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Homemade Lemonade

“Unless the Lords builds the house, they labor in vain who build it;” Psalm 127:1

We just started pre-wedding festivities with my daughter’s shower two weekends ago. The theme was “She Found Her Main Squeeze” with lemon décor, daisies on the table, fruit-filled cupcakes, and a beautiful charcuterie board. The bridesmaids were amazing, helping me make my vision a reality. Today, she is packing up her gifts, along with her bedroom, with plans to move into her first apartment at the end of the month.

Some details at Maggie’s shower.

Maggie asked me today if I am excited to be an empty nester, and my response was yes. But this yes came after weeks of working through some tough emotions. Not only is my daughter getting married this year, but we are likely going to be move into a much smaller apartment closer to our church and my husband’s work. There are a lot of losses that I had to work through and some grieving I had to do in anticipation of the move.

Some of the losses include the fact that Terry and I have never owned our own home. Some of this was due to poor financial decisions we made early in our marriage, but a lot was our commitment to home educate our children. Early on, Terry went back to school part-time while I stayed home with our children. After receiving his associates degree in 2007, we dreamed of putting aside money for a down payment for our first home. As he was looking for a new job, the recession of 2008 hit, resulting not in a better paying job but a job loss. For three years, Terry worked temp jobs in his field, unable to land a permanent position due to the economy. Hence, our house-owning dreams were put on the back burner. In 2011, we moved to Pennsylvania with the hopes of eventually owning our first home. Again, circumstances seemed to put that dream aside. Now, with the current housing prices and our age, we are trying to weigh our options.

I know that its’ considered the American dream to own your own home. I have always imagined what my home would look like. I have created Pinterest pages with kitchen layouts and picking out my own light fixtures. Yet, we are realizing the American Dream might not happen for us. And this recognition came with some internal messages I was believing about myself. I believed that my lack of home ownership meant I was a failure as an adult. I had to take an honest assessment of my life and realized that, although that is how society defines success, this is not how the Lord defines it. We made decisions to live as a one-income family and that came at a price. In retrospect, neither of us regret that decision or the effects of it.

Despite the fact we have always rented, I feel like every place we have lived has been my own home. We have been blessed to have the freedom to paint, and even on some occasions plant trees in our yard. Our home has been a place for our family to gather, love and play. Which leads to another loss I had to work through: this new place we are moving into will be a place where my children have never lived. Not only was I going to be an empty nester, but in many ways, it felt like I was cutting down the tree where the nest had been. I had to remind myself that it was an opportunity to create new memories. I also had to remind myself that this is a new season for my husband and I, and new seasons also bring positive changes.

Finally, when looking for a place to live, we decided that we wanted to stay as close as possible to the price we are currently paying. With the housing market being so competitive, rent prices have also increased. Thus, we are currently looking at a much smaller townhouse. Which leads to the last loss: I will have to give up some of my stuff. I have no desire to crowd our current household of items into a smaller space. I like having open space in my house to breathe. But I love my stuff, I have carefully curated my décor over the course of years. I love having access to all my books, kitchen gadgets and office supplies.  It took me a little while to gain a healthy perspective.  But the reality is that it is just stuff and having a simpler lifestyle will force me to consider new purchases more carefully. It will also force me to be more careful at the grocery store.  Finally, it will allow us to have more freedom to travel and explore, creating the kind of memories we want.

We are excited to move to Carlisle, where our church is located. Specifically, we want to be in a neighborhood where we can be helpful and connect with our neighbors. We want to be an example of how Jesus transforms lives by loving our neighbors well. After working through some of the losses, I am truly looking forward to this new stage. This week, I’ll be putting in a call to the realtor of the neighborhood we are hoping to move into. Our prayer is that we can move sometime after the wedding to embark on this new adventure. While Maggie may have found her main squeeze, I am choosing to make lemonade with life’s lemons.

