Greetings, from Kazakhstan! (A long overdue update)


Well, clearly I haven’t blogged in awhile. My life has been pretty much all classes and homework, and there hasn’t been much creative juice there, to be honest. In fact, with a research deadline looming over my head on a project I’ve barely started, I’m wondering why I’m doing this.

So, I’m in Kazakhstan for nine months. See, this is what happens when you have an obsession. One thing leads to another, to another, to another, and you wind up in Kazakhstan for nine months. I never thought my desire to learn Russian would take me here, but here I am. I’m a student at Kazakhstan National University Al-Farabi as a senior working to get that superior-level rating I need to complete the Flagship Program that I entered at Portland State two years ago. I’m barely an advanced-level speaker, so I have my work cut out for me. It’s sink or swim time, every day.  It’s incredibly difficult, but this is what I said “yes” to, and every day that I get up and go to classes, I keep saying “yes”. Not sure where this will take me, but at least at the end of my life I won’t wonder, “what if?”.  So, that’s my update.


Killing Off Perfectionism

I had an epiphany a few minutes ago.

I think you mean an epiphany.

I was sitting at my desk at work, getting a bit sleepy, so I decided to go play the arcade basketball game that’s in the youth room (I work in a church). If you’ve ever been to Chuck E. Cheese, you’ve probably played it. It has two little hoops mounted on a backboard with the scoreboard in the middle. There are little walls on each side so the ball doesn’t go shooting off onto surrounding areas, and a sloped, tarp-like thing (see how knowledgeable I am!) that the ball lands on, which returns the ball to you. You have 30 seconds to make as many baskets as you can with the child-size basketballs in front of you. Ryan, who is on our church staff, can rack up 90 points while speaking in complete sentences whereas my score tends to be rather abysmal in comparison.

My gross motor skills are underdeveloped, as my husband will tell you from the many times he’s asked me to toss him something (like car keys), which are then flung wildly off into space. And I can’t throw a ball to save my life. “You throw like a girl!” was first said with me in mind.

I was terrible in all sports as a kid–always one of the last picked for a team. I hated P.E. because, frankly, I sucked at it, and everyone knew it. When you are a middle-schooler with social anxiety and a fragile ego, this is pure hell. I soon learned to fake illness and refined my fakery into claims that it was that time of the month, and I had cramps. My high school teacher was onto me before long. “Kappelman!“, she said, addressing me by my (then) last name, “You can’t be having your period every week!”.

Drat! Busted!

In addition to being shy and terrible at sports, I was also a perfectionist–the kind who wouldn’t try new things unless she could do them well. This is not a recipe for success.

Don’t misunderstand me here. I am a great believer in excellence! But you  just might have to be terrible at something to be good at it. What comes between terrible and good is the willingness to work hard while quieting the inner voice that says, “You suck! Give it up!”.

Now that I’ve reached a certain age *ahem*, I’ve made peace with the fact that there are some things I’m never going to be good at. I’ve also learned that I can enjoy doing something I’m not good at just for the sheer joy of it.

Dancing is a great example. I love to dance, but this is what I look like:

Even so, I enjoy it so much, I’m going to do it anyway. Being good at something  is great, but I’m not going to let my lack of coordination and/or skill get in the way of having fun.

Funny blog by a middle school teacher

One Thing Led to Another…

In my last blog post, “The 54-Year-Old College Student”, I was about to dip my foot into the pool, so to speak, of higher education, a pool I hadn’t dipped into since *cough* 1977 *cough*.


I wondered if I could do it. I wondered if I’d like it and if I would feel ridiculously out of place.

We’ve just finished week 8 of Russian 103 (Immersion), and I’m getting an A+. I love my instructor. She’s funny and brilliant, and the time in class flies by.

I love the people in my class. People who take Russian tend to be very interesting people.

I love this college. It sits on the side of a wooded hillside, surrounded by trees and shrubs. It’s beautiful. The ethnic diversity in the students makes me feel like I’m traveling the world by just walking across the campus.

Jim teases me and tells me that I can’t really call it “work” because I’m enjoying it too much. There’s a lot of truth in that.

So, I started wondering, “what if?” “What if I take an additional class next fall?” “What if I went after that AA degree?” “What if I then went for the BA?”

