Happy Citrus

“Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Colossians 3:2

If I had a signature color it would be yellow.  I have always loved the color of sunshine, sparking joy and happiness in my life. It was always the most used crayon in my Crayola box.  Daffodils, daisies with bright yellow centers, and yellow tulips were my favorite flowers.  At the start of the school year, I gravitated towards yellow notebooks and even brought a yellow Trapper Keeper!  My final project for Mrs. Thomas’ Home Economics class, was to sew a shirt.  I chose a yellow fabric with white polka dots and gave the finished product to my sister.  My favorite piece of clothing in Junior high was my yellow V-necked sweater that I even tried to rock in spring by wearing it backwards with a pair of khaki shorts and a yellow headband in my hair.  The picture of me in that outfit will never be seen on social media!

I can distinctly remember being disturbed that I did not like mustard, the only yellow condiment.  I convinced my Aunt Debbie to put it on my hamburger.  Artistically, she made a smiley face out of the mustard, which made it even more appealing.  Unfortunately, the sour, tangy taste of mustard ruined my burger!

Even as an adult, I am still drawn to yellow.  This sunny color is an accent throughout my home, splashing itself on pillows, furniture, tablecloths, and flowerpots.  My wardrobe includes all shades of yellow to fit every season from bright marigold yellow for summer to mustard yellow in fall.  Just in the last week, I was not only inspired by Amanda Gorman’s poem at the presidential inauguration, but I also fell in love with her yellow Prada coat, googling the coat to see if I could find a knock-off somewhere.

Photo Credit by Margaret Collins and no oranges were hurt for this picture.

Winter can be a hard season for a lot of people.  The cold weather coupled with dark, cloudy days can put some of us in a funk.  For some people, the funk is a stronger mood change diagnosed as Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Light therapy and some medications are used to treat people afflicted with it.  Whether or not you have a diagnosis, our bodies were created to need sunlight.  A good source of vitamin D, our bodies absorb it through the skin from sunlight, which is good for our bones, blood cells and immune health.  Recently, I have read some articles that claim exposure to early morning sunlight even helps us sleep better in the evening!

I, too, find myself in a winter funk.  I have set a goal of walking 320 days this year, averaging around 2.6 miles a day.  Due to my schedule, this walk often takes place in the dark hours of the early morning, when the sun is not even attempting to awake from its slumber.  Instead, the moon and the stars light my path.  The darkness comes on so fast in the evening, that my natural melatonin kicks in early, and by 7:45 pm, I am ready to get into my pajamas and curl up with a book.  The trees are bare, the grass is brown and the only bright spot in my yard is the occasional blue jay or cardinal visiting my bird feeder.  Despite the fact I have chosen to embrace Hygge, I do miss the splendor of color that fills my world during spring, summer and fall!

The other day, I was lamenting in my mind about the bleakness of winter as I was cutting up a navel orange.  With a burst of citrus juice filling my senses through sight, smell, and taste, my whole perspective changed.  I began to thank God for His good gift!  What an amazing time we live in that this southern-grown fruit peaks during the middle of the winter doldrums, and, due to modern transportation, is available to us.  Now, living in south central Pennsylvania, or when I lived in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin, I can go to the grocery store in the middle of winter and buy fruit that has the essence of summer in all its layers!  The oils of the rind, the freshness of the juice, and even the colors scream joy, happiness, and sunshine!  The different shades of the citrus are amazing to me, from the bright yellow of a Meyer lemon to the vivid orange of a navel to the crimson red in blood oranges.

The properties of citrus are endless.  Just a little citrus brightens up savory dishes, giving the dish a more complete flavor profile.  They add just the right amount of acid to salad dressings and other sauces.  Citrus also keeps skin looking healthy, is a high source of potassium and fiber, and helps reduce heart disease, digestive cancers, and neurological disorders.  In addition, citrus oils are even good for cleaning!

