Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Sipping my almond raspberry tea and nibbling on coconut scones with clotted cream, it was easy to imagine I was in a small village in southern England, where I first experienced real Devonshire cream. It's hard to believe this lovely tea room is hidden away in an unimpressive strip mall of Virginia Beach!

It's not everyday you have an occasion to celebrate a 99th birthday. Our wonderful neighbor of more than twenty years, Elva Gerlach, turned 99 last week. She's been an adopted grandmother to me and my three brothers over the years, and we feel like she's part of the family. She's also been a special friend to my Grandma Jeter since she came to live with my parents. Elva is the only one of Grandma's friends around here who is anywhere close to her age, and the only one who can get away with calling her "Gertrude."

Today is also my mom's birthday, and so we decided to go out for a double birthday celebration. Since Grandma is still recovering from her hip surgery and it's very difficult to get in and out of a car, we asked a friend to come over and stay with her while my mom and Elva and I went out for an afternoon tea.

I never would have stumbled across The English Rose Tea Room if my mom hadn't seen it advertised in the paper. It's easy to miss, even if you're looking for it, tucked in next to a dental clinic and across from a dollar store. But once we stepped inside, it was easy to forget the somewhat drab outer appearance. Soothing instrumental music and cool pastel colors invited us to slow down and relax. A smiling hostess, bustling about clearing teacups and saucers, greeted us and led us to a quiet spot by the window.

Each of us had our own pot of tea. My mom chose the "Pucker Up Lemon" (or something to that effect), and Elva decided upon Orange Tangerine. The "Lite Lunch" had several options to choose from - soup, salad, 1/2 sandwich, fruit, pasta salad, and scones. The salad had fresh greens, mandarin oranges and feta cheese, with a light dressing that tasted like it might have been lemon poppyseed. There were coconut scones and cranberry/raisin scones, which were light and sweet. And the tea was wonderful, made to be enjoyed in small sips out of the delicate turquoise and gold or rose-patterned teacups.

The English Rose Tea Room is a lovely oasis from the frantic activity of everyday life, and I hope to return again soon!

Care For Some Tea?
English Rose Tea Room
Kempsville Plaza Shopping Center
404 S. Parliament Drive 103
Virginia Beach, VA 23462

(Open Tue - Sat, 11am - 4pm)

Thursday, March 1, 2012


The lunch I packed last night to take to work almost didn't make it til morning. It was the most scrumptious-looking salad, and my mouth was watering and my stomach growling as I washed the lettuce, chopped the peppers and sliced the avocado. It was a perfect blend of colors and textures and flavors: the dark purples and greens of the crisp lettuce and arugula, the juicy crunch of the red bell peppers and the smoothness of the perfectly-ripe avocado, the salty green olives and the mild creaminess of the fresh mozarella cheese...

It was beautiful and looked delectable. I even sprinkled a bit of grated parmesan cheese on top, then poured a bit of Italian dressing in a tiny Tupperware container with a tiny lid. Then I stowed it all carefully in the fridge. By the time I finished and went to bed, I was so excited I could hardly get to sleep. All I wanted to do was run downstairs and raid the fridge and dive into my amazing salad.

I have a friend who says she never thinks to make salads. She says it seems like too much trouble and it doesn't seem appealing enough to make the effort. I can't understand that. In our family, it doesn't matter what meal we're having, there's GOING to be salad. I often start with the salad if I don't know what else to make, and then build the meal around it. I've even been known to jump up from the table after we've all been seated and have prayed and started, because I realized there was no salad and I had to remedy the situation.

There are so many fabulous kinds of salads. I love tender dark green baby spinach leaves with sliced Granny Smith apples, walnuts and dried cranberries. Or sliced garden-grown tomatoes, still warm from the sunshine, with thick slabs of fresh, juicy mozarella cheese, and just-picked whole basil leaves on top, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. My mom makes an amazing kale salad - the kale leaves are stripped from the stalk and then drizzled in honey and olive oil, which is "massaged" into the leaves until they're softer. Then they're topped with sliced strawberries and toasted almonds. Sooo good, and with plenty of iron and vitamins in those dark green leaves!

And don't tell me that kids won't eat salads. That is purely up to the parents. If parents give kids salad to eat at a young age and don't give them the option of not eating it, they WILL eat salad, and even ENJOY it! My three brothers and I are scientific proof. Because we were raised like little rabbits on the leafy greens, we all crave the fresh vegetables. When I was in Germany for several months last year, my German friends used to laugh when they'd see me washing and chopping lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers for my lunch. "You're so healthy!" they laughed, "you're always eating salad!"

All this is making me hungry. We still have avocadoes and olives and peppers in the fridge - I could make a quick little salad for a midnight snack... :)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


To celebrate my brother Stephen's birthday recently, I drove up to DC for a weekend and we went out for brunch at a locally owned restaurant just a block from his house - Busboys and Poets.

Steve recommended the Eggs Benedict, a favorite with local customers. The menu listed several tempting options. He chose the one with juicy crab meat and a side of roasted red potatoes and peppers with light seasoning.

I opted for the spinach version, with a side of fresh fruit - pineapple, blackberries, strawberries and blueberries. The eggs were perfectly poached, served over toasted English muffins and with a light Hollandaise sauce that wasn't overpowering.

The cafe is named after noted African-American poet Langston Hughes, who served as a busboy in the 1920s before gaining recognition for his literary talent. Busboys and Poets seeks to provide a place for sharing of local and ethnic art and literature, as well as a gathering place for ideas and discussion with people of all races and backgrounds. Be sure to check out the unique bookstore and gift shop, with work from international as well as local authors and artists.