Donuts and Narnia

“Intelligent people are always ready to learn. Their ears are open for knowledge.” Proverbs 18:15

It’s National Library week and I want to celebrate this magical place of wonder. As I child, I was enchanted with my monthly visit to Mead Public Library in Sheboygan, WI. At the time, the children’s section was on the ground floor. I quickly rushed head of my mother and siblings, through the double glass doors to step on the carpet in front of the six-foot animatronic Kangaroo, waiting for her traditional greeting. Then I rushed around the library, looking for places to go and adventures to have through the pages of books. After we checked out our stacks of books, we would head to Frederick’s Bakery for donuts. The smell of fried pastry wafted through the doors as we entered the bakery. I then picked out my favorite, a chocolate mudpie. We went back to the car, and I opened a book, devouring the warm gooey donut as I entered Narnia.

Macaroni and cheese always makes the list of people’s comfort foods, but if I had a comfort place, it would be the library. I love the shelves of books covering all subjects: cookbooks, gardening hacks, biographies, historical fiction, and the classics. I love the fact that the library is user friendly for anyone, with no cost to join and the amount of information you can access seems unlimited. In many ways I make myself a personal ambassador to the library, sharing its virtues with little people. From the time my own children were two, they have had their own library cards. I later signed them up for the same summer reading program that I had been a part of as a child. For years, we attended the library story time where they heard a librarian read a book, sing a song, and maybe do a small craft. Since then, any child that has been under my care for any length of time has explored the library with me.

Terry and I are both library nerds. We plan our Saturday dates occasionally at the library, checking out a stack of books that I have no hope of finishing in one month. We then grab a cup of coffee from our favorite local coffee shop and hurry home to peruse our books. If our library system doesn’t have a particular book we want, we request it through the inner-library loan system. For a short period of time, we even became members of the Library of Congress, only to walk in awe through the reading room and map room. Currently, we hold library cards for two different counties and often have books checked out from both. We also like to visit famous libraries like the Peabody Library in Baltimore and the Providence Athenaeum, with hopes to hit other famous libraries on our bucket list.

In a future blog, I will be talking about our need to downsize our book collection. I know all of you book lovers might be gasping in horror at the thought. But we often tend to read the books we check out from the library before the ones we own. And in examining our bookshelves, we could eliminate the ones that we could easily access from the library and keep the ones that we underline and reference the most. The point is, as much as I would love to have a beautifully curated personal library, I am content to continue visit my local library to fulfill my bibliophile needs.

It would be easy to look at our smart phones and argue that maybe libraries are becoming obsolete. About four years ago, my oldest uncle and aunt drove from Wisconsin to Rhode Island for my son’s wedding. He had written down the name of the church but forgot the address. Not being very tech savvy, my uncle did what most people in his generation knew to do, he want to Tiverton’s local library to look up in a phone book the address for the church. Even though he could have looked up the address on his cell phone, libraries are using technology to appeal to their patrons in new and innovative ways. They give us access to a large collection of free e-books, audio books, and learning programs, including learning foreign languages. As technology evolves, libraries seem to be on the cutting edge, finding new ways to entice people to learn.

Author Sidney Sheldon said, “Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up the windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve and contribute to improving our quality of life.” If it has been a while since you have visited your local library, take a short trip and see what your local library has to offer. As you walk in through the doors, take a deep breath, and look around, letting your eyes scan the room. Explore the shelves, and see what adventures await. And just maybe if you are in Carlisle this Saturday, you might see me at the library as well!

Sisters and Broken Barbies

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” 1 Peter 4:8

When my daughter was about six years old, my mom brought out an old crate of Barbie dolls for her to play with. Not being much of a Barbie doll person, Maggie ignored the crate and played with her older brother and the Legos. I ran my hand through the crate, looking at the old, battered dolls with matted hair. Some of the dolls had legs that had been broken off and attached with definite deformities, others had grime and dirt embedded in their skins. Most of the clothes were frayed, missing a button, or stretched out. The accessories were strewn across the bottom of the crate, often with no matching glove or shoe. These dolls were the shared history of three sisters. I couldn’t recall which doll belonged to me or which dressed belonged to my sisters. I didn’t have any clear memories of us playing together, I just knew this crate represented my history, and I felt ashamed and relieved. Ashamed of my history and relieved my daughter was not interested in my castoffs.

