Strangers Among Us

hospitalNot long ago, a young man named Ansar* came to Omaha from Central Asia with plans to study at a university in town. Before classes even started, when he had been here only a few weeks, he suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Knowing no English, Ansar had only one friend in this country, another young man who grew up with him in his home town and came to the US to study a few years ago. This friend took it upon himself to care for Ansar in the hospital, bringing him things he needed, translating at times and helping however he could.

Connections

Someone who heard about Ansar and knew that he spoke Russian asked my husband Andrew to visit him in hopes that a visitor who spoke his language would speed his recovery and prove a helpful resource. Andrew took our son Alex to visit Ansar in the hospital and spent time talking with him and his friend, getting to know them a little bit. Since then, Ansar has moved to live with the friend and a roommate, and Andrew has visited him a few more times there. His housemates work opposite shifts, a convenient schedule since Ansar requires round-the-clock supervision. He’s scheduled for several more surgeries before he’s out of the woods, and, although he can go on very short walks close to home, riding in a car for more than a few minutes makes him sick, and overexertion could easily kill him.

As we learn more about the situation this newcomer to our country faces, I keep thinking about his family back in Central Asia. Imagine putting your college-age son on an airplane, knowing you wouldn’t see him for years. Then imagine receiving word that he’d had a brain aneurysm, of all things! Not a broken leg or a case of the flu. A stroke. Something that kills about 12,000 people a year in the United States alone. When Alex broke his arm at his grandparents’ house in Virginia last summer, I just about went crazy until I could get to him and see him and care for him myself. The thought that this boy’s mama had to hear long distance that her son almost died and might still–I can’t imagine!

Not only that, but how great is it that this happened in a place with good medical care? If this had happened in his third-world homeland, he probably would have died. Instead, he was in the right place at the right time to receive top-notch treatment. He’s still alive today because of the medical personnel who saved his life. In addition, his friends have rallied around this young man, taking on the job of family and caring for him when he can’t care for himself.

Strangers Among Us

Ansar’s story is important. This story shows me the importance of welcoming immigrants, people who are different, people who require something from me. It’s easy to love my friends. I want to love my family. But when it comes to loving a stranger, ummm… I’m not so excited about that. However, when I read the Bible I see over and over that I’m instructed to love “strangers.” Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). I looked it up in the Greek, and the word “stranger” does mean “foreigner.”

The command to treat foreigners in our land well can be found all over the Old Testament (see Leviticus 19:33-34, 25:35, Exodus 22:21 to name just a few). Those verses tell the Hebrew people to welcome foreigners because they can remember how they were once foreigners in Egypt. In other words, they were to show grace because they could understand how it was to be in need in a foreign land. Even the temple was designed with a special place for foreigners to worship. Despite the fact that the Old Testament focused on setting apart the Hebrews as special, God did not leave the Gentiles out of his plan.

I realize this is the Old Testament, so some Christians today can dismiss that by saying the instructions for hospitality to strangers in the land applied to those who lived before Christ but not necessarily to us today. However, I see giving hospitality to strangers show up throughout the scriptures, in both Old and New Testaments. It’s a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. If you were living in a foreign country and needed something–whether brain surgery or directions to the closest toilet–you’d have to rely on the kindness of strangers. The writer of Hebrews even goes so far as to say, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (13:2).

Our Culture

In our culture, this concept of welcoming foreigners seems to have become a foreign one. Daily we hear people debate about putting up walls along our borders, whether to let people from Muslim countries enter, even as legal immigrants, what to do when refugees need refuge. These questions, they’re not just ideas. They represent real people whose families are altered for generations based on what we do today. Do we stand on our soapboxes and scream that they need to get out because they’re taking all our jobs and using our tax money? Or do we open our arms to welcome them the way the Bible tells us to do?

Back to Ansar

bible-koran-fundamental-difference-in-approach.jpg.crop_displayThere’s something else about Ansar that gives this story some even more interesting and relevant twists. As you may have guessed, Ansar is a Muslim. He’s not a terrorist, he’s not dangerous. He’s a college student who now has lost his visa because he’s not able to go to school. So he’s not legally in the country because he is in the middle of a potentially fatal episode. He’s working on changing his visa to a different type, but in the meantime, he’s receiving medical care from a hospital who may never receive payment for their work. He doesn’t have insurance, so he’s racking up staggering medical bills.

In the debate about immigration, he’s the poster boy for all of those opposing it. Yet, he’s also the perfect example of why we can’t just toss out people who don’t conform to strict standards. Before campaigning against immigration and crying out on Facebook to close our borders and round up and deport all illegal immigrants, we have to look at the people behind the statistics. Every foreigner in our country has a story. Ansar is not an exception.

Do we force a young man who cannot ride in a car for more than a few minutes without putting his life in danger to board a plane and fly for 12+ hours to a country where he will probably die, if he survives the trip, when we have the capability and skills needed to heal him here? Do we stand on a questionable principle that says we should keep our resources for our own people, no matter what? Or do we show mercy to the stranger among us and understand that immigrants are humans, loved by God?