There are four locations in the DC/Maryland/northern Virginia area:
For more information:


Quinoa (pronounced "kee-nwah") was an important staple of the ancient Incan diet, and still is eaten frequently in certain areas of South America. Containing more protein than most other grains, it's a healthy option that's gaining popularity.

Sunday night I stumbled upon a recipe clipped from a magazine for Quinoa-stuffed bell peppers, and decided to try it. I substituted a few items from the recipe, according to what we had on hand in the kitchen, and it turned out quite well! This is a one-dish meal, with grains, vegetables, and nuts all in one, and it's quite filling. I especially like the contrast of textures in this dish - with the crunch of the toasted almonds and the small grains of quinoa. And it's always fun to be able to eat your "bowl" - the bell pepper - as you go!


30 min. prep time, 30-60 min. cooking time
Serves 6

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 cup shredded carrots
8 oz mushrooms, chopped
1 cup packed baby spinach, thinly sliced
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 cup cooked quinoa
1 tsp paprika
3/4 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
6 green, red, orange or yellow bell peppers, tops removed, cored and seeded
1/4 cup toasted chopped almonds

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Saute onion, red bell pepper, and carrots for 5 min. or until softened. Add mushrooms and saute for 5 min or until softened. Add spinach and parsley, saute for 2-3 min or until spinach is wilted. Stir in quinoa, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper.
3. Stuff bell peppers with quinoa mixture, gently packing it down. Arrange upright in baking dish. Sprinkle with almonds.*
4. Cover and bake in preheated oven for about 1 hour or until peppers are tender.**

*I chopped the whole almonds and toasted them on a tray in the toaster oven for a few minutes until golden. Then let cool a bit and sprinkle them on top of the stuffed peppers.
**I only baked for 30 minutes because we were all hungry and didn't want to wait! The bell peppers were a bit more crunchy than soft, but everyone liked it!

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Aunt Betty's fingers move gracefully across the keys of the piano as my mom, my dad, my grandma "Abuela" and I huddle around the shared hymnal. I've requested one last "hymn-sing" with my dad's sister Betty before she leaves in the morning to go home to Missouri. She's been visiting us for a week, and it's been so refreshing to have her cheerful presence here. I love to hear her play the piano, all the old hymns that you rarely hear anymore.

Oft times the day seems long, our trials hard to bear...

Holding the hymnal with my left hand, I run the index finger of my right hand under the words for Abuela to follow along. I can tell she is fading. It's the end of the day and she's almost ready for bed. Abuela taps her foot slightly and nods her head a bit with the tempo. But singing seems to be too much of an effort.

...We're tempted to complain, to murmur and despair...

What an appropriate song for Abuela. She has plenty of reason to complain. Several strokes that have left her right side weakened and forced her to become left-handed. A fading memory and a brain that gets muddled and confused with everyday details of life. Recent surgery to put two pins into the broken bones of her right hip, leaving her unable to stand or get up out of bed on her own. Yet she never complains. She always downplays her pain or difficulties with, "It's not so bad," or "I'm just plugging along."

But Christ will soon appear, to catch His bride away, All tears forever over, in God's eternal day.

Abuela's warming up to the song now a bit. I'm singing loudly in her ear, squeezing her hand occasionally and smiling at her encouragingly.

"You can sing with us, Abuela. You know this part!" I say quickly before we begin the chorus.

It will be worth it all, when we see Jesus

Her lips are moving now. I lean in close to hear her voice.

Life's trials will seem so small, when we see Christ

She's even singing the alto part! My mom and I smile at each other as we hear her. I want to record this moment firmly in my memory.

One glimpse of His dear face, all sorrow will erase

A hidden blessing of Abuela's short-term memory loss is that she doesn't remember that she fell and broke her hip last month. She doesn't remember her trip in the ambulance, or her stay in the hospital, or the pain after the surgery. She's cheerfully unaware of any reason to be unhappy. Those painful memories have been erased.

What a beautiful picture of the ultimate erasing of sorrows when we get to heaven. I can just imagine my sweet Abuela, who has served her Jesus whole-heartedly, uncomplainingly her whole life, gazing at her Savior face-to-face at last, joined by her faithful husband who went ahead of her several years ago, and others of her family who are already there. Why worry about minor things like broken bones and weakened limbs on this earth? When we reach the beginning of forever, I don't think we'll even remember those things anymore. They won't be important.

So bravely run the race, till we see Christ.

The chorus ends and Aunt Betty does a final trill of notes on the piano. Abuela smiles.

"That's a great song, isn't it?" I ask. She nods. I feel so privileged to be sitting here next to my grandmother who has served the Lord for the past century. The words of the hymn say it so well. This is what she lives for. And this is what I want to live for. Because it IS worth it all. When we are living for Jesus, it's always worth it.

Friday, February 24, 2012


We went for a walk today with Abuela (my grandmother). It was a gorgeous day today - I heard reports that it was 81 degrees! The sun was shining, there was a warm breeze blowing, and it certainly didn't feel like February weather. So we decided to get out of the house. My aunt and I got Abuela ready - sunglasses, hair fixed, tissues on hand - and then we took turns pushing her wheelchair the few blocks from our house to the park by the lake. We'd brought along stale bread for the ducks, if we saw any.

We finally found some ducks on the second wooden bridge along the path that cuts through the middle of the park. There were about six of them, lingering in the cool shade of some overhanging branches along the water's edge. But they came swimming right up when they saw us approaching. These ducks know that people often mean food.

Abuela was quite entertained by the ducks. I positioned her wheelchair at an angle close to the railing, so she could toss in small pieces of bread that I tore off for her. Splashing and diving, the ducks competed for the crumbs, to our great amusement.

