I Came to America After the Tanks Rolled in: Remembering the Former Yugoslavia


I Came to America After the Tanks Rolled in: Remembering the Former YugoslaviaI came to America after the tanks rolled in, just barely before they took Sarajevo. After the helicopter shadows moved across of the fields of buttercups and horseradish and daisies and wisteria, but before the mortars fell. I came to this country when the shelves started to empty of bread, of meat, of corn flakes. I came to this country after the money had already begun to crash, after sunken stacks of rubbery, hollow-eyed gas masks stared back at me at the check-out, but before pensioners had to stand in line to trade bag after bag of devalued coins for stale bread. I came here when the skies had already begun to darken, when the fear had started to slink down the quiet gravel streets.

I said goodbye before dawn. I said goodbye before the perfect pearls of dew on the weeping willow had broken. I said goodbye to the magpies who chattered and tilted their heads down at me, goodbye to the sparrows who hopped off the hedge and scurried after me as I walked away down Taborska Cesta. I held my daddy’s hand and thought it would all be okay and thought I’d come home to Ljubljana again.

America doesn’t remember.

It’s been twenty-five years since Sarajevo. Twenty-five years since the shells started falling and the buildings started crumbling and the cemeteries crept down the mountain, over the valley, into the alleys, the city squares, the hospitals, the banks, the churches, and the blocs. Twenty-five years since the blood flowed.

“Is there a time for keeping your distance?” Bono sang. “A time to turn your eyes away? Is there a time for keeping your head down, for getting on with your day?”

I Came to America After the Tanks Rolled in: Remembering the Former Yugoslavia (A Personal account of the Balkan conflict after the fall of ​​​​​​​the Iron Curtain)

I came to America wide-eyed and homesick. There were hundreds of rows of light in every store, shining down in blindingly unaware excess. There were thousands of packets of food, all lined up. There was a whole aisle just for feeding cats and dogs. There were Cocoa Pebbles and Cocoa Puffs and Fruity Pebbles and cheese-colored spread and hot dogs in shrunken plastic and the shelves were deep, deeper than my eight-year-old arm could reach. People just tossed all these things head over heels, heap upon heap, into an enormous rolling wire cart.

There were rows of cars in everyone’s driveway and the houses swallowed us all. There were televisions and advertisements and everywhere, at every turn, America was a kaleidoscope of color and noise.

America forgot her. American forgot the Balkans, the conflict, the siege.

America forgot about the Iron Curtain, the fall of Communism, the rush of freedom and the rush of overload, and the way it felt when the bottom fell out, and millions upon millions of dinar tumbled down, worth less than the paper they were printed on.

Tonight, I remember it all.

I sat down at my desk on this side of the globe, underneath the oversized world map beside the glowing lamp, went to Google Earth, and for the first time, I walked my digital feet all over the streets I used to know.

It was all there, familiar and bruised by the passage of time.

I walked all over, and I cried.

“There’s a house, that’s not on a hill
And the paint’s chipping off
Of the old window sill
There’s a tree in the front yard
That’s older than me
And older than all of you…” *

I remember the yogurt and the brown-crusted bread, the sour cherries, and the apples that would fall on our concrete balcony. I remember how we’d say “Jupi!” when we were excited, and I remember the grey woven chair in the corner, the tapestry on the wall and the garish scalloped wallpaper, a vision in Soviet orange — an ode to egg yolks or perhaps sunrises.

Yupi soda beverage sticker label from Slovenia, the former Yugoslavia

I remember the first books I read, and my first American pencil, yellow, with the most beautiful pink eraser I’d ever seen. I remember how I had to learn about nickels, and didn’t see the point, because I only needed to use dinar and žeton. I remember letters from grandma, and my old green shoes, and laughter and boiled potatoes. I can tell you of bus tokens and ant-covered climbing vines and the way the trail twisted up to the top of Šmarna Gora, and how stubborn chamomile can grow up, dauntless, through even the rockiest gravel.

“But things they fade
Things turn to grey
As much as I try to save them
They turn grey
Just like the house, that’s not on a hill
With all of the rust on the gate
The chips on the sill
But I love it still” *

I remember the magpies, tottering on clay rooftops, calling out the hymns of the morning, and way the grey coal soot would filter down over the city, entangle with the mist, and settle down over every crooked branch, down into my lungs, over every window pane and into the crevices on every leaf.

“I remember her
I remember her
I remember her so well” *

But most of all, I remember the way I never worried, even in the dark.

