A Letter to My Grandfather

I awoke to my phone ringing early Sunday morning. “He’s on life support, and they’re about to pull the plug,” my brother said.

Although he had been healthy and strong for a man in his 90’s, my grandfather Lewis G. Hale declined significantly in the last few months as his body slowly began shutting down.

The tears came quicker than the words as I struggled to respond. I realize 92 is longer than most live, but still it came as a shock and great loss that this pillar of our family was gone from this life. I penned this letter to him one week ago.

Dear Pa-paw,

There are some things I wish I said before you died today. Just yesterday, I was thinking about the books I want to write, and how I hoped to find the nerve to send you a copy of my first published title. It would take some mustering because you and I see a number of things differently regarding women in the church and other points of theology.

I’m sorry I didn’t visit you often. We never lived nearer than a 9-hour drive (now more than 30), but I wish my kids had the opportunity to know you better.

As young children, you taught us how to bowl, play shuffleboard, throw horseshoes, and fish. We loved playing Skip-Bo, Rummikub, Rook, Canasta, and any other game we might have a chance of beating you at (I think we got our competitiveness from you 😉). We helped put together Bible study materials, snap green beans, and shell pecans. We attended summer camps that you directed, listened to countless sermons, witnessed you hosting numerous people in your home and visiting as many or more in hospitals and homes. We watched you put others first, never punching a clock or calling it quits for the day but always willing to answer the phone or door when someone was in need. You always resisted storing up for yourselves treasures on earth, instead rejecting pay increases and giving freely to family, friends, colleges, and others. As soon as you came to faith, you were all in for the rest of your life, serving as a minister for 70 years. You passed on this faith to your father as well as your children and grandchildren, each of whom had to make it their own.

Thank you for the remarkable stability and constancy you provided. My dreams often have your house as the setting, and I tend to think it’s because as we moved around, yours is the only home I’ve visited throughout my entire life. Other than re-covering couches and replacing carpet, everything has stayed the same. It confounds me that more than 40 years ago, grandma laid out how she wanted the house to be built and where the furniture would go, and it’s been that way ever since. Although it’s modest in size and furnishings, it’s perfectly suited to all of the hosting you do. It still amazes me how it doesn’t feel crowded even with 30+ people! It’s a respite from the consumerism and noise and hurriedness that surround us. From you and grandma, I learned the values of hospitality, hosting, simplicity, repurposing, and reducing waste. Although we never lived near you, visiting a handful of times a year as children and slowly decreasing in frequency as we grew up, you and grandma have had a huge impact on me.

I’m more like you than you know. Did you know I’m a preacher? I know it was confusing for you when I went to seminary, and I’m sure you and grandma were concerned about the eternal destination of my soul. But did you notice how I followed in your footsteps? I’ve always looked up to you. You dedicated your entire life in service to God and God’s church. I was in my late 20’s before I realized I could serve like you did, although my opportunities have been more limited. Embracing my calling was particularly difficult because I knew most of our family would not accept it. I wish you could have understood, believed, and affirmed my calling. I’m grieved by that loss and have often thought if only I was a man (though I have never wished to be), you would be proud of me. These are the things I didn’t have the courage to say, but wish that I had.

Since I can’t turn back the clock to say these things to you, perhaps by speaking them into the universe, these words will reach you. I’m sorry. Thank you. I love you. I hope to be known by you in the life to come.

Love,
Jennifer

If you could turn back time, would you?

If you could go back in time and change one decision you made, would you do it?

In my early 20’s, my answer would have been YES. I made a lot of unhealthy choices in the name of having fun, easing emotional pain, or striving for some ideal body size.

Now however, my answer is absolutely not. Yes I’ve made decisions I regret. Yes I’ve learned some things the hard way. Over and over again. No, I don’t think present Jen would like or respect 20-year old Jen much.

But all of those decisions, big and small, good and bad—they’ve all made me the person I am today. They’ve brought me to where I am, and I wouldn’t risk changing any of that. Butterfly effect and whatnot.

When Dave and I were just starting to date, we had one of those long, late-into-the-night conversations where you spill about your previous relationships. [On more than one occasion, this was a turning point between me and a boyfriend where the scales fell from his eyes and he saw me differently and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t unring that bell.] What a gift I discovered that night when Dave wasn’t phased by my relationship history. He didn’t judge me, look down on me, or think any less of me. His feelings toward me remained the same and my heart almost exploded.

