Lady in a Hard Hat

Wiring My House If Mark could have watched, he would have been chuckling to see Kenny and me working together on wiring my new-old house.  Mark was fascinated by electricity; in all of his remodeling projects he enjoyed the wiring most.

He was also good at solving electrical problems—more than once he came home pleased, after he figured out the glitches in someone’s three-way switch.  Sometimes a client had called in numerous electricians and had never gotten it worked out. Mark would get a pencil and paper and draw out the circuit for me, explaining in detail how it had been mis-wired and why that didn’t work, showing me what he did to let the current flow the way it was supposed to. There was nothing more elegant in his mind than a switch that let light into someone’s darkness just as it was meant to do.

Mark’s love of electricity started when he was young. As a junior in high school, he went out with his father to see the new wing of the Dembi Dollo, Ethiopia hospital that was being built. “I’m going to teach you how electricity works,” his Dad said. He had been a missionary builder before he was a missionary pastor before he was a missionary doctor. “This will be your summer job, wiring the new hospital.” Mark glowed, even as an adult, remembering the subtext of love and trust from his dad.

Mark already knew electricity could be put to fun uses. When he was about ten he had rescued an old electric razor from the dump. He mounted a propellor from his erector set (his favorite childhood toy) onto it. Then he mounted the razor on a little toy car. When he plugged the razor in, the propellor whirred, the car started moving, picked up speed, and zoomed across the floor to the end of the cord. It yanked the plug out of the outlet; the prop slowed, the car coasted to a stop. Can’t you just see a young Mark and his brothers collapsing in heaps of little boy laughter over the contraption?

So Mark wired the Dembi Dollo Hospital addition when he was sixteen.

In about 2007, we agreed to buy a fixer-upper in Albany, Oregon with our son Kenny and his wife. The idea was to find a three-bedroom one-bath house where we could add a second bathroom and enhance the value of the house beyond the investment in the remodel. It didn’t really work out that way—we found a house that maybe should have been “scraped,” and brought it back to life instead. Before we were done, hours had been spent in the basement, jacking up and leveling the floor. The stairwell had migrated from the middle of the house to a side wall, opening up floor space. The huge chimney had come down. And every internal wall had been moved.

When it came time for the wiring, Mark said to Kenny, “I’m going to teach you how electricity works, and you’re going to wire your own house.”

And that, in turn, is what Kenny said to 3 (1) copy

Wiring involves drilling and pounding, but there were also long stretches when Kenny and I could talk as we worked. Then we cleaned up and went ballroom dancing together after supper. Kenny complimented me on my improvement in dance—he said I was able to follow everything he thew at me. He will always be the natural, though, with far more creativity and styling than I can can access, starting as late in life as I have. He’s also a kinetic learner. I’m so cerebral, and that doesn’t help me dance. “Stop thinking and just follow,” he has to say.

What fun days and evenings we had, wiring my house.

And I find I’m proud, out of proportion of the effort it took, of having done part of the remodel myself. I’m pleased that my new house will have been one more family project.

As we finished up the wiring, Kenny and I tried to look with objective eyes and see what the inspector would say we’d done wrong. Kenny coached me not to expect to pass inspection the first time.

photo 2 copy 5I was terribly nervous the day the inspector came. I was afraid he would scold me, shame me, accuse me of something. I was afraid I would cry. And sure enough, the appointment started off badly. The inspector was gruff. He didn’t bother with niceties. “You don’t have a permit,” he said. We’d forgotten that step. My face burned. I started to feel miserable.

“I stopped by anyway,” he said, “because it’s easier to tell people what they’re doing wrong face to face than over the phone.”

He looked at the wires sticking out of the boxes and said, “You need to bundle the grounds.” Then he looked hard at me. “You know what that is?” I shook my head, feeling like a little kid in trouble. “Well, it’s easy. But it needs to be done.”

He went over to another box and pulled on the wires. “Who did this work?”

“I did. My son and I did.”

“Well, anyone who is willing to work this hard, I’m willing to help.”

