Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reflections On Ending A Decade

Sometimes I enjoy having honest conversations with customers:

(A middle-aged man makes a self-deprecating comment about getting old)

Me: Don't say that, I'm turning 30 this week!

Customer: Oh, you're a child! I wish I was 30.

Me: I was looking forward to it, but now I'm not so sure...

C: Why's that?

Me: Just dreading people's questions about what I'm doing with my life.

C: That's none of their business! (takes receipt) Happy birthday!


I realized that this birthday actually marks the end of my thirtieth year, so I'm really beginning my thirty-first year and fourth decade... This allows me the sense of a smoother transition, to think I've been living my thirtieth all year. Some pretty cool things have happened:

1) Celebrating 4 years of marriage with the intelligent, compassionate, humorous, faith-filled and inspiring man I get to call my husband.

2) Cultivating a community garden space with coworkers through Whole Foods Market, learning about all kinds of vegetables, flowers and herbs.

3) Serving international students and friends through a local church plant, where my husband and I have been leading a small group and coordinating music and tech ministries for 3+ years.

Inductive Bible study of Luke's gospel

4) Working full-time in retail, learning to provide excellent customer service alongside some of the most kind, sincere and talented people I've ever met. Being a top fundraiser for the national and global projects our team supports.

5) Starting to write a book and getting a publisher's interest.

6) Visiting my childhood home in Haiti with my family, supporting the work of Youth 4 Business, Deep Springs International, and World Relief, and hearing God's living Word. (The verse my mom taught me when I received Jesus as a 6-year-old just so happened to be the topic of the sermon the Sunday we visited: 2 Corinthians 5:17, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." Throughout the week, a hospital elder and my sister shared similar scriptures about spiritual rebirth. I was sensing a theme.)

I helped translate (French/Creole) in the pharmacy and played guitar for hospital devotions. The radiologist asked me to teach him "Revelation Song."

7) Seeing several old friends and classmates again, the chance to reconnect.

Touring downtown Pittsburgh with Natalia

8) Enjoying monthly dinner, TV and cards with my mother-in-law at her townhouse.

Giving the Queen of Spades to Melanie is an art we are still perfecting.

9) Caring for a turtle, even when it is difficult.

If only Remy's claws weren't so sharp...

10) Going to inspiring events and concerts with friends and family: Hillsong concert, New Community "In House" concert, Worship Rocket leader seminar, and the Q Commons conference for advancing good in Pittsburgh.

Good friends from OIF at Hillsong Zion concert downtown

The time my mom texted and asked me to meet her after work at a Southside bar...because my cousin's band was playing!

11) Renewing my piano skills.

12) Elijah Wood smiling at me while I bagged his groceries.

13) Jake Gyllenhaal smiling at me while I bagged his groceries.

14) Going on weekend trips with my family.

Keeping each other upright at Peek'n Peak (January)

Riding the Swahili Swirl at Kalahari Resort (June)

Hiking in McConnell's Mill State Park (May)

Enjoying an afternoon French press, demi-tasse with Mamie and Lauren in Louisville (Sep)

15) Getting to know new friends.

Pitt Homecoming fireworks

16) Experimenting in the kitchen.

Spiced Açai berry smoothie

17) Game nights with Josh, Mike, Dana and Melanie, which helped lead to Josh working full-time at his dream job.

18) Realizing the list could go on, and how amazing life is, despite the days I feel sad about not having kids, a house, nor a respected career path.

19) Discovering new songs like Christ Is Enough and knowing the power of gratitude and praise to lift any darkness or fear.

Fall Randoms

Squash are in season! Time to get roasting...

Delicate and carnival squash

The seeds were tasty too!

The turtle is enjoying more time in the water these days:

Remy's underwater yoga :-) 

This new tank seems to provide more security for him, with the opaque sides and soft basking platform (I laid an old towel across a shoebox at the other end to fill in the terrain space). Using a rock before posed a hazard with scratching his shell, leading to infection.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Cleaning Solutions

Our apartment smells like a pond, and I'm wondering about the health risks of having a pet turtle.

Both the CDC and the U.S. Humane Society caution against owning turtles, especially when living with children or others with weakened immune systems. It's a lot of work to provide a warm, clean habitat for a red-ear slider, especially in a northern climate!

Keeping Remy in a dry environment over the past two weeks, we went through lots of old towels, space rearrangement and stress. Now we're transitioning him to a larger habitat that will suit both his basking and swimming needs.

Cleaning the new TurtleTub from ZooMed (purchased from Petco)

With all the water changes and occasional spills, I'm also learning how to safely clean our carpet. I'm happy to have a new use for the mason jars (that I've been saving from recent pasta sauce purchases): Citrus Vinegar Cleaners!

