This Christmas in COVID History

Well readers, I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and a happy new year. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, I hope December 25 was just a day of rest from the routine of life. As usual, school kept me too busy to write, but it was a successful and mostly enjoyable learning experience. I say mostly enjoyable because this semester, I got a little complacent in my preparation. Even in my undergraduate years (2008-2012) electronic books were not as ubiquitous as they are today, so as an undergraduate, I would literally head to the bookstore to buy my Spring semester books for Disability Services to scan as soon as I had finished Fall semester exams, and in the summer, my parents and I always took a day in June to come to campus and buy books so that hopefully, Disability Services would have sufficient time to get them scanned in time for the Fall semester. While Bookshare is still my first choice of sources for books, Apple devices, and even the Kindle have become more accessible, so if a book is not available on Bookshare, I have other options. Thinking that by 2021, every book under the sun would be in electronic format, I didn’t start searching for the required textbooks for this semester’s seminary courses until just a couple weeks before the start of class. To my surprise, none of the textbooks for my course on the History of the Expansion of Christianity were available anywhere electronically. Neither of the books for my Biblical Theology and Interpretation course were available on Bookshare either, but one was available as a PDF download from Intervarsity Press, and the other book, a Bible dictionary was only available on the Google Play store. Books from the Google Play Store can be read on my BrailleNote which is based on Android software, but turning the page is a three-step process, after which sometimes I had forgotten the last words of the previous page, so this made reading assignments from the Bible dictionary a little annoying. A few weeks into the semester, I actually decided that this book was easier to just listen to using Voiceover on my iPad where I could quickly turn pages by holding down the alt, and right-arrow keys. As for the textbooks for the History of the Expansion of Christianity, I submitted requests to Bookshare for these books. I lucked out in that the textbook upon which a couple of written reflection assignments were based was ready in time for the start of class, and the professor graciously gave me substitute books I could read in the event the others did not arrive in time. Fortunately, the other books arrived about a month into the semester, but it was annoying not to have all the books from the beginning, and one book in particular was especially in-depth, and I might have had a richer experience had it arrived in time for the start of the semester, but actually, just because the course is over doesn’t mean I still couldn’t read the early chapters any time. Despite this bumpy start, I earned an A in this course, and in the Biblical Theology course.

 

You would think I would have learned my lesson after last semester and gone back to my undergraduate diligence, enquiring into Spring semester textbooks immediately upon finishing Fall final exams. But the Biblical Theology exam was exhausting as it entailed several essay questions, and I about had a heart attack when after spending a good hour on the final two longest essay questions, our WiFi went out and I heard the Voiceover on my iPad say that autosave had failed. Fortunately, I was able to stop the page from loading, so I did not lose the screen where I had written my answers. My parents rubbed my shoulders and helped me take a deep breath as they reset our WiFi modem, and I copied and pasted my answers into a Microsoft Word file so that if they were lost, at least I wouldn’t have to rewrite them. My parents ultimately had to reset the WiFi twice, so a three-and-a-half hour test ended up being more like a four-hour test as a result. But at 7:30 on Friday December 10, the WiFi was restored and I successfully submitted this exam. This incident had me thanking God that as a person with a disability, I was allowed extra time for tests! After this exam, I was in no mood to think about next semester. Technically, this past Monday morning was the ninth day of Christmas, but for all practical purposes in our culture, Christmas was over, so I found the syllabi listing the textbooks for next semester which starts January 12. But to my relief, my good luck had returned, and every single required textbook was available on Bookshare!

 

After this busy semester, I “needed a little Christmas, right this very minute”, which this year ended up being a lot of Christmas. In a way you could say the theme for this Christmas for our family, and society at large, was “making up for lost time.” The following morning after the brutal test, December 11, my parents and I returned to our pre-pandemic Christmas tree farm. The selection of Christmas trees was a little slim: we found out that because of last summer’s drought, a lot of trees did not survive, and they even had to water trees by hand! But we still found a beautiful fir tree that was a little smaller than usual, but had sturdy branches for Christmas ornaments, which we did not forgo this year. Funny side story: After getting the tree into the stand and watered, my parents and I sat down for lunch and the conversation turned to reflecting on how different and yet delightfully simple last Christmas was. I pointed out that I didn’t even mind that we didn’t decorate the tree last year. “We decorated the tree,” Mom disagreed. “No, remember, you put the lights on, but we just never felt in the mood to put on the ornaments, and the branches were pretty thin anyway,” I said. I am known in my family for my excellent memory for dates and details, so Dad believed me right away, but Mom was sure we decorated the tree, until she found pictures from last Christmas on her phone. But after not holding the sentimental ornaments I made in elementary school for a year, these ornaments in a way felt more precious this year, and my favorite ornaments, the ornaments made of applesauce and cinnamon, smelled a little sweeter this year. The following day, Mom and I were able to return to a tradition that had to be cancelled last year, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Holiday Pops concert! As we have all experienced, the status of the pandemic can change overnight, but I decided to take my chances in September when tickets to this concert went on sale, fearing that given the absence of live Christmas concerts last year, tickets would sell out faster than usual. Sure enough, the day after Thanksgiving, we hear about the Omicron variant which is even more contagious than Delta, which experts said was also unbelievably contagious! But the shows were able to go on, especially because the Bradley Symphony Center required proof of vaccination, and the wearing of masks at all times. The fabulous sound of a live orchestra and chorus was even more special this year. This concert always features a female vocalist, and for the past several years before the pandemic, the female vocalist was Carpathia Jenkins. She had an excellent voice, but this year’s vocalist, Shayna Steele was even better in my opinion. During this life on Earth, I don’t think anything can top the joy of singing Joy to the World with a gym full of choral singers at Saint Olaf’s in 2006, but Shayna Steele’s rendition in which she “took it to church” could come in second place. It was a wonderful end to an extra-special concert, and although the weather was unseasonably warm, Mom and I left this concert filled with Christmas spirit.

 

Then on December 17, my choir performed a Christmas concert, our first concert since the pandemic! The choir board of directors tried to resume choir last February. At that time, most of us, myself included, chose to tune into rehearsal virtually using the Google Meeting software because the vaccine was still hard to come by at that time. (I wasn’t able to get my first dose until March 29). The church where we rehearsed pre-pandemic was still closed at the time, so for those brave souls comfortable with in-person rehearsal, rehearsal was moved to All Saints Church, a church further out in the country in a small community called Whales. To limit the number of people, men and women rehearsed separately: one week, men would rehearse from 7:00-8:00, and women would rehearse 8:00-9:00, and the next week vice versa. Masks were required at all times, and to ensure adequate ventilation which experts believed significantly reduced the risk of virus transmission, the outside doors were propped open, so those who rehearsed in-person rehearsed with their winter coats on! But while I didn’t have to freeze or rehearse in a mask, tuning into rehearsal virtually wasn’t ideal either. Those of us attending virtually could have sang along in theory, but to address the imperfections of background interference we have all become so familiar with, we all had to mute ourselves once rehearsal began, so the director couldn’t hear us to give us feedback. I couldn’t always hear rehearsal either because the WiFi signal at the church was weak and so the rehearsal would cut in and out. By the third such virtual rehearsal, I had become so disappointed with the inadequacy of technology when it came to choir rehearsal, and as a result, so disengaged that I kept dozing off, so I stopped logging in. I don’t think I was alone in this disappointment because it seemed like the attempt fizzled out, and for several months, I didn’t receive a single e-mail update from the choir board. But in September, the board sent out a survey to get an idea of the comfort level for resuming rehearsal and what precautions people would like to see. After reviewing our feedback, the decision was made to resume rehearsals at the church in Whales starting October 19. Masks were required, and although I don’t think the church required the outside doors to be propped open for ventilation this semester, I often rehearsed with my coat on because we had a couple really cold days in November and it seemed like the church turned the heat off during evening hours. But it was so soul-restoring to interact with friends and sing in-person again! I don’t know if everyone in the choir was vaccinated, as vaccination was not required, but my closest friends and I were, and on October 25, I was able to get a booster shot, so I felt as safe as I could reasonably be.

 

The first rehearsal, I wore a generic mask from a package my parents bought at Costco, which are comfortable under normal circumstances, but I found it quite annoying for singing as it would get sucked into my mouth when I needed to open it wide to sing or take a deep breath. But my best friend in the choir discovered there are masks specifically designed for singers. She bought three for herself, her husband and her son who are all in the choir, and she sent me and several other interested choir members a link to the mask she ordered. The mask was around $17, so I have been very careful not to lose it, but it has proven well worth the money, and I have even worn it to a couple concerts where I was just an audience member because it is just generally comfortable. It is a little big for my face, as it goes all the way down over my chin almost touching my neck, and it takes a little futzing every time I put it on to keep it from covering my eyes which the sighted people say makes me look silly. Mom, and my choir friend both suggested altering it, but I worry that the alterations might negate its purpose of comfort for singing and breathing, and its comfort is well worth the little bit of futzing when I put it on. After this concert, I realized I was a little deconditioned because although I walk on the treadmill every day and swim five or six times a month, standing still for over an hour singing requires a special stamina that I hadn’t adequately prepared for, not to mention that when wearing a mask, the choir director told us annunciation was even more essential. But I think the director anticipated this because although he wanted us to stand, there were chairs behind us so we could have sat down if we needed to, an accommodation that was only provided to a couple very elderly singers pre-pandemic. Fortunately, I did not need to utilize the chair, and more importantly I did not pass out, but I was exhausted! The audience was small, but so was the church and Mom said the audience pretty much filled it. Included in the audience were my parents, Grandma, and a friend who lives alone but loves to get out and about and socialize, the type of person who had the most difficult time emotionally during this pandemic. I could tell everyone enjoyed this concert, but was especially happy to see how it seemed to cheer this friend up. For this concert, the director selected the perfect mix of a few classical pieces, many of the old standards, and one silly song called The Twelve Days After Christmas, in which a girl gets into a fight with her “true love.” (This video is not my choir, but I just wanted you to hear the song).

 

Two days later, Mom, this same friend and I returned to the Bradley Symphony Center for Handel’s Messiah. I was aware of this concert, but didn’t think we wanted to spend money on two symphony Christmas concerts, especially since every other year, my choir performs this piece for a free community concert. But it so happened that on December 16, Mom met a member of the Milwaukee Symphony chorus at an exercise class, and she decided that since we didn’t get to go to any concerts last year, we could splurge this year! Mom also thought this would be the perfect Christmas gift for the friend.

 

When we arrived at the theatre and our tickets were scanned, a volunteer noticed that I was blind and asked if I would like a program in Braille! Upon skimming a recent newsletter from Audio & Braille Literacy Enhancement, the organization where I had a paid internship opportunity in 2013, I was aware that this organization produced programs in braille for local events including Milwaukee Symphony concerts, but I didn’t read the article carefully and figured this was something you had to request in advance, as that is usually how it works (understandably, as braille is expensive to produce, so it makes sense that an organization would want to avoid producing braille that would not be utilized). I don’t think anyone thought to provide braille programs for concerts during my childhood, or at least I wasn’t aware of it, so I was accustomed to enjoying concerts without a program. But the volunteer said in the future I could just ask for one, as they would be available for every concert. It was really cool having the full concert experience, reading for myself the biographies of the conductor and soloists while waiting for the lights to dim, and then following along as the orchestra played each movement of Handel’s Messiah. I will be sure to ask for a braille program again in March when Dad bought tickets for a Milwaukee Symphony tribute to Motown music.

 

Handel’s Messiah holds a special place in my heart because it was the last concert my choir performed before the pandemic on March 8, 2020. We didn’t know it would be our last concert at the time. The two previous years I performed this piece, I thoroughly enjoyed it as a beautiful piece of music, but in 2020 more than any other year, performing it felt like a spiritual experience. I found myself paying closer attention to the words the soloists sang, and marveling at how the piece begins with prophecy from Isaiah anticipating the coming of Christ, then celebrates the coming of Christ and then anticipates the future when he will reign forever and we will all be changed. During the pandemic, I downloaded a recording of Handel’s Messiah performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and choir, and found tremendous comfort and joy just listening to it while writing in the early months of the pandemic. Sitting in the audience listening to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra perform this piece again felt like a spiritual experience. While I love the Holiday Pops concert and see nothing wrong with happy songs about sleigh rides and Santa, if I ever could only attend one concert, it occurred to me that I should choose Handel’s Messiah as this piece portrays what Christmas is really all about.

 

Three days later, I got to partake in the Christmas present my parents bought for my grandma, tickets to the Fireside Theatre to see an adapted performance of Holiday Inn. On Monday evening, I requested that we watch the original Bing Crosby movie because I had seen bits and pieces of it over the years, but never sat down to watch the full movie, and thought I would enjoy the play more if I was familiar with the storyline. Mom and I both agreed the Fireside Theatre’s adapted play was much better than the original movie. For one thing, the original movie was, shall we say, a movie of the time, with Bing Crosby performing a scene in Blackface, and the dialog of the Black maid very racist in the way it portrays the Black dialect. In fact, Mom said that at the beginning of the movie, there was a disclaimer warning that there was content in the movie that would be offensive by today’s standards. With multiple gift shops full of junk to clutter up your house, like a stuffed gnome that says “Home sweet gnome” and its discounts for senior bus groups, this theatre’s target audience is people for whom Holiday Inn was released in their heyday, so I was really curious to see if, and to what extent the play would be modernized. To my relief, the Blackface scene, and the disrespectful portrayal of the Black dialect were eliminated. A few other details were changed to make the storyline better too: for example, instead of meeting Linda in a flower shop, in the play, Linda is the former owner of the farmhouse Ted bought at a bargain price, and Linda asks if she can come into collect her belongings as the bank locked her out of the house before she could retrieve everything. For many years, this theatre had a traditional Christmas variety show, and when I was nine years old, my parents took the whole family to see it. This theatre is a dinner theatre, where a banquet dinner is included in the ticket price and served before every show, and I wasn’t fond of the food at that time because I was one of those kids who only liked a few things (chicken nuggets, grilled cheese sandwiches, french fries) and the featured dinner offerings for that show encouraged guests to sample cuisine from other parts of the world. But I remember loving the show itself, and now that I am an adult, I would appreciate the ethnic cuisine more too (as long as it was gluten free of course). But in a way, symbolically speaking, Holiday Inn was the perfect choice for the first Christmas post-pandemic because the Holiday Inn is only open on holidays, so the storyline takes you through all the major holidays of the year, just as in real life, there has been a sense of needing to make up for all the holidays missed during the pandemic. So although it wasn’t exactly a Christmas show, we all thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

I received my second dose of the vaccine on April 20, and experts said that people could call themselves fully vaccinated two weeks after this second dose by which time the body could generate antibodies from the vaccine. So on Mother’s Day, my parents and I decided we felt safe to return to church in-person, and we enjoyed in-person services through May and June. But when the Delta variant emerged, we decided to play it safe and return to virtual church again, especially since, sadly we live in a red-leaning area where many are opposed to the vaccine and to masks. But given that we had the protection of a vaccine this Christmas, we decided to take our chances and attend the Christmas Eve service in-person as we missed this beautiful tradition so much last year. As we expected, my parents and I were in the minority by wearing masks, but to our church’s credit, the leadership strives to be politically neutral, so they had a designated section for people who wish to only sit with people wearing masks. We found this section and given our distance from other people, we felt very safe. The pastor gave a wonderful sermon, one that actually convicted me to the point that I want to elaborate on it for another post in the near future. The message of the sermon is that we will not find true happiness by seeking to change our circumstances, or trying to control everything in life (guilty!). We will only find true happiness by seeking and following Christ.

 

For the evening, we invited our friend over again because we could tell she would have otherwise been alone on Christmas Eve. We had a casual dinner of shrimp cocktail, and some delicious chicken and cranberry meatballs my parents found at Costco.

 

Christmas Day was nontraditional in that my parents and I decided to give each other our gifts in advance of Christmas. My parents gave me an updated iPhone. As I have written about in the past, I love trusty rusty things, and would have been perfectly content to continue using the iPhone 5. But unfortunately, capitalism forces you to upgrade when the vast majority of apps no longer work, and I realized using such an old phone was probably a security risk too as Apple ended support for the iPhone 5, and Apple’s updates often include security upgrades to try and stay ahead of sophisticated hackers. My mom considered my purchase of the tickets for the Holiday Pops concert her Christmas gift, but I got her a token gift of beautifully decorated truffles I ordered online from a local candy store. From the same store, I ordered my dad a giant peanut butter pie. I imagined it would be like the pie we used to buy sometimes at Baker Square which had a chocolate-infused crust topped with a creamy peanut butter filling. But it was actually a giant peanut butter cup. I had a great time teasing Dad though because he always says he likes the french style of enjoying a small portion of something really decadent, as opposed to a healthier dessert that doesn’t fully satisfy the sweet tooth.

 

“This is delicious,” Dad told me a couple days after Christmas, “But don’t get this for me again. It’s just too much, unless you can get one that is one twentieth the size.”

“It only comes in one size, but here’s an idea,” I said. “Why don’t you just slice it into twenty pieces, freeze them and enjoy for twenty days, you know, like the French probably do.” That’s when the truth came out that he has no willpower!

 

In lieu of Christmas gifts for each other, my parents decided to invest in a wonderful home upgrade. In the lower level of our house is a family room with a fireplace, a fireplace that we never used because it needed some expensive repairs, so my parents were afraid to use it. But this year, my parents decided to hire a company to make the necessary repairs and on December 9, I experienced firsthand the idyllic side of the Laura Ingalls Wilder lifestyle, enjoying the warmth and soothing sound of a crackling fire. Pa didn’t have to chop down trees for firewood because nowadays they have kiln-dried firewood that you can order and have delivered. But Dad ordered so much firewood that we keep it outside and bring in more wood from the pile every couple days, so I can still tease dad by asking, “do we have enough wood for a fire tonight Pa, or do you need to haul more in?” Dad doesn’t know how to play the fiddle either, so when we sit by the fire, we usually engage in the modern-day pleasure of watching television, although on Christmas Eve after dinner, Mom, the friend and I went downstairs and just sat by the fire chatting and laughing for hours, which felt so nostalgic and perfect!

 

Mom also picked out a couple pieces of new furniture because one of the old recliners that was in the family room broke, and Mom wanted more seating for when we have company. Dad and I like to tease Mom about it because it is not the most comfortable, and a couple times, Dad caught her in the one remaining comfortable recliner. But the allure of the fire more than compensates for the uncomfortable couch, and though I am not at all a sports fan, this past Sunday, instead of retreating to my bedroom, I fell asleep on the couch by the fire with the Packer game in the background.

 

Christmas morning was peacefully reminiscent of last year, with no pressure to do anything. I enjoyed a bowl of oatmeal while my parents read the newspaper and had their own breakfast a little later. Then Dad took Grandma to the 10:30am mass at Saint dominics, and then brought her back to our house for a ham dinner, although I had leftover rotisserie chicken from a giant chicken my parents brought home from Costco two days earlier because I am still diligent about avoiding red meat. When my sister and her husband came home for Thanksgiving, they made a really interesting and delicious recipe for brussels sprouts spiced up with pomegranate seeds, mint leaves, and a little maple syrup. Mom forgot to get the exact recipe from them, and didn’t want to bother them for it, but she found a similar recipe online which was almost as delicious. Mom said at Thanksgiving it would be a perfect dish to serve at Christmas because the pomegranate and mint gave it a pretty presentation of red and green, Christmas colors.

 

My brother and his wife arrived around 6:00 that evening, and we enjoyed chatting with them over more shrimp and meatballs, but had a larger Christmas dinner and exchanged gifts with them the following day. They went home on Monday morning December 27, and on December 29, my parents and I went to Indiana to visit Granny who now sadly lives in a nursing home. But I could tell she was thrilled to see us and that she loved the spa set I picked out for her from Bath & Body Works, complete with lavender shower gel, lotion and a spray to spruce up sheets or pillows. On the way home, we stopped to visit my Aunt Nancy who had foot surgery recently and wasn’t ready to travel yet.

 

New Year’s Eve was wonderfully peaceful. We enjoyed our Christmas Eve meatballs and shrimp so much we decided to repeat it. Costco didn’t have the chicken cranberry meatballs, but they had pineapple chicken meatballs from the same company which weren’t quite as good as the cranberry, but still delicious in my opinion. After dinner, we watched Respect, the movie about the life of Aretha Franklin by the fire. Given the pandemic and everything that has been going on, we decided to have fun and do all the superstitious things that are supposed to bring good luck, health and happiness in the new year. Mom burned the bayberry candle Aunt Nancy gives us every year, and the next day Mom made black-eyed peas. Mom also taught me a new superstition, that you are supposed to stand on your right foot at the stroke of midnight to start the new year off on the right foot, except that Mom and I both have terrible balance and almost fell on our faces! But at the stroke of midnight, we were both laughing, so I would think that in itself should bring good luck this upcoming year. On New Year’s Day, Mom and I watched the Rose Parade which we were thrilled to see wasn’t cancelled again, despite the Omicron surge. In the afternoon, we played two games of Scrabble. Mom won the first one, and I won the second.

 

Of course as I have written about in the past, the reality is that we live in a broken world, even on Christmas, and while I definitely felt more Christmas spirit this year with the return of Christmas concerts, the in-person Christmas Eve service, and the ability to gather with family and friends again, we were reminded that the pandemic isn’t quite behind us when we found out my sister’s husband got pretty sick with Omicron despite being fully vaccinated and boosted. Fortunately, we were able to see my sister and her husband at Thanksgiving, but my sister was really looking forward to going to California to visit her husband’s family, and then she planned to meet up with my oldest brother in Portland, Oregon whom she hadn’t seen since Thanksgiving 2019. But this trip had to be cancelled. Given that I am an introvert, I thought I had been handling the isolation of the pandemic well, but in December, I struggled with a bout of depression, which made me moody and caused me to lash out at my parents a few times. After each time, I would immediately feel guilty which only made me feel worse. But my parents were incredibly supportive, and Mom suspected a major contributing factor to it is simply the isolation from my peers, so I really hope that this upcoming year, I can reconnect with peers in a formal Bible study group or something, but even something as simple as inviting old friends over for board games would be mutually restorative. With the new year, which symbolizes a fresh start, I have felt more hopeful about the future. I also found myself thinking about my emotions in light of the Christmas Eve sermon, and some valuable insight I gained in the Spiritual Formation course I took last Spring. I plan to get more specific about this experience in my next post because while I am overall an optimistic person, I agree with the sentiment of a former pastor at our church who was very open about his struggle with depression, who said “it’s okay not to be okay,” and by being honest about our feelings, we can support one another, and will probably find that we are not alone. But for now, I will close by saying that despite the constant hum, the constant reminder that we live in a broken world, even during the Christmas season, Handel’s Messiah reminded me that because Jesus came, and is coming again, all depression and disappointment with this current world is temporary, and all of the events of this Christmas, from the Holiday Pops Concert, to just the mundane pleasure of sitting by the fire with my parents reminded me that I am blessed.

Announcing my Second Book

Well readers, it has been an eventful two months since my last post. The day after this post, my parents and I went to Indiana to celebrate my maternal grandma’s 90th birthday. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be the birthday everyone hoped for. My sister, knowing how much Granny loves Elvis, hired an Elvis impersonator to come to Granny’s assisted living facility for her birthday, but unfortunately, this had to be postponed because just three days before her birthday, a staff member and a couple residents tested positive for COVID-19, so Granny’s facility went on lockdown for ten days. If it weren’t her 90th birthday, we would have postponed our entire trip as well, but my parents and I all agreed it wouldn’t be right for her to be alone on her 90th birthday. So we made the trip and talked to Granny through her window. For a brief time, one wonderful staff member opened her window so we could hear her better. But most of the time, the window was closed and it was very difficult to hear her, especially when the air conditioning unit came on, so Mom ended up using FaceTime so that Granny could see us through her window, and we could hear her through the phone. When the COVID-19 vaccine first came out, Mom told Granny that she should be able to get it soon because they were prioritizing people in congregate care settings, and prison inmates. Granny, who I will always admire for finding the humor in difficult times said, “Well, I’m in prison!” I have never visited anyone in a real prison, but I have read about how visitation procedures often require the family to be in a separate room where they see their incarcerated loved one behind glass and talk to them on the phone, so as we stood outside Granny’s window on her birthday talking to her on the phone, the dark irony struck me that for all practical purposes, she really was in prison. Fortunately, the people with COVID-19 recovered, and the facility hasn’t had to lock down since. The Elvis impersonator was rescheduled for September 18. I didn’t go back to see him because I didn’t want to commit to a trip now that I am back in school. But Mom went down and met my sister, and they said the impersonator was excellent, and everyone had a blast!

