A Wonderful, Busy and Strange Holiday Season

Although my new lifestyle has been a significant life event for me, there were other moments that made this holiday season special that I wanted to update you on. Since stores start running Christmas commercials on Halloween, I might as well start with Halloween too. In 2014, my first attempt to live a healthy lifestyle, I gave up eating Halloween candy, and now the giant wooden salad bowl that becomes a Halloween candy bowl on October 1 every year doesn’t even tempt me. I also don’t like the idea of dressing in a scary costume because there is enough real evil in the world, I feel we don’t need to create pretend evil. My Jehovah’s Witness friends may have solidified this thinking a little bit when we talked during one study about how the origin of Halloween customs can be traced back to a Pre-Christian festival honoring the God of the dead, but I was already beginning to think this way the Halloween of my sixth grade year, the Halloween following 9/11.

But in 2016 when the office where I worked started what is now an annual tradition, a costume contest, I wanted to participate both to break up the monotony of the work day, and because while browsing costumes on Amazon, I saw what sounded like an adorable Elvis costume for dogs! If I could get Gilbert to wear the Elvis costume, and I wore a poodle skirt, it would be hilarious and adorable, and we would win the contest for sure! I was right. That year, we did win the costume contest, and everyone thought we made for an adorable duo. In 2017, Halloween fell on a Tuesday which is one of my days off now that I am part-time, and I didn’t want to adjust my schedule that week just for a Halloween party, but I wore my poodle skirt on Monday. It was kind of fun being the only one in costume that day, especially when the manager of the Intake Department was giving a couple new hires a tour of the office and introducing them to everyone. “That’s Allison, and that’s Gilbert there on the floor,” he said, “and by the way, that’s not a Halloween costume. That’s what she wears every day.” I still laugh about that thinking about it now. I suppose I did look goofy being the only one in costume, but I have always enjoyed doing goofy things now and then, and I love the fact that I work for a casual office that doesn’t require employees to abandon their quirkiness entirely in the name of being professional. Gilbert’s arthritis was acting up that day, so Mom and I decided not to put the costume on him, especially since he has to lift up his legs to get into part of it. This year, Gilbert’s stomach seemed upset so I didn’t even take him to work with me on Halloween, but I wore my poodle skirt again, and despite this being the third year I have worn it, I still got complements on it. At this point in my life’s journey, I don’t see anything wrong with having a little fun by wearing a poodle skirt, bobby socks and silly glasses to work once a year.

But participating in the office costume contest wasn’t the only excitement of that day. That day while standing for the office picture of everyone in their costumes, I met a relatively new co-worker who quickly became one of my closest friends. In fact, she is the friend I mentioned in the previous post who is health-conscious like me and advised my Secret Santa. Anyway, while standing for the picture, she said she had been dying to meet Gilbert and me but her desk is on the opposite side of the office and she felt shy about just approaching my desk. The more we talked, we realized we had a lot in common. We both adore our dogs, enjoy writing, and love discussing religion and politics. In fact, she indicated that she was new to the area and wanted to get involved in church and bible study but hadn’t figured out where she belonged yet, so I invited her to Elmbrook Church the following Sunday, and the young adult bible study I host at my house every Monday. So almost every Sunday, we sit together in church and then go to the Mission Café, a coffee shop run by volunteers after the service, and after everyone else has gone home on Monday nights, she will stick around a little longer to pet Gilbert and talk. I love having an “overlap friend” with whom I can discuss both faith and work. That day, we began a routine that is still going strong today. I e-mail her when I am clocking out for lunch, and we meet in the break room. Actually, to the extreme delight of both of us, soon I won’t have to e-mail her from across the room because on Friday, the boss told me that sometime this week, she is going to help me move my computer to the desk next to my friend because a lot of new people have been hired recently, and she wants to put one of these new people in this desk, and she thinks the new location will be quieter for me. I think the boss knows that we are especially good friends, but she knows we are also the kind of people who take our work seriously and are capable of striking the proper balance between work and socializing.

Speaking of which, toward the end of the day on Halloween, the boss turned around and asked me, “Have you checked your e-mail lately?” I hadn’t, so she encouraged me to check it right away. That’s how I found out I had been named Employee of the Month for November! She and the attorneys all agreed that I worked hard and took my work seriously. Gilbert was also named co-Employee of the Month. I never expected to get this honor given that I work part-time, so I was surprised and delighted with this news. As Employee of the month, I received a beautiful engraved glass plaque which I displayed on my desk all month, a fancy leather diploma folder with a certificate in it, an engraved lapel pin, and a $100 gift card. I also enjoyed an opportunity to get on a soapbox you could say, when the boss asked me to answer a few questions that would be displayed on a public board for all to read. One of the questions asked what I liked most about working for the firm, to which I answered the people, because everyone I have interacted with in the almost four years I have been with the firm has been extremely kind and supportive. For my favorite quote, I chose Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” The King James translation of this verse was part of a requiem I sang a few years ago in choir, and it was so beautiful I actually cried the first time I sang it, and ever since it has been my favorite verse. I debated choosing a more secular quote so as not to be offputting to people in the office who may not be Christians, but I believe in honesty, and this is my favorite verse. Besides, although Christians are supposed to openly share their faith, I have never been comfortable starting face-to-face conversations with people about faith unless I have really gotten to know them well, so it occurred to me that sharing this quote was a perfect opportunity to share my faith without the awkwardness of face-to-face conversation. The final question asked what advice I would give to other employees. The advice I gave was to try and always treat client’s with genuine compassion, but acknowleged that this was something I needed to work on sometimes as well. When I am tired, or the last appeal before lunch is very talkative and I just want to get off the phone and eat lunch, I have been guilty of viewing each appeal as just a task to knock off my list. But this job is incredibly rewarding when my compassion is genuine and a lonely client will occasionally tell me that speaking with me brightened their day.

On November 9, I had my first choir concert of the season. For this concert, our choir collaborated with five other church choirs in the community. Each choir sang two or three songs, and then we all combined for a finale song called “We are One.” My friend that I sit next to in choir commented one day that she imagines all of us rising up to heaven singing this song. I love this image. I have also privately thought about how cool it would be if we could perform this song for government bodies, because if our political leaders could apply the beautiful message of unity this song speaks of, we could heal a lot of what is wrong in this country. The first line of the song says, “when we walk, when we sleep, when we rise, we are one.” Later, the song says, “when we’re hurtin’ one another, that’s a way we hurt ourselves.” Right now, too many political leaders seem to believe they are doing the right thing by digging in and refusing to compromise or listen to people they disagree with, but this behavior hurts everyone, and I believe it will eventually hurt their careers and legacies as well.

Thanksgiving was a quiet day with just my parents, brother and me, but the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my sister rented a car and drove all the way from Washington D.C. where she spent Thanksgiving with her husband’s family, to our house with her dog and cat whom we got to petsit for while she and her husband went on a vacation to Antarctica. Both pets were adopted from a humane society in Durham, North Carolina where my sister used to volunteer. The dog Gwen, is a sweet little mutt who is about half Gilbert’s size, but what she lacked in size, she made up for with intimidation. Given how Gilbert goes crazy when he encounters other dogs on a walk, I envisioned Gilbert having the time of his life finally meeting a “cousin” to play with. Well, on the first day, my sister warned me that Gwen was food aggressive, so I should keep her out of the room while feeding Gilbert, and when he was done, I should pick up the bowl and put it in the sink right away. Well one day, I forgot to pick up Gilbert’s bowl, and Gwen thought she would go in and have a lick of it. Well, Gilbert didn’t appreciate this violation of his territory, and Gwen didn’t appreciate being shooed away from the food bowl. Mom and I rushed into the kitchen when we heard both dogs barking and snarling, to pick up the bowl, and I never forgot to pick up the bowl after that, but poor Gilbert was bitten on both ears during this fight and from then on tried to keep his distance from Gwen. One day when we got home from work, he even refused to come into the house because Gwen was standing too close to the door, and he let Gwen have his big fluffy bed at night while he slept on the floor. Gwen went home the Friday after Christmas, and just a few hours after she left, we had to drop Gilbert off at the Animal Hotel, a dog boarding kennel, because we went to Indiana to visit Granny in her assisted living facility, a trip that would have been difficult for Gilbert. When we brought Gilbert home from the Animal Motel New Year’s Eve and he realized Gwen was still gone, my dad said Gilbert actually smiled!

