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.


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.

A Re-kindled Appreciation for Part-time Work

A few weeks ago, the law firm where I work hired another person to exclusively file appeals for case managers, the same position as me. “Don’t worry,” my boss said cheerfully, “you will still be busy.” She was right. Social Security goes through busy periods where it seems like we are inundated with denial letters for a time and then things slow down. This summer has been a busy time and even with this new person filing appeals, my schedule was booked two weeks out. But then unexpectedly on July 6, my cohort needed to be transferred to another department and was no longer able to file appeals. This person’s schedule for the upcoming week was booked solid. I could hear desperation in my boss’s voice when she asked if I would like to get extra hours next week. I didn’t really want the extra hours, especially in mid summer, as my vision for the upcoming week was to be spending Tuesday and Thursday reading a braille book on the porch swing, or swimming in the wonderful outdoor swimming pool at the gym my parents and I belong to. But my conscience would have been nagging me had I not helped out, and it never hurts to build up some good karma, as you never know when you might need someone to help you someday. So I told my boss I would come in Tuesday and Thursday the following week to cover this person’s appeals. I am glad I did this good deed, and I confess I liked the larger paycheck too. But after that week, I have a re-kindled appreciation for how blessed I am to be able to work part-time. As I left for the weekend on July 6, I realized that my Friday the 13th bad luck had come a week early, but Friday the 13th itself, I remembered and appreciated anew, the euphoria I felt back on February 17, 2017 when I chose to go part-time.

If there is one thing I have learned since 2012, it is that work-life balance is critical. In 2012 after graduating with my Bachelor’s degree from Carroll University, I thought that time at home with no school year or job start date on the horizon would be the most awesome thing in the world. And for a few months when I was having migraines all the time and frequent doctor appointments where I was ultimately diagnosed with Celiac Disease, it was. I needed time to recover without any stress, and Mom pointed out that an employer would not have been happy with me needing to take so much time off for doctor appointments so soon after being hired. But by mid October, I was starting to feel restless and by the summer of 2013, I was so restless I was beginning to lose my mind. I felt as though I existed, but wasn’t really alive. Some of this time was spent productively sharpening daily living skills I never had time to practice when I was busy with school such as doing dishes and laundry, but mostly, I felt as though I was breathing, eating, and keeping myself entertained by reading, watching TV, posting silly stuff on Facebook and taking walks, but my life didn’t really have a purpose. When I started working full-time, I was on top of the world at first. My days now had a purpose to them, helping people get approved for Social Security disability. I was getting a steady paycheck so I didn’t have to ask permission to use Mom or Dad’s credit card, and I was making new friends with wonderful coworkers. During these years of waiting, I knew I should have cherished the quiet lunches with Mom, but I was getting tired of the mundane conversations about something I had read, or Mom’s accomplishments around the house that morning. (That year, she devoted a lot of time to house projects like re-painting rooms and cleaning out the basement.) So it was refreshing to get a job and expand my world, meeting new people and hearing about their lives and their children. But after working full-time for almost two years in a job that gave me tremendous anxiety, I started longing for better work-life balance. With my normal part-time schedule, I have found that perfect balance. Although I love my family, I enjoy breaking away from them and heading off to work Monday, Wednesday and Friday to contribute to the larger world, earn money and enjoy fellowship with my coworkers in the break room. But on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I enjoy sleeping in, going to bible study during the school year, writing, reading a book on the porch swing, swimming, making soup in the slow cooker, and quiet lunches at home with Mom and sometimes Dad if he does not have to make any sales calls and is close to home.

I have heard wise, life-long Christians say there are no coincidences, and I knew what they meant and came to believe it myself on February 19, 2017. There could not have been a more perfect sermon that weekend in church to celebrate the freedom I felt after choosing to work part-time. The sermon was based on a chapter from the book of Joshua when Joshua leads the Israelites across the Jordan River into the promise land. The pastor explained that the Jordan is a deep, fierce river, so it took tremendous faith for the Israelites to trust that God would lead them safely across it, but they needed to take this risk in order to take new ground, enter the promise land and experience the richer life God had planned for them. The pastor then explained how this lesson can be applied to our own lives. If God is calling us to make a change in our lives that may seem risky such as starting a new career or moving to a new place, we should trust God just like the Israelites did and take the risk because He is calling us to take new ground and experience an even richer life than we had before.

