Out of the Box

free crab

When I was in college, one of my professors told a story of these crabs in a box at the Fisherman’s Wharf in Seattle. He said that these crabs are alive and all just piled in this box, and every once in a while a rebel crab will try to break free and almost get out of the box, but the other crabs will pull him down.  In their chaos and confusion of trying to all climb over each other to get out, none of them get out because they keep each other down.  And they all die.  Steamed or boiled, dipped in butter. It is the inevitable fate of each crab all because they cannot stand to see another doing something different or better.

Several months back, when Papa Francisco was visiting the States, my old Sunday School teacher (from my Baptist days) said some very false and mean things about the Pope and Catholics in general on Facebook.  It was not pleasant and I was very hurt, and, truthfully, quite furious.  I wasn’t actually surprised and was sorta expecting someone from my past to pipe up over the course of that week with something, but when it actually happened my anger was stronger than I anticipated.  At first, I was a lone Catholic in a sea of Fundamentalists defending the Faith and Church teachings with Scripture and Tradition. I attempted to be outwardly patient and dignified as I was inwardly seething at the barrage of insults. I was seriously about to run out of grace and snap as the arguments on the opposing side got personal: someone said how “sorry they were that I had lost my way so badly in my sin” and that they “always remembered me as a very intelligent girl and who used to have a real heart for Jesus and whose dad sometimes wouldn’t let her come to church” (um… first: my dad is a Catholic who took me to a Baptist church at my request four times a week, and second: NO ONE says mean things about my daddy to this daddy’s girl).  I felt like the rebel crab being dragged down, my joy being sapped from me, when suddenly…

The Calvary (Marine-life activists?)  came to the rescue!  Baptists, Methodists, Mormons, Non-denominationalists, back-sliders, front-pew-sitters, and even an atheist reached out their hands to pull me out of that box of snapping, fear-mongering, chaos.  I was reminded again and in many ways how ignorance and fear mostly lead to tragic consequences, but kindness and love can help in every situation.  I was also reminded that stooping to meanness only sucks you back into that damn box of crabs.

This past weekend was one of my favorite sets of Bible readings.  Each reading really spoke to me and entered the very cockels of my heart, which was still bruised and as yet a little resentful still of the attack.

Jeremiah 1: 4-5, 17-19  The word Yahweh came to me, saying:

5 ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you; I appointed you as prophet to the nations.’

17 ‘As for you, prepare yourself for action. Stand up and tell them all I command you. Have no fear of them and in their presence I will make you fearless.

18 For look, today I have made you into a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of bronze to stand against the whole country: the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests and the people of the country.

19 They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you, Yahweh declares, to rescue you.’

As the priest said during his homily, God made me a prophet. He made us all prophets, to proclaim His word and truth.  He made me strong, and with faith in His grace, no one can tear me down because He is with me.  I need constant reminding of this because I am wont to make excuses…

First Corinthians (or One Corinthians, as Trump would say, lol) 12:31—13:13

Set your mind on the higher gifts. And now I am going to put before you the best way of all.

1 Though I command languages both human and angelic — if I speak without love, I am no more than a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.

2 And though I have the power of prophecy, to penetrate all mysteries and knowledge, and though I have all the faith necessary to move mountains — if I am without love, I am nothing.

3 Though I should give away to the poor all that I possess, and even give up my body to be burned — if I am without love, it will do me no good whatever.

4 Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited,

5 it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offence or store up grievances.

6 Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth.

7 It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes.

8 Love never comes to an end. But if there are prophecies, they will be done away with; if tongues, they will fall silent; and if knowledge, it will be done away with.

9 For we know only imperfectly, and we prophesy imperfectly;

10 but once perfection comes, all imperfect things will be done away with.

11 When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, and see things as a child does, and think like a child; but now that I have become an adult, I have finished with all childish ways.

12 Now we see only reflections in a mirror, mere riddles, but then we shall be seeing face to face. Now I can know only imperfectly; but then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known.

13 As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of them is love.

Isn’t this just one of the greatest passages in the Bible????? It just sums pretty much everything up, to me.  As Jeff Cavins pointed out in the fantastic Bible study I have been doing at my parish, I cannot have one hand raised for Jesus and praising God and the other around the throat of someone that hurt me, because forgiveness is not a feeling, it is a will…Jesus didn’t “feel” like dying for us, he chose to because he loves us. God forgives me over and over again, and I owe my fellow humans this same forgiveness if I expect God to forgive me.  Tearing someone else down for any reason does not build you up and it certainly does not make you holy.  I am called—no, COMMANDED—to love…holding on to resentments, thinking ill thoughts, and spreading meanness is certainly not loving.

The funny thing is, the more you love, the easier it is. That channel of grace gets wider and stronger.  I used to hold grudges ’til kingdom come, but lately my flashes of anger tend to cool quite quickly.  I still have an Irish temper and a smart mouth that gets me into plenty of trouble, but I am becoming more understanding, apologetic, and forgiving than I was before.  Though I have so much more room for improvement, I sure hope it counts for something, anyway, and I know I didn’t come that way, so it MUST be grace…

Finally, the Gospel: Luke 4: 21-30

21 Then he began to speak to them, ‘This text is being fulfilled today even while you are listening.’

22 And he won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips. They said, ‘This is Joseph’s son, surely?’

23 But he replied, ‘No doubt you will quote me the saying, “Physician, heal yourself,” and tell me, “We have heard all that happened in Capernaum, do the same here in your own country.” ‘

24 And he went on, ‘In truth I tell you, no prophet is ever accepted in his own country.

25 ‘There were many widows in Israel, I can assure you, in Elijah’s day, when heaven remained shut for three years and six months and a great famine raged throughout the land,

26 but Elijah was not sent to any one of these: he was sent to a widow at Zarephath, a town in Sidonia.

