Monday, January 31, 2011

Glory to G-d

I wrote the bulk of this post a couple days ago already in anticipation of today.  Though today didn't quite go as planned (a sinus infection/upper respiratory infection took a turn for the much worse I ended up on oxygen in the hospital for awhile), I can still rest assured in the promises G-d has given me.  He will never leave me nor forsake me and the healing He gives me is sure.  Now, on to real post.
November 11, 2008
I sat at my desk in my dorm room, half doing homework and half chatting with a friend online.  I was part way through my 3rd semester at college and had gotten into the routine of homework, classes and hanging out with friends.  I knew when I could afford to chat online and when I needed to give homework 100% of my attention. This was one of those nights were there was nothing pressing that I had to focus on, so I chatted away.  I don't even remember what we were talking about, but I sent a message telling my friend I didn't feel well.  That was the last she heard from me.  Concerned, she called a mutual friend who lived in my building.  The mutual friend came to check on me and found me on the floor.  I had evidently just had my first seizure.  My friend tried to convince me to let her take me to the hospital, but I refused. I had sustained a fairly significant head injury and refused to see reason.  My friend, in her wisdom, made a deal with me that if I wasn't any better the next day or if I had another seizure, I'd let her take me in.  She spent the night checking on me every couple of hours to make sure I was still conscious.  I'm not sure what I ever did to deserve a friend like her.
November 12, 2008
I spent most of the day extremely disoriented.  I may have even gone to some of the wrong classes.  I don't actually remember much from that day.  At some point, presumably towards the evening, I had another seizure.  This time there was no doubt about it.  I was with my friends and they saw everything.  Even with a fairly significant head injury I kept my end of the deal up and let my friends bring me to the hospital.  I don't think I had enough strength left to protest anyways.  I was admitted to hospital that night, following a CT scan that showed some abnormalities in my brain.  The doctors weren't very hopeful that I'd live long. The hospital chaplain came to make sure I was ready to go Home.  My mom made the trip from Canada to Iowa to be with me.
The Next Two Years
A lot happened over the next two years.  I went through a slew of different anti-epileptic drugs.  None of them worked.  I saw neurosurgeon after neurosurgeon.  None of them had any answers.  I had two prolonged hospital stays for testing, three periods where I was wired to a heart monitor.  There were never any conclusive answers.
Throughout all of it, I had the support of an amazing community of faith.  They prayed for me and with me.  They held me the nights that I sobbed.  They fed my mom while she stayed on campus with me.  One very special person even left her family to come live with me, providing care for me so that I could stay on campus and continue with my education.  My faith community took me to doctor's appointments, to the grocery store, to the library. They read my textbooks to me when medication caused me to lose most my vision.  They were the hands and feet of Christ to me.
After two years nothing had really changed. I'd graduated from Central, but I was still having seizures 2 or 3 times a week.  I'd even had a seizure bad enough to put me in a coma for a short period of time (bad experience, I don't recommend it). Most my doctors had given up on finding an answer for me.  They told me I just had to live with it.  I'd come to a point where I'd given up on answers.  There was still a few more tests they could run, a few more things they could try, but I was done.  I didn't want anymore. I was tired of dead ends and wasted tests. I made it clear that I didn't want any more testing unless something changed. That was my decision and I was sticking to it.
December 12, 2010
I was watching a movie with one of my roommates while the other one prepared roasted turnip for supper.  (I love my roommates, just sayin').  The turnip was done and went to the kitchen to get some. All of a sudden I felt it coming, the pre-seizure feeling I had come to dread.  I braced myself against the counter top as I said "I don't feel so good".  That's the last thing I remember.  My roommates say I had a seizure then, shorter than normal, but still a seizure. When it was over they sat me up and gave me roasted turnip to eat (again, I have the most awesome roommates ever!). I didn't know it then, there was nothing to distinguish that seizure from any of the hundred others that I'd had, but that seizure was to be my last for a very long time, possibly (hopefully) my last seizure ever.
January 31, 2011
It has now been 50 days since my last seizure.  I cannot point to anything I did or anything any of my doctors did.  There were no changes made to my diet or my medications, no changes in my routine or anything else.
There is only one answer.  G-d has had His hand on me for a long time.  It is His hand that has brought me healing.  Nothing else.  Here's the picture of happiness:

 "Now I want you to know brothers, (and sisters) what has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel."
(NIV) Philippians 1:12
G-d waited until I had nowhere else to turn, until I had nothing else I could point to before He brought healing into my life.  I just wish it hadn't taken me so long to fully turn to Him. To Him be all glory and honor and power!
To all of you who have been supporting me and praying for me throughout this journey, thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Know that you have been part of a miracle.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Symposium

This is going to be short.  I've been up since about 3:30am and am exhausted.  I was a bit excited for symposium so I didn't sleep well.  We (being me and LDK) left about 7 this morning to drive to GR.  It was freezing rain out so it took a little while, but we made it there safely.  We got there and I checked in.  After checking in I stopped by the info booth and asked about my interpreters.  I was led to the first place where I would be and introduced to my interpreters.  We had a bit of time before the session so I got a chance to converse with them and get to know them a little. Then things got started.
Symposium was the first time I had ever requested interpreters.  In the past I've always just limped along with lip reading and guessing. So I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  I had nothing to be worried about.  They were phenomenal.  I felt like I could actually understand what was going on in both worship and in my workshops. They signed with a mixture of ASL and Signed English (that's how I sign) and that, combined with what I could hear, was a perfect mix. They didn't just tell me words, but expressed emotion, told me which instruments were playing, told me when people were laughing... I learned some new signs, practiced old ones, and felt comfortable doing it.
Now though, I am completely exhausted so I need to make sure I have everything ready for church in the morning, take my shower and crawl in bed, hoping I sleep better tonight than last night.  There might be more on this topic later.

Friday, January 28, 2011

This is Your Brain on Drugs

As I lay down to sleep last night I could hear machinery outside my window clearing snow and ice away from the streets and parking lots.  It was loud and noisy.  I knew exactly what it was, but my brain was under the influence of a NyQuil like substance (I didn't have NyQuil so I made my own.  It had all the same ingredients).  As I lay there I saw an image straight out of one of my childhood story books.  It was a book about this thing that was half monster, half machine.  It looked kinda like an overgrown giraffe on wheels.  Anyhow, this thing had a name, which I currently can't remember, so I'm just going to call him a machino-saurus.  This machino-saurus wasn't mean, but he was a picky eater.  He only ate the tops of things.  Tops of trees and tops of houses mostly. This of course created problems for the other inhabitants of story-book land.  Especially when he ran out of tree tops to eat and started eating houses.  So they fed him pie and made a deal with him that they would feed him pie if he stopped eating their houses. And everyone lived happily ever after (okay, so there was a bit more to the story, but those are the important things).
So I'm laying in my bed hearing the machinery outside my window and being a little trippy from the drugs and all of a sudden I'm convinced that the machino-saurus is coming to eat the top of my house.  I am not at all happy with this.  I'm scared of the machino-saurus because my room is upstairs so if he ate the top of my house, he'd eat me by accident.  I remember at one point I was nearly hyperventilating out of fear of the machino-saurus.  Then, I realized that if he at the top of my house, I would be able to lay in bed, snug and warm and watch the stars.  This made me happy.  So I went to sleep. And I dreamt of pie.
This my friends, is why you should not take drugs.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Social Networks and Social Norms