March is Women’s History month and I think it’s important to use this month to celebrate women. I have written in the past about the community of women that have helped me and continue to shape the woman I am today. These include two aunts who I featured as my Sheroes last March and, the previous the summer, three lifelong friends. When thinking about the women who have influenced my life, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the two who have known me the longest: my sisters. They were my first friends. They have been at all my important events and are often the first people I text or call to share important news. They also share a unique history with me, our childhood. And even though we have different perspectives, we all agree it has shaped us.

What does it mean to be sisters? It’s a question I have been uncovering the answer to since I was a two-year-old crawling into my baby sister’s crib, trying to play with her. It was me playing with dolls, putting powder in their diapers as my mom did for my sister. It was me two months shy of five, going with my grandmother to drop off a paper bag of clothing for my mom while she was recovering from her c-section with my premature baby sister. It was me reading to my little sister, not because I was some sort of saint, but because I loved to read and hear the sound of my own voice. And then it’s a lot of murky memories of a childhood that was marred with abuse and trauma. I can look at pictures and vaguely remember family vacations, playing Barbies, swimming at the quarry, and riding the bus together. But how we interacted with one another feels a little unclear. I know that I was bossy and overbearing at times. At other times, I know I felt protective of my siblings. And I know much of the time I was lost in my own world trying to grapple with dark secrets. I have learned that childhood trauma often distorts your memories, robs you of your innocence and changes the natural dynamics of your familial relationships. And this rings true in my life.

To add to the challenges of our childhood, I felt like a bit of an outsider with my sisters. I didn’t share the same DNA as they did, which explained my shoe size, different bone structure and why I didn’t look like them. Yet, if you had asked me as a child to describe my family, I would always say I had two sisters and a brother. We never used words like half or step. We were just a family.

I have a few friends who have hard relationships with their sisters. For a myriad of reasons, those relationships are full of long, hurtful histories that often resulted in strained relationships or, in some cases, no relationship at all. Even in the Bible, there are examples of sisters with tough relationships including Rachel and Leah, which was based on jealousy and wounding. Then you have Mary and Martha, whose relational challenges were due to priorities and bitterness. My friends and the Biblical sisters are real examples of how hard it is to be friends within a family. It’s hard to maintain a lifelong relationship when you were forced to share a room, share your possessions, and play together.  When you add in the difficulty of navigating childhood trauma together, it seems almost impossible to have healthy relationship with your sisters!

                My sisters could both easily share times I have hurt their feelings. They can share times where I have made them feel less than, or times I have ignored them. The truth is that they have seen me at my worse. They have seen me when I have been judgmental, jealous, and full of bitterness. We were not the best of friends as children. We were three separate people, with different interests, temperaments, and passions.

                But despite the trauma and challenges, somewhere along the way, my sisters and I became friends. I can’t pinpoint when that happened, but I can tell you it did. I see it in the string of texts we sent each other last summer to encourage one another in our journey to better health. I see it in the ways we show up for one another at important events. I see it in how we celebrate each other’s accomplishments, pray, or offer words of support to one another in a crisis. I see it when we laugh about our childhood basket of unmatched socks. I see it in the way we disagree or have conflict but are vulnerable enough to reach out the other person and make amends. I see it when all three of us showed up for my uncle’s funeral grieving the only decent father figure we had and going home knowing we will never have a real father to grieve. I see it in the fact that they both have made plans to be at my daughter’s wedding despite Covid-19 and high gas prices.

I have probably rewritten this post more than any other one I have ever written. How do you accurately portray three women who have risen above broken and bruised Barbies? How do you honor your friends who have difficult relationships with sisters while celebrating your own relationships? How do you share that these friendships borne out of sisterhood and trauma have been a journey not a destination?

Sisters by birth and friends by choice, they are amazing women. They love their families well, are passionate about their work and volunteer commitments, and have overcome some hard obstacles. And most importantly, they have invested in my life in ways that I can’t measure. I am still learning what it means to be a sister, but I want to close with a few lines of poetry from an 19th century poet that echo some of what I have learned.

