had already been set.

On Thursday, the pastor told me that she had been called to another village for a meeting and would not be able to attend the Friday meeting with the hopeful seamstress apprentices. “I can’t speak Twi,” I reminded her, as if she needed me to point that out. “I’ll need a translator.” She promised she would arrange to have one there. In my mind, I threw my hands up in the air even further. This was beginning to feel like a disaster. Eighteen women were going to show up and expect me to offer them some process to start a sewing business. We had nothing to offer. We had made a connection with only one professional seamstress and her apprentice slots were already filled.

There is that moment when you realize that something is completely out of your control. These are hard moments for me, because I mostly have a death grip on control – or at least I think I do.

On January 7, Afia Asantewaa and Doris Boakye will begin their seamstress apprenticeship in the shop of Felicia Lumbor in the village of Ankaase, Ghana. They will be supported by my friends Diana and Janet. And through the sale of our Ankaase bags, Isaac will be able to purchase each of them a chair, scissors, measuring tape, machine oil, and pins, and a black Singer sewing machine just like the one my mother used. She never upgraded her machine, and now I’m thankful. Sometimes the very best gifts don’t come wrapped up in packages and tied with a bow. Sometimes we don’t even recognize them as gifts. They might come in the form of a meeting that “has already been set”, a tiny sewing shop on the red-dirt streets of an African village, and two friends who opened their hearts to two women they might never meet.

If I could sew, I would stitch a pair of brown pants on my mother’s old Singer in honor of the Ankaase Seamstress Apprentice Program. And I would wear those wide-legged pants proudly.

Apprentice Afia Asantewaa Apprentice Afia Asantewaa
Apprentice Doris Boakye Apprentice Doris Boakye
IMG_0013 Seamstress Felicia Lumbor

Elves, Shelves, and Bearded Old Men

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Santa has disappeared from our house. By that, I mean that we no longer have children who believe that Santa climbs down the chimney, delivers the gifts, and eats the cookies.

Here’s a secret: I’m a little bit happy about that.

Once the older two kids finally swallowed hard and accepted reality, it was hard to keep playing up Santa for the youngest. We were sloppy about it and slipped up so many times that I’m sure Alison’s been playing along since she was about five. When she was nine, about a month before Christmas, she sat with me in front of the fire and said, “Oh, just so you know, I don’t believe in Santa anymore. You don’t have to keep talking about him.” She never liked Santa. She was terrified of him that very first Christmas after we brought her home, and she has never warmed up to him. Not only did she adamantly refuse to sit in his lap, but she gave him the cold shoulder at parties. She was not interested in his candy, nor his invitations to “tell me what you want.” And then, there he was at the holiday parade the other night, the grand finale, waving to the adoring crowds. “I never cared much for him,” Alison stated. She should have gone ahead and finished her statement with, “I’m glad he’s out of my life.”

I miss the days of sneaking the gifts out and eating the cookies. Kyle always wrote a letter (as Santa). It was tradition.

So I’ve been mildly interested in the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon and wondered if we would have incorporated that tradition into our Santa ruse. It’s been around a few years, I know, but I’m a little slow on the uptake. So I went to the official website to learn about these watchful elves:

The tradition begins when Santa sends his scout elves out to Elf Adoption Centers. Waiting for their families to bring them home, these patient elves hibernate until their family reads The Elf on the Shelf, gives their elf a very special name, and registers their adoption online. Once named, each scout elf will receive its Christmas magic and become a part of the family’s Christmas each and every year.  

Basically, these little adopted elves don’t stay on the shelf. They move around the house, making sure the kiddies are nice, not naughty. They record good deeds and tattle to Santa about the bad deeds…every night. Apparently, when you’re in your home, there is no escaping these elves. And I’m guessing they take their jobs quite seriously. So does Carol Aebersold and her daughters, the co-authors and CFO of the Elf on the Shelf corporation. The women have taken Christmas magic to new heights. “We’re ambassadors for Santa,” daughter Chanda says.