Recently I had a birthday.  I turned 24.  It provoked a lot of thought. Not the "gee I'm old" kind of thought, but more thoughts about how much the world is changing.
When I was a child, a birthday was marked by a celebration with the people closest to the one having the birthday - family, classmates, etc.  Grandparents might call and wish happy birthday or maybe send a card.  Classmates you saw every day would say happy birthday.  In most cases, the wishes were personal, face-to-face, and in real time. Thank-you's (with the exception of gifts and cards send by relatives far away) were also done face-to-face and in real time.
My birthday this year was different, much like it has been the last few years, really, since the entrance of Facebook into my life. Facebook is a wonderful tool for keeping up with friends and acquaintances, but it also seems to be changing the way things are done.  One thing that makes facebook wonderful is that it reminds you of when your birthday is.  It also reminds you when any of your "friends" have birthdays.  In any given week I'll get reminders of birthday for half a dozen or more people.  Some of whom I don't even really know.  Many of whom I haven't communicated with since their birthday a year ago, but have creepily followed by watching their newsfeeds and photos and notes.
So here's what happens when it's your birthday on facebook:
Before it's even your birthday in the time zone you are currently living in, friends in other time zones will start posting birthday wishes on your wall.  This will continue over the next 24-30 hours.  Most of them will be pretty basic "Happy Birthday *insert name here*!" Some will have generic well wishes tacked on such as "Have a great day!" or "I pray your day is full of blessings!" Some people get more creative with posts such as "It's your birthday, and that makes me happy. If you weren't born, I wouldn't know you. And if I didn't know you, my life would be worse for the wear. And if my life were worse...well...I'm not quite sure what'd happen. But I'm glad that you were born. I'm even more glad that you're still alive. [G-d] has definitely had his hand on you over the past few years....shoot...ever since you've been born." (LR) or "i pray that your celebration of your womb emancipation is blessed!" (BP)
You might get 100 or more birthday wishes over the course of your birthday.  Now, you, as the birthday haver, have a responsibility. You have to thank everyone for the birthday wishes.  In the past, this was mostly done in real time, and typically there were less of them.  Now, you either make a blanket statement in your status thanking everyone for the birthday wishes or you comment on every wall post....the latter of course is more time consuming and often considered the more socially acceptable. 
Facebook, and other social networks, seem to be changing our social norms.  Things aren't considered "official" until they are facebook official, as evidenced by this wall post: "I wished you a happy birthday this morning, but wanted to make it Facebook official - Happy Birthday, Joy! Celebrating your blessings with you! :)"  (JE)
I'm not sure what it is, but something about putting something on facebook somehow makes it more official, whatever that means.
I'm not sure how I feel about the way social networking is changing our society.  We know more people, but we tend to know them at a shallower level.   I have almost 700 "friends" on facebook.  I can click over to any one of their homepages and see pictures of what they did last weekend or read what their other friends have written on their walls, all without them ever knowing.  Likewise, any of my "friends" can click over to my homepage.  
Social networking allows for us to have contact with our friends when we want it, when it is convenient for us. And, if someone makes us angry, we can simply "un-friend" them and erase them from our lives.
What does this mean for real life community?  How is facebook changing the way that we relate to other humans?  How will the changes we are seeing now affect our children?  our grandchildren?  I don't have answers to these questions.  I don't even know all the questions, but they are things that make me think.
What do you think?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Making Changes

The beginning of the year is a time when many people claim that they are going to make changes, resolutions to eat better, exercise more, do their homework, walk the dog, etc.  Most of them last a month at the most.  That's not what this is about though. This is about a very real, concrete change that has already been made.  Think of this as a note to keep everyone who likes to stalk me informed.

As of this morning I am no longer a dual track student at Western Theological Seminary.  I am still a student at WTS, but now I am a straight up Master's of Divinity student (instead of a combined Master's of Social work/Master's of Divinity student).

This was not a decision made lightly, but one made after many months of prayer and wrestling.  Initially, when I came to seminary I was feeling a call towards para-church, social work type work.  I wanted it to be supported by a firm theological foundation.   That's what drew me to the dual track program.  However, since coming to school G-d has been working in me and pulling me away from that dream and more towards pastoral ministry. That, along with a desire to slow down and focus more on the Master's of Divinity material while I'm here (in the dual track, 3 years of seminary are compressed into 2) is a large part of the reason I decided to make this switch.
I don't regret entering seminary in the dual track program, in fact, if it hadn't been for the dual track program, I probably wouldn't be here at all. G-d had been drawing me to seminary for awhile and I kept resisting.  The dual track was a way for G-d to get me into seminary, and now that I'm here, G-d has made it clear to me that He has plans for me that were different than the plans I had for me.  I don't feel that I misjudged G-d's call on my life when I entered the dual track program, I feel that it was G-d's way of gently shaping me for what He had planned for me.

Practically this doesn't change a whole lot.  It means I'll be here at WTS for 3 years instead of 2 and won't be doing a 2 year Master of Social work degree afterwards.  It also means a little bit of a lighter course load for me. :)
And, just to keep life interesting, I am absolutely loving my preaching class.  And I said I'd never be a preaching pastor....

Monday, January 24, 2011

Old Ladies Who Pray

A couple weeks ago, in a setting which is not important, I heard someone say "G-d listens to old ladies who pray".  After some good natured teasing (I had a birthday coming up, so somehow I was perceived as "old"), I stopped to think about it some more.  It had been said in jest, but maybe there was some truth in it.  G-d  does listen to old ladies who pray. Think about some of the old ladies in your life and some of the prayers that they have been prayed that have been answered.  If your experience bears any similarity to mine, you will find that the prayers of old ladies are answered. What is it about old ladies that causes G-d to answer their prayers? 
Is it just because they are old and G-d listens to them out of respect for the years they have served Him, the time they have put in on this broken earth or is there something more to it?  Perhaps it is because our grandmothers grew up believing that G-d would answer their prayers.  Our faith has become watered down.  
When we pray we are fond of saying "If it be your will…."  I'm not sure this actually appears in the Bible, though there is likely a similar concept that has been pulled out of context (and I could be completely wrong on this). I mean, it's good to let G-d have His way, but if it was just about G-d having His way, there would be no purpose to our praying.  Check out these verse from Matthew 18: 18-20:

 "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."

Go ahead and read it again.  This isn't suggesting an "if it be your will let Grandpa get better" kind of prayer, but a kind of prayer that claims healing, a prayer that acknowledges the power that we have as believes.  "whatever we bind on hear will be bound in heaven".  What would happen if G-d's people really started praying in faith?  What kind of radical changes would our world see?  
Over the summer a dear friend of mine sent me a magazine article called "Diagnosis Cancelled".  It appears to have come from a magazine called "Gospel Truth", from the spring and summer 2010 edition.  Anyhow, the article tells of a husband and wife who discover that they are pregnant with an infant that, according to the ultrasound, has severe Down Syndrome and might not even survive being born due to deformities of his heart.  The parents refuse to accept this diagnosis.  This wasn't a case of denial, but a case of claiming the power they knew they had.  They refused to accept that their child had Down's.  The prayed and prayed and prayed, cancelling the diagnosis, refusing to let Satan poison them with doubt that their baby would not be healed.  Well, they went back for another ultrasound a time later and the ultrasound was clear.  The doctor didn't understand.  When the precious little one was born he was perfect.  There is a bit more to the story, but that's the gist of it.  They prayed in faith, the cancelled the diagnosis on earth and it was cancelled in heaven.  
Yes, sometimes G-d has plans that are beyond what we can comprehend.  Sometimes we pray earnestly for things and G-d choses to answer with a "no" instead of the "yes we had hoped for.  It's important to remember that He is still G-d and He is still sovereign, but that doesn't make us puppets.  If we truly seek the will of G-d and pray in faith, He will grant us the desires of our hearts (Ps. 37:4, James 5:13-20, esp 16b-18).
What would happen if G-d's people prayed in faith?  Casting Crowns sings: 
"What if the Church, for heaven's sake
Finally stepped up to the plate
Took a stand upon God's promise
And stormed hell's rusty gates"

