Quarantine Goal: Ace the Citizenship Exam

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

It didn’t go so well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bell hooks

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

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

Quarantine Survive and Thrive: Journaling

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Don’t go deep

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

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

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

3. Write for yourself, not others

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

4. Don’t be legalistic about it

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

5. Go beyond prose every now and then

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

6. Be cautious about a multipurpose journal

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

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

Helpful shopping links:

My journal

My pen

Other great choices:

Artsy

Budget Friendly

Handmade

Mood Pen

Alternative Mood Pen

A Pandemic Lesson from Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here for the Imperfect Days

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

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

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

Steady on, friends. 

About That Costume (and Trick or Treating)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baking Like 1973

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s how it went:

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

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

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

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


CARROT PECAN CAKE

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

ICING

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

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

And Now, the Rest of the Story

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

Last night we needed it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If you want more information or to join our RiSE team, email lisa@risingvillage.org

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The Risk of Listening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Purge (Part One): The Clothes Closet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened Last Friday

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We bought a house last Friday. Literally. We signed our names on eight pages of paperwork, confirmed the money wire, hugged the realtor, and then I went back to work.

It’s a great house, or at least everyone tells me that it is. Built in 1928, it’s a foursquare craftsman with a wraparound porch on a corner lot. Kyle and I had been attending an open house in an adjoining neighborhood and met a realtor who told us about the house on the corner. It was “coming soon” and she encouraged us to set up a private showing so we could be ready when it hit the market. She gave us the details as people were milling all around us. As an aside, I had no idea that it’s now a thing to hold an open house where food, wine and beer are included. Because these two neighborhoods are near downtown and filled with old homes that aren’t yet price-inflated, houses go fast and even pending homes are held open. We thought we had crashed a party, but we joined in the festivities and were social with people we didn’t know, including the realtor.

“You should just drive by,” she said after telling us all the enticing details about the property, and being honest to also inform us that it needed work. So we left the open house/party, drove by, and exactly one week later, less than 24 hours after it listed, the sellers accepted our offer over several others to purchase the house. We were giddy and celebrated that night, congratulating ourselves and talking about all the amazing transformations that would be made to the craftsman on the corner. Unfortunately, the next day I woke up with a panicky morning-after syndrome and actually said aloud, “What have we done?” And I said it again, multiple times, all day. The house is half the size of our current home, it was built in 1928 and needs serious cosmetic work, and it’s on the opposite side of town from where we have lived for 20 years. But it was a great deal and should be an even better investment, which at times, tempers my panic.

There is a backstory here that’s important. Until about five years ago, Kyle and I were people on a trajectory of climbing income, bigger house, more stuff. Then we both decided to dive into non-profit work, which has the unfortunate reputation of being the kind of work which shouldn’t pay too decent of a salary. And it doesn’t – if any. Yet we remained in the same house, despite the fact that it is too big, too expensive, and doesn’t match our financial reality anymore. It was around Christmas of last year that we began to wonder what it might look like if we actually changed our lifestyle and scaled things back. We started to throw around quite a few “what if” questions that seemed ridiculous and scary. And then, somewhere along the way, they started to make a little bit of sense. And then, finally, they became the only thing that made sense.

From the first night we drove by the house to the closing last Friday, a short three weeks passed. I’m starting to realize that some things are best done with ferocity of speed, lest your cold feet hold you back. It still makes sense, but if it hadn’t happened so quickly it’s possible I would have made a list of reasons why we shouldn’t – couldn’t – leave our beautiful home and the thousand memories it holds. So it’s a done deal. We have a fixer-upper house (I do not watch Netflix shows with similar names, by the way) and we will move before Christmas. The thought of this is huge for me. I’m both a static and restless person. I like the comfort of the familiar, but fear boredom. I don’t spend a lot of time wondering if this is a personality flaw, but instead have embraced the fact that my life is filled with a cycle of new beginnings that scare the crap out of me. This has the effect of making not-so-dramatic new beginnings feel like the highest level of drama. Which is why God gave me Kyle, who always settles the drama.

Writing also settles it. My blog has been lonely anyway, so I think it’s a good time to reunite with it and share the journey. I know almost nothing about remodeling and living in an old home, simplifying my life by purging possessions, living with less, and all other things related to the road we are about to travel. But I’m excited for the adventure, admittedly with a touch of fear and trepidation, and ready to chronicle this one good story as it unfolds.

Make Something Beautiful

But unless we are creators we are not fully alive. What do I mean by creators? Not only artists, whose acts of creation are the obvious ones of working with paint of clay or words. Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living. Creativity is not limited to the arts, or having some kind of important career.

― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

Back in the 1970s, there was a crafting craze called “foiling.” It caught on mostly with women like my mother who stayed at home to clean, cook, take care of children, and volunteer at church and in the community. But still, these women had time on their hands and some of them began to foil. My mother had a talent for sewing, but she was quickly caught up in the art of foiling. Things around our house were suddenly covered in foil: book covers, picture frames, and finally, a lamp base. This was not pretty art. In order to protect the foil from tearing, a sealant was applied, which turned the creases in the foil to a rusty brown color. No one would look at my mother’s magnum opus of foil art – her lamp base – and sigh with pleasure at its beauty. The lamp remained with us for decades, centered on the nightstand in the guest bedroom as if on display. I watched the brown creases deepen in color until the shade became something more like trash to be thrown out. I don’t know why my mother chose foil art as an additional way to express her creativity. It was basically a craft of covering things: cover the item with foil and then cover the foil with goop. Was this art? Craft? The answer is probably subjective, but I’m not interested in what to call the piece. I’m more interested in the creator, and what took place within her during the time she was creating.

For most of my life, I’ve been a writer. And for most of my life I would have cringed to type those words The little voice inside me would have whispered back, You know that’s not true. You’re not a real writer. I’ve been a newspaper reporter, a freelance editor, a magazine editor, started and maintained a blog, written a few articles that were published and ghostwritten two books. But still, it would have felt like I was skirting the truth a bit to proclaim myself “a writer.” I needed credentials, a mountain of published works, a platform, a big following, possibly an agent. Those were the real writers. They were the artists.

I muddled along with that belief, still blogging and finally finishing a manuscript after several years, but I put it in a folder on my desktop and left it alone. Suddenly, my writing changed course. I started a non-profit on a shoestring, which meant that for several years I couldn’t afford to hire a marketing director or any staff that might help me communicate to the masses. Immediately I began doing the work of convincing potential donors that ours was an organization worth investing in and that their money would be used to do good for vulnerable, under-resourced people. I learned a different way to write, but still, I wrote. And still, I refused to think of myself as a writer.

And then, on one of our trips to visit the people we work with in Ghana, something happened that began an evolution in the the way I think about creativity and the act of creating. Our organization works with twelve students who have been orphaned and live with relatives. These are the most vulnerable people in the villages where we work. They are children, which immediately puts them in the margins, and they have been thrust into the homes of relatives who didn’t ask for the responsibility of raising them, but took them in because of cultural obligation. They are the lowest in the familial hierarchy – often kept from attending school and given the last and least of everything in the family. Our staff in Ghana provides an after-school program where the students do crafts, receive one-on-one mentoring, tutoring, and encouragement. Our team hosted the students at the guest house where we were staying and provided an art session for them so they could experience finger-painting for the first time. Each student created a piece of art and signed their name to it, and we carried the pieces to the veranda to dry. Blank, white paper had transformed into splashes of vibrant color that was both abstract with a few recognizable elements: a flag in one corner, a heart in the middle, and always a thickly scrawled name at the bottom. I stood looking at the the pieces scattered across the table and cement floor. I envisioned framing the pieces, or mounting them on canvas and how they might look adorning the walls of the Ghana office or the homes of the students. I could hear the children inside the house, clamoring for another piece of paper and more paint on the table. And for another hour, they continued to create. They proudly held up each finished piece, staring at their own creation. They were artists. It didn’t matter that these pieces would never hang in a gallery or be purchased by art collectors. The children had made something from nothing and they proclaimed their creations to be very good.

As I think back to the works of art created by the children in the village that day, I am certain this matters. We’ve spent enough time with these twelve children in their schools, homes, and walking the dusty streets of their villages to recognize when they are experiencing something that makes them come alive. It doesn’t happen very often, but it did that day and we got to see it happen. We were witnessing a natural act of creativity by children who were hardwired, but not necessarily encouraged, to create.

Here is a thought: maybe we are all artists, and because we were created by an artist who has placed creativity DNA is us, we are unfulfilled if we do not continue the act of creation and then offer it out into the world. This sounds easy to dismiss, but maybe we should suspend the pragmatic and practical and broaden our definition of art. A simple definition: the act of making something. Whatever it is that you’ve been wanting to create from nothing. Foil art. Finger paint art. Poetry. A new business venture. A recipe. If it’s in you, give yourself permission. So let’s all take a deep breath and proclaim ourselves artists (even if we don’t believe it yet), because there is a world out there that needs us to create something beautiful today.

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Empty House. Deep Breath. Move On.

For months, I was adamant that we would not sell Dad’s house. I couldn’t imagine letting it go. It held all my parents’ stuff, and hanging on to stuff after Dad’s death in December was part of the gut-wrenching grieving process. Everything became sacred, even the tacky bird lamp which I plucked from their entryway, along with the table where it was displayed – a table that is so not my style. I took the only wall space available in my living room and slid the table into it and crowned it with the bird lamp. And there it still sits, along with clutter in almost every room of my house consisting of the stuff I needed in order to calm my grief. His house is empty, but ours is crammed full.

