The world isn’t what you think it is, and why should it be?

I feel stupid confessing this, but I was slightly freaked out by Europe. We came back last month from eleven days in Rome and Greece, and while I was prepared for the trip, many silly things deeply worried me.

For example, the electrical outlets–two little holes? And their electricity is “different” than American/Canadian electricity? Isn’t it all the same zippity-zappity stuff that streaks across a stormy sky?

And no ice in drinks, anywhere. And water is served lukewarm, even when it’s 95 degrees outside (Fahrenheit; don’t get me started on trying to convert in my head from Celsius). And the grocery stores had little-to-no selection: only four cereals to choose from? What do these poor people eat for breakfast?! And a lot of roads didn’t have painted lines. The cars and pedestrians just winged it and hoped for the best.

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How many lanes is this? And yes, there’s soon to be a car going up the other direction.

And you have to pay one euro just to enter a bathroom, and there’s no guarantee there’ll be toilet paper or even soap.

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I bailed out fellow American women, twice, who danced frantically before these asking, “Wait, what?!”

And our hotel in Rome didn’t even have a sign above it, just a tiny typed piece of paper at a little bell on a stucco wall that we wouldn’t have noticed if the owner hadn’t been waiting for us. And why was he WAITING for us? And shop owners were very aggressive, and taxi drivers were practically shoving us into the back of their cars, despite our exclaiming, “But we have train tickets!” And there was no Dr. Pepper, anywhere, except at an expensive import shop.

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And at two euros each. And of course they’re not cold.

You get the idea.

Naive American traveler, that was me.

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Along with the donkeys of Santorini who smelled lovely on a hot, muggy evening.

Of course I’ve chuckled at naive travelers myself. We went to Yellowstone National Park many times when we lived in the west and shook our heads when we overheard people say, “That smell–can’t they do something about the sulfur? Why are there so many bison? They should build a fence to keep them off the roads. Are those really wolves out there, eating something that was alive? Should kids be seeing this? Why won’t they show us where the bears live? I want to pet a bear.”

Each of us has an idea of how the world is, and it’s narrow, distorted, and unrealistic. No two people will see the same sight the same way, but that’s how we learn, how we grow, how we realize that the world is not what we imagined it would be, and how we teach our imagination to become even broader.

And why should the world conform to our naive expectations? I see many entitled people complaining in the news and social media how the world is “disappointing” them in one way or another. This isn’t right, or that isn’t what they expected, and somehow they feel cheated. In this immense planet with unlimited options and glories around every corner, they bizarrely feel ripped off.

Strangely, it doesn’t occur to them that maybe they, with their selfishness and arrogance, are the real disappointment.

The adventure of life is discovering how diverse it is, being startled to realize that it’s not behaving the way we expect it to, and that it’s never going to be precisely as we demand. Often there are no painted lines, no obvious signs, no clear crossings, so just wing and hope for the best. You’ll survive the vast majority of the time, until you don’t. Life it just that simple, and that complicated.

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Book 7 Teaser–Does “the dogma live loudly within you”?

Last week Senator Diane Feinstein tried to shame a judicial nominee, Amy Barrett, law a professor at Notre Dame and a Catholic mother of seven children, for her religiosity. Feinstein said, “the dogma lives loudly within you.”

It was meant as an accusation for Barrett’s devotion to her religion.

But I can’t imagine great praise being leveled at anyone. To be so true to your convictions that others can witness you “living loudly”? Shouldn’t that be what we all hope can be said of our lives?

Catholics have marvelously embraced this phrase, employing the hashtag “dogmalivesloudly”. Others are saying it’s their new mantra, their goal in life, that everyone can see exactly how they live.

I’m not Catholic but a fellow Christian, and when I read about this yesterday (I missed it while following all the hurricane news), my arms tingled. I have no idea who this Professor Barrett is, but suddenly I really want to meet her.

