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.

We are not Animals

As a child, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about her life as a pioneer living on the prairie. In the summer of 2010, after a particularly stressful semester of college, I even re-read them. After reading scholarly articles and textbooks until my head hurt, there was something comforting about returning to a childhood favorite, and reading them from an adult perspective, I also noticed things that I had never paid attention to as a child. Today I want to talk about a passage I found particularly poignant as an adult, and which I found myself thinking about again in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic.

The passage is found in The Long Winter, the book that chronicles the brutal winter of 1877 when the family almost starved to death and had to resort to twisting hay into sticks for firewood because they had moved into town and became dependent on the train for food and supplies. But the train could not reach them for months due to continuous, relentless snow storms. One warm, sunny autumn day before that brutal winter, Laura is helping Pa bail hay, and thinks he missed a haycock, but Pa tells her that is actually a muskrat house. This is the first foreshadowing of the brutal winter to come as Pa shakes his head and says he had never seen a muskrat house with walls that thick. The thicker muskrats build the walls of their houses, the colder winter will be.

Laura who would have been nine or ten years old at the time, asks Pa how the muskrats know, to which he responds “God tells them somehow, I suppose.” Then Laura asks why God doesn’t tell us these things, to which Pa says it is because we are not animals. We are humans, and just as the Declaration of Independence states, God created humans to be free, which means we get to do as we please, but it also means we have to take care of ourselves.

Religion does not play an overt role in these books, partly because living away from civilization as they did for many years, it wasn’t always possible to attend a formal church regularly. But the family observed the Sabbath, which is discussed in Little House in the Big Woods, and throughout all the books, the importance of Christian principles like hard work and integrity are emphasized. When they fell on hard times, they recognized and gave glory to God for small miracles like a visit from a generous stranger which allowed them to get by another day, survive another season.

“I thought God takes care of us,” Laura says.

“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us a conscience and brains to know what’s right. But He leaves it to us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”

I have often found that the best Christian literature isn’t what is marketed as Christian literature. I have nothing against Christian literature. In fact, in high school I was absolutely hooked on the Left Behind series, a fictional depiction of what the end times might look like. This series definitely had the impact its two authors, both pastors were hoping for, causing myself and millions of others to think more seriously about our Christian faith. In this series, characters quoted scripture often in conversation, especially with nonbelievers. But thinking about this series as an adult, I can understand why the heavy-handed, agenda-driven manner in which scripture was woven into the story might turn some people off. Pa doesn’t quote scripture, but in this poignant and natural conversation with Laura, he illustrates multiple Christian principle so relevant to the crisis we are living through right now. We are not animals. We are humans, created in God’s image. Unlike animals where God directs every detail of their lives via the natural instincts He plants in them, right down to the type of house muskrats build, humans are given free will to do as we please. God does care for us to an extent, but He also expects us to use the brains and conscience He has given us to care for ourselves.

This passage first came to mind Friday March 13, the day after the surreal experience of learning that pretty much every aspect of daily life would be cancelled indefinitely. Every Friday on this program, New York Times columnist David Brooks and syndicated columnist Mark Shields analyze the news of that week. That day, David Brooks observed that the 1918 flu left no lasting impact on our culture, and even those who survived that pandemic really didn’t talk about it. He found that the reason people didn’t talk about it was because they were ashamed of the people they became during the pandemic, and he warned we might not like the people we become either. In an editorial that gave me chills, David Brooks wrote about how pandemics kill compassion. During the plague that struck Europe during the middle ages, infected people were permanently sealed into their houses and just abandoned to die. In other pandemics through history, people were shipped off to hospitals on remote islands where most died. In 1918, women whose hearts would normally be moved to help children in need refused to step forward and care for children whose parents were sick, causing some to die of starvation because there was no one to provide for them. Given the fear and panic pandemics trigger, it is all too easy to think only of our survival, to forget about compassion and conscience, or put another way, to let animal instincts take over.

In fairness to people of ancient times, they did not have the scientific understanding of viruses we have today. In fact they wouldn’t have even had the equipment to know that their illnesses were caused by a virus, so it is understandable why they would have resorted to superstition, such as believing that afflicted people were cursed by God. Although every virus behaves differently, meaning scientists are learning as we go with this coronavirus, much of the fear of ancient peoples has been mitigated by the scientific advances we have made. We can identify the virus causing the illnesses, and we know how to reduce risk of contracting the virus by washing our hands and hard surfaces, practicing social distancing and wearing personal protective equipment. (Of course, whether personal protective equipment is available is another matter.) We know how to quarantine people while still treating them with compassion and providing for their needs.

In every pandemic David Brooks cited throughout history, there were people who resisted falling into animal instincts, who reflected God’s image and treated the sick with compassion. In this pandemic too, there have been plenty of incredible examples of humanity and compassion, from the healthcare workers on the front lines, but also from ordinary citizens donating personal protective equipment, caring for the children of healthcare workers, even serving free breakfast and lunch to children who normally qualify for free meals at school which is now closed. And yet for some people, David Brooks was right. When they look back on this pandemic, they may not like the people they became.

Despite our scientific advances with regard to viruses, fear is still evident in this present pandemic. I speculate that although we have vanquished superstition regarding viruses, our fear is now fueled by 24/7 media. Although hoarding is an animal behavior, I can understand the anxiety that 24/7 news coverage of the virus could trigger that would lead people to hoard N95 masks needed by health care providers, as well as hand sanitizer, even toilet paper. I didn’t feel compelled to hoard face masks or hand sanitizer, but on March 13 when I realized this quarantine was for real, I started getting anxious about running out of gluten free, healthy food. On March 14, I ordered two cases of dried beans. (I was so tempted to order four, or six, or ten cases, but since I really am trying to work on trusting God to provide, I resisted this temptation and only bought two cases, still enough to last me about three months). I panicked a little when for some reason, Bob’s Red Mill, the site where I usually order beans wouldn’t work for me, but I was able to buy them at Eden Foods which actually gave me a larger quantity than I would have gotten from Bob’s Red Mill, so given the unprecedented quarantine we were about to embark on, I was actually glad the Bob’s Red Mill site didn’t work. But the next day when it occurred to me I should re-stock my Lundberg brown rice as well, as I had about a package and a half left. I like to eat it for breakfast sometimes, and also share it with my parents, so that could go fast. But when I went to Amazon where I usually ordered it, it was out of stock as was every other brand of brown rice I tried. Seeing the online equivalent of the bare grocery store shelves being reported on the news sent me into a bit of panic again, which didn’t fully subside until to my relief, I found brown rice at Meijer’s a couple weeks later. So while we all should work on trusting God to provide, anxiety that leads to hoarding is behavior I understand. What I don’t understand is the callous remarks a small but vocal minority have made about the most vulnerable among us, rhetoric I never thought I would hear in this country in the 21st century.

