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The Story of Dad’s Accident

It was a damp chilly morning, the day after my birthday, and I couldn’t help but think about what a nice birthday it had been.

I’d been afraid that my 30th would pass with little fanfare, since we’re still rather in Covid times. But it had been so lovely. Many people had reached out to wish me many happy returns. On Sunday I’d had friends over for an outdoor tea party. On Monday, the actual day of my birth, I’d arrived at work to find a light-up “Happy Birthday” sign in the combine. And this morning, my whole family had gathered for breakfast, both to celebrate my birthday and to have one last get-together before Matt and Phoebe left for Houston.

“What time are you going to work today?” I asked Jenny.

“1 pm. You?”

“I’m not sure yet. I’m waiting for a call from Darrell.”

Jenny and I both work as combine drivers, me for our neighbor, and Jenny for a farmer north of here. On these cloudier mornings, it takes a while for the grass to dry out enough to harvest. So after the rest of our siblings went to work, Jenny and I hung out in my room.

At 11:57 am I got the call, not from Darrell, but from his wife Simone. I thought it was strange that she was calling, but whatever. “Hello?” I said.

“Hi Emily. I just want to let you know that if you don’t want to come into work today because of your Dad’s accident, that’s fine.”

“Wait…what? Dad was in an accident?” I exchanged a horrified look with Jenny, who was close enough to also hear Simone’s words.

“Yes, he fell off a forklift at the warehouse. He has a gash in his head and his arm hurts. They’re about to take him away in an ambulance. Your Mom and Amy are here right now. So if you don’t want to come in to work today, that’s fine. We’ll figure something out.”

At that point I was too shocked and confused to make a decision about coming in to work.

It took a while for us to figure out exactly what happened to Dad, and even now there are a lot of things we don’t know. Only Dad was there when it happened. But here’s what we do know:

In one building of the warehouse, there was an auger high up on the wall. Dad had raised a pile of pallets on a forklift, set up a ladder, and climbed onto the pallets to fix the auger.

And then he fell.

He doesn’t remember falling. He remembers coming down the ladder with his hands full of tools, so for a while we were saying that he fell off the ladder. But the ladder itself never fell over, and his tools were still up on the forklift pallets. So did he actually fall off the forklift or the ladder?

We’re not sure.

There is a large pool of blood on the floor, where Amy later found his glasses and hearing aid. It seems he lay there unconscious for a while until his head wound clotted up. Then he got up, and called Mom at 11:15 am. How he called Mom when both his wrists were shattered and flopping unnaturally is beyond me. “It was hard,” he remembers.

Mom was taking a nap and didn’t hear her phone. Dad left a voicemail, but he didn’t manage to actually talk. So it’s a voicemail of eerie silence.

It was Chavon Baker, a 14 (I think?) year old boy who does odd jobs around the warehouse, who found him. And from what they say, Dad was a horrific sight, with blood all over his face, even in his teeth and eyeballs, and his bloodstained beard sticking out in all directions.

Chavon ran and got Kevin Birky, my cousin who runs the warehouse. Kevin called 911, and then called Mom. For some reason, Mom heard her phone this time, and she ran out the door without telling Jenny or I what was going on.

The warehouse is surrounded by the farm where I work, since it was all the same property back when my great-grandpa owned it. So Simone was driving through, saw what was going on, and ran to get Amy, who is also working for them this summer. Only Amy does housework, so she goes to work at a set, non-weather-dependent time.

In this way, both Amy and Mom were there to see Dad as he was splinted and bandaged and shuttled away in the ambulance. Then they came home, and we were all confused and agitated, trying to figure out what to do. Jenny had to leave for work, but I decided not to go to work, and to drive Mom to the hospital. Amy opted to stay home and make sure things ran smoothly on that end.

I’m not sure what I thought would happen. I did have a vague idea that I probably wouldn’t be able to go in and see Dad because of Covid, but I still wanted to be close by as moral support for Mom. So she went in, and I parked, and started wandering around the beautiful woods next to the hospital.

All alone.

The next two hours were achingly lonely. Mom sent a couple meager updates to the family WhattsApp group telling us that they were doing a CAT scan. Then, there was no info for over an hour.

I’ve been spotty with responding to texts these last several days, but there at the hospital I eagerly and instantly responded to everything that came in. I was starving for connection.

The grounds were lovely, though.

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Finally the CAT scan results came back.

“Talked to Dr,” Mom wrote. “Brace yourselves: Both wrists shattered. Skull fracture above left eye. A few bleeds on brain. Back broken in 3 places.”

Prior to this, all we knew was that there was a gash in his head and he had one sore arm. We had no idea it was this bad. Later, we learned that there were a few breaks in his neck as well, but nothing that was in danger of paralyzing him, thank God.

Finally, Mom had a chance to call me. Basically, Dad was going to be in there for a long time. He needed surgery. I might as well go home.

