Shorts in the Wintertime

At 6 a.m. on approximately 10 Saturdays a year while many people are still tucked cozily in their beds, I drag my children out of bed and into their swimsuits, sweatshirts, and towel pants and off to an early morning swim meet.

Several years ago, a friend signed her daughter up for the swim team and shared that her Saturdays in June and July were booked due to swim meets lasting from the early morning to early afternoon. I thought she was crazy. Why would she give up her Saturday morning for a swim meet, I wondered?

Fast forward five years and I found myself with a six-year-old who loved the water and seemed to have a natural ability for swimming. Combined with the encouragement of a friend who was a swim coach and other friends whose children were on the swim team, I decided that Julia would try summer swim. And, if we had to be at practice every summer morning, her nine-year-old brother might as well do it, too.

As with most new activities, my kids weren’t star swimmers, but they loved summer swim team. They already had several friends on the team, but they soon made more friends and enjoyed the fun summer practices and meets. What kid doesn’t like hanging out with his or her friends on a Saturday morning, eating candy, playing video games, and swimming competitively for a total of five minutes?

Although I was not a competitive swimmer, some of my high school friends were on the swim team, and it seemed like their families were a tight bunch. But I never gave it much thought until my children started swimming.

It makes sense. You spend almost every Saturday morning for four months of the year with the same people, and you’re going to form friendships. Not to mention that swimming parents are some of the nicest parents I’ve met. I have witnessed very little competition among parents, perhaps because it is an individual sport, and the swimmers’ times determine what heat they’re in. In what other sport do the slowest athletes get the loudest cheers?

Years later, I can see why my swimmer friends’ parents still hang out together, even though their children have been out of school for almost 25 years.

Sadly, Mitchell informed me that this will be his last year of winter swim. He is more focused on soccer and baseball and with today’s year-round sports mentality, he has become too busy.

Plus, winter swim has been tougher for my kids than summer. For one, it is a long season – lasting from September to February. Second, practices are held at the Elizabethtown College pool, which is kept at a cold temperature. It is not an easy feat to persuade Julia to go to the chilly pool for practice in the middle of winter. Finally, swimming is an intense sport that takes a lot of drive. Mitchell counted the number of laps Julia had to swim in one of her recent practices, and it totaled 33. That same day, Mitchell swam 74 laps in practice.

I am in awe of these kids’ ability and endurance.

Overall I think I do a decent job of not living vicariously through my children, but I will miss the swim team if Julia quits. Chatting with the parents, complaining about the excessive heat of the natatorium (hence the need to wear shorts), volunteering as a timer, and cheering on the swimmers has created a camaraderie that has me selfishly hoping she continues for a few more years. After all, what else would we do at 6 on a Saturday morning?

cGarber J 7 Dive great facePhoto by James McKenzie

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The Brethren Don’t Dance (Church: Part II of II)

Recently I heard a song in church I never thought I would hear – “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC. This version was different in that it lacked lyrics and was rearranged by one of our pastors and intern. Nonetheless, I didn’t know if I should be horrified or thrilled (after all, I do own AC/DC Live).

The sermon that another one of our pastors – Greg – preached that day was on hell (2 in a 3 part series), not an easy topic. If you’re curious about the content, you can read it online. But at the end of the service Pastor Greg said there is no one he’d rather follow Jesus with than the congregation.

And I completely agreed. Because I thought, “These are my people.” In fact, that’s what I think every Sunday when I go to church.

Sure, there are many Sundays when I am tired.  We are always running late. We are always rushing to make coffee, make breakfast, shower, get the kids ready, etc.  Often, we utter not-so-kind words on our way out the door. But then I step into our adult Sunday school class, which I have haphazardly coordinated for the past seven years and think “These are my people.”

In this day and age, church is not something that is a priority for many people. The news has been full of stories lately that Americans are not nearly as religious as they once were.  A recent Pew Research study talked about how the numbers of religiously unaffiliated has grown in the past few years. The focus is particularly on the age group below mine – the millennials; however, according to the study, only 34 percent of Generation X attend religious services weekly.

I know that the church, like other institutions, is flawed. Ranging from scare tactics about the end times to exclusion of individuals that don’t fit into a preconceived notion of how a Christian should act to corruption among church leaders (just watched the outstanding and disturbing movie “Spotlight”), it is easy to understand why so many have turned away.

