Easters I Remember

There are two Easters I remember well.

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In the first, Papa is a carpenter. I grew up around sawdust and power tools, screw drivers and lumber. Daddy wore jeans and tan work shirts to work every day, with a pencil stuck behind his ear. Sometimes as little girls, we tagged along to job sites, sweeping up sawdust Here, and learning to put Those Boards over There. We were handed nearly empty jars of putty and dull carpenter’s knives to fill holes in woodwork. We’d hold the ends of giant pipes, while Papa carefully painted their rims with green and purple substances. We supervise him soldering copper with a blowtorch, cringing in fear when tiny bits of melted metal dropped to his skin. He’d bark, “Don’t open the tape measure all the way!” But we always did anyway, holding contests to see how long we could unroll it into the air without it cracking to the floor. We stood next to him as dutiful carpenter nurses, handing him various instruments: “Square.” “Sawzall.” “Screw.” “Tape.”

Many times, we were called upon to clean up his work site. We’d arrive to find sawdust spit into every corner, the little bag for catching sawdust completely fallen off the miter saw. Wooden clamps lay twisted on the floor, every which way. Power drills and cords lay haphazardly. “After you fill this, you can play,” he said, handing us impossibly large black trash bags.

Papa had this way of convincing you that you were the greatest at tasks you’d never done before. One day I helped him spackle some drywall. He handed me a stainless-steel trough of freshly-mixed spackle, along with a trowel, demonstrating the motion. He left, then returned to check my work. He’d shake his head.

“I can’t believe it!” he’d say. “You’re better than the guys I hire in Columbus!”

“Lookin’ good, sister! I tell you what. I’d like to hire you!” he’d say, while re-spackling most of the spots I’d done with a “second coat.”

“Just smooth it out, there. See.”

One time, Papa worked for a German woman named Heike in Columbus. She was a professor in the Department of Design at The Ohio State University. I don’t know how Papa met her, but he had a knack for finding German-speaking people and for going out of his way to practice his German on them.

Heike had a remodeling job for Papa to do, and one day Mama drove us in our green wood-paneled Plymouth Grand Caravan to see Heike’s house.

“Esther, you have to see her house. You’ll really think it’s neat.”

Heike had short hair like a boy. Her house was unlike most houses I had seen, in shape, in the amount of rooms, and the furniture. She had a whole table made of glass. (A whole table! Think of it!) Mama instructed us not to touch it. When Mama and Heike were not looking, I touched it.

I remember rattan chairs, and strange art, perhaps from Africa. The best thing of all was her garden and lattices to the side of the house. Papa hadn’t finished the steps down into the little alcove, so he had set up a piece of 2×8 as a ramp that he padded across, and we girls thought that was the neatest thing. But it was raining that day, and as we trotted back and forth on the ramp, Rachel promptly fell off, sprained her ankle, and there was maybe a little blood. The carpenter’s blubbering, crying daughter caused quite the alarm for Heike, who wanted Rachel to be taken to the emergency room. (“That’s because she’s Professional,” Mom said.) Instead, Mom asked for a rag, loaded my two sisters in the minivan and drove home.

I was left with Papa at the work site. I wanted nothing more than to march up and down the ramp some more. But Heike said no.

She asked me if I liked to draw. I said I did, and she invited me into the house. I suddenly felt shy as she walked me toward a sunken room that had little natural light. Only a small window was near the ceiling. She offered me a pencil with which to draw, and gave me the largest collection of colored pencils I had ever seen. I turned my nose up at them (for they were not Crayola), but I was in shock to discover that they were the smoothest set of colors I had ever used. There were no primary colors, and I remember being disappointed to have to improvise using obscure shades. The colored pencils were magical, the lead buttery soft. (I now know that Heike leads the Interior Design department at Ohio State, and I can only imagine what writing instruments she put into the hands of a grimy 7-year-old.)

“Heike is probably not a Christian,” I reasoned, so I decided to draw her a picture of Jesus so that she might be saved. Perhaps it was nearing Easter, for I decided to draw Mary at the tomb. I colored Mary’s robe with a non-descript mauve color for there was no pencil labeled “blue.” Heike returned to the inner room.

“Show me what you’ve drawn.”

“It’s Jesus’ resurrection,” I explained. “This is the angel,” I pointed to a white character. “He’s telling Mary that Jesus isn’t here. He’s risen from the dead. And that’s the tomb.” A large gray circle filled the middle of the page.

“I see,” she said.

“It’s for you,” I explained.

“Oh!” She set it aside.

I was a little surprised she didn’t become a Christian after I gave her my picture. I squirmed out of my seat to go find Papa. I didn’t want to draw with Heike anymore.

***

I am not sure why that memory is so vivid in my mind. I remember her soaking-wet, green gardens, the overcast gray clouds, and the curious angles of her home. I remember her very short hair. I remember the delight of scampering over a simple ramp made by Papa, and the momentary uncertainty of being with a stranger.

***

Easter as a child was memorable for a lot of reasons. Grandma sent us brand-new matching Easter dresses (from J.C. Penney) in a box in the mail every year. We got to wear white shoes to church, or even better, white sandals. There was always an Easter play at church on Good Friday. Grown men would roughhouse Jesus (where the podium used to be), and soldiers (really, all the carpenters in church) would “nail” Jesus to the cross, pounding real nails with hammers that echoed throughout the sanctuary. Jesus would writhe in agony, then be raised on the cross, wearing a T-shirt splattered with red food coloring. Easter morning was a sunrise service, and families would argue whether the church window blinds should be opened or closed.

“The sun causes a glare on some people’s glasses,” some said. Others remarked haughtily, “It’s a sunrise service! What’s the point of a sunrise service if we don’t see the sun?!”

The song leader would apologize “to our morning voices” before leading “Up from the Grave He Arose.” He would try to pitch it down, to the chagrin of sopranos like my mother. Then we had a magical hour of breakfast at church, with tulips on the table for three hundred forty-seven people, and plenty of old ladies to “ooo” at my new dress.

After church, there was ham.

***

But once we were not home for Easter. We traveled to Illinois to visit mom’s friends. I was delighted to realize that mom’s friend had a daughter my age, and we would be playing together all weekend long. Not only that, we would be playing on a farm. Her father was not just a farmer; he was a shepherd. And it was lambing season!

The frigid chilly mornings were full of sunshine and romps through the greening pasture, down to the stream that ran under a road culvert. We spent hours playing by the stream, accompanied by their border collie. I caught a tiny fish by plunging my bare hands into the ice-cold water. We sprinted the long distance toward the farmhouse, skidding to a stop to gingerly crawl under the electric fence, before galloping the last few yards, hollering for an ice cream bucket to keep our new pet in. We turned on the laundry sink at full blast. “Don’t you want pond water?” Katie’s mama said. We stared each other, hollered and sprinted out the back door, stopping to carefully slip inside the pasture again, and whooped and hollered all the way to the stream to fill our 2 qt. cottage cheese container with a more hospitable environment. Her little brother Grant followed us, though we had averted him all morning.

Papa and the older girls picked up branches in the yard and loaded them in wheelbarrows (strong winds were common there). Katie’s father started a fire to burn the brush. In the afternoons, we washed dishes and listened to Adventures in Odyssey.

There was so much laughter when we visited. Papa teased the older girls, and their dad had blue eyes that sparkled when he threw his head back and laughed. The whole family laughed.

The night before Easter, and a lamb was to be born. We had to walk through the pitch-black to get to the barn. Only the oldest daughter was allowed inside the stall. The ewe was in distress, and my friend’s dad informed us the sheep was having twins, and one of them was breech.

In the straw lay a huge bottle of dish soap. He started slathering his hands with soap and explained to each girl in attendance, “This will help me pull out the lamb very quickly. When a lamb is being born, it’s first instinct is to…’hah!’” he motioned taking a big breath. “If it breathes too soon, the baby lamb will breathe in the birthing fluid and drown.”

The ewe became increasingly restless, and my friend’s father sternly rebuked it. His loud voice and firm grip scared me, for he was a kind and gentle man, and I had not seen him be gruff with anyone, especially his children. Adding one last bit of soap to his hands, he slipped his hands in the birthing canal after the sheep had settled, and pulled the first lamb to safety, immediately wiping the amniotic fluid from its mouth. The second twin was ready to be born, and with his hand inside the ewe, his blue eyes widened incredulously, “This one’s born breech too!” Soon two tiny lambs lay next to each other in the straw, one a lot smaller than the other. The oldest daughter poked some straw just inside the lambs’ nostrils, to help them breathe.

On Easter Sunday, the sun was replaced by freezing gray clouds, and a chill wind blew over the unplowed corn fields. I did not wear a new dress from Grandma; she had died the year before. Instead I wore a floral skirt and a lavender T-shirt from Kmart. I had packed large brown sandals, and Mom handed me some nylons to wear. I found Katie downstairs sitting on a sheep’s wool rug, putting on her nicest Sunday shoes. She was wearing a velvet mauve dress and white tights. She looked like she was going to the orchestra. I felt like… that I did not look like I was going to the orchestra.