From a human standpoint, caring for Gwen was interesting because she is at least 15 years old, probably older. My sister and her husband adopted her in 2004, and the humane society estimated she was already two or three years old at that time. My mom vowed to pamper her because she did not want Gwen to pass away in our care. If this happened, we would always feel terrible, the once-in-a-lifetime vacation my sister and her husband planned would be tarnished, and we joked that if we couldn’t keep their dog alive, we might not be trusted with their children. This was a test! Gwen is still very vigorous, but she has a very sensitive stomach so she needed to go out frequently, and even then, she would often have accidents in the house. She is supposed to take a pill each morning for a bladder condition, but she doesn’t really like the taste of it, so we had to trick her into eating it every day by hiding it in sweet potatoes, and sometimes even then, she was not fooled and we would find her pill spit out on the floor. She doesn’t really like the taste of her prescription dog food either, and my sister warned us that she would sometimes go on a hunger strike and not eat. My sister had never tried it, but she told Mom that the vet said Gwen could have duck or venison. So the week after my sister left when Gwen hadn’t eaten for 36 hours, something that Mom would tell my sister and her husband was “unacceptable at Grandma’s house” she bought a duck breast, and even while it was still cooking on the stove, Gwen was drooling! From that day on, Mom would put a sliver of duck in each of her meals, just enough to season it, and Gwen cleaned her plate from that day forward! We had a good time laughing about this dog’s refined taste because we don’t eat duck. But then just when her stomach would settle down, her vertigo would flare up, and after falling down the stairs one day, she was afraid to climb stairs for a few days so my parents had to carry her upstairs at bedtime and then back downstairs each morning. But despite her special needs, she was a sweet dog that we enjoyed having. Kari the cat was my favorite though. It took her a few days to get comfortable with us because she was afraid of Gilbert, but once she realized Gilbert was harmless, she spent many hours purring in my lap and would follow me around just like Snickers used to do, melting my heart. The big difference between Kari and Snickers though is that Kari is bigger and heavier than Snickers ever was. Part of it could be her genetic make-up, but she also has a big appetite. While Snickers liked to nibble at her food, Kari would devour all her food right away. Because she was so much bigger, she was also not as light-footed as Snickers and would thus jump onto our laps with a thud. But my sister and her husband trained her better than we were ever able to train Snickers, so we didn’t have to guard food or water glasses left on the table.

At about 11:00 on the night of November 29, my mom met the older of my two brothers at the airport. He had flown home to visit from Portland, Oregon, which was particularly special because his job kept him so busy he had not come to Wisconsin since Thanksgiving of 2014. He couldn’t stay long either. He flew home the following Sunday afternoon at about the same time my sister was scheduled to fly back to New York to pack for their vacation. On Saturday, the brother who lives about an hour and a half away came home too. He could only stay a few hours because a snowstorm was in the forecast and he wanted to get home before dark. But we made the most of this rare and brief time that all four of us siblings were together with a game of Trivial Pursuit and a family photo. The Trivial Pursuit game made for a funny memory because I thought I being the baby of the family who doesn’t really bother keeping up with trivial facts and figures, would be the only one who didn’t know any answers. But it turned out, no one knew many answers. My parents had unknowingly bought the 1980s and 90s edition. The oldest brother knew more answers than the rest of us because he was born in 1981, but my parents said they were so busy during those years they weren’t paying attention to trivial stuff, and the rest of us were too young at the time to remember anything. But I made a few lucky educated guesses. For example, on a couple questions that required the name of a country, I guessed China which I remember learning was starting to dominate the world at that time, and was right! For Christmas though, my parents found a more current edition. I still didn’t know a lot of the answers, but definitely knew more than I did from the first edition.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were the strange part of the season for me. Christmas Eve was strange because we usually go to church on Christmas Eve, but this year, our church decided to hold some Christmas Eve services on Sunday December 23, and with family in town, Mom and I decided to go to the 11:00 Sunday service, which is actually the time we typically go to church every Sunday morning. It felt weird not going to church on Christmas Eve, but since the weather was beautiful, Mom, Gilbert and I did get to enjoy some special quiet time and fresh air with a short walk. In the evening, the rest of the family had carnitas which I didn’t have since they are made of pork, but I had a huge salad with leftover chicken from our dinner Saturday evening when my sister and her husband arrived. I was also delighted to find out that my sister’s husband made shrimp cocktail sauce using a healthier recipe, so I didn’t have to miss out on the family tradition of shrimp cocktail as part of Christmas Eve dinner. After dinner, we played Trivial Pursuit until past midnight although due to the late start, our family added a twist you won’t find in the official game rules. You were welcome to go sit in a comfortable chair in the living room and holler the answers from there when it was your turn to answer a question, which Dad and my sister insisted on doing. But once you officially fell asleep and didn’t answer when we hollered that it was your turn, you were eliminated. My sister was the first to go out this way. I almost lasted until the end, but when I was starting to doze off and say, “I don’t know,” to questions Mom was sure I knew if I thought about them, I bailed and went to bed. I think the game ended half an hour after that.

There are no children in our family right now, so opening presents on Christmas morning isn’t our highest priority. In fact, we didn’t open presents until 7:00 in the evening after a leisurely day of food and games. This was completely fine by me. In fact, I have been trying unsuccessfully for a couple years to convince my parents to try a Christmas without a gift exchange at all. I love giving people gifts, and of course, I appreciate gifts I receive. But every year when my siblings, parents and I ask each other what we want for Christmas, our first answer is always, “I don’t know. I don’t really need anything.” Sometimes after spending a couple days racking our brains, we are able to come up with ideas for each other. If not, we turn to gift cards. I have nothing against gift cards. In fact, I enjoy getting gift cards, but as the gift giver, I feel weird about just giving everyone gift cards which don’t look impressive under a tree, so every year there is always at least one person on my gift list who I have no idea what to give them, and so I end up buying them something I know they probably don’t really want just so they have something to open from me for Christmas. I just think that now that we are adults, and we are not materialistic kind of people, it just seems dumb to me that culture and tradition makes us feel obligated to give each other gifts on December 25, whether we need anything or not, and by turning our backs on this commercialism, the Christmas season could be a little more peaceful and less hectic for everyone, allowing more time to focus on what really matters.

In the past, our family could agree on a family game that we would start shortly after breakfast Christmas morning and play into the afternoon. But this year, my siblings wanted to play Settlers of Catan all afternoon Christmas Day, and unfortunately this game is not accessible for me. In the past when I was excluded from games, I would still just hang out with them and snack. But this year with snacking against my rules, I did not trust myself to be downstairs around all that temptation, especially without a game to keep me occupied. So with no games to play–at least until after we opened presents, at which time we did play another game of Trivial Pursuit–and with the traditional holiday treats no longer allowed, I didn’t know what to do with Christmas day. I almost felt like I understood the isolation people describe the first year they convert to a new religion and choose to abstain from the Christmas celebrations. It ended up being a very peaceful afternoon spent in my room listening to Christmas music and writing a letter to my seventh grade Social Studies teacher, one of my all-time favorite teachers whom I have kept in touch with over the years. He attended my high school and college graduation parties, and sends me a couple letters every year, but I am ashamed to admit I let life get away from me and hadn’t written him back in over three years. I am so glad I chose this activity because I could feel myself sliding into a pity party, but the further I got into this letter and focused my thoughts outward rather than inward, the more my mood lifted. By the time we sat down for Christmas dinner, I truly felt that sense of Christmas comfort and joy. Maybe I will embrace letter writing as a new Christmas day tradition. I could even get out my braillewriter and some cardstock and decorate each card with braille art. I bought a really fun book from the Perkins Institute a couple years ago that has a pattern for drawing a Christmas tree and a bell in braille.

But while Christmas Day itself was a little strange for me, the Christmas season was wonderful. This year in addition to my choir’s usual two Christmas concerts at churches in the community, we collaborated with several other choirs and the Wisconsin Philharmonic Orchestra for a concert at Carroll University, my alma mater. As much as I love singing with the Waukesha Choral Union, I really missed having opportunities to sing with a full symphony orchestra like I did in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. I had even thought about how some day, I might have to defect to the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus. The rehearsal schedule for this choir would be a lot more demanding, but I missed singing with an orchestra so much! Well, with this concert, the itch was scratched! It was magical and I felt like a kid again, especially when we sang Merry Christmas from Home Alone II. Every year since I started my job, Mom and I have had a tradition of attending the Milwaukee Symphony Holiday Pops concert. It is always a joyful concert that gets us both into the holiday spirit, and for me, it brings back happy memories from when I was in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir which used to perform at that very concert. As usual, the concert did not disappoint, and although it was a rainy dreary day, Mom and I walked out of the concert hall full of holiday cheer.

