The Bravest Students in School

I read in our local paper, The Pendleton Times, that all elementary students in our county are now able to eat breakfast and lunch in school for no charge.  As a former teacher (and I’m not the only one) who used to keep stashes of food in my classroom for students who were hungry, I have no objection to this news at all.  I do wonder how the high schoolers who have no food in the house or no money with which to purchase a meal will fare, however.  When I used to substitute teach in high school, I’d take lunch supplies and cookies for those two- and three-hour block classes – auto body, woodworking.  These guys were too embarrassed to fill out any application for a free lunch, much less admit to needing the help.  How is a high school student supposed to keep going on an empty stomach?

That newspaper article got me thinking about some of those students I used to feed.  I also remember how some of those high schoolers felt about themselves and their abilities.  Unfortunately, some of those fellows ended up in those classes because their mastery of typically academic subjects like reading and math was poor.  I don’t think it was due to any conscious decision they made, like “Hey, I think I’ll just blow off first and second and third grade and not learn to read so that I can struggle in school and try to just get by and get out of high school by the skin of my teeth.  Yeah, that sounds like a plan!”

I admit, I’m biased.  I actually believe that all students want to learn and all students want to be successful in school.

But for those students who have learning challenges, every day they walk into their schools and through the doors of their classrooms is an enormous hurdle to overcome.  They have to return each day, each week, each month of the school year to a setting in which they already know they do not excel.  They have to face teachers who don’t understand the frustration, anxiety, and tension* that these students endure or the teasing or ridicule from other students equally at a loss for understanding learning disabilities or the challenges of ADHD/ADD.

How many adults would chose an occupation in which they struggle to succeed each day?  Not one!  Yet this is exactly what we are expecting our students to do – their “job” as students is to learn, to succeed in school.  But with learning disabilities and attention issues, that is sometimes asking too much – especially without the help of parents, teachers, and supportive important people in their lives (grandparents, friends, etc.).

Developmentally Ready?

Some students just need another year of growth to help them be truly ready for school.  Sure, they may be “of age” for kindergarten, but developmentally, it may be advantageous for them to have another year of growth before beginning school or advancing to the next grade (especially in kindergarten).

For students who need extra support to be ready to learn, preschool programs like “Head Start” are available.  Additional programs like “Right From the Start” and “Parents as Teachers” are offered in some areas at no cost to parents.  And young children who have been identified with certain disabilities can receive assistance from other county and state programs – local school districts and Departments of Health and Human Resources will be able to provide information about these.  Help is out there!

Discipline is Crucial!

Some students need a strong dose of discipline – and I am NOT equating “discipline” with “punishment” – two different things entirely.  Discipline is learning and actually doing what is expected of us as contributing members of our families, as members of a classroom, a community, a society.  Discipline is knowing that I need to raise my hand and wait to be called on by the teacher, not just shouting out an answer.  Discipline is knowing the importance of following directions – and actually doing it.  Discipline is what teaches a child his role in life.  A well-disciplined child is responsible for and maintains a clean bedroom, makes his bed each morning without reminders, helps with appropriate chores, and uses words like “please” and “thank you” and knows how to greet people kindly and treat people with respect.  Discipline is understanding that the word “No” actually means “No”, not “Keep asking and maybe I’ll give in.”  Discipline is what will help a child turn into a responsible adult who is able to get along with all sorts of people and be a contributing, valued member of society.

Discipline is not achieved by watching TV for hours, nor is it gained by remaining glued to an electronic game or computer.  Discipline is learned by actively taking part in the smooth functioning of a home whether the child is 3 or 13.   (Yes, three years old.)  It is learned by completing homework not just to get it done, but to actually learn the lessons.  Discipline is learned by hanging around with others who are disciplined, who value education and an excellent work ethic.

What’s the Big Deal with Discipline?

So, why have I spent the last two paragraphs writing about the need for discipline?  Because if a child with learning disabilities or ADHD/ADD lacks the necessary discipline  in his family life or school setting, it will make his job as a student – as a child – so much harder!

I understand how a parent who has a child with a disability of any sort might be tempted to be a bit easier on him.  But this is not doing the child any favors!  For those of you who question that statement, just watch the old film biography of Helen Keller, starring Patty Duke.  Once Helen (rendered blind, deaf, and mute by illness in infancy) was given discipline by her teacher, Anne Sullivan, she was able to communicate with the world, learn, even attend college.  The reason I suggest watching this movie instead of reading her biography is because the image of a spoiled Helen going on a rampage in her family’s formal Victorian dining room will stick in your memory.  And any time you start to question whether you’re being too lenient with your child, that image will come to mind.

You will do everything in your power to avoid having your child be another spoiled Helen Keller.

For new parents, it’s so much easier to simply NOT raise a spoiled child.  Attempting to unlearn years of bad habits is harder, so just don’t do it!  (And yes, it is easier said than done.)

Something Just Doesn’t Seem Right…

Once the issues of maturity and discipline are squared away, it’s a bit easier to see if educational issues truly are based in a learning disability or an attention issue.

Parents, if you have a concern about your child, raise it with someone at the school who will really listen – and keep asking until you are satisfied.

Teachers, if you have a student who baffles you, ask your special education teacher or a mentor to conduct an observation or give you some suggestions.

The sooner any problems are discovered and dealt with, the better it is for the child, his family, his teacher, and his classmates. 

ADHD/ADD?