Now, I hesitate to go much further with this because I know many families who have little elves sliding around their house watching the kids and making reports. I haven’t talked with all of these children, but I suspect that this little game is enjoyable or else the Elf on the Shelf corporation would not be doing such a profitable business. (By the way, the Clause Couture Collection 2012 Elf Scout Skirt is sold out, in case you were wondering.) And I’m confident that at some point in our Santa tradition we would have given the elf a whirl at our house. In fact, we could have probably used something like this with unnamed eldest son. What better way to take the pressure off the all-consuming parental responsibility of making sure a child behaves than to shovel some of that off onto an innocent elf? I certainly got tired of being Santa’s eyes and ears. Children are forever asking, “How does Santa know if I’m being good?” And of course we had no other brilliant answer than, “Oh, he knows.” The elf, however, does the dirty work and makes sure that The Big Man knows.

But would the elf have worked with Alison? Not a chance. For a kid who had already written Santa off, an elf on the shelf would have been yet another reason to reject the jolly old man. Not only was Santa creepy, but now he had a mole.

Well, we’ll never be certain if the elf would have been welcomed into our home. Santa has left this building. But if things get ugly around here, I’m dusting a place off the mantle just in case we need to bring in back-up. You never know.

World AIDS Day: Remembering Our Girl and an Unknown Victim

It’s World AIDS Day.

I’m never really sure what I am supposed to do on these days (Earth Day, World Cancer Day, World Mental Health Day, et. al). There is a day for everything, and to be honest I’ve never paid much attention to World AIDS Day. Why? Because AIDS had never hit close to home. I didn’t have a friend or family member die of AIDS, nor did I know anyone who is HIV-positive.

Until now.

We’ll call her Mary. I can’t give you her real name or post her photo because she is a child. She lives in Africa where about 23 million other people are living with HIV/AIDS. Mary is beautiful and has a smile that belies her horrific childhood. We sponsor her through a wonderful organization that is making sure she receives her antiretroviral medicine every day, which, if continued, will give her a chance for a long life. Thank God. Only about half of the people who live with HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa receive antiretrovirals, despite the fact that they are inexpensive ($100 for a year’s supply) and very easy to take (our girl pops a pill in her mouth every day and goes on to school). While the overall growth of the epidemic has plateaued in recent years and the number of new HIV infection has declined, the end of the tragedy is still far away. Meanwhile, entire countries in Africa are devastated by the disease, and millions of children are orphans because of it.

So it might be good to take just a moment on this day as I sit with my healthy daughter (who is about Mary’s age), and think about what AIDS is doing to families and children across the globe. It’s interesting that World AIDS Day falls on December 1, which is the day before Kyle will fly into Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In a more distant way, AIDS also touched our lives here five years ago. During Kyle’s first trip to Ethiopia in 2007, he encountered a woman in a hut, lying on a bed while her sister quietly cried outside. The woman, bone thin and too weak to walk, was dying of AIDS. Kyle visited this woman with a group who regularly checked on the many AIDS victims outside a remote village to do what they could to ease the process of dying.

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The woman, wrapped in white, could barely sit up, and when the group determined that it was time to get her to the village to find treatment for her, one of the workers loaded her on her back and began the trek into the village.

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It was too late for the woman. She left behind a sobbing sister and a young child. This story is still repeated in places all over the world, but most often in Sub-Saharan Africa where the inexpensive treatment for HIV just doesn’t reach many of those who need it. What keeps these anti-retroviral drugs from the people who need them is a combination of many factors that I won’t go into here, but most of them aren’t anything that couldn’t be overcome if enough people stood up and echoed the statement: “Where you are born shouldn’t dictate whether you live or die.” Our own government helps provide these life-saving drugs to people in developing countries, but guess where big budget cuts will come in if we topple over The Fiscal Cliff. Many of us have enough worry about what cliff-falling will do here at home, but if you believe that we are to do justice everywhere, not just in our own backyard, then it should matter that the cuts will take away life-saving drugs from people who need them. You can read an excellent summary (in layperson language) of budget cuts in this article and how they will affect the aid our government provides to the world’s poorest. Oh, and in case you’re worried that our government has been throwing a lot of money at global aid problems and you’re of the opinion we should be spending that money here at home, the money we give to these much-needed world aid programs only comprises .75 percent of the overall U.S. federal budget. Don’t worry, we’re not being too generous.