What if? What if? What if?
And since I started this off with old ladies who pray, here is a song to finish it off, about a praying Grandma: Smooth Grandmama. (The video isn't captioned.  Here is a link to the lyrics)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Numbers Geek

So I've always been a bit of a numbers geek. I like numbers that do cool things. I like series of numbers that have meaning.  When I get overwhelmed with life I like to make factor trees or do manual long division.  Numbers have order.  They have rules that they follow and the rules never change.  When everything else is going crazy, numbers stay the same.
Numbers are even more special when they signify important things.  Like 42 days seizure free.  Go G-d!  What makes 42 even more special is that I managed to get a screen shot of the counter when it was showing the prime factors of 42.  Yeah.  Numbers are cool.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Red Hooker Lipstick

My roommate, LDK, and I share half a share in a CSA.  That means we get lots of yummy organic vegetables every couple of weeks and get to find creative ways of eating them. We get squash and kale and onions and garlic and shallots and beets.  The beets are the ones that we have the most fun being creative with.  Sometimes the beets are strange.  They look like candy canes.
Other times, like this week, they look normal.  By normal I mean, purple, the way red beets are supposed to look.   Last week we made beet pizza.  It was interesting to say the least.  Not necessarily on the "come again" list, but not awful.
Today, LDK found a recipe for Roasted Beet and Butternut Squash soup.  We made it up this afternoon.  It was pretty simple, especially since the squash was already pureed and frozen from our squash squishing party a few weeks ago.  After we cooked everything we pureed it with the whir-whir. It looked interesting.  When Jen saw it she said it looked like red hooker lipstick.  See for yourself:
Okay, so it also slightly resembles paint, but then so does the lipstick that hookers tend to wear.  The soup was yummy and tasted similar in a non-similar way to tomato soup.  We ate it with grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.  Probably the closest thing I'll ever eat to tomato soup. It made me happy.

In other news I saw the doctor today for my ear.I have a nasty cut in my ear canal, but thankfully the ear drum is intact. The cut, thanks to my amazing immune system, is infected.  I'm on antibiotics for it and it should clear up within a week.  

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Blarg!

Usually I love my hearing aids. Right now though, I think we are enemies.  I've got a nasty pimple in my left ear that makes wearing my left HA uncomfortable.  Then, last night, my right ear suffered a high velocity impact with a very solid object, also known as the head of a child I was playing with at work.  The impact drove my hearing aid much farther into my ear than it ever really should go and did something creative with my earing and ear lobe. I'm not sure whether the HA cut the ear drum or just cut inside of my ear canal (it's hard to see into ears, especially your own), but either way it hurts like crazy and bled.  There is visible bruising on my ear lobe and my neck just behind my ear. The child's head was fine.
This is why I should not wear my hearing aids when we have gym night and I am playing with the kids.  Except that I'm the teacher and actually need to know what the kids are saying. Or they should invent hearing aids that are soft and squishy for crazy people like me who play with preschoolers/kindergarten students.

What is Preaching?

The other day I was asked as part of a class assignment whether or not I had ever preached before. (It was for preaching class, so it was a very logical question).  I found that questions harder to answer than I first thought. To answer that question I first had to define what it was to preach.  If I decided that to preach was to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord, then I would have to answer yes.  If I decided that to preach was to give a sermon, then I'd have to define sermon and that just complicates matters more.  So I answered "I don't know", which earned me some quizzical looks from my classmates and professor.
Is it preaching or sermonizing when you have a dozen elementary and middle school children sitting around you on a bridge while you retell Bible stories? What about when you sit around a fire with many dozen college students and share stories of how G-d has brought healing in your life?  Does that count as a sermon?  What about the poor business man who was sitting next to the mission team I was part of as we headed to Cameroon?  When we shared the Gospel with him, was that preaching?  Does it count as preaching when I translated what the speaker was saying around a campfire in former East Germany from English to German or German to English?  Does preaching have to be your own words?
It's probably a good thing I'm in a preaching class.  Maybe I'll actually learn what preaching is. However, I welcome your feedback.  What is preaching?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Brownie Recipe

So what I really should do is just instruct you all to buy Cybele's book, because it is full of wonderful multi-allergy friendly recipes (every recipe in the book is free from gluten, wheat, dairy, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts and sesame), but because I'm feeling nice today and because if I entice you with one recipe you might be convinced to buy the book, and because part of living as good stewards is sharing resources such as recipes and because brownies are such elusive creatures, but oh so good, I'll share this one.
Fudge Brownies (from Cybele Pascal's "The Allergen-Free Baker's Handbook", page 86, with *my comments*)
Ingredients
- 6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped into centimeter-size pieces (a serrated knife works best for this) *I use Baker's Chocolate that is already in 1 ounce squares and don't chop it because it gets melted right away anyways*
- 1/2 cup dairy-free, soy-free vegetable shortening *I'm fine with soy, so I use a soy based one*
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 (4-5-ounce) jars prune puree or apple plum puree (baby food) *I used 10 ounces of Gerber prune puree since it comes in 2.5 ounce containers in packages of 2 (5 ounces total per package)*
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons Basic Gluten-Free Flour Mix (page 19) *posted below*
- 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
- 1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder *I recently learned that there does exist a corn-free baking powder and that made me very excited*
- 1 1/2 cups dairy-free, soy-free chocolate chips *Enjoy Life's chocolate chips are wonderful.  I use one 10oz bag for this recipe*


How it works
1. Preheat the oven to 325*F.  Grease a 9 by 9-inch baking pan, then sprinkle with a little gluten-free flour mix, tapping out any extra. *It MUST be a 9x9 pan.  Do not use an 8x8.  Bad stuff happens*

2. Combine the unsweetened chocolate and shortening in a microwave-safe bowl and melt in the microwave, stopping to check and stir every 30 seconds *this of course depends on your microwave.  30 seconds in my microwave does nothing to the chocolate.  I start with a minute* (Alternatively, you can melt the chocolate and shortening in a double boiler).  Once melted, stir in the sugar and prune puree.  Mix well, add the vanilla, and beat until smooth.

3. Whisk together the flour mix, xantham gum, and baking powder.  Add to the chocolate mixture in three batches, stirring well after each addition.  Beat until smooth.  Fold in the chocolate chips.

4. Spread the batter in the prepared pan, smoothing down the top with a back of a rubber spatula or large spoon.  Bake in the center of the oven for 55 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through.  Bake until the top looks glossy and the brownie is just beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. *Be patient and make sure the brownie is done before removing it from the oven.  Otherwise you get brownie soup*

5. Let the brownies cool completely in the pan, then cut into squares.  Remove from the pan and enjoy.  Store in an airtight container. *I left them in the pan...we just covered it with plastic wrap...and left a knife in the pan for cutting them with whenever we wanted a snack.*

Basic Gluten-Free Flour Mix- makes 6 cups
4 cups brown rice flour
1 1/3 cups potato starch (not potato flour)
2/3 cup tapioca flour (also called tapioca starch)

How it works:
1. To measure flour, use a large spoon *or the 1/3 Cup measuring cup* to scoop flour into the measuring cup, then level it off the back of a knife or straightedge.  Do not use the measuring cup itself to scoop your flour when measuring! It will  compact the flour and you will wind up with too much for the recipe.