I wasn’t even sure what he’d said, at first. Later, another contractor admired our wiring job and said it was really professional looking, really clean. That was Kenny’s influence. He made sure all the wires were running straight, not twisted; that the holes he had me drilling in the studs were orderly and even. That every wire end was marked with a sharpie.

The inspector cruised through the house, still talking really fast, still using his loud, abrupt photo 3 (1) copy 2voice. There were some framing glitches he told my framer to fix. He called the city and found out that that in an old house, since I hadn’t touched the headers, the too-small-for-code windows were grandfathered in and I didn’t need to change them. Then he made another call, and ran out to his truck.

He came back with a form—the permit application. “I’m going to take care of this for you,” he said, gruff as ever. He sat on the front porch and filled out the application, told me where to sign, and stuck it in his briefcase to turn in for me, saving me a trip downtown.

By that point, I had realized he was a friend. We chatted about pets. I offered him some of the almonds I’d been snacking on as I waited for him to arrive. He told me about the health benefits of radishes and turnips. I could have hugged him! But I restrained myself and acted like the cool lady in a hard hat that I’d been calling myself.

photo 4 copy 2Only after he left did I dance around the dusty living room, shouting and waving my arms in the air. I drove home still laughing, saying, “ThankyouThankyouThankyou!” all the way.

Early in the process of the remodel I had decided to use my building project as a spiritual discipline. I wanted to work with people who would be blessed by the work, who would bless me with their work, and who would be my partners in blessing my friends who would visit, the neighbors, and the neighborhood I would be moving into.

I got three to six bids for everything—plumbing, roofing, framing, insulating, drywall, gutters, painting, windows, refinishing the floors. Every time I drove over to meet a contractor and get a bid, I thanked God, as though I already knew which would be the right partner for me. I listened for people who were like Mark had been: who took personal pride in their work, who often were in business for themselves and depended on their reputations to stay in business; who gave advice but didn’t condescend to me. I didn’t always take the lowest bid. I often didn’t know quite why I was choosing one contractor over the others, but thanking God as though the decision was already made helped me relax and follow my instincts. I’ve had good relationships with these men who have helped me rebuild my house.

I hadn’t thought of my prayer for partners applying to my inspector, but it did. When he came back to pass the next phase he tramped around, gruff as ever, but nodding at everything he saw. “You’re doing this up right,” he said.

By this time, the finish details have almost swamped me (and they’re not done yet). I’ve moved in, choosing to live in remodeling chaos rather than wait—it was over two and a half years since I lived in my own home. To get this done, I’ve had to make dozens of decisions, and I’ve learned to listen to myself more often. I’ve gotten more confident, and learned how to be firm and business-like but also warm. It’s been a good six months, and now I have a new home. Come and visit me! 

Here are some before and after pictures to tempt you.

Paint job:

A little less flashy!

A little less flashy!

The lovely house I bought.

The lovely house I bought.


A bathroom! YAY!

A bathroom! YAY!

The bathroom space ready to go.

The bathroom space ready to go.


All these decisions! Butcherblock counter tops and white cabinets.

All these decisions! Butcherblock counter tops and white cabinets.

I tried to keep some of the 1926 look, with checkerboard floor.

I tried to keep some of the 1926 look, with checkerboard floor.

Living room:

Okay, I'll set up some furniture--but at least it's getting finished!

Okay, I’ll set up some furniture–but at least it’s getting finished!

The living room of my new house--a 1925 bungalow that hasn't been touched since 1925.

The living room of my new house–a 1925 bungalow that hasn’t been touched since 1925.

Starting Out

My rite-of-passage pilgrimage began with a bus ride to Astoria from Portland, a journey of two and a half hours for an amazing $20. I hadn’t slept well the night before, and snuggled against my backpack, I fell asleep before we were out of the Portland metro area. When I woke, the air in the bus was moist and cool, the windows were streaked. Oh yes, I thought. Fall has begun. In the Coastal Range it rains. At the coast it rains, though the foreseeable reports had predicted sunny days.

