Going places! 

My life as an adult was just beginning. I had moved to a town where the need for Kingdom preachers was great. It was a step in the right direction toward reaching my biggest goal, to become a missionary. My roommate and I discovered we shared that goal in common! At the convention that summer we met a family who had moved to Ecuador. The enthusiasm and joy literally sparked from their eyes as they told us about it, and we hung on every word. Ecuador was the perfect place for us to go. The government is relatively stable and welcoming to foreigners. The cost of living is low. The branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses there has a practice of welcoming need greaters (as we call people who move to away from their home area to preach).

I’ve been reading in my journals from that time in my life:

7/4/97

“I can’t believe it! We’re going to Ecuador. Life is so crazy. You work so hard for something for so long and it just seems like it’s not happening. Then all of a sudden, boom! Jehovah blesses you. It’s hard to even imagine what it will be like.”

And then I read the exact same thought in a thank you note from a dear friend of mine who moved to Ecuador a couple of years later. Here’s what she wrote: 

“I am just excited that I am finally getting to go to Ecuador. It still doesn’t seem totally real. You plan something so long you just think it will always be a plan. ”

Me with my luggage and my jet lag and homesickness on the first day.

So you adventure seeking intrepid young pioneers out there, DON’T STOP PLANNING! Jehovah will get you there. We had our fears of course. Before we went, we spent many sleepless nights agonizing over the unknowns. We heard countless warnings and doubts expressed. 
These fears are also reflected in my journal entries. To do lists. Letters to the branch office. Notes to organise our thoughts for phone calls requesting more information. 

In the one above, my friend has a bullet point; “find out if Cara’s hair needs to be dyed”. I mean really!?! Apparently someone had suggested that as a safety measure, so I wouldn’t stand out as much.  

On another page were worries about living arrangements. We didn’t have an apartment or even a specific town chosen when we went. And honestly, I think that was a good way. 

After experiencing firsthand Jehovah’s guidance and the love of our worldwide brotherhood, I will never let fear of the unknown stop me! And I’m beyond glad that I didn’t let it stop me then! 

Mount Chimborazo was literally at our doorstep.

I ended up spending 2 months in Ecuador. My roommate stayed for 8 months. My friend who wrote the card I quoted stayed 10 years! (I think?) 
By going there I met friends who truly influenced my life for the better. The family who took us in and helped us get settled. The father of that family presided over lunch at siesta time and made the daily text an event you didn’t want to miss. The mother treated us like her own daughters. Their sons and daughters treated us like siblings.  The American boys of a need greater family who truly understood what we were feeling because they had been there. The brothers at the branch office who welcomed us personally despite the busy schedule they already have. The Irish family in the jungle who’s five year old blonde braided daughter spoke Spanish with an Ecuadorian accent and peppered her English with Spanish words. 

Riding on top of the bus.

I had adventures like being herded off a bus and crossing a raging river on a log. On the other side another bus was waiting to take us the rest of the way. We climbed mountains, swam in caves, held snakes, white water rafted on a tributary to the Amazon, danced all night (with the required hip movements that were considered taboo in our northern Minnesota home), preached all day. The humble people loved to learn about the Bible. It was easy to start conversations. 

Being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses can be so much more than just a religion, a Sunday ritual. Jehovah knows what we need. He pushes even the shyest to break out by requesting that we preach the good news. He knows that it’s good for us. This satisfaction is not to be had from any other job or career. I knew that before I went, but I felt it in my heart afterwards.

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Language, emotions, and memories

Latvian countryside

So, this was what I promised to write more about. Learning a language teaches you so much more than just words. I learned that in our brain words, memories, and emotions are inextricably linked to each other.

My introduction to a new language

My first time visiting Latvia was two years before we moved there. We spent a month. We both knew we wanted to move there but we also knew it would be wise to give it a test run.

I spent most of that month feeling like I was in my own little world. The friends were so welcoming. They treated us like royalty. But they didn’t speak English or they were embarrassed to try or they purposely didn’t so I would be forced to learn Latvian faster. I kept pestering my husband for translations, but he soon got tired of doing that.

At times I would listen attentively to everything going on around me, making guesses and hoping to piece together something of what was being said. Other times my brain was too fried to even try and I just sat there, letting everything wash over me.

Immersion

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A quaint little train station that I passed every day on my commute to my Latvian class. Photo credit @murmurmuliite

Two years later, we moved there, to the same city we had visited. It felt like coming home. The first few months were quite a blur. I spent every morning going to language class and every afternoon in the ministry practicing what I had learned. I really studied hard. Having such an accelerated course meant I was learning grammar I certainly couldn’t use yet, so it was difficult. But I was so determined to make this place my home that I didn’t mind a bit.

