Fragrant Whiffs of Joy Giveaway!

When I read Dorcas’ new book, I felt like I was sitting across the table from her, drinking tea and talking. The time we did that in Poland, she spoke wise, memorable words to me, and her new book feels like an extension of that conversation. I consider her a writing mentor (she was the one who nudged me to self-publish my book, which I have never regretted doing), and a kindred spirit, whose friendship I treasure.

The crazy thing about this week when I read Fragrant Whiffs of Joy was that I was experiencing another kind of whiffs in my kitchen. Apparently, a rodent has died somewhere inaccessible under the floor of the kitchen sink, and it’s been truly awful, and I still don’t know what do about it. You might say Dorcas’ book was good escape writing.

This is a user-friendly book, in that you can dip anywhere in the book, read a chapter (they’re quite short) and put it down til the next time you have five free minutes. Dorcas writes in a most colorful, fresh way, which means her metaphors and word pictures are so vivid you can see them, like the stitching on her dad’s barn mitts that showed all the national borders up to the North Sea. She writes these colorful descriptions and dialogues that take up most of the pages, then tucks in these little lines that reveal the point of the pictures and conversations:

This is what it means to be an adult, I think: to make peace with the life you didn’t foresee, to see spiritual significance in the daily repeated tasks, and to find fulfillment in doing them well.

That was in the chapter about fixing endless amounts of food for the multitudes.

This one is in the one about the minister’s wife, and how Dorcas fought the impostor syndrome:

We cannot go wrong with honesty and love, with flaws and laughter, with genuine joy or sadness. We would love to fix the world by distributing perfect solutions at arm’s length, but what people really need is for us to walk beside them until they figure life out for themselves.

I think that’s the main reason I consider Dorcas a friend and a lady I want to be like. She uses her words to express care and understanding without acting on the urge to fix and tidy everything up perfectly. She is honest and discreet. She is wise and humble.

When I got to the chapter about her son’s first mother, I started feeling all chokey, and when I got to when Steven’s mom sewed, I cried. I don’t know why. I don’t know anything about Africa or adoption. I think the tears came from awe at the beauty of an orchestration that’s way bigger than any person or family can arrange.

I giggled in the chapter about her fabric stash and New Year’s resolution not to buy more fabric that year. It made me curious about how that year went. I didn’t take time to ask her. Maybe we can find that out later.

You can order the book from Dorcas Smucker at 31148 Substation Drive, Harrisburg, OR 97446. Books are $12 each plus $2 postage. Checks or PayPal accepted. (dorcassmucker@gmail.com) Or find it here on Amazon.

For now, I get to give away one of these books! Dorcas gave me one copy to keep, one to give to someone who is sick or in a hard time (that will be my mom, who was diagnosed with cancer last January and has been sick all this long year), and one to give away to one of you! I’m not going to ask you do anything like telling me your favorite cake, or saying what your deepest fear is. Just drop a comment below, and I’ll draw the winner on November 18. Ready? Go!

A Brave New Book

About six years ago, back in the days of Google Reader, a friend told me about a blog.

“Sarah Thebarge is a physician’s assistant, and has befriended this Somali family, calls them the invisible girls, and blogs about their experiences.  I think you’d like what she says.”

I did like the blog, very much, and followed every post until Sarah took the posts down because they were the copyrighted content of her first book called The Invisible Girls and then I bought the book.

Since then, I’ve followed Sarah’s story and found her to be a rare soul. A cancer survivor and fighter for other’s well-being, she quite her medical job, sold everything that didn’t fit into her car, and traveled around the US talking to groups about her story and the Somali girls, and called people to care for their neighbors and spread love into the world. There are people who can speak, and others write, but Sarah is one of those rare ones who does both very well. I’ve not heard her in person, but have enjoyed a few talks on-line.

I read her blog posts, and feel her passion to love our neighbors and spread Jesus’ love one person at a time. She writes searingly, stunningly courageous words about the agony and unanswered questions of extended singleness. She knows hope and healing and devastation and tears and beauty.

Then she went to Togo, West Africa to work in a clinic for three months, and contracted malaria that nearly killed her. She came back broken in body and soul, and it took months to recover and start telling her stories.