On August 10, we had a storm in our area that knocked out our power for three days, in which time I gained some spiritual perspective that I will post about in the future. I also started my second year of seminary school August 25, where once again, my classes have been really interesting, especially a course on the history of the expansion of Christianity from the first century to the present. I will be posting about these courses in the near future too.

But the most exciting event that happened these past two months, and the event I want to focus on today, is that I self-published my second book! In 2014, I self-published my first book, Paws that Changed my Life, in which I recounted my experience training with my first guide dog, Gilbert. But even before this book, as early as 2012, I had been working on some essays that I dreamed of someday turning into a memoir, but I could never decide how to organize it or tie the essays together. But when we returned from Indiana, I got a huge burst of inspiration, updated and tweaked the essays I had already written, and wrote a couple more essays to tie everything together. This book does not contain the Song in my heart essay I wrote last year, although I already have ideas sprouting on how I could include this essay in a future book. But my current book is called The Rivers of my Life: Walking by Faith and Living Without Sight. The book is organized around the idea that life is like a river, sometimes smooth, sometimes very choppy, but always working out for good in the end. Part 1 begins at my graduation from Carroll University, and then flashes back to the challenges and joys of growing up totally blind. Part 2 is a testimony of my Christian faith journey, and how my faith life was a separate river that would eventually merge with the river of my whole life. Here is an excerpt to wet your whistle.

I think I heard The River, sung by Garth Brooks for the first time when I was in sixth grade. I always appreciated it for the beautiful sentiment that it is, and would stop whatever I was doing when it came on the radio to soak it in. But now as an adult, I have a much deeper, firsthand understanding of how true the sentiment of this song really is.

Some people have concrete, well-defined dreams, like the toddler who is a tennis prodigy, but I think most of us don’t have such clearly defined dreams. Our abstract dream is simply to find a fulfilling life with financial security to meet our practical needs, and a meaningful career that meets our spiritual need for a sense of purpose. We may study an area of interest in college, but after that, we are left to the mercy of an ever-changing river influenced by currents of economic conditions, chance encounters or unexpected circumstances which inspire us, and sometimes force us, to pursue a path we never imagined. We make mistakes and try to learn from them. We let opportunities slip away. There is so much we have no control over, so we are really all vessels that must ride the current of life wherever it takes us. Rough waters are inevitable, but with the good lord as our captain, we can handle whatever comes our way.

I feel compelled to reflect on the river currents that have shaped my life now because at the time I am writing this (August 2021), I have pretty much been in quarantine for a year and a half. It is the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, an international crisis that has permanently altered the course of many people’s rivers in ways never imagined when 2020 began. I am one of these people. I don’t want to minimize the hardship this pandemic has caused. At the time I am writing this, over 600,000 families are grieving the loss of loved ones to COVID-19. Small business owners who put their hearts and souls into their businesses, had to close at a moment’s notice, and many will not have the means to come back. For over 400 years, Black Americans have had to endure adversity far greater than anything I have experienced as a blind person, adversity which this pandemic has exacerbated. But in my case, the pandemic is the current that inspired me to pursue an exciting new course, one which God had been whispering to me about for a long time, but one which I might never have been brave enough to pursue if not for the pandemic.

In this collection of essays in the pages that follow, I will share the story of my life’s river so far. In Part 1, I will focus on how I navigated childhood and school as a blind person. In Part 2, I will focus on my faith journey. These two rivers of academic life and religious life were somewhat separate out of necessity, but are merging more and more as I progress through young adulthood. I have not always recognized that the good lord was trying to be my captain, and when I did recognize it, I wasn’t willing to give up control of my vessel at first. But now, I feel a wonderful sense of joy, hope and renewed purpose in my life. I recognize that even in this exciting new course, rough waters may come, and I recognize that in this ever-changing tumultuous world, the river’s course could change again. I suppose the only way to fully understand the river of one’s life is for a writer to wait until the end of his/her life to write a memoir like this. But I believe the adage is true that it is not the destination, but the journey that counts. I hope readers will find inspiration in reading about my journey so far, and that perhaps, it could change the course of someone else’s river for the better.

This book is available as a Kindle book for $5.99, although I cannot guarantee the visual attractiveness of it, especially the cover because Amazon’s independent publishing platform isn’t as blind-friendly as I wish it was. When I published Paws that Changed my Life, Mom sat next to me and helped me with the cover, but I really wanted to publish this book all by myself. For this reason, I decided to use another service, BookEmon, to create the paperback version of my book. This site is much more accessible because you can select from pre-created covers. But the disadvantage is that because I used their patented cover, I had to publish my book with them under their intellectual property terms, and I did not get to set the list price, which in my opinion is a little high when compared with similar memoirs. The list price is $17.15, and the actual price they charge is $15.44. In addition, unless you register with BookEmon and purchase a gold membership package, there is no free shipping. It is listed on Amazon, but orders are still fulfilled by BookEmon so there is no free shipping if you order the paperback on Amazon either. But I would be super delighted and appreciative to anyone who buys my book, not only because I really believe people will enjoy reading it, but also because–I’m not going to lie–a little extra income from book royalties would be exciting since I am not currently working. If you are a reader who lives locally, I am hoping to sell my books at Martha Merrell’s, an independent bookstore in my area at a couple art crawl events during the holiday season. Nothing is official yet, but I will keep you posted on that. Otherwise, here is the link to my book on BookEmon. Thank you, and happy reading!

Hindsight is 2020, Insight is 2021

In February 2020, I started working on a blog post sharing my thoughts on the 2020 presidential campaign. But then the pandemic hit, and I could not find the inspiration to return to this subject. It almost felt like it was written by someone else in another shallow world. But I just finished a really thought-provoking book called “Twelve Lies that Hold America Captive: and the Truth that Sets us Free” by Jonathan Walton. I first discovered this author shortly before Election Day when I read this article on the blog of Red Letter Christians, an organization whose mission I love, and who I have linked to before. Although 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016–76 percent in 2020–Walton contends that Donald Trump was not elected because of the toxicity of Hillary Clinton, resentment of urban elitism, or the grievances of people harmed by globalization. Donald Trump was elected because of white American folk religion, a “race, gender and class-based hierarchy that hijacks the Christian label to sanction abuse, greed and violence, and then absolve leaders who live lives contrary to the teachings of Jesus and wield power in opposition to God’s plan for the world.” The evils of white supremacy are not new. Walton traces the theological justification for it back to Pope Nicholas V in 1452 who said to “go out and plunder” and John Winthrop in 1630 who placed himself and his followers in the Israelite narrative to justify land theft, slavery and genocide. Winthrop and Pope Nicholas V likely influenced Thomas Jefferson’s Manifest Destiny, but Jefferson goes a step further, not just cutting the true teachings of Jesus out of his preaching, but literally cutting Jesus out of his personal bible. While it would be nice to think society has learned from these atrocities, unfortunately white supremacy is still alive and well in people like Donald Trump, Bret Kavanaugh and Jerry Falwell Jr. and the millions of people who support them. School kept me too busy to read extracurricular books, but I loved the insights of this author so much that I made a mental note to make his book mentioned in the author bio at the end of the article top priority on my summer reading list. The book took an even deeper dive into white American folk religion by exploring twelve lies that most Americans have bought into, and that he once believed himself. Walton likens these lies to Peter’s fishing nets, and argues that if we really want to follow Jesus, we must reject these lies in the same way that Peter put down his nets. Some of these lies I recognized and had already rejected, like the idea that America is a Christian nation because of the aforementioned land theft, genocide and slavery that founded this country, and the lie that we are all immigrants given that Native Americans were already here when the first white men arrived, and the Africans transported here on slave ships were brought here against their will. But one of the key practices of white American folk religion that I never would have thought of as white American folk religion is “the regular tithe of time, money and talent to pursue personal comfort and selfish ambition” (Walton 2019, 18). Related to this pursuit is the lie that the American dream is alive and well. I did some informal journaling after reading each section, and this lie was convicting for me. My thoughts on this are so complicated I am planning another blog post to address it specifically.

I am not sure I completely agree with all of Walton’s positions. For example, in the chapter discussing Lie 4, the lie that we are all created equal, Walton calls the church today a “theological Jim Crow” meaning decisions about how to interpret the Bible are made by white seminaries, churches sing songs from white bands, church services rarely last longer than an hour, and there is no weeping or speaking in tongues. When Walton, a black man, went off to college at Columbia University, a predominately white institution, he was made to feel as though the worship style he grew up with was not just different, but wrong, even unbiblical. He suggests that to rectify this, society should emulate the response of the early church in Acts 6, when Greek widows were overlooked in the daily distribution of food, and instead of giving 50% of the leadership on this issue to the marginalized population and 50% to the Hebrews, James (Jesus’ brother) gave 100% of the responsibility of food distribution to Greek men. Of course, it is absolutely not my place to question the wisdom of the Bible. But while this radical response worked out beautifully for the early church, I must confess I have reservations about whether such a response would be feasible in today’s world. When the events of Acts 6 took place, Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension back to Heaven were still so recent that the original disciples were still alive, and thus the church was still enjoying the afterglow of Jesus’ time on Earth. You could liken it to the phenomenon where in the immediate aftermath of a national crisis (like say, the insurrection on January 6), the fragility of life comes into sharper focus, and the country seems to come together, putting life into perspective and appreciating what truly matters. But as time passes and the raw emotions of the crisis fade from our collective memory, it isn’t long before strife and petty partisanship return. Of course, Jesus is altogether different in that while no one living today had the privilege of literally following Jesus while he lived on Earth, anyone can enjoy a personal relationship with him through prayer and study of Scripture. Giving 100% of leadership to an oppressed population could work if the people given these positions are spiritually mature and make decisions with a spirit of reconciliation rather than revenge. In theory at least, this should be a no-brainer in the church context. It should go without saying in the church context that prayer and discernment should go into every decision. But we live in a fallen world where no institution, including the church, is immune from the effects of sinful human nature, and I worry that when it comes to institutions where a personal relationship with Jesus is not a requirement to be granted a leadership position, the pendulum could swing in a counter-productive direction. For example, the establishment of unions did a tremendous amount of good during the industrial age when companies subjected workers to dangerous working conditions and meager wages, but in some cases, unions intended to call out corruption became corrupt themselves, using union dues on lavish conventions for union leaders, or instituting policies that make it virtually impossible to fire bad cops or teachers. Of course, there absolutely should be more minorities in leadership positions because our country’s past dark history of discrimination, and the systemic racism that still exists today are undeniable realities. But shortly after reading this chapter, I read a New York Times editorial which highlighted recent policies such as Chicago mayor Laurie Lightfoot’s decision to only grant interviews to people of color, or a lending program for struggling farmers that is only available to black farm owners, which amount to rectifying issues of equity through “reverse discrimination.” I’m not saying minorities our country has mistreated since our founding don’t deserve special opportunities, even reparations, but there is a fine line between reconciliation and reverse racism, and two wrongs don’t make right. I think a better approach, at least in contexts where Jesus is not a factor, would be a spirit of collaboration, where all cultures are given proportional representation, and all ideas are given genuine consideration. Perhaps I am misreading Walton and he is not advocating for reverse racism. He never explicitly uses this term, and in other parts of the book, he states that white people are also made in the image of God, and advocates for a spirit of reconciliation, not condemnation.

In my undergraduate communication courses, we talked about how life experiences cause people to form personal, and very often unconscious biases that affect how we view the world and can even affect research if scholars aren’t conscientious. Walton and I definitely come from different life experiences. He is a black man who grew up in Broadnax, Virginia, where his family, like most in this small town barely earned enough to make ends meet. I grew up at a slight disadvantage what with the brain tumor that destroyed my optic nerve when I was about seven months old leaving me totally blind. As I discussed last summer, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in August 1990, just months before my brain tumor diagnosis, so I have never known life without the protection of this law. But I have still faced occasional resistance when asking for accommodations because just like with the Civil Rights Movement, just because laws are passed granting protection, laws cannot change hearts overnight, nor can they heal the emotional scars of those oppressed. Just as black Americans still bare the emotional wounds from slavery, lynching, red-lining, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration, people with disabilities still collectively bare the emotional wounds of “ugly laws”, institutionalization, forced sterilization, lack of access to education and inaccessible buildings and public transportation that prevailed in our society not that long ago. There are still very few people with severe disabilities in leadership positions, and the unemployment rate for blind people is 70%.

But in addition to the new protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I was fortunate to grow up in a comfortably middle-class family and attend an affluent school district that was willing and able to provide all of the support I needed. This privileged foundation allowed me to get into and succeed in a private liberal arts college where I graduated magna cum laude in 2012, which laid the foundation for the smooth experience I am enjoying now as I take graduate level seminary courses. My search for employment has been a little bumpier, as I have noticed the business world is a lot more skittish about accommodating people with disabilities than the academic world. Nevertheless, with the help of a job coach, I managed to cajole a Social Security disability law firm into hiring me. Although the first couple years were rough, the company found the right position for me in 2017, and I thrived there for three years, and would probably still be there if it weren’t for the pandemic.

Growing up, I took my race completely for granted. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I was introduced to the concept of white privilege. But since then, in light of all the injustices faced by people of color from police brutality, to income disparity and difficulty accessing healthcare, I am becoming more and more aware of the fact that even though I am also a minority population given my disability, the fact that I am white has made my path a little easier in our current society. So I hate to admit this, but while I absolutely believe on an intellectual level that people of color deserve reparations and increased access to leadership positions, my first thought when I read Walton’s suggestion that our society adopt the Acts 6 model was “it was hard enough for me, a white person with a disability to get a job. If I have to contend with my disability, and reverse discrimination by employers, my prospects of ever finding employment again are hopeless!” I don’t think Walton would condemn me for having this first thought, and I know God doesn’t condemn me. Walton acknowledges that some of the values espoused by white American folk religion are so entrenched that even he bought into some of them. Over the past year of reckoning, prompted by the shocking and senseless murder of George Floyd, I have read several articles discussing how you can be a decent white person who agrees with Martin Luther King Jr’s dream of a society where people are judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character, and who is horrified by racist rhetoric from hate groups and some politicians, or the brutal murders of unarmed black people by police over the most minor infractions, and yet still carry unconscious racial biases because racism is so engrained in the fabric of our society. Perhaps I am complicating Walton’s message too much. Although Walton speaks out for all marginalized populations (anyone who isn’t a wealthy, white, Protestant male), his primary focus is on racial prejudice, and the tension of being disadvantaged on one hand because of a disability, and at the same time privileged because I am white, was way beyond the scope of his book. Even so, from this chapter, I came away with the sobering personal insight that although the idea of a career that involves activism on Jesus’ behalf fills me with passion, perhaps I need to spend more time in study and prayer to make sure I am not clinging tightly to a net of white privilege which could be impeding my ability to fully follow Jesus.

But now that I have been honest about this plank in my eye, I want to address the speck of sawdust in the eyes of American Christians collectively, which is the “marriage of God and country” (Walton 2013, 18). It is this problematic marriage, which Walton contends, and I agree is at the root of the unbiblical views so many American evangelicals have bought into.

I will never forget the evening of February 26. Just a couple weeks earlier in my Old Testament survey course, we had covered the book of Exodus, including the scene when Moses returns from Mount Sinai where he had received the Ten Commandments from God to find that Aaron had fashioned a golden calf which the Israelites were worshipping. In the discussion forum for that week, I wrote about how it is important that Christians today recognize the full scope of God’s commandments. As an example, I cited Exodus 20:4 when God says that the Israelites are not to make for themselves an idol. It is natural for new Christians to assume that this commandment doesn’t apply to us because today we don’t literally make gold statues to worship. In fact, I held this view myself as a young Christian. But if the full scope of the commandment is appreciated, an idol can be anything we prioritize over God. In my case, it has been food. For other people, it can be money, or career success. But on the evening of February 26, I was watching the news, which was covering the CPAC convention, where Donald Trump was scheduled to speak that weekend. In anticipation of his arrival, someone sculpted a gold statue of Donald Trump which was wheeled out onto the stage, where some people were shown kneeling reverently in front of it! I couldn’t help laughing at first at the dark irony of this, but the ramifications are no laughing matter. This event came back to mind when I read Walton’s discussion of how one of the tenants of white American folk religion is deification of its leaders, and again in the chapter on Lie 5 which confronts the lie that America is a great democracy. In this chapter, Walton discusses how the founders never intended for America to be a true Democracy, and in fact even wrote of the perils of Democracy. What the founders actually intended was a Democratic Republic. If America were truly a democracy, the outcomes of the 2000 election, and the 2016 election where George W. Bush and Donald Trump lost the popular vote, yet still became president due to the electoral college, would not have been possible. The term Democracy comes from two greek words that can be translated “power to the People”, whereas Republic comes from two latin words meaning “people of public things” which in our country are laws. The United States is sort of a Democracy in that we elect our representatives. But due to voter suppression, lobbying, the influence of dark money, partisan gerrymandering and the electoral college, the results of elections don’t always reflect the true will of the people, and Walton contends that although John Lewis advocated voter rights to give people access to power, voting only gives people the illusion of power. This false hope, kept alive by propagating the myth that we are the greatest democracy in the world is an essential component of white American folk religion. Walton argues that the election system in America isn’t broken, but is working exactly as the founders intended, ensuring that the voices of wealthy white men are elevated, and the voices of minorities, women and the poor are suppressed. I don’t fully agree with this hopeless view, not because what he says about our current election system isn’t true, but because I don’t think he gives enough credit to the growing uprising of citizens speaking out against voter suppression, campaign finance laws that favor corporations, and partisan gerrymandering. I have even heard more serious debate recently about abolishing the Electoral College. Sure, our founders may have intentionally designed a system that favored wealthy white men, and there are still a sizable proportion of people fighting tooth and nail to keep it that way. But I see reason for optimism when I hear about the increasing number of people trying to change the system. But this hopeless view of our election system is only a small part of a wonderful larger argument Walton makes that is spot on. The expectation that Americans put their faith and trust in our flawed system without question essentially makes America into an idol.

One of my most memorable Bible studies with my Jehovah’s Witness friends was when we discussed this very topic. It saddens me that Christians have a visceral, negative reaction when Jehovah’s Witnesses are mentioned. Of course, some of their theology is flawed. Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible, called the New World Bible. It is for the most part in line with mainstream translations, yet differs in a few significant places, such as John 1:1 which in the NIV Bible reads “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” but in the New World translation reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a God.” They believe theirs is the more accurate translation, and use this verse to reject the idea of the Trinity. But I felt vindicated when in my New Testament survey course first semester, one of the assigned reading was Craig Blomberg’s book “Can we Believe the Bible?” This book explores in an academic manner why we can trust that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, despite challenges that have been raised, such as the fact that we don’t have the original manuscript, or the fact that there seem to be numerous variations, even outright contradictions. But Blomberg also mentioned that he read the sacred texts of other religions too, including the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon. While none of the texts for these other religions touched his heart like the Bible, he wanted to be open to “truth from wherever it might emerge” (Blomberg 2014, 220). Actually, intellectually speaking, the truths related to how we should regard our relationship with earthly government is the same for mainstream Christianity and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In both Bible translations, John 18:36 is rendered identically. In this verse, Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is no part of this world, and both religions technically speaking teach that by extension, we should not give our allegiance to this world either. In both translations, Romans 13 is rendered identically. Earthly governments are ordained by God in that they are necessary to maintain order in this current system, and therefore we are to submit to the laws of whatever earthly government we are living under, so long as they don’t conflict with God’s laws. But no nation-state, including the United States, is divinely ordained by God, and even if the United States was a true democracy, all systems of earthly government are in opposition to God’s kingdom. But what inspired me about the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they actually practice what they preach. They strive to be neutral when it comes to politics, and therefore they do not run for office or even vote. They teach their children not to participate in saying the pledge of allegiance at school, and don’t even celebrate holidays like July 4, because such actions would amount to worshipping country. They do not serve in the military because they may be given orders that conflict with God’s law which says that all human life is sacred and all people are made in the image of God. I thought Walton beautifully conveyed the same truth that my Jehovah’s Witness friends put into practice when he said, “This expectation of unwavering hope and trust connected to a set of actions such as pledging allegiance, standing for an anthem, and honoring politicians and military personnel regardless of their integrity sounds less like a country and more like a religion” (Walton 2019, 81).

The only point on which I disagree with Jehovah’s Witnesses, at least at the present moment is that I think it is important to vote. I am open to the idea of potentially no longer feeling compelled to vote if we can get to a future where both candidates are basically decent people, but in our current climate, even Walton suggested that voting Donald Trump and those who share his vision for America out of office was an important means of engaging in social justice, which should be a natural response for any true follower of Christ (Amos 5:23-24, Matthew 25:31-46). The Bible makes it clear there is no hope fully establishing God’s kingdom on Earth by our own power, but at the same time, Scripture indicates we shouldn’t throw in the towel. We should live lives that seek to bring a taste of God’s kingdom to life in the here and now, and this kind of life includes engaging in social justice.

When I started the post back in February 2020, I admit I was really excited about the 2020 presidential race, partly because of the energy in the air where I live. I live in Milwaukee which was eagerly anticipating the opportunity to host Democratic National convention, but also because I had an idea for the perfect campaign slogan, even though I didn’t have any interest in volunteering with a campaign. But my idea for a slogan was “Hindsight is 2020.” Even though Donald Trump’s ineptitude and complete lack of compassion or integrity was obvious to me from day 1, there were people who wanted to give this unconventional candidate a chance. But I had heard that many people who voted for him in 2016 regretted this vote in hindsight, so 2020 was the opportunity to correct our course.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure about Joe Biden at first. He was 76 years old, and although Mom said he was much healthier physically than Donald Trump, on a couple instances during debates, I thought his age showed as he didn’t seem fully with it. I feared Donald Trump would eat him alive. I was really rooting for Mayor Pete Buttigieg because although he was very young, you could tell he was very intelligent, not only in just his understanding of policy on all fronts, but on the way he answered tough questions from reporters carefully and thoughtfully. I also liked how, although getting Donald Trump out of the White House was a priority for him, he was already thinking about a long-term vision for America, long after Trump was but a memory whereas it seemed as though, at least until the pandemic, most candidates, in my perception seemed too focused on the short-term, just getting elected. I was confident that Buttigieg could eat Trump alive on the debate stage.

I must say I also really liked Marianne Williamson. She is Oprah’s spiritual adviser, and although she is technically New Age, not Christian, she draws inspiration from diverse spiritual leaders including Jesus, and her life’s work has been centered in convictions such as forgiveness, love for all people, and surrender to God’s plan which are Christian principles. At first, I must confess my first impression of her was that she was a little off her rocker. But the longer I listened to her, the more I admired the way she responded to debate topics from a spiritual lens as opposed to a practical, policy lens like the other candidates. For example, in the July 30, 2019 debate, she said that instead of talking about policy that could be implemented to ensure better access to health care, we should be talking about the root causes of people getting sick to begin with. But I also recognized she didn’t stand a chance because although she was the complete opposite of Donald Trump in terms of love and compassion for all people, she was similar to Trump in that she didn’t seem to have a solid grasp of policy on a practical level. In other words, I think she was too spiritual for the job. Perhaps she was idealistic, seeking to realize God’s vision for society, not understanding that this is impossible under the current system.

But by March 2020, I was fully onboard with Joe Biden. I think the March 29 debate with Bernie Sanders was a turning point for Biden when he really seemed to find his footing, and his ambitious agenda as president has proven he cannot, by any stretch of the imagination be called “Sleepy Joe.” Of course, I understand the criticism that he is another old, white man. But he has appointed a very diverse cabinet, and is seeking to implement policies that address the inequity that has persisted in this country for too long. After four years of a narcissistic president who treated the office like a reality television show, it is so refreshing just to hear Biden speak and realize that we have an adult in the white house again.

But I also recognize that Joe Biden is not Jesus. I wish that he would raise the cap on refugees, and some of his past decisions, such as the Crime Bill in the 1990s which really caused harm to communities of color prove that he is a fallible, sinful human like all of us. So although I voted for Joe Biden, I would cringe if I heard of people worshipping a gold statue of Joe Biden at a Democratic convention.

