Voting Without Fear of the Future

snappa_1464808636

She is clothed with strength and dignity; she laughs without fear of the future. – Proverbs 31:25, NLT.

If I can manage to register to vote in Missouri before then, I’ll be in a polling booth on November 8, exercising one of the greatest political freedoms in all history: a woman, voting, in a free election. I don’t want to lose my wonder at this privilege.

This is the 4th election cycle I have participated in. Since no governmental system or politician (especially) is perfect, it’s likely that I will sometimes vote pragmatically instead of ideally, as I have already done in the past. But this time and this election is different. Neither major political party has nominated a trustworthy candidate representing anything I believe is supposed to be right and good about this nation, so I refuse to vote for either one of them. I plan on casting my ballot with a write-in vote for my friend Cate, who is not actually running for President (at least not this time).

Letting the rest of the country decide who makes it to the Oval Office feels strange to me. I do not pretend to be a political scholar with elite Washington insider secrets, but I do strive to be thoughtful and informed. Taking the responsibilities of democracy seriously, I study the Constitution.  Taking my responsibility to love my neighbor seriously, I remember living overseas among squalor – the  aluminum-shack-and-no-toilet variety. I see what war winnows even from a man who walks away from battle honorably. I have wept for tiny lives lost from my own body while other little ones were legally destroyed at the exact same age. In the same breath, motherhood (even more than I expected) has burdened me significantly towards the plight of women in poverty, especially those with unplanned pregnancies or children of their own. None of these things fully exclude that I am a woman prone to fear about my own circumstances, and what things might be like for my children in the years to come.

I expect to wake up on November 9 and hear that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump has been elected president. Checking the news that morning with coffee in hand, making my kids some oatmeal, I may sigh a bit. I am determined that I will not despair. When we settle at the table, those dear little mouths will babble along while I sing “This is the day that the Lord has made/ I will rejoice and be glad in it,” as we always do for our breakfast prayer. It will be just as true then as it was this morning.

Singing songs and eating nutritious food with my healthy children is fairly idyllic while so many things in the country – and the world at large – seem like a mess. Thinking about that makes me feel very small. The problems present in our current systems for healthcare, poverty assistance, and education are not ones I can solve. I don’t really know how to battle systemic dysfunctions that usually benefit me and penalize others with fewer resources. I can’t decimate ISIS or breathe life back into the lungs of that little boy who drowned between Syria and Turkey. Sometimes political activism allures me by dampening my sense of powerlessness. When there is Bad Stuff happening, I can vote for Someone Else to enact The Right Plan (As Approved By God) and feel like I’ve really done something. It is always a short-lived relief.

The vote I cast this year is not about electing a president, but about telling the powers-that-be, “I care enough to vote and I don’t like these options.” Mostly, I’m hoping enough people join me in sending this message to cause a shake-down and rebranding in Washington politics so I can have better options next time around. I can’t pretend my vote for president is going to solve the world’s problems, like I have sometimes accidentally believed in the past. Instead, this forces me to look at what I can, and should, do:
Feed my children breakfast while cultivating a hope-filled home.
Befriend my neighbors while walking alongside people who are hurting around me.
Think less of my own circumstances while speaking up for the cause of the afflicted.
Search out the organizations and ministries that are doing good on a broader scale, supporting them instead of upgrading my own lifestyle.

These are not small things.

It’s also not a small thing to say “no” to fear. The rhetoric of political seasons like this one becomes especially charged; the promises are impossibly yuuuge (sorry, I had to do it) and the threats -implied or explicit-  are fearsome. Yet when God’s word tells me not to fear, it’s not excluding politics. When an election cycle doesn’t go the way we want, it often reveals a sort of political idolatry. What I heard people saying after Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee for the Republican party sound like an email forward I received after President Obama’s election in 2008, urging me to trust in God despite the impending apocalypse ushered in by the “victory of Evil and Darkness.” (Let’s trust this was a spiritual reference, not a racial one. Either way… what?) Those sentiments betray a misplaced hope in political solutions to spiritual problems, because trusting God is always the right thing no matter what is happening in the government. Eight years later, I still don’t believe the President is working for goals I support, but that election definitely was not The End Of The World As We Know It. And even if it was? My primary call as a Christian in loving God and others has not diminished because of it.