Root Out the Weeds

“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Hebrews 12:14

A year ago, I was dealing with a medical issue. I thought it was just a lingering virus, but when things didn’t improve, I called my doctor. After a lot of testing, including a colonoscopy, I was diagnosed with another auto-immune disorder. Although the disorder is not life threatening, when in a flare, it can make my life rather inconvenient. On the phone, the nurse recommended me treating it with an over-the-counter medication or possibly getting a steroid. I feel those solutions are just treating the symptoms. Instead, I am waiting to follow up with my doctor, hoping to maybe examine my diet to see if any foods are contributing to my problem.

In many ways, treating the symptoms to a problem in my life, without examining the root of issue, has been my answer to both physical and emotional issues. I took pills to deal with my headaches, instead of making sure I got enough sleep. I applied more moisturizer to my dry skin, instead of making sure I was drinking enough water. I harbored resentment towards people who rejected me instead of finding my worth in God. Although my symptoms might go away for a little bit, the underlying issues continued to wreak physical and emotional havoc!

In the summer of 2020, my husband and I were counseled by dear friends to “wrestle well” with a decision we needed to make. The phrase referred to the time when Jacob wrestled with Lord all night until he received something from God. God blessed him and Jacob’s life was forever changed. We spent that time seeking God and asking Him to illuminate the areas in our lives where we were not right, often leading to repentance. We did a lot of heart work, examining what our longings were and reorienting them towards God. We treated the root causes of our problems, which ended up resulting in making a healthy decision.

But even though you make a healthy decision for yourself, it doesn’t mean that everyone involved understands or supports your decision. Recently, I was faced with another consequence of my “wrestle well” decision. The details are not important, but it reopened a wound that I thought had closed and healed. And once again, I had to do some heart work, and reorient myself to God. Part of heart work is reminding myself that I am not the saint in this situation. I, too, just like the people involved, am human, full of imperfections.

It sounds easy as I type this, but honestly, a lot of tears have fallen. I’ve confessed to a few friends how hard this feels, and they have prayed with me for peace. In the past, I have ignored the heart work, and tried to move on, but seeds of resentment and bitterness rooted in me. Like weeds, they sprang up when least expected, hurting people I love. But this approach never leads to abundant life.

Tree of Heaven photo credit Shutterstock

We have two beautiful Rhododendron bushes growing on the side of our house. Late spring, they bloom with purple flowers, enticing hummingbirds and bees to gather nectar. Unfortunately, we also have a weed ironically named Tree of Heaven growing amongst the bushes.  Our first summer in our home, we noticed this weed, indicating that it was already a problem.  It is considered an invasive species that is difficult to kill after its second year of growth. Late winter, Terry tries to cut it down as far as he can, but it always comes back stronger and bigger.   Throughout the summer, we are forced take our clippers and attempt to cut it back, so it doesn’t take over the bushes and the roses next to it. In reading about the properties of this weed, the only way to get rid of the pest is to dig up the bush around it along with its own root ball and then separate the two.  The experts indicate that this might kill the weed, but there is no guarantee.

The writer in Hebrews in Chapter 12:14 says, “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy.” The word for “make every effort” in the Greek means “to pursue.” Pursuing by its very definition implies a level of intensity. The writer goes on to say in verse 15, “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” This verse is addressing the church, that we should create an atmosphere of grace so that bitterness doesn’t affect the body.

Like my gut issues, I am learning to address bitterness right away. I owe it to myself, my family, my friends, and to my church body. When I practice grace and address the heart issues, it helps me to respond to others with more grace. It leaves me in a place where beauty can be created, and that is my heart’s desire!

Fitted Sheets and Martha Stewart

“Is not wisdom found among the aged? does not long life bring understanding?” Job 12:12

Besides Sundays, Terry and I love one day of the week more than the rest. It’s “clean sheet day”, the day we strip the bed, carefully remake it with fresh sheets, and place all the decorative pillows on neatly. That evening, we love crawling into bed with the crisp, fresh sheets. I am convinced that we sleep better, dreaming of warm breezes, Italian villas, and gelato. But as much as I love clean sheet day, I hate folding the cumbersome king-sized fitted sheet! I once watched a Martha Steward video on how to fold sheets properly. Her folded sheets have neat corners that stack beautifully in the linen closet. Something went terribly wrong in my attempt to carefully follow her steps. I ended up with a puffy, misshapen lump that was, if possible, worse than usual. I now leave sheet folding to the capable hands of my husband.