I refused an on-site estate sale, so little by little we have parceled out furniture to our kids, relatives, friends, and the estate sale company that picked up the remainder. A haul-away company took the junk no one wanted, then we took some things to Salvation Army and filled more than a few trash cans. I use the word “we”, but I mostly stayed away because I couldn’t watch what was happening. Each time I walked through the house, it was a little emptier than the last time and my parents seemed further away. I didn’t like it that the stuff had such a direct correlation to my grief, but that’s the mystery of grieving. Things that shouldn’t matter became the lifeline that keeps one nostril above water.

So now the house is completely empty and the “sale pending” sign has been in the yard for over a month. This is Friday – closing day, and last night I pre-signed since I need to be in the shop all day. The new owners are a sweet older couple who are so excited that they have been known to go over and walk (sneak?) around the back yard or find the door unlocked to the garage and meander in. It’s their dream house and today they will begin to fill it with their own stuff.

Maybe I’m in the last stage of grief – the one where you finally and solidly know that you must rise up and out, and that the loss you thought would drown you will instead produce something that you never imagined. At the office where the closing took place, I sat in a conference room and signed eleven documents, including the deed to the house. My penmanship was terrible because I left my glasses in the car, but I knew my signing was another in an eight-month long series of goodbyes. Despite the enormity of what I was letting go of,  I didn’t have the heart flutter, sweating palms or a feeling that the walls were closing in on me (remember I told you how much I hate goodbyes in this post.) I’ve already said goodbye. And then said it again. I’ve grieved. And then grieved more. And now, it’s time to move on. I’m celebrating tonight, and rising up tomorrow to do just that.

Good Boy, Pierre

Absolutely hate goodbyes. Dogs are dogs, I know. They aren’t people and so there isn’t really a need to write a long, sad, introspective blog post on the many ways this furry guy brought joy to our lives. He died three days before his 15th birthday. We helped the process along because it was the right thing to do, but making an appointment to say a forever goodbye is about the sorriest way to spend a Saturday. So this blog post is for you Pierre. I’m writing it as you lay at my feet, waiting for your 2:30 appointment. I’ve said my goodbye and thanked you for hanging in there with this family for so long. Some days were better than others, and lately you’ve had mostly bad days. But from now on, we only remember the good: the squirrel yelp, barking at toys in the pool, your determination to jump high enough to bite the possum on the fence, your place in the big chair, and your sweet disposition that inspired at least three other families to bring Westies into their family. So, goodbye buddy. And one last time: Good boy, Pierre.

If You’re Reading This at 5 a.m…

I have a Black Friday shopping story for you.

Many years ago Kyle and I got up at 5 a.m. to hunt Furbies, got sick of the whole circus by 7 a.m., and proceeded to slide over to Village Inn for breakfast, empty-handed.

No one got a Furby that year, and lest you think that’s a fail, we had a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year without them.

I haven’t been out on Black Friday since, but no judgment on those that love the deals and don’t mind  the crowds. I have a friend who cherishes this tradition because it is the only time that she and her mother shop together. And another friend swears this is the only way she can afford to buy decent gifts for her kids, and I believe her. I’m just no good at shopping. I’m easily confused, overwhelmed, and I transform into someone incapable of making a decision. I’m the one at the checkout handing back items, “I don’t think I want these,” I tell the cashier, despite the fact that it took me half a day to choose them.

About now, you are expecting me to denounce the materialistic ultra-hype that seems to be encroaching on the very holiday that has not been transformed into a reason to buy crap. I’ve loved Thanksgiving for this very reason, and cheered the holiday on. I don’t buy Thanksgiving decorations.

But this year, after the pure and beautiful holiday of giving thanks has ended, I’m joining the Black Friday bandwagon. I’m lending my voice to the chorus of “Buy! Buy! Buy!” because there are some things you can purchase that will leave you feeling better in the long run, not worse.

So if you’re reading this at 5 a.m. before you hit the stores for the really great deals, I won’t stop you. But I will ask that you consider purchasing something from the Rising Village GiveGood Catalog. I’ve linked it for you. You’re welcome. This website is open 24 hours a day, and is not limited to those who are up at 5 a.m. to do Black Friday. You can shop anytime, even on your phone. Here’s how it works: Let’s say you have a friend or family member who doesn’t need the trite, ho-hum gift you are going to purchase early in the morning on Black Friday. Maybe you would like to stop turning in circles trying to figure out what to give people who have quite enough stuff. So, on our website, you can purchase: wax fabric for an apprentice, a solar lantern, or give toward a senior high scholarship, food provision for an orphan, bedding for a family, or a business or apprenticeship grant. We’ll take care of making sure families, students, and women receive these resources, and you can give a card to your friend or family member to let them know that the gift has made a difference for someone in Ghana. It’s not a new idea, but it seems that in between holidays, it’s easy to forget that there are alternatives.