Many years later, we discovered the Avett Brothers who quickly became one of our favorite bands. In a song entitled “All My Mistakes,” they beautifully resist the notion of going back in time to change the things you regret. They say sure I regret things, but “all my mistakes brought me to you.” This has become a theme song for our relationship (and life!), and a truth that re-centers us when we’re tempted to wish we had done this thing or that thing differently. Every decision from the smallest to the biggest has brought us to the present moment – who and where and how and why we are.

What about you – is there a decision or action you would go back and change?

Personal Food Code

Because I love my family, and because I don’t want to knowingly feed them the ingredients for diabetes, cancer, or various autoimmune diseases, I’m in perpetual learning-and-adjusting mode regarding what we should eat and how we should live. My family, of course, isn’t always exceedingly grateful and happy about this. But, I refuse to let the American food industry dictate how and what we eat (any longer). Also, it just shouldn’t be this hard. So I’ve been on a bumpy journey towards healthier eating for at least the last six years, and am often asked what I’m doing and why.

I’ve developed this food code for our family that we follow closely, but not perfectly. Sometimes other priorities (cost, time, being a guest in someone’s home, supporting local businesses, etc.) take precedence. Sometimes the school is holding a fundraiser at the Golden Arches and I bite my tongue and we go. More often than not, though, this is how we eat these days:

  1. Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants (almost a direct quote from Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto)
  2. Eat local and organic whenever feasible
  3. Limit sugar + fried foods (*limiting sugar is definitely hardest for some of us!)
  4. Drink mostly water

There are blogs and books and websites and documentaries to thank for all of this. One of the most significant sources, which has informed several others, is Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. It’s an eye-opening read and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s ready to think critically about what’s going from their fork to their mouth, how it got there, and why it matters. But I didn’t just stumble into this line of inquiry.

It all started with my friend Ben. Several years ago, he landed in the hospital with terrible abdominal pain and the doctors struggled to diagnose his condition. At some point in his 22-day hospital stay, they determined he had pancreatitis (among other complications). At one point he became septic and was knocking on death’s door. He had been an otherwise healthy guy, so this life-threatening acute sickness was a real wake-up call. After all that, his doctors said he needed to go on a strictly plant-based, real food, healthy diet (without oils or salts or sugars. Sorry salad dressings and hard alcohol—there’s no room for you here). He and his family did their research, watched documentaries (including Forks Over Knives) and as a family they all went vegan. Watching them walk through this, and hearing about what he was learning about a plant-based lifestyle, I had to see for myself. I watched the documentary and I was convicted, inspired, horrified, and changed.

We dove into plant-based eating and eliminated all animal products except for eggs (I didn’t want to give those up but we did switch to free range egg whites). Although I’m certain it’s the thing that gave us more digestive troubles than anything else, cheese is the thing everyone missed the most. Nevertheless, we persisted and discovered new foods we liked and how much better our bodies felt and responded to this new way of eating (e.g., better digestion, more energy, decreased eczema, fewer sicknesses all around).

The rails came off when I was pregnant with our fourth child. That darn first trimester always gets me. In my constant state of nausea, things I used to love like coffee, chocolate, and anything green – became utterly repulsive. The things I wanted to hate—macaroni and cheese and Taco Bell and Lucky Charms–those were the only things remotely edible. So, operation Vegan Christy’s officially went on pause. Post-partum, we eased closer to plant-based but still had seasons of meat- and dairy-eating.

In January 2018, one of my goals for healthier living involved shifting food habits. I was already convinced that plant-based was the way to go for ethical and environmental reasons, but after reading In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto along with The End of Dieting: How to Live for Life, I was convinced that it was also much a healthier way to live. My family has come along somewhat reluctantly. No one seems to miss meat. Some of them recognize that dairy upsets their stomachs, so they don’t miss that either. Overall, the biggest challenge has to do with convenience and availability. When you’re eating away from home–whether that’s on vacation, dining out, or getting lunch at school–it’s simply easier to eat standard American fare (meat, dairy, highly processed grains, and high amounts of oil and sugar). I wish it wasn’t the case, but it is. So as long as I’m doing all of the shopping and cooking (including sending everyone with homemade lunches), we can eat according to our code relatively easily. And the longer we’re at it, the easier it gets.