My mom arrived after a few minutes. She had picked up our almost-99-year-old neighbor Elva, who's my grandma's buddy, and driven her to the park. Elva can walk with a cane quite well, but gets winded after a bit and has to rest on a park bench for a few minutes. When my grandma saw Elva, her eyes lit up. "Well, hello there!" she smiled, as Elva bent over to kiss grandma on the cheek. Then Elva asked if she could push grandma's wheelchair. "It helps me to have something to push," she explained, "like a shopping cart. It keeps me steady."

What a sweet sight that was, our 99-year-old neighbor pushing my 100-year-old grandmother down the path in the park, heading back home.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Don't hate me for this. I apologize in advance to any die-hard fans who may be offended. But I have to say that though it's heralded as our "national past-time" in the U.S., baseball is not my favorite sport. To be honest, I find it extremely boring. Now I confess that I'm not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination, and I'm not that interested in sports in general, but if I have to choose to watch or play any major sport, baseball would NOT be my first choice.

I've been to only a few live games over the years (of our local minor team), and I did get caught up in the excitement of standing up and doing "the wave" with the other fans in the stands, or singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at the top of our lungs. But the actual game down on the field seemed almost to be an after-thought. I never paid much attention to it.

I much prefer to watch soccer or basketball or rugby (which I don't understand at all, but which looks greatly exciting). I like sports that have a lot of action - running up and down the field, passing the ball, making goals. My younger brothers played on soccer teams when they were in middle school and high school, and I went to every game that I could. I was their biggest fan. I didn't understand all the rules of off-sides and why someone got a penalty kick, but I could get the concept of kicking the ball towards the goal. There was alwys lots of excitement.

Much of baseball, though, involves standing around and WAITING. I didn't mind that when I played softball in high school (not because I wanted to, but because I was homeschooled and needed a P.E. credit). I would have been quite happy to stay on the bench all season, but our coaches let everyone play a little bit each game. But if I HAD to play, I was thankful to be sent way out to right field, where I would stare at the clouds and pick dandelions and pray that no balls came my way. On those rare occasions when a left-handed batter came up to the plate, before the ball was even thrown I would yell to my teammates as I started to run away, "I don't got it! Cover for me!"

When I DID actually attempt to catch the rare ball that came my way, I would invariably either close my eyes at the last minute or duck my head, sure that the ball was going to knock my eyes out or break my nose. I seem to remember one fly ball that missed my glove and hit me in the face, but my siblings claim I'm making that up. Maybe I just imagined it happening so many times that I thought it really did happen. But I can't say for sure.

But besides my traumatic experiences in high school softball, I think the main reason I don't like baseball is just because of the slow pace. It's small bursts of activity followed by long stretches of nothing much happening. Hurry up and wait.

Today I was thinking of the similarities between baseball and caregiving for the elderly. Each day is filled with short flurries of activity, followed by long stretches of not a lot of excitement. Every day we help Grandma get out of bed - these days it takes at least two people and the "Hoyer Lift" - a sling we slide under her that attaches to an arm that gets cranked up to lift her out of bed and onto the toilet chair, then from the toilet to the wheelchair. And sometimes there are several people running around, bringing the toilet chair up, taking it back out, emptying the pot, bringing up the wheelchair, attaching the legs, adjusting the arms, putting in the back pillow, getting a blanket, giving her a drink, changing the sheets, getting her dressed, giving her medicine, fixing her hair, preparing her cereal, washing dirty pajamas, taking out the trash... And that's just before breakfast!

But then once she's sitting at the table with her bite-sized Shredded Wheat and sliced banana and orange juice and the weather page of the newspaper, we know that breakfast will take a looong time - sometimes two hours! But in this case there's not a lot of idle standing around waiting for breakfast to be done so we can do the next thing. Once Grandma's settled, we can all focus on the rest of our daily activities.

Every once in awhile, though, I think that sitting and waiting is not a bad thing. Sometimes if I have time, I try to sit with Grandma while she's eating and read my Bible, maybe reading bits of the passage aloud to her as she chews her cereal. And sometimes I point out the cardinals and chickadees and finches and woodpeckers that come to our birdfeeders just outside the back windows, positioned where Grandma can see them while she's eating. And sometimes I do a 100-piece puzzle of flowers and kittens with her in the afternoon after her nap, though it takes five times as long as it would if I were doing it myself. And I try to ask her questions about her girlhood on the farm in Kansas, or raising four boys and a girl in Cuba and Spain and Morocco, helping her when she gets stuck on a word mid-sentence and filling in the gaps when she can't seem to remember and trying not to make her feel self-conscious about it. And I let her take her time to fold the t-shirt or towel, though it takes twenty minutes, because it gives her a feeling of being useful and needed. There is value in waiting.

Next time I have the opportunity to watch a baseball game, I may look at it differently. It may be that the batter doing practice swings with his bat, or the pitcher winding up for the pitch are just as important as the soaring home runs over the fence and the frantic dash around the bases. Who knew that my grandmother could teach me something about baseball? I think I'll tell her about it. But first I have to wait for her to get up from her nap.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Math has never been easy for me. When I was struggling with college-level algebra or geometry, my brother Michael (in middle school at the time) would sit down with me and try to break down the problems for me into simple terms.

"It's really very easy," he'd say as if he were six years older than me rather than six years younger. "All you have to do is..." He'd then proceed to scrawl out equations and formulas across the paper, explaining as he went. Though I tried to follow along, I was usually still helplessly lost at the end of it, though I hated to admit that to my patient younger brother.