And then two weeks ago on July 15, the Sunday after doing my good deed at work, the sermon was given by a guest speaker named Walter Harvey. Walter Harvey is the pastor of an urban church in the Sherman Park neighborhood which made national news about two years ago when the shooting of an African-American man by a police officer sparked riots. Walter Harvey’s church was actively involved in cleaning up after the riots, and helping the community heal. Walter Harvey is also working on initiatives to help bring people out of poverty and to encourage people to go into urban ministry. But Walter Harvey did not spend the entire sermon time just touting these initiatives. He did a beautiful job applying these initiatives to the larger context of God’s vision for His church. He likened the church to a bus, and this bus included visionary people, relational people, ministry-minded people and administrative people. Everyone was important but everyone needed to focus on their unique role. The visionaries needed to drive the bus because they would stay laser-focused on where the bus should be going. Ministry-minded people are important, but if they drove the bus, everyone would be kept so busy that the bus would never fulfill its vision. Relational people are important but if they drive the bus, the bus will be stopping at McDonald’s all the time because relational people like to keep everyone happy. The administrative people work closely with the visionary supporting the visionary’s ambition but letting them know when the money and resources aren’t available yet to fully realize the visionary’s ambition. After this sermon on the car ride home, Mom and I had a lot of fun discussing how this applied to our family. I see myself as a visionary, with crazy, sometimes overly ambitious, unrealistic ideas always in my head. Mom is ministry-minded and relational, always keeping busy and trying to keep everyone happy, while Dad is the administrative person keeping the wild ambitions of myself and sometimes Mom, in check. But what really struck a chord with me was when in leading up to the sbus metaphor, the pastor stated that we need to have a vision, something that fills us with passion because without this vision, we lose hope. That’s when I remembered anew the biggest reason for my euphoria the weekend of February 17-19, 2017. After working full-time for almost two years, I was starting to lose hope. I understood first-hand what adults meant when they said they felt trapped in their job. People said I could go back to school or take online classes, but after work, I was too drained for that. I thought about volunteering with Audio & Braille Literacy enhancement again because I enjoyed that internship so much, or volunteering with Just Between Us magazine, a magazine published out of the basement of our church and distributed to women in Christian ministry all over the world because I longed to be in the Journalism field again and felt I would enjoy supporting this magazine. But these volunteer opportunities were only available on week days. I thought about quitting my job altogether, but knew this would be foolish now that I needed to pay for health insurance. Since I have a disability, I knew I would qualify for government assistance or state health insurance once my savings ran out, but I didn’t want to depend on state assistance, or endure the demoralizing process of applying for jobs and proving myself capable to a new employer. And although having a lot of money has never been my life goal, I had come to like having my own money that I could spend on something frivolous now and then without having to get permission from anyone. The thought of having to go backwards in life and get permission from Mom and Dad again if I wanted to treat myself was also demoralizing. So with a feeling of defeat, I had almost resigned myself to joining the ranks of adults living in the could’ve, would’ve should’ve done things differently, but now it’s too late camp, a camp I had sworn to myself as a child I would never join. But as I sat at my desk on February 17, 2017 pondering my practically empty appeal schedule the upcoming week, it occurred to me that it wasn’t too late. If the boss let me work part-time, I could continue earning enough money to pay health insurance, still have a little bit of spending money to enjoy, and have the time and energy to pursue other dreams. On February 19 as I listened to the sermon encouraging us to take new ground, I didn’t yet know what my future would look like, but I knew that on Friday I had taken a risk so that I could take new ground, and the fact that two days later I still felt giddy with a sense of relief, peace and hope confirmed I had made the right decision. After working part-time almost a year and a half now, I haven’t made any major moves yet such as going back to school or starting my own business. I haven’t even signed up to volunteer anywhere. This is partly due to the fact that shortly after going part-time, there were some challenges such as my seizure, Mom’s shoulder surgery, and my grandma needing extra assistance after her car accident requiring Mom to go to Indiana frequently. Given these challenges, I thought it would be wise not to commit to anything new, especially anything that required my parents to drive me around. But I also felt like I was just so burnt out that I just needed to take a step back and rest, at least for the summer. In 2012/2013, I complained a little about spending part of my day on dishes and laundry, not because these skills weren’t important to learn—I knew they were—but I wanted to find my higher purpose in life first, as in the job that would eventually allow me to live on my own first, and then with my eyes on a specific prize, I would feel more motivated to get comfortable handling dishes and laundry on my own. But last summer, I actually enjoyed doing dishes and laundry not only because I was helping Mom who physically couldn’t do these things for a couple months after her surgery, but also because after the anxiety of being a case manager, I truly appreciated the contentment that can come from mundane, tedious chores. Case management required the full attention of my mind and on many days sapped my soul, but while loading and unloading dishes or folding laundry, I could let my mind wander, or sing along to a favorite album while I worked which revitalized my soul. For this reason, I also came to enjoy chopping vegetables and making soup in the crock-pot. In the fall, I joined choir once again and offered to host a bible study group for young adults on Monday nights, and through this group I have made wonderful friends. This year, my goal is to make good on my promise to do more earthly good and add one hour of volunteering a week as a braille mentor for a blind child, something I am uniquely qualified for but have been apprehensive about stepping into because I don’t have a lot of experience with kids. As for a larger vision for my life, my experience studying with my Jehovah’s Witness friends and the amazing book I read about the restoration have inspired ideas on the “why” for my life, which I will talk about in a post in the near future, but I don’t know the “what” of this vision, as in what kind of career or business this vision could lead to. But what I do know is that the week before Walter Harvey’s sermon when I tasted what it is like to work full-time again, there was no time for thinking about visions. It seemed like I came home, ate dinner, fell asleep on the couch, went to bed and then it was time to go back to work again. I wasn’t depressed that week because I knew it was just one week and I was doing a good deed for my coworkers, but Walter Harvey reminded me why I could not go back to working full-time every week, at least not in this job which is not my calling. My choice to work part-time was about far more than just having time for bible study, swimming or making soup in the slow cooker, although I enjoy those things. My choice to work part-time was about creating a work-life balance that restored hope simply by restoring calm to my life because when you feel like for five days in a row all you have time for is work, and getting ready for the next day of work, there is no time to even think about what the higher purpose for your life might be. And when the “what” for my life is revealed, by working part-time, I will have the time and energy to pursue it.

Thoughts about my Future Dog

Last Friday June 22 should have been an idyllic evening. Mom, Dad and I all had uneventful workdays and enjoyed a delicious dinner of shrimp marinated in teriyaki sauce. Them Mom took Dad to pick up his car that had some routine maintenance done, but when he got back, he offered to take me for a walk. I jumped at the chance as it was one of those perfect, cool summer evenings Wisconsinites wait all year for, and sometimes Mom is tired and does not feel like going for a walk, and Dad has so much work to do he cannot take me for a walk and I have to go on the treadmill. Unfortunately, as I have written about in the past, our street is a quiet country road, but my parents don’t think it is a safe road for me to walk by myself. There is a spot known as the hairpin curve where cars cannot see pedestrians and pedestrians cannot see the cars until they are about to run you over. Mom and Dad have almost been run over at other spots too because drivers don’t expect pedestrians and go flying down our street not even watching out for pedestrians.

