Prairie View

Monday, December 31, 2007

Surprise Christmas Encounters

This morning at about 6:00 Hiromi made a sleepy journey downstairs to light the furnace, which has had an annoying habit of going off recently. The furnace is in Joel's bedroom, unoccupied since Joel left for Bangladesh in August. He flipped the light switch and headed toward the furnace when he caught sight of someone in Joel's bed, and a suitcase parked beside it. Why is Shane sleeping here--with his suitcase still unpacked from the Canada trip? He hastily turned off the light, lit the furnace and then checked Shane's room. His bed was occupied also. Still puzzled, he came back upstairs and saw the guest book lying open on the dining room table. The last signature was Andy's. Andy was not here when we had gone to bed, but apparently the boys had invited him home and offered him Joel's bed.

This was the third in a series of unexpected meetings since Christmas Day.

Ted, from Virginia, has spent a number of weeks in our home at various times during the past year and a half, and we have spent the past few Christmases together. "I guess we'll have Christmas without Ted this year," someone had said last week. Then on Christmas Day his father called from Oklahoma where he and his children had driven to a relative's house for Christmas. He had looked at the map and was surprised to see how close he was to our community, so he called my brother-in-law, Marvin, who just moved away from the community in Virginia where they both had lived. The result was that a huge clan of Millers met their family for lunch on Wednesday noon in Yoder. That afternoon Ted came here and stayed till the family left the next morning. So Ted was here after all this Christmas.

On Saturday Hiromi and I went to town together. At the custom framing counter at Hobby Lobby, a woman came up to me and asked, "Are you David L. Miller's daughter?"

"Yes," I answered, "but how would you know that?" I said, madly scrolling through my memory to figure out who this was.

The woman is my first cousin Mary, who grew up in Iowa, married and moved to Ohio, and now lives in northeast Oklahoma. She was in Hutchinson to spend Christmas with her husband's parents, who, unknown to me, live in Hutchinson. When she told me who she was, my memory "mouse" clicked, and I could see my mother's face and that of my aunts, Esther and Fannie (minus the eyeliner and about 20 years). I have vague memories of the time her older sister Edna lived with our family and went to school at East Eureka. I was about three years old at the time.

Her husband, Tony, had spotted us and told his wife, "There's an Amish lady here with a Japanese man."

"That has to be my cousin," she replied (I guess our "weirdness" has made us memorable), and they set off to follow us. I'm glad they did. We visited for a while and caught up a bit on our mutual aunts and uncles, many of whom she has not seen for decades.

Friends and family are a wonderful part of the pleasure of this Christmas season.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Significant Composition Project

In 2008 it will be 50 years since our church was organized. In honor of that event, and at my request, the students in my composition class are compiling an account of the events surrounding the church's beginning and during the ensuing 50 years. All the students have family roots in this church or its offspring groups, so it is, in a way, their own history.

We've had eleven people in their 60's, 70's, and 80's come to our class in groups of two or three. All of them had the opportunity to answer questions or volunteer information. We've gathered and pored over records that people in the community have kept, looked through genealogy books, and Beachy church record books. We have distributed surveys, and made many phone calls. From this information we are making lists of births, deaths, baptisms, weddings, ordinations, church members, and voluntary service, education, and teaching involvements. Each decade will get its own narrative treatment. This kind of information has never been gathered in one place before.

Last week I saw my uncle Paul at the bank. He is a retired bishop and principal, and currently teaches a Bible class at the high school. "Do your students have any idea of the significance of the project they're working on?" he asked.

"I don't know," I answered. I'm still trying to figure out if he meant significance, as in enormity, or significance, as in importance. Right now, I suspect the first meaning is clearer to the students than the second. They've worked furiously to finish assignments in time. On the last day of school before Christmas vacation, I allowed them to email me the narrative accounts after school hours. Midnight was the deadline. One of them apparently came in at 11:59, only I didn't see it till late the next day when the student followed up with a phone call and I found it in my junk file--sent there automatically because I'd never gotten an email from that person before.

Underlying my desire to expose my students to the experience of doing research from primary sources, and my desire to see them participate in a project that won't get lost permanently in some stack of old school assignments, is the wish to assist in forging connections between these students and the community that nurtures and supports them. I'm confident that this will happen in the course of uncovering truth and hearing people's stories.

Already they have heard the story of how the vision that eventually became Pilgrim Christian High School was born on the seat of a tractor in the heart of one who had listened to parents' concern for a safe place in which their children could receive a high school education. They've heard how intensely people treasured the privilege of having midweek services where lay people participated and learned. They've heard the story of how hard people worked fifty years ago to maintain respectful and warm relationships even when irreconcilable differences made them decide to go separate ways.