It’s easy to talk about issues like immigration in an abstract way when we don’t know anyone who is affected by these policies. No one would say that their own child should die in a hospital just because he can’t pay for care, but some are more than willing to say that very thing when it comes to a stranger from another land. May we begin to see our fellow man the way God does, without prioritizing because of nationality or race.

*His name has been changed.
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Unexpected Ways

Pretty-Church

Random church picture

My husband and I both grew up in pretty conservative churches where we sometimes both got the idea that we were required to do certain things to maintain our status as Christians: read the Bible every day, invite people to church, volunteer for or participate in every event the church had to name a few. As an adult, I see the value of these things and I realize that my thinking as a child may have been black and white and not allowed me to fully understand the church’s teaching on these topics. However, I also understand that they’re not essential to my faith. For example, reading the Bible every day can give me guidance and help me know Jesus better, but if I don’t do that I am not somehow condemning myself forever. I may be cheating myself out of a deeper relationship with and understanding of God, but I’m not less valuable to God because of that.

A few months ago, Hannah came home feeling guilty because she hadn’t asked all of her friends to church yet. She’d received instructions in Sunday school that every Christian should ask all of their friends and the people they come into contact with to church if they really cared about them (at least that was what she understood the lesson to mean). I told her that the Bible never tells anyone to ask someone to church. I can’t think of any instances of Jesus telling his followers to invite their friends to the synagogue. Sure, they invited them to him, but they did that because their lives were changed from being with him, and they wanted their friends to experience the same radical love that Jesus had shown them.

This is way more than just a perfunctory invitation to a church service. I told her that we show our friends Jesus by the way we act, the way we love others, the way we care about people who are in difficult situations. We talked for a long time about how our life makes a statement and can draw people in or push them away and how truly caring about a person is more important than inviting them to church. I told her I think that you only have probably one chance in our culture to invite a person to a church event, so you shouldn’t squander it at the very beginning by giving them the idea that you’re only being friends with them to add one more notch to your Bible belt. I also emphasized that when we do care about them this way, we earn the right to talk about things that are important to us, and we have natural opportunities to tell them about our faith.

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My lovely, happy girl, Hannah.

Not long after the Sunday school lesson and our discussion of it, her school let out early. In true junior high fashion, great swarms of students went down the street to our local Runza, a Nebraska fast food favorite. Of course, the place was packed with middle schoolers without parents. She and Alex waited a long time in line. When they finally got their food and sat down, Hannah noticed a group of kids causing a lot of trouble and making a mess of the place. After plenty of complaints, the manager came out and told them to leave. They mocked him and laughed at him, threw ice and food on the floor and tables. When they finally left, they stood outside the window and laughed at him as he cleaned up their mess. Hannah saw it happening and got up to help him. She picked up ice from the floor and wiped down the tables with a rag he gave her. When they finished, he thanked her and gave her two coupons for free meals. (Note: Alex says he didn’t notice any of this happening, and, while that seems hard to believe, knowing the boy’s capacity for living in his own bubble, I believe it!).

Right about the same time, Alex, who had an obsession with Rubik’s cubes, had one at church. That day, a woman we know told him her brother loved Rubik’s cubes when he was younger and had one that was left solved at their mom and dad’s house. Sadly, her brother passed away in a tragic and unexpected accident as a very young man, and her mom kept the Rubik’s cube on a shelf to remember him. Unfortunately, a visiting kid grabbed the Rubik’s cube and messed it up, and her mom felt sad now that the reminder of her son was gone.

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Alex, with a Rubik’s cube, of course.

Our friend from church asked if Alex would mind solving the cube if her mom brought it. He agreed, and a few days later we found ourselves at the store where the woman works, meeting her mother. As Alex started working on the Rubik’s cube, I watched him, 13 years old, just a hair taller than I am, at the very beginning of being a young man. I wondered how that mom felt when she looked at him. Did she remember her boy when he was that age? I wished I had told him to give her a hug when he finished because I thought how nice that would be if I were in her shoes. Within a minute or two, he had solved it and handed it back to her. And lo and behold, with no instruction from me, he hugged her.

Those two events, so close together, they hit me hard. I watched our two oldest children live out their faith right in front of me. They did what they could and used their talents and interests to right injustice and relieve suffering. Even though they didn’t invite anyone to church, offer to stop and pray with someone or quote Bible verses, they showed them what Jesus’ love means in action.

Living our faith can be more difficult and tricky than the traditional instructions for living that Sunday school taught us. Living God’s calling may be less about deciding at church camp to be a missionary and more about committing whatever we do to Christ, looking for ways in our everyday life to right injustice and demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth.

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Gratuitous picture of the third child, who was left out of this blog in every other way. Poor little thing 🙂

Sunshine and Happiness

Today the sun came out and the air warmed up. And by “warmed up,” I don’t mean the arctic blast from the past few months turned into simply a less Arctic-y blast. I mean it warmed up. It is currently 64 degrees outside. I rolled my windows down in the car on the way home from work and didn’t turn into an ice sculpture. In Nebraska in February, that’s saying something!