Gilbert has had a little bit of arthritis since 2014, but in the past year and a half or so, it has become more pronounced. In the early days of his arthritis, he had no problem walking the two miles to Calhoun and back with Dad and me, but last spring, he would start limping on these walks, so we started taking him on shorter walks. This summer, we have developed a routine where Dad and I walk to Calhoun, and then as we are turning around to come back home, Dad calls Mom on his cell phone, and she brings Gilbert and meets up with us. It has been a win-win for everyone. Dad wants to get back to his work rather than have to go back out to take Gilbert and me for another shorter walk, and Mom prefers shorter walks as she is tired by evening. But last Friday night as Dad and I were walking, I was inexplicably overwhelmed by a mixture of sadness and frustration. “This is such a quiet street. I don’t understand why you and Mom won’t let me walk it by myself,” I said. Forgetting about the stories both my parents have told of almost being run over, and a time when Mom had to practically throw Gilbert and me into the ditch, I explained how I could hold Gilbert’s leash and walk him as I would a pet dog, and shoreline the grass on the left side of the street with my cane to eliminate the danger of Gilbert drifting to the middle of the street without me noticing as has happened in the past. Dad sighed in frustration himself and said, “we live just a short drive from tons of nice park trails where you wouldn’t have to worry about cars, but you never want to get in the car and use them.” He has a point. I will go to one of these trails on a Saturday every now and then, but it is so stupid and frustrating to me that we have to drive somewhere to take a walk. To me, it takes something that should be simple and turns it into a chore. In addition, while it is true that I don’t have to worry about cars on these trails, the trails aren’t completely stress free either. A lot of people walk their pet dogs on these trails, and while Gilbert is an amazing guide dog in all other situations, he has always had a bad habit of going bonkers when he sees other dogs, something I have never figured out how to break him of completely. And then you’ve got crazy bikers who think the park trail is a racetrack and come flying out of the middle of nowhere, and not wanting to slow down, they shout “left!” and there is this split second where neither my parents or I are sure if they want me to move to the left or if they want to go around me and want me to move to the middle. At the last moment, we always figure out what to do and I have never been run over by a biker, but that split second of panic is aggravating. Bikers are allowed on the trails we use, but these trails are meant to be strolling trails, or trails where little children can safely ride their bikes. If these crazy bikers want a trail where they can fly, my parents said there are hundreds of miles of bike trails in the country for this, so my dad and I have decided we will not feel intimidated by these bikers this year when we use the trails. If a biker tries to intimidate us, we have decided we will stay our course and force them to slow down. If I could walk right out the door of the house and be on a walking trail, I would be more than happy to put up with the annoyances of other dogs and these crazy bikers. The joy of being able to go for a walk independently would be worth it. But the way I look at it is since for the time being, neither the park trail nor our street are completely peaceful and neither allow me to feel independent as my parents have to drive me to the trail, I prefer to just walk on our street.

When Mom met up with us and I explained how restless I was feeling, she thought maybe I had become too much of a homebody and just needed a vacation. No, a crappy night’s sleep, a gross hotel breakfast, and a complete loss of independence was definitely not the solution I was going for. I love our quiet, off-the-beaten-track neighborhood, and until that night, the fact that there were no sidewalks or safe trails for me to walk independently had been in the mildly inconvenient and annoying category of my mind. But last Friday night, by the time we got home, I was so enraged by the inability to travel independently where we live that I was in tears. And then it occurred to me that this was the weekend the program that trained Gilbert was holding Jog for Guide Dogs, the fundraiser where I met Gilbert ten years before. Remembering some psychology from the communication courses I took in college, it occurred to me that what I expressed outwardly as anger over where we lived was actually just sadness as it struck me how old Gilbert is now. He will likely need to retire soon. He can still go to work with me, but his stiffness is very apparent now and he cannot walk to Calhoun and back with Dad and me like he used to. And his retirement and inevitable passing will also mark the end of an era. Ten years ago, I was young and full of dreams and ambitions. I couldn’t be as independent as I had hoped because the college dorms were just too stressful for both of us, and little did we know that the sidewalks we had practiced so well would be torn up by construction equipment the first week of school. So Mom or Dad would drive me to school, but Gilbert and I still cruised all over campus independently. I felt especially blessed to have him on a frequently used route through a tunnel full of twists and turns that went from the technology center where I had several night classes and study sessions, to the main campus center which included the dining room. I would get hopelessly lost when I tried to do this route with my cane, but he breezed through this tunnel with such grace. I am at peace with my current job, and it is a perfect job for Gilbert’s age as there is hardly any walking. Every Spring since 2015, the Guide Dog trainer (a different person than the one who trained Gilbert) gives me a call to discuss how Gilbert and I are doing. This trainer is extremely compassionate and back in 2015, he told me that while he knew of a guide dog that worked until he was fourteen years old, the average retirement age for guide dogs is nine years old. He wanted me to be emotionally prepared for the reality that Gilbert will eventually need to retire. But he sees nothing wrong with me continuing to work Gilbert even with his arthritis since my job doesn’t require him to walk a lot. Both last year and this year, we considered retiring Gilbert and training with a new guide dog, but the trainer thought, understandably that my current job would not provide enough physical activity for a young dog. This year, I mentioned that my parents were eventually planning to move to a smaller, lower-maintenance house and one thing they were going to prioritize when deciding where to move was a safe location where I could step out the door and go for a walk independently. In my mind, I was thinking along the lines of a long peaceful nature path, but the dog trainer hinted that ideally I should try to find an urban setting where I can learn routes to restaurants or stores. I didn’t tell the dog trainer this, but after we hung up from this call, it occurred to me that I didn’t really want to live in an urban setting. There are very few restaurants I trust given my Celiac Disease, and while I suppose I should know how to get to a grocery store in the event of an emergency, when my parents are no longer able to handle grocery shopping, I plan to join the modern age and order all my groceries online and have them delivered. Why struggle trying to maneuver heavy grocery bags and a dog when even sighted people are increasingly having their groceries delivered? I felt safe crossing the streets of my college campus because my college campus was in a smaller city where the streets weren’t terribly busy, and the streets had those beeping crossing lights for the blind. But given that I grew up in a suburban setting, busier streets, especially if they don’t have the beeping lights, are just too intimidating for me. So my parents and I have come to the decision that when they are no longer able to drive me to work, there is no reason for me to navigate bus routes and busy streets in the age of Uber and Lyft. I do concede that I will need to live a little closer to an urban center than where we live now because where we live now is so off-the-beaten-track that cab service costs a fortune. I researched the cost of having a cab take me to work and back in January 2016 when my mom had to go to New York for a few weeks to help my sister who had just had surgery, and found out that I would essentially have to pay two days worth of my wages for every day of cab service. Fortunately, my dad was able to adjust his schedule with another co-worker and drive me to work in the morning, and my brother who lived with us at that time was able to pick me up in the afternoon. So I recognize that eventually, I will have to live closer to the city where cab fare is more reasonable, but I still want a quiet neighborhood where you can open the windows in the spring and hear birds, not a constant flow of cars and trucks. But last Friday, it occurred to me that the consequence of these lifestyle choices might be that once Gilbert retires, I may never hold the handle of a guide dog harness again.