Katie’s dad was a preacher, and there are few sermons I remember from childhood, but I remember that one.

For his text, he did a word study on the word “Easter,” explaining that the term is nothing more than the name of a pre-Christian goddess. Early Christians in England began celebrating Christ’s resurrection during “Eastermonth,” a season named for the goddess, and a season in which early pagans celebrated the vernal equinox. The preacher carefully highlighted the events of Holy Week, along with the resurrection, resting on the meaning of Easter for Christians who serve a risen God, before arriving at his conclusion: why do we choose such a strange name for our Christian holiday?

Easter Sunday? Pagan god Sunday?” he asked gravely.  “No,” he shook his head, before breaking into a smile, “Resurrection Sunday!”

There was a certain triumph when we sang “Up from the Grave He Arose.” For one thing, it was noon, and every soprano could hit the high note.

On our drive home, they called us to tell us that the smallest little twin lamb had died.

Signs at Christmas

“You will be so impressed when you come home and see allllll my snowmen!” Mama’s voice smiles over the phone, oozing with sarcasm. Every year I criticize Mom’s hideous figurines set in haunting displays about the house. We’ve always quarreled over decorations, neither of us mincing words.

I’m nearing the 270 Columbus outer-belt, a route made familiar by my countless OSU commutes. It’s 10:30 p.m., and the city is nearing its bedtime. Weaving through traffic, I choose the swiftest lanes, paths memorized on my drives to campus. My 10-year-old iPod nano (a gift from my sister and her then-boyfriend) shuffles, playing indie Paper Route, and just then, driving through the glowing Columbus city-scape, it’s like it’s 2011 again, everyone’s in college, life is crucial, and TØP is a backyard band made up of a homeschool kid who used to play Christian high school basketball.

The city is a backward bronze horizon as I turn dark west. Soon I reach the familiar plains; the howling wind comforts me, and the stars are visible on the open plain.

***

“I just love the snowmen you’ve set out!” I gush, upon alighting on the front steps.

Mom rolls her eyes and gathers me into a hug. Papa is napping silently, bare feet sticking out of his favorite denim blanket, eyes behind an old Qatar Airways sleep mask.

It’s 11:00 p.m., and though I’ve already eaten supper, I stuff my face with blood oranges, Emma’s popcorn, homemade dipped gingersnaps, peanut butter blossoms, and a giant slice of frosted tea-ring. It occurs to me that my gastroenteritis ER disaster is firmly in the past.

Mama and I quietly catch up in the living room, me breathlessly explaining my own Christmas miracle from earlier that morning, which can only be explained here as me requesting a Very Important Email from a long-lost professor in Seattle. The sensitive situation required careful research, phone calls, a letter, and a certain kind of academic etiquette that I’m never sure if I get quite right. I can tell you that Thursday night I fell asleep half-seriously asking God for an email for Christmas. The next morning I drove my 30-minute work commute in glum anxiousness, not knowing where to turn during the week of Christmas break, if my efforts were in vain.

Haphazardly checking my email before exiting my car for my last day of work before Christmas break, I gasped in surprise at my inbox, too afraid to even read the brand-new email.

It was better than I could have even hoped.

I was beside myself upon entering work, that I couldn’t figure out what to do in the office with my excitement, so I just went to the bathroom and refilled all the toilet papers.

Isn’t it freaky when your prayers are answered in super-specific, timely ways?

Mom, of course, had heard the whole story twice, but listened gently in motherly raptures at my excitement. In the living room, we giggled over Oasis Chorale news, and Mama and Papa listened quietly as I played for myself for the first time Arvo Part’s “The Deer’s Cry.” Struck by its meditative, almost Russian-sounding quality, I carefully read the text:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in me, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me,
Christ with me.

It’s chilling to imagine performing this piece. Simply put, disciplined worship forms us. And the vision of the future here, the already-not-yet of the Gospel described here is so profound, that it lent a moment of soberness to our crumbly-cookie gathering.

Let me be honest: the disparity between my own brokenness and the Christ-centered existence mentioned in this text breeds spiritual insecurity for me, a common topic for me and my mentors. As I approach the new year, I continue to explore ways to build spiritual confidence and unity with Christ.

Saint Patrick, who composed the text in 433, chanted the text along with his comrades while fleeing through a forest, away from persecutors set to kill them. The story goes that the travelers were transformed, as reported by the perpetrators, into a deer and twenty fawns. Thus, St. Patrick was saved.

(What a strange manifestation of grace, using common forms. Strange and common… like an email.)

Dipping into Disciplines for the Inner Life last week, I was encouraged to pray not for answers, but for the sense of being heard, by God. Is that what had happened when I had checked my email before work?

Receiving exactly what you ask for is confidence-boosting. It is also rare. It also breeds doubt because you second-guess if it’s actually an answer, or just a coincidence, something you received that’s so small that you shouldn’t have prayed about it in the first place. (Call me irreverent, but I struggle to pray for lost coins. I’d rather divert the Lord to, say, the border.) Then, once you decide to actually call it answered prayer, you try to interpret it. What does the “answer” mean for you and your one, beautiful life? Does the answer have anything to bear on other requests, much more monumental, for which you seek wisdom?

***

One and a half days later, I stuff my feet into brilliant purple running shoes and pull on tights and all manner of winter running garb. I steal a handkerchief from my dad’s drawer and tie it over my nose and mouth to protect my lungs.

Shaking out my legs on my first vacation run, I squint my eyes through the only opening on my face, between my hat and scarf. I pick up speed, and the earth quiets. The sun has set, and the entire landscape is a frozen brown, the lavender-blue sky meeting the razor-straight solitary trail, lined by scraggy saplings. Just before I reach “The Tree,” I hear a thundering under the wide expanse. Over my right shoulder, I catch a movement, and my adrenaline surges.

Three white-tailed deer thunder toward me.

For a moment, their light hooves match my rhythm, then thunder past.

I chase them, and their tails disappear just up ahead.

I can’t help but remember…

…“The Deer’s Cry.”

***

Perhaps readers think that such a sighting may be common for Ohio landscapes, but I’ve been running this trail for twelve years and have never once spied such wildlife.

The experience was so otherworldly that it’s hard to not ask what sort of meaning it prefigures.

***

For now, I turn to the Psalms:

“As for God, his way is perfect:
The Lord’s word is flawless;
he shields all who take refuge in him.
For who is God besides the Lord?
And who is the Rock except our God?
It is God who arms me with strength
and keeps my way secure.
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer;
he causes me to stand on the heights.”

Psalm 18:30-33

I hold this memory close at the end of this page-turning year.

Drinking Coffee with Canada’s National Mennonite Historical Society

This past weekend, I listened to no less than thirty academic presentations in a space of 2.5 days as Canada’s national Mennonite Historical Society hosted scholars and speakers for the annual Mennonite Studies conference at the University of Winnipeg. For me, to hear Mennonite history treated with academic regard of the highest degree was paradigm shifting. The conclusions of scholars on Mennonites and education, specifically Mennonite girls in education, were especially moving.

If Canadian Mennonite history were a monarchy, then Frank Epp was crowned king by the frequent reference to his contribution to the three-volume work Mennonites in Canada, his daughter Marlene Epp reigning as current monarch, with U of W’s Mennonite Studies chair Royden Loewen acting as lovable prime minister.

It’s been only recently that I’ve come to discover that the idea of a singular “Mennonite identity” is passé, and it was confirmed to me by the conference. The Canadian presenters seemed to take this as a given as they presented deep research showing diversity of expression in Anabaptist identity in Canada since the 1970s. The fact of diversity within Canadian Mennonitism was further supported through Ted Regehr’s opening comments that highlighted that one major change of Anabaptism in Canada since the 1970s is that it is now primarily an urban identity, not a rural one. (In this way, Mennonites in America seem some fifty years behind their northerly neighbors.) I’ll share here some of the emphases of conference topics and research that to me seemed particularly Canadian in flavor.

1. One of the first concerns raised seemed to be that of indigenous issues. Canadian Mennonite scholars were sensitive to the fact that white Mennonite settlers in Canada settled on Native lands, and the conference began with a ceremonial naming of the tribes on whose land rests the University of Winnipeg. Daniel Sims outlined the interaction of Mennonites with Tsay Keh Nay in Ingenika, British Columbia while they squatted on “government” land. One MCC worker spoke about donations at an MCC thrift store being able to be repatriated to First Nations people in Saskatoon. Coupled with this was occasional reflection on the Mennonites’ responsibilities to the 2008 Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Melanie Kampen asking the question if Canadian Mennonites have fully explored their participation in the cultural genocide of First Nations through residential schools.

2. There were frequent references to Canada’s 1971 induction of a state policy of multiculturalism, which led to (for Mennonites) the creation and promotion of the Manitoba Mennonite Centennial (attended by 70,000) and even government grants for writing the histories that Frank Epp did.