The weather alone serves as reason for happiness today. It promises spring, which, at this point, can’t be too far away. In addition to that, though, I had a good thing happen. A few weeks ago, a representative from the Archdiocese of Omaha contacted me and asked me to write a guest post for their school blog! Today I found that had been published. If you’d like to read it, click right here. It’s about homework and perspective and balancing activities and family time and school work. You’ll love it!

I’m going to stop writing and start enjoying the last few hours of sunshiny balminess. Hope you enjoy your day, whatever your weather is!

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My kids love me for posting this picture of them doing homework for the world to see.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has to be my favorite holiday. I think my love of the holiday began the day I was born, Thanksgiving 1971. We’ve had a special relationship ever since. Every once in a while, my birthday falls on Thanksgiving, so I always have that to look forward to. I hear some people complain when their birthday happens on a holiday, but I’ve always loved having a holiday birthday. Who else gets to have all their family members present for a big feast on their birthday? And they all bring gifts, of course, because they have memories of that Thanksgiving day I was born (and because they know they’ll feel like a loser if everyone else remembers and they don’t). So it’s special to me.

My grandparents. My grandma was being silly wearing that crazy hat.

My grandparents. My grandma was being silly wearing that crazy hat.

Growing up, my family always went to my grandma’s for a big Thanksgiving meal. She made it all: turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, pies. She was a great cook, too, so it was all good. When I got older and moved away, I celebrated with other people. In Ukraine, the missionaries got together and celebrated. Of course, it’s not a holiday for people in Ukraine, so life went on as normal for them. I remember my first Thanksgiving there. I had two other single women stay over for the night. We got up and went to the market to buy food for the pitch in we’d have later, and the market was full of people doing their regular thing. Nobody knew it was a holiday for us. That felt a little strange, but we still enjoyed going to the other missionaries’ apartment and eating the traditional stuff, even when the downstairs neighbors banged on their ceiling to tell us we were having too much loud fun together.

One year especially stands out to me. I was still in Ukraine and had travelled to Kharkov to celebrate Thanksgiving with the other Americans living there and to celebrate my birthday with my boyfriend, Andrew. That year, my birthday fell on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. I woke up to find that Andrew had brought me a dozen roses and left them at the house where I was staying. Later we went to dinner at a restaurant with a huge aquarium that covered a whole wall of the restaurant. He was quiet and I wondered if he was mad (foreshadowing for the rest of our life LOL). We left and decided to walk instead of taking a taxi. It had begun to snow those huge snowflakes that fall softly and pile up quickly, and we walked through the downtown and through some parks, visiting all of the places we’d gone so many times while we were dating. It was all very romantic, a perfect birthday. We went to his apartment to watch a movie, and before he took me home he said, “Let’s read the Bible together.” He handed me a Bible and said to read where the bookmark was. I opened it, and there was a ring attached to the bookmark, encircling the word “Love” in I Corinthians 13! He asked me to marry him, and the rest is history. Needless to say, that celebration the next day was more exciting than any Thanksgiving ever!

This is a rare picture of my sister and her husband, my parents, Andrew's parents, and us all together. It was 2009, I think.

This is a rare picture of my sister and her husband, my parents, Andrew’s parents, and us all together. It was 2009, I think.

After we moved back and had kids of our own, I wanted them to like Thanksgiving, too. When we lived closer to family, we celebrated with them. Now that we’re far away, we invite friends over.

Our first Thanksgiving in Nebraska. We celebrated with the small group and their families. One of my favorite Thanksgivings!

Our first Thanksgiving in Nebraska. We celebrated with the small group and their families. One of my favorite Thanksgivings!

To me, Thanksgiving is Christmas without the hype and materialism. It’s a day to get together with people we love or to do something for people we want to love. It’s a day to remember the good things God has given us without the distraction of buying, wrapping, opening and putting together toys. It’s a day to eat and not feel guilty about diets. It’s a day to sleep in and have fun together.

So today on Thanksgiving, I wish you all the best day. Whether you’re alone or with family or loved ones, may you find meaning in the simplicity of remembering God’s blessings.

 

Andrew was present this year. He took the picture!

 

Like Riding a Bike

Today I did something I haven’t done in a long time. I rode a bike.

I did not ride this kind, and I did not end up on my face. So all in all, a good experience.

I did not ride this kind, and I did not end up on my face. So all in all, a good experience.

My bike sat discarded in the garage through the births of three kids and a lot of sleepless nights that produced days when bike riding was the last thing on my mind. I taught my own children to ride, but I have never been much of a rider myself, so I never rode it. In fact, I think the last time I rode a bike was the summer after my oldest was born. I can’t remember any bike riding after that.

Once in a while the kids ask me to ride with them, and I say something like “I don’t really like to ride. I’ll walk, and I’ll meet you at the park (or wherever).” They’re old enough to do that now. Before I could let them go ahead, I sat outside with a book or the phone and watched them ride up and down the street in front of our house. Today I decided to join them.