Still, our family is part of that 34 percent that makes church a priority, and that is largely because of the unique congregation to which we belong.

Greg and I both grew up in church-going families, although we came from different ends of the spectrum.  He grew up with an evangelical background, while I was a part of mainstream Protestant churches. As a newlywed, I didn’t think this difference would affect us. We both came from the habit of attending church regularly, so we both assumed we would find a church to meet both of our needs. It wasn’t easy. In our first year of marriage, we visited several churches in our area, but nothing resonated with us.

Greg wanted to visit the Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren, a denomination I knew nothing about.  A woman I worked with filled me in on this denomination.

“The Brethren don’t dance,” she told me.

Enough said. I wasn’t interested.

But then, in early 1999, something strange happened. We attended a funeral at this church and found that there was a female pastor. If there is a woman pastor, then the Brethren must dance, I thought.

The next week we attended the Sunday service and found the people incredibly friendly.  Greg already knew several people there, and two of the three pastors were from the Midwest. We were sold.

What we didn’t know about the Church of the Brethren, we learned in membership class and may seem odd to those not familiar with the church. The Church of the Brethren is one of three historic peace churches, meaning it takes the “turn the other cheek” verse seriously. The denomination as a whole opposes all war. Of course, as in all churches, not everyone feels the same about this topic. Our church is also an anomaly within the denomination in that it is open and accepting of LGBT persons.

Since that time, our bond with this unusual place of worship has only increased. While some churches struggle with whether to hold two services – traditional and contemporary – our church body has chosen to worship together as one in a blended service. We have traditional music from the hymnal and the choir combined with modern music that incorporates a variety of instruments and styles.  On Christmas Eve, for example, the service ended with a version of “Carol of the Bells” that rivaled the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

But a church is not only about what it stands for or about how inspiring the Sunday services are.  A church, most importantly, is about the people.  And these people are a caring people. Since we have been part of ECOB, we have experienced much joy, and that joy has been shared. When I was pregnant with my firstborn, I belonged to a book group comprised of mostly church members and they celebrated with me, by throwing me a “book shower” to stock up on books for Mitchell’s library. After both of our babies were born, people from our church brought us meals. When one of our family members was in an accident in the past year, the support from our congregation was overwhelming.

We cannot predict the future, but we can pretty much ensure that there will be both joy and sadness in the coming years. I have witnessed both in our church, and the outpouring of concern is amazing. I feel comforted to know that no matter what the future brings, we have a church family to walk beside us.  Some are our close friends; some aren’t. But it doesn’t matter. We are united by this unique and precious community.

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Turnip Soup and Sautéed Greens (Church: Part I of II)

This past Monday, while I could have been sitting in a tree stand, trying to shoot my first deer of the season (or my life for that matter), I was driving a car full of middle school boys to Washington, D.C. instead.

On this particular day, our church, the Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren, organized a trip to volunteer at a soup kitchen in D.C. Our church visits this soup kitchen several times a year, as it is less than a three hour drive, is in need of volunteers, and provides a great opportunity for us to serve and interact with a different population than we are used to in our small, homogeneous town.

This was Mitchell’s (a sixth-grader) and my first visit and the first visit for the eight other youth that attended as well. As one of two drivers, I was slightly nervous about managing five boys by myself in the car, but they turned out to be surprisingly well-behaved.

When we arrived, we were given the ambitious assignment of preparing turnip soup, sautéed greens, and bread pudding for the lunch.  I say ambitious because I know at least my sixth-grader has never used a chopping knife. But the kids completed the tasks well and with joy. Despite the drizzly weather, they enjoyed visiting some monuments in D.C. afterwards.

On the way home, the boys played games they made up on the fly, one of which involved writing goofy stories.

Sadly, it has been a long time since I was in a car in which kids didn’t use electronics to occupy themselves on a road trip (my own fault, I know).

While they entertained themselves, I was reminiscing (in my head) about all my memorable youth group experiences growing up. There was the time in middle school in Minnesota when our socially-awkward pastor taught us sex education during confirmation class. I kid you not. The pastor told us that no matter what, the most important word of the lesson to remember was the “f word.”

“Does anyone know what the “f word” is?” he said.