27 And in the prophet Elisha’s time there were many suffering from virulent skin-diseases in Israel, but none of these was cured — only Naaman the Syrian.’

28 When they heard this everyone in the synagogue was enraged.

29 They sprang to their feet and hustled him out of the town; and they took him up to the brow of the hill their town was built on, intending to throw him off the cliff,

30 but he passed straight through the crowd and walked away.

So, God made me (and all of us Christians) to be a prophet and promises He will be with me; He commands me to love, which is the greatest of all things; and He reminds me that a prophet is rarely accepted in his own country (though His reward for us is greater than the suffering).  I am not going to convince everyone I meet, especially in my former church, of the truth I have found, but I can live it…and I can show and tell others of the love and truth…especially those others who have felt the “bad side” of so-called Christians and have the scars to show for it.  Refusing to give in and spread negativity is the only way to fight your way out of a box of crabs.  More than that, by building each other up and loving each other past our faults, showing mercy, and rejoicing in our faith, we can all get out of the box.

Odds and Ends, Doors and Windows

Whew! Sorry, ya’ll. I have been SO busy lately. I hope to post more regularly from now on, though. Since it feels like forever and a year since I have posted at all, I will catch you up on some things. The theme lately has been silver linings…

1: Praise God, through whom all blessings flow…albeit in His time, His will be done. My husband has been long-suffering in his career. The company for which we work has been going through a considerable re-organization that is quite complicated and too boring to talk about, but suffice to say it has been an adjustment. My husband was hired on before he finished his degree, and has since graduated more than a year ago. Normally, with his experience, work ethic, bilingual language skills, and now his credentials, he would be readily considered for a promotion…but such is not the case at this time. It is doubly hard on him because his department is actually understaffed and is basically forced to work overtime, so it is a little frustrating the company is not considering him or really anyone in his particular position for a promotion. Since we car-pool much of the time, I have been working overtime with him (in my own department), so while this has been good for our bank account, it has been bad for our home life and sanity.  I humbly ask that you keep my family in your prayers and that an opportunity arises soon that is good for his career advancement and for our work/life balance.

2:  Our parish has seen a whirlwind of change these past few months. First we got a new (awesome) priest, Father O’Brien. I have enjoyed each of our (many) priests we have had in the past two years, but it is nice to have some stability and the hope of growth in our parish. He has already instituted loads of changes, big and small, and all for the better, in my opinion. Saint Matthew parish feels more alive and dynamic already with new Bible study groups, new technology, new activities, more opportunities for fellowship, and a priest with a gentle demeanor but an obviously passionate heart for Jesus. It has been so exciting to grow more with this fantastic Christian community and find new ways for us to “go ye therefore” out into the world.

3: Speaking of which, our parish resurrected our old tradition of the International Food Festival to celebrate the feast day of our patron saint. I made bigos, aka hunter’s stew, which is a yummy Polish dish, and it was a hit. I was very flattered that two people asked me for my recipe, and happier that I didn’t have to carry anything home but a nearly empty pot.  Despite cooking for my own heritage, I actually dressed in a traditional costume of my husband’s. He punked out and conveniently didn’t find his own costume in time, but I got to wear a pretty dress and hold the Mexican flag in the procession of flags into the church.

Mary Anne (Colonial USA) and I (Mexico) at our parish International Food Festival in honor of our patron saint, Saint Matthew. Courtesy Saint Matthew Parish, Winter Haven, FL

Courtesy of Saint Matthew Parish, Winter Haven, FL

4: I had a recent procedure to get more insight into our infertility issues, so the De Lara family can hopefully welcome new little members someday.  It was super painful, but only for a few minutes, and the results were good…so maybe it truly is just a matter of time. Nothing has been found wrong with either of us, but despite nearly 4 years of trying for a baby, I continue the roller coaster of extreme hope to absolute dejection every month.  I have decided that maybe God just wants us to be in the very best position possible to welcome a baby, so he is waiting until just the right time to bless us. Maybe he wants him or her to be so perfectly beautiful and smart that he is taking extra time in making the mold or something. This is pretty much my greatest (and sometimes only) comfort when I cry on the bathroom floor every month or when I open facebook and see yet another pregnancy announcement or the birth of another baby to a family that has had two babies in the time we have tried for one.

5: My sweet baby seeester is getting married in one week! It has been a flurry of last minute preparations for her destination wedding in the hills of North Carolina (the autumn leaves are going to be swoon-worthy to this Florida girl). Today was her bridal shower and I just was so overcome with how much this girl has grown into a woman I truly admire. She was a little bit of a wild child and somewhat unpredictable in her youth, but experience, education, and the love of a good man have helped her best self shine through. She is so loyal, gentle, caring, generous, and more precious than rubies. He is a pretty great guy, too, and such a welcome addition to the family. He came over to my parents’ today after her shower was over and she made a plate of leftovers for him and showed him the pretty gifts. He was the cutest when he put their new oven mitts on each hand and played with their other gifts when he thought the rest of us weren’t watching. My mom and dad are patting themselves on the back that they married off all three of their college-educated girls just as each reached 30 and their rambling, big, empty house goes up for sale in a few weeks and they are starting their next chapter of tooling around in a trailer.