2. Combine all ingredients in a gallon-size zipper-top bag.  Shake until well blended.  Store in the refrigerator *or a cool dry place...I use the basement* until ready to use.

Now, go buy Cybele's book! (okay, make the brownies first, then buy the book)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Birthday Happiness

Today was my birthday.  I'd actually started celebrating my birthday before even coming back to school with a red velvet cake at home.
photo by Moria
I had made it because I wanted to try a new recipe in my new cookbook.  After it was done I decided that it would be my birthday cake so I made mommy decorate it with cherries and chocolate and then they put candles on. They were pretty candles.
Then, just to be ornery, they showed me my wrapped birthday gifts and told me they were turning them over to my cousin to be held hostage until my birthday.  (Olga goes to seminary with me and she was my ride back to school)  So I got to look at the two brightly wrapped boxes and wonder, but not open them.
So tonight, after a ridiculously long day of classes (8-4:30) I had a couple friends (Olga and Stacey) join me and my roommates for birthday dinner. We had stomppot (potatoes and kale with sausage), a tradition for my birthday.  Also, in keeping with tradition, I made it myself (I have made my own birthday dinner for a few years now).
And just to make me feel like I was at home, LDK, who we sometimes tease about being the "mom" of our apartment, put a cherry on top.
Photo by Olga
The "cherry on top" tradition started when I was in high school and mom misunderstood my request for a black forest cherry cake with a cherry on top and stomppot.  She thought I wanted the cherry on my stomppot (this was before I started making my own birthday dinner), so in an effort to keep me happy she put a cherry on my stomppot.  For some reason we have continued this ever since.
After dinner I opened the presents my cousin had been holding hostage.  (photos all by Olga)

I started with the little box first.
It was a motion sensing yard light, bulb not included (that's what the box said at least)
It was actually a baby crockpot filled with melting chocolate.  Watch out friends!
The big box was a Kitchen Aid mixer (!) and lots of other treasures -erasers shaped like crayons, pencil crayons, twist up crayons, a notebook, alpaca knee socks (which I did not know had been perfected yet), chocolate molds...but the most precious of all was from my little brother, Reuben (okay, he's not so little anymore, he's 15, and just as tall if  not taller than me, but he'll always be my little brother).
Here is a video that Olga shot of me opening the gift from him (per my family's request): 
For those of you who have trouble hearing/seeing/understanding it (I can hardly understand the spoken parts and I was right there!) I opened the little box and saw a note on top saying: "Hark" the angel says, "Hurry Home, the Host awaits!" At that point I hardly knew how to respond. I moved the note aside and found a carved wooden angel. After I found my words back (and cried a little) I told my friends the story (after some coaxing from Olga). Many years ago my grandfather had carved a wooden nativity scene for us. (See "Activity" Scenes for pictures of it).  It was/is my favorite nativity scene and I'd play with it all of Christmas. Originally there had been only one angel and I told my grandfather that one angel was not a host, so he made me more. He also made me more wisemen, because I was bothered by the tradition of only 3.  He never got a chance to make more sheep, so our "flock" only has three.  Grandpa died just before Christmas when I was in 8th grade. 
I'd been hinting (rather boldly) for a couple years now that one of my brothers should make me one.   Well, Reuben decided to make me one this year.  From the note (and talking to my sister) I know that rest the nativity scene is at home. *update*: I've talked to my brother now and know that there is a whole host of angels, a whole flock of sheep, and more than 3 wise men waiting for me at home! *end of update* I almost want it to be Christmas now so I can play with it...but Easter is coming first. And I like Easter.  A lot. 
After presents we ate cheesecake.  It was yummy.
In addition to it being my birthday, today was also day 36 with no seizure activity.  I'm onto day 37 now.
And just because I love Easter so much:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Going to Church, Part 2

While my first "Going to Church" post could have been read as thoughts on accessibility for those with differing abilities in in any situation, this one is related to church in specific and has to do with communion or The Lord's Supper or The Eucharist, depending on your tradition.
Communion typically involves bread and either wine or grape juice and is a very important part of church life. It's one of the two sacraments routinely celebrated in the Reformed Church (the other being baptism).  Sadly, it is a part of church life that I routinely am excluded from.
I have Celiac disease (as well as multiple severe food allergies), which means I can't have any gluten, a part of wheat flour, which is used in communion bread.  Communion, even as important as it is, is not worth a quick trip to the emergency room or a day of throwing up.  Thankfully, at Central, I had a wonderful community that realized the importance of inclusive communion and made the effort to find Joy-friendly communion wafers.  One day, during my sophomore year at Central, I had communion for the first time in years.  I cried with tears of joy.
Here at Western we celebrate communion once a week, by intinction (dipping the bread in a chalice of juice or wine).  Right from the beginning I worked with the chapel planning committee to come up with a Joy-friendly bread and a plan to keep a chalice gluten free and reduce awkwardness. I get to celebrate communion once a week, with the community here and I am blessed for it.
At my home church, DRC, I have partial communion.  DRC does communion by passing plates of bread and cups of juice around.  I skip the bread and just take juice.  I get some funny looks from observant elders who don't know me well, but for the most part it goes unnoticed and I'm grateful to at least have communion in one kind.
At my internship church, First Reformed, communion is usually done the same way as it is at DRC and I handle it the same.  I talked with my teaching pastor about it at the beginning of the year and we decided that since I get communion once a week at school, I wasn't going to worry about it at church.  I was happy with that plan.
Then, this week, we did communion by intinction. When we got to that part of the service, everyone got up and went to the communion stations to partake.  I stayed in my seat along with children who had not made profession of faith yet (at First Reformed profession of faith is a requirement for communion...that's whole other can of worms). Even though no one said anything to me, I could feel the eyes on me.  It was very obvious that I, their seminary intern, was not partaking in communion.  I've only been at First Reformed for a few months, so most the congregation does not know that I have Celiac disease (it's not like there's a big sign on my head indicating it).  I think I was more bothered by the awkwardness of the situation than by the fact that I was not partaking.
I'm not the only one routinely excluded from the communion table.  The University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center indicates that at least 3 million Americans have Celiac disease.  It's safe to say that a proportional number of Canadians do too.  And that is only Celiac Disease, not wheat allergies or other allergies.
People with feeding concerns, such as swallowing, are also routinely excluded.
When a person is excluded from such a crucial part of the life of the church is send a message that we are second class citizens, not fully worthy to participate in the life of the church.  It hurts.
I will be attending a worship symposium in a few weeks.  The organizers have been made aware of both my hearing loss and my food allergies.  I'm curious to see how they will respond. I know there will be communion offered during the closing service. Will I be welcomed as a full member of the church or will I be excluded because of my limitations?
Who is your church excluding?  What message is your church sending to members and visitors?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Brownie