I promise you I am not getting a kickback from any of the groves in Florida for this blog.  Of course, if a Florida citrus farmer wanted to send me a box of oranges in support of my writing, I would not be opposed to the free swag!  I am also not suggesting that a simple orange will chase away the winter blues.  But I do think God uses objects or moments displaying His majestic creation to help change our perspective in any situation.  Whether it is a glimpse of the beautiful sunset at the end of a long day, watching a squirrel attempt to get food from your bird feeder after a stressful conversation, or slicing into an orange while lamenting about winter, if we pay attention, these brief moments can help us see the goodness of God.  God is a good Father who loves us and wants to help us see things from His perspective!

Mark Hart, author and podcaster known as the “Bible Geek”, said, “Gray and overcast from earthly perspective, but it’s sunny above these storm clouds.  Grace lets us see life from God’s point of view.”  Even though I have a few more months of winter before the spring thaw, I am going to choose to delight in both citrus and the pops of yellow in my home to help maintain my perspective on God’s goodness!

RA’s Betrayal

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13

Betrayal is always hard!  It shakes your foundation of trust; it makes you feel unworthy or insignificant.  It also messes with your confidence, causes you to have a negative perception of your future, and often turns you into a cynic.  The closer the relationship you have with the object of your betrayal, the harder it is to recover from the offense.  We have all felt betrayed before, but one of the most difficult betrayals I have faced is when I felt my own body had betrayed me.  I am not talking about weight loss plateaus; I am referring to the chronic illness that I have battled for many years.

Sixteen years ago, I woke up with intense throbbing in my hands and wrists.  I went to see my doctor, and he wrote it off as tendonitis, gave me a prescription for the pain, and sent me on my way.  The symptoms subsided for about a year and then reappeared with a vengeance!  At this point in my life, I had lost some weight (the only other time in my life I have lost a significant amount of weight), and I was exercising regularly.  In addition to the intense throbbing pain, my body seemed to stiffen up after a night of sleep.  The stiffness and pain increased to the point that, even sitting down in a restaurant, Terry would have to help me up from my chair.  I began to think maybe I was exercising too much, or not stretching enough, so I started to incorporate Pilates into my exercise routine.  But, even then, I was still experiencing pain and stiffness!

One night, the pain was so intense that I laid awake in tears.  Every joint in my body hurt, causing me to sit rocking on the edge of the bed.  I finally fell asleep at the crack of dawn, exhausted but still in pain.  Over the next few days, I researched my symptoms, and with my limited medical knowledge, I felt like God gave me the insight that I had developed Rheumatoid Arthritis, otherwise known as RA.  I mentioned my thoughts to my husband and a few close friends, and made an appointment with my family doctor, insisting on getting the necessary blood work to indicate whether I had RA.  My doctor was skeptical but agreed to order the blood work.  Within a few days, my blood work indicated that I had the markers for RA, and I had a referral to see a rheumatologist.

Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes your body to attack the synovial fluid cushioning your joints, resulting in painful inflammation and eventual thickening of the joint cavities.  It affects all your joints and can even, in some cases, cause inflammation in your heart and lungs.  Some of the symptoms include general morning stiffness, overall fatigue, and low-grade fevers.  It is a progressive disease and, if left untreated, can result in deformed joints in the hands and feet, potentially leaving you disabled!  The periods of intense, lasting discomfort are referred to as flares.

I have had three major flares over the course of this disease.  The second one lasted about six months, leaving me almost completely disabled for about three months.  I did not have the strength to hold a coffee cup, raise my own bed covers, lift my foot to step into the bathtub, or even get dressed.  Not only could I not do these basic tasks, I felt completely useless in all areas of my life.  I could barely hold my Bible on my lap to read it, I was unable to home-educate my children, or cook meals for my family.  My identity as a Christian, as a wife, and as a mother seemed shattered!  I became depressed because I looked in the mirror and saw a person I no longer recognized!