If ADHD/ADD is suspected (and it runs in families), by all means ask your family doctor about this.  If a child cannot focus due to ADHD/ADD, how is he expected to pay attention for learning?  There are ways to help and if medication is presented as an option by your doctor, please know there are many different types available.  I will just let you know up front that I do feel medicine is incredibly helpful for children with ADHD/ADD but it is not the only thing necessary to help a child with attention problems.  Parents and teachers also need to learn to interact in different ways with children with attention issues.  (And when adults learn how to do this, it actually benefits the adults as well as the children – life is so much more pleasant for everyone.)  In my experience, children who have received appropriate medication as well as a more structured environment to help with attention issues are able to attend to lessons, focus long enough to complete their work independently and successfully, and – perhaps best of all – find it easier to make and keep friends.  Who wouldn’t want this for their child?

Dyslexia?  Learning Disability?

“Dyslexia” is a term that refers to a number of different types of learning disabilities – a student might have a specific learning disability in written language or reading or math – or any combination of them.  And to make matters a little more complicated, learning disabilities occur on a spectrum – this means that they can run from a fairly simple disability that can be accommodated more easily to one that requires more intense intervention and modification.

How Can I Tell?

Teachers and parents might suspect a child has a learning disability if reading is a challenge.  It might be difficult for a child who is just learning the letters to remember that “b” is not “d” and “p” is not “q”.  That is a developmental thing – with time, they won’t mix these up.  For a child with a learning disability, however, that reversal issue stays with them – third graders typically have outgrown reversals.  So when a third grader is still struggling to correctly read “big” and “dig” and, when working math problems, reverses the numbers 3 and 5 and 7, then that can be an indication that he’s dealing with a learning disability.

Some students with learning disabilities write words as if they were writing in a mirror – completely backwards, right to left.  I had a third grade student who wrote an entire sentence like that.  I took her to Child Study – and she was diagnosed with learning disabilities.  More on her in a minute.

So What Can I Do?

It is understood that teachers can ask for a Child Study for any student in their class who is having difficulty learning despite numerous strategies implemented to address the issue.

But parents who suspect their child may have a learning disability can also ask their child’s school to convene a Child Study – this is where a team of educators meet with the parents and the child’s teacher to learn what the concerns are and suggest ways to help.  If needed, further testing can be done and a follow-up meeting held to determine if more specialized education would be helpful.

In addition to requesting a Child Study, or your school’s equivalent of one, parents can also ask an advocate to come with you to these meetings.  An advocate is someone who understands the Child Study process, knows your child well, and can help you ask questions and understand what is taking place.  Two heads can be better than one!

At these meetings, ask questions if a term is used that you aren’t familiar with or you need further clarification.  If you disagree, speak up and state how you feel. Don’t be afraid to advocate for your child.  This is your job.

Perception is Everything to a Student

Remember that third grade student I mentioned earlier?  The one who wrote an entire sentence backwards?  She confided in me that she’d overheard her kindergarten teacher talking about her with the other kindergarten teachers one day.  She heard her teacher tell the others how “obnoxious” she was.

And over three years later, that same student was asking me, “Mrs. Sweeney, am I obnoxious?”

No, she wasn’t.  She was a very smart young lady who had struggled to learn, who’d fought to make sense of what her teachers were presenting.  But that perception – “I’m obnoxious” – had stuck with her.

Having a Learning Disability Does NOT Mean “Dumb”!

I’m just going to add here that having a learning disability does not mean a student is “stupid”.  Oh, this is such a common presumption by the students themselves!  A child can be gifted and have learning disabilities.

Now, imagine what this perception – “I’m stupid” – does to a child’s self-confidence if it festers one year, two years, or more.  When a child think they’re “dumb” at any subject in school, they stop trying eventually.  And why not?  When they’ve tried really hard in the past, they may have been “rewarded” with yet another paper marked with red X’s, a failing score, and sometimes an inappropriate comment from their teacher.  Why keep trying?

Please don’t assume things will get better on their own.  They don’t.  A two year-old may have temper tantrums.  A sixteen year-old with a bad attitude can get into a lot more trouble – they have driver’s licenses, friends of the opposite sex, and access to all sorts of stuff that can mess up their lives – or end them.  And if you think a two year-old is tough, just imagine that energy in a bigger body.

The Bravest Students…

In my opinion – and I share this opinion with thousands of teachers – the bravest students in every school are those who face these daunting learning challenges each day.  The bravest students are those who endure teasing and senseless comments by folks who don’t understand how difficult it is just to walk through those classroom doors.

And Some Incredible Teachers…

Teaching students with learning disabilities is not “dumbing down” the curriculum – this is making it accessible for all students to learn.  Students who have LD will benefit from learning how to learn – and an effective teacher will help with this.  In my experience, teaching students who have LD makes one a better teacher.  You learn how to teach in so many different ways.  You learn how to present material very sequentially, very systematically – very thoroughly – and you learn to include review of previously-learned materials frequently.  What works well for a student with LD works well for any student.

Parents and Teachers…

You have the ability to make this school year a successful experience for your child, for all of your students.  It’s never to late to learn!

*F.A.T. City

For those of you who would like a glimpse of what it’s like to have learning disabilities, I encourage you watch Richard Lavoie’s classic documentary, “How Difficult Can This Be?  The F.A.T. City Workshop”.  It’s available free on You Tube and most school districts will have a copy of it on DVD.  Richard Lavoie skillfully demonstrates just how Frustrating, Anxiety-invoking, and Tension-inducing a typical classroom can be for a child with learning disabilities.  Since it lasts a little over an hour, try to make sure you can watch it uninterrupted.  This demonstration is more effective when you experience it non-stop.

You cannot watch this video and walk away unchanged. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Perils of a Scrap Metal Man…

Oh, I just love it here in the mountains! On Thursday morning, my neighbor’s nephew came to pick up an old pickup and haul it away for scrap. I like this young man.  He’s a bear of a guy with muscles that can single-handedly pick up a twisted metal I-beam – and he has a heart of gold.

Anyway, I headed over to where he was working with his ramp hoist to get the hook and cable attached to the front of the old pickup. He was working VERY gingerly around the tall weeds surrounding the vehicle and when he opened the door with his fingertips, it seemed as if he wished he had a ten-foot pole. I asked why.

“Snakes!” he replied in a semi-whisper.  He explained that a copperhead had started crawling up his leg a few years ago. The snake must’ve been cold, and his warm leg, covered by jeans, looked like a great place to stay warm.

Now, I like snakes. It surely helps that I’ve also never been bitten by a snake. So this young man’s single-word utterance only piqued my curiosity and I eagerly hung around, hoping to catch a sight of a snake.

No such luck.

But my neighbor received a call from him later that afternoon. As he was driving down the road, he looked back to check on the truck aboard his ramp hoist. He noticed dozens of snakes swarming out of the truck and falling onto the roadway!

And when he opened the hood of the truck at the junk yard, a coiled copperhead perched on the engine hissed a “Hello!”

I missed it all!

But wait…

He has to come back for the second car! And it’s a small convertible, sits a LOT lower to the ground than the pickup.

Oh boy!

Here I am, all excited about the prospect. And the poor fellow is probably dreading the idea of having to wallow around in the tall weeds feeling his way under the car to attach the hooks, then opening the hood and door of the vehicle (he removes the battery and puts the vehicle in neutral to get in on the hoist.)

It might be another week or two before that second car gets towed away!

You Never Know What You’ll Find in an Old House!

Last summer I moved into an old Craftsman-style house on Brushy Run in Onego, West Virginia.  It had been abandoned for over 11 years before I moved in but through the haze of cobwebs and drifts of dead leaves covering the floors, countertops, kitchen sink, and bathtub, I could see potential buried within.  Really.  Buried.

One of the upstairs bedrooms housed piles of old books on the floor.  Among these old volumes were old court ledgers; at one time, this old home had served as a courthouse for this side of North Mountain.  In the late 1800’s and most of the 1900’s, it was much easier for residents in the area to come here for civil hearings instead of traipsing across North Mountain to Franklin.  Nowadays, it’s a beautiful drive but a hundred years ago with horse and buggy – or just horse – the trip would’ve been a major undertaking.

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These are the old court ledgers found upstairs in a bedroom of the old house I moved into last summer.  That bottom volume is about 24″ tall and 16″ wide and exceedingly heavy!  One of the smaller two ledgers on top held the oldest entries – its first document was dated 1884.

I knew last summer that I needed to get these old ledgers to the Registrar’s Office in Franklin, but I couldn’t tote those enormous books by myself.  And those ledgers just weren’t my top priority – there was a lot of work that needed to be done just to get the lower level in livable condition.  But today I enlisted the help of a young friend, 13-year-old Jerrel, our pastor’s son.  He hefted those tomes like he was carrying a pile of paperbacks, carried them downstairs, and piled them on a purple plastic toboggan.  That tobogan – a $2.00 auction find – has made life much easier when hauling heavy objects from the house, across 150 feet of meadow, then across a footbridge to the road where the van is parked.  (The West Virginia Flood of 1985 had washed away the single-lane bridge that was once used to cross Brushy Run to get to this house – those flood waters also swept away two residents of this street and about 47 buildings.)

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This label is in the front cover of one of the large ledgers – there is nothing quite like antique graphics!

Once I arrived at the Pendleton County Courthouse, I headed directly to the Registrar’s Office and told the woman there that I’d brought the old ledgers – I’d spoken with her before about bringing them in.  She asked a young man who was there checking old surveying records if he would be so kind as to carry in the books for me.  He obliged, and ended up making two trips – one for the ledgers and one for a box full of court-related paperwork.

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This box is full of loose court documents – the envelope in the lower right corner contains receipts and is labeled, “Sites vs. Hoffman”.

I hadn’t been able to fully appreciate those ancient ledgers until today.  For the last year, I’d been unable to carry them downstairs where I could open them on a table and the upstairs is not exactly a clean spot where you’d want to spent any amount of time.  I’m in the process of tackling the rooms up there this summer – when I tell you that it’s been over a decade since a vacuum has touched the floors up there, you’ll have some idea of the second floor’s ambiance.  Or lack thereof.

So I took the time while I was at the Registrar’s Office to explore the ledgers.  I was able to check out the dates, read some of the entries, and take pictures.  This was like an archeological dig, only without all the dirt and sweat!

The oldest ledger dated from August 1884.  The front cover of this volume contains a series of handwritten entries in pencil and ink that created a “paper trail” regarding one ongoing complaint.  Apparently a farmer had “borrowed” a neighbor’s bull to, um, impregnate his cows.

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If there was ever an argument for including cursive handwriting in schools, reading primary source documents is it!  This page dates from 1885.

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The cursive in the entry below is just beautiful!  Look at the embellishment of the “F” in “Felony” and the loops of the upper case “H” and “Y”.

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Who would have ever considered “felony” to be a potential source of beauty?

I love the elegance of the old cursive script – the flourishes of the last letter in some words, the way a dollar sign was formed and the short but elegant underlining of the change in an amount of money.

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It was a bit unsettling to find that so many of the pages in these ledgers regard the failure to pay debts.

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“Never a lender nor a borrower be…”  (Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

 

Many of the family names written in these ledgers are still common in Pendleton County – Dolly, Harper, Kisamore, Raines, Sites, Teter, Vance.

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These two small early ledgers were generic – glorified composition notebooks.  The “newer” ledgers (if one can consider 1900 “new”) were printed specifically for Pendleton County civil proceedings.  Compare the photo below to the one after it.

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This entry surprised me because of the large sum of bond money involved – in 1910, $1000 was a good chunk of change!

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Apparently, ginseng was as popular to harvest – and just as lucrative – back in 1901 as it is today.  Over one hundred years ago, mountain folks guarded their ‘seng with the same tenacity as they do in 2017.  In the entry below, Mr. Watts has been accused of “stealing, carrying away 6 lbs. of genseng [sic]…”  The value of the stolen ginseng is listed as $42.00 – $7.00 a pound.

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That got me wondering about the current market value of West Virginia ginseng.  The West Virginia Department of Commerce has an interesting article about this year’s ginseng harvest, which starts September 1.  Last year, according to the WV Department of Commerce, ginseng sold for an average of $410.00 per pound.  That was an AVERAGE price!

Now, before you all get ready to scour the forest for ginseng this fall, the article reminds potential “sengers” that it takes about 300 roots to make one pound.  And those little plants seem to flourish on the most inhospitable slopes of these mountains – slopes on which goats would be far more comfortable than people.  Digging ramps is easy compared to digging ‘seng.

The article states that “…Robin Black, who has worked with the Division of Forestry’s (DOF) ginseng program for more than 20 years [is] not worried about ginseng digging ever ceasing…”

“Ginseng digging is a time-honored tradition, usually passed down from generation to generation. I don’t believe it will ever fade away,” Black said. “In fact, in many areas of West Virginia, digging ginseng provides a second or third income for many families especially during tough economic times. Ginseng digging is a great way for families to get out into the forest together, learn about the importance of sustaining a native species and make some extra money.”  Robin Black, WV Division of Forestry

 

 

 

No wonder Mr. Watts was taken to court!  Six pounds of ginseng at 300 roots per pound equals 1800 roots of ginseng – that is a lot of digging, a lot of work!

Another frequent misdemeanor recorded in the old ledgers was “unlawful fishing”.

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The unlawful fishing complaint recorded below was heard by J. F. Raines.  It was a Raines who built the home I’m currently living in.

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“Mouth of Seneca” – written in the entry below – was the old name for the area now known as Seneca Rocks.

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This afternoon, I may have spent 45 minutes at the most looking through these court documents, but in just a short time, I feel I learned quite a bit about the history of the area I live in.  It’s definitely whet my appetite for further research!

“Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents in this [Civil War] as philosophy to learn wisdom from and none of them as wrongs to be avenged.”
Abraham Lincoln

 

 

 

Is There Nothing I Can Give Up for God?

Here in Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, Wednesday night is church night – and not just for those in my Mennonite church.  Folks all across Pendleton County make sure to get home, get washed, have dinner, and head over to their churches for mid-week services.  I’m blessed – Brushy Run Mennonite Church is just a little over a mile from my house, on the road it was named after.  When I first moved to this house and was just getting used to attending church on Wednesday, I was pleasantly reminded about mid-week services by the honking of car horns as church members passed by!

I’ve been attending this church for over a year now and Wednesday night church has become a delightful habit, a restful break in the middle of the week, a chance to gather with those I hold dear.  As I entered the church this evening, I greeted friends and took a seat in a bench on the left side of the church.  Men sit on the right.  I really like this form of segregation – I’m able to focus more completely on the lessons or hymns or sermons when surrounded by my women friends.  The church is also comparatively stark – plain white walls above a wood-stained chair rail molding and paneling below.  There is nothing with which to distract my attention – no stained glass, no crucifix, no stations of the cross, no banners or signs or paintings or decorations.  It’s quite pleasant, a peaceful haven to contemplate my relationship with God.

Tonight, one of our young men, married almost a year, led our congregation in song.  The women and men then separated for prayer, with the women remaining in the church and the men meeting in the entryway.  (A folding wall provides privacy for each group.)  One at a time, each woman petitioned God for various needs – tonight it included looking over our elderly members, granting healing (if it’s the Lord’s Will) to a young woman with cancer, and providing strength and compassion to all caregivers.  I love being part of this group of prayerful women, joining my requests with theirs in the middle of the week.

Once the two groups had completed their prayers, the men resumed their seats on the right for the evening’s lesson.  We are reading and studying The Upward Call by John Coblentz and tonight’s lesson really struck home with me.

“And there went great multitudes with [Jesus]:  and he turned, and said unto them, If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.  And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.  So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” 

(Luke 14:25-27, 33)

Jesus asks us for complete loyalty; He wants 100% of us, nothing less.  Now, that might seem a bit much and I admit to wrestling with this.  He’s asking us to put Him first – ahead of family, friends, job, everything.  Is He asking the impossible?

No!  It has been my experience that every time – every time – I’ve had to give up something, I have been richly blessed with something even better.  Now, it might be hard to imagine finding a blessing in divorce, but if my husband had not left, I never would have found Seneca Rocks or this Gospel walk in the Mennonite church that I love so much.  I absolutely adored being a stay-at-home mom, but that ended with the divorce, too.  What a blessing it was, however, to be a teacher at their elementary school and to have the same school schedules as my children!  God even provided for that!

All along the way, when one door in my life closed, an even better one opened.  There are far more examples than I could possibly include here.  But now that I’m 59, I can look back on my life and realize that all those “crises” were actually blessings in disguise.  I learned early on that the challenges I had faced at an earlier time usually came in handy to help someone facing something similar, like miscarriage or depression.  But now I can see that God was not just using me to help someone else – He was looking out for me in ways I couldn’t imagine.  He’s “had my back” for a long, long time.