Sometimes we question if we did the "right" thing by accepting this turtle from a family member...were we really prepared to handle its care? What if he is suffering? Could someone else better care for this reptile? What about when we have kids?

Thankfully, I've come to know several other "turtle friends" over the past two years, who share my concern for the animals and who can give us advice. A great coincidence was learning our new neighbor has kept turtles for years. What are the odds?

Despite the stress, keeping Remy feels like a calling to me, a challenge to care for the needs of a creature so different from myself, an opportunity to learn and to teach others about the fragile systems that support all life.

We're all part of the same biosphere!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Healing Remy's Shell

The turtle's shell rot was not improving, so we followed a friend's advice and began dry treatments last week.

We put Remy in a dry environment for 23 hours, then allow him to swim, eat and drink for one hour every night. A protocol we found in a turtle forum recommended treating the shell with ointments, so we are trying a couple things...

A space heater (on only when we are home/awake) keeps him warm, while towels give him some security.

We uncover the sides of the cage during the day and leave the bathroom curtain open to give him more light, then recover the cage at night for warmth (while the space heater is off).

A thermometer to monitor air temp (between 76 and 90 degrees), and a generic neosporin to apply to his shell occasionally

I've found Remy basking in some funny positions! Sometimes he climbs/leans on the side of the cage to catch some warm air on his belly (plastron). Then there was this:

I finally caught his "yoga" pose on camera, opposite legs outstretched!

This setup seems less stressful for him than the times we tried to apply iodine to his shell and let him dry in a plastic container. He would scramble to get out and poop and pee on himself... So sad to watch! We stopped that method after a few times because it just wasn't worth the trouble, for us or him.

Now we just use a Q tip to spread the betadine on his shell through the cage, no handling required (which is painful because his claws are really sharp)! He tolerates it with just a little hissing.

Using dried calendula flowers from my garden, I'm infusing olive oil to eventually make an antiseptic balm for Remy's shell. Who knew calendula could heal humans and animals in so many ways!

Falling In Love (with the season)

The arrival of fall has me thinking about soup, seasonal fruit, and how to make our home more cozy for winter.

Last week, I made my first vegetable broth and used it immediately in a savory, cream-free butternut squash soup, based on recipes in my favorite America's Test Kitchen cookbook. So delicious!

Then there was a Spiced Açai Smoothie, which I have to say was delicious.

A spontaneous blend of kale, banana, almond milk, açai purée, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla and honey

Today I am wondering what to do with leftover orange peels. I remember my mom simmering them over the stove with cinnamon to infuse our house with a delicious scent. I also like the idea of using a peel as a natural sponge or deodorizer for the fridge/trash cans. If the oranges were organic, I'd use the peels to infuse sugar or olive oil, but now I'm not so sure I want pesticide-touched tea, treats, salad. Or is that what my liver is for?

Want some more inspiration? I found a fun Fall Challenge over at Women Living Well: Making Your Home A Haven. I like how Courtney includes us working or childless women too...whether alone or with friends, we can all use some warmth, baking, love and peace in our homes (and other fruits of the Spirit)! 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

When The Weight of the World Is Too Heavy

One of my favorite movie quotes comes from The Princess Bride: "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something." My younger self would have said the character was too bitter; my slightly worn self now empathizes with him, though I don't carry the cynicism.

I told my husband last night that I felt like I had a pit in my heart that would not go away. You might be familiar with it, the heaviness of grief.

Stemming from a few causes. One was reading disturbing news from Iraq and feeling concern for the victims and terrorists. Stress at work and a couple nights of poor sleep also didn't help. The other trigger came from my husband's routine doctors appointment. 

The night before- not acting the supportive wife- I had told my husband I was giving up hope for doctors' ability to treat his depression, something he has struggled with throughout his life. Various medications have provided little or no positive effect, and his fatigue is nearly constant. He maintains a good attitude and routine between work and social commitments, but as his companion it is hard not to want more for his- and our- life. Friday's appointment ended with the doctor prescribing yet another drug that may or may not help. I felt disappointed and angry that professionals seemed to have no time to offer something better.

We have been praying and seeking medical advice for seven years, and it doesn't seem like much is changing. I think the naïve, optimistic part of me believed that my experience with biology and sports, my love for cooking, and our happiness together would somehow propel him toward better health. It hasn't been that easy.

On Saturday, our unfinished Scrabble game lay on the table as we distracted ourselves with social media. I wondered what life was going to be like with this longterm suffering. I was thinking of the friends, relatives, and former classmates who have houses, babies, beach vacations...who seem content to broadcast their relative comfort on social media without any acknowledgment of me, their sort-of friend? I was having a pity party, and I knew it but couldn't stop it. When my husband asked why I was so sad, I said something hurtful about having to accept that we weren't going to have a "normal" life.