Conservatives like to lament the decline of Christian influence in America, especially among millennials and Generation Z. But speaking as a millennial who personally knows too many fellow millennials who lost patience with Christianity. Too many supposed Christians they encounter are nothing like Christ due to their idolatry of political influence, and of America itself. I think the noble attempts of churches to have outreach ministries for youth and young adults are well and good. But I contend there is no hope of that dreamed-of Christian revival conservatives talk about in America until evangelicals walk a walk that is a little closer to that of my Jehovah’s Witness friends, recognizing that true Christians cannot marry God and country, and that America is not the divinely ordained, best hope for the world.

Is Not Life More Important Than Food?

As I briefly mentioned in my previous post, the first half of a Spiritual Formation course I took last semester focused on getting to know God by practicing means of grace, which are spiritual disciplines like prayer, solitude and fasting. Much of our discussion on this topic was centered on Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines. As long-time readers of this blog know, just before Thanksgiving 2018, following a shocking weight reading at the doctor’s office, I decided I wanted to respond in a manner that went beyond the superficial efforts of most Americans to lose weight by not making merely a physical commitment to weight loss, but a spiritual commitment to health. I was going to take seriously Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 to honor my body as a temple to the Lord by only consuming foods that were healthy. As for foods which I enjoyed so much that portion control was difficult for me, I was going to abide by Matthew 5:29: “if your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.” So I gave up altogether peanut butter, Larabars, red meat (including pork), chips/crackers, traditional desserts and cheese. Since unrefined, whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice, and starchy foods like potatoes are beneficial if limited to one serving a day, I allowed myself to eat one serving of these foods a day, but only at breakfast so that my body would have the whole day to metabolize it. I limited my consumption of refined sugar to one square of Ghirardelli 92% dark chocolate which is just 60 calories and less than 1 gram of sugar, and because it is high quality, intense chocolate, I can eat just one and be completely satisfied. Instead of rice or pasta at dinner, I ate riced cauliflower or zucchini noodles. Other than one visit to a favorite vegetarian restaurant where I gave into the crackers and hummus they brought out as an appetizer, and one week just before Thanksgiving 2019 when I had such a craving for pumpkin pie that I ate two pumpkin pie Larabars that had been sitting on a shelf in my bedroom that whole year, my new lifestyle was a raging success. The mood of my 2019 annual physical was much different than 2018, as my doctor congratulated me on losing 40 pounds!

Just a few weeks before the 2018 doctor visit, our church challenged the congregation to a day of prayer and fasting, a challenge I did not accept. I have occasionally had to fast for medical tests and procedures, so I knew I was capable of fasting, but I absolutely hated fasting even out of medical necessity. Just knowing I couldn’t eat made me anxious so that all I could think about was food, and when my siblings who did not have to fast made food, it smelled even more delicious than usual. I could not find the motivation to fast for nonmedical reasons. As I reflected on my shocking weight the afternoon after my 2018 doctor appointment, this unembraced challenge offered by my church came back to mind, and it occurred to me that I had let food become an idol. By eliminating unhealthy food from my life, I truly believed I could break free of the grip food had on my life. To a small extent, this has proven true. Even before making my commitment to healthy eating, I was aware of science which proved that optimal health is 80% dependent on what you eat, and only 20% on how much you exercise. In other words, even if you run say, 10 miles a day, you still cannot eat whatever you want with reckless abandon. But I was so addicted to my eating habits that I deluded myself into believing that if I was fanatical about exercise, I could offset the unhealthiness of my diet. So I made sure I got on the treadmill, set the speed to at least 4 miles per hour and walked for at least 30 minutes each day, even if I wasn’t feeling well. When my parents and I took walks outdoors in the spring and summer months, few things infuriated me more than a neighbor stopping us to talk, or when we went to a park, my parents wanting to stand at an overlook and listen to the sound of the river or watch the ducks. I had to keep my heart rate up, and if I stopped too long, I felt like I would have to redo my walk on the treadmill when I got home because this walk wouldn’t count for exercise. I am still very diligent about getting aerobic exercise, as exercise is important for optimal health. But because my diet is healthy, I have the freedom to be less fanatical. I am not as staunchly opposed to skipping the treadmill occasionally, or walking at a slower pace for less time if I don’t feel well. When taking walks outdoors, my smile when neighbors stop us to talk is genuine, and I can truly appreciate the soul-restoring sounds of the river and the ducks. Back when I was addicted to the typical American diet, my stomach was often upset after meals, but the way I eat now, an upset stomach is a rare occurrence, and I cannot help gloating a little when the rest of the family who has not found the will to break free of the typical American diet complains of stomach upset on an almost daily basis. Because I don’t allow myself to indulge even on holidays, I am not consumed with guilt or despair in January over all the weight I gained over the holidays. But in the course of prayer and reflection during my spiritual formation course, and recent events this summer, God has brought me to the sobering realization that the freedom I have experienced by eating healthier has only been surface-level, superficial, like pulling up the stem of a dandelion, but failing to remove the root. The sobering truth is that food is still an idol in my life.

I started to recognize this truth in week 6 of the Spiritual Formation class, when the discussion forum prompted us to share our past experience practicing a spiritual discipline discussed in our assigned reading from Dallas Willard. I decided to post about my struggle with weight, and my decision in 2018 to abstain from favorite foods. Although it didn’t fit neatly into the spiritual discipline of fasting because it wasn’t a complete fast from food, in my mind, especially in the early days when all I could think about was how much I craved these foods, I viewed my radical decision as a spiritual discipline. But our reading also warned that even good things like family relationships, ministry success, or physical fitness can become idols, meaning they are given unhealthy priority over our lives that can cause us to stray from God. In my post, I expressed the recognition that my commitment to health which started out as a spiritual discipline may have become an idol in my life, citing as evidence the fact that although I mostly looked forward to the end of the pandemic and a return to normal life, I dreaded the prospect of social engagements, and travel for fear that my hunger, or the fear of being socially awkward would get the better of me and I would slip up and return to unhealthy habits. Another insightful classmate replied that perhaps my anxiety around health was due to a deeper insecurity, or fear of losing control, and suggested I spend time in prayer about this.

Even without prayer, I knew this classmate hit the nail on the head. I don’t remember being a control freak as a child. I think it started in July 2012 when I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, and suddenly I couldn’t just eat whatever. Going on vacation, or just going out to dinner, things I used to do without a thought, now required careful planning. Even as a teenager before I had dietary restrictions, I was beginning to dislike traveling because of the way it made me feel as though I was a dog on a leash, dependent on and controlled by others. But after my Celiac Disease diagnosis, my disdain for travel intensified because packing all of my own food is a pain, and sometimes isn’t even feasible, and every meal in a restaurant is fraught with unknowns and potential risks. Over the years, we have cultivated a list of trustworthy places including Chipotle, Bonefish Grill, and Cafe Manna (the local aforementioned vegetarian restaurant). But on vacation, these places often aren’t available, or sometimes even if they are, someone in the family will object, craving spontaneity, not understanding that I cannot think of anything that make me more anxious than walking into some random hole-in-the-wall place on the fly and asking about gluten free options, especially when English is not the first language of the staff, as is often the case in tourist places like New York City. I will say that since my commitment to eating only healthy food, one source of anxiety/paranoia has been removed when I eat out. Back when the priority was pleasure, I would order gluten free bread or pasta whenever possible, but could never fully enjoy it because of the niggling paranoid fear of a mistake, or plate mix-up. I read a horror story of a chef who didn’t believe Celiac Disease was a real thing and would purposely just give everyone gluten pasta, but the fact that I only saw one such story confirms such egregious conduct is rare, and I still believe most people are decent and well-intentioned, so any mistake or mix-up would most likely be completely innocent. But nonetheless, the immune system doesn’t care about motives or intentions, so I could never fully exhale until the following morning when I woke up without a nasty migraine. But now that I no longer eat simple carbs like bread or pasta, a huge contributor to my former weight problems, I only order naturally gluten free meat and vegetables. Even a few crumbs of gluten can cause a reaction, so I still worry about cross-contamination, or a soy sauce mix-up. But at least I don’t have to worry about accidentally eating a whole plate of gluten pasta. But trying new places without at least a couple hours notice to scope them out online still gives me anxiety because of the potential for cross-contamination, so while everyone else looks forward to vacations, this is one reason I dread them for weeks in advance, and breathe a sigh of relief when they are over and I am back home, independent and in control of my meals once again.

Then, as was the case with everyone, the pandemic reminded us how quickly life can change, and how little of it is actually in our control. In my case, I never intended for my position at the Social Security disability law firm to be a life-long job. In fact, for the past year or so before the pandemic, I had been contemplating going back to school, but for the time being was enjoying the smooth sailing of life and the financial security this job provided. When all of a sudden it was no longer safe for me to go to the office, and no one had answers as to when it would be safe again, I think I took even more comfort from the routine of home life, set meals at prescribed times. At least this was one area of life I could still control.

But my suspicion that food might still be an idol in my life was confirmed when I came to Dallas Willard’s section on fasting, which he argues is one of the most important ways to practice the self-denial Jesus required of those wishing to follow him (matthew 16:24), and which Dallas Willard therefore recommends for Christians today as it “reveals to us how much of our peace depends upon the pleasures of eating” (Willard 1990, 166). I was immediately convicted, but just like in 2018, I once again found myself thinking, “I’ll pass on that discipline, thanks” and “Thank goodness practicing the discipline of fasting isn’t required to pass this course.” It also occurred to me that because I hadn’t gotten to the root of my food dandelion, the stem was starting to grow back in the form of small lapses in diligence regarding even my surface-level commitment to physical health.

I vividly remember March 17, 2020, just a couple days into that surreal week when everything changed. That day, Mom and I were both glued to Facebook, curious as to how friends and family were coping with this strange new world. Mom saw jokes from a few people that before the lockdown was over, they would gain the COVID 19, as they found they were eating to cope with the boredom and anxiety. “That won’t be me,” I found myself thinking smugly. And for a few months, it wasn’t. Even during the strange time of supply shortages at grocery stores and long waits for grocery delivery, I never went a day without salad, bean soup, and plenty of other fruit and vegetables. I have re-introduced natural peanut butter, one of those foods that caused me to sin, because it has nutritional benefits and is found in many of Dr. Fuhrman’s recipes, and I realized I could save quite a bit of money by stirring two tablespoons into my oatmeal two or three days a week rather than getting my serving of nuts from nutrition bars every single day. I would just make sure to only touch that jar on oatmeal days, and after stirring exactly two tablespoons into my oatmeal, to promptly put the jar away! In other words, I would practice self-control which is actually a fruit of the spirit that should be cultivated rather than avoided. But my commitment to avoiding red meat, cheese, simple carbs and traditional desserts has never wavered.

But gradually, I began to backslide in other ways, eating servings of chicken that were far larger than the recommended deck of cards, or snacking when I was not really hungry, just bored or tired after an afternoon of studying. Two weeks ago when my parents and I got dressed up for a cousin’s wedding, the first dress-up occasion since my brother’s intimate, pandemic wedding last August, we all came to the disheartening realization that our clothes were a little tighter, and decided summer was a good time to re-join the gym where Mom and I enjoyed swimming, and where Dad used the elliptical and weight machines before the pandemic. I had not checked my weight since my annual physical December 31, a purposeful decision as my obsessive compulsiveness is bad enough without letting myself stress over every little fluctuation in my weight as is the case with some people who weigh themselves often. But I was curious to get a baseline now that I was swimming again. To my disappointment, I had gained the COVID 12. This was humbling, but did not send me into despair. I was still nowhere near the 186 pounds of November 2018, or even the 168 pounds of 2015 when the job developer implied that my clothing was not flattering. My seminary education also helped me understand on a deeper level that although the Christian life requires effort on our part, the fact that we are saved by grace means God still loves us even when we make mistakes. I just needed to re-commit myself, remembering that God never intended for food to be the source of all of our comfort and pleasure.

My attempt at frugality by letting Mom help me chop up onions and peppers rather than buying them dehydrated was also completely negated when last summer, I became addicted to crunchy kale. Until then, the only processed snack I allowed myself to eat was roasted seaweed, which is very low in calories, high in nutrition and much less expensive. I discovered crunchy kale, and came to love it as a unique, flavorful, healthy snack in 2016, but even then when I was riding high on having a credit card for the first time and earning my own money, I realized this could become an expensive habit and put the kibosh on it after ordering two cases. But perhaps because pandemic life lacked uniqueness and flavor, I craved it in the form of crunchy kale, and quickly fell into a routine of rewarding myself after an afternoon of studying by cracking open a bag of kale chips at 5:30 with the same delight as normal people might crack open a bottle of whine. Another spiritual discipline Dallas Willard discussed in week 6 of my Spiritual Formation course was frugality, and with a sinking feeling in my stomach, I thought of my crunchy kale addiction which cost $4 a day, and realized I was failing pretty miserably in this discipline too!

But the final nail of confirmation that food is still an idol in my life came when I was invited to our cousin’s wedding. There was no reason for food to have been a source of anxiety for me at this event. There are several relatives on that side of the family who also have Celiac Disease, so the mother of the bride who planned the wedding took this into account. The invitation gave us two dinner choices, chicken piccata which the venue said could be made gluten free, and salmon which was naturally gluten free. The invitation also had space to indicate dietary restrictions. I chose salmon, not just because it was naturally gluten free, but because it is something I like to eat whenever available anyway because it has health benefits. For a while, I didn’t give the food at the wedding another thought. But a few days before the wedding, I began having second thoughts. What if there was a miscommunication and the venue did not get the message about my Celiac Disease? Sometimes, I will bring along a can of soup or some fruit as a back-up plan to events in case things go wrong, but it would be tacky to bring my own food into such a formal event: in fact Mom and Dad probably wouldn’t have even ben willing to facilitate it. Why didn’t I just RSVP that I couldn’t come to the reception, but would come to the wedding mass at the church, my first inclination before remembering that this side of the family is familiar with Celiac Disease, and seeing the well-thought-out invitation. I knew I couldn’t in good conscience back out of my commitment for such ridiculous reasoning, so I ate two apples when we went home for an hour in between the ceremony and the reception, and mentally prepared myself for the possibility that if things went wrong, I would just smile and eat nothing, knowing that I could eat a late dinner when I got home. I didn’t want to stay late at the wedding anyway and planned to ride home with my brother and his wife who didn’t want to stay late either.

My anxiety about attending my cousin’s wedding reception would have been understandable if I didn’t normally over-focus on food, and was merely anxious because it was my first formal event post-pandemic. After spending over a year hardly ever leaving home, anxiety about returning to normal life has been common, and I have seen multiple articles from psychologists about how to adjust. The problem is that my over-fixation on food is nothing new. As I write this, I am having a hilarious flashback to an incident when I was in first grade. At that time, an itinerant teacher pulled me out of the regular class for an hour each day to practice reading braille, and at the end of each week, I was rewarded with M&Ms, my favorite candy, based on how many pages I read that week. As I was leaving the resource room to return to class after a reading session Monday or Tuesday one particular week, I remarked casually, “I cannot wait for M&M day!” to which the teacher sighed and said something to the effect that I needed to get excited about things other than food. I was kind of taken aback by this remark and didn’t say anything in response. Nowadays, I would love to go back and respond with something funny like “you need to realize I come from a family that loves to eat. The family joke is that our favorite word is buffet. You started working with me when I was three years old, and at that time, as you know, I had an aversion to the texture of most foods. So I would have thought you would be happy that I enjoy eating now, and that I am fully assimilating into my family, a clear indication that the hard work of you and all the teachers on my preschool team paid off!” But in all seriousness, this teacher was on to something. Nowadays, I do live in eager anticipation of more than just food: I get excited over an upcoming choir concert, or musical we have tickets to, or feedback from a professor on a paper I am proud of, just to name a couple examples. But there is an element of truth in that I do get anxious and over-fixate on what I will eat, especially when I cannot be at home, in my controlled environment.
At the same time I was acting all spiritual writing this post about how by abstaining from favorite foods, food would no longer be an idol in my life, I was dreading an upcoming trip to New York City that March. Despite the fact that the highlight of this trip was going to be seeing Hamilton on Broadway, an incredibly generous gift from my sister and her husband, I begged and pleaded with Mom and Dad, to no avail to just let me stay home and see it when it would eventually come to Milwaukee, especially after the unsuccessful attempt to send some Fuhrman soups ahead to my sister’s apartment. In my mind, by the time of that trip, I will have come so far in my healthy lifestyle, well on track to loosing weight and feeling awesome, only to be derailed by meal after meal in restaurants where I may not always be able to find a healthy option. In 2019, one of my friends from the young adult bible study group I used to host at my house invited me to a New Year’s Eve party at her house. She offered to pick me and another girl up about 3pm that day to hang out and set up for the party, with everyone else arriving right in time for dinner. Instead of fully focusing on the fact that instead of falling asleep before midnight at home as I usually did on New Year’s Eve, I would be celebrating the holiday with friends, I was agonizing over meal logistics. She wanted to pick me up too early to eat dinner beforehand, and I couldn’t think of a tactful way to ask what she planned to serve. I could try just skipping dinner if she had no healthy options, but then I might start getting a headache and feeling cranky and I felt socially awkward bringing my own meal. I ended up bringing my own meal of chicken and riced cauliflower, which my friends seemed totally fine with. When the host picked me and the other friend up, we stopped at Aldi’s for party food, and everyone loved my idea of a vegetable tray with hummus for dipping, so I felt like I was sociable, partaking in the party food without compromising on health. So it all worked out, but looking back, I am ashamed at this anxiety which made me hesitant to enjoy a party with good friends, especially since during the pandemic, life circumstances changed for all of them, and I don’t know if we will ever get together like that again. Last August, my brother and his wife had an intimate pandemic wedding at their house, with only immediate family in attendance. Again I wasn’t the only person in attendance with Celiac Disease, so my brother and his wife decided that after a brief ceremony, they would order Chipotle one of my trusted places because they are very accommodating for food allergies, and it is something everyone likes. I should have had absolutely no reason to worry about food then right? But in the days leading up to the wedding when I should have been focusing on the joyful occasion of my brother entering a new chapter of life with a wonderful woman, I was worried that with such a large order for nine people, Chipotle would mess something up. I wasn’t actually worried that it wouldn’t be gluten free, as the only gluten item Chipotle serves are their flour tortillas. I was more worried that all the burrito bowls would come with cheese and/or sour cream, or worst of all, that they would give me brown rice or white rice by mistake instead of riced cauliflower when I only eat grain for breakfast, and prefer to portion it myself as restaurants give you way too much. All of these events went relatively smoothly. For my brother’s wedding, Chipotle did not make any mistakes. For my cousin’s wedding, everyone was given salad with cheese on top, but Dad was able to get most of it off mine, so I only consumed a few trace shreds. The salmon was delicious, and the venue got the message about my Celiac Disease, even noting it on the name card at my table. In New York City 2019, I was a little perturbed because since the Fuhrman soups could not be delivered, we bought ingredients at Whole Foods for Mom to make bean salad, but she couldn’t find my sister’s measuring spoons to measure out dressing as she did when making it for me to take to work, so she just poured until it looked good. This sent me into a bit of a panic because who knows how many extra empty calories of oil I had eaten by not measuring! So I made sure to be extra diligent for the other meals. But as it turned out, even if I did eat extra empty calories in oil, I guess it didn’t matter because with all of the walking we did that weekend, I lost three pounds!

The week before my post to the discussion forum, the assigned reading from Dallas Willard’s book discussed the history of monasticism during the dark ages. Although Jesus, and Paul saw value in ascetic practices like solitude and fasting, they believed in a sensible ascetism that was not about earning merit, penance for sins, rejection of the world or hatred of the body, but “effective and full enjoyment of active love of God and humankind in all the daily rounds of normal existence where we are placed” (Willard 1990, 138). Willard argues that the Protestant Reformation over-corrected for the extreme, and unbiblical monastic practices by rejecting the idea of ascetism altogether. But ascetism, when practiced in a sensible way and with the right motivation behind it, is extremely valuable, even necessary to grow in spiritual maturity, in the same way that physical training is necessary to become skilled in any sport. In fact, when writing to Timothy about the importance of spiritual discipline, Paul uses the Greek word gumnaze, from which we get the word gymnasium. Another parallel Willard draws between athletic training and spiritual training is that just as an athlete must practice what they are not good at if they really want to excel in a sport, growing in spiritual maturity requires practicing precisely the disciplines that we struggle with. In my life, this means I don’t need to practice solitude. I love it, relish it, sometimes even wish my parents would go on vacation so I could have more of it. But prayer and Scripture meditation are disciplines I struggle to stay diligent with, and I have never even attempted complete fasting when it wasn’t medically necessary. When I made my radical commitment to healthy eating in 2018, in my mind I really believed I was making a spiritual commitment, especially when 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 and Matthew 6:24 where Jesus says that no man can serve two masters, came to my mind. But because I struggle to stay diligent with Scripture meditation and prayer, these verses are where my Scripture meditation stopped. If I would have read just one verse further into Matthew 6, I would have read, “Do not worry about what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. IS NOT LIFE MORE IMPORTANT THAN FOOD, and the body more important than clothes?” Therefore, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the discipline quickly took precedence over the spiritual. One of the strange monastic practices of early church history that Willard recounts was the practice of proudly keeping track of the number of years they had gone without seeing a woman. I laughed out loud when I read this, but then it occurred to me that I had been proudly keeping track of the years I had gone without eating junk food. So what I am guessing started as a well-intentioned effort by these monks to live a celibate life devoted to God, or avoid the temptation to lust, because of lack of interaction with, or misunderstanding of the Bible, soon devolved into self-righteousness and pride in themselves for their commitment to the discipline itself, which is far removed from the way God wanted us to live. In a similar manner, what started for me as a well-intentioned effort to honor God by not defiling the body he has given me with junk food, soon devolved into an attitude of spiritual superiority (also known as gloating over how good I felt) and pride over my commitment to the discipline itself because I overlooked the importance of sustained interaction with God through prayer and Scripture meditation. In other words, I was just as spiritually immature as the monks of the dark ages! That was a humbling revelation!

And although my thoughts revolved around healthy food rather than junk food, because I have never fasted voluntarily, my sense of peace still revolved around the pleasure of eating. All of this has brought me to the inescapable conclusion that I need to start a regular habit of prayer and fasting. Some people who practice the discipline of fasting fast from both food and drink. In my case, given that I have medical conditions that can cause my electrolytes to get out of balance, and because the Bible advocates for sensible ascetism, I would allow myself to drink water and pedialyte. Starting July 9, I am going to institute Fasting Friday. I came up with this plan, not only because it is catchy and may help motivate me, but because Friday symbolically is the perfect day for such a discipline as Jesus was crucified on a Friday. Even though I feel as though my faith is better nurtured in the nondenominational church than the Catholic church, I always admired Grandma’s dedication to her faith. She told me that when she was growing up, her parents did not ever serve meat on Fridays, not just on Fridays during Lent as is the custom now. Her parents also would not allow her to go out on Fridays, which pretty much precluded her from attending school dances and such, because they believed Fridays should be spent at home reflecting on Jesus’ death. While I disagree with these practices, especially not allowing teenagers to go out on Friday nights, the principle behind these practices is intriguing, and came to my mind when contemplating when I would fast. (This Friday, my sister, her husband, my brother and his wife will be here to celebrate July 4, and since fasting should be accompanied by prayer, it would be more sensible to start when there is nothing going on and I can engage properly with this new discipline.) In the video lecture for the unit on these disciplines, the professor recommended starting small, perhaps skipping one meal at first. So my plan is to eat a normal breakfast at my usual time, skip lunch, and then eat the soup and salad I usually have for lunch at the usual dinner time, which will equate to about ten hours of day-time fasting. Eventually, I would like to work up to 24 hours of fasting, which I am capable of because I had to fast that long before a surgery in 2009. Between meals, I will engage in Bible study using study guides I downloaded from Intervarsity Press. At lunch, I will take a break for Pedialyte and to talk with Mom and Dad while they eat their lunch, so as to practice being sociable, not somber while fasting as Jesus commanded in Matthew 6:16.