Photo Credit by Shutterstock

I recently heard an old podcast of an interview Martha Stewart did for Cherry Jubilee, a food conference for women. Until this podcast, I had never paid much attention to Martha, only occasionally flipping through her magazines, looking at a few recipes, and, of course, my failed attempt at sheet folding. This interview opened my eyes to the world of Martha. She’s an incredible entrepreneur who created the whole idea of lifestyle branding. Her hand is in every area imaginable: recipes, home décor, wedding planning, crafting, fashion, and even tips on having a hobby farm. Despite being eighty years old, she is still witty, still relevant with all her social media presence, and still looking to develop more businesses!

I was so inspired by this interview that I talked about Martha incessantly to my family and friends for several days. It wasn’t just that the interview was funny or insightful; it had to do more with how her life resonated with me. Her insatiable curiosity, desire to capture beauty around her, perseverance, and willingness to give back helped me to crystalize my thoughts about how to approach my fiftieth birthday, as well as life beyond it.

 Martha believes that her curiosity is the most important key to her success. She is always looking for ways to be inspired and to learn. She insists on sitting in the front seat with her drivers so she can get a clear view of the world around her. She doesn’t want to always go the same route, because different streets are opportunities to see something new. This curiosity is reflected in other areas of her life as well, from wanting to learn about photography to raising chickens. It even explains her unique friendship with the rapper, Snoop Dogg.

Not only is Martha curious, but she also loves to cultivate beauty around her. Aided by her landscaping team, she has a clear vision for her award-winning gardens. Her website is full of articles on how to create homes that are comfortable and esthetically pleasing. Her recipes highlight certain ingredients wanting to make them shine. Her products are not only beautiful but priced to be accessible for the average consumer. Although she has some mad perfection skills with ironing and organization, the spirit behind them is to eliminate the chaos around you so that you have space to see beauty.

In the interview, Martha referred to a major incident in her life as “financial troubles.” In 2004, Martha was convicted of insider training, resulting in her serving five months in a federal prison. For many people, this would have been the end of their story. She could have easily gone back to her home in Connecticut and quietly lived out the rest of her life in obscurity. Instead, Martha came back, relaunching her brand and building new businesses!

Finally, Martha believes in the importance of giving back. She has created a nonprofit charitable foundation with her daughter. She also cares about her world and wants to be a responsible human by promoting composting and sustainable living.

By no means am I saying that everything Martha does or supports aligns with my Christian worldview. But I do think that there are some take-aways from her life. I think those who know me best would agree that I have already cultivated an insatiable curiosity. But I think I will take Martha’s advice and continue to look at things from different perspectives to keep me inspired. I also think its important to cultivate beauty in my world. Beauty helps reduce stress and adds joy to my life. And despite the setbacks we have had in the past, I will look to the latter half of my life as a time when, with God, I can still make an impact. Finally, although I am unable to contribute on the same monetary level that Martha does, I can still serve my community in tangible ways to improve the quality of life for others!

In the interview, she shares a tip on how to make the most incredibly fluffy scrambled eggs. It involves her award-winning chickens and a $5,000 espresso machine! Although her eggs sound amazing, and I wouldn’t mind owning an espresso machine, I believe my scrambled eggs are as good as Martha’s. I use Happy Eggs, a whisk from my mother, and cook them slow on the stove.  Maybe I should start my own lifestyle brand!

My scrambled eggs with veggies and goat cheese, photo credit to Margaret Collins

Unlikely Trio

“All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.” Proverbs 16:2

I started this blog almost three years ago as a way to address transitions in my life. I set some boundaries for my writing: to be authentic, to encourage, and to point others to the goodness of God. Although I have always been opinionated, I didn’t want my writing to just add noise to the hot button issues on social media. Instead, I wanted my blog to be a place of beauty and transformation. I can only speak for myself and how the blog has transformed me. It has helped me be more grace-filled, and kinder and gentler to others and myself. I had a different blog that I was intending to post this week, but I felt strongly to go in a different direction. This post addresses a current world issue, a visit, and a sermon. They all intersect in a place where only God can connect the dots.