If I had not seen the faces of these women and our girl Mary (by the way, 6 out of 10 HIV-positive people in Sub-Saharan Africa are women), then this day might slide past me without notice. But I’m noticing, remembering, and taking action. I’m also praying that Mary’s antiretroviral drugs will still be accessible to her if the worst happens and our government, and other governments, make deep cuts to global aid. Suddenly, these things matter. And World AIDS Day makes sense.

Guess what? Your voice is powerful. Somehow we think that we’ve lost our ability to be heard by our leaders, but that isn’t true. We elected them. They listen. Here’s an easy way to let your voice be heard. Go here. It’s the ONE campaign website where you can sign a petition that will be delivered to your congressman and it says this:

Dear Congress: Protect our investment in life-saving development programs, such as those that fight HIV/AIDS, childhood diseases, and hunger, by preserving the International Affairs account.

It takes about 15 seconds unless you type dreadfully slow, and then you might add another five seconds. If you aren’t affected by the AIDS epidemic, say a quick prayer of thanks, and then do something for the millions – most of them “the least of these” – who are.

Dear Erin: A Birthday Letter on the Occasion of Turning 21

Dear Erin,

This is your birthday, and I’m writing you an open letter. Yes, I could have done this privately – printed it out and tucked it in your birthday card – but you are a little bit like me and you lose things easily. So this way, we both know where the letter is: parked on my blog for all the world to see. But I promise not to embarrass you. If fact, this will be pretty short and sweet (insert smiling emoticon here).

You were born 21 years ago today. You came out screaming like a mad woman and kept it up for four straight months. Your face was purple with rage and you didn’t sleep longer than 90 minutes at a time. (See I told you that I wasn’t going to embarrass you.) I thought we were going to have to send you to live at your grandparent’s house, or just pass you around to stay with different families who had not yet endured your wrath. The problem was, I had given birth to a little boy nineteen months earlier who rarely cried and slept through the night at eight days old. We thought you might do this also. We looked forward to your birth with anticipation, and then it dawned on us as the weeks passed that perhaps you were going to be, well, different. You weren’t going to be a carbon copy of your brother. You wanted us to know that just because your birth followed his in short order, this did not mean that we would produce two identical babies. We finally got this message loud and clear by month four of your life. And then, you were satisfied. You had delivered your message and a silent truce was arranged between you and us. You stopped screaming and we stopped expecting you to be the baby we had planned for you to be.

And the story has played out pretty much like that for 21 years. You made sure, from the very beginning, that we knew you were going to be your own person. You’ve reminded us of that in much sweeter ways after the first four months. In fact, after you delivered your message, you’ve been quite delightful. The few times that we’ve butted heads, it’s because I kept expecting you to walk a path that I had laid out in my head. But you’ve always had your own path in mind and you’ve walked it. And now, you are 21 years old and I’m amazed at the person you have become without me hovering over you to make sure you ended up doing things our way. My way. You know I like to help people, fix things, control moments, and gently lead toward the decision I think is best. You must have been aware of this on November 24, 1991, when you came into this world to deliver the clear message: I am here to be Erin. And I’m going to go ahead and be Erin because I don’t know how, nor do I care to be anyone else.  

As it turns out, I love who you have become. You have tenacity, stubbornness, and a mile-wide streak of individuality. Sometimes I wanted you to blend in so you wouldn’t get hurt, but you weren’t worried about that. And so neither am I. You are still walking your own path. And you’re still delivering the message that Erin will most definitely be Erin.

Thank God.

Happy Birthday daughter.

Before the Madness Begins

Three days before Halloween someone in our neighborhood put up their Christmas lights, which was far more frightening than any ghoul or goblin that roamed the streets on October 31st. And a few weeks after Halloween we went to a department store to buy Kyle some “business casual” pants and were accosted by snowflake streamers and serenaded by Let it Snow. Is there anything else that needs to be said about how we should gear down our holiday madness? It seems that around this time of year there are countless articles, posts, news reports, and regular folks like me lamenting about how we have taken this too far.