One of the first things we did was attend the biggest event of the summer for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Regional Convention. It’s a three day event, and in a small country like Latvia everyone goes to the same one. It was a great way to start out, because we got to meet a lot of new friends right away.

My conversations were primitive since I hadn’t learned much Latvian yet, though at the time I thought we understood each other quite well despite the language barrier.  The following year at convention I found that I could remember faces of the ones I had met but not names, and nothing at all of our conversations. Pictures, but no words.

I began to realize that our brains use language to help store memories.

The link to emotions

I was amazed to discover that words gradually gain more emotional impact as they become tied to specific memories. For example, my mind knows that the Latvian verb ‘to love’ is mīlēt. But the number of times my brain had connected that word with the feeling of being loved was relatively few. So my brain understood but my heart didn’t. Apparently, if it doesn’t cause an emotional response, the brain files that thought under “not important”.

On the other hand, if someone started using foul language around me or even at me, it didn’t bother me at all. Those words were just a string of sounds with zero emotional meaning.

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Our mysterious brain

I never expected that learning another language would allow me to feel how powerful words are. How they shape our memory of events and our emotional reactions.

There was a big hole in my life when I couldn’t communicate freely. I discovered how very much I need people and interactions and conversations, the exchange of ideas. In English, I prided myself on being able to choose just the right word to express exactly what I meant. Now I was restricted to a basic set of vocabulary. So, in my case, it was desperation that helped me learn.

What should you do? 

Total immersion into Latvian worked for me. It had growing pains. It was a shock to the system. The most agonizing moment was the time I met a sweet older lady who really wanted to know if God cares, why do people suffer. My language capabilities only allowed me to say, “The answer is in the Bible.” After much study and a few months of practice, I was able to return and answer her question, thankfully!

Language and communication are truly a gift. I never understood that as fully as when I learned a new language, full immersion style.

Three ways I have been changed by learning another language

a miniature Danish-Norwegian-French dictionary by Tomasz Sienicki

Ok, I’m a wierdo. I love grammar. Not so much that I’ve kept learning English grammar since finishing school. Somehow, though, it came easy to me and stuck in my memory. When my husband started trying to teach me Latvian, I realized how much my brain relies on grammar. It’s a little OCD. If there’s no structure, I can’t learn it. He spoke Latvian from infancy, so as a native speaker, he just instinctively knew when it sounded right and when it didn’t. But he did NOT know the grammar terms for it. He couldn’t explain WHY it was right or wrong.

Here’s my classic example. I was reading aloud from an article in Watchtower magazine in Latvian. (Which by the way is a great resource if you’re learning another language because it’s the most widely translated magazine in the world.) My husband was correcting my pronunciation. The pronoun She was capitalized, so I knew it was referring to God, but it had a feminine ending. I was like, “whaaaat?! whyyyyy?!” And all he could say was, “I know it’s right”.

Thankfully, my official Latvian teacher was a wonderful grammarian. Her first language was different from her husband’s, and together they had lived in Latvia and learned Latvian. She needed grammar too. In the end I learned that the masculine possessive has the ending -a, which is usually a feminine ending. The text I was reading was talking about “His love”. It was not calling God a female. Now it made perfect sense!

1) So here’s my first strange side effect of learning another language: I’ve gotten worse at my English grammar! Now, the logic or spelling of Latvian sometimes creeps into my English writing or speech. The only problem is, it may or may not be logical in English too!

2) I became less polite. 

All my life it has been super important to me not to offend or make waves. But when your vocabulary is limited to the very basics, you don’t have the words to be polite.  You may not know how to say, “Please pass that delicious native dish you so hospitably cooked for us newcomers.” So you say, “Give me that,” while pointing.

Honestly, this has been a good change for me. I lived there almost 8 years, so I eventually learned how to be polite. I also learned that there’s a place and time for being straightforward and blunt. It doesn’t necessarily offend, but it may just help a situation. If I hadn’t been unable to couch my words in politeness, I may never have been brave enough to try the blunt approach.

3) I no longer enjoy baby talk as much in English.

If you know another language, you may realize the English language has something missing. I mean seriously! English has lost it’s edge a long time ago when it comes to diminutives. And how can you properly speak “baby” without diminutives! When it comes to making your speech seem more lovable and sweet, a diminutive form of the noun comes in really handy!

In the two languages I’m most familiar with besides English, they use diminutives a lot. In Spanish, it’s the ending -ito in masculine and -ita feminine. You simply tack that onto the end of a noun or even a person’s name, and presto, it sounds extra sweet and cute and lovable. In Latvian there’s more than one diminutive ending.  There’s -iņš or -ītis or -ulis masculine and -iņa or -īta or -ule feminine. Then you also have the more colloquial -ucis un -uks. The possibilities to create adorable nicknames are almost endless! You can even combine endings in Latvian. For example lāčuks (little bear) can become lāčukiņš. Which would be literally ‘little little bear’.

An excerpt from “Teach Yourself Latvian”

I looked up diminutives in English when preparing this post, and they are, or were there. They usually only show up in words that are properly in their own right diminutive, like names for baby animals. The one that seems to have been truly English and not borrowed from another language is -ing or -ling, as in duckling. Then there’s -ie or -y as in doggie or daddy. But that one is borrowed from Scottish. Then there’s -et or -let borrowed from French as in ringlet. Probably the one most used currently is -o as in kiddo.

These are not used as much as in other languages. People don’t usually just tack them on to the end of a baby’s name or a word in general. So baby talk is much more fun in other languages!

One of the principle things I learned while learning another language is the way words carry emotion, and how words, emotions, and memory are intertwined. But that will be a subject for another post, so stay tuned!

 

How to become a wiser media consumer and a wiser human.

What is bias? As a consumer, how can I choose the right media sources in this emotionally charged climate? As a writer, can I present my view to many audiences without offending?

What do you think, can a writer or journalist ever offer something truly unbiased?

With all the news about fake news, many people are struggling to trust even traditionally trusted news sources. As a busy mom of two, my main news source is public radio. I listen to drown out fights over Barbie dolls going on in the back seat of my car, and hear some grown up conversation. I also listen in hopes of forming some kind of understanding about what is happening in my area and around the world. I grew up listening to public radio, and always assumed that “public” is a synonym for unbiased. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not writing to criticize any public radio channel or personality. I think public programming is about as close as you can get to the ideal of unbiased reporting, and I truly enjoy the content I listen to. I guess I’m just a little shocked to discover how naive I am.

Why did I not realize that bias is inherently human? It seems that the heated political climate surrounding the election in U.S.A. caused journalists here to collectively finally lose their cool. Their emotions, like many media consumers’ emotions just took over! They lost the will to be neutral in what they said because they were just plain angry. This situation has got me thinking, is it even possible for media to be unbiased, completely objective? What is bias? As a consumer, how can I choose the right media sources in this emotionally charged climate? As a writer, can I present my view to many audiences without offending?

What is bias?

According to vocabulary.com bias is a partiality that prevents objective consideration of an issue or situation.  

I propose that without realizing it, we are all biased. Granted, bias is often used with a negative connotation, but I don’t believe it always is negative.  While I lived outside my home country, I learned to question the stream of information forming my viewpoint. I realized that people believe a certain set of collective traditional wisdom without even questioning it, based on what a majority of people in their area believe. I guess that’s part of what we call culture, and what causes culture shock when we move somewhere new. Those differences fascinate me.

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Latvian folk dance | Nikon D750

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Culture and bias . . .

For example, what do you think of sitting in a drafty room? In Latvia and surrounding countries, collective wisdom says that if you sit in a draft you will catch a cold, or possibly even something worse. This belief is so strong that even on the hottest summer days no one wants to open a window in a crowded bus. I know, it may sound strange to some of you.  We all know the same facts about germs causing colds, but somehow this collective view about drafts is so strong, that people in Latvia believe both. They go to the doctor when they get sick and gladly take a dose of antibiotics to help them get over whatever bug is going around. But they do not want to risk sitting in a draft.  Americans, on the other hand, have taken sanitizing to the Nth degree under the assumption that if bacteria cause illness, then we must kill as many bacteria as possible.  Many of us are obsessed with antibacterial soap, despite current evidence that it doesn’t reduce our chance of catching colds any more than using regular soap. (https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm378393.htm)

But the really crazy thing is, I change my behavior, depending on where I am despite what I believe.  As a resident of Latvia, I didn’t open a window when I normally would have. Not because I started believing drafts cause sickness, but because I knew it would make the people around me uncomfortable and upset. When I sneeze or cough in public in the U.S., I tend to apply antibacterial hand sanitizer, mostly to reassure those around me that I care about their health.