Some could understandably argue that in sharing the details of how I plan to fast on this blog, I am no different than the self-righteous Pharisees who prayed on the street corners for all to see. To guard against this temptation, I have always strived for full transparency in this blog, just as the Bible is credible precisely because it does not spare the ugly stuff, like the fact that David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle, or that Paul oversaw the execution of Christians before his conversion. In that spirit, remember my previous post when I said I would start the discipline of daily Bible study time June 1? Yeah, that lasted exactly one day. On June 1, I downloaded a study guide for Genesis, and on June 2, completed one lesson. And then I just let the days get away from me without making this study time a priority. Unfortunately, I have always been the kind of person where unless I have had a wake-up call of life-threatening magnitude to kick me in the butt, or a course grade is at stake, I am terrible at committing to a discipline. But I am going to try again July 1. I will be fully transparent about the good, the bad and the ugly about my fasting experience, even if I end up chickening out on the whole idea again altogether. But I really hope and pray that I don’t chicken out, that I will take this spiritual wake-up call as seriously as the 2018 medical wake-up call. Hopefully by being transparent about my journey, I can help others who struggle with food idolatry as well because while I have seen a ton of Christian resources related to alcohol addiction, or immoral sexual behavior, even greed which is idolatry of money, I have not seen a lot of Christian resources addressing gluttony and/or food idolatry.

While reading Dr. Fuhrman’s book Eat to Live in preparation for his radical six-week diet in 2015, he warned that our bodies, which were accustomed to the modern American diet, would experience symptoms of withdrawal. I started this diet on Sunday January 18, 2015, and the following morning woke up with a nasty migraine reminiscent of the ones I used to get when I ate gluten. Ideally, Dr. Fuhrman advised not taking pain medication if possible as all medications are toxic to some degree, and the whole point of the six-week diet, especially the first couple days is to allow the body to detoxify, but I absolutely had to take my excedrin because it was one of those headaches that was so bad I felt like I would throw up or pass out. So I had a cup of sugar-free applesauce, took my medicine and went back to bed for a couple hours. But even though I didn’t fully detoxify, once my headache went away, I felt amazing! Even though I could not have possibly lost any weight in just 24 hours, I already felt lighter, and I didn’t realize until that day when my stomach was silent that it had always been a little rumbly. This feeling lasted the entire six weeks, and to a large degree returned when I re-committed to health in 2018. I don’t anticipate experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms because I have gotten through fasting for medical reasons without getting a migraine, and actually, I fast for about twelve hours between dinner and breakfast most days. The only difference is that I will be awake for this fast rather than sleeping most of the time. But I do anticipate experiencing spiritual withdrawal symptoms, such as the inability to concentrate on Bible study because I am “starving” when in truth, I know that I am absolutely fine, but find peace and pleasure in the routine of eating lunch at lunchtime. While I am not looking forward to the withdrawal symptoms, I am looking forward to hopefully maturing spiritually. Dallas Willard says that because of the pervasive role food has in our lives, those who practice fasting regularly find they are able to cope with, even cheerfully endure suffering and depravation of all kinds. I am excited to see how this discipline might indirectly change my entire personality for the better. But mostly, I want to get to the point where I can be invited to a wedding or a friend’s party, and my first thoughts center on the joy of the occasion not, “Darnit, what are they planning to do for food?” Intellectually, I know that life is more important than food, but I want to get to a place where I truly believe this, and live accordingly.
Reference
Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. HarperOne, 1990. (276 pp.) ISBN: 978-0060694425.

An Overview of my First Year of Seminary School

Well readers, I have officially completed my first year of seminary school, and I would say it was a success, not only in terms of my grades and the accessibility of the online courses, but also in terms of my personal growth. I wouldn’t call myself qualified to be a pastor as I don’t have all the answers, although even pastors with a full-fledged mDiv (masters in divinity), and a lifetime of experience don’t have all the answers. If they say they do, they are being arrogant and you probably shouldn’t trust them. My professors didn’t say those words exactly, but it was implied in many a discussion forum throughout the year, and actually in many church sermons by senior pastors at my church long before that. I anticipate completing the 24 credits required for the Certificate in Christian Studies next year at this time, but even with just 12 credits of seminary coursework in the books, I feel so much more equipped to write about, and engage in discussions on, the Bible and theological issues. I look forward to sharing some of the insight I have gained with you in the coming months. But first, I should catch everyone up with a general overview of the year.

My original plan was to be a full-time student like I was as an undergraduate student, which would have enabled me to be holding the Certificate in Christian Studies right now. But since I didn’t bite the bullet and start the application until June, and because it took longer than I expected to get all of the application materials in, I wasn’t officially accepted until about two weeks before the beginning of the semester. By that time, most of the online course offerings were full, and it also occurred to me that maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take it slow first semester and start with six credits, given that I had been away from serious academia for eight years. Also, because it was a new school, I realized it might be a good idea to take it slow to allow time to work out accessibility challenges. To my delight, I quickly found the online platform the school uses to be completely accessible, and the Disability Services department very responsive, although I didn’t have to utilize the Disability Services department nearly as much as I did during my time at Carroll University. This was because to my delight, all of the required textbooks were available on Bookshare, a service I have utilized since high school that allows people who are blind or dyslexic to download digital books. This was rarely the case during my time at Carroll University, so every semester, I would have to buy the print books and drop them off at the Disability Services office to be scanned one page at a time and e-mailed to me. To ensure that my books were ready in time for the start of each semester, my parents and I would go to Carroll’s bookstore to buy Fall semester’s books in June, and I think that after final exams in December, Dad and I went to the bookstore to simultaneously sell back the books I no longer needed, and buy the Spring semester books. Given the dramatically increased availability of digital books, and technological innovations in recent years I was certain that if I could not find the books on Bookshare, I could find them on Google Books, Apple Books or Amazon Kindle. But Bookshare is still in my opinion the most accessible and easy to use source for digital books, so I was thrilled to be able to find all of the required textbooks there. There were a few readings in addition to the textbooks, but since the courses were online, these handouts were already in electronic format, allowing me to download and read them as seamlessly as anyone else. Second semester, there were a couple articles that were scanned images, and I don’t know if the scan quality was poor, or if they were written in a fancy font, but my braille computer did not correctly recognize the letters, for example, interpreting I’s as T’s or L’s. If I had to, I could have read these articles slowly and painstakingly figured out what each word was supposed to be using the words that were correct for context, or as I did on a few occasions at Carroll, I could have sent them to Disability Services to figure out and correct for me. But I always felt guilty burdening the very friendly but always busy Disability Services coordinator with such tedium, and given that with Bookshare, I was blessed to be able to download all the main textbooks for free–one of the perks of being blind–I felt justified to splurge and go to the publisher’s websites and buy the books these articles came from. The clean, frustration-free read was worth every penny!

Another major hassle I remember well from my undergraduate days that I was able to avoid with these online courses was scheduling an appointment with Disability Services every time there was a quiz or test, and reminding the professor to send the quiz or test to Disability Services. This was necessary because as a blind person, I needed to take my test on a computer, and I was allowed extra time for tests since it takes longer to navigate and read things on a computer than it takes for sighted people to read a print test. But with online courses, everyone takes the test on a computer from the comfort of home whenever it is convenient for them, as long as it is completed by the close of the week for which it was assigned. The only accommodation I asked for, and which was quickly approved by Disability Services, was extra time for these tests. As I am sure is the case with all institutions that offer online courses, Trinity had to rely on the honor system when it came to test integrity, but to safeguard against cheating, the online tests had a tight time limit. I felt guilty asking for extra time as I understood the reason for such strict time limits, but the idea of trying to read and answer 20 questions in 10 minutes sent me into a bit of a panic. First semester when I introduced myself to my professors, I offered to schedule a time to take the tests at Eastbrook Church, a local church that is an extension site of Trinity, or at my home church under the supervision of one of the pastors. They both appreciated that I had thought about this, but said they trusted me. For most tests, I did not end up needing extra time, but having it was a huge stress reliever for a couple tests with multi-component questions, and on one of my final exams when the WiFi went out, my parents had to re-set the modem, and I had to re-answer 10 questions. I assure you that I did not cheat, and my test scores sometimes showed it. (Cheating is wrong in any type of school, but the guilt would have been especially overwhelming given that I chose seminary school.) As an undergraduate, I took pride in the fact that I rarely felt the need to spend serious time studying for tests because I had an excellent memory. I could ace tests with just a quick read-through of my notes in the car on the way to the test. I don’t know if it is because as an undergraduate listening to lectures in-person, I actually had to take notes which re-enforced concepts and forced me to be more attentive than just listening to video lectures and reading the lecture outline, or if my brain has gotten rusty with age and/or time away from academia, but I definitely scored better on tests as an undergrad. Fortunately the majority of my grade for these courses was discussion and written assignments so overall, I still did really well. And to my delight, none of the courses I had second semester had quizzes or tests!

So while I really didn’t need a lighter course load to allow time for accessibility issues, I am so glad I made this decision to take it slow given my time away from academia. I remember when I resurrected this blog in 2018 after five years of inactivity, during which time I started my job at the Social Security disability law firm. I laugh when I look back at those first couple sentences, because they were such short, simple sentences a fifth grader could have written. It was as if my brain had literally atrophied, and I had to get used to writing again. I had a similar experience first semester of seminary school. After eight years of reading mostly blog posts, magazine articles, lists of medical conditions and medications for clients at work, and a few books for pleasure, the first couple weeks of academic reading last Fall were a shock to my brain. Such big words! Such long, complex sentences! I had to read the same sentence over and over at first. I also still struggle with migraines, and while they are nowhere near as severe as they were in 2012 before I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, they are still enough of a nuisance that I realized it was a wise decision not to over-extend myself. By not over-extending myself, I also got more out of the educational experience. I did very well as an undergraduate taking a full course-load, even graduated magna cum laude. But there simply were not enough hours in the day for me to complete all the required reading, even on days when I managed to avoid severe migraines. So the beginning of each semester involved determining which courses would burn me if I didn’t do all the reading, so I could prioritize those courses. For example, one semester, I was in a creative writing class with only five other students. In that intimate of a class size, there was no hiding from the professor, whereas in a class of thirty students, I could usually keep my head down, take really good notes during class discussions, and do very well come test time. But by taking only six credits each semester, I was able to complete almost all of the required reading, and participate more meaningfully in class discussions. As ironic and terrible as it is for a seminary student to admit, I will confess I didn’t always complete the assigned reading from the Bible itself. Given that each semester only allowed fourteen weeks to cover the 27 books of the New Testament, and the 39 books of the Old Testament, most weeks covered multiple books. I started out strong, but soon noticed that I was speed reading and occasionally muttering frustrated prayers–“God, why does this book have to be so long! I have so much to do!”–and it occurred to me that this is not how I should be reading the Bible. So I focused on the textbook readings, and read select chapters pertinent to discussion forums or assignments, promising God I would read the Bible in its entirety over the summer in light of the insights I gained over the past year when I have the time to give this book the reverence it deserves.

While these past fourteen months or so have been very difficult for parents, teachers and students trying to figure out how to conduct school online, I was fortunate in that Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has a well-established online course platform and has been conducting courses online long before the pandemic. So I did not have to struggle with technical challenges, and the professors were well-accustomed to online teaching. I also thanked God regularly that this pandemic didn’t happen until I was an adult. I think my parents thanked God regularly for the timing of the pandemic too.

Mom has been retired for several years now. Dad was allowed to make sales calls entirely from home starting March 19, and he too retired at the end of last September. But not long into lockdown, my parents and I were sitting around the table, and Mom pointed out that life would have been very difficult for us had the pandemic occurred when we were young. During those years, Mom worked as a nurse in a large hospital, and Dad was a truck dispatcher. Both of these jobs of course have been essential during the pandemic, so Mom and Dad both would have been stuck at work, and us kids would have basically been on our own. Only half-jokingly, we talked about how Becky, who was mature beyond her years, would have tried to take charge, but it would have been a disaster as my brothers and I probably would not have been cooperative, especially when it came to online school. By high school, I might have possessed the maturity and self-motivation to tune into Zoom classes and do reasonably well. But while I have heard that technology has evolved since I was in high school, allowing graphs and geometric figures to be reproduced in a tactile digital form for today’s blind students, I imagine that when I was in high school, my classroom aide would have had to come to her office wearing a mask to reproduce these graphs and figures in braille and then drop them off at my house, or my parents would have had to drive to the school and she would bring them out to our car. But then without her physical presence to take my hand and show me how to read them, the figures would have made no sense to me, so I imagine those units would have been a total loss and I would have had to repeat them once it was safe to meet in-person again. But fortunately for us, these nightmare scenarios could stay within the realm of the imagination.

Being an adult when the pandemic happened has been a blessing in so many ways. For one thing, since I have paid my dues with Math, I had the freedom to select graduate school courses that entailed absolutely no math. (One reason I chose Trinity Evangelical Divinity School–not the only reason, don’t worry–is because if your GPA as an undergrad was 3.0 or higher, which mine was, you did not have to take the GRE, which contains, you guessed it, a Math section. Second, the very decision to pursue graduate school was voluntary, and because I was passionate about what I was studying, it was a whole lot easier to stay motivated even on difficult days than it would have been during the compulsory school years.

I am also grateful for the limited number of Zoom meetings I was required to attend. One of my courses first semester had hour-long Zoom meetings almost every week, but students were only required to attend seven of them. (I attended all of them as the professor’s clarification of some material was extremely helpful for this particular course, but just knowing I had some wiggle room if the WiFi failed or I wasn’t feeling well was a huge stress reliever. This past semester, one of my courses required attendance of hour-long Zoom sessions every other week starting Week 3, although the professor was very understanding and offered a written assignment as an alternative for students with an illness or an unavoidable scheduling conflict. (Fortunately, I was able to attend all these meetings, only missing the first five minutes of one meeting when the WiFi connection was lost.) For the other two courses, Zoom meetings were entirely optional. These meetings could be short because their purpose was not to deliver lectures, but to facilitate more meaningful discussion than was possible in written discussion forums. The actual lectures were pre-recorded videos, which I found to be advantageous even over in-person lectures. When I would occasionally zone out or doze off during in-person lectures, I was out of luck, whereas if I zoned out oh realized I had dozed off during a video lecture, I could easily rewind the video. I realize that the reason for the gracious policies regarding Zoom meetings is because many, if not most graduate students also have day jobs and family responsibilities, whereas for children, school is generally their only responsibility, although during the pandemic, I have heard heart-breaking stories of high school students who try to tune in to school on Zoom while making smoothies for customers at Starbucks because their parents lost their jobs and these students are the bread winners for the family. I also realize that children, even high school students, need more guidance from teachers than adults at the graduate school level. But I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for children, especially elementary aged children to have to be on Zoom multiple hours a day, every day for both lectures and discussions. Sure, in-person classes were boring when I was young, but this pandemic has shown that the tedium rises to a whole new level when it cannot be broken up by socializing in the hall between classes, or even with more fun classes that really cannot be replicated online like gym and music. I am not surprised so many children are failing, even dropping off the map, and cannot say it wouldn’t have happened to me if the pandemic happened when I was a child.

The great thing about the Certificate of Christian Studies I am pursuing is that there are no specific course requirements. The purpose of the certificate is for people who already work in ministry to enhance their knowledge so they can minister more effectively, or for people like me to discern whether ministry is right for them, and if so, what type of ministry. Then, if students wish to go further in their education and pursue an official degree like a Masters in Theological Studies, or Masters in Divinity, the credits earned while pursuing the certificate can carry over, allowing completion of the official degree program in less time. So first semester, I enrolled in a course that gave an overview of the New Testament. It would have been more logical to start with the overview of the Old Testament of course, but that course was full by the time I was able to register. But I was really excited about taking this New Testament course because I seriously considered taking it at the undergraduate level as it was offered at Carroll University. But while I had an interest in the Bible, I wasn’t sure at the time if I wanted to go as far as taking a college course about it. But after graduating, especially after my mom and I switched to a nondenominational church in 2013, I regretted not taking this course, and was thus excited that now I had another chance to take it. This course, as well as the Old Testament overview course I would take this past semester, were not so much Bible study courses, but more like history courses. Since God revealed himself to real people, in real places and shaped real historic events, understanding the political, geographical, cultural and religious contexts during which the Bible was written is essential to properly understanding the Bible today. So the New Testament course started with a brief overview of Old Testament history, culminating with the destruction of Solomon’s temple and the forced exile of the Hebrew people by the Babylonians in 587 BC. Then we studied how rule by the Greek empire influenced the Hebrew people, and led to the formation of groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus referred to. But most of the semester was spent studying the Roman empire and how it influenced the ministry of Jesus, Paul and the disciples. The other course I took first semester was a study of the book of Genesis, a book I have always wanted to study comprehensively because as is the case with many Christians, I have always found Genesis fascinating but also confusing.

Although I have enjoyed all of the courses I have taken this year, I would have to say this course was my favorite because of the professor. His Zoom sessions–actually he used Google Meet, but these days, Zoom has become a generic term for any virtual meeting app–were optional. But I always attended, partly to show my appreciation for his dedication, as he simultaneously taught this online course for Trinity while also teaching in-person at a Christian college in Lithuania, which is eight hours ahead. So he would wake up at 4:30am his time to host 9pm sessions with us. But mostly, I attended because this professor had the same teaching style as a favorite Politics professor I had at Carroll. For both of these professors, there were formal tests and course requirements, but these were not the emphasis during class discussions. Instead, discussions felt more like free-flowing, fireside chats where the professor’s passion for the subject was evident. In the case of my professor for the Genesis course, we had fascinating, meandering discussions about how literally we should interpret Genesis, or mysteries like whether in God’s new creation, there will be many languages spoken as there are now, or whether everyone will speak one language as they did before the people tried to build the Tower of Babel as told in Genesis 11. I have not made any decisions regarding a career after seminary school, but I have tossed around the idea of being a teacher, and when I imagine myself teaching, this is the kind of teacher I would want to be. The official reading for this course centered on how Genesis has parallels to, but is also very distinct from other literature of the ancient Near East.

Second semester, I took the overview of the Old Testament course. The second week of the course when we studied Genesis was largely a review of what I studied in the course devoted to Genesis, although it was interesting because the textbooks in the Genesis course were very liberal in their approach to interpreting Genesis, leaving open the possibility that the creation account could be a myth, given that people of the ancient Near East did not view the world with a scientific mindset as we do today, whereas the chapters on Genesis for the Old Testament course were noticably more conservative. But although the textbook authors took a more conservative position, they presented a fair and balanced analysis of all approaches to interpretation of Genesis. The rest of the course was a deep dive into Israelite history from the time of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) to the return to Jerusalem after 70 years of exile under the Babylonians, which set the stage for the coming of Christ about four hundred years later.

The overview of the New Testament was a three-credit course, but perhaps because the Old Testament is twelve books longer yet still had to fit into the confines of one semester, the Old Testament course was four credits. So for my second course, I was intrigued by a two-credit course called Spiritual Formation for Ministry. But by no means was this course a fluff course: in fact, I would say it was the most meaningful and practical course I have ever taken, and the insight I gained from it will benefit me my whole life. The objective of the course was to get to know yourself, and God better to be more effective in ministry and avoid pitfalls common to ministry like burn-out and moral failure. The process of getting to know ourselves better, which was actually the focus of the second half of the course, was accomplished through assessments exploring our personality type, emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence and natural talents, the results of which informed class discussion. Some of the assigned reading addressed things you wouldn’t expect in a religion course such as the importance of self-care, and avoiding the temptation to neglect family relationships, especially when your ministry is thriving. But while assessments can be useful, the professor acknowledged they cannot substitute for time spent getting to know God, which was the focus of the first half of the course. Readings for this half of the course centered on the idea of the “means of grace.” In a nutshell, this is the idea that although we as Christians are not under the Law as the people of the Old Testament were, but are saved by grace because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, this grace must be appropriately balanced with effort on our part to truly walk the walk, not just talk the talk of Christianity. The means of grace are disciplines including daily prayer time, meditation on Scripture, fasting, generosity and service. This course also afforded opportunities to practice the discipline of prayer through a day-long spiritual retreat, and by requiring students to keep a daily Scripture meditation and prayer log. Starting week 2 of the course, students were supposed to spend at least 20 minutes of time in prayer, five days a week for a total of 65 days by the end of the semester which was extremely valuable for holding me accountable because as I have mentioned before on this blog, despite experiencing firsthand the benefits of prayer, it is all too easy to forget about God when life is going smoothly. I must confess that while some weeks, I did great with this discipline, even exceeding the requirement and praying all seven days, some weeks, the days would get away from me and I would realize I only prayed one or two days that week. So by the end of the semester, I had only prayed 54 of the 65 days. I must also confess that now that the semester is over and there are no course requirements to hold me somewhat accountable, I haven’t prayed at all. But because we live under grace, I decided not to beat myself up about this, but to balance grace and effort, grace in recognizing that after every semester of school, I need a break from all things school, and effort by committing to prayer, and reading through the entire Bible starting June 1.

In the coming months, I look forward to sharing more of what I learned from each of these courses in this blog. But this is the general overview of what I have been doing this past year. While I recognize that it is important to be respectful of the fact that this has been a year of hardship, even tragedy for many in this country and around the world, it has been a blessing in disguise for me. If not for the pandemic, my life would probably still be humming along working three days a week at the Social Security disability law firm, comfortable in my financial security and work/life balance, but still longing for something more suited to the gifts God has given me, yet afraid to take the risk of leaving a job attained through much sweat and tears to go to seminary school. But the pandemic which made it unsafe for me to return to work was just the kick I needed to respond to God’s nudging and take the risk. Even before the pandemic, I was keenly aware of my uncertain job prospects after seminary school, given declining church membership, and the difficulty breaking into any genre of writing. In the post-pandemic world, my career prospects may be even more uncertain as I have heard many Christian universities have had to close during the pandemic, as they were already facing tight budgets before the pandemic, and the loss of the revenue they usually rely on from in-person courses was the final straw. But even if I have to return to an office job to make ends meet, this seminary education will not have been a waste of time. One particular discussion on the theology of work in the Spiritual Formation class, which I will talk about in more detail later, has given me valuable perspective that will improve my attitude toward work no matter what kind of work I end up returning to. There may be more sweat and tears in store for me: in fact there most likely will be as Jesus said in John 16:33 “in this world, you will have trouble.” But Jesus also says in the same verse, “but take heart, for I have overcome the world” and indeed past firsthand experience has taught me that with patience and trust in God, everything always has a way of working out for good.