So, in the spirit of it all, I’m going add to the word count and write about gearing down for the holidays because every year I need to hear it. I get swept up in all the hype and over-the-top expectations. I actually believe that: I should send out the most creative Christmas card (with the perfect family photo); I should have Christmas décor in every room and it should different and better than last year; I should buy gifts that make people weep and shout for joy; I should make it the best Christmas ever for every single person in my family – and perhaps in my extended family. One year, I even bought Christmas bedding from top to bottom for the out-of-town family that was coming in so that they would be literally wrapped up in holiday while they were nestled all snug in their beds. Nothing wrong with any of these things, but I’ve determined for myself that I can’t – and shouldn’t – do them all.

Everyone who dares to snarl at how over-marketed and under-enjoyed the holidays have become runs the risks of being branded a Scrooge. So be it. I’ve wasted a lot of time, money, and energy turning what should be a beautiful celebration into a stressful production. I’ve had too many holidays that left me with the feeling that I had completely missed the point. Since I’m trying to learn what it means to live simply, think of this post as a conversation. Tell me what you’re doing to simplify the holidays. And quid pro quo – I’ll go ahead and give you my list:

  • At the very top of my list is this: I am going to enjoy Thanksgiving all weekend, so don’t expect me to join in any Christmas hype before Monday, November 26. I want to spend the weekend being grateful for what I have. I don’t do that nearly enough during the year, and so when there is holiday that is specifically designed for that purpose, I’m taking it.
  • I will carefully choose my social engagements this holiday season. I do not have to attend every holiday gathering. All the parties, open houses, dinners and white elephant exchanges will go on without me. I have a few will-not-miss events that I have chosen carefully. I want these to add to the spirit of the season, not drain it out of me.
  •  My kids will not get piles of presents they did not ask for. Each of them will be given a list of a) one thing they want, b) one thing they need c) one thing they will give. This last one involves a $50 handout from us that they are then required to give to the charity of their choice. If that little list sounds unfair, I can only tell you that after almost 23 years of parenting I’ve learned that it is not my job to make my children happy, but to teach them – as best I can – how to take their eyes off themselves so that they can learn how to be happy. Besides, they have grandparents. They’ll be fine.
  • I will do my best not to join in the crazy holiday shopping. Last year I wrote about how to shop differently and I’m going to do my best to carry forward with that. It’s not always easy. I tend to procrastinate (a fabulous way to complicate your life, by the way) and find myself at the Big Box getting a last-minute generic gift. If you see me there, don’t judge; just know that I did, indeed, procrastinate which took me on an unfortunate detour. It’s a journey folks. We learn as we go.

Before the madness begins, I hope tomorrow is a quiet day of reflecting on all that we have been given and then lifting up our lists with a humble prayer of gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Another Year, Another Sigh.

Well, here we are again. Another birthday for the third and youngest of our children – the now 12-year-old. The clock ticks and she insists on growing a year older every time we turn around. Honestly, weren’t we just here? Didn’t I just do a post about the 11th birthday party and how she was growing up so fast and how time flies? Didn’t Kyle and I just sing the birthday song and then privately lament about how we were hurtling toward being empty-nesters. “No!” we then shouted. “Would someone please stop this train!” So it’s been 12 months? Are we sure about that?

But the train rolls on down the tracks. And she is almost taller than me, which is not saying much but it’s a milestone I will not like.

The big kids are out of the house and for this we give much thanks. They have moved on to college with the understanding that we do not want them back. We love them more than our own lives, but we want them to start their own lives…under another roof. If you have not yet sent your child off to college or out in the world yet, you won’t understand this and I will come off sounding cold and heartless. If you have sent your child off to college or out into the world, you will understand this and nod along in agreement and with amens.

But the youngest is different. Perhaps we will do a little dance when she moves out, but it will represent the end of an era that will make us a bit morose. We see that now with everything that she gives up. No more trick-or-treating next year? Well, that’s the end of the dressing-up-for-candy era. No more Santa Claus? (happened several years ago) That’s the last of the sneaking-the-gifts-out-after-midnight-and-eating-the-cookies-off-the hearth-era. And we’ve lost the toy aisle and most Pixar movies and little-kid clothes from L.L. Bean.

