Sunday, December 17, 2006

How People Communicate - What's Normal, Anyway?

Who would have thought a few years ago that we’d live in an age when you could just pull information out of the air? I stop and think about it and am amazed that we do this, and that we take it for granted. The entertainment at our office Christmas party Friday night was either compromised or enriched – depends on your point of view – when several participants sought answers to a party game by using various electronic devices. Yesterday I sat in my office and had a long talk with my sister while she was walking home through the streets of Seattle, in what could be an everyday occurrence with the popularity of mobile phones. Lately I’ve been spending time talking with a friend 12 time zones away (which at least is easy to calculate) for just $0.02/minute.

When I went to Turkmenistan a dozen years ago my father was sure we’d find a way to communicate. He’d been reading articles even back then about computers tucked away in the back of shops all across Asia. Not so in Turkmenistan. I have not been back to Ashgabat since then but I doubt it has changed as much as some parts of the world. The ever-despotic president who ordered the closing of all hospitals outside of the capital and who keeps dumbing down the educational system would not want his people to have that much contact with the outside world.

Do you suppose it’s still true, what we used to say, that half of the world’s people have never made a telephone call? (If you’ve read my blog entry on telephones, you know I sometimes wish I were one of them). Others adopt modern technologies but limit their use to reinforcing very traditional ways of life.

Every time I take a group of people overseas I notice their reactions to what seem to be, to us, leapfrogging technologies: people who have mud floors, but satellite television; no potable water but great mobile phone coverage. We send home prayer letters with descriptions of late model trucks sharing the road with donkey carts, both playing their part to bring in the harvest. Maybe we’re technologically ethnocentric, expecting that our ‘material progress’ is normal and someone else’s path a deviation.

My family of course has always lived with a foot in both worlds: Dad boasted of living off the land, the freezer and pantry well stocked with the fruit of garden and orchard. He could heat the whole house with his wood stove. But in the summer when we didn’t use that wood stove you might find his oscilloscope sitting on top of it. He loved his $900 calculator and built the first computer network for the K2 ski company which was just down the road. We raised sheep on our little farm: We usually hired a bona fide Australian guy to come do the shearing, but other than that we could manage the whole process that people in weaving circles call “from sheep to shawl.” Meg and I 'picked' fleece and tied knots; dad carded and spun; mom knitted or wove. I still have a couple of handspun, handwoven afghans made from the wool of our own sheep. Half a fleece in a bag under the house awaits the day I actually learn how to use Dad’s old spinning wheel which now sits in my living room (don't you think every spinster should have one?). Is it ridiculous, with our global economy and the availability of goods and services, to romanticize or cultivate such skills?

I’m very interested in how technology changes – or reflects – older values in a culture. Have to do some writing about that this afternoon as we revise training sessions for a January ethnography training. So consider this a warm-up.

Fun, interesting stuff, but I might rather stay far away from my cubicle on a Sunday afternoon and get outside some more before the snow we’re expecting, the same kind of snow that might fall on the simple cement house in Eastern Turkmenistan this time of year. Picture a young wife peeling potatoes and looking forward to the day, after she produces a son, when she can speak directly to her in laws rather than respectfully closing and even covering her lips when they approach (which you can see would do much to preserve the peace in the household, for all its injustice).

I wish I could send her an email.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Mystery of Mercy – Andrew Peterson

I love this song from Andrew Peterson, "Mystery of Mercy," about the prodigal son and others. How little I think we realize how amazing it is that God does not reject and turn away from us even though we are turned away from him most of the time. The amazing thing is that he continues to pursue and treasure us! What a miracle it is to be the treasured sons and daughters of the holy, creator God:

My God, my God, why hast thou accepted me?
You took my sin and wrapped me in your robe and your ring
My God, my God, why hast thou accepted me?
It’s a mystery of mercy and a song, a song I sing

Monday, December 11, 2006

Money - update

Another $15,000 has been given or promised to our ministry to help support my roommate Deb, this month, which brings us within $1000 of full support for her for 2006. I'm so glad to see her, step by step, set free! She's completely out of debt now, too.

I'm amazed this day has come. I can't believe that battle is almost over. It's been quite a strange one for me to lead, and I need to journal some more and figure out how I feel about it and how this has affected my relationship with the dear friend on whose behalf I have been fighting. Seeing her really provided for, financially, in the long-term, is something that's going to take a lot more work. We plan to file her disabilty claim in January.

Friday, December 08, 2006


Man, why is it that the most insidious fears that I hate to admit I have are so tied up with my most secret, precious hopes? No, don't ask me what they are here; this is deep stuff. But definitely a pattern.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke says it best: "Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasures."

See also: Telling Secrets, below.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Best Pathways

Psalm 32 (New Living Translation)

1 Oh, what joy for those
whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sin is put out of sight!
2 Yes, what joy for those
whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt,
whose lives are lived in complete honesty!
3 When I refused to confess my sin,
my body wasted away,
and I groaned all day long.
4 Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.

5 Finally, I confessed all my sins to you
and stopped trying to hide my guilt.
I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.”
And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.

6 Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time,
that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment.
7 For you are my hiding place;
you protect me from trouble.
You surround me with songs of victory.