One last note – while the documentaries are intellectually compelling, the parts that resonate most with my kids have been clips from feed lots and slaughter houses that tug on their heart strings and ethical sensibilities. Some of these images are graphic, but I want my kids to know where their food comes from and what sacrifices are required to get it on their plate. I consider this part of raising responsible community members who can make informed choices now and as adults.

We just watched the movie Okja on Netflix. It centers on a young girl who raises a pig that becomes family to her, but is later threatened by the meat industry. Although the profanity might keep some parents away, the story is powerfully moving and is basically a narrative approach to subtly advocating for a plant-based lifestyle. I recommend it!

Where are you in your food journey—are you eating the way you were raised, or have things shifted? Have you made a choice to avoid certain foods? How do you feel after you eat—energized or tired or somewhere in between?

So. Much. Gratitude.

And joy. And spoiler alert: they’re related.

I spent the first part of the morning at a volunteer training in order to teach art literacy to my 3rd grader’s class next week. We made clay pinch pots and although I spent most of my life saying I wasn’t “artsy,” I’ve learned to lean into and enjoy opportunities to flex my creativity. What a fun way to start the day! After a short work day, I left the office when the sun was still high in the sky and squeezed in a 3-mile run around my favorite lake before the girls got home from school. Oh yeah, they walk or bike or scooter home now. This parenting thing just reached a whole new level of awesome.

While one daughter made guacamole and the other practiced piano, I made scrumptious veggie burgers and French fries. From scratch, people. I Tasmanian-Deviled the kitchen sparkling clean by seven while Dave bathed the boys, and after folding a load of laundry and exhorting the girls to just.get.in.the.shower, I was able to sit down and relax. At 7:30! The sun is still out, windows are open with a glorious breeze, and my heart is full of gratitude and deep joy.

I’m thankful for a flexible job that allows me to be at home with the kids in the afternoons and on breaks from school. I know this is HUGE and I don’t take it for granted. I’m thankful for Dave, my very best partner. He makes me laugh and loves me madly and keeps me sane (-ish). I’m thankful for our family’s health and stability. I’m thankful for opportunities to travel and explore and see good friends back in CA. I’m thankful for time to cook meals. I remember the mad dash to get dinner on the table when we were both working full time, and I appreciate the gift of prep time I now enjoy. I’m thankful for spring’s long-awaited arrival, with sun and warmth and breezes that draw us outdoors and reward us with energy boosts and mood improvements. I’m thankful for this place we’ve been calling home for the past three and a half years. Beaverton, I complain a lot about your weather. But nobody’s perfect. And all that rain *does* make the grass greener up here. So there’s that. I’d still like to discuss the oppressive, opaque gray skies of late fall and winter. But for now we’re okay.

All this gratitude has the delightful effect of imparting great joy. Who knew?!

Lots of people, actually. It’s pretty well-documented.

But when you’ve had decades of practice complaining rather than practicing gratitude, realizing just how much better it is to be thankful is kind of a BIG aha moment.

When I was devastated that the church let me go, the city picked me up and said “we want you.” When the church cut me from the budget, the city added me to theirs.

Let that sink in.

The city has been so good to me: with flexibility, encouragement to use my gifts, recognition and affirmation, opportunities for professional development, not to mention–they pay me.

Yes, it’s local government and it’s hilariously Parks and Rec-ish. No, it’s not ministry per-se, nor is it the culmination of all my educational and professional experience.

Yes, it’s only temporary. No, I don’t know what’s coming next (when the temp hours are gone).

And… I’m filled with gratitude. And awe.

Here I am, no longer tethered to a religious institution but finding myself as a minister/theologian/speaker-at-large, and I’m continuing to learn ways to live and move in the world that witness the goodness of God.

And LOL here, God—what the what?!? We followed your leading up to Oregon, and although this isn’t at all what we had in mind—I’ll take it. We’re in a beautiful season in which I’m leaning more deeply into mothering and writing and reading and learning and LIVING. You know–things that are often crowded out by a full-time, demanding job. We’re in a beautiful place with awesome neighbors, remarkably tall trees, clean air, friendly people, great food, an agreeable culture and ethos, and beaches and mountains and lakes and rivers all a short drive away. I’m thankful for this unexpected gift.

What season are you in? Is everything teeming with new life, blooming with possibilities? Or does it feel as though winter hasn’t left your heart yet? Wherever you find yourself: give thanks. What are you thankful for?