Wednesday, December 2, 2015

On terror and grace found in the library


There was another shooting today. I found out about it during a meeting that was covering a difficult topic. I found out that there were mentally disabled people involved and that there was an "active shooter".

Mass shootings have become all too common - so much so that many of us don't react anymore, except to acknowledge that it's tragic and then explain why this confirms or is generally unrelated to our politics. But today it was different for me. Today when I heard the news, I got nauseous and closed my eyes. I swallowed a lump in my throat. I prayed desperately and constantly - for the people involved, for the shooter to stop, for the softening of American hearts towards some kind of gun control.

I asked those around me to not hear the details, explaining that I just couldn't handle it right now, that I would look it up when I got home and could process and cry. And I thought about how it is prudent for every school, business, and family to have a plan and practice for these things, just like we practice for natural disasters like fires and tornados. I became scared.

In the wake of other recent events, I read a post about three reactions we have to terrorism: denial, transmission, and transformation. Allow me to pause here and say that there is SO much transmission on Facebook. It's hard to know what to do with our fears, and spreading them is sometimes the only way we know how to relieve the pressure. [Read here about being an anxious or non-anxious presence.] I thought today about being a non-anxious presence, about ways to react to the shooting with "creative non-violent courage". But mostly, I just felt scared to go out into the world, scared of how fragile life is.

Caleb asked me if I would be willing to go get him a library book while he changed the oil in the car. I wanted to stay blockaded into my house, where I had the illusion of control, but I went. I was afraid, but I went. I couldn't find the book he wanted and was going to give up, but decided to ask a librarian. [Bless the librarians.] After I reached out to this stranger, my fear started to dissipate. I needed her help, and she offered it. Something shifted inside me and fear started to drain away.

You guys. We NEED each other. And we need to examine our fears and prejudices and the scary things and face them. It is the only way forward. It's a step we all need to take together, because we cannot do it alone. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The gluten-free piecaken

Sometime this week, I heard about the piecaken. I also immediately disagreed with the name. It should just be the piecake or the pake. But it seems the internet has dubbed it the piecaken, and I will respect that. 

I wasn't feeling great on Thanksgiving, so I didn't eat very much... which meant that today was a great day to do some catching up. We made waffles, baked mac & cheese, and .... a piecaken. (All gluten free, cause that's how we do it around here.) 

Here are my learnings and photos:

What made this project manageable is that I made the pie crust last week in preparation for Thanksgiving. However, I had initially planned on just baking it without filling, so I pricked holes in the crust. More on why that was a problem later.

This morning, I made the pecan pie filling, using maple syrup instead of corn syrup. Then I put it in our garage to cool. This afternoon, I made the cake batter - chocolate cake with chocolate chips. The cake called for two cups of sugar, and I cut it in half.

Now. Imagine the pie crust - with holes in bottom - filled with delicious, but now cold, maple syrup. Whoops. I spread a layer of cake batter in the parchment lined spring-form pan and flipped the pie plate and... nothing. 


I tried to take a fork around the edges of the pie, but it was pretty much a goner. But I did not worry, because pecans + chocolate = amazing. 


Sticky, syrupy pie crust

Completed cake ready to go in the oven for... about 90 minutes

Finally done! I covered it with foil for the majority of the baking process.

You can see the pie chunks... An alternative cake flavor considered was fresh peach

The first piece! Caleb didn't want icing on his.

The inside, pre-frosting

Post frosting - a maple chocolate frosting topped with pecans




And there you have it! I was really amazed when I transferred the cake - erm, piecaken - to the cake plate that it was extremely stable. Now we just need to find some helpers to eat it! 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Land and Houses


“How does it feel to be a homeowner?” is a question I’ve been asked a lot lately. 

Caleb asked me last night, after we got back to our new place. We’d just spent some time crying at our old place, the sunny rental house with soft, clean carpet and rooms empty of furniture, but full of memories.

I gave him my most honest answer yet, “Meh.” 

“Oh good,” he responded. “You’re feeling the same way I am.”

You can read more about our conflicting feelings about moving here

Today, as I wander the yard tending my plants who also endured the move, I look at and try to listen to the land. I pay my tax to the mosquitos who live here, only two bites this time. It sinks in that I am also a landowner. As soon as it sinks in, it makes me laugh. 

Owning land is a strange idea. I think a lot about the history of this slice of the planet I call home. It used to be prairie, part of the plains. It was (and is) near a river. It had softly rolling hills. Animals roamed it, wildflowers and innumerable edible plants grew abundantly. 



The land has been here for hundreds of thousands of years. Our house is close to 70 years old. While we may be the owner on paper, we are really just the dwellers. We inhabit the house and care for the land. This carries a sense of responsibility. We are going to ask our little slice of land to help us do some things, like collect rain water and help us turn our food scraps back into earth. We’ll put up a clothesline and plant food. But the land is also asking something of us. And so, we also listen and try to hear what it’s asking us to do. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

On concerts

I attended my first [popular music] concert at the age of 22.

And ever since then, I have disliked concerts.

If you love concerts, hear me out.

The concert I attended when I was 22 was outside. It was loud and there was lots of cigarette smoke. I hate loud music and cigarette smoke. People throw so many things you can recycle in the trash. You can't bring your own reusable water bottle, thanks to a few people who smuggled in alcohol and ruined it for the people who want to stay hydrated.

If you buy the kind of tickets I have to buy to concerts (the cheapest ones, which are still super expensive), there is usually nowhere that is not gross to sit.

