Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Thing of Beauty: two years later

“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” ~John Keats
November approaches again and of late I greet the month with part dread, part joy, part appreciation, and part hope. It's the month of my birth, and, of course, Thanksgiving, so I generally like to share daily notes of blessings during the month. Two years ago, though, I did not feel any gratitude, having lost a grandpa, dad, and uncle in succession within less than a year. Still in deep mourning, I could not find my way to thankfulness. Yet I wanted to try, and, more, I wanted to honor the men our family had lost.
Two years later, and I continue this tradition to honor them.
Two years later, and I still find feeling gratitude difficult, almost a chore, something I know I should do and even something I know is true when it comes down to it. This life is a gift, a miracle, and every minute there are thousands of microscopic reasons to express thankfulness. I know this. I see this. I appreciate this.
And still…
In the past two years, I have lost several more people who were special to me. It’s hard to be in this world without them. We will never again be who we were before losing them, and I feel such a deep sadness, anger, and fear inside now. The sorrow permeates everything in this new world, new normal, new me, and the anxiety is easy to see—too many awful things happening in our country, in the world, all the time now. But I didn’t realize the rage until last week when I was triggered into a memory of the moment my mom called to tell me that my uncle had died. If I think about it, I can still feel that moment and my body’s reaction as if it is happening right now. And, when I thought about it last week, I was livid that UD died, that the doctors didn’t catch it in time and help him, that God allowed it to happen, that we have to live in this world without him now.
Two years later, and I’m still finding my way through this new normal.
Gratitude is an attitude, a perspective that we choose, or not. And I want to choose it. But, how to do so in the midst of the grief, fury, and fear.
The online dictionary defines gratitude as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” I am ready to “return kindness” when I can find it. Yes, I know that there are still many kind people out there, but in the past few years, acts of kindness appear few and far between. UD had a spirit of love and a kind, giving heart, and we all still miss him so much.
In my blog entry two years ago when I started this tradition, I wrote, “A Thing of Beauty is combining gratitude with seeing things in a new way and with authenticity; it’s living in the moment and acknowledging what is (good and bad) and reinventing what life gives us. This reminds me of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Valentine for Ernest Mann” where the narrator sees beauty and connection in the eyes of skunks. This I feel I can do. I can look at what is, whether I like it or not, whether it’s ugly or bizarre, and find beauty or create meaning out of the muck. Like a lotus flower, I can find a way to blossom out of the mud….A Thing of Beauty is just that: to approach life with the “openness” and sense of “wonder” in order to reveal meaning.”
And last year, I wrote of how I needed this, needed to focus for a few minutes every day on something positive, on seeing beauty, noticing blessings, and acknowledging kindness.
So, once again, I will find “a thing of beauty” each day to share. I pray that it revives my spirits and that it influences others along the way. I invite you to find a thing of beauty in your life and share it with us. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Autumn Turning

 Fall 2016
Dear UD,
Autumn turning is glorious in the Missouri Ozarks. I spy golds, purples, reds, yellows. I spot colors. Colors that match the emotions of my soul. Passion, wonder, joy, sadness. It’s autumn, and the trees weep leaves.

Autumn is here again... The first I've seen in seven years.

Apple Butter Day, the last weekend in October, again my first in seven years. And the first family event that I went to where you should be there.

This new normal is still so hard.

There are still so many times that I want to call and talk to you. So many things I want to tell you or Dad. The simple act of telling…something no longer possible. I wonder what you and Dad would say about this election year. I want to listen to Bob Dylan with Dad in celebration of Dylan’s Nobel prize for literature. I want to talk to you about my job (another interview this month), family stories (past and present), Laina’s gothic class (she’s reading Jekyll and Hyde), and Lexi’s jobs at Universal.

UD, more than you knew, you held the family together. And without you, we are splintered, shattered. We miss you so much.
I remember autumn from your back deck, eight years ago, and now I stand on the same deck and gaze into the backyard. Everything is different.

No barking dogs greeted us. 
Trees chopped down.
No hummingbirds at empty feeders.

Old merges with new, familiar with unfamiliar, too many conflicting images pound my mind, bombard my senses. I am too overwhelmed to respond, to breathe...

The whole first evening in the not-yours-anymore house where your older brother, Uncle Bob, now lives, I couldn’t breathe, had to process.

That night I slept in the guest room upstairs, similar but different both in looks and sounds. The computer still sits in a corner with a gentle hum, but the bed and covers are new. And, all night I could hear music floating lightly through the air. Unnerved, for hours, I couldn’t sleep. I imagined you, a ghost, your spirit trapped, and I was supposed to save you. Somehow release your spirit so you could move on. Eyes wide awake, body strung tight, I listened and plotted. Until I realized that it must be a windchime, a new addition to a new household. Finally, I fell into a light sleep and dreamed of once upon a time in your house.
The next morning over breakfast Aunt Laura confirmed that she had put up windchimes, and I released the pent-up tension. Took a deep breath.

I realized that, in the end, the house is still full. Cousins, siblings still play games. Laughter and conversations still bubble and ripple through the rooms. And, like you used to, Uncle Bob made a feast. Homemade, homegrown, special meals. The royal treatment. People connecting and connected. All of it filling me with peace. Uncle David, you are now gone from this home, from this world, but your spirit and love are still here watching over us. I imagine that you glance around and are pleased. It is good.