Being the kind and considerate people that they are, certain members of my family like to make jokes about my lack of math skills. For a birthday a few years ago, I received addition and subtraction flashcards. And somehow clipped comics from the newspaper show up on my door - such as the one about needing to answer a word problem to get into heaven ("If two trains leave Boston at 10:00 and one is going 50 miles per hour and one is going 75 miles per hour..."). Then there was the little sign that was taped to my bedroom door by one of my siblings - "No Math Needed." I actually thought that one was quite appropriate.

So when I was re-reading recently one of my favorite volumes of classic children's literature - The House At Pooh Corner, by A.A. Milne, I decided that this is one more thing Pooh bear and I have in common. In addition to a love of eating and a fondness for rambling walks in the woods, we both have a distinct lack of mathematical inclination. But one of the great things about Pooh is that he doesn't seem to be bothered by this in the least. He's not the kind of bear to lose any sleep over things like multiplication facts.

One sunny afternoon, Pooh is playing his newly invented game of "Pooh-sticks" - which consists of dropping sticks into the river on one side of the bridge and running over to the other side of the bridge to see which stick comes out first. Pooh had been playing against himself for quite awhile, dropping in two sticks of different lengths and guessing which would win. And he was quite pleased with himself.

"...And when he went home for tea," the book says, "he had won thirty-six and lost twenty-eight, which meant that he was - that he had - well, you take twenty-eight from thirty-six, and that's what he was. Instead of the other way round."

And that's all the math a bear like Pooh needs to know.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


The worst imaginable punishment when I was growing up was a revoked library privilege. My brothers and I all loved to read. Books were my escape, my way of exploring the world, my constant companions. And the public library was a magical place of unending possibilities. Surrounded by stacks of Tin Tin comic books and Nancy Drew mysteries, I spent many happy hours of my childhood between the shelves of the public library.

I love the slightly musty smell of paper and ink in a library. I love the hushed meditative quiet of people absorbing knowledge or engrossed in fantasy of the imagination. And with just a small plastic card, I can access all of these wonderful volumes of biographies and novels and comic books and detective stories and travel books... For FREE!

When I lived in Asia, public libraries were one thing I really missed. English reading material was very hard to find. And so the few volumes I had taken with me or acquired there were read over and over and over. C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia were among my minimal collection. I practically memorized those books over the four years in the Far East - especially "The Horse And His Boy" and "The Magician's Nephew" and "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" - my favorites.

One of the first things I did when I came back to the US in 2008 was to renew my public library card. I remember walking into our city library again for the first time in several years - the same library I spent hours in as a girl. It's been remodeled and looks different now. The old card file system is gone, replaced by computers to aid in the search for a particular volume. But it still thrills me to see the shelves and shelves of books, on everything from Mediterranean soups to The American Civil War.

Today I picked up three new titles in The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series, a novel about Chinese immigrants to the US in the 1940s, and a historical fiction work on the disciple Luke - the physician who wrote one of the Gospels on the life of Christ. It's such an amazing thing to be able to swipe my little card and walk out with several volumes under my arm. And though it's late tonight and I should be going to sleep, I'm tempted to dive into the novel about the Chinese-American family, just as I used to do when I was a girl and would stay up late reading my latest library book with a flashlight under the covers, long after I was supposed to be asleep.

Just a few pages can't hurt. Just for a few minutes. So I snuggle down under my blankets and crack open the cover and prepare to be swept away into a glorious adventure. I read eagerly, impatiently, jumping ahead, scanning the pages, anxious to see what happens next - until finally, eyes heavy, the book slips from my hands and I reluctantly take off my glasses and turn off the lamp by my bed. My book will still be there for me tomorrow.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


My father is one of the most disciplined people I know. When I was growing up, every morning when I came down for breakfast in my pajamas, I'd see my dad sitting in his favorite brown leather easy chair, in his bathrobe and slippers, reading his Bible. It was something I could count on, as predictable as the sunrise.

Several years ago, my dad started walking 20 minutes every morning before work. Even on those cold winter mornings when it's still dark outside, he bundles up in a hat and gloves and coat and sets out for his 20 minutes of brisk walking. I tried to join him a couple of times and gave up, deciding that I'd much rather exercise at a more decent hour of the day - maybe 11:00 in the morning, or 2:00 in the afternoon. If the sun's not even up yet, I shouldn't be up if I don't have to be. And only if the weather's not too hot and not too cold will I venture out for a semi-brisk walk of maybe 10 minutes, if I'm feeling up to it.

Sadly, I don't have the level of discipline of my dad.

But I'm trying. He's inspired me to make daily Bible reading part of my routine. He's challenged me to exercise more regularly (or at least think about exercising more regularly - actually doing it is the hard part). I want to be more disciplined in my everyday life.

So this month my friend Jennifer challenged me to write a little bit each day. I keep telling myself and my writer friends that I want to write more and get over my paralyzing perfectionism that tells me I have to tweak and revise and modify forever and ever until my writing is absolutely the best ever that could possibly be written on this particular subject. And I'm trying to move past the laziness and procrastination that tells me as soon as I sit down to write that I can't possibly write anything until I've scrubbed out that bottom produce drawer of the fridge where the pizza sauce spilled last week. Or that instead of writing, now would be a perfect time to take a nap. Or read the comics. Or bury vegetable peels in the garden. Or check the oil in my car...

Yet if I just will sit down and DO IT, I'm amazed at how much easier it is than I think it will be. The simple discipline of doing something small consistently every day is very powerful. I start to get into a routine. A habit. And suddenly it's part of my daily rhythm. It feels less threatening or scary. It feels normal. I begin to enjoy it more. And now, about 2 weeks into my challenge to write a blog post every day for a month, I'm really enjoying it! And my day just doesn't feel complete if I haven't written something. So that's why today, after I was already in my pajamas in bed, about to turn the light out, I remembered that I hadn't written a blog post today yet. And as I snuggled under the covers, I contemplated skipping a day. But I felt it would throw off my rhythm and I would start to get lazy and make excuses for not writing tomorrow and the next day. So I threw the blankets off and started typing something a few minutes before midnight, so that I would be able to keep my writing streak.