I’m using this subject as an example of differences in culture affecting an individual person’s beliefs or habits.  It is not intended to offend anyone who uses antibacterial products or avoids drafts. But do you see what I mean? A certain set of collective “wisdom” is believed without question, because “everybody knows” it to be true. And the prevailing belief may affect your life whether you subscribe to that idea or not. So when I traveled, I learned for the first time what some of my biases really are. I say some, because I don’t believe I’ve discovered them all. I believe it may take a lifetime of traveling, learning from, and sharing with other people to find them and decide which ones I want to keep, and which ones I should get rid of.

Media and bias . . .

Members of the media are also products of their environment. I have come to the conclusion that the content I listened to on public radio in the state where I grew up was tinted by the culture there all along.  I didn’t notice it because that culture was all I knew.  Now I have gained different cultural perspectives, and I’m discovering this thing we call bias seems to be everywhere!

Our writing is a product of what has been going into our minds and how we filter that information through our set of previous assessments and beliefs. This is why I believe it’s impossible as humans to be truly unbiased. Being part of a culture, a collective understanding of ourselves and the world, is part of being a human.

How important is “the sell”?

Another factor that affects a writer’s ability to offer unbiased content is that writing is also a product meant to “sell” to a particular audience. To read our writing, a person has to identify with it’s point of view and be interested in the slant we are offering. At times this need for audience can lead to some damaging practices such as using false information, sensationalism, or resorting to gimmicks.  It certainly influences choice of topic. I’ve noticed that parenting magazines rarely feature pieces about the dangers of too much screen time for kids anymore, not because it’s become less dangerous, but because we parents are kind of sick of hearing about it. The topic has gotten old and tired even though it’s still relevant.

Bias within ourselves . . .

Those of you who follow developments in the field of psychology may be thinking about the cognitive biases right about now. Psychologists have pinpointed certain areas where our opinions and reality tend to differ. These are the cognitive biases.  One of them, confirmation bias, is the tendency to believe the information that confirms what we currently think. The newest discovery is the SPOT effect, which stands for Spontaneous Preference For Our Theories. I learned about this newest cognitive bias and the research that revealed it this article in The Big Think, posted by Robby Berman on March 6th.(http://bigthink.com/robby-berman/my-theory-is-true-if-i-do-say-so-myself)  So apparently we are wired to stick to our own point of view, sometimes ignoring logic or evidence. I have to admit that learning about these built-in biases has made me start mistrusting myself a little.

In order to avoid letting your own biases become too extreme or too narrow, I recommend listening to an opposing viewpoint from time to time. Watch a news media channel you normally don’t, read a different newspaper, look for different social media feeds, befriend someone new. Try not to immediately break in, either mentally or verbally when they say something you don’t entirely agree with. Let them have their say completely. Of course we have to set certain standards for what goes into our mind, and filter everything through those.  But don’t judge. Respect the other person’s right to an opinion. Really try to understand why they think the way they do. You may be surprised how alike we all are in the end.

If being biased is inherently human, can it be inherently wrong? Isn’t it part of the beauty and diversity of the human family? Having an opinion is not wrong. Instead of letting our bias fuel fear and hate, I think we should couple it with respect for each person’s God-given free will. One of the best pieces of advice I got when adapting to life in a different culture was, don’t try to be one of them, you never can be, try to behave as a guest should. As their guest you must respect their views and ways. But to respect does not necessarily mean to adopt them as your own. Similarly, when you read someone else’s work, you are a guest in their mind. Let their work inform and educate you, but do not feel obligated to take on their beliefs as your own or disprove them if you disagree.

Is there any writing that is completely trustworthy?

How can you tell if something you’re reading can be believed? Often it helps to look at the source. How transparent are they about their sources? Do they have a vested interest in promoting a certain view? Ultimately, I believe the best measure of trustworthiness is this; does it agree with what the Creator of humankind and this universe has revealed in the Bible? That is the information filter I use.  Like laws of physics which are self evident, Bible principles and narratives speak to all humans whatever our culture and background. Isn’t that as close to unbiased as we can get?

Dark

I’ve discovered I’m in the minority on the subject of darkness. I love to go outside in the dark!

I’ve discovered I’m in the minority on the subject of darkness. I love to go outside in the dark!

Do you know that feeling when someone takes your picture and the flash blinds you? In our modern world, we are all unknowingly being blinded. Headlights, street lamps, front porch lights, city lights are all blinding our eyes to the brightness of night.

You’re probably saying, “brightness of night?! Is she crazy?” Ok, maybe a little, but maybe I can help you understand what I mean.

When I was little our family often went camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness between Minnesota and Ontario. (Yes, it is in all capitals! In Minnesota anything having to do with nature is given high status. The DNR are more powerful than the local police. We take our nature seriously.)

