Monday, December 28, 2009

Deeper Spiritual Journey

When I first came home from the Middle East, I left an excellent full-time teaching job with comprehensive benefits. My self-confidence took a nose dive when my writing career didn’t take off as I had envisioned. Although I knew it would take time, I am not sure that I really believed I could succeed. I wanted to follow through on my plan to become a published writer but I began to feel very inadequate and directionless.

Instead, God opened a familiar door: teaching. But when I started teaching again, I had to adapt to different kinds of teaching systems here in the US, content-specific subjects, and a new lecture style. Then a new age group as I supplemented my income with a few high school classes of Spanish. I had no benefits with either job and was earning a pittance of what I earned before.

Now I realize that God has placed me exactly where He wants me to be and He will provide my needs.

This year, the Spanish classes that I felt so inadequate in teaching last year fell into place. I started out with renewed confidence and enthusiasm, great teaching ideas and a much stronger rapport with my students and colleagues. I feel in control this year! I also started to become more confident and successful in the college teaching system.I will take on two more classes in the spring term.

In addition, my writing has taken me on a deeper spiritual journey. I feel so grateful to God for being patient with me.

God has been teaching me how to cultivate a relationship with Him that brings more peace to my life. Lately, He has opened doors for me in my writing field. I am so excited to use my writing talents to bring God glory!

I feel that He has great plans for me that I haven’t dreamed of yet. It suddenly makes me wonder if I hadn’t been so aimless and lacking in confidence earlier, would I have been able to accomplish the writing goals I had set out to achieve? If only I had had that faith and determination to keep going. I’ll never know if the delay was part of His plan or if He allowed it and provided my teaching as a back-up. But I do know that He makes all things work for my good because I am called according to His purposes. He has given me that promise, and that peace.

This year, don’t let your hearts be troubled. Let God give you that peace that the world cannot offer. Whether your struggle is hidden or visible to others, embrace yourself in whatever state that you are in. Use that as the opportunity to deepen your relationship with our Father, and let the Holy Spirit guide you through each day.

Isn’t it exciting when God speaks to us through our experiences?! Big ones like I have been going through and little ones like an attitude we display on any given day? You know, I’m the first to admit I make so many mistakes but God is working with me to help me become optimistic toward my future.

Peace ... Ours for the Taking...

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.”—John 14:27, NIV

Last year, I struggled with teaching a new course at the college, and two new courses at the high school. In some ways, my life felt like it had fallen apart. I had new vision loss (a much bigger chunk) and added hearing loss to the equation. I was told I should use a blind man’s cane … well, for the rest of my life. I was not reconciled to living my life with these obstacles. In fact, some of my friends insisted I was in denial!

This year, the scripture above changed my outlook. I realized that God had a plan for my life, and that plan included Retinitis Pigmentosa and Usher’s Syndrome (the names given to my vision and hearing loss). I realized that I had two choices: to accept or rail against these changes. As far as I know, God has no plans to remove them. So, little by little I allowed God to change my heart toward my circumstances. I began to see myself in a different light and to be proactive—to develop the skills I would need to cope with these problems long-term. Once I took that step, God placed a much greater peace in my life. Needless to say, this year I’ve taken greater steps in my personal spiritual growth.

January started out with despair. I still pretended to be in control and acted as if I didn’t have any vision problems whatsoever, which, of course, only enhanced my inability to deal with it. I thought I was hiding it from my colleagues and students, but really it controlled me, and left me appearing inept in both professional situations and personal circumstances. One day, in tears, I asked my sister-in-law, “Why can’t I tell my students what is going on? Why can’t I get the words out?” How could I be so self-conscious … and flawed?! I put myself down all the time. It came out in the form of jokes with my friends.

But once I began my cane training in February or March, my attitude began to change. Each time I went out for cane practice with my mobility instructor, I came back with more confidence. God led my principal to ask me to share my experiences with the high school student body. Shocked, I didn’t think I would be able to follow through on her wishes. But by May, God not only enabled me, He gave me such an enthusiasm for sharing that I brought every visual and hearing aid tool I could think of. I wanted to give our students an idea of how God provides so abundantly for us in our circumstances!

When I began to read Braille, I bubbled over with more excitement. I began to practice every day. It was simply another language to me. By this time, I had developed an excellent rapport with my counselors at the
Blind Center. My mobility trainer suggested I get more intense training in Louisiana. Instead, God provided another training opportunity closer to home in Cleveland where I could learn these same skills.

I spent three weeks blindfolded, at my insistence, to learn adaptive techniques that would make me successful when more vision loss came my way. My trainers and colleagues all had less vision than me! I learned that blindness encompasses a range of loss-from legal blindness to total blindness. Exposure to other blind people taught me that none of us were flawed in the way I once envisioned. Instead, I felt empowered.

Every time I turned around that scripture came to mind. When I felt overwhelmed, God would remind me who was in control and peace would seep back into me.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Candlelight Service

My ears perked up. A candlelight service? My church! Were they actually going to have a special service in the evening? Pardon me for thinking this, but this was highly unusual for a church that believes worship at Christmas time should be like any other Sunday of the year, that we should celebrate Our Lord’s birth every week...well, we all believe that, don't we? I was thrilled to find my church at the threshold of change. Forgive me if I did a double-take. This was one service I would not miss!

That night I took my cane in to church for the first time. I felt a little self-conscious using it front of our small congregation. I just wanted to be seated and out of view. Marilyn waved to me and motioned for me to sit next to her. Her husband, John, stood up to let me pass. Thankfully, I began to fold up my cane and place it near my feet when one of the elders took the microphone.

“Come on, everyone, up t’ the front of the church. Let’s fill up those first few pews.”

I groaned. Everyone would be moving forward, and I would have to use my cane in front of them as we resituated ourselves. We all shuffled forward like obedient sheep.

I now found myself seated next to Paula, the elder’s wife.

She turned toward me, “Now, Amy, I don’t know very much about this—is it mac—“

I smiled, “Well, it’s a form of macular degeneration…” I gave her the short take on it. She herself had suffered breast cancer so I felt at ease in discussing it.

Richard, our elder, leaned on a lectern in front of the church and began to speak, “So how many of you will be participating in this service?”

“Would you like me to get you a candle?” Paula asked.

“Oh, thank you. I can get it myself.” I assured.

“No need, John will get one for all of us,” my friend, Marilyn, piped up.

Richard launched into a complicated set of instructions. Oh no! I had envisioned simply holding a candle at my seat, and singing, or listening to a devotional. Not so tonight!

“…now if you are married, both husband and wife can come up together to light your candle, and stand while the scripture reading is being read. Then you will be seated in the pews opposite, on the other side of the church. If you're single, you'll go up alone…”

The “what-ifs” began in my mind. What if I trip over someone’s legs and sprawl out in front of the congregation? What if I knock over the candle? What if I can’t find my way to the opposite pew? What if run into the communion table? The possibilities were endless. Okay, that does it! I am not participating! I whispered as much to Marilyn. She whispered something back, but I couldn’t catch it. I wasn’t even wearing my hearing aids.

The lights began to dim, one-by-one. Finally, we sat in darkness. I mean it—darkness!

But a little voice inside me began to lecture, You can’t shine “the light” only when it’s convenient. God expects more from us than that. Remember Amy, he never asks us to do anything without equipping us. You remembered your cane. You know how to use it. So when it’s your time, just stand up and get goin’.

I bit my nails as I waited my turn. Finally, Paula stood up and set out. She would walk alone as her husband was already up front leading the scripture readings. Paula had survived her cancer. She never seemed to worry or hesitate. She looked out at the audience with a serene smile. As she left to sit down, I stood up. My heart was pounding.