Because that's what discipline is - it's an everyday, whether I feel like it or not, in all kinds of weather, in order to form good habits, because I know it's the right choice kind of thing.

Friday, February 17, 2012


The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency books have become my favorite reading these days. I love the picture they give of the intertwined relationships of a small African community in Botswana. I find myself getting so caught up in the stories as I'm listening to the books on CD in my car that I drive more slowly than necessary or take the long route home so that I don't have to stop in the middle of a chapter.

Last night after I returned from a small group at church, I sat in the dark car outside my house for several minutes with the engine running, listening to Precious Ramotswe's adventures as she tries to unravel the mysteries in people's lives with her private dectective agency. The legs of my jeans, the fabric on the passenger seat, and the curved vinyl of the dashboard were all speckled with the shadow of spattered raindrops through the windshield. I had this strange momentary feeling that I was blending in to my surroundings in my little car, like a chameleon changing his color to hide among the leaves, or a cheetah becoming very still and small in order to stalk his prey undetected in the yellows and browns of the African plain. I was almost afraid to move, hesitant to disturb the lovely patterns of spots, and hesitant to leave the world of Precious Ramotswe and her charming life in Botswana. But after a few minutes, the chapter ended, and I reluctantly turned off the engine and got out of the car to return to my very different life in suburban America.

This morning on the way to a substitute teaching job, I listened as Precious Ramotswe, the "traditionally-built" woman of the "Number One Ladies' Detective Agency" of Botswana, sat in the shade of a tree and munched on molasses sandwiches with her friend Mma Potokwane, the director of the orphan farm. As the orphan boys and girls ran and played in the afternoon sun, Mma Ramotswe marveled at how happy they were, though most had experienced such tragedy and difficulty in their young lives.

"We want to make so many good memories for the children," explained Mma Potokwane, "that the bad memories are pushed into a corner and forgotten."*

I pondered this thought as I turned off the ignition and entered the school building. I thought about it as I went over that day's math and history lesson plans for the fifth grade. What a wonderful image - to crowd out any negative memories, bad experiences, hurtful comments, abuse, neglect, rejection or abandonment with an avalanche of positive experiences.

Was I flooding the children that I was responsible for teaching that day with love, affirmation, encouragement, praise, and positive memories? Sadly, most of the day it seemed I was correcting negative behavior and giving lectures. It's so hard to focus on the positive. It always seems to be easier to point out the negative. But I want to remember the wise words of that fictional woman from Botswana in Alexander McCall Smith's book, and "make so many good memories... that the bad memories are pushed into a corner and forgotten."

*From The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, by Alexander McCall Smith)

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Before I saw her, I could hear her. A rich, full voice singing a gospel tune. That was Hazel. She always seemed to be singing.  

"I'll show you the ropes, honey," Hazel smiled at me, her warm brown eyes welcoming. It was my first day of training as a housekeeper at a local four-star hotel and I'd been assigned to work with Hazel.

Pushing our cart of towels, sheets, cleaning products and tiny bottles of shampoo down the hotel corridor, I sighed softly. This was not my ideal job. But as a college student with tuition and books to pay for, I couldn't be too picky. "It's only for the summer, " I kept telling myself. 

Together Hazel and I stripped the sheets off the bed, then ballooned out the fresh clean sheets and tucked in the edges. Moving quickly and precisely with the confidence that comes from years of experience, she demonstrated how to fold crisp "hospital corners" on the bed, and the art of getting stubborn grains of sand out of a bathtub. (Sand, she informed me, was the nemesis of the housekeeping staff, an unavoidable evil of having a hotel near the beach in the summer.)

It was clear that Hazel took great pride in her work. Every washcloth was perfectly folded, each bottle of shampoo carefully straightened. But it was her consistent cheerfulness that got under my skin. How could she possibly be so happy about scrubbing toilets or cleaning up empty pizza boxes and soda cans after messy hotel guests - day after day, year after year?

"Why have you stayed here so long? Wouldn't you like to do something else?" I hadn't meant to ask that, but I couldn't help myself. 

Laughing, the older woman put down her spray bottle and cleaning rag. It was a "you just don't understand" kind of laugh, yet not in a mocking or snooty way, but with a mixture of affection and pity. Shuffling my feet, I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I was the educated college student, and she was just a hotel janitor! Why was she looking at me as if she felt sorry for me? 

"Oh, honey, it's a privilege to work here!" Hazel said gently. "It's my ministry! Every day I get to come into these people's rooms and pray over them. As I make their beds, I pray the Lord will give them rest and peaceful dreams. As I vacuum their floors and dust the furniture, I pray for safety and covering as they're out today. And most of all, I pray that they will know the love of God as I do. I wouldn't want to do anything else."

Those words bounced around in my head all through those hot summer months. I can't say I always had Hazel's perspective, though. There were plenty of days when I grumbled to myself about the occupants of the hotel room, chewing them out in my head for the extra work they were making for me. I often surrendered to the temptation to throw myself a pity party, thinking of other friends who were soaking up rays as beach lifeguards or sipping lattes in air-conditioned offices. Many a time I relished relating the horrors of some of my toilet encounters to my friends, dramatically re-telling my day's challenges and soaking up their sympathy. 