And yet, we celebrate.

But not without a blog post (you can count on it every year) that includes a little nostalgia. I love my life, but I sometimes feel wistful about the days when it was noisy and cluttered and chaotic.

And yet, we celebrate.

We celebrate because those kids who were once under our roof have turned out to be people we would choose to make friends with and immediately invite over for dinner. They are all creative and funny and edgy. All things good.

So we’ll present a cake to the youngest, push the numbered candles down into the icing, and sing our hearts out again. And we’ll sigh a little bit when it’s all over because we know that when we turn back around, another year will have rushed by and she’ll be 13. And I’ll write this blog post all over again.

But for now, Happy Birthday Alison.

Shop Differently: Krobo Bead Bracelets

I don’t like to be the one to say it, but this a good time to start your holiday shopping. There are 49 days left. And if you have a mother, wife, daughter, aunt, et.al (females), then I’m going to shamelessly tell you that I have something for you to purchase and give them.

I’m not much of a jewelry girl, so I only wear pieces that have a great story behind them. Of course, I wear a ring my husband gave me as a symbol of his commitment to me in marriage, and believe me, that’s a great story. I have a beautiful butterfly necklace that my cousins gave me on the day of my mother’s funeral, because we all knew that – finally – Mom was freed from the cocoon of disease. I wear a pair of earrings that my best friend found on a mission trip to Peru that were made by women in fair trade markets. I also wear a necklace with tiny wood beads (they still smell woodsy) that I purchased on our birthland tour in China last year. On that necklace, I have added a small charm with the shape of Africa on it. These two places – Africa and China – are settled deep in my soul. And now, I wear a bracelet that is strung with beautiful, rustic African beads made in Ghana.

These are Krobo beads, and of course, there is a story behind them.

If you’ve been reading my blog posts, then you know that I’ve become connected with this amazing African village, Ankaase, Ghana, where the dirt is red, the air is muggy, the needs are overwhelming, and the people are so gracious and friendly that it turns everything I know upside down. Somewhere between May and October, God wrecked me for this village and the people. I’m now wrapped around six children and their families, a village school, three women who want to become seamstress apprentices, and – truth be told – the rest of the people in Ankaase that I have yet to meet. I don’t have a good way to explain this. I feel as if I’ve been picked up, moved over, and and set back down.

I discovered these beads when my friends Peter and Anna brought me a gift on a visit to Tulsa last July. It was a Krobo Bead bracelet strung with these funky African beads that jumbled together perfectly to create something beautiful. I slipped the bracelet on my wrist, wore it every day, and then decided to do some research.

Here’s a quick course in Krobo beads: They are made in Ghana by artisans who have been handed down the craft through the generations. These artisans create the beads, not inside factories, but using an outdoor oven usually hand constructed from mud. The process goes like this: gather old glass (beer or Milk of Magnesia bottles or Ponds cold cream jars work well), crush the glass into a fine powder and mix it with ceramic dye to make a mixture that is then poured into small molds. Insert a stick from the cassava plant into the middle of each mold mixture, slide the molds into the clay oven with a large spatula, and fire the mixture into a putty-consistency. Then, slide the molds back out, carefully remove each bead from the mold, remove the cassava stick, let the beads cool, wash them, and then begin the paint process. Each layer of paint must be fired, so this is a long, detailed process. The designs are highly individualized, so no two beads are alike.

So Alison and I are making Krobo bead bracelets. We use beads I have purchased in Ghana, and also beads that my friend Melody sells through her sustainability organization in Somanya, Ghana. And we’re selling the bracelets for this purpose:

Here is the SDA School

Here are some students in the SDA School

The government of Ghana mandates that these students take a course called Information and Technology, which focuses on learning computers. That’s a good thing. Every young person, whether they live in Africa or North America, is going to have a better chance to move forward in the world if they have a working knowledge of how to use a computer. Duh. The not-so-good part of this story is that the government of Ghana does not provide schools with computers, so the instructors were teaching computers using a blackboard. Students would sit like this and watch a teacher scribble computer lessons with chalk on a board and these same students had never put their hands on a computer.