This has become my mantra:

I pushed on that door a little and have filled out my FAFSA application. I am allegedly eligible for some aid. And, oh, yeah! The placement test! I have to take a placement test. This is the part where I remembered how I had to work my tail off to pass Algebra 2 with a C (Shout out to Brian Thoresen who got me through the unit on Trigonometry by being my unofficial tutor! You probably saved my GPA. Thank you!)

I have to pass college-level algebra for it to count toward the degree.

Let’s just bookmark that for now. Put a pin in it. I have no idea what I’m doing here.

By the way, if you need to brush up on your math skills, go to and watch the videos. They’re brilliantly simple and easy to understand.

Guess what I’ll be doing over Memorial Day Weekend? (Hint:

Stay tuned.

The 54-Year-Old College Student

A little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog entitled, “Obsession”. It was about my 30-years-long desire to learn Russian, in defiance of any sort of logic or rationale. More than once, I had questioned my own sanity.

Random people: “Why do you want to learn Russian, Ramona?”

Me: “I don’t know, I just do.”


Now, exactly one year later, I have begun a Russian Immersion class at Portland Community College, in southwest Portland. It’s a 75-mile drive, which sounds like a long way to go for a class, but I had been entertaining the idea of an immersion course in Siberia, so this didn’t seem so far.

Honestly, I thought this day would never come. I had been trying to get into Oregon State’s online Russian class, but when I took the placement test, my score was too high, and I was informed that their class would be inappropriate for my level. I am not the sort of person to say that something is impossible, but I think I said it in my journal. I was crushed. “Well, that’s it, then.”, I wrote.

I emailed them one more time asking if there was a second year program I could do. Their reply was that they didn’t have a second year program, but I might try Portland State, which offers a comprehensive Russian program, including BA or MA. I sat up straight in my chair. They gave me the name of the head of the Russian department, whom I immediately contacted.  She was very encouraging, inviting me to come audit the 203 class that would be starting soon, and I began to have daydreams of a degree. A friend brought me back to reality. “But don’t you have to have your A.A. to pursue a B.A.?” (Oh, yeah, I don’t have one of those.) I immediately deflated.

Technically, I DID go to college. I had every intention of getting a degree in French (I’d taken three years in high school, and it came easily for me), and then possibly going into diplomacy. I also had a boyfriend who was in a hurry to get married. When he proposed to me shortly after the school year started, he convinced me that I should drop out so we could plan our lives together.

So, that’s what I did. I think the relationship lasted maybe two more months. Life took a few more major turns, and I never went back to school, to my everlasting regret.

The Russian professor at Portland State also mentioned that Portland Community College had a Russian Immersion program in partnership with their Russian department that might be suitable for someone in my situation. This pursuit was beginning to look like a flow chart.

She gave me contact information, and I began e-mailing the department director there. She encouraged me to come in and do an oral and written placement test. She told me that she thought 103 might be appropriate for me, as it was pretty challenging, even for people who already had some background in Russian. I initially balked, thinking it would be too easy, but made the appointment. My intuition told me that I should probably trust her judgment.

I liked her immediately.She gave me a written test, and then interviewed me in Russian.

“Actually, your Russian is pretty good. I think 103 would be a great fit for you.” My written test had her red ink all over it, my answers rife with grammatical errors. She walked me through each correction, and I was learning already.

I hurried over to the bookstore, trying to suppress my glee and not appear overeager as I bought my books for her class. I knew I was grinning like an idiot, and it was all I could do to keep from squealing, “Eeeeeeee!” as I bounced back to my car.


Studying for my first quiz.

I have just completed the first two weeks of this class. I am working harder than I have ever worked before, and loving every minute. The class is two hours long, twice a week, and feels like only a few minutes. It’s all in Russian (that’s why it’s called “Immersion”), and the drive, which I really dreaded in the downtown Portland traffic, has become almost routine to me now.


First day of college!

People keep asking me what I’m going to do with it. My only answer at this point is, “I’m keeping my options open”. I don’t know what will come next. Hopefully, Second Year Russian. I’m taking it one step at a time, with great joy.

“And Arlene was gathered to her people…”

My mother died on Friday, October 24, 2014.

Just three weeks prior, I had spoken with her on the phone. I thanked her for being a loving mother, and for the sense of humor she had given me, a quality I especially valued after the stroke she suffered in 1998 had robbed most of her speech. I also thanked her for her faithfulness in praying for my family over the years. When I hung up, I realized that I had just said goodbye.