When we were out in the wilderness, the worst thing you could imagine was having to get out of the tent at night and walk to the bathroom down a tiny path leading away from the campsite on the lake’s edge and taking you deeper into the forest. Imagine how petrifying! Now I was not one to be afraid of the dark. I used to argue with my little sister in our bedroom at home, trying to get her to turn off the night light, but she refused. But even I felt nervous to leave the tent at night.

One night my dad showed me the beauty of darkness. He told me it was much easier to follow the trail without turning on the flashlight. I was skeptical, but when I tried it, wow! It was a revelation to me! Our eyes are made to slowly adjust to darkness, probably because darkness falls gradually in the evening. But when you turn your flashlight on suddenly, your eyes are forced to close the pupils as if in daylight. It pushes the dark out and keeps it at arms length like an invisible fence, turning the darkness into an enemy. Outside your little circle of light you can’t see anything. Any little noise from out there in the shadows gets amplified and twisted by our instinctual fear of the unknown.

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When you don’t turn on your flashlight, your eyes, accustomed to the darkness see all the details of the path in stark relief against the soft moonlight and the pinpricks of starlight. There are no shadows beyond and you are a shadow. The darkness of night is no longer an enemy, but a comforting friend. And you discover that night is not dark at all, it’s just like daytime only in black and white.

Man vs nature

The power in something so commonplace as snow and ice is really awe inspiring. And you’ve got to respect that if you want to survive the struggle.

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This was a classic man vs. nature kind of day.

We’re up north at the summer cabin in Rangeley Maine. It’s unseasonably warm. In fact our thermometer says 50°F! You would think on a day like this nature would be on your side. Well think again!
All started off well. Our plan was to drive the snowmobile to town and load it into the truck before the lake became too slushy in the warmth and sunshine. So first we played around a little, not wanting the fun to be over. We pulled our older daughter in the sled behind the snowmobile (the little one is still scared of the noise and speed). We cross country skied in the track. We took pictures. Grandpa (my father in law, who is in his 80s) even came out and played! The temperature rose, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, and it was time to get the snowmobile brought in for this trip. So, my husband heads for town over the lake while I go to the truck at the street.

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Here begins the struggle! 

The driveway is a sheet of ice and the tires are just spinning in place. The warm temperatures, combined with the fact that the empty, rear wheel drive Ford pickup has no weight in the back causes our first problem. I can’t pull out of the slight incline of our driveway onto the road. I try calling my husband to let him know I’m stuck, but he’s tooling around the lake with the snowmobile, killing time while he waits and doesn’t hear his phone.

So I’m from Minnesota. I kinda sorta have an idea what to do in these situations. But I’m also feeling a deep sense of self doubt. Will I do the right thing? Will I be able to get the truck out without my husband’s help? I start to dig and chip at the ice under the tires. I get the bucket of sand from inside the cabin, and my father in law comes to help.

With a lot of dirt and a lot of digging, my father in law and I are again ready to attempt getting the truck out. He gets behind the wheel, while I stand in the bed (for weight). After a crazy, tire peeling, snowbank bouncing ride, we have the truck up on the road. For the moment I feel relieved.

Meanwhile, I try calling my husband again. And now he hears his phone. . . because the snowmobile broke down!

Struggle number 2 has started already unbeknownst to me.

The snowmobile broke out on the ice, about a mile and a half from town. By the time we talk, a friendly rider has taken pity on my husband trudging on foot across the frozen lake and given him a ride into town. Help is on the way, a local snowmobile shop has sent some guys to tow our snowmobile back into town.

I gather some supplies for hoisting the snowmobile into the truck, but that part ends up being surprisingly easy. The guys tow the snowmobile up onto a tall snowbank and we are able to push it right into the bed of the truck.

All ended well by lunch time, but not without a lot of anxiety, a lot of man power, some cash spent, and quite a bit of damage to the truck and snowmobile.

The main reason for our visit to the summer cabin in the middle of winter to begin with, was to shovel the snow off the roof to prevent collapse.

So all of this got me thinking. To survive in the north woods, a person’s got to have some grit, perseverance, and resilience. The power in something so commonplace as snow and ice is really awe inspiring. And you’ve got to respect that if you want to survive the struggle.

When you pit man vs nature, nature is always stronger. My shoulders and back have been telling me this since we got here and started digging a hole in a snow and ice bank 5 feet deep for our parking spot.

But if you stay on nature’s good side, you might survive with a story to tell. And somehow, you’ll end up feeling grateful to nature for giving you that much.