It costs over $20,000 to train a guide dog. Since no one would be able to afford a guide dog on his/her own, guide dog programs, with the help of generous donors, provide guide dogs to blind people free of charge. But since these schools are accountable to donors, they all require verification that the person would really utilize a guide dog. Each program enquires about a candidate’s lifestyle, daily routine, and living situation and requires that candidates are independent and confident cane users before they will match them with a guide dog. Gilbert had a productive career through 2014. He was with me as I pursued my Bachelor’s Degree at Carroll University, did an internship at the Milwaukee Public Library which also had whindy hallways I would have gotten lost in without him, and earned my Paralegal certificate at a technical college in downtown Milwaukee. By 2015 when I landed the job at the law firm where I still work today, he was showing signs of arthritis so the timing was perfect. My parents thought I might have been too humble when talking to the guide dog trainer, but I can see where the program is coming from. Since so much time and expense goes into training a guide dog, it makes sense to prioritize the blind person who lives independently and would benefit from a dog to navigate bus routes and cross busy streets to get to work each day over the person who gets driven to work at a very small office that is easy to navigate with my cane when Gilbert is sick, and would mostly use the dog for recreational walks on park trails, church and maybe the occasional outing with family and friends. I am the kind of person who has delayed emotional reactions to some things. I am the kind of person who doesn’t cry during a funeral, but a couple hours after it has ended. So when the dog trainer indicated back in May that I wouldn’t be eligible to train with a new guide dog until my lifestyle changed and I lived in a more urban setting, I was fine with this reality. But it wasn’t until June 22 that the sad implications of this hit me full-force.

Another realization that has struck me recently is that I get the impression that my parents want a break from pets. When Snickers passed away, my parents both indicated they did not want another cat, at least not for awhile. Mom wanted a break from washing cat hair off of every counter and table, and wanted to find out if some of our allergies cleared up by no longer having cat dander in the house. I was fine with this as Snickers was one-of-a-kind and it would be hard for any new kitten to measure up. And I still had Gilbert who was especially sweet after Snickers’ passing. I think he sensed I was sad, and maybe he was sad too because they had a lot of fun times together. But Snickers’ passing brought into sharper focus the realization that Gilbert is getting old too. Dad loved our German Shepherd, Indy who passed away when I was in seventh grade, but after she passed away, he wanted our next dog to be my guide dog. I was sad about having to wait so long for a dog, and my sister and I even made the mistake of convincing Mom and Dad to adopt a dog who had behavior problems we couldn’t handle, so we had to return him to the Humane Society. I was devastated for a few days but soon came to terms with it, and I still had Snickers and my brother’s dog Mojo whom we got to dogsit often. My dad has talked half-heartedly about maybe getting a German Shepherd when he retires, but he has also indicated that he wants a break from the responsibility of a dog so we can all travel without having to make arrangements for a dog. They are fully supportive of me working with another guide dog because the dog is my responsibility, and he is not just a frivolous pet but a dog with a job who would travel with us. I have had pets in my life since I was four years old, but it occurred to me that once Gilbert passes away, if the program determines that my lifestyle cannot justify the need for a guide dog, there will be no furry companions in my life.

Even if Gilbert is the only guide dog I ever work with, I had made up my mind that when we move to the house with the walking trail, I would adopt an easy-to-care-for pet dog to hit the trail with, his leash in my left hand and my cane in my right hand. My parents have talked about getting a house with a walk-in basement where I could have even more independence and privacy, so I could confine this dog to my basement area and he wouldn’t bother my parents at all. It wouldn’t be the same as holding a guide dog harness, but at least I would have more companionship on my walks than just a white stick. But on June 22, it struck me how much I wanted to walk park trails independently with a guide dog. That Friday night, Mom and I decided that rather than having her meet up with us Mom would go for a walk with Gilbert and me earlier in the day to the hairpin curve and back every day the weather permitted (Neither Gilbert or I do well when it is over 90 degrees). She would walk behind us and just alert me if Gilbert was drifting to the middle of the road, or rescue us if a car came upon us suddenly. It was wonderful to walk this route together again. The first half of the walk, he does pretty well, keeping to the left side of the road most of the time. On the second half of the walk, Mom and I speculate that he is either tired and loses focus, or just wants to get home so I have to correct him more the second half. But on this first peaceful walk last Saturday morning, I had a revelation.

A few days earlier, I was snooping around Facebook curious about what some old friends were up to as I had gone off the grid for awhile. When I was working full-time, I was so burnt out I didn’t feel like being online after work, and then I heard about all the political nastiness going on. But that day like I said, curiosity got the best of me and I discovered that one of my friends had trained her own guide dog, and she joined another blind friend of mine to start an owner-trained service dog academy to support people in training their own service dog. That day I was impressed, but shrugged it off as something beyond my abilities. But last Saturday, it occurred to me that before dismissing it as something I couldn’t do, I should give it some consideration.

I have been reading articles about owner-trained service dogs all week and plan to read a lot more and talk to people I know who will be honest with me. I recognize that choosing to train your own service dog is not a decision to make lightly. There are advantages and disadvantages to training your own service dog. The biggest advantage is that you can choose the training method that works best for you. When I received Gilbert, I had never heard of clicker training or the concept of positive re-enforcement. Gilbert was trained using the “choke collar.” If he obeyed my commands, I was taught to praise him, but if he disobeyed or got distracted by another dog, I was supposed to administer a correction. The dog trainer showed me how if the collar was put on right, it doesn’t choke the dog. He just feels a pinch when you administer a correction. Even when the dog trainer was still working with us, Gilbert got distracted by other dogs a couple times. The trainer would tell me to correct him and I honestly thought I was but Gilbert wouldn’t be fazed by it. So one time, the trainer took the leash from me and gave Gilbert a correction himself. I could tell by the sound that his correction had more strength behind it than I was capable of. I tried to be more forceful but my corrections were never as effective as the corrections administered by the dog trainer, and a couple times my dad. I would love to have my next dog trained according to the positive re-enforcement philosophy, not only because dogs trained this way are happier since they obey out of true eagerness to please rather than out of fear of punishment, but also because this style sounds more compatible with my personality and physical ability.