I recently attended a concert inside. It was a small-ish concert, inside a dark bar (dislike) with posters for all the bands who would be coming next. Most bands had grotesque graphics and dark names. The artist I was seeing sang songs about peace, nature, harmony, unity. I watched the bartenders and concert-goers throw away huge amounts of recycling, while an opening act sang about the evils of Monsanto and received loud cheers. I felt confused. There was no cigarette smoke, but there was a different kind of smoke. I learned, from my concert-experienced husband, that you do not mention that it smells like that kind of smoke. Oops. Sorry about that, fellow concert-goers. I also learned from him that you should not wear the shirt of the band or artist you are going to see; and I learned (too late) that you should not spend the whole day listening to that artist in preparation for the show.

We sat (sat!) through an opening act that was fine, a second opening act, which required ear plugs (dislike). Then it was time. Earplugs in place, we got up and pushed our way into the sea of sweaty, swaying bodies. It was about 15 degrees warmer in that part of the room. We found our spot. It was like ten pm. My bedtime.

And then it happened. The artist we had come to see came on the stage. He looked different from the last two times we'd seen him. He started playing. And, despite disliking almost everything else about the whole concert experience, I knew why I had come. The energy that lights up the room, when you are all standing there, swaying and sweating on each other, singing, is beautiful. It lights up the dark place. Maybe that's why bars are so dark... it helps you to see the colors of the music. And so we stayed, dancing as much as you can in a tiny space, singing, cheering, laughing, trying not to be too grossed out when the people around us brushed their sweaty arms against ours. Most importantly, we felt. We felt the magic of the music, the presence of the humans around us, the connection with the songwriter. And I began to feel that I might like concerts. Just a little bit. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

thoughts on the eve before purchasing our first house

I really love this house. Not the one we're buying, though I do like it, and believe that I will grow to love it over time. But I really love the house where we're living now. 



Where we live now is just the right size for us - small enough to deep clean top to bottom in 5 hours by yourself. Small enough that we can hear each other in any part of it. Big enough that when we each need space behind a closed door, we can have it. Big enough to host a friend and they can have their own bedroom. Big enough to host a New Year's Eve party, but small enough that it still feels intimate. I love the way we bump elbows in the bathroom and circulate for mirror space. I love that the kitchen is big enough for dancing, and the living room is big enough for handstands, but neither room is too big. You don't get lost in them when you're there alone. 

Our new house is big. It has an upstairs and a downstairs and a basement. I am glad for the basement, but I loved (in some peculiar way) the way it felt to slide down the ramp to the root cellar during a tornado last month. It was strange and scary and fun somehow. In our new house, there is a living room and a dining room and a family room and two bedrooms all downstairs. Plus more rooms upstairs. What are we going to do with so much space? It feels scary and not cozy. It feels too big, too much. I don't want there to be a whole room just for one couch. It's important to me to have free space, but not too much. 

I've been avoiding packing. Sure, I packed a few things, here and there, things we could live without. But I just like how our things fit so neatly in this space. How, after a few times rearranging, we achieved the perfect flow from our front door to every room in the house. (It's easier when there are only five rooms in the whole place.) But now we are going to be two people swimming in a big house. I don't like it. The real reason I want to put in a door to the garage is because I like being able to stick my head out and see Caleb when he is doing things. I like that this whole house (the current house) is on one level. 

It's hard to make decisions about things like paint and furniture arrangements, and to be honest, I don't want to arrange furniture. I like how it is where I live now. I don't want to think about paint. I like the color of my walls now.

But we can't stay here. We have to move, our landlord told us. 

So I cry just like I cry in conjunction with all the major life events, out of respect for the beauty that has come before them, and recognizing that a time has come to an ending. I cried before I finished 8th grade. I cried on the way to my high school graduation. I cried before I graduated from college. I cried before I got married, also connected to a move. And I cry now, before we buy a house. I accept that this is my way of processing things, of mourning seasons of life. I let myself cry.

And I try to remind myself that after all those other times when I cried, beautiful things happened afterwards. There's a rhythm that's been established.  I will try to let it carry me while bidding farewell to a place I love.

Monday, June 8, 2015

#Blessed

Many months ago, I read this blog called "#Blessed". It was GOOD. Really good. At the time, I was experiencing a lot of stability in my life. Everything seemed "just right" and I took time each day to be grateful for a season of rest, knowing that the kind of equilibrium I was experiencing was fleeting.

But what I noticed was there was not a lot of motivation on my part to pray, meditate, reflect, be still. When everything is going well, there just isn't too much to do except receive, share, and be grateful.

And in a lot of ways, nothing major has changed.

But a few weeks ago, we got home from work to find a note in our mailbox from our landlord. "Due to unexpected circumstances, we will be unable to renew your lease when it ends this fall..."

Caleb, painting in the first place we lived after we got married.
And just like that, I flashed back to the above blog I read:

"[B]lessed does not mean pleasedBlessed does not mean happy. Blessed does not mean fulfilled. It doesn't even mean fed or clothed or housed or healthy...
What it really means is that you are not alone, for God is with you."

I began a process of understanding what I knew the instant I read the words in that note: that coming home to find that in a few months, it won't be your home is, in fact, #blessed. Being reminded of the fine lines between "at home" and "homeless" is a gift. Remembering that "being in control" is an illusion is grace.

Welcome. The world is upside down here.

Ringing in the new year (upside-down, obviously) in the second place we've lived since getting married. 
Many people have said to me, "This could turn out to be a good thing, maybe you will move someplace really amazing!" My dad, who is quite wise, shared with me that this might be one of those things that you don't understand until afterwards, maybe even many years afterwards. That's advice he's given me before, which is some of the best advice I've ever had.

But I actually think that the blessing arrived the first week we learned we'd have to move. When I was sleeplessly tossing and turning and not taking deep breaths. And then in the reorientation that came when I remembered, not just with my mind, but in my body, how to pray.