The brownie has been eluding me for years.  When I was first diagnosed with Celiac Disease I could make a brownie like treat using gluten free flour.  It was edible and relatively close to real.  Then I developed an egg allergy.  I mastered baking just about everything without gluten or egg (or dairy or any of those other things usually used in baking).  Almost everything.  Two things eluded me: the brownie and the pancake.  Sometimes I could get something pancake like, but mostly I didn't care too much.  Brownies, on the other hand, were my nemesis.
I tried again and again.  I tried every egg substitute I could invent...everything from commercial egg replacer to mashed fruit to crazy combinations.  Most my trials were so awful that neither my brothers nor the dog would eat them.  There was one batch that I was sure Isaac would break a tooth on!  Eventually I gave up active pursuit of the Joy-friendly brownies.  The craving still sat in the back of my mind and everyone once in awhile I'd let it rear it's head...I'd see a commercial Joy-Friendly brownie at the store, and my mouth would water, but I was always too Dutch to cough up $2 for it. Besides, most commercial Joy-Friendly food, especially baked goods, can be classified as "icky" and are comparable in taste to badly flavored cardboard.
For Christmas I got a cook book. It had a brownie recipe in it.  There was nothing in the brownie recipe that I would need to substitute.  I got excited.  I got very excited.  Then I waited. I baked other successful (and not so successful) things from the book. I wanted to make sure I had at least a fighting chance at making successful brownies.
I finally tried the recipe earlier this week.  It failed.  It boiled all over the oven and had the consistency of toffee.  It was not the success I had envisioned in my head.  My roommate and I troubleshot together and found two mistakes.  I had used an 8 by 8 pan instead of a 9 by 9, and I had used sweetened chocolate instead of unsweetened (and I might not have baked it quite long enough, but the oven was starting to catch fire and the smoke detector was annoying me).  We ate all of the brownie soup (as we called it) and had a grand adventure in cleaning the pan. If you microwave a Pyrex pan with baked on brownie soup, it comes off rather nicely...who woulda thunk?  my amazing roommate, LDK, that's who!
I began to think that maybe making Joy-Friendly brownies was impossible, but I don't give up that easily.  After obtaining unsweetened chocolate and a 9 by 9 pan (and baking powder that didn't have corn in it!), I gave it one more go.  I'm glad I did.
After supper tonight LDK cut the still slightly warm brownies and brought them to the table.  It actually looked like a brownie.  I may have bounced up and down in my chair and clapped my hands and squealed a bit after my first bite.  LDK told me they definitely fell on the spectrum of how a brownie should taste.  Which made me even happier.  I should have taken a picture to post, but I was too busy devouring it. Maybe tomorrow.
Let it be known that the Joy-friendly brownie does indeed exist and is obtainable!

PS:  I also mastered a pancake like thing last week.  I will have pancakes for my birthday breakfast!  This has not happened for approximately many, many years (5 or 6 probably)...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Going to Church

The title of this post could just as easily have been "Going to Class" or "Going to Lecture" or "Going just about anywhere", but church is a place I've go to a lot, so it's been on my mind. And, to make writing this easier, I had to pick something.
When you live with a disability, going to church is an adventure.  It takes more thought for you than it does for the average person.  People in wheelchairs or people with mobility impairments have to think about the availability of elevators or stair lifts and accessible restrooms.  People with visual impairments have to think about whether or not there is a large print or braille hymnal or order of worship available.  People with feeding issues have to navigate how they will take communion.  People with cognitive disabilities have the face judgement (whether conscious or unconscious) and stares and the possibility that they won't understand what is going on.  People with seizures have to think about how others will react if they have a seizure during worship. But none of those things are really things I'm qualified to write about (except for the last one, but it's pretty boring: people who don't know you and that this is "normal" freak out, people who do know you take it in stride and life goes on.  By that time I'm unconscious so I don't notice until later anyways.), at least not on a personal level.  What I can write about is what it is like to go to church when you can't hear. Some of you may recall from "How Much Do You Hear?" that I have hearing loss that makes life a little more interesting, especially places like church, where being able to hear is important.
Even going to my home church, the church where I grew up, is an adventure every week.  DRC has personal listening devices (FM systems) available for those who need them. Growing up, I mostly saw older people with them.  Now, it's mostly just me.  I'm not home all that often anymore, which means the system is used less often and isn't always working the first week I'm home.  However, when it works, it's great.  I pick up a receiver box before I go into the sanctuary. The box is about the size of a deck of cards  and I can clip it to my pocket or waistband (like a transmitter box on a walking microphone).  It has a single ear phone attached to it hangs on my ear over top of my hearing aid.  I switch my hearing aid to "telephone" mode and turn the box on.  If the system is turned on, I get to hear everything that is being picked up by the microphone.  I can turn the volume up loud enough that I can hear it clearly.   Out of all the ways I go to church, this one gives me the most control over the volume that I hear the service at.  I like that.
An FM box and ear piece very similar to the ones I use at my home church

Using the FM system does however have its issues.  Using a personal listening system is a very visible way to worship. People can see the box and they can see the earphone.  Small children stare at me.  Sometimes the earphone does not want to stay on my ear.  If I'm holding a baby or small child, they pull on my wire and it doesn't stay on my ear. Some weeks I have nowhere to clip the receiver box and have to hold it in my hand all service. The FM system amplifies every sound frequency the same much, which isn't the most useful, since I can hear some frequencies better than others (it's simply a limitation of the type of system). Sometimes the batteries die and I have to go to the sound booth (or send my dad to the sound booth) to get new batteries (which is only effective if they have spare batteries. They don't always). The battery change takes time and in that time I miss enough of the sermon that I'm usually pretty lost when I get the box back.  Some weeks the sound tech forgets to turn the system on (that doesn't happen very often) and some times, especially if a lot of wireless microphones are being used, there is interference and I hear more static (fuzz) than anything else.
The system does let me participate in worship and for that I am grateful. It lets me control the volume I participate at, and since the earphone only goes on one hearing aid (I get to choose which side I want to listen on, depending on which ear is being more functional), I can still hear the person next to me (which makes congregational singing easier to follow. A bilateral (two headphone) system would make this more difficult). Also, it only amplifies what is going through the microphone, so I don't get overwhelmed by amplification of ambient noises (bulletins rustling, babies crying, people coughing...) A general amplification system picks all of this up and it gets loud.

When I go to church in Holland, I use a different kind of system.  First Church has a hearing loop installed in their church.  This is the most discrete way that I go to church and I like it the best. DRC used to have a hearing loop, but when they renovated they removed it. If you want to know more about the technicalities of how a hearing loop works, check out this site.  I'm not overly technically minded (and most of you don't care about the specifics), so I'm going to keep my writing simple.  Basically a hearing loop means there is something installed, that when I switch my hearing aid to the right setting, it transmits directly to my hearing aid. It's like having a loudspeaker directly in my ear.  Lots of places (especially in Michigan) have loops.  The lecture hall at seminary even has one (as long as the professor/presenter uses the microphone, it's great.  And in that room, they usually do). I know a place has one when I see this sign (or something similar):
Seeing this sign outside a church or theater or lecture hall makes me happy.
When I go to First Church I don't have to worry about picking up a receiver box or finding a place to clip it. I go into the sanctuary and switch my hearing aid (or both of them) to "telephone" mode.  The sound instantly changes.  Instead of the light conversation of those around me, I hear the organ music and when the liturgist begins worship, it transmits directly to my ear.  Often, for the first part of worship, where we alternate between listening to the liturgist and congregational singing/response, I'll only have one aid switched over to "telephone" mode.  That way I can still hear what's going on at the front and still be connected to those worshiping around me.  When it's time for the sermon and I no longer need to interact with those around me, I switch both ears over. After the sermon, I switch back to one, and when the service is done, I switch to "crowd" mode and I can transition smoothly to conversation.

