Baking Like in 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.

Click here to watch the news story.

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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.

 

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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.
Since that afternoon in Ghana, I’ve been thinking about art and the act of creating. If you believe that God is the creator of the universe, then he must be an artist. Oceans, cosmos, seasons, and the creatures who inhabit the earth testify to a creative being. Creation is an act that put everything into motion and generated the forward movement of millions more years when nothings were made into somethings, or somethings were transformed into new things. The initial act of creation has been replicated by the created ones. The writers of the book of Genesis told a creation story that enlightens us about one of God’s attributes: He delights in creating. It is who God is. Creator. In the midst of this story, an an idea is spoken before creating the most precious work of art: humans. “Let us make them in our own image.” Whether you believe in the literal version of this story, or see it an a poetical analogy that points to a bigger story about God, don’t miss the climax: the artist created his finest work of art as an image of himself.

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.