I don’t know what got into me. Why did I decide this was a good day for me to break my 12-year bike-riding moratorium? Whatever the reason, I found myself pumping up the tires on my husband’s bike (mine has squeaky brakes, and, believe me, I don’t want to draw any more attention to the middle-aged me wobbling down the street than necessary). I got on confidently. I mean, why not? I don’t have any skinned-up-my-whole-body stories to tell. I took off down the driveway. It went faster than I expected. A lot faster. I tried to put on the brakes, but I realized I reverted back to the bike riding I learned as a five-year-old…when there were brakes on the pedals. I felt a moment of panic as a tree approached and I veered around it while frantically groping for the brakes. Somehow I managed to stop slowly enough that I didn’t hurtle forward over the handlebars.

What my girls saw when I got on the bike today.

What my girls thought of me when I got on the bike today.

As my heartbeat returned to normal, I heard the girls behind me. They weren’t laughing, thank goodness. Instead they were worrying. “Do you think we should do this? Maybe she’s not ready,” one of them said. “It’s been a long time. I’m not sure she really knows how to ride one,” the other one answered.

“We’re not going until you ride down the hill and back up,” my oldest called out to me from the driveway.

“What do you mean? I’m fine. Shut the door and let’s go!” I answered.

“Uumm…I’m not so sure. The ride up the hill is pretty hard.” Now keep in mind this hill is barely visible. I’m not kidding. We live in Nebraska, people. It’s not the Rocky Mountains. I rode back up to them, convincing them I was ready.

Here’s some of what I heard on the way:

“She’s still back there, Hannah. She’s ok!” (after turning to check on me).

“What would happen if Mom fell and skinned her knee really bad? Would she cry?” LIKE I WASN’T EVEN THERE!!!

“She’d probably get mad and make us leave her alone!” What am I, a mother bear?! ROAR! Sadly, they’re probably right.

So what did I learn from the bike riding experience? For one, the old saying is true. You don’t forget how to ride a bike! I was a little nervous riding with children around me. Children who tend to cut in front of me and make me think I was going to hit them and maybe do something like run over them. But I’m pretty glad I did it.

Second, I probably should do more things that I’ve written off in the last decade. My kids have been my excuse for not bike riding, not travelling, not working out, not doing more stuff like that. For a long time, they really were too young to do much with, and for a long time I mourned losing those things that I would have done if there were no kids. Then somewhere along the way I started kinda liking not doing a lot of different stuff and fell into a habit of doing the same things all of the time. They’re older now. Maybe it’s time to branch out.

Hopefully, it won't come to this.

Hopefully, it won’t come to this.

Third, they’re going to take really great care of me when I get old. I always wondered if they’d just let me wander off down the interstate in my nightgown in February, but apparently they are pretty good mother hens. Maybe we’ve done something right. Whew! It’s about time we saw some fruit of all these years of labor!

I’ve been sitting in the library writing this. I just heard the librarian say that the library closes in fifteen minutes.

Does this mean I have to ride home?!

 

Why You Can Go Home Again

This one really isn't packed. I've seen them with people hanging out the doors. Saw a babushka beat a man with an umbrella to force her way on one once.

This one really isn’t packed. I’ve seen them with people hanging out the doors. Saw a babushka beat a man with an umbrella to force her way on once.

A few weekends ago, I went to Cincinnati to pick up my children after their visit with friends. I experienced something I hadn’t experienced since I lived in Ukraine and traveled back and forth every summer. No, it wasn’t a good bowl of borscht (although I kinda wish it were) or a packed trolleybus in 90 degree heat (very glad it wasn’t that). What I experienced was that feeling of going home again.

I drove into town from the south and caught sight of the skyline across the Ohio River. I have never been a big fan of cityscapes, but seeing it reminded me of how my husband always pointed it how beautiful it looked when we drove into Cincinnati from that direction. I drove across the Ohio River and remembered that claustrophobic feeling of being caught in the very narrow space between the wall of the bridge and a semi truck in the lane next to me. That bridge was the one that gave me an unreasonable fear of accidentally driving over the edge and plummeting into the water below, not knowing which child to save if they were all buckled into their car seats. I’m glad I rarely cross any bridges these days! Even more glad my kids can swim!

This is the view of Cincinnati I saw, but I did not take this picture. I was busy driving.

This is the view of Cincinnati I saw, but I did not take this picture. I was busy driving.

Seeing the place we used to live and our friends who still live there reminded me of a few things.

1. Living in a new place and navigating around it for the last year, I forgot the feeling of knowing where I was going and understanding where places are without having to plot out my driving plan ahead of time or plug addresses into Mapquest. Being back in the place we called home for 13 years made me miss living somewhere that I felt connected to in a deeper way than just knowing the path to the grocery store and back. Not only did I remember where things were, but I remembered that sense of really being a part of life in a particular location. It takes a while to feel completely integrated into the new place, and being back home reminded me that we aren’t really at that stage here yet.

On a positive note, though, moving somewhere new shows us all that we really can learn a new place, find friends, and fit in. We may feel a sense of “otherness” at times, but we still feel like part of what’s going on in our new place. I think that has built confidence in our children, and I’ve seen them become more outgoing and mature since we moved.