3. Most thrilling of all was my first taste of Canada’s vast archiving of its Mennonite identity. IT IS TO BE RESPECTED. We in the States do not have any sort of Mennonite Historical Society on a national level, and the level of scholarship, documentation, and archival work is simply phenomenal, leading to highly gratifying presentations like that of Laureen Harder-Gissing’s work on Canadian Mennonites at the edge of activism.

  • It was a Canadian Mennonite woman who gained national attention by lobbying (successfully) for less violent scenes in the children’s TV show “Power Rangers” in the 1980s.
  • Mennonites also hopped on the anti-war toys campaign of the 1990s. Ontario Mennonite Fred Snyder bought his local Sears’ entire stock of GI Joe toys on his credit card, and then returned them after Christmas. Sears was forced to return the toys to the manufacturer!

Dr. Janis Thiessen delighted conference-goers with her exposition on John Braun and his Leftist manifesto of the Radical Mennonite Union of the 70s. Hoping to unite the radical Left and Anabaptists, Braun organized and gained funding for a pan-American road trip in which he interviewed Mennonite dissidents along the way, at the same time distributing Leftist propaganda, stopping by the Chicago Mennonite commune that produced the Leftist Mennonite newspaper, the Mennonite Stomach. Thiessen’s research culminated with observations about how the Mennonite Left differed from its nondenominational counterparts. First, there was an intergenerational institutional support in the fact that the older generation indulged Braun, allowing him to create his trip and even agreeing to be interviewed. Second, the Mennonite Left maintained pacifism and the absence of violence, unlike the New Left when they lost out.

4. Another concern to be raised was that of gender – how would Canadian Mennonites include and promote LGBTQ persons within the church, and how did Canadians view the historical contributions of Mennonite women in their respective communities? (Frank Epp’s wife Helen personally reviewed countless national documents in order to find and record every single Mennonite conscripted during the World War. Also, 40% of Mennonite farmers who testified against building a uranium refinery, the El Dorado nuclear site, on Mennonite farmland in Warman, Saskatchewan, in 1980 were women. [They won, incidentally.])

Thus, a theological self-consciousness emerged, along with a call to “change our theology when it hurts others” (which begs the question – what is the definition of theology, and is it so liminal?) This self-consciousness appeared both in relation to gender, but also to ethnicity. For example, Mennonite Brethren folks wondered whether a name-change is in order for the conference, an option for a new name being Evangelical Anabaptist. (One sees how the name is less gendered and less ethnic than Mennonite Brethren). Which actually makes sense given the fact that one researcher pointed out that the Mennonite Brethren church in Quebec is made up of almost entirely non-white immigrants.

The ethnic question was also brought up implicitly by the cultural diversity presentations. For example, how do we account for a Chinese Mennonite Brethren church in Caracas, Venezuela? “That’s so specific,” in the words of Marlene Epp (who was actually describing a cookbook called Friendly Favorites: a Cookbook of Favorite Recipes of Ontario Markham Mennonite Girls Born in 1995, but it nevertheless relates.)

5. Also noticeable was the Mennonite connection to a farming past (and farming future). We heard how Ontario Old Orders responded to the implementation of electric, refrigerated milk tanks. “Can’t use milk cans anymore? We’re moving to Guatemala.” In relation to a change in farming policy, there was, historically, overall, a wide berth of resistance, flexibility, and acceptance. Or as Royden Loewen’s research mused, “Are Canadian Mennonite farmers biotic believers? Or Anabaptist agricultural agnostics?”

6. A purview into contemporary history of Mennonites necessarily reported on Mennonites “Re-Imagining Education,” and it was telling to hear about the move away from Bible schools to Christian universities for the Mennonite Brethren. I tried to remain stoically unemotional when powerhouse Robyn Sneath dusted off her shiny new Oxford doctorate, reporting on forty oral interviews she collected from Lower German Mennonites on their experience with 8th grade public education, and why secondary education seems unobtainable. Further, Janice Harper’s work on the Elmira Life and Work School in Ontario demonstrated to me a flexibility and creativity at the state level to address truancy among conservative Anabaptist who drop out of school after 8th grade. (Among the compromises this Canadian high school made were providing the Mennonites high school segregation at an off-campus location (!) and a work-study option, in which students attend high school one or two days a week, working for a local business for the other three or four days.) The creativity and flexibility demonstrated by the public school board in order to compromise with the religious community in Elmira, Ontario pierced like a neon saber.

But I couldn’t hold back the tears because I was seeing the issues for which I champion every day as an educator discussed in respectful, nuanced ways by national scholars, while feeling the weight of class struggle bind me in solidarity to one Lower German Mennonite girl who solemnly declared when asked if she would ever go to university: “I could never afford it.” While a fog settles over my own educational path, a path of economic resistance, to see my questions legitimized by cutting-edge researchers was paradigm shifting, yet also called into remembrance what Daniel Sims, a Native researcher called for: “No research on us without us.”

Thankfully, every two hours we breaked for coffee and pastries, and I was able to gulp huge breaths of air, and Mennonite big-whigs exchanged my tears for business cards, helpful introductions, and a genuine interest in my conference affiliation because what are you, and would you even consider yourself Mennonite.

7. The last session cast its eye toward the future with talks on Youth & Generation. Gil Dueck’s “Conceptualizing the Millennial: Questions of Theology and Identity” reported that millennials’ questions are not theological in nature, but rather those of identity. A few data points: (1) The 2011 study “Hemorrhaging Faith: Why & When Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving, Staying & Returning to the Church” reported in a weirdly recognizable way that things that keep teenagers from engaging with the church include, for one, not having a meaningful relationship with God (not that teens were able to describe what a meaningful relationship looked like, yet they seemed to be able to feel what it was not). (2) “Identity” is becoming crucially important in emerging adulthood, and the search for identity is continuing quite abnormally into the late 20s and even low 30s. (3) Now, adulthood is about standing alone, rather than accepting role change.

Peter Epp spoke on unbaptized young adults in Mennonite contexts and asked the question, “Why aren’t young people getting baptized?” His named his work “It’s Like Dating Around” because participants in his study equated baptism to marriage, in importance. Since it was a historical conference, Epp was forced to offer objective findings rather than subjective analysis, but it was easy to see how the research pointed to a response. For instance, Epp reported the following concerning unbaptized young adults in Mennonite contexts: (1) To them, baptism requires certainty of belief and changed behavior AND they believe that certainty of belief and changed behavior will be arrived at individually (as in the case of one girl who was waiting to get baptized until she had time to “think really thoughtful thoughts” about what she believed). (2) Secondly, they’ve experienced isolation at church.

If you’re not a historian, feel free to make subjective analysis now.

I worried that a conference of this pace might be tiring, but part of the fun was managing the metacognition of dropping down into a new country… adjusting to signs for “the washroom,” being frowned at for saying, “Yes, sir” (“This is NOT the military!”), noticing uncluttered European-like spaces (a design sense that’s inexplicably un-American), Canadian politeness (could Americans be any more whiny at security), and Canadian forthrightness (especially females). Also the cold. (On a 7o morning, an older conference member announced cheerily, “I walked here, 1.2 miles. Took me twenty minutes. Nice brisk walk.” Another man: “I bike to work. If it’s below -40o, I wear goggles and a face mask. If it’s above -40o, you don’t really need the goggles.”) Have literally never seen an electric hitching post before, in the parking lot, and there was an electric plug sticking out of the hood of the 2018 Dodge Charger we rented. My friend Janae and I dashed out for the most highly rated coffee in Winnipeg, Fools & Horses, and haphazard flakes flittered down lazily, an afterthought in the pink morning sky. (My friend Janae is a chemist, but she graciously accompanied me to the three-day conference, and I think she took more notes than I did!)

 

Winnipeg’s annual Santa Claus parade provided us an hour detour before our final stop: across the Red River is Winnipeg’s French quarter, St. Boniface, and slipping into Promenade, we enjoyed bouef bourguignonne by candlelight, the city lights sparkling on the banks of the river, and we discussed with exuberance our copious notes. Warmed and grateful, I recalled a bit of John Braun’s manifesto as we later stepped out into the night: “Before change, understanding. Before understanding, confrontation. God is alive. Magic is afoot.”

Because Kansas

Touching down on the sizzling tarmac in Wichita, Kansas two weeks ago felt like coming home. While I was a little apprehensive for the upcoming two weeks of intense choir tour with Oasis Chorale, I was excited to be returning to Hutchinson, KS, home of my young college adventures (some of which you can read about on very old posts here.)

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For the past seven years, I’ve spent time every summer singing with the Oasis Chorale, a 40-member Anabaptist a capella choir. This year’s tour started and stopped in Hutchinson, KS, the same town that’s home to Hutchinson Community College, from which I earned my Associate of Arts degree before transferring to The Ohio State University. Moving half-way across the country as a 20-year-old to attend a community college is among one of the weirder decisions I’ve ever made, but it also stands as one of the best decisions, for the Mennonite community there is one of my absolute favorites, and it was my pleasure to call Hutch home for two years.