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We have seen the difference a purchase of one of these items can make for someone like Joyce. She received an Apprenticeship Grant and is now on her way to becoming a professional hairstylist. With the income she will earn in this profession, Joyce will be able to provide for her son, Kwadwo. So this holiday season, even if you shop the stores to get the deals, take some time to shop on our website also, and see how it feels to GiveGood.

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We Met Dumakyi Today

Written last night, posted today:

We’ve been waiting for this day all week. We visited the village of Dumakyi, which, for us, is a whole new level of Ghana that we haven’t seen – no electricity and no clean drinking water. The villagers have migrated from the Northern Region and are tenant farmers who build their houses from mud and thatch. We supplied solar lanterns to each family in this village several months ago, and every house we stopped at had their lanterns charging.

This is our last night in Ghana and I’m in the midst of trying to pack all the stitched items and other things we are bringing back. I’m putting wood carvings between all my dirty clothes (like you needed to know that), and have packed an entire suitcase of the stitched items the apprentices, Esther, and Saraphine.

So, I’m going to let the photos do the talking.

Last time…Goodnight from Ankaase, Ghana.

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The Empty Shelf Challenge

I try not to start things that I don’t intend to finish. This used to be a pattern with me – uncompleted projects were scattered throughout our house, including files of the first several chapters of different novels I tried to write and drawers filled with unfinished photo scrapbooks. After decades of beating myself up over this tendency, I decided to ditch it. I began to raise the red flag for myself whenever I uttered the words, “That would be a cool thing to do.”

So now, I  carefully consider if a new idea is actually going to be a cool thing to do – whether it’s learning to sew, making a collage of my mother’s handwritten recipe cards, or painting quotes on canvas. I try to stay off Pinterest because although others may not have this weakness, I get sucked into the idea that mine is going to look like the one in the photograph. It won’t. As for writing, it took me a long time to realize that I don’t prefer to read fiction, so I probably shouldn’t try to write it. The chapters are still in my files though, because I never give up on writing.

This decision to heavily evaluate new projects also keeps me from making New Year’s resolutions. I can’t bear to get hyped on January 1, only to fail a mere 28 days later. This has happened far too many times. But, I made an exception for 2014. Hence, the Empty Shelf Challenge. Jon Acuff put this on his website and I took it on because for me, this is a no-fail project. The hardest part of was clearing off the shelf, which I did. And then I took a lousy picture so that no one on my Pinterest board would mistake it for a cutesy idea.

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Actually, this little 2014 project fits me perfectly. I love to read, although I don’t make enough time for it so the empty shelf in my office will stare at me constantly with a friendly reminder to pick up that book and put down the phone and tablet. These devices push me to social media sites that are overloaded with trite phrases, campy quotes, and out-of-context Bible verses. So before my brain turns to mush, I took on the challenge to actually read things that stretch my mind.

After I took my lousy picture, I had to find a place for the books that were removed. I learned how to double shelf which looks messy as heck, but I’m not at a place in life where I can give away books. With the shelf emptied, the next task was to choose some books for the year. It was not an exhaustive list, nor will I be legalistic about it. If I choose to mark a book off the list before I read it, I have my permission to do that. The list was just a way to envision what the shelf might be filled with by the end of the year. In keeping with the spirit of my 2014 Word for the Year, I’m reading some things that I hope will widen my view of the world, God, work, culture. At least I hope so. Here my starter list of books for 2014:

Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

Ghana Must Go

The Long Loneliness

Hannah Coulter

Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Muhammad Cross the Road?

Kingdom Without Borders: The Untold Story of Global Christianity

A Heart for Freedom: The Remarkable Journey of a Young Dissident, Her Daring Escape, and Her Quest to Free China’s Daughters

The next task was to finish the book I had begun before Christmas. Yes, this goes on the shelf because the challenge started before January 1. I agree with Acuff who says that “waiting until January 1st to do something awesome is stupid and fake.” So there you go.  ‘

The first book on my shelf is Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. My rating: five stars out of five. So, on the shelf it went, and then I took another lousy photo.

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It is now January 12, and I’m on my second book. The shelf still looks too empty for me to stomach, so I’m trying to read a little each evening. You should know that in my house, I’m doing this alone. Kyle is taking on a different challenge of writing 500 words a day. Good for him. Maybe my last read of 2014 will be his memoirs. So if you want to join me in the challenge I’d welcome the company. Just empty a shelf and start reading! And post a comment or send an email and let me know you’re with me: lisatresch@mac.com.

Happy shelf-filling!