The first situation is being updated in real time as I write. Like so many of you, I have been heartbroken to see what is happening in Ukraine. I had a semester of Russian history in college with a great professor who gave a comprehensive history of the breakdown of the former Soviet Union and the emerging countries like Ukraine. But since then, I have continued with my life and not given much thought to the second largest European nation. In January, I heard about the Russian military build-up on the border of Ukraine. But again, I went on living my life, not paying attention to world news. That changed last week when Russia invaded Ukraine. All platforms showed actual footage of the attack and of people fleeing their homes along with clips of President Zelensky’s resolution to stay and fight for his country. I have been following the situation, paying special attention to some missionaries of my faith that have chosen to stay to minister to their congregation! No words can adequately describe the situation that is unfolding for thousands of Ukrainians. Its heartbreaking to see mothers carrying their babies desperately trying to find a place of refuge.

The day prior to the invasion, I visited with a sweet older couple that are members of my church. By most standards, they don’t have a lot. Their apartment is small and filled with simple treasures such as cards and artwork from a friend. Due to some health issues, they live on a fixed income. They have no children but have invested their hearts into a great niece, giving her space in their spare bedroom filled with mementos. They take care of their neighbors by gathering their mail and bringing extra food. The man spends time making crafts for children in our church, while she looks for ways to minister to others. She regularly sends me texts letting me know she is thinking of me and praying for me. I left their home on Wednesday humbled by their generosity and faithfulness.

 Although I had been blessed by my visit and my heart was heavy for Ukraine, I still went on living my life like always, until Sunday. In his Sunday morning message, one of our pastors challenged us to examine our motives.  Do we serve God for the blessings, or do we serve because he is God? Pastor Dave asked some hard questions, including if God gave me nothing else in my life, would I still serve Him? I left church with some heavy thoughts about my own intentions and agenda.

 Sunday’s message, my visit with the couple in our church, and the invasion of Ukraine seem like an unlikely trio with no connection. But all day, I have been on the verge of tears whenever I think about all three experiences. I feel like they are all hitting the same place in soul. It is a place of raw honesty and self-examination. Who am I if blessings stop flowing? How will I react if faced with a situation where I must choose safety or service? And will I remain generous when it seems apparent to others, I don’t have much to give?

 It’s easy to give a shallow answer and say that my motives are honorable and self-sacrificing. But how many times have I grumbled about helping some else? How many times have I given the leftovers rather than my best? How many times have I chosen comfort over sacrifice? The answer is far more than I want to admit. Which then leads me to address the motives of my heart. Do I give for the good endorphins I feel when blessing someone else? Do I look for ways to receive accolades? Am I only generous out of my abundance?

If I was going to give myself a report card, I don’t think I would receive a passing mark when answering these questions. But this is where the grace of God steps in. He is not looking to beat me over the head and make me feel ashamed of my shortcomings and my selfish behavior. Instead, He gently encourages me to repent, reaffirm His sovereignty and remind me of Calvary. This is not an effort to change my behavior in the hopes improving my report card, instead it’s a reminder that He gave it all that I might have life. And I have nothing worth offering, but to be a living sacrifice.

There are major moments that forever change the course of your life. Some of these major moments are based on your decisions, such as a move, choosing a certain career path, or agreeing to go on a date with someone to a bookstore. Some major moments are out of your control like your family of origin, a rejection from someone you cared for, or an unexpected health diagnosis. But some major moments take place when situations collide that unexpectedly reveal something in your heart, prodding you to change.

I want to be a person who is truly generous. I want to serve without any expectations of gratitude. I want to give all that I have, not just out of my abundance. I want to choose serving over convenience. I want to stand strong when my faith is challenged. I want to empty myself of all that is me and let God flow through me. But this can only happen if I am honest with God and am transparent.

I am grateful for seasoned saints who are examples of Christian faithfulness. I am grateful for pastors who are not afraid to ask hard questions. And, for Ukraine, saying I am inspired seems so juvenile and insensitive to what is taking place. The missionaries and President Zelensky are examples of true self-sacrifice. They model this by choosing to stand for what they believe and stay, potentially giving their lives for the people they are entrusted to serve! And all I can do from my corner of the world is pray for their safety, well-being, and their sacrifice is not in vain.