So I did, and there was something about sitting on the porch steps with Amy, talking about everything, that was so wonderful after being so alone. But it made me really worried for Mom, by herself at the hospital, with no support. I know we were lucky that there were no Covid patients at the hospital, and that Dad didn’t have to be there alone, but still, I knew that this must be so isolating and stressful for Mom.

Steven works an early shift so he came home in the afternoon, and Ben was unable to concentrate on his work so he came home too.

Oh yes, there was one added layer of weirdness to this whole day. The electricity was out! They were working on the power lines. So I was trying to make myself a late lunch on a propane camp stove, since I didn’t have anything to eat while I was at the hospital, and then just as I was finished it came back on. Ha.

Jenny called us frequently, and she was in a weird head space too. But when she told her boss what was going on, he told her to go home and be with her family. So she came home, and Matt and Phoebe came over, and all of us siblings were together.

Matt and Phoebe decided to delay their move to Houston. Matt is still able to work remotely, due to Covid. It’s so strange, how Covid is separating us in some ways yet bringing us together in others.

We all called Mom that evening, and she put us on speakerphone so we could talk to Dad. It was bizarre…he sounded completely normal and sane, but then the sentences that left his mouth didn’t quite logically connect to each other.

The hospital rule is, only one person per 24-hour period. So none of us could give Mom a 4-hour break to get some rest, and none of us could be in there with Mom. Dad hardly slept those first two nights because he was in such terrible pain. (Oddly, it’s mostly his wrists that hurt, not his head.)

Dad had surgery on his wrists on Wednesday. So far, the plan is to heal his back and neck by using a brace. We’ll see how that goes.

Thursday morning, Amy went in to take Mom’s place. Jenny and I went back to work, although I asked to get off early. And then it rained, so I got off extra early. That was nice…it meant I was home when Mom woke up, and was able to debrief with her.

Then, this morning I took Mom back to the hospital to switch with Amy again. It’s a little cloudy still, so I don’t need to go to work until 1:00 pm. So now I have time to write this blog post, I guess.

I guess the real question is, “how is Dad doing?”

This is a hard question to answer. In some ways, he’s very lucky he didn’t end up killed or paralyzed. He has a healthy body that should recover well, and he really is quite “with it” considering how hard he whacked his head open.

The two things, right now, that feel the most heartbreaking are his confusion and his pain.

He can’t seem to get on top of the pain in his wrists, and it’s making it really hard for him to sleep.

As for his confusion, he’s in that terrible place, almost normal brain function, but not quite. I sent a video clip to my friend Esta because I didn’t know how to explain what he was like, she she said, “it’s like he has a clear coherent thought, and then halfway through saying it he forgets it.”

Yes. That’s exactly what it’s like. And how awful that must feel! It seems like it might be more of a mercy if he were completely out of it.

Dad is a problem solver by nature, and he seems to be in constant state of wanting to fix things. The “things to fix” are mostly his pain, and warehouse problems. This is the beginning of harvest, and while Dad had trained Kevin to run the warehouse, there are still a lot of things Dad takes care of by himself. So he keeps remembering things he needs to do about the warehouse, but then not quite connecting all the dots, and not quite being able to communicate.

In his worst moments, right after surgery, he kept getting mixed up about the wedding as well. Once he said that if people want to know what’s going on with warehouse stuff, they should ask Phoebe.

Still, I think a lot of this confusion is due to the surgery anesthesia, not the head injury. Amy had a moment with Dad where he was back to his old self mentally, although it didn’t last. But hopefully these moments will happen with more frequency as the anesthesia wears off.

Anyway, that’s where we’re at now. It’s hard to keep people updated because we keep learning of new random problems. According to Mom, the nurse just told her, “This is what happens with trauma patients. New stuff shows up every day.”

I might write more when I know more, and I might not. Right now, we’re looking at a long and difficult recovery.

Money and Blogging

When I opened my blog today, the first thing I saw was a bright pink Planned Parenthood banner ad.

I did some frantic googling. Is there any way to choose what ads go on your WordPress blog? No, it turns out, there really isn’t. So I spontaneously pulled all ads off my blog.

I’ve never really had problems with WordPress ads before. I never saw any half-naked women, or any “a mom in Arizona cured cancer with this one weird trick,” or anything that led to spammy websites. The ads were few enough that they didn’t make my website run slowly. A week or so ago I did have a problem with a video advertisement playing automatically, with sound, which I found really annoying, but that has not been a consistent problem. (At least for me. If you’ve had bad experiences with ads on my blog I’d like to hear about them.)

But I don’t want to promote Planned Parenthood. No way. That is where I draw the line.

To be clear, I only ever earned about $100 a year or so from advertising. I mostly did the advertising thing so that my blog would be self-sufficient–so that it would earn enough money to pay for its own domain name and fund things like an occasional giveaway, or a new point-and-shoot camera if I needed one.