When I saw her last, it was April, and she would be turning 82 years old. Every year I traveled back to Iowa to celebrate her birthday and party, big-time (or our version of it, anyway). I noticed that she moved more slowly and with more care, as if she were afraid she might break. She had a hard time swallowing, and she would stare off into space during meal times with a bite of food halfway to her mouth, spoon hovering in the air uncertainly. I also noticed that she was losing weight.

She had dementia. She was as clear as a bell on some subjects, and completely confused on others. I caught her staring at me blankly, but then her face lit up in recognition, as she exclaimed brightly, “You look like me!“.

Her younger sister, Rita, couldn’t make it up to visit this last time. Her daughters, my cousins, had brought her the 150 miles north to celebrate with Mom and I for the two birthdays previous, but this year, my Aunt Rita was in an Alzheimer’s unit, with pieces of her personality dropping away, leaving a stranger in her place. She could no longer travel.

I could see the disappointment in Mom’s eyes when I told her that her sister couldn’t make it for her birthday, but we would still have fun, I told her.

I took her out to eat a couple of times. We went shopping so that she could buy a pretty new outfit for her birthday. We took long drives in the country, and sat in my rental car, savoring chocolate sundaes at Stan’s Drive-In, as we had done many times before.

The last night of my visit to her there in the nursing home, I sat on the bed next to her, and we reminisced as I shared my favorite childhood memories of her.

I loved our shopping trips together, I told her, but my favorite memories were of sitting together on our front porch in Des Moines, Iowa, wrapped in blankets as thunder shook the house, singing our hearts out.

The week my mother died, I called the nursing home, hoping to talk with her.

“Arlene is unable to come to the phone”, they said. I left a message for her that I had called, feeling  uneasy.

The next couple of days were filled with telephone conversations as her nurses and the social worker tried to tell me, but at the same time, tried NOT to tell me, that she was dying.  Finally, I said, “I think we’re at the point where we all know she’s not going to get better. Please just keep her comfortable. It’s okay to let her go.” I could hear a sigh of relief on the other end, as the nurse said, “Okay, we needed to hear that from you.”

I contacted family members and friends, telling them that it was time to say good-bye.

And this is where, for me, the story of her passing becomes beautiful and extraordinary.

Her pastor’s wife and dear friend, Dixie, came to see her with some of her church friends,spending hours with her, talking with her, singing to her (she tried to sing along–she knew every verse to every hymn), and praying for her. One of our sons, who lives two hours away, came to sit with her and tell her goodbye, her hand holding his.

Mom and Josh hands

On Thursday, surrounded by her hymn-singing friends, she told them she could see Jesus in the room. They asked what He was doing, and she replied that He was just standing there, arms at His sides.

Our oldest son, Ben, was on a plane at that moment, trying desperately to get there in time to see her one last time to tell her his goodbyes, and I prayed frantically, hoping she would hold on just a little bit longer.

Dixie told me that as they were sitting with her, she would look past them, her eyes focusing Beyond. She would periodically smile, as if in recognition of someone she knew. They asked her if she was seeing her mother, (this was told to me as we were planning her funeral), and she replied softly, “No. Grandchild.”

When she told me this, I began to weep. We had lost an infant daughter, Christina, in 1984, and we knew she was with Jesus, but to hear that it was she who greeted my mother overwhelmed me with the bitter-sweetness of our loss, and her gain.

At 11:00 PM, Dixie texted me that her breathing had changed, and the end was near. In the midst of her labored breathing, she managed to gasp, “How long?”, knowing Ben was en route. She was trying to hang on for him, her first grandchild, with whom she shared a special bond.

Ben had just landed in Des Moines, having experienced a couple of flight delays. When I heard this, I sobbed in desperation, “Please don’t let her leave till he gets there!” He still had the 2 1/2 hour drive north through dense ground fog, and it was dark.

To my great relief, he did make it in time. She was conscious, but could only communicate by blinking. Her eyes, which had been blue, were now a muddy brown as her body systems failed. He played her the video his children had made for her on his phone, each one saying, “I love you”, and “Good-bye”. Simeon, our 6-year-old-grandson cheerily exclaimed, “Have fun in Heaven!”, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

About an hour before she passed, Ben face-timed us with her, so that I could see her one more time.