When the deadlines are past and the books have passed from the hands of their student creators into the hands of the audience, I hope these composition class lessons will have become life lessons, informing each student's choices and providing direction for lives lived purposefully, close to God and the people they are called to serve.

Composition is so much more than writing. It involves sorting through trivia for that which is significant. The significance of one detail must be linked to other significant details to create a picture of truth so compelling that no reader can ignore it. I'm asking a lot of my students, and can do so confidently, knowing that someday soon they will understand that what they're doing is significant, that is, important, because they will see its power to impact their own lives and the lives of others.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Prayed-Over Taffy

For most of the years since I've taught at our high school I have organized a taffy pull on the last day of school before Christmas vacation. This year not everyone was absolutely sure they wanted to do this. Some remembered the near disaster last year when it was cooked too long and could hardly be pulled.

I had done a good bit of research online earlier to make sure I knew exactly how to do this right. I also got the name of a local Amish woman who is an experienced taffy maker. 245 degrees is the right temperature for properly cooked taffy, according to her, although she admitted hers hasn't always been equally satisfactory, even if she cooked it to the right temperature.

Armed with the ingredients, and assisted by Arlyn and Matthew who measured and combined the ingredients and hovered over the taffy kettles while I supervised the learning center and the typing class and the boys in the kitchen, I kept checking the temperature of the bubbling mixture after stirring was no longer needed. It wouldn't go over 210 degrees. Then, on one of my walk-by temperature checks, I gasped "This taffy looks done." It was still at 210, but I pulled it off the burner anyway. It was then I saw that the bottom of the thermometer barely reached into the taffy at all. The kettle was too big, and the contents too low in volume.

I hurriedly did the less precise candy done-ness test of drizzling a little of the stuff into a cup of cold water. It formed a pliable ball, and Steven, who was close by, helped me by tipping up each of the kettles in turn while I scraped taffy into pie pans to cool. We called in the troops and they paired off according to the random teams Mr. Schrock had arranged and started pulling taffy. While it was harder work than if it hadn't been cooked quite as long, everyone eventually got a nicely whitened taffy rope that they then twisted and laid out on the counter to harden. After it was snipped into pieces, everyone got a pile to take home. Nibbling on taffy and munching on popcorn accompanied the process also. We dubbed it a success and relished the melt-in-your-mouth goodness of homemade taffy. Fortunately, no hand lotion or soapy taste marred the flavor (thanks perhaps to admonitions regarding this).

I approached the taffy-making project this year with more than the normal amount of trepidation. I simply didn't know how to insure success, and I knew another bad experience with taffy would probably derail the tradition for good. My research turned up recommended cooking temperatures ranging from 248 degrees to 290 degrees. How confusing. I prayed that God would help us know when it was done, and, after I talked to Verna, decided to aim for 245 to 250 degrees. As it turned out, the thermometer didn't help us at all and I have no idea what the temperature was when we quit cooking it. I give God all the credit for providing the hunch that prompted me to pull it off the burner when it "looked" right. It certainly wasn't scientific.

Valley Taffy has almost no redeeming nutrients, but savoring its sublime flavor once a year is a "vice" I have no intention of giving up just now. If God blesses it, and good memories accompany its production, why should I not relish it?

Long live the Pilgrim High School winter semester-end taffy tradition.

School Program Afterglow

On the last day before Christmas break, Mr. Schrock, our principal, and I listened in delight at the magnificent sound from the church sanctuary where the school choir was singing. "They're really having fun," I said to Wes (Mr. Schrock).

"Oh, I know. It's great," he answered.

The programs were all past, and so Friday's choir was a just-for-fun sing-through of the songs they had worked hard on for a long time, and finally got to share in two separate programs. Each event was amazing. Their voices whispered and soared and jingled and bounced and boomed. These are high schoolers, some with undeveloped voices, and certainly some who have never considered themselves or been considered by others as having outstanding voices. Every enrolled student in our school is in choir, and twelve homeschooled students joined in.

Lyle Stutzman, who goes to our church, was our school's music teacher and choir director this year. He cajoled, scolded, threatened, and praised this bunch of 33 students into a singing group they eventually could all be proud to be part of.

The program featured some difficult music and one hymn from the song books we use for congregational singing in church. The group sang two pieces the director had written, and one written by John Miller, a student and choir member who wrote the song for an assignment last year. The Latin, Old English, and Zulu songs were translated, and the German song was so familiar we all translated on-the-fly as needed.