At different times, I have stopped taking my medicine due to some of the harsh side effects, or due a to lack of medical insurance.  During those lapses in treatment, RA has damaged a few of my fingers, leaving me with a permanent deformity known as “swan’s neck”.  In addition to my hands, I also have some deformities with my feet that make it difficult to find shoes.

For seven years, I managed to control my RA symptoms through diet and lifestyle.  Throughout that time, I still had pain in various joints, but I took an over-the-counter pain-reliever, got a good night’s sleep, and rested when needed.  About three years ago, I felt like my mini flares were increasing and I started developing some secondary symptoms, including “trigger finger”, an increase in nodules, and Reynaud’s syndrome, where a few of your fingers turn white and are icy cold for short periods.  I knew it was time to see the doctor again.  They immediately started me on some medicine and supplements and began monitoring my blood work.

This past November, despite my weight loss and active lifestyle, my rheumatologist and I agreed that we needed to treat my RA more aggressively due to the now constant inflammation.  I immediately started on a chemo drug that I have taken before that, when taken in small doses, has proven effective in treating RA.  I now take this as a weekly injection, in addition to my daily medication and supplement routine.  Due to the nature of the medication, it was suggested that I quarantine for three months because of my compromised immune system and the current pandemic.  Although I still take daily walks, I have avoided crowded places and limited my contact with people.

Upon reflection, the hardest part of this disease is not related to the pain, although that has been terrible, or the deformities, although my hands will never look like they did in my wedding pictures.  The hardest part of the disease is feeling betrayed by my own body, forcing me to resign myself to my limitations, and to rely on others.  For example, I can’t open most water bottles because my hands are weakened.  Some days, I can’t push through the pain to exercise as vigorously as I want to.  And some days, I have to just sit down to rest.  Even on a good day, I see nodules on my wrist that remind me that RA is still wreaking havoc in my body beneath the surface of my skin.

I have realized that my response to my RA is a good indicator of my spiritual health as well.  In the beginning, when my symptoms first appeared, I was aggressive with my treatment, reading books and alternative medicine research, trying everything to control the disease.  Then, when the symptoms subsided, I took myself off the medication, confident in my own ability to control the disease.  Unfortunately, my confidence resulted in some irreversible damage.  Similarly, in a crisis, I spend a lot of time pouring my heart out to God, reading the Bible, listening to messages, and trying to soak up all I can get from Him.   Then, when the crisis ends, and life is going well, I neglect my daily devotions and rely on my own ability.  This often results in some side effects in my life that lead to bad attitudes, pride, and sin!

Yet, despite those moments of attempted self-sufficiency, God is merciful, both in the physical and the spiritual sides of your life.  And at moments like these, God brings you to a place of reckoning.  In November, I knew that, despite my best efforts, I needed to go to the next level of medication to control my disease.  I had to rely on an outside source, in this case medicine, to provide the relief I needed in my daily life and stop the progression of the disease.  In the spiritual sense, sometimes God takes you to a place where you know that all your efforts are in vain.  This happened to me a few years ago.  I remember laying prostrate on the floor of my living room, completely broken of all my pride, realizing that I had built my life on my own abilities and ideals.  I remember telling God to empty me of all my pride and fill me with His spirit.  Since then, I have continued to rest in this place of complete vulnerability.  This posture of humility has led me on a journey where I have seen the hand of God working, both in me and in my family!

I still have nodules.  I still have aches and pain.  I still wake up some days with flares that force me to stop my life until the pain subsides.  I still take my medicine, and regularly see a rheumatologist to monitor my condition.  For the past few months, I have chosen to look at the effects of the disease’s activity in my body as reminders that I need Jesus.  They are opportunities for me to rely on His strength, and not on my own.  It’s a reminder for me to stay in that posture of humility and let God fill me with His presence and rid me of my pride.  These reminders are teaching me to be thankful for all things in my life!

Five Books and Three Podcasts

“An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” Proverbs 18:5

According to the tracking on my Goodreads app, I knew in November that no confetti would fall in celebration of me meeting my reading challenge of 66 books in 2020 (last year when I made my goal, confetti filled my screen in celebration of my accomplishment).  Instead, I finished the year with forty-six books, twenty books behind my goal.  I felt disappointed in myself and examined how in the world, in the middle of a pandemic where everything was shut down, did I not achieve my goal!  Did I spend too much time on social media?  Did I waste my time scrolling through Pinterest?  Was I just a sloth?

Yet, at the end of the year, when I looked at my book report, I gained a different perspective on my reading habits.  Honestly, I could stand to lessen my social media intake, and it is something that I am going to continue to work on.  But the pandemic made my life a lot busier, I immediately picked up more babysitting hours by helping a family with their children’s virtual education.  I also took more time to get outside and, as a result, listened to a lot more podcasts.  More importantly, I read a lot of great books this year!!!  When it came to preparing for this post, I could easily have listed fifteen books to review as important, life-changing books.  In addition, most of the books I read were meaty, full of well-worded sentences that induced highlighting, and sharing my thoughts with whomever was around me, in most cases, my husband.  They challenged my way of thinking, pointed me towards Christ and, often, I would let whole paragraphs marinate in my soul for a while before continuing reading.

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It took some time for me to narrow down my list, but here are five books that I would like to review for you.  My criteria included choosing books that would resonate with anyone at any stage in their lives, that pointed one toward God, and that I would likely reread in my lifetime.  This year, I included one great work of fiction, three books on personal growth, and one book on creativity.  I have also included three podcasts that have inspired and challenged me!  My hope is that when you finish reading this post, you will be inspired to read more in 2021!

  1. Emma by Jane Austen: I am a book snob and am always telling others to read the book and avoid the movie.  But with the 1996 version of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow, I was a bit of a hypocrite.  Although I had read other classics, I had missed reading Jane Austen.  I fell in love with the movie and started reading different Jane Austen works, but I never read Emma.  Last year, I finally picked up the book, and found myself even more delighted in the words and story.  I know some would argue that Jane Austen is simply a sophisticated romance writer.  Instead, I, along with other lovers of English literature, would contend her works are a commentary on society, pointing out the prejudices in class and status that remain relevant today.  One of my favorite lines is when Mr. Knightley, in Emma’s best interest, chastises her with these words, “Better be without sense than misapply it as you do.”  It reminds me to be careful with my opinions and thoughts because how I say and do things can negatively affect others.  It is a lesson that I continue to work on, today!
  2. None Like Him by Jen Wilkin: I have already mentioned in a previous post Jen Wilkin’s book, Women of the Word and how it has impacted my life.  This is another insightful book that examines, as the subtitle states, “10 Ways God is different from us and why that’s a good thing.”  She unpacks traits of God, such as immutable, omnipresent, and sovereign, that define his divinity.  She then discusses ways we try to rival God in those traits.  She states, “We must recover the truth that was obscured by the Serpent: rather than being like God in his unlimited divinity, we are to be like God in our limited humanity.”  The book gives you space to reflect through journaling about issues that resonate with you, and to write a prayer asking God to help you reflect His Glory.
  3. Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson.  I loved this book so much, I recommended it to four other people after reading only the first few chapters.  Peterson is a Christian songwriter, author, and artist who believes that God’s truth can be reflected in the arts.  He explores how creating art in a community stimulates ideas and creativity.  In relation to community, he says, “They look you in the eye and remind you who you are in Christ.  They reiterate your calling when you forget what it is.  They step into the garden and help you weed it, help you to grow something beautiful.”  In addition, the book mentions several poets, musicians, and authors I have added to my list to explore.  This inspired me to join Called Creatives, a group of women who are pursuing creativity in speaking and writing.  The group provides training, mentoring opportunities, and a place to bounce ideas.
  4. Get Your Life Back by John Eldredge.  My husband is a big John Eldredge fan and has been devouring his books and podcasts for the past few years.  I bought this book for him and he would often share with me practices he found in the book to reduce stress and bring calm to the craziness of life.  I decided that in the middle of a pandemic, this might be a good book for me to read as well.  He reminds you to drink in beauty, engage in one-minute pauses, and to get outside and experience God’s creation.  All these practices help re-orientate us toward God.  I have personally embraced the concept of getting outdoors, focusing on nature and being more aware of God’s creative design.
  5. All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment by Hannah Anderson.  When my children were young, I often used Philippians 4:6 as a measuring tool for evaluating media choices with them, whether it be books, movies, or music.  Hannah Anderson explores this verse more deeply, challenging the reader to cultivate discernment in all areas of our lives.  According to Anderson, “Discernment does not change the challenges we face, it changes our ability to face them.”  This is a book that I am sure to read again and continue to learn and grow.

In addition to these five books, I also want to share three podcasts that inspired me this year.

  1. Speaking with Joy: by Joy Clarkson.  Joy, the daughter of Sally Clarkson, one of my heroes in the homeschooling movement, is finishing her PhD. at St. Andrews in Scotland.  The podcast centers on the importance of good stories, music and images that cultivate God’s beauty in our world.  She explores themes like the importance of whimsy, celebrating advent, and our need for heroes.  This podcast is for those of you who like to nerd out about literature and God’s truth.  Both Terry and I loved her podcast so much we listened to seven hours of it on our way to Rhode Island.
  2. He Said, She Said: by Melinda Poitras.  Melinda is a young woman who grew up in Africa as the daughter of a missionary.  In short segments, she addresses issues like the importance of counseling, dreams, and faith.  Her poetic prose encourages you to find your identity in God.  And although she addresses some tough issues, she encourages you with the hope of Jesus!
  3. Strong Sense of Place: by David Humphreys and Melissa Joulwan: I discovered this podcast in late November and binge listened to all the past year’s episodes by the end of December.  They pick a place, whether it be a city, country, or a theme, such as trains, and explore it through five literary choices.  Many of the book choices they discuss sound great, although some of them may be a little salty for my taste.  Dave and Mel also share some history, culture, and geographical highlights of the place they are exploring.  I am so inspired to read more, and some day take a trip to places like Morocco (one of their themes).  In addition to their podcasts, they also have a great website that includes a blog full of great pictures of libraries and bookstores across the world!

With the craziness of the world, I think its important for us to have healthy outlets for our minds.  For me, books fill the spaces where anxiety and stress try to take up residence.  I love Anne Lamott’s thoughts on books.  She says, “For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth.  What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.  Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave.  They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”  I already have a pile of books on my nightstand, ready to explore new ideas, worlds and thoughts!

Despair and Hope

“Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you.”

Psalm 33:22

A group of our friends gathered on a cold New Year’s Day in Wisconsin for the final goodbyes.  We gathered the last of our belongings and loaded them in the moving van.  We chatted for a few minutes, stalling for time.  My preteens giggled with their friends, but the laughter echoed hollowly in the empty house.  I stood looking at these kids as memories swirled in my head: babies crawling, toddlers learning to share, elementary children creating worlds in their imaginations, preteen sleepovers with pancake-eating contests in the morning, swimming at the lake, and sledding trips to the parks.  I remembered these were the kids that worshiped together at the altar, performed together in Christmas programs, and Bible quizzed together.  They were lifelong friends; they had always known each other.  And now, two of them were leaving.

I then looked at my own lifelong friends.  This was my group, some of them family by blood, others family by relationship.  We had spent most of our holidays together, celebrated each other’s accomplishments, stood by each other’s side during weddings, and rejoiced with each other when our babies arrived.  We shared each other’s sorrows and griefs.  As tears flooded my eyes, I hugged my friends hard!  I knew we would always be friends, but the distance would forever change the daily nurturing nature of our friendship.  I got into our van, held my husband’s hand, and took a deep breath.  Even though I did not look back, my mind was racing with memories as we headed to Pennsylvania.