In traditional training programs, the dogs have passed through many hands before they are matched with a blind person. First they are matched with a puppy raiser, and sometimes are passed around to multiple puppy raisers their first year of life to expose them to many experiences. Then they spend a few months with the guide dog trainer learning formal harness commands, and then they are matched with a blind person. So just when a dog has forged a bond with someone, they are sent to a new person. For this reason I was not surprised when I learned that it can take a year or longer for a guide dog team to really feel as though they are bonded. I realize that formal training programs have to operate this way as these programs would be drastically limited in the number of people they could serve if the guide dog trainer had to raise every puppy himself, but if an owner raised her own guide dog and then just consulted with a trainer when it came time for formal harness training, think how bonded the dog and handler would already be before even putting on the harness for the first time. I would imagine that with this lifelong bond, the guide dog team would have smoother training sessions and the dog would be ready to work at an earlier age. Also although guide dog programs have procedures and reporting requirements for puppy raisers to try and ensure consistency and continuity, it is impossible for the program or the new blind handler to know everything regarding how the puppy was raised. So for example, if the handler is walking through a store one day and the dog won’t go down an aisle where there are small children, a person with a guide dog from a program will not know why the dog is acting this way, but a blind person who raised the dog from puppyhood would remember a specific negative experience involving children and this may make it easier to overcome said issue. On a similar note, by raising your own service dog, the handler gets to set the rules most important to them and make sure they are enforced from the start. For example, if it is very important to a handler that the dog doesn’t get overly excited when he sees other dogs, the handler can enforce right from the start that the dog must wait for handler’s permission before socializing with other dogs. But if handlers in the dog’s past allowed the dog to do things you don’t want them to do, it is a lot more difficult to re-train the dog when he is older.

The final and perhaps most obvious advantage to owner training that I have thought about is that the owner gets to find their own dog. The most common breed used for guide dog work seems to be the Labrador Retriever. Poodles and German Shepherds are also used for guide dog work but there seem to be fewer of these dogs. Most guide dog handlers I know have Labrador Retrievers. I absolutely love Labs. Gilbert’s happy nature and sweet personality makes me smile every day, and as long as he doesn’t spot another dog, especially a potential playmate his size, he has been a fabulous guide dog. Labs are also great for public relations as their friendly disposition means they are adored by almost everyone. But this can also be a disadvantage. In 2008 when I received Gilbert, the program encouraged, and I fully supported the idea of being friendly by letting people pet Gilbert as long as I wasn’t holding the handle of the harness and actually walking with him. I have no regrets about allowing this as Gilbert helped break the ice when starting college and meeting new people, which helped me quickly make new friends. Gilbert could sense who some of my closest friends were and would occasionally get distracted if he saw them while we were walking, but for the most part, this friendliness did not interfere with his work. But now that I am more mature and in the professional world, I would like to experience working with a Poodle or German Shepherd (ideally a Poodle) as these breeds have a less friendly, more aloof disposition that would draw less attention from the public, thus making it easier for both of us to stay focused on getting where we need to be. If I applied for a dog through a program, I could indicate that I would like a Poodle or German Shepherd if possible, but the program has the final say in the breed of dog I receive.

The biggest disadvantage to owner training is that you are largely on your own. Of course in my case, I could receive some support from the owner-trained service dog academy my blind friends started. If I enrolled in this program, I would need to go to Madison once a month for classes, but the rest of the month it would be up to me to make sure the dog was socialized and trained properly. In the early days of training, this would be no different than socializing a typical pet puppy. The challenge will come when I am ready to train the puppy in places where dogs aren’t typically allowed. Puppies-in-training don’t have the same legal protection as fully-trained service dogs and even puppy raisers who volunteer with recognized training programs are advised to ask permission before bringing the puppy into an establishment where dogs aren’t typically allowed. But owner-trainers can have more difficulty securing this permission because they don’t have the rapport of a recognized program behind them. If getting permission from businesses proved too difficult, I could always just use the guide dog only for outdoor walks and places like the Farmers Market where dogs are allowed. But ideally, I would like to be able to have my guide dog at work, church and the occasional outing with family or friends.

Another important disadvantage to consider with owner-training is the financial aspect. In addition to the cost of acquiring a dog from a reputable breeder, I would also have to purchase my own guide dog harness and any other necessary training equipment because all programs I am aware of require that the harness the program provided be returned when the dog retires. In addition, at least for the first dog I owner-train, I would have to pay for the assistance of a freelance guide dog trainer since I have never really trained a pet dog, let alone a service dog from the ground up. If I worked with the Academy my friends started, they would assist me in fundraising, but this would still be a huge financial investment that I would need to pray about and consider carefully.

Training a service dog from the ground up would also require discipline and a huge investment of time. Unfortunately, when college life got demanding, I fell off the wagon in regard to daily obedience sessions with Gilbert. Just like with a New Year’s Resolution, I would resolve to do obedience every day and would be great for a couple weeks, but then would fall off the wagon again. I will never know if some of Gilbert’s minor behavioral problems, even his craziness when he sees other dogs could have been lessened had I been more diligent with this discipline. Now I am doing an obedience session right before Gilbert and I set out for our walk to the hairpin curve. But now that I am ten years wiser than I was when I started working Gilbert, I regret not being more diligent with obedience sessions. So regardless of who trains my next dog, I WILL be diligent from day one and do obedience every day before I allow myself to eat breakfast. But a guide dog trained by a program has already been molded into a well-behaved dog when the blind handler receives him. Thus the daily obedience sessions can be short as the purpose is simply to remind an already good dog that you are the leader. But if I trained my own dog, the training sessions would need to be longer until he is mature and well-behaved, and falling off the wagon of daily discipline with a puppy would have catastrophic consequences. Also, while I worked him in all kinds of weather during college, now that Gilbert has arthritis which is worse in the winter, I don’t have to go out for walks in nasty weather which is fine by me. But for young dogs, daily exercise is crucial. So if I took the leap into owner-training, I would have to just tell myself that even if it is below zero outside, that’s just too bad. I have to suck it up and walk my dog. If I was able to get a dog trained by a program, I could at least take the dog to indoor places for exercise like the mall since he would already be a full-fledged service dog.