I sometimes envy the students in our school for the kind of education they have access to. While I am wistful about a few things I think should be better, compared to my public high school education, our school does a far better job of preparing students to contribute positively to church and community life than my high school did. This is not all that we aim for, of course, since we hope our students make a good contribution in the wider world as well. I'm confident that base is covered reasonably well, at least as well as it can be with the resources and personnel we have.

Graduates from here are currently living and working in China, Bangladesh, Sudan, and New York City, and others are volunteering a year or more of their lives in caring for the elderly or the handicapped. Many are teaching in Christian schools. In the past, there have been graduates in El Salvador, Paraguay, France, Belgium, Egypt, Syria, West Bank, Armenia, England, and Kenya. Some have attended Ivy League schools, and others have pursued graduate degrees.

Perhaps the greatest gift we who "live" together at school can give each other is to cultivate an atmosphere of trustworthiness and good will. I can't say enough about how much this helps to create a good learning environment. Then, when gifted teachers like Lyle come along, everyone is poised to get the full benefit from what such a teacher can offer. In the absence of such an atmosphere, even the most gifted teachers and students struggle to remain hopeful and engaged.

During my time at Pilgrim, I have been blessed to work with Harry, Wendell, Andrew, and now, Wesley and, less directly, Paul and Lyle--all of them blessed with great good gifts. What a pleasure!

And the students. . . . Right now we're just having a good time together. But some day, some adult will list them among the gifted colleagues they are privileged to work with. And someone will list all the ways and places these people are serving and making a good contribution. I hope I live to see that.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Homemade Amazaki

Tonight, at 62 years of age, Hiromi has, for the very first time, recreated a special childhood memory and shared it with me. He made amazaki, a fermented rice drink his mother used to serve her family when the weather was chilly and the house was only slightly warmer.

He began by ordering Koji, which he described as yeast made from rice. Then he asked a Japanese co-worker to buy sweet rice (a very short-grained rice also used for making mochi) at the Asian grocery store in Wichita. One evening last week he arrived home with a kitchen appliance--an electric cooker with a thermostat to regulate the temperature. He experimented with it till he figured out exactly where to set the dial to keep the temperature at 60 degrees, the proper incubation temperature.

Last night he measured and soaked the rice in preparation for cooking it this morning.

It looked like a glue-y mass after it was cooked, very different in appearance and texture from the usual Asian rice we eat. He mixed it with Koji in the proper proportions and set it to incubate. He kept checking on it, and reported toward evening that it smelled just right. After supper he took a portion of the finished product and diluted it with water, then heated and served it in a cup.

I could hardly believe there was no added sugar. It was very sweet, and tasted a little like the rice cereal for babies that I remember getting tiny tastes of when my siblings were small, and when my own children ate cereal as infants. It was not completely smooth, but could easily be drunk from a cup.

The remaining portion he plans to heat to boiling and then refrigerate to keep it from turning into sake (sah-kay--rice wine).

So now I know how amazaki tastes. I'm glad Hiromi's experiment was a success. For one so far from his mother (At 92, she still lives in Japan.) and the comfort foods of his growing-up years, this can't be an everyday occurrence, but today the pleasure of a hot, sweet childhood treat warmed the heart of a very special 62-year old Issei American.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Cluelessness on Display

If anyone was observing me this morning for signs of cluelessness, I'm sure their logbook contained an entry something like this: Not aware of surroundings. Behavior irrational. Needs monitoring.

Before I left home this morning I had trouble latching the side door on my minivan. It didn't thunk as satisfyingly as usual when I heaved as usual. But I hoped for the best and started off. As I rounded the last curve on our U drive, the door came to life and let go of its precarious moorings. A blast of cold air swept in and a gaping hole appeared in the door opening. Oh fooey. I'll have to stop and latch that door again. But as I slowed down to check for traffic on the road, the door did the right thing and slid forward into its rightful position again. Conscientious person that I am, I got out anyway and walked around to close the door properly. Still no satisfying thunk.

As soon as I pulled onto the road, that mocking door triumphantly exposed the van's innards again. I looked up to see two trucks pulled off at the crossroads nearby. It was electrical linemen, with their windshields facing the open right side of my vehicle. I thought fast and pulled to the side of the road right in front of them and did the walk-around maneuver again--just to let them know that I was not oblivious to my problems. I'm sure it quickly became clear that I was helpless, however, when the door swooped toward the back as I pulled away.

On my way to the church where I needed to do some photocopying, I met several people I knew, hoping things looked normal to them, and hoping no one was looking out the windows of the houses on the right side of the road. Right on cue, the door opened as I sped up and closed as I slowed down. Fortunately the ground was frozen, saving my minivan's interior from mud spatters.