Yet at the most inconvenient times, when I was deep in the throes of my "poor me" party, I would hear Hazel's voice interrupt my thoughts - "Oh, honey, it's a privilege to work here! It's my ministry!" I certainly didn't feel that way. And I wasn't sure I even wanted to have that kind of attitude.

But over the weeks and months as I worked alongside Hazel, I started to see that she really meant what she said. She had such a persistent joy - it was infectious! And I realized that I was only making myself miserable by insisting on being negative about my job. I decided to try to follow Hazel's example and pray as I went about my work. And it started to make a difference. 

Now whenever I see hotel housekeeping staff pushing a cart of supplies down the hall, I smile and thank them for what they do. And I remember Hazel and her ministry. What an amazing opportunity we have each day to pray blessing over those we encounter at the office, at the supermarket, at the mechanic's, at the dentist, in the coffeeshop, or in our neighborhood. Like Hazel, a person of prayer is a person of influence - no matter where life takes you! 

"For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers."
Romans 1:9 (NKJV)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves...

Fifth grade today we was learning about Biblical poetry in Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, etc. The lesson plans said to begin by reading a favorite poem. As a substitute teacher, I didn't have time to prepare by looking up a poem to read to the class. So I decided to recite one of my all-time favorites from my childhood, Jabberwocky.

"I learned this poem in sixth grade," I told the class, "which was a looong time ago! But I still remember it!" I could tell that a few of the students had a hard time picturing me as a sixth-grade student sitting in a classroom like they were, memorizing a poem. "One reason I like Jabberwocky," I continued, "is because of all the made-up nonsensical words Lewis Carroll uses to convey an emotion, a setting, or a mood. Listen to the words in this poem and see what it makes you think of."

"'Twas brillig," I began, "and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe..." The normally rambunctious class was perfectly still and attentive. And though I stumbled on verse four a bit, I'm proud to say I was able to recite the whole poem by memory!

Here's this wonderfully fantastical story, from Lewis Carroll's book, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, published in 1871. Go ahead - read it aloud! It sounds much better that way...


'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand,
Long time the manxome foe he sought -
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, 1871
by Lewis Carroll

Monday, February 13, 2012


Abuela had that look after dinner. In the weeks following the surgery for her broken hip, my one-hundred-year-old grandmother has become increasingly bored and restless. Though her injury confines her to a wheelchair, Abuela still wants to be useful and help around the house. And in the three years she's lived with my family, the dishes have consistently been her "job."

Maneuvering the wheelchair into position was tricky. But with me standing at the sink and Abuela's chair angled between the sink and the dishwasher, we came up with a partnership system that worked pretty well. I rinsed the dishes and silverware, then handed each item to Abuela so that she could find a place for it on the racks of the machine. It took some time, but we eventually filled the dishwasher and started the cycle. Then I tackled some of the bigger items - pans and serving bowls, or the rubber spatulas and wooden spoons that we usually wash by hand. Abuela meticulously dried each dish, a towel on her lap to catch the drips. Then as I put away the dried dishes and wiped down the sink and countertops, Abuela carefully hung her dishtowels over the edge of the sink to dry, her practiced fingers smoothing out every bump and wrinkle.

Even though multiple strokes and dementia have eaten away at my sweet grandmother's short-term memory, there are some things she will never forget. Washing dishes must be one of those things, like riding a bicycle or tying your shoes. Gertrude Elizabeth Dudte, my grandmother, was raised on a farm in Newton, Kansas. Washing dishes was something she probably did from the time she could stand on a chair or a stool and help her mother and sisters in the kitchen. She's been washing dishes for about ninety years!

Recently our family doctor asked Abuela, "So, are you still doing the dishes and folding the laundry?" Abuela seemed surprised at the question. "Of course," she answered, as if he had been asked her if she's still eating three meals a day. "It's my job."

Saturday, February 11, 2012


I've heard mothers of new babies talk about checking to see if their baby is still breathing in the middle of the night if it's too quiet. You tiptoe over to the crib, lean over, and peer in the darkness to see if the tiny chest is still rising and falling. You strain your ears for the barely audible whisper of the breathing in and out. Then you release a sigh of relief and crawl back into bed, amazed at the miracle of this tiny life, sleeping there so soundly, unaware of all the emotions he is stirring in the adults in his world.

Last night, lying on the cot in my 100-yr-old grandmother's room at night, at first I was keenly aware of every sound she made in the bed just a few feet away. I was taking a turn to do night duty, making sure that Grandma didn't get up on her own during the night with her recently-operated-on hip and fall. My mom usually has the task of night watch. So I wasn't accustomed to all the groans and creaks of the mattress springs, the whiffling snoring, or the rustling of the sheets as she moved in bed. Every once in awhile I would stiffen, my senses on high alert at a new sound, trying to perceive whether I needed to get up and investigate. A couple of times she seemed to stop breathing for a couple of seconds, and I would hold my breath anxiously until I heard the steady rhythm start up again.

But an amazing thing happened last night. A miracle actually. Grandma never got up during the night. Not even once. Often Mom and Dad will be up with her 3, 4 or 5 times a night, helping her out of bed and onto the toilet and back again. Usually it seems it's just restlessness, discomfort, or agitation that makes her want to get up, rather than an actual need. But the doctor has prescribed a new medication that is working wonders. It seems to help her relax and feel more comfortable. And for the first time in the weeks since she fell and broke her hip, Grandma is actually sleeping through the night!

Yet somehow the lack of activity last night made me a bit more uneasy. It was too quiet. Something wasn't right. I lay there in the dark, listening for noises, wondering if everything was OK. Did I just not hear her? Is she trying to get up? I couldn't really see in the darkness of the room, and a couple of times I imagined that I could see her shadowy figure starting to sit up in bed. Once or twice I used the glow of my cell phone to sweep across the bed and ensure that all was indeed well.