I was also invited to sing as part of a Christmas program for the Senior Living Center where my grandma lives. For this concert, I got to lead everyone in singing a few Christmas carols, and I had a solo singing Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, which happens to be one of my favorite carols. Between songs, some of the residents read bible verses from the Gospel of Luke, and one resident who writes poetry read a couple of beautiful poems about Christmas that she had written. All of the seniors enjoyed hearing me sing, especially my Grandma, and I felt uplifted realizing I had the opportunity to be a part of a program to brighten the season for seniors who may not be able to go to a concert outside this facility.

It is always a little sad to see the Christmas season end. Even now as I write this, Mom is taking the ornaments off of our tree, which has dried out to the point that needles fall off when you touch it. But after such a busy and wonderful season, we also feel ready to move on, eager to greet whatever 2019 throws our way.

Advertisements

When it Comes to my Health, I Cannot Serve Two Masters

Given how I mentioned in my last post that I have felt a spiritual calling to live a healthier lifestyle, I think it is only appropriate to quote a bible verse I have been thinking about a lot lately from Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” The verse goes on to say that you cannot serve God and money, but I think in this world, you could easily change these “masters” to good health, and culture. After all, by turning away from an unhealthy culture and taking care of the body God gave me, I feel I am honoring God.

For my fourteenth birthday, a friend from choir invited me to see a youth theater production of Joseph and the Amazing Techni-Colored Dream Coat, as she was in the cast. The performance was fantastic, and a wonderful way to celebrate a birthday. But the year I turned fourteen was my first attempt at trying to live healthier, in which I gave up chocolate, my biggest vice at the time. Before the show, I had angel food cake with strawberry frosting, which was fabulous, but not as addictive as chocolate and therefore I didn’t eat too much. After the show, this friend and her mom invited me, my parents and Grandma to her house. I don’t remember whether I told this friend that I wanted to give up chocolate and she just thought I would be willing to cheat on my birthday, or if I hadn’t told her at all. But at any rate, she had baked a chocolate birthday cake. I stood my ground and politely declined a piece of cake, but after the party, I was told that I should have had a piece to be polite as this friend went out of her way to do something special for me. For a long time after that, I felt terrible about how I had treated this friend, and eventually went back to eating chocolate because standing my ground in social situations was too emotionally difficult. This situation with my choir friend came back to mind in 2017 when I went over to my Jehovah’s Witness friend’s house for bible study. In conversation, I had casually told her I had Celiac Disease and had to eat gluten-free, but I had never really talked about my past wake-up calls, or how in the scariest wake-up call of all, the doctor thought I was pre-diabetic when I was only eighteen years old, so after that, I was very careful about how much sugar I ate. So this friend consulted closely with another Jehovah’s Witness friend whose son had to be strictly gluten free for medical reasons, and I could tell she was delighted as she presented me on a plate a big, beautiful slice of rhubarb cobbler she had made specially for me. Somehow, I couldn’t justify telling a little lie and just thanking her and asking to wrap it up and take it home to eat later, which in truth means giving it to Mom who also prefers to avoid gluten but does not have to worry about cross-contamination because she doesn’t have Celiac Disease. I have no qualms telling this little lie with other well-meaning friends who don’t understand Celiac Disease, but I really trust both her and the friend whose son is gluten free, so knew cross-contamination wasn’t something I would have to worry about eating the cobbler. And after all these friends did for us, including visiting me in the hospital and bringing food for my parents when I had my seizure in March 2017, and visiting my mom and bringing food for all of us after her shoulder surgery in April 2017, I knew I would feel like an absolute jerk if I didn’t eat the cobbler, so I did. But then I felt crushing guilt for caving and eating unhealthy after all the supposed wake-up calls I have had, and because I had done so well the past two years abstaining from family birthday cakes and pies Mom usually baked from scratch. I felt tremendous guilt the first couple celebrations, but when I explained my desire to abstain from high-sugar treats, Mom completely understood and was not offended because she had been there for me through all my wake-up calls. My Jehovah’s Witness friend did not know about my past wake-up calls, but with her degree of Christ-like compassion and selflessness—something I saw in all of the Jehovah’s Witnesses I met—I know she would have understood if I had explained my past struggles. I could have even been honest and told her that I was going to take the cobbler home to Mom.

But I don’t feel guilt and shame anymore, because in retrospect, I realize I wasn’t as committed to good health in 2017 as I thought I was anyway. While I made surface-level decisions to give up certain things like high-sugar desserts, and cheesy dishes like lasagna, I had not matured enough to go deeper and completely change my mind-set about eating. I didn’t realize then that while I had made small decisions that made me feel healthier, food was still my master in other areas. And as I mentioned in my last post, I have learned over the course of bible studies that perfection is not required, only progress. I know God forgives me for not making healthy choices in the past because I lacked the maturity at that time to change my mind-set. But now I feel ready to progress to a deeper level of maturity. It has also occurred to me that without the practice God had given me, starting in 2012 when I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease and had to smell wonderful things like pizza that I couldn’t have, I might not have even had the confidence to make the choice to resist gluten free birthday cake. And all those times I successfully resisted gluten free birthday cake prepared me for this holiday season when I felt so secure in the decision I felt called to make that I didn’t even have one paleo Christmas cookie or take one lick from the chocolate bowl, what used to be my favorite part of making the peanut clusters. And on Christmas day, when my sister requested steak and baked potatoes for dinner, I felt no shame in having my separate meal of a small slice of turkey breast meat, green beans and a giant salad. Life is really a series of stepping stones, and I believe God knows that.

For now, I still allow myself to eat one square of Ghirardelli 92% dark chocolate for lunch because one square only has 60 calories and hardly any sugar, and super-dark chocolate does have health benefits. But if this chocolate is not available, I will go without chocolate rather than eat chocolate with lower cacao content. In fact, yesterday, I noticed I only had four squares left, so I went to Target’s web site where I always re-order my chocolate because they have the best price. But for some reason, it is not able to be shipped right now. The only way to get it would be for Mom or Dad to take me to Target and pick it up. Next time Mom or Dad announce they will be going to Target anyway for household stuff, I will ask them to buy some chocolate. Until then, I can live without chocolate. It is a luxury, not something I need for sustenance, so asking Mom or Dad to make a special trip for it would be akin to idolizing food again. Dr. Fuhrman’s book Eat to Live makes a couple broad statements that chocolate should be avoided, but he does not say anything about super-dark chocolate, just that with chocolate comes sugar, and sugar is an addictive toxic substance. I can say from personal experience that sugar definitely is an addictive substance. I wasn’t aware of super-dark chocolate as a child, and probably would have spit it out in disgust if I had tried it as a child because my brain was so hooked on sugar. Many of the patients Dr. Fuhrman treats are morbidly obese, and would not be able to stand the bitter taste of 92% dark chocolate. But because I have pretty much abstained from refined sugar for years, I am no longer hooked on it and love the taste of super-dark chocolate. And because it is “the real thing”, I am perfectly satisfied with just one square.

Sorry, I really digressed there. Since it is impossible to serve two masters, I have confidently chosen to honor God by prioritizing my health, and I believe my true friends will understand. If that means eating my own thing at family gatherings or social events with friends, I will eat my healthy food proudly or when possible, eat at home beforehand and go to the event for the people, not the food. The week before Christmas, a co-worker who was relatively new to the company found out I was gluten free. She said she also has to be gluten-free, and offered me some cookies she had baked. Since I didn’t know her that well, I didn’t feel like explaining my health decision to her, so I accepted the cookies, thanked her and took them home. Mom and Dad loved them, even described the taste so I wouldn’t be backed into a corner if she asked specific questions about the taste of the cookies. But with co-workers I know well, I was honest and told them not to bring me any gluten-free baked goods because I planned to stay diligent even through Christmas. To my delight, everyone so far has been respectful and understanding. In fact, when I entered the office Secret Santa pool at the end of November, I wrote that dark chocolate was one of my favorite gifts to receive. After names were drawn, it occurred to me I hadn’t been thinking straight. What if they got me chocolate with only 60% cacao content, or just an obscene amount of chocolate that I wouldn’t be able to eat in a lifetime, that I would have to tactfully figure out what to do with. I would have been polite, smiled and said thank you, of course if these scenarios played out. But to my delight, my Secret Santa, who I found out consulted with a close friend who is also health conscious, didn’t give me any food at all. Insteat, I got a snow globe, and a wonderful smelling candle!