The last question in today’s reading asked, “What has been difficult to forsake?”  I wrote:

  • being a wife
  • being a stay-at-home mom
  • full-time teaching (a car accident made it impossible to return to teaching)

Looking at that list made me realize that each of those challenges – what I once considered sacrifices – had actually allowed me to stop, refocus, and concentrate on following a better path.  God has been directing my steps all along and while I had no inkling of where the path would lead, He did!  I’ve felt His “nudges” since college but now I recognize them sooner and never doubt that they’re from Him.  I don’t ignore them, either, and I’ve been blessed by obeying those little nudges!

I know without a doubt that there is no sacrifice too great to “give up” for God.  He always gives back far more!  If a flood came through tomorrow and washed away this house and everything in it, I can say with complete trust that God would provide something even better for me.  Even death is no sacrifice – when I die, God willing, I will go to heaven.  And heaven is BETTER than Seneca Rocks!  Even John Denver recognized West Virginia’s limitations when he sang, “Almost heaven, West Virginia…!”

No, there is nothing too great to give up for God – not money, health, family, job, home, or even my life.

 

New in His Hands

  “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.

He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber. 

Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. 

Thy LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand.  

The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. 

The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul. 

The LORD shall preserve thy going and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.”

Psalm 121, King James Version

When I first ventured to Seneca Rocks four years ago, I was on the search for a new church home.  Back in Northern Virginia, I’d been at first incredulous, then appalled at the complete lack of regard for the physical and psychological abuse of a student in a parochial school in which I’d taught.  (Although I choose not to revisit that incident, please suffice it to say that I notified everyone in authority within the Diocese and also brought my concerns to the attention of the print media in the area, to no avail.  However, God works in His own time, and the bishop and the superintendent of schools in that diocese have since been replaced.)

Having witnessed first hand the lack of Gospel witness in the parochial school, and then in the Diocese as a whole, I simply could not bring myself to return to the Catholic Mass or Sacraments.  (For those Catholics reading this, please know this is simply my own journey with my own experiences; I’ve encountered many wonderful Catholics and I am particularly fond of the Franciscans, having been a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order.)

Once in the mountains, I noticed there were two Mennonite churches in the area, Brushy Run Mennonite Church in Onego (pronounced, “Wahn-go”), and North Fork Mennonite Church on the way to Petersburg.  Both had neat white signs and an invitation to join them for services – “All Welcome”.  Well, I had NO idea what the Mennonites believed, nor if I truly was “welcome”.  Remember now, I’d been pretty much offered up as a sacrificial lamb all too easily by my own principal, pastor, school, church, and diocese back in Virginia.  To put it mildly, I was leery of any organized religion – or any church for that matter.

Last April, however, I guess God decided to bring the Mennonites to me.  I was living in a trailer near a ramshackle barn (which a month later succumbed to a strong wind) when I noticed a strange car parked on the road near the barn.  Now, that road dead-ends just beyond the barn at the home of an elderly woman who lived there with her daughter.  So I sort of looked out for odd vehicles and made sure that anyone venturing down that way had a reason for being there.

Since it was evening, I had on my flannel pajamas (it gets cold in the mountains in April) and pulled a jacket over my shirt before heading out to check on this new stranger.  I came up to the driver’s door and asked, “Can I help you with anything?”  The man looked a little startled but replied that he was here for a cottage meeting at my neighbor’s home and was waiting for the other vehicles to arrive.  I was delighted – I’d heard about cottage meetings the summer before when I’d asked her daughter about all the cars parked in their front yard the previous night.  “Oh,” she’d said, “We had a cottage meeting last night – members of the Mennonite church come and sing for Mom.”  I’d wanted to attend a cottage meeting ever since!

I asked if I could come and the man in the car smiled and said, “Sure!”  I raced back to get dressed and then headed to my neighbor’s home in time for hymns and devotions.

I had never heard Mennonites sing before and I was in for a treat.  Mennonite churches have no choir, no organ, no instruments of any kind.  The congregation itself is the choir, and every member of the church sings its part – bass, tenor, alto, soprano.  Song leaders have a pitch pipe to get the congregation in tune and lead the hymns.

Last April, packed in a tiny room full of God’s people, I was swept up into a beautiful hymn of praise in such perfect harmony as I haven’t heard sung a capella since I was a Girl Scout counselor-in-training back in the summer of 1973.  That song was one of those unexpected, joyous moments that took me back to a summer so sweet I could smell the pine trees on the wind and recall the friendships kindled around a campfire.

I clapped when they had finished their song, just caught up in the thrill.  Their faces were calm, but it was CLEAR TO ME that one does NOT applaud when Mennonites have completed a hymn of praise to God.  Okay, first mistake (of many!) but I wasn’t escorted to the door or reprimanded in any way.  I remember thinking, “Oh, please, let me not offend these dear people!”  I refrained from clapping for the rest of the hymns.  Yes, it was hard – I was conditioned to applaud when one encounters a wonderful event and this truly met that requirement.

Outside, after the cottage meeting was over, I spoke with some of the young people who’d come along.  One of them told the story of his parents, who’d moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia from Buffalo, New York and had converted from the Roman Catholic faith to the Mennonite faith.  He said she’d written a book about it.  I tucked that information into my head for a later time.

What struck me about this group of people of all ages was their kindness, their gentle spirit, and their fellowship – a coming together on a Wednesday night to sing for a member of their church who was home bound.  They listened to me, answered many questions with great patience, and invited me to attend a church service.

And that was the start of a closer walk with God.  Notice I write, “the start”.  It is an ongoing, daily conversion, a giving up of myself each day to God, in order to do His Will, not my own.  As a Secular Franciscan, we called this process “metanoia” – a daily dying of oneself to God’s Will for us.  Mennonites practice the same thing, without the Greek name.