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Driving from Wichita to Hutch and passing miles of razor flat, wide-open green fields, the sun burning through the pale blue sky and humid, windy air, I giggled in glee, “You can see for miles! You can see the horizon! I can finally breathe deeply again!”

While most easterners and Mid-westerners have driven through Kansas, few of them have come to love the plains, and find beauty in them, like I do. I don’t have much of a chance; I was born in Plain City, Ohio, named so for its extremely flat geography. And I do. I love the plains. There’s something about the sunsets, the miles of fields, and (in Kansas) the unrelenting wind, that I find deeply comforting.

Waves of memories came pouring over me as we sailed down highway 96, past the “honking tree,” and past Yoder, KS, the tiny town where I worked during college. We turned on highway 50, heading toward Pleasantview, following the familiar railroad tracks, and I had a flashback to driving home late one night in tornado-like conditions, all alone on the open road, save for a railroad engineer and the piercing headlight of his long black train.

I hopped out of the van into the warm, windy air and breathed deeply again, an impossibly large smile on my face.

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The next few days became a blur of Oasis Chorale ritual—warm-ups, arpeggios, vocal fry (“Less pitch! Less pitch!”), finding space, unifying vowel, working pieces start-and-stop mode, and recording an entire hymns album (apart from our choral rep for tour), all the while darting in and out of Hutchinson, with its wide western street grids and period homes. I even managed to drag my choir buddies to Metro, the coffee shop I visited every week during my first two years of college.

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Reconnecting with Kansans, I was pleasantly reminded why I love them so much. You know how in every Mennonite Sunday school class there’s at least one lady who is refreshingly honest, unforgivingly practical, sharp as a tack, and very forthright, with absolutely no qualms about calling a spade a spade? Multiply that lady by ten, and that’s basically Kansas. (Readers of Shasta’s Fog will know how I can appreciate those qualities and find them more useful than the guarded, calculated East.)

How fantastic to share with them in song at our first Hutchinson concert, for which, miracle of all miracles, I had my breath under me. (For all our rehearsal days, I just could not make my breath work, but right before concert, my breath returned, and I enjoyed the full concert with, well, another smile on my face.)

Recording over, we began tour with a workshop with Dr. Bartel, a professor at Friends University, and the president of the Kansas Choral Directors Association. Great feedback, including small things like how to sing the word “the.” We were throwing it away, not giving it (and other words) “is-ness.” Such a small detail, but choral musicians know that these tiny significances matter.

Another tour highlight was our choir’s pre-concert chat in Illinois with Westminster student Douglas Byler, composer of this year’s new commission “The Spirit of the Lord.”

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And our second IL concert featured these special guests, my baby nieces!

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Meeting baby Holly for the first time.

We spent our day off in St. Louis, and furiously googling free things to do, I found that St. Louis is home to the Cathedral Basilica, the largest mosaic-ceiled building in the world. It was stunning.

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A small group of us began our adventures at Kaldi’s, a glass-walled coffee shop nestled beneath Citygarden’s trees, and we enjoyed gluten-free dining.

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Next, we maneuvered the city bus system for a 30-minute ride to the Basilica. It was then that I discovered St. Louis to be one of the friendliest cities I’ve visited. Our bus driver got out of his bus at the bus exchange to point us to the correct bus to the Basilica, and he let my friend ride for free when she only had a $20 and no change. He also added an extra hour to our bus passes. The Basilica’s tour guide offered tacky jokes and an amazing amount of history for the overwhelming mosaics.

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Not a painting; a literal mosaic. (!)

Dinner was at Three Sixty, the restaurant atop the Hilton, where we had a (warm) view of the entire city and the famous St. Louis arch.

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The next morning, our choir slipped inside the Old Courthouse, just a few blocks from our hotel, location of the famous Dred Scott trials, who sued the federal government for his freedom. Permitted by a security guard to perform a single choral piece beneath the famous dome, we sang Hawley’s “Not One Sparrow” in dedication to the historical significance of the courthouse.

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pc: Wikipedia Commons

Not one sparrow is forgotten
Even the raven God will feed
And the lily of the valley
From His bounty hath its need
Then shall I not trust Thee, Father
In thy mercy have a share
And through faith and prayer, my Savior
Rest in thy protecting care?

Most of tour, however, is a rat race of hydrating properly, eating properly, guarding your rest like nobody’s business, focused personal rehearsal and memory work on the bus (outside of group rehearsal), and stealing as many gummy bears as possible from the basses. (Gummies = OC’s candy of choice. The urban legend? They’re good for your throat.)

Another immensely rewarding experience was performing a set of songs at the Kansas Choral Directors Association convention in Topeka, KS to a congregation of choir directors, musicians, and All-State high school choir kids. It’s one thing to share your gift with local church audiences; it’s another thing to perform for a room-full of musicians. (You can catch this performance over at OC’s facebook page.)

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The other side of Oasis Chorale is collaborating with local choirs, meeting hosts, making new friends, and net-working. Performing in the green-hued, hundred-year-old sanctuary of First Christian Church in Fulton, MO, I met a lovely elderly lady who reminisced about the congregation’s past:

“It’s changed so much. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s our church was so full, you couldn’t find a seat. There was a women’s college in town, and the girls were required to attend church. Wherever the girls went, the boys showed up! But it’s changed so much. It’s not near as full.”

At a local Hutch concert, I also reconnected with middlewestpenandpage after we had worked together in KS seven years ago!

One of the most inspiring moments of tour was meeting Dr. Jana Nisly, to whom was dedicated our commissioned piece, “The Spirit of the Lord.” Director of La Clinica de las Buenas Nuevas in rural El Salvador for 25 years, Dr. Nisly has held Luke 4:18-19 as her clinic’s motto, and this text was adapted by Douglas Byler for the new commission.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor,
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
To preach deliverance to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are bruised
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

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It was a pleasure to meet Dr. Nisly, to be regaled by doctor stories over a meal, and to hear the mission of her work: “The poor are disregarded in the medical field in El Salvador. To be able to touch them, to treat them, to listen to them… there is no greater joy.” And in her Kansan way, she added, “Now, there’s also nothing more tiring, and it’s too much for me!”

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Slowly and quietly the circling gyre of tour floated to the ground, and we found ourselves at our last concert in Wichita, surrounded by friends, family, and the lovely folks at Eastminster Presbyterian. We performed our last concert as the western sun sparkled through the stained-glass windows. We swallowed our emotions, encouraged to perform “just another concert.” I had the most freedom of breath in that concert that I experienced all of tour.

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The community of Oasis Chorale is something that amazes me. every. year. It’s a stunning moment to prep breath, vowel, and space, and to be backed by (but also to lead) thousands of vocal muscles that synchronize into a thunderous, unified downbeat of “All Hail.” I don’t take this richness for granted. Nor the spontaneous bus conversations about theology and vocation. Nor can I ignore how singing in choir is a metaphor for the way in which God wants to lead us into more perfect beauty. The experience of being led, and of following, of disciplined rehearsal, of vulnerability and trust within the community of choir mid-concert, and of flexibility to follow new gestures that can only come through the growth of being together… these are things which somehow mimic community led by the Spirit.

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Besides this metaphor is the actual musical beauty of my extremely talented friends, whose music-making, in rare moments, makes me feel that dull, physical ache, that only true beauty can. For we know that we are not made for here. As C.S. Lewis says, “We do not merely want to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” It seems that every summer there is at least one memorable solitary moment in which I experience this ache for beauty, a beauty, it seems, that I cannot inhabit. Lewis goes on: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in the world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We singers regularly discuss the chasm there seems to be between our beautiful two weeks of music-making every summer and the “real world,” as it were, or our vocations, which are more closely touched with earth’s brokenness. It’s therefore a grace to perform, to worship, and to inhabit these texts every evening. Yet we would be remiss to make it all about art. Our director gently reminded us to take time daily to know who we are apart from the choir, apart from the music.

Our pitiful goodbyes being said, we flew home this week, but not before I had one amazing day-on-the-town in good ole’ Hutchinson. My friend Trish and I took a gander around campus, and warm memories washed over me as I walked through Lockman Hall, the campus building where I worked as English Department Scholar, discovered my love of literature, took the hardest exam of my college career (World Mythology), and met some of the finest and most caring English instructors. It’s summer, so professors were out, but I penciled in a note to a professor, met the new secretary, and walked all my favorite routes, including the short-cut across the tennis court.

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My ramble across the empty campus was one of the most healing walks of my life. To remember dropping down into Kansas as a shy, scared Mennonite kid in order to maneuver what felt like the impossible unknown, and to look back now… I see that what was, at the time, one of the scariest decisions I had ever made, was one of the safest decisions. While at the time it seemed risky, I now know beyond the shadow of a doubt that enrolling in college in Kansas was unquestionably the best, and safest, decision for me. My experience with faculty and students at Hutchinson Community College and my interaction with the Mennonite community in Hutch unquestionably impacted the person I have become. Kansas was exactly where God wanted me.