And, miraculously, all was indeed well. She was still breathing. She was sleeping peacefully. And finally I was able to relax enough to sleep too.

A friend recently told me of the celebration she and her husband had when their baby slept through the night for the first time. It seemed strange, surreal to not be waking up every few hours to feed a crying baby. And the first few nights the parents couldn't really sleep. They kept listening for that cry to rouse them out of bed. But eventually they started getting used to the silence. What a wonderful thing. I think I could get used to it too.

Friday, February 10, 2012


If I had to be one of the characters in A.A. Milne's The House At Pooh Corner, I think I might have to be Rabbit. He's not necessarily my favorite character, but I must say I feel a connection with him.

Rabbit certainly does not struggle with low confidence. He is an animal that is full of the idea of his own importance, and convinced that the world needs him desperately. Like Rabbit, I rather enjoy giving orders and being the center of attention, especially if it's admiring attention by people who assure me that they can't possibly carry on without me! Today it struck me that maybe, just maybe one of the reasons I decided to become an elementary school teacher was so that I could have a roomful of little people who HAD to listen to me and do what I say!

Here's a taste of classic Rabbit from The House At Pooh Corner.

It was going to be one of Rabbit's busy days. As soon as he woke up he felt important, as if everything depended upon him. It was just the day for Organizing Something, or for Writing a Notice Signed Rabbit, or for Seeing What Everybody Else Thought About It. It was a perfect morning for hurrying round to Pooh, and saying, "Very well, then, I'll tell Piglet," and then going to Piglet, and saying, "Pooh thinks - but perhaps I'd better see Owl first." It was a Captainish sort of day, when everybody said, "Yes, Rabbit" and "No, Rabbit," and waited until he had told them.

"After all," said Rabbit to himself, "Christopher Robin depends on Me. He's fond of Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore, and so am I, but they haven't any Brain. Not to notice. And he respects Owl, because you can't help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn't spell it right; but spelling isn't everything. There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn't count. And Kanga is too busy looking after Roo, and Roo is too young and Tigger is too bouncy to be any help, so there's really nobody but Me, when you come to look at it. I'll go and see if there's anything he wants doing, and then I'll do it for him. It's just the day for doing things."

I've had days when I felt like that. Have you?

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Maybe I need to stop being so positive.

When we were growing up, my brothers used to tease me about my "just smile and be happy" outlook on life. "Why can't we all just hug and be friends?" they would chime, in an over-the-top sugary voice with a plastered grin. Then they would try to convince me that I was unrealistic and that life wasn't that simple.

In those days I was obsessed with big yellow smiley faces, the kind they have on Wal-mart's "Low prices everyday" signs over bins of pencils and cans of green beans and other things that I didn't know I needed until I see that they're ONLY $1.99 each! Those yellow smileys became my trademark in my early twenties. I had a smiley keychain, a foam smiley-face ball on the top of my car's antennae, and huge round sun shades with yellow smileys to keep my dashboard cool in the summer.

Now that I think about it, I don't think I chose any of those smiley items for myself. Friends started getting them for me, and then somehow it became known that Michelle liked yellow smiley faces. Maybe it's because I always put little smiley faces at the end of emails or letters. Or maybe it's just because I smile a lot! I remember once in an English Composition class at the community college, a concerned classmate asked me when I walked in, "What's wrong, Michelle?" Taken aback, I said I was fine. "But you're not smiling," he persisted. "And you're ALWAYS smiling. So something must be wrong!"

I think I'm naturally a "glass-half-full" optimist. But I wonder how much of my always having a cheerful expression is a learned behavior. As the oldest child, as the daughter and grand-daughter of missionaries, I've often felt pressure (real or imagined) to keep up a certain image, to look like I have it all together.

Over the last three years I've been involved in the long-term 24-hour care of my centenarian grandmother - through the ups and downs of strokes, emergency room visits, hospitalization, home health care, physical therapy, and middle-of-the-night assistance for bathroom use. "I could never do what you guys do," countless people have told me and my family, shaking their heads. "You have such a gift for this." Or they say, "Well, God must know you can take it, 'cause He won't give you more than you can handle!"

That's when I start thinking that maybe I'm a little bit too cheerful and optimistic. And I wonder if I'm unintentionally giving the impression that I have it all together when I don't. Maybe I shouldn't always smile and say "We're fine" when people ask how things are going with grandma.

Because often I feel like I'm not handling it all very well. I get stressed. I get irritable. I get grumpy. And the truth is, I don't think I have a particular gifting for caregiving. (I don't remember that being one of the spiritual gifts listed in my Bible). My DNA isn't unique among the human race, allowing me supernatural strength and grace and patience for the particular challenges of caregiving. Neither is the rest of my family specially trained and perfectly suited for this particular season of life. We just do it because that's where we are right now. And you would do the same if you were in our shoes. Just like you take a deep breath, square your shoulders, and face the particular challenges of your life every day.

But I guess that doesn't mean I should stop smiling. I'm trying to learn when and where it's appropriate to humble myself and admit when I'm not doing very well and need help. It's true that God does give us the grace we need for each moment. That's the difference between happiness, which is based on circumstances, and JOY, which comes from the security of trusting in God's sustaining power. So though I don't have to feel pressure to "put on a happy face" just to keep up appearances, I know that in THIS moment, and in the NEXT moment, and in the NEXT moment, He will give me the joy of the Lord if I ask for it, which is my strength. And THAT's reason to smile!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


"Emily, sit over here! Emily, come NOW! OK, I'm going to count to three. One, Two..."