I told her I loved her, and she purposefully blinked her eyes at me. I said goodbye, and the call ended. She would live one more hour.

Ben was reading to her from the Psalms, holding her hand. At one point, he looked down at her manicured, polished fingernails, and said, “You have the nicest nails!”, and THAT is when she took her last breath.

I chose for her an outfit that was dark pink. She loved pink, and I had been with her when she bought it on one of our birthday outings. She was wearing the jewelry Aunt Rita had given her on her birthday the year before-a necklace with pink beads, and a matching bracelet. Her makeup and hair were perfect. She would have been so pleased, as she always took great care with her looks.

Her funeral was beautiful, and honoring. I had the privilege of giving her eulogy, while her friend, Dixie, shared additional memories and tribute.

My mother was wildly generous. One of the stories Dixie told of her was how she would always buy groceries for people who were in need, leaving them on their doorstep. This gesture was always accompanied by a French Silk Pie for some reason. As Dixie shared this, soft laughter rippled through the crowd in fond recognition. This was her calling card–her trademark. “Arlene was here”, a French Silk Pie said.

As the congregation sang, “I Will Meet You in the Morning”, I hoped she could see how her life was being celebrated here on earth.

Her church ladies hosted a lavish potluck lunch afterward, featuring French Silk pies for dessert, in her honor.

I often think that if she could have scripted her own death and funeral, it would have been along these lines. If I could have chosen her death for her, I would have wanted for her to go in her sleep, without the deep, gasping breaths, but in the end I thought, “How perfect!” She died with her first grandchild holding her hand.

She was there when he took his first breath, and he was there when she took her last.

There is something about the symmetry in this that I find achingly beautiful.

In the book of Genesis, a phrase is used whenever a patriarch died:  “and ___was gathered to his people”. She was the matriarch of my family, and like Abraham, had great faith in what she could not see. Therefore, it is a fitting epitaph.

“And Arlene was gathered to her people.”

“What I Really Think.” (This time I mean it.)

                                      You are here

        Recently as I was standing at my kitchen sink rinsing dishes, I was having a conversation with God, in my head.

It was my “Come to Jesus” moment.

Normally, when speaking with the Almighty, I tend to do all of the talking. I know that’s rude, but, for the most part, I don’t talk much in my daily life (unless I have a double-shot espresso on board); I mostly listen. Then I unload on Him. I’ve found Him to be a very good listener, and quite patient with my nonsense.

In this particular conversation, however, He had a lot to say, and I felt challenged, even shaken, to my core. He pointed out to me that the name of my blog, “What I really think”, has been more wishful thinking on my part than reality.

(Okay, He called it “dishonest”. OUCH!).

 I’d love to freely and fearlessly write about the things I ponder, but because I hate rocking the boat, making waves, ruffling feathers, and, in case you don’t get metaphor, making people mad at me, I’ve steered clear of writing, well, what I really think.

 I want to make people laugh, or at least smile. I want people to like me. I want to encourage and uplift.  I want to make people feel good.

Lately, though, I’ve been challenged by writers who have gained my loyal fandom (is that a word?) as a result of the writers’ conference I attended in the spring: writers who write fearlessly exactly what they think, and they have been informing my conscience. 

Micah Murray

Micah Murray–Faith and Culture Writers’ Conference 2014

I’m a little bit afraid to let the genie out of the bottle.

I’ve been saving up.

Sometimes I rant in my head so I can move on.  I don’t want to argue for the sake of argument. I don’t want to argue at all. I don’t want to offend. I don’t want to make messes I’ll have to clean up, or messes my loved ones will have to clean up.

But, I’ve been doing a bit of internal housecleaning of ideas and opinions I’ve long held as absolutes. Some of my past ideologies and dogmas have been ruthlessly purged. 


 Never fear, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I have not forsaken radical devotion to Jesus, or biblical truth. What I’ve forsaken is the opinion that it has to look a certain way. I’ve forsaken white-bread, religious, caucasian, ultra-patriotic, if-you-don’t-think-like-me-you’re-not-a-christian Christianity. I don’t agree that to be Christian means that you must be a Republican, and that Democrats are going to hell (or vice versa, for that matter).