Unloading at the Astoria bus station I wandered around looking for a place to eat lunch and chose the Wet Dog Brewery and Pub for its name. I fortified myself for the coming walk with fish and chips and cider. I was self-conscious about my pack, which seemed gigantic and attention-grabbing on my back, but too heavy to carry any other way. I stood it on a bench by the entrance while I kept an eye on if from the bar (I also hadn’t yet figured out that no one else would want to pick it up, either.) 

The taxi driver who took me to Fort Stevens State Park wanted to visit, and when I told her my story, confessed that she had never gotten over the death, five years ago, of her daughter’s father. She felt responsible, because she had kicked him out. “He was always drunk or at the bars. I got tired of it. But maybe if I’d just helped him get help . . .”

I assured her he’d had plenty of chances to get help, he’d made his own decisions and she needed to forgive herself. Talking about my hike reminded her that she has wanted to hike Saddle Mountain in the spring, when the wild flowers are in bloom. Maybe this year she would do that, she said. Maybe it would help her start over. As I paid her and said good-bye, I wondered how many other people I would meet whose full names I wouldn’t find out, whose story’s ending I wouldn’t hear.

American service men inspect a shell crater after the Japanese attack on Fort Stevens.

American service men inspect a shell crater after the Japanese attack on Fort Stevens.

She had dropped me off at Battery Russell, and I wandered around getting my bearings and reading the historical brochures and placards.  This was the only spot on the continental United States to be fired on by a foreign power since the war of 1812–in June of 1942, a Japanese submarine ten miles out to sea slipped beneath a fishing fleet and fired 5.5 inch deck guns in about a fifteen minute attack. There were no injuries or casualties; one shell created a crater in the local baseball field and others fell in the forest and on the beach.  After the war, Japanese Captain Maeji Tagami admitted he thought he might be firing on a submarine attack station and would not have dared if he’d known the fire-power the battery had. Fortunately for him, the guns at Battery Russell stayed silent, because they didn’t know how sustained an attack it was, and didn’t want to give away their position. After that, civilian guard squads began patrolling the Oregon coast.

After I read this surprising local history, I walked some miles to the hiker-biker section of Fort Stevens State Park campground (bikers in this case are not the Harley guys but people on bicycles, riding the popular bike route down Highway 101 and along scenic side-roads). Oregon State Park hiker-biker campgrounds are small, with no vehicle access, but with picnic tables, fire pits and usually a near-by port-a-potty. In Fort Stevens I learned that one quiet mission of a good picnic table is to deliver packs directly onto hikers’ backs. Hoisting my pack from the ground to shoulder height was not easy nor pretty—it was much harder to handle its 35 pound weight with my arms alone, than to carry it on my hips and legs, resting against my back, anchored snuggly against my shoulders.


It wasn’t long before the second sole joined the first. The duct tape needed replacing once, when I wore through it on the bottoms, but otherwise held for the whole trip! Now to find some Shoe Goo . . . Mark fixed more than one pair of my shoes with Shoe Goo.

Next to me at the camp ground was a man who was biking from Vancouver, BC to San Francisco. We shared bemused frustrations that our “guides” in blogs and books were in their 20s, and that we no longer had their stamina. That night, his Thermarest mattress developed a slow leak. Meanwhile, I had been too careful to heed the operating warnings to screw the valve of my new Primus stove onto the fuel canister gently. Between eating my reconstituted lasagna and heating up dishwashing water, all my fuel had leaked out. In the morning, I did not find more fuel in the little KOA store nearby, and walking the mile back to my camp, the sole of my camp sandal decided to part ways from the footbed. I hadn’t even started walking yet. How quickly misadventure could find me. How much my neighbor and I were going to be affected by our simple problems: sleeping, eating. It doesn’t take much to be very uncomfortable once we leave home. As I carefully repaired my sandal with duct tape, I imagined Mark watching over my shoulder. He was chuckling.