The other option for going to church is no amplification.  This happens most often when I go to a new church without a T-coil or FM systems available, show up to a new church too late to find out where the FM systems are, or attend "church in the park" or something similar where there is a very rudimentary sound system if there is one at all. This is the most frustrating way for me to go to church since I can't really follow anything at all.  The one exception to this is those rare times where there is an interpreter available. Then, as long as I can see the interpreter, I can follow along.  I've worshiped this way once before and it was wonderful.
Someday I won't have to worry about going to church or anywhere else and not being able to follow what is going on. Until then though, I can do my best to make others more aware of what people like me have to face. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Retreat, part 6: A Deeper Look

Spiritual retreats like the one I participated in last week provide an ideal time for growth.  The environment of a retreat setting is very fertile.  It is possible to "unplug" from the daily grind and focus in on areas you want to grow in.  Without e-mails to check or phone calls to answer or meals to cook or homework to do, you can devote all you attention towards G-d and spiritual disciplines.  After one particularly fruitful morning in the large chapel in the Mother house, I wrote this in my journal (one advantage of typing my journal is I can copy-paste when there are things I want to share) :
"If I were not reformed, I think I would  like to be a nun.  I just spent close to an hour in the big chapel, praying through part of psalm 19. [The link wasn't in my journal...I wrote out the section, but I wanted to save space here] It was so peaceful, so calm, so centering, just to go through that over and over again as I sat on my knees, my hands resting on the pew in front of me.  G-d is good, so very very good.  I feel like I could feast on His word all day.  I can't get enough. I just spent an hour with it, with one small paragraph, part of a Psalm, and yet I hunger for more.  The hunger in my heart for more of his word is as great as the hunger in my stomach for lunch.  I feel like a beggar who has stumbled on a feast, a feast she has known about the entire time but neglected to really enjoy, to really consume.  Now that I have sat at the table, I never want to leave it.  I don't want to go back to the lazy life of seminary, where I go to class and eat my meals and talk with my friends, but forget to really feast on the Word.  I grab a snack every now and then, even daily at time, but it is nothing compared to the feast that I had this morning."
When I wrote that I really meant it (okay, maybe not the part about being a nun...I want to get married and have children too badly for that to be a realistic possibility).  But I really meant it about feasting on the Word, about not wanting to go back to the "lazy life of seminary".  I sat to write this post today, I looked back over this last section of the week.  We got home from the retreat on Friday.  It's Wednesday.  My brain says that means I've been home for 5 or so days (it's been a long one). Saturday was a good day.  I started off with some good time in the Word.  Sunday was decent.  I got to worship with the body. Monday? yeah, not so much.  Tuesday? well, I did go to chapel.  Today? I taught Kingdom Kids the Christmas story, that must count for something...
Somewhere, between the retreat and real life, I lost my follow through.  It's harder to thrive, to really grow in the real world.  It was easy to commit to making time in the Word a bigger priority while I was at the retreat.  It was easier to practice spiritual disciplines while hanging out with a bunch of like-minded people at a convent.  It actually reminds me of a song (it's been awhile since I've put music up here). The song is by Casting Crowns and called "The Altar and the Door".   One line of the chorus goes "I try but this time, Jesus, how can I be sure I will not lose my follow through, between the altar and the door".  Full lyrics are here and this is YouTube video for those of you who would rather listen (it is captioned).
It's one of the reasons community is important.  The Church (as in the body of Christ, not the building where one worships) is what supports you and keeps you going between times. It's what holds you up when you don't have enough resolve to follow through on your own.  It's what calls you out when you start to slip back into old habits.
For me, that was one of the highlights of the retreat - getting to build new relationships and strengthen existing relationships. It meant some tough conversations, lots of stories, lots of laughs and even some tears.  But that is all part of a community that isn't going anywhere. A community that is going to be there through the highs and through the lows. 
And that my friends, concludes my immediate reflections on the spiritual disciplines retreat.

Retreat, part 5: Celebration


My group presented celebration as our spiritual discipline.  I'm not going to write much about it, let it suffice to say that celebration is pretty cool and I like it.  Our guided experience started with musical chairs (one of my favorite party games).  It was helped along by the fact that our music for the experience was "the Chicken Dance".  So we got musical chairs and chicken dancing all at the same time.  The photos aren't real great because I was standing where I could start and stop the music and trying to take pictures at the same time. We played three separate games concurrently to save time.  Then the winners had a face off.   Seminary students are some of the most competitive musical chair players I have ever seen!
Click to enlarge
After musical chairs we ate cake and then smashed a piñata.  Piñata photos are available here. After making the piñata a piece of history we headed to the onion room to celebrate each other and the greatest reason for celebration of all: Jesus Christ.  In our peer groups we took some time to affirm each other and celebrate growth, then we had the opportunity to serve each other communion.  We didn't have gluten free elements (which is my fault as much as anyone's, since my group planned the communion) so I didn't get to partake, but I still got to celebrate.  When my group was done I "snuck" some pictures of other groups finishing up.
click to enlarge
Conclusions: celebrate the little things.  embrace your inner child and play.  celebrate each other.  celebrate Christ.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Retreat, part 4: Service Day