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POETRY & WORDS :: The Autumn Liturgy of Rest


POETRY & WORDS :: The Autumn Liturgy of Rest (from the Oaxacaborn blog)

I’m drawn to the changing of the seasons, the time of the year when everything is on the cusp and the old world starts dying and the new world starts coming on [1]. ( Each new day does this too, but the rising sun doesn’t bring out the poetry in me.  Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to liturgical holidays— this neat and tidy slicing up of seasons, tied to the calendar but not the clock.

It’s a reminder that mercy is new, always.)

And I like the changing of the seasons for the nudge to pause and breathe. It’s a time to take stock of whether or not frenetic busyness has creeped in, unnoticed, encroaching on our calm and peaceful margins.  Margin is important to me. Margin is vital. I cannot thrive without margin.

In the 1990s, Dr. Richard Swenson wrote about this in his book “The Overload Syndrome: Learning to Live Within Your Limits“, saying, “We must have some room to breathe. We need freedom to think and permission to heal. Our relationships are being starved to death by velocity. No one has the time to listen, let alone love. Our children lay wounded on the ground, run over by our high-speed good intentions. Is God now pro-exhaustion? Doesn’t He lead people beside the still waters anymore?”

POETRY & WORDS :: The Autumn Liturgy of Rest (from the Oaxacaborn blog)

The changing of the seasons, for me, means a reminder to cultivate those still waters in my own home. I have good intentions, of course, but they are prone to slip, and the seasons give me pause to reconsider whether I am still being intentional about my goals of rest.

Rest doesn’t happen on its own. We must fight for rest.

There’s no escaping it this time of year in Eastern Europe and in the American North. The leaves surge with one last burst of chlorophyll, summer’s flowers tuck their heads, and heirloom rugs are rolled up and beaten outside, clearing the stage for fall, scouring the home for winter, and steeling one’s heart against the coming wintry blast. All of nature is preparing for the quieter, slower season.

POETRY & WORDS :: The Autumn Liturgy of Rest (from the Oaxacaborn blog)

There’s no such meteorological shift in the climate, here.  I’ve never seen anyone take a rug out of the front door to clean it. But the days are lengthening, even if the air plants still cling to the palm trunks, and the egrets never stop sifting through the marshes for brunch.  But I don’t need an obvious equinox outdoors to prepare my home and heart for the autumnal shift, setting out pumpkins on the stoop, simmering ginger and spice on the stove, singing along to my favorite music, and pressing vinyl cling leaves up against the window panes.

This takes time and intention — and more often than not, it takes saying no to things, even good things.  You might feel silly saying “no” to that extra event, that meet-up, that task you’re not even obligated to do for the committee. You might feel self-conscious regularly scheduling in an entire day (or a week!) to breath in the scent of the autumn blend wafting out of the diffuser, stash away the clutter and close the laundry closet doors, pick up the toys off the floor and switch out the bathroom hand soaps. After all, tomorrow, the laundry doors will be open again, the LEGOs will be strewn — but you know what else? Tomorrow, the leaves on the window panes will catch your eye and the lingering aroma of clove and cinnamon will still flutter in and out of the curtains. And there’s a certain transforming power this has on the heart. Somehow, I find that when the house is clean, when corners of the home hint at  the changing season, I feel more calm and purposeful.

I suppose this is a way of presenting a visible reminder of worship before my eyes.  And in the autumn especially, when all of creation is storing and stockpiling and preparing to slow for hibernation, this visible reminder of worship pulls me into the present, and slows me. It’s easier to sit down and drink in the Word, when the clutter isn’t pulling my attention away. It’s easier to help my daughter navigate that non-stop brain of hers, when I’m not stressed over the neglected housework.

POETRY & WORDS :: The Autumn Liturgy of Rest (from the Oaxacaborn blog)

No, I’m not perfect. I haven’t learned this art  yet. My home is not a spotless showcase. I know a slower rhythm doesn’t solve the pressing problems of the world. This doesn’t instantly heal what hurts. We are real, and real people are messy people. But real people can also be purposeful people, fighting for what matters.

Preparing our homes and hearts for the season sets the stage for contentment, and for cultivating margin. That makes a big, big difference.

You see, it is difficult to pursue purpose without margin.

It is difficult to even complete tasks effectively — to say nothing of cheerfully or contentedly — without margin.