When moving, it's important to pack flowers. 
*I would like to acknowledge that unexpectedly having to move within the same neighborhood is not what I would consider to be one of the most difficult things in life. But it's still no fun. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Stay here, and keep watch

When I was 14 or 15, the pastor of my church shared a story during a sermon about sleeping in the sanctuary of the church during a church lock-in. (Sanctuary = the place where the service usually takes place. Lock-in - strange event where the teenagers of the church spend the night in the church building with a few gullible willing adult chaperones/ leaders.)

He asked if anyone had ever slept in the sanctuary of a church before... "It's a powerful experience", he said. "If anyone wants to try it, just let me know."

I am not sure he meant a young, teenage girl, but they have a pretty good track record in the bible. Mary, Ruth, Rebecca, you know.

I told my parents I wanted to do it. They talked to the pastor and that's how it came to be that I slept on a pew in the front of the church. My mom came with me, but she slept on some big, comfy (hopefully) couches in a different room down a hallway.

My pastor had said it was a little spooky... you alone in a big empty room with the Divine. (Though now I wonder - other than the room square footage - isn't this always true?) I didn't have a spooky experience though.

This week, western Christians celebrate Holy Week. Today is called Holy Thursday by some, Maundy Thursday by others. A traditional service today remembers the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples by retelling that story, the story of how Passover started, and might offer foot washing (digression on how much I love getting our bodies involved in worship) or confession (digression on how much I love opportunities for group confession - and absolution - in church. The sacrament of Communion happens (see above digression about bodies).

And then something powerful happens.

The lights are turned out. Everything is cleared off the altar.



And someone either reads or sings Psalm 22 or Psalm 88. Allow me a few excerpts:
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?... O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent."... "My soul is full of trouble... Why O Lord do you reject me and hide your face from me?... the darkness is my closest friend."

It's just this MOMENT in the year when we stop and together see our darkness. Our need for grace, forgiveness, second, third, fourth, forever chances. As we move through the readings of the week, we find Jesus in a park, pleading, begging his friends to stay awake with him during his own moment of darkness. "Stay here and keep watch with me," he says over and over, but they sleep. (Prolly the four glasses of wine they had earlier... just saying.)

For some reason, I love this day. There is so much happening. Despite Jesus' cryptic warnings, the day  goes from normal to life-changing-in-a-bad-way real quick for the disciples. Kind of like when tragedy strikes for us.

We need this day. We need a place to bring the feelings of failure, the heavy grief over unwanted surprises, the feelings of jealousy or bitterness or anger that we hold on to all while knowing that they only hurt us.

And this is why, after seeing the altar cleared tonight, I didn't want to leave. I just wanted to dwell for a minute, trying to release all the things that I don't need to carry. It's hard, you know? And I thought back to that time I spent the night in the sanctuary. Of all the nights, this seems like the night to sleep in the sanctuary. To try and keep watch.

To be silent, for once, and think about the mystery of it all.

*******************************
This isn't the first time I've reflected about Holy Week. To read past reflections click here and here.
I've also been reflecting on this article.

Monday, March 30, 2015

What I learned from the Spanish women's locker room

When I lived in España several years ago, I belonged to a gym. A gym that was so nice, I will probably never surpass it in all my future gym memberships (if I ever have a gym membership again). I have been thinking about it a lot lately because I've been swimming at a community center.

This gym gave everyone fancy bracelets with a computer chip in them. You scanned them when you entered, the metal bar opened, and your photo popped up on this TV behind the check-in desk. I never liked my photo, but that's beside the point. All the classes were free with your membership, unlike with the community center where I've been going. The building was really modern, with a big open black staircase and classy potted plants; and there was always this calm techno going in the background. This caused me to imagine that this was the kind of exclusive joint where movie stars worked out in LA.

Source - I apparently took no photos while working out, so here is one from the website. It is notable that I never went on this roof.
I took a lot of classes that I had little to no experience with, from belly dancing (which became my jam, btw), to spinning (NOT my jam, btw), to Pilates, yoga, core workouts, water aerobics, hip hop dancing, and even a bulerias  flamenco class. (I was very under-qualified, as I dropped in after they had already learned 2/3 of the dance.)

I mostly felt a little self-conscious all the time that I worked out there, except in three places: belly dancing, swimming, and the locker room.

Here is the major difference about that women's locker room and every other locker room I have ever been in*:

Every woman changed as if there was no one around.

There was no holding the towel over yourself while trying to sneakily put on pants. Nope.

And here is what I learned, even in this fancy gym with an attached spa that did Botox and slimming treatments and sold pants that get rid of cellulite (really?): Women's bodies do not look like they do in the media.

Women have stretch marks and saggy skin and wrinkles and cellulite and are a million different shades of color. Not to sound like a creeper, but I learned in the locker room that even people who appear to look like magazine models when clothed look different when changing. Barely anyone has a flat stomach. I knew one person who did, but what I didn't know is that she was going through a lot of stress. As the year progressed, she put weight back on and told me she was relieved to be healthy again.

I've been thinking about this a lot, mostly because I have started going someplace with a locker room again. And I hope that someday if/when I have a daughter or son, I can help her to understand that her body is awesome because it lets her do all the things she wants. Having a body is the best because you can taste ice cream and feel endorphins after you lift weights, and you can find your breath to quiet down when your mind is racing. And the scars and the stretch marks and the laugh lines and the freckles are all just signs of a life lived fully.

Now, who wants some ice cream?

*The exception being when I was little and would go to water aerobics with my grandma. Afterwards was just like Spain. Except it was Nebraska. Nevermind... you get it, right?