Love, Rach

Postscript: I started writing this a year ago October 2016 when I was in Missouri with my family and I went to our Apple Butter Day celebration. But I couldn't finish it then so here it is a year later. I don't know that it's completely finished yet and I don't know that I'm ready yet, but it's Apple Butter Day again and I wanted to share it. Such is the life of writing, such is the cycle of grief.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Blessing Laina

Alaina Beth Johnson, daughter of Rachel, daughter of Barbara, daughter of Bonnie, daughter of Iva, and sister of Alexia Devin. Alaina Beth, you are of the Crawford - Cunningham Clans, the Johnson - Kellhofer families, and the Rineharts.
Laina, you are a daughter of the American Revolution. A daughter of the Native American Cherokee tribe. A daughter of inventors, leaders, homesteaders. You come from those who blaze their own path and those who fight for freedom, those who create and those who work the land, those who help others and those who teach, and those who heal and those who survive. Ultimately, you come from those who make things happen. 
A farm girl, beach girl, big city girl, you know how to navigate many worlds. Like the time when, barely 16, you followed me from Missouri to Florida, and then at 18, you drove alone from Florida up to the Smoky Mountains. Or when you trained as a gymnast for 25 hours a week at age ten. And, I remember when you were only 16 and we were visiting Lexi and you hopped off the subway train in New York City alone at dusk to shop and your cell phone died but you were able to find your way back to our lodging. You are fierce, fearless, resilient, and resourceful.
When I look at the headlines and statistics around this country and in this world today and see all the devastation to our planet, the dangers, and the problems that your generation faces, I cringe to think this is what we leave you.
Yes, the world might seem scary and dark sometimes, and you have already endured so much more than I wanted you to have to deal with--too much heartache, loss, and pain. At the same time, you have also already seen great kindness, compassion, and goodness from others for which I am grateful.
In the past two years alone, you have lived through four moves and too many losses, but through it all, you have stood on a strong foundation, a foundation built from the sphere of your family, friends, and ancestors, from the land that has been in our family for over one hundred years, and from God.
Through it all, you have remained pure and kind and good and light. Yes, dark and light both exist, but remember that light can chase away the dark. Shadow disappears when light shines on it.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”

When you were a child, I thought that you were poetry in action, and now that you are a young woman I see a firecracker who was born during Fourth of July weekend, and I know that your heart and your creativity and your smarts and your talents will come together to do some good in this world. Sassy and full of fire, you are the light this world needs.

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12  

You've got this. Whether you follow your gifts or whether you follow your intellect or your beauty or all three, continue following your heart and you will leave an impact on your community and your country and your world, an impact that you have already started and that I'm so proud to see.
What we remember most, George Saunders said in a graduation speech at Syracuse University, are acts of kindness, so the most important thing is to be kind. I don't have to tell you this because you have the biggest heart of anyone I know. If the first rule is to be kind, then you have mastered it. I see the seeds of kindness in everything you do. I think of the time when your 9th grade teacher lost his dog and you picked out a special card, wrote in it, and gave it to him. Or when you, a stranger in a new school for your senior year, befriended the newer new girl who had nowhere to sit and knew no one. Or when you rescued the kitten, befriended the dog, wanted to take in every lost animal.

“May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.” 

Laina, there are so many things I can say that I like about you. To start, you have a genuinely good spirit. You are a caring, intelligent and nurturing person who is beautiful on the inside and out. I’m so proud of you for graduating high school. This is a big transition for you into adulthood, and you will have a lot of fun and freedom that comes with it as well as responsibilities and trials. But when the challenges come, remember to use them as motivation to keep going and grow from the experience. Let each challenge help you grow and become the person that you are meant to be. I know that God has a great plan for you and that He will help you grow into the amazing woman He designed you to be. I’m so glad that you are my sister, and I wouldn’t want it to be anyone else in the world.  I love you, Laina.   Love, Lexi

Alaina: simple meanings; Little Rock, beautiful, light, torch, bright.

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. For the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9  

Characteristics of Alaina:  cooperative, considerate, compassionate, nurturing, sensitive, patient, loving, kind, gracious, balanced.
I am proud to say that you are a perfect embodiment of every one of those characteristics. I pray you will stay true to them and seek God's will for your life. I pray you will continue to be the bright light that you already are in this ever-darkening world where light is so desperately needed. 

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6  

I cherish every moment I was able to spend with you last semester. I pray you will be a force for good everywhere you go. May the Lord bless you and keep you and make His face shine upon you and give you peace. Love you, Granny

“But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Hebrews 11:6  

Graduation is just the beginning; let the Lord reveal his plan for your life by submitting to his Lordship.  Love and prayers, Uncle Bob

“Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.” Psalm 100:3-6  

Twice-Laine, Congratulations! Remember, sometimes all you can bid is glasses. Love, Fred (Uncle Sonny’s ghost-friend).
Alaina, you are a blessed and beloved daughter of God. You are loved, you are wanted, you are wise, you are safe, and you are strong. Your family, your friends, and those who we lost too soon are with you. For instance, Grandma Johnson is watching over you, your special angel. Wherever you are, our hearts and love are with you. Wherever we are, your heart and love are with us. Our hearts and spirit are with you always.
It has been my honor and privilege to be your mother and to see you grow into this amazing, talented, kindhearted, bright, beautiful young woman.
And so with our blessing, we send you out into the world to work, to travel, to live, to love, to laugh.

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.” Numbers 6:24-26  

Together, we offer you our blessing. Now, we watch you flip into the wide world waiting for you as you tumble into your future of beauty, kindness, creativity, peace, and love. Travel with God’s love, His presence, His Word, and His promises.
With all our prayers, blessing, love, and faith in you,
Your family

Friday, April 28, 2017

Cultivating Creativity

 Travel and tell no one,
live a true love story and tell no one,
live happily and tell no one,
people ruin beautiful things.
~Khalil Gibran

            The day I received my first cell phone in the mail it became indispensable. I remember that day more than what life was like before. Before cell phones, before social media, before smart phones and smart TVs. Yet I lived the first thirty some years of my life without a cell phone or smart device. How can a decade of post-modern living almost obliterate a way of life?
            It was late summer of 2006, and I lived in Kansas City, Missouri where I homeschooled my two daughters, Lexi and Laina, then ages eleven and eight. Excited for our first camping trip with our homeschool group, we packed and loaded the car. Our group planned to meet at a Hyvee parking lot to caravan to the campground 30 miles outside of St. Louis. Normally, I would have printed off directions to the state park; however, since we were following others, I thought there was no need. I didn’t even write down the name of the place. The day we were scheduled to leave, my Samsung flip phone arrived in the mail. While I decided it would be cool to have a phone and many of my friends had recently acquired one, it was more of an afterthought at that time. I went ahead and set it up so that I would have it if needed. Just in case of an emergency.