8 The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life.
I will advise you and watch over you.
9 Do not be like a senseless horse or mule
that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”

10 Many sorrows come to the wicked,
but unfailing love surrounds those who trust the Lord.
11 So rejoice in the Lord and be glad, all you who obey him!
Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!

Bringing It Home

In the last few weeks I have heard from a lot of people in Central Asia. Some are from the country I was in this summer, writing with questions about our research project or the new prayer guide, due back from press any day now. Old teammates wrote asking if I'd consider coming back to Central Asia for a season again, to help workers write up case studies. I've been getting newsletters from friends I knew in 'Sofarawayistan,' now scattered all over the world by the diaspora of workers from that now-troubled country. I even got a message about my Central Asian sister; she's back together with her husband and caring for a second baby. Hudoga shukur - thanks be to God!

When I first came back from my sabbatical in Sofarawayistan I continued in the ways I'd picked up overseas; maybe I was afraid of losing them. I was still working on the book and was reading interview transcripts over and over, so I had the voices of all these women I'd profiled running through my head. I wore my Central Asian clothes a lot of the time (though not the outfit above, which cannot fit into American fashion by any reckoning; it just comes out for show and tell!) And I continued to relate to God in the ways I had while overseas.

But it's been a long time.

With all the contact with people from Central Asia in recent weeks I have been wondering, how much is all that still part of who I am now? Quite a bit, I think. More, not less.

The transitions between America and everywhere else are much less jarring. Who I am overseas and who I am at home seem to be becoming more integrated. And - Hudoga shukur for this as well - He has delivered me from some of my American 'disease,' the things that had been making my life too busy. Now once again I find I can lead more the contemplative life I so enjoyed in Sofarawayistan. Even if it seems - as it did there - sometimes boring or unproductive. That's the price you pay.

Earlier this year, when I was overcommitted and out of balance, there were times I wondered if the only way I was going to be able to walk with God was to quit my job. Ironic. But now giving out in ministry and finding refreshment seem to be fitting together quite well. Thanks be to God!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Really Thankful?

Wednesday night, and I wavered. There's a great service at church tonight... 'Thanksgiving Eve.' should I go? Such things can either stir my gratitude or arouse my discontent. Being alone in a family-oriented church challenges me. I dread my own reactions to hearing all those people stand up and thank God for their wonderful husband, their beautiful wife, or that all the kids could be together this year. It is hard not to feel alone and alienated by so many people blessed by those things I do without.

This year, though, it did not bother me. Instead, I wondered: Isn’t the reason they are thankful to have their kids around them, or a wonderful husband / wife, or even that God has blessed them through the church, precisely because they DON’T take such things for granted?

God, you have been nothing but good to me. Now grant me two more things: open my eyes to your indescribable gift; give me a pure and grateful heart.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


I've been putting a fair amount of energy into raising funds for a member of our staff who is not really able to do so because her health is so poor - my roommate, Deb. Meanwhile my own support, having topped 100% every year for the last 10 years, is falling short. Insurance is up 40%. Giving is not really that far down, and end-of-the-year donations may make up the difference, but maybe it won't. I had a hunch that this might be the year I would fall short. But I am not sure how to interpret it.

It's been a huge privilege to live out 2 Cor. 9 most of the time:
"You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God." 2 Corinthians 9:11
I am thinking 2 Chronicles 32 is more what's happening now, like what God did with Hezekiah:
"But when envoys were sent by the rulers of Babylon to ask him about the miraculous sign that had occurred in the land, God left him to test him and to know everything that was in his heart." 2 Chronicles 32:31
I think I've been a bit proud of always being at full support and able to give to others. Ever since my paychecks have been low I've been aware how materialistic I am, how much I think I "need" new clothes, shoes, and stuff for the house. Not to mention a new computer... I probably need to stop looking at all those glossy, lowest-price-of-the-season ads in the paper! I'm also feeling grumpy too about not having more money for Christmas, or for my own end-of-the-year giving. Ah, see what is in my heart! Maybe this holiday season will be a time for purifying.

Come to think of it, my favorite Thanksgiving was the one when I stayed in my dorm at college and everything was closed down. I had a place to go for dinner that Thursday but was on my own the rest of the long weekend. Everyone was gone. When I went to the ATM to take out cash for groceries, the machine took my card and wouldn't give it back. Since the state of Oregon had pretty tight policies on cashing out-of-state checks, all I had to live on until the next Monday morning was what was in my dorm room and in my wallet - $5. Figuring out how I was going to eat and entertain myself those three days and nights was a challenge, but an enjoyable one. I had a good book, and I went for a number of long walks. But I don't think I've ever been that careful filling my basket at the grocery store! $5 can go farther than you think. Or, at least it could back then!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Quote from Douglas Adams

“Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things.”

Friday, November 10, 2006

Ice Cream and Vashon Island

I wrote to my coworkers, earlier this week, the following message:

When I was a growing up on Vashon Island we had two stoplights but only one fast-food, chain restaurant – and they didn’t even serve food, just shakes and sundaes and cones and so on. Mountains of soft-serve ice-cream. When Peanut Buster Parfaits went on sale, oh my!