Monday, March 16, 2015

I have something important to say.

I love you all so much that I need to tell you something. And I really want you to hear it, so even though it's important enough to type in all caps, I am not going to do it. Please read this and then tell all your friends that you love. 

There is nothing on your phone that is more important, interesting, or urgent than driving your car. 

Texting while driving gets a lot of air time in the media. But I want to talk about something else - scrolling while driving. All those things on your Facebook/ Twitter feeds... they're still going to be there when you arrive. The web and its sites are not going anywhere. But you are. We are. In cars. At high speeds. 

I could go on about this, but I just don't think there is a need to continue. There is no argument that can win. I have had too many friends (friends who actually never look at their phones) do it just one time, look down for a split second, and that's the moment when it happens. A car accident that causes expensive repair bills, higher insurance, and months of physical therapy if you are lucky enough to only have suffered whiplash. 

Now. The question is, what to do about it? I usually keep my phone on my lap when I'm driving. You know - what if someone calls? But maybe I need to keep it on silent and closed away in the center console. I think we need some positive peer pressure here... what are you going to do? 

Friday, March 13, 2015

the weirdest week

Monday
I visit a physical therapist because my low back and left leg had been hurting for awhile. She happens to be totally brilliant.  Upon asking me the following questions: "So, how long has this been bothering you?" and "Is this the first time?", she derails and starts asking me if I'd be willing to have back surgery. I really wanted her to go back to the easy questions.

She went and got her reflex hammer and started checking my reflexes. I had none in my left ankle. [Apparently this is a BIG DEAL. Also, if you lose reflexes, you sometimes don't get them back, but more on this later.] She got on her cell phone and called a neurologist that she knew. I was still thinking that we had gotten very off-track and wanted to go back to the intake questions.

Before I knew it, I had an appointment with a neurologist for the next day. Note: I learned (or maybe relearned?) that the prefix neuro- means that something has to do with nerves, not brains. Why I thought this, I don't know.

Tuesday
I see the neurologist. He is a laid-back man, and very calmly tells me we need to get this figured out because the nerve is clearly pinched and could suffer permanent damage.  He wants to me to get an MRI as soon as possible. He starts talking about if it's bad, I will need surgery. I have never had surgery and have a hard time believing this. It's about 4:15pm. By 5pm, his office has contacted my insurance, and I have an appointment for 7:20am the next day.

Wednesday, 5:30 am
I get up for my MRI. My dad drives me there, cause he's awesome. The actual MRI takes about 20 minutes and is very loud. I am happy to have hearing protection provided. I take deep breaths and enjoy laying there. Just before I enter some other state of consciousness, somewhere near sleep, it's over. The tech says the doctor will get back to me, probably Friday.

Wednesday, 5:30 pm
My cell phone rings. The doctor is calling. He starts talking and I start writing. "L5, S1" "herniated", "dramatic", "large extrusion", "protruding out and to the left", "severe", "cutting off the nerve", "I'm going to text my friend whose a surgeon to see if he can get you in". It's a strange night.

Thursday
I wait for a call from the neurosurgeon's office and receive a call from the surgeon himself. He starts mentioning conservative treatments, such as physical therapy... until he pulls up my MRI. "Wow, that's pretty big," he says calmly. "Let's get you in tomorrow."

Friday
Caleb and I arrive for my appointment and find out that the surgeon wasn't planning on taking appointments that day, just me. We spend a long time waiting, turns out the guy is doing surgery. I am happy he does not rush out of surgery. I think this is a desirable quality in a surgeon. Caleb and I take lots of funny photos in the exam room to entertain ourselves.



This doctor is awesome. He is calm, says that because I don't have constant numbness or tingling in my leg, despite my nerve being squashed, we can at least try something more conservative first. So, next week, I am off to have my first (and hopefully only) epidural steroid. This should help ease the inflammation and let my body do its healing thing.

For those interested, below is an MRI image of [my] herniated, or ruptured disc. If you aren't interested, consider this post ended. Between your vertebrae, you have these cushions that are like jelly donuts. The healthy ones look white.

I circled the ruptured one in red. you can see that it's not white, cause the filling came out and is pushing on the white part, which is part of the nerve. (YOU GUYS, THAT'S MY SPINE, ISN'T IT AWESOME!!?)

Below, you can see a healthy disc on top. So healthy and all contained.


Here is my ruptured disc. As you can see, it's not contained, and, it's hard to see, but it's pushing on the nerve.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

españa: tesoro escondido

Another Throwback Thursday post... 

[From 10/18/10]

I have two friends - incidentally both named Rachel, but spelled differently - who are living in Spain. They are teaching English this year. It has been beautiful for me to talk to them about what they are experiencing. It sheds light on my own experiences and helps me to understand retrospectively that what I experienced there was normal.

Yes, I learned Spanish. Yes I think, dream, cook, talk to myself, sing, pray (sometimes), and order my dogs about in Spanish now. I have a decent understanding of sherry (but like my art history knowledge, it's all in Spanish, so I'm not sure it translates).



Are those the treasures that I have from my nine months there? Sherry knowledge and faster production and comprehension of Spanish syllables? (Well, okay wait. Being able to understand andalú was totes worth it.)

As I've advised, laughed, and listened to the dos Raquels, I realize more and more that for however useful Spanish is, the real value of the year was perhaps deeper. Uprooting yourself, your life, your friends, all the ways you normally express yourself is so hard. This is still new to me, so I'm stumbling around language trying to express a concept. I remember thinking, "But I'm not ME". But I was. It's just different because you don't have the same life/word experiences you had in your mother tongue.

And I learned so much about myself. I learned that some things don't change across culture. I learned that I am strong. I learned that when you feel like you aren't yourself, you still are, at the heart of it, you.