Resting in the authority of God means accepting the responsibilities and privileges granted in my earthly citizenship – I’m not, for example, staying home on election day, or suggesting women in free countries should stop voting until women everywhere can do the same. It also excludes confusing any brand of patriotism with Christianity: Political powers (including parties) rise and fall, and it is unlikely that God is as much of a Republican or Democrat as some want to imagine. It calls me to funnel more energy to loving my neighbor than to elation or frustration about whatever democracy has wrought.  Mostly, this compels me to face November 8 (and all the crazy news I hear until then) in confidence, without fear of whatever news I hear on November 9 for the years following.

 

to love that well

…This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
– Sonnet 73, William Shakespeare. 

pic 17

Our soon-to-be-former backyard, with the vegetable garden from which we will not eat (much) produce.

 

We have fallen forward into a lot of big, different things this year already. And moving right now? It feels like falling so far forward that we’re swinging back around and ending up behind. Only not really, but in some ways, yes, that’s how it feels. (I have a lot of feelings right now, and I’m confused, too.) This year Aaron has been working really, really hard with very long hours, and I’ve been home with a baby and a puppy and the concern/exhaustion/nausea of a new pregnancy, and we’ve been doing a lot of work on our house, yard and garden. It’s not so much that having a job, dog, baby, or house is awful, but this has been an intense year on all fronts. While this all made selling the house a breeze, as long as all the paperwork continues to process appropriately, it’s frustrating that we sacrificed so much in working so hard and really don’t get to enjoy the fruits of these labors in a tangible sense right now.

“And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” – Deuteronomy 6:10-12

Because of that, we read this passage in church on Sunday and groaned because it seems exactly opposite of what this is like for us right now. After more rounds of brutal decluttering, since we mostly have old junky stuff from thrift stores and are paying per sq. ft. of moving trailer space, and watching our tomato plants get bigger and bigger with delicious food we won’t eat… Living with houses full of stuff we didn’t have to acquire with food we didn’t have to plant? That definitely sounds like the Promised Land. Those Israelites may have had it made.

There is grace in it, but moving is still really hard, and I am very aware of this. I have lots of packing to do when I want to just delight in the last days with Annie on her own and take lots of third-trimester naps. Preparations for moving are really taxing, and we’re determined to be significantly more minimalistic and organized than we were coming here, which requires more brain power than I want to give anything right now. Still, we’re making a point to sink in and enjoy every moment we have with what is here: a beautiful home, friends, mild summer weather, Lake Superior, a girl in the most amazing stages of interacting and action, and the wonder of anticipating a little boy coming at a time that clearly points to a greater plan than we would have made. These are gifts we can maximize by loving well even though it is all so very temporary.

photo (4)
(These couches are not coming with us, which I am extremely happy about, and we decided it’s OK for Max to lay on them for the time being. He doesn’t sit on other couches so we’ll just teach him to stay off new furniture in St. Louis, but right now it’s like he can tell this is his temporary pleasure, too.)

reading round-up (5.15.15)

Both of our Minnesota springs to date have negated the adage “April Showers bring May Flowers” for different reasons. Last year, it was because there was too much snow for too long. This year winter ended at a reasonable time, but we just haven’t had much rain. Now in May, it is finally coming down and our grass is finally coming up. (Aaron far prefers working outside, so he is glad to be done with the new floor and seeing progress in our lawn and garden!) This year we’re just doing tomatoes and green beans.

Both of our Minnesota springs have included excitement about other kinds of growth, too. We’re ecstatic and humbled by another healthy pregnancy! This one means welcoming a baby boy to our family this fall, and by some sweet mercy, the first half of pregnancy has been significantly easier (physically and mentally) than the first half of my pregnancy with Annie. I’m especially grateful for an easier pregnancy while managing an adventurous nine-month-old, and I’m still blown away to think we’ll have two children. I spent a long time wondering if I would ever have any kids, and this
really feels like winning the lottery twice.

Parenting
I thought there were some great thoughts in 8 Items for Christian Parents to Ponder, especially the encouragement to “Consider that there is no one in the world more likely than you to be instruments of their eternal good. ” It’s easy to get bogged down with the idea that we could possibly be really ruining some aspect of our kids’ lives, and I’m grateful for the reminder that we’re also in the position to be the greatest instrument of goodness and blessing for them, too.

