No Check, Please

I was getting ready to leave home when I got the text from my editor:

Dish will either be bacon-wrapped filet of ribeye or Parmesan encrusted halibut over Maine lobster orzo. SCORE…! I smiled, my mind already wandering to the seafood, and hoping they chose the halibut—perhaps my favorite fish. I threw my purse over my shoulder and left the house, preparing myself for the 50 minute drive to a local resort town.

When I arrived, too late for lunch and too early for dinner, the hostess, who seemed to know I was coming, seated me by a window with a spectacular view of the lake. In moments, the bartender brought me a glass of water, asking if he could get me anything else. For a moment, I considered ordering a dirty martini, but I abstained. After all, I was working.

The chef arrived, in full kitchen whites, and shook my hand before taking a seat across from me. He told me they had decided on steak. For a moment, I was disappointed. I’ve never been an avid consumer of large chunks of meat. As a child, I would sit for hours rather than finish a pork chop with even a hint of fat. I didn’t like it when the muscles got stuck between my teeth. But I couldn’t tell this chef that I’d rather not eat a steak. I would eat what they put in front of me. And then, I would write about it.

No Check PleaseWhen my dish arrived, carried wordlessly by a waiter, it was sprinkled with tiny, edible flowers and accompanied by morel mushrooms. “Have you ever had filet of ribeye?” the chef asked. I shook my head, cutting off my first bite. “You remove only the centermost, tender part of the steak, giving a similar impression to a filet mignon.”  This special cut was wrapped in bacon they made in-house. “Underneath the steak is a potato dish I created for a chef event.” He leaned forward. “What do you think?”

I had just slid my first bite into my mouth and was trying to correlate this amazing taste and texture with any other steak I’d ever had. “It’s wonderful,” I said. He smiled and then left me alone to enjoy my oddly timed meal before a tour of the extensive wine cellar.

I ate slowly, realizing that perhaps I liked steak after all, or at least this one. I made a few notes on my yellow pad (the ribeye cuts like room temperature butter and gives in to my teeth without resistance, the potato is crisp on the outside, not too much dairy on the inside, but still creamy) and picked up the menu to collect the details. As I wrote down the price, I paused, just for a moment, mid-bite. This plate of delicious meat, potatoes, and mushrooms would cost $50 for the average diner. Without the martini.

I finished eating and the chef, the young, waistcoat-clad general manager and I descended to the cool wine cellar, luxuriously filled with millions of dollars worth of bottles. The two men played off each other easily, quoting statistics and showing off double magnums of champagne so expensive I couldn’t afford even a sip.  

After I took my leave of the chef and the general manager, with handshakes all around, I took advantage of my extra hour of free resort parking with a walk down by the lake. As I walked, I thought about the people who would be reading the article that I was even now writing in my head. Spokane isn’t lavish. Most in the community are not well-to-do. For many of the people I know, eating out is a luxury, especially for something other than a burger. Restaurant dining is saved for birthdays, anniversaries and the occasional date night. Most of the people reading my article wouldn’t even consider ordering a $50 steak. I would never consider ordering a $50 steak if I was footing the bill.

Although my budget isn’t expansive, I love to try new restaurants as soon as they open, to treat friends to breakfast and lunch, dinner and drinks. Writing about food, from the expensive resort fare, to local diners, is the way I pay these bills (or submit them for reimbursement). My passion has become the means of my provision.

And because I know this is special, something that might be saved for, or noted in the budget, I feel a responsibility to those readers. When I sit down to write a review, I do my best to tell the truth about my experience. All of my visits do not include a chat with the chef. Most of the time, they don’t know I’m coming. I’m short and blonde and young, and I don’t look like a food writer. They treat me just like anyone else. It is, paradoxically, my very normalness that makes me a reliable critic. If I am dazzled by the service, or a particular dish, it’s likely that a reader will be. As I wrote the piece about the steak (which was photographed and put on the magazine cover), I did my best to weigh every word for accuracy. You never know who might be clipping the article and saving up for a special evening. I would hate for them to be disappointed.

cara YAH bio

Banks Don’t Give Lollypops to Adults Who Spend All of Their Money

Banks are where grown ups go to do important things, like taking out home loans, cashing big pay checks, or making investments like a Certificate of Deposit. Today, I was doing the rough equivalent of smashing my piggy bank to keep from going broke while waiting for our Vermont home to sell.

As I walked into the well-appointed lobby at northeast Connecticut’s Liberty Bank, with its sleek leather furniture and fancy tile floor, I felt like a kid again. There were lollypops at the counter and hot chocolate packets alongside the coffee maker. It’s as if the friendly staff in their navy blue blazers knew that someone would need to sweeten his quarter-life crisis while sitting in the waiting area.

We just had to last one more month until our house sold.  