Often I’ve heard that Christians should be recognized by how they live, that their examples should be obvious. The Apostle Paul proclaimed, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ,” (Romans 1:16) and he definitely lived as he believed.

But such “living loudly” frightens some people, understandably. Remember how the Apostle Paul died, as a martyr? As did Peter, James, Stephen . . . well, just about all of the Savior’s apostles died because they “lived loudly.”

Not that I’m suggesting that holding firm to our Christian beliefs means that we can expect martyrdom, but to be honest, that has happened, and is happening, and will happen in the future.

The world doesn’t like Christianity, but that’s ok, because the approval of the world isn’t what we’re after. We’re here only temporarily. (Atheists, on the other hand, think this life is all there is, so getting everything they want right now turns them a bit dogmatic in their own ways.)

This earth life is merely a blip in our existence, a brief sneeze of time, but such a very important one. It’s an all-inclusive test, to see what we’ll believe, what we’ll pursue, and what our hearts really want.

What we do here tells God what we want to do next. And that “next” is going to be an eternity. That’s why we Christians are also so dogmatic about getting things right.

And why we shouldn’t be afraid to live loudly. Professor Barrett has inspired me, fortified me, helped me realize there are lots of us out there, and that I shouldn’t be afraid to live my Christianity loudly.

Peto grinned at his wife. “So last night made up for yesterday?” he asked.

“Oh, yes,” Lilla said fervently. “The Creator made up for it in grand style.” She looked up at the sky. “THANK YOU!” she hollered.

Peto and Shem flinched in embarrassment as a few people in their fields looked around in confusion. They waved uncertainly at the four riders, not sure what the loud thanks was for, and Shem and Peto waved back, trying not to snort. 

Calla chuckled at her sister. “Why not? THANK YOU!” she called to the sky.

~Book 7, The Soldier in the Middle of the World, coming October 2017

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Don’t care what the world thinks: 7 steps in the pursuit of peace!

In a quest for a more peaceful existence (I really wish I could live in the world of Books 5 and 6 of my series), I’ve been eliminating that which causes undue stress. No, I’m not abandoning my house or nine children, but I’ve been thinking about my dad, how he was the most calm, pleasant, peaceful man I knew.

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My dad, Rudy Strebel, in 2007, holding a granddaughter.

Not that his life was easy—he suffered as a child in WWII Germany, then had a wife he dearly loved but who had frequent and violent bouts with PTSD from her traumatic life as a refugee. In their 50+ years of marriage, I never knew him to lose his temper with her but did his best to soothe her paranoia and terror, every time. And I can count on three fingers the amount of time he slightly raised his voice at me.

He chose to be peaceful, and he was also very careful as to what he let into his life. He didn’t read, watch, or listen to anything that could harm his spirit or drag him down.

He wasn’t ignorant of the world, but he purposely distanced himself  from it to remain unspotted as it splashed in filthy waters.

Lately I’ve been trying to pursue peace as he did, and have implemented ways to limit what weighs down my mind and soul. I’ve incorporated a number of minimalist ideas, and I’m finding greater calm in my life by doing the following:

  1. Unsubscribe! To those emails that entice you to see what’s on sale, what the latest thing is, what you “really don’t want to miss!”

Miss it anyway. Don’t be lured in, don’t be tricked into buying something simply because it’s a great deal, and don’t waste time reading what can’t elevate you. It’s all distracting, even just deleting it, having to swat it away like a pesky mosquito. Get rid of them altogether. I’ve been opening, scrolling down, and unsubscribing from dozens of emails–even from places where I still buy something once or twice a year–and my feeds are cleaner, sleeker, and calmer. All that remains now is that which is really important for me to consider.

2. Unfollow! Here’s an awesome feature on Facebook: stay friends, but stop seeing every little thing they do.

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I’ve realized that I care only about my family (we have a secret group just for us), and some neighbors and friends who consistently demonstrate insight and humor–qualities I value.

The other hundreds of “friends”? I’ve unfollowed them. I can always check on them every few months if I feel the need (if I remember who they are).