I’m really glad that I don’t get to decide who is going to hell.

I think we’ve completely missed the point, buying into the “us” and “them” mentality.

When I read the Bible, I encounter a passionate God who would prefer mercy to judgment, who sent His most beloved and precious son into the world “NOT to condemn the world, but that the world, through Him, might be saved”.    

        This is not a God whose finger is always hovering over the “SMITE” button.


 In the book of Zechariah, the author sees the high priest, Joshua,  standing before the throne of God, with the Accuser off to one side, doing what he does: accusing him. The LORD is the one who rebukes the accuser, interceding for Joshua. Here is a perfect example of two ministries we can sign up for: the ministry of accusation, or the ministry of intercession.

I propose to you that you can’t sign up for both.

They are diametrically opposed. If you are constantly criticizing or accusing (even if it’s warranted),  you have removed yourself from the ministry of intercession.

You have removed yourself from the equation of redemption.

I cringe every time the term “Christian” is used as a synonym for “hate”. There are plenty of good reasons to be opposed or persecuted, but hatred isn’t one of them.  

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34

“…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven”. Matthew 5:44

I think a lot about what’s happening in Israel, and I think a lot about Iraq, and Syria. I think about Ukraine, and I think about our southern border. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to think. 

I am not proposing that everyone mindlessly ditch their opinions and agree with me. What I AM trying to suggest is that maybe we’ve confused our own biases and opinions with the mind of Christ. We assume we know what He thinks without stopping to ask, and then really listening. It gets uncomfortable when we are confronted by a God who may have a different idea of what’s actually happening than we do.

It takes courage. It takes a passion for Truth. It takes humility to examine why we think what we think.

And it takes grace to love people who disagree with you.


Encounter on the Beach

Yesterday, Jim and I returned from our belated anniversary trip to the Oregon Coast. We have a special place we love to go, and time we spend at the ocean is always so deeply refreshing for us.

I spent hours on the beach, sifting through the agate beds, a mental grid laid down for my search. This was one of my favorite introvert activities, and we had a four-day weekend to do it.

You would think that, as a part of a church leadership team, my people skills would be excellent, and that it would come naturally, but here’s the truth: I really have to work at this.

I love people, and I really love OUR people, but I have to talk myself through certain social interactions because I am so easily distracted by anything happening in my peripheral vision.

The tide had left fresh piles of agate-strewn gravel as it receded, exposing tide pools and glistening rocks. Jim had gone off to explore an adjacent beach, reachable only by climbing a somewhat treacherous basalt outcropping, leaving me to my agate hunting.

This becomes a meditation for me, forcing me to slow my breathing and my thoughts down. To rush means to miss the hidden treasures.



I wasn’t the only one there.

The beach was filled with people doing what I was doing. The inevitable question, as we occasionally wandered onto another person’s territory was, “What are you looking for?”.  Some were hunting for the bright red jasper. Some were looking for the clear agates. Some were hunting the pretty little shells among the pebbles.

I fell into conversation with a woman whose search area overlapped mine. She was stout and sturdy, my age (I’m guessing), wearing a floppy khaki adventure hat, with a hoody tied around her generous waist. She was looking for the little shells. I was looking for the “clearsies” (clear agates). She went on to tell me why this particular area was so special to her, and as she launched into her story of how her husband had proposed to her there, I happened to look down at the ground, out of habit.

Oh. My. Lord.

There was a large, clear agate right under the toe of her grubby tennis shoe. “Look at her, don’t look at it! Look at her, don’t look at it!”, I chanted in my head over and over, trying to listen attentively. She went on to recount the moving story of how she and her husband then adopted a son from an agency nearby, so this place had great significance for them. What she was telling me was personal and important, and I really wanted to give her my full attention, but I also wanted to blurt out, “There’s an agate under your toe!” Outwardly, I was acknowledging the meaningful stories she was telling me, while inwardly waiting for the conversation to end so I could pick up that rock.

I dug around in my stash of treasures and found a few of the little shells I’d picked up that she was looking for, and gave them to her. She thanked me, and we parted ways.

A few minutes later, she walked up to me and dropped a big, beautiful clear agate into my hand.

Dear Woman-On-The-Beach, thank you for telling me your beautiful story. I really was listening, and I’ll remember it every time we come back.