How hard can it be to acquire some funds and computers for this school? As it turns out, it wasn’t so difficult. When people learned of the need, they gave, and in three weeks ago we packed six computers in an action packer and hauled them to Ankaase, Ghana. The entire village was pretty excited.

And very grateful.

But also realistic.

They need more computers. They need printers. They need modems (quality IT education must include teaching students to navigate the Internet for additional learning opportunities and research). They need a computer lab that every student in the school can utilize, and a lab that is also open to the entire community. That’s our big dream. And it’s possible.

That’s why we’re selling Krobo Bead bracelets. We want to continue to build this computer lab. The beginnings of this small lab are beautiful.

Here’s a news story that aired last Friday on the computer lab celebration. My friends will tell you I hate the camera, but I did it for the kids.

We don’t want to stop here. If we believe that the children in our U.S. school communities deserve the best resources for learning, then we must believe these children in Ankaase, Ghana are deserving of the same. Ask a child – any child – in this village what school means to them and they’ll be able to tell you. It means the chance to have a better life. They don’t take it for granted. This truth is embedded deep within them and school is where they want to be. For most, it’s their only chance.

So would you consider purchasing a Krobo Bead bracelet? Every cent of this $20 purchase will go toward completing the computer lab. Every 14 bracelets sold will fund a computer. Every 7 bracelets sold will fund a printer. Every 5 bracelets sold will fund Microsoft Office 2010 for a computer. Every 2 bracelets sold will fund a modem for a computer. And every 1 bracelet sold goes toward the purchase of one of these items. I’m scrambling to get these on a store for easier purchase, but for now you can find them here. We’re doing business the old-fashioned way for another week, and then they will be available on StoreEnvy.com where you can pay with a credit card through PayPal. The bracelets come boxed for gift-giving (or if you buy it yourself, take it out, put it on, and save the box for something else). They also include a card to explain that all proceeds go toward the completion of a computer lab for the children of SDA School. These bracelets are a perfect holiday gift and a way to shop differently this holiday season.

And this is not the only product we’re selling to help you shop differently. Stay tuned for another opportunity that has a great story behind it. In the meantime, however, go shopping!

Thoughts on a Hurricane

On our return trip from Ghana Sunday afternoon, I barely escaped New York’s JFK airport ahead of Sandy. Having just flown in from the other side of the world, I didn’t know there was a hurricane brewing. We heard about Sandy as soon as we hit the ground in NYC and we tried to process the possibility of such devastation: the crush of water leveling homes; the dangerous winds that could blow automobiles off the road; the hundreds of thousands who were going to be without power (it’s still 5 million without power as of today); the lives that might be lost. I arrived home on Sunday evening just in time to see the coverage on Sandy begin. While Alison and Kyle combed the neighborhood for candy last night, I sat in front of CNN and watched with disbelief. The terror of a natural disaster doesn’t respect the state, country, or continental lines that have been drawn by mere mortals. I witnessed people in distress and struggling to survive in Ghana, then came home to see it in my own country. I have taken note of the difference in reaction, however, between those who suffer disaster in places where disaster is prevalent, and those who suffer where comfort is the expectation and demand. The interviews with people who were walking in Manhattan – forced out of their cars and mass transit by a shutdown of roadway access – ring in my ears. “I’ve walked two hours,” said a UPS employee. “It’s been a marathon.” And while our President and his administration are being held in high regard for their quick response to the suffering, experts are speculating that if the power doesn’t come back on in short order, those affected might take their frustrations to the ballot box.

At this point, I could make an expected comparison between the resilience of those in developing countries where conditions force them to endure with little complaining, and the reaction of Americans to a hurricane disaster that affects them in such direct and painful ways. But that would be wrong. Those of us who live in relative comfort are blessed beyond what we can comprehend, and when disaster comes, we are rightfully shocked and talk openly about the pain of what we are experiencing. We make note of the fact that we are used to having access to basics like mass transit and electricity, and we watch in awe as rugged homes are washed away or reduced to rubble. I don’t blame the UPS employee for complaining about a two hour walk across the city. We are rightfully vocal about this hurricane and what it has done to our cities and communities.