Our first selfie together. Wait! Is it still considered a selfie for me if I'm not the one holding the camera?

Our first selfie together. Wait! Is it still considered a selfie for me if I’m not the one holding the camera?

2. Not only did I see places I remember, I saw people I hadn’t seen in a year. In my experience, when I see the people I know and love after an absence, I often feel like we are just picking up where we left off. Maybe I have these grand ideas about emotional and exciting reunions, hugging and crying, but in reality those things don’t usually happen to me. When I arrived at my friend’s house to pick up the kids, one of her children greeted me nonchalantly, and then my friend walked in the room. We both said, “Hey!” like we’d just seen one another last week. I love that. I wouldn’t trade that easy familiarity for all of the hugging, crying, made-for-tv-moments in the world!

The kids and I went to dinner with other friends on the spur of the moment. I called them up, and before I knew it we were all sitting in Skyline laughing and eating and having fun. More fun than I remember having had together when we actually lived within five hundred miles of one another. When you live close, you just think you’ve got all the time in the world to get together…but then you don’t.

Feeling good and hungry? Skyline time!

Feeling good and hungry? Skyline time!

On the way back to Nebraska, we talked about how weird it was to see everyone and how Nebraska seemed almost like a dream. The children wistfully said they felt like they’d never left Cincinnati in the first place. I reminded them how nice it is that we have people we love in both places, how if we’d never moved we would never know that out here on the prairie live a whole bunch of great people! My children are learning early in life a lesson I didn’t realize until my adult years. A seasoned missionary once told me, when talking about how hard it was to leave people you love, “When you’re a missionary, no matter where you go, you’re leaving people you love, but you’re also going to other people you love.” That concept has stuck proven true time and time again in my life.

Gratuitous picture of our trip to Graeter's. Because what trip to Cincinnati is complete without a trip to the world's best ice cream place?!

Gratuitous picture of our trip to Graeter’s. Because what trip to Cincinnati is complete without a trip to the world’s best ice cream place?! Alex looks a little less-than-ecstatic about it, though. Can you tell who the introvert is after a lot of social interaction?

3. Some things are more important than sleep. I hadn’t willingly pulled an all-nighter for years. Having babies cured me of the desire to stay up past about 1 am. However, I stayed up late both nights I was there. One friend and I stayed up until 4 am! Does that time even exist anymore? After hours of sitting on the couch talking about everything in the world, she asked me, “What time is it?” I looked at my nearly useless watch that has not one real number on it, and my exhausted eyes crossed. I said, “I think it’s 4:00. Is that what this says?” The next night I went to Applebee’s and then cruised around Colerain Township with my former coworkers until way late. Who needs sleep when you have such a limited time together?!

My two beautiful former coworkers. Look at those faces! See how much fun we had at work?

My two beautiful former coworkers. Look at those faces! See how much fun we had at work?

I think that the longer I live, the more I realize that it’s not true that you can’t go home again. Home just changes definition, becomes more fluid, and grows to include a new place after you leave the old one!

 

Why Big Sky Country Isn’t Just Montana

OK, this wasn't exactly during the rainstorm but right before it. My husband took it on his way to pick me up.

OK, this wasn’t exactly during the rainstorm but right before it. My husband took it on his way to pick me up.

Thursday the rain pelted us pretty hard. I left work and had to run across what appeared to be a newly made and unauthorized mini-canal in the parking lot. The water rolled over my shoes. We have days like that in the early summer. Clear, then suddenly the sky grows dark and the clouds empty several inches of rain in a short time. I guess we’re not unique in that. All of the places I’ve lived have had that same type of weather during the spring and early summer.

What is unique to me here is the sky. It’s huge. I mean, I know that Montana is nicknamed “Big Sky Country,” but Nebraska could also be called that. I noticed it during my first visit with my family when I was a teenager, and I notice it quite often now that I live here. On days like yesterday, I step outside at work, where there are really no significant trees for miles, and I can feel the sky looming above me. The sky just feels bigger here than it did in the other places I’ve lived, and I just feel smaller. I can almost imagine being above myself and seeing people scurrying around doing their thing below, oblivious to the fact that the whole of creation sweeps above and around them.

Did I mention that the sunsets are gorgeous, too?

Did I mention that the sunsets are gorgeous, too?

I can’t really figure out why the sky seems bigger here. Is it because there are fewer trees and buildings and steep hills (although there are plenty of dune-shaped hills) where I notice it? I don’t feel it as much in my neighborhood, where mature trees line the streets, but get a few blocks away, where fields surround the highways, and there it is: Big Sky. Or maybe it’s because the clouds pass overhead at a higher altitude, giving the sense of space above. Or maybe the air is clearer or there’s less low, dense cloud cover. Maybe a combination of those things. Who knows?

It must be raining out there, on the horizon somewhere.

It must be raining out there, on the horizon somewhere.