I also really appreciated 9 Things Adult Daughters Want Their Mothers to Know. It resonated with me as a daughter and inspired me as a mother.

On the flipside, Raising Gentle Boys was good encouragement for thinking about the new baby. He’ll be himself in so many ways that are more about just being his own person and not necessarily about his gender, but since I don’t know anything about those other things yet… this is what I’ve got to think about: ultrasound technology reassures us that the baby seems to be developing normally and is, in fact, male.

Personality
This post on the benefits of knowing yourself was great. I’ve followed Kristin’s blog for a while and really appreciate so many of her reflections on frugality and family life. I remember the sense of relief that came when I decided I was done with “couponing” and then again in the last few months when I decided borrowing baby clothes was more stressful for me than it was worth, and her advice here resonated deeply for me:

“We don’t all have to be good at the same things, and we don’t all have to love the same things.
(No one can possibly be good at everything and love everything!)
The important thing is to live within your means and manage your money responsibly, and there are a zillion ways to do that well.”

If knowing yourself means identifying with a Myers-Briggs personality type, this Definition of Hell for Each Myers-Briggs Personality Type might extremely accurate. I am an ENFP, but just barely on to the extroverted side; I’m pretty sure Aaron is exactly the opposite, an ISTJ. Hell for an ENFP is essentially the description of the job I held for 3 years when Aaron and I first got married, and it was just nice to (again) be affirmed that I wasn’t being dramatic when I told people it was like a living hell.
For the ENFP:  Every minute of the rest of your life has been scheduled for you – and it’s a long series of arbitrary, solitary tasks.
For the ISTJ: You are expected to complete a highly esteemed project with absolutely no guidance as to what’s expected of you.
In some ways, this describes both of our current occupations as well, which is particularly laughable. (I will say, the monotonous aspects of life as a stay-home mom are much more tolerable after living through some of the truly horrendous -for me- tasks in my old job. and both of these descriptions apply to quite a bit of parenting.)

Productivity 
Aaron has been reviewing different management and productivity materials for companies he is interested in working for… There’s a lot of interesting stuff out there! This Tedx Talk from David Allen (who wrote “Getting Things Done”) is an oldie-but-a-goodie. We were just talking about some of the stuff he says here, and I think it’s very much worth 22 minutes of your time. (Grab a notebook to take some notes and jot down some thoughts afterwards!) We were just saying we might need to review this together every few months… It’s not a bad idea.

Science
Another Ted presentation from Pamela Ronald talks about the intersection of “Organic” farming and GMO crops hits on some good points for lay discussions on agriculture and biotechnology.

Miscarriage 
This blog from Mandi covers a lot of great topics about recurring loss and pregnancy after miscarriages. In some ways she seems like my Catholic twin in reflecting on those topics and I think this blog is a great resource for interested parties.

Reading 
I recently rediscovered LibriVox, full of free audio books in the public domain, and I’m enjoying working through the Anne of Green Gables series again. I find that YA literature is just right for listening while I’m working around the house — it’s engaging but not so dense that I can’t get something else done, too.

Music
Annie recently discovered the joys of hitting things with a plastic spoon, so I gave her some tupperware to beat and turned on Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare For the Common Man. So much fun. So much proletariat ire. (Copeland was a phenomenal American composer with strong ties to progressive/socialist  politics. I’m linking to it’s performance at a 9/11 memorial to compensate on the other side, maybe?)
Musician mama side note: I really like showing her videos of musical performances where she can see the instruments!


We’re looking forward to a low-key weekend with a few little house projects, playing outside with Annie and Max, and lots of much-needed relaxing. Have a happy weekend, friends!

Coon Ranch: the house i had not seen

coon ranch

Did you know I signed on the dotted line for this house without having seen it in person? The transition from Iowa to Minnesota was a little bit nuts, and buying a new house I had not seen seemed appropriate, given that all of life felt like such a leap of faith in this move. Would we ever have a baby? Would Aaron like his job? Would we have a doctor we liked? Would we make friends? Would we find a good church? Would we regret not waiting for something else to come together? Would I find any grocery store I liked as much as Fareway? I had no answers about the future, so it felt normal to add, “What kind of house will we have, and will I like it?” to the mix.

(After 17 months I reflect on those questions: Some answers were yes, some were no, and a few things are still up in the air.)