I invite you to read along in the next several posts and share my missteps and blessings as I’ve come to know and embrace this Gospel way of living.  Learning about the Way of the Gospel does not come quickly, particularly when one is used to living “in the world” as I have done.  I liken this conversion to a novitiate in a Catholic religious order – there, a period of years is required for the formation of a candidate prior to her final vows and profession to the religious order.  In the Mennonite faith, especially for me as an “outsider,” I see this period of time in the same way.

There is no rush in this casting aside of the old life and putting on the new;  I want to fully understand and embrace this life of greater faith.  I seek to “Purge out therefore the old leaven… as [I] am unleavened.”  Cor 5:7  Some tasks associated in wearing the veiling come more easily than others.  And in some instances, God has needed to give me more than a gentle “nudge”.  But He has been a constant presence in my life, and His people have been a constant source of support, encouragement, exhortation, and love.

Since last April, I’ve been going through “Basic Bible Studies” by Wendell Heatwole, published by Christian Light Publications, Inc. in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  Now, the book is only 79 pages, but it is SO good!  I’ve learned more about the Bible than I’ve ever learned before and I’ve been FULL of questions and tend to get off-topic during my regular Bible studies with Larry and Rhoda Showalter.  (Maybe I should say, instead, that the topics in the book lead to related topics and questions.)  We joke that maybe by the fall of 2017 I’ll be ready for rebaptism.  That is probably closer to the truth than I would’ve imagined last year!

I don’t think I mentioned that Larry Showalter was the man in the car in front of the barn that day last April, the person I thought might be lost.  He is a retired Mennonite bishop.  (Even now, my cheeks flush with embarrassment just thinking about that first encounter.  There I was, flannel pajamas, no veiling, hair blowing in the breeze.)

Larry wasn’t lost.  But God knew I needed some direction and sent it my way.

Embracing Lady Poverty

“Embracing Lady Poverty,” is what St. Francis of Assisi termed his eager acceptance of and fondness for living – um – extremely frugally.  He felt that by doing so, he removed many obstacles that stood between him and God – and he wanted nothing to stand in the way of his relationship with God.

As a single mother of three, I’ve known some pretty thin times.  But I never really struggled with poverty until after a car accident left me unable to work.  My meager savings eventually disappeared, I sold over half of my belongings, and moved to Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, a place I’d fallen in love with just a few months earlier.  I lived in a trailer for the first time in my life – and I loved it!  The living room of the trailer had large windows on three sides and, since the small trailer court was on a mountainside, I was able to view the gorgeous scenery quite easily.  It was definitely an improvement over gazing at three stories of vinyl siding on the neighboring townhouses in Northern Virginia.

I tried to work, but even a job I thought I’d be able to do – being a tour guide at Seneca Caverns – required its guides to rake leaves, pick up sticks after wind storms, and heft 40-pound boxes of rocks.  Couldn’t do that!

After I broke my leg and developed blood clots when the cast was removed, a dear woman at the local hospital filed paperwork so I could receive Medicaid.  That has been a life saver!  When food supplies dwindled, friends suggested applying for food stamps – and that was a real blessing, too.

I couldn’t afford to put gas in my car, much less make payments, so I gave my car to my son.  When I could no longer afford the monthly trailer payments, my two aunts made them for me.  I couldn’t afford Internet service but I could always use the computer at the library.  I haven’t had TV in over 22 years, so that wasn’t anything I missed.

In July, I moved into an old Craftsman-style home, built around 1900-1910, I’m guessing.  It hadn’t been occupied for over 10 years so you might be able to imagine its condition.  But I loved this house immediately – I saw what it could become.  All those earlier episodes of “This Old House” (back with Bob Villa) and “New Yankee Carpenter” (with a stouter Norm Abrams) and my decades-old affinity for old “fixer-uppers” had found a focus.

I had no car and no money for one.  A dear church friend loaned me one – and twice, he’s filled it with gas for me.  He and another church friend, also an auto mechanic, have fixed the loaner several times and have never billed me for parts or labor.  (Now that I’m employed, I intend to change that.)

I had no money to pay rent.  So I made a deal with the landlord – I’d fix up the house for 10-12 months in exchange for living here rent-free.  I gave him a list of what I intended to do in the house (fix roofs, restore light fixtures, upgrade electricity, etc.)  He agreed.  Friends helped clean, a church youth group from Pennsylvania tackled the kitchen and front siding, and two friends helped pull off old linoleum from the sun porch floor to reveal solid oak hardwood in great shape.

In August, I was asked to fill in for a housekeeper who cleaned three rental cabins on Spruce Knob.  I didn’t know if I could do the work – making my own bed was taxing.  But, I wanted to try.  If I could do the work at my own pace, which included breaks as needed, I just might be able to do it.  And I did!  It was hard, and I depended on pain relievers,  muscle relaxers, and frequent breaks to get me through it.  But I could do it.  I worked in exchange for the cabins’ owner, a carpenter, to fix two leaky roofs on my old house.

When I had to clean all three cabins in short order, it was next to impossible for me – and the frequent rentals during October’s fall foliage season made it harder than ever on my back.  I had to ask for help from the owner’s daughter-in-law and her husband.

Cleaning the cabins gave me the courage to apply for a position as a sort of “visiting grandma” – picture someone who nurtures, supports, educates, and provides screening for families with children ages 0 (pre-natal) to 5.  That sounded ideal to me.  And it wouldn’t be so difficult physically.  I interviewed with the supervisor and was offered the position.