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My day in Hutch ended with one of my favorite iconically Kansan experiences… a night walk on Kansas dirt roads. My friend and I quietly crunched over sand and gravel, in the darkness, breathing deep breaths of sweet hay, and dust, til we reached Trails West, the only paved road for miles, and we lay down in the middle of the empty road, with our backs on the warm pavement, staring through the darkness at stars, the moon, and shooting stars and fireflies, and talking about all the secret things that girls talk about.

The next morning I rose early before my flight to make my last Kansas dream come true—a run down West Mills, my familiar running route, the dirt road where I became a runner. Trish and I ignored the distant thunder and lightning in the gray summer morning, as we jogged down the lane to the dirt road and headed west.

In one sense, Kansas, and its big sky, is a place where you can think more clearly. You feel closer to God because there’s nothing between the you, the prairie, and the open sky. It is at the same time safe, and terrifying. Lonely, yet inspiring.

With the rolling wind at my back and the miles-wide gray thunderclouds pregnant with lightning resting low above the shadow green fields, I picked my feet up faster, grinding them along the top of the dirt road. I ran on, in freedom, stopping only to spin and spin in absolute joy.

I Cooked Rice at 10:00 p.m. and Other Confessions

Hi friends. You’ve been so much on my mind, and I finally have a chance to catch up with you.

Here’s the deal: Nicaragua / camera stopped working / phone crashed / deleted all my photos / got new phone/ realized old phone was just backing up my photos to Google drive just for funsies (while also dying and deleting 15% of my best photos) / Google is evil / phones are evil+expensive / so backing up all old photos because #fear / external hard drive from Amazon stops working / Amazon=evil / garbage disposal stops working / license expires / must re-test in state / must change car registration / must change car insurance / must now pay annual car inspection fees / first time for everything / aaaaand Monday is my first ROOT CANAL / literally all my dirty laundry

Now, let me tell you what’s going RIGHT in my life.

  1. I just spent a WEEK in sunny Nicaragua. It’s dry season, and the sun shone every day. I wore flowers in my hair, took pictures of adorable little girls playing with chickens, climbed a volcano, and spoke all the Spanish.

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But really. It was all about these kids. Pretty find humans right here.
  1. Even though I haven’t properly blogged my Nica experiences, timing was pretty tricky this year because I got off the plane from Managua, walked into a Lancaster County snowstorm, turned on the heat in my 50-degree apartment and began doing laundry to leave the very next day for Oasis Chorale rehearsal! I am honestly one of the lucky ones to sing with such talented friends every year. Talk about luxury to spend an entire spring weekend basking in chords! (In case you didn’t know, my choir makes videooooos.)

 

  1. I played with this lil buddy all Easter long.

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  1. I cooked rice at 10 p.m.

I am honestly so sick of excuses. (You too. Stop it. Stop making excuses.) Get up early. Be polite. Be kind. Read your Bible. Care for your friends. Work harder. Put your phone down and read a book. Exercise. Practice your music. Do the dishes. For Pete’s sake, cook once in a while! (You all know how much of a trial this is for me.) Stop complaining.

This weekend I finally got over THIS THING, this icy grip winter has on me, and I’m finally blooming once more. It’s as if this week, I’m growing. This week started off with a bang: I had motivation for… a day.

And on that day I was still going strong at 10 p.m., so much so that I started cooking rice, SOMETHING I’M EXTREMELY BAD AT. (You can ask me how it turned out.)

You know when you feel like a total failure? Like despite the fact that you’re surrounded by so many people but you can’t shake the feeling of isolation and you kick yourself for every single tiny mis-step that you take? (Who am I kidding, now I’m just talking about introverts.) You know when people ask you how you’re doing and you respond sincerely, “I’m good!” but an inky black bunny, hopping up and down, robotically condemns you in your mind, “THAT IS COMPLETLEY FALSE. THAT IS COMPLETELY FALSE.”

Okay, what I’m trying to say is that even though I’m extremely bad at rice-cooking, and this week could honestly be labeled Week of Teaching/Friend/Human Person Mistakes, it doesn’t matter because I have so much hope AND I’M GOING TO MAKE IT.

For crying out loud, I WANTED to cook rice at 10 p.m. WANTED to.

You will make it too. But you better light a candle, calmly read Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” and start changing the world one English lesson at a time, read thought-provoking BBC articles about the American criminal justice system, start following Jada Yuan on Instagram, the writer that the New York Times hired to visit 52 world-class travel spots in a year and write about each of them (we are all jealous), and remember that for some people dreams really do come true, and that you must do today what will get you closer to who you want to be tomorrow. Finally, remember that not everything is about you. Stop worrying that people might think you’re weird. “Nobody ever changed the world by worrying about people’s opinions of them.” (Lecrae’s Twitter this week.)

  1. Last thing that’s going right: spring running season is upon us!

Announcement: the season is going to be about hurting.

I have a confession. When I run, I never hurt. I am the world’s laziest runner. I keep my paces comfortable because I don’t know, I have rules about hurting? And distance does not bother me physically. Distance for me is only a mind game.  I would rather run 5 times a week than even TOUCH an indoor workout. Why? Because cardio HURTS.

Painless running? Not anymore. Last fall’s marathon was a goal of a lifetime, and I completed it conservatively, fearful of reinjuring myself. Now I’m setting my sights higher, possibly returning to the half marathon, going for a sub 2. IT IS GOING TO BE PAINFUL. I’m giving myself plenty of time, looking for a fall race, but I’m already picking up the paces this spring, and I’m loving it.

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See you at the races!

Why You Think Pennsylvanians Are Stuck-Up (and Why You’re Wrong)

I love how you clicked on this link almost like, “What obnoxious thing is she going to say next?”

You know as well as I do that conservative Mennonites who are not from Lancaster (and even some who are) think that Lancaster Mennonites are snobby and stuck-up. I have finally figured out why this stereotype exists! (It is for unjustifiably unfair reasons, I might add.)

One of my favorite things is to talk about cultural differences, and since I’ve had the privilege of living in four distinct Mennonite communities across the United States as an adult, I consider myself a bit of an authority on the subject. In the past eleven months, I’ve had plenty of time to test this theory of “stuck-up” Mennonites.

I recently moved to Ephrata, Pennsylvania, quite leery of the Lancaster County location of my new home.

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However, you’ll be disappointed to know that on the “Culture Shock” timeline, I’ve moved past the Honeymoon stage (in which I gush about Amish produce stands, discount grocery stores, and modest clothing stores) and the Negotiation stage (in which the Transition shock behaviors of anger, homesickness, irritability, and withdrawal promote snarky posts about dating & marriage rituals, along with more serious critiques of the community-wide “saving face” phenomenon and its effects on spirituality). Currently, I’m in the Adaptation stage, where I’m developing positive attitudes about Lancaster culture and learning what to expect in social situations. But I’m a long way off from Adaptation. Because seriously, I’ve never even been to “the cabin.” For one thing, I have to write this post “awhile.” Haha.

So why do people think that Pennsylvanians are stuck-up? This is my theory—they don’t introduce themselves to newcomers.

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In fact, I was talking to a friend who just moved to Lancaster County, and this was her first impression: “Do you notice that people don’t introduce themselves to you here?”

“Yes!” I agreed. “It’s strange!”

We talked about experiences at weddings, work, and church.

Me: “Sometimes I get the odd sense that people here don’t like me! But I realize that (1) those people have never talked to me, and (2) they haven’t introduced themselves to me. And I ask myself, why not?”

 

Interestingly, I kept finding myself in new situations where I was surrounded by strangers, and no one introduced themselves! I visited a new church once, was ignored, introduced myself to a woman whose eyes were downcast, then scurried out the door in awkward shame. As I settled into the church visiting cycle, I grew weary of approaching strangers and explaining that I just moved to Lancaster County. At work, a friend struggled to connect with co-workers who seemed to care little about her “transplanting” story. (Another very common thread is people living in Lancaster their entire lives. Unimaginable to me, the hyperactive state-switcher. Similarly, the story of my endless moving, to communities where I know absolutely no one, is unimaginable to Lancaster locals, often met by blank stares.) On one occasion, I had to schedule a meeting with a woman I saw nearly every day, and I was convinced that she disliked me because she had never introduced herself to me.

After a while, it started to become a joke, where my friend and I delivered the next new story of failing to be introduced at a social function. Once I attended a banquet where I sat at a table with old and new acquaintances. I was the last one to arrive, and as I sat down with my appetizer, I waited to be introduced to the Lancaster residents who I hadn’t yet met. The introduction never came. In fact, no one acknowledged my presence at the table for a full fifteen minutes!