From the church I went straight to the body shop and reported that the sliding door on my minivan was behaving very badly. "Pull it in right at this first door," Henry told me matter-of-factly as he went to open the door and then call Willis to come to my rescue.

Willis opened and closed the door over and over, watching carefully, and sprayed lubricant, and moved the catch at the back of the opening, and reached into the door's mysterious openings and flicked tiny metal pieces into slightly different positions, and . . . presto! Twenty minutes and fifteen dollars and forty-one cents later I was on my way. I got to school (where the copier did not work) in time to answer a multitude of composition questions, take a picture for the yearbook with the home environment class and then take those students on the field trip in my van as planned.

With only a few minor eruptions in other departments, my cluelessness stayed safely hidden away for the rest of the day.

Praise God for Quality Body Shop and Henry and Willis.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Quote for the Day 12/18/07b

Student lament on the day written reports for the month are due:

Arlyn (sitting in front of a computer, running his fingers through his curly hair): Does anyone know of a good thesis?

He got something handed in. It's still sitting in the pile of papers I'm trying to gather the courage to start grading tonight.


Jewel (with Euni's help, struggling to get a piece of wallpaper stuck to the church nursery wall just right, and trying to hang on to hope that it will turn out alright): Euni and I have been through so much together. . . .

Is there anyone out there who has ever tried to teach nine girls at once how to do wallpapering--in forty minutes on a school day, in a small room adjacent to the room where everyone else in the school is busy studying? They're doing the cutting and wetting of the wallpaper on tables set up at the edge of the learning center, and I'm trying to shush the gasps and giggles that keep erupting, so as not to disturb the studious ones. But at the end of the class period the wall is two-thirds covered with flowery roses, and everything is nicely matched and trimmed, and waiting for me to finish hanging the last two pieces tomorrow while everyone else frantically tries to meet the deadlines before Christmas break.

I'm happy to report that all the good relationships are still intact.

Quote for the Day 12/18/07

Overheard in the Christmas banquet buzz today at school, apparently in response to the question "Who are you taking to the Christmas banquet?"

Jared: I'm not taking anyone. I'm taking a shower, and then . . . .

I've had a former student marry my sister, but I've never before had a son date my student. Neither have any students ever dated each other since I've been teaching at the high school. Hmmm. This could get complicated.

I hope good sense will prevail at school and we can all go on being a happy 24-member family.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Small Pleasures

Today was a perfect winter day--gloriously sunny and calm, with wind-sculpted snow casting soft blue shadows on brilliant expanses. On our way home this evening, after having gotten together with my family for our own church service, we exulted at seeing the power poles replaced and the lines strung to within a quarter mile of our house. Right across the road from our house, however, a broken cable end still trails into the field. Perhaps by tomorrow evening, one week after we lost power, we'll be back to normal.

One of the sights that put a smile on my face this past week on my way to school was seeing icicles pointing in all kinds of unlikely directions. The power lines, as they fell, must have twisted, leaving rows of icicles pointing straight up, or out to the side at 90 degree angles, in some cases. And every humble twig and weed was absolutely exquisite, a jeweled still-life, posed for everyone (or absolutely no one) to see and treasure.

To be sure, things go awry often in this battered world that is our temporary home. But even then, small pleasures abound, and we enjoyed a goodly number of them this past week.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Mary Kept All These Things

I have long since forgotten who among my siblings' grade school classmates made the following declaration in the usual Christmas story recitation, but it has often been repeated among family members:

"But Mary kept all these things and poundered them into her heart."

Crystal-Glazed World

I’m feeling far more guilty than usual about this time I’m spending on the computer.

Last Monday evening between three and four inches of rain fell in our area. Much of it froze when it came in contact with surfaces like power lines and tree limbs. Our power went off at 9:00 p. m. on Monday and is not yet restored at 9:00 on Saturday evening. I am typing with a generator-powered computer, which I’m told is dangerous to the computer’s innards because of the possibility of power level fluctuations. Hence the guilt.

The generator is borrowed from my brother-in-law, Marvin, whose residence got their power back about this time last night. Until then, we hauled in water and huddled in the semi-darkness every evening till we could justify bundling into bed for another long night. Having lights and music and water feels right now like Christmas come early.

Line crews have come here from far flung places such as Virginia and Pennsylvania to help restore order to our electrical infrastructure. In the three-mile drive between our house and Partridge, a number of power poles are snapped off, lines sag or dangle-- broken, cross-ties on the poles are wrenched loose and hang jaggedly, insulators are separated from the crosspieces and dangle uselessly from the lines, a line is stretched on the ground across the road. . . . It’s all quite astonishing.