With a stern look and an authoritative voice, Tessa was an imposing figure. And little Emily seemed to have no alternative but to scurry over and plop down in the spot under Tessa's jabbing finger.

But there was something wrong with this picture. Tessa is only five years old.

I had been called in that morning to be a substitute teacher for the kindergarten class, but it didn't take me long to realize that Tessa thought SHE was the teacher.

In the morning as I gave instructions for the reading activity, Tessa stood up and started directing her classmates, "OK, everybody - put your pencils down and be quiet!" In line for the bathroom after lunch, she jumped in the middle of an argument and started telling both sides to apologize. And marching up to me at recess on the playground in the afternoon, she announced, "You need to put Jeffrey and Thomas in time out. They were fighting."

But Emily was her particular target. Maybe it was because they sat across from each other at the same table in the classroom, or maybe it was just because Emily would follow Tessa's commands even when no one else did. After the other teacher and I had specifically told the students that they could color their snowman paper any color they wanted to, Tessa took it upon herself to guide Emily step-by-step through their "free coloring" activity.

"OK, Emily, first get your pink crayon. No, not the dark pink. The light pink. OK, now color the stripe on the mittens pink. Don't color outside the lines! Good. Now get your purple crayon..."

All day long, I reminded Tessa, "You're not the teacher. I'm the teacher. I can handle it. I've got it under control." But apparently, Tessa didn't trust my abilities and felt that the kindergarten classroom would be run better if she were in charge, or at least helping police her fellow students and keep them in line.

What is it about this whole thing that bothers me so much? I reflected as I drove home at the end of the day. The light at the stoplight turned green and I moved on with the flow of traffic. And I realized that in five-year-old fireball Tessa, I saw a bit of myself. Though I may not always verbalize it, I often feel that I could do a much better job leading than whoever is in charge.

"OK, everybody, this is what we're going to do." I see myself as a little girl with pigtails, standing up on a chair, barking out commands to anyone within earshot. "Listen to me, everyone. I know best!" If people would only listen to my wisdom. If everyone would only follow my advice. If I were in charge of everything, the world would be a better place.

I even try to take over God's job sometimes. I seem to think I can handle things better than He can.

But eventually, like Tessa, I have to be firmly but lovingly put back in my place. "You're not in charge," I imagine my heavenly Father telling me, trying to hide a smile. "I'm in charge. I can handle it. I've got it under control."

And, like Job, I put my hand over my mouth.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


I've discovered that it really IS possible to survive on only three or four hours of sleep a night, but it does strange things to your brain.

I'm a person who requires a lot of sleep, at least 8-10 hours a night. 12 hours would be even better. Even when I was in college, I could never pull all-nighters. Though I confess I did have a bad habit of procrastinating, but no amount of pressure to cram for midterms and finals could keep my eyes open past 1 am. After my forehead hit the page of my Political Geography book one too many times, I would finally give in and crawl into bed for a few hours of shut-eye, setting my alarm for 4 am to continue cramming.

How do mothers of newborns do it? I've often wondered. How in the world can they keep going day after day on the minimal snatches of sleep they get in between middle-of-the-night feedings and diaper changes? I would never make it.

But our bodies have an incredible capacity to go beyond what we think we can handle. Over the last few weeks since my 100-year-old grandmother fell and broke her right femur at the hip socket, requiring hospitalization and surgery to put in two pins, my family has been in crisis-mode, running on little more than adrenalin and desperate prayers. "Abuela", as I call her (the Spanish word for grandmother), now requires 24/7 intensive care. It started in the hospital, where my parents and my brother and I took turns doing shifts with her to answer the doctor's questions and make sure she got what she needed. "Sleeping" is a relative term when the activity takes place in a reclining chair in a hospital room with all the beeps and whirrs and flashing lights of the machines, and nurses and aides coming in every couple of hours to take blood pressure and check her pulse. Trying to work a normal day after a night shift at the hospital was like stumbling around with sandbags tied to my legs, blindfolded and with earplugs, in a thick fog, though which I could barely see and hear fuzzy shapes of people-like-figures that seemed to be attempting to communicate with me in some East African tribal language. My eyelids seemed to be extremely sensitive to the pull of gravity, and my mouth had this embarrassing tendency to fall open as I stared blankly at the person talking to me.

I can understand why sleep deprivation is used as torture in some countries.

Now Abuela is home again. But this means that it's up to my parents, my brother and me, plus a couple of friends who help out a few times a week, to monitor her every minute of the day to ensure that she doesn't try to stand or walk on her injured right leg, which would most likely crumple and the bone would shatter if she tries to put weight on it. But Abuela's dementia causes her to forget that she's injured and try to get up on her own several times a day and during the night. So we're all on high-alert all the time. Usually my mom does the night shift on a cot in Abuela's room to help her get from the bed to the toilet and back again. But I try to help out when I can to give my mom a break. The nights I've done night duty I haven't slept more than three or four hours. I hear every shifting and turning in the bed and my ears are perked for that particular sound of her trying to get out of bed, at which point my whole body jumps into attentive focus to deal with the situation.

But even when she's still I have a hard time relaxing, and end up having stressful dreams about toddlers wandering dangerously close to the edge of a steep cliff with no railing, beyond which is a sheer drop-off of thousands of feet, and I am the sole person responsible for the children's safety. I wake up more exhausted than before I drifted off.

Yet somehow we keep going. Of course there are days when I can sleep in or take naps to catch up for lost sleep. And most nights I get plenty of sleep, so I can't really complain too much. But I'm clinging to that verse that says "He gives His beloved sleep" (Psalm 127:2). I appreciate a full night of uninterrupted sleep more than ever. And the next time I see a mom of a newborn baby, I'm going to give her a hug.