But we also endure.

In the midst of all the coverage, what has drawn me in is not the ugliness of Sandy, but the beauty of people who may weep over what they have lost, yet also throw back their shoulders and vow to stay and rebuild. Neighbors and strangers cared for one another in selfless ways when they thought no one was watching. But those of us in the rest of the United States and around the world are watching. And what I see causes me to feel an even deeper sense of gratitude for this country I live in. Maybe it’s a result of being away from it – and all of its comforts and attributes – for ten days. If so, all the better. Sometimes we don’t realize the wonder of our blessings until we are absent from them for a time. I pray that each person who is suffering in the path of Sandy will have everything restored to them – from electricity to a roof over their head. Those who have lost loved ones will have the lingering question of “why?”, but I pray they will rebuild their lives and move forward with an even greater sense of how lovely and fleeting life is. These are easy prayers to pray from my home in the middle of the country where hurricanes don’t devastate. But I pray these prayers because I believe we are also a people of resilience and endurance, despite our First World comforts. We have learned to enjoy them, but we’re still strong when they have been ripped from our fingers.

So I return from Ghana and find myself on my knees for the people in my own country. Will you join me?

Ghana in October, Day Six : Wrapping Up in the Dark

It’s official: the SDA School Computer Lab is now up and running!

Otis and the other IT instructors know computers. They got everything set up quickly, but also realized that in addition to the computers, they would need a projector in order to teach the students effectively. There are over 400 children in the school and about 30-35 children in each classroom. It would be difficult to gather all the students in a class around the screens. So we immediately decided that the lab must have a projector. Peter took a trip to Kumasi with one of the IT teachers to purchase a projector. They returned with it Wednesday evening, and yesterday the IT teachers set it up in the lab. The students were crammed together looking into the windows and doorway to see the images projected on the wall. They were in awe.

We began to imagine all the creative ways the teachers will be able to use the computers: Internet tutorials, Powerpoint presentations, photo slideshows to accompany lessons. The teachers will do a great job of using the computers to open a new world of learning for the children at Ankaase SDA. I love the way generous friends in the U.S. have resourced this small lab in this not-so-small school, in this small village, in this beautiful country, on this huge continent. Your hearts have traveled a long distance to make life a little better for people you have never met.

This is what it looks like for those of us who have more  to resource those who have little. So many things are broken in this world. It doesn’t matter how they have gotten that way or who is responsible. We’ll never know all the reasons why, but we can be people who work for restoration. I want to be someone who believes that restoration is not only possible, but also necessary if we are to call ourselves followers of Christ. I want to have eyes that look for ways to join God in His restoration project. He is fixing what has been broken – in people, places, circumstances. Someday He will finally and completely restore all things, and until then I want to be a part of the every day work of restoration. In small and big ways, we can look around and find ways to make things better and to help change stories.

This morning I met with 17 women who are interested in becoming seamstress apprentices. I pray that we can help change the story for some of them, and to help bring restoration. There is a little something for everyone in this village: sponsoring children, resourcing a computer lab, partnering with a woman who wants to start her career and business. We had two experienced seamstress sew these wonderful bags that we’ll be selling to help fund these programs. This is the Ankaase bag.

The pattern was designed by my friend Steffani, who does this kind of thing on a big scale (she’s been a costume designer in Hollywood, and has written a book of pattern designs). We’re so blessed that she agreed to design this bag. Its incredible. Roomy, lots of pockets, and fabric straight from Ghana. The best part is that the two women who sewed each bag have an incredible story, which you will be hearing. Purchasing this bag also helps Hilda and Gifty.

This is my last post from Ghana. We leave early in the morning. The power has been out since yesterday afternoon and they say it may not come back on until Monday, so once again I’m typing furiously and racing my computer battery. So I will leave Ghana in the dark, but I pray that God has used us to shine a little of His light here. I know the people of Ankaase have done that for me. Their light shines bright.