I am sure at some point, awkward moments will be inevitable, as my journey of a countercultural way of living in a culture that revolves around unhealthy food has only just begun. But with a successful first Christmas under my belt in which I lost five pounds while most Americans gained weight, combined with the opportunities God has given me to practice self-control since 2012, I am brimming with confidence and ready for the challenge. I will try not to over-explain things and just say a polite “no thanks” if offered unhealthy food. But when people ask questions, or make a comment like “oh come on, it’s a special occasion. You could cheat every once in awhile,” I have two approaches ready. If I know they are believers and religious talk won’t rub them the wrong way, I will share the feelings I have expressed in these last two blog posts. If they are not believers, I will tell them about this article. In this article, Dr. Fuhrman explains that addictive foods stimulate the same dopamine receptors in the brain that drugs and alcohol do for some people. Since unhealthy food is cheap, legal, and socially accepted, it is the “drug of choice” for many people. With just one bite of addictive foods, dopamine is released, and the brain wants more. It isn’t long before the brain adapts by actually reducing the number of dopamine receptors. With fewer dopamine receptors, the brain needs more and more of the addictive substance to get the desired reward. Therefore, in the same way that a recovering alcoholic or drug user cannot even have one drink or dose without risk of relapse, people who struggle with over-eating cannot have even one splurge without risk of relapse. Indeed, my craving for ever larger portions of certain foods, especially peanut butter, paleo treats and grain-based casseroles after work began with just one bite.

How fitting that I am publishing this post on New Year’s Day, isn’t it? I know parts of this post may have sounded like I was gloating because I started the most common new year’s resolution even before Christmas. Don’t feel bad about yourself reading about my success. It is a journey, and we all have unique struggles. Even my transition was rocky at first. As luck would have it, exactly one week after my shock on the scale which I talked about in the previous post was Thanksgiving, the holiday that is about feasting. I ate smaller portions that day than I ever have on Thanksgiving, but even at Thanksgiving, I felt like I would be “missing out” if I didn’t have mashed potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole with gluten free fried onions on top, and a slice of pumpkin pie. Before I realized how overweight I had become, I asked Mom to buy an expensive gluten free pie crust at a local bakery rather than make a crustless pie as she did two Thanksgivings ago. (Last Thanksgiving, my sister hosted Thanksgiving in New York City.) I felt I couldn’t bail on her and say no to pie when she had gone to such expense. But I think in retrospect, there could not have been a better time to start a new lifestyle than the holiday season. I found my footing in this new lifestyle by Christmas, and now that I successfully navigated Christmas just over a month after choosing this lifestyle, I think I can handle anything. If I can do this, anyone can. I think being Christian definitely gave me an advantage because I feel as though I am doing this with a higher purpose. But no matter what you believe, I think incredible freedom and joy could be found in just not having to think about your weight anymore or agonize about the next doctor visit. I have also found that I appreciate other facets of life more now that I am eating for sustenance rather than pleasure. For example, this year I sang in three choir concerts for the Christmas season, and by no longer allowing myself to eat for pleasure, my mind did not wander during the concert to what treat I would have afterwards, but instead appreciated more fully the beauty of the songs we were singing. You don’t have to be mastered by cultural norms. This freedom and deeper appreciation of life can be yours too if you make the decision to “just say no.” No, it isn’t easy, especially in the beginning when you actually go through withdrawal just like a drug addict. For me, withdrawal came in the form of a couple migraines that were more severe than usual. But I can tell you the rewards have already been worth the sacrifice.

Food is for Sustenance, Not for Pleasure

One Sunday in Catholic Christian Formation class—I think it was in eighth grade—we were discussing something, and the teacher cited 1 Corinthians 6 19-20: Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. I don’t think gluttony was specifically mentioned in this discussion, but in my head, I felt a jolt of guilt I had never experienced before. I knew that my diet which at the time revolved around cheese, chocolate, potatoes and the occasional fruit or vegetable was not healthy because it could eventually lead to diabetes, heart disease and a shortened life. But I had never considered that my body was a temple of the Holy Spirit, and that in eating the way I did, I was dishonoring God. Did this new realization and the guilt and shame it inspired motivate me to change my lifestyle that day? Unfortunately, no. In fact knowing me, I probably went home and had a brownie or bowl of ice cream to drown my sorrows.

Fortunately, I would learn through the course of more bible studies as I got older that God doesn’t expect perfection, only progress, and gradually, over the course of several wake-up calls, I have made gradual but steady progress toward living a healthier life that honors God. In seventh grade, I vowed to at least stop eating mindlessly at holiday gatherings. In eighth grade, although I still ate too much junk food, I vowed to at least eat the recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables each day, and in so doing, I actually came to discover that some vegetables I hated when I was little weren’t so gross after all. In my freshman year of college after a doctor visit revealed a slightly elevated Hemoglobin A1C level, a risk factor for diabetes, I became much more mindful about not overdoing it on sweets, and started walking on the treadmill religiously. After each of these changes, I would lose weight and be so proud of how slim and healthy I was for a time, but then gradually gain weight back. Then a couple years after college, I would discover Dr. Fuhrman who outlined research that showed that true health requires a radical change in the way western cultures eat. I knew that sugar and processed foods were harmful, but was surprised to learn that foods I thought were healthy like milk, meat, and even olive oil really aren’t healthy at all. He advocated a radical nutritarian diet comprised almost entirely of fruit and vegetables. Raw, unsalted nuts and seeds contain important nutrients, but because they are high in fat and calories, this diet limited them to one ounce a day. Unrefined whole grains were limited to one cup per day. Everything else—oil, salt, animal products and sugar—were to be completely avoided for six weeks. After six weeks, lean meat could be added back into the diet, but this doctor recommended that animal products comprise no more than 150 calories per day. After an embarrassing meeting with a job coach where I was told that my clothing wasn’t the most flattering—he didn’t say it but I knew that he was referring to the fact that my shirt was a little tight and caused my stomach to bulge grossly—I decided to challenge myself to follow Dr. Fuhrman’s strict program for six weeks. I started a blog about that experience, and the posts I have linked to were originally written for that blog. (A few weeks ago, I decided to import the posts I wrote at that time to this blog, but they were originally written for another blog I started called Allison the Nutritarian.) For some reason, I couldn’t find the inspiration to write religiously for this blog which is why there were only three posts. But I did adhere to this program strictly for six weeks, lost about 14 pounds just in time to start my first job, and was so proud of my slim figure and how much better my clothes fit!

Some principles of the nutritarian lifestyle, I have done a great job of continuing these past three years. Every day, I eat at least a cup of legumes. On workdays, they are in the form of bean salad which my awesome mother prepares for me. A couple of my coworkers who have been there since I started tease me because I have never changed things up and eaten anything other than bean salad for lunch, but I don’t mind. I don’t give it back to them, just smile when they complain about not feeling well after carrying in junk food from some restaurant, while I feel great! Every morning before work, my breakfast is a bowl of oatmeal, a banana and an apple. Every day, but especially after work, I enjoy having a giant salad, and a big scoop of whatever hot vegetables Mom cooks for dinner. On the days I don’t work, I usually have scrambled eggs with lots of vegetables mixed in, and a small pile of potatoes browned with just a little bit of oil for breakfast, and for lunch I have bean soup which I started making in the crockpot when I went part-time. But gradually as I went about the busyness of life, I let my discipline slide in other ways. I loved peanut butter: in fact, to my surprise when I was on the six-week program, it was peanut butter, not chocolate or cheese or meat that I craved most. (I could have had natural peanut butter, but since there were already nuts and seeds in the salad dressing I was eating at the time, I feared peanut butter would cause me to exceed the strict 1-ounce limit and I wouldn’t achieve the results I was hoping for.) So after the six week program, I switched from Jif peanut butter to natural peanut butter, and even bought a cool gadget that made stirring it a breeze. But I overlooked the importance of portion control when it comes to nuts and gradually stopped measuring and just gave myself a heaping scoop of it on each apple slice for breakfast or lunch each day. In addition, I would allow myself to eat a Larabar (made of dates and nuts), or a paleo muffin from Simple Mills (made of almond flour) for dessert each day. Simple Mills also makes delicious crackers out of almond flour, and after a long day of work, or if I just got the munchies on one of my days off, I would enjoy a handful of those too. In the first months following the six-week program, I strictly adhered to the one cup limit of grains or starchy compliments, so if I had oatmeal that morning, I would ask Mom to use pasta made out of lentils, or I would just make myself a can of vegetable soup instead of what the rest of the family was eating. (I know canned soup is high in sodium, but I didn’t have time to chop vegetables and make my own meals, and since the rest of my meals didn’t contain much salt, I was sure I wouldn’t exceed the recommended limit of 2,000MG a day by eating canned soup, and in terms of fat and calories, it was way healthier than going for a plate of meat and potatoes or pasta.)But I felt guilty asking Mom to modify the meal for me or eating canned soup when she had prepared a wonderful dinner, and when my job became stressful, I gave into cravings for something tastier than vegetables. By February 2017 when my job no longer caused such stress and anxiety because I had a new position and switched to part-time, I had become so entrenched in my old ways of eating that I never scaled back. All of these realizations caught up with me on November 15 when I went to the doctor for my annual physical and was shocked to hear from the physician’s assistant that I weighed 186 pounds! I prayed that when the doctor came in, she wouldn’t notice this number, but to my shame, she did, and told me to think about keeping a food diary to find out where the calories were coming from, and decrease the portions of high-calorie foods, and to vary my exercise routine. I told her I walk two miles a day on the treadmill which she said was great, but noted that since my muscles were accustomed to this workout, I wasn’t burning as many calories as someone new to treadmill workouts.

When the physician’s assistant escorted me back to the waiting room where my mom was waiting, she could tell I was upset, so I told her the news. As with every episode of weight gain in my life, Mom tried to comfort and encourage me. That day, she suggested I just try and decrease the portion of everything I eat by 25 percent. My diet was overall healthy, so I didn’t need to give anything up, just eat smaller portions. She also went online and read articles about rowing machines which she had recently heard provided an excellent full-body workout.

I knew the doctor and Mom meant well, but the first couple hours after coming home, these suggestions only made me feel more humiliated, sad and frustrated. I don’t want to keep a food diary! I actually tried to keep one after another episode of weight gain a few years earlier, using a website with a food database where I could select the foods and it would add up the calories. It was easy to track processed foods, but for homecooked food, it was a massive pain, as I had to search for EVERY SINGLE INDIVIDUAL INGREDIENT. After spending a whole morning searching for all the ingredients to calculate the calories of one home-made muffin I had for breakfast that day, I gave up on this endeavor. I enjoy going to the gym to swim sometimes, but I didn’t want to commit to going to the gym regularly to use a stupid rowing machine, especially since I cannot drive and thus would have to go at someone else’s convenience, and when it is convenient for them to take me, I might be at peak inspiration in my writing, or engrossed in a good book and not interested in dropping everything. But most of all, I didn’t want to cut portions. After a hard day of work, I don’t want to come home to a pitiful, tiny plate of food. I even found myself a little angry with God, asking why I couldn’t enjoy the pleasures of a heaping scoop of natural peanut butter on each apple slice, or a big plate of brown rice and a larabar after work when I know people who live on junk food and don’t walk on the treadmill at all, and yet are skinny as toothpicks!

And then the thought occurred to me, or perhaps God put the thought into my mind that my whole mind-set toward food was wrong. God created us to desire food because we need food for sustenance, and for most humans throughout history, gluttony was not something they had to worry about because they lived a subsistence lifestyle. In many parts of the world, people still live a subsistence lifestyle. But in modern Western society where food is so available, we no longer eat with a sustenance mind-set, but a pleasure mind-set. Treats, which the dictionary defines as “out of the ordinary” have become part of our everyday diet, and even though I thought I was living a healthy lifestyle, I too was still influenced by this culture. I also thought back to numerous bible studies that asked us to consider what idols we may have in our lives that distract us from God, and realized that maybe my idol was food. Just a couple weeks earlier when the church leadership challenged everyone to a day of fasting, I wanted to attempt the challenge, but chickened out. (For medical reasons, my parents advised me not to completely fast, but just eat very small meals). But I chickened out on the idea of even eating smaller meals, as I couldn’t imagine a day without things like peanut butter or my larabar. I will even confess that sometimes on Sunday mornings during church, my mind would wander to the wonderful lunch I was going to have when we got home. Every semester, our choir meets for an extra retreat on a Saturday from 10:00 to 3:00 for an extended rehearsal and a potluck lunch. While I love everything else about this choir, I hated these Saturdays. I have to bring my own cold lunch to these potlucks because of my Celiac Disease. Mom usually makes me tuna salad, and normally I actually really like tuna salad. But some of the food other people always bring to share would smell so good it made me feel sad that I couldn’t trust that it was gluten free and partake of it, and then angry that we have to have this stupid potluck. Why couldn’t we just get all of the rehearsing done in the morning and then let everyone go home so I could at least have something more delicious like soup, and an apple with a heaping scoop of peanut butter on each slice.

The title of Dr. Fuhrman’s signature book on living a nutritarian lifestyle is Eat to Live. I think he gave the book this title to imply that if we follow this nutritarian lifestyle, we will live longer and not fall victim to pre-mature death from preventable conditions like heart disease. But in a section where he gives tips on how to stick with this lifestyle long-term, he advises people not to make food the center of their lives, but spend more time pursuing other interests. If we are going to a social setting where unhealthy food will be served, we should eat before-hand, and make the event about the people, not the food. I think God also intended for us to eat to live because while there are many bible passages that mention people gathering together for food and fellowship, the fellowship is always emphasized more. So on the evening of November 15, I decided from that day forward, I would strive to live counterculturally. I would still exercise a little more: I have added some abdominal exercises three times a week using a bosu ball I bought back in January but hadn’t used much. But I wouldn’t exercise obsessively. I wasn’t going to keep a food diary or limit myself to tiny portions of unhealthy food. I was going to eliminate the foods I idolized altogether. I wasn’t going to give myself excuses to cheat such as a holiday or difficult day at work, and promise to eat healthy again tomorrow. I was just going to live a healthy lifestyle every day, no exceptions, by reminding myself every day that food is for sustenance, not for pleasure. Fortunately even before being shocked by the scale, I had acquired an appreciation for the flavors of vegetables. When my parents will saute a whole bunch of vegetables like zucchini, peppers, onions and mushrooms in just a little bit of olive oil, I don’t choke them down. I genuinely enjoy them. This already gave me an advantage over many of the patients Dr. Fuhrman works with whose brains are so addicted to the intense sweetness or saltiness of processed food that they have to acquire an appreciation for fresh fruit and vegetables. I have also come to see my Celiac Disease as a blessing in disguise, because it meant I already had a lot of practice smelling luscious foods like pizza and potluck dishes that I couldn’t have. I just had to eliminate a few foods like peanut butter and larabars that have some health benefits if eaten in moderation, but which I had come to idolize, go back to being strict about eating no more than one cup of grains or starches a day and only a small amount of lean meats like chicken or turkey, and “just say no” when tempted with unhealthy food, even if I knew the unhealthy food was gluten-free.

This post is getting long, so I will share more thoughts on how this lifestyle is going in the next post. But for now I will just say that although I have already been put to the test several times, overall, I am succeeding. While the “re-training” of family and friends has felt awkward at times, and although right now I still think about how much I miss treats, especially with all the Christmas temptation in the house, I know that once I get used to this lifestyle, this new lifestyle will offer an incredible sense of freedom, as I won’t have to fret about my weight or make new year’s resolutions like most Americans. I will just be able to live my life, and treat the annual physical exam as just a formality to check off the to-do list. I also look forward to the new opportunities God may throw my way as I focus less on the pleasures of food and more on things that truly matter.

Laws Cannot Change the World

On Thursday September 13, just one day after the anonymous op-ed was published in the New York Times, I was in my room filling out a bank form online when Mom knocked on my door. “Just a minute,” I said politely, but a little flustered. This was my second attempt filling out the form. The first time after working for nearly an hour, I lost everything I had entered when I spent too long on one page and my 15-minute web session expired and I had to start all over. I had almost reached where I was before, so had come too far to be interrupted now. “No hurry,” she said, “when you get to a good stopping spot, I just have something I want to show you.” I could tell by the tone of her voice that it must be something juicy. Mom and I have really bonded over politics this past year and a half. Speaking of which, in my next post I will update you on our experience with the League of Women Voters. Anyway, I finished the form quickly and hurried downstairs.

“What did you want to show me?” I asked eagerly. “Did we need another reason to despise Donald Trump”? she asked rhetorically. “No, why?” I asked. “Well listen to this!” she said. She had been listening to a podcast called Stay Tuned with Preet published by NPR. The podcast was hosted by Preet Bharara, a former attorney with the Justice Department. I don’t listen to this podcast on a regular basis simply because when Mom is listening to podcasts, I am often at work or up in my room writing, and I just enjoy listening to podcasts with her more than alone. But she will re-play podcasts for me that she found particularly interesting, and enjoys listening to them a second time herself. One week, he featured a cop from the New York Police Department. Just a couple weeks ago, he had Cyrus Habib, the lieutenant governor of Washington who also happens to be totally blind. But on September 13, while I am sure his guest was someone intelligent and interesting, the guest was overshadowed by the end of the podcast which Mom had cued up and ready to re-play for me. At the end of this podcast, Preet drew attention to an article in the New York Daily News written by Barbara Res, someone who used to work for Donald Trump when he was in real estate. The premise of the article, which I found and read in full after the podcast, was that no one is standing up to Trump. The writer of the op-ed says there are adults in the room, but what are they really doing to stop Donald Trump. Sure, there was the incident when the memo was removed from the president’s desk so he wouldn’t sign it, but why was the memo even created to begin with. She said Trump bullied people, told lies and behaved recklessly when she worked with him in real estate, but now the stakes are a lot higher. But what really shocked Preet, my mom and I was the beginning of the article where Res recounts one particular incident. An architectural Engineer was showing Trump photos of what the elevators in Trump tower would look like, and when Trump saw little dots next to the buttons for each floor on the elevator, he asked “what are those?” “Braille,” the engineer answered. “Get rid of it,” Trump reportedly said. “We can’t. It’s the law,” the engineer replied, to which Trump said, “No blind people are going to live in Trump Tower. Get rid of the (expletive) braille.”