Marilyn stood up, too, as did her husband. “We’ll go with you,” she said quietly. She held onto my shoulder and we moved out. My cane smacked against the heat register at the end of our pew. Oh no! I quickly turned right. Marilyn guided me to the table ahead. My hand trembled as I lit my candle, then I stepped aside for her and John to do likewise. The three of us stood in front of the church while the scripture was read. My candle illuminated my cane--or at least part of it--in front of the whole congregation. I tried to smile. I have no recollection what the scripture reading focused on as I stood there. With a tap on my shoulder from Marilyn, I moved out and headed for the pew on the opposite side. I didn’t know where the next person was seated so rather than stumble over them, I chose to move to a new pew. At last, I was seated in the audience and watching others move forward; why, even children participated!

Singing followed the devotional; all our songs contained “the light” somewhere in the lyrics…send the light; this little light of mine; walking in the light, to name a few. I relaxed and sang along with the rest of the congregation. My brothers and sisters. What a great family--and feeling!

As the lights slowly filled the room, I rose. Naturally, I reached for my cane. God had provided for me, as usual. Nothing had gone wrong. I didn’t embarrass myself in any way—unless you count banging the heat register. That didn't last very long.

Lord, continue to show me that You are Master of every new situation I face. Give me courage to move through the darkness—both literally and spiritually. I want to become the light You so desire me to be at every turn. No matter … how unfamiliar the territory… who is watching … who I feel may be judging me. What if I do trip? Maybe I won’t know exactly where to go … or what to say or do in my position as Your child. Simply fill me with courage to move out of my comfort zone.

God, You so clearly wove the physical and the spiritual together in an extraordinary lesson for me: Don’t be a light only when it’s convenient. Between my cane and my friend’s assistance, you supplied my needs to enable me to move forward in the physical darkness. I only needed to do one thing: trust You and take that step.

Let me apply those same principles in the spiritual darkness that this world holds. Help me to always take that first step forward.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Perfect Skating Partner

That night bathed in light on the pond below my house, I skated to the hearty applause of an imaginary Olympic audience. It came pretty close to perfection. I skated in a figure-eights pattern, then turned and skated ever so skillfully backwards. After that came my version of the half twist jump, followed by the abrupt fall on my behind.

I wonder how God must feel when we give him foot-stomping, wild applause? I imagine how he is bathed in his own light. He accomplished feats far more splendid than gliding on the ice--I mean, he walked on the water! He stilled the seas! He healed the people! He speaks to each one of us every day of our lives. He is both great and small...magnificent, and yet, personal. Back then, I admired Dorothy Hamill for her smooth moves on the ice as she skated in rhythm to beautiful songs--but I think our Lord has moved in more ways, in a thousand more directions and to so many heart-rendering songs more than this Olympic winner can ever hope to skate to.

My God is not only a champion, he is also my skating partner. When I jump, he must be there to catch me in mid-spin and to throw me out again to watch me land on my toes, to twirl around and do that figure-eight thing I so love to do. I must be able to run into his arms and to dance with him on the ice-our hands catching, meeting, letting go, and coming together once again. I know how to skate backwards and I know that I have to lean into my partner. He will give me that final push I need to finish my recital with flourish.

I never want to lose my delight in this sport because I learned today that God is a magnificent champion skater but he is also my personal skating partner on the arena with me.

I think for a moment. Why, I'm even like one of the many roses in a beautiful bouquet thrown to him after a superb performance; I know he will gather me in his arms and lift me up, perfumed, to his father in heaven.

The applause is deafening. But it's no longer for me. It's for a champion, and my perfect skating partner. It's for my Savior. He's the one that catches me when I fall; yet he's so much more. The applause turns to awe-inspired silence. The thought comes to me: Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

I feel goosebumps on my arm. The image of me skating with the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, and yet someone with whom I can interact with on such a personal level is pretty mind-boggling. And therein lies the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. He meets everybody on a level in whch they can relate to.

Ice Skater's Delight

With our second snowfall of the year, an ice-skating memory came to mind. Share my beautiful ice skating experience with me...
We had lovely and very active winters in northwestern Pennsylvania where I grew up. There were plenty of hills and toboggan slides near my house to play on after a heavy snowfall. But what I enjoyed most was the pond below my house. When it froze over, the neighborhood kids would get together and shovel enough snow to the slides so that we could skate on it. The municipality eventually built us a shelter where we changed into and out of our skates. They even provided a small electric heater.

In blustery afternoons, we would bundle up and head for the pond. We all came those days--boys and girls, kids and teenagers. We made short work of the shoveling. The older and braver ones would soon play "Crack the Whip." Others, like myself would skate nearby or watch them. The tough guys skidded around on their sporty black skates, and the teenage girls flirted. That usually resulted in the teenage boys throwing packed snowballs at them as they chased them over the ice. The girls shrieked as they dodged snowballs or tried to avoid getting the cold stuff down their backs. I glided around and watched it all second-hand--my eyelashes frosted over with snow, my cheeks red and my eyes glowed. What wonderful afternoons! "Come on, Kathy, " I'd call to my best friend, "The pond's frozen over again!"

I remember one particularly brilliant night when I went down to skate by myself just after dinner, around 6 pm. The biting cold sliced through my ski jacket and whistled up my sleeves as I fiddled with the key to unlock the door. Once inside, I felt my way to where the lights were, and flipped on the switch. The 60-watt but gave off little light. I could just see where the small heater sat. I turned that on, and sat down on one of the benches to change into my skates. As I laced up my last skate, a surge of excitement went through me.

Soon, I made my way out of the shed and clunked down the snowy incline that bordered the pond. Soon, I glided in the fresh, night air. The pond had been shoved earlier, and the streetlights shone on the ice. I avoided the bumps, but skated easily on the smoother ice. I think I can skate backwards...lemme try a figure eight. I practiced doing this for awhile.

The pond became an Olympic arena and I was Dorothy Hamill. I arched my neck, held my head high and my arms out, propelling me effortlessly along the ice. I leaned down until I almost touched the ice with my chin. Then I straightened up and with long, firm strides, circled the pond. My (invisible) awestruck audience clapped wildly, which spurred me on to attempt a jump--of course, a half-circle twirl--which, unfortunately landed me with a painful bang on my behind.

The audience faded away and the music disappeared. I was just Amy,a sixteen-year-old skater, in the evening light. So what? Even the best fall, right? I picked myself up and marveled at my ability to maneuver on blades. I loved skating backwards. So effortless. I felt so free and alive!

An hour later, the cold crept through my various layers of clothing, snuck into the joints of my gloved hand and settled down into my toes. Time to get off the ice. I changed out of my skates, shut off the lights and heater, and then carefully locked the door. With my white skates slung over my shoulder, I crunched thoughtfully back up the crusty, snow-covered road that led home. I savored the delicious feeling that came over me whenever I finished skating.

Ahhh... Now to get out of my snow-covered blue jeans and drink a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows. I'm so glad that I live just over the hill from the pond.

Looking back, I don't think that night could have been any more perfect!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Two Dreamers

Today is my father's birthday. Or it would be if he were alive. I wanted to make some kind of tribute to him, share some special story to commemorate his life. Where was that story about the night we talked on the porch in the dark? I could envision it on its yellowed paper with half-faded words. But I couldn't find it! Where could it be? I pulled out a stack of manila folders and started to rifle through the many papers. Gotcha! There, stuck smack in the middle of last year's Spanish handouts lay the coveted paper. What was I thinking? This valuable, sentimental journal could have been lost!

I reread my words. Ugh! My writing is definitely lacking. I feel very critical of it. And yet...even with the lack of style and it being mostly prose, it's a part of my journey, both in writing and of the time I spent with my dad. So I decided to present it exactly as I wrote it way back then. All I want to convey is the special moments I shared with my father that night.