The presentation on service was scheduled for Thursday.  Instead of a "normal" presentation followed by a guided experience, we started off with a guided experience in South Bend.  Our wonderful bus driver came and collected us and took us to South Bend.  When we arrived in SB we played a "game" to split our peer groups up.  We were supposed to make eye contact with a member of our peer group and then pick a number, either one or two.  My peer group was scattered throughout the bus, and one member of my group has a vision impairment, so we rather failed at this exercise.  Most of my group simply made decisions as to whether we were in group one or two. Amazingly we ended up dived as evenly as possible (2 and 3 is the best way to divide 5, since they frown on splitting seminary students in half).  Group one got off the bus.  We were at a place called Hope Ministries.
We arrived at Hope Ministries and were given a quick briefing on what Hope does. I really like their ministry.  Basically, people who have fallen on hard times for any reason can come live there.  They get an apartment that they can call their own. There are classes to teach them the necessary skill for getting and keeping a job, substance abuse programs, a day care for infants-preschool aged children and so much more.  They allow families to stay together (most shelter type places split families up).  People can stay there for up to two years.  Even after they have found work, they can stay for free, in order to build up a nest egg so they don't end up back in shelters as soon as they leave.  Then we got a tour of the shared spaces of the facility: classroom, library, meeting rooms and the nursery/day care. I've seen some shelter type children's centers before and this one just blew them all out of the water.  It wasn't fancy or anything, but what it did have was well put together.  For the older kids there were fine motor activities as well as a gross motor room.  There were tactile options,  vestibular stimulation items, all kinds of sensory-motor equipment, but all real simple.  The teachers (who were certified ECE's) spoke to us about the scheduling that they emphasize, noting that routine is so important to these children who have often experienced more trauma in the few short years they have been alive then most of us will ever experience.  I wanted to stay and play with them, but we moved on to the baby room.  Similar to the preschool room it was well equipped in a simple way.  I watched through the window as a teacher provided deep pressure biofeedback to a child (between ages 12-18 months I think) who appeared to have abnormal muscle tone. I watched another teacher feed a tiny infant who had oxygen tubing taped to his face (at first I thought it was a NG feed tube because it was so fine).  My heart wanted to stay with the children.  I asked our supervisor if we'd have time to play with the kids later on.  She said no.  I left, holding images of the children in my head and my heart.
After our tour we were told that 5 of us were needed to go to a partner organization to serve lunch at a soup kitchen type place.   I volunteered and we walked about 4 blocks to the soup kitchen.  After scrubbing and donning aprons, hair nets, and gloves we got to work.  My job was to scoop applesauce.  I'd taken the brace off my wrist so I get the gloves on.  While I was scooping it didn't hurt too bad, but it sure let me know the next day! Towards the end of serving, one of my group members starting feeling unwell (there had been a bit of a bug going around) so I was blessed to be able to care for her.  I was glad I had Pepto in my purse.  Praise His name that I was having a very easy withdrawal day! Both of us sick would not have been a good thing.
Once lunch was all cleaned up we walked back to Hope and had our lunches with rest the group and then they put us to work.  Our task was to put Christmas away.  Hope does a great job with Christmas.  There was Christmas everywhere!  We took down trees and set them up again in the enchanted Christmas Tree Forest in the basement.  We took ornaments off of trees and put them in boxes.  We took lights down and cursed them for being so tangled.  We washed windows.  I got distracted by a baby.
While we were taking down a tree someone came out of their apartment.  He talked with our supervisor and somehow I found out he had a baby who had been born very prematurely.  I asked if I could see.  I went into the apartment and there was the baby I had seen in the nursery that morning.  He was tiny...maybe the length from my finger tip to the crook of my elbow.  He had oxygen tubing attached to him and his breathing was labored.  I asked if I could hold him, and after untangling some tubing, I had an infant in my arms.  His name is Sage.  Pray for him. He is a fighter but he still has a long way to go. Before I got called out to continue with my group (who had finished the tree they were working on and were moving on) I was able to pray for Sage and bless him.
We spent the rest the afternoon doing trees.  Then, we went to a quiet spot to debrief.  We were just about ready to head over to join the other half our class when our supervisor asked us if we wanted to make "hope tiles".  In they foyer they have a wall display that says "HOPE".  I wished I'd taken a picture of it, but I didn't. The word is made up of little tiles that people have written "I have hope because..." and then shared their reason for hope.  We said we wanted to add to it, so we trucked back upstairs and made hope tiles.
Here is a sampling of our tiles:
Hope tiles made by our group. Click to enlarge.
When we were done with our Hope Tiles we headed over to the site where the other group was working.  They had spent the day at St. Margaret's House.  They spend their time deep cleaning the kitchen and sorting clothing items for a clothing sale/give away taking place the next day.  Their being there was a last minute arrangement (the original site cancelled at the last minute), but it was an answer to prayer for St. Margaret's.  G-d has a way of working everything out, just perfectly. 
After debriefing as a large group we headed to Bruno's for dinner.  Major accomplishment for the day: I managed to eat at an Italian pizza/pasta buffet without getting sick! I ate a lot of salad and some yummy potatoes fried with onion.

When we think of service we often think of blessing the people we are serving. I think it's important to realize that we are often just as blessed.  Sage's father might not know it, but he blessed me incredibly, just by letting me hold Sage. The lady who teased us (in a good way) while we took the tree down on her floor blessed me by putting a smile on my face.  My friend who got sick blessed me by letting me take care of her (instead of her taking care of me!).  Blessings come in many shapes and sizes.  We just have to keep our eyes open for them.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Retreat, part 3: Simplicity or How to Know an Onion

*This post got much longer than I planned on...I encourage you to read it though.  There's some good stuff (if I do say so myself) towards the end...stuff about what I learned rather than just what I did.*
The first discipline we cover at the retreat was simplicity.  I'll admit it had me curious. Before we left for the retreat we got an e-mail that said, and I quote "For our presentation on simplicity, we ask that you please bring a cutting board and a sharp knife.  If you have the ability to bring more than one of each that would be fantastic just in case anybody is not able to bring one."
With a set up like that, who could not be curious?  It was quite a sight to see all 30ish of us walking through the convent carrying cutting boards and knives.  In some cases it was actually quite frightening.  After the group talked for a time, they passed out onions, great big yellow onions.  They told us not to peel them yet.  This was hard for me.  We weren't even allowed to fiddle with them! We got to know our onions.  We talked to them.  Again, this was quite strange, a room full of seminary students talking to onions.
We looked at the bums of our onions and their heads.  We examined the paper like skin and noticed the veins.  We explored the shape of the onion. We held them in our hands and caressed them.
Views of my onion.  We were friends.  (click to enlarge)

Then, slowly, almost reverently we undressed our onions. We peeled back the layers of onion paper as gently as possible, trying to keep the "clothes" intact.
My "elbow buddy" carefully removes the skin from her onion.
A pile of discarded onion clothes
Then we examined the dressings of the onion, marveling at the composition of the skin.
The skin of the onion was a paradox in an of itself. It was so delicate, yet so strong. It was living, but dead.  It was brown on one side, but yellow on the other. One side felt like old dry paper, the other like a mucous membrane.
I made a piece of mine into a turtle. I like turtles.
After we had undressed our onions, we chopped them in half.  For a brief moment, all the tenderness we had expressed towards them was gone.  The knives came out and the cleaving was decisive.  It was rather tragic. There was not a dry eye in the room. (okay, that may have had more to do with the fact that 30ish onions had just been cut open then with the tragedy).
Like biologists (or botanists) discovering a new species we examined the inside of our onions. We noted how the rings were nested inside of each other, like a set of dolls I used to have when I was younger, inside of each doll, a smaller doll, and a smaller doll, and a smaller doll. But I digress. We also noted how the color shifted even within each ring.  The concave edge was white, while the convex edge was a more goldeny-yellow color.
The nesting and color change
After examining this we were instructed to put our onions back together. This should not have been a problem since we had merely cleaved them in half. However, onions are pretty special things.  They don't fit back together once they have been separated. See?
There is a fancy biology word for what causes this.  It starts with a "t" and sounds like "ter-grr pressure" or something like that.  Basically, it's because there is so much pressure in the onion, when it has room to expand it does.  It changes on a cellular level when it has the space to.  My inquiring brain wondered if this could be exploited to grow onions in various shapes...if you planted an onion in a small square form, would it grow square?  What about a fun spiral shape? How strong is this pressure?  would it break wood? clay? concrete? While I was sweating through withdrawal on Tuesday and the kangaroo in my brain was having an unwelcome carnival, I pondered how to create this into a sound experiment.  Then I decided it was too much work (soil density, sample size, controls, humidity, temperature, moisture, viability of the onion bulb...).  But it would still be fun.
The more analytical part of my brain thought about relationships.  When two people are in relationship with each other, they are together, and if it is a serious relationship, they become one.  I think of some relationships I've had with friends (no, we did not become one in the awkward sense of the word.  Get your minds back where they belong!). When we were together we fit well together.  However, time passed and we separated.  We were/are still member of the same body (we're still onion parts) and we can still come together in ways, but we will never fit together like we used to.  We've been separated and the pressures inside us (aka, life and circumstance) caused to expand on our own, not uniformly, and as a result we don't fit together the same way any more.  But we are still onion parts.  For that I rejoice.  
I also had thoughts about broken hearts and this broken world we live in that needs a miracle to make us whole again.  Thank you Jesus for being that miracle!
Back to the onion. After trying to put the onions back together and learning that we couldn't, we very carefully we used the points of our knives we separated each section from the others.  We laid them out before us, much like I used to lay my nesting dolls out.  It was amazing to see how well they fit together and to marvel at the fact that they would never fit together again.
Someone with a lot more skill than me did this onion.  Mine was a little smushed. Oops!
After we had separated them we peeled of the membrane inside one of the sections.  It was so thin and transparent, like skin or white glue that has dried on your hands and you have peeled off or that privacy glass that you can almost see through sometimes...
Eventually, we sliced the onions and squished the juice out of them.  Onions are mostly water.  The power that water has is amazing.  It washes away dirt.  It makes the onion strong.  It quenches our thirst.  It makes things grow.  It freezes.  It vaporizes. It is so powerful it is used a symbol in baptism ("As surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away my soul's impurity, in other words, all my sins" (Q&A 69, Heidelberg Catechsim))
After we were all done spending time with our onions we chopped them up and made French Onion Soup. I hear that it was good.  It wasn't allergy friendly enough for me to partake.  It was a reminder to me of how something beautiful can come out of something so broken.  We took those onions apart, analyzed them, squished the juice right out of them, but they still made yummyness. 
By now you are probably wondering what this had to do with simplicity.  It all sounds rather complex (and it was). The point was learning to take joy in the simple things of life.  To savor every moment.  That life doesn't need to be filled with gadgets and electronics and noise to be filled with beauty.  We spent at least an hour cutting those onions and it was an hour well spent.  We can learn so much from just slowing down and noticing the little things.  And that is one of the keys to living simply.  Slowing down.  Appreciating what you have.  And eating yummy soup.  :)