Remembering Sussex Carol

Well readers, I know this is like three months late, but due to frequent headaches around Christmas time, I could never stay focused long enough to finish it before I was kept busy again with my second semester of seminary school. But I invested so much into this post that I wanted to finish it, and actually come to think of it, this is a fitting time to post it because my brother finally managed to visit this past weekend, and we just had a wonderful celebration combining Christmas, my birthday and his birthday. But you are welcome to bookmark it until next Christmas if you prefer.
This past Christmas, I found myself thinking about Christmas of 2001, a holiday season that felt strikingly comparable to this past holiday season. I wrote about it in this post, inspired by the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. It was the Christmas after 9/11, and although people went through the motions of Christmas–shopping, decorating, baking–simmering beneath the surface was a national, palpable sense of sadness. Our own family was sad too because on August 31, my paternal grandpa passed away, and then just days before Christmas, a neighbor and close family friend passed away unexpectedly. The transition to middle school that Fall was a little bumpy for me as well. For starters, middle school started at 7:20am, which meant I had to be ready to catch the bus by 6:30, almost two hours earlier than elementary school. I quickly discovered I wasn’t a morning person, and recall many frantic mornings where I am just getting out of the shower as the bus is pulling up, Mom handing me a bag of cereal to eat on the bus because there wasn’t time for breakfast. When I managed to get up early enough not to have to eat on the bus, I would sleep on the bus, groaning when we arrived at school far too soon, walking to class literally dizzy with fatigue.
In sixth grade, students were divided into “houses”, groups of fifty students taught by two teachers, one for English and Social Studies, and the other for Science and Math. Both were excellent teachers, passionate about the subjects they taught. The teacher for science and math invited a doctor on a couple different occasions who brought real organs–some from human cadavers, some from pigs whose organs are similar–and we could put on gloves and touch them. But their personalities were completely different, and the teacher for Science and Math I sort of feared, while the teacher for Social Studies and English, who I had in the morning, I absolutely adored. She always had a sunny disposition, and spoke in a warm, gentle tone. She began each week by posting on the board a positive affirmation which we would repeat each morning, and this was followed by a brain teaser to wake our brains up and make us smile before starting the day’s work. She was also personable, sharing cute stories about her grandson who was three years old at the time, and bringing the academic material we were covering that day to life with her own personal experiences. By contrast, I could hear the other teacher next door hollering “sit down everyone! We’ve got a lot to do today!” My Christian faith wasn’t vibrant at that time, but even then I remember silently thanking God I didn’t have this teacher first thing at 7:20 in the morning. But this teacher I adored had to take a leave of absence for a couple months to care for her father whose health was failing. The substitute teacher did her best. I think she could tell I wasn’t the only one who missed the regular teacher. She assured us she was in regular contact with our teacher, and was very compassionate when I approached her one day wondering when she would be back. But the substitute didn’t post the weekly affirmation, didn’t do the brain teaser, didn’t share personal stories or bring the subjects to life. She just got right down to the lesson plan. So in sixth grade, I experienced a very small taste of what so many people are feeling right now, a feeling that everything is in turmoil. The nation was sad, my family was sad, and the comforting presence and routine of this teacher was taken away as well.
At the approach of every holiday this past year, the CDC has admonished people to stay home, worship virtually, only gather with people in their households, advice which millions of people ignored, leading to a surge in COVID-19 cases. For those of us who recognize the seriousness of this pandemic, the temptation to condemn these people stubbornly sticking with their usual holiday traditions as selfish is understandable. Indeed I have found myself judging such people harshly in my mind as well. But then I saw this New York Times editorial in which the author consulted psychology experts to explain how we are evolutionarily hardwired to crave predictability. We take comfort in routines and rituals like yoga on Tuesdays, church on Sunday mornings, and annual holiday traditions. When these routines are disrupted, we feel threatened, which manifests itself in negative emotions like anxiety, anger, fear and even hopelessness. This explains why some people have opted to stubbornly continue with their usual holiday traditions. They are well aware of the danger of the virus, but the prospect of altering tradition feels more threatening than the virus. I do not mention this article to justify the inconsiderate behavior of these people. But as I read this article, I found myself having a flashback to Christmas 2001, and realizing from that experience, I can understand the emotional place these people are coming from. In that season of upheaval in the nation, at home, and at school, I longed for the comfort and joy of our usual holiday traditions, but it was not to be.
We preferred to stay home for Thanksgiving. I love listening to the Macey’s Thanksgiving Day parade on television as the wonderful aromas of turkey and pie slowly fill the house, and we all enjoy picking at leftovers all weekend. But that year when my paternal Grandpa passed away, Grandma wanted to host one more holiday at her house before she planned to sell it and downsize several months later. Usually, I loved going to Grandma’s house. She was a fabulous cook, and she doted on me. But that year, I longed to be home watching the Macey’s Day parade. When I expressed this longing to my parents, they matter-of-factedly told me it wasn’t going to work out this year. But even if I had been home to watch the parade, it probably wasn’t the festive parade I was accustomed to given that most of the lives lost on 9/11 were in New York City.
But we planned to come home on Friday since Mom had to work every weekend. Maybe if we left early enough, we could still salvage the tradition of cutting down our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. But this wasn’t to be either.
The following weekend, Saturday December 1, Dad and I went to our Christmas tree farm, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. Instead of chatting and listening to carols on the radio as we did most years, we drove there and back in silence. Since I could tell his heart wasn’t in it, neither was mine. I didn’t even protest when he selected an extremely prickly spruce tree. Usually I enjoyed helping Mom unwrap and hang ornaments, especially the sentimental ones I rembered making in elementary school, and the following Friday evening, I wanted to continue this tradition, but found the tree too unpleasant to touch, and could only bare to hang a couple ornaments, prompting Mom to say something to the effect of, “if no one is going to help me decorate the tree, I don’t want to do it anymore.” Mom understood why I couldn’t bare to touch the tree: she preferred the softer needles of the fir trees herself. I think she also believed me when I assured her I hadn’t lost interest in tree decorating as my teenage siblings had years ago. Even at eleven years old, I understood that her remark wasn’t an expression of resentment about having to decorate the tree all by herself. It wasn’t about the tree at all. It was her way of expressing a sadness we were all feeling that year.
On the last day of school before Christmas break, there were the usual classroom parties, but at a school assembly where the seventh and eighth grade choirs performed, the principal admonished us all not to go off and play video games or do our own thing, but to really spend time with and appreciate our families. The principal in elementary school never spoke to us that way before, and I got the sense this middle school principal didn’t usually speak like this either, but that she wanted us to start growing up, and thinking about what really matters in life in light of 9/11.
Most years growing up, we went to church at 4:30 on Christmas Eve so that we could have a leisurely Christmas day eating a special breakfast, usually quiche, and playing with our toys. One year, I think it was Christmas of third grade, my sister was in the church bell choir which performed on Christmas morning. I wasn’t entirely thrilled about breaking with tradition that year, but recognized it was important to support my sister. But in 2001, perhaps due to the sadness and lack of holiday spirit, we were running behind getting all of the baking and housework done for Christmas, so Mom wanted to go to church Christmas morning again. This time, I threw a fit. I think ultimately, Dad gave in and took me to church Christmas Eve.
But on Christmas morning when all of the presents had been opened and I did not get an American Girl doll I wanted, that was the final straw. It didn’t matter that I had received many other wonderful gifts, including a really cool braille Scrabble game we still enjoy to this day. It didn’t matter that next door, neighbor kids the age of my siblings were waking up without their father who had been active and healthy just days earlier. It didn’t matter that Grandma was waking up alone that Christmas after 52 years of marriage, or that even though Grandpa’s death did not come as a surprise–he was old and had heart problems for years–my dad was probably missing his father that first Christmas without him. It didn’t matter that 3,000 families were grieving the senseless loss of loved ones in a terrorist attack. I had received a doll every Christmas morning I could remember, and when Santa didn’t bring a doll that year, I remember quickly running upstairs to my bedroom, closing the door and sobbing. Mom found me, gave me a hug, told me I might receive it later that day when Grandma, my Aunt and Uncle were coming for dinner. My funk eased considerably when Mom got me preoccupied helping her dip pretzels, and when my grandma, aunt and uncle came, I did receive the doll I had wanted. (I later found out Mom knew that Grandma was going to bring the doll. She anticipated I might be disappointed when I didn’t receive it on Christmas morning, but Grandma really wanted to get the doll and be there when I opened it). So overall, it ended up being a relatively happy day for me, but the sadness was still palpable, especially when the neighbor kids came over to visit that afternoon, at which time they still had not opened their presents because the prospect of opening gifts without their father was just too sad.
Finally, though we didn’t have a set date for watching it, sometime every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas day, we would all sit down and laugh together watching our “family movie” Nationalampoon’s Christmas Vacation. But that year, no one else but me wanted to keep this tradition. Mom even thought it seemed sacreligious to watch it that year, so we didn’t. When Dad tucked me in on the night of January 1–school resumed January 2 that year–and asked “did you have a good Christmas?” I remember choking out a “yes,” in the same way you would say you’re doing fine when a co-worker asks how you are doing because the truth is just too complicated to explain, and they’ve got so much on their own plate you don’t want to burden them with it anyway. I think in the same way people today are just tired of the restrictions, and the uncertainty the pandemic has brought about, that year, I was just so tired of the sadness in the air. Just as some have chosen to cope by stubbornly sticking with tradition despite the risk of spreading or contracting COVID-19, that year, I too longed to bury my head in the sand, deny the sad realities of that year, and carry out our traditions with the same passion we always did. I think my regular morning teacher in sixth grade would have facilitated some time to talk about our holiday break, at which time I might have learned that I wasn’t the only one who felt the sadness in the air that year, that mine wasn’t the only family who altered traditions out of respect for the national mood that year. But even just a positive affirmation and a brain teaser would have been comforting. But as it was, there was a substitute teacher, and when the bell rang at 7:20 on Wednesday January 2 that year, and the substitute teacher launched right into a lecture on the geography of ancient Mesopotamia, it was all I could do not to burst out sobbing at my desk again. I had this weird sensation, as if it would always be winter, and we had skipped Christmas. I was in desperate need of comfort and joy, but it seemed there was none to be found.
In my previous post, I mentioned that in February of sixth grade, I insisted my mom officially confirm there is no Santa Claus. Even if that previous Christmas had been a normal Christmas free of hardship, it would have been time to learn the truth. I was in middle school after all, and kids would laugh at me if I let it slip that I still believed. But that previous Christmas was a factor behind my insistance on the truth. That February, when the decorations were down and normal people had long ago put the previous Christmas out of their minds, in quiet moments I found myself thinking back to Christmas feeling terrible about how I had behaved. I loved being treated like a grownup, such as when my parents trusted me to stay home alone when they ran errands, or let me in on adult conversations, but when tragedy disrupted Christmas traditions and dampened the usual joy, my reaction was shamefully childish. If I wanted to be treated like a grownup, I think I recognized it was time to approach Christmas like a grownup too by officially facing the truth about Santa.
As shocking and horrible as 9/11 was and still is, in some ways, the sadness brought on by this pandemic is worse than the Christmas after 9/11. For one thing, it is not just a national tragedy. It is a global pandemic, although because of the refusal of many to follow the advice of health experts, and the incompetence at the federal level under President Donald Trump, the United States has the highest pandemic death toll in the world. While 9/11 was contained to one awful day, this pandemic has been raging in this country since last March, and at Christmas time, all of the leading doctors expressed fear that the darkest days of the pandemic were still yet to come. While 9/11 killed 3,000 people, by this past Christmas, COVID-19 is confirmed to have killed over 320,000 people, and one doctor pointed out we are experiencing a 9/11 death toll each day. Although there was a collective sense of national mourning after 9/11, most Americans did not personally know any of the souls lost on 9/11. Other than some anxiety for people who had to travel by airplane, logistically speaking, 9/11 did not affect the day-to-day lives of most Americans. But with over 20 million confirmed cases as of this past Christmas, 350,000 dead (now over 500,000), and the pandemic still raging, I heard one doctor interviewed leading up to Christmas predict that before the pandemic is said and done, we will all know someone who died of COVID-19. Both of my grandmothers live in assisted living facilities, and statistically, congregate care settings have been ravaged by this virus. Both facilities have had confirmed cases, but fortunately, my grandmothers had not contracted the virus. (Both have now received both doses of the Moderna vaccine, greatly reducing their risk and allowing us to breathe a sigh of relief). But before the vaccine was available, we recognized this good fortune could change at any time, and my parents called their mothers every day to check on them. The necessary social distancing measures have devastated the economy, especially restaurants and theaters, and has changed all of our day-to-day routines. In other words, unlike 9/11, this pandemic has directly affected everyone.

This past holiday season too, there was a palpable sadness in the air. I was home to watch the Macey’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but it was a scaled down parade. The usual cheering crowds were not allowed in Harold Square, and there were no marching bands. The parade was advertised as a television event, with a shortened route, and some pop singers and Broadway casts performing in Harold Square. I lost interest in it after about an hour because it just didn’t feel like the Macey’s Day Parade. There was such a longing for 2020 to be over that a lot of people put up Christmas decorations right after Halloween, and a couple local radio stations started playing Christmas music. But with no holiday party at work, no beautiful Christmas concerts to attend, or in my case, perform, and with church being held virtually, it never quite felt like Christmas. (Our church offered in-person Christmas Eve services, but at greatly reduced capacity, requiring anyone interested to RSVP. My parents and I were not comfortable with the idea of in-person services, even with the church’s safety protocols, and the Sunday before Christmas Eve, the church announced they had almost reached capacity anyway). But despite the somber nature of this past Christmas, I personally coped with it much better than the Christmas after 9/11.

When I broached the subject of this editorial with Mom, I felt compelled to apologize again for my behavior that Christmas of 2001, which I found myself feeling ashamed of again even though I had apologized and been forgiven several times over the years. In this particular conversation, Mom’s response was “you were 12. These people are adults.” She brings up a valid point. Although my behavior was wrong, I shouldn’t let myself be burdened by the guilt of it because I was 12, and selfish, immature reactions to disappointment are not all that unusual for 12-year-olds, (and actually, that Christmas I was still 11). Just by virtue of being a mature adult, I have learned to accept that disappointment is a reality of life, and have learned to accept it and roll with it (most of the time, anyway). Another factor that could have contributed to my ease coping with this nontraditional Christmas could have been that my parents and I have had quiet Christmases before. When my sister and oldest brother moved far away and couldn’t come home for Christmas, Christmas was a much more subdued affair with just my parents, the younger of my two older brothers, and me. Then this brother got a job that required him to work Christmas day, so for several Christmases, it has just been my parents and me for most of the day, until he got off work and got to our house just in time for dinner. This past Christmas, my brother couldn’t come at all, and we all agreed that my siblings who lived far away should heed the medical experts and stay home. My paternal Grandma couldn’t even come over for lunch, but to our delight, she wasn’t totally without family for Thanksgiving or Christmas because just a couple months earlier, her sister moved into the apartment across the hall from her! For this nontraditional Christmas, we decided to have a nontraditional dinner of cornish hens. Several friends who had to spend Thanksgiving alone posted pictures of cornish hens on Facebook, so my parents and I thought this would be fun and fitting for our Christmas dinner. Before sitting down to our dinner, Dad dropped off two cornish hens outside Grandma’s door for her and her sister.

The first Christmas that was just my parents and me most of the day was quite an adjustment for me after growing up in a noisy, slightly overcrowded house, an environment that drove me crazy sometimes but which I relished at Christmas, as it fit well with the exuberance our culture associates with this holiday. But I soon discovered that what the house may have lacked in child-like noise, chaos and exuberance, it made up for with a more refined, adult perspective on joy: the joy of peace, tranquility, doing things at our own pace. (To the sibling who may stumble upon this: Please don’t take what I said the wrong way. You are always welcome to come home for Christmas. What I am saying is I am content with both scenarios). With no one coming over at all, even for dinner, this sense of peace was magnified. My appreciation of this peace was also amplified by the fact that I had a nagging headache all day. There was no pressure to clean up the house, no expectations that dinner be ready at a certain time. In fact, we didn’t even feel obligated to decorate our Christmas tree.

We decided not to go to the Christmas tree farm we had been going to the past several years because Mom and Dad said while all of the trees were beautiful, the vast majority of them were getting too tall for our living room. We barely found one last year, and the one we found wasn’t as pretty in my parents’ opinion. Ironically, we had the opposite problem at the tree farm my dad found this year. I think this farm was new in the business, and most of the trees needed a couple more years to grow. Again, we barely found one, and in fact we had decided we would have to try somewhere else, but as we were walking back to our car, we found the perfect fir tree. But as Mom was stringing the lights onto the tree, she noticed most of the branches were thin and probably would not be able to support our heavier ornaments. That was fine by us though, as our most special ornaments, especially the ones my siblings and I made as children, were light. But perhaps because it didn’t feel like Christmas this year, we were just never in the mood to go through the boxes and hang them. As a last resort, Mom suggested we could hang the ornaments the evening of Christmas Eve, and pointed out that when she was growing up, the custom was to decorate the tree the evening of Christmas Eve. But after our low-key, peaceful dinner of shrimp cocktail and meatballs, we just wanted to relax and enjoy the beautiful Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas program on PBS, so that is what we did.

On Christmas morning, my parents and I had a leisurely breakfast of a hashbrown casserole (made with low-fat turkey sausage and no cheese) Mom had cooked the day before. Then my parents gave me a couple gifts. (I gave my parents their gift, some candles for the house from my favorite candle company Hatcreek Candle–at Thanksgiving so we could enjoy them the whole season, which we did! Then Mom and I played a game of Scrabble. While my parents prepared the cornish hens for the oven, I rested on the couch enjoying the beautiful Christmas albums Mom selected for our sterio, which included the Three Tenors. After a late lunch of our cornish hens, we enjoyed a silly but sweet movie called the Christmas Chronicles, and started watching the classic Miracle on 34th Street. About an hour into this movie, my sister called, and while on most days, interrupting a movie to take a phone call is a huge pet peeve of mine, I recognized that Christmas is a special day that merits making an exception. After a long, happy conversation with my sister and her husband, we finished the movie over an easy dinner of soup and salad. In a typical year, my parents and I would have gone to Indiana sometime during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day to visit my maternal grandma and cousins. But this trip was not feasable given the pandemic this year, so Mom decided she might as well just get a jump start on her New Year’s goal of organizing the basement, and I did some writing but had difficulty staying focused. Similar to Christmas 2001, it almost felt as if we had skipped Christmas, but as I mentioned before, this time I didn’t feel sad or hopeless. I think the biggest reason for this, more significant than just the fact that I am an adult better able to accept and roll with disappointment than an 11-year-old, or the fact that I have progressively adjusted to and come to relish quiet Christmases, or even the fact that our family was spared the unimaginable grief so many families had to suffer, knowing that their loved ones not only died, but had to die alone, is the fact that I was able to remember Sussex Carol. I cannot confirm this quanitatively, but I feel like Family Radio, the Christian station I love to have in the background when I am studying or writing, played this song more frequently this year than last. Perhaps this was intentional, as the message, especially the second verse, was so appropriate this year. “Why should men on earth be sad, since our redeemer made us glad?” Reading my post about this carol was a surreal experience for two reasons. First, it feels as though it was written by someone else from another world, especially the beginning. Reading my post in light of all our country has been through this past year, I am a little embarrassed that the disappointment that triggered my appreciation of Sussex Carol was the difficulty adjusting to Christmas without Christmas cookies. But more importantly, when I wrote it, I was thinking in the abstract about Christmas past, and Christmas future. I never imagined how soon the whole world, especially this country, would need the message of this carol.

I am not one of those Christians who believes God caused this pandemic as judgment for our collective sin. I do believe that in this fallen world, God allows the natural consequences of unsanitary practices in a wet market (or possibly a leak from a biological research lab in Wuhan), incompetence on the part of mutiple governments, especially our own, and selfish behavior by much of the public to play out. I also believe God can use the most tragic of circumstances for good, and I think God did use this Christmas for good by helping many to put Christmas into proper perspective. The news mentioned a shortage of Christmas trees this past Christmas because so many families who usually put up an artificial tree wanted to return to a simple, old-fashioned Christmas, symbolized in a real tree. Family Radio featured a couple testimonials from people who saw the inability to have the typical frenzied Christmas with office parties and school pagants and gatherings with extended family as a blessing, a chance to slow down, recenter their lives and put Christ back into Christmas for themselves and their children. I look forward to the end of this pandemic, and the return of family gatherings and holiday concerts, hopefully by this upcoming Christmas. But I hope this past Christmas isn’t forgotten by Christians. I hope that we might translate the lessons learned into setting boundaries for Christmases future so that we are not overwhelmed by self-imposed stress on a holiday that was intended to celebrate the birth of the “prince of peace.” I hope we will remember that while family gatherings, gift exchanges, and holiday concerts are all wonderful, these are man-made traditions that have nothing to do with what Christmas is really about, so when these traditions are altered by changes in life stages, or halted by a pandemic, we should try not to let ourselves become sad. “Why should men on earth be sad, since our redeemer made us glad?” At the same time, I hope that after this past year, especially this past Christmas season, that we as a society won’t take our families, friends or involvement in communal activities for granted. Before the pandemic, I think intellectually, I recognized how blessed I was to live with my parents, to get to hug them every day, to enjoy conversation with them around the dinner table, but I couldn’t shake a tiny bit of envy for friends and family who lived independently. What would that degree of complete freedom and autonomy be like? But during this pandemic, when the medical experts said people should not gather with anyone outside their households and I witnessed these same friends and family spiral into depression and anxiety, I came to fully appreciate the truth of Genesis 2:18: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Before the pandemic, although I loved my extended family, I confess sometimes I wished I could just video chat with them from home rather than dealing with the hassles of packing gluten free food, the loss of independence when away from home, and just the boredom and restlessness I feel as a young person sitting for hours on end just talking at the assisted living facility where my maternal grandma lives (very selfish, I know). But during the pandemic, I came to fully appreciate how poor a substitute video chatting is for in-person visits. The wifi connection can freeze or be lost completely, and there is often background interference or a weird echoe. Early in the pandemic, I tried to participate in Facetime calls with my Indiana relatives, but before long, trying to have a meaningful conversation with this imperfect technology would give me a headache. So now at most, if I happen to be in the room, Mom might point her phone camera toward me so I can say hi to Granny, but that is about it. The ability to call or have a video chat with relatives far away is a blessing that has allowed the isolation required by this pandemic to be less profound than I imagine it must have been in 1918, but this pandemic has taught me there really is no substitute for in-person communication, and once I am vaccinated, I actually look forward to going to Indiana and giving Granny and all my relatives a hug. I now feel guilty for the petty, selfish attitudes I had before the pandemic, and I pray that I will not forget this pandemic and let these attitudes take hold again.

If you are an adult reading this and you realize you behaved like an 11-year-old this past Christmas, I don’t condemn you. I think because we live in a fallen world, there is an inner selfish child that can rear its ugly head in all of us on occasion, and as mature as I may sound in this post, even with the wonderful Christian perspective I have been blessed to receive, even I still behave irrationally on occasion, such as one day last summer when the power went out and I got hangry to the point of tears because Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me open the fridge to access the soup and salad I usually have for lunch, and then despite diligently keeping the fridge closed, we had to throw everything away because the power had been out too long and my parents wouldn’t let me take any chances. After this incident, I wondered if I was a hypocrite for applying to seminary school, until a wonderful conversation via text message with one of my Jehovah’s Witness friends who comforted me by directing me to Psalm 130:3: “if you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O LORD, who could stand?”

It has been a long, difficult year even for those of us blessed to not lose loved ones. I know what it is like to just be tired of the sadness, to the point you just wish you could bury your head in the sand for a couple days and just enjoy the usual holiday traditions that bring comfort and joy. Being a responsible adult means rolling with disappointment, doing the right thing despite longing to stick to business as usual. So had I been disinterested in religion and unaware of the joyous prospect of the restoration as I was in sixth grade, I imagine that this year, I would have done the right thing and grudgingly accepted the disappointment of a quiet Christmas. But to be honest, I doubt that chronological maturity alone would have made much difference in my emotional state. At some point, I can almost guarantee I would have had to run to my room sobbing, whether it was while listening to the worship leaders sing Silent Night through the computer screen when in a typical year, I would have been singing this carol surrounded by people and the pleasant warmth and aroma of candle smoke, or even earlier in the season when there were no holiday concerts to get me into the Christmas spirit. But with my Christian hope, reenforced whenever I heard Sussex Carol, I remembered that we live in a broken world, and that does not change just because our man-made calendars say it’s Christmas. I remembered how our culture places so much hope and expectation on Christmas, but this is only misplaced longing for the restoration. And most importantly, I remember that if we have faith in our redeemer, which is really what Christmas is supposed to be about, we can take comfort in the fact that we won’t have to live in a broken world forever. We can eagerly anticipate a time when in a spiritual sense, Elvis Presley’s wish will come true, and every day will be just like Christmas. What a wonderful world that will be!

Christian Implications of Santa and The Polar Express

Hello readers. The four months since I last posted have been incredibly busy, but in a wonderful way. As discussed in this post, I started taking seminary courses online through Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Most courses are 3-credit courses and I originally planned to take a full-time course load of 12 credits. But by the time I was able to register, two of the courses I wanted were full, and I decided maybe it would be a good idea to just take six credits anyway as I likely had some rust on the brain given that I had been away from the academic world for eight years. I am so glad I did, as I forgot how much reading college courses entail, and there definitely was rust on the brain, especially at the beginning of the semester when I found myself needing to read a sentence multiple times to retain the information. I look forward to telling you more about these courses soon.

But for this post, I felt compelled to share an essay I wrote last summer for a Spiritual Writing course I took online through the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. I thought about posting it then, but didn’t want to admit that I am the kind of person who thinks about Christmas in July. But now that it is almost Christmas, and a difficult Christmas at the end of a very difficult year for our country, I decided it is time to share it. This semester, one of the courses I took was a study of the book of Genesis. The reading for this class was challenging, but interesting, and the professor was also inspiring. For this course, I had to write a research paper on one of God’s missions introduced in Genesis. I chose the topic of creation care. The professor gave me wonderful feedback, and also told me this is a topic he could tell I was passionate about, and a topic I could chase for a long time. He recommended some books I could read to continue chasing this topic. At some point, hopefully over the summer, I would like to read these books and add to my paper, and if I do, I will share my paper here. I get the sense that as I progress in my seminary education, I could chase the ideas expressed in the following Creative Writing essay a long time too. If it is ever appropriate, I would love to show this to a seminary professor who could give me ideas for how to do so. But I hope that even as it is written today, my experience might help any Christian readers feeling weary after this difficult year to keep the faith, and that it may even offer skeptics encouragement and permission to believe.