Sometimes leaving the familiar really does help you to find yourself. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Recipe for recovery

My name is Ellen, and I am a Facebook addict.

I told this to my mom recently. She (very kindly) told me that she didn't think I was an addict. I explained to her that I typically scroll the FB when I get up, at some point during work, when I get home, and before I go to bed. I am currently taking a break from it and it has given me more anxiety than I care to admit. (Also, not as many people are reading this blog. Which is ok, but it is interesting.)

I also noticed that I had not had very much unscheduled fun time. You know what I mean? Time when your soul starts to breathe. Time when you aren't focused on how many things you can check off. I started thinking about this, scratched my head, looked at the sky, and wondered what it was people did for fun.

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the cycle of budgeting, cooking, cleaning, laundering, and exercising that I forget about the fun. And the laundry? It's always going to be there.

So today, I am having a day off.

And my recipe for today starts with an actual food recipe. This is one of my favorite foods - it's easy to digest, nutritious, and I can eat it for every meal. It's a little bit freeing.

What's next? Here are some things I have in mind. I may do all/some/none of them:

  • Spontaneously get my hair cut. (This would be big, since I have been cutting my own hair the past four years.)
  • Buy seeds and plant them. 
  • Recycle glass. Seriously, this is so fun. You throw the bottles in a giant dumpster and yell "Opa!" And I never have time to do this. 
  • Go to a park and do nothing.
  • Go swimming. (Indoors)
  • Do a handstand. This is definitely happening.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Read a Nancy Drew book. 
  • Get tea at a coffee shop. 
  • Paint my fingernails. 
  • Look at clouds. If only I could find a dandelion puff ball... 




Friday, March 6, 2015

Get over it!

Seven weird things that annoy me that I need to let go of:

  1. When extra virgin olive oil gets abbreviated EVOO. Ugh. I always say, "E what? Oh... they mean olive oil."
  2. When people harmonize at the beginning or end of a yoga class when we are chanting "Om". It just makes me want to punch someone while we chant "Shanti" which means "peace". Ironic, I know. I keep trying to be grateful for these opportunities to "let go" of this bothering me, but I just keep getting annoyed and trying to "out-chant" them.
  3. When I put on something long-sleeved over something with three quarter sleeves and the first shirt sleeves get all bunched up. The worst. 
  4. When there are no punctuation marks in a sentence it usually confuses me and sometimes annoys me too because I don't know where the sentence begins or if it ends somewhere in the middle you know what I mean is that a question
  5. When all the websites tell me that my browser is out of date, but I can't get a new version because my computer is too old. 
  6. That the cell phone industry has TOTALLY IGNORED us folks who like simple cell phones with buttons. There hasn't been a leading-edge flip phone (with buttons) since the Razr. Not everybody wants to keep the world wide webs in their pocket.
  7. Dog hair. Love the dogs, hate the hair. 
Do any of these things annoy you? Or do you have your own list?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Throwback Thursday: June yoga teacher training

Surya A
Begin in tadasana with hands folded in prayer at your heart. Leave work early, drive home and finish packing.
Ekam, urdhva hastasana - Drive to Omaha. Have dinner with Steph and unpack car. Drive to our Friday training session. Inhale.
Dve, uttanasana - We dove in to a beautiful session about hands on assisting and the power of touch. Our hands have some incredible powers. Exhale
Trini, ardha uttanasana - Saturday morning, I took a break from yoga and visited Amelia and got to meet sweet little Graham. He is one month old! I can't wait to see him change and grow over the next few months. Inhale.
Chatvari, chaturunga dandasana - Saturday afternoon, we kicked it into high gear with 108 pushups! We did nine rounds of twelve. My low back let me know it was a little fatigued, so I did smaller rounds of less than twelve. Always better to do three with great integrity rather than twelve where you are hurting yourself. Exhale.

Panca, urdhva mukha svanansana - I am soaking up my time alone after class, it is the longest day of the year. It's also the best day for doing handstands. I practice doing them, and am filled with joy as the sun turns the world golden. Press through the all the fingers, open the heart, inhale.
Sat, addho mukha svanasana - Downward facing dog. Five breaths. 
Sapta, ardha uttanasana - We learn, once again, about sequencing a yoga class. So many things to consider. My mind isn't quite able to understand everything now, but the wisdom pools on top and soaks in slowly. Inhale.
Astau, uttanasana - We take class, more handstands. I do not know it at the time, but I hurt my left shoulder today. The injury will become one of several minor injuries that teach me many things. Exhale.
Nava, urdhva hastasana - Urdhva means extended. hasta means hand. As I enter into my fourth yoga class of the day, this one outside with live music, I am simultaneously exhausted and blissful. My shoulder hurts, but I practice in a circle with my fellow teacher trainees. Somehow, in our mutual exhaustion, we carry each other. Inhale.
Samasthiti - Driving home, I drink a chocolate milkshake and watch the most incredible sunset against the clouds. The plains are green with summer life. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Under the same sky


A few days ago, I went for a walk. It was lovely. I listened to music and felt that sparkle of alive-ness that sometimes catches us by surprise. It was a beautiful day. I found myself greeting everyone I passed with a wave.

Sometimes one of us would call out to the other, "Isn't it just BEAUTIFUL??" To which the other would respond "YES. It's lovely!" Or something to that effect.

Do you notice how universally we talk about the weather?

Some of the first phrases we learn in another language are about weather: "Il fait frois." "Hace calor." What do we talk about with our coworkers on rainy, snowy, cold, or hot days? When you call your relative across the country, what do we share with them?