Just a few days earlier, I didn’t think we were going to make it until the sale went through. It had sat on the market a few months too long before finding a buyer, and our reserves dried up as my work hit three major setbacks in a row and we waited for my wife’s salary at her new position to kick in. It seemed like every potential source of income dried up just when our bills were doubled and our new salaries non-existent.

bank-organizedI had been praying (Read: Despairing) about our finances, when it hit me: we still had several emergency funds sources to draw from. One of them, the easiest and fastest to access, were my savings bonds. They were just what we needed to make ends meet.

I sat with my briefcase on my lap which safely preserved the neat appearance of an envelope holding a small stack of matured savings bonds from 1987, gifts for my First Holy Communion back when I was Catholic. They were still crisp and sharp on their edges,  kept in a plastic sleeve all of these years. Apparently Catholics often give them as gifts to mark the occasion. I started the day of my Holy Communion without any clue that I’d be receiving the bonds, but after a few $100 savings bonds piled up, I started to think anyone who gave me a $50 bond was being cheap.

When I was called back for my meeting, I jumped to my feet. Would they reject the bonds? Would they say I’d made a mistake and they were only half of what I’d thought?  In the past four months, worrying had become my default.

I stepped into the back office to meet with a well-appointed woman in a business suit, accustomed to dealing with mortgages in the half million dollar range, this was Connecticut after all, rather than cashing a grown man’s Holy Communion bonds to keep his bank account from hitting zero. After a few minutes of tapping on her keyboard she printed out our new balance statement and handed it over with a smile.

“Have a nice day,” she said, as if I was one of those responsible adults who take out loans or earn interest on “things.” My relief was clouded by the shame I felt for being such a screw up for failing to provide for my family when we needed it the most.

In the following months our house sale flew by without any problems, I landed a steady job selling books online for a quirky used bookstore in town that more closely resembled a yard sale, and my hit or miss article writing income was replaced by steady writing work for a manufacturer. In the words of Monty Python, “I got better…” However, I’m still not entirely at ease among the perceived “adults” at my local bank these days. Remember, I’m still a writer!  

Cowering in the couch at Liberty Bank, wondering if my bonds were valuable enough became my rock bottom moment. But, when you’re going to bottom out, the lobby at a fancy Connecticut bank isn’t too bad of an option. I would have served myself some hot chocolate if I’d known that things would turn around so quickly.

Ed bio YAH

Stumpy the Christmas Tree

“It’s going to be a small Christmas this year, kids.”  

My mom. Almost every year. And yet, I never remember small Christmases.

Perhaps they were small in comparison to the expensive gifts or the multi-hundreds of dollars in cash and gift cards our classmates talked about receiving each year. But even then, I just found it odd that they received so much.

Some of the early Christmas photos of my family show our tree in the background – an 18” high green ceramic tree with colored pegs that glowed from a light bulb stuck inside. We put our gifts under and around the small table it sat on. We hung garland in a scallop from the ceiling and hung our ornaments from that. I remember being particularly enthralled by the ornaments and how certain I was that no one else decorated for Christmas in quite that spectacular way.  Blame it on my steady diet of  Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons, but I was just genuinely the kid who was (mostly) thankful for what I had. I thought of Laura Ingalls treasuring her tin cup and peppermint stick for Christmas and I knew our celebration was lavish.

One year, there was a knock on the door and I answered it to see Pastor Bill standing there. He asked for my parents and then gave them an envelope. “This is for Christmas” he said. Inside – money for gifts for us and food for Christmas dinner. Mom tells me that was the difference between having those things and not that year. But most years weren’t like that, at least not that my memory recalls.


On a summer Saturday when I was about six or seven my mom and I woke up early to track down garage sales in our town as we often did. At one we found a treasure – an artificial Christmas tree selling for cheap. The top part that makes the point of the tree was missing, but we got it anyway. That next Christmas the tree earned the affectionate nickname “Stumpy.” We bent the branches of the top layer up and into a point and stuck the red Christmas angel on top. As a child, the tree seemed massive, but it didn’t even come to the top of the window.

Stumpy one year with presents piled around.

Stumpy one year with presents piled around.

On the day after Thanksgiving we’d get out our ornaments and hang them on her branches one-by-one, telling the story of each ornament. Mom bought us a new ornament each year – something that represented our year. They were our travels, our dreams, our interests, our talents. There were curled papers covered in glitter that had resembled angels at some point. Hallmark collection figure skaters. Silly snowmen. Model cars.The ornaments were the stories of our lives and Stumpy held them well. As much as I had loved the ornaments hanging from the garland on the ceiling, I thoroughly embraced and enjoyed our upgrade to Stumpy.

We eventually got rid of Stumpy when I was around 11 years old and bought a brand-new artificial tree. This tree had full, fluffy branches, a top piece that scraped the ceiling in our short-walled living room, and no name. I suppose I would have done the same thing as an adult, but as a kid I missed Stumpy. She was part of my Christmas, part of the magic and wonder that we found such a treasure. She was short enough that I could reach the tip top and stick the angel in her place.