Everyone in the room knew what the “f word” was. At first no one had the nerve to say it, but after much prodding from the pastor, one kid blurted it out.

The pastor’s mouth dropped open.

Apparently, the word he had in mind was forgiveness. When my friend and I told her mom later, she laughed so hard she had to stop the car.

Then, there was the time in high school when our church van collided with a Big Boy sign in Michigan during a ski trip. And another time when the van was already so full by the time my friend and I showed up for our road trip to Montreat, North Carolina that we got to ride in comfort in our youth group leader’s Caddy.  I think it was on that same trip that one of my peers and I spent part of the trip home writing poems and raps about our trip.  Not too different from Mitchell’s experience this past Monday.

The churches I grew up in weren’t perfect. But they were perfect for me at the time. They were places in which leaders encouraged questions, and the answers weren’t always cut and dried.  They allowed me to think for myself.

Thankfully, Greg and I have found a similar place where we take our kids. Although radically different in many ways from my past churches, it is a place where all people are accepted and welcome, where love trumps belief, where questions are encouraged, and where children’s safety and spiritual growth are prioritized.

It is not perfect either. But at a time when there is so much violence and negativity in our world, the focus on youth serving others is inspiring. And I feel lucky I got to witness it this week.

Below:  Mitchell and I in front of the Lincoln Memorial

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A Life Well Lived

When I was pregnant with my firstborn, a friend of my mom’s asked her if she was going to be “one of those crazy grandparents,” who couldn’t stop gushing over her grandchildren.

“No,” my mom said. “I won’t be one of THOSE grandparents.”

Ah, but she was wrong. When Mitchell was born in 2004 my parents lived in Indiana, but my mom came and spent the summer with us.

For the first time in my life, her attention was focused on a child that wasn’t me. Now I know what it feels like to have a sibling, I thought! But this was my child, and my mom was devoted to him.

And thus, the unique grandparent/grandchild relationship between my parents and children began. It only intensified (in a good way) when my parents retired and moved here five years later.

In a sense, it’s completely different from the relationship I had with my grandparents, in that they always lived 100-1000 miles away. But in another sense, it’s not so different, in that my grandparents were devoted to my cousins and me.

My dad’s dad (Grandpa McKenzie) was particularly special to us. To all who knew him, this man was known for his incredible patience and gentleness. He was born in Canada in 1918 and immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler. His father was Scottish and his mother Canadian.  He graduated from Ohio State at a time when it wasn’t so common to attend college. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and fought in Germany during World War II. He worked as an industrial engineer for years and sent three children to college in the 1960s and 70s.

By the time I was born in 1975, my grandpa had already defied death several times. In addition to putting his life on the line in the war, he also had two heart attacks in his late 40s and early 50s.

What I remember him for is the endless time he spent with me.  One of my earliest memories of him includes riding in the backseat of a car driving to Florida while he read old Christmas cards to me and let me comb his greasy gray hair over and over with his small black pocket comb.

He and my grandma retired to Florida when I was seven. My family stayed in the Midwest, but the distance didn’t matter. We traveled to Florida at least once a year, and they visited us. In fourth grade, my parents put me on my first plane ride alone to spend my spring break with them.

As I grew up, my grandparents continued to show up for every milestone in my life no matter how far away they were.  They were there for my high school tennis matches, prom, and high school and college graduations.

In 1996, my grandpa was diagnosed with kidney and colon cancer. He lived through it, long enough to see me and three more of my cousins get married and meet four great-grandchildren.

In 2006, the renal cancer that hit him in the 90s spread to his lungs. Ever the optimist, he entered a clinical trial.  The trial gave him a few more years of life until he started heading downhill again. In early 2008, both he and my grandma were admitted into Hospice.  She passed away in January.

Greg and I flew to Indiana for the funeral, knowing that it would probably be the last time we would see him. The funeral and family gathering were bittersweet as we remembered my grandma and said our goodbyes. Within the next three weeks, three of my cousins and I decided to travel one more time to see our grandpa before he passed. Of the four of us, my visit was last.

A few days before we were scheduled to arrive, my aunt told my grandpa, who was drifting in and out of consciousness, that Mitchell and I were coming that weekend.

“Well, I need to make it until then,” he said.