The first day of training, I had to drive a little over an hour away.  I had no money and I had an empty gas tank.  I stopped at the post office to check my mail, hoping that maybe a birthday check was in there (my birthday had been two days earlier).  And my former employer, the cabin owner and his wife, had sent a birthday card and check for $100.  That is how I put gas in the loaner car.

The day I received my first payroll deposit in my checking account was sheer delight!  I have never in my life filled out a check with as much pleasure as that first check for trash pickup!  Up until now, every time I had to pay a bill it was incredibly stressful.  I have a little plaque on my desk to help me overcome my financial fears – “I can do all things through Christ… Philippians 4:13”.  I ordered checks years ago with scenes of antiques arranged in attractive displays – I needed to enjoy the process of paying bills and those checks helped.  But during that first day of writing checks just two weeks ago, I didn’t feel a need for my plaque or the pretty checks – I finally had money of my own and was able to afford things so many take for granted – garbage pickup, for example.

My second payroll deposit was last Thursday – the day I arrived home to discover that my water pipe had frozen.  I figured the following day I could pick up heat tape.  Well, I did – I also picked up new fuses for the ones that had blown when my space heaters were struggling to supply heat to my house that night.  I woke at 2 in the morning to a freezing house – drove 45 minutes or so to Walmart, hoping they’d sell what I needed.  I was able to get a few things, but had to wait until stores opened at 7 for fuses and heat tape.  Until then, I had not been able to afford those things and fortunately, I had money in my account when I really needed to buy them.

Before I was hired for this new position, I’d sold my sterling silver – the last asset I had.  With the proceeds, I bought a stacking washer/dryer and paid off some debts to friends.  A friend has been doing my laundry for me since my 46-year-old washing machine started leaking, but I don’t want to be lugging loads of wash 150 feet from the house to the footbridge, over the footbridge, and to my car parked about 50 feet up the road – in snow or ice.  Had a glaze of ice this morning and it was unpleasant enough maneuvering across it without carrying laundry!

I’ve discovered that living here in the mountains, it’s far easier to live with poverty – and to embrace it – than it was back in the suburbs.  Here, we have no Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors or fast food restaurants or malls or theaters or any number of places conspiring to lure me in and take my money.  Goodwill and Walmart are about an hour away.  Landscaped  yards and manicured lawns are uncommon, unless you go to town, so there’s no need to “keep up with the neighbors”.  Yes, I take care of my yard, but it’s easier here.

Back in April, I started attending a conservative Mennonite church here.  I found my church home!  I’m still going through the Basic Bible Study booklet and have applied to be received into the church when I’ve completed it, but I have never been so at home with any church community or people in my life.  I even find the women’s apparel fits with my preferences so perfectly.  When I moved here, I opted to let my hair go gray as I just disliked the endless need to keep up with coloring my hair.  I didn’t feel a need to wear earrings or jewelry, and I had no one criticizing me for my fashion (or lack of fashion) choices.  When I started attending our Mennonite church, I loved the way that the cape dress worn by the women was sensible, modest, and attractive.  The same style of dress worn by my friends today was worn by their mothers and grandmothers decades ago – their family photos display the same dress styles we wear now.  I like that – I really like that our apparel is not dictated by a fashion industry or department stores.  Mennonite women take their cues for dressing from the Bible.  Cape dresses are handmade to fit each woman.  Up until yesterday, my four cape dresses were from second-hand sections of Mennonite stores in Virginia and Ohio.  I’ve been quite happy with them!  But for my birthday, a dear friend from church gave me two pieces of material and offered to make dresses for me.  Yesterday, another dear friend sent over a completed cape dress, made to fit me using material that had been donated to the church’s sewing circle.  I look forward to wearing it to church tomorrow!

As much as I enjoy wearing a cape dress each day, I also have come to recognize how liberating a limited wardrobe is.  I own only a winter coat that needs dry cleaning.  My clothes fit pretty easily on a hook or two – a small closet would be more than enough room to fit them all!  I don’t have to coordinate pieces or have accessories to match.  When it gets cold outside, I layer skirts underneath the skirt of my dress for added warmth and sometimes add flannel pajama bottoms!  It’s actually warmer layering like this than wearing jeans.

Mennonite women also do not wear makeup, and I find that incredibly refreshing.  My morning routine has been shortened by not applying the little bit of makeup that I used to wear – mascara (that would run in hot weather), blush, and under-eye concealer.  Occasionally, I would wear eye shadow or lipstick.  But to be free from that routine is truly delightful!  And I don’t miss buying makeup.

Trips to the hair salon are non-existent now, too.  I don’t miss paying $25-50 for haircuts, and not always being happy with the results.  When I moved to West Virginia, I decided to let my hair grow out; I’d never had long hair, even as a girl, and I decided to see what it was like.  Since attending our church, I’ve learned to pull it back in a bun and wear a small white cap called a “veiling”.  I actually prefer it to any hairstyle I’ve ever had.  I will wear this hairstyle for the rest of my life – no need to keep up with current fashion trends or concern myself (and my budget) with salon treatments.  The veiling is scriptural and many Christian women are now adopting veiling for themselves.  For me, it’s also a delightful reminder that God is in charge – He is head of my home.  As a single mother and a former teacher used to making dozens of decisions each day, it is a relief to NOT be in charge.  I GLADLY let God be in charge, to be attuned to His “nudges” in my life.

In two weeks, I shall gladly bid adieu to my Medicaid card, happy that I’m once again able to provide for myself.  When this last monthly food stamp allotment of $194.00 is gone, I will be delighted to let someone else who truly needs that service receive the money.  Both types of assistance were provided to me in times of great need.