We can talk about the weather with anyone, anywhere around the world. Many emails from my co-workers in other countries start with a description of how their weather is there. When I took phone calls all day, I shared what was happening outside of my window with callers in Michigan, California, Illinois.

One of my favorite songs has a line that says, "How can we wage war when we're under the same sky?"

It's a good question. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The time we had to call the police

Note: I started this post many, many months ago.

We recently had a (not dangerous) situation where we had to call the police. And we didn't think twice about it. Until afterwards. The police came and took care of bidness and then came and spoke to us. The officer with the superman hair said, "Well, we actually need to run now, there's some shootings going on, but before we leave, do you need anything else from us?"



And we were like, "Uhhh nope. Thanks! Please go take care of that now."

In so many countries, they don't have this luxury. A police force that makes them feel safe. I know there was a lot of bad police press this fall, but if someone robs your house, wouldn't you still call the police? In a lot of countries, they don't - because the police will just come back and finish robbing anything the robbers took (source for this story - a friend of mine who was visiting relatives in Guatemala). Working where I work, we hear a lot of terrible stories about corruption or just the crime in general that affects those living in poverty. Grisly stories with perpetrators who may never even be investigated, much less brought to justice. I heard one today that made me feel like I might throw up for most of the day. It's hard, really hard, to know what to do with these sorts of things.

My department director recently wrote about injustice connected with Lent for an e newsletter that Unbound sends out. I can't figure out how to share it here, but let me know if you want it, and I will email it to you.

To be honest with you, I don't know what to do with this. I don't know what to do when I hear that the police in a different country didn't even show up to take a police report from the man who got shot, even though that's the law. It's also hard to recognize that even in my own country, there are people who don't feel comfortable calling the police.

I think that what we can do is hope and pray for a better future, and partner with people doing good work. And never lose sight that being able to call the police, to trust them - it's a privilege. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"There's life after death. and taxes."

Taxes.

Every year that I have earned enough money to qualify for paying taxes has been complicated.

One year I had ten jobs in two states. 2014 was the first year I had only one job.

But we lived and worked in different states.

Can someone please tell me how you do taxes and stay sane? And why don't they teach you how to do this in school?

If taxes give you anxiety, look at this happy green sunshine. Happy. Inhale. Exhale.
Last year, Caleb filed our taxes using one of those online programs. He was a ball of stress. I complimented him, praised him for tackling our first ever married taxes, cleaned and cooked to create a happy environment.

This year, after some pumping up and empowering from an accountant co-worker, I took on the pile of tax-y paperwork using a different online program. I flew through the federal return and was feeling awesome until 9:30 pm. "Bedtime," my wise husband said, gently guiding me away from the tax prep software.

The next day, I was back at it, ready to go. I made it through my first (of two) state returns. My back was tense. I started snapping.

[As an aside, if you have never seen me get mad or grouchy, I tend to say things like, "UGH. I AM NOT MAD AT YOU CALEB. I AM JUST MAD AT STUPID TAXES." And Caleb says, "I know. Thanks for doing our taxes. You're doing great." while he cooks and cleans. Sounds like role reversal from last year to me...]

Here is Goliath. He is peaceful. Look at Goliath and feel peaceful and warm and fuzzy.
State return one - finished. On to state return two. I am trying to deep breathe, trying to focus on the questions that I am supposed to understand. But no. I cannot. And now I have to pay for my state return number one in order to answer this question on state return number two. I pay. I go back and realized I didn't have to answer this question. It is too much. I start to cry angry "I-hate-you-taxes" tears. I realize this is ridiculous and hit the magical button that says, "Save and exit." Will try again tomorrow.

Next year, we are paying someone so that we don't have to do this. Sometimes, paying hundreds of dollars for emotional health and to avoid the pressure of being unsure if you are unintentionally lying to the government is a bargain.


Title of this blog post from a [very old] song by Relient K

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My word for 2015

Ummm, did you know that it's almost March?

As one of my yoga teacher pointed out yesterday, everyone is feeling "meh" about their New Year's resolutions right now. (But if you made resolutions and are still on track, I would love to hear about it. Very impressive.)

I don't make New Year's resolutions. I have learned that I am this weird combination of driven and spontaneous. I tend to mull things over for a long time in my subconscious. (I think it's genetic from my mom.) Then all of a sudden, the moment is right, the incubation period is over, and within two days I have signed up for a seven month yoga teacher training program or to take a French class and I am all in. Laser focus.

However...

Sometimes this causes me to overcommit. Which is part of why I don't make resolutions - at any given time, I have usually bit off more than I can chew.

This leads me to my word for 2015.

Receive.
Really, this word chose me. For the same reason I don't make resolutions, I also don't pick words. I actually have always preferred the concept to making resolutions, but for me it was too much pressure to "create" or "engage"  or etc. But in a moment of quiet reflection, I knew that I needed a word to guide the year and that word was receive. 

And to be honest, I am sort of carrying on as usual, except when I have little pauses, I remember my word. And I remember to be still. And I remember that, thank goodness, it's only February, and I have the whole year to learn how to do this. 

Receive. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Why I dread telling people what I do

A few days ago, I wrote this post about where I work. If you haven't read it, it would be good to start there instead of here. Because today, I want to share what exactly I do. And if you don't read about what Unbound does, it will be complicated to understand what I do.

Sitting on my exercise ball, because exercise balls are the funnest. 
Because job titles are sort of meaningless made-up terms (in my opinion), I am going to explain some typical tasks. Unbound works in 21 countries. My tasks are limited to only eight of these countries. (Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Madagascar, Mexico, Tanzania and Uganda). 