Finally, perhaps the biggest disadvantage I have read about with owner-training is that after pouring your heart into training the dog, the dog may need to be “washed out” meaning that the owner realizes the dog is not able to be a service dog, due to a health issue like hip dysplasia or a temperament issue that was missed when the owner selected the dog. Owners often enlist the help of a behaviorist, and they carefully research breeders to reduce the risk of such problems, but still there are no garuntees. The requirements for my dog would be less stringent than a traditional guide dog since the dog wouldn’t have to cross streets or handle stressful urban situations like public transportation, and if the dog didn’t work out as a service dog, he would still be kept as a pet. But it would be emotionally difficult to come to terms with the fact that after all the time and money you invested in training him, he couldn’t be a service dog after all.

Some people say I overthink things, but in a matter as important as this, I think this is a good thing. I plan to do a lot more thinking and talking to people I know who are both for and against owner-training, like a judge listening to both sides of a legal argument. Before making a final decision, I would also volunteer at an animal shelter to build confidence handling other dogs. Any puppy I adopt, especially one I want to train to be my guide dog, would be my responsibility. My goal if I chose to owner-train would be to only ask my parents for help when it came to driving me to the vet or obedience school. But I realize that since I really only have experience handling well-behaved dogs, handling a puppy at this point would be quite a culture shock that I honestly don’t feel ready for at this point. I need to make sure I can confidently handle being nipped, jumped on, peed on, you name It, by other dogs, and would appreciate feedback from staff on things I could do better, feedback I could apply to a puppy. And if the six month commitment is a horrible experience for me, then I will know for sure that I am not equipped for the daunting task of owner-training and will try for a dog trained by a program or just adopt an old, well-behaved trail buddy. Actually even if I do get a program trained dog, I still might volunteer at the animal shelter as gaining confidence never hurt anyone even if the dog will already be well behaved. I might even ask the staff if I can bring the guide dog to work with me so that he would have regular opportunities to practice ignoring all kinds of dogs.I will keep you readers updated on my thought process and what I ultimately choose to do. But if anyone stumbles on this blog who has owner-trained a service dog, feel free to share your thoughts.

Singing in College and Beyond

Looking back, it’s ironic to realize that when I was a child, I couldn’t wait to be an adult. I loved the mature, full sound of adult choirs when we collaborated with them. But now that I am an adult, I long for the children’s choir and school choir days again. I know I ended my last entry touting the fact that unlike athletic activities which can only be enjoyed in youth, I can sing in choir my whole life. This is wonderful and true, and it is inspiring to sit with retired people who still enjoy singing. My best friend in the choir, a retired music teacher can hit the high notes better than I can. But I was a little sad to discover when I got to college that performing concerts in adult choirs isn’t quite as exciting as I had imagined. I think a large reason for this is that after high school, the number of people who choose to continue singing in college and adulthood drops dramatically. While peer pressure has negative implications in many arenas, one area where peer pressure may actually be good in my opinion is when friends convince friends to join choir with them. In high school, choir is popular and fun, and even students who know they wouldn’t want to actually study music in college, and don’t sing walking down the hallway like I did, still join choir because it is fun. I think this is why in our school concerts, there were always hundreds of singers, enough to have a well-balanced tenor and bass section, and have a wonderfully full sound onstage even if our voices weren’t as mature as adult voices. But after high school, these same students understandably focus on their own majors and the demands of adult life so that only music majors, and a few people like me that just have a deep passion for singing continue to sing in choir. In one sense, this was what I always wanted. In school I used to get so frustrated by students who didn’t take singing seriously and were disruptive. This was less of a problem in high school as music wasn’t a requirement so everyone in the choir seemed to have some passion for music. But even in high school, there was some disruptive behavior. I was a little sad when the choir director told us she was going to enter us into a more intensive singing competition, but decided we weren’t mature enough for it. So in one sense it is wonderful to be an adult singer where only people with a deep passion for music make time for choir. But this also means that choirs are smaller, and although even in childhood, most choir singers were girls, the disparity between men and women becomes even more pronounced in adulthood, so that in some concerts, we may only have two tenors and two basses, so the thirty or so of us soppranoes have to be cognizant that we are not drowning them out.


Audiences are smaller too. In both the children’s choir and the school choir, it was a full house for every performance. At Carroll University, there is a long-standing tradition called Christmas at Carroll where the choirs and orchestra would collaborate for a beautiful Christmas program. This program is a favorite of music alumni and even the larger community, so the house would be full for that performance. But for the other performances I could tell by the sound of the applause after each song that there were a lot of empty seats. I realize that in childhood, the majority of the audience was proud parents and grandparents. Even parents who weren’t fond of choral music would attend just to support their sons and daughters. But in college, many of the choir members came from other states so their parents were unable to come, and in the adult choir I sing with now, for many of the choir members their parents are no longer living. Unlike Donald Trump, I don’t really care about the size of the audience. That’s not why I sing. I would perform with the choir to an empty auditorium because I just love the emotional experience of singing itself. Furthermore, the audience, just like the adult choir, may be small, but the senior citizens and occasional community members that do attend truly enjoy the music and the applause is boisterous. But there was just something exciting about singing for a full house that was exciting, and I admit sometimes I am nostalgic for those days.


After the incredibly magical holiday pops concert with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, I wanted to sing with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus in college. But Mom convinced me that I should sing in the college choir. Carroll University’s music program isn’t as large as it once was as the university has focused more on fields like nursing, but they still have an excellent music program, and Mom pointed out that while I had my whole life to sing with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus if I wanted to, I could only be in college choir for this relatively brief time of my life. I am glad I listened to Mom’s wisdom because looking back, I realize that commuting to downtown Milwaukee for rehearsals would have added a lot more stress to an already stressful time trying to adjust to college and working with Gilbert. Furthermore, I made some wonderful friends and fond memories through the college choir experience. I actually only sang with the college choir for two semesters because the classes I needed for my Journalism major often conflicted with choir rehearsal times and since I wasn’t a music major, even I had to make the courses necessary for my degree the priority.