The adult in me is embarrassed to admit this, but I believed in Santa Claus until I was twelve years old. Well, I had suspicions for a couple years, but I pushed these doubts aside, and a couple times when I would ask questions and my parents would respond with vague answers, desperately trying to preserve the innocence of their youngest child, I didn’t press them much. I knew I would need to face the truth eventually, but I also knew that once I officially heard the truth, some of the magic of the Christmas season would be irrevocably lost. Perhaps out of fear I would say something that would get me laughed at now that I was in middle school, at twelve, my parents officially confirmed what I had suspected.

In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O Hanlon posed this question to her father. A loyal reader of the New York Sun, her father suggested she pose her question to the newspaper. “If The Sun reported it,” her father said, “then it was so.” The editor published her letter, and replied that “yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Just because you cannot literally see him doesn’t mean he isn’t real. “YOU TEAR apart a baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.”

Perhaps this was the exact sentiment Jesus was trying to convey in Mark 10:14-15 when he says, “let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

As a child, I absolutely despised Math. My mind just couldn’t grasp it, and I would spend hours alternating between puzzling over how to solve the equations, and fuming about how my childhood was slipping away and there were so many more fun ways I could be spending my time. My parents usually couldn’t help because it had been so long since they were in school, concepts were taught differently in their day, and when they were in school, they struggled in Math as well. Only my engrained Catholic upbringing which taught that cheating was wrong stopped me from calling a classmate who was good at Math and asking them to just give me the answers. But on the rare occasion when a concept clicked and I got the right answer on my own, it was like arriving at a spring of fresh cold water after a long trek through a desert, a trek on which I got lost several times. In those moments, I was glad I hadn’t called a classmate for the answers, not only because it would have been morally wrong, and would have come back to bite me come test time, but also because there is an indescribable joy in self-discovery, especially when it comes after struggle.

I think God recognizes this joy too, as well as the genuineness of faith that is chosen of our own free will. To that end, when we are born, it is as if we are dropped into a desert to find and accept the water of God for ourselves. The path is a little easier for people like me, born into a Christian home and raised Roman Catholic, but the genuine decision to accept Christ is a personal decision everyone must make for themselves. It is the responsibility of those who have accepted Christ to go back into the desert to find people who were not raised in the Christian tradition, people tempted down the wrong path of spiritual practices that will never give them the happiness they seek and may even harm them, people who grew up in a Christian tradition, but rejected Christ because they were wounded by a family or church that did not model Christ’s love, or people living in remote parts of the world who do not have access to the bible and may never have heard about Christ, and help them find the right path. But I think his words in Mark 10:14-15 suggest Jesus recognized that the most dangerous path people could be tempted down, and a path that does not tempt little children in their precious ignorance, is the path of skepticism.

Being totally blind and living in a suburb with no sidewalks or access to public transportation has always limited my physical freedom to leave the house independently. But intellectual freedom was another matter. Of course, I took this freedom for granted when I was a child, but the further I wade into adulthood, the more I have come to appreciate how blessed I was to grow up with a large degree of intellectual freedom and a complete lack of censorship. I was never sent out of the room when my parents watched news programs filled with stories of rapes and murders, nor when my teenage siblings watched movies full of foul language. When I was in kindergarten, my dad bought an album of music from the 1970s band Meatloaf. His favorite song on the album was Paradise by the Dashboard Light, and he would often blast it on the big stereo in the living room in the mornings before putting me on the bus. I loved this song too for its theatrical, rock opera style. The questionable morals advocated by this song glided right over my head, as my parents knew they would. If I did ask questions about a news story, my parents would simply answer my questions in an age-appropriate manner.

At the end of first grade, my teacher gave me some braille books to read over summer vacation. One of the books, The Rainbabies was a folktale about a childless couple who finds a dozen tiny babies lying in the grass in the magic of a moon shower.

“You should ask your parents’ permission before reading this one,” she said. I was kind of surprised she would say such a thing. Were there really parents afraid of a children’s book with a little magic in it? Knowing my parents weren’t afraid of such things, I started reading that book before my parents even got home from work that evening. I think out of a guilty conscience I confessed to my parents a couple days later how I was supposed to ask their permission, but I was correct in my assumption they would have absolutely no problem with this book, nor the Harry Potter series, nor The Da Vinci Code when I was in eighth grade.

The only time intellectual freedom was denied during childhood was when I longed to spend more time with the Jehovah’s Witnesses that came to our door. I was a curious, nosy child, the kind of child who got reprimanded a couple times at school for eavesdropping on private conversations between teachers. Because we live in a suburban neighborhood where houses are spread out and difficult to find, our doorbell doesn’t ring very often, so naturally any time the doorbell rang, I would run to the door excited and curious to see who it was.

My mom was open-minded about religion because she was exposed to many Christian traditions in the small Indiana town where she grew up. Her mother’s side of the family were Quakers, and her father’s side were Baptists. She usually attended the Friends church, but sometimes went to the Baptist Church with her grandmother, and as a teenager would sometimes go to church with friends of other denominations. Neither of her parents could afford to go to college, but they were well-read, open-minded people who encouraged intellectual exploration. There were no Muslims, Jews or Hindus where she grew up, but if there had been, I get the sense her parents would have allowed her to explore these religions too, especially if invited by a friend. In college at Purdue University, she became friends with a student from Iran, and in her 20s, she even studied briefly with some Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Dad’s parents on the other hand were not open-minded. The Catholic Church was the only true church, and if you weren’t Catholic, you weren’t going to heaven. So they were very upset when Dad decided to marry a girl who wasn’t Catholic. Mom now says if she could do things over again, she would have exposed us to other religious traditions, but for the sake of family peace and unity, Mom agreed to become Catholic and my parents raised us kids Catholic. To that end, whenever Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door, Mom and Dad would hurry past me, and be polite to them, but make it clear they were not interested in learning about this faith. A couple times when my mom didn’t feel like talking to them, she made me be quiet and stay away from the windows until they left. But something always intrigued me about them. Maybe it was how compassionate they were to me when I beat my parents to the door. They even told me they had literature available in Braille. Maybe it was their passion and dedication to their faith. Catholics didn’t go door-to-door in all kinds of weather sharing their faith. One day when I was in high school, my grandma on Dad’s side came to visit and mentioned how a couple she was acquainted with ended up getting a divorce because the wife and children became Jehovah’s Witnesses and the change in lifestyle, especially the abstinence from Christmas and birthday celebrations, was too much for the husband to take. This story only deepened my intrigue.

My parents agreed to raise us Catholic for family peace and unity, but once we reached adulthood, my parents were determined to respect boundaries better than Dad’s parents, treat us as the adults we were and let us make our own decisions regarding religion. So one summer night in June 2015, my dad and I were taking our dog Gilbert for a walk when we met a new neighbor who was a Jehovah’s Witness out for a walk with her dog Buddy. When she asked if she could come to my house, the curious child in me awoke and I responded with an excited “Sure!”

That conversation was the beginning of what would become a weekly ritual I looked forward to all week for the next two years, especially when I went through a difficult season with my first job. At 11:00 every Saturday morning, this neighbor whose name was Eda, and her friend and fellow Witness Jane would come to my house for bible study using the organization’s book “What Does The Bible Really Teach?”. Ultimately, I did not convert to this faith, as my heart could not accept some of their beliefs which differ from mainstream Christianity. They do not believe in the Holy Trinity for example, and they believe in soul sleep after death, rather than Heaven. In 2013, my mom and I switched to a nondenominational church to which we still belong today. But contrary to what my grandma, and even my parents to a small extent feared, studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses did not weaken my faith: it actually enhanced it.

One theological element that both of our faiths share is the belief that one day, Christ will return to end this system so full of wickedness and corruption, and those who choose to follow Him will live forever on a paradise earth where there will no longer be the sickness, death or even disabilities we must live with today. Like most mainstream Christian churches, our church believes in this future paradise as well, but unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses, they do not talk much about it, preferring instead to focus on how to live a Christ-centered life in the here and now. When eternity is discussed, it is discussed in an abstract, churchy way. But for Jehovah’s Witnesses, eager anticipation of this new system permeates everything they say and do. They do not vote or even say the Pledge of Allegiance because their true citizenship is with Jehovah, God. They do not worry when they watch the news because God prophesied that these things would occur, but He is in control, and they already know how it will end. They don’t get up in arms about things like higher taxes, because the bible says render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, which means peacefully obeying the laws of the earthly government they live under, a government God allows as it is necessary to keep order in the current system, so long as the laws do not conflict with God’s laws. And they talk in concrete terms of how wonderful life will be on the Paradise earth. The day we got to the chapter on what the paradise earth will be like, they told of an autistic girl in their congregation who has difficulty speaking, and laughed as they imagined her talking all the time in the new world, which prompted me to imagine myself dashing out the door, sight restored and running free, both arms swinging at my side, no longer in need of a cane, guide dog or sighted person to get around safely outside the house.

After this conversation when Jane and Eda went home, my parents and I decided to go out for lunch. Usually, I did not share what we discussed in bible study out of respect for my parents who had no problem with my spiritual exploration, but were not interested in this faith themselves. But that day, I was so giddy thinking about this future that I couldn’t help launching excitedly, child-like into recounting what we had discussed. But before I had even finished, my dad shut the conversation down with a firm, “that’s just one interpretation.”

At first when I heard this statement, I felt a similar sense of loss to when I learned the truth about Santa, but on a much deeper level. Maybe Dad was right. Our church never had conversations like this, so maybe it was a theologically incorrect interpretation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. But at a time when my job was particularly difficult and I needed a joyful place for my mind to wander to, how I wanted to believe this interpretation was true. To my delight, about a year and a half later, I discovered a book written by John Eldredge, a Christian author referenced fondly by a teacher in a church class I was taking. The book, was called “All Things New: Heaven, Earth and the Restoration of Everything You Love. This book confirmed that the Paradise earth isn’t just one interpretation. It is the truth, and one he agreed with me that the church should talk about more concretely.

Even the most renowned scholars in the field of Christian Apologetics cannot definitively confirm that God exists. But unlike Santa, God gave us enough clues to entertain the possibility that He is not just a fairy tale. There is archeological evidence supporting stories from the old testament, compelling evidence that Jesus existed, and that his death and resurrection could have occurred exactly as portrayed in the bible. There are also convincing apologetics arguments explained by scholars like Dr. William Lane Craig, supporting the possibility of God’s existence. The most fascinating and compelling of these arguments in my opinion is the Finetuning Argument which says that the earth is positioned so precisely to support life that if anything like the gravitational force, or the distance from the sun changed by even a hair’s breadth, life would cease to exist. The odds that this could happen by random chance, without the involvement of a transcendent creator are incomprehensably miniscule. And a few people alive today believe they died and briefly went to Heaven.

One of these people is Dr. Mary Neal, an orthopaedic physician who had been a lukewarm Christian most of her life, until 1999 when she drowned in a kayak accident, died and briefly went to Heaven before being resuscitated. While in Heaven, she saw Jesus and experienced a sense of being loved, and even after she was resuscitated, an angel would visit and talk to her during recovery. One day she asked this angel why everyone couldn’t experience what she had experienced. After all, if everyone could experience God as she did, more people would believe, and we would all treat one another better in this life. She does not remember the angel’s exact words, but his point was the same one Jesus makes in John 20:29 when speaking with “doubting Thomas.” “Because you have seen, you believe. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” Little children don’t demand proof of Santa’s existence before they believe. They just believe, which I think is how God wants us to respond to Him.

When I was a child, one of my favorite stories was The Polar Express. The story, narrated by a little boy, begins with a friend at school telling him Santa isn’t real, but he still wants to believe. Then on Christmas eve as he lay in bed listening for sleigh bells, a train stopped outside his window. He tiptoed out of the house and boarded the train, which was full of other children and was headed to the North Pole. There, Santa would choose one child to award the first gift of Christmas. The little boy was chosen by Santa for the first gift, and although he could have asked for any toy he wanted, all he really wanted was a bell from Santa’s sleigh. The story takes a sad but brief turn when he gets back on the train and finds a hole in the pocket of his robe. He lost the bell. But the next morning when he and his sister are opening presents, the bell is under the tree with a note from Santa. Reading this book as a child, I only saw it at surface-level, a sweet, joyful story about taking a train to the north pole and meeting Santa. But when reading it as an adult, it occurred to me the spiritual implication of this story is chilling and beautiful. You see, this bell wasn’t an ordinary sleigh bell. For those who believed in Santa, the bell rang, loud and sweet, but for those who no longer believed, the bell was silent. The little boy could hear the bell all his life, but even his little sister found one Christmas that she could no longer hear the bell. Just as Santa does in this fictional children’s story, Jesus chooses a few people whose hearts are open to meet him in a tangible way during this life, and yet is saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Dr. Mary Neal will always “hear the bell” because she had the privilege of experiencing Heaven, but I wouldn’t be surprised if even people close to her are skeptical of her story, and do not believe in God themselves. Lord, I pray that more people will abandon the path of skepticism, and like children, believe even if we have not seen. May we always hear your bell.

Parallels Between Racism and Ableism

Well readers, I have been doing some writing for a Spiritual Writing class I just finished with the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, the same organization from which I took the memoir writing class I wrote about back in January. I have known for awhile that I wanted a future career that involved writing from the Christian perspective, and got excited when I heard about this class last summer. But unfortunately, this class is only offered once a year, and by the time I saw it last summer, it was sold out. So I made sure to sign up for it right away when I saw it offered again this summer. I really enjoyed this class, especially because unlike a previous Foundations of Creative Writing Class I took at the end of March where my classmates were relatively quiet, my classmates for this spiritual writing class were really enthusiastic and engaged. I definitely plan to share the primary essay I wrote for this class in some form, though I haven’t decided if I will post it to this blog, self-publish it in a book, or try to submit it to a magazine. But besides the writing for this class, and a couple of essays I had to write for my seminary school application, I haven’t been able to find the ambition to write for this blog. But I have been drawn to reading, and have read several compelling essays in light of the senseless murder of George Floyd, as well as several compelling essays written by people with disabilities for the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law July 26, 1990. In reading these essays, it occurred to me there are interesting parallels between the challenges experienced by minority populations, and people with disabilities. By no means am I implying that being in a minority population is the same as having a disability. What I am saying is that just as we have no control over what race we are born into, we have no control over whether we are born with a disability, nor for the most part, whether we develop a disability later in life. Just as people from minority populations have to put up with systemic and unconscious racism, people with disabilities still have to put up with systemic, and unconscious ableism. And while tremendous progress has been made to improve life for both populations via the Civil Rights movement, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, for both populations, there is still room for improvement.

I don’t have all the answers for how racism or ableism could be addressed on a systemic level. Both are complex issues that will require a multi-faceted approach when it comes to legislation. But as I have written before, laws alone cannot change the world, so equally, if not more important than changing laws is changing hearts.

A frequent theme of the essays I have read regarding racism is the defensive reaction of white people when the subject of white privilege is broached. “But I am not racist,” is a common response from white people like myself, and one I also had at first. While it is true that the vast majority of white people find our country’s history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and lynching abhorrent, are appalled by the rhetoric of white supremacist groups that still persist today, and fully support legislation like Affirmative Action meant to rectify this shameful history, the fact is white people take their history of privilege for granted and still inadvertently say and do things that are racist, still influenced by generations of engrained prejudice against other races.

I grew up in an affluent suburb that was probably created by “white flight.” A few black students took a bus from Milwaukee to attend school in our district, but I rarely had a black student in my class, especially by the time I got to high school. Then I would come home from school and watch the news with my parents which was full of shootings and other gang violence in predominantly black neighborhoods in Milwaukee. From interviews with witnesses or survivors on the news, I learned to recognize the dialect of black people which to me felt intimidating: “rough around the edges” is the best way I can think of to describe it. The bus that took the black students home after school always came a little later than the rest of the buses. (the Special Ed bus which my parents insisted I ride left five minutes earlier than everyone else, so most days, I had to leave my last class, Chamber Choir, a little early to catch it. But on Wednesdays, my mom would pick me up since I had piano lessons at 3:30 most Wednesdays. Sometimes, Mom would get caught in traffic and be a little late picking me up, and while waiting for her, I would hear black students being really loud, yelling, slamming doors. I found their behavior disconcerting, and sometimes couldn’t tell if they were fighting or just goofing around. I remember quietly getting further away if I felt like they were coming close to me, and thinking, “Come on Mom, hurry up and get here, so I can get out of here before a gun is drawn.” One time when it was obvious that I was lost in a hallway in my high school, a black student approached me and asked me if I needed help. I politely told her no thanks, that my teacher wanted me to figure things out on my own, which was true. But the truth is, had the student been white, I might have cheated and let her help me: the real reason for declining help from the black student was my engrained, subconscious fear of black people and their rougher dialect. Even at the liberal arts college I attended, it was rare that I had a black student in class. My freshman year, there was a black student in my Communication 101 class, and when he was in my group for a project and he said something about stabbing his brother when he was a kid, my fear was only reenforced. It was reenforced again the following semester in a News Writing class when a black student got in an argument with the professor after which some classmates heard her make a veiled threat under her breath: “this is how things like Virginia Tech happen.” I had an amazing, charismatic professor who was black for several of my Paralegal classes, but my classmates were mostly white, and black students I would pass in the hallway of this urban technical college sometimes made me uneasy when I heard them shouting or cursing at each other or to someone on the phone. It wasn’t until I started my job at a Social Security law firm and worked alongside several case managers who were black who I became good friends with that I fully appreciated how silly my fear was. I know saying you have black friends is itself racist, but what I am trying to say is based on my experience, I think it is because of our country’s persisting unofficial segregation that racially based fear still persists.

The history of people with disabilities in this country was never part of the curriculum in school. I watched a brief video on the disability movement as part of a brain disorders class I took my freshman year of college, but most of my education on this history is thanks to an NPR podcast I listened to just this past Sunday. Like our country’s history of racism, our history of ableism is also pretty ugly.

For most of our country’s history, people with disabilities were also segregated, due to fear, driven by persistent myths that people with disabilities were cursed, or being punished by God. People with disabilities were often institutionalized, and there were actually “ugly laws” on the books all across the country. Joseph Shapiro, an investigative journalist featured on this podcast cited a portion of Chicago’s municipal code from 1881 which said “any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” could be fined if spotted in public. It was practically unheard of for blind people like me to be educated in a mainstream school. If they were educated at all, it was almost always in a special school for the blind. If a person with disabilities wanted to attend a mainstream school, it was up to the person with the disability to figure out how to make it work. One adult interviewed on the podcast was paralyzed by polio as a child, but wanted to return to school. The principal arranged for some football players to carry her up the stairs to her classes on the second or third floor, but they couldn’t help her with the bathroom, so she had to make sure she didn’t drink too much so she wouldn’t have to go until she got home! Public establishments could deny service to people with disabilities if they felt the person’s appearance could be upsetting to other customers, and as recently as the 1970s, forced sterilization of people with disabilities was legal!

The first signs of change on the horizon came after World War II, when more soldiers survived with wounds that would have been fatal in previous wars, and wanted to live independent, full lives. Around that time, pictures of horrific conditions inside many institutions for the disabled emerged, images strikingly similar to the images that emerged from the Nazi concentration camps, where in addition to the murder of six million Jewish people, the Nazis also killed millions of people with disabilities. Over the following decades, many institutions closed and federal funding was shifted to helping people with disabilities live in the community. Programs also emerged to teach people with disabilities how to overcome their disabilities and live independently. But even in these years, the burden rested on the person with the disability to figure out how to navigate a world that wasn’t designed for them. The idea of simply relocating a class to the first floor was never considered. If a person unable to walk could crawl up stairs to get to a class, that was what was expected. Most buses did not have wheelchair lifts, and cabs routinely sped by if they saw a wheelchair.

In the 1970s, many in the disability community started to realize that the prejudice and discrimination they faced was no different than the struggle faced by Black Americans. People with disabilities recognized they were a minority whose civil rights were being violated. In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act was signed into law, but it didn’t really have teeth because it only applied to agencies and entities that received federal funding. People with disabilities staged protests, modeled after the peaceful protests of the Civil Rights movement, protests that could not be ignored. All across the country, people with disabilities organized to lay in the street blocking buses that were not accessible to them, and most notably in 1990, sixty activists in wheelchairs gathered to crawl up the steps into the United States Capitol. On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush whose son was dyslexic, hoping it would lead to a “kinder, gentler society.” The law was written with much the same language as the legislation brought about by the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Suffrage movement. It banned discrimination based on a person’s disability, and also shifted the burden of accommodation from the person with the disability, to communities and businesses. Mainstream public schools were now required to make reasonable accommodations to educate children with disabilities. Communities were required to make modifications like installing curb cuts so that people in wheelchairs could cross streets. Most buildings were required to add modifications like elevators, and braille signage.

I was born in March of 1990, and just three months after the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, I would be diagnosed with a brain tumor that would destroy my optic nerve leaving me totally blind. I have never known life without the Americans with Disabilities Act, something I took for granted as a child. I owe a debt of gratitude to the people with disabilities who fought for this civil rights legislation which has given me such a blessed life: education in my home school district with all the accommodations and support I needed, a disability services department that allowed me to thrive at a private liberal arts college, the opportunity to pursue a career, earn income of my own and contribute to society. But in the same way there is still much work yet to be done to achieve a more perfect union for people of color, there is also much work to be done for people with disabilities.

Movies and TV shows still perpetuate negative stereotypes about people with disabilities because people with disabilities rarely have the opportunity to write or produce these shows and movies. Businesses still deny blind people access with their guide dogs, and cab drivers speed past guide dog teams. While most large corporations are mindful of accessibility, I still occasionally encounter apps and websites that did not take accessibility into consideration. Life is still difficult at times for people in wheelchairs because some old buildings were exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, and most homes are not wheelchair accessible, which is especially difficult for children and teens confined to wheelchairs who often cannot attend a party at a nondisabled friend’s house. As hard as my classroom aide tried to remind teachers, they often couldn’t plan ahead and give the aide class materials in advance for transcription into braille, so I would have to just listen and follow along as best I could until my aide could braille it. My first semester of college, Disability Services didn’t have my books transcribed until the semester was already well underway, so my parents read to me so I wouldn’t fall behind. I would later find out this is a commonplace occurrence for blind college students. Even before the pandemic, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was about 70 percent, a figure that I imagine will get worse as companies facing financial uncertainty will “play it safe” hiring the person without disabilities they will perceive as more capable, and less of a risk. As schools adjust to the unprecedented need for distance learning, children with special needs have often been overlooked, denied the support they need. And most disturbing of all, I have read that some hospitals created guidelines that basically said if there were not enough ventilators, they should prioritize those who have the best prognosis of recovery and return to a productive life, which many in the disability community feared was akin to giving hospitals permission to sacrifice people with disabilities.

But similar to the awakening of many to the racism that still exists in this country, I am optimistic that reform is on the horizon to combat ableism as well. One essay I read expressed the hope that now that people without disabilities have gotten a small taste of the loss of freedom, the inconvenience that people with disabilities live with every day, they will be more empathetic toward people with disabilities, resulting in much-needed reform. For example, many people with disabilities have been pleading for more flexibility to work or attend classes remotely due to lack of transportation, or health concerns, a request that was often denied. People with disabilities were rightfully perturbed that it took a pandemic for people without disabilities to accept something they have wanted for years, but while many are looking forward to returning to offices and receiving in-person instruction, many with disabilities hope that schools and employers will have learned from the pandemic that working remotely is possible, and will be more accommodating. The consciences of many have also been shocked by the number of people in nursing homes, a large segment of the disabled population, who have died of COVID-19, which I think will inspire more investment in senior care.

But just as is the case with racism, equally if not more important than practical reform is a change of heart. I believe for the most part, we are a kinder, gentler society. I have yet to meet anyone who gave me the impression they thought I was a drain on society and my life should not have been saved when I had my brain tumor, or that I should be locked away in an institution, out of their sight, out of mind. People like Donald Trump who makes fun of people with disabilities, and tried to demand that architectural engineers violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and get rid of the braille in the Trump Tower elevator are a small minority. But just as we are all racists without meaning to be, we all have ableist attitudes, including me. Yes you read that right. I have a disability, yet I realize I have ableist attitudes.

In a book I have been reading written by a blind woman who trains her own guide dogs, she mentions that people have told her if they ever went blind, they would shoot themselves. This struck her as deeply offensive, as if her life wasn’t valued, almost implying she should shoot herself. But I didn’t see this remark that way. I thought of it more in terms of trying to express the sentiment that they depend on their vision so much they cannot imagine how they could ever live without it. They admire how she has adapted to her disability, but this is a resilience they don’t believe they would have. They are unfamiliar with all the technology and resources available that allow blind people to live full, independent lives, and so believe if they went blind, their quality of life would be so diminished they wouldn’t want to live anymore. I am a little shocked that people would be so crass as to actually say that to her face. But I have thought the same thing about the prospect of living with other disabilities I am not familiar with.

I remember finding it a little weird, almost comical when in third grade, we learned about Helen Keller. My classmates and teacher loved getting my input on discussion questions as I understood firsthand some of the challenges Helen Keller faced. I didn’t know how to tell them I was just as, if not more amazed, and terrified by Helen Keller as they were. I was accustomed to being blind. But to be blind and deaf? I know Helen Keller adapted and lived a full, happy life long before the Americans with Disabilities Act, and all kinds of technological innovations that have made life a little easier for people with disabilities. But people have tried to show me sign language for fun over the years, and I don’t understand it. Even when people have tried to make braille dots in the palm of my hand for fun, I cannot make out what they are writing. I know there is technology that helps people who are deaf/blind to communicate, but I imagine social interaction is still difficult, and limited to close friends and family familiar with it. And I cannot imagine life without music. Every day during that Helen Keller unit, I remember thanking God that I was only blind. Almost a year later, I went to visit my paternal grandma and grandpa. Grandpa was hard of haring and had the television turned up pretty loud, but I didn’t think anything of it. Then my dad came in and whisked me out of the room, which was uncharacteristic. My parents did not believe in much censorship, so I was used to scary crime shows and movies with foul language. Then I heard Dad whispering to Grandma that he didn’t want me exposed to such loud noise for fear I could go deaf. I thought I was safe from going deaf because the cause of Helen Keller’s deafness was Scarlet Fever, which there is a vaccine for nowadays. The possibility that I could go deaf just from too much exposure to loud noise never occurred to me. To this day, I am careful to make sure I am cognizant of noise. I only use headphones when I have to, and I get a sick feeling in my stomach when I go to a concert or play that I didn’t think to bring earplugs for because I didn’t know how loud it would be. I even backed out of one of the plays my parents bought season tickets for at a local theatre when a letter seeking to get patrons excited about the show stated that earplugs would be provided. I have inadvertently attended shows that were pretty loud, but earplugs weren’t provided. If the theatre was actually providing earplugs, the show must be really loud, maybe to the point of posing a legal liability for the theatre, and sometimes when I have worn earplugs, I have discovered during the show that the earplugs slipped out of my genetically waxy ears and thus weren’t able to do me any good. You can judge me as irrational if you want, but I wasn’t willing to take a chance with this show. If I am unfortunate and become deaf/blind one day, my deafness will not be due to irresponsible behavior on my part.

I have heard many adults the age of my parents express some form of the sentiment of “when I can no longer care for myself, become a vegetable, have to live in a nursing home, just shoot me.” I cannot say I blame them. My grandfather had to live in a nursing home the final six months or so of his life. He passed away in January 2008. While the staff that cared for him was extremely compassionate–a couple of them even came to his funeral–I remember thanking God that after visiting a few hours, I would be able to get out of there, and was sad for everyone who couldn’t leave. The whole place stunk, as I’m sure all nursing homes do because they are so underfunded they don’t have the staffing to clean up accidents as promptly as they should be, and because a large proportion of nursing home residents end up relying on Medicaid to cover their care, and Medicaid will only pay for one bath a week. Occasionally a local singer or performance group would come in and sing for the residents, but most days it seemed like the routine was the staff would get the residents up and help them dress, only to sit in their wheelchairs either in their rooms, or parked in the hallway if they needed supervision. Three times a day, they received low-quality food reminiscent of my lunches in the school cafeteria, food that was pureed for residents who couldn’t chew. Then the evening staff would put the residents to bed, and the same routine would begin again the next day. On our summer visits, we would take my grandfather outside, and he enjoyed the fresh air and sunshine. But for residents who don’t have family, they never get to go outside. I know I have complained some on this blog about not having the freedom and autonomy sighted people have because I cannot drive, and cannot leave the house without either a cane, guide dog or sighted guide. But I can choose when I wake up, bathe and go to bed. I can prepare my own delicious meals using wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables, no pepperoni pizza and canned pineapple, the dinner given to my grandma at her assisted living facility one day recently. On beautiful days, I can take myself out to the patio and read a braille book on the porch swing. I wonder how I would cope emotionally if/when I lose these basic freedoms. In all seriousness, I wouldn’t actually shoot myself, but I cannot say I wouldn’t get pretty depressed. But I remember a sermon one day awhile back in church when the pastor talked about people who seem so positive, and have an incredible joy about them despite going through hardship. People will often say they cannot imagine how they would go on if faced with hardship like an illness or permanent disability, but the pastor said those people that have a joy about them couldn’t imagine they would be in the difficult situation they are facing either, but when we need it, God gives us the strength to cope with the unimaginable. Hopefully, I would draw on the experience I already have coping with a disability to help me accept and adjust to a new one, trust that God is in control, and focus on all the things I can still enjoy. If nothing else, hopefully I would remember that for those who accept Christ, all disabilities are ultimately only temporary. But if someone ever told me they would shoot themselves if they ever went blind, I wouldn’t take it personally, as I have thought the same thing about other disabilities.

Even though I have a disability, I wonder if I would discriminate against people with other disabilities I am less familiar with if I had a job in human resources. I have been influenced by inaccurate representations of disabilities in the media. When I was in seventh grade, I attended a braille competition hosted by the Wisconsin state school for the blind, the school I likely would have attended if I had grown up before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, which sparked a trend toward keeping most blind students in their home school districts. Most of the students at the state school post-1990 have cognitive disabilities in addition to their blindness. This was a really fun camp-like event held on a Thursday and Friday each March. We would arrive around lunchtime on Thursday, and then have an opening ceremony and an afternoon of games involving braille, followed by a pizza party and time to swim in the pool or watch a movie. A prom was also held for high school students during this time. Then we would spend the night in the school dormitories, play a few more games in the morning, and then receive medals in a closing ceremony before heading home Friday afternoon. I attended this event in fifth and sixth grade, and I think those years, I tagged along with a group of other blind students and a teacher I knew well who attended another local school with a resource room for the blind, but seventh grade for some reason, they couldn’t attend, so my mom decided to accompany me. I was sure glad to have Mom with me when Thursday evening at dinner, a teenager with cognitive disabilities enthusiastically sat down inappropriately close to me and said something like, “Hi! I take meds for paranoid schizophrenia! What do you have?” My jaw dropped, not just because I was taken by surprise at such inappropriate social behavior, but also because I had recently watched a documentary on TV about people with schizophrenia acting on voices that told them to kill people. Mom still laughs when she remembers the look on my face, how I scooted toward her for protection, and made sure the door to our dorm room was locked that night. I have since learned that the vast majority of people with schizophrenia are not violent, and of those that are, it is almost always because their schizophrenia isn’t getting treated properly. Even so, that first impression was powerful, and even in my job at the Social Security law firm where I occasionally talked to clients with schizophrenia, I remember thinking, “I’m glad all of our interaction is over the phone.” So I wonder if I would still have misgivings about hiring someone if I knew they had a mental illness like schizophrenia.

Recently, I also read an excellent article reflecting on the Americans with Disabilities Act. The woman who wrote this article has cerebral palsy and like all people with disabilities, struggled to find employment after college. She recounts walking out of mock job interviews where she was told that what she said seemed intelligent but she should consider speech therapy because her voice sounded “a little sleepy.” This convicted me because as a blind person–not that this is an excuse–I not only identify people by the sound of their voice, but judge them as well. When Michael Jackson was on trial several years ago, accused of molesting children at his Neverland Ranch amusement park, I was convinced of his guilt just by the sound of his voice, a gross high-pitch, sweet voice I couldn’t stand to listen to. I could never have been on the jury for this reason. I also cannot stand the sound of Senator Mitch McConnell’s voice. There is plenty of other evidence of his corruption and insincerity even if you never heard him speak, but his voice seals the deal for me. These famous people don’t have disabilities, but my point is, I wonder if it shows that if I were in human resources and this woman with cerebral palsy came in for an interview, I would have a hard time looking past a voice that sounds sleepy, which I would interpret as bored or disengaged, no matter how capable and qualified she was for the job, even if she couldn’t help talking this way due to her disability. This story also brought back memories of my own long search for employment, and even a couple unsuccessful interviews I landed when I tried to find a different job in 2016. There is no way to prove I was denied jobs because of my blindness, nor will I ever know for sure if I would have even landed the job at the Social Security disability law firm where I worked for five years without the job developer who accompanied me to the interview, talking up my intelligence and wonderful personality and giving the employer information on a state program that would pay my wages for a three month trial period, and half my wage for another three months if I was officially hired. Maybe I’m irrational, but the fact that incentive programs like this are necessary for employers to give people with disabilities a chance makes me a little angry. But is it really fair to fault someone in human resources who may have felt uneasy about my inability to make perfect eye contact, or didn’t think I would be able to do the job because they were unfamiliar with all of the technology that makes many visual tasks possible, when I would be reluctant to hire someone with a mental illness, cognitive disabilities, or a speech impediment?

A term that has become popular in light of the racial unrest in this country is anti-racist. It acknowledges that all white people have unintentionally said and done racist things because of prejudices engrained in us for generations, but that we want to change for the better. I want to make it my goal to be anti-racist, and anti-ableist. I don’t have all the answers for how to achieve these goals, and change of heart is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. But I think some of the solutions proposed to move away from racism are very applicable to addressing ableism as well. The school curriculum should spend more time teaching children about the racism in our country’s history, as well as our country’s dark history for people with disabilities. I think schools should also have more programs where children in mainstream classrooms collaborate with Special Ed students for activities so that students are exposed to peers with a diversity of disabilities. Just as publishers and studios that produce movies and TV shows are recognizing the importance of better ethnic diversity, they should also strive to encourage more books, shows and movies written and directed by people with disabilities, and if someone without disabilities writes a plot that depicts people with disabilities, it should be reviewed by people with the particular disability to ensure that the characters are depicted in an accurate and realistic manner, and if possible, the character should be played by someone with said disability. It is also essential that more people with disabilities hold positions in government, and in product development because when people with disabilities aren’t represented, their needs become an afterthought. I think gradually, with better education and greater representation of minorities and people with disabilities in government, product development and all forms of media, we can move toward a “more perfect union” for both populations. For my part, I will make a greater effort to educate myself on disabilities I am not familiar with, and if I encounter people with disabilities in my next career, or land a position where I make hiring decisions, I will make a stronger effort to treat all people with disabilities, and people of all races, the way I would want to be treated.

Bittersweet Updates

Before I get to the main purpose of this post, I wanted to start with a little public service announcement. I was listening to The Daily, a podcast published by the New York Times one day when I heard an advertisement for this company called Patreon. It is a company that supports artists of all kinds by helping them to create membership programs for their fans. This allows fans to interact with the artist and be part of the creative process, and it allows artists to earn a predictable, monthly income and not have their creative freedom hampered by the demands of computer algorithms and ad revenue. I promise not to be annoying about this like a politician. This will be the only time I mention it here, but I decided to create a page on Patreon, and offer exclusive access for $5 a month to essays I have written in Creative Nonfiction classes, as well as a few I have written on my own. I am also hoping to gain a following during and after seminary school by publishing academic writing there. I will still be writing here most of the time, as I enjoy having the freedom to ramble, and not having the pressure of making sure my essays are polished enough to justify charging people to read them. But if you enjoy reading this blog and would like to read some of my more polished writing, I would be delighted to have your support on Patreon. Here is the link to my page!

Well readers, in some ways, this summer is proving to be a strange one given the pandemic. We will not be traveling at all this summer, especially not to Indiana to visit my grandma and cousins on Mom’s side of the family. Most importantly, we don’t want to inadvertently expose Granny to COVID-19, but also, we are just uncomfortable with the risks associated with having to eat in restaurants, use public restrooms and stay in hotels. We have discussed getting an RV but probably won’t as they are crazy expensive. There will be no festivals in our community, which is known for all kinds of festivals every weekend during summer, and even the Wisconsin State Fair has been cancelled. I probably won’t even get to go swimming this summer. The gym where I have gone swimming the last two summers is open, but my parents cancelled our memberships out of an abundance of caution. Even with the precautions the gym is taking, there really is no way to entirely eliminate the risk of virus transmission in an environment characterized by sweaty people breathing hard on cardio machines, and where exercise fanatics like me would still come to work out even if they weren’t feeling well. (If I had to go to a gym for cardio, I hope I would be a good citizen and stay home if sick, but I have been known to exercise on my home treadmill through migraines and low-grade fevers). If it weren’t for the wonderful summer breeze and bird songs floating through my open window right now, you would think it was winter at my house, as we are largely maintaining that wintery cocoon at home mindset. But I’m actually not complaining about this at all. In fact, I was telling my parents the other day that in some ways, I dread the typical summer filled with social pressure to get out and go places when I just want to be left alone at home to stay cool when it is hot and humid, write or read a good book. This could be my most care-free summer ever!

But in some ways, my life is busy and exciting right now. I am working on my seminary application. It is almost done. I just have to write a couple 300-word essays. Perhaps I should have submitted it sooner, the reason for the procrastination being I felt awkward having to ask people for letters of recommendation. But to my relief, all three people I contacted said they would be willing to recommend me, even a professor from my days at Carroll University whom I had the chance to catch up with at a choir collaboration around Christmas 2018, but who hasn’t interacted with me in an academic context since 2012. (This professor is an awesome person whom I had no doubt would be happy to support me, but 2012 was a long time ago. Would she remember enough details about me to write a recommendation when she teaches hundreds of students a year?) I wish this program didn’t require these letters because I hate imposing on people like that, but I think all graduate schools do. I also submitted an application to Occupaws for a second guide dog, which I may be training with in Fall!

A couple years ago, I was intrigued at the idea of training my own guide dog. Since then, I have reconsidered this decision. For one thing, at the time I was considering this idea, my whole outlook on life was different. I think I set low expectations for myself, content to live a life that was easy, comfortable. I was content with the idea of a dog that was only trained to walk park trails. But in the spiritual awakening triggered by this pandemic which I wrote about in my last post, I realize I really want more for my life. I want a career that is intellectually challenging where I can really make a positive difference in people’s lives, and I recognize the need for a fully, properly trained guide dog to reach these goals. I have also done some reading since then and observed that the people that are successful training their own service dogs are usually “dog people” to begin with. In Courage to Dare, a book written by a woman who trains her own guide dogs, she mentioned she had been training dogs in obedience and agility for years before losing her sight and deciding to train her own guide dogs. She used an excellent analogy to explain her decision. If someone needs new kitchen cabinets, they want the job done quickly and they don’t have a deep passion for kitchen cabinets, they would buy pre-built cabinets from a store, or hire a carpenter to build cabinets for them. But if carpentry is their passion, it only makes sense for them to build their own cabinets. That is how this woman feels about dog training. I like dogs, and am ready and willing to commit to the daily discipline and practice required to maintain their training. But dog training itself is definitely not a skill or passion God has blessed me with. There are intriguing advantages to training your own dog for sure, and I am not judging anyone who is not a “dog person” but chooses to step outside their comfort zone and try to train their own dog. Everyone’s situation and perspective is unique. But in my case, I sensed God telling me I should stick with singing and writing, and leave dog training to the professionals.

The impetus for filling out this application was Mother’s Day weekend. Unfortunately this year, Mother’s Day was not the most pleasant day for my mom. That weekend, Gilbert came down really sick. He seemed to be in a lot of pain, barely able to walk, and because he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t make it outside before having explosive diarrhea, which is what Mom woke up to all over the carpet the morning of Mother’s Day. I felt really bad and wanted to help, but Mom said there was no way I could as a blind person as it was everywhere. If I were on my own, she said I would need to hire professionals. I almost feel guilty saying this, and maybe other blind guide dog handlers cannot bare to say it either as the idea of finding a new home for a retired guide dog seemed tragic and unthinkable to me. Other blind handlers I know have had to make this decision because they lived in housing that didn’t allow for any other dogs besides working service dogs, or because the retired dogs couldn’t handle seeing a new guide dog head off to work with the owner while they were alone at home. But I wonder if another factor that goes into this decision is the difficulty of caring for a big dog when they are old and arthritic. I still hate the idea of having to find a new home for a dog that has become a loyal friend, but I can see where it is a decision that may be in the best interest of dog and handler if the person doesn’t live with anyone willing or able to help them carry the dog outside on bad days, or clean up diarrhea, a situation I may be in one day myself.

The Monday after Mother’s Day, Gilbert’s stomach settled down, but he was still very weak. He wasn’t interested in even getting up to walk over to his food dish, so we laid out a plastic tablecloth right by his bed, and he ate lying down. So we thought we better call the vet. (Going to the vet is weird now too with the pandemic. Family is not allowed to come into the building. We have to call when we get there, and a staff member comes out and gets the dog from your car.) Sadly, an x-ray revealed a large tumor in Gilbert’s abdomen. The good news was the vet said the tumor itself wouldn’t cause any suffering, although she did prescribe him Gabapentin for the arthritis that has gotten worse. The bad news was that this tumor is basically untreatable. The vet said she could do surgery to remove the tumor, but didn’t recommend it for Gilbert, as the risk of complications is very high with this surgery, and in over 90 percent of cases, this kind of tumor is malignant and spreads rapidly. Even if the tumor was successfully removed from his abdomen, the tumor would most likely spread to other organs and he would not live much longer anyway. She also said these tumors fill up with blood and are very fragile, so often what ends up happening is the tumor ruptures, and the dog bleeds to death internally. The vet said we should do what we can to try to prevent Gilbert from falling, as the impact of falling can cause the rupture, but she said if this did happen, we should not feel guilty, as these tumors are fragile, and it could even happen while the dog is asleep. I had told Occupaws that Gilbert was slowing down when a dog trainer came to check in with me in 2016. He started showing the beginnings of arthritis in 2014, but since my last job hardly required any walking, I took Gilbert to work with me most days until about a year ago when he started having incontinence, although I didn’t officially tell Occupaws about the incontinence, perhaps living in a little bit of a state of denial. If I didn’t officially declare to Occupaws that Gilbert needed to retire, I could psychologically pretend he wasn’t really retired. Also, as long as I was working at the law firm, Occupaws did not want to match me with a new dog. As I have mentioned before, we live on a country road in a suburb with no street crossings or sidewalks. We moved into this house when I was a baby, and my older siblings were still pretty young as well. At that time, my parents were thinking more along the lines of safety, and they loved this house because it was far from the street so we could play safely outside. They were not thinking about the importance of sidewalks for orientation and mobility when I was older. We could commit to consciously driving somewhere just to practice orientation and mobility, and my parents and I enjoy taking long walks on park trails. But even if I took the dog for walks on park trails and what-not outside work, Occupaws still feared there wouldn’t be enough activity in my routine for a young dog, a fear which I could understand. But they said to contact them if circumstances changed. With Gilbert’s grim prognosis that forced me to officially acknowledge that Gilbert would never wear the guide dog harness again, and my decision to pursue seminary school, circumstances had clearly changed. It was time to give Occupaws a call.

So the day after Gilbert’s vet visit, I spoke to the president of Occupaws who expressed her condolences, and then encouraged me to submit an application to get on the wait list for a new dog. I sat down at my computer several times intending to file the application, but could not bring myself to do it, I think because I felt guilty preparing my heart for a second dog when Gilbert was still alive. But then on the evening of Saturday May 30, I noticed a voicemail on my phone from an Occupaws trainer asking me to call her back. It seemed too late to call, especially because her number was a Virginia beach number, where it is an hour later than Wisconsin. (Occupaws now has trainers based all over the country.) I also didn’t see any urgency in calling her back since I hadn’t filled out the application. I figured she just wanted to touch base with me since I hadn’t officially followed up with a dog trainer since 2018. I figured I would call her back Monday morning. But Sunday morning, Occupaws called on the landline. It turned out it was an urgent matter. The president of Occupaws said they thought they might have a dog who would be a good match for me, and asked if the dog trainer could come to my house and talk to me that very afternoon! Even though the trainer’s number was a Virginia beach number, she was currently in Wisconsin. I was a little anxious about having to acknowledge how rusty my Orientation and Mobility skills were, and that Gilbert hadn’t officially worked in over a year, but ultimately, the anxiety was outweighed by that familiar, glowing sense of joy and eager anticipation I remembered when I found out that Gilbert was the perfect match for me twelve years before.

The meeting with the dog trainer went really well. She asked me about my plans for the future and we had a wonderful discussion about what kind of dog would be best suited for me. I did not feel judged at all. She seemed to understand how my previous employment situation and current home environment did not necessitate much orientation and mobility proficiency with a cane or a dog, and agreed that a guide dog would benefit me in my future seminary school plan. However, before matching me with a guide dog, she wanted me to seek out an orientation and mobility instructor or program where I could brush up on cane skills because as I know well from my experience with Gilbert, there are aspects of orientation and mobility that a guide dog cannot assist with. A guide dog will stop for stairs and curbs, and lead the handler around obstacles like poles and garbage cans, and most beneficially in my case, make sure I am walking in a straight line when crossing streets as I have a tendency to veer. But it is still the responsibility of the handler to know where they are, and give the dog instructions for where to go. For this reason, all guide dog programs require proficiency with cane travel before matching a person with a guide dog. She told me to learn two or three routes that involved street crossings and sidewalks, and one exercise route like a park trail.

When I started working at the law firm in 2015, I really enjoyed working with the orientation and mobility instructor at Vision Forward. I wasn’t sure if this service would be available yet given the pandemic, but Tuesday morning, I sent the coordinator for this program an e-mail. The coordinator replied that afternoon and it just so happened that Vision Forward had just re-opened and resumed orientation and mobility services the day before! So I completed some intake questions over the phone, and was scheduled to start my instruction Tuesday June 9.

Since my next dog and I will most likely be traversing a college campus again, I thought a good place to start would be Carroll University. Despite traveling around this campus for four years, my skills were as rusty as if I had never been there before. Since I did not grow up with convenient opportunities to develop orientation and mobility skills, these skills do not come naturally to me. For example, I grew up being a voracious braille reader, so I bet if I had no access to braille for a year, I could resume reading immediately without missing a beat once it was available again. But with orientation and mobility, I am like the child learning to read, but who is not an expert reader yet, who doesn’t practice all summer and finds they have lost ground when school starts again. If I don’t use it, I lose it. And although I traversed campus eight years ago with Gilbert, it had been twelve years since I had used my cane on campus, and walking with a cane feels completely different than walking with a guide dog. This instructor works Monday through Thursday, so every Monday through Thursday for the past two and a half weeks, with the exception of this past Monday when the instructor cancelled since it was raining pretty hard, we have met at Carroll University where I learned a route from the campus center to the library. At first I was so embarrassed and discouraged at how much repetition it took for things to sink into my thick head, like which side of the sidewalk I needed to be shorelining to find the bumpy brick sidewalk that leads to the library, or how to line up properly to the intersection. But this instructor is incredibly patient and nonjudgmental, and gradually, everything started to click, especially after I created a braille cheat sheet for myself. I had an academic teacher once who said the very act of taking notes helps concepts stick in your memory, and I have found this to be true for orientation and mobility as well. Today, I can proudly say the instructor declared I had the route mastered, and Monday, I will start learning a new route! I think we are going to try the route from City Hall to a doctor’s office, which my mom said involves crossing two lighted intersections.

On weekends, Mom and I are making a point of going somewhere where I can practice cane skills on my own. A couple times, we went back to Carroll University to practice the route. We also went to a park trail in Sussex, which I really enjoyed navigating, and walked from the library to the post office in a nearby village called Butler, which I did not enjoy as the sidewalk was full of obstacles that made shorelining difficult, and to top it all off, there was a bar cooking something that Mom and I both thought smelled nasty. But I guess that is real life, so it was still good practice.