He drove me to work as usual, and I spent the evening trying not to beat myself up for being so selfish, speaking carelessly and making him feel like he wasn't good enough. Earlier I had debated whether or not to call our pastor and tell him I couldn't lead the singing in church on Sunday because I felt too depressed. Could I pretend to mean the happy, faith-filled worship songs I had already planned with my team? Where was God in my husband's sickness, and while children were being murdered across the globe?

That afternoon I wasn't sure. But I knew I had to keep going, first apologizing to my husband for not being kind or helpful in that moment. He said he forgives me and knows that I love him. Thank God.

"For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh." (2 Corinthians 4:11, ESV)

I went to worship the next morning and told my music team about my inner struggle. My resolve to be there came from knowing that God is always the same, loving and wise, and worthy of our worship- not just in song but in heart and spirit. My teammate shared a story about spontaneous praise that she witnessed recently among international students and scholars, reminding us that true worship is the Spirit's work, how it is wonderful to be in a place where we are ready, waiting to see how God moves and to be willing to be part of what He is doing.

I thought about the bigger picture of God's love for the world and how friends in the church are actively working to love all nations.

Left to myself, I know I would destroy my life and relationships. I'm just that naturally selfish, jealous, prideful, rude and needy.

Another friend shared her perspective on the situation in Iraq, reminding me how God is sovereign, how He changed a former persecutor of the church (Saul!) to being a minister of the gospel, and how Jesus is present even in martyrs' deaths, encouraging me to pray differently for the situation. Somehow this faith hits closer to home when persecution is happening in real-time and not just on the pages of a book we read.

I sang in church this morning and agreed with the words. Sometimes the Spirit puts songs on my mind early in the week, and they end up being more relevant than I realize. Our pastors have been preaching through Colossians, and somehow on Tuesday this week I knew we had to sing "Knowing You" on Sunday. Today the third verse hit me all over again:

Oh to know the power of Your risen life
And to know You in Your suffering
To become like You in Your death my Lord
So with You to live and never die...
Knowing You, Jesus, knowing You
There is no greater thing...

Back at home, my husband and I are reestablishing normal communication and enjoying the evening together. I pick up a book on a whim and start reading where I had left off: A Praying Life (Paul Miller, NavPress, 2009). I soon realize this is not a coincidence, that today of all days I needed to read these exact chapters.

The author writes about his experience in a spiritual "desert," when his and his wife's prayers seemed fruitless. He goes into detail about the journey from determination in trying all despair, then he gently uses scripture to call us back to hope...because our relationship with God is more complex and longterm than some "warm fuzzies" someone gets once in prayer. It's the dynamic of story between lovers who at once care and want to be known. I nearly cried reading these words:

When God seems silent and our prayers go unanswered, the overwhelming temptation is to leave the story- to walk out of the desert and attempt to create a normal life. But when we persist in a spiritual vacuum, when we hang in there during ambiguity, we get to know God. In fact, that is how intimacy grows in all close relationships. 

Even the phrase "normal life"... It's like someone was reading my mind.

And of course Someone was (Psalm 139:1-5)!

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.

As I kept reading A Praying Life, I remembered how my marriage is about a bigger story of redemption that God is weaving, with personal care for me. Today is not the end, nor is tomorrow. 

Like Paul, might we say that as suffering servants of Christ we are "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything" (2 Corinthians 6:10)?

Some people may think I am too extreme, quoting an Apostle who became a martyr, but the Spirit binds the church together across time and space. I feel the words are relevant and true even today.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

First Harvest

After planting mid-May, I had the pleasure of harvesting my first Royal Burgundy (bush) beans this weekend!

Beans and Basil 

The organic bean seeds came from Botanical Interests via Whole Foods Market. I transplanted the basil from its Cool Springs Organic container (grown in Evans City, PA and also sold at WFM), and it's been growing tall, producing new stems as I clip off the top leaves.

Apart from beans and basil, I'm cultivating some edible calendula flowers and 2 tomato plants- one red heirloom and one yellow cherry variety. My strategy was to start small and focus on learning just a few plants at a time, rather than go all out and forget how to properly care for some (as my past wildflower experiment showed). I think I might adopt the same approach for having children.

Just cooked up these babies and saw the "magic" color change! They may turn brighter green without the rice vinegar, which I added for flavor along with onions, oil and garlic. Will have to try steaming them plain next time to see if there's a difference.

Raw purple bean added for contrast

The smell of stir fry lingers in the room and the satisfaction of watching my garden labor come to fruition seeds more motivation in my heart.