Planning my trip, I’d been stymied by the lack of a town or campsite within twenty miles of Fort Stevens State Park on the northern tip of Oregon’s coast. Both my blogger and the official OCT site were suspiciously silent about camping in unofficial spots, but both said don’t camp on the beach, and warned that patrols will run campers off the beaches near towns and state parks. The last thing I wanted was trouble with the law. That, I thought, would completely destroy the spirit of my pilgrimage.  I imagined the incredible inconvenience of packing up in the sandy darkness and wandering on . . . to where? I didn’t realize, until I’d been on the beach longer, the dangers. By the end of three weeks, I was watching the ocean over my shoulder with some trepidation—after seeing memorials to strong young men drowned within three minutes of being swept off rocks by sneaker waves, the tsunami warning signs and escape route maps at every state park, the signs warning against napping on the beach or standing on logs, which weigh thousands of pounds and could be lifted by the surf, or could roll.

But there was no other option, I was going to have to camp on the beach halfway between Fort Stevens and the town of Seaside on my first real night out.

Low tide at mid-morning gave me a wide, packed beach to walk on. As I came out of the forested campground area to the beach, I felt my spirit lift in response to the ocean that faded away miles from me; the call of the waves, one replacing another constantly, never pausing; the bright sunlight on the sand and water. How could the beach not be a healing place for me to be?   

The rusting bones of the Peter Iredale.

The rusting bones of the Peter Iredale.

I headed out, south of the wreck of the Peter Iredale, the most accessible wreck of the “Graveyard of the Pacific”, a treacherous band of coast from Tillamook, Oregon to Vancouver, BC. The Peter Iredale, with her royal sails above double top and topgallant sails (I don’t know what these are, but they sound wonderful) had set out from Liverpool, England to Portland, Oregon in 1906 with 1000 pounds of ballast, 25 crew members and two stowaways. Approaching the Columbia bar (which has accounted for 2000 wrecks) the Peter Iredale ran into mist, rain and wind and was blown to shore. In the weeks of waiting for weather to clear so they could tow the ship back out to sea, she listed to the side and become embedded in the sand. Captain Lawrence abandoned her with a toast: “May God bless you, and may your bones bleach in the sands.” Being iron, those bones have rusted instead.

In the misty morning air, I saw what I thought at first were jeeps carved out of sand. When I got closer I saw that they were military trucks, exactly the color of the sand. They had hauled trailers to the beach, and men were swarming around, launching rubber rafts into the surf. I wondered if a search was going on. The surf was too calm for surfingI, something done in wet suits on our beaches. Fishing boats were white dots far beyond the helicopter that whipped over and circled out from shore. Children may splash in the foam, but no one really swims in the Pacific Ocean on the Oregon coast.

An hour later, the jeeps roared by, followed by an emergency vehicle which sank into the sand and got stuck. When I came abreast I felt confident enough that there hadn’t been a real emergency to joke with the young man dashing from one tire to another, pulling at the sand.

“I hope you don’t have someone dying in there!”

He laughed. “It was just a training. Now we’re just trying to get off the beach before the tide comes in.” 

I walked on, the tortoise to their hare, picturing their truck lifted off its wheels by the tide and washing out to sea.

Around noon I reached Sunset Beach State Park, a day-use site about six miles along. I walked up from the beach and ate my lunch perched on a big rock. My plan was to go just a little further before I camped, but I had the whole afternoon, the sun was hot, and I wanted shade. I looked around for something more in keeping with the spirit of a pilgrimage, but the only shade I found was a band along the east side of the outhouse (vault toilet is the new term) there at the wayside. I leaned myself and my pack against the wall and took out my journal to write.

As I rested by the Sunset Beach outhouse, a group of ecologists from the Willamette Valley, on the other side of the Coast Range, drove up. They clustered at the trailhead a few feet away for a mini-lecture by a local park ranger. I sidled over to listen. Early settlers had stabilized the dunes by planting European dune grass and what they thought were coastal pines, she said. But the species of pine they planted grew tall and straight, more like the lodgepole than the coastal pine. “They fell like matchsticks in the storm of 2007.” In the Great Coastal Gale of 2007, winds of 129-137 mph had whipped the coast of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, and given us Oregon’s only technically defined hurricane.

Scotch Broom is beautiful in the spring. Unfortunately, it's growth habits and aggressiveness make it an ugly invader.

Scotch Broom is beautiful in the spring. Unfortunately, it’s growth habits and aggressiveness make it an ugly invader.

In the aftermath, local residents worried about the fire hazard of all that felled wood so the park district cleared it, but then Scotch broom, a European import, moved in. Scotch Broom  grows aggressively. It produces thousands of seeds every year, and the seeds stay viable for years. It spreads into monoculture stands that crowd out native plants and habitat.  It’s a noxious weed in India, New Zealand and South America as well as Oregon. The ranger talked about observing what a site “wants to be” and recreating preferred eco systems. She spoke with regret—this site wants to be a coastal prairie, but because of the Scotch Broom they’ve had to replant pines. If the still immature coastal pines win the battle for dominance, she hopes that they will eventually shade out the encroaching invader.

The ecologists drove on, and I spent several more hours of refuge  by the outhouse until, when the sun began to drop toward the sea, I set off down the beach to set up camp. It wouldn’t hurt to shorten my walk into Seaside the following day, I decided, so I walked for about an hour. Tillamook Head appeared ahead of me, the point that separates Seaside from Cannon Beach.

Gulls lined up between the edge of the sand  and the dune watched me as I trudged by.

Gulls lined up between the edge of the sand and the dune watched me as I trudged by.

I began to suspect that camping on the beach sounds more romantic than it is. I knew enough to worry about high tide—I could see where the last tide had reached, but might a sneaker wave rise up in the middle of the night to sweep me off to sea, tangled in my bivouac tent? There was no picnic table to lift me or my pack out of the sand, so sand would get into everything. Since I don’t  a sleep with a gale-force fan, the ocean was going to disturb me with loud talking all night long. And there was the matter of no water or facilities. Since I had no choice, I walked clear up to the low dune that parallels the ocean on that stretch of the coast, found a level spot on the sand and pitched my tent.

All the vehicles and day visitors disappeared before the sun set. I experimented (moving slowly so I didn’t kick sand up into my food) and found out that freeze dried food will indeed reconstitute in cold water, and that cold water will not enhance its taste. A chilly mist rose up and sent me to bed early. As I crawled into the bivouac tent, again, I moved slowly and carefully so that I would take as little sand as possible into my sleeping bag with me.

I got up once in the night. To the south—it looked so very close—I saw the lights of Seaside sparkling red and white under the high full moon. I smiled. For the first time I felt as though I really was on a pilgrimage, the dots really would connect, one step would lead to another, one day would lead to the next, and my way would lead to one new place after another. Actually, and metaphorically.

In the morning I woke early. The colors of the sea and beach were as light as a watercolor. The wind had stilled. The air felt warm. The beach was mine, as if it was the first morning of creation and I was the first woman. I walked down to the tide line, shed my clothes and waded up to my knees into the ocean. I splashed water on my body and laughed at the cascade of goose bumps. I probably said out loud what Mark and I had called to each other in Lake Longano, Ethiopia, when we went for our morning swim: “Re-freshing!”

Walking My Watershed

Walking the canal along the back of Jesse and Beth’s house in Bend, Oregon, steadied me when Mark was sick. After he died, the mountains to the west, the moon rising to the east, the autumn trees—even as they changed color—stood around me unshaken.

In the spring I discovered that Bend has sixty-five miles of urban trails, and I began walking longer and longer distances. Some days I cried as I walked. Some days I sang. I discovered it’s easy to be emotionally raw in public places because most people aren’t looking, aren’t listening, aren’t out there–the urban trails of Bend mostly belonged to me. And I needed the physical world, the act of walking, my body taking one step and one more step and another one, to balance all that was going on in my heart.

With friends and Jan, my back-packing-buddy sister, I hiked to Elk Lake on Mount Hood as a trial run.

With friends and Jan, my back-packing-buddy sister, I hiked to Elk Lake on Mount Hood as a trial run.

On Monday, September 8th, I’m going to leave my sweet little house in North Portland and begin a through-hike on the Oregon Coast. The Oregon Coast Trail (OCT) is as yet unfinished, a dotted line from the Columbia River estuary to the border of California, fully half of it along the beach. Our coast belongs to us, here in Oregon. There are no fences, no private signs, no such thing as trespassers. Sandy beaches are broken up by headlands that reach out into the ocean—some I will walk around at low tide, some I will hike over, enjoying the views, and some will force me up onto the shoulder of Highway 101.

A warm current swings by Oregon in the fall, and the weather is warm. Relatively warm—this is not Hawaii or California; I am packing a stocking cap and gloves for the evening chill. The moon will rise full at 8:38 on my first night out. I may walk some days in the rain; I’ve packed a poncho. But most days the sun will beat back morning fog, the sea and sky will reflect each other, and the tide will hiss up the sand toward me and pull back over and over, repeating its own peaceful mantra.

I will walk as long as it is meaningful to me, and then I will take a bus back to Portland. This  walk will be a watershed for me, between looking back in grief and looking forward to my new life. It will be my pilgrimage, my rite-of-passage. Maybe I will be given the new dream I need . . . maybe I will be given a new name.

October would have tied off the knot of my first year alone, but it’s too late in the year to be walking, and September is when Mark and I understood that he was going to die. September is when our children gathered to say good-bye while we could all do it with dignity; September is when my siblings come to say good-bye to my husband, who had been in the family since our teen age years, almost like a big brother; September is when I made the shift from wife to caretaker for Mark’s last month. It’s a fine time to lock in some closure.

I have a few twinges of guilt, as though embracing a new life is in some way disloyal. But I know that Mark’s job was to go on to an unknown place without me, and now I have places to go without him.

I’ve borrowed a one-person tent from my brother-in-law, a backpack from a friend and a sleeping bag from a niece. My sister is advising me about a stove and simple-to-cook meals for the trail. I won’t have to live on freeze-dried food alone, because I’ll have access to grocery stores in all the trendy Oregon Coast towns, where I can also spend some nights in motel beds, take showers and soak my feet. But there are some long stretches between towns where I will sleep in state parks, in spots reserved, in true Oregon style, for hikers and bikers.

Conversations with my sister Jan continued from the time we arrived, through all the huckleberry foraging.

Conversations with my sister Jan continued from the time we arrived, through all the huckleberry foraging.

I went camping and huckleberry picking last weekend to try out the tiny tent–it’s no bigger than a cocoon for me. When I woke up crying that Saturday morning, I unzipped the bag and the tent and pushed the rain flap aside. All around me tall pines and Douglas firs rose up, as though I was in the bottom of a deep hole in the center of the forest. Peace flooded in.

I remembered that the world is a place which sustains my life. One tree might have been enough, but no, the world sustains lavish, impractical, excessive life, with trees and stones and insects and pine needles by the millions.

For most of the month of September I will be out on the coast alone. I will be putting into action one of my mantra-prayers: releasing the craving for power and control, for safety and security, for the love and esteem of other people. I’ll be walking the coast singing, praying, maybe crying some days; even though they are public beaches, they will be mostly mine for the month of September.



Moving Rather Slowly

Ethiopian Tourism Organization posters like this one trumpet “Thirteen Months of Sunshine” to entice us to visit.  It’s true, even in the rainy season, the sun usually woke us up in the morning, and clouds only gathered for the daily deluge just after noon.

You may be looking at the “thirteen months” part and chuckling at the clever PR exaggeration.  But in Ethiopia, this is also literally true–there are thirteen months!  Twelve months have thirty days each, which leaves one little catch-up month at the end called Puagmay.

Puagmay is a special week-month.  People relax and celebrate, companies give bonuses, and no one tries to get much done, because most businesses and offices are closed.  Ethiopians stay home, preparing for feasts and visits on New Year’s day  (September 11th on our calendar), because they say that what you enjoy on New Year’s day, elegantly called Enku-ta-tash, you will enjoy all year long.  (If you’re curious about why the Ethiopian year starts in September, and why it is now 2005 in Ethiopia, follow that link. it’s all very complicated, and relates to its ancient connection with Christianity.)