I talked with my father tonight. It seemed like magic. I was a little girl again listening to my hero dream. The night was still, almost stagnant. There weren't even any mosquitoes buzzing. I felt we were given a tribute of silence. It didn't even matter what we said when we did speak as long as we kept talking. His voice, with his reserve broken down, sounded dreamy, slow with intermittent silences accenting his speech. At first I felt anxious to say "the right thing," to keep the conversation alive, but I ran out of things to say. I ached for this mood-this rapport-to continue. that night we talked about trees, his business and his life.

"Dad, how long did it take you to build up your business."

"All my ain't much, but it's all mine." Slow, ponderous the words came. All at once, I saw his soul!

I remembered back to when I was a young girl. It was a long trip home from Brockway. It was just beginning to get dark. Dad was driving and Mom was dozing on the passenger's side. The two boys--my brothers--were both sleeping, and my sister feigned sleep. (I knew because she rapped me when I bumped her). I sat in the middle of the back seat, scooting up on the hump, hands resting on the front seat cushion. The radio was tuned to a scary horror story. I loved this radio station and listened in rapt attention. Why did the sailor murder old Mrs. Hampton? Dad listened too. The story lasted another hour...and finally the conclusion-so unexpected it took my breath away! Dad flipped the station to a country and western and the mood lightened.Everyone began to stir. I regarded them jealously. It had been so peaceful with just Dad and me.

Then, with martyr-like calm, I decided it was my duty to keep Dad awake for the rest of the trip (I laugh now but back then, I took this self-appointed task very seriously). Happily, I watched the others drop back off to sleep again, but not me! Even if I felt really tired, I wouldn't be disloyal to him! Dad was very patient, although now I think he might have preferred my silence. He never told me to be quiet. These private moments between father and daughter were very special to me. No one could intrude. Of course, in spite of all my good intentions, I fell asleep. After all, I was only a little girl.

Tonight I felt the same bond as when I listened to the radio in the car. I still want to please him. We're both "dreamers" of sorts. I think Dad knows that deep down, it's the dreamer in us that links us together. I don't think he'd ever admit to something that sentimental, just as I'd never voice it aloud.

Man has always held sacred ideals--keeping them pure and untouched. But like glass, ideals easily shatter, leaving man to pick at the marred pieces of perfection. That fragile bond is my ideal between my dad and I. Rather than have my illusion destroyed, I hug my secret close within myself - that we are both dreamers - the best kind of people to be. Our silence allows our bond to continue long after I've gone inside.

Just before I go to sleep I think "Wow, my dad is so cool! How many fathers have spent a lifetime building their business and seem so content?" And how many daughters dream that their father's business will last for the rest of their lifetime because it makes him that happy?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

T-T: Talia Tales

"Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones." Proverbs16:24, NIV

A burst of Christmas cheer arrived this afternoon when two-year-old Talia walked through the front door with her mama.

"I want to see Grandma!" (She calls her great grandma, "grandma" and her grandma "ga-ga").

She ran to the kitchen to hand-deliver a picture she had painted in water colors and an angel ornament with her a photo of herself in the center.

"We decided to deliver Grandma's Christmas present early this year," Rachel, Talia's mother explained. She knew how difficult the holiday season always was for my mom without my dad.

A week ago she called me up to ask if she and Talia could buy a little tree and decorate it with Grandma.

"Well, we do have a small tree already." I pointed out, "but I think Grandma would really love it if you came over and did that for her."

So, came they did...bringing T-T stories galore to keep us in stitches as they hung my ornaments from around the world on the little white tree.

"I like this one the best!" Talia declared when I gave her a painted ceramic cat to hang. She was not impressed with the more beautiful and exotic decorations.

"Talia, tell Grandma about the princess party. Remember how ... wanted to eat the purple door on her castle cake? Wasn't that funny?" Talia began to giggle," 'I want to eat the purple door!' " she mimicked her friend.

"T-T, where did you see Santa?"

"At daddy's work party," as she 'went up and down' in Grandma's rocking chair.

"She ran right past all the other bigger kids and jumped in Santa's lap!"

"She's not afraid of anything," Grandma marveled.

Of course, Talia had to do all the usual things she does in every visit-eat crackers, feed the dog his treats, and watch Elmo on Youtube, to name a few. The difference came in how she asked.

She didn't say "Crackers, please." as she would have before. She walked up to Grandma and said, "May I have a cracker, please?" very politely and all-grown up.

Just before she left, she observed Grandpa's picture on the wall.

"What's Grandpa doin'?" she asked.

"Uh, watching us," I replied, a little taken aback. I didn't even know she knew who her grandpa was!

"Grandpa looks real happy."

The photo, taken sometime during the last winter of dad's life, showed my father with a slight dreamy smile. He was wearing his winter jacket and favorite chauffeur's cap.

Talia's observation came as a sweet balm to Grandma's ears.

I think when we look at the picture, we see my father's undiscovered cancer, and the foreshadowing of his death. Talia sees only the serene face my father lived his life wearing.

It was exactly the right thing to say to my mother. Grandma replied, "That's your grandpa."

Talia's mama said, "Grandpa gave you the little bank where you keep your money, didn't he?"


Grandma thought for a moment, then went into her bedroom to get some coins for Talia to put in the tin replica antique car bank they had given her from her grandpa.

I guess Grandma wanted to express her pleasure and reinforce who Talia's grandpa was at the same time.

"These coins are for you to put in your bank," she said handing her a nickel, a penny and a dime.

"Okay," Talia replied, still rocking in the chair. She smiled her angelic smile.

It seemed a fair exchange to me: each one left richer because of the other.

Proverbs 17:6 says that, "Children's children are a crown to the aged."

This was certainly the case when Talia and Rachel swept into our home bringing their Christmas cheer this afternoon.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dad's Christmas Legacy

Dad liked to experiment with everything he did, so this was one of his more recent Christmas trees! Pretty different, huh?!
This is a reflection about our first Christmas without my father. God showed me something beautiful to focus on, which made it bearable.

Dad’s Christmas Legacy

Dad's birthday comes just a week before Christmas, and it had become a family tradition to celebrate his birthday together with my brother-in-law whose birthday falls on the very next day. I’ve seen photographs of these two grown men acting silly together, with everyone smiling around them. This year my father died of cancer six months ago. Dave celebrated without him for the first time in twenty-six years. The melancholy started for me that day, coming in like a swirl of sand and settling in like the famous khamasin, the fifty-day sandstorm that suddenly ravages the Middle East. It starts slowly and builds in intensity. I’m pretty sure the others felt the same way.

Though past Christmases in my family have been modest and quite low-key, with few traditions, I simply couldn’t imagine the day without my smiling father. The tears would swell up in my throat, and I felt as if every word that came out of my mouth would choke me. I kept thinking of all the foods Dad loved. How could he not be there to enjoy them!

Growing up, we all remember one thing—bugging dad to pick up the Christmas tree. “C’mon dad,” we’d holler, “It’s almost Christmas and we still haven’t put it up yet. He’d nod in that calm way of his. That did not mean he actually intended to fulfill our wish that day. Sometimes he and Mom would discuss where he’d get it. But with a father called “The Tree Man,” there was never a question of what kind of tree he’d get. Real, of course! Thick, floor-to-the-ceiling trees with wide open branches and the loveliest pine smell ever! Dad would drag the stool to the attic door in the girls’ bedroom and clomp up inside it, handing down a hefty box we kept our ornaments in. We’d carry it down to the living room and set it down, waiting patiently for him to untangle the lovely string of old-fashioned red, green and white lights people used back then to string around their trees.

While he did that, we would prepare the ornaments — silver, gold, red, blue and green aluminum balls — to hang on the branches. All our ornaments were cheap and simple. We made lots of them over the years. Some came from the local bank, which gave away cookie-cutter brass ones with the name of their bank inscribed on the back, along with the year. Every year, one of us would claim it as our own. I once got the little drummer boy.

We had a fair amount of squabbling among us, and I recall our cat, Fluffy, knocking off shiny bulbs and chasing them under furniture. She also climbed the tree once in awhile with an agility that amazed even my dad, “Someone get that cat down from there!”

We were ready to hang tinsel. It was a tough job to get it evenly hung on the tree. My older brother and sister, Mike and Carolyn, quickly lost interest in this task and made my younger brother, Donnie, and I finish up.

At the very end, Dad always placed the angel on the tippy-top. We still have that simple, plastic angel fifty-seven years later. At age twenty-one, Mom spent every bit of her wage on buying that angel so it meant a lot to her. In keeping with our assortment of ornaments, the angel wasn’t worth much even then but once on the tree, it glowed brilliantly, and we loved it.

Putting up the tree was our biggest tradition. Early Christmas morning, we’d wake up, running to Mom and Dad’s room to hurry them out of the covers, so we could open up our presents. I think our parents taught us to value what we received because we never had much money for fancy gifts. We got sturdy clothing and games.

We’d never do much on Christmas Day. Mom and Dad would stagger back to bed for awhile and we’d tear open all the boxes and play our games, most which clanged, banged, and dinged, as we slapped levers and pounced on buttons and bells. Later, we’d all bundle up in heavy clothing to head down to the pond and skate if it was frozen over. Many times we’d head to Brockway, about three hours away, to visit my Grandma Florence, Dad mother. We had great fun there, meeting up with our cousins! If there was snow, dad would take us out to coast on the hill beside grandma’s house. If we stayed home, Mom always made a big meal and dad carved the meat, either ham or turkey, with an electric knife.

Over the years, the tree has changed style and shape, but for much of that time, dad brought it in and trimmed it up to fit into our small living room. When he began experimenting with arborvitae, that took the place of the traditional-style Christmas tree. It came as a shock to learn that Mom and Dad finally replaced their fresh-scented pines with a small, reusable white fiber-optic one. The Tree Man had quit fooling with the real thing!

We made it through our first Christmas without my father, each in our own way. Nobody talked about him being gone but his absence affected all of us. This is how I made it through...

On Christmas morning, the long line of Christmas trees Dad brought into our house each year paraded through my mind — the fat ones, the lopsided ones, the sappy ones and even those pricking us with their extra-sharp needles. I suddenly saw how Dad’s passion for nature, and real trees, gave us something extraordinary to look back on. During those long-ago childhood Christmases we delighted in hearing him stomp the snow off his work boots as he descended down each stair into the basement. We’d eagerly rush down in our stocking feet, unable to wait to see what kind of tree he’d chosen. Remembering this, naturally, made me sad.

I went outdoors to get some fresh air and clear my mind. Once outdoors, my eyes took in all the trees Dad had so carefully grafted, pruned, twisted and tended to for so long. I sat on the stoop and really looked at them. All of the sudden, it came to me.

These were our Christmas trees!

These tiered bushes, the archway he lovingly coaxed into one piece by grafting two trees together, the knobby branches that hold round buttons of shrubbery are beautiful living legacies of my father. Their decoration is simple but effective– the results of his daily pruning make it a wonder for all to behold. So many people stop and ask to take photographs, compliment or ask who does our trees. These trees, so alive with beauty, keep his memory alive to family, friends and strangers alike. When I look at our yard now, I think how fortunate I am to have these trees year ‘round!

I remember how it used to feel when we finally threw out our Christmas tree. I had a sense of loss—much like the loss our family experienced when my dad passed away. But these trees and shrubs grace our yard throughout the seasons. The lights he used to decorate them with no longer exist. On our tall slender pine, they’ve grown down into the bark. But when I see the snow covering them nowadays, I feel they’re decorated with the most natural element of all.

People passing by smile and wave; we’re forever linked to each other through my father’s artistic gift that he lovingly left behind. Thank you, God, for showing me how the magic of his trees will keep Christmas in my heart all year long.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lord, I Seek Your Hand

In the darkness I seek Your hand to guide me along each road ahead,
Though I often struggle and slip, unable to see where Your feet have tread;
As I strain and force my eyes open wide, I still fall short and lose my stride,
I long to trust Your vision for my life, with my own, I simply wander and collide.
I run ahead and lag behind, I want to walk in tandem .
Lord, I seek Your hand.

I yearn to run with joy to fulfill Your sweetest bidding,
Instead I croak ungraciously in pride, "Lord, You've got to be kidding!"
It fills me with delight when you speak to me through Your Word,
And confirm it with the voice of others; then, Lord, I feel self-assured.
I have so far to journey before I'm near where I should be.
Lord, I seek Your hand.

Devotionals: Stepping Into My Goals!

I've just had some of my devotional writing selected by an editor for publication! The book is called "101 Faces of Faith." It should be coming out next month!! Yay!

Devotional writing is a good genre for me. When I explore a situation in my mind, I feel that God has taken time out to express His thoughts to me on that situation. He is speaking to me. He is speaking to me! He actually TEACHES me a lesson, or something that draws me closer to Him when I am writing. It's word-grappling, but when I'm tuned into the Holy Spirit, I know He is really speaking and it's not just my thoughts.

Writing can be so frustrating, and even contrived at times, but when my heart is in it, (or when God prepares my heart?) and I'm seeking, it's beautiful and fulfilling.

THIS is what I truly want to do with my own book, FOCUS ON GOD'S WORLD. God is using this specific experience [the FAITH IS... anthology opportunity] to train and equip me with the skills I need to feel confident and finally finish my "FOCUS" book. They stories are longer but they have my special voice in them. God gave me that time to travel but with the intent that I would encourage others to see situations in their own lives in which God is speaking to them. His purpose is all coming together in my mind now.

I've been walking in faith (stumbling really) but sure God had a plan / purpose for that kind of writing (I didn't even know about writing devotionals when I started writing them so many years ago in my newsletters; I just felt God teaching me lessons when I traveled and I wanted to get them down).

But now I see a market for this. God is now moving me forward by revealing each step I need to take. Maybe I wasn't ready to finish it earlier. It's all in God's timing. Wow!!! That's amazing!

The next entry is a poem that I wrote on Seeking God's Will in this crossroads of my life. Check it out!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Leave Takings

As I mentioned yesterday, traveling has always been the easy part for me to do. But saying goodbye has upon occasion torn my heart out. I still remember a very poignant moment with my nieces. It has burned itself into my memory. The girls were still pretty young. I guess Rachel was seven, Emily, six. It was the end of August, 1988 after their first day back to school. I had come home for a high school reunion earlier, had a short visit, and was heading back to Indonesia the following day.

I had spent the day with my nieces and two little kids that my sister also babysat, Christina and Jeremiah. The three children and I were seated on the living room floor. I recall we had just finished coloring.

"Emily, you always color so nicely in the lines," I complimented.

"I know."

I smiled. I love how kids acknowledge their talents with that supreme confidence.

"Who taught you how to do that?" I asked.

Emily lay on her belly, with her legs crossed in the air. She was very focused. "My daddy."

"Hey, everyone! how about a book? If we pick up this stuff, you can choose a book for me to read."

"Yay! Hurry up!" the girls cried.

"You pick all the broken crayons, and you pick the books " That was Emily, the little organizer, trying to tidy it as quickly as possible. After a flurry of activity, the kids were ready.

"Aunt Amy, sit here!" Rachel called out.

Emily plopped down on the other side of me. She peered into the book...

Christina stood up, her hands on her hips. "I want Aunt Amy to sit by me, too!"

Emily narrowed her eyes and placed a possessive hand on the book I was holding, "She's our Aunt Amy, not yours."

"Hey, hey, hey! None of that," I chided. "Let's sit in a circle so we can all be together and see the pictures. Besides, I am everybody's Aunt Amy."

We got on with the business of reading. I had a captive audience and really let my storytelling skills go wild. It was a fun, exciting time. I even recall that Jeremiah, an adorable, chubby toddler, wore a big wide grin. He looked from person to person and began to clap his hands as he picked up on the excitement in the room. Maybe my sister had brought him in to share in part of the fun. She always wanted to capitalize on positive experiences. I don't remember what book I read but I remember thinking it was a perfect end to an excellent afternoon.

Soon after, Christina and Jeremiah went home for the day. I stayed on with Rachel and Emily as it was almost dinnertime. We ate dinner and the girls had their baths. Soon it was time for them to go bed.

"Can I tuck them into bed, and say goodnight--and I guess, goodbye?" I asked her.

"Sure," she responded.

I sat down with Rachel and tucked her in. Rachel burst into big, noisy sobs. She just didn't understand why I had to leave. She lay in her bed sobbing and I sat holding her. I didn't have any words this time, no pat hotel plan. I teared up myself. It was all I could do not to cry in front of her. When I left her, she was sleepy and finally calm.

Next, I checked in on Emily, who had been waiting. She lay very, very quietly in her bed and didn't say much. But when I kissed her goodnight, I felt the hot tears that covered her face. She had been crying silently for some time and the hurt seemed to go even deeper.

"Honey, what's wrong?"

She struggled to get the words out, "How come you like them better than us?"

"How come I like who?"

"Those IN-DO-NEE-SIANS!" The words burst out with a torrent of feeling.

"Oh honey, I don't. I don't. I promise you."

"But you keep on going there."

How does a little girl grapple with such emotions? Emily reasoning abilities surprised me.

"I just work there."

"You're not even going to be here for my BIRTHday!" She, too, sobbed.

"Oh, Emily! When is your birthday?"

"I don't know. Ask my mommy!"

I wanted to laugh, but this little girl was so intense that I had to hide it.

We talked for a bit more until she felt better. I promised to write her a lot.

When I finally closed the door, I was an emotional wreck. This goodbye stuff had really taken its toll on me.

I told my sister about what happened, and she sighed, "They're overemotional. Remember it was the first day of school for them. You've been with them ever since. Emily rarely shows her emotions. And both of them really miss you when you're gone."

"I guess..."

I was still pretty shaken by the unexpected way they'd pulled on my heartstrings. In fact, so much so that I canceled a date with an old friend I had planned to meet up with. I just wanted to go to bed and wake up early to catch my flight out. I felt drained.

I found that I couldn't enjoy my flight back as I normally did. All I could think of was the little girls I had left behind. Of course, they woke up and went to school. Life was back to normal for them already. And it would be for me when I settled back into my job. I loved it all over again.

But I will never forget my encounter with their tears. Children have such an innocent way of showering us with honest emotion, in a way that adults rarely do. We keep it inside. Like my mom did for so many years each time I left. I think it got harder for my mother to hide it, though. A few years back I watched my mother walk away from me from inside the window at Erie International Airport. She slowly hobbled back to her car, leaning heavily on her cane. The sight of her stooped over made her appear so lonely that I was at once reminded of that long ago farewell scene with my nieces. I decided then that I would have to come home soon to live. Farewells has begun to hurt too much.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Amy's Hotel List

I ran across some items recently that I had stored away for many years. It reminded me of how important my relationship with my nieces has always been in my life.

As a rule, I wan't overly sentimental about leaving my family and returning to wherever I was living overseas at any given time. My mind was already on the airplane, thinking of the stops I had to make, and when I could relax and get back to "my real life."

But I have to admit that it was always somewhat difficult to leave my nieces behind. They had me at my heartstrings sometimes.

The first memento I found was "Amy's Hotel List."

"Aunt Amy, why d' ya haf' to keep going away all the time? I miss you." This, from honey-haired Rachel. She was seated cross-legged on my bed watching me finish pack. She fidgeted with some little purse I'd given her from Guatemala.

"Ya, Aunt Amy. You're s'possed t' live here! We like it when you read books to us 'n' stuff," Emily chimed in. She frowned at me, accusingly.

I sighed. "You know, guys, what about if you come over to the house ... maybe on Friday or Saturday night to visit Grandma and Grandpa, and then sleep in my room? There are two beds here, one for each of you!"

Rachel's eyes lit up. "Can we really?"

"Sure, and ... uh, it'll be just like a hotel...whenever I go to a hotel, I have to write my name and all kinds of information!" I added, ad-libbing as I went along. "It'll be like you are traveling too."

"Ya, that'll be fun!" Rachel shouted.

"No, it won't. Aunt Amy won't be here! She'll be ... I can't 'member where you're goin'..." Emily looked as if she might burst into tears.

"It will be lotsa fun. You'll have to sign in and write the date you stayed, and say what you thought of your stay. I do that when I travel. We can sit down and talk about it when I come home again. That'll help you remember. And to pay for staying over night, you'll have to help grandma with the dishes or make the beds. Or maybe grandpa, you can help him do some fun jobs!" I said encouragingly.

"Like plant some stuff, or pick strawberries!" added Rachel, already imagining the fun she'd have. "Maybe he'll give us a ride in his old truck!"

"That's not work!" Emily scoffed, "but I guess so...okay, it's a deal. But what if I want to stay and Rachel doesn't? Or what if our dad doesn't let her 'cause she does something bad?" Emily always thought everything out. She was a very practical young girl.

"I wanna stay, too. I'm allowed, can't I, Aunt Amy?"

"Yep, you can both stay but ya gotta sign the list. An' ya gotta be good and help grandma."

They agreed and we made the list right then and there. We taped it to my desk blotter and got it ready for their first visit.

"Hmm. Remember just write your first name."

"C'mon girls," their mother called upstairs to us, "Daddy's ready to go now."

"Bye, Aunt Amy" they chorused, and hugged me tightly. Then they ran to tell their mom about the hotel list and our agreement.

Now as I look at the list, a lump forms in my throat. I put it back next to the construction paper ice cream cones they made for me one time when I left. It has their good-byes written in childish print. I place that on the chalkboard with a set of school photos, glued to it and the message "To Aunt Amy: World's Best Aunt" written in glitter-glue.

I find that I'm getting emotional; the tears are coming as I write.

I guess when you cultivate a relationship, it becomes such a big part of you that even the moments of separation become mementos of your life.

Though I was gone so frequently, I nurtured our relationship through letters with word pictures and stick-figures of the people I met. I punctuated my letters with funny stories and sent cassettes for them to listen to for nights when they stayed "in the hotel." I bought them typical dolls from everywhere I traveled. They consisted of straw, felt, clay, rope, cloth, cones ... you get the picture. The most basic elements. I sent them traditional clothing of some of the countries I lived in and explained what the styles and colors meant. I taught them to look into their hearts and reach out to those who have different lifestyles and languages. So, while leaving them was always difficult, I shared as much of my foreign life with them as I could back then.

When I was pregnant, I dreamed of having daughters just like Rachel and Emily. When God took my twins to heaven, He lovingly reminded me of the connection that I still had with these two precious nieces who had grown up in my shadow - and that comforted me. Now when I spend time, and observe them nurture their own families, my heart overflows with gratitude and love for the women they've become.

They have both done some overseas mission work, and I like to think I opened their hearts just a little bit to doing that through my own love for missions and life abroad.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for teaching me how to nurture this relationship throughout all the separations, and reunions. Thank you for loving me enough to allow my life to be enriched by them. Thank you for allowing them to step in and fill the place my twin daughters would have taken up in my life had they lived. I'm so grateful, Father, for your etermal provisions.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Platter of His Fruits

Faith Savors God's Fruits in His Presence

Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:19-20 NIV

Fresh off a bus in Ft. William, Scotland, I looked just like I felt: cold, bedraggled, soaked and lost! Due to a golf tournament in the area, everything was booked up. Finally, I checked out the last hostel on my list.

“Sorry, we’re full up,” the clerk said. After a look at my distraught face, she pulled her rolodex over and flipped through it, “H’lo Conn'lly, I’ve got a young girl here—more apt to be called a drowned rat—at her wit’s end. Can you fit her in there? You can?! Great? No, she doesn’t mind walking a fair distance a-tall.” she added tongue-in-cheek.

Hey, speak for yourself! I'm a little bit tired of being cold and wet, and not knowing where to go and now I have go back out in that downpour, find a new bus stop, get off, walk AGAIN a 'a fair distance' so I can find a warm place to change my clothes and sleep?! Aaagghhh! Grumble! Grumble! Grumble!

Finally at my destination, I rang the bell and waited for such a long time only to hear these harsh words, “Don’t stand out in the rain. Are you daft!” After checking in, I trudged through the dark hallways leaving wet footprints behind in my stocking feet (Foot and Mouth Disease) to the only remaining bunk in what seemed to be a co-ed dorm. I hung up my raincoat. Water dripped down it and formed a pool below on the floor. I quickly changed clothes! Ah! Warm at last!

My stomach rumbled but all the hostel sold on its premises was Oreo cookies, and candy bars. Others had brought their own food. Definitely not one of my better traveling days! Grumble! Grumble! Grumble! Sound familiar? Anything like the Israelites complaining about the manna as they wandered through the desert for forty years?

Later that evening, a loose ends, I wandered back outdoors. I found myself in the glen of Mt. Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland. I perched atop a picnic table and drank in God's presence. What grandeur! “No matter how much we elevate ourselves, we are still in the valley of His greatness!" I felt small and close to God, in the palm of His hand as I was in the palm of that mountain. A song came to mind: Creation is Awaiting.

What I can remember of it now goes:

Creation is awaiting the return of the King.
The trees are poised to clasp their hands for joy,
The mountains stand majestic to salute their God;
The desert lies in wait to burst into bloom...

Ceation is awaiting, the world is awaiting the return of the King
The earth is a footstool for his feet,
Every knee will bow down, every tongue confess
That Jesus Christ is Lord of Heaven and Earth....

God spoke to me through a small ray of sun that stole over me for a short time as I sat there. I noticed that when I moved out of a certain spot, the sun left me. Isn't that the same with us in life? If we are leaning toward the Son, God touches with it. If our priorities get lost in the shadows of all the things that threaten to envelop us, then we are not reaching towards God and it can get real cold fast.

God doesn’t always send us a blazing sunny day but He always provides enough heat to get us though the day.

He sends us sweatshirts and raincoats with hoods to ward off the chill. He sends people who take pity on drowned rats, and buses to carry them to dry rooms. Then when they get peeved because the food isn’t what they expect, He invites them to a picnic table to slowly enjoy a platter of His own fruits - to savor and reflect. He even sends Himself to keep them company! No wonder creation is awaiting God...

What a joy to welcome the One who welcomes us in spite of our grumbling hearts!

Application: Lord, let me remember to thank You for your hidden blessings, even when I'm out of sorts.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Once Upon A Yogurt Part IV

I am convinced that this dinner was unique! But very the account for yourselves and see...!

A Dinner Not To Be Forgotten

Sometime later the gong sounded and still half-asleep I got out of bed. Somehow just being around other people, I felt better and slowly became aware of a delicious aroma that wafted through the hallways of the splendid villa. As I padded down the curved, marble steps to join the two couples, I felt hungry for the first time in months.

The table had been laid out beautifully by Juju, the maid. Each setting looked elegant and had a number of fancy utensils to eat with and a crystal goblet to drink from. My all-time favorite meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, sweet corn, green beans and homemade bread sat within reach. Two pitchers sat planted at either end of the large table, one containing fresh pomegranate juice and the other ice water. “Oh Meryl, bless you!” I cried in anticipation. She smiled over at me, “We’ll get you better yet,” she beamed, then placed a chubby hand over her husband’s, “Marvin, will you do the honors to say grace?” and bowed her head.

“A-MEN!” Lydia echoed loudly as if God might be hard of hearing.

They began to pass the food around, but just as I was about to ask for the roast beef, Lydia puckered her lips, “Oh, no, no, NO! Don’t even go there!”

I looked up in surprise. Was she talking to me?

"Juju —” she called, “What IS taking that lazy woman so long?!” She got up to search for her. “Juju prepared something special for you,” Lydia called from the kitchen.

"For ME? Why would she make something special for me?"

Lydia looked at me as if I had lost my senses.

Was this my last meal or something? Was I that far gone? I was not going to eat whatever special dish she made for me if it wasn't anything like this wonderful-smelling beef dinner...mmh! Ah, such delicious aromas.

Then the torture began...

First, the bread passed by me as if in slow motion, and each person took a piece. Frank slathered his with butter, as did Marvin after him. “I think I’ll have me some a those fresh green beans,” Marvin chuckled. And so it continued, oohing and ahhing with each exquisite dish that passed by me. Meryl looked at me, then at Lydia who came back in the room with Juju, who was carrying a small jar of yogurt in her hand. I loathed yogurt. Was this some sadistic game? “I think I’d prefer some of that roast beast and potatoes,” I croaked, my eyes fixed on Meryl.

“Well, dear, maybe it’ll be okay to have …”

“Do you want that girl to be sick as a dog right here and now? And up all night to boot? Lor-dee, Meryl! There is no way she can eat that heavy food after not keeping anything down for months on end! Juju went to a lot of effort to make this delicious plain yogurt for her, at my request.”

Meryl shrugged apologetically as Juju placed the single jar of creamy white substance next to my plate. I stared at it as silence surrounded me. How could I bring myself to eat it?

Well Lydia, now I do believe we have some papaya that would sweeten it up just a little and that would be very good for her, too,” Meryl remarked kindly.

“Well, Juju, go on and get it,” Marvin prompted.

The clinking of silverware resumed and I sat stunned. Could this really be happening? Each person seemed to remark on the delicious attributes of the individual dishes I could not touch. It’s like a movie, a spoof, a comedy!

“If that girl spends the whole night in the toilet again, Frank is not going to teach for her! You know that, don’t you? Let’s be certain. The good Lord says, ‘He who does not what He commands will harvest the results in his own day,’ “

“Yes, Lydia, we know.” Marvin rolled his eyes over at Meryl, before plopping a full helping of whipped potato into his mouth, “You hear that?” he asked, turning to me and winking.

I nodded meekly as the papaya arrived. I picked up a spoon and tried to look grateful for this special meal prepared for me. It took quite a long time for me to cut up the papaya but once I did, there was no other course of action but to pour the plain yogurt over it on my plate. I looked down at my plate. I am here in this beautiful house with all these delicious smells and here I sit forced to eat the food I hate the most!

I tried to ignore the delicious aromas around me and slid my spoon into the yogurt for my feast.

That marked the beginning of what would later become my love affair with homemade yogurt mixed with sweet orange papaya, for that’s all I ate until I finally beat Indonesia’s dreaded Salmonella food poisoning. I learned to love it.

I also lived to tell the tale.

Once Upon A Yogurt: Part III

Yesterday I left off with my new resolve to stay "in the fortress on the hill" in order to get over whatever food-borne illness I had contracted. My supervisor had kindly invited me into her more western expatriate home in the hopes that "normalcy," boiling water, and good food would cure me. But first I had to find out what exactly was wrong!

A Scary Diagnosis in a "Real Hospital"

A Scary Diagnosis at a “Real Hospital

“Today Lydia’s taking Fred to the hospital on the hill and I told her to take you with them. You don’t need to go to those clinics anymore. You go to a good doctor, you hear? And you get yourself better once and for all,” Meryl spoke in a voice that left no room for argument.

I gulped. Riding in the same van as Lydia across town? Could I stand it? Well, if Fred could live with her, I guess I could handle a short ride through Jakarta with Lydia.

We all considered poor Fred very unfortunate to have married the bossy, overpowering Lydia whose southern drawl would have come across as sweet as honey had she had anything nice to say. But she lived an embittered existence with a tongue as sharp as Fred’s was dull. She liked nothing about Indonesia, least of all the Indonesians.

“You stupid girl, this is all your own doing. God gave you a mind to think! Your illness is a direct result of your poor living habits. I buy my cuts of meat only at the German butcher, and I watch him to make sure he cuts it properly. Why God only knows what those local tukangs handle the food with out on the street! You are sinning against God, my child, and you deserve every bit of disease that comes your way. Those IndoNEsians know nothing at all about cleanliness. Why just the other day…” I closed my eyes to block out her voice as the rumble in my stomach grew louder.

When we arrived to the hospital on the hill, Lydia pushed a slow-moving Fred ahead of her and pretended not to know me. “Oh no, she’s not with me. Separate bills,” horrified when the local clerk waited until I arrived before she took their personal information. She turned her back on me and moved discreetly away before she would give any of their particulars.

I discovered I’d contracted the dreaded Salmonella bug, and was busy wondering if I was going to die or not. She only sniffed with her petite nose high in the air, “Thank God we’re in a real hospital!”

When we arrived at the fortress on the hill, I blurted out to Meryl, “They say I’ve got Salmonella Poisoning. People die from that, don't they?"

"Well, yeah, I guess they do." Meryl clucked sympathetically.

Lydia who until that point had no interest in my diagnosis, scowled and scooted away from me as if she might catch it.

“Now you just rest for now, and when we’re ready for dinner, we’ll let you know. Marvin will sound the gong and when you hear that, just come on down. We’ll have something nice for you.” Meryl took me to the guest bedroom, which seemed more like a cozy hotel room with a beautiful view of a pomegranate, and fig tree outside.Exhausted, I splashed some water on my face and sat down on the bed.

If I lay down, would I ever get up again? How fast did Salmonella take to steal one's life away? Was I already dying these past two months? I tried to get comfortable but I felt the bed jab into my bones. I didn't even have the energy to burst into the tears I wanted to. Inside I felt a black despair fall over me. It was so strong that I felt cold. Wait!...I guess that was the very real air conditioning in the fortress! It had been eight months since I'd felt anything but heat all around me. No wonder I was chilled! I closed my eyes...

Mom? Dad? I'm ready to come home now! Please send me a ticket!

Stay tuned for the exciting and comedic conclusion of this tale in tomorrow's entry!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Once Upon a Yogurt: Part II

I left you yesterday filled with images of me wholeheartedly embracing street stall food in Indonesia. It was the medium for friendships - a total immersion experience, if you may. The tables were about to turn, and my hardships would begin.

Local Food Takes Its Toll on My Body

One look at myself in a full-length mirror told me the stomach attacks needed to be addressed at once. The face that gaped back made me grimace. I’d lost the sparkle in my eyes. My hair looked dull and lifeless. I sucked in my cheeks but quickly puffed them out again. Oooh. Too scary. As my eyes traveled down the length of the mirror, I saw my clothes hung on me, shoulders sagging halfway to my elbows. The football-sized shoulder pads in fashion back then looked ridiculous on me, as if I'd become a caricature. Even today, James refers to the shoulder-pad phase as "the attack of the shoulder pads." I adjusted my poofy blouse and noticed my collar bone looked so angular it could have served as a geometrical project to be measured. The chords on my neck looked like tubed electrical wires. I turned away from the mirror.

Just then a gurgle sounded and I held my stomach in a too-familiar-motion. I’d been in Indonesia for eight months and had lost fifteen pounds. At twenty-six years of age, my total body weight came to a mere eighty-five pounds. In today’s world that would smack of anorexia. But back then, excited to be living overseas, we all knew I’d just taken in a bit too much of the local cuisine and couldn’t seem to keep anything inside for long. Montezuma had left Mexico, crossed hemispheres (without virtue of a passport) and was exacting its revenge upon me!

When the problems lingered on for yet another month, big motherly Meryl put her foot down. She approached me after a terrible, sickly day at work, “We’re goin’ to the house on Jalan Salam and get your bag. Don't say a word. You’re gonna move in with me until we lick this thing! Ya just need some good American food. That house boy, Eddy, doesn’t boil your dishes in hot water and that’s why you’re so sick today. Now Lydia, she watches right over our Juju to make sure she boils the dishwater a full ten minutes so they're sterile. You’ll see a difference,” she said kindly as she patted beads of sweat off her brow and upper lip.

I winced at her description of our Javanese house boy, Eddy. He suited me and the few teachers who lived with me on Jalan Salam just fine.We lived simple lives. Eddy spoke no English so having him there forced us--well, I guess I wouldn't use the word force--because at least for me, it was an adventure communicating with our kind houseboy. He laughed at my mistakes, or called on "Mr James" to clarify when I simply couldn't get my point across. Eddy taught us a lot about the local culture, too. We suited Eddy as well. He was always agreeable to run our personal errands, usually to the post office, or to pick up satay kambing at the end of a long work day for a bit of extra cash. I'd never have traded Eddy for anyone else.

But just then Meryl's offer lifted a weight off me. It was time to experience some luxury at the fortress.

“Sure I’ll come,” I said gratefully. I was ready to endure anything to feel well again, even Lydia's sour disposition.

Read tomorrow's entry to find out why I was so ill!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Once Upon a Yogurt: Part 1

I never really liked yogurt until I was forced to eat it for a period of time in the Far East when I was ill. There are moments when expats return back home when nothing, but nothing, tastes like it does overseas. We can only long for the impossible. This account illustrates both the reminiscence and the tale of how my love affair with yogurt began.


Vivid Memories & Local Indonesian Cuisine

A splendid day, the San Antonio sunshine filled the air making it the kind of Saturday that belied sadness and that invited smiles from strangers. As I sent my car through the car wash, I dangled my purse and smiled back at everyone.

A dark-haired teenage boy swung a drying cloth in the air and tucked it in his back pocket before he handed me my car keys. "Your car is done now, miss."

"Oh thank you," He called me Miss, not Ma'am. That deserved a tip! He took it and sauntered on to the next vehicle, whistling as he swung his cloth. He snapped his towel as another worker, and started a playful fight. Such lightheartedness...

I opened the front door and sat down to the recently-sprayed new car smell. Great! Where could I go next? The sun was shining. I had all the time in the world. I thought for a moment. Why not? Impulsively, I set out for Albertson's, the local grocery chain.

I strolled up and down the aisles and studied the food I could buy with more interest than usual. Ah yes, the dairy products. I browsed through them until I found what I had come for. There it lay where I always found it: white yogurt with live cultures. I checked the price and set it back down again. Maybe next time. I said the same thing each time I came. But deep down, I knew the price had less to do with it than the memories associated with the yogurt. In fact, to try to duplicate the taste seemed sacrilege to me. I longed for the fresh, cool taste replete with sun-ripened papaya just as I remembered it from Indonesia.