The lines will eventually be repaired, and the result will be better than it was before the storm–newer poles and better fastening methods, etc. But the trees are a different story. On Monday evening as we sat around the dining room table in the near-dark, we counted the sharp cracks and rain of “glass” as branch after branch lost its struggle to support the ice-load it had accumulated. Each time it happened, my heart broke a little too. Two eastern red cedars that have been here for fifty years lost their tops, forever ruining the trees’ distinctive pyramid shape. The ubiquitous Siberian elms are in shambles, with huge bare grotesque branches left almost alone on the trees just south of the house. The “hedge” (Osage Orange) trees are as tough as ever, with very little damage. Cleanup is hampered by the ten inches of snow that fell last night and this morning, so right now things feel a little out of control.

Church was canceled last Wed. eve. and is canceled for tomorrow. We had two snow days from school, and finally resumed with generator power for the grade school where there is still no electricity from the grid.

During one of the dark days of being indoors I read Emma, a Widow Among the Amish, which is hot off the press. It was written by a man I’ve known ever since he was three years old about his mother, who was always part of our church till she died about ten years ago. The story talks about lots of people I know and events I remember and has a cover quote written by my father. Reading that book in this season gave me insight into a memory I want to write about in another blog.

Today I read Blood Brothers for the second time. I was profoundly moved the first time I read this story, and no less so this time around. (That’s one of the blessings of a short memory–Things can feel new and wonderful several times over.) Elias Chacour’s early training to love his enemies, to suffer wrong rather than to commit it, to trust God always, to speak to Him as a friend–all these felt familiar to me. I loved reading about someone who grew up half a world away from here who was taught and guided by the same Scriptures that guided my upbringing. He treasures his upbringing as I treasure mine.

The reading I did was a bit of a guilty pleasure because I had piles of grading to do. Somehow I couldn’t muster the energy to strain my eyes the necessary amount to undertake grading. Reading worked when I held the book up just right so the light from the window shone on the pages.

It’s a little embarrassing to realize how inconvenienced we feel when we’re deprived of the creature comforts to which we’ve become accustomed. We’re supposed to be resourceful Amish after all, but we seem to be no better off than all the “worldlings” around us when an ice storm comes calling. Except that we are sure still that God is with us, and we can trust Him to hold us close, no matter how chaotic this ice-encrusted world feels right now.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Quotes for the Day 12/4/07

In typing class:

Emily (who was plugging along in spite of the typical Monday blahs): Typing has lost its fascination.

Seth (bemoaning his lack of speed): Typing has lost its fast-ination.


At the lunch table, where I was surrounded by boys:

Male Student: Mrs. I likes the boys' table.

Me: I was here first. You boys like my table.


Ryan: Last night a bunch of young people were at my house, and they were reading your blog.

Me: I don't dare think about who all might read my blog. That would certainly lead to paralysis.


(Although the above is true, I really do like to know that people read this blog. It makes me feel like I'm communicating, not just doing writing exercises.)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Chuckles at Martha's Expense

In today's mail I got a free Martha Stewart calendar. It has ever-so-tasteful flowers or food on every page and contains a schedule of homemaking tasks to do throughout the year. A few of the scheduled tasks are good for laughs, primarily because of the obvious disconnect between how over-the-top Martha Stewart lives and how ordinary mortals live. We do not have a housekeeping staff, a hired gardener, and a builder/maintenance person at our beck and call. If we garden, we pick anything that's ready as soon as it's ready. When we clean we do it while the rest of life goes on. We rest on Sundays. We snatch small pleasures en route to meeting our daily obligations. Martha Stewart, on the other hand, recommends this:

January 20: (Sunday) Clean out freezer.

April 12: Spring cleaning: clean house from basement to attic.

April 26: Prepare garden beds. (It takes me a day to find the stakes, string, sledge, measuring instruments, seeds, rake, hoes, etc.)

June 1: (Sunday) Pick strawberries to make jellies and jams. (By all means keep your fingers out of the mush from strawberries that should have been picked on May 28, or 26, or 24, or. . . .)

June 13: Pick young vegetables (Fancy that! On a certain day in June you're going to go out to the garden to pick the year's supply of young vegetables.)

July 16: Weed, weed, weed. (I presume Martha knows it might take an axe or a chainsaw if this is to be the first day for weeding.)

August 4: Water, water, water. (This won't revive already dead plants that should have been watered on July 4.)

September 1: Ramadan begins at sundown. (Hmmmm. I've never had this on my schedule before.)

October 19: View fall foliage. (Too bad I won't be allowed to look before then on my way to school.)

"Martha, Martha, thou art troubled about many things. . . ."