We looked at a bunch of houses together and fought like crazy about them (this is embarrassing but pretty normal when househunting, I think), and our schedules conflicted enough that Aaron had to shop on his own on during the last week of our house-buying window. If he didn’t find one, we would probably be renting (and therefore probably not getting a dog) for the next several years. We looked at pictures of puppies online and prayed that something would work out. He found one and told me it was boring but that boring was the best choice for us right now. I closed my eyes and signed like Ariel giving her soul to Ursula.

Ariel contract

 

And I will say, this house is perfect for what we thought we needed, and yet… we don’t really like it. This is a total first-world problem. It works, it has the details we were looking for (a guest room, a good spot for piano lessons, a fenced in yard for little Max, etc.) and was in the right price range.  I think it’s just that the “cool factor” of our old house is a hard act to follow. We have nothing that compares to the old vaulted wood ceilings, fireplace, crawlspace storage, stone patios, or wooded outdoor stairways. Instead, we are in a neighborhood full of the exact same 3-bedroom 2-bath 1960’s rambler. And not just “similar,” I mean, THE SAME. Our floor plan is identical to every other house on  our street, and the next street, and everything else around here. (A few people in the neighborhood got fancy and put an enclosed walkway between their garage and their house, but that’s about it. Why anyone thought detached garages were a good idea in Minnesota is a mystery I will ponder until the grave. It’s right up there with why there was carpet in the kitchen at the old house before we tiled it. I spilled some leftover chili on that one time and you just can’t get something like that out of carpeting, you know?) Where the old house was in meticulous shape (though out of date) when we moved in, the people who lived here before us were more of the TV-watching and only-mowing-the-lawn-once-a-summer kind of family. It’s a new challenge to take over a home from people who didn’t value their stewardship, so we’ve had to do lots of “maintenance catch up” projects, too.

The past few months have included a lot of work, and we now have a bit more to be proud of here: Lots of grass seeding and careful watering. New windows. A dishwasher – glory be to God. Beautiful floors and sharp white trim in the upstairs. Massive amounts of decluttering (what? how do we have so. much. stuff?) and reorganizing. Getting a tall filing cabinet so we can keep track of our official papery things like adults. Pulling some more of our decorating stuff out of bins and feeling a little more at home.

IMG_0660

 

photo (2) (1)

this is not finished, but it is on the way! painters tape will go, fabric for new curtains are all ready to make, etc.

 

Finishing things up like this gives me the heebie-jeebies — what if it means we do have to move soon?? — but it is nice to have the hopes of enjoying the fruit of our labor here. And while I really like these floors and the new rug and all that, I have to say I’m a bigger fan of the fact that we’re too tired to watch TV in the basement and that we trip over the little toys that get strewn about, because for all the details I’m bored by, I love that this “lame” house is home for more people and more joy than we had before.

living room
Even with plenty of things I don’t love or would have done differently (um, garage-style flourescent lights in the bedroom?), our “Coon Ranch” has been a beautiful picture to me of the mysterious ways God has provided for us during a stage of life that is very sojourn-ish. While it doesn’t take up as much room in this blog (or my heart), it’s been a good place to learn and grow, and I am learning to love that very, very much.

knitting and kneading: the forethought of grief.

“Any day now, any day…” The words we have been hearing every day for over a month are starting to sound like a broken record. Only it’s not a record that’s broken, it’s my grandma: a vibrant, beautiful, brave, eternal soul suffering a cancer that steals her strength, and will entirely devour her mortal flesh soon. Possibly even before I hit “publish” on this post.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry says there is freedom from worry in considering the animals, who “do not tax their life with forethought of grief.” Aaron calls this poem a modern retelling of Matthew 6: Do not worry about your life, look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies, God will take care of you, and all that.  When fear for what our lives and our children’s lives may become grips us, it is wise to, basically, get some perspective, chillax, and stop thinking about what bad things might happen. My dog doesn’t do much worrying (except for the whereabouts of that blasted tennis ball lost in a snowbank outside the local elementary school), and he is a much happier creature than I. Sometimes it is good to learn from animals and quell anxiety. But I am not an animal, I am a person, and someone I have loved my whole life is dying in long-drawn agony. I have forethought of this grief because I am human, and because I am fallen. I suffer because I know there is pain now, and because there will be a empty spot for my Grandma in the rest of my entire life.