The memory had everything to do with my stay at Meryl, my supervisor's, ‘fortress on the hill,’ the nickname my colleagues and I had given her mansion away from the masses. It was a grand place with a wall surrounding it. She actually had a small plot of grass surrounding her home that contained exotic tropical fruit trees. When we arrived at the gate, Yadi, her driver, rolled down the window and rang a little buzzer outside. A gate boy swung the gate open for Yadi to drive the SUV through. Ju-ju, the maid, would then come to greet us, and take Meryl's bookbag from her weary shoulders. Dinner came a short time later after we freshened up. Someone-usually Meryl's husband-signaled meals by clanging an old-fashioned. six-foot gong which stood in all its brilliance in the freshly-swept hallway. I loved visiting Meryl, and on occasion, imagined what it would be like to live there. I'd eat fresh bananas every morning.

Unfortunately, Lydia and Frank, her husband, lived in the same house. Lydia and Frank were Meryl's daughter’s in-laws. Lydia, with her pursed lips and constant whining, rubbed everyone wrong. Frank was her dull, plodding husband. With his hair cut in block-style straight across his forehead and his flat-feet walk, the ridiculous image of Fred Flintstone always popped into my head when I saw him. The way he spoke, "Good mor-ning," in his even, monotone voice, tempted me to take on Barney's persona and respond, "Hi, Fred" in exactly the same way. Thank goodness, I never did. Frank and I taught at the same language school where Meryl directed. Apparently, Frank had recently retired from the Navy and needed a job. So, in a burst of nepotism and goodwill, Meryl hired him on. How she must have regretted it when she realized what life was like under the same roof as that couple! But to her credit, she never said anything about that to me, a lowly teacher. However, the tale of my time in The Fortress comes up later. For now, try to imagine my life in this exciting Far Eastern country I found myself in.

Ah, let me tell you about my culinary adventures in Indonesia...

When I arrived in Jakarta, the sights and sounds of street life beckoned me and most of this included tasting food one way or another. Satay ayam, skewered goat kabobs dripping with lovely peanut spicy sauce cost almost nothing. Kelapa muda, sweet coconut water served in the unripe shell, could be found everywhere. I sampled bakso, small round meatballs, noodles, fried rice, and Chinese food sold in tents on lunch breaks with my local colleagues. I thought nothing of it because it all tasted so delicious.

I also remember some petite square, green rice cakes – twice boiled -- filled with some sort of melted brown sugar and covered with fresh coconut peddled down our road, Jalan Salam, by a local tukang. We could hear the vendor coming. His cart boasted a whistle that sounded like a teapot filled with boiling water. In order to pay, I had to squint through the steam, then I would take the cakes he placed in a small plastic sack from his gnarled, outstretched hand and carry them back to the house.

Life was sweet for me at that time. Both my western and local colleagues formed friendships over that food in the roadside warangs, tents and stalls. I was young, unassuming, and newly-professional, up for all that came my way. At the rate I devoured the local food wherever I went– sweet, spicy, hot and cold, most of it not-so-hygienic -- it came to no surprise to anyone when my life of culinary street savvy turned the tables on me (so to speak!).


Read tomorrow's episode to find out what happened next!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Coughing My Way Into My Chinese Doctor's Heart

"Aaaarghhh! No one answers."

I left a message at my doctor's office. It's a toss of a coin if he will be in today. He's semi-retired and moving a bit more slowly now even when he's in. That doesn't bother me, it's catching him in that's the challenge. After work, I gave him another call, and again, the answering machine came on. I didn't have much hope of getting in today. I sighed.

My phone rang.

"H'lo... Oh, hello Dr. Juang, you can fit me in this afternoon at 2:30. Great! Thank you!"

I checked my watch. Just an hour's wait.

Right on time, I pushed in the door to his large, dark and very polished old home which housed his practice on the bottom floor. The door creaked, loud and slowly as I pushed my way in. It announced my arrival. I peeked into the absent receptionist's office and found a seat in the waiting room. A Chinese patient was in with the doctor, and when he saw me, he swung the door shut.

A few minutes later, it was my turn.

"Ni-how-ma?" I greeted him in mandarin.

"Ni-how." He looked up from his desk. "You good job. You want translator?"

I shook my head. The movement threw me into a minute-long and labored cough.

"Dr. Juang, I can't stop coughing! "Coughers" are not popular in public anymore, you know. Help me!"

Could I have the swine flu? Nowadays television commercials advocated coughing into your sleeve in public and staying away from hospital visits. I felt like a pariah.

"Say, ahhhh" he ordered after I opened my mouth.

He muttered something half in English, and half in Chinese, which I strained to hear.

"Breed. Big breed," he ordered as he took out his stethoscope.

So I breathed, but had to smile as he checked my breathing with me still wearing my coat. Who am I to question his methods?

"Tsk-tsk. You wheeze?"

"I-uh-I-yeah, I guess so."

"Thought so. You bronchial problem. Next pneumonia. You care now, you better for teaching."

"Oh. Okay."

"You insurance now?"


"No problem. You take pill and rest. Must take rest. You call me no feel better tomorrow, uh, after tomorrow. Jus' you call and you say me."

I nodded.

"This Obama. No make it easy. He take more cuts. You happy this man?"


"Yes, he make big mix-up now, you see. You brother. I see he struggle his business the insurance." he made a face. "Little business big problem. Too much money they need pay."He laughed-- a dry humorless laugh that showed his compassion.

My doctor's a card and I so appreciate him! He's also the only one in which I can afford to go. At a mere $30 an office visit, he also prescribes medicine I can afford. He tries to work with patients like me. I think it's the nature of small town life. So much better than other doctors with big waiting rooms, who charge bigger bills to support them. $95 a pop is what those doctors charge just for the visit.

My doctor has a great personality. I can understand him just fine. My brother, on the other hand, struggles. They repeat themselves many times to be understood, poking fun of each other all the while.

"You big man," the doctor warned but always with a gentle smile, "You diabetes. Need lose weight."

"What? What? Are you talking English?" my brother would joke back. "Nah, t'day it's my back. Trying to fix my truck..."

"Okay, okay, but you diabetes, so you need lose big gut, now we talk 'back'."

"What doc? You talkin' back to me?"

And so a typical visit between my brother and his great friend, Dr. Juang, would go.

But they like each other. My brother introduced me to him, in fact. Small town life is great that way. A personal introduction to a great family doctor.

"You teach college? No many students. You see?" he questioned now.

"Now high school, doctor. This year, high school."

"Okay, okay, tomorrow you college. You remedial now." I laughed. He looked over the top of his glasses at me and frowned.

"You listen me. You need teach college. Big pay, huh? They want bring community college here, and tax payer need pay. What you think? We need it?" He looked unhappy. I knew it was for show. He'd lived here for thirty years. This was his world.

I shrugged. He shrugged.

"Shay-shay-ni" Thank you.

Delighted at my Chinese, no matter how poor my tonal abilities that butcher his language; this always brings a smile to his face.

"You good. Youuuu good." his face a wreathe of lines and smiles.

"You too, doc. Very good"

I left his office and was almost to the door when I remembered to pay him for my appointment.

"Oh, Dr. Juang, the money!"

He gave me a blank look.

"The thirty dollars!"

"Yes, yes, yes. You can pay now?"

"Of course!" I quickly extracted the money and handed it to his outstretched palm.

Dr. Juang was so kind as to not even ask for the money of his own office call. Then again, usually his receptionist, also elderly, usually took care of that.

The door swung open and creaked loudly, announcing my departure. I tapped my way out to the car with my blind man's cane.

I am so blessed.