 

I should not have been surprised that Donald Trump would say something like this. When he mocked the disabled reporter with Cerebral Palsy during the campaign, I knew he would not be a president who respected people with disabilities, and at the time, I remember fanticizing vengefully about how he is lucky I wasn’t the reporter interviewing him because if he mocked me, I would have made sure to purposely trip him with my cane, not to cause him serious harm, just enough to temporarily bruise his ego as footage of him tripping over my cane was broadcast all over the world. But after hearing this “get rid of the (expletive) braille” story, my shock and disgust over our president’s attitude toward people with disabilities became a lot more personal, and this vengeful fantacy returned. People who commented on the article did one even better, expressing the hope that Trump would someday be struck blind!

 

But in all seriousness, I have no desire to meet Donald Trump, and if I got close enough to trip Donald Trump with my cane, I wouldn’t actually do so. I also was taught never to wish misfortune on anyone, even our enemies. It is God’s job, not ours to judge and mete out justice. I think for me at least, these vengeful thoughts were a result of simply not knowing how to process the fact that the President of the United States has such disdain for people with disabilities. The dark humor of imagining Donald Trump tripping over my cane, and then fuming with anger as he watches it over and over on the news was comforting when I felt powerless and discouraged at the state of our society. But a few days later, one of my Jehovah’s Witness friends commented on my previous post, and although my post and her comment never mentioned Donald Trump, I sensed God speaking to me through this comment, and it was just the comfort and bit of perspective I needed.

 

In her comment, my friend mentioned she had recently done a study on the difference between laws and principles. The two points in her comment that stood out most for me and got me thinking about Donald Trump were when she points out that God gives us more principles than laws so we can exercise our conscience and demonstrate our love by wanting to obey from our heart, and that we have laws for a particular time or situation, but principles are timeless. As I have mentioned before, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not run for political office, or even vote. At this point in my life journey, I am not ready to go so far as to not vote, but with this comment, I can kind of understand their reasoning. I plan to vote because at this particular moment in history, I think if we can get some Democrats into office, we can steer this country in a slightly better direction as Democrats will be a check on Trump which I think would result in an improved standard of living for the poor, minorities and people with disabilities whom the bible commands us to treat with compassion. But I recognize that even if Democrats took control of the house, senate, and every state legislature in the country, we will still live in a broken world. While the conduct of Donald Trump and the alt-right movement is particularly egregious right now, in this current world where no one is without sin, I am well aware that Democrats have a history of immoral conduct, corruption and dishonesty as well. I also recognize that the hunger for power leads many candidates to take positions not because they believe them in their heart but because they are politically advantageous. Right now, Democrats advocate for helping immigrants seeking asylum, justice reform for minorities, gun control and coverage for people with pre-existing conditions to contrast themselves with the alt-right, and I would like to believe that most people are good, and really do hold these positions in their hearts. But in just my 28 years of life, I have seen candidates’ views change every election cycle, so I am not pinning all my hopes on any politician. But more importantly, this world will still be broken because the only power man-made government has is to make laws. Since anyone with a conscience recognizes that murder and sex trafficking are horrendous crimes, there are legal consequences if convicted of these crimes. But laws alone cannot change hearts, and thus murder and sex trafficking still occur regularly.

 

There are still unfortunately misconceptions about the capabilities of people with disabilities, exemplified by the high unemployment rate that persists for this segment of society. I have personally witnessed this kind of ignorance, and while it is annoying, it is forgivable, especially for blindness, a condition so rare many people have told me I am the first blind person they have ever met. But progress was made in 1990 with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act which included the requirement for braille on elevators. I think ultimately, the conscience, or at least the respect for the law on the part of the architectural engineer won out, and there is braille on the elevators of Trump tower. But the point is the strongest laws in the world are powerless when it comes to changing the hearts of people like Donald Trump who is not just ignorant of the capabilities of people with disabilities, but has outright disdain for people with disabilities. So even if our legislative bodies are filled with people possessing pure hearts who pass laws that reflect Godly principles, this world will still be broken as long as there are people who have no interest in living by these principles themselves. The bible commands us to respect the authority of earthly governments, so long as the nation’s laws don’t conflict with God’s laws. We need laws in this period of time to keep some degree of peace and order until Christ returns. But only when Christ returns and restores the world to one where everyone is willing to live by Godly principles will this broken world truly be healed. But due to many sightings of the world shall in passages regarding Christ’s return, I am confident this restoration will happen, and this thought is way more comforting than the image of Trump tripping over my cane.

Shall is a Mighty Word

As I mentioned back in February, I pursued a paralegal certificate from Milwaukee Area Technical College in 2014. In January when I started the program, I confess I was a little bit angry at God. After all, I had worked so hard, and pulled countless all-nighters to earn a Bachelors degree, and what did I have to show for it? Nothing, really. I was supposed to be done with school, earning money, living the dream on my own like my siblings and peers. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so angry because the courses were interesting, and one professor in particular was very karismatic. The coursework was also a piece of cake compared to the assignments I had for my bachelors degree. There was still a lot of boring reading, but the assignments were practical rather than theoretical, so it didn’t take me nearly as long to complete them as the assignments I had at Carroll University. And while the patience was bitter, the fruit was sweet, as I now have a job and an income.

I have heard seasoned Christian speakers say that sometimes God puts us through experiences for a purpose we don’t understand at the time, but which we will thank Him for later. Before 2014, and actually for most of 2014, messages like these seemed cliché and almost annoying. My attitude changed one Thursday evening Family Law class in September 2014. I have thought about this day often since 2014, but felt compelled to write about this experience as a tribute to the professor when I found out just a few days ago from a Facebook friend that this professor had passed away unexpectedly. This professor, who was also a practicing attorney, never came right out and said she was a Christian, maybe partly because it was a public college so she couldn’t espouse her religious views, but mostly because since I could tell she walked the walk by the way she treated all of us with compassion, patience and encouragement when we had difficulty with an assignment, and the way she spoke about her family and her law practice, she didn’t need to talk the talk, and my parents taught me that is how Christians should conduct themselves.

I don’t know why I remember this particular family law lecture so vividly, and as I write this, I am feeling compelled to ask the Facebook friend who informed me of the professor’s passing, and who has openly expressed her Christian faith if she remembers this lecture or if God was speaking specifically to me that day. That day, we were studying a section of the Wisconsin Statutes that lays out how child support requirements are calculated. One statement in the section reads, “The court shall determine a parent’s monthly income available for child support by adding together the parent’s annual gross income or, if applicable, the parent’s annual income modified for business expenses; the parent’s annual income imputed based on earning capacity; and the parent’s annual income imputed from assets, and dividing that total by 12.” After reading this statement, the professor paused and said, “Notice the word shall here. The statute doesn’t say the court may calculate child support this way, or that it could use this method or another method. By using the word shall, the statute is saying the court must use this method to determine child support.”

I had never really given the word shall much thought, and honestly didn’t give the word much thought that day either. I had seen it in the bible, legal documents, and Shakespeare-era literature when I was in school, but I rarely see it in modern literature, so I always just took it for granted as an antiquated word that is the equivalent of the word will today. But since then, whenever I encounter the word shall in a bible study, or in choral pieces, the words of which often come right from the bible, it is as if God, speaking through this professor’s voice in my head is saying to me, “notice the word shall here. The passage doesn’t say He may reign forever, but could change His mind. It says He shall reign forever.” I am sure to the professor, this was just another innocuous statement in a typical classroom lecture, but unbeknownst to her, this statement has caused me to sing pieces like Handel’s Messiah, and approach the bible with a deeper level of conviction and joy.

