Punxsutawney Phil and Local Jaunts

“The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an every-flowing spring.” Isaiah 58:11 NIV

I have been experiencing weather whiplash in central PA. A week ago, it was warm and breezy. The smell of spring was wafting through the open windows of our home, while the birds were tweeting their spring prelude. Monday morning, I came out of the gym finding my car covered with snow, bitter cold nipping my nose and forced to navigate ice-covered roads. Punxsutawney Phil, our legendary groundhog, did predict six more weeks of winter, but the warm breezes of a few days lulled me into false sense that spring had arrived. And with spring approaching, I get the urge to wake from hibernation and explore.

Tsh Oxenreider, a writer and co-host of one of my favorite podcasts, is challenging herself for six months to only shop and consume products from within a hundred-mile radius from her home. It’s forcing her to be intentional in supporting local businesses. Instead of buying items from big box stores, she is choosing to find a local farmer for beef, support local coffee roasters, and discover local boutiques for clothing. In listening to her articulate about what she’s learning, I am compelled to pay more attention to my local community and find ways to explore it.

Within the last few years, my little town has been in the process of revitalizing its downtown. When I first moved to Chambersburg, I found the fountain on the square beautiful and quaint but the only business that I frequented on a regular basis was the downtown bookstore. In the last few years, our main street has exploded. Denim, a coffee shop, and Falafel Shack, a restaurant, have opened on the main square, receiving a lot of love on Instagram. Our library, after a revitalization project, reopened a few years ago, embracing the historical character of the building. Black & Blush, a clothing boutique, opened two years ago right before the pandemic, along with Remix, a plant and décor store. In the last three months, a few more businesses have opened, including Milk Bath, a woman making her own goat milk bath products. She also features products from local woman artisans in her store. This weekend, Terry and I had a Valentine smoothie bowl at Lotus Bowls, a former Farmer’s market favorite vendor who also decided to open a brick and mortar. We then took a stroll down the street to visit another new business, Bonfield Collective, a home décor store. I can’t forget to mention Brussel’s Café which makes the richest hot chocolate I have ever had, and Veroni Café, the freshest Mexican food in Chambersburg.

Valentine’s Bowl from Lotus Bowls!!

But what is happening in Chambersburg is happening all over the country. The malls of the 1980’s are ghost towns, and big box stores’ shelves are sparse due to supply chain breakdowns. Meanwhile, local entrepreneurs are dipping their feet into the business world with a dream and products they are passionate about bringing into their communities. They too might be facing some of the same supply issues that bigger businesses are facing but are finding innovative ways to meet the needs of their customers. With prices rising everywhere, I am finding that the local business prices are competitive with chains but with the bonus of better quality. My raspberry oatmilk latte at Denim is even cheaper than some of the more well-known chains.

 Beyond shopping and eating, our local communities also offer value in the way of the arts, history, and nature. Many local communities have small theater performances that might not win a Tony award but still offer a great night of entertainment. Art galleries and even small art museums have proliferated, often displaying local artists’ works that might be statement pieces on your living room wall. Every community has some type of historical society which is often worth checking out. You can even find lesser-known nature preserves by doing a little research. One of my favorite places to hike is Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve, about forty-five minutes away from my home. It has wooded areas to hike, along with a swampy area and a beautiful meadow.

Like most parents, I had to deal with boredom when my children were little. On a few occasions, my children would whine that there was nothing to do. I would kindly point out the shelf of puzzles and games, or the drawer of art supplies, and suggest that they investigate those items. They would reluctantly go that direction and find something to do. But on a few occasions, they would come back and complain again that there was nothing to do. This time I would remind them of their dress-up clothes or their box of Legos. They would then move in that direction and once in a great while they would come back again with the same complaint. It is then when I gave them the option: either you find something to do, or I have plenty of baseboards that need to be scrubbed. I think they only scrubbed baseboards once and, in the future, found creative ways to deal with their boredom.

Even as adults, we might complain of boredom and get stuck thinking that our only opportunity for a vacation is the once-a-year exotic location far away from home. There is merit in leaving your home for a change of scenery. But I find it restorative do mini staycations by taking a few hours on a Saturday and explore my local community. It helps me to see the special in the ordinary, and sparks creativity in me. Maybe, I taste a new ethnic food, and discover a spice that I want to incorporate in my menu. Maybe I talk to a store owner and hear her enthusiasm for home décor which motivates me to clean out the clutter that might pile up on my cabinet so that the pieces I have carefully curated will shine. Maybe it’s exploring a new art museum and finding some appreciation for modern art. Whatever I take away helps me to cultivate beauty in my own life and makes me a better person.