First semester of freshman year, I sang in a women’s choir that rehearsed from 4:00 to 6:00 Tuesdays and Thursdays. In hindsight, I wish I would have foregone choir that first semester because I had so much going on that semester adjusting to college and Gilbert that I was exhausted by 4:00 and actually started dreading rehearsals. It didn’t help that since I had 3 hours between an English class and choir, Mom would often take me home for lunch and to start reading some textbook chapters to me that weren’t accessible yet, and since I was already home, I hated having to go back to school. That semester we spent the bulk of rehearsal time learning Vivaldi’s Gloria, but I didn’t really appreciate the beauty of this piece until 2014 when I had the chance to sing it again in the Waukesha Choral Union. But at that time, after singing in choir every semester since fifth grade, I could not imagine doing school without choir. One nice thing about this choir though was that the director was someone I knew. In my high school, the choral program was staffed by two choir directors. The head director worked full-time at the school and directed both the freshmen girls choir and Chamber Choir so I had her all four years of high school. The other director divided her time between the concert choir at my high school, and the other high school in our district. But she would direct us occasionally when we collaborated with concert choir for a performance, and I would say hi to her in the hallway. This director also taught the women’s choir at Carroll University. In a world where everything and everyone else was new, it was comforting to hear a familiar voice and have a connection to high school. But after singing four years in Chamber choir with that wonderful mix of male and female voices, I missed that full sound and decided that if I ever sang in college choir another semester, I would join Concert Choir.


I think I could have sang in concert choir second semester as I don’t think I had class at noon when this choir rehearsed. But after the craziness of first semester, I decided to take a semester off. Then sophomore year, I wanted to sing, but I wanted to try something different too. As beautiful as challenging classical music is, I wanted to try singing a different style of music that would require less tedious drilling. I wanted to sing only in English and wanted upbeat songs that would make me smile. Remembering how much I loved Moses Hogan, I looked for a choir that sang exclusively gospel music but could not find one in the area. Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee had gospel choirs but only for their students. I had visited both of these universities in high school and knew that overall, these schools would have been too large and overwhelming for me, but for a short time, I regretted not choosing one of these schools so that I could sing in a gospel choir. In December of that year shortly before Christmas, I auditioned for the Milwaukee Choristers, a traditional choir but one I thought I would enjoy that year at least because for their spring concert, they were going to be singing Broadway show tunes which I remember as being relatively easy and fun to sing. But for the first time ever, I was rejected. It so happened that my almost-boyfriend from Cantorei choir was there to audition as well. We had a great time catching up as we waited for our appointments, and met at a coffee shop a few days later. At this meeting, I found out that he had been accepted, but he said his sight-reading wasn’t very good, so he speculated that this choir takes balancing of voice parts very seriously. Like all choirs, they were short on men and had too many women interested in joining, so the competition was a lot tougher for women. But then I discovered Sweet Adeline’s, an international organization promoting women’s barbershop! For those of you who may not know, barbershop is a cappella (no instruments) four-part harmony and is the perfect style for many gospel and pop songs. Shortly before I had found out about Sweet Adeline’s, I watched The Sing-Off, an a capella music competition that ran on NBC for a few seasons, and it was so much fun to watch! I couldn’t wait to explore this style of music for myself.


So in January 2010, I started attending Monday night rehearsals with Crosstown Harmony Chorus, a local choir affiliated with Sweet Adelines. I became good friends with several members of this chorus, one of whom said she had been singing in this chorus for sixty years. This choir was an interesting mix of fun and serious. Instead of the traditional stretching and formal warming up that marked the start of a traditional choir rehearsal, this choir would warm up by dancing to an upbeat song like Rockytop Tennessee. After choir rehearsals, I had to get home because I was tired and often had school the next day, but a lot of the choir would go to the bar after rehearsal. Several of the singers were smokers, but the funny thing was that their gravelly voices after years of smoking made them excellent bass singers. For about the first year, this choir was loads of fun. Barbershop singing required more drilling than I expected especially when it came to singing in tune. We would think we were in tune, until the last note of the song when the director would play the note we were supposed to be on and we would all laugh because we were way off. But it was fun singing pop songs and a few gospel songs all in English. I learned from a long-time member that English is the only language allowed in barbershop music. Sweet Adeline’s is an international organization so I had always assumed that choirs from other countries sang this style of music with songs in their own language, but this is not the case. This member who had been to competitions said it is very interesting to hear choirs from other countries sing barbershop because since English is not their native language, the sing some words differently. This makes sense. In traditional choirs when we would sing songs in French, Italian or German, the choir director would carefully research proper pronunciation of words and when I was in Cantorei choir, a guest language coach came to rehearsal a couple times to help us with pronunciation. But I am sure if we went to France, Italy or Germany to sing these songs, the people there would be able to tell it wasn’t our native language.


I had to leave this choir temporarily the fall 2010 semester because the Feature Writing class I needed for my major was only offered Monday evenings. But when I returned in January 2011, I gradually started finding it more difficult to motivate myself to go to rehearsals. I think it was a combination of the fact that my courses were more demanding and the lack of energy that I now realize was probably the progression of Celiac Disease, was becoming even more pronounced. Just like Chamber choir, we stood on risers for rehearsal, but these rehearsals were two and a half hours long instead of just fifty minutes. I didn’t want to be a quitter, but I started dreading these exhausting rehearsals. Another thing that I hadn’t anticipated when I joined but which made this choir less feasible for me was when they started adding choreography to the songs. I had done simple choreography to a few songs when I was in school and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, but this choreography seemed a lot more complex. People tried to show me the choreography but I just wasn’t getting it, and when guest coaches would come and talk about how choreography was about showmanship, not just doing the moves, I was lost for good. The choir planned to compete in Houston. I had school the week of that competition, but I wouldn’t have gone anyway because I wouldn’t have wanted to bring down the choir’s score given that I probably wouldn’t have been in sync with the choreography and didn’t understand the nuances of showmanship. But I had fun performing these songs at a Cabaret the chorus put together to raise money for the trip to Houston. I just sang the songs while the rest of the chorus did the choreography. I also sang a Christmas concert with them in 2011, but didn’t return in January because I was starting to have headaches all the time and was barely keeping my head above water with my school work.