I looked up both shall and will in the dictionary, and their meanings and usages are very similar. But I love the sharper, more assertive sound of the word shall. I know that the bible was originally written in Greek and Hebrew, but in an apologetics class I take through my church, the teacher has talked extensively on the care and intentionality that has gone into translating the Bible so I believe use of the word shall was intentional and inspired by God. Our legal system is far from perfect, and I read an interesting article recently about how this country’s founders held views that would deem them unelectable, at least among conservative Christian voters today. Our founders also believed strongly in the separation of church and state which we strive to uphold today. Nonetheless, it is interesting to read legal documents as they are often still written with an antiquated, old testament sort of language as if the people responsible for drafting legal documents respect the beautiful, authoritative way in which God speaks and see value in writing laws with this same vibe whether they believe in God or not.

The teacher in my apologetics class will often say that when speaking to people who are not yet believers, we must be careful not to use circular reasoning. In other words, if someone who is not yet a believer asks why we believe what we believe, we need to have more to offer than “because it is in the bible, and the bible is accurate because it says so.” But I think God recognizes that even for lifelong Christians like myself, who became discouraged, disillusioned and angry when I couldn’t find a job, speakers pointing to bible passages just weren’t doing it for me. So I wonder if God directed me to pursue a paralegal certificate not only because it would lead me to a job, but because it would deepen my faith when a professor would point out how even a man-made institution like our legal system reveres, and draws inspiration from God using beautiful, mighty authoritative words like shall.

March for Our Lives

Second Semester of my freshman year of college, I took Introduction to Newswriting and Reporting, the first real class toward my Journalism emphasis. One Thursday, and ironically it was the day the professor invited reporters from a local television news station to speak to our class on broadcast journalism, a troubled student in the class got into an argument with the professor. I don’t remember the nature of the argument, but the argument occurred just before the reporters arrived, and students who sat near this student later said the student was stewing with anger the whole class. As the class ended and everyone was packing up to leave, another student heard the troubled student mutter under his/her breath something like, “this is how things like Virginia Tech happen.” Shocked to hear this veiled threat, the other student said, “What did you say?” to which the troubled student responded “yeah, that’s how I feel!” The student reported this comment to the professor who called police and campus security. Formal charges were not filed against this troubled student because police determined the student wasn’t planning to act on this threat, but the student was banned from campus and I never saw this person again. Nonetheless, we were all shook up by the incident when our class met again the following Monday, and the professor devoted that Monday class to just talking about the incident and allowing us to process everything. That day, the professor who usually leaves the classroom door open shut the door as a precaution and campus security stood outside the door in the event this troubled student did show up. But one innocent student was running late to class that day, and unaware of how shook up we all were, he frantically and loudly burst through the door. I will never forget how my heart went into my throat for a split second thinking, “Oh my God, this is it! Do I have my affairs in order?” Apparently I was not alone in this moment of terror because a second later, when the rest of the class saw who it was, there was a kind of relieved laughter. I am telling this story because while I am blessed that I have not been the victim of gun violence or lost a close friend or loved one to gun violence, at least not yet, I realized with this incident how perilous life is. I was well aware of incidents like Virginia Tech and Columbine, but those people were far away. With this incident, I became more keenly aware of the fact that there is the potential for gun violence to happen anywhere, to anyone including me.

 

About nine years later, I would come home from work to hear about the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Like most Americans, I was prepared for the usual news pattern. First thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families, then an investigation into the background of the shooter and how he accessed guns, then some calls for stricter gun control laws that would ultimately be drowned out by accusations of infringement on people’s second amendment rights, or that these people were politicizing tragedy and it is too soon to talk about gun control, and then the news would move on and the tragedy would be forgotten by most Americans until the next shooting occurred. But this time was different. There were the usual politicians sending their thoughts and prayers, and there was the usual investigation into the shooter’s background, but when gun rights activists started to say it was too soon to talk about gun control, this time students “called BS” with one student who would become a leader of the #MarchForOurLives movement saying that him and his classmates were whispering about the need for stricter gun control laws while huddled in a closet as the shooter was still on a rampage. My mom and I were impressed by the poise and passion from these student leaders, and then horrified when gun rights fanatics started saying vile things about these students. Ever since the shocking day of Donald Trump’s election, Mom and I have wanted to become more involved and stand up for kindness in a society that seems to have gone crazy, but we weren’t sure how to go about this. We thought about going to the women’s march the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, but it was very cold outside, I was exhausted as I still worked full-time back then, and we were a little apprehensive that the march might be a little too militant for us as women talked of wearing “pussy hats.” But when we heard that students were planning marches nationwide to campaign for sensible gun legislation, Mom announced she would like to go. At first I felt apprehensive about the idea of going to this type of event as well. Partly, I was a little scared that gun rights fanatics might stage a counter protest and things could get violent as they did in Charlottesville. But mostly I felt a little awkward, similar to the way I felt once in high school when invited to a ceremony dedicating a garden created in memory of a blind child who lost her life to a brain tumor similar to the one I survived as a baby. I felt a connection with this child even though I did not know her, and was heartbroken for her family. But because I didn’t know her personally, I felt awkward, fearing I would say the wrong thing if I came face-to-face with her grieving family. In the end, I was glad I attended as just the presence and empathy from so many people meant a lot to the family, and thus I learned that I didn’t need to fear saying the wrong thing, and didn’t even need to say anything at all because just being present and showing that you care, whether or not you are personally impacted by a tragedy means a lot. And just as with gun violence, cancer can strike anyone. I have never lost anyone close to me to cancer, but that could change someday. It could even strike me again. There is still so much science does not know about what causes this terrible disease and why some are able to beat the disease and others are not. Growing up, my parents often talked about the golden rule of doing unto others as you would want done to you, and I think if I were personally impacted by a tragedy, just the presence of people letting me know they care would mean a lot to me as well. Although the #marchForOurLives event and the ceremony dedicating the memorial garden were different in nature, I realized that my initial feelings toward attending both events were similar, and at both events, just being present and showing you cared was all that mattered.

 

So on Thursday March 22, Mom bought poster-size paper to make signs, and we set out for the march early Saturday morning. The sign I carried said, “Parkland students, we stand behind you! We can end gun violence now!” Mom’s sign said “Protect people not guns!” We arrived outside the courthouse about 9:00 that morning, and although the air was a little brisk (I think the temperature was in the 40s), the atmosphere was warm and friendly. Right away when we arrived, people thanked us for coming, and several people complemented our signs. People were also handing out free signs to people who didn’t have one. Mom described some of the other signs to me. One said “fire Ryan, not guns.” This was in reference to speaker of the house Paul Ryan who represents a district near Milwaukee and who has taken money from the NRA. An avid hunter brought a sign stating that he was a hunter but supported sensible gun legislation. But I think my favorite was a sign with a picture of a gun but instead of bullets coming out of the barrel of the gun, it showed flowers. While there is nothing wrong with displaying signs with political messages, I liked the idea of a sign that simply depicted a general need for peace. The event began with speeches from local students, where it occurred to me that most of the speakers had never personally felt the impact of gun violence, but still cared deeply about the issue and wanted to make the world a better place by speaking out. And then with students leading the way, we walked slowly from the Milwaukee County courthouse to a nearby park. Mom warned me in the car on the way to the rally that we may be heckled, but to my relief, we didn’t see a single counter protestor, and I think this shows that the vast majority of people are kind and reasonable. The kind of people that say vile things about the Parkland students are a very loud, but very small minority, and ultimately good will prevail.

 

Most of the time, we just walked quietly carrying our signs, but every now and then, someone up front would start a chant like, “hey-hey! Ho-ho! The NRA has got to go!” or “What do we want? Safe schools! When do we want it? Now!” These chants would gradually spread through the crowd until soon, everyone was chanting for awhile. I have seen footage of protestors chanting on television, and while I always admired the passion of these protestors and their commitment to their causes, I used to be skeptical about how productive this chanting really was in actually changing anything. That day as I chanted with the crowd, it occurred to me that while it is true that marching and chanting alone cannot change anything, the sense of unity and excitement that chanting stirs up is really about energizing and inspiring people, so that when the march is over, the marchers can return to the fight for their causes with renewed passion and determination. In the five months since this march, I have not been politically active regarding the specific issue of gun violence because I am not sure what I could do that students all over the country aren’t doing way better than I ever could. But I did leave the march with a new sense of hope for our society, as this fellowship with such a large group of kind people who just want sensible political leadership was encouraging.