This is my final goodbye from Ankaase, Ghana. Thank you all for the prayers and your open hearts. You have blessed us all.

Ghana in October, Day Five: A House Full of Kids

I’m a day behind now because of the extended power outage. It’s about 7:30 a.m. in Ankaase, which means that most people have been up for a couple of hours. The roosters have even settled down. People here get up early and work in the morning during the cool hours, as well as throughout the day. And they don’t kick back in the evenings, as far as I can tell. The village streets are busy with people who all seem to know one another and have loud and passionate stories to tell. A sound that is always a part of any conversation, – whether it’s a pleasant exchange or an argument – is laughter. Everyone laughs here and at first, because I didn’t understand the language, I assumed they were laughing at me. I can’t completely rule that possibility out, but it doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable anymore. When I have asked Evans what they are saying, most of the time it has nothing to do with me, the “obroni” (white person). They are simply talking – and laughing. Ghana is a joyous place. People love to greet and ask you how you are doing. When you answer, they laugh. You get used to it.

And of course, everyone wants to have their picture taken. And talk to you. And shake your hand. I’ve shaken so many hands I feel like an obroni politician. I’ve tried to remember with each hand I shake and with each set of eyes that I look into that I am seeing Jesus. It’s true. But I have to remind myself of this because I so easily look past the eyes. When I remember that these are the eyes of Jesus, an amazing thing happens: I don’t worry about whether they are laughing at me, or if we speak the same language or our skin color matches. It doesn’t matter that they are African and I am North American. I can walk through the village alone, the obroni, and know that we look just the same in the eyes of God.

Our six sponsored children came to the mission house after school yesterday. Unfortunately, I had not prepared anything for them to do except video their sponsor greetings. While each child was making their video, the rest of them would need something to do. I realized that I should have brought a small game and some drawing paper and colored pencils. I immediately thought of the game “Trouble,” which would have entertained the children with the little pop-o-matic dice. Why didn’t I think to squeeze that in my luggage? The only two games I saw in the mission house were word games, and with these kids – who mostly speak Twi – that wasn’t going to do it. I searched the house for any kind of game for the children but didn’t find one. Keep looking. So I kept looking. Again, I checked the bookcase where the two games were and moved them a bit to reveal a dusty box wedged in behind them.

Trouble.

Okay, now I need some drawing paper and colored pencils. Preferably a new set because the chances were slim that I would find a pencil sharpener. I remembered a package of computer paper back in the office behind my bedroom. I slipped a few pages out and dismissed the idea of colored pencils. I would let them share the pens and pencils I had brought.

Keep looking.

I looked. No colored pencils. I felt silly even hunting around for something so unlikely. So I went back to the bookshelf and (I kid you not) tucked in between some books in the bookshelf was a brand new set of 30 colored pencils. Never opened.

Because I am too much of a cynic, when people tell stories like this I’m always trying to find the logical explanation. Or I half believe them. Or I just don’t listen. Here is what I know: I had a need and everything I needed was provided. I don’t learn that lesson very well because I continue to worry, fret, and try to help God make sure He provides for me. He doesn’t need my help. He’s got it.

So the kids and I had a great time. We played with the pop-o-matic Trouble, drew stacks of pictures, played some basketball (I jammed my finger but I’m not whining), ate Hershey chocolate bars, and talked about our favorite foods. It was hands down fufu, which by the way did NOT get my vote. The kids made their video letters for their sponsors, which I’m excited to share when I get back to the U.S.

We have two more days in Ankaase before we leave. Today we set up the computer lab (story and photos to come!), and tomorrow Peter and I are meeting with 12 women who want to become sewing apprentices. This crazy idea keeps rolling around in my head about women in the U.S. who might want to sponsor a seamstress apprentice. Women who have little education in Ghana need a skill so they can help feed their family and know that they are contributing to the community. Seamstresses here are respected and do well. But if they do not have the resources to enter the three-year apprentice program, they are limited to selling bread, firewood, porridge, or take desperate measures just so they can survive. So our wheels are turning about this.

The power is out again so I’m shutting things down and continuing my day. Until tomorrow, goodbye from Ankaase.