~ I had mentioned that when you donate to Unbound, you enter into sort of an individual partnership with a kiddo, teen, or elderly person. You write and exchange letters, words of encouragement, photos. I review a sample of the letters that are coming in from around the world for a variety of criteria, including personalization, who wrote it, how long it took to arrive, and the quality of the translation (when necessary.)

~ If someone in our program passes away or has something big happen in their life, I am the first point of contact within the US. We then pass the message along to their specific donor. 

~ I provide feedback to my assigned countries for the quality of letters, photos, and other communication between us.  

~ It's my job to know and understand how Unbound's model is working in each of my assigned countries. This helps me notice ways that they can grow and improve, but also helps to inform our policies as an organization, and be able to communicate our work accurately. 

~ Unbound has an awesome scholarship program. (It's a great option if you want to help out, but not commit to anything regularly.) It's my job to collect reporting on it, know how it works in each of "my" countries, and help the staff think through potential improvements when necessary.

~ Monthly (or more frequently), we have calls with each country's staff to see how things are going. 

~ Travel - to ensure our program is actually doing what we say it's doing and also to provide training on new initiatives. 
Meeting a staff member on a work trip. Please note that I am a giant. 
These are definitely not all the things I do, but it's sort of hard to imagine writing all that out. (Have you ever tried? Tricky.) My typical day usually involves a lot of emails, Skype calls and chats, and meetings. 

It's kind of tricky writing out what you do for work without using "work jargon". Have you ever tried it? Does my explanation make sense or do you have more questions? 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

One thousand steps

I heard this saying once: "When you take one step towards God, God takes one hundred steps towards you." But I misremembered it, and have been quoting it to myself as: "When you take one step towards God, God takes one thousand steps towards you."




The past few days, I have been talking on here about my job, about discerning and committing to things  through difficult times. But today, I wanted to dive into why I think it's important.

The things we do, the way we treat each other, those things give us and the people around us messages about how the world is. Our experiences shape our beliefs. This is why God tells us so many times in the bible to love each other. This is why we we need to be in something for the long haul.

I believe that the world is teeming with God's love, and when I finally slow down enough, I can sense it, pulsing, the heartbeat of a God so alive, so radiant with love, that she/he would take one thousand steps to reach someone before they could take their second step toward God.

And in the sad/ hard/ scary/ terrible moments when I cannot sense this pulse, in those moments I take comfort that I only need to be brave enough to take the first step, and God will meet me there.

Sometimes, my first step looks exactly like a step: out my front door to go tutor or to go for a walk. Sometimes it looks like me rolling out my yoga mat. And sometimes its as simple as an internal heart shift, a whispered prayer.

I've been going to my church for almost nine years. I love it. But the past year or so, it feels like nothing really speaks to me. It seems like most of the sermons are really "heady" for lack of a better word. I used to love the music, and I still like some of it, but what I love now are hymns and chants, like the ones from the Taizé community in France.

So imagine my surprise when, Sunday, we sang a song from Taizé in church. I felt the distance closing from 1001 steps to zero. I felt the pulse of God's love. Below is the song we sang. If you aren't familiar with Taizé music, songs are very short and written in many languages. The idea is to keep them short so that you can let the words soak into your soul.

These are the words to the song we sang, painted on a rock. Photo from 2010 when I visited Taizé, France.
Today, may you take one step towards God, and may you sense God taking one thousand steps towards you.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

In it for the long haul

Apart from many years of schooling, what is the longest thing you have ever done?

Here are some numbers for me:
- 2+ years working at the same organization
- almost 10 years of being friends with this awesome lady. (whaaat?!)
- about 5 months at current address
- almost 4 years with Caleb
- almost 4 years tutoring the same kids

The last one is what really gets me. 4 years ago, I was working as an ELL aide. It was one of my favorite jobs ever. 35 hours, all the school holidays, health insurance, adorable children. When it came time for summer, there was one sweet girl in my class who had made so.much.progress. I knew with summer coming, she was going to backslide. I talked to a retired teacher who was subbing in my class.

"Do you think it would be okay if I offered to tutor her for free this summer?"

She thought about it for awhile before saying she thought it would be okay.

"Besides," she said, "You never know what kind of impact that could make on her."

So I typed up a long letter about how I'd seen the student make a lot of progress and that summer was hard for kids who had gained so much, because there was no school and kids forget. I nervously gave it to her mom on the last day of school and explained myself in Spanish.

"Okay." her mom said. "Here's my number. Call me next week and you can come over."

That day was May 26, 2011. That night, Caleb and I started dating. It was an epic day for me.

Nearly five years (and four jobs) later, our routine has only altered slightly. I tutored both the girl and her brother, but I have now recruited Caleb to help. Let's face it - I am not as cool to a middle school boy as I was to an elementary school boy. We go to the library every three weeks. ("In school library time, we don't get to look at books anymore. We just do stuff on the iPads. I miss looking at books," one of the kids said to me recently. Heartbreaking.) When we aren't at the library, we are sitting together, doing homework, reading, or having jumping jack contests. We go on "field trips" to garden stores or the art museum or sometimes to my house to bake things. They have a baby sister now, and sometimes she comes with us.

Why am I sharing this story? Well, first of all, when my girl becomes a bilingual rockstar labor and delivery doctor which is what she wants to is going to be, I want to have this story ready to share with her. (At some point during this career path, I will no longer be able to help her with homework, probably starting with high school biology...)

One of our favorite outings including feeding these fish. Fish have a short attention span. Also, biology.
But secondly, I have a short attention span. I have a tendency to jump on and off bandwagons. And I don't think it's just me. We, collectively, have somewhat of a hard time being in things for thick and thin. But, on the other hand, it's my guess that many of you have things like this. Something small that you've committed to regularly. Maybe it's a habit of prayer, or exercise, or always telling your parents you love them when you get off the phone. Is there a way we can share these things with each other? What keeps you doing something when it gets hard? I don't mean unhealthy. If something gets to be unhealthy or an obsession, you should probably stop doing it.