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!

Sunset Generosity

“You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” 2 Corinthians 9:11 ESV

A few days ago, I was driving home after a long day. Purple and pink streaks were strewn across the sky, framing the mountains around me while splashes of color reflected across the icy snow. I was amazed at the artistry on display, making the long drive go by faster, as I thanked God for His beautiful sky. The next morning, John Eldredge, in his Restoration Journal, asked the question, “Can you name in your life where your heart feels awakened because of Jesus’ extravagant generosity?” This led me to a few questions of my own. Am I aware of God’s generosity? Do I respond in a way that shows I believe He’s generous to me? Am I generous to others?

God’s generosity is displayed throughout His creation. He paints the sky differently each sunrise and sunset. He creates the romantic pink peony, the whimsical daisy, and the symmetrical sunflower. He designed each snowflake to be unique, only noticeable under a microscope. Even the sand throughout out the world is different. When my children were younger, my mom would bring jars of sand from her travels, from the fine white sand of Florida beaches to coarse tawny sand found in Maine. Even our foods don’t taste one note: we have salty olives, tangy goat cheese, and sweet oranges. His generosity can be found everywhere if we are willing to pay attention.

The Garden of Eden was God’s generosity perfectly displayed. Adam and Eve wanted for nothing, living in a perfect climate. The Bible says that they could eat of every tree and had dominion overall, except one tree. Figs, plums, bananas, and every kind of berry were available for their choosing. And every day they had the opportunity to interact with all of God’s creation. But Satan made them question God’s generosity and focus on the thing they couldn’t have, which led to the fall. It is easy to look at them and see the error of their ways, but like Adam and Eve, I can fall into that same trap. All too often, I get focused on what I don’t have. I get caught up with the small bank balances, the vacations that didn’t happen, and the opportunities that didn’t come my way. This leads to discontent and believing that God is not generous to me.

When I realize I feel discontent, I look for truth in scripture. Paul says in Philippians 4:19, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” My God is faithful to provide. Maybe I didn’t get the vacation I had hoped for, but I did get some time exploring God’s creation in local forest preserves near me. He’s blessed me abundantly with friends and family. Whatever I need is available to me. But along with God’s generosity, I find another truth: God expects me to be generous. We all know about the principle of reaping what you sow. This principle is followed by in 2 Corinthians 9:7 with the statement, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” A few months ago, one of my pastors preached about the Greek word “hilaros” which means “cheerful.” This is the same word that hilarious comes from. We are supposed to be over the top cheerful givers! Which leads to my last question: am I generous to others?

Last year, an acquaintance of mine died unexpectedly. This is someone who I greeted with a smile but looked for ways to end the conversation quickly. I said the right words but didn’t demonstrate real interest. I was never generous with my time, compassion, or investment in this person’s life. And all this person ever wanted was to feel connected with me because of a distant familial relationship. This death hit me hard and made me realize that I was generous to people I loved but not always to those who were on the fringes of my life. By no means am I saying that I need to be friends with everyone or insert myself into everyone’s lives. But if someone is trying to engage me in a conversation, I should be generous with my time and be fully present. Every time I have gone back to Wisconsin over the last ten years, it would have taken just a few moments each visit to inquire about their life, their health, and their blessings. Instead, I plastered a fake smile on my face while I was thinking about someone else I wanted to connect with. I was genuinely sorrowful for how I had treated that person and repented.

This repentance leads me to God’s generosity again. He is generous in his willingness to forgive me of times when I am less than kind. The Bible records that his mercies are new every day. However, this doesn’t give me the right to continue to be less than generous with others. Instead, it gives me the freedom to come to total repentance and ask God to help me be more generous.

 I was hoping to catch a picture of the beautiful colors as they painted the sky, but the sunset had disappeared by the time I go home. That’s how sunsets work, they last for a few amazing moments and then disappear and, all too often, I am too busy to notice them. Like a sunset, generosity only takes a few minutes. But all too often, I miss the opportunities to be generous. In this upcoming year, I am choosing to make more time for sunsets and generosity.