Since I could not be in Crosstown Harmony Chorus in Fall 2010, and didn’t have to take any classes at noon that semester, I decided to join Carroll University’s Concert Choir. I really enjoyed this choir because while the director took choral music very seriously, she was also a lot of fun and her demeanor didn’t seem as stern as the typical choir director. I also liked the fact that unlike past choirs where we had to get measured for special uniforms that were either dresses or long skirts with cumberbuns that had to be tied, and/or earrings that were painful on my sensitive ears. The thought of getting my ears pierced never appealed to me so I had to wear clip-on earrings. Crosstown Harmony and all the choirs at my high school required earrings. Thank goodness the choir I sing in now doesn’t require earrings. I was getting pretty tired of having a constant stinging feeling on my earlobe at concerts. Anyway, the director of Carroll University’s concert choir just told us to wear dressy black pants and a white top. For her, the music was more important than uniformity which I liked. Rehearsals met four days a week but for only 50 minutes a day, and our classroom was on the stage of Shattuck Auditorium. This was perfect because all of our concerts would be performed in Shattuck Auditorium, so unlike most choirs who rehearse in a smaller space and then have to have a special rehearsal to get used to the acoustics of the performance venue, this choir rehearsed in the performance venue every day. Just before the concert, we would practice singing on risers, but most days, chairs were arranged onstage so there wasn’t the exhaustion of standing on risers for fifty minutes. But most importantly after being away from classical music for awhile, I had a renewed appreciation for its beauty and loved every song we sang, especially Benjamin Britain’s Rejoice in the Lamb. Incidentally, we collaborated with the Waukesha Choral Union for this piece, the choir I would join as an adult. I was sad to see this semester end and in retrospect, maybe I should have foregone the Public Policy course that conflicted with choir the following semester and stuck with choir. But then again, Public Policy was something I was interested in and something that would benefit me if I decided to be a political reporter after college. And I never would have thought to apply to the amazing internship experience with the governor’s office if I hadn’t taken this class and been encouraged to pursue this opportunity by the professor. So I guess everything worked out as it was supposed to.


I stopped attending Crosstown Harmony rehearsals after the Christmas concert in December 2011, but officially resigned my membership in 2012 shortly before college graduation. After graduation, the rest of 2012 and the winter of 2013 were a blur of medical crises. My Celiac Disease was diagnosed in July 2012 and once I started eating a strict gluten free diet, the frequency and severity of my headaches decreased dramatically. But in August when it would have been time to audition for choir, I just didn’t feel ready to commit to anything. My energy level was improving but after years of school, homework and crazy schedules, I just wanted to relish the chance to rest and have no real responsibilities. As the winter 2013 semester approached, I thought about the many exhausting years of going out in the cold and driving through snow and ice to choir rehearsals and decided to take the winter off as well. This was a wise decision as my mom needed to go to Oregon to take care of my brother who needed surgery. She was away for almost a month, and it would have been very difficult for my dad to get off work in time to take me to choir rehearsals. But by August of 2013, I was feeling restless and life had settled down. I was ready to sing again.


So in the fall of 2013, I auditioned for and was accepted into the Waukesha Choral Union a community choir that performs four concerts a year at churches or schools in the Waukesha area. It has been the perfect fit. I am one of only a few young people in the choir, but the older I get, the more I appreciate how little age matters when it comes to singing because the camaraderie that comes from getting together to sing every Tuesday night, and the passion of singing the songs themselves gives every rehearsal a youthful vibe. Everyone in the choir is passionate about singing, but not so overly serious that we cannot stop rehearsal and laugh every now and then. In fact, not a rehearsal goes by without a singer, or the director himself saying something witty, and one long-time member keeps track of all the witty things the director says all year and then reads them at our end-of-season banquet. I also love the fact that this choir is welcoming and inclusive. Most of the singers read music, but I am not the only one who doesn’t, and there are a couple of singers on the autism spectrum who might have had a difficult time fitting into other choirs, but whom this choir warmly embraces. In fact, they are an asset to the choir as they have perfect pitch!


I still enjoy being an audience member at the Milwaukee Symphony’s Holiday pops concert every year. In fact ever since I became employed, I have been buying the tickets for Mom and I to go to this concert, and she considers it her Christmas present. That is how much we both enjoy it. The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus is a bigger choir, and when I hear the full orchestra and that big choir sound, I have a fleeting moment where I admit I long to be up there singing with them. But the rehearsal schedule and even the audition process is much more intense, and this is the kind of choir that probably would have required me to read music. I loved, and am occasionally nostalgic for the prestigious opportunities and huge audiences that defined my choral experience as a child. But the further I get into adulthood, the more I realize that as wonderful as these childhood opportunities were, the flame of passion for singing that has always been in my heart doesn’t need prestigious opportunities or large audiences to keep burning bright. My passion is fueled simply by singing those songs that are so joyful I feel as though I am in heaven, or so beautiful I almost cry. And I know that this passion is real because when I stopped singing to address health concerns in 2012, and put my career ahead of singing in 2016, in both cases it wasn’t long before I felt a spiritual void in my life. But when I returned to choir, I felt a renewed sense of joy and purpose. In Crosstown Harmony, we sang a beautiful piece part of which said “What would I do without my music? What would I do without my song? What would I do without my music, to make things right when everything seems wrong?” I honestly don’t know what I would do without my music. As a child, it was a source of stress relief, comfort and joy when school was difficult, and as an adult, it is my favorite way to pray. Our culture likes to focus on what people “do for a living.” In other words, how do you earn money? I decided not to make a living through music, fearing that the demands of making music my livelihood would tarnish my passion for it. Nonetheless, every time I thought I could live without music, I don’t feel alive.