After I got home from work yesterday, the rain stopped. My kids and I took advantage of the break in the rain and drove to the store. On the way, I noticed wildly interesting clouds forming above us. Huge clouds. Mountainous clouds, some heavy and ominous, and some swirling in formations like I’d never seen before. Of course, I had to stop and take some pictures of them. And mind you, I was not alone. One other car had pulled over to photograph the natural wonder taking place above us. Maybe the passengers in that car are newish here, too.

Look at those clouds!

Look at those clouds! All this and not even a thunderstorm warning.

Almost looks like a blanket being pulled up over the town.

Almost looks like a blanket being pulled up over the town.

I noticed a few things about what was going on around us. Besides that other driver and me, nobody seemed to notice the show happening above us. The clouds changed minute by minute, and everyone just drove around, going to the store, taking the kids to softball practice, driving home from work. Nobody seemed impressed. I also do that plenty of times, and, realistically speaking, I can’t stop every time something interesting goes on around me or I’d never get anywhere. But what happened to the sense of connectedness to nature and feeling of awe I had when I was younger? When did I stop noticing things like a giant cloud formation sailing above me?

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I also realized that artists have attempted to paint, describe, and compose replications of such natural phenomenon for centuries and that, in reality, I’ve probably spent more time looking at the human attempts to replicate that sky than the sky itself. Mostly nature doesn’t catch my eye unless it results in something super-impressive, like a storm rolling in.

One of my favorite musicians ever has to be Rich Mullins. Even if I didn’t know he spent a lot of time in the Great Plains area, I’d be able to tell it from his songs. They highlight how the beauty in nature bears the distinct fingerprint of God, how it points us back to Him. The prairie and the Big Sky always especially remind me of the words from one of my favorite Rich Mullins songs, Calling Out Your Name:

“I feel the thunder in the sky.

I see the sky about to rain,

And with the prairies I am calling out your name.”

A double rainbow! The perfect ending to the rainstorm.

A double rainbow! The perfect ending to the rainstorm.

Winter is Coming

Just a little chilly. Maybe put on a jacket.

Just a little chilly. Maybe put on a light jacket.

Before we moved to Nebraska, people said things like, “You’re gonna freeze out there. It’s practically the tundra.” I read books like My Antonia where the endless Nebraska winters produced suicidal tendencies in settlers living in dugouts. Even cashiers in grocery stores and people in our new neighborhood, upon finding out that we had arrived in June, said things like, “Oooh! You haven’t lived through a winter here yet.” I began to wonder if we had moved ourselves to Siberia on accident.

Prettymuch what we expected before we moved here.

Prettymuch what we expected before we moved here. It turned out to be more like what Cincinnati got after we left!

Then the winter hit, and it was cold. Temperatures reached down into the -20’s with wind chill factors in the -30’s. But guess what? Back in Cincinnati, our friends had the same kind of cold with one additional fun thing: lots and lots of snow. Like, many-snow-days-of-cancelled-school snow. Our kids pouted as they trudged to school day after day with only one cancellation the entire winter. We had very little snow here. I couldn’t help but smile when remembering the warnings about moving somewhere so violently freezing.

Around the end of April something interesting happened. It got warm. Really nice and really sunny and really warm, and the grass actually started getting green. Spring! By now, it’s summer, and we are experiencing the beginning of hot weather. Last summer it got up to around 105 or so, and I expect the same this year.

Summer view of the area around the college where I work.

Summer view of the area around the college where I work.

A couple of days ago, I stood in my office and looked out the window. I saw green fields and a few trees, their branches swaying in the wind. I saw beautiful blue skies with puffy white clouds. I stood there thinking about how beautiful it was outside, and I realized something. I realized I could not remember what that view looked like just a few months ago when the cold wind ravaged that prairie. I mean, intellectually I remember that it happened. I know in my mind that I used to dread Tuesdays and Thursdays because I had to walk from the building where my office is located to the building where chapel was held and the cold wind forced me to lean into it and stuff my already-gloved hands deeper into my pockets. While I do remember that, I don’t feel it. I don’t feel connected to it. I caught myself thinking, “Eh, it wasn’t all that bad.”

Winter view of almost the same spot as the above picture.

Winter view of almost the same spot. Note the side mirror in the picture…no way I was leaving the car for this one!

Maybe this is a Midwest thing. Maybe we’re so used to the extremes in weather that we just accept them. We complain about them, but we accept them. Then when they leave, we enjoy the new season. I know that some people love living in places where it’s warm all of the time, and I can definitely understand that. However, a big part of me thinks that the change of seasons is a gift. Right about the time I’m sick to death of hot weather and think I won’t be able to stand walking from a nice, air-conditioned house into the near-jungle humidity that is the Midwest summer, fall hits and cooler temperatures bring a sweet relief. When winter drags on and the darkness feels oppressive and the gray colors drab and I think I’ll be able to double-wrap my house in all of the crocheted items I’ve been creating all season to medicate my winter brain, spring comes, and I forget about winter.

One of those crocheted items I created to keep my fingers from freezing in the winter weather.

One of those crocheted items I created to keep my fingers from freezing in the winter weather. Yes, I may be showing off just a little.