In the meantime, I’ve cut out a mind-cluttering stream of whining, bragging, complaining, and comparing. It’s been like leaving junior high all over again–sweet relief!

Now I have a feed of primarily funny, inspiring, and heartfelt posts.

Twitter, Instagram, all those others? I don’t even go there, but you can also pare those down significantly to refine your life.

3. Tune out! I quit listening to the radio years ago and felt my blood pressure in the car normalize instantly. We never watch TV news, I skim the newspaper for only important news, and I’ve quit following nearly every online news outlet.

The result? The world keeps on churning but I don’t have to swim in that muck. I know what’s going on, but I observe only from a distance. Getting angry over the world doesn’t fix it. Stepping away from it, however, allows me to continue raising my family with peace of mind.

4. Ignore trends! Years ago, I quit following trends in home décor, clothing, and etc. by eliminating magazines and TV shows that told me what I had was out of date. How much more I love my house and wardrobe now that I’m not worried what the world thinks of it! And I’ve saved a lot of money, too.

And no one, ever, has said anything about me not being trendy enough. It’s like no one really cares.

5. Don’t participate! Like my dad, I’ve chosen to not listen to music that degrades or is “hard.” I listen to soundtracks and trailer albums instead. I read only books that satisfy and uplift; one summer, I sent back nearly a dozen library books after their first chapters because they were smutty, suggestive, or crude. I don’t watch rated-R movies or anything excessively violent, vulgar, or profane. All of that introduces anger and angst to my soul, qualities I’m purposely ushering out.

Yes, it’s sometimes hard to find something current to watch or read, but there are also a lot of classics out there waiting to be discovered. I’m also taking up my dad’s habit to read more biographies of truly great people, and more doctrinal works that teach me deeper about the nature of God.

6. Choose kindness! This one can be tough, especially for me because I inherited my mother’s cynical mind and tongue (when she was well, she was acerbic and hilarious). My father, however, while full of dad-jokes (he invented them all), was also unfailingly kind, even to his end. He suffered from Alzheimer’s, but the staff at his assisted living center said that while many in his condition became angry or violent, my dad never did. It was as if his mind had been choosing for so long to be kind that it simply didn’t understand rudeness.

Kindness softens the soul, and when I’m kind to people, especially strangers, sweet peace comes. As an introvert, I don’t like talking to people and tend to be abrupt with strangers, especially when I’m checking out with my groceries. I need this t-shirt:

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But I’m trying harder to smile genuinely, thank sincerely, and respond to their questions with more than two-word answers.

I’m also trying to consider everyone with a kinder heart, and a more generous attitude. Even just thinking kindly brings peace.

7. Be quiet! No, not “kindly shut up,” but I mean, take time to be quiet and disconnect. Yesterday it was 85 degrees, so I took my 5-year-old son to a splash pad. I watched him for 45 minutes racing the sprays and screaming when the water went up his nose. He dried off for ten minutes and we watched a front-loader moving dirt the whole time, seeing how much dirt he dropped as he drove.

It was “quiet” in that I wasn’t listening to music, or playing on my phone, nor was I even reading. I was simply enjoying the water splashing, the boy yelling (happily), and the truck moving dirt. Purely peaceful, purely disconnected from the bigger world. I could focus on the most important part of the world, right in front of me. 

I am finding greater quiet and calm in my life in a world that’s increasingly not, and I’m always looking for new strategies. What works for you? How do you eliminate the world and its nonsense, and find peace and serenity instead?

“We don’t care about what the world thinks of us, Young Pere. You know that. We left it behind and have never regretted it.”

Peto realized there were many pure men and women, but they couldn’t exist in the polluted world.

~ Book 6, Flight of the Wounded Falcon      

Book 6 teaser–What do you find entertaining?

Just as you can learn a lot about a person by what they laugh at, so too can you understand their character by what entertains them.

What one watches, reads, puts up on their walls, and pours into their minds will tell you a lot more about someone than what comes out of their mouth.