I have a few more weeks of cold, but I am taking notes on different places I want to explore in my community. I would love to hear about places you are exploring where you live. Feel free to drop a few comments.

Valentine’s Day in the Potter’s House

“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter, we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah 64:8

This morning, I looked for the perfect card for Valentine’s Day. Some were funny, and some were romantic, some seemed to put down the husband to elevate the wife, while others were just generic. A few had beautiful pictures, but the sentiment inside didn’t match the design of the card, while others were clearly not my style. After looking for twenty minutes, I left the store feeling disappointed. All the cards felt inadequate. How do you express your feelings after a hard, good year in a simple card with a cutesy saying, and at the inflated price of $7.99? And aren’t the feelings you are expressing contradictory?  How can one have a hard good year?

 Last Valentine’s Day, Terry pulled out all the stops in celebrating the holiday. He ordered me a box of chocolates from French Broad Chocolates, my favorite chocolatier, and a beautiful Rifle coffee mug. He wrote me a sweet note in a card and gave me flowers. He then took me to a local restaurant I had been wanting to try. I felt loved, cherished, and valued that day!

The year started off well, even though we had made a major life change a few weeks prior. However, from the romantic high of Valentine’s Day we moved into a year of hard moments: one uncle died in April, Terry had emergency surgery and subsequent short-term disability for three months, a new auto-immune diagnosis for me, some additional family challenges, vacation plans canceled, an unexpected job loss, no income for six weeks, Covid-19, and the death of another uncle in November. When I look at this list, I understand why, at times, we felt everyday was a battle. Both of us were stressed, anxious, and struggling just to survive.

 But I also look back on some of the wins from last year. When you have stresses in your life, they often trigger your underlying fears. In the past, Terry and I have reacted out of those fears and worked against each other, neither of us feeling heard or supported by the other. This year was different. We had both been doing some reading and learning how to identify those triggers, get to the root of our fears, and share with each other what was really going on. While one person shared, the other worked hard to listen well, validating the other’s feelings without trying to fix them. When we got the heart issues behind our fears, we both learned to pray for one another more effectively.

Did we always do this well? Not at all. So many times, one or both of us would get defensive. So many times, our voices would raise, and we would have to start over. Yet, the more often we had the hard conversations, the better we got at it. The benefits of this hard work were that both of us, for the first time, felt completely safe with one another, heard, and validated. Furthermore, we are both learning to position ourselves in a posture of love towards one another.

Picture of our wedding rings taken by Terry Collins

About three and half years ago, Terry and I had a major crisis in our marriage. It is not the story either of us ever expected or wanted. For many marriages, this could have resulted in divorce or years of bitterness. Instead of pointing fingers at one another, we each took a hard look at ourselves and our relationships with God. We both refocused on putting God first in our lives by saturating ourselves with worship music, studying scripture, reading books, and listening to sermons and podcasts. We also learned the importance of being transparent with God in prayer. As we grew closer to God, we were able to recognize where we personally were coming up short. This made room for confession, personal responsibility, and healing to take place.

This past Saturday, Terry and I had the privilege of sharing our story and its details at a marriage retreat with some other couples in our church. As I listened to my husband, I was in awe of God’s ability to take something broken and craft it into something beautiful. It reminded me of Jeremiah’s vision at the potter’s house. Jeremiah saw this expert potter creating a vessel on the wheel. As he worked, scripture records that the vessel was “spoiled” or “marred” depending on the translation. This word was also used in the book of Ruth when Boaz asked the nearest relative if he would be willing to redeem Ruth. Being a Moabite, she was not viewed as a prize for the chosen Hebrew people. The man told Boaz that he was unwilling to redeem her because it would mar his inheritance and reputation. Both the clay and Ruth had no apparent value or worth. Yet scripture declares that the potter reworked the clay and made it a vessel that was good. Boaz saw Ruth’s heart and compassion and willingly entered a marriage covenant with her. The result of this unlikely union was Ruth being named in the lineage of Jesus. In the case of our marriage, we allowed the master potter to rework our marriage into a vessel that exudes his expert craftsmanship.

I don’t think a simple greeting card can express my gratitude for the hard work my husband has put into our marriage. No saccharine sentiment could adequately express the hard year we had, how we chose to invest into each other and into God. No picture on a card could capture the beauty of how God took two broken people, healed their deep wounds, and created something new. And the value of the God’s craftsmanship is far greater than $7.99; it’s measured on an eternal scale!

Wild Yeast Listening

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;” James 1:19

We have all found different ways of coping with the pandemic. One way that gained a lot of traction for people was learning how to make sourdough, making the hashtag #sourdough trendy in 2020 and 2021. As with most trends, I jumped on the bandwagon a little late. This past fall, my generous brother-in-law shared with me his sourdough starter. He put the starter in a Ziploc bag and packed it carefully in my suitcase for my flight home from Nebraska. Although the dough exploded in the bag, I was able to salvage enough of the starter to refresh it in its new home. Later, I made one somewhat decent loaf with the bread, but life got in the way, and I forgot to feed the remaining starter. I tried to revive it, but something was terribly wrong with the dough. It didn’t bubble and ferment like it should, instead it was runny and gray. So, the unnamed starter (I am convinced that, because it didn’t have a name, it felt defeated and gave up) ended up in the trash.

Still determined, I cracked open the King Arthur Cookbook and started to read about bread. I learned the importance of water temperature, ingredients, kneading, scoring, and baking. I also read something that shocked me. According to the experts at King Arthur Baking, “If you bake bread all the time, your kitchen is full of wild yeast and any dough you make there will rise vigorously.” Conversely, the book said, if you don’t bake bread often, your kitchen is sterile, and it will take longer for bread to rise. Their test kitchen in Vermont is full of wild yeast, and they use a scant 1/16 teaspoon of yeast for every three cups of flour!

Photo credit by Terry Collins

Yeast is a living organism that, under optimal conditions, gives bread its unique properties. But this primarily happens through its waste products. The experts at King Arthur say that it releases “carbon dioxide which leavens the bread; alcohol, which contributes to the bread’s aroma; and organic acids, which give its flavor.” These optimal conditions are related to temperature, the right ratio of flour to water, and even a little sugar. I envisioned that someday I would have wild yeast floating around my kitchen. This wouldn’t happen overnight and certainly wasn’t in the air right now. But after consistently practicing the art of making bread, the wild yeast would grow and help ferment, flavor, and create breads unique to the Collins home.

I will be beginning my own sourdough starter in a week. I need to block some time out to carefully attend to this starter daily. It can take a few weeks to get the fermentation going, with a daily feeding schedule. I’ve heard a lot of bakers refer to their starters as a baby, and hence why most have a name. But after consistent care on my part, this starter should grow and take on the properties of a good crusty sourdough bread, adding to the wild yeast in my home.

Along with the fine art of baking bread, I am learning the fine art of listening well. Maybe most of my readers have mastered this skill, but for some reason it has taken me almost fifty years to get it right. Its more than just being silent while someone tells their story. It’s more than being attentive and nodding your head at the right moments. It’s more than showing sympathy that often comes off as pity. It’s looking at the person, asking good questions, validating their feelings without judgment, and not trying to fix their problems. It’s letting them share some hard things in their life and being present with them. It’s having enough awareness of your own triggers that you don’t become defensive if the person is addressing issues related to you. It’s hard!!!

A few weeks ago, someone I love shared some hard truths with me. They expressed some legitimate anger. They shared how my inaction had contributed to some brokenness in their life. It wasn’t something I had done deliberately, but it was something I missed. And what I missed was big! While they were talking, I kept my own emotions in check, choosing not to attempt to fix the situation or defend my actions. All I could say was that I understood their anger and ask for forgiveness. We both left the situation in a good place, healing for both of us and the relationship repaired.

I haven’t done this well with everyone in my life. There are a lot of times I have been defensive, have gone into fix-it mode, or have tried to speak what I thought was truth into their lives. This has left the other person feeling invalidated, creating more problems. Craig Thompson, my favorite psychiatrist (who says that?), talks a lot about the importance of being seen, soothed, safe and secure. When we share hard truths with one another, it can often produce what he calls a rupture in the relationship. The rupture is repaired when the listener stays, validates, and loves unconditionally. It changes the neural pathways in your brain, and helps you become the fully integrated human that God intended.

But this only happens when I practice listening well. It’s a skill I have been cultivating this past summer. And the more I do it, the more I see God being glorified in my relationships. God, like the wild yeast that makes our sourdough better, is orchestrating this healing through His divine design. But for wild yeast to exist, I need to make bread, and for God to do His work, I need to create an atmosphere where others feel fully heard, fully known, and fully loved!