Here are those stories! WELL released today! Find her on Facebook, or buy her book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Sarah says, “The book is brutally honest about the medical issues people face in the developing world, and it grapples with real issues and questions about how people can love on the developing world in a way that’s helpful and sustainable.  But underlying it all is the fact that Love holds our beautiful, broken world….and invites us to do what we can to make our world truly, deeply WELL.”

I agree.

Reading it is not for the faint of heart. There are medical details and agonizing questions that could shake you if you felt squeamish or unsure of your faith. In a big sister way, I would suggest that Sarah was too exhausted and overwrought even before she went to Togo, and thus wasn’t able to roll with the punches there very well. And there were some dreadful body blows. But it is well-written, and the last chapter is the best one.

Standing here now, minutes away from my feet touching American soil for the first time in three months, I suddenly had the humbling realization that

I had been making unfair and untrue value judgments for a really long time. I had assumed that loving people while standing on the soil of West Africa
was more valuable than loving people while standing on a sidewalk in the United States.

That traveling for hours on a plane to get to people who were suffering was more significant than driving ten minutes in my car to the local rescue mis-
sion, or the Somali girls’ apartment—or even walking to the neighbor’s house next door.

Somehow, I believed that I earned more cosmic points for loving people while jet-lagged than for loving people while well rested.

That eating strange food was more significant than eating leftovers from my favorite take-out place.

That serving people who speak a different language from me was somehow more important than serving fellow English speakers.

It took a hard three months in Africa to open my eyes to the fact that the Somali girls were never a consolation prize. That cancer didn’t deprive me of
God’s Plan A for my life. That I was where I was meant to be, and if I never used my passport again, the life waiting for me in the States was just as signifi-
cant as the life I thought I’d have as a missionary overseas.

As I pulled my heavy bag off the carousel, I thought, Maybe in God’s eyes, the soil under our feet doesn’t matter nearly as much as the compassion in our
hearts. Maybe the love we show to others is infinitely more significant than the ground on which we stand.

Translators Needed

You know how sometimes memories emerge that were buried for years, but now and then they pop up on the screen of your mind? This story reemerges now and then, with no particular trigger, but it illustrates what seems to be part of my life work.

I was in my teens, eating Sunday lunch at a church family’s place, and they were also hosting a visiting couple who had never been at a Mennonite church before. So the dinner time was full of discussion and questions. I was listening and observing. The conversation went to how we value community and help each other in difficulties.

“So for example,” our host explained, “When someone’s house needs major repairs like putting on a new roof, we’ll have a frolic.”

Something washed over the guest’s face, and I knew that when he heard “frolic” he did not hear what my host meant.

Two things happened in that moment:

  1. I stayed quiet (another subject for another day)
  2. I knew that someone got a grossly misleading impression, and it never got resolved.

Worse things could happen.

But.

Sometimes what you say is not what I hear, so I don’t know more than I did.

If we don’t care about communication and understanding each other, we may as well all stay home and talk to ourselves and take selfies all day.

But if we were designed to do life beside and among and around people, and if we have something that’s beautiful to say, I care that that message gets transmitted well, and translated when necessary.

When I finished five years in Poland and came to the US, I reveled in talking English to my heart’s content. I mean, I could walk into a store and ask ANYthing! I could even make small talk with other customers. So novel! But every now and then, in those first months, I heard a mumbled announcement or a colorful idiom and I would catch myself whirling around to make sure my neighbor understood it. Translating to my friends in Poland had been such a way of life for me that it took awhile to realize that everyone here knew more idioms and one-liners than I did and I could take off my translator hat now. Other times, everyone around me was laughing at some remark, and I didn’t know what was funny. I think now that it was all part of reverse culture shock or culture fatigue or something else unpleasant like that.

Language and communication and understanding has so many intricacies and nuances and layers that it takes special effort to do well with it. Humor and laughter require another dimension to understanding. When different languages and cultures come together, the dynamics become exponentially complex. Among English speakers like at that Sunday dinner, wires get crossed. Sometimes even people who’ve known each other all their lives still need a translator.

There are many places where we need translators between people and groups. Actually, wherever there are people, we need translators. I think of it especially in some church services. Maybe it’s because it’s generally a formal place, where there is tradition and unspoken expectations, and a new-comer feels especially foreign.