These girls are preparing for Enkutatash dance, wearing the startling white national dress and carrying a flower that blooms in September, as the rains end.  Traditionally people gave each other bouquets (now more often they give cards!)

These girls are preparing for Enkutatash dance, wearing the startling white national dress and carrying a flower that blooms in September, as the rains end. Traditionally people gave each other bouquets (now more often they give cards!)

This week, the one between Christmas and New Year in our calendar, feels rather like Puagmay to me.  Delighting in the love I have shown and received, smiling as I think of  fun family times, reading all the greetings from friends . . . I don’t move too fast this week.

I am using the week to enjoy my Renaissance Christmas CD and the Messiah a few more times.  I am nibbling on the pistachios Mark put in my stocking.  He is spiking his morning cuppa with the Ethiopian coffee liquor I made him, and then meandering off to finish a job, sanding the living room floor for a neighbor.

This morning I called my national representative to advocate for sensible gun-control reform, and I sent a lovely flash-mob video to my family to enjoy.  All rather in slow motion.  The sun has broken through outside, after a month with half again as much rain as usual.  And I’m writing to you, my  far-flung community, to share the gratitude I feel that in one way or another, God brought us into each others’ lives.

I know that Christmas can put strain on already strained families.  I know that many people are facing their first year without a loved one, and the hole in the middle of their lives can loom bigger this week than at any other time.  This year in particular I think about families  who just lost sons, daughters, mothers and fathers as three men acted out the violence in their lives  . . . something we call senseless violence, but which surely made some kind of sad sense that we would only understand if we knew these men’s whole stories.

Love to you.

I am more aware than ever that God asks me to be part of the tug-of-war between light and darkness that goes on all around us.  I pray to be useful, not resistant or ambivalent.

The lights of this season, on Menorahs,  on Christmas trees,  on the homes and buildings and shrubs even of the most secular of our neighbors . . . aren’t they an expression of a universal human hope that what St. John declared is true?  That some kind of eternal light has shined and the darkness of our frailty has not overcome it–no matter how it might seem to us in moments of shadow.

May the light of God’s love shine on you and bless you throughout the coming year.


Soul-mates in Maji

Ato Marcos in front of the "old garden" where my dad hired Maji school boys to help grow the vegetables I grew up on--now to be a vegetable nursery for the community.

I first met Ato (Mr.) Marcos in a formal meeting.  He looked very young and very serious, sitting behind his desk with its desk-sized flag of the new Republic of Ethiopia. Maji church leaders had asked for my help getting the former mission compound back, and Ato Marcos was the district administrator.

Last month (this must be about eight years later) he met me at the airport in Jimma, to host me and drive with me to Maji.  Later, he and the synod driver told me they had talked together about how to set me at ease, and how to entertain me on the long drive.  Neither of them spoke English well enough, and Ethiopians take hospitality very seriously.   I had not spoken during that meeting years before, and they didn’t know I  was excited that I would be visiting Maji without any other Americans I needed to translate for.  “Well, I can always use sign language,” Ato Marcos had said.

Even later, I told the Maji group in that I had met Ato Marcos before, but had never seen his teeth. He looked at me, confused, until I said that I had not seen him smile or laugh.  I see that I also did not get a picture of him smiling on this trip–Ethiopians often treat photo ops as serious, formal business, and Ato Marcos is intense and takes his work seriously.  But I assure you, he has one of the warmest smiles in the world.

I saw it first when I greeted him in Amharic, there at the Jimma airport.   I’m sure his smile was particularly happy because he heard me speaking Amharic.  And mine must have been wide and happy too–I was feeling almost ebullient, because my suitcase, which had gotten checked through from Malawi to Jimma while I stayed in Addis in the same clothes for two days (wondering if I dared trust that clean clothes would meet me in Jimma), had in fact showed up!