My lessons in poverty will stay with me, I trust.  I’m reading a book about Christian budgeting, loaned to me by our pastor.  And I can see how, just coming into money as I am now, will make it far easier to budget appropriately.  I have most of what I need (eventually, I’d like to get a car of my own) and everything I could possibly want.  I truly want for nothing.

Living in poverty – with no income, dependent on Medicaid and food stamps – was very humbling.  Humbling, not embarrassing.  I learned what I truly need in order to live – and I greatly prefer my simpler lifestyle.

Back in April, I was staying at a friend’s trailer (had no money for trailer rental of my own, no where to go) when I met my new Mennonite friends, who’d come to the farm for a cottage meeting at the neighbor’s.  Had I not been so impoverished financially, I would never have been at that farm, would never have met the retired Mennonite bishop who invited me along, would never have known the incredible riches of my new faith walk in the Mennonite church.  I have placed my faith firmly in Christ and not once have I been disappointed.  I know without a doubt that as I trust Him to guide my steps, He makes sure I walk on firm ground.

I have been so richly blessed this year – yet, had I failed to “embrace Lady Poverty,” I would not be here today, so deeply happy, in a church I admire and thoroughly love, with a life full of dear friends, and with a career that I am so excited about.  I know, too, that “Lady Poverty’s” friendship will allow me to relate to others I meet here and help me reach out to them in a way that would have been impossible before.

St. Francis of Assisi’s embrace of the Gospel was pretty radical – taking a vow of poverty was not exactly something that religious orders of the Middle Ages espoused.  But he was so right about its value – simplifying our lives makes us more open to God’s will, to God’s daily miracles, to God’s guidance in our lives.  Poverty makes us radically dependent upon God for everything.  And when we turn our lives, our hearts, and our minds, to God, we will never be disappointed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas… Recalling the Truly Humble Birth of Our Lord

When I was expecting our first child, it occurred to me – on a new level – that Jesus’ birth took place in the most humble of surroundings.  In February of 1987, I was decorating a tiny nursery at Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois, with a dresser, a crib, and a rocking chair.  Little outfits were washed and stored away, plenty of diapers had been purchased and tucked away in the closet, and I’d taken Lamaze classes and read about breastfeeding so I’d be as ready as possible for our little one.  I was within minutes of the hospital, where I’d give birth to my firstborn in a warm, well-equipped room surrounded by nurses, an obstetrician, and an anesthesiologist.  This last staff member happened to be our next-door neighbor, who called home throughout my labor and delivery to report on my progress to his wife, who then relayed the news to our other neighbors!

That Christmas, I compared my preparations for our newborn with those of Mary and Joseph.  Surely, Mary knew about nourishing her child – that would have been something she’d have learned about by being around other newborns and new mothers.  She would have also been accustomed to birthing, if only from the animals around her home.  I think, though, that experienced mothers in her life would have helped prepare her for childbirth.  Prior to their journey to Bethlehem, had Mary tucked tiny little outfits, blankets, and soft rolls of cloth in a bag?  I think she must’ve known her time was near and would have wanted to be as prepared for her newborn as possible.  I wonder if she was a bit worried, with the prospect of being far from home and away from friends and family who could help with her labor and delivery.  It must have been disheartening, too, seeking shelter in a town bursting with visitors.  Over and over, Joseph sought a place to stay in Bethlehem – any place –  and was repeatedly turned down.  How long was Mary in labor as she and Joseph searched for a room?  Fatigue from worry and the strain of travel must have been wearing them down.

After being turned away from one inn after another, and after enduring labor pains while riding a donkey, the humble stable finally offered to Joseph and Mary must have looked so inviting.  At last, Mary could ease off the donkey’s back and lie down, resting in the straw.  Joseph could kneel beside her, comforting Mary as her contractions became more intense.  Imagine the earthiness of this stable for a moment – dust and cobwebs, cow “pies” and donkey droppings to sidestep, a dirt floor covered with straw, the smells of the animals present, gentle munching sounds as hay and grain were eaten, soft calls of the stable’s occupants, and the warmth those creatures must have added to the stable.  This is the place our Savior was born in.  Was Joseph able to make a bed of clean straw for his laboring wife?  Did he heat the well water to clean Jesus and his mother?  Giving birth in a stable is nothing any one of us would aspire to.  Christmas carols sanitize the event – “Away in a Manger” never mentioned the possibility of splintered wood, wobbly legs, or dusty, prickly straw.  Things we take for granted now were not so simple for the Holy Family.

The first visitors to the newborn King were humble, too, simple shepherds alerted to Jesus’ birth by heavenly angels.  I like to think that Mary and Joseph were delighted by these visitors, who told the new parents how they’d learned of their son’s birth.  Being simple country folks, the shepherds carried some food and water with them, and they probably offered to share what they had with Mary and Joseph.  If there were older shepherds in the group, they most likely gazed upon the infant Jesus with admiration and approval, congratulating the new parents on their new son.  I think these older men would’ve clapped Joseph on his back, perhaps embrace him, and assure him he did a fine job bringing his son into the world.  And all these things Mary would remember, would treasure in her heart.

As Christmas draws near, I want to create as warm and as welcoming a place in my heart as I possibly can for Jesus.  I want my heart to be filled with gratitude for the many blessings he’s provided me, with abiding love for the cherished friends and family in my life, and with a deep desire to do what Jesus would have me do, not what I would have me do.  Jesus asked his disciples to share God’s love with the world, to be a little beacon of God’s light for all.

Mary and Joseph would have gladly stopped where a little flame from a candle or oil lamp beckoned them to rest.  Please, God, let me be a little flame of your love in my little part of the world.