And he did. He was almost unconscious when we arrived, but when I held his hand and told him we were there, his eyes opened and he looked my way. A few hours later, surrounded by his family, he died.

Almost eight years have passed since then, but his legacy is still with us. I see his endless patience and dedication in my dad, who spends hours with my kids and makes it a priority to attend their sporting events. I see it in my aunt, uncle, and cousins.

Unlike him, I do not have endless patience, and I’m not always so laid back. But I think the attribute I admired the most about him was that he appreciated every day and moment with those he loved. Even during the years when he was sick, he never stopped loving life. I am only hopeful I can do the same.

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My grandpa, cousin, and I in 1983.

Community

A few years ago I attended a memorial service for a friend’s mom.  One of her friends who gave a eulogy talked about what a wonderful, fun, and loyal friend this woman was. She talked about their long-term friendship and how they traveled together, supported each other through difficult times, and laughed together.

I left that service thinking, “That is what I want someone to say about me at my memorial service.”

Because, friends have always been extremely important to me. Maybe it had to do with growing up as an only child, where there were no siblings to play with.  I had cousins, but none lived close by. My neighbors and school friends were my support system. And I saw it modeled in my parents’ lives as well. Never living near family, they relied on their friends – neighbors, colleagues, and church members – for their network of support.

That is why the years of 1998 through 2004 were some of the most difficult for me so far. Some say one’s twenties should be the best years of his or her life. But for me, who met my soul mate at age 19, they were lonely years of adjusting to a new community and a new environment.  Don’t get me wrong – I loved being married to Greg, but I had a tough adjustment to Lancaster County and farm living.

Adding to my loneliness was the fact that my first job in Pennsylvania was in downtown Harrisburg in an office where I was the only employee. I enjoyed my job, but I was simply isolated a lot of the time. Greg was a farmer, which meant that he worked long hours seven days a week.

My life improved when I found a new job in Lancaster. There I found friends and a community, albeit not the community where I lived. I still lacked a meaningful connection to the small town of Elizabethtown (pop. 11,545).

In 2009 circumstances in our lives changed, and I made the decision to quit my job to become a stay-at-home mom, something I never thought I would do. It was then that developing strong friendships in Elizabethtown finally took precedence.

I joined a mom’s group, where I met friends who, like me, had moved into the area. I became more active in my church and deepened friendships there. Once my children started school and got involved in activities, I met friends that way. I prioritized inviting friends to my home for meals and coffee.

After 17 years, now I have lived in Elizabethtown longer than I have lived anywhere else. The reasons I liked the area to begin with (proximity to Baltimore, Philly, DC, NY, and ocean; natural beauty; lack of traffic; prevalence of locally-grown food) still apply, but now I am tethered to the people, too.  And incredibly thankful that life has brought me to this place.

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Some of my wonderful friends

Herding Cats

Any animal lover married to a non-animal lover has learned that some people just lack natural affection towards pets.

My husband Greg is one of those people. Unfortunately for me, neither of my parents were particularly fond of animals either, so my only pet growing up was Swimmy the goldfish. Despite this, I always considered myself a dog person. As a newlywed, Greg agreed to get a dog, a black lab named Flanders, who lived to the age of 13. As a 30-something part-time student/farmer and father of two young children, there was no way he would agree to another. Which, at the time, was okay with me.

As far as cats went, he disliked the look of diseased, in-bred cats roaming on farms, so he instructed me not to feed stray cats. I liked cats, but was allergic to them so this wasn’t a problem.

But that was before we had kids. As soon as my daughter Julia could talk, she made it clear that she loved cats. Even at age eight, she still has 33 stuffed cats, prefers wearing shirts with cats on them to anything else and often meows rather than speaks when she is nervous or excited.

So when a gray cat appeared at our house three years ago, I thought this might be the perfect opportunity for Julia to have a cat without having a cat, i.e barn cats rather than house cats. We started feeding this cat, and soon other cats showed up, including a pregnant orange tiger cat we named Meringue.

After Meringue’s kittens were born, my anxiety built regarding my lack of control over the cats. I worried about rabies and precisely the in-bred, diseased cat herd that Greg had long ago warned me about. A farm wife friend directed me to the Humane League of Lancaster County’s spay and neuter/shots program for stray cats. Shortly thereafter, I borrowed a friend’s cat carrier and purchased a Havahart trap to catch the cats. My plan was to have Meringue and her kittens — Dessy and Creamsicle — spayed and neutered and vaccinated against rabies. Unfortunately, I didn’t act quickly enough. As soon as I set up the appointments, I discovered Meringue was pregnant again.