I’ve always felt torn when it comes to earning money from blogging. I want people who read my blog to feel like they’re getting a gift, not like I’m trying to sell them something.

…at the same time…

As I discussed in my blog post How To Write an Opinion That People Will Listen To, posting on my blog takes effort and revision. Blogging isn’t the fun casual social media platform it was back in Xanga days. I usually enjoy blogging, but if I’m not earning anything from it I have little motivation to post consistent quality content.

…at the same time…

Would people rather get free, sporadic rough drafts or see some advertising, suffer through a few sponsored posts, and/or pay a little to get thoughtful polished blog posts on a regular basis?

I realize that this is not a unique struggle. All creatives face a tension between art for art’s sake and art for money.

Anyway. At this point I am fine with freely writing this blog as I always have. However, my hasty decision to pull advertising this afternoon just got me thinking about such matters. And I REALLY WANT YOUR OPINION on the topic, whether you’re a blogger yourself who has struggled with this question, or whether you’re a blog reader who cringes through sponsored posts.

 

10 Interesting Aspects of Singleness That No One Talks About

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I always click on articles that have “singleness” in the headline. Maybe because I’m single. Maybe because I secretly hope I’ll get some never-before-seen insight into my own psyche. Or learn how to catch a man, once and for all.

Instead, what I usually get is a very feelings-oriented person informing me that “singleness is hard.”

“You know, because your heart has deep longings and stuff.”

“But just trust in Jesus.”

“The right one will come along. Maybe. We hope.”

Okay, fine, but what about all the other interesting aspects of singleness? The things that are sometimes a struggle, and sometimes nice, and sometimes just things you have to deal with?

Here is my list of ten aspects of singleness that I find interesting, and wish people would talk about more.

(Disclaimer: These are coming from a very Mennonite, very female, very 26-year-old frame of reference.)

1. Being single at 26 is an entirely different ballgame than being single at 20.

…and, I’m assuming, being single at 32 and 47 and 63 are all distinctly different stages.

Between the ages of 18 and 23, my feelings of singleness were lumped in with a whole host of dubious feelings about life, identity, figuring out my future, etc. And though I felt single, I was young enough that the rest of the world didn’t necessarily label me as such.

23 on, I’ve felt more settled and sure of myself in general. At the same time, my “singleness” has become more of a core part of who I am in the eyes of the people around me. 

Most of this post will be focused on 23+ singleness, but before I get there, I have one thing to say about the 18-23 stage.

2. The hardest thing about being a 20-year-old single Mennonite female is deciding what to do with your future.

Okay, maybe not the hardest thing, but definitely a hard thing that people don’t talk about much.

Good jobs for females within the Mennonite community are scarce. Going outside the community is intimidating and requires a large time and money commitment, and, let’s face it, a decreased chance of finding a nice Mennonite boy to marry.

I like to talk to Mennonite girls about the possibility of going to college, and I see this struggle written all over their faces. Sure, if they’re going to be single, they want to have a job they love which pays decently. But if they’d happen to fall in love and get married, they don’t want to slave away to pay off student debt, they want to stay at home and raise babies.

I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a Mennonite girl who hasn’t had this struggle to one degree or another.

Now, on to the interesting and varied aspects of 23+ singleness. Such as…

3. Who’s pretty and who’s not pretty changes a lot between 20 and 26.

Honesty time: have you ever Facebook stalked that gorgeous girl whom all the boys liked when you went to Bible School together, only to discover that she’s had a few babies, wears an unflattering hairstyle, and, while not ugly or anything, looks, well, like a normal mom?

My pet theory is that the effortlessly beautiful girls got by on looks alone for so long that they never had to learn to present themselves to the best effect, and it came back to bite them as they aged. Other girls really blossomed in the latter half of their 20s. Obviously this isn’t true in every case, but my point is, the fact that the boys didn’t think you were cute when you were 20 doesn’t really mean anything when you’re 26, and I find that really interesting.

4. The older you get, the easier it is to figure out which guys are worth your interest and which guys aren’t.

I am convinced that people change as much between the ages of 18 and 23 as they do between the ages of 13 and 18. I look back on my pre-23 crushes and feel a palpable sense of relief that I never married them. But how could I have known at the time that we’d eventually disagree on so many key values?

When you’re 26, people have figured themselves out. The intellectual guys have gone to college, and the nice guys are helping out their community, and the lazy guys are living in their parent’s house and hopping from job to job. You can peg people easier. You don’t have to do as much guesswork about what they’ll eventually become.

5. Making big life decisions alone feels overwhelming.

This has been my most recent struggle with singleness.

Preparing to graduate college, a whole world of possibilities is open to me. I am overwhelmed. How will I ever decide?

“You know, these decisions become so much easier once you get married,” my mom says.

6. Always getting crushes is exhausting.

Staying single until I’m, say, 35, doesn’t seem like that big of a deal until I think about the crushes.

I can just imagine myself, 34 years old and crushing on the latest nice cute guy I met. “I’m too old for this,” I’ll think. “Crushes are for 16-year-olds. People were not meant to have crushes for eighteen straight years of their life. This is exhausting.

But the only other alternative is to not have feelings at all.

7. No one really knows what you’ve gone through, romantically.

If you’ve made it to 26 without getting married, chances are that something romantic has happened to you which you’ve felt deeply. The guy who you thought was interested, but never actually bothered to ask you out. The wonderful friend that DID ask you out, but you didn’t have feelings for him.

Some single girls have spent YEARS silently pining for guys who never noticed them. Some girls have had a far bigger heartbreak over the “unofficial” boyfriend than they ever did over the “official” boyfriend.

Yet few people really know about any of that, which is so interesting to me.

8. Everyone will try to figure out why you’re still single.

…as though there’s some mathematical formula that explains it. How come no one comes up with mathematical formulas to determine how certain people ever managed to get married at all?

This isn’t just a community thing, it’s something we do to ourselves. “Why am I not married?” I ask myself. I have multiple answers.

Answer 1: The guys I liked didn’t like me back, and vice versa.

Answer 2: Mennonite guys think I’m weird and college-y, and college guys think I’m weird and Mennonite-y.

Answer 3: I never wanted to get married as badly as I wanted to get my college degree.

Take your pick.

9. It’s hard for a single Mennonite to properly belong anywhere.

Life encircles some people like a protective womb. They are surrounded by people like them. I have to carve out a place for myself wherever I go.

This is fine. I like that I can hang out with 15-year-olds in the youth group even though I’m more than 10 years older, or with the married ladies even though I’m not married, or with grad students or international students or homeschoolers that host Pride and Prejudice-inspired dances because really, hanging out with people who aren’t like you is one of the great joys of life.

But sometimes it’s lonely, and exhausting, and I just want to belong somewhere once and for all.

10. You will probably eventually get married, statistically speaking.

But knowing for sure would make being single a lot easier.

This has been my last post of the April Blogging Challenge! Jenny posted on day 27 here, and Mom posted on day 26 here.

Tuesdays with Ashlie

Today after class I grabbed my purse and some tea and drove down to Roseburg, to hang out with my friend/former roommate Ashlie. We grabbed tea and ate olive bread at a nifty bakery full of plants.


The main thing I wanted to see, though, was her workplace. Ashlie works at this really cool restaurant housed in the old Parrott House, and I’ve wanted a tour ever since she first told me about it.

“Woah, that’s so amazing!” I said as I gazed at the mansion before me. “Can we go up in the tower room?”

“Of course,” she said. “I mean, normal people can’t, but since you’re my friend you can see it.”

But first she showed me around the rest of the property, fancy dining areas, kitchens, and massive, beautiful chandlers.

Interestingly enough, no one was using the little round attic for anything, even though it was by far the coolest room in the house (in my opinion).

We took a walk through the neighborhood, and the air was not too cold and not to warm–spring, maybe, finally.

I didn’t get home until 9:30 pm.

“Where were you?” asked my dad.

“Roseburg,” I said.

“Roseburg!” said my mom. “I knew you were going to hang out with Ashlie but I didn’t know you were going all the way to Roseburg!”

I shrugged.

“I’ve been refreshing your blog all day, waiting for you to post!” she said.

“Mom, I explained it to you!” I said. “I don’t have time to write the interesting post today, I’m waiting until Friday to post it.”

“Oh.”

So. This has been the April Blogging Challenge day 25. Jenny posted here on day 24, and Mom posted here on day 23. Stay tuned for the “interesting” post, coming on Friday. (Probably after your bedtime.)

My Day in Candid Snaps

In an attempt to make a visually-focused blog post, I tried to take pictures of everything I did today. I was only moderately successful. Behold, my effort:

First, my morning routine began the way you all expected it would.

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I made myself a breakfast of hummus and avocado on toast. It was kind-of meh. Next time I’ll go back to cream cheese instead of hummus.

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At 10:10 or so I headed to school. The skies were grayer than I’d like, but it wasn’t raining. Yet.

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I parked in the residential section of town, and walked to class.

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Oops, forgot to feature my tea in the picture. Let me fix that real quick.

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I walked onto campus, and over to Shepherd Hall, where the Speech Communication department is housed. Shepherd Hall looks a bit like a fairy tale cottage. I slipped in the back door (circled in red).

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I’d committed to taking pictures of my day, but once I was inside my class I felt weird snapping pictures of people’s faces. So I took pictures of their feet instead.

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My Ethnography of Communication class lasted 50 minutes, and then I headed over to the Memorial Union to eat lunch with a bunch of Christian professors and grad students.

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At this point I completely forgot to take pictures, so I ran back later and snapped a picture of the sign beside the door.

Anyway, it was really interesting. The professors mostly talked about what it’s like to be a person of faith on a secular campus.

Presently I had to leave the interesting discussion and head to my Style and the Sentence class, where I suddenly remembered that I was supposed to take pictures of my day. I whipped out my phone and took a quick snap.

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I mentioned the textbook for this class in my post about what I’ve been reading lately, and a commenter wrote, “I really want to know what weird things I do that muddle up my writing because I’m trying to sound smarter. Can you give some examples?”

Here is one example, from the textbook: “Once upon a time, as a walk through the woods was taking place on the part of little red riding hood, the wolf’s jump out from behind the tree occurred, causing her fright.”

This sentence is needlessly complex. The subjects of the sentence are “walk” and “jump,” and the verbs are “was taking place” and “occurred.” However, the characters are little red riding hood and the wolf, and their actions are “walking” and “jumping.” Making the characters into subjects and the actions into verbs simplifies the sentence tremendously.

“Once upon a time, as little red riding hood walked through the woods, a wolf jumped out from behind the tree, frightening her.”

It seems like a simple rule, but you’d be surprised how often writers take the actions and turn them into the subjects, writing things like, “Our lack of data prevented evaluation of UN actions in targeting funds to areas most in need of assistance.”

So. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams, is about things like that.

Anyway, during class we got into groups and did sentence deconstruction worksheets, and then class ended and the rain began.

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I had an hour to kill until my next class, so I went to the library and got online.

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My Advanced Intercultural Communication class was originally in Shepherd Hall, the fairy tale cottage I mentioned earlier, but the classroom was too small so we moved to Strand Ag. Strand Ag is technically a much nicer building than Shepherd, but honestly it always feels so cold to me.

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After this I forgot to take pictures again. We read folklore in class, and discussed what inferences we can make about a culture’s values from their folklore. Fascinating.

It was raining really hard after class, and my friend Yasmeen walked me to my car because she had an umbrella and I didn’t. I told her that I’m not used to carrying umbrellas around. Oregonians tend to pride themselves on not using them. She thought that was rather silly.

Walking through a downpour with someone, trying to stay under the same tiny umbrella, feels kind-of like being in a three-legged race.

That was the end of my school day. I drove home, and Jenny was rushing around, headed to some event or other.

“I want to get a streetstyle photograph!” I told Jenny, because I liked her outfit.

She struck a model pose.

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Everything I did after that was boring. It mostly consisted of eating spaghetti and putting random words on my photos using Microsoft paint.

So. That picture of Jenny was my last candid snap of the day.

April Blogging Challenge update: On day 18 (yesterday) Jenny posted a tutorial on how to bleach-dye a t-shirt. On day 17, Mom posted about fabric.

Redemption

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It’s Easter today, the Christian holiday where we wear our prettiest spring dresses and celebrate the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, that the winter of weeping is over, that death has been swallowed up in victory.

To be honest, there was no pretty new dress for me this year, and no enchanting sunrise service on a pretty mist-covered hill. Instead I had a headache and a sore knee, and I slept in, missing Sunday school and rushing out the door with no time to wash my hair. But sometimes words run through my head like snatches of music, and today’s was decidedly Easter-themed. “Redemption…redemption…redemption…”

I didn’t realize that redemption was such an important part of my worldview until I had to read a deeply troubling story in my writing class last fall. As we discussed it, I could tell that my classmates were also disturbed. I am quite sensitive to creepy stories, and this one felt demonic to me, even though though there was nothing overtly “supernatural” about the story. It affected me so deeply that I had a lot of trouble sleeping.

I couldn’t put my finger on what was so awful about the story. There were disturbing and unkind characters, and completely unjust deaths, but many stories, including ones from the Bible, contain these elements.

Why did the story feel so demonic to me?

And then I realized why: there was no redemption in the story.

The bad things happened, and that was it. No hope. Nothing came of the evil except more evil.

When I realized this, I made up my own epilogue to the creepy story, deliberately extending redemption to each character. The innocent characters had their voices heard, instead of being shamed into silence. The people who died met Jesus in heaven. The evil people repented of their sin. Parents and children reconciled. The characters openly talked about what had happened, and forgave each other.

After I imagined a redemption for each character, the bout of insomnia left me and I slept peacefully once again.

This experience affected me deeply, and made me think about the differences between that utterly hopeless story and stories that are told from a Christian worldview. The core of the Christian worldview, I realized, is redemption. Bad things happen because we live in a broken world where people do horrible things to each other, and yet we cling to our hope of redemption. The whole Biblical narrative is full of awful things happening to people, but the thread of redemption runs through it all.

Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
whom he has redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to a city to dwell in;
hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
till they reached a city to dwell in.

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
For he satisfies the longing soul,
and the hungry soul he fills with good things.

(Psalm 107: 2-9)

And then, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the ultimate redemption of the burden of sin everyone had suffered through during the majority of the Bible.

Even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28)

And this is what Easter means to me. This is why I’ve clung to my faith through chronic illness and severe depression and the tragic death of a family member. I believed that there was redemption for my story. I’ve seen redemption happen, both to myself and others, and it is beautiful and life-changing.

We may weep, as the disciples did when Jesus was dead, and hope seemed far away. But in the end, death loses, and life wins.

Mom’s ABC post 14, about shame, can be found here.

Jenny’s ABC post 15, about our recent hike to Opal Creek, is located here.

What I’ve Been Reading

Recently I’ve been reading an odd mish-mash of books, mostly ones I’m obligated to read or just found lying around. Still, I like to talk about the books I read, even the odd or boring ones.

So here we go, my latest thoughts about books.

 

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Jesus’ Son, by Dennis Johnson.

I’m reading this book for my Advanced Fiction Writing class. It’s a bunch of stories about a shiftless drug addict who drives around in cars a lot.

After my classmates spent about twenty minutes discussing the deep meanings in this book, and trying to figure out how they linked together into a longer narrative, I raised my hand. “Did he write them intending to link them together?” I asked. “It seems to me like he just wrote a bunch of random stories about the same character, and then decided to throw them all together in a book.”

My teacher responded by saying that we should always assume that an author did what they did intentionally.

Fair enough.

Then, my teacher said that he’d read interviews of Dennis Johnson, the author, in which Johnson claimed he just wrote the stories randomly and then was like, “I’ve got these stories, anybody want to publish them?”

Wait, so I was right?

“But I don’t think that could possibly be how it was,” my teacher continued. “He must have been joking. He must have carefully crafted this novel to be what it is.”

I giggled to myself. Someday maybe I’ll write something disjointed and full of pretty words and deep themes of life and death, and fool all the literary people into thinking the things that randomly tumbled from my mind were INTENTIONAL.

(Honestly, I like literary fiction a lot more when I think of it as just a book like any other book. When I’m supposed to think it’s something special, enlightened, above the common fray, I get a little cynical.)

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Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams, is one of the best books on writing I’ve ever read. It’s the textbook for my Style and the Sentence class.

To be honest, when I signed up for the class I was kinda dubious. I needed it to get my writing minor, but a whole class dedicated to sentences? Really?

But this book made up for it.

Straight to the point. Practical. It doesn’t just say “make your writing clearer,” it breaks it down to the sentence level and shows WHAT weird things we do to try to “sound smarter” that make our writing unreadable. I can think of a few (hundred) academic writers who should have read this book.

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The Substitute Guest, by Grace Livingston Hill

I picked up this book because I was house sitting, needed a book to read, and pulled this off the shelf. There was nothing special to the story, but on the bright side, there were no deep over-dramatic feelings either. I continued to read as the main character tried to deliver some medicine to a remote castle on a mountain in a blizzard, got stranded at a farmhouse, and spent Christmas with a nice homey family which included a cute blue-eyed young lady.

I suppose he’ll fall in love with her, but I won’t ever know for sure because I found a bookshelf in the attic with a more interesting book on the shelf.

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Gerald and Elizabeth, by D.E. Stevenson

A few years ago I asked for book recommendations on this blog, and one reader suggested I read books by D.E. Stevenson, particularly Miss Buncle’s Book. I loved Miss Buncle’s Book, but wasn’t such a fan of the Amberwell series I read later. I don’t tend to like novels that take place over a long period of time. (Also the thing I like least about L.M. Montgomery’s writing, and the reason I like The Blue Castle the best of her books.)

Anyway.

So far I’m a big fan of Gerald and Elizabeth. I like that it focuses on a relationship that isn’t a romantic one. I’m interested in the way it addresses mental illness. It’s also interesting in the way it addresses the oddness of being close to someone who’s famous.

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Love Your God With All Your Mind, by J.P. Moreland

The Christian Grad Fellowship I hang out with is reading this book this term. I’ve only read the first chapter so far, but as an academic I love the premise that our faith should be based on logical well-thought-out premises, not just on our “feelings.” I would be curious to know how it comes across to non-academics.

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The Napoleon of Notting Hill, by Gilbert Chesterton

I recently read this for an online book club I have with some of my friends, and quite enjoyed it, despite it’s odd nature. It’s about an England of the future in which the king (who is randomly selected by lottery) views his position as a great joke. Meanwhile, this kid from Notting Hill (a borough of London) decides to fight an epic battle for Notting Hill independence, and takes it SO SERIOUSLY. I finished the book thinking it was an interesting absurd story meant to point out that 1. human nature will keep the world from ever becoming truly “progressive,” and 2. some things are worth taking seriously and some things are worth joking about, and either extreme causes trouble.

The other book club members thought it meant different things, so I guess the jury’s still out on what it REALLY means.

I suppose Google would probably tell me.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

Also, do you have any good book recommendations?

Finally, this has been day 13 of the April Blogging Challenge. Jenny wrote on day 12 here, and Mom wrote on day 11 here.

 

Never-Before Seen Smucker Sibling Footage

Today is siblings day (in 49 states) so I decided to dig back in the archives to find some forgotten footage of my siblings.

Family

This is the current crop of Smucker siblings. Matt (with the cool shades) is 30, Amy (in the glasses and scarf, looking absolutely aghast) is 28, I (winding up to clobber my brother) am 26, Ben (preparing to be clobbered) is 23, Steven (in the mysterious wolf shirt) is 22, and Jenny (looking into Matt’s hair with disgust) is 17.

No introduction, no matter how weird, can prepare you for the videos you are about to see.

Exhibit A, staring Jenny, Steven, and Ben. (And also my mom.)

 

Exhibit B. Steven and I decided to prank Ben. Jenny sat on top of the refrigerator. She used to do that a lot.

 

And finally, exhibit C, featuring the voice of Amy, and Jenny being cute.

 

Matt, apparently, was much to cool to be in any of our goofy videos.

I could yammer about my siblings for a long time, but the essence of what I’d say would be this: I like them. They’re cool. They get my jokes.

This has been April Blogging Challenge Day 10. To read Day 9, written by Jenny, click here, and Day 8, by Mom, is here.

When Even a Mug is Too Much

My writing professor walked into the classroom, set his paper Allan Brothers coffee cup on his desk, and hung his leather messenger bag over the back of his chair. His eyes swept around the circle of our desks, and came to rest on me. Looking both bewildered and bemused, he said, “can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” I said.

“How does that work, you bringing a mug to class?”

I looked at the ceramic mug of tea on my desk. “Well,” I said, “instead of paying for a hot beverage I just bring a mug and some tea to school, and get hot water for free from the hot water dispensers.”

“And you just…carry it around in your backpack?” he asked, even more bewildered.

“Yeah…” I said. I mean, it was a mug, not a live manatee or a sewing machine. Mugs fit into backpacks.

He shook his head, laughing a bit, out of words.  My classmates looked equally confused. “doesn’t it, like, break?” one of them wanted to know.

“They’re pretty sturdy,” I said. “And besides, you can buy another mug for 25 cents at a thrift store.”

“I’d be afraid of breaking it,” my classmate muttered. And then my professor took a swig from his paper coffee cup and we got on with the lesson of the day.

Still, the incident buzzed around in my brain.

Most of my professors make an attempt to hide their political affiliation, but this particular professor was pretty bad at it. “I don’t know who you’re voting for,” he’d say, “but I really hope I know who you’re voting for, based on the options we have.” He’d begin class with a cynically amused dissection of the latest terrible thing Trump had said, and when Trump won he was visibly shaken.

He never mentioned climate change specifically, but it’s fairly reasonable to assume, based on his obvious partisanship, that he believed climate change to be a real, human caused, threat.

So why, I mean really, WHY would he bring a new disposable coffee cup to class every single day, and look with bewilderment at the girl who used a mug?

Democrats and Republicans, I’ve decided, are like two people who passionately argue about whether a bridge is structurally sound, and then both proceed to cross it anyway, because going downstream to the next bridge is too much bother.

My campus is full of people who embrace liberal ideas but refuse to live their life any differently if it’s the slightest bit inconvenient. Their virtue lies in KNOWING the right thing, not in DOING the right thing. Granted, some people live very consistently with their values, and I respect that a lot. But SO many share “I’m right you’re wrong” climate change infographics on Facebook, but find carrying a mug in their backpack to cut down on waste to be too much bother. They may hope that governments and corporations make climate-friendly policy changes, but governments and corporations are made up of people. If none of those people are willing to go to a little inconvenience to live a sustainable life, why on earth would the corporations and governments be interested in doing so?

Me, I refuse to participate in your politicized climate change debate. I will try to live as sustainably as I can because honestly, I think consumerism is a form of gluttony, and I don’t want to be part of that system.

But don’t tell me that the system is killing us and then refuse to change your behavior, as though the mere fact that you know and I don’t will absolve you of guilt.

April Blogging Challenge day 6, written by Jenny.

April Blogging Challenge day 5, written by Mom.

ABC day 4: The Token “Needy People Who We Can Help”

My sister Amy is an English tutor at North Chiang Mai University (NCU) in Thailand. Recently she emailed me about a trip she took with some NCU students, and I was absolutely fascinated by her account. With her permission, I’m re-posting her experience here. 
In January, my new group staff who study with me invited me to go with them for a “volunteer activity” back in the mountains. It was a very eventful trip.
I had assumed that for an official school activity like this we would take a couple of the university’s nice comfy vans. But no, instead, we took the rattly old truck. The seats along the sides were folded up to better accommodate the luggage and donations that filled about a third of the space, and there were at least 15 people crowded into the remaining space.

We took multiple long breaks as we went. Eventually, we got to the main city of the district where our destination village was located, and met up with a bunch of people from another school and ate breakfast of sticky rice and grilled pork. I hadn’t realized it before this, but this trip was not organized by NCU; instead, we were just sort of added onto a trip planned by another, larger university in Chiang Mai.

There were about 20 vehicles all together, and most of them were fairly capable looking. There were two of those rattly old trucks, though; ours, and one from the other university, which was completely packed full of donations for the people in the village. From the district office on, the road was dirt, and it hadn’t had a chance to completely dry out yet from the rain the last couple of days. The old trucks got stuck and just couldn’t make it. Our truck was able to get unstuck within a few minutes both times, but the other took a long time and a lot of pushing.

Thanks to the stuck trucks and the frequent rest stops, we were past the estimated 6-hour travel time, and the end was nowhere in sight. We drove on and on and on, on that narrow, one-lane road, around tight curves and through awful potholes and past lovely scenery that we didn’t even appreciate because we were so ready to be done. Our poor driver had never encountered roads like this before, and his nerves were about shot. Finally, at almost 3 p.m., nearly 12 hours after we left the university, we arrived in the little village that we were trying to get to.

So why did we end up in this village, anyway, out of all the hundreds of villages in Chiang Mai, most of which are much easier to reach? Well, first of all, you have to understand about the hill tribes. There are a lot of different tribal groups who have immigrated to Thailand in the last couple of hundred years. Most of them have come from China or Myanmar, and many of them have made homes in remote mountain villages. The Karen are probably the largest of the hill tribe groups, but there are about 5 other main groups, and more smaller ones.

While they learn Thai in school, they speak their tribal languages as their mother tongue, and many of them are not given Thai citizenship. They tend to be poor and less educated. Many of the manual labor jobs in the city are done by tribal people, who earn less than $10 per day. If you met one on the street you probably couldn’t tell the difference between them and an ethnically Thai person, but the Thai people can usually tell. These “hill tribe” people tend to be looked down on as lower class, yet simultaneously pitied. They have become the token “needy people who we can help” for the Thai people. What’s not to love about a project like this? After all, the pictures look great. Adorable children in their tribal outfits, with a backdrop of majestic mountains. And what better way to feel good about yourself than to give something to someone who’s worse off than you, and tell yourself that you’re improving their life? And if you can take a trip to an exotic location with your good friends at the same time, well, why not?

When I went to a similar village with the church youth group, at least we spent some time with the local people, visiting their homes and talking to them. This time, though, the visitors stayed in their own groups, hanging out with their friends from university. When the official activities were finished, our group built a fire outside the classroom where we were sleeping, and started pulling out the stash of beer that they’d brought along. Up the hill, students from the other university had been drinking for a while already, and they blared their music loud. It could have been a perfect night, with the fire and the stars, but all of the peace and quiet was ruined. I was tired anyway, so I put in my earplugs and rolled up in my sleeping bag and went off to sleep, but not without feeling sorry for any villagers who may have been attempting to sleep.

The next morning we did some games and stuff with the children, and then it was time to Give Them Stuff, the main point of the trip. The villagers sat in rows, and one row at a time, filed forward, and came back with their arms loaded with clothing and blankets and ramen noodles and unhealthy snacks.

The picture just seemed wrong to me, waltzing in and giving them what we thought they needed but never even getting to know them. On top of this, I knew that a different group had done the same thing in this village last year, and I wondered about whether we were helping to perpetuate a culture of relying on others for handouts instead of being self-sufficient. So I mentioned it to my Christian Thai friend, who was also along. “Do you really think it’s a good thing to just give them all of this stuff?” I asked her. She agreed that it probably wasn’t, and mentioned a guy at NCU who was from a small hill tribe village and grew up living in a children’s home and having people come give him stuff like this all of the time. “He always asks to borrow money, but he never pays it back,” she said. “It’s like he thinks people should just give him money because he’s poor. But he doesn’t try to get a job.” She told me that many of the men in this village are unemployed as well, and just sit around and drink and don’t do much else. And it seemed to be true—near our campfire, some village men had built a fire of their own, and in the morning the area near their fire was filled with beer bottles and trash.

The trip home was much shorter, only 7 hours instead of 12, thanks to a drier road and fewer frivolous rest stops. It was scary, though, going up and down and around tight curves on those mountain roads, slinging back and forth. If I didn’t hang on tight it felt like I would slide out the back when we were going up hills. But finally we made it home.

April Blogging Challenge day 2, written by my mom, can be found here. Day 3, written by Jenny, can be found here.