This is not a critique about how to do church. That’s a subject for wiser, stronger people than me. This is a call to think about being translators for visitors, new friends, foreigners new to your culture and your spoken or unspoken languages.

I was glad for a translator when I visited a church where the minister asked for testimonies from the audience, but the lady beside me leaned over to tell me that he is talking to the men, because the women don’t speak.

I wished for a translator when visitors at church weren’t oriented to what was happening now, nor what would be happening next. Especially when the speaker asked us to kneel and everyone swirled around in their benches. Just between you and me and don’t tell anyone, I think kneeling back into the place we were just sitting is very uncivil and undignified and I love the gracefulness of kneeling forward to pray. However, if that’s not your culture’s tradition, you can help the visitor beside you by translating the invitation to kneel.

If I could do that Sunday dinner over now, I wouldn’t hesitate to clarify for our guest what our host was saying. It could be done without making anyone feel foolish. The point is clarity and explanation and education, and at the end, everyone understands each other better. Which would actually help a lot of issues everywhere, come to think of it.

Anyone can be a translator. At least, anyone who values what they have, and wants to share it beyond their borders. And anyone who understands that English doesn’t always sound like English.

Blest be the Synergy

We gathered under the trees and around salads and grilled kebabs and before prayer, our host said, “Be thinking about how to answer this question: why did God put you here in this place and time? What were you born to do? We’ll talk about this later in the evening, so this is your heads-up.”

Then we ate wonderful food and cuddled the baby and stirred the fire and talked on high for hours. We were seven people joined by common experiences and passions, and there are always stories to re-tell and howl about, and new parts of our lives to share, and there is never silence between us. When the darkness settled and the children were put to bed, and the coals glowed, I thought it was time to wrap up and leave, but our host brought up his question: “What were you born to do? We’ll go around the circle and hear from everyone, and I’ll start.”

The fire became an altar, and the circle a sacred place, and time stopped while we heard each other’s dreams and goals and affirmed what we heard.

“Yes, you ARE a shepherd. Hey, I want to tell the rest of you about the time he was a shepherd to me.”

“The way you love on troubled children is the way you show them Jesus. You WERE born for that!”

I was the only single among the three couples, and they prayed for a husband for me, and we prayed for each other’s visions and unanswered questions and quests. Sacred is the only word I can use to describe it, and even the next day I still felt hushed in wonder at the beauty and power I’d witnessed.

This was one of several small groups I’ve been part of. Various times and incentives shaped the groups. Similar interests. Common training. A work team. Sitting at the same table for supper in the cafeteria.

The synergy that rises out of asking questions and brainstorming and bringing one’s whole self to a group energizes me for several reasons.

  • It is an adventure, because there is no predicting what will happen.
  • It is empowering to be heard, to be given space and time where your voice matters.
  • It provides shared experience that becomes a reference point for further interaction.
  • Life and death are in the power of the tongue.

Sometimes a group has to wrestle with a dilemma that has no easy way forward. If one person were alone in a room wrestling with the sticky problem, they would get tired and despair and make a bad decision. But in a group, with more ears tuned to what’s being said, and more than one heart engaged with the issues at hand, good and beautiful things happen.

What happens in group is not limited to the time in the circle. Sometimes Often I perceive or say things in the moment that I would see differently if I had time to mull over it. But it gives a starting place for more thought and change. Group work also pushes me to ask God for the most pressing need of my whole life: wisdom.

Here are some life-giving words I’ve heard in group:

“When you said that, I got this picture of…”

“I really like that idea!”

“Can you tell us where those tears come from?”

“You’re being quiet over there. What are you thinking?”

“What would happen if…?”

“I see your point, but what about…?”

“That took some courage to say.”

One group was so sacred that I can’t talk about it here except to say it involved snowballs in the dark, and honesty and courage shimmered around us in a way that would hardly have happened had we stayed around the table in the dining room.

So setting is important. A bonfire helps. Or a chalk board. And snacks–at least chocolate.

There are no guarantees for resolution, and there is always risk.  Risk that my words will be misunderstood. Risk that I’ll fall apart. Risk that I’ll walk away with fewer answers than I want. Risk that my heart will break.

