Names, Labels, and Identity

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is an new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17

I have a new plant. I took a picture of it and sent it to my grandson, asking if the name “Spencer” was suitable. I know asking an almost-three-year-old to help you name a plant seems a bit ridiculous. But there is a history of us naming plants. Before Joel could talk, we cautioned him to be careful around Phoebe, a big floor plant next to my white shaggy ottoman. He then would go towards Phoebe and pet her. I bought a new plant a month ago, and Joel was on FaceTime when I showed it to him. We threw out a few names, and he had definite opinions of what he liked and didn’t like. So, we settled on “Camilla.” And now my newest plant is waiting to be christened.

Names are important. They are our identity, both legally and relationally. They are what we respond to when called, and often we have strong associations with names. I have a friend who worked as a prison guard in a county jail. In anticipation of becoming a father, he had a difficult time picking a name because he didn’t want the names of his children to be associated with anyone he had dealt with in the context of his job.

It’s interesting to me how names come and go. In my generation, Jennifer, Michelle, and Lisa were popular. Now, I see girls named Olivia, Emma, and Ava. Popular books, singers, and TV shows can also influence or “make” a name. Right after Prince William married Kate, there was a surge in popularity of the names Kate and Catherine. Even the pandemic had an influence on names, with people choosing names that had to do with the outdoors, like Forrest and Willow. In large part, however, the names are decided based on what the parents like. I know that, for us, having an Irish link in the names for our children was important.

My mother-in-law was named Eva Jane Easley, after both of her grandmothers. She never loved her first name, partially because it was the name of the grandmother that she didn’t like as much. Additionally, her temper elicited teasing by her siblings with yells of “Evil Eva!” So, she went by Jane most of her life. She enjoyed the commonality of the name and associated it with the kind grandmother she loved. But at the time of her death, due to all the medical procedures, she ended up going by Eva, because that was her legal name. The name on her birth certificate stuck until her death, and her obituary was entitled “Eva Jane Edmonds.” Despite her dislike of it, my son and daughter-in-law love the name, and their first daughter is named Eva after her great-grandmother.

Although the name Sherry was on my birth certificate, who I am as a person can evolve and grow. And this growth is contingent not only on how much effort I put towards it, but also how much I submit to God in humility. And sometimes this growth is painful and challenging.

In the past few months, I realized how much of my identity was tied up in not fitting the fat person stereotype: lazy, dirty, and dumb. Not to appear lazy, I kept an exhausting schedule, filling my day with lots of activities. I kept my house clean so that I would not appear dirty. I was also self-conscious when meeting people who had professional titles, making sure I engaged in conversations that highlighted my intellectual interests, not wanting to appear uneducated. I was all about portraying the image of a smart, tidy, industrious woman!

But then I lost weight, and who was this new Sherry? For a while, I was the exercise-obsessed person who lived and breathed my jaunts to the gym, Pilates routines, and daily walking adventures. I was also very conscious of what I put into my mouth and often not-so-subtly shared this information with family and friends. This new Sherry wanted desperately to be accepted as what I deemed normal.

Now, I have put some weight back on and who am I now? And the bigger question is why did I let these stereotypes loom so large in my life? I would never let others label people based on their race, age, or gender. But for some reason, I have bought into the belief of what a fat person is and have worked hard to dispel the stereotype. Why haven’t I spoken up for those whom society calls fat? Many of us are productive members of society. We care about our communities. We have interests that are not food related. Many of us may be genetically predisposed to a higher number on the scale even though we are moving. And many are disciplined people whose weight may have nothing to do with a lack of discipline.

I am plugging along with my memoir, currently writing the part on restoring the kitchen, which centers on my obesity. I did a deep dive into my childhood and some suppressed memories have come to the surface. Based on pictures, my rapid weight gain was in direct proportion to my trauma. I remembered stuffing cupcakes and brownies into my mouth to deal with shame, anger, and despair. As I moved from a healthy weight to obesity, I hoped that my rolls and cellulite would cushion the pain from the weekly assaults. Food protected, numbed, and became my closest companion during those hard years.

Today, I realize that my ultimate protection lies in my faith in a good God. And my closest companion was never those sugar-addicting snacks, but Jesus who was there all along. And the hard emotions that I continued to cover up as an adult, I can take them to Jesus. There have been some repercussions from these hard emotions. It has taken a considerable amount of time to process when and why I feel certain feelings. And then, I need to be honest with others about those feelings and occasionally set some healthy boundaries. I wish I could say I have always done this well, but honestly, it has been messy. However, I keep moving toward being a healthier person, owning my mistakes, and repairing relationships as needed.

Recently, I shared with someone that I was considering graduate school for counseling. Immediately, she cautioned me that I might have a hard time finding a job due to my age. I finished the conversation feeling deflated, less than, and disappointed. I sat down for a few minutes, analyzed why I was feeling this way, and called her back. I shared my feelings, and immediately she recognized that, although it wasn’t her intention, her response came off as discouraging. We talked about some other hard things that I had been feeling, and I believe it helped us both understand each other better and move towards healing. Moments like this have me convinced that all those years of stuffing have never left me satisfied or fulfilled. They have left me feeling hurt, misunderstood, and have added to the difficulties I have felt in relationships.

I no longer feel a need to dispel any stereotypes. And I no longer define myself by the numbers on a scale. I am no longer “fat Sherry” or “thin Sherry”.  I am not even “in-between Sherry”.  I am the Sherry who is learning to define herself by the principles laid out in the Bible, not by the past messages I have received and internalized. This Sherry is so much more than my past trauma, my roles, and status. She is an ever-evolving person committed to Jesus!

Sherry Ann Walter was the name on my birth certificate. Someday, my obituary will read Sherry Ann Collins. But neither name really matters, it is who I am in between that makes all the difference. And I want to see who this Sherry becomes!

Honorable Harvest

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, no shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, no shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger:” Leviticus 19:10

My brother-in-law handed me “Braiding Sweetgrass” on my first day in Nebraska. I had heard of the title before, believing it was already on my TBR list. I paged through the chapters, read the back cover, and was instantly intrigued. Written by an indigenous botanist, the author examines her relationship to the earth through her culture and science. I had carried with me on the plane some other books which I hoped to finish. These books had due dates, stories in which I already had invested time. Yet, this white paperback beckoned me, moving me to take every spare moment to read while I was in Nebraska. Enraptured, I reread beautiful lines of prose that challenged my way of thinking. And in seven days, I finished the book, feeling like something within me had changed.

The book came at a time when I have been examining my own relationship to my culture, being one-quarter Native American. My biological father deserted me as an infant, leaving me with questions about my heritage. I knew that I had a grandmother with the maiden name of Whitefeather. My dark hair, high cheek bones, and olive skin tone always made me feel slightly out of place in my homogeneous hometown. I knew I was partly Native American, but I felt like an impostor, since I had no stories or connection to this part of my heritage. In the last few months, I have discovered I have more siblings, some of whom have been officially enrolled in the tribe to which my family belongs. I asked a question of Howie, my brother: “When did you identify with your Native American culture?” He replied that he was at a young age, when a teacher recognized his heritage, and encouraged him to be proud of his indigenous ancestry.

My favorite farmers’ markets will be opening soon, along with the abundance of vegetables and fruits. I have managed to curb my impulse buying in the dollar section of Target. But when it comes to a bundle of ramps, Swiss Chard, or radishes, I get dizzy with delight. I see the basket of nectarines next to the pint of plums, and think to myself, I can totally eat these this week. I forget about the other berries I also have sitting at home. I grab bags of fresh greens, tomatoes, and imagine the salads I will have for lunch, forgetting that on three of those days I will have leftovers that also shouldn’t go to waste. The reality is that I buy more food than the two of us can eat. And I end up wasting some of it.

Food waste is a national problem, and one that we are totally unaware of, or maybe we are in denial. It is estimated that a family of four throws away about 31.9 % of their food. We buy too much, over-consume, and then waste. But with food prices going up, I think more of us are becoming aware of how food affects our budgets, making us more conscientious of waste. But “Braiding Sweetgrass” made me aware of a deeper issue. I realized that I as a consumer, regularly take and waste with little consideration for the producers or my community.

Native American cultures, likely because of their hunting and gathering lifestyles, were keenly aware of their food and its sources. They believed in the principle of honorable harvest. This means they took only what they needed for their family, and left the rest, so that future generations would also be able to harvest. Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of “Braiding Sweetgrass” encourages us to learn from indigenous people and their way of harvesting. Their practices kept the earth healthy, full of nutrients necessary for plants to grow, animals to eat, and life to flourish. She continues these ancient practices when she sees wild leeks growing. She harvests in the center of the leeks patch. This is where leeks are over-crowded, and the thinning of the patch will allow it to spread and grow. Kimmerer also takes the time to carefully dig for the leeks, and if they seem plentiful, easy to harvest, she continues, but only taking what she needs.

Kimmerer also reminds readers of the importance of sharing. When she forages, she often uses what she finds in the wild to nourish others. If she makes a bowl of soup from the wild leeks, she makes it a practice to share the soup with others. She recognizes that this food, some of which she did nothing to produce, is a gift, and that it’s her responsibility to share that gift with others.

Finally, Kimmerer writes about the concept of reciprocity. She says, “One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art and in everyday acts of practical reverence.” This may at first seem contradictory to my Christian world point of view, but when I think about God giving us dominion over the earth, it wasn’t to destroy it or over-consume it. It was to keep the earth flourishing with the good gifts our God gave us in the way of clean water, food, and nature to enjoy.

When I think about how God is sovereign, and His goal is to help me live life abundantly, I must model his style of ruling in how I take care of the earth. My dominion should take the form of helping the earth flourish abundantly. He even gives us models of how to do this with his gleaning principle. Mosaic law encouraged landowners to leave some produce in their fields for widows and other marginalized people to harvest. In this same way, Ruth gleaned wheat, catching the interest of Boaz. And later, this foreign woman became a central figure in the lineage of both King David and Jesus. God’s principle of “honorable harvest” can benefit my world and future generations.

Where do I start? How do I engage in honorable harvest practices? It seems overwhelming: our overuse of plastic, waste food, soil depletion, clean water issues, and use of pollutants. For me, it starts in small steps. And one of those steps involves food waste. I have been thinking about my current food shopping habits. I am trying to be realistic about how much fresh fruit I buy, and whether I can consume all of it before it goes bad. Would it be better to limit myself to two or three different types of fruit before I purchase more? It seems reasonable. Also, I am really thinking about menu planning. If I purchase a vegetable that will be used for one recipe, but will have some of the vegetable left over, how can I incorporate that unused veggie in another dish? Finally, when I make a pot of soup or a main dish that is meant for more than two people, I can be more intentional in inviting someone over to share the meal with us or set aside a portion to take to them.

The last area of intentionality will be addressed later this summer. I love making jam and fruit butter with produce I pick or gather throughout the summer. But again, I tend to make more than the two of us can consume. The solution is to give some away, and this simple act of sharing can be a blessing to others, sharing the goodness of God.

Currently, I am looking into whether I can be enrolled in the Red Lake Nation, my family’s tribe. The draw for me is to find ways I can connect with my heritage. Unfortunately, it looks like a longshot due to a couple of reasons. But God finds ways to answer out heart’s desire. The lessons from “Braiding Sweetgrass” have made me proud of how my ancestors lived and treated the earth. Now, it’s my job to continue some of their practices.

Beauty and the Hundred Acre Wood

“One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord, All the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple.” Psalms 27:4

It’s full-blown spring in south central PA, no more hints or snippets. Cheerful daffodils are popping out of flower beds, while purple and pink hyacinths display their splendor. Cherry and dogwood trees are in full bloom, while other trees are starting to put out glimpses of spring green foliage. The birds’ morning conversations are loud and melodious, making it easier to crawl out of bed. Delighted, bouncy, and energetic seem the perfect adjectives to capture my mood and mobility.

In January, a lot of people claim a word as their motto for the year. This word, whether it be “intentional” or “cultivate” sets a tone for the upcoming year. It might appear on their refrigerator, mood boards, or social media posts. The purpose behind the word is to help set direction for the year, to keep this word at the forefront. Sometimes, I jump on the bandwagon and come up with a word. And some years it impacts my plans, but other years I can’t quite remember what the word was.

This year, my mind was blank, something that doesn’t happen often. I always seem to have ideas or thoughts swirling around in my head. I did set some goals for myself for the upcoming year but had no overarching theme and I felt a little directionless. I know my seasonal slump probably contributed to this, but it seemed to drag, making my vision for the future cloudy. My post about confetto was the beginning of coming out of the slump, but I still felt a little like a slug, having a hard time moving and making my way forward. I had no momentum or bounce. In the world of the Hundred Acre Wood, for the first time in my life I would describe myself as a little Eeyore-ish, less like my normal Pooh or Tigger demeanor.

My sister sent a post from a conference she attended; it was exactly what I needed to move forward. It said, “Stop thinking so much, you’re breaking your own heart.” I realize, although I have been doing hard work, I have been fixated on my trauma, and not fixated on the healer of my trauma. I had been spending time in my past, which is good, but not spending as much time in the present with God, where I can receive strength when things are hard. I had gotten things completely out of balance. And in looking so much inward, I forgot the beauty of looking up.

I recently heard about an amazing project called “The Growing Kindness Project”.  Deanna Kitchen started growing flowers and had an abundance of sweet peas in bloom. She cut her flowers, put them in vases, and along with her children, delivered them to a senior center. She knew that flowers brought beauty and joy to her life and wanted to spread the happiness. This simple act became a mission for her family, where now she gives away dahlia tubers, so that others can spread the kindness. The testimonies are beautiful of how the lives of both the givers and the receivers have been changed.

She could sell the flowers to raise money, a tangible way to help the community. One could argue that she could have grown vegetables and given away some of the produce. This would have been a tangible way to fight hunger in her community. But that is discounting the importance of beauty and why it is so valuable to our souls.

Studies have shown that when we gaze upon something beautiful, it lowers our anxiety and depression. It calms our busy brains and activates our creativity. Some studies indicate that when feasting on something beautiful, whether its art, music, or nature, it opens space for us to come up with solutions. Beauty changes the way we process information and is essential to our well-being. But often it is the one thing we forget.

The past few years have been hard for our nation: a global pandemic, political and social upheaval, threats of war, school shootings, and growing inflation. I have been transparent how my life has been in transition for the past few years as well, from an unexpected job loss, some physical challenges, empty nest, and a change in where we worship. Some of these changes have been good, but with all the changes, I have experienced some anxiety and stress. And I think it has reduced my capacity to bounce back from each change. Some days, I have found myself endlessly scrolling or listening to podcasts, sitting in a chair, without any movement forward, just kind of stuck.

I am currently reading a book “The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh.” Kathryn Aalto, the author, explores the forests in England where A.A. Milne and E. H. Shepherd were inspired to write and illustrate the characters of the Hundred Acre Wood. The book reminds me that getting unstuck requires intentionality. One of my favorite Pooh stories is how his love for honey gets him stuck in Rabbit’s hole. For a few weeks, Pooh stays stuck until his tummy thins out. He’s intentional about avoiding honey even when he just wants to taste it.

My answer lies in the word God gave me this week to get unstuck: beauty. Currently, my favorite verse in the Bible is Psalms 27:4, “One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I see, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” I need to focus on the beauty that God has created for me to enjoy. And as I look for beauty, I find myself filled, inspired, and propelled.

This beauty can be found in the nature poems my husband and I read each night. It can be found in my yard, looking at my magnolia bush blooming out. It’s captured in a picture of Eva’s sweet smile sent to me by Rachel. It is heard when I listen to the violins in Vivaldi’s “Spring.” I taste beauty as I bite into fresh asparagus. And it is felt when I spend time with God, sharing with Him my gratitude for the beauty He has given me.

I should have seen this word coming already on January 2 when Terry and I were prompted to become members of Winterthur Gardens. Despite the rainy wintry day, we both felt peace and tranquility as we explored the gardens. We heard the tour guide describe how the garden would enfold in the upcoming seasons. We felt this anticipation of the beauty, and membership seemed the best way to explore the garden in the upcoming year. I have already planned an outing with a friend later this week, and Terry and I are planning to explore the gardens at the end of this month.

Spring is here, and along with it are opportunities for me to capture beauty. This means less time scrolling and more time looking up and around. And I believe that even though the word came late to me, I still have eight solid months to focus on the beauty of the Lord!

Cake Stand Artifacts

“Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure with trouble.” Proverbs 15:16

Tuesday nights brighten our week. For about an hour, we FaceTime with our grandchildren (and their parents). It starts off with Poppy and Mimi gushing over Joel while he finishes his dinner. After a few minutes, he pops off and on to the screen, showing us his toys, stuffies, and guitar. Sometimes we sing with him or ask him questions about his day, and maybe even read a book to him. Eva is new to this routine. Being held in the arms of one of her parents, she gazes into the screen. Again, we gush with sentiments that sometimes make her smile. This modern technology connects us with our grandchildren who live 7.5 hours away, making us more familiar to them.

As a child, I wanted to be an archaeologist. Books and movies informed my view of archeology, a life full of adventure, mystery, and treasures. But it was more than a life of intrigue, digging up artifacts to learn about an ancient culture that truly fascinated me. What did they use as utensils, and how did they cook their food? Did they really sleep on rock platforms as beds, and do we have any indication of what kind of natural fibers they used for clothing? As archeologists discover more about ancient cultures, we learn more about what they valued.

I often wonder what my grandchildren will think about my life and the artifacts that they may find in my home. Will they look at my collection of cake stands and fondly remember holidays with cookies and cakes sitting upon the pedestals? Will they look at some of my books and wonder what in the world was Mimi thinking when she read about the hunt for the Imperial woodpecker? Will they read the letters and cards I kept and see them as historical evidence of a life that valued relationships? Will they look at some of the things that I deemed precious and see it as junk?

My stuff, and my relationship to it, is something that I have been unpacking over the past year. It’s so easy to see my collection of cake plates as valuable while I look at another person’s collection as useless. What sparks joy in my life may not be what sparks joy in another person’s life. But that leads to a bigger question, why do I value what I have? Does it add or take away from my life? And what does it reveal about my priorities?

We once planted a few packets of wildflower seeds in a garden bed. We decided to let nature take its course, with no weeding, just waiting for the pops of color to bloom. By July, we did see a few blooms, but mostly what came up was a tangled web of weeds choking out the wildflowers. One day, I was outside playing with some children when out of the corner of my eye I saw a long creature scrambled into the garden bed. Bravely, I grabbed a rake and started poking around, and I saw it move again. I dropped the rake and ran in fear. I have no idea what the creature was, probably an opossum, but I was not taking any chances. Later that evening, at my insistence, Terry started cutting the bed down, and eventually mowing it completely. Weeds and unidentified creatures made the few pops of color no longer important.

When Terry and I started downsizing our stuff, I feared my home would end up stark and drab with no personality. When I set aside the Valentine signs that seemed more country than my style, I was uncomfortable. When I got rid of almost all the Christmas wall décor, a tinge of anxiety twisted my stomach. And when I discarded old oil pastels and charcoal art supplies from my children’s early elementary years, I felt like an era had ended.

But the holidays have passed without discomfort or anxiety. Instead, the items I kept seemed to make a bigger statement when not “caught up in the weeds.” Getting rid of the art supplies gave me more space in my desk for the items I use in my own creative endeavors. Additionally, all the myriad of stuff I have gotten rid of informs future purchases. I think longer and with more clarity about what I want to add to my home today. Do I really need that cute basket, or is it something that, two years from now, I’ll add to my growing pile of stuff to give to Goodwill?

I am also more conscious of the messages about stuff that I pass onto my children. I lovingly passed on a collection of books that my son loved as a child. These books enchanted him as a beginning reader. But as a young father, he is conscious about what kind of books he is putting on his shelves, and these books no longer seemed as important to him. I had a moment of sadness, but reminded myself that this is his choice, and I will always have the pictures in my mind of him and his books. Without guilt, I took the books back and passed them on to my niece and nephew. The jury is still out whether they will love the books, but there is no pressure. If they don’t, my sister can pass them on to another family.

I know that everyone has their own idea of what kind of home they are trying to create. Some want a home that exudes tranquility, with neutral colors that calm and soothe. Others may want a home with beach vibes, reminding them of vacations. But I think all of us want a space that brings joy. Even minimalist guru, Marie Kondo, asks you to evaluate and store your stuff in a way that “sparks joy”. For me, Tuesday nights bring me joy, and what is in the background is less important.