Stumpy was enough for my child-heart. And really, Stumpy was more than enough. The scalloped garland hanging from the ceiling and the ceramic tree on the end table were enough.  


I was better at it as a kid, but I still strive to maintain that seemingly unshakeable contentedness. I’m currently the poster child for the boomerang generation: 30-something. Grad degree. Back living with my parents. I’m working and my business is growing, but money is tight. As I’ve struggled the past 18 months with the fact that this is my reality, I’m constantly reminding myself that this is enough.I have parents gracious enough to accept my home-cooked meals and contributions towards the utilities as rent. I have a bed, a dresser filled with clothes, a car that runs, a cabinet full of food, and a computer on which to make an income.

My life is a little haphazard. If I compare my current reality to the dreams, my life seems to be missing that crowning piece that makes it look complete. But, I know, what I have is more than enough.


Nicole bio YAH

The Hope That Sustains

Thanacostiae neighborhood doesn’t look that bad…,” I said. There was uncertainty in my voice, trailing off with an unspoken question mark.

To my West Coast eyes, where very few buildings have even turned 100 years old, much of the East Coast had sagging or worn features. It was hard to see a notable difference between the middle class neighborhoods and the struggling areas where my friends did outreach and ministry.

Look at the cars. That makes it more obvious,” Clark noted, lifting his hand off the steering wheel to gesture at the curb on his right.  

It was true, the cars in the neighborhood began looking more beaten down, held together, or rusted out as we drove deeper into the neighborhood.

Notice the store fronts.” Again, my eyes focused: cheap fried chicken, check cashing joints, mom and pop convenience stores advertising alcohol and cigarettes.

I nodded my head and looked silently out the window.

Days earlier, I had phoned Clark to ask if I could come visit his missionary community, A Simple House, for Holy Week. I aimed for casual but failed miserably. Rather, I called every twenty minutes until he answered. If it was going to work, I needed to buy a last-minute ticket from Tucson to Reagan Airport in DC. I spit out my request, over-talking and rambling. After an awkward pause, he responded with uncertainty. Nonetheless, I needed the “yes.” I logged onto the computer and bought the ticket.

I was grieving. Numb. Zoned out. Uncertain about how to face the future.

When I received the news of my brothers’ tragic and sudden death, I was traveling for work. In the weeks that followed, I thought of nothing else than immediate needs. Fly home. Be with family. Plan arrangements. Communicate details. Deal with logistics.

But, weeks had passed since that phone call and gentle probes about when I would return to my duties were creeping into the occasional conversation. I was the leader of a mid-sized nonprofit in the midst of growth. While the others were happy to cover for me, they were starting to feel my absence.

The idea of shouldering the responsibility of my life of ministry was more than my fragile, weepy self could imagine.  Fundraising.  Drama-filled scenarios.  Financial statements.  Staffing issues.  The mere thought sent me whirling.

But, the hugs had been hugged. The cards had been opened and the food from the refrigerator cleaned up.

It was time to return to “normal life.”

In my mind, visiting my friends and colleagues with A Simple House was an inbetween place, a way of tiptoeing back into my life.  I could be surrounded by ministry but not responsible for decisions, or finances, or saying the right thing.  I could show up to all of the liturgies of the holy season without having to face the spoken or unspoken question: “How are you?”  I didn’t know which I was more afraid of, the people who were unable to bring it up or those who did.   I could be surrounded by people who I knew but would be able to leave, people with full lives who cared but didn’t coddle.  I could still be messy and irrational and unraveled without causing concern.

As I walked into the house, one of the missionaries, Laura, welcomed me with a hug, trying to gauge my emotion. Moments later, her co-worker, Ryan appeared in the hallway.  In a few sentences he shared about his experience of death in his immediate family, a conversation that we picked up later in the visit. Whatever he said allowed me to exhale.  It was okay that I was here.  It was weird but, it was okay. My grief didn’t make me a burden.  They would work me into their life for a few days.

And they did.

Over the course of my visit, I heard stories of suicide and murder, of incest and sexual assault. Stories of generations of pain and heroic struggles to mount obstacles.  Indications of tiny steps forward and huge slides backward.

On Easter morning, in my Easter best, I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with my friends in the pew of the small African-American parish. I was standing among a suffering people.  I was a suffering person.

The choir wasn’t perfectly musical but they were singing from their lives–the burden of sin, the joy of redemption, the hope that sustains.  Their impassioned tones broke into my numbness.  From the somber reality of death and disappointment and illness and unemployment and addiction, there was praise.  It was chosen and it was gift. Praise.

With my hand extended to the sky and tears running down my cheek, I joined in.

We rejoiced that death was not victorious.  We celebrated the light, the new life that was promised and given.

As the liturgy ended, we walked out to the parking lot, full of cars in disrepair, and climbed into the ministry minivan decked out with its share of anacostia2 dings and dents.  I gazed out of the window, quietly watching the weary neighborhood, with its sagging porches and bedraggled lawns.

I could see the ugliness.

But, I knew there was life inside.



mary bio YAH


Author’s Note:  This piece is dedicated to the memory of Dave Bender who sold many a car that was beaten down, held together, and rusted out on my behalf.  He would leave with a car on it’s last legs and return with a few hundred dollars.  It was a hidden act of service that Dave did without fanfare or recognition for years and years.  May you be surrounded in the glory of His love, my friend.  Thank you for your service.


An Unwanted Gift

I wasn’t supposed to be there.

We were in sunny, sweltering Palm Springs for a week of orientation. It was the end of July, and I had spent the previous six months intensely preparing to move overseas. I had made a commitment to teach English for two years  in a country where it was illegal to share the gospel.

All summer I had been busy buying a year’s worth of toiletries (half a suitcase), filling the rest of my bag with clothes and food that reminded me of home, and reading books that my mission agency had sent about the country I was headed to. As I packed, I wondered what it would be like to live overseas. I had never lived on my own before. Many people I met that summer were impressed by my new job. Even strangers exclaimed, “You’re teaching English overseas? That’s so cool!”

But I didn’t want to go.

I was afraid of moving so far away from home. I’d just graduated from college and was leaving most of my friends and all of my family behind. I had been living with my family that summer,  packing in my bedroom and dreading the next year.

And I was afraid that I wouldn’t be a good teacher. As an introvert, I preferred working in small groups or behind the scenes. I was nervous about standing up in front of a classroom with 300 students every week. I had already taught in that country for a month two years previously and I’d had a wonderful time, but I’d had only fifteen students. When I’d returned, I was so exhausted from 16-hour days with students and teachers that I barely got out of bed for two weeks.

But I applied and committed to going because God called me to go. Even when I was overseas before, I sensed I would be coming back. When I prayed about what to do after I graduated, God said, “Be a missionary.” When I searched online for other jobs, he patiently told me, “You’re wasting your time. I’ve shown you what to do.”

Then I realized there might be a way to stay home.

By then end of May, we each had to raise $5,000 in support to be eligible to buy our plane tickets. But on June 1st, I had only raised $1,000. I happily thought, Maybe they’ll let me stay.

But because of an accounting error, my ticket was purchased anyway. I couldn’t believe it when recruiter told me that I had replaced someone on a team who hadn’t raised the required $5,000 to buy her plane ticket. I wondered why I had been allowed to go.

When I finally said the last tearful goodbye to my parents and flew to Palm Springs, I felt like a fraud.  I don’t deserve to be here, I thought to myself. I don’t fit in, and I didn’t even raise enough money to go. As soon as the accountant finds out that I didn’t raise enough support, maybe I’ll be sent home. As I thought about how embarrassing that would be, I almost wanted to stay.

When I finally met with the accountant and explained that I hadn’t raised the required amount, he said, “Oh, that’s fine. Of course you’re going. More support will come in after you go overseas.”

He was right, darnit. Over the next year, support eventually came in. My teammate later told me that she’d had an uneasy feeling when she first heard about their team. “I looked at everyone’s picture, and it just didn’t seem right,” she said. “But when we finally received the email saying that you were on our team instead and we saw your picture, we just had a good feeling, like our team was finally complete.”

And it was a good team.

But it was a hard year. I grew depressed and bitter because things weren’t going the way I had envisioned. The first people we met said, “We’re so sorry you’re at that school,” meaning our school – the one I was committed to working and living at for the next two years.

Our first semester was a whirl of negative rumors and disagreements all covered in humidity and thick, dark pollution that filled our nostrils and covered our floors in black soot. I was told that people were spying on me and I started to believe them, staying inside away from the crowds.

I had many wonderful students, but others didn’t understand English at all and didn’t seem interested in learning. I hadn’t been trained to teach beginning students, but that didn’t stop my self-condemnation. Frustrated at my failure in the classroom and with my team, I started procrastinating to the point of barely getting up until it was time to go to class. Day after day I returned home and collapsed on the cold tile floor in tears, crying with loneliness, misunderstandings, and homesickness.

I blamed God for sending me to that place, but mostly I blamed myself for failing to live up to my high standards. I had unrealistic expectations of success, and I didn’t give myself or others grace when we failed.

Maybe sometimes grace is easier to see–and receive–in retrospect.MiahOrenPhotography-1 copy 5

Now, 10 years later, I think of how my life has changed because I was there. I think of all the wonderful students I met who took me out to dinner, introduced me to their families, and encouraged me when I was ready to give up. How perhaps my biggest success was that I stayed and didn’t quit.

If I met the girl I replaced now, I would sit down over coffee and tell her, You missed a crazy year. I’ve never cried so much. I’ve never been so alone. But I wouldn’t trade that year for anything because God works all things for good. Even when it’s hard. And even when we do our best to run the other way.

* * * * *

MiahOren portraitMiah is the author of The Reluctant Missionary, a memoir about her time overseas. She writes about learning to let go of perfectionism and embracing God’s plan for her life. She lives in Dallas where she dreams of someday having another cat. Connect with Miah online at

Making Pennies, or My Father’s Money

When I was a little girl, I thought my daddy made all the money. That’s because when I once asked him what he did at work, he told me, “I make pennies.”

I probably was too young to comprehend the complexities of managing a blast furnace for US Steel, which is how my father actually spent his days back then. But I like to think I might have been able to wrap my five-year-old brain around it to some extent. Instead, I spent quite some time believing that my father worked in a penny factory.

To be sure, he was compensated for his actual work with many, many pennies—and nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars. Because of this, my life growing up was very different from his.


I remember my dad once telling me that, when he was a teenager, his greatest fear was that he would never make enough money to feed himself. For years, he never felt full. He was always hungry.

As the ninth of twelve children born to a Ukrainian immigrant coal miner, my father wore the hand-me-down clothes of his older brothers. He used to joke that his shoe size matched his age until he was 14. Unfortunately, he often had to wear shoes that were a size or two smaller than his feet; the bumps on his toes bore witness to that for the rest of his life.

In 1913, the 18-year-old boy who would one day be my grandfather left his home in a rural village in western Ukraine to cross an ocean to join his older brother in a strange land. After he arrived on Ellis Island, in full view of the Statue of Liberty, he had to wait for a stranger to bring him the $25 he needed to enter the country. Today, that would be approximately $610.

My father was born nearly 30 years after his father’s passage to the United States. In 1959, my dad graduated at the top of his high school class. He was awarded a football scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he ultimately earned a degree in mathematical engineering.

After four years of college, my father was drafted by an NFL football team. After a single season as a rookie with the Kansas City Chiefs, he decided to finish his five-year engineering program at Pitt. He spent the next few decades working his way up the corporate ladder of the American steel industry, even when that industry was in danger of collapsing.

“I sure am glad my dad caught that boat.”

I can’t even begin to count the number of times I heard my father repeat those words.


penny_jar_for_web“Our money isn’t really ours in the first place,” I explained. “It belongs to God. Everything belongs to God. We’re just meant to take care of it and to use it well.”

I was sitting in the passenger seat of my boyfriend’s car, explaining to him the finer points of—and theological reasons for—support-raising. He was a first-year medical resident, trying to wrap his brain around why his girlfriend had chosen to work for a campus ministry organization where she was expected to raise a portion of her salary.

My father, who generously and fully financed all four years of my college education at a prestigious liberal arts college, was similarly puzzled by my decision. The philosophical and theological underpinnings of raising support were a mystery to him. He didn’t understand my counter-cultural choice of career, but he supported it.

My father continued to financially support me and my work until his death in 2013. Dad offered his support because he loved me. He supported my desire to use my gifts to do work that fulfills me and that makes a positive difference in the world. He never used the language of “blessing” or “stewardship,” but he embodied both with his generosity—to me, to my brothers, to everyone he met.

Because my grandpa caught that boat, and because my dad made all those pennies, I have been afforded opportunities that would never have occurred to either of them. And I am grateful.


Amy YAH bio

For When People Feel Like an Inconvenience

There is a man named Jim I see from time to time, shuffling down the sidewalk outside of our house on James Street, always carrying his laundry bag over his shoulder. He’s very soft around the middle, with gray hair and a few missing teeth. I don’t know if it’s his severe underbite or the simpleness in his eyes, but he has the smile of a child.

I always say hello and ask him where he’s going. He always has the same reply.

“It’s good to see you…now what was yo’ name? Shawn, that’s wight. I’m on my way to do my lawn-dwee. Wemembah? I just finished school last week and now I have a deg-wee in Psychowogy.”

We stand out in the cold and chat for a bit, then he swings his laundry bag over his shoulder and heads down the road, shuffling side to side.

* * * * *

A few weeks ago, at around 8pm, our doorbell rang. This is normal, not because we get a lot of nighttime visitors, but because our doorbell rings randomly, even when no one is there. Our next door neighbor passed away about a year ago, so when the doorbell rings at night I usually shout, “Paul’s ghost would like to come in.”

Even so, I still check to see if anyone is actually there.

And on that cold January night a few weeks ago, someone was there. It was Jim. He was bundled up and his eyes were watering from the freezing cold wind and he had his laundry bag over his shoulder.

“Hey, Jim,” I said. “How are you?”

“I’m good, I’m good,” he said. “Do you have a compootah I can use?”

* * * * *

IMG_1161I should interrupt this story to let you know I am not naturally a friendly person, especially when someone attempts to interrupt my normal routine. I’m not saying this to dissuade you from saying hello – I am cordial, after all. And I’m not mean, but I’d rather not be bothered. I try not to impose on people and I have an expectation that others not impose on me.

I’m working hard to overcome this.

I should also say that 8pm is the witching hour here at the house. We have five children, and it’s about that time when my wife and I are reminding them to get a bedtime snack, brush teeth, take showers, put on pajamas, DID YOU REMEMBER TO BRUSH YOUR TEETH?, and go to bed.

When I saw Jim standing there, I had the same feeling I had when a neighbor I hadn’t met asked me to take her two pitbulls for a walk. I knew I should say yes, I knew I should welcome him in, but I just didn’t feel like it.

* * * * *

I sighed.

“Sure, come on in, Jim.”

He walked in behind me and we went into the dining room. My computer was already there at the table where I had been trying to get some work done earlier in the day.

“What do you need?” I asked him.

“I’m fiwing out an appwication to work at Weis Mawkets,” he said. “But I don’t have a compootah. I always use the cowege compootahs.”

“Can’t you just go to the store and fill out an application?”

He shrugged. We called the supermarket. The only way to apply for a job is to fill out an online application. So we began. We didn’t get far.

“What’s your email address?” I asked Jim.

“I don’t have one.”

“You don’t have an email address?” I asked. I could hear my wife upstairs trying to get the kids in bed, something that is usually my job. She’s spends all day with them, and I know she appreciates when I can take over at night. This entire process was becoming more and more of an inconvenience.

“I do when I’m at school, but I can’t use those compootahs right now.”

We sat there staring blankly at the screen for a minute. He sighed.

“Just skip that part,” he said.

“You can’t skip it,” I said, kind of annoyed. “That’s how they’re going to get in touch with you to tell you whether or not you got the job.”

We sat there for a few more minutes.

“Can you put your email address in?” he asked me.

“Yeah, okay,” I said.

We spent the next hour filling out the application, trying to remember the address of where he worked two jobs ago, trying to think up various people he could use as referrals. We filled out the online job profile, answering a hundred questions about how he viewed theft, authority, and honesty.

Finally, we finished.

“Thank you, thank you,” he said over and over again, and I walked him to the door.

He’s a nice man. I know he’d be a hard worker, and I know he needs the money. His current, part-time job at $8.50 an hour makes it pretty much impossible for him to live a self-sufficient life. I really hoped he would get the job.

I watched him vanish into the cold night, and I knew I had done the right thing. I just wish it came easier. I wish I had a better attitude about it. I wish my initial response wasn’t to label people as “inconvenience.”

* * * * *

A few weeks later, I received the following email:

Dear Jim,

Thank you for taking the time to apply with Weis Markets for the position of Cashier.  At this time, we have chosen to pursue other candidates that more closely fit the position. We wish you the best in your employment search and future endeavors.


Weis Markets Human Resources  


shawn bio YAH

When I Was Your Age, We Went to the Bank

On Saturdays, we went to the bank with dad.

The Regency Savings Bank of Geneva, IL welcomed its patrons with platters covered in white paper doilies, piled high with a variety of butter cookies. Dad would fill one of the provided styrofoam cups with coffee from the percolator.

We started coming with Dad when I was a toddler, an era when my memories blur one into the other. In those early days, my older sister and I waited at the Playschool picnic table, laid out with coloring books and crayons. At this point any of our collected coins got plopped into Piggy Banks on our dressers. Soon enough we started to trail Dad to the bank counter, to watch the magic.

The tellers counted the cash onto the counter like tarot cards, experts at slipping paper across paper. They moved through their tasks without looking: stamping, signing, unlocking, typing on the number pad on the computer, and printing receipts by feeding a machine with a small slip of paper that got pulled into the machine to be stamped with account balances.

Bank Teller Counting Money for Customer --- Image by © Duncan Smith/Corbis

Bank Teller Counting Money for Customer — Image by © Duncan Smith/Corbis

At home, we imitated the movements of the tellers in elaborate games of pretend bank, using stacks of pocketed deposit slips and carbon copy return tickets from the local Venture department store. We idolized those women at the bank, second only to the grocery clerks at the supermarket who almost always had long acrylic nails that clicked across the keypad.

On  Saturday mornings, the bank hummed with the financial business of the town locals. I came to recognize the tellers and the bankers in suits who sat at glass enclosed cubicles. When not serving a customer, they popped out of their offices to circulate around the premises and greet account holders by name. We usually got greeted by the tall, lady banker with the short black hair, who seemed to be having a perpetually good day since the late ‘80s.

At the tall desks in the lobby, my Dad endorsed his stack of checks, a lefty with the characteristic curve in of his hand. He always came with his own blue, ballpoint pen since the ones chained to the desk had long run out of ink. Each week, my dad left the bank with a thin white envelope full of twenties that he placed up in the cabinet next to the fridge, so Mom could select a crisp bill or two and take them to the grocery store.

The tall smiley banker told my Dad that we could open our very own savings accounts, and Carolyn and I were each entrusted with a small grey book, monogrammed with the maroon initials of the bank. These very important books were housed in the roll top desk in the kitchen and kept in protective plastic sleeves.  We covered the plastic sleeves with stickers received from the teller for each deposit we made at the bank.

Each visit to the bank corresponded with a new entry in our passbooks. We took a portion of our newly implemented weekly allowance which we had sorted into styrofoam cups marked “savings,” “spending,” and “church.”

Photo Courtesy of Mario Rui on Flickr

Photo Courtesy of Mario Rui on Flickr

I imagine I had some sort of coin purse or hand me down wallet, but I mostly remember holding the coins in my fists till they grew warm and sweaty against my palms. When we handed over our coins and deposit slip, the teller put the coins into a coin sorter, taking  my precious book to feed into a machine that stamped the new balance of my account.

I tried to read over my account ledger with the seriousness the other patrons used as they carried out their banking. I followed the new entry line across the page with my finger to verify the deposit amount matched my handful of change. On birthdays and Christmas, we brought checks from our grandparents and carefully determined how much cash to take out and how much to entrust to the bank, which was very grownup  business.

After the bank, we ran a few other customary errands to the local Ace Hardware store and to Sally’s Sub House or McDonalds, where I couldn’t help but make the connection that the money dad got at the bank bought Happy Meals and packs of grape Bubblicious gum.

I watched my parents do things with cash, taking  it out of envelopes and carefully counting their pennies. I looked on as my mom put items back at the grocery store to match the amount of bills in her wallet. Both my parents were visible stewards of our money, physically placing it into the hands of others or the golden offering plate to save, spend, and give.

The Regency Savings Bank has long been bought up by other bank chains, changing names and buildings and cookie brands. Now our money zooms through cyberspace, teleporting from one account to another. We no longer have to tabulate our finances and I-owe-yous with paper and pen, but pay instantly from the latest app on our phones. Store clerks ask us if we want that useless piece of non-recyclable paper called a receipt, and we wave them off while only a few people still carefully pen their transactions into their checkbook.

But I think I miss touching money, holding it in my hands, and seeing that it is paper and metal. Perhaps I will start to go to the bank again on Saturdays and take out an envelope of crisp bills to bestow with care as my parents did.




The cost of playing cowboy

“It’s like a resort for rich Christians who want to spend a week pretending to be cowboys.”

This was my standard explanation of Deer Valley Ranch when I told college friends where I had spent the summer working. There was really no better way to describe in a nutshell the wonderful yet bizarre place—especially from the perspective of someone like me, who had grown up solidly middle class, taking budget vacations that involved sleeping in a tent and eating Mom-made sandwiches at scenic overlooks.

My upbringing in the Midwest also fueled my fascination with Deer Valley Ranch. While several of my friends lived on farms and had horses, no one seemed particularly intent on embracing the romantic charade of playing cowboy. Maybe Michigan’s wooded trails and country roads just didn’t provide the sort of Wild West backdrop necessary for getting in the cowboy mood.

18908034673_9961758d39_bDeer Valley Ranch, near Buena Vista Colorado, definitely has the right backdrop. The ranch is nestled in a range of mountains known as “the fourteeners,” with Mt. Princeton’s Chalk Cliffs rising dramatically behind the lodge and horse stables. The whole setting suggests the work of a talented stage crew under the direction of God (with a very large budget). The actors in our theatre were the staff—the other Christian college students and I, in our Wranglers and cowboy boots and hats—and our drama relied on “breaking the third wall” by inviting  guests to participate in the action.

We took the cowboy narrative pretty far down the trail at Deer Valley. I quickly learned it was what the guests were paying for—good-clean-Christian-family-cowboy-fun. Each week started off with an all-ranch hymn-sing led by Cowboy Dave, an event that served to set the tone and to begin drawing guests together with their common beliefs (not to mention their shared vacation proclivities).

Those of us working as servers in the dining room completed our Wranglers-and-cowboy-boots costumes with a red or navy gingham checked shirt and a contrasting bandana around our necks. We carried large trays filled with plates of authentic Western food, like beef brisket and whole trout. (Sometimes the cook prepared the very fish that had been caught earlier in the day by the guests. You have to pay good money to catch your own dinner.)

Square dance nights on the deck called for full staff participation. It was our job to urge hesitant guests out onto the dance floor unders the sky to learn the line dance moves, or to succumb to the lively two-stepping spins of an eager old cowboy in need of a partner.

4812123590_c50fae710e_zBut the Cowboy Breakfast was the Deer Valley act that topped all others. A couple of times a week a handful of staff got up at the crack of dawn to travel off-road in an ancient pickup truck to our wilderness breakfast site. Once there, we started a cooking fire, letting it get nice and hot before adding cast iron skillets of bacon, to be joined later by scrambled eggs and grits. Big pots of “cowboy coffee” were added to the grate, ready to pour into tin cups when the guests arrived.

Even at the end of my summer at the ranch I still fought a bemused smile when Cowboy Dave and his crew came rounding the bend on their horses, each rider in full cowboy attire. We greeted them with a boisterous “Good mornin’!” as they dismounted and walked over on stiff bow-legs to grab a tin cup and load up a plate at the fire.

How could I not inwardly chuckle as I slopped grits on someone’s plate and Cowboy Dave swung his guitar around from its perch on his back to begin playing suitably-mournful cowboy songs? The guests were sore, cold, and sleepy after getting up before the sun to sit too long in the saddle. The plates I spooned grits onto weren’t those nice, speckled blue enamel sets you buy at camping stores—they were dented dull grey metal. And the coffee we served was full of grounds. As someone who had grown up roughing it on the cheap, I found plenty of irony in people spending significant sums on such an experience.

But there were those incredible mountains reaching up behind the guests as they crunched into another piece of bacon and their horses munched on some feed nearby.  And I had to admit, my feet felt good in my cowboy boots, and there was something energizing about a deep intake of that high-altitude air. I even began to understand that having things like shiny plates and gourmet coffee would ruin the charade these folks had paid good money for. And what’s any expensive vacation, after all, if not a charade to help us vacate reality for a handful of days?

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Kristin bio YAH

Photo of Mt. Princeton’s Chalk Cliffs by Wongaboo

Cowboy and horse photo by Just Too Lazy

I Went to the Woods

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Put in a category for laundry money.”


“Ok, put in a category for candy!”

Dan looks at me sidewise. “Ok, done.” He types for a moment and voila, there it is, a category for candy.

“Just kidding,” I say.

“I know,” he says, already deleting it.

We nod at each other–the nod of agreement where we’re both saying ok, we are doing a budget. Not just any budget, but a balls-to-the-wall zero-based budget where every single dollar, cent, and haypenny needs accounting for. In other words, goodbye gum, nice lotion, and comic books–basically all stuff I buy on a whim. There’s no “Whim” category and if there was it wouldn’t be big enough. Hence our need for a budget.

We recently bought a monthly subscription to “You Need a Budget” or YNAB for short. And we’ll be taking Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University class starting this week. It’s our second time through.

You see, we’ve both got a little history with debt. Student loans, credit cards, mortgages: we are like most others in our age group in the present day. We have carried some debt of one form or another since we were eighteen.

Five years ago I lived in a cabin in the woods. It wasn’t strictly a cabin but it was in the woods near a lake. I’d been reading Walden and when the cabin fell into my lap, I said yes without hesitation. With Thoreau-ian enthusiasm for living deliberately, to “drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms,” I signed the lease. I wanted and needed to write alone. I was done with roommates (I thought) and their aggressive pint-sized dogs and the ensuing drama. Little did I realize that I had plenty of drama inside. A lot of it had to do with money. Not very Thoreau-like, I’m afraid.










I lived there a month and then calmed down a bit. I was lonely and a little stressed out. Especially when I saw the second month’s rent looming ahead. My paycheck, doled out weekly, couldn’t come fast enough.

“How have I already spent my paycheck before it’s in the bank?” I wondered one Wednesday afternoon. I counted out grocery money and rent and saw to my dismay that there was no way I’d be able to meet my friends for sushi that Friday night as planned.

I went anyway.

I paid my rent. Then to my surprise, my student loan was due the second week, which I’d forgotten about. I stood in the doorway of my cabin in the woods and surveyed my domain–my prohibitively expensive domain.

“What have I done?” I murmured. What would Thoreau have done? Here I was, slap up against my reality. I could not pay my rent and be a social animal, buying expensive lotion, candy, and comic books. I had already pulled out my credit card, dusty from disuse, to pay for fun extras. I wanted a Thoreau-ian existence of deliberate living, but what a cost. My mind went frantically between ideas of self-imposed isolation or doing as I liked and racking up debt.

In the end, I opened up a second checking account and divided my rent in quarters for each of the four paychecks in the month. It was the only way I knew how to insure the total amount. I was justifiably horrified at my credit card statements and chopped up my card the third month of cabin life and tried to live slim thereafter.

I couldn’t go to every concert or sushi date available. I stayed home and read, or walked down to the lake, or invited my friends over. I went on a few sushi dates of course, and sweated through the ensuing weeks til my rent was due. I soon learned I was not like Thoreau. Deliberate living was hard and I wanted and needed friends to soften it. My cabin became a retreat of sorts. My friends and I sat on the floor around the fireplace, talking and drinking cheap wine. I got very little writing done but it hardly mattered. At the time, nothing tasted so good as wine and friends around the fire.

I’m still a renter. I will be for a while yet. With the help of zero-budgeting and YNAB, Dan and I are (literally)  paying for our past debts, incurred both out of necessity and fun. But, we can pay our rent. The rest is hard work and sacrifice.

Elena bio YAH