This year, my lifestyle won’t really be changing, as my plan is to ride out the pandemic and take seminary courses online. But I really hope I can be matched with a guide dog in Fall so that I have a whole year to bond with the dog, which I think would make all the difference in ensuring a smoother transition to living on a campus than I had with Gilbert. Move-in day was only a week after completion of my training with Gilbert. I have also reached a level of maturity where I recognize the importance of practicing Orientation and Mobility skills, a discipline that will be even more important if I am matched with a guide dog as it will be my responsibility to make sure he doesn’t forget his skills either. If I can commit to a strict diet, and a walk on the treadmill every day, I can commit to going places every day just to practice orientation and mobility, even though doing so can be a pain in the butt because of where we live. I feel so blessed to have supportive parents just as committed to my success as I am. I look forward to keeping you updated, especially once I am matched with a dog! Stay tuned!

Bricks for Pharaoh

I will never forget what one of my Jehovah’s Witness friends said to me on Saturday February 18, 2017, the first euphoric weekend after I made the decision to go part-time. My friends were really happy for me when I shared the decision I had made, and they confided that they too worked part-time so that they could devote more time to ministry.

“I like to think of my day job in terms of making bricks for Pharaoh,” one of them said. I think the point was that in this world, we are all slaves in a sense. Some of us are lucky and find a day job that is our dream job, but most of us have to work for “the man”, settle for jobs that don’t fit our true calling to earn money in this world. But by working part-time, my friends struck the perfect balance between the necessity of making bricks for Pharaoh, and yet still had time and energy to devote to their true passion which was ministry. They were so excited that I was about to experience this balance too.

For the next two and a half years or so, life was amazing. I didn’t do volunteer work like I wanted to. I really wanted to volunteer at Just Between Us magazine, a magazine that encourages women in ministry that is headquartered in the basement of my church. If this volunteer work never led to a paying job, I was fine with that. Maybe God inspired me to study journalism in college so that I could serve the kingdom by volunteering at this magazine, and my Paralegal certificate was how I would “make bricks for Pharaoh” part-time. But I did hope that with a few years of building rapport with the staff at this magazine, I could someday have enough experience to update my resume and land a day job writing for a Christian publication. But unfortunately, in September 2018 when I contacted the Editor-in-chief of this magazine, she said there were no volunteer opportunities available at that time, and I just never followed up.

I thought about volunteering as a braille mentor for children in response to my desire to do more earthly good while still being heavenly-minded. But I chickened out because I really don’t know how to work with kids. In college, I volunteered as a Big Sister, but there was always a volunteer coordinator in the room who was incredibly helpful when my Little Sister didn’t always want to cooperate with me. Now that I was a full-fledged adult, I feared I would be expected to manage a child on my own. As a blind person, I know I am uniquely qualified to assist and encourage blind children learning braille, but blind children are still first and foremost children, and what if I was matched with a child who didn’t like to read and couldn’t, or wouldn’t sit still? In March 2013, I was asked by the person who just five months later would be my supervisor when I did a paid internship at Audio & Braille Literacy Enhancement, if I would be willing to volunteer as a braille mentor for just one day at the Badger Braille Games, an annual event in our community where blind children and adults participate in a day of friendly competition with games that involve braille. Recalling how much fun I had at these events when I was a child, and excited about the idea of participating in these games again as an adult, I agreed. All of the teachers that work with the younger children would also be in attendance at this event, so I knew I didn’t have to worry about managing wild children alone. We were all seated in rows of chairs in an elementary school gymnasium, and it was time to be quiet for the “opening ceremony” of sorts in which they always welcome everyone, thank sponsors and volunteers that made the event possible, and sing Brailling Signs Is Cool to Do, a silly song about the value of braille someone wrote to the tune of Neil Sedaka’s 1960s hit Breaking up Is Hard to Do. But one little kindergartner on my team would not be quiet, until he noticed I had a dog at my feet. When he got on the floor and started petting Gilbert, I should have used it as a teaching moment, explaining how he was a service dog, not a dog you can pet. But I opted not to take it because hey, at least the child was finally being quiet. But a few minutes later, his teacher noticed what he was doing, came over and did what I wasn’t sure how to do, calmly and firmly explaining that Gilbert was a service dog, and getting the child back in his seat.

But I digress. The point is, I wasn’t comfortable with the possibility of being expected to manage a child without backup, and it occurred to me I would only be pursuing this opportunity because I felt it was something I should be doing. For the sake of the child, and my rapport with the school and the blind community, I realized I shouldn’t volunteer for something for which my heart wasn’t yet in the right place.

So I didn’t do any volunteer work, but I did join choir again, an activity I loved since I was a small child, but which I had given up in the thick of anxiety and exhaustion working full-time. I didn’t do the kind of independent bible studying I should have done, and which my Jehovah’s Witness friends encouraged me to do, but I hosted a group of young adults every Monday night for almost two years for bible study at my house. Several of these people have become dear friends. Most Tuesday mornings during the school year, I also went to my mom’s bible study at our church. I loved the large group sessions in the chapel where we would start by singing a few hymns and then listen to one of the pastors give a message on the assigned chapters for that week, which often gave the chapters context and helped them make a lot more sense to me. On Thursdays, I enjoyed singing as I chopped celery and mushrooms and prepared a batch of soup to simmer in the crock-pot all day, after which Mom and I would go to the Wisconsin Athletic Club where she would participate in a water aerobics class, and I would enjoy singing along to the music of her class while swimming laps in the lap pool. In the afternoons, I enjoyed having time to write, and that is when I often did the assignments for the online memoir class I wrote about in January. At work, the crying at my desk was ancient history, and I felt like I was more genuine and compassionate with clients because I wasn’t so mentally burnt out. I was also much less infuriated when I occasionally needed to stay late to finish a call.

But gradually, I had started to notice my genuineness and compassion waning. Of course, I was polite to the clients, but in my heart I was thinking, “I am so tired of hearing about people’s back pain.” I also noticed that between calls, my mind was starting to wander as I prepared for the next appointment. I was scared to leave my job, as it took me so long to land it, and I loved the absence of anxiety, and the freedom it afforded me on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But at the same time, I longed for a job that was more intellectually stimulating. Last year after a particularly slow day the Friday before Memorial Day when only two clients picked up the phone for their appeal appointments, I actually started a graduate school application with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but never finished it.

I don’t want to make light of the living conditions for the Hebrews that had to literally make bricks for Pharaoh as described in the Book of Exodus. Not a lot of detail is given about their specific working conditions, other than to say they were treated brutally. I imagine the quotas they were expected to meet were unrealistic, even before Pharaoh forced them to find their own straw. They likely worked from early morning until late in the evening, seven days a week. The Egyptians were Pagans after all, so I am sure they did not allow the Hebrews to observe the Sabbath day. And of course, being slaves, they were not paid for this labor, at least not until God moved the Egyptians to give the Hebrews their silver and gold jewelry, back pay of sorts, before they departed for the Promise land. Even if I had to work full-time, and even if I was never offered this more suitable position simply filing appeals, my working conditions would still have been better than those of the Hebrew slaves. They would not have experienced the anxiety of not knowing how to do the job, as I experienced when I was a case manager. But they would have certainly experienced anxiety any time they saw the foreman, knowing they could be beaten if they weren’t working hard enough. My craving for intellectual stimulation probably pales in comparison to the emotions of Hebrew slaves. Filing appeals did require a little bit of intellect to follow a few legal procedures and broach sensitive subjects with clients. A Hebrew slave probably had his job mastered five minutes into his first day, but I cannot imagine how mind-numbing making those bricks in the hot, desert sun every day, year after year, without pay and with no hope of a better life must have been. So I don’t want to make light of slavery, but strange as it sounds, although I was starting to crave intellectual stimulation more frequently, some days, I relished the lack of it, and some days even dreamed of a less stimulating job like pulling a lever on an assembly line, or getting paid to chop celery and mushrooms for a restaurant, a quiet, friendly restaurant like Cafe Manna, a wonderful vegetarian restaurant near where I live, not one of our local fish fry restaurants where lines stretch out the door. Jobs with little to no intellectual stimulation can still be done even if I have a headache, which I appreciated as I am prone to frequent headaches. When I have a headache, I can usually function, but have no ambition or creativity, so having a job that just required me to go through the script, fill out a form I had seen thousands of times before, was wonderful. My only complaint was when my headache was made worse by a client that was upset about something, or had a complicated medical history. These clients were the figurative equivalent to making bricks on a brutally hot, humid day. But most days, the weather was pleasant, with the clients being friendly and their situations routine. When I was in school writing research papers, I had to turn off all distractions. Even background music on the radio was distracting when trying to read dense, scholarly material which sometimes required me to consult a dictionary every other word, and when I was a full-fledged case manager, the sheer number of things I was responsible for, and the anxiety of knowing I was missing something that would come back to bite me a month or two down the road wasn’t conducive to much singing or smiling either. But between appeal appointments as I mindlessly documented the appeal I just completed, and started the form for the next one, I could sing along to songs on the radio, and enjoy small talk with co-workers. At home, I also enjoyed being able to sing while chopping up my celery and mushrooms, or helping Mom with dishes. So in one sense, I longed for intellectual stimulation, but if I went back to school, would I regret giving up the peaceful life I had attained?

March 18 was the last day I went to work. At the time, I didn’t know it would be my last day. When I arrived and checked my e-mail, I learned that the law firm was shortening business hours until April 3 to allow for social distancing, so instead of working until 4:30, I would only be working until 2pm that day, and every Friday through April 3, the office would be closed. As such, I only had four appeal appointments to complete that day. My manager had already sent an e-mail to the other case managers asking them to reschedule the ones that were now beyond the firm’s business hours. But all four of that day’s appeals were difficult. All of the clients had long medical histories, and a couple had severely heightened anxiety due to the pandemic which made their circumstances, which were difficult in normal times, even more trying because they couldn’t see doctors as they normally would. This made getting the information I needed from them difficult. I had to hop from one appeal to the next without officially submitting them because there wasn’t time for me to find and attach their authorization to release medical records, and for one client, I still needed to look up addresses for doctors the person wasn’t sure of. I finally completed and submitted the fourth appeal with just twenty minutes to spare, and quickly found the missing doctor addresses for the one client. But when I tried to submit the appeals for my second and third client, the Social Security Administration’s website was down. I hate going home with loose ends from the day’s work untied, as it gives me anxiety for fear I will forget about those clients, and their deadlines will be missed causing all kinds of trouble for the client, the case manager, and the attorneys. But I had no choice. I made a mental note, and a private reminder on my braille computer to MAKE SURE to finish those appeals first thing Monday morning, March 23. When two dreams, conversations with family, and prayer made it clear I should not return to work that day, I sent an e-mail about these two clients to my manager, who completed those appeals for me, so all was well there. But as has been the case with many people during this pandemic, week after week at home with the usual routine of our old lives upended has caused me to do some self-reflection about what really matters in life. Through this reflection, it hit home how much I was just going to work to put in my time to make money. Maybe under the circumstances of that last day, both with regard to the complexity of the cases for my clients that day, and the palpable tension in the office as the attorneys tried to figure out how to adjust to this unprecedented crisis, my lack of genuine compassion toward my clients could have been forgiven. But in this time of reflection, it struck me that my lack of genuine compassion had been present for months, even on slow days. When I was at work, all I could think about was how much I wanted to be home, writing or pursuing a new career that offered more creativity.

One day in the summer of 2012, the summer after I graduated from Carroll University with my Bachelor’s degree, my dad and I were taking a walk, and I confided in Dad how I longed for a job that I was passionate about when I got ready for work each day. I didn’t want to be like so many adults I knew who were just counting down the hours until they could clock out each day, the number of days until Friday, the months until they could take a vacation, and ultimately, the years until they could retire. Sure I heard the adage that I could just find a day job that pays the bills, and pursue my passions in the evening. The problem with that was when I observed adults around me, they were so exhausted after work, and still had to manage household responsibilities. They didn’t have the time or energy to pursue hobbies, hence the countdown to retirement. In response, Dad pointed out that even if you find your dream job, after awhile, just the fact that you have to do this job to support yourself can cause the job to lose its luster. He had a valid point. As cool as I think it might be to have a star role in a Broadway musical, broadway actors have to perform the same exact show, hundreds of times, night after night with a smile on their faces. When I was in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, we would occasionally perform a show three days in a row, and by the third night, we were often exhausted and found it hard to keep smiling. But the choir director reminded us that although it was our third time performing the show, the audience was seeing it for the first time. Mustering a smile is essential in show business, as the show would not get good reviews if the audience could tell we weren’t enjoying ourselves. My experience with choir deepened my appreciation for the talent of actors every time I go to a musical, both in terms of the character they are playing, but also in their ability to make me believe they are enjoying themselves when if I could ask them candidly backstage whether they really enjoyed performing that show, they might say they are so sick and tired of performing this show they could scream. Or perhaps they still genuinely enjoy performing the show all in all, but that night, like me they maybe had a headache, or didn’t sleep well the night before. But they are contractually obligated to perform, and so they must soldier through.

What Dad found mattered more than the job itself was just getting into a good company with a manager that treated employees fairly, and kind co-workers. Being a naive, idealistic young person, I still tried to hold out for a writing job I would be genuinely passionate about, but by 2013, I accepted that this was unrealistic, and upon the suggestion of a friend, pursued a Paralegal certificate. I was never super passionate about law, never took an interest in shows like Law ‘n Order, but the friend that suggested the Paralegal program at Milwaukee Area Technical College was blind and had taken some Paralegal courses herself, which gave me confidence that this field would be more accessible, and unlike the career outlook for Journalism, the need for paralegals was anticipated to grow in the future. By that point, I was just so depressed, feeling as though my life had no purpose, I just wanted a job, any job. I also just longed to taste what it would be like to earn my own money, get a credit card of my own, make a few frivolous purchases with money I had earned, and maybe eventually earn enough money to live on my own.

I was blessed to have found a job at a law firm with wonderful managers and coworkers that will be lifelong friends. (The tremendous anxiety I experienced as a case manager was my fault as I didn’t speak up about the trouble I was having). I enjoyed having a credit card and making frivolous purchases with it. I enjoyed just being out in the world and feeling as though my life had a purpose, even if it wasn’t the job God created me for. Had it not been for this pandemic, I likely would have continued with this comfortable routine for years to come.

I don’t think the amount of time for reflection alone caused my change of heart, although I certainly have had plenty of that. If, for example, there hadn’t been this pandemic, but the law firm decided to pause business for a month to make major building renovations, and I knew the exact date I would be returning to work, I likely would have resumed my job, despite a month off to reflect. It would have felt no different than summer break when I was in school.

I am so blessed that the pandemic has not created the anxiety and uncertainty for me and my family that is being experienced by so many people right now, the uncertainty about where their next meal will come from, or how they will pay their mortgage because they lost their jobs in retail or hospitality, jobs that may never come back, at least not for a long time. My dad’s job has been safe, and it allowed him to work from home much of the time, even before the pandemic, so when he started working exclusively from home, it wasn’t much of a change for him, or for Mom and me. I am also blessed to be in a position where I don’t really need to work in the immediate term. Obviously, I eventually want to work again to be a contributor to society, to have my own spending money, and of course to build up savings for old age. But disability benefits cover my healthcare, and my parents are willing and able to cover everything else. If any of my siblings ever fell on hard times, they are always welcome to move back home too, and my parents would welcome them with open arms. But my uncertainty came from not knowing when it would be safe for me to return to work given my underlying medical conditions, uncertainty that has only been exacerbated by the reckless and irresponsible behavior of our majority Republican state legislature who insisted on holding in-person primary elections in April, and successfully convinced the state Supreme Court to overturn our governor’s Safer-at-home order, despite the fact that the coronavirus infection rate was still increasing. Just last week, I read an editorial arguing that the debate about when to re-open the economy is really an issue of class conflict, with affluent people who have jobs insisting we follow the recommendations of health experts, while poor, blue-collar workers feel as though these mandates are out of touch with their reality, that they need these jobs to feed their families and avoid losing their homes. Maybe I am part of this elite, but I think a smarter solution would have been for the federal government to not just send one stimulus check, but to put politics aside and provide steady support to these workers until health experts deemed it safe to re-open the economy. A pandemic is not the time to be quibbling over debts and deficits.

Anyway, between uncertainty as to when I could return to work, to just the cumulative shock of big things like the cancellation of everything including in-person worship, to small things like having to search several stores online just to find toilet paper, a basic necessity, in the modern era at least, that I never used to give any thought, has caused a sort of spiritual awakening for me. Before the pandemic, I talked a good talk about trusting God, but really, I took my comfortable life for granted. Toilet paper was never out of stock, and frivolous treats I bought myself on Amazon rarely were. Life ran like a well-oiled machine: work Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, bible study on Tuesdays, swimming on Thursdays, church on Sundays. This well-oiled machine I thought would never, and could never break down. But this pandemic has shown me that nothing in life is certain, at least not the worldly comforts of routine and convenience I had centered so much of my life around. And although much of life was lived via social media before the pandemic, this pandemic woke everyone, including me up to how much in-person connection, something I think we all took for granted until it was no longer permitted, is integral to our well-being. My mom and I both felt compelled to reach out to friends we could tell were lonely and not handling social isolation well. When my sister who lives in New York City called on March 17 to say she and her husband were discussing evacuating the city due to rumors of a pending shelter-in-place order that could plunge the city into chaos and disrupt delivery services making it difficult to obtain food and supplies, I was excited at the possibility they may come and stay with us, even though I knew it wouldn’t be under happy circumstances like when they come home for holidays. They would have to drive as her husband was exposed to coronavirus at a medical conference and I think their quarantine had only ended a few days earlier, and even if he hadn’t been exposed, they wouldn’t have wanted to risk being exposed on a plane. So they would arrive exhausted, and we probably wouldn’t have been able to give them hugs as they would want to protect us if they were carriers. They likely would have socially distanced themselves in the lower level of our house, and to be honest, I worried that we would have difficulty getting food too since unlike the usual holiday weekends characterized by multiple carefree trips to the grocery store, going to the grocery store would now be fraught with risk, and back then, we didn’t know if delivery drivers might be forced to stay home as well. So I knew there could be tension, but I loved the idea of them getting out of the city that was quickly becoming a hotspot for coronavirus and coming to the relative safety of the suburbs to ride out this pandemic and our federal government’s mismanagement of it, with us. (They ended up staying with my husband’s parents, which was a lot less of a drive for them.) I developed a renewed appreciation of the fact that I live with my parents, and relished in a deeper way our meals together around the table as I saw the effects of anxiety and depression in family and friends who live alone. I used to get so furious when I was captive in the backseat of the car, and Mom and Dad decided they wanted to drive down some side street or explore some little town they had never seen before, but now after two months of quarantine, I actually understand and appreciate the pleasure my parents get from this simple activity, driving slow listening to the radio, rolling down the windows now and then if we are passing fragrant flowers or a waterfall. And it is an activity perfect for the new normal that necessitates social distancing. There was no Memorial Day parade this year, but we all wanted to get out of the house and get that holiday vibe, so I voluntarily agreed to go with my parents for a long sight-seeing car ride, and I hate to admit it, but I really enjoyed it, and I hope when this pandemic is history, I will look back fondly on car rides like that and not be so hot-headed with regard to what I used to think was such a waste of time.

I felt compelled to figure out how to use a free teleconferencing service to start a bible study with some of the young adult friends that used to come to my house. The fellowship over the phone, and the words from the bible were comforting for us. Unfortunately, things came up for my friends and our bible study kind of fizzled after a couple weeks, and I am ashamed to admit I haven’t been holding myself accountable and continuing the bible study lessons since then. But I was comforted in hearing that a decrease in productivity, despite having all the time in the world to be productive at home has been a common phenomenon experienced by many during this pandemic. But I have actually found in the past that although I am not an outdoorsy person, beautiful weather outside makes me more productive even indoors, so this summer I am going to rededicate myself to some daily bible study time.

All this is to say that given how much the pandemic has changed my perspective on life, and shaken the foundation of certainty and control I thought I had established, I felt it would be an injustice to try and return to the old normal, to go back to a job I had no passion for just to bring home money for frivolous things, to settle back into a life of relative ease and ignore the longing for intellectual stimulation, a longing that has possibly been God trying to tell me it is time to explore a new road. What better time could there be than this pandemic, a time of uncertainty and plenty of time for reflection that has given me moral clarity, to finally listen to this small voice. So on Friday April 24, I sent my manager an e-mail with formal notice that I wished to resign, citing uncertainty as to when it would be safe for me to return to work given my underlying medical conditions. It warmed my heart when my manager replied indicating they understood the uncertainty and they were willing to hold my job until I felt it was safe to return. I have to say for a couple days after receiving that reply, I agonized over whether I was being foolish. Should I take this chance to recant my resignation? Was I being an idiot by voluntarily giving up my job when as of this writing, 40.7 million Americans involuntarily lost their jobs due to the pandemic? Was I setting myself up again for years of depression and feelings of worthlessness? After all, I had an incredibly difficult time finding a job because of the great recession, and the recession this pandemic is projected to cause will be worse. But ultimately, I decided I am up to the challenge of finding employment again. I have matured and thus, I am not the same person I was i 2012-2015, the years I struggled to find employment. This struggle, and some difficulties I had in my first job, taught me a great deal of patience and humility. I know now that I am not worthless. God has a plan for everyone, including me, and if I struggle to find employment, it is only because of economic conditions out of my control in this fallen world, and I just need to be patient a little longer. Also, in 2012, having never held a job in the real world and earned my own money, I was like the toddler whose older brother or sister went to school all day, and you longed to go to school like them because it seemed exciting, even though you didn’t really have a clue what school was all about. It was exciting to get my first credit card and to purchase things like nutrition bars from Dr. Fuhrman that satisfied my sweet tooth after breakfast, or dehydrated onions and peppers which were really convenient for my weekly batches of soup, but definitely in the frivolous category, and something my parents thought was silly to buy when chopping up real onions and peppers really doesn’t take that long. I will miss the banter with my coworkers between appeal appointments, and I actually enjoyed talking to many of my clients as well. But with all the time in the world at home, I discovered an easy recipe to make healthy breakfast bars myself, and they are actually yummier than store-bought bars, probably because they are fresher. My mom is awesome and has been chopping up onions and peppers for my soup. I am a slow, cautious person, so dicing my own onions and peppers small enough for soup would probably take me all day, but if Mom ever couldn’t help me, I do have a salsa maker that I think would work well for that task. I actually think my soup tastes yummier with real, fresh onions and peppers as well.

So given how much I enjoy writing about topics related to religion, as regular readers of this blog have likely noticed, my plan is to pursue a Certificate in Christian Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a seminary in Illinois that my church has ties with. This certificate is the recommended course for people just like me discerning if ministry is something they are being called to pursue. A certificate can be earned entirely online, so I will spend the school year of 2020-2021 taking online courses. If I enjoy these courses, then hopefully by September 2021, the pandemic will be behind us and I could take classes in-person toward a full-fledged Masters of Divinity, which the program description indicates will prepare students for a career as a writer and/or teacher. I have no teaching experience, but given how much I have enjoyed just doing presentations on blindness, I think teaching is something I could learn and enjoy, and an outlet for getting out into the world, interacting with people and hopefully making a positive difference in their lives. Outside of the classroom, I envision myself blogging or writing essays for religious media much like what I enjoy doing now, but with education, my words would carry much more credibility.

Taking such a leap of faith in this uncertain economy is scary, I’ll admit, and I recognize that there will always be days when my job will feel as oppressive as making bricks for pharaoh was, even in a job I love, because in this fallen world, I will still have to work through migraines. There may even be difficult days when I pine for the good old days, over-romanticizing my old life as a case manager in my mind, just like the Israelites who had been wandering in the desert with no meat to eat grumbled that they should have stayed in Egypt where they sat around pots of meat every day. But perhaps my observations about home-made nutrition bars and soup made with real onions and peppers can be a perfect metaphor for life. In the same way making my own breakfast bars and chopping up my own onions and peppers (eventually) requires putting forth more effort, a life with more intellectual stimulation will require more effort on my part, but will ultimately lead to a life far richer than the life I was living before.