Friday, November 10 is my birthday. I’d like to invite you to join me in reliving those days with a celebratory trip to Dairy Queen on Broadway and Mineral. Meet in the lobby at 3:00. Won’t take long. We’ll descend on them like an overgrown Little-League team. Won’t it be fun? Put this on your calendar.

* * *

Several of them asked me about Vashon Island. Here’s my favorite description from Betty MacDonald in Onions in the Stew, circa 1955. A few things have changed with the times, but much is still the same. We moved away many years ago, but the years on Vashon were a formative time for me. Maybe this explains a few things!

"Our island, discovered in 1792 by Captain Vancouver and named Vashon after his friend Admiral James Vashon, is medium-sized as island go, being approximately fifteen miles from shoulder to calf and five miles around the hips. It is the intense green of chopped parsley, plump and curvy, reposes in the icy waters of Puget Sound, runs north and south between the cities of Seattle and Tacoma, and is more or less accessible to each by ferryboat.

"On the map Vashon Island looks somewhat like a peacock and somewhat like a buzzard. Which depends on the end you choose for the head and how long you have been trapped here. The climate, about ten degrees warmer and wetter than Seattle and vicinity, is ideal for primroses, currants, rhododendrons, strawberries, mildew, and people with dry skin who like to read. The population is around five thousand people and an uncounted number of sniveling cowards who move back to the city for the winter.

"Everything on Vashon Island grows with insane vigor and you have the distinct feeling, as you leave the dock and start up the main highway, that you should have hired a native guide or at least brought along a machete…

"From the water Vashon looks like a stout gentleman taking a Sunday nap under a woolly dark green afghan. The afghan, obviously homemade, is fringed on the edges, occasionally lumpy, eked out with odds and ends of paler and darker wools, but very ample so that it falls in thick folds to the water. Against this vast greenness, houses scattered along the shore appear small and forlorn, like discarded paper boxes floated in on the tide. The few hillside houses look half smothered and defeated, like frail invalids in the clutches of a huge feather bed.

"…Vashon was once, and perhaps still is, a Mecca for the more vigorously religious… As Vashon still retains a pungent frontier atmosphere the over-all effect is faintly ridiculous – like a man sitting in the parlor in his undershirt, drinking beer and reading the Bible."

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Ever find your own long-standing weaknesses and eccentricities excruciating? For example, I would pretty much rather die than to call someone on the telephone. Public speaking, no problem. Travel around the world, no sweat. But I'm afraid to make phone calls and sometimes it really messes up my life.

A good friend of mine lives about a mile away, and I work with her husband, but since she left our office several months ago I have not communicated with her directly even once. A few weeks after she began her new job I called her cell phone to ask how she was doing but I only got voice mail. Several weeks after that I got an email from her which began with words, “I’m sorry! I’m terrible about returning calls. Quite phobic and ridiculous, actually…” I could have typed those words. It took me another week or two to answer her email simply because I was thinking I ought to just call her instead of writing, and didn’t.
I wonder what will happen next.

Of course it also affects my work. The prayer guide I’m editing now could have been done so much faster and better if I could have made phone calls instead of sending emails and fretting when they did not get the desired results. Just a few minutes ago I figured out that the little picture on my cell phone did not mean, as I had thought, that I had a text message. I knew about the text message: it’s for the girl who used to have the number I have now. And I had not erased it because I’m sure there must be a way to actually reply to it, which seemed the polite thing to do. The little word ‘reply’ sits at the bottom of the screen but how do I get there? For the life of me I can’t figure it out.

No, the picture meant I had a voicemail, and it came two days ago. It was from Chris, the main guy I need to reach about the prayer guide. He was sorry not to call sooner. I had left two messages. Both calls resulted from hard-earned mental victory that took a day, each, to achieve. I mean, it took a whole day to work myself up to making one phone call! Twice!

Figuring out my cell phone is not a big deal; a tad embarassing but not really beyond my ken. I just need to find the book that came with the phone, or ask someone else for help. I’m fairly sharp with technology, generally. But making phone calls, that's what intimidates me. Whatever am I going to do to break free of this cloak of fear that covers me every time I know I should make a call? To what extent is it OK to be realistic about my weakness, let myself off the hook so to speak, and avoid situations where I'm agreeing to make phone calls? Surely that is part of the answer. But I may need a more effective system of accountability to make me take action when making a call is the right thing to do.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Telling Secrets

When Fredrick Buechner wrote one of his autobiographies, he said he had misgivings.
"It is like telling somebody in detail how you are before they have asked the question, How are you? Indeed, it isn’t like it; it is it.”
But he wrote anyway, and he explains why in Telling Secrets, the book from which I draw my title:
"I have come to believe that by and large the human family has all the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition – that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we fear more than anything else.
"It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are – even if we tell it only to ourselves – because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in the hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.
"It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going.
"It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own and exchanges like that have a lot to so with what being human is all about.
"Finally, I suspect that it is by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is of all our secrets the most telling and the most precious we have to tell."
Fredrick Buechner, Telling Secrets. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991.

That's how I intend to approach this blog.