But just as there is a physical difference between pain and being uncomfortable, there is a difference between something being unhealthy/ hurtful and something being hard. For me, I sort of just have to feel it. There is something inside me, something in my internal compass* that always finds true north and helps me to discern my course. I call that something God, or the spark of God inside me. It's love. And it helps me to know when to set my jaw and be in it for the long haul.

P.S.** For me, this post is really linked to my last post. Because I have been inspired many times by how we are really in it for the long haul at work. And many of our awesome donors are also in it for the long haul. Beautiful. It will also relate to my next post, which you will have to wait until tomorrow to see.

*My internal compass does not work for physical directions like left/ right/ north etc. It's more of an emotional/spiritual thing.

** Can someone tell me if the P.S. is supposed to go before or after the asterisk from earlier in the post? Very confusing.  

Friday, February 20, 2015

Why I dread telling people where I work



Inevitably, the question always comes up when you meet someone new or see an old acquaintance. “So, where do you work?”

I love my job. I love the organization I work for, Unbound.



But how do you explain all the incredible work that Unbound does? We work with families in poverty to help provide opportunities to move forward. The causes of poverty are diverse. Our program is just as diverse. We have more than 300,000 families in our program, and we know every single one. We know what they need, what is challenging for them. Once someone decides to start supporting them by sending $30 each month, the options they can receive are endless. In rural Uganda, its standard to make sure every new family receives a latrine over the first few months they receive funds. Having a latrine close to the house means not having to go into the wilderness to take care of business. In Mexico, sometimes families elect to immediately receive food or pay for education or buy their kids a new pair of shoes. Or they can save money to buy something their family might need, like a gas powered generator to be able to farm more land and raise their monthly income. In India, money goes into a personal bank account where the mother decides if she will save it or use it for more urgent needs. Our work with families to break the cycle of poverty has endless nuances because it is so individualized.

Some families choose to receive food, but that is no longer the norm
We foster relationships, friendships really, between a donor and the specific person their money supports. We encourage you to exchange photos and letters, and to learn about each other’s realities. What is a typical day like in Manila? What crops do they grow in Madagascar? People who give to Unbound enter into a relationship with a family in another country, and know exactly who is receiving their donations and for what purpose. In addition, for a teen growing up in a small town in Mexico, sometimes knowing that someone somewhere is cheering for them makes all the difference in their studies and life choices.

And to make explaining all these depths and nuances more challenging, I desperately want everyone I know to join us, to financially support an individual and their family, to give them opportunities they could not have otherwise. Because it’s life changing for you and for them. I never want anyone to feel pressure or guilt, but there is urgency. I have met the families who are waiting. Some have been waiting for two years for a helping hand.

Some of these lovelies are part of our program and some are still waiting.
As part of my job, I hear inspiring, heart-warming stories from my co-workers around the world. But to only share these stories makes light of a very difficult reality. I also hear tragic stories that are incredibly challenging every week. Because when you walk alongside 300,000 families, you hear both the beautiful and the terrible about life in a developing country.

So that is where I work. What I do there? That’s another story for another time.


A neighborhood where we work. It's precariously balanced on the side of a hill. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

I love couch.

I am a big believer in listening to your body.

If you feel antsy, go for a walk. If you want to go to sleep at 8:30pm, do it. If you want to eat ice cream for dinner, you should.

That said, I typically schedule a lot of activities for myself in the evenings, without doing much listening. A typical week of post-work activities usually looks like this:

Monday: Yoga (Arrive home at 7:15)
Tuesday: Tutoring (home at 8:30)
Wednesday: Yoga and French class (home at 8:30)
Thursday: See friends, go grocery shopping, or stay home and frantically do laundry and dishes
Friday: Stay home from sheer exhaustion

But a few weeks ago, I went to Mexico on a work trip. I was gone for eleven days. It was amazing. The end was a little rough though...I came back sick and with some pulled leg muscles. So since then, all my nights have looked like this:

Come home. Sit on couch with electric blanket and watch Gilmore Girls. Feel grateful that my mom gave me throw pillows. Read books. Take baths some nights to mix it up.

My couch tonight. My mom made that blanket. And oh yes, that's a coloring book on the left.
I am a big fan. A very big fan. I feel like I am living an alternate reality, where I do nothing all the time. Is this my life? So I am learning, (for like the millionth time) that I need to schedule less things. The message I am getting, loud and clear, is that this is a season of receiving. Of not squeezing the life out of every last second of my day. Because there is something beautiful that happens when time passes slowly. You look out your window and finally see the sunset, or the clouds move across the night sky. Time turns into slow time. You stop hearing the clock ticking and start taking deep breaths.

I trust the seasons and I trust myself. Eventually, I will want to peel myself off this couch and go outside or to see friends. (Heck, I went to yoga on Monday and today.) But until then, I am going to be here, writing, resting, dreaming, and of course, watching Gilmore Girls.

Do you have couch nights? Or weeks? Or months? Do you overschedule too? 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Ode to piriformis

Dear Piriformis,

First of all, my deepest gratitude for connecting my leg to my spine. Seriously. 

I had no idea how big of a deal you were, though I'd heard rumors. When you are happy, I am happy. When you are tight and upset, you impinge on my sciatic nerve, and then I am sad. I promise to do everything possible to keep you moving and groovin'. 

You are such a teeny muscle, really, only the length of my thumb. But somehow, you can control my whole leg. Incredible. Thanks for being awesome. 

Love,

Ellen