Two weeks after I graduated from college, I moved to Ukraine. I spent the next five years there. The first winter dragged on for me. Weather that winter was colder and icier than any of the subsequent four I spent there. I lived alone, and, even though I had a job and spent most of the day doing it, I had lots of long, dark, quiet evenings full of reading and watching ten-year-old reruns of Santa Barbara. When spring hit, I learned two things:

1.  If you are the first to stop bundling up and start wearing regular clothes in public, everyone thinks you lost weight over the winter.

2.  When you survive something that was difficult and long, you remember it, but you also sorta forget it.

That spring, my friend and I were talking about whether we’d ever get married and lamenting the singleness that was our life at the time. I remember saying, “It’ll happen someday if it’s supposed to, and when it does the single times will be like last winter. We’ll remember them, but when the spring comes, they’ll seem like the distant past!” That goes for more than just singleness (and, let’s face it, some seasons of married life make the winter of my singleness look pretty good!). I’ve found that to be true for the Winter of My Children’s Babyhoods, and the Winter of Difficult Job Situations, and the Winter of Stressful Family Times. When those times subside and the spring hits, the intense emotions of the winter fade. Just as the pain of childbirth seems less after the baby is born (well, so we mothers claim!), the cold of winter and the pain of difficult times lessen when spring or resolution hit.

The gravel road leading to the college did get a little snowy. At least it kept the dust in place!

The gravel road leading to the college did get a little snowy. At least it kept the dust in place!

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that surviving hard times doesn’t require work. Sometimes getting through the winter requires resourcefulness, ingenuity, and downright toil! When the bulk of the work is done, though, and the light of spring starts to show through the cloudy, gray winter, and when the moment comes when I can stop and look out the window and finally take a deep breath, I realize I don’t remember winter the way I thought I would.

Ahhh! Spring has arrived!

Ahhh! Spring has arrived!

I write this because I need a reminder to enjoy today while I have it and not to stress out over the difficult things. I write this as a reminder to myself that if I focus on what’s good today, someday the bad things will seem like one of those distant winter memories. “Eh, it’s not so bad after all.” I write this so that this summer, when it’s 110 degrees and spending even three minutes outside threatens to turn me into a burnt ember, I will remember that soon all of the heat will be a memory, and the cool temperatures will rescue me!

Five Fun Things about a Small Town Festival

Bright, colorful, sugary, savory: what's not to love?

Bright, colorful, sugary, savory: what’s not to love?

 

A few days ago, my husband and I spent a fun evening eating whatever junk food we wanted, and we didn’t even have to share it with our kids! This fun date night was made possible by a joint effort between our church and our town. The leaders of neither knew when they scheduled Vacation Bible School and Papillion Days the same week that they were contributing to a fun night out for at least one tired couple, but this year they did just that.

The festival our town holds every year is one of the first things we attended here when we moved to Nebraska, and it helped create some of our best memories of our year. Here are five things I think are great about a small town festival.

Looks innocent enough, right? One long bar, four rows of people on each end...

Looks innocent enough, right? One long bar, four rows of people on each end…

1. Family legends are made. Last year, my then ten-year-old son and I rode the scariest and most ridiculous ride ever created. Everyone else in the family cowered at the enormity of it, but we looked at each other and said, “We will brave the ride known as OMG.” And we did.

Oh, what's that happening? The bar turns circles in the air?

Oh, what’s that happening? The bar turns circles in the air?

And the people dangling on the ends of it also spin? That's a recipe for motion sickness for sure.

And the people dangling on the ends of it also spin? That’s a recipe for motion sickness for sure.

All the way around. Yes, indeed.

All the way around. Yes, indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I must admit I screamed. Quite a bit. But in my own defense, I was much, much more afraid that my iphone would slip from my back pocket and smash to the ground in a million beautiful, high-tech pieces than I was of the ride. If we ever brave the OMG again, the iphone will remain safely in my husband’s pocket!

2. All the junk food you can afford. Where else can you get a fried hot dog wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese? Who even knew these existed? I’m a little sorry I didn’t try it, although it probably contained enough cholesterol to clog even the cleanest arteries.

What? A hot dog wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese, and all of it is fried. I don't know if I should eat it or use it to oil the hinges in my house.  Cholesterol crazy...but also sounds kinda good.

I don’t know if I should eat it or use it to oil the squeaky hinges in my house.

And who can resist Grand Dad’s Homemade Ice Cream? That brings back childhood memories of the county fair . Yum!

Why are these things always powered by John Deere engines? There must be a story there somewhere.

Why are these things always powered by John Deere engines? There must be a story there somewhere.

3. Nice people, and usually a few that you know. Hey, it’s a small town, right? So you’re bound to run into someone you know. For me it was a woman who might or might not have been the mother of one of my daughter’s friends. I saw her. She looked familiar. I thought maybe it was my daughter’s friend’s mom. I smiled. She smiled back. She looked like maybe she recognized me. I had that moment of should I or shouldn’t I say hi. I didn’t know her name, and, sadly, I don’t even remember her daughter’s name. I walked past and whispered to my husband that I felt bad for not talking to her if she is, in fact, someone I’m supposed to know. He said, “Well, she should feel bad, too, because she didn’t talk to you either.” Classic man answer, but a pretty good one.