Hail, Holy Queen Enthroned Above

Today we celebrate the Queenship of our Blessed Mother Mary. A new-ish Catholic, this concept is still something I am learning about. Maybe we are all always learning about it, though, so I won’t fret over that. I will say when I learned about the connection of the Queen Mother in the Old Testament and Mary, I was thrilled. Actually all the references to Mary I missed as a fundamental Baptist–from Eve to Revelation–rather profoundly struck me as I was learning about Catholicism; I have felt safe, relieved, humbled, and honored to build a relationship with her since and rather sorry that she is skimmed over by many other Christians. I love the rosary, pondering and attempting to emulate her graces, and the Immaculate Heart.

The thing most non-Catholics do not understand is that Mary never takes anything away from her Son. Catholics do not worship her. We love her for the beautiful, wonderful woman, wife, mother, and example she is and we love her for her fateful “be it unto me according to your word” that was the means to bring salvation–her son, our Lord–into the world. She always gently leads us to Him, and like her motherly commands to the servants at Cana, she advises us to do whatever He tells us. She prays for us and loves all of us as her adopted children.

Being the dork that I am, I love to see how other countries and cultures view the Blessed Virgin and the feasts and celebrations held in her honor around the world.

Lourdes

Our Lady of Lourdes–France

Fatima

Our Lady of Fatima–Portugal

indian virgin mary

Indian Madonna–I have no idea who painted her, I found her on Pinterest. Isn’t she lovely?

Madonna and Child by Tim Ashkar

asian virgin mary

Obviously, being married to a devout Catholic Mexican, I have a special devotion to the Virgin de Guadalupe; we get up early on December 12th for the celebration of that special Mass and the church is PACKED to standing room only and filled with the overwhelming smell of roses. Dances and a procession follow and then tamale season is kicked off in a big tent in the parking lot. Easily one of the best holidays of the year.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

“A woman clothed with the sun” Our Lady de Guadalupe

I also love learning about and having little home celebrations of other Marian holidays throughout our liturgical year, but as wonderful as all of those things are–and our incessant holidays and feast days are some of the best things about being Catholic–I really love pondering just the simple girl, Mary.

My husband had an artist paint a copy of the Polish Madonna for me for Christmas last year. I begged for a copy for months, and being the art snob that he is, no regular re-print would do, so he scoured the internet for someone that could actually paint her. I hang her in a place of honor above my piano in the living room and I can look at her every time I walk through to my bedroom or to the kitchen. I love how little Baby Jesus is just sitting in the dirt like any little baby, playing while his mommy does the laundry.

Polish Madonna

Polish Madonna

I tear up when I think about how she must have felt to have the baby, her God and Creator, moving and kicking inside of her. I imagine the moment his little naked body was laid in her arms and she looked into his eyes that were so innocent and yet held the secrets of the universe. She probably counted every finger and toe, just like any other mother, knowing he would be perfect, but checking all the same. She got up at night, probably several times, to feed him, check his breath, change his nappies. Think of that! She had to CLEAN Jesus. It was to her that he ran when he fell and scraped his little knees, with her he cuddled when he was feeling under the weather. She sang him songs and rocked him to sleep. She made his meals, maybe even some he didn’t like as well as some that he loved and that would remind him of her when he was older.  I think of her in her plain gowns and humble spirit, cooking and all the sudden a bunch of rich kings from the Orient show up at her doorstep bearing gifts richer than she would have ever seen for her little infant son playing in the corner with little blocks of wood. She tossed him in the air and tickled and blew raspberries on his belly to make him laugh. I sort of chuckle when I think about the time Jesus got “lost” in Jerusalem when he was about 12, and she was worried frantic…”Oy vey! I lost the Son of God! What am I going to tell Him???”  I smile when her mama role comes out at the wedding at Cana and she asks him to do something about the hospitality catastrophe about to occur.

Holy Mary and boy JesusMaryplayingwithJesusmarybreastfeeding

And I cry actual tears when I think of her watching her only son get tortured to death, and then his bruised, bloody body lowered into her arms. How she probably kissed his face and wiped the blood from him as she removed the horrid crown they shoved on his head and mocking purple cloth. The simple woman, who knew somehow this was not the end, but still had to go through the absolute worst pain and suffering imaginable. I wonder if she even for a moment had that doubt and fear start to creep in–just  for a millisecond– when she held his broken body that maybe she was mistaken about God’s plan for her and all of humanity. Her beloved baby was taken from her in the most cruel way ever dreamt of by wicked men, and how she lived through it, I cannot fathom. God gave her the grace to squash that doubt that tried to attack her, I am sure, and the strength to endure the pain and offer up her suffering for all of us–the same grace she was given to crush the head of the serpent. But she was fully human, not divine, and had to choose to keep the faith remember that with God “nothing will be impossible”.  I thank God she did.

Michelangelo's Pieta

Michelangelo’s Pieta

Note: I try to source pictures when I can. All photos were found on the internet and remain property of their rightful owners and I thank them for their beautiful masterpieces that share joy in the world.

Nothing New Under the Sun

sunshine

My friend Christie always teases me that I was born in the wrong time-period. She says she can picture me in a bonnet. The other day I came to work in a dress something similar to Baby wore in Dirty Dancing and she said, “Don’t you look very Puritan today!” She says it all in love and not with the least bit of malice, and I actually sort of take it as a compliment anyway. I wasn’t too chaste in my early twenties–though I wasn’t exactly a partier, either–so it is nice to be thought of as conservative…and pure.

Despite my tendency toward promiscuity when I was younger, I actually have always been somewhat old-fashioned. I am a home-body, and although I appreciate and applaud the strides women have taken these past several decades, I would love nothing better than to be June Cleaver and answer the door in my dresses and pearls with a glass of brandy for my husband and a piping hot dinner on the dining room table in my house of sparkling floors and plump couch pillows. I am pretty sure that Haley over at Carrots for Michaelmas (one of my favorite bloggers) and I would have been BFFs had we grown up together, because I hitched up giant My Little Ponies to a toy baby pram to use as a covered wagon so that my Barbie could be Laura Ingalls, and begged my mother for pinafores.

Sometimes this world seems to move too fast for me. There are so many people in it and always rushing to be somewhere, and rarely using good manners; children–toddlers, even–constantly on cell phones or some electronic devices; bawdy lyrics on the radio incessantly–even in country music (which has lately really gone down the drain–I am not into this “bro country” thing)…it just hurts my heart sometimes.  I was killing time in Wal-Mart the other day while my car was having its tires balanced and rotated, and I was walking up and down the aisles looking at things. I have no small children and no little girls, and it is my heart’s greatest desire to have a wee lady, so I decided to look at baby clothes and little girl toys and fantasize what I might have for my future daughter. The dolls were just so ugly–scantily clad with garish make-up and the baby clothes even seemed like they were less than modest. I always picture babies as being sweet in pastels, at least for their first year (this is a huge Southern thing), but there were all kinds of animal prints and neon. I just think animal prints are for panties–or animals–not babies.

I have spent the past week reading the Emily of New Moon series by L.M. Montgomery, which is one of my favorite authors. I realize her books are flowery and geared for children (though the children would need to be very knowledgeable about literature and classical mythology to really get them), but it feels so nice to escape into a world of simple beauty. And even though I could shake Emily on scores of occasions (Dean Priest is beyond gross; if you love Teddy then tell him, you fool, or at least quit running away when he is about to tell you; and for goodness’ sake, get over your stupid pride and network in New York so you can climb your Alpine path!), the books really make me long for dairy cows and buttoned boots.

It has taken me a few days to really snap out of my wistful longing and realize that her idyllic world never truly existed. In a way, yes, there was a time and a place where all those lovely things happened, but ugly things happened, too. There was really hard work, lots of narrow-minded people, incurable diseases, fast and loose people, people with ugly hearts–not unlike today.

The truth of the matter is, there has always been nastiness in the world, ever since the fall of man. There has always been raunchy music, slutty clothes, promiscuous or evil behavior, abortion, pollution, bad manners…there really is no such thing as the “Good Ol’ Days”. I wouldn’t even say it is getting worse (except pollution). We have far more people than any time in history, so incidents seem more numerous, but I am not sure the proportionate volume has really changed. I think that the sum of human happiness and the sum of human failures is pretty static, proportionately. In fact, if anything, we are probably in a better time and place in history than even my beloved Laura Ingalls or Maud Montgomery, despite the great wonders and discoveries Laura had or the charm and propriety Maud had. We have more opportunities and freedoms, cures to many ailments, and lots more general knowledge. I suppose what I really want is to know what I know, but travel back in time so that I can wear long dresses and Psyche knots and get around in a horse and buggy at will–but that is absurd as I don’t have a Delorean or a Tardis. What I need to do is attempt to keep the pure, sweet things alive and spread beauty and love in the world as best as possible, which is part of my duty as a disciple. I can help keep evil at bay, but that sweet world of my imagination or in my books won’t come to pass until the next Kingdom, which will be better than ever I could imagine and far better than the world in any book.

We, including and most especially myself, should probably stop sitting on our laurels and whining about how things are not how they used to be and how this world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and instead enjoy the blessings we have and spread them around. Montgomery wouldn’t have wanted me to think that way, either, because as Anne Shirley pointed out to a naysayer, “There are ever so many bright sides…It’s really a beautiful world.”

Miracles in Muscatine

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This weekend was completely worth the sore throat and laryngitis from which I am currently suffering. Getting on a plane is always the sure-fire way for me to catch a cold (sigh), but I would endure a lot worse to witness the miracle that God wrought through my husband.

In 2013 my husband was called out of the blue while he and I were lunching at work by a woman named Liz. My husband, much to my annoyance, always answers his cell phone for every person or entity that calls him, no matter what we are doing or where we are, however I am so glad he took this call. Liz introduced herself and probably gave a thorough explanation as to the reason of her call, but my husband, as a typical man was only half-listening. After some moments, he passed me the phone with a bemused and befuddled look on his face, and said, and I quote, “This woman said I signed some papers in the Navy agreeing to give my stencils to people. Can you please see what she wants?”  Now I, with a bemused and befuddled look on my face and suppressed laughter in my voice, inquired of Liz as to her request of my husband.

“Your husband signed up to be a bone marrow donor while he was in the Navy. We have a patient with whom he seems to be a good match. I was calling to ask if he might consider donating stem cells for her.”

She went on to explain that the patient was a 28 year old woman with leukemia and without a donor she would most likely die. Although my husband signed up for the program, he was not obligated to donate if he changed his mind. They would be flying us to Washington, DC for a week to have the procedure completed. It would not be a surgery, she said, but similar to donating blood, but somewhat more involved. He would get a daily shot of some kind of medication that would cause his bones to release stem cells into his bloodstream; after several days, they would harvest the stem cells by cycling his plasma through a machine and separating the stem cells from his blood, which would be cycled back into his body. This process would take about 3 hours.

I explained to my husband the process and he was concerned at first about things people without illness get concerned with: could he afford to miss the time from work? Would it hurt? Will he get sick himself without his “stencils”?  But he soon asked himself what would happen to the girl if he didn’t do this? He was explained that finding a donor was rare and probably her only and last shot at life.

I could say that his sweet nature and generosity won out in the end (because he is the sweetest, most generous man), but really it was just his humanity. He was the only hope this girl had at getting a second chance, God had given him so much, including wonderful health, and he could not say no. He wouldn’t be able to sleep at night because he would have felt like he murdered her. He didn’t feel guilted into it; he felt it was his duty as a human and a Christian.

So we flew to DC and were put up in the Marriott, given a car to use, and free meals at the hotel. Not a bad gig, especially considering I was just along for the ride. The first few days he was feeling well enough after the shots to see the sights. We saw the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, a few museums, and the White House. By the third day, he was feeling sore and achy and just wanted to lay in bed. He was content enough to allow me to watch a marathon of House Hunters and another of River Monsters, so I tried my best not to fuss.

The fourth or fifth day, I cannot remember which, they did the blood-cycling thing and we watched movies in a little bed at the clinic. He wasn’t really in excessive pain, but he did feel some flu-like symptoms of general soreness, fatigue, and achiness. We flew home Friday or Saturday and he was back at work on Monday, feeling almost normal. He was completely back to himself after a few days and he kept saying that what the girl was going through must be a lot worse, so he wasn’t going to complain too much.

We were not allowed to have any other information about the patient, but we were told that she was given the transplant successfully and we were called again in a few months’ time to be told that she was doing much better and things were looking good. After about a year, Liz called back and said that we could sign a release to exchange information with the patient. She explained the pros and cons—it can be heartbreaking to get to know someone and it turns out they don’t get better; we might feel pressure to donate again if it is needed and wouldn’t be able to hide behind anonymity anymore; she may not wish to know about us and that might be upsetting for us. However, for my husband, he never thought twice about it. He wanted to know her, if she wished it. So be it if she needed another transplant. If it was God’s will for her to leave this world, despite everyone else’s best efforts, he wanted to know her while he could. There was already an unspoken bond—I suppose something similar as a mother has to her unborn baby—they were connected in very deep ways that were not only biological, but spiritual.

Luckily, Erica must have felt the same connection, because after some weeks my husband received a call from her. She gushed her thanks and told her journey and they talked for hours. Turns out they have similar backgrounds: both immigrated here when they were about 3 years old—she from Honduras, he from Mexico– and grew up in small farm towns and worked in agriculture; they come from large families—he is one of 8, she is one of 12—and both are the second to last in line. She and her husband also struggled for years to have a baby and they have one son. Both of their moms are old-school Hispanic ladies that command respect despite their diminutive size. Even funnier was the fact that her blood type was now matched to his and they share DNA. Biologically, they are more like siblings than their real siblings are. We joked that her newfound energy came from him and now he was all tapped out, and that she would need to cut her fingernails twice a week like he does.

We would speak with Erica every month or two on the phone, but never saw her in person or even a photo of her. We made plans for her and her family to come visit in Florida and take in all the touristy sites, but she decided to organize a bone marrow drive in her hometown first and asked if we could join her. The University of Iowa helped her coordinate the event and agreed to fly my husband, myself, our son, and his mother there to visit her. We had to promise not to meet her until the bone marrow drive the next day after our arrival, so we killed time by wistfully wishing for our own white wood-frame farmhouse with a red barn and patch of corn and teased our own Colonel Jackson about taking a trip down the Mighty Mississipp’ (see Battle of New Orleans by Johnny Horton for all you Yanks:-) )

IMG_0512

Me and my Jackson in front of the Mighty Mississippi

The first time we met Erica, she was explaining her story to the news cameras and a small crowd of people at the public library in Muscatine, Iowa. She stopped mid-sentence and embraced each of us, crying. My husband even had to blink back tears. It is hard to know what to say in a moment like that. Here is this woman who almost certainly would not be standing there had my husband not donated stem cells, but at the same time, it was nothing…it was the least he could do, it was the ONLY thing to do…it was not a great sacrifice on his part, but at the same time, it must be truly something to know that you were that necessary to someone else. It must be truly something to know that you were the instrument God used to make a miracle. In a way, he was just the jar that held the water that turned to wine, or the staff that parted the Red Sea—just a physical object God used to display His mercy and might—but should we all be so lucky to be used that way. The wedded couple at Cana probably treasured that crockery above all their other worldly possessions and I bet Moses never lost that staff. Erica and Elmer know that God did all the work, but it is so nice to have the tangible sacramental of His grace to have a constant reminder of His love for us.

Erica took us on a tour to visit the hospital and staff that cared for her for the many, many months she was receiving treatment. It is awe-inspiring and humbling to know that there are so many people that make it their life’s work to help others in their very darkest hours and that God gives them the knowledge, heart, and determination to help see them through.

Dr. Silverman (center) performed the transplant of my husband's stem cells for Erica.

Dr. Silverman (the little woman in the center next to my husband) performed the transplant for Erica. What a rewarding life she must have🙂

Her family insisted on making us a fantastic meal of authentic pupusas and tres leches on our final day there. Although not a Eucharist, we were reminded of how Jesus is with us when two or three are gathered together in His name and how the disciples in Acts broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.

http://kwqc.com/2015/07/19/local-leukemia-survivor-meets-bone-marrow-donor/000000

It was a beautiful, never-to-be-forgotten weekend. Praise God for Erica’s continued good health and beautiful spirit! I am sure the Holy Spirit is working through her to reach others—both with her never-wavering faith and with her hope for a cure for others. Praise God for people like my husband, who take to heart that what he does for the least of his brethren, he does also for Christ. Praise God for His mercy, love, and grace…even our dark times in this sinful world can be used to show His love and we are able to offer up our suffering as Christ did for others.

I encourage anyone and everyone that is between the ages of 18-44 and is eligible to please prayerfully consider signing up to be a donor at Be The Match. The chances of being selected are small, but you just may be called to be the miracle needed for someone…and you never know when you may be in need of a miracle yourself someday.

https://join.bethematch.org/UIMDP

Normalists, or How We Broke the Cycle of Excessive Living to Pay Off Our Debt–Part 2

money tree.jpg

The Big Guns

We have talked about identifying what is important and what isn’t, so you can shed some clutter, and about real easy things that pretty much everyone can do to cut down on some monthly expenses, but today we will talk about how to kill debt for the long haul.  This is a very big sacrifice we have chosen to make, and with our momentum, we will be debt free in about 6 years.  Like, completely debt free.  We will be only 38, so that is huge.  Obviously, we may have some setbacks and things may not go according to plan, but any headway we make is better than no headway at all. We have just one child (thanks to infertility, not for lack of desire), and both of us work, so I realize this is a much more aggressive tactic that may not be even feasible for some families with more kids or a stay-at-home-parent, but if you have the ways and means, then jump on the train now, because adding kids or losing a job to the mix will complicate matters later if you don’t have things under control now.

1: We drive used cars. I bought my car new in 2007 and it was my first ever brand-new car…and likely my last ever. I hated and resented that car payment every month. Cars are not generally investments, people.  They depreciate, instantly. They do not appreciate, unless you have a mint-condition fancy car that is in high demand, like a classic Corvette.  Do not be fooled and enchanted by the bells and whistles. Buy a used car and either learn basic repairs yourself or befriend a mechanic;  you will be SO much better off.   I plan on keeping Geoffrey (that is my car) until he falls apart, which is hopefully not for a very long time. He has only needed very minor repairs and maintenance, so we are lucky so far.  My husband bought a used Infiniti in cash a year ago—a car that cost $65,000 11 years ago—for $3500, and it is immaculate and way nicer than Geoffrey and will likely outlive him. I shudder when I think of the money the previous owner wasted on the Infiniti.   You really can find a good deal on Craigslist or whatever, but buyer beware.  Our car has had one owner, no accidents and had all the service records.  Even if the Infiniti lasts only another 3 years (which it will last longer, God forbidding accidents), we will have spent only $875 a year on owning it over the course of 4 years, minus gas and regular maintenance, whereas the previous owner spent $6,500 a year while owning it for 10.   I don’t like new car smell THAT much.

2: We make extra payments and buy things in cash. You are thinking you have heard this before, right? Like, every day on Yahoo…but wait, there’s more.  Learning to manage our income to the maximum benefit of our family is the toughest thing we do. It is where the belt gets really tightened.  We get paid every two weeks.  Instead of paying bills monthly, we pay every two weeks. There really isn’t much difference in that, but it does accumulate over the course of a year and it has helped us get ahead in lots of ways.  I have made a handy, dandy chart that shows exactly what our bills are, where our current debts stand, how much progress we have made, and how much money we have after bills are paid. We pay ALL of the bills due for those two weeks the very day we get paid, then we take out the remaining money as cash and that is it. We pay for mostly everything.in.cash.  When it is gone, it is gone…but believe me, when you know that little wad of cash is your gas, groceries and whatever else you need for two weeks, you think twice before parting with it for any reason.

We also pay more than what our minimum payments are on most things, but we do have a system.  We decided that paying 30 years for a house and ultimately paying twice what you purchased it for really sucks, and since that is our biggest asset, we decided we needed to squash the bank that was sucking its blood.  We started off with first telling ourselves that our $800 mortgage payment was really $1000, and we did that for a while, and were elated to finally see the balance move down  for the first time in, um, ever.  Then we got really brave: we decided to live off of one income and pay the house with the other.  We would also apply any bonuses or income tax returns to the balance.  In one year, we decreased our mortgage balance by $28,000, which was 27% of our principal.  Once our house is paid off, we plan on turning the cannons at the student loans, of which we now owe more on than our house.

We also attacked our debt from the other side, by paying down all of our little debts on our credit cards .  We do have credit cards: we have two very small limit secured credit cards (which are basically small CDs really) and one large-limit credit card in case ish really hits the fan.  If we put anything on them, we pretty much pay them off immediately.  We use the snowball method: we started paying off the smallest debt by making extra large payments, while maintaining minimum payments or just more than minimum payments on other little debts.  Once that was paid off, we used all the money we were paying on the previous debt, plus the money we have been paying on the next smallest debt and killed off that debt, and then so on. We closed out 2 small private loans, 2 store credit cards and paid off the the credit cards we continue to keep open in this manner.  We keep our credit in good standing by occasionally purchasing gas or groceries on a credit card and then paying them off right away.

3: We pay ourselves.

Finally, we have made our savings account a bill. We always pay ourselves. We have been able to build up our emergency fund in this manner, so that if something were to happen, we would have enough money in savings to pay all of our bills as we do now for 3 months.  Ideally, it is supposed to be six, but we decided 3 would be good because we always pay extra on everything and we could stretch it to six by making minimal payments if we had to.  We maintain a certain number pretty much always.  We do add to it, but we can also spend that money if we want to, like for a little vacation or remodel on the house, but only to the minimum amount we agree to keep in savings.

We contribute to both traditional 401(k)s and Roth IRAs. We have had mixed reviews from several financial advisors about which account we should contribute more to, so we are still figuring this one out. Currently, we contribute enough to meet the requirements for our company to match our yearly contribution to our traditional 401(k), and then some. It is on an increase of 3% each year, which will be accelerated once our debt is paid down. We also contribute 12% currently to the Roth IRA, which we will also accelerate once our debt is paid. The goal is to max these accounts our for how much we are allowed to contribute, per the IRS, once we have cleared our debt.

There you have it! The De Lara method of managing the financial chaos we wrought upon ourselves in our 20s. I gotta tell ya, just 2 years into my 30s, we have mended a lot of financial fences with this.  God willing, we will keep pressing on. Most of the time, I still feel like a little girl that wants my mom, so I feel all adult-y when I look at my monthly budget and the headways we have made from month to month.

Do any of you have any special tactics you would like to share?

Normalism, or How We Broke The Cycle of Excessive Living to Pay Off Our Debt–Part 1

It has dawned on me lately how very excessive our culture is. It is ingrained in us and almost beyond the point of help, sometimes. I recently binged watched House Hunters and House Hunters International on Netflix and I became increasingly annoyed with the “must haves” of some people (granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, five bedrooms, a study, a separate play room, a large yard with a fence, etc.), particularly people moving overseas and expecting American-style housing. Not that I am not guilty of having demands of my own (A/C is non-negotiable unless I am living in Scandinavia or something), but I can easily see how we, as Americans, annoy others with our grandiose sense of living.

Up until a few years ago, I was very guilty of blowing my money on pretty items–clothes, housewares, etc.–and also of racking up debt. Luckily, I met a person that was raised dirt-floor poor and opened my eyes to how silly I was being. Chalk it up to being young and dumb, with no real concept of the future other than what I needed/wanted the very next moment rather than 10 years from now. Despite being 32, I have only learned how to “adult” since I was about 28.

There has been this great movement of people shedding stuff and becoming Minimalists and giving up large houses for teeny tiny adorable portable homes.  I have read the famous blog of the same name and have read many other accounts of people following suit.  They are pretty inspiring and make me kind of wistful.

I am not a Minimalist, however; I am a Normalist and a Realist.  I need some stuff.  Maybe not NEED, like I need air, but I do need some stuff.  I need it because it does actually make me happy.  I LIKE to see my walls adorned with photos of places we have been, family members and my lovely paintings that I have collected.  I LIKE to read Better Homes and Gardens and recreate my outdated spaces into beautiful rooms.  I LIKE to have to go a whole week without washing clothes…sure the mountain is huge at the end of the week, but there are usually clean socks to wear even if I wait until Saturday to do the wash.  Anyway, if my little home things make me happy, then there is no sense of getting rid of them.  Happiness is pretty essential.

However, my family has made a very conscious effort to live more simply, so as to be Normalists, not Excessivists, with the grand goal of paying off all of our debt and retiring early so that we can ENJOY life.  How do we do this and is it hard? Quite easily and not at all hard. Well…it does take some sacrifice, but once you are used to it, it really isn’t hard at all.  You will still have things, and hopefully a lot less clutter in your house and in your life.  After you have decided on which things are important to you, look for ways to enhance those things and just cut out the rest.  Figure out the items you own that you actually use for your things that are important to you, and which things hide in a cupboard 364 days a year.

Really, you just have to decide what is really important and what isn’t and what you can do for yourself and what you cannot. Some things don’t require a lot of skill or talent and you are able to find a YouTube tutorial to learn to tackle them yourself: basic auto repairs and maintenance or non-structural home remodels. You can even make it a family affair. Seriously.  Our family is very busy–both adults work, and kid has school and Tae Kwon Do.  There are probably lots of ways we could cut back on things that would give us more time, but our biggest problem is actually debt.  Our primary goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate our debt as fast as possible, so that we can re-focus our energy into having lots of fun while we are still young.  We make an extra special effort to use our free time productively together: we all help cook, clean, and do yard work, so that we all get time to do fun things together, like play games or sports.  My able-bodied neighbor with a large family of helpers just spent $3,000 on having her house painted…my husband, son, and I painted ours ourselves for about $700, and both projects started and ended at the same time.  Granted, neighbor and kids were probably chilling in their house playing video games or some such and having a grand ‘ol time,  but our little family was jamming to the radio and took breaks to cool off in the sprinklers. Our time together did not suffer for work and we added value to our home while saving money.  Savings: heaps and loads, plus you get quality time together, which is priceless.

The easiest thing to cut is cable.  Back in 2009, when I still had cable, the package for internet and cable was over $100…I think it was $130, to be exact, and that was for a lower-level package, no premium channels or anything.  I was never home long enough to watch $130 worth of TV, in my opinion.   When I was home, I really liked to garden or ride my bike.  We cut cable when my husband moved in and we have used Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and YouTube ever since.  Commercials are fewer, I don’t have to worry about setting the DVR, and I can binge watch when I do have time to kill or cannot sleep.  Better than all that, with all three streaming services and YouTube (which is free, obviously), we spend a grand total of about $25 a month.  My husband and I will often go what a game or a boxing match either at a friend’s or at a sports bar if there is one he is dying to see and it isn’t streaming online anywhere. Savings: $105 a month/ $1260 per year.

Our family also doesn’t try to have the newest, and best things.  I bought my son a Wii way back in 2008 or 2009, which he still plays with and we use to stream shows and movies.  He also loves my old Nintendo 64 from back in the day.  My husband bought a PS3 before I met him, which he also still plays with occasionally, but it functions mostly as a streaming device for music and shows/movies.  My husband is still rockin’ a slider phone from 2006 and I just bought a used iPhone 4 off of eBay.  Phones are just phones to us—we both work in a call center, so talking on one is the furthest thing from our minds and when we are together. Our cell phone plan is probably our favorite money-saving secret (note: this is not a sponsored post, I am just sharing our experience).  We use Ting and we pay only for what we use.  It isn’t pre-paid and there is no set amount that you can use or anything, the service is good, the customer service is great, and you can migrate your old Sprint or Verizon phone (including your fancy iPhone 6) and your old number from any carrier you are with.  You just pay for whatever minutes you use, whatever texts you send, and however many data bite thingies you use, and it tiers them all separately, so if you use more of one and not the other, you aren’t wasting money on the unused service.  Both of our phones together, with internet, costs us about $60 a month. That is $30 less than my old phone bill for just me through At&t. Savings: hundreds yearly on devices, $120 per month/$1,440 on cell phone plan per year.

Clothes were the biggest thing for me to learn to let go of.  I just love pretty things and it has always been one of my goals to dress like a French woman, but my priorities now are to pay debts, so life is easier in the long run.  Debts can haunt you a lot longer than not buying that cute sundress on sale.  I have learned to shop friends’ and sisters’ closets for their cast-offs and the Goodwill store for great deals.  And, I tell ya, if you hit one up near a richer part of town (I like the one in Brandon, FL which is near the Westshore Mall), you get some really nice stuff  and sometimes the tag is still attached! I do go shopping in regular stores a few times a year, or for a special occasion, but mostly, I have learned to re-use and re-purpose what I have by choosing classic pieces and accessories. Savings: Heaven only knows–a whole lot, probably at least $2,000 per year.

Next, we cook… a lot.  We pack lunch daily to work and cook almost every night.  We will go out to eat usually twice a month as a date night, but never anything fancy unless it is a very special occasion.  Our favorite restaurant is a taco truck—no  sense in paying hefty prices for tacos that taste only half as good as taco truck tacos.  Grocery shopping is limited to twice a month, and ain’t nobody got time for coupons in my house, so we are a bit creative.  We cook with what we have on hand for two weeks before the next shopping spree, with the exception being we do stop to get milk and bananas weekly.  We do our shopping at the roadside fruit and veggie stand and we go to a meat market for meat.  We make a lot of stews and soups because 1: they last longer, usually at least 3-4 meals. 2: they make a lot out of a little 3: they are generally healthier than heavier meals.  We always make a meal plan and buy only the ingredients we need for our meals. This keeps us from over-spending and from over-eating because we do not keep extra snacks in the house. Savings: probably about $400 per month/ $4,800 per year.

Finally, we conserve energy.  We live in Central Florida, where it is HOT and HUMID. Insufferably hot and humid, really, from about May through September, finally reaching an agreeable temperature around mid-October.  I have heard tale of people that lived before a/c  in tin roof houses (my mother),  but they are legends of old.  I think the long life-expectancy in this country directly correlates with the mass availability of central heat and air conditioning systems.  But just because you have it, doesn’t mean you have to use it ALL of the time…like Mid-October through the end of April, for instance. If we do get a random cold day in winter, we usually just pile on some blankets or wear socks, because our cold really doesn’t touch the cold that our Yankee friends get.  On normal days, we open the windows in our house and let the breeze in and we also cook outside every chance we get because it keeps the house cooler and the food tastes better.  For the dog days of summer, we have learned to acclimate ourselves to a higher temperature.  When we are not home, the air is OFF and so are ceiling fans, but when we are home, we turn on the ceiling fans and leave the air at about 75. We started bumping up the air by one degree every week until we got used to that temperature. If guests come over, we will adjust for them, but otherwise, we have learned to live with it.  We also hang our clothes up to dry most laundry days—unless it is raining, which is rare; then we go to the Laundromat about 2 miles away because it costs 25 cents and dries the clothes in about 20 minutes—long enough to eat tacos at our favorite taco truck across the street! We have cut our monthly electric bill from about $230 a month to about $75 a month in this way. Savings: $155 per month/ $1,860 per year.

Just by cutting back on some things and using the hands and brains God gave us, we save at least $11,360 per year, not including the savings on our DIY projects and electronic devices. All of this seems pretty common sense, but you would be surprised how the false sense of financial security will allow you to slip into bad habits that create a hellhole of debt. I will bring out the big guns next time, so you can see our aggressive debt PAYING tactics and see if they may help you.