Graphic created by Margaret Collins

It is hard to believe that pivotal day in my life was ten years ago.  To be totally transparent with you, it was a tough move for me.  For the first few months, I put on a smile, but inside I was battling depression.  I forced myself to keep a routine when I desperately wanted to hibernate under the covers.  I, who loved adventure, struggled to find the energy to explore a new grocery store.  As spring thawed the frozen ground, I determined to snap out of my depression and for the next few years I lived on experiences.  We did a lot of traveling: New York City, Vermont, Maine, North Carolina, Washington DC, and Williamsburg, Virginia.  The sightseeing provided a temporary band aid for my grief.

Yet, the novelty of the experiences wore off, leaving me battling depression once again.  I did find things that I really loved about my new home: the mountains, the warmer weather, and the longer springs and autumns.  But when I contrasted it with the things I had lost, I felt like my emotional bank account was always in the red.  I remember about seven years ago, my daughter asking me a straightforward question: Will you ever be happy in Pennsylvania?  I honestly did not know.  This question prompted me to spend time in prayer asking God to help me to learn to be content.  I chose to focus on my blessings and not on my losses.  I stopped measuring my life in Pennsylvania against the life I had in Wisconsin.  I also stopped trying to understand why God had moved my family to Pennsylvania and, instead, focused on what God was trying to teach me.  The depression lifted and my perspective started to change.  It has been a slow process, and I know that God has used this time to teach me about myself and, more importantly, His unfailing love for me.

Like most of you, I am so ready to start a new year!  My new calendar was hung up on December 30, in anticipation of 2021.  For the first time in years, I stayed up until midnight to welcome in the new year.  Yet, if you look at the political climate, the numbers of COVID-19 cases increasing, and the advent of a new strain of the virus, it is easy to look at the new year with pessimistic, even cynical eyes.  I know that when I sat down with my husband to discuss plans for our 25th anniversary, it was with the caveat, “if restrictions are lifted.”  It is easy to look at the surface of our current situations and lean into despair for the upcoming year, even though flipping the calendar sparked a moment of joy.

In his book, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, Wendell Berry wrote, “For quite a while it has been possible for a free and thoughtful person to see that to treat life as mechanical or predictable or understandable is to reduce it.  Now almost suddenly, it is becoming clear that to reduce life to the scope of our understanding (whatever ‘Model’ we use) is to enslave it, make property of it, and put it up for sale.  That is to give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity to despair.”  In other words, when I moved to Pennsylvania, or flipped the calendar to 2021, it was easy to look at what I can see, such as losses, COVID-19 numbers, and restrictions.  But when I focus only on what I can see, I reduce life and the capacity of hope.

For the past two years, I have asked God to give me a word or a phrase as a theme for my life.  This year, I felt like God gave me the simple two-letter word “up”.  I looked up synonyms in the thesaurus to try to make the word seem more sophisticated, but nothing else seemed to resonate with me.  “Up”, as an adjective, is defined as “moving toward a higher place or position.”  I am sure, as the year progresses, God will unpack that simple word with even deeper meaning for me.  At this moment, I feel like God is telling me to look upward, to look towards hope!  Things may seem bleak in the news, in the hospitals, and on my calendar, but my hope is not fixed on what I can see!  If I look up towards God, I can be confident that God has things in control.

Abraham, the first person called into a covenant relationship with God, was challenged to trust God with his future by being willing to sacrifice his promised son on an altar.  God saw Abraham’s faith with the raised knife and told him to stop, declaring to Abraham, “I know that you fear God”. According to the Bible, Abraham then lifted up his eyes and saw a ram caught in the bushes near the altar.  His words, spoken earlier to his son, that God would provide a sacrifice, were fulfilled.  Abraham had no idea how things would turn out as he walked up the mountain to sacrifice his son, but he did know that God was in control.

I have no idea what 2021 has in store for me.  I don’t know if my anniversary trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons will happen.  But I do know that God has already ordered my steps, and that if I look up and trust Him, I can have hope!