But risk is the price you have to pay to keep walking toward wholeness and a full life.

I am deeply grateful for the groups I’ve been honored to be part of. They shape me into a person I could never become if I would try to wing it alone.

We Are Too Easily Satisfied

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This prayer by Wilbur Rees keeps coming back to me.

I wept when first heard it read about a month ago.

I don’t think it needs commentary.

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,

but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk

or a snooze in the sunshine.

I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man

or pick beets with a migrant.

I want ecstasy, not transformation.

I want warmth of the womb, not new birth.

I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

 

A Special Kind of Recycling

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There should be a word for déja vu reversed. Maybe ‘tables turned’ is the idiom I want. Or “what goes around comes around.”

It happened after work when I was hurriedly eating my solitary supper before rushing off for my voice lesson at the local college. I was keeping an eye on the clock when this warm wave of memory washed over me.

I remembered how my English students would rush in after their work day, fling a coat off, and sink into a chair. I made it a point to have a warm, cheerful classroom, and a bright, positive attitude. During our lessons, I cheered and cajoled and guided and believed in them when they couldn’t. My students, individually or as a group, would relax, smile, and even laugh. Actually, we laughed a lot. Often. Head down on the table laughing. Leaning out of the chair laughing.  Then they said things like “Coming here is like therapy” or “I had to stay for this late meeting at work, but I didn’t want to miss this lesson” or “The train was late, and I was so angry, because I didn’t want to cancel with you.”

Eating my supper in a rush, I suddenly understood them. Now it was me whose head was tired of thinking, whose creativity was wrung out by 5:00, and who couldn’t wait to walk into a doorway of light to a welcoming, confident person who knows what she’s doing.

My teacher teaches voice like I taught English, and I am like my students were. I was coming off of 6 weeks of no lessons due to a bad cold, and this was like starting from zero, like all the time she’d put into me was nothing. The first few scales were really, really horrible, even I could hear it, but she never flinched. She knew what I needed, knew the incremental baby steps to take, and got me do things I didn’t think I could do. And we talked about other stuff as fast as we could between warm ups and French pronunciation.

Just like it was with me and my students.

This kind of pay back is beyond-words-delicious.

Now I need an English teacher to help me with my metaphors.

Tasty Words

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We were a group of friends around a campfire with a silver moon and glorious crisp air around us. It was “literary night” and some of us read wild and wonderful bits and pieces–excerpts and short stories–to the others. I cheered and laughed and ate up all the deliciousness. Among others, there was Dickens and A. A. Milne and then O. Henry.

“Goody, goody, I love O. Henry,” I said under my breath.

“How do you know all those books?” my friend next to me asked.

I shrugged and said I grew up with them. But now that I think about it, except for Milne, that’s not really true. I always read voraciously, but in very protected parameters, without access to a public library. Sometimes I feel like a hoax when I talk about my favorite writers and books because somehow people think I read a lot, but in comparison to other friends, I don’t. I think I give the impression of being well-read because I’m vocal about whatever book and author I’m enthused about, while my friends read much more high-brow content much more quietly and know far more than I.

But I follow some writers I like, here and there on their blogs or talks on YouTube, and then I recognize their names when their books get on best-seller lists.  And I watch some literary reviews in some papers, which alerts me to the up-and-coming new books, and then years later I unearth them in a 2nd-hand shop. Or a friend loans me one like this recently: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I can’t repeat that title very fast, but it was absolutely delightful, and I was none the worse for having waited for it several years after all the book clubs in Ireland were reading it.

And now I’m in an academic setting where most of my assignments center around reading, reading, reading, and for the first time in my life, it’s something I MUST do many hours a day, and while I love it, it’s not easy. I thought it would be like eating chocolate cake. But the Chesterton book right now is such that I can. not. understand any two consecutive sentences. And it’s the book that has a section in which I’ll be responsible to guide a discussion, so I HAVE to get it. The experience is sort of like chewing steak. Tasty, but tough. Nourishing, but work.

This is not going to put me off books. It will probably make me more excited and vocal about words and ideas. And definitely more enthused than ever about wrapping up the day with Milne or O. Henry.