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(I can’t help myself–the first thing I do when I walk into someone’s house is evaluate the art on the walls and glance at the titles on the bookshelf, if there is one.)

Why there will be different answers to these questions, and why that’s ok

Each of my writing classes was subjected to the following experiment.

I’d divide the students into three groups, have all of them close their eyes, then, one group at a time, they’d open their eyes to read three words on the board.

The first group would read this:

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After they closed their eyes, I’d erase those words and write the next three for the second group:

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After they closed their eyes, the third group would open theirs to find I’d written this:

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I’d erase those words, then write the following:

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Once the all the students opened their eyes again, I’d ask them, group by group, what the missing letter should be to complete the word.

The first group would quickly supply, “It’s an i. The word should be ripe.”

This is when the third group would begin to squirm, feeling like they’ve missed something.

The second group would frown a little, but they weren’t too concerned as they said, “No, the letter should be o. The word is rope.

While the RIPE group would be a little surprised, their response was nothing compared to the discomfort of the third group.

Apologetically, I’d turn to them next. Always there was hesitation, until someone would offer, “The word should be rape.”

The first two groups would stare at them in shock.

“Sorry,” I’d say to the third group, “but you proved this point: all of us see the world in different ways, based upon what you’ve been exposed to. As writers—as people—we frequently don’t understand why one seemingly obvious situation presents itself in a completely different way to others. We assume our interpretation is always the clearest, but depending upon our experiences, there may be many different ‘correct’ interpretations. And, as you can also see, our responses to a benign situation are deeply affected by what’s going on in our heads.”

If my students remembered nothing else from my classes, I’m fairly certain they remembered this example.

And it’s probably the most important lesson.

What we’re exposed to creates our interpretation of the world.

How we’ve been raised, what we watch, what we fantasize about, what we believe all taints—for good, or for bad, or for indifferent—how we interpret the world around us.

Repeatedly our society screams about what’s right and wrong, just and unfair, malignant and benign.

And here’s the crazy part: everyone is right . . . in their own minds. According to their experiences, they are interpreting the world as they think it really is.

Paul discovered 2,000 years ago, that “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” Not only are our perceptions warped by glass, but it’s tinted so that what we see isn’t even cast in the correct light.

I’ve never met anyone who actively promotes ideas or beliefs that they felt are inherently wrong.

Everyone thinks they’re seeing things as they really are, pushing for what they believe is the best thing.

Everyone.

There’s no solution to this. And there doesn’t have to be. There’s no correcting those who see “rope” when you know it should be “ripe.” There’s no changing someone’s mind by telling (or shouting at) them they’re wrong. That’s never worked.

Never.

There is, however, recognizing that everyone interprets the same situation differently.

Each one of my classes did the same thing at the end of this experiment: they turned to their peers in the other groups and asked, “Why did you see that word as rope when I thought it should be rape?” In less than a minute, everyone’s answers made sense.

No one argued that someone offered the wrong solution. Everyone agreed that, based upon their exposure before, each person’s response was correct.

If you don’t understand why someone thinks the way they do, try asking. I don’t believe you have a right to argue against someone’s point of view until you fully understand it. (And when you do, you may not want to argue at all.)

Two things I’ve taken away from this experiment:

  1. People don’t HAVE to agree. I’d split up friends for the groups, and they’d be surprised to hear each other’s differing responses, but they’d still remain friends. They didn’t argue, or belittle, or shun, or mock, or condemn. They’d take a few minutes to understand each other, then they’d just let the differences be.
  2. People can choose to change their minds. The attitudes which most impressed me were those of students who said, “I don’t like the way I was thinking about those letters. I now want to see the word as RIPE instead of RAPE.” And they would. No one forced them to change their minds, but they listened, open-minded and open-hearted, to why others interpreted the letters differently, and they chose themselves to accept that new way of thinking.

So can we all.