These days, the hysteria isn’t as much over the virus itself, but the economic devastation it has caused. In late February or early March when people were starting to hoard things like hand sanitizer, but the coronavirus still seemed far away, I read a compelling Huffington Post essay written by someone who was immunosuppressed and also has other disabilities. She was troubled by the fact that media coverage of the virus, in an effort to prevent panic, kept emphasizing that the virus is dangerous “only” for the elderly, the immunosuppressed or those with underlying medical conditions. The writer of this essay felt as though in using this language, the media failed to consider that people in these vulnerable categories would hear this rhetoric, and that this is just the latest of a long history of behaviors with the underlying attitude that vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities are disposable. I am blessed because although I have encountered a little bit of discrimination from people ignorant of the capabilities of blind people, overall I have always been surrounded by people with high expectations for me who were more than willing to accommodate me. I have never gotten the vibe that people think I am disposable, so at first, even after reading this essay, I gave the media the benefit of the doubt when they used such language. I even used it a little myself when trying to put my family at ease when the pandemic was starting to get serious and I was still going to work, until my parents reminded me that because of my underlying pituitary damage, I may be more vulnerable than I thought. But then a few weeks later, I read this article written by Shai Held, a rabbi shocked at the cruelty being displayed in some circles toward the elderly. Some dress up their statements about the elderly with moral indignation, first dehumanizing them by lumping them together as a faceless mass, rather than treating them as individuals with their own distinct faces and voices, hopes and dreams, and then saying that “the elderly” are getting what they deserve if they die of COVID-19 because of the way they have denied climate change, subjecting future generations to hardships they won’t have to deal with themselves. But beyond that, this rabbi lamented that we live in a culture that puts too much emphasis on productivity, economic worth.

“If there is one thing we ought to teach our children,” he wrote, “it is that our worth as human beings does not depend on or derive from what we do or accomplish or produce; we are, each one of us, infinitely valuable just because we are created in the image of God. We mattered before we were old enough to be economically productive, and we will go on mattering even after we cease to be economically productive.” People with disabilities were beyond the scope of this rabbi’s editorial, but I have no doubt he would also say that people with disabilities or underlying medical conditions that may limit their economic productivity, or preclude them from being economically productive at all, also matter.

Even after reading this article, I wanted to believe this Rabbi just had the misfortune of interacting with a couple extreme outliers, that our society didn’t really measure the value of human lives on the basis of age or economic productivity. And then over the course of just 24 hours, I saw this article in which the lieutenant governor of Texas, said he thought that many elderly people would be willing to die to preserve the economy for their grandchildren, and this article talking about how disability advocacy groups were filing a lawsuit over guidelines released for hospitals that in the event of a shortage of ventilators that required rationing care, ventilators should be given to younger, healthier people. A chill swept down my spine as I read this article and realized that due to my blindness and other medical issues, combined with the fact that my family who would normally advocate for me would not be able to accompany me, this country that I always thought valued people like me might now determine I am not worth saving.

That summer of 2010, shortly after reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, a duck who only had one leg showed up in our garden and chose our garden to lay her eggs. Mom scrapped plans to plant in that area so as not to disturb her. For weeks, she diligently sat on her eggs. My heart was touched by this duck, and I had visions of writing a children’s book about this handicapped duck overcoming adversity and making her way in the world. Our whole family was excited about the prospect of baby ducks. But then one morning, we woke up to find the eggs abandoned, the mother duck nowhere to be found. The duck never returned, and her eggs never hatched. We never found out for sure what happened to her, but my dad said he had seen a fox prowling around, so we are pretty sure the fox had her for breakfast. We were all a little sad, but we recognized that in the wild, that’s the way it is. Animals don’t have eternal souls, and are not created in God’s image. They live only by animal instincts, under which the survival and health of the herd is all that matters. If a puppy is born with a birth defect, the mother pushes him aside and does not feed him because her instincts tell her he wouldn’t survive long anyway. Animals that are sick or injured, or who cannot keep up with the herd are eaten. That’s just the way it is.

But as Pa said so eloquently, we are not animals. We are humans, and as humans with eternal souls, created in God’s image and given free will and a conscience, we are supposed to live by higher principles in which all lives have value. My hope is that long-term, people who have made callous statements regarding vulnerable populations will repent and that our society will emerge from this pandemic with a deeper respect for all lives, and that short-term, we will all, especially political leaders who purport to be Christian, will stop pushing to re-open the economy when COVID-19 cases are still rising. Ideally, the wealthiest country in the world should have been better prepared for a pandemic, with a much better stockpile of hospital beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment. But that aside, given reality as it is, as humans, we must continue social distancing for as long as recommended by health experts, so that doctors aren’t forced to make decisions only animals should have to make.

I understand the anxiety people are having about the economy. In fact, I am worried about my generation’s future economic security, as for millennials like me, this is our second major economic downturn, when many of us never fully recovered from the first one. We are earning much less than previous generations were earning at our age. I have heard the argument that we should re-open the economy because the effects of poverty will kill more people than the virus. But again I argue, we are not animals. We are humans. Instead of accepting that no matter what, people are going to die, let’s stay home for as long as it takes to contain the virus and protect the vulnerable, and then when it is safe to re-open the economy, we can enact reforms that distribute wealth more fairly and ensure all have access to necessities like food and healthcare. We are not animals. We are humans. We don’t have to choose whether we sacrifice lives to the virus or the economy. With the brains and conscience God gave us, I think we can figure out how to ensure that vulnerable populations survive the virus, and the economic downturn.

Learning to Choose Peace Over Panic

Well readers, I have been working on two writing projects recently. I have been working on a memoir I planned to self-publish about my experiences in choir, with a broader theme, ironically, that if our society at large came together to sing more, we would be healthier physically and mentally. But as the COVID-19 epidemic became a pandemic, and medical experts encouraged social distancing, I could no longer find inspiration to keep working on that. The other project was a blog post with my thoughts on the Democratic primary race, but this too seemed irrelevant in the face of this crisis, as if written in another world. But today, I am inspired to share some of my thoughts on this COVID-19 situation.

My mom’s paternal grandmother lost her first husband to the 1918 flu pandemic. She and her infant son also contracted the flu but survived. A few years later, she met the man who would become my mom’s paternal grandfather. He also lost his wife and had three children. They married, forming a blended family, and had five more children together, the oldest of whom was my grandfather. In 1943, when my maternal grandmother was twelve years old, she contracted whooping cough and the city of Cincinnati where they lived at the time put the whole family under strict quarantine. A sign was even posted on their front door indicating they were under strict quarantine orders, and food was dropped off on the porch. When she returned to school, she was not allowed to bring her old books back for fear they would still be contaminated by the virus. My grandma recovered with no lasting complications, but she also had a baby brother and when he contracted whooping cough, it caused him to become deaf. My mom likes to share this story when she hears people oppose vaccination. So pandemics/scary viruses are part of my family’s history. But to be honest, I never imagined we would experience a serious pandemic in my lifetime. I knew we were at risk for one, given our interconnected world. I have heard news commentators warn for years that we need to take diseases seriously, no matter where in the world they are, because now that there is so much travel between countries, an outbreak that for most of human history would have been contained to one locality could now easily spread across the world. But I heard people freak out a little bit over SARS which I think was in the news when I was in seventh grade. But it was contained with no disruption to American life, and then largely forgotten. In 2009, swine flu came on the scene, and a couple schools were closed briefly, a few people were quarantined, but it was contained pretty quickly with no major disruption to American life. In 2014, people freaked out over ebola, and I actually freaked out a little too, feeling a little queasy, but recognized it was a psychological symptom because I have underlying medical conditions that make stomach bugs especially dangerous for me. (With respiratory bugs, if I spike a fever, I have to take a higher dose of one hormone that my body cannot make naturally due to the brain tumor which damaged my pituitary gland as a baby. But I haven’t had a fever in years, and once I take this medicine, I am no more miserable than anyone else.) A couple people in this country contracted ebola, but it was quickly contained and soon faded from the news. I assumed COVID-19 would turn out the same way.

I don’t believe anything President Trump himself says, and was appalled when I heard that clip from the rally when he called COVID-19 a Democrat hoax, and when he wouldn’t let the passengers from the cruise ship off the coast of California come onshore because he couldn’t have the numbers (of confirmed cases) going up. But I did kind of wonder if COVID-19 was being over-hyped, just as the weather reporters where I live so often over-hype snowstorms that turn out to be nothing. In February when a New York Times reporter interviewed on The Daily, a podcast I listen to regularly said the vast majority of cases are mild, and then I heard talk of nationwide quarantine, I admit I was a little confused, and my first thought was “Wow, have we become such babies all of a sudden that we cannot handle a little fever and coughing anymore?” After all, referring back to the snowstorms, when I was in school, it seemed like the superintendent at that time set the bar way higher for how severe a snowstorm had to get to warrant cancelling school than the current superintendent. Of course I cared about vulnerable populations like the elderly or immune suppressed. Both of my grandmothers are vulnerable, especially since they live in close proximity to other people in assisted living facilities. I was aware that the coronavirus was a new virus for which there is no vaccine or treatment, and that the fatality rate of this virus is estimated at 3.4 percent, much higher than the fatality rate for the seasonal flu. Still, I hate to admit it, but perhaps I was indirectly influenced by the Trump administration which downplayed it, and couldn’t fully grasp why there was all this talk of quarantine to slow its spread. Wouldn’t it be sufficient for assisted living facilities to just disinfect a little more often, and maybe prohibit staff or visitors for a few weeks if they, or anyone in their household had recently traveled to China where the virus originated? Also, I don’t want this blog post to get political, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out this virus would have been a good motivator to require all employers to provide paid sick leave so that staff could stay home if they contracted this, or any other virus that would endanger the vulnerable people they serve. As for people with underlying medical conditions who do not live in assisted living or nursing home facilities, experts could ask people who have recently returned from China to keep their distance from any acquaintances in their life who may be more vulnerable to coronavirus and encourage everyone to wash their hands and disinfect more diligently. But closing college campuses because one person on campus tested positive for coronavirus? Was that really necessary?

But last Wednesday March 11, when the World Health Organization declared this virus a global pandemic, that spurred me to start paying closer attention to coverage of this virus. I knew a lot of the people in China who contracted this virus had to be hospitalized, but in one of my college classes, I remember watching a video about how a high percentage of China’s population has chronic lung conditions like asthma due to smog pollution in this rapidly industrializing country. Maybe in areas where the air is safer, coronavirus wouldn’t have such a devastating effect. But then the day after coronavirus was declared a pandemic, I heard of how hospitals in Italy had to make heartbreaking decisions because there weren’t enough hospital beds or ventilators to accommodate the massive surge of patients with this virus. I had the privilege of getting to go to Italy with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir the summer after eighth grade, and I remember being impressed by how most people either walked or drove extremely fuel-efficient compact cars. Their air seemed very clean: I wouldn’t be surprised if it is cleaner than ours. And I learned that the doctor in Wuhan who first tried to alert people to this virus, was censored by the government, and then shortly thereafter died of the virus he tried to warn people about, just 34 years old. This showed that while the odds of not surviving this virus increase with age, the virus was killing young people as well. The final lightbulb of understanding for me came with the introduction of the phrase, “flatten the curve.” If we didn’t take aggressive measures to not necessarily stop the spread, but make sure that large numbers of people didn’t contract the virus simultaneously, we would be on the same devastating trajectory as Italy, or maybe on a worse trajectory because this country has fewer hospital beds per capita than Italy. Last Saturday as I ate lunch and caught up on a couple episodes of The Daily that I had missed, my understanding of the seriousness of this disease was re-enforced when the New York Times reporter apologized for unintentionally misleading people like me when he first said 80 percent of cases were “mild.” He said he got that term from data China had collected on the virus, but for purposes of their data, mild simply meant the people were able to recover without medical intervention like a ventilator, but some patients classified as mild still got very sick.

So last Thursday March 12, when unprecedented, indefinite cancellations of everything from my choir rehearsals, to church services, to schools and even the March Madness tournament were cancelled, it was jarring, but I understood why it was necessary.

On Monday as Dad drove me home from work reporting there was hardly any traffic, I couldn’t resist a little dark humor, and started singing “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” Dad, from whom I inherited my appreciation for dark humor, laughed and joined in singing with me.

But in all seriousness, I recognize the gravity of this situation, both in terms of people’s health, and the economic impact. Over 100 Americans have already died of COVID-19, so this is a very difficult time for the families of these people. For the elderly who are so vulnerable experts advise families not to even visit them, this must be an incredibly lonely time, especially if they are like my paternal grandmother and never embraced the idea of getting a computer and learning to use the internet. Like many people, I have largely abstained from using social media in recent years, disillusioned by the negative impact it has had on civil political discussion. But this week, I have developed renewed appreciation for the value of social media which has allowed us to stay connected in this strange new life of social distancing. For millions of households in which both parents must work to make ends meet, there has been tremendous anxiety about how they will care for their children now that all schools have closed, and still pay the bills. Small businesses, especially bars and restaurants that already had slim profit margins before being required to close face an uncertain future, and I heard this past Thursday morning that some have already had to lay off employees. There is also tremendous anxiety for contracted employees who counted on the business generated by big events like March Madness for their livelihood. I recognize that I am incredibly blessed that none of these situations apply to me. In fact, I have actually kind of enjoyed this time. I look forward to when this pandemic is history and I can return to bible study Tuesday mornings, choir rehearsals Tuesday evening, swimming at the gym and errands with Mom on Thursdays, getting out of the house bright and early for my apologetics class and church on Sundays. But in the meantime, this abrupt halt to the busyness of life has almost felt like an unplanned holiday, a chance to rest, to have more uninterrupted writing time, to reflect.

With this time to reflect, I found myself thinking in a new way about Romans 8:28 which says “And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” As explained by multiple pastors at my church, this passage is not saying the multiple forms of suffering in this world are good, or that if people going through hardship in their lives don’t put on a happy face, they don’t have enough faith. What this verse is trying to say is that if we trust God, we can find internal peace and joy, and God can use even terrible situations in fulfilling His purpose. That being said, I believe good can, and in some ways already has, come from this COVID-19 pandemic. It has been so interesting listening to news coverage of this pandemic, and following Facebook posts from friends. Both platforms have shown really inspiring examples of people coming together even though we have to be physically apart, in this country and around the world. From the video of people coming out to their balconies to sing the national anthem in Italy, to volunteers that have stepped up to make sure children who rely on school meal programs still eat now that schools are closed, to artists offering free concerts and free dance lessons online to lift everyone’s spirits, and my facebook friends sharing resources or words of encouragement, it has been inspiring to see how people have come together, showing one another that even if we have to be socially isolated for awhile, we are not in this alone. Ironically, back when the world was normal, we never heard of the term “social distancing” yet we could be in crowds of people yet feel alone. When life is going smoothly, I think we all, myself included can get lulled into obliviousness, focusing on our own problems, or own busy schedules and not even notice the needs of our neighbors and friends. But this crisis has definitely woken me up to the fragility, the uncertainty of life, and I find myself caring more about how family, friends and neighbors are doing. It has also been inspiring to see evidence of renewed appreciation for simple or old-fashioned pass-times that the busyness of normal life leaves no time for. One Facebook post I saw was from a mom who was making cookies with her kids, not using pre-made, pull-apart dough, but from scratch, something she said she hadn’t done in years. Another person was asking for friends to send their addresses if they would like to receive a letter because her family decided to spend the afternoon writing letters. In the old world, virtual learning was a growing trend, but still far from the mainstream. But with schools closing indefinite, forcing online learning into the mainstream, parents are becoming more involved in their children’s education, and I would imagine forging stronger bonds in the process. I think social good could come of this pandemic if it leads to a lasting re-alignment of our priorities. While activities like sports practices, tournaments, music rehearsals and concerts are fun and valuable for children, and create special memories for parents, I think good could come of this pandemic if, when the world returns to normal, families will look back with nostalgia on these days when all was cancelled, slowing down the frenzied pace of life, allowing families to actually spend time together, and strike a permanently healthier balance of activities, prioritizing family time, and simple pleasures like baking cookies on a Saturday afternoon.

But most importantly, I think this pandemic will lead to a revival of Christianity, and a deeper level of faith for those like me who have already accepted Christ. I have already noticed transformation in my life.

Literally the only times I left the house last week were to go to work Monday and Wednesday, and on Wednesday I only worked until 2:00. Starting this past Wednesday, until at least April 3, the law firm where I work has reduced business hours, only being open 8am to 2pm Monday through Thursday for purposes of social distancing. But this week, I am not working at all. The office is still open and I am not sick. But as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increased sharply each day, with Milwaukee county where I work seeing the most cases statewide, my parents and sister pleaded with me this past weekend to stay home. All weekend, I felt conflicted. My family feared that given my underlying pituitary condition, the outcome may not be good if I contracted coronavirus. I have always pulled through respiratory bugs well with just an increase in one of my medications, but I knew I shouldn’t get a big head as this is a new virus that has killed young healthy people. I have become more diligent about using hand sanitizer at work these past two weeks, and my company has taken this virus seriously. I would hear people going around multiple times a day disinfecting all surfaces, and actually a couple weeks before “social distancing” became a household phrase, several people who used to sit on my side of the office switched to different desks in another room, so I already felt socially distanced from people. I am ashamed to admit on Friday, I found myself arguing uncharacteristically with my parents because I felt like they weren’t listening to me, didn’t believe me when I explained these precautions. (Later when I had calmed down, they assured me they did believe me, but even with all the right precautions, I could still contract the virus from someone I didn’t know was sick.)

Before life changed, the office where I work was not equipped for anyone in my department to work remotely, and because Social Security only sends paper documents, it is impossible for the work we do to be done 100 percent remotely anyway. But on Wednesday, I observed one of the attorneys installing software on the computers of a few of the case managers that they hoped would allow them to work remotely, but he wasn’t sure if the software would work with my assistive technology. I wasn’t sure either. I might have given the software a try in the normal world, but under these strange circumstances, I decided not to press the issue. I was 99 percent sure that Vision Forward, the agency that has helped me with technology issues in the past would be closed–when I got home I confirmed it was–and I could tell everyone in the office was overwhelmed and didn’t need anything else added to their plates. So I decided I would continue going into the office to file the appeals unless or until the governor issued a mandatory shelter-in-place order requiring the office to close. I am blessed to work in a company with a casual, kind culture. Even so, I couldn’t help worrying about what people would think of me staying home when I wasn’t actually sick and I had never brought up my underlying medical issues before, and whether this could have negative repercussions for me in the recession that is sure to follow this pandemic. Back when the world was normal, I sang songs passionately about trusting God, and occasionally said prayers for God’s guidance, but through this experience God has shown me that I actually didn’t trust Him. I liked being in control of my life. I also liked certainty, so it gave me anxiety that I couldn’t really even give my boss a firm date as to when I would be able to return to work. (This morning when I texted him back to thank him, I told him tentatively I could return April 6, the tentative date the company set for returning to normal business hours.) But even the company acknowledged this could change based on what happens with the virus. Experts say the pandemic could disrupt our lives for months. It could go dormant in the summer and have a resurgence in the fall, requiring quarantine again to flatten the curve. But since it is a new virus, no one really knows. I have never experienced such uncertainty before. But then as I was sitting in my room listening to a hymn on Family Radio, the station I enjoy having in the background while I write, I remembered a wonderful quote that I first heard Tuesday, which took on a whole new level of personal significance for me.

“It takes just as much energy to worry as it does to pray. One leads to panic, the other leads to peace.” I am ashamed to admit it has been a couple years since I uttered a personal prayer for a situation I was facing. Life was humming along smoothly with no major issues, everything under control. But Friday, I started silently praying God would somehow tell me what I should do.

Then Friday night, I had a dream that my mom went to bed with a fever. In analyzing the dream the next day, I remembered something experts had been saying that I had forgotten, which was that people can be asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus, and pass it to someone else unknowingly causing them to get very sick. If I were to contract it, that would be bad, but worse for me would be the anguish of potentially losing Mom or Dad to this virus. Then on Saturday night, I had a funny, light-hearted dream that I came to work and was chatting across the room to one of my coworkers, venting about how they didn’t want me to work, and she exclaimed with a cheerful but firm voice, “what are you doing here! Go home!”

I was almost convinced, but still couldn’t shake the worry about what my coworkers would think of me putting them in a bind as they would have to reschedule all my appeals, maybe even call the clients themselves depending on how long I had to be out. And then yesterday’s sermon livestreamed from our church was on Acts Chapter 5, in which one of the themes is to warn of the consequences of seeking the approval of others rather than fully obeying what God asks of us. Just as Ananias and his wife died, I could die or lose my parents just to hold onto my reputation at work. That was too many signs to ignore. With a wonderful sense of peace, I sent my boss a text about my situation. Self-doubt returned briefly when my boss didn’t reply until later that evening and the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Milwaukee had not been updated. But when my boss did reply, I could tell he was genuine and fully understood my situation. Then this morning, Dad hollered up to my room that the number of cases had been updated from 281 to 383, 205 of which are in Milwaukee County where I work, and a large concentration of those in the very neighborhood where I work.

I don’t know what the future holds, but now that I have re-acquainted myself with the value of prayer, I am not worried about it anymore. I know in my heart I did the right thing. Another excellent quote I heard on Family Radio states, “90 percent of what we worry about never happens, and the other 10 percent is out of our control.” If I contract coronavirus, I can take comfort in knowing this was out of my control because I didn’t insist on going into an environment I was warned could be dangerous. Most likely, I won’t lose my job, but even if I do, I can take comfort in knowing it was out of my control. And I know from past experience that when one door closes, God always opens another, which often turns out to be better than the one that was locked.

I am the Scrooge of Sports

Hello readers. In light of the Superbowl last Sunday, I thought it would be fun to write a post that has been stewing in my mind for years, a post about how much I despise our culture’s obsession with sports, especially football. I really wanted to publish this on Superbowl Sunday, as a symbolic, light-heartedly spiteful gesture, but I couldn’t get my thoughts composed in time. But maybe it’s just as well because on Superbowl Sunday, everyone likely would have been too busy watching the superbowl to read it, so perhaps it will have more impact now.

The first seeds of contempt for sports were planted in elementary school. During the school day, I was required to play games like kickball and baseball for gym class. I had an aide with me at that time, and I would have to hold her arm and run to the next base, serenaded by a cacophony of shouting from other classmates, and occasionally the aide herself, “GO, Go, Go!” I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, not only from the physical exertion of running, but also the adrenaline being produced by all the shouting, especially when the aide pressured me to run faster or I wouldn’t make it to the base in time. Even at that age, I remember thinking “why is everyone getting so worked up over this stupid game? This kind of stress should only be exerted if I ever need to run out of a burning building or something.” Then after school, almost every weekend, and even sometimes on week nights, I had to sit in the bleachers of school gyms where my brother and sister played volleyball and basketball. The obnoxious cacophony of buzzers and whistles just about gave me a headache, and although Mom and Dad tried to be vigilant about watching for balls, I would occasionally get hit by one. And then it was just painfully boring! My parents were so intently watching the game they didn’t think to describe to me what was going on. A couple times when I asked and they did give a play-by-play, I found it wasn’t long before I still lost interest. I tried bringing braille books to pass the time in the bleachers but given the noise I mentioned above, I couldn’t concentrate on a book. I especially dreaded tournaments, which lasted the entire weekend. I hated them so much that before one of my brother’s tournaments–I think I was in first grade–when I figured out that his team would be eliminated Saturday if they lost, but play another game on Sunday if they won, I actually told my brother outright, “I hope you lose,” a comment that was followed by gasps of shock from the whole family. In fifth grade, to my extreme delight, my parents decided I was old enough to stay home alone while they went to my siblings’ games. But then when I was in middle school, my sister started college at UW-Madison, and Dad decided to invest in two Wisconsin Badgers season tickets. To be fair, he isn’t a die-hard football fan and sold most of his tickets to a friend, but he wanted to go to a couple of these football games each year, and wasn’t comfortable leaving me home alone when he was an hour and a half away. Mom worked weekends in a hospital at the time. My older brother was in high school and still lived at home, so I forget why he wasn’t available to look after me. So guess who was dragged to these games to sit on hard bleachers in the beating sun, without even the consolation that I was doing it to support a sibling! In eighth grade, my grandma moved from Indiana to a condominium ten minutes from us, and Dad was comfortable leaving me home alone if she called or stopped by to check in on me. I was free from attending sports games at last! But the psychological damage of such saturation with sports on a girl who much prefers books and music was done.

My parents empathized with my situation, so when I was old enough to pursue my passion, singing in choir, a passion my siblings found just as boring as I found sports to be, Mom and Dad insisted they attend my choir performances. But by that time, my older brother was a freshman in high school, and my sister a junior, so it wasn’t long before they were off to college, and thus off the hook for attending my concerts. But the school choir only performed two concerts a year, and when I joined the Milwaukee Children’s choir in seventh grade, that choir performed three concerts a year. So my sister attended four concerts before heading off to college, and my brother maybe attended a dozen concerts, whereas I conservatively estimate that I attended thirty sports games a year from K-4 through fourth grade for a total of 180 games. My siblings could return home and attend all of my concerts for the rest of my life, and they probably still wouldn’t have attended as many concerts as I attended sports games!

In all seriousness though, I accept that life is not fair, and I don’t harbor resentment toward my siblings. They went to a Catholic school where sports was really the only extra-curricular option available, and the culture of the school was such that if they didn’t participate, they would have been singled out. Moreover, even my parents, while they enjoyed watching these games more than I did, have expressed regret for how much sports took over our lives, with practice schedules that often conflicted with dinner hour, and games almost every weekend, leaving little time for anything else. But I don’t even harbor bitterness toward the school, because now that I am older, it has occurred to me that the school is just one example of a whole culture that I think puts too much emphasis on sports.

Growing up, I didn’t really mind having football blaring on the television every Sunday afternoon because in the comfort of home, I could come and go as I pleased, retreating to my room if there was too much yelling from the family. Again, why the adrenaline surge over a stupid game? Sometimes, I would sit on the couch and pretend to watch the game, not because I was really interested in the game but because it was a socially acceptable excuse to put off facing Math homework. I even got a tiny bit excited when the Packers made it to the Superbowl in 2011. That year in the final playoff game, the Packers beat the Bears, and one of my friends whom I ate lunch with regularly was from Chicago and still a Bears fan, so I couldn’t resist teasing her a little. My only complaint as a child regarding professional football was that games were also broadcast on the radio, and occasionally when a choir concert conflicted with a Packer game, my dad would immediately flip to the Packer game in the car on the way home from the concert. I would have preferred to bask in the afterglow of the beautiful music I just sang for a few more minutes before returning to the obnoxious noise of football.

My senior year of high school, I took a Creative Writing class which included a unit on writing satire. For one of the assignments, the teacher gave us an article to read, and encouraged us to use it as a model for writing our own satire. The article was called Body Rituals of the Nacirema. On the surface, the article reads like an anthropological analysis of a strange ancient tribe. The article included other strange words too like Latipsoh. But when you read the article more closely, you realize that Nacirema is American spelled backwards, and Latipsoh is hospital spelled backwards. The article is an example of satire highlighting our culture’s obsession with the health and appearance of our bodies. I had a lot of fun writing a fake newspaper article called New Religious Trends Among the Nacirema, about how football, or llabtoof is treated as a religion. I included quotes from priests who lamented that church attendance is down at 11am services, especially when the Packers play at noon, and how they try to relate to Llabtoof followers by mentioning it in sermons, and scholars from the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay, who point out that this religion promotes family bonding. The teacher loved it too, and even read it to the class, singling it out as an example of satire well-done! At a time when Math was discouraging, this was a huge self-esteem boost. (Unfortunately, I didn’t think to save an electronic copy of it or I would have shared it here, but it was published in a literary magazine which I think Mom saved somewhere.)

But one Sunday in 2014, an incident occurred which made me so mad that I decided I wanted to live counter-culturally and abstain as much as possible from our culture’s obsession with even televised sports.

In the grand scheme of things, I can see why some readers would call me petty for being upset, but I think this incident was just the final straw of my disgust with sports culture that had been growing since childhood. One Sunday in September 2014, my mom and I had just returned home from church where a new senior pastor had been formally commissioned. For this ceremony, the senior pastor invited a pastor from Nairobi, Kenya whom he worked closely with for a few years doing mission work there. I absolutely love when pastors from Africa. Perhaps because of the adversity they have witnessed, if not personally experienced, they preach with a unique passion, authenticity and conviction that is less common in Western churches. You have to concentrate a little more because English often is not their first language and thus they accent words differently, but the extra effort is always so worth it!

I forget the exact details of the story, and unfortunately, the recording of this message is no longer available, so I forget if he was referring to an orphanage his parents operated, or if he was relaying someone else’s experience. But the story he relayed was of an orphanage in a country plagued by poverty and violence that struggled to meet the basic needs of all the children they received. One morning, there was absolutely no food left, so the missionaries gathered the children around the table to pray, and before they had even finished praying, someone arrived with enough food for everyone! I am not telling it as well as he did of course, but you get the gist. It is the kind of story that gives Christians chills and highlights the blessings that can take place when we pray and trust in God.

“How was church?” either my brother who was living with us at the time, or my dad asked. They were watching the Packer game which had already started when Mom and I walked in, so for my part, I should have known the men really weren’t interested in our church experience, just asking to be polite, so like I do with the coworker who asks “How are you?” I should have just said “It was nice,” and left it at that. But I was so fired up about the excellent message we had just heard that I launched into retelling the orphanage story. And when I was done, the reaction was a few seconds silence, then yelling about a touchdown or something. They weren’t even listening to the story! When I wrote my satire about the Nacirema, I was in a light-hearted mood, but that day when I witnessed this lackluster response to testimony about a real God, all light-heartedness was long gone. Sports really is treated like a religion, and it’s not funny. It’s ridiculous.

I don’t begrudge people who enjoy watching or playing sports. I recognize that God intentionally created us all to be unique and have different interests. A diversity of interests definitely adds richness to life. For children, sports is a fun way to get exercise and learn valuable life skills like teamwork. I don’t even begrudge the existence of professional sports leagues. I just would like to see reform of our culture that puts sports in its proper place, something that is enjoyed but not idolized.

Let’s start with schools. I have come to realize over the years that the school my siblings attended was not unique in scheduling so many sporting events that sports takes over your life. If athletes at the professional level don’t mind playing a game every week, that’s fine. By that time, they are adults living independently from their family, with the maturity to determine for themselves that they enjoy a sport enough to make it their career. But schools ought to be cognizant of the fact that children live in family units where not every child enjoys sports, and where maybe the parents see the value of sports but would also like to have some weekends free to take their children on a hike through a state park, or some other variety of activity. So for school purposes, practice should only be held one night a week, and just like with choir, there should be no more than two or three games a year. I have also heard of schools cutting music and arts programs but keeping sports because it generates revenue for the school. I understand budgets are tight for schools, but in fulfilling their mission of creating well-rounded citizens, they need to think about more than just money. There is educational value to sports, but there is equal educational value, not to mention emotional and spiritual health that comes from music and art programs. So if schools honestly cannot afford to sustain their music and art programs, I understand, but if you are really that financially strapped, you should cut your sports programs as well. I am not a finance expert, but with a little creativity, I think schools should be able to sustain both arts and sports programs by appealing to the community to donate equipment, or see if there is someone like a retiree with music or coaching experience who could volunteer their time at schools. When I hear of schools keeping sports programs but cutting the arts, I cannot help wondering if they have really exhausted all options to keep these programs, or if the people in charge just don’t value the arts.

Especially at the high school and college levels, schools should also hold star athletes to the same academic standards as everyone else. I once saw a Saturday Night Live skit about a college class where most students presented projects that they put a lot of time and effort into, but a star athlete in the class presented a banana glued to a piece of wood, and the professor said, good job! Unfortunately, there is an element of truth to this skit. While scandals as blatant as the “paper classes” at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill may be an extreme, isolated incident, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is all sorts of little stuff that goes on but just doesn’t make the news. After all, was I the only college student who wondered, while buried in reading and projects, barely aware that March Madness had started, how the athletes playing in those tournaments find the time to do so? They have to be getting some kind of break from their professors. At all levels, the law should be applied equally to athletes as well.

I hate the idea of corporate welfare for any large corporation that has plenty of their own money, but I especially hate when it is given to sports teams. A couple years ago, my state’s NBA team, the Milwaukee Bucks were told by the league that they need to build a new, modern arena, despite the fact that the old arena, a gift to the community by a wealthy family, wasn’t that old. Despite the fact that all teams like that are swimming in money, enough to pay coaches and star athletes millions, they lobbied the state for taxpayer money to build the arena, and if I remember correctly, threatened to relocate the team if they did not receive it. They ultimately received $250 million in taxpayer money, supporters arguing the new arena would be good for the local economy. I understand this argument, but still, I’m sure they had the money to build it themselves. So in the unlikely event a professional sports team owner finds this blog, I don’t foresee myself getting involved in state government. It’s not really something that calls me. But you know the saying never say never, and if I am elected to state government, I would not give a professional sports team one dime of taxpayer money. If that means they leave, they leave. I think the money Wisconsin spent on the arena could have gone a long way toward improving schools, repairing roads or providing for the poor. If I were governor and the standard of living for everyone in my state was great and there was money left over, I would rather invest in art and music programs, many of which barely scrape by relying on tiresome fundraisers. And while we are on the subject of money, I think at least at taxpayer funded colleges, athletic programs should be scaled back or eliminated because it is a misconception that they generate revenue for the colleges. Universities with athletic programs, especially Division I programs actually lose money, and all students pay for this with higher tuition and student fees.

I used to resent the fact that it is possible to have a very lucrative career playing football, but not singing in choir. With maturity, I realize choir does not lend itself to a lucrative career the way professional sports do, and that’s actually good. Choral music is a sacred pursuit that for both the audience member and the singer, brings heaven a little closer to earth, so commercializing choir would corrupt its beauty. Interrupting choral performances for commercials, or giving endorsements for say, shoes that support the feet and make standing on risers more comfortable, or a beverage that soothes the throat would just be weird and inappropriate in the choir context. Even if there existed a National Choir League, even I admit choir competitions would not be fun for the average person not trained in the technicalities of choral singing to watch, and even if choir competitions were appealing enough to fill stadiums, it just would not be possible to have a choral competition every week. I competed in two choir competitions when I was in high school, and for each, it took months to really get our pieces polished. So at most, each choir in a choir league could compete twice a year, which would make the kind of revenue that sports can generate by playing once a week impossible. Furthermore, if I wanted to, I could have trained and auditioned to be an opera singer, tried for a record label to become a successful artist like Adelle, or studied theater in college and auditioned for professional theater roles. But I chose not to go these routes for fear that the intensive training and demanding rehearsal schedules would burn me out and I would no longer enjoy it. And the reality is that professional sports is really no different from professional theater in the sense that competition in both arenas is fierce. You hear about the athletes and actresses that made it, but most people who dreamed of being an actress or athlete will ultimately have to find day jobs, and enjoy playing on a community recreational sports team or acting in a civic theater production in the evenings.

Finally, while there is nothing wrong with enjoying professional sports, professional athletes should be recognized as human like the rest of us rather than worshipped, and the sports schedule should not run people’s lives. I hate the commercials that air where I live that show Aaron Rogers visiting a hospital or some place like that, and the people are screaming like fools because they got to meet him. And I know this will be controversial, but as tragic and unexpected as Kobe Bryant’s death was, I don’t think it should have been the lead story on the news for almost a whole week, when wonderful, ordinary people die under tragic circumstances all the time but will never be mentioned in the news.

To be fair, my dad recognizes that professional sports is above all a business. The players on our home teams have no real sense of loyalty. They were recruited from all over the country, and would switch to a different team in an instant if offered a higher contract. In addition, my dad’s favorite part of the movie A Bronx Tale is when nine-year-old Calogero is telling Sonny, the mob boss he befriended how upset he is because someone made his favorite baseball player Mickey Mantle cry. “That’s what you’re upset about?” Sonny says, and then tells him that Mickey Mantle doesn’t care about him, wouldn’t do a thing to help if his father couldn’t pay the rent, so he shouldn’t care so much about Mickey Mantle. I am also happy to say my dad values the arts. He doesn’t like super high-brow stuff like Handel’s Messiah, but he discovered he loves small, intimate theater settings, and for the past two years now, he has gotten season tickets to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater where we have seen some fabulous shows. But even Dad cannot help getting swept up a little by our culture’s sports hysteria. One Sunday back in September when the afternoons are often still sunny and warm, he commented, “I wish Packer games were in the evenings, so we can be outside in the afternoon,” as if watching the game live is a moral obligation or legal requirement. I wanted to ask, are there Packer police that patrol park trails and streets, and arrest anyone they see out for a walk or working in the yard when they should be watching the game? If you want to be outside, tape the game as you would any other show and watch it in the evening. Even if a neighbor spoils things by telling you who won before you get the chance to watch it, I think you could still enjoy watching the plays that led to the win or loss.

I am not Scrooge in the truest sense. I hate sports, but don’t mind if others enjoy it. I just would like to see some cultural reforms that put sports where I think they belong, a recreational activity people enjoy playing and/or watching, but not something that is worshipped above so many other wonderful things like the arts, quiet family time, sometimes even God Himself. Until then though, I do take delight in little things like not clapping when a guest speaker comes to church and assures the congregation that he is a Packer fan. One Packer game when Mom was out of town, I wanted to watch The Sound of Music on my phone, but Julie Andrews’ wonderful singing kept getting interrupted by dings as someone in my family started a group text about the game. I took delight in affirming my anti-sports reputation by asking to be taken off this group text. I take delight in responding with a neutral “Okay,” when Dad will tell me the score of the Packer game “just so you’re informed when you go to work tomorrow.”

So what did I do during the Superbowl last week? I ate dinner in my usual spot at the dining room table, which is basically in the same room as the television. Even I recognize that taking a plate of food up to my room so I would not have to listen to the game would be taking things too far. But I wasn’t paying any attention to the game, and after dinner, I went up to my room, wrote a little bit of this post but spent most of the evening reading with Family Radio playing beautiful hymns in the background. Put another way, I was doing exactly what I would have been doing even if the Packers were playing.

The Song in My Heart: Reflecting back on my Memoir Writing Class

Well readers, as I briefly mentioned two weeks ago, I took a Memoir Writing class online this past Fall through the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. I heard about this organization back in 2016 from the Classifieds section of Poets and Writers Magazine. I don’t actually subscribe to this magazine, but it is available for free to the blind on NFB Newsline, a program run by the National Federation of the Blind that gives the blind access to many newspapers and magazines. At that time, in the thick of my depression and anxiety over my job, I dreamed of quitting my job and writing for a living, and hoped something in this magazine might give me inspiration.

The classified section had an announcement that the Creative Nonfiction Foundation had a quarterly magazine that welcomes new authors, and at that time were looking for essays about teaching. I am not a teacher, but had a brief stint of inspiration and started an essay about how as a blind person, you are a teacher whether you want to be or not, as I had to learn from an early age how to advocate for myself in a visually-oriented world. Unfortunately, given how burnt out my job left me most days, I could not finish this essay by the deadline, and without a specific reason to write it, I still haven’t finished it. If I do finish it, I will post it here.

But while exploring the organization’s website, I also noticed they offered online courses. I was intrigued by one course in particular called Thirty-Minute Memoir, a class that encourages writers to write 30 minutes a day, and at the end of the 10 weeks, they would have 10,000 words of the first draft of their memoir. After college graduation, I thought it would be fun to write a memoir, but didn’t know how to go about writing a book-length memoir because while I took many writing courses over the course of my school years, they all focused on essays and short stories. But I didn’t even look for memoir writing classes in my area out of fear I would be the only student under 70 in the class. So this idea never got off the ground. Family members have even suggested I could start a business ghost-writing memoirs for the elderly. I am not ruling out this business idea for the future, but right now, I don’t think I am ready to start such a business. Before starting such a venture, I would want to publish my own memoir for my self-confidence, and to share with perspective clients to give them confidence I know how to write a memoir, and so they can get a sense of my writing voice.

By 2016, I was desperate and would have been fine with being the only student under 70 in a memoir writing class, but I decided not to take this online course because I didn’t feel I would have the time or energy to take a course of any kind, and I didn’t want to spend $435 on a course until I could give it my all. But this September, I decided I was ready to give it my all, and I am so glad I did.

All of the courses offered by the Creative Nonfiction Foundation are taught by successful, published authors, many of whom are also English professors at traditional colleges where they live. Each week, the professor posted readings focused on a particular aspect of memoir writing such as finding your focus, developing characters and building tension for the reader. Monday through Thursday, the instructor would post an optional prompt related to that week’s lesson. Students could either submit 300 words responding to this prompt, or 300 words from their memoir for feedback from other students and the instructor. On the weekends, students could submit 1,000 words from their memoir for feedback.

It will be awhile yet before I announce the publication of my memoir, and I am not ruling out the idea of not publishing it at all, or at least only publishing select portions of it on this blog. The idea of publishing select portions to this blog appeals to me for two reasons. First, this memoir has a very spiritual focus, and when I have read other books about people’s spiritual experiences, I have wondered if their experiences are genuine, or if they dramatized things to sell books. I haven’t decided yet if it is right to make money off the sharing of such poignant experiences. Second, when I started the class, I was going to write about my weight loss, but quickly realized I couldn’t find the inspiration to write a memoir about this yet. But God gave me tons of inspiration to write about the depression and anxiety I had in the early years of my job, and how studying with my Jehovah’s Witness friends changed my whole outlook on life for the better. But if I published a book going into detail about such experiences, my coworkers would find out about it and want to read it, which could get awkward. So at the very least, I may wait to publish it if or when I am no longer with this employer.

But as the saying goes, it’s not the destination but the journey that counts, and taking this course was an incredibly educational and therapeutic journey. It was educational in that I learned a lot about the memoir writing craft, and received wonderful feedback from the instructor and other students that has made me a more intentional writer. It was therapeutic in that there were times when the comments read more like a support group session than a writing workshop. There were twelve students in the class, all of us women. I don’t know exactly how old anyone was. I get the sense most were retirees, but now I have matured and realize age doesn’t matter. In sharing our diverse experiences, I think we all not only developed as writers, but received empathy and insight that helped us come to terms with past experiences in our lives. I thought about taking a more advanced memoir writing class this semester but decided not to, primarily because I had to make a big purchase, a braille display to connect to my computer at work and didn’t want to spend $435 more. But it’s just as well because this gives me time to catch up on blogging here, and I also like the idea of making some revisions to my memoir so far over the winter, which may result in me getting more out of an advanced class when I do take it.

But I wanted to give you readers a sense of how my memoir might take shape, so what follows is the passage I submitted Friday of the second week in this class. That week, we read about and discussed ideas for how we could structure memoirs. At that time, I had just finished reading The Art of Racing in the Rain, a fantastic book that I would recommend by the way. Like A Dog’s Purpose, this book is written in the dog’s point of view. The dog Enzo’s owner, Denny, is a racecar driver. Between the life events that take place in this book are little passages explaining a technicality of racecar driving that serves as a metaphor for what happens next. In my memoir class, I learned this structure was called “metaphor as muse.” I decided this would be a compelling structure for my memoir as well. The first week when the lesson discussed finding your focus, I wasn’t sure what structure my memoir would take, but other students noticed a recurring phrase in my writing, “song in my heart”, and when I was struggling to come up with a title, one of them suggested this would make a perfect title for my memoir. So if my memoir is ever published, the title will be “The Song in my Heart,” or a very similar variation of this. That got me reflecting on my love of singing, and the many songs that have inspired me and shaped my life. These reflections almost instantly led to the inspiration to write vignettes about songs I love, which would then serve as metaphor for the chapters that followed, so that my memoir would read like a soundtrack for my life. I am publishing it here exactly as I submitted it for the course. In this passage, I write about John Denver’s song Wild Montana Skies, and the instructor indicated she was unclear about whether the song was about John Denver’s life, or someone else. I told her I didn’t think it was an autobiographical song about John Denver’s life, but I researched and couldn’t find any backstory about this song. One of my classmates whom I was excited to learn also loves this song, said she always suspected the song was about Bob Marshall, a forester, wilderness preservation pioneer and Wilderness Society Cofounder, in whose name the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex was designated in Montana. Classmates also thought I went into too much detail about the song, but all agreed that with a little tightening, it would work well in my memoir or as a stand-alone essay. If I do publish a memoir, you will have to buy it to read the polished version of this, but here is a taste of how my memoir might be structured. Enjoy!

The summer after my first grade year, upon hearing that John Denver was killed in a plane crash, my mom ordered a special collection of his music. When the CDs arrived and Mom put the first one in our big stereo in the living room, I was hooked. From his beautiful ballads like Annie’s Song that are perfect for just closing your eyes and letting the music wash over you like a summer breeze, to Country Boy that inspire you to get up and dance, you really cannot go wrong with any of John Denver’s songs. But my absolute favorite John Denver song that captivated me at age seven, and still captivates me today is Wild Montana Skies.

The song begins with a snappy guitar rif that has a joyful, free-spirited connotation. In the song, a child is born in the spring in Montana, and his mother, sensing that she would die soon, held him to her breast and sang a prayer to Montana, which I think was meant to be a metaphor for God. I have never been to Montana, but I have heard it referred to as Big Sky Country, a place where people feel close to God. At first her prayer is for practical things, a home, the love of a good family, a life partner. But then there is a crescendo as the mother, in what I imagine is a voice of passion, maybe even desperation, prays, “give him a fire in his heart, give him a light in his eyes. Give him the wild wind for a brother, and the wild Montana skies.” I always got the sense from this song that the mother viewed these prayers for a fire in his heart and a light in his eyes, as even more important than her practical prayers. This prayer is the refrain through the entire song.

His mother dies that summer, and he never knows his father. But he is raised by his uncle who teaches him to farm and nurtures in him a love for the land. When he turns 21, he strikes out on his own and tries to live in the city. We don’t know what transpired during his time in the city, but at age 30, he comes back home to make a new start, only saying “there was something in the city that he said he couldn’t breathe. There was something in the country that he said he couldn’t leave.”

The song then skips ahead to his death, leaving the rest of his life shrouded in mystery and open to the imagination of each listener. I like to think that he did at least find the fire in his heart, the light in his eyes, the wild wind for a brother, as the last verse says, “some say he was crazy. Some are glad he’s gone. Some of us will miss him and try to carry on, giving a voice to the forest, giving a voice to the dawn, giving a voice to the wilderness and the land that he lived on.”

Perhaps this song was in my subconsciousness one summer day when I was eight years old. It was one of those long late summer afternoons when “I’m bored,” becomes the universal whining comment of kids everywhere. I had echoed this refrain many times myself. But that day, it wasn’t that I was just bored in the superficial sense. It wasn’t that I wanted to go to the park and no one would take me. It wasn’t that I wanted to play a game and no one else wanted to play. For some reason that day, I found myself thinking beyond my years. There had to be more to life than the endless school years of pointless worksheets, followed by summers of passing the time with silly craft projects, children’s books and trips to the park. I wanted to do something real, something exciting, something meaningful. I didn’t know how to articulate this verbally, so I whined to my sister who was babysitting, “I want to do something I have never done before.”

“Then do something you’ve never done before,” my sister said in a tone that clearly indicated she was tired and annoyed by her little sister. I don’t remember how I ended up passing the time that day, but while I let the subject drop, unable to articulate my feelings, the feeling never quite left me.

I knew I didn’t literally desire to live in the wilderness, especially in summer. Mosquitoes love me, and I have always been very sensitive to heat and humidity. But even at eight years old, I understood that this song was meant as a metaphor. The city represented conformity, discontent, a place where practicality took priority over dreams. In the city lived Mom and Dad, who came home from their full-time jobs exhausted and discouraged each day. In the city lived a few teachers whose constant crankiness implied they wanted to say, “they don’t pay me enough to put up with you.” The country and the wild wind represented a beautiful refusal to conform to the expectations of others, a decision to do what brings you joy, even if others viewed you as impractical, even crazy. In the country lived teachers and other adults I observed who I could tell were living the lives God created them for, and were genuinely happy. I already knew where I wanted to live, and was determined to make it happen.

The feeling manifested itself in varying ways over the years. At first, it manifest itself in phases of fascination with people who led lives that looked completely different from my own. In third grade, I briefly dreamed of a career as an Iditarod sled dog racer because it just seemed so eccentric, fun and unique. In fourth grade, the combined impact of an amazing family vacation to a cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin, and reading about pioneers like Laura Ingalls Wilder sparked a fascination with the idea of a simpler life in the country, and I told everyone who would listen about how when I grew up, I wanted to live in the country, off the grid with a bunch of kids and no television, and learn to play the fiddle. In fifth grade, my favorite book was My Side of the Mountain, which I knew was fiction, but still the idea of a city boy running away to live on his own in the woods thrilled me. When I was in middle school, a teacher saw my passion for singing, and encouraged me to join a community choir that offered incredible opportunities. The first time I sang with a full professional orchestra, it occurred to me that I had a fire in my heart, and my mom saw a light in my eyes. I didn’t view concerts as an obligation. Singing onstage felt more like floating on a cloud, a taste of heaven. I was doing what I was created to do. This led to a phase when I tried unsuccessfully to convince my parents that I didn’t need to go to college, that I would find a way to make choir a career.