This forethought of grief subconsciously works itself out in my domestic endeavors. I must finish the baby blanket for my new niece, Margaret Belle, so I steal a few moments to knit a row here and there. Watching the yarn turn into a blanket is soothing: A long string that would tangle without care can become something lovely, meaningful, and warm. We’ve had a steady stream of freshly-baked bread in the kitchen for weeks and have eaten more homemade pizza in the last month than we had in all of 2014. It is such a simple thing to watch yeast dough rise, sprinkle flour on my counter, feel the springy dough folding under my hands. When you know how this works it doesn’t require much thought, and maybe that’s why I like it right now. My grandma showed me how to do this the first time, and knowing that my family now eats bread because she taught me to bake seems like an everyday testimony to the Resurrection: Life is just a portion of eternity, and death is not really a permanent end. She is a soul and her life continues in eternity. And because she spent her earthly life loving and building up others, the beauty of her life does not end with her death, either.

The fact that my day is full of fore-thought-grief doesn’t change the simple routines that close it: Later than we both would like, Aaron comes home. The dog licks and wags his tail, and then lays under the table. Bread, fresh and hot, dips into soup. The baby passes back and forth between our laps. She keeps reaching for our plates, enjoying the mushed up carrot and bread we offer her. She is kissed, tickled, fed, wiped down from head to toe, diapered, and snugly wrapped for bed. We spent years praying for her before she arrived, and at bedtime we still pray, asking God to give her health, growth, strength, and siblings.

My name is Abigail Rebecca, and I sing my daughter, Anne Rebecca, to sleep:

Jesus, Tender Shepherd, hear me
Bless Thy little lamb tonight
Through the darkness, be Thou near me
Keep me safe ’til morning light. 

I listen to hear her breathing. She’s congested and sometimes she struggles a bit to inhale. So I hold my breath along with her and wonder if I should just sit on the big chair with her all night? She might sleep better if I hold her upright. Her well-being is more important than my comfort or desire to sleep well tonight.

A full day’s drive away, in another home I know well, my mother, Katrina Rebecca, leans over her mother, Rebecca Belle, performing duties much like mine. We are both tasked with keeping someone clean, comfortable, and freshly changed, while receiving only grunts and moans for direction. She also listens to labored breathing and wonders how to provide the best care. Maybe she sings lullabies, too. But where I pray that my daughter will be healthy and well when I pluck her out of the crib tomorrow, we all hope that maybe Grandma will reach the safety of the eternal light before morning. Is that wrong? How much of this can a person bear?

That question was heavy in the news lately, when a younger woman suffering (in the most appropriate use of that word) from cancer proudly took her own life, in a misplaced effort to take back the control cancer had stolen from her.  Every death is awful and ugly, but I certainly think this must be one of the kinds that tops them all. How much of this can a person bear? How great will the suffering be? How long, oh Lord?

The modern euthanasia movement proclaims they advocate for “death with dignity.” They are wrong. In the English language dignity means having a high sense of propriety, of self-respect, and appreciating the gravity of an occasion or situation. So dignity is not found in control or comfort, but in respect for what is given, and appreciating all that it can become when handled rightly. 
A strand of yarn knit into a blanket.
A scoop of flour kneaded into a loaf of bread.
A cancer diagnosis faced and fought until the end.
This means even in profound suffering, dignity is not about valuing personal comfort above what is right. Dignity does not eschew the pain and embarrassments fraught in the process of dying. Instead, it loudly proclaims that all life is a gift and that suffering, no matter how great, does not diminish an iota of it’s value and beauty.

IMG_1524

Becca Niemi holding Annie Hummel, five weeks. September 2014.

Cancer will soon take enough to kill this woman. It would not make her death more dignified to take even more from her before then. Instead, the most dignified thing to do is to sink in to this grief, both before and after she dies, and honor a life conducted well in health and in illness. Though grief does tax, the right kind of grief can only clarify and increase the blessing of knowing a beautiful woman who personified dignity, demonstrating in the most tangible way possible that weakness and dishonor in death serves to magnify the glory and power of the Resurrection.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. …Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15. 


Rebecca Niemi died at home on January 27, 2015, during the writing of this blog post. Her obituary can be read here, and the audio of her January 31 funeral service is here.