       Perrin turned to his wife. “That’s why I married you, isn’t it? You always see the sides I can’t.”
       Mahrree reached across the table to squeeze his hand. “And you always see the sides I don’t notice. Works pretty well that way, doesn’t it?
~Book 5, Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti

“She knew that in a very real way, she controlled the world. At least, she controlled the way her students would see it.”

“That’s right, sweety—that’s a dog. Doggies are bad. They will always bite you, even if they look nice. Keep walking . . .”

That was the conversation I overheard between a mom and her three-year-old daughter yesterday. I was pushing my son in a stroller past them, and glanced over at the evil beast behind a massive fence.
It was a small, fluffy mixed breed dog, panting happily, not snapping at all.

Not that I’m a huge fan of dogs—I tolerate them, at best—but I worry when an adult passes along their fears, irrational or not, to their children.

I cringed, but the damage had been done.
The child shuddered obediently and gripped her mother’s hand as they rushed home. The girl had been indoctrinated.

The thing is, we all indoctrinate our children, in good ways and bad.
I’ve heard some adults argue that “religious nuts” brainwash their kids into believing in their faith, but it’s still propaganda when adults persuade children to not believe in anything at all.

As parents we literally present the world to our children—a view which they then spend the rest of their lives believing or disproving, or talking to a therapist about.
A difficult question then is, What view of the world have I given to my children?

My mother was a classic case of paranoia run amok. Suffering in Germany as a child during WWII, losing her parents, her grandmother, and several cousins to the war, seeing some of her family interred in concentration camps, then escaping from her home (now a part of Poland) to the west by herself as a 16-year-old, just one day ahead of the invading Russians, is going to leave some scars.

Unfortunately, she refused to have those scars looked at, insisting every time we tried to get her treatment for her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that she had things under control.
She didn’t.
She feared the world. She was afraid of people in uniforms (she hated the Boy Scouts—just like Hitler Youth, she claimed), people in stores (you never know why they’re looking at you), and people just chatting in the halls at church (she knew they were gossiping about her). Every person was a potential threat to her happiness, as it were.

Sometimes she was fine, going for months being cheerful and even joining in the conversations with other women in our neighborhood.
Then suddenly something would snap again—we never knew what the trigger was—and for many months and even years she was sure everyone hated her for her German accent, and that someone was coming to get her.

All of that rubs off on a kid, and even though I learned to distance myself from her delusions and paranoia as a teenager, I still feel my chest tighten when I see a group of women and I think I’m supposed to talk to them.
But rhetoric courses I took in college demonstrated how each person views the world in a different way and, most importantly, those views can change.

In my mom’s later years, her paranoia blossomed—one of the lesser-common side effects of Parkinson’s disease is hallucinations. And she did them magnificently.

My 40th birthday will always be memorable because she called to wish me a happy birthday, then said, “Well, your father’s all but out of the family now since I discovered he’s been having affairs.” The man was 78 at the time. My mom also complained about the listening devices in the house, the person living in the attic demanding sugar, and the horrible statue garden my brother and his wife had put up in the backyard.

My older sister called me two hours later to say, “I just had Mom committed to the mental hospital to stabilize her. How’s that for a birthday present?”

Now, four years later, my mother barely knows where she is or who she is. As her life slips away, I mourn for her that she never fully knew just how wonderful it could be. The world held her hostage since she was a little girl. She never knew how to change her view of the world, nor did she fully realize that for the past sixty-plus years she had a very easy life. All she could focus on was her fear.

That’s why I cringed when I heard that mother yesterday telling her daughter to be afraid of dogs. Undoubtedly she’s had some trauma in her past that she never got over, but to pass those fears on to someone innocent?
To taint an entire collection of creatures with just one ugly color because of a bias?
To assume that we as adults truly know how everything is, and that we’re completely correct in all our assumptions?

I don’t know whether to call that prejudice, or arrogance, or ignorance.
Whatever it is, it needs to be resolved to give our kids a fair and fighting chance.
And that’s probably the toughest thing for a parent to do.