Left to right: Zerihun the driver, the guard, Ato Marcos's children, and Ato Marcos.


From there, things among the three of us–Ato Marcos, Zerihun the synod driver and me–warmed right up.






Last year's rainy season washed out the roadbed completely.  This year they're cutting into the mountain further to . . . well, I don't know!  Maybe it will work . . .

Last year's rainy season washed out the roadbed completely. This year they're cutting into the mountain further to . . . well, I don't know! Maybe it will work . . .

We spent two days on the road, going about 350 miles.  I ‘m not complaining–only  a few years ago you couldn’t drive to Maji at all, and now the Chinese and Korean crews have good road beds started up to the last seventeen steep miles.  Those last miles took us an hour–in the battle between Maji Mountain and the road, Maji Mountain is still winning.

I have never enjoyed a road trip more.  The three of us talked politics (Ethiopian and US), we talked economics and nutrition, we talked about fruit trees and gardens, we talked about faith, we told jokes–well, the jokes  started in ernest when Dr. Yishak joined us on the trip back to Jimma.

You can see a glimpse of Dr. Yshak's sense of humor in this photo!

Here’s my favorite Dr. Yshak joke:  An Ethiopian goes to the States and gets a job, but he he gets fired because he isn’t used to working so hard .  He searches and searches for a new job until finally he hears that they’re hiring at the zoo.  The zoo-keeper says, “Welcome–the baboon just died!  Put on this suit and you can be the baboon.”  The guy puts on the suit and prances around making baboon noises, loving his new job, until one day someone leaves the back door to his cage open and a lion comes roaring in.  The guy says, “Archangel Michael, save me!”  The lion says, “Roar!  Roar!  Don’t worry, I’m an Ethiopian, too!”

We started laughing when the guy got fired.  We were busting out of our seat belts at the word zoo.  When Dr. Yshak said baboon, I don’t know how Zerihun stayed on the road.  I’m not sure I ever laughed harder at a joke.

Okay, it’s a cute joke, but there had to have been something else going on as well.  Don’t we hunger to connect with other travelers as we spin through space on our earthly adventures, often wondering what this trip is really about and are we alone?  When we find fellow travelers, the relief makes us giddy–we link pinkies, make brother- or sister-hood blood vows, swear we are Best Friends Forever, fall in love.  And when what we are reaching across included geography, culture and language . . . the relief and joy is even more transporting.

That is what I think happened in the car on the road between Maji and Jimma last month.  Ato Marcos, Zerihun and Dr. Yshak will be my best friends forever, and I would bet they feel the same about me.




On going and coming at Christmas time

I’m caught in time and space on Christmas evening, the eve of  leaving for Ethiopia and Malawitorn between eagerness to see my daughter Miriam, her family, and Ethiopian friends, and hating to leave my home and Mark.  Wishing I could be both places without missing either.

We Skyped Miriam this morning (evening in Malawi) to wish her a Merry Christmas.

Mom and three daughters in London, 1955

Polly Kurtz, Caroline, Janie and Joy in London 1955

She said my parents never imagined the generational flow of separations they were setting up as they left New York harbor in 1955 by freighter taking three little girls through the snow of London and south, to arrive at the height of dry season in Ethiopia. 


Four grandkids, all Buckeyes fans!



Mom and Dad took us away from our grandparents and half-way around the world.  We took our kids  from them for years at a time, and now Mark and I are grandparents propping up the new picture of our grandkids so we can look at them while we eat our simple Christmas lunch of soup and muffins.

At Christmas we celebrate the closing of the huge gap that separated imperfect humans from a perfect God.  Maybe we absorb that message as children, even through all the clutter of paper and ribbons and toys.  By the time we’ve grown up,  we’ve learned to long to be with those we love most at Christmas.  We rail against separation today more than any other day of the year.

The best promise of Christmas is that God wants us all to be together someday in a glorious and divine unity.  St. John saw it in his vision–a day and a place where there will be no more tears, no sighing, no pain.  All John could do to describe the wonder of that day was to talk about gems and light.  Come Lord Jesus!