I don’t have a picture of her for obvious reasons. That would have added the adjective “creepy” to the list of “rude” and “snobby” she was already silently using to describe me.

4. Lots of cool junk nobody wears anywhere else. Did you ever notice that when they set up booths selling clothes or jewelry at these things they display an awful lot of Native American dream catcher-y kinds of stuff. And those flowy, tie died, lacy, scarfy type dresses always hang in a couple of booths. Do they sell a lot of that? They must. Do people actually wear that stuff? Not sure about that. They did in 1990.

I'm afraid if I put on one of these whispy lace blouses, I might just float away. Like a ghost or something.

I’m afraid if I put on one of these whispy lace blouses, I might just float away. Like a ghost or something.

 

 

5. A parade the likes of which my 1950’s-loving relatives would have been proud. Just take a look at this gigantic American flag followed by old men in tiny cars, fire trucks, marching bands, and clowns throwing candy.

The main street through the historic part of town.

I didn’t know places still did this sort of thing.

 

White fire trucks! How cool is that?

White fire trucks! Oh, and there are fireworks. Forgot to include that in my list of great things about festivals!

Don't forget the white horse and carriage to go with the white fire truck.

Don’t forget the white horse and carriage to go with the white fire truck.

All of this goes on every June. All of it is within walking distance of our front door. Small enough that we walked to the festival, walked around the entire thing to scout out where to bring the kids this weekend, bought a sandwich and two very good lemonades, and walked home, all within the two hours we had before VBS ended. Seems like a pretty good deal to me!

 

We Live in a Sod House

When we decided to move from Ohio to Nebraska, we realized that to people we knew in Ohio and Indiana, Nebraska seemed very far away. We heard jokes about how we were moving to the frontier and were we going to live in a sod house? We suddenly noticed how many tv shows chose Nebraska as a character’s home state when they wanted to portray him or her as being from the middle of nowhere.

It's right there, in the red.

It’s right there, in the red.

I sorta understand that. When we started thinking about moving, we had to get out a map to see exactly which of the big, rectangular states Nebraska was. (I’m not completely sure I can find it today on an unlabeled map, but don’t tell anyone that!). Having read every pioneer book available in the school library as a child, I could imagine Nebraska as a wide, rolling prairie dotted here and there by weather-beaten old houses.

However, one trip out here proved that many of those stereotypes aren’t really true. I mean, we take some pretty modern modes of transportation.

After I made them climb up for the picture, I saw a sign that said to stay off the wagons. Laura Ingalls would smack me if she knew I'd broken the rules!

After I made them climb up for the picture, I saw a sign that said to stay off the wagons. Ma Ingalls would smack me if she knew I’d broken the rules!

 

We have plenty of up-to-date highways.

The Oregon Trail cut across Nebraska, at Scott's Bluff.

The Oregon Trail cut across Nebraska, at Scott’s Bluff.

My kids got to walk along the actual Oregon Trail. This is where the real pioneers walked...or rode. It doesn't get more exciting than that to a pioneer buff!

My kids got to walk along the actual Oregon Trail. This is where the real pioneers walked…or rode. It doesn’t get more exciting than that to a pioneer buff!

Joke after joke about living in a sod home. Come on, you guys. You know that we have regular houses out here, right?

Sod home preserved the way settlers actually lived in it. This is the real thing!

Sod home preserved the way settlers actually lived in it. This is the real thing!

Our children have become rather style-conscious after moving here. They’ve always got to have the most up-to-date fashions.

I can totally imagine her a pioneer.

I can totally imagine her a pioneer.

Howdy, partner.

I absolutely refuse to smile in this ridiculous get up.

She's just sweet.

She’s just sweet.

 

And out here in the wild West, we have modern-day forms of communication.

We got the complete tour of this real life Pony Express station--all one room of it!

We got the complete tour of this real life Pony Express station–all one room of it.

Churches here are remarkably trendy.

Actually, the churches here are very trendy, even more than the ones we left. That's material for another post, though.

Actually, the churches here are very trendy, even more than the ones we left. That’s material for another post, though.

Of course, I’m being sarcastic. We took all of those pictures on our vacation to Scott’s Bluff and Chimney Rock. Our house looks very similar to the house we had in Cincinnati, and the town reminds me of my hometown in Indiana with some exceptions like fast food, a mall, and more amenities. People here go to college and work in offices and have lives just like people back where we came from. It’s not that much different.

However, in this part of the country we do have one thing I have never seen back home.

This is indeed a real place. The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD. It is a wonder to behold. If you've never been, you should go.

This is indeed a real place. The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD. It is a wonder to behold. All of those pictures, mosaics, decorations on the sides of the building are made of corn. Thousands of tiny kernals of corn. I feel for the poor person (probably someone’s intern…or administrative assistant!) who had to glue all of those things on there! If you’ve never been, you should go.