Post script: The room in which we did this activity became known as the onion room for rest the week...it's real name: the tulip room.

Retreat, part 2: free time fun

The retreat wasn't all study.  We had free time between sessions and there was many ways to spend it.  First of all, the convent was located in a beautiful spot.  I'd love to go back in the spring, summer or fall when it's not so cold and snowy.  I'm sure it would be really pretty.
There was a lake there and it was frozen (this tends to happen in the winter), so one afternoon, when the sun was shining, I went out to play on the ice.  I checked it first and decided it was thick enough to support me.  It was so pretty (see pictures).  It had "flash frozen" so there were air bubbles trapped in the ice. But after playing on the ice for awhile I got told that we weren't allowed on the ice because it was too fresh.  It frustrated me a little, but I understand where they were coming from.  It is a liability and if someone isn't familiar with ice and ice safety it could end badly, since some spots were rather thin yet (one spot even had open water yet).
Pictures of the ice.  Click to enlarge.
Pictures of the bubbles in the ice.  Click to enlarge.

We could also spend our free time in the chapel of the Mother house.  It was a beautiful chapel and when I walked into it, I felt like I had been transported back to Germany.  When I reached for a prayer book, I actually expected it to be in German.  It wouldn't have surprised me so much if I had known that the order of nuns that we were staying with was a German order and the chapel had been modeled after a chapel in Germany. So it makes sense that it looked and felt German.  It was still decorated for Christmas and was wonderful.  I loved sitting there and spending time in prayer and meditation.  I might not agree with Catholics on every theological point, but they definitely have a good thing with the kneeling benches in the pews.  It was so good to have the space to spend time on my knees in the chapel.  Sometimes, after breakfast we could hear organ music coming from the chapel and if we had time before first session, I liked to go sit and listen.  I could feel the music vibrate through the floors and pews and it was incredibly comforting and peaceful.
The large chapel in the Mother house. Click to enlarge
In the evenings we liked to hang out in the "onion room" and play games, chat or do puzzles.  Many people played cards.  Other people preferred to play a crazy game about Zombies.  I don't understand much about zombies, but it seemed to be a fun game.  I know that to kill zombies, should they actually exist, all I need to do is roll doubles. So, if a zombie ever comes, I'll be finding a pair of dice and rolling frantically to get doubles. ;)
My fun came largely from sitting off to the side of the Zombie game and listening to things they said and writing it down.  The best is when they combined real life with the game. Here is a sampling of quotes that made me smile:
“I want hot chocolate too.  Can we both use the meat cleaver?”
“Can you find me a shotgun?”
“Can I pick up a signal flare? It's kinda like a gun...”
“Why can't you just die?!?!”
“Plot twist!  Nom Nom!”
“I don't want to eliminate her right away.  That's boring.  Or we just kill her now”
“Which zombie color are you?”
“I'm just going to go on a rampage”
“If you kill her, then she's dead and can't fight Louis”
“We need to find a shotgun.”
“I need to not die!”
“She's dead! Nom nom nom!”
“I can do all sorts of things in that field!”
“I lost the chainsaw” “Isn't that an awfully big thing to lose?”

If you didn't know what was going on, you would really wonder.  And even knowing what was going on, I wondered.  It was good entertainment though. :)
This is the Zombie game. 
People playing games.  Click to enlarge.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Retreat, part 1: An overview

I'm not sure how many parts this is going to have, but I'm guessing more than 1, since there is a lot to cover from the last week.
To start with, I was at a convent in Dondalson, Indiana.  It was called Lindenwood. I had never been to a convent before so I had no real schema for "convent".  When I thought about convents I thought about "Sound of Music"...not the most accurate picture in the world. The convent turned retreat center was beautiful.  I can only imagine how much more beautiful it would be when there is not snow on the ground.  The building we stayed in had a couple large conference type rooms, a lounge and then a whole bunch of sleeping rooms. We all had our own sleeping room, which was nice.  I like having my own space. The sleeping rooms were simply furnished and reminded me a little bit of hospital rooms in their simplicity: two beds, a desk and chair, and an attached bathroom.
We had the option of connecting to wireless internet in the lobby, using a shared computer in the lounge or going off-grid.  I chose to go off-grid for the week...no internet.  The first day or so was hard, but after that I began to enjoy not checking e-mails or facebook or dealing with the outside world.  It did mean I had to deal with it when I got back though...Not quite sure how I feel about that.
Our days were broken into 3 main parts.  We started each day with a short chapel time before breakfast and then after breakfast we dove into our first discipline of the day.  Each peer group presented one or two disciplines (meditation, prayer, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, confession, worship, celebration and guidance).  We also covered service, but that will get it's own post and we will cover fasting tomorrow morning on campus.  The presentations were about 30-45 minutes, then we were led in a guided experience to help us practice the discipline, either individually (prayer, study, submission, solitude) or with our peer groups (guidance, confession, mediation) or as a large group (simplicity, worship, celebration, service).  After the guided experience we had free time until the next meal or bedtime.
We took our meals over in the "mother house", where the nuns stayed.  The food was simple but good.  I did eat a lot of fruit and salad. The only time I got sick was Wednesday and that was mostly because I was careless.  Gluten is not my friend. It wasn't pleasant, but it was not my worst reaction ever.  Enough that I did get dehydrated and passed out, but overall it was minor.
Tuesday and Thursday were the days that I was weaning off of Prednisone, so I had expected them to be a bit rough (Prednisone withdrawal is never pleasant). Tuesday was about as expected and I slept during most of our free time.  Thursday though (which I expected to be the rougher of the two days, especially after being gluten-sick on Wednesday) was just fine.  No withdrawal symptoms at all. Thank you all for your prayers.
Also, offer praise to our Father who heals -- I am currently at 28 days seizure free. This is the longest I can remember being seizure free in the last 2 years.  Medically, there have been no changes.  The only explanation is G-d.  Which is enough for me.
I'll post more about the retreat in the next few days (and there will be pictures).