Dr. Swenson told the story of how at one point before his epiphany of rest, he was so overwhelmed, overloaded, over-scheduled and burnt out as a physician that he actually deeply resented his patients for being sick. I find in my own life, that in times of marginless frenzy, I resent my tasks as a wife, mother, and full-time educator (that last one takes up every waking hour — can you relate?)

But I refuse to glorify “busyness”.  I refuse to put “busyness” on a pedestal. I’d much rather fight for margin and rest, wouldn’t you?

It’s not a popular choice. Possibly, fighting for rest for your family might put you in uncomfortable situations. It might make you unpopular for a time. But it will also make you peace-filled.

Swenson writes of contentedness: “It has so little cultural traction that I don’t even hear it in casual conversation, let alone preached or praised. The word contented has been replaced by driven, aggressive, hungry, ruthless, relentless.

Taking a deeper look, however, we notice that contentment has been a principle in good standing throughout history, endorsed by philosophers, statesmen, men of letters and theologians of all religions. Even if times were marked by destitution, tragedy and pestilence; even if gutters were filled with beggars, doorways filled with prostitutes and people beat each other with chickens; still, contentment was lifted high. Thought leaders endorsed contentment as a source of hidden comfort and riches, treasured within a human heart despite circumstances.

It is only recently that contentment has fallen out of favor. With the escalating totalitarianism of progress and economics, something had to give, so contentment was replaced by unbridled ambition. No one stopped to have a memorial service nor slowed to light a candle.” [2]

This autumn, won’t you join me in making margin and rest your ambition? Let’s slow down together, and purpose to let our hearts rest in contentedness, no matter the storm outside.

I’ll light a candle  or three to that.

POETRY & WORDS / HOMESCHOOLING :: Why a Global Perspective is an Essential Part of a Christian Worldview


Gina_Munsey_Sonlight_2Gina_Munsey_Sonlight_5

I’ve always loved maps — the delicate wandering lines, the stars and circles hovering over city centers, the softly-worn paper folds creating ridges and peaks where the creases bisect latitude and longitude.

Maps, to me, are about more than just distance.

Maps hold stories, and remind me how connected we all are.

I’m thrilled to say you can read more of my thoughts on this over on the Sonlight Curriculum blog, where I recently had the chance to talk more about the human connections maps hold, and why I believe a global perspective is absolutely essential for not just homeschoolers, but for all Christians.

Head on over, and leave a comment, if you are so inclined!


Image Credits: Priscilla Barbosa Photography

Books, Books, Books: the Evolution of the Oaxacaborn Blog


Books, Books Books: The Evolution of the Oaxacaborn blog

When I started blogging publicly — over at Xanga, fourteen years ago! — I was in college, and blogged too many song lyrics and homework details. Then over the years, I moved back and forth across the country, working at sheet metal factory, a juvenile detention center, and an IT department, and wrote about all the ups and downs. When I became a mother, I even went through a phase where I predictably blogged about cloth diapers (I am so sorry). I’ve written about death, beauty, brokenness, joy — and interior design. And you’ve likely noticed that in the last few months, I’ve written a few longer pieces about homeschooling.

My blogging “methodology”, if you can call it that, hardly follows all the blogging advice. It’s always just followed the seasons of my life. But that’s the beautiful thing about life, too — it’s not stagnant.  It moves like a current. It flows, it goes through seasons, through changeable states of being. Way down at the bottom of this blog, in the footer, Anaïs Nin reminds me, “Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.”

Books, Books Books: The Evolution of the Oaxacaborn blog

I kind of feel like things are coming full circle for me, and it all has to do with books. As a girl, I devoured books, and read everything I could get my hands on. Now, it’s only April, and Aveline’s already read 130 books since the beginning of the year. So, you’ll probably be seeing a lot more posts about literature and children’s books, and more posts about homeschooling. (Although, this is no surprise if you follow me on Instagram @oaxacaborn). I have so many good books to share with you all, but I’ve been holding back, thinking for some reason that this isn’t the right place for it, and worried about losing followers. Well, that’s kind of ridiculous. Because when it comes right down to, perhaps, like Margaret Atwood said, “Perhaps, I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for when they scrawl their names in the snow.”

I’m just thankful some of you keep following along as I scrawl in the snow.

Books, Books Books: The Evolution of the Oaxacaborn blog


To shop the books pictured in this post, click on the appropriate photo.