She gave birth to four more kittens, and our cat situation spiraled out of control.

Anytime Julia was outside, she spent hours searching for the cats and playing with them. After much thought, I decided the only way to prevent her from touching the kittens was to allow her to bring one inside. I could deal with my allergies by taking medication, but I knew it would be hard to convince Greg.

Rather than saying no, he came up with a counter plan. For years he had been trying to persuade me to pay for NFL Sunday Ticket on DIRECTV. Now he had a new bargaining tool. He agreed to bring the outside cat inside in exchange for Sunday Ticket.

Two and a half years later, Oreo is still in our house. Meringue and Creamsicle continue to live outside, but are spayed and neutered and vaccinated against rabies. We found homes for the other kittens. Greg tolerates Oreo and is enjoying Sunday Ticket.

I, on the other hand, have become Crazy Cat Lady. Oreo keeps me company on days when I’m home alone. She is smart and loyal and sweet. For now Greg and I have reached a truce. Until I can convince him of my next crazy plan – buying a goat.

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From left: Dessy, Creamsicle, Meringue and her kittens, including Oreo

Chocolate at the Finish Line

Running has not always been my favorite pastime. The hate started in the summer of 1988. My dad decided I was too much of a bookworm and that I should spend my summer getting exercise by running to the tennis courts, practicing my tennis and running home. While I have good memories of the time he spent with me, I dreaded the runs. That same year, I came in dead last in the eighth-grade mile run in gym class.

In high school I tried running at various times, mostly because I hoped it would improve my tennis game, but it never stuck. While studying in Germany in 1996, I furthered my half-hearted attempt by running regularly to shed weight from all the pastries and beer I consumed.

Then, I quit running until 2010. Around that time, I attended a friend’s wedding where I visited with an acquaintance who hadn’t been a runner in college. In recent years, she had participated in several races, including a marathon. Also a professor, she told me she was persistent, which is why she was able to accomplish goals like getting her Ph.D. and running a marathon.  When some friends suggested running a 5k that year, I agreed to join them.

Since that time, I have run 16 5ks, two 10ks and three half marathons. I am still not fast, nor will I ever be. But I have gained much from running. Not only is it low-cost exercise, but it is also convenient since I don’t live near a gym or well, let’s face it, near anything. For me, running is natural anti-anxiety medication. I can feel completely down when I wake up in the morning, go for a run, and feel so much better. I mostly run alone, but have strengthened many friendships by traveling to races and in some cases running with others. I have explored beautiful country roads on foot that I never would have driven down (always with my pepper spray :)). My 11-year-old son, who is faster than me, has run five 5ks with me and that has been fulfilling, too.

Tomorrow I will run in the Hershey Half Marathon for the second time and am feeling about as lukewarm as I’ve felt about a race yet. My ankle hurts, and I have a cold. But for some crazy reason, I am still looking forward to it. Driving to the race with my friend, who is running her first half, meeting up with some other good friends before the race and accomplishing a goal that I never would have believed I would achieve will make the struggle worth it. And of course, the chocolate at the finish line. 🙂

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Photos from my runs

Why Blog? Why Now?

I spent many hours thinking about this question, mostly while running the country roads near my house. It comes down to this:  I enjoy writing and have written little in the last seven years.

Also, life can get busy with two active elementary-aged children. Last winter, while driving to an early morning swim meet, I turned on NPR and heard an interview with the poet Mary Oliver on Krista Tippett’s show On Being. At 7 a.m. on this particular Sunday in February, I was riveted.  The following week I bought Oliver’s book New and Selected Poems, Volume I. Oliver has spent her life observing and appreciating.  Despite the hardship she’s faced, she finds the beauty in our world. My goal with this blog is to slow down in this crazy world and appreciate more, whether it be in nature, my relationships or experiences.

With that said, here’s what my readers (hoping there are some) will NOT find on this blog:
Recipes
Crafts
Cleaning tips

What You May Find Here:
Stories about my interests and family
Photos (hopefully)