Now before you label this post as another dig at Lancaster County, let me be clear. I do not think that the people in each of these instances were snobby, stuck-up, rude, unkind, or unfeeling, nor do I think that you should judge my expectation to be introduced as unrealistic. In truth, I found the woman who had never introduced herself to be a sweet and gentle person the very day I met with her! And the time of being “ignored” at the banquet table ended up being a night where I received some very kind encouragement from new friends.

These experiences instead clarify that cultural differences exist among geographically diverse Mennonite communities, specifically in relation to initial socialization. The behavior from both cultures makes perfect sense, but viewed from the other culture is off-putting. Both I (the Midwesterner) and Lancaster Mennonites were acting according to our respective cultures, which obviously have vastly different expectations regarding the behavior toward strangers.

In the Midwest, it’s expected to introduce yourself to a newcomer. A “proper” way to do this might even be to play the Mennonite game.

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Blanket statement: I might suggest that Midwesterners may also be “used to” newcomers more than Lancaster County residents. That is, many Midwestern Mennonites live in smaller Anabaptist communities than the sprawling, teeming Mennonite metropolis of Lancaster County. Therefore, the arrival of newcomers is more clearly felt. In our small Midwestern towns (excluding Holmes County), we’re very aware of who belongs and who is new. And in my experience, people have gone out of their way to introduce themselves and tell me their name.

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It seems that in Lancaster, this is not a cultural expectation, and I’ve had some Lancaster locals help me on this one. For one thing, the sheer number of Mennonites is dizzying. There’s no way to tell who is “new to town,” or simply from the congregation down the street. There’s no need to wave hello to the Mennonite you saw in Walmart because of COURSE you don’t know them. Why would you smile and wave hello?

Another phenomenon unique to Lancaster that’s quite unlike most other Mennonite communities is that people here aren’t friends with people from their own churches. They’re friends with their “group.” Your “group” is whatever family and friends you’ve acquired over the years who have similar interests and/or worldviews as you. (I would contend that this is quite unlike other Mennonite communities. For many of us, our friendships are found inside our local congregations.) However, if you’re from Lancaster, and there’s a newcomer at your church, you may assume that they’re from the County, they’re simply church shopping, and they’re content with their own friends and family outside the church. You therefore feel no need to introduce yourself right away. This has been confirmed to me by more than several locals.

(Southerners, feel free to lend your perspective about what is expected for newcomers in your communities.)

To be sure, people in Lancaster are very busy and have a LOT of friends. One woman who moved here from a rural Midwestern community confided in me, “When I asked someone to go out for coffee, she said, ‘Well let me check my planner first.’ I laughed at her! Why would she need to check her planner just for coffee?! But I get it now. People are so busy. Some women are booked three months out. And so I have the planner now. I have all of it,” she sighed.

You can see, then, why the stereotype of “stuck-up” Lancaster Mennonites exist. The amount of friends and social engagements can get overwhelming, so people aren’t quick to “lend” themselves in this way. But for newcomers, this can feel like snobbery. I wonder, though, if newcomers are selling themselves short by not acknowledging the cultural differences of the realities of living in a large Mennonite community. The lady from the rural Midwest didn’t do this, but instead learned to adapt.

To put a stop to the stereotype, people on both sides need to understand that if you demand that people treat you according to your own cultural expectations, two things may occur:

(1) If you are a non-local, you may not only start agreeing with false stereotypes, but you may also become quite lonely. A few suggestions: stop being bitter about the need to explain that you are a new-comer. Be willing to introduce yourself again, and again, and again. It won’t be long before you’ll buy your own planner (probably at Target, where you’ll ignore a Mennonite woman one aisle over).

(2) If you are a Lancaster local, you may be bothered by the stereotype of snobbery. A suggestion: it may benefit you to visit a small Mennonite community sometime. It also might do you some good to go out of your way to introduce yourself to a Mennonite stranger the next time you see one in church, at Bible study, or even (gasp) at Walmart! You might just meet a new friend, the kind that doesn’t care about planners, and is refreshingly un-busy!

And to those of you who still think I hate Lancaster, I’ll say this: despite the lack of introductions in general in Lancaster County, I’d like to give a shout-out to my local congregation for the outpouring of support I’ve received since moving here, including but not limited to:

  1. Delivering and unloading FOR FREE a piece of furniture I bought
  2. Lending me the “nice” family vehicle, three times, FOR FREE when mine was in the shop
  3. Visiting me when I was sick (bringing me food, cleaning my apartment, and giving me a back rub!)
  4. Dinner invitations, and asking how I’m really doing
  5. A sweet gift and card on Valentine’s Day
  6. A plant on Mother’s Day.

You know who you are. Thank you.

Obviously, Pennsylvanians aren’t snobby. They’re warm and caring just like everybody else. The fact is that we just greet each other differently. So stop stereotyping. And go introduce yourself.

Springtime in Quebec, Part 2

Last time I ended by discussing language politics in French-speaking Québec, so I thought it would be appropriate to start with a few visual representations of those politics, in Quèbec’s Old City.

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Here is the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the first Anglican church in Québec. In 1804, the Brits were sure to build its spire just a few feet higher than the neighboring Catholic Notre-Dame de Québec. French Quebecers: “We can take a hint.”

Holy Trinity held Easter services in both English and French, but Notre-Dame de Québec’s services were entirely in French. Deciding between the two, we decided “when in Rome”… and found ourselves at a French-speaking Holy Saturday evening service. (I took my English Bible along for some hard-core liturgical sword drills.) The service was exactly what I hoped it would be—lowly lit, contemplative, bathed in music and a few bells, and filled with joy.

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Il n’est pas ici, car il est ressuscité, comme il l’avait dit!

Obviously, the French component made it quite the adventure as I’m already non-Catholic and therefore unfamiliar with service traditions, but my friends as I managed to participate somewhat, following along in the readings. The only really awkward moment was when we got to what was called the échange de la paix (exchanging of the peace). Immediately, I remembered that in some conservative Anglican traditions, this is equivalent to the holy kiss (is it for the Catholics??!!), so when the French-speaking young woman in front of me turned around and leaned toward me, I visibly started, unsure if this complete stranger would be kissing or hugging me!

(She shook my hand.)

Another French/English side-by-side pair in Old City are two prominent libraries, the Maison de la Littérature, and the Morrin Centre. (Can ya guess which one is for books printed in English?) Our tour guide explained, though, that the beauty of these two side-by-side libraries is that it represents how the two languages can coexist alongside each other.

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An old sofa in the Morrin Center featured this adorable sign: Ce divan est probablement plus vieux que votre grand-mère. S.V.P. vous asseoir aussi dèlicatement que vous le feriez sur ses genoux.

“This sofa is probably older than your grandmother. Please sit down gently, as you would on her knees.”

The afternoon we visited, I spent time reading devotional poetry by John Donne and found this gem in his Holy Sonnets.

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Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she is embraced and open to most men.

Welcome, by the way, to Old City, the part of Québec City that’s voted one of the “Most Romantic Cities” world-wide.

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First, you have the Chateau Frontenac, which is described as the most photographed hotel in the world. We were told that you have to take at LEAST thirty-five pictures of this hotel. I did my best.

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This romantic city also delights in its food. I enjoyed Cochon Dingue’s (The Crazy Pig’s) French onion soup, and another time I had a duck terrine starter, salmon tartare (for the first time!), and a lovely little complimentary dessert.

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One morning, I tried a delicious crepe made of asparagus, prosciutto, and brie, topped with a side of local maple syrup. (Quèbec is the world’s largest producer of maple syrup!) Don’t get me started talking about poutine, eggs benedict, macaroons, and croissants. (I obviously ended Lent in gastro-heaven.)

Also home to the talented Cirque du Soleil, we found this sculpture + poem welcoming us to the city.

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“To you,
Coming from here or elsewhere,
Day or night
Summer or winter
Welcome.”

Hee hee, our tour guide told us, “We have only two seasons, summer and winter. And summer is the nicest week of the year.” While we were blessed with gorgeous sunny days during our short visit, we certainly felt winter’s chill in the shade of stone in the afternoons and in the St. Lawrence River’s mist during our ferry ride.

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If I had to summarize my trip in one sentence, I would write, “You should go.”

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But if you want something a little more poetical, I’d probably whisper something about

“Europe’s old city,
cigarette smoke and cologne on cold cobblestones,
boots and mittens on marble stone,
bright sun on blue skies and dirty snow,
marathoners running,
church bells and waterfalls laughing,
St. Lawrence River mist,
and French accents on chocolate croissants, spicy peppers, and cooked fish.”

Springtime in Quebec, Part 1

Ever wanted to visit Europe but didn’t have the cash for a plane ticket? Quebec is the spot for you! Shasta’s Fog visited this charming French-speaking province for spring break this year, so I wanted to share some trip highlights for anyone needing a beautiful getaway on THIS side of the pond.

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How is Quebec still so French, you may ask? To be honest, it’s kind of the Americans fault.

Quebec City was founded in 1608 by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, and while France’s presence continued in Quebec for 150 years, in 1759, France ceded its control of North American possessions to Great Britain after a few battles and the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Quebecois were not exactly ecstatic about their new rulers, and Great Britain became a little nervous about this due to the unrest in its southern colonies (hello, rebellious American colonies!). Great Britain was afraid that unhappy French Quebecers would start up a rebellion and join the Americans, so they supplied the “Quebec Act” to pacify all French-speaking Canadian subjects—recognizing and promoting French language and French culture, allowing them to keep French civil law, and offering freedom of religion (allowing them to remain Catholic). Shockingly, England was saying, “Yes, BE CATHOLIC, ye Quebecers. Be French. Be ANYthing except American!” And Quebec was happy, and stayed ish-French. And a good thing too because now we Americans can go on vacation and eat croissants and macaroons, and enjoy rich French heritage without crossing that annoyingly large ocean.

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Our first stop was Montréal, and we visited the Notre-Dame Basilica, decorated in the Gothic Revival style in the 1880s. Fun fact: Celine Dion (native to Quebec) got married here.

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My friends and I had terribly much fun dashing into as many bakeries as possible. This one called the Crew Collective is a co-working space housed in the 1920s headquarters of the Royal Bank of Canada. (Little bit of gold Art Deco for the win.) Eggcellent Americano and croissant. Or as the French say, “Ameri-ken-oh.”

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We were also sure to visit the Maison Christian Faure Patisserie, where the “Best Pastry Chef in the World” hosts curious travelers. I ate an éclair for breakfast. I do not even apologize.

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PC: @lorida.burk

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Besides the city’s amazing architecture, I also enjoyed fun street style, though most of the time, I was too slow on the draw with my camera.

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Girl, work it.
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’90s was big.
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“Today in microfashion…”
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And a Satan suit, for good measure. (??)

When I got home, my mother asked me, “But what did you eat BESIDES pastries?”

…I admit I had to think for a bit.
Obviously, poutine, since Quebec is famous for it. At Montreal’s famous La Banquise, I had the original—fries, covered in cheese curds and gravy!

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You know you’re in Canada when there are outdoor heaters for patio seating.

Another Quebecian delight we discovered was dipped ice cream cones. I’ve never had a dipped cone where the chocolate is so thick and so flavorful!

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We lodged well in two Airbnbs, one night in Montreal and three nights in Quebec City. Recommend!

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NW view from our 9th floor apartment in Montreal.
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NE view: old + new

One thing that worried me was the language barrier, especially since we had heard about how strong the French language politics are in Quebec.

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Marc-André J Fortier’s “The English Pug and the French Poodle,” featuring a woman dressed in the French-designer Coco Chanel, lifting her nose in disdain toward a Canadian bank, representing the influence of the English.

But a very nice waitress at Creperie Bretonne Ty-Breiz allayed our fears. Unbothered by our Nutella crepe instagramming and delighted giggles, she acknowledged that food is art, and in her French accent, said it is “the art of making friends.” She told us that Quebecers know English, and they’ll use it with you. She said, “Maybe a few won’t speak English, but they are 5%, and they are stubborn.” Three hours away in Quebec City, our tour guide Sam from afreetourofquebec.com told us the same thing. “In Old City, they’ll speak English to you! They know English. Outside of the city, they’ll speak the English that they know,” he smiled. His wry statement indicated that while many Quebecers are willing to use English, their English skills are not all the same.

But we found it to be true that Quebecois used English. Most restaurant servers and shop owners easily switched to French-accented English, and the only awkwardness that occurred was our own fault, when we failed to produce a polite French “Bonjour” greeting, or awkwardly stared at rattled French, rather than announcing, “Désolé, je ne parle pas François.”

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This is my taste of Montreal! Stop by later this week for “Springtime in Québec, Part 2” to hear about our time in Québec City!

How to (Properly) Celebrate Easter

Since I posted about Lent two weeks ago, some of you have been asking how else we can commemorate Easter, the Christian celebration of the Resurrection. I mentioned that it is my personal agenda to increase all hype around the Easter holiday because it is excruciatingly under-celebrated in Christian circles, even though it happens to be our most important holiday! Here are a few ideas for thoughtful celebration.

1. Do a 40-day fast. (Lent, obviously.)
Tradition states that Lent is normally a time for prayer, repentance of sins, mortifying the flesh, and self-denial. Putting oneself in this state better prepares the believer to receive the Easter message with joy. (Note that Lent is actually 46 days long from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Therefore, if you choose to practice the Episcopalian way, you do not fast on the six Sundays because each Sunday is recognized as a celebration of the Resurrection.) I cannot recommend this practice enough. One learns so much about oneself. Regular, regimented discipline is simply life-giving. Denying yourself a simple pleasure or a selfish pursuit for 40 days is the basic idea.

2. If you can, read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church during the 40-day Lenten period.
It is quite possible that your life will change, but that is just a risk you’ll have to take. In the book, Wright doesn’t so much present new topics as he reminds us what we’ve always known according to the Bible, but have sometimes let contemporary society drown out. What happens, for example, after you die? There is a bodily resurrection, and Wright explains why this is so important and how that changes how we live here on Earth. Wright’s explanation of the meaning of the Resurrection (both to the early church and the pagan society at the time) is thorough and fascinating. He also explains its import for us today living on earth life. In some ways, it’s as if Wright notices that Christians seem to miss the LIVING ON EARTH part. Perhaps he is perplexed by separatist Christians jamming fingers in their ears, determined they’re “not listening” to the world, seeking only to “endure” this life until they get to the real one, heaven. Wright complicates this, determined to explore the mystery of “Why are we here?” and he does so by “rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church.” By the end of the book, one begins seriously examining the notion of God’s intention to redeem all creation back to Himself and, against all odds, His inviting us to join Him in that work. Certainly, it’s a book best read around Easter time.

3. Listen to Handel’s Messiah in its entirety.
(If you are lucky, see if you can perform it with a local choir!) I will never forget my freshman year of college in which I practiced the choral selections of Handel’s work all winter long before performing alongside classmates, a community choir, and Wichita soloists in a spring-time performance. Handel set music to entirely Scriptural texts, and his grasp of the Christian message is profound, demonstrated through his text-painting. My connection to this work means that every time I read John 1:29, Isaiah 53:4-5, Matthew 27:43, I Corinthians 15:21, 55, and Revelations 5:12, my Bible comes alive with orchestral strains.

4. Commemorate Palm Sunday.
If you’re like me, you’ll notice that not all churches make a big to-do of this one, but I think we can do better. As a child, our church had a children’s choir, and the director somehow managed to coax all of us to brightly sing, “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna to the son of David! Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna! This is Jesus!” Part of the performance which I especially enjoyed was that each child was given a real live palm branch to wave. (Growing up in Ohio, this was probably the closest I ever got to the Middle East.) I remembering handling my branch with great care as I waved it triumphantly in our little march down the center church aisle.

5. This may seem superficial, but decorate your house with touches of spring.
Put away that fuzzy winter-colored blanket and those dark red placements. Set out fresh flowers. Buy tulips, harvest forsythia, and note the new buds on the trees out front. Color hard-boiled eggs with the kids. Eat Peeps, chocolate bunnies, and those peanut butter eggs (unless you gave up sweets for Lent, that is!). These are obviously silly little seasonal things, but they remind us (especially the younger ones of us) that something special is happening, that time is passing, and that this time, as it were, has something to do with new life.

6. Attend a Good Friday service.
Better yet, organize and perform a Good Friday service for your church. In the moving around that I’ve done, I’ve been hard-pressed to find Anabaptist churches that hold these special Friday evening services. Yet as a child, the Good Friday service was an important part of my Easter experience. Many times our church included drama in the service, a simple acting out of narrated Scripture. No, it wasn’t Sight & Sound quality. We understood that Mr. Hoover wasn’t actually Jesus, and they actually weren’t nailing his hand into the cross (but those real-life carpenters dressed as soldiers sure made it look like it!) But as 10-year-olds, we were struck by the “beatings” Jesus received. We asked, “Did they really do that to Jesus?” We sang the hymns “Lead Me to Calvary,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and the spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” (but never the last verse on Good Friday!). I heard of one church that ends their Good Friday service with dimmed lights and a solemn tone, and church-goers leave quietly in order that they can contemplate the solemnity of the crucifixion.

7. If you’re the brave, curious type, attend a liturgical service.
Have you ever visited a Greek Orthodox church? Twice I’ve attended a Greek Orthodox church for Easter services, and let me tell you, it is a party! When I lived in Kansas, my friend’s brother dragged us along to this Greek Orthodox Easter service that began at 11:00 p.m. the eve of Easter. When we entered the St. George Cathedral, the lights were low, and the service began, with all the a cappella music in a minor key. Around midnight, we began an outdoor candlelit procession around the perimeter of the church, led by a priest. As we arrived back to the front of the church, the priest knocked on the large wooden doors, quoting from Psalm 24, “Lift up your heads, you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!” A voice from within quoted back, “Who is this King of glory?” The priest replied, “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle! Lift up your heads, you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!” The voice responded, “Who is he, this King of glory?” The priest: “The Lord Almighty—he is the King of glory!” We were now inside the church, early on Easter morning. The lights shone brightly, and ancient texts were now being sung in a major key. The service lasted for several more hours, after which we were ushered into a lively fellowship hall where Greek food, wine, and conviviality flowed freely. I fondly remember this experience, and I’ve attended other Orthodox services since then. (Or rather, I’ve tried to. There was that one year that my friends and I showed up the eve of Easter at 11:00 p.m. at St. Andrew Greek Orthodox in South Bend, IN, only to discover that the Orthodox church is on an entirely different calendar, and their Easter service wasn’t for another week!) This year, I will be attending Catholic services at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec!

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8. Attend a sunrise service.
(Though, perhaps, not recommended the same year that you choose to stay up all night going to church and making Greek Orthodox friends. But it’s totally possible!) As a young girl, and even today, nothing is more exciting than waking up at the crack of dawn, carefully donning a new Easter dress, and creeping out at dark to silently watch the sun rise above the trees and quietly consider the meaning of the Resurrection. If your church does not offer a sunrise service, CREATE YOUR OWN. It is not that hard to find some friends, read some Scripture, and sing a few hymns. I remember one Kansas Easter tip-toeing in tiny dressy flats over frozen mud-clods in a barren field to a spread of blankets where sleepy Mennonite youth girls welcomed me with a steaming mug of chai as the sun wavered through low clouds. Scripture, songs, and cold sun.

9. Eat an Easter breakfast with friends.
Preferably at church, right after your sunrise service. It’s wonderful. In fact, Jesus and the disciples ate together on the beach after the Resurrection (see John 21).

10. Last but not least, wear new clothes.
I distinctly remember my grandma sending us new dresses every Easter. (Three of us sisters got the exact same one, mind you.) Nothing was more exciting than wearing that fresh new dress and donning white sandals for the first time of the season (even though it was always entirely too cold!) I don’t intend to recommend a materialistic embodiment of an inner celebration, but it does make sense that if we are ever to look our best, it should probably be on the most important Christian holiday, when we celebrate a physical, bodily resurrection of our Lord. And since it is the Resurrection that allows us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as it were, I think that there would be nothing wrong in polishing up those leather shoes, ironing a crisp cotton shirt, busting out those pastel florals, and receiving this holiday (that is, holy day) with pure joy.

Now let’s go celebrate!

Nicaragua: An Oral Photograph

I didn’t take a picture of bike taxis or red motorcycles, Nicas riding double, triple, or of tanned faces staring out of full, dusty buses.

I didn’t take a picture of clay roof tiles, bright pink walls, turquoise paint, sky blue everything, pottery-colored walls, emerald, yellow, brown ones too.

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I didn’t take a picture of animal flesh, hanging in market, the dark stalls under roofs, to protect in rainy season, narrow aisles, of a man spinning his knife-sharpening wheel, sparks flying into the soft cotton of his shirt, under the hanging canastas, piñatas, effigies.

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I didn’t take a picture of ladies’ beautiful,manicured feet, nor my culturally-inappropriate dirty ones.

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I didn’t take a picture of stepping through dimly-lit hallways into melon-colored rooms where exhausted mamas clutched tiny newborns, and baby bundles and Antorches that we gave them, and glowing fathers, lying with women on single beds, five families in one clinic room, murmuring gracias.

I didn’t take a picture of córdobas, gym-sacks, mochilas, and back-packs.

I didn’t take a picture of the Nica lady, who daily paraded by the front gate, head laden, nasal voice selling comidas.

I didn’t take a picture of tiny, heaped, road-side fires, small ash heaps sending smoke into my nostrils.

I didn’t take a picture of roosters crowing, of lavender sunrises, of reading Scripture early on quiet hammocks.

I didn’t take a picture of dumping Nicaraguan coffee into a pot, cement countertops, drying dishes with rags, of setting out fresh bananas, slicing papaya and scooping out the moist black seeds and tasting fruity flesh, of sweat rolling down my back and legs at 9:00 a.m.

I didn’t take a picture of tacos, Ricardo chicken, chilaquiles, hamburguesas, or Fresca. Of water in a bag, jello in a bag, rice in a bag, plantains sold by a girl in Central, topped with cabbage and dressing, so sweet.

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I didn’t take a picture of a Catholic funeral we barged through at Catedral, the confused old Nicaraguan woman muttering to us about a boat in the street, the girls flocking into world’s most beautiful McDonalds, and me not buying any because WAIT. Are the missionaries buying ice cream?

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I didn’t take a picture of the ugly Santa pictures, curiously covering holes on the back of the bald bus, wind whipping our hair to Latin rhythms, beats.

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I didn’t take a picture of boarding a 12 passenger van forty times, of policía with batons, of homeless people sleeping on cement, of a well-dressed woman on a motorcycle.

I didn’t take a picture of gringo tourists, sun-tanned legs embarrassingly naked, of an americano scoffing, and my pride at her acculturation.

I didn’t take a picture of a university man in crisp khakis and a beret reciting love poetry to my friends and me in Central.

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I didn’t take a picture of the English-speaking man on top of Catedral, who was surprised to find that Mennonites live in León.

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I didn’t take a picture of the jewelry vendor in the shade under the flowering yellow tree in Central, the only time I tried to barter, him laughing at me, because it’s real turquoise, doesn’t even scratch with a pliers. Doscientos, por favor.

I didn’t take a picture of Nicaraguan children singing Spanish hymns, of girls teaching me “Choco-choco-la-la” hand games, of playing kickball in the street with a small ball, of six o-clock sunsets.

I didn’t take a picture of William and me exchanging verses, in line at four-square, the kind I played in grade school, when I made a boy cry. Jehová es mi pastor, nada me faltará, Mas Jehová Dios llamó el hombre, y le dijo, ¿Dónde estás tú?

I didn’t take a picture of the Nicaraguan man whose bicycle screeched to a halt and our soccer ball rolled right up to his front tire, resulting in a glare.

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I didn’t take a picture of Yolanda, Yessenia, Selena, Karina, Julio, Omar, y David.

I didn’t take a picture of missionary men, preaching in Spanish, of missionary mothers and their flocks, their quiet tables, of their cares behind kind eyes, of south-facing blue kitchens, opened to little courtyards and plants, just like the one from Prada to Nada.

I didn’t take a picture of chickens, a small Nebraskan boy clutching his chicken, like his father must have clutched wheat, nor his sandy smile.

I didn’t take a picture of Moron, the missionary cat, nor Pip.

I didn’t take a picture of cows in the road on the way to Cerro Negro, bells ringing, horns in a filed line, wood loads in the carts.

I didn’t take a picture of my hand pressed into the darkened soil on Cerro Negro, and it springing back as the sulfur steam heated the earth, my skin.

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I didn’t take a picture of a scorpion I tried to kill, the ant farm in the cabinet I cleaned.

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I didn’t take a picture of narrating “El foso de los leones,” of working with a missionary to tweak the Google translated script, and his 8-year-old daughter surprising us both with her translation skills.

I didn’t take a picture of a woman sweeping her dirt in the Nicaraguan equivalent of the Projects, or her glare when I forgot my face, shocked at her neighbor’s smoky, chimney-less house, and turned, and locked eyes.

I didn’t take a picture of pulling a number at the meat counter of a grocery, ordering “cuatro pechugas con alas.”

I didn’t take a picture of painting a little boy’s sticky face who must have had a snack earlier. “El fin. Eres un gato.”

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I didn’t take a picture of a beautiful young girl, shyly hiding her smile, at her gate, waiting for the Pied Piper of Hamlin to take her to children’s church.

I didn’t take a picture of Raquel pulling a dictionary out of her gym sack to look up embutidos (means sausages).

I didn’t take a picture of houses with dirt floors.

I didn’t take a picture of León’s zoo, or spider monkeys, and the one whose hairy palm I held, fed a banana.

I didn’t take a picture of the senior girls playing the ukulele, Lancaster caramels melting in our mouths, lying on sandy beach towels.

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I didn’t take a picture of bobbing in the powerful Pacific waves, white-washed pinks, blues, and grays reflecting off the golden foam, salt water in my mouth, the sun ducking behind clouds, swimming and swimming, silence…

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I didn’t take a picture of the drunk man, tottering under the orange street light toward the line of children, seated on a cement embankment, waiting for church to begin, moved along by a missionary.

I didn’t take a picture of the Spanish social kiss, warmly given after el culto. Dios te bendiga.

I didn’t take a picture of my heart, congealing on the sidewalks, of it bubbling in the sunshine, or cooling in the Poneloya ocean, moistened by wave after wave… Of it being pried apart, and a new, fresh memory being lovingly planted, like an unsuspecting oyster, tossed on the beach, a piece of sand finding its way inside…

Who knows what pearl may grow from this beautiful, divine irritation.