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‘Beautiful Feet Books’ History Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction


'Beautiful Feet Books' Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction

A lot of different books cross my desk, especially as I work on creating an early elementary reading schedule for U.S. History. When I first started to look into Beautiful Feet’s “Early American History For Primary Grades literature guide for grades K-3, I was intrigued. Once I sat down and actually read through it, though, I knew I wouldn’t be using it or incorporating the lessons into my history schedule.

If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time at all, you know I’m a Jesus-follower; and if you’re searching for reviews on Beautiful Feet curriculum, you likely know it’s purported to be a Christian curriculum.  I wouldn’t say it represents a Christian worldview, though — certainly not my worldview. But before I get into the implications of how the Beautiful Feet guide teaches morality, let’s address two of the books included in the primary literature list, “The Courage of Sarah Noble” and “The Matchlock Gun“.

In “The Courage of Sarah Noble“, Sarah’s courage is praised, but just what is it that Sarah is facing with such bravery? “Indians [who] will eat you.” Sarah is afraid of things in the dark, because they might be Indians. She freezes “still as a rabbit in danger” when Indian children approach. When she finally musters up the much-applauded courage to interact, she can’t be bothered with “the long, long names of the children, so she called the boy Small John and the girl Mary.” To learn more upsetting details, please do read this review of The Courage of Sarah Noble“. There are billions of books in the  world, and ones like this don’t belong anywhere near my bookshelf.

And then we have the “The Matchlock Gun“, which is so horrifyingly unthinkable in its description of Native American people, that I can hardly bring myself to type it here, but I want you to know what these books contain: “They hardly looked like men, the way they moved. They were trotting, stooped over, first one and then the other coming up, like dogs sifting up to the scent of food.” This is stomach-churningly appalling. And why is young Edward, the main character, so celebrated in this book? Why, because he fired the matchlock gun and “killed more [Indians] than the rest of us put together.”

No. This book has no place on my bookshelf. Additionally disheartening here is the fact that Beautiful Feet is not the only publisher to include these two books on their recommended reading lists. But let’s at least take a look at Beautiful Feet’s “Early American History For Primary Grades” study guide itself. The guide was updated and revised in 2014, so it’s more modern in appearance than previous editions. The 37-page softcover book now covers additional material such as the Westward Expansion,  and has full-color images and web links (although, I counted less than ten links in the course of over one hundred lessons). The content itself was less practical than I was hoping for — comprehension questions are given, but no answers are provided. Lesson prompts are vague, at times not much more than “Introduce Columbus” and “Discuss the value of conscience”.  And there’s a lot more written busywork than I expected in a literature-based curriculum designed for kindergarten through second grade; students are instructed to copy entire dictionary definitions into a notebook. I could be persuaded to overlook some impracticalities, if it were not for my deeper concerns about morality-first instruction.

'Beautiful Feet Books' Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction

Throughout the guide, the child is asked to interpret every historical figure by measuring the person against a list of character traits, and then make a determination of the person’s virtue. Nearly every one of the 106 lessons instructs the child to extrapolate the good character traits from a biographical segment of a person’s life, and then make an effort to apply these same character traits to his or her own life. This might seem innocent enough at the outset, but little mention is made of the heart itself, or of the transforming power of the gospel (which transforms from the inside out, not the outside in), or of what it means to actually follow Jesus. Perhaps this is because each lesson simply encourages the student to follow a list of moral character traits, not Jesus Christ himself. The hope, it seems, is that through emulating morality from the outside, one might become pure on the inside.

This isn’t a problem exclusive to Beautiful Feet guides alone; there is a tremendous amount of curricula and instructional material framed this way. But there are problems with this approach. When a child is repeatedly, lesson after lesson and year after year, asked to give examples of how a revered historical figure stacks up against a list of Christian virtues, several things are bound to happen. First, this approach ignores the basic fact that every single person who ever lived was inherently complex. So by reducing complex individuals  to one-dimensional figures, heroes inevitably become white-washed, because the focus is always placed on their abundant virtues. The child forms a worldview in which heroes have a lengthy list of abundant positive character traits, and “the bad guys” have very few positive traits. Life, of course, is not this binary. Going into life’s tricky situations believing you will easily be able to spot good vs. evil in either-or terms is not even safe! Teaching that people are good because they exhibit outward traits teaches nothing of the heart (although it does teach how to act “perfectly Christian” on the outside).