 

I waited five months to write about this protest partly because on March 24, I felt the need to write about my seizure. But I also waited because I couldn’t decide how I wanted to approach this topic. But in these months, I have decided that while I feel for the victims of gun violence and recognize that it could happen anywhere to anyone, I feel called to devote my energy toward filling political offices with people of good character, because if we could have good leaders who were honest and compassionate, and focused on doing what is right, not just what big donors want them to do, we could take positive steps forward on many issues, including gun control. While Democrats are the party in favor of gun control right now, and Republicans seem to be the people getting money from the NRA, I would vote for a Republican with good character which would naturally lead to him/her advocating for policies that showed compassion for all people, and this would naturally lead to sensible gun legislation.

 

This past Tuesday, Wisconsin held our midterm primary election. The most significant race was the Democratic primary for our next governor. My goal to vote for leaders based on good character has been more difficult than I anticipated because when I went to Politifact to fact-check the candidates, there was no shining star who was completely honest about everything. In fact, it seemed as though most statements were rated false or mostly false. Seasoned adults have always said politicians are all liars, but I guess I am still a little young and naïve because I was surprised and discouraged to discover that these adults were right. I read detailed articles about some of these false statements but eventually became overwhelmed and just resorted to asking which issue I felt was most pressing. I decided education funding was most essential for our state’s future, so I voted for Tony Evers who is currently the State Superintendant of Schools as he would have the most experience in the education realm. I need to think some more about how I will approach voting in the future, and will definitely keep you updated when I have ideas. But I still believe that electing leaders of good character is our best hope of moving our society in a better direction. To that end, Mom and I have joined the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for voting rights. We have been invited to an official orientation meeting for new members next Sunday afternoon, where we will learn how we can get involved. I am really looking forward to this meeting because the March for Our Lives showed me that many people are looking for leaders of good character, but many of them may not have voted in 2016 due to disillusionment with the choice of candidates. I suppose in this current system, it is unrealistic to hope for candidates who never lie, but the outcry against the egregious conduct of Donald Trump and his supporters, and the diversity of candidates running all across the country gives me hope. All over the country, we are hearing about amazing people, a record number of whom are women or minorities, are answering the call to run and try to move the country in a better direction. If Mom and I can play a small part in ensuring that voting rights are protected to make it a little easier for millions of people who want better leadership to vote, we might really make a positive difference. I will keep you up-to-date on how I decide to become involved in this effort as well.

It’s a Pumpkin!

When I was in first grade, the regular classroom teacher introduced the class to the concepts of photosynthesis and how plants grow with a fun little song about a pumpkin. “It starts out as a seed, and grows into a sprout. Then it becomes a plant, and grows into a flower. From the flower (clap clap) from the flower (clap clap) da-da-da it’s a pumpkin!” This was a fun little song that I enjoyed, but my vision teacher who pulled me out of class for one-on-one lessons a couple hours a week did one even better. In February or March of that year, she brought in a big plastic garden container, dirt and a packet of pumpkin seeds and we started growing pumpkins in a sunny window in the resource room. Every other day, I dutifully watered the seeds, and I think Mr. Rick (also known as Zero the Hero because he dressed up as a zero to celebrate every tenth day of school for the kindergartners) one of the janitors checked on the pumpkins over the weekend and watered them over spring break. It was so exciting to come to school each day and feel the slow but steady progress of the pumpkins from tiny sprouts you could barely feel to tall plants with full leaves. And then my vision teacher said it was time to transition them to living outdoors. She explained how the plants needed to be acclimated to living outdoors, so I should put them outside for one hour the first day, two hours the next and so on, and in a couple weeks, they would be ready to be planted in the ground. Life was hectic back then and a few times, we forgot about the plants and left them outside too long, so they may have been in a weakened state, but Mom resuscitated them and a couple weeks later, we thought they were healthy enough to plant outside. I remember Mom and one of my brothers going outside to till up a spot for my pumpkins and they got the pumpkins planted in the ground for me. But once outside, they did not survive long.

Ever since then, I have longed to plant a seed, and see that seed all the way through to harvest. But I have never had success achieving this dream. Over the years, I have tried growing all kinds of things. In sixth grade, I took a few of the million “helicopter seeds” that fall on our patio each year around the end of May and put them in cups of dirt with some water. Some of them sprouted and grew a few tiny leaves but then died. In eighth grade, I tried growing an herb garden using a seed kit, but this garden didn’t last long either. In the summer of 2013 while waiting for a job, Mom tilled up an area of the garden where we planted pumpkin seeds directly into the ground. These pumpkins came closer than the pumpkins from first grade, producing big, beautiful flowers, but for some reason, those flowers did not become pumpkins. In 2016 and 2017, now that I had my own money, I told myself both years “this will be the year for gardening success.” I bought fancy plastic containers with drainage holes, organic soil made from composted food, organic seeds from Everwilde Farms, a company that touted high germination rates and used special packaging to protect the seeds and preserve them so they could be stored for more than one year. I dutifully went outside and checked my plants each day and watered them if they seemed dry. I tried growing lettuce, basil, chamomile, borrage and marigolds. Although Mom had to help me because I had planted the tiny basil seeds way too close together causing them to sprout as a massive indistinguishable blob, once Mom helped me untangle and thin out this blob, my basil grew pretty tall, but the leaves never got big and beautiful enough to be worthy of caprese salad. Everything else would grow a little and then stop.

Some of my gardening failure is due to factors outside my control. My parents suspect that the reason that a lot of things we have tried to grow in the ground have not done well is because the soil in our area is full of clay. Mom and Dad will go out and manually till the soil for a small garden of tomatoes, zucchini and peppers and some flowers close to the house. We have dreamed of growing pumpkins, or a cash crop of something like garlic as we have an acre of open land, but none of us have the strength to manually till that much land, and hiring a rodotiller would be expensive. And of course, as advanced as humans have become when it comes to technology and gardening techniques, we are no different than the farmers going back to ancient times in that we are at the mercy of weather. Even if you do everything right, all it takes is one storm, unexpected frost, or stretch of scorching temperatures to devastate a garden. But it didn’t help that I often would either forget to water the plants, or water them too well as gardening advice on how much to water plants has always seemed ambiguous to me. I have probably always been getting something wrong when it comes to fertilizer, and soil type too, but in these areas too, articles from garden experts are so complicated. I actually find it easier to care for my dog than a garden, as Gilbert stays underfoot, practically tripping me until I feed him, so I couldn’t possibly forget, and I can tell by the change in sound as he drinks from his water bowl when it is getting low. Wisconsin also has a very short growing season so for plants to grow well, you almost have to start them indoors in February or March, but since there is still a thick blanket of snow or ice on the ground at that time, I never remember to start the seeds early enough. And so because I didn’t start the seeds early enough and don’t know what I am doing when it comes to feeding and watering them, I get so discouraged at the lack of progress with my plants by the end of July or early August that I just give up on them.

This year, I just wasn’t in the gardening spirit. For one thing, my allergies have been especially bad this year and I have been plagued by frequent sinus headaches. For another, this year, it seemed like we went straight from winter to summer, and the sudden jump from 40 degree temperatures to 80 degrees and humid wreaked further havoc on my body, so I had no motivation to garden. On June 14, I decided we might as well plant the remaining lettuce, basil, chamomile and marigold seeds from last year just for the heck of it, even though my heart was not in it. Mom said she would help me space the seeds out so they would have more room to grow this year. But on June 14, in addition to being another hot day, a couple of bees were pestering me, buzzing too close for comfort, and those who know me well know that buzzing bugs totally freak me out and send me into a panic. I helped Mom a little bit by loosening the soil in a couple of the containers with a hoe, but those bees were getting me too nervous to focus on the delicate operation of planting tiny seeds, and I felt another headache coming on from the heat. So I told Mom she could do whatever she wanted with my seeds this year. I didn’t care. Mom planted all of my remaining seeds and even some lavender I had bought and forgot about, but she recently told me they have not done well this year. I think this is due to the especially hot summer we have had this year. Mom’s zucchini which usually produces more big beautiful fruit than we know what to do with hasn’t done well either. In Mom’s case, I know she will not despair and try growing zucchini again next year. We have a wonderful farmers market so we will not have to do without. Before I was born, my family lived in a small town called Eau Claire, about four hours north of where we live now. In Eau Claire, they had a neighbor who was an expert gardener, and even hosted a radio show about gardening. He would share his harvest with my family, but even he said he had gardening failures as gardening is an inexact science. But he would laugh and take it in stride saying, “the most fun part of gardening is seeing what will go wrong this year!” When Mom has gardening failures, she finds encouragement in these neighbor’s words. But as for me, I have decided that maybe I should stop trying to be someone I am not. There are many things I am good at like singing, writing essays and reading braille. Maybe in the restoration, when I imagine bees will no longer sting and the oppressive weather exacerbated by climate change will be no more, I will try again. But in this life, I will focus on what I am good at, and leave gardening to Mom and the farmers market.