            Lexi, Laina, and I sang on the drive, following Jen the whole way until we reached the town just outside of the state park. While driving through the town, somehow, I started following the wrong car and missed the entrance to the park. There I was in a strange place with my two daughters and no one I knew in sight. Dusk approached, and as I pulled into a parking lot to call Jen with my brand-new cell phone, I wondered what I would have done without it? How did I survive thirty years without that convenience? Luckily, I had her phone number, and we were just a few minutes from the entrance of Dr. Edmund A. Babler Memorial State Park. Soon, we arrived at the campsite and began to set up our tent next to our homeschooling friends. From that day on, my cell phone has been in my pocket, purse, or hand. Almost always close by. Something that I can’t, now, imagine living without.

In my earlier twenties, I lived in Germany for a year. Before kids, before daily email, before cell phones, before GPS systems, I moved to a country whose language I did not know with only one person around that I did know. Yet somehow, I navigated the streets of Augsburg and  Berlin. I made friends, found a job, learned a new language, took photos, and traveled in Europe…all without a cell phone. I only called my family a few times that year, though did write and mail letters every week. A mere ten years later, I discovered life with a cell phone. Now, I cannot imagine sending my twenty-year-old daughter off to a college that's hours away let alone to Europe without a cell phone, without a way to contact me if needed. How did this change our lives so much in such a short time?!

            Lexi received her first cell phone for her thirteenth birthday as a fun gift, an electronic toy. However, we gave one to Laina when she was ten because she was going away for a week-long gymnastics camp and I wanted her to have a lifeline. I have only had a handful of Samsung phones, using them until forced to upgrade because something broke.
            Earlier last year, I needed to upgrade but wasn’t allowed to because of my plan, so I bought my first smart phone from Craigslist. Again, the instant I had it, I couldn’t imagine life without it.
After being a loyal T-Mobile customer for ten years despite their connection problems and lack of customer curtesy, I switched to Verizon last summer; T-Mobile screwed me over for the last time, and since the option was available, for the first time in my life, I have the newest smart phone. I bought the Samsung Edge 7 while Lexi and Laina received the new iPhone 7. I first got the Note 7 and had to return it because of the recall based on explosions! Then, the screen messed up on the first Edge 7 I had. I don’t like having the newest, most expensive phone because it’s too much pressure and stress. I’m holding $800 in my hand, and if it breaks or falls in water, I’m screwed. Plus, I’m finding that the newest phones have kinks that are still being ironed out, and the time and trouble it takes to call and return one phone for another is annoying. And, it seems like everything is made to break down these days. Six months in and Laina dropped her iPhone, and we had to pay close to $200 to fix it.
Recent surveys show that 70% of Americans own a cell phone, and within ten weeks of purchase, approximately 45% damage their new phones in some way. Most shockingly, over five billion dollars has been spent on fixing iPhones. It sounds like many Americans can relate to my frustrations.  

“It is through technology, not despite it, that LSD visions were realized. Leary called the personal computer “the LSD of the 1990s.” And in a 2006 report in Wired magazine, many early computer pioneers are said to have been users of LSD. Steve Jobs, Apple’s presiding genius, described his own LSD experience as “one of the two or three most important things” he has done in his life. So here it is — a world in which we all do more than just inhale. It is through the iPod that, in Leary’s once contentious words, we turn on, tune in and drop out.” ~Edward Rothstein in “A Mind-Altering Drug Altered a Culture as Well” published on May 5, 2008 in The New York Times

Now, it’s April of 2017, and I’m tired. Tired of the exposure it allows into my life, the responsibility it places on us, and the distractions that it holds. Tired is such an infinitesimal word to describe it, though. I’m exhausted, or in other words, over stimulated, over stressed, overwhelmed, lonely, and depressed. From what others have shared, I don’t think I’m alone in this. My smart phone provides 24-hour access to social media, news, emails, and games, and it took spring break for me to realize that I don’t take time to think anymore and can no longer be creative, sit in silence, simply be. These things take time, space, and cultivation. Otherwise, we lose them. I’m remembering that it takes practice and commitment, that creativity and thinking are habits of the mind that we must choose to foster.
How did I come to focus on this? First, I’ve been bored with Facebook for a while and considering taking a break from it. My girls will be thrilled, having encouraged me to do so many times in the recent past, but I admit that I’m addicted. For instance, endlessly, we are sharing a meal we made or a new restaurant we are trying or our thousandth photo of a pet or child or selfie. Or, the most recent headlines ding in with tragedy and horror. Or people are posting fights over politics or religion. No matter what, there is always another notification to check out. Every morning, I check social media first. Throughout the day, I check in, especially when a notification pops up, and let’s face it…when is there not a new notification. Every evening, the last thing I do, even after brushing my teeth, is check social media and/or play Candy Crush or Words with Friends. Through this smart phone, the constant TV shows, and relentless advertising and news media, I am never alone even when I’m alone. These days, my thoughts are rarely my own.
Continuously our minds receive images, words, ideas. Incessantly, we are bombarded by violence, threats, danger in our community/city/state/country/world, photoshopped images of what we should look like, ads of what we should buy or what we should eat, sex, alcohol, prescription drugs, major headlines, fake news, and the list goes on. My mind never gets a break from input unless I am sleeping. And all the while, I’m either checking in or thinking, What if I miss something? What if something important happens on social media? What will I DO if I’m not checking in off and on all day every day?
And even when with family or friends, too often everyone has their phone right at their fingertips. Even if we put them aside for a meal or game or conversation, we must check in, we’re worried that someone might need us, or we want to post our activity. And all the while, we’re either checking in or thinking, even if only subconsciously, What if something happens to my kids and they need me? What if I forget to post this? What would we DO without our smart phones in the palms of our hands?
Yes, we do have freewill and choice. Just because we’re connected to the “grid” doesn’t mean we must look. Or does it? How much of this is habit or even programming versus choice?
What happened to long afternoons of conversation and games? What happened to enjoying an activity without the need to broadcast it? Why do we feel such a need to over share the details and photos of our lives? What would life be like without social media and smart phones? Is it too late to return to that way of life?
I teach composition and critical thinking at a local college, so I know that writing and thinking take time. As writing instructors, we lament that our students won’t put down their cell phones, that they refuse to take the time to write and think; however, are we modeling those important habits? Lack of process, lack of critical thinking, lack of time for these things…Is this simply a symptom of post-modern day life in this new digital world or is it a choice, a habit. Or all of the above? Even if it is partly a choice, how are we to teach and live in this brave new world without embracing the new technological advancements? There are positives to consider. For instance, the opportunities for connection, knowledge, and convenience, as well as a platform for being heard and using our voices and creativity. How do we embrace electronic devices without losing what is important for process and thinking, for creativity and product, for self? How are we to balance both? Is it possible? What would a balanced life look like in this fast-paced, information-loaded society?
And what about the body? I started exercising again this spring—swimming, walking on the treadmill, lifting weights. I used to love doing these things partly because of the time it gave me to think and daydream, but now I only want to work out if there’s someone to talk to or something to watch during the process. Additionally, I used to drive in the car and listen to music which offered me time for thinking and daydreaming, but now I only want to talk to someone or check social media at stoplights. Am I losing my ability to be alone with my own thoughts, to sit in silence, to create, to dream?
Maybe it’s partly the rough political climate and probably partially the losses we’ve endured the past three years in my extended family. I still hadn’t written anything new, until now, since my uncle died two years ago this month (except for the letters that I wrote to him during the first year of grieving). 

When you let go, you create space
for better things to enter your life.
~quote from recent Facebook post

Now that I realize all of this, I choose to cultivate creativity, to make space for silence, to actively develop daydreaming. I choose to create habits in my life that will foster my creativity and critical thinking.
Step one: Take a break from social media.  For thirty days in June, I am going to take a break from my accounts and uninstall them from my cell phone. Even writing this right now seems scary. How will I get my fix? But who knows. I may like it. Maybe I will go longer or deactivate or delete them completely, but for now, I’m limiting my social media time to a short time in the afternoons or evenings. I’m putting a stop to allowing the ping of a notification to control me and attempting to find balance again, to provide time and space for creativity and thinking. How will I like it?! I won’t know until after the experience, but once I begin, if you need to reach me, you can call or text me. Also, I invite you to follow my blog as I may post there:
Step two: Make a list of activities in the real world that make me happy and choose something from the list to do every week. Go on adventures that fuel my heart and soul. Like spend time in nature, read more books, snorkel a coral reef, swim in a waterfall, have deep conversations with friends, howl at the moon, glide on a sailboat, hike in a rainforest, or climb to the top of a lighthouse. Some of these I can experience here where I live while others are on my bucket list, something I hope to travel to and do someday.
Step three: Keep exercising. But put down the phone and stay in the moment.
Step four: Start each day by praying, reading a devotion, and writing morning pages.
Step five: End each day by writing in a gratitude journal to focus appreciation on the blessings in my life.
Step six: Spend time outside every day. Get fresh air and sunshine.
Step seven: Connect with people in my life away from the screen. 

Hope….that is the feeling fluttering inside, something that I haven’t experienced in a long time. Hope that I will find happiness again. Hope that my heart will blossom again. Hope that spring will come for me again. That I will enjoy something for its own sake rather than focus on posting it. That I can be excited about something again. 

How is your life different with a cell phone? With a smart phone? Are you addicted to social media? Are you worried about your children and teens and their use of smart phones?  Have you found a way to balance living with smart devices so that they don't overpower your life? I would love to hear your experience and tips. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Land of Immigrants

Bits of songs and broken drums
Are all he could recall
So he spoke to me
In a bastard tongue
Carried on the silence of the guns

"It's been a long long time
since they first came
And marched through our village
They taught us to forget our past
And live the future in their image"

They said
'You should learn to speak a little bit of English
Maybe practise birth control
Keep away from controversial politics
So to save my third world soul

They said
'You should learn to speak a little bit of English
Don't be scared of a suit and tie.
Learn to walk in the dreams of the foreigner
-- I am a Third World Child

Johnny Clegg and Savuka’s Third World Child

Under low swirling gray clouds and rocked by the choppy North Atlantic Ocean, John Winthrop preached one of the most resonant sermons in American history from the deck of the frigate Arabella.  In A Model of Christian Charity, Winthrop challenged his auditors to become a "Citty on a hill', a beacon of Christianity to inspire the world.  The puritan errand into the wilderness should have provoked tens of thousands to follow the saints and create a New Jerusalem in the New World.  Unfortunately, the puritan dream ran aground on Gallows Hill in Salem in 1692.  Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands followed in their wake; not to seek a New Jerusalem but to seek freedom and economic opportunity.
When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, over 100,000 Huguenots left France for the New York colony.  Seventy-five percent of the immigrants in the 17th Century were indentured servants from England, but after mid-century their numbers dwarfed in comparison to the inundation of Blacks from Africa, of whom over 900,000 were brutally transported to America between 1619 and 1808.  Irish immigration continued to rise steadily from the 1790's through the Civil War to peak in the 1840's during the Irish potato blight.  Chinese immigrants built the Central Pacific east from Sacramento in the post-bellum period, but Chinese immigration was cut off for a time by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1894. 
From 1885 to 1910, 27 million people immigrated to the United States through the portal of Ellis Island.  These future Americans would challenge the capacity of the eastern cities and the patience of white Anglo-Saxon protestant culture, but America would respond to the challenge and emerge a better and more diverse culture.  Today, America is being tested again by a massive influx of immigrants from the south and the fearful specter of possibly dangerous visitors from the Muslim world, the Muslim fundamentalists (it should be noted that not all Arabs and Persians are Muslims), not only alien, but home grown too.  Should the U.S. close its borders and retreat into isolationism or recognize the inevitability of living in a globalized world?
America is a land built of immigrants, and American citizens are a modern breed of countless races and cultures.  An interview with Professor Newton Crawford from Columbia University in Rolla, Missouri revealed his ancestors hailed from Ireland and Scotland, though Crawfords have owned hundred of acres in south central Missouri for over a hundred years.  The writer of this document, for another example, traced her ancestry to five different cultures:  Bohemia, Germany, England, Scotland and Cherokee Native American.
Consider the current flux of immigration in America.  Why the yearning to live in the United States?  What do they want?  Should immigrants be expected to assimilate, such as learning English, as did those before them?  What policies should the U.S. government create, if any, regarding illegal aliens currently living within the border?  For how long should the U.S. remain a nation of immigrants?  Should the U.S. continue to open its arms to those seeking the same freedoms its fore fathers sought?  Or, is it simply that post 9/11 Americans are finding themselves more racist than ever before?
There are no clear cut answers to this complex issue.  This nation, a democracy that requires a singular respect of law, also has a Constitution that currently grants rights to all people living in the United StatesIs this to be followed to the letter or should caveats be initiated to protect the American Dream?
As we move towards the 2008 elections, this issue drives both political parties, and could, in fact, make or break the next president of the United States of America.  Part of searching for solutions is listening to the voices of the individuals most affected, the immigrants.  Students in the ESL program at Donnelly College in Kansas welcomed the opportunity to offer their insight and share their dreams in an unchained America.
In different words and accents, their voices echo as one:  We are the people from around the world who have traveled to a land of freedom for our share of happiness and a home for the brave.  We want to be accepted.  We want to know you.  We want to learn from you as you learn from us.  We want to keep our traditions and language while learning yours.  We have a multitude of voices.  Together, we have one voice that asks for a chance, the same chance you have.

My name is Nayere, and I’m thirty-five years old.  I am from Tehran, Iran, and I speak three languages, Persian, Turkish and English.  I want to tell you about my life.  I went to Aushera School and graduated from high school at eighteen.  My family lives in Iran, and I haven’t seen them since 2003.  This is my life.
My country had a problem with my religion.  There were no job opportunities, no socializing, no freedom of speech and no police protection because of my religion.   When I was young, my neighbor’s children beat me up.  This is my life.
I became a refugee, so the government paid for my ticket, and I rode the bus to Turkey where I lived for a short time.  They said I could go to the US, but I didn’t want to.  Then, they said I could go to New Zealand, and I didn’t want to.  I wanted to go to Australia where some of my friends lived.  I told them I had money to pay for a ticket to Australia.  Then, they said I had to leave Turkey and fly to the United States.  I miss my family and friends in my country.  I miss Persian foods, clothing, holiday parties and customs.  This is my life. 
My favorite holiday in my country is New Years.  Everybody has a two week holiday.  People clean house and change things.  They buy new clothes, for instance.  Old and young visit each other and give gifts.  They celebrate the New Year together.  My favorite tradition from Iran is Nineteen days.  Before New Years, we put our money together to help families without their fathers, poor families and people who are sick.
In the US, I am working at local hospital.  I serve the patients their meals.  This is my life.  The hardest challenge for me is to learn English better.  I like the U.S. because everybody has freedom of speech and religion.  Also, we have opportunities to work and socialize with anyone we want to!
I am taking English classes because I need to read my mail and pay my bills.  Also, I want to talk to people and find a better job.  I like my classmates and working together.  I enjoy making new friends.
The most difficult thing in my life is living alone, being alone in a foreign country.  This is my life.  The most important thing about me is that I am persistent and have a good sense of humor.  My dream is to live in Jerusalem some day.  I am thankful for my job and the opportunity to learn English.    This is my life.
My name is G. I. and I’m from Somalia in Africa.  I’m twenty-five years old and have three children.  I have four brothers and a husband who live in Kansas City with me. 
When I was a child, there was a drought that blew out everything.  Most of our animals died, and there was no food or water.  Later, I had to leave Somalia because of the war.  When the civilian war broke out, I walked five hundred kilometers in seven days on foot where my life was in danger from the soldiers as well as wild animals.  I fled to Kenya where I became a refugee.  UNHCR gave me resettlement to the USA.  I traveled from the Dagahaley refugee camp to GOAL in Nairobi where I waited for my flight for one month before flying to the USA
Here, I like the education, health, security and technology.  I don’t have a job now because I hurt my back.  My goals are to be a sufficient, educated person and to help my relatives and country become educated.  I am grateful for the government of Kenya who gave me hospitality, UNHCR who gave me food, shelter and water, IAM who took me to the USA and Catholic Charities who warmly welcomed me when I first arrived.
My name is Brahim, and I am from Fes, Morocco.  I’m twenty-four years old and speak Arabic, French and a little English.  I have nine brothers and sisters, and my father taught while my mom stayed home.  In my country, I left my family to go to a small city to continue high school.  Then, I graduated from Fes University when I was twenty. 
In June 2005, I left my country and traveled to the U.S. to build a better life by working and finishing my education.  I flew from the Casablanca Airport to JFK Airport.  I took a taxi to another airport, but the cab driver took a long way around and charged me two hundred dollars.  I missed my plane and spent the night at the airport until I could take another plane.
Now I am living in the U.S. happy and comfortable, but I still miss my country.  I miss Moroccan food, my neighborhood, my friends, and I miss too much my mother and father and all my family.  Life is nice here, though.  I see all new things in this land of opportunity and freedom.  No one can touch my opinion, direction, religion or race.
I work at a local hotel.  My job is room service and banquet server.  I get orders for people who call by phone, and I deliver what they need.  I respect every person and think anyone can be better with patience and ambition.  I am taking English classes because I want to speak and listen to American people very well, get a good job and finish my education.  I like my classmates. Every person has a private dream.  Mine is to be an excellent English speaker and to become rich so I can get what I want and help others.  I am grateful I can learn.
My name is Comfort, and I am a fifty year old woman from Liberia.  I have four sisters and three brothers and five children.  I left my country due to war.  First of all, I fled to a neighbor country, but there was war in that country too.  Then, I flew in a plane to the US.  Before we left Africa, the plane reached an area where there were mountains that stopped the plane from going.  Everyone was afraid.  Finally, we took off again and made it to the US.  I miss my children, brothers and sisters who are still in my country. 
I used to work at a local factory.  Any job God blesses me to find, I’ll do it.  What I like most about the U.S. is that they love the elderly and the children.  The most important thing about me is that I learn with understanding and love to be with kids.  My dream in life is that I learn English to find a better job and help my family and other people.  I am grateful because God saved us during the war, and now we are in America by the grace of the Almighty God.
My name is Miguel, and I’m from Guatemala and am twenty-six years old.  I did not graduate from high school.  I left Guatemala because I wanted to see what life was like in the USA and because everybody talked about the USA and how good it is for living and making good money.  I came here because I wanted to buy an American car, make money and live the American dream.  I have not done that yet. 
It took me three weeks to get to Kansas.  At the Mexican/USA border it was difficult.  I tried two times and finally crossed the third time by walking for almost three days.  When I reached Houston, Texas, I took a bus the rest of the way.  My family still lives in Guatemala, and I call them every week.
My job in the USA is attending a warehouse as a professional operator of a forklift.  I also work in a local restaurant as a prep cook.  No matter how hard I have to work or how much I have to pay, I like that I can earn money and buy things here. My dream is to become legal in the USA, visit my family in Guatemala, and own my own delivery business.

My name is Abdullahi, and I am from Garasay, a small village in Somalia.  I am twenty-five years old and speak three languages, May-Maay, my mother tongue, Somali and English.  I didn’t attend school in my country because there were no schools in my village, and I left my country when I was eight years old.  I left my country because of the endless civil war and famine.  I lived in a refugee camp in Kenya, and I graduated high school at the age of eighteen there.  My mother and my little sister came to the USA with me, but the rest of my family, including my father, died.  The most important thing about me is that I was not killed in the civil war.
It was hard to become a refugee.  Make sure, once your name is refugee, you are not free.  I mean you are under somebody else.  Therefore, you are kept as an animal.  Immigration asks you questions, which makes you nervous.  First, they ask the people easy questions and you tell all your privacy.  These interviews make many people who were planning for a new life fail. Many people kill themselves or run mad when they fail the interview.  Immigration demanded I forget my country, and now I am missing my country.  I cannot see my beautiful farm.  Where is the river I fished in?  Where can I swim?  Many people have forgotten or changed their beautiful culture.  For example, I thought that we would keep our own culture, but the first week in the United States my daughter called the police and I was given a warning.  Now, I cannot discipline my child.  I cannot demand for her to follow my religion or my culture.  
In the United States, I work as a clerk, filling envelopes and sorting mail.  My goal is to finish learning English, earn a PHD and go back to my country to save the people suffering over there. 
My name is Luz, and I am from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.  I graduated with an associate degree in my country when I was nineteen.  Now, I’m twenty-three.  I have a wonderful family who supports each other.
I left Mexico in 2003, with my family who had a visa.  We came by bus, but it was a very interesting trip since none of us could speak English.  Everyone told us that someone would speak Spanish, but we didn’t find anyone we could understand.  It took us thirty-six hours to get to Kansas City.  Now, my father and I are here in the U.S. while the rest of my family is back in Mexico.  I am a preschool teacher and teach three to four year old children.  I love teaching and helping children learn.
The most challenging thing since I came to the U.S. is to learn to look very careful for friends and boyfriends.  Most of the time I date someone, the first thing he wants is sex.  He thinks because I went out with him he has a right to do it.  It’s been hard to find someone who wants to be with me and not just wants sex.  When I don’t give in, he talks about me and start rumors.  The boys all tell me that America is different and it’s better if I do it.  When they see that I’m serious, they try to ruin my life.  They lie and tell my friends untrue stories, follow me, call me and even text inappropriate messages.  To be a virgin is challenging for me in the U. S.
The hardest thing in my life is to believe in myself, to believe that I am smart, beautiful, friendly, mature and strong.  The hardest thing is to believe that I’m not big, to believe that I’m pretty.  It’s hard because of the people telling me that I’m fat and that nobody will look at me, want to go out with me. 
What I miss the most from my country is my family, especially my niece and nephew.  I won’t see them growing up.  I won’t see their eyes and face and listen to their voices as they grow older.  They are my world.  My everything.  I can’t imagine how fast life is going and all the good times I am missing with them.  I miss my family so much that at times I think about hopping the next flight to Guadalajara.  When I hang up the phone after talking to them, my heart hurts.  Nothing is more important than my family.  I’d die for them if necessary.
I love the houses in America.  The houses look just like the ones in the children’s books my mom used to read me.  All my life I dreamed of seeing the houses and living inside them.  They look like the magic stories for kids.
I’m taking English classes because it is important to learn other languages.  It’s critical for my career and personal experience and opportunities.  My English class is very good, and I’m learning new things every day.  I firm my skills and practice them.  I enjoy my classmates, and we try to help each other.  We respect each other’s opinion.
My goal is to get a Master’s degree and be a business woman.  I always dreamed about owning and running my own business.  I’m grateful to have the family God gave me.  I am blessed because I have a very loving, understanding, supporting family.  We always worry about and help each other.  I will do whatever it takes to make them happy.
My name is Maday, and I am from Jilip, Somalia.  I am twenty-one years old and speak five languages, Arabic, Kiswahili, two dialects of Somali and English.  I was born in a very big family.  I am married and have a child.
I left my country because of civil war and famine caused by the war which caused the whole country to be devastated.  When the civil war began in my country, my family and I evacuated to Kenya, a neighboring country where we stayed for several years at a refugee camp.  We applied for asylum under the UN and were approved to come to the U.S.  We boarded a big plane from the capital of Kenya to London where we changed planes to New York and then to Kansas City.
My job is to fill and test the printer cartridge at a warehouse.  The most challenging thing for me in the U.S. is working hard with constant supervision.  In my country people are used to having their own farms and businesses.  People in my country work on their farms whenever they want or have a relative or friend work on their behalf if they are tired and need to rest or are ill.   I miss many things from my country:  friends, relatives, land and beautiful farms with coconut trees, mangoes, lemons, beans and rice.  My favorite tradition from my country is the circumcision ceremony where many people come and tease the person who is going to be circumcised if he/she cries.
I am a young, hardworking man who has had a lot of work experience since I was ten years old.  I have tailor, manufacturing and teaching skills.  I struggle to study well and make changes in the world’s situation.  I am taking English classes to attain my ambitions of becoming a great journalist and working as a news correspondent.  My teachers have great skills and have previously taught in many different countries around the world, so they are special teachers for me.  My classmates are important.  We help each other, love each other, and each of us is from a different country.  We share experiences and talk to each other about our cultures and beliefs.
My dreams are to become more efficient and have my own business instead of working for someone else at an entry-level job.  I am very grateful to have opportunities to help other people.  I am someone who likes to help people who are in need. I help people by volunteering, and I am currently helping a community called Somali Bantu community of Kansas. This community consists of almost 93 families, four of which are literate and can read, write, and speak English language.  However, the other 89 families are illiterate and can't read or speak the English language at all, and they really need help to live in the United States.  I always help them voluntarily when I have time for them.  I help them with interpretation, transportation, and homework.
I help adults in the Somali Bantu community voluntarily with language interpretation when they go to the health department to address their health issues, to the doctors, to immigration departments to apply for permanent residents, and also to schools to schools to talk to their children's teachers.  Transportation is a major problem among the Somali community in Kansas.  When I have a free time, I help the Somalis who need help with transportation.  I help transport them to their work places, health departments, and shopping centers needed.  Since most of them are illiterate, it is hard for them to get a driver’s license to drive or own a car, so that is why I commit myself to helping them.
Although I help adults in the Somali community, they also openly ask me to help their children after school with homework because the children are helpless, and since their parents don't understand or speak English, I help them. English is not their first language.  Helping people is what I do with most of my free time.  I am proud of what I do for my community.
My name is Laura, and I’m from Bogota, Colombia in South America.  I’m seventeen years old and have lived with my cousin in Kansas City since fifteen; I learned a lot from her, her two kids and from Americans.  My mom, godparents and the rest of my family are back in Colombia, and I miss them so much.  My mom is the most important person in my life and my role model, though I haven’t seen her in two years. 
I left my country because my mom wanted me to come and learn English to have a better life and future.  Her dad didn’t let her go when she had the opportunity, and she didn’t want me to miss out like she did, even though it meant that she would miss me so much. 
The most interesting story about my life is my birth.  My mom has told me the story many times, and it’s so meaningful to me because I consider it a miracle.  I was a premature child because I was born at seven months and two weeks.  It was a risky birth because while my mom was in surgery, her heart pressure shot up too high.  I was so little and very vulnerable that I could have died during the trip from one room to the next.  I was incubated for three months and in grave condition because I couldn’t breathe by myself and the doctors didn’t have any hope for me to live.  My mom was hospitalized as well and sad and depressed about me.  One day the doctor told my mom I wasn’t breathing at all, and it was not helpful to keep me connected to the machines.  The doctor asked her to sign an order to disconnect me.  She cried and cried but gave them the signature, though she was devastated and suffering so much.  Suddenly, the doctor told her that a really strange and unusual thing happened.  That morning I breathed by myself for the first time.  My mom was so happy and proud and considered me a gift from God.  If she sees me struggling with something, she says, “Laura, remember what a big warrior you are!  You’ve been battling since you were in my belly.  This is nothing compared with what you had to pass through.  You’re my gift and treasure, so be strong!”
I am taking English classes to improve my skills.  I love the way my classmates work hard and dedicate time and mind to learning English.  One of my favorite quotes is from Greece:  “Wisdom is having the knowledge of knowing you know nothing.”
My name is Haile, and I’m from Eritrea and twenty-six years old.  In my country, every male has to go for military training at eighteen for national service.  I finished my service, but a war started in Eritrea so the government didn’t allow me to go back to my family.  I went to Saudi Arabia for awhile until I had a chance to come to the U.S. 
I miss my family and friends.  I miss everything I did in my country.  I miss my culture and the streets I walked on.  In the United States, I used to bus tables, but now I am a host and cashier at a local restaurant.  My goal is to finish ESL classes and get a high school diploma.
My name is Ruslan, and I am from the Republic of Uzbekistan.  I am twenty-five years old and speak four languages, Uzbek, Russian, Turkish and English.  I graduated from school in my country when I was seventeen years old.  I traveled here to study and make good money.  I miss everything in my country:  my parents, brothers, sisters, friends, food, culture, life…  I don’t have a job here and am a student. 
My name is Lourdes, and I’m from Santa Barbara, Honduras and am twenty-six years old.  I attended college until I was twenty.  I have a big family, though my dad died three years ago.  My mom lives alone in Honduras, and the rest of us live in Miami, California or Kansas City.  The hardest thing about my childhood was when I didn’t eat because my mother didn’t have enough money to buy food.
I came to the U.S. because my husband was here and the income I made in Honduras wasn’t enough to live on.  I supported my son, went to college and wanted to buy a house.  Finally, I was so disappointed that I decided to leave my country for something new.  I started to travel with my son by bus from Honduras to Mexico.   Sometimes I walked, took a boat, rode in trucks or swam.  I did whatever it took to get to America.  The most challenging thing here is that I don’t have social security, a driver’s license or family insurance.  The weather is hard for me too.  I miss the weather, food, friends and studies in Honduras, but I like the security in America.  I work as a kitchen manager at Chipotle’s, and my responsibilities include cooking, organizing food on the shelves and supporting the others.
First of all, my name is Omar, and I’m twenty-two years old.  I was born in southern Somalia, and my nationality is Somali Bantu.  My family had gardens, and their job was working on a commercial agricultural plantation.  The opportunities to garden or farm provide benefits that go far beyond improving their tuition and earning extra income through the sale of surplus food.  I speak May-Maay (my first language), Kiswahili, Arabic, Somali and a little English.  In Somalia, we have a lot of tribes.  I can’t describe them, but my tribe is called Bantu, people trying to get food (hunters and gatherers called bushman) and living in the forests.  My tribe lived in a fertile region where the population grew with the aid of the very productive crops like banana, corn and grains.
In 1991, I was six years old and civil war broke out in our area.  In fact, our life became unbearable, and we ran out of the country to seek protection as refugees.  The fighting had been going on for at least one year, and a lot of people died.  Many of our people were killed while they were walking.  The bandits just started shooting, raping women and attacking.  Bantu tribes were the biggest victims of the civil war that broke out that year.  That is why we decided to move to another country.
After we arrived in Kenya, the UNHCR gave us resettlement to reside in a small town which they called Hagadera Refugee Camp, an area like forest.  Three to four families had to share items like dishes, bowls, rice, oil and sugar.  Many started moving into town, and they gave food every fifteen days, so we had to make it last.
After two years, the town was full of people, and I made friends, worked, played soccer and studied both at school and at Madrasa, the school of my religion.  I went to school five days a week.  I woke up at five and showered before going to Madrasa.  Afterwards, I ate breakfast, showered again and went to school.  When I returned home at four, I had to shower again before going to a private school to study grammar.  I was really busy but enjoyed it.
I still remember what happened in my country because Somalia is a place of great suffering with famine, war and crime.  Anyone looking for a simple-minded good-guy/bad-guy viewpoint should stop reading right now because this story, like all stories, is more complicated than that.
As I was studying, the USA gave resettlement to 13,000 Somali Bantu to settle in fifty American cities, so they collected us from the refugee camps to Kakuma, Kenya, a different town where we stayed awhile.  They fixed our family names and told us our flight was ready.  We walked to the market for shopping to prepare ourselves.  The next day, we came to an office building.  My family with ten other families listened as they called our names.  We boarded the bus to downtown so we could take the plane, heading for the land of the free.
My name is Yazmin, and I am from Veracruz, Mexico.  I’m twenty-nine years old and graduated from high school at eighteen.  I wanted to go on adventures, and a friend told me that America is a place where you can make money to travel.  I crossed the border from Mexico to the USA by paying a “pollero” eight hundred dollars to show me how to cross. 
My first challenge here was transportation to work at a local restaurant because I didn’t have a car and didn’t even know how to drive.  I was lucky because I was young and my friends and boyfriends taught me how to drive.  After that, language is the biggest challenge.  I miss my family, especially my grandma, and the fresh food and flavors (like Tamales de Elote and Zapotes).  I like how clean the city is and how friendly the people are in Kansas City
The hardest thing growing up was having an alcoholic father who beat my mom when he was drunk.  I had to grow up too fast to help protect my mom from my dad.  I left my home at age thirteen.
I’m very friendly, talk a lot but listen too.  I have lots of stories to tell.  I love God, and I love people too.  My dream is to learn English very well and have a good career.  I want to always be a good example to my daughters.  I want to have a house of my own.  Finally, I want to fix my legal situation because I really want to be legal in this country.

Like the citizens who stand beside them for employment, to worship, to achieve quality of life, they hope and dream for a better life in a land populated with people from all over the world who have merged into Americans. Having left homes, loved ones and traditions, they search for a chance at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Lawmakers and voters can decide the fate of immigrants by weighing what immigration has done for the country, using the short, rich history of the United States to guide them toward parameters that benefit the new immigrants as well as the rest of the American population, immigrants all of them.  As George Santayana once said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  
Should the U.S. continue current immigration policies created in 1965 or go in a new direction?  Where will that lead us?  Should we choose alienation and fear?  Who will we be?  What will we lose?  
The solutions to the burning issues of modern immigration will usher in a stronger, unified America or alter the land of the free forever. 
*******Special thanks to the students of Donnelly College in Kansas for sharing their stories.
********Professor Newton Crawford helped with the information from the opening.
*******Originally published in Present Magazine in Kansas City, Missouri in Fall 2008.