Another thing is bound to happen, too, when a child is asked to emulate the outward qualities of heroes who have almost exclusively positive character traits. When the child first encounters a sense of failure in his or her private life, the child is very likely to see even a minor struggle as a massive moral failure. After all, the child has never known any “good person of Christian virtue” to have struggles or moral failings — so the child concludes that he/she must not be good, either. When discernment between good and evil is determined by actions and accomplished by checklist, one too many moral failings on the checklist will automatically shift a person over into the “bad guy” category. And if “goodness and badness” are assessed based on a self-imposed list, what room is there for grace?

This curriculum guide also instructs children to memorize “The Conscience Poem”, several rhyming stanzas devised  by Rea Berg, who co-authored this guide with Joshua Berg. At first, I hoped this poem could easily be overlooked as an inconsequential side-note, but that’s not the case. “The Conscience Poem” is a central focus of the lessons, and is used in lessons 8 through 51 . The poem explains conscience as the inner “voice” or “light” by which a child “understand(s) God’s justice, truth, and love”, and ends with these lines, ”…and this is the confidence I will have / that God is pleased with me.”

No.

This is so damaging. First of all, one’s inner voice isn’t even a Biblical concept! God’s still small voice, yes. Ours? No. We simply cannot teach children that their own thoughts are the sole determination of God’s displeasure or pleasure. We can’t teach that their worth and value is determined by how they feel about themselves, or by how they imagine God might be thinking about them on any given day.  God already made that clear in John 3:16, “For God so loved...” Not that “For man was so wretched…” or “For man knew God was so angry…”, but “For God so loved…

We don’t need to keep self-assessing God’s love for us. We don’t need to keep wondering what God thinks of us. He already demonstrated that. His bloodshed and resurrection settled that question once and for all. When Jesus died on the cross, He said, “It is finished.” He was the sacrifice, the Lamb of great price, and we do not need to struggle daily to apply virtues in order to guarantee God’s favor. That’s not the gospel! And it’s not what I want to teach my daughter.

It’s also worth noting that for all its talk of Christian virtue, the character traits in this guide aren’t even taken from Scripture. One would expect, at least, this character-driven type of of morality-based education to be centered around the fruits of the spirit found in Galatians 5 — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control — but this list is never mentioned in this guide. Instead, the ambiguous ideals of “industry”, “virtue”, and “moral sense” are emphasized, as is an excerpt from Tennyson’s Oenone which praises “self-respect, self-knowledge, and self-control”. (Of course, it would not change the spirit of the curriculum even if the list of virtues had been taken directly from the Bible; even the fruits of the spirit are not a way to achieve righteousness. )

Overall, the guide teaches that a person’s goodness is measured by moral tendencies or lack thereof, and teaches that a child’s value and God’s pleasure are measured and determined by how well the child thinks he/she has applied a list of moral virtues. Contrast this with the perspective Rich Mullins sang about in “Let Mercy Lead:

“Aidan, you’re young
but Aidan, you’re growing fast…
…and you’ll need something more
to guide your heart
as you grow into a man

Let mercy lead
Let love be the strength in your legs,
and in every footprint that you leave,
there’ll be a drop of grace.

If we can reach
beyond the wisdom of this age
into the foolishness of God,
that foolishness will save
those who believe…

…Aidan the day will come
you’ll run the race
that takes us way beyond
all our trials and all our failures,
and all the good we dream of.
But you can’t see yet where it is you’re heading,
but one day you’ll see
the face of love...”

It’s about mercy, always. It’s about grace, always. It’s about God’s endless love, always. Mercy, grace, and love can’t be quantified. They can’t be put on a checklist, and applied to life. Morality doesn’t set anyone free. Perfection doesn’t set anyone free. Good character doesn’t set anyone free. Only Jesus — the face of love — can do that.

When you’re presenting the world for the first time to five-, six-, or seven-year-olds (the Beautiful Feet guide is intended for grades K-3), you have a serious responsibility. This responsibility is not just to shelter their tender hearts from the violent darkness all around us, but to show them the world and equip them with courage and with faith. I want to teach my daughter that the most courageous people in history were not those with the highest stack of character traits, but those who believed God could overcome darkness. Morality does not overcome darkness. Virtue does not overcome darkness. Only God can do that. And we have to be careful not to oversimplify life to the point that we end up teaching false doctrine.

So perhaps, as my strong and sensitive daughter grows up in this big ol’ world, I’ll say to her as Frederick Buechner said best —

 “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

'Beautiful Feet Books' Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction