Friday, May 6, 2016

The curious office guest

This post is from 2012, two jobs and four years ago. It was originally published in Living Lutheran, but I see it didn't make the archive cut. I've always liked it so I decided to keep it alive here. 

Plus I've been thinking of my mystery guest lately because of an upcoming event I'm working on (see video promo below), with guest speaker who founded a theater project for women incarcerated. More info here:

The curious office guest

by Terri Mork Speirs

She telephoned me to say she needed to interview someone for her community college class on nonprofit organizations. And so we agreed to meet in my office, where I did communications and other duties as assigned for a small interfaith agency that runs a network of 12 food pantries.

She entered my office a few days later. My colleagues were all out to meetings and I’d been working in solitude until my guest appeared. Reluctantly, I set my deadlines aside and we sat together at a bistro-sized table in the corner just a few feet away from my desk. It was quiet and we were alone.

Her frame was skinny. Her voice was gravely. Her complexion was potholed. All as if she'd smoked cigarettes since she was a baby. Her hair was overly blond and kind of stringy. Yet she was well presented with a long skirt and a pretty top. We opened with chit chat. To understand her, I had to listen intently because she didn't enunciate in a way I'm used to hearing. It was almost like interpreting a heavy accent, maybe the accent one talks when they've lived hard. She seemed so earnest about fulfilling her school project. 

I thought stupid, patronizing thoughts like how great it is that people like her could go to community college. I remembered how much I loved teaching community college. She ended the small talk, pulled out her notebook, and asked me questions. 

"What's your mission?" she asked. I answered.

"Who do you serve?" she asked. I answered.

"Where do you get funding?" she asked. I answered. 

And on with all the typical nonprofit questions, until she got to this question: "Do you have interns?" Yes, I answered. Not a lot but sometimes, I said. What are your interests? I asked. 

That’s when the conversation shifted. She put her notebook down. She put her student persona down. She put her pretenses down. The energy between us changed. 

"I'll tell you what my interests are," she said, looking straight at me, talking with confidence and conviction that she didn't exude a few moments earlier. Suddenly I could understand her words perfectly.  I no longer needed to strain my ears to pick up her words and sentences. Her appearance became irrelevant because her personal power abruptly stood up tall. It was like she transformed before my very eyes.

"My interests are women who are doing prison time and who shouldn't be," she said. "I'm not saying all of them, but I'd say at least half the women in Mitchellville (nearby women’s facility) shouldn't be there. They were victims. They were defending themselves. They did drugs to escape. They shouldn't be there and there are no services for them when they get out. They get sent to a halfway house but they don't need a halfway house, they need a chance. They need to get back into the world.”

She talked like she knew her subject matter intimately. I forgot about her assignment and my deadlines. A hundred questions rolled through my head. Did you do time? Were you abused? Did you use? How did you protect yourself? How did you get to community college? What’s your story?

She talked with such passion that I felt moved to shut up and listen. She continued: "But I can't do anything until I get my education, that's what I'm focused on now." And that’s what I decided to focus on too, my education. I paid close attention to what she was saying instead of injecting snoopy questions.

She told me she’s working towards her associate’s degree, then her BA in Human Services. She said she wants to improve the system. Maybe start her own nonprofit.

She was finished with the interview. We shook hands and she walked out of my office. I gave her my business card but after she left it occurred to me that I didn't even ask her name. For all I knew, she didn't really exist and I'd simply imagined her. Was she an apparition?

It’s about eight months later, as I write (four years later as I post) and I still think a lot about this meeting. This woman had such a clear vision of personal transformation, I admire her even as I do not see her again. But I do Google search “incarcerated women.” All sorts of reports, stats, and stories come up that you wish were apparitions for the real horror of it all. They tell us to believe that God comes to us in forms we least expect. That Jesus came to set us free. That the Holy Ghost is mysterious and powerful. Are we to take that literally?

She, my curious office guest, seemed to appear to bring me a message. But what? 


Here's the video we made to promote our event. I like the way it turned out: 

With love,

Friday, April 8, 2016

What is NYC cred?

Bay Ridge Brooklyn
If you know me, you know that I am watching U.S. prez campaign closely. Not because I want to or need to, but because I have to. I'm addicted. I can't help it. Not proud of it. Anyway, today, I heard a couple of candidates discuss their "New York values" and I must comment.

Establishing New York cred seems to be the thing to do, whether hollywood, pop music, political campaigns, or simple daily conversation. I am a mainstream midwesterner through and through, Lutheran, blue collar raised, white collar realized, fairly prudish, etc. I am the epitome of the American dream work ethic mythic end of the rainbow. I am Minnesota born, South Dakota raised, and Iowa presented, with so called "New York Values" that are being touted and taunted in the current prez campaign.

It's been 15 years since I've lived in New York City and nine months since I last visited, yet I feel compelled to establish my New York cred, so here goes.

- I commuted from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn to Midtown, Manhattan for six years.
- Via the R-train, a local.
- A 40 minute ride one way.
- A one hour 15 minute commute door to door, one way. (About four miles or so, I'm guessing.)
- 18 months of that commute was spent preggers. Big bellied me riding the subway, every single day.
- 100 percent of my children gestated in the NYC subways.
- I tried to go unnoticed but New Yorkers gave me, the pregger-lady, a seat on the train everyday.
- It was embarrassing.
- Though I admit to taking the express bus in the last month of my last pregnancy. (So comfy.)
- People gave me their bus seats too, because of my preggo belly.
- The very last day of my commute out of Manhattan, at 5 o'clock on Friday, before my last baby was born, before we moved out of the city, Bob came to pick me up with a car, the most luxurious way to spend a last day of a commute possible.
- He may as well have been superman.
- 16 hours later I went into labor.
- 20 hours after that I lay in a hospital bed in Brooklyn, the Statue of Liberty outside my window, my own blood on the floor all around me, the nurse on duty disgusted she was tasked to clean it up. (Short staffed. Hospital closed a few years later.)

I don't quickly claim "NY cred" but if the prez candidates are going to do it -- I am too because I have far more than any of them and I'm from the midwest. I commuted, worked, and gave birth (twice, plus one miscarriage) in the greatest city in the world. And I've barely scratched the surface of the cred. There are the temp jobs, the inlaws, the husband, the firehouse across our apartment, the park that overlooked the towers, the parties, the brunches, the friends, the family, the love, the spring breaks, the vacations, the plane tickets, the Irish pubs, the Italian restaurants, the baby stroller walks, the ernest people, and the visitor tours. I feel I don't have the right to comment on 911 losses. I don't go there. Feels too sacred. (Though at least one prez candidate goes there.)

South Dakota prairie
There are also the days and weeks and years I felt claustrophobic and longed for open space. Prairie-sized space. I needed big sky and fresh wind. I needed to breathe cold winter air instead of apartment heat.

My point being this. There is no prez candidate who can claim or denounce "NYC values." They didn't give birth in failing hospitals. They didn't ride the subway. I only did it for six years but millions of people do it for decades or a whole lifetime. (Some take a bus to a train to a boat.) Its a rough way to get home. My current commute is a nine minute drive in my private Prius, with a full cup of coffee and the lovely Iowa Public Radio.

All this and I'm still a NYC outsider. How can any prez candidate claim to own "NCY values?" Or worse, to insult NCY values? Especially the one who lives in golden towers and travels in helicopters (in city) and jets (in country)? Nope. I'm more New York than that. And quite honestly, I really more midwest.

Now to solve my prez campaign addiction.

All for now. Thanks, friends.


P.S. For the record, I'm voting for Hillary or Bernie, whoever gets the nomination. They are both supremely qualified.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

My Christmas letter

A Reflection for Friends and Family:

On Christmas day we found ourselves at the International House of Pancakes (IHOP), the four of us sitting at the only available table – in the back next to the bathrooms and emergency exit. The place was packed and I said, “We’re with our people.” Bob and the kiddos thought I was kidding, but I wasn’t. “We’re with the people who are like us -- nowhere to go for Christmas.” Amanda and Aidan kind of laughed but they knew it was true.

Like many of the other patrons, we were there in mussed hair, no makeup, and flannel shirts (mostly speaking for myself), as though we were home and hungry. All four of us played on our phones while waiting for our food. Our waitress started every interaction with “I’m sorry I’m taking so long,” as if it was her fault she was handling a large section of tables all by herself. You got the sense that she really should have been home with her children, instead of working a shift at IHOP. As one with many years of work at understaffed restaurants, I tried not to imagine what was going in the kitchen, fingers dipped in pancake batter, hamburger patties dropped in the floor before placement on bun, deep fryer grease looking like molasses from lack-o-cleaning. (Just last night I had a dream that I was starting back at my former short-order cook job. I was thinking hard in my dream, for any new knowledge that I might have gained to curb the pimples that would emerge on my face as a result of working again with large vats of grease.)

But don’t feel sorry for us.

We intentionally traded-in cooking Christmas dinner for a naps because we stayed up late the night before. Bob had worked well past 1 a.m., and I made the decision to attend all three Christmas Eve services, 5, 8:30, and 11 p.m. (I had the freedom to make that choice because both Amanda and Aidan drive now, plus I have my own car.) Each service different, I wanted to experience it all – the live nativity (see pic below), the children’s flashlight stars, the orchestra, the ensembles, the choirs, the bells, and the hundreds of golden candles flickering under the milky way of paper stars hovering above the congregation (see pic below). Truly magical. 

These are the choices you make when you live far away from your family and your in-laws. One night it’s the glory of art and music, the next night it’s IHOP. Christmas for a pastor’s family is a strange mix of beauty and loneliness. 

Still, anytime the four of us are gathered around the same table, even if glued to tiny cellphone screens, mama panda is happy. I used to think that the baby pandas would be with us forever. I guess when you’re chained to intensive parenting, probably not all of it necessary, it feels like a bottomless pit of duty. But to be cliché, children grow fast. Everything ends. Amanda (19), who we used to call Demanda because up until 2014 she seemed to command every minute of my attention, now lives quite independently in another time zone. She’s a sophomore at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and I will now shamelessly brag about her exact area of study because I love it so much: she’s majoring in political science and minoring in international studies with a concentration in international economics. People ask what she’ll be doing with that. Her quick answer is: go to law school. My answer is more uppity: think critically. It was a thrill for me to help her set up a home gallery of her ceramics (see pic below), pieces she created in high school and college learning from a talented host of mentors and teachers. Patrons were amazingly generous in buying her pottery, thus supporting her art and her study abroad fund.

I might have been more depressed at our Christmas at IHOP if not for the memory of the previous weekend with friends and family. Amanda and I were able to make a quick trip three hours due north to Minnesota. My brother and sister in law, Tom and Gretchen, hosted a big family gathering in the grand style all three of my brothers are known for: in a heated, immaculate, fully stocked garage, so comfortable you could go stocking footed. It was the first time I’d seen my family for Xmas in a decade and I left feeling profoundly satisfied way deep down in a way I cannot explain.

When our IHOP waitress gave us the bill for Christmas dinner, Aidan (16) offered to pay. He’s been working for over a year and has liquid money, a bank account, and a debit card. He pays for his cell phone and gasoline for the car, as he drives himself to school. (Yet another last vestige of my motherhood duties ended – 15 years of driving my kiddos to school. Aidan is happy to finally be getting there on time, instead of chronically two, three, ten minutes late.) I didn’t want him to pay for IHOP meal. Actually, I’d rather he not work so much. Instead of having extra cash I’d rather he join more school things and/or read. But his joy is skateboarding, baseball, heavy metal, and silence. A few weeks ago he was invited to join the school improv team and when he (reluctantly) told me I tried my best to play it down low. (Competitions! Scholarships! Hollywood!) A subtle dude, he carefully selects the times when he’s hilarious but he mostly chooses quiet. When he speaks up, he has something to say. I realized that his offer to pay our IHOP tab came from his heart. It was his gift to his family. Instead of regulating his choice like a mother I gave in to gratitude for his generosity. We made a deal. Aidan would pay for the food, Bob and I would cover the tip, upping our usual 20 percent to 25 percent for the holiday. (Ex-waitresses tip higher, they say.)

Napping was a good choice for Christmas day.

Sated, Bob and I postponed our planned Xmas cooking until December 26 and we did not disappoint, if I may say. We stuffed large pasta shells with ricotta, parmesan, Italian sausage, fresh basil and oregano, chopped spinach, onions and garlic. We topped with marinara sauce (while I fantasized about garden fresh tomatoes for next year’s din) and wala – two pans of excellent eating. We vowed to cook more the new year, to host more house concerts. We also vowed to take dance lessons after Bob’s knee surgery (January, his third joint surgery and our seventh collective surgery altogether, but who’s counting? Thankful for modern medicine.) More of our collective 2016 vows: golf more, bike more, hike more, read and write more. Visit family and friends more. Bob is sustained by the awesome congregation that is St. John’s in downtown Des Moines, where he’s served as associate pastor since 2007. But he misses his family and friends in Brooklyn, as do I. Our vacation resources are dedicated to trips to NYC. (And now also to DaveMatthews Band concerts, as our first try in 2015 was a tremendous success. My family got to enjoy a happy mama panda, and I got to sit/stand/dance next to tattoo dad, according to his t-shirt, who shared my enthusiasm for the lyrics and set list. Three fourths of us are looking forward to the 2016 tour dates. Another vow: more tailgating. Fingers crossed.) 

Mostly, I vow to more fully appreciate the gift I have in Bob, and my parents. The truth “everything ends” haunts me, as I think of all I have and all I have to lose. 

My new job sustains me. 2015 was a pretty big year for me in terms of employment. I’ve transitioned from full-time grant writing (a white collar version of hard labor) to marketing/communications (a day job version of creative writing). I started as marketing/communications director at a large counseling and education center that provides a broad range of mental health services, plus renewal and professional development opportunities, serving more than 2,450 individuals including 700 children annually. The organizational culture of wellness and wholeness makes for a pleasant work environment. I also do some freelance writing and editing on the side, mostly with Living Lutheran blog site and The Lutheran magazine. In the vein of always wanting more, I wish I could make a living by teaching and writing. I wish all the refugees could be resettled. I wish people wouldn’t listen to hateful speech. I wish we would all seek to understand one another’s concerns. I wish peace would prevail.

I wish that all of you are loved and satisfied, wherever your sanctuary is: a grand cathedral, a packed diner, a warm garage, or somewhere else. Pancakes for everyone!

I close with a litany that St. John’s used for Christmas Eve services:

Light looked down and saw darkness.
"I will go there", said Light.
Peace looked down and saw war.
"I will go there", said Peace.
Love looked down and saw hatred.
"I will go there," said Love.
So Light came and shone. So Peace came and gave rest. So Love came and brought life. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

With love,


On behalf of the family,
Terri and Bob Speirs
Amanda and Aidan

Facebook: Terri Mork Speirs

Twitter: @TerriMorkSpeirs

Christmas at St. John's Des Moines, Iowa
Xmas eve 2015, Bob and I are standing on a step, the kiddos are actually taller than us
Amanda's ceramics are getting better and better; it's such a pleasure to watch her craft develop.
We are incredibly grateful for the people who bought many of these pieces. 

James and Poppy

Live nativity at child-friendly service featured Bob as a shepherd.

Friday, November 27, 2015

On visiting Lou

Our Thanksgiving visit with Lou made me wish  I'd kept those jeans and made them into a purse, or framed them, instead of giving away to Goodwill years ago. So many regrets. In case you can't read the picture, Lou wrote: Please allow me Teri. I shall never forget how delighted I was to see my Pastor's wife wearing sparkly jeans as she set in front of me at Church that Sunday. You go girl!

On Thanksgiving I had the opportunity to join Bob in visiting a gorgeous lady, Lou, who I’ve written before in a blog post, The Church According to Dirt. It was fun to surprise her, and she mentioned the dirt article almost immediately. Lou looked per usual her glamorous self, her face and hair done up for the holiday. She reminds me of Zsa Zsa Gabor. 
And she also reminds me of the perks of being married to someone who is a professional visitor, and who is really good at it. When I asked Bob if we could go see Lou for Thanksgiving, he knew exactly where and when to go. He has established the relationship so it didn’t seem weird to just drop by. I don’t easily identify myself as "the pastor's wife" but I will admit there are some fine advantages. Lou is an example. For some reason, over the years, she has extended to me an unconditional acceptance that I did not earn and do not deserve.
Visiting Lou is a balm for me, because I’m a worrier. I chronically question, doubt, apologize, and over-think. I'm a habitual lamenter. I have a zillion regrets. (According to author Mary Karr, these are great qualities for a memoirist. According to Jesus, I am constantly forgiven so move on.) Still, my internal capacity to fuss is like the Titanic.
While basking in the presence of Lou, I thought about a blog post scheduled to come out next week (via Living Lutheran), exploring another aspect to being a “pastors wife,” wherein I ruminate about the possibility of being falsely pegged as something other than me. Blah, blah. Already it sounds boring and self-serving, and I apologize in advance to anyone who is kind enough to read it. I’m worried the content of the upcoming post will pale to the beauty that is friendship and love, which for me is by far the norm of my privileged position, if it is a position, which if it is I would denounce anyway, or would I be missing something? I tried to remember what I’d written in that post, wishing I’d taken yet another look at it before I submitted it to my editor. Too scared to actually look up the file to see what I wrote, knowing that it's too late to revise. 
You see what I mean? My interior stew is thick.
But a chat with Lou reminded me of the best antidote to fear and regret: basic human connection. All that other stuff doesn't matter, or at least matters less. I highly recommend the art of visiting. (Talking to myself, here.) 
Sending this out with all best wishes for you and yours.

Natural Born Bleeding Heart

Friday, September 11, 2015

A tale of two boys, Aylan and Aidan

A reflection on two boys, the sons of immigrants and refugees, from the perspective of a mother and a Lutheran. 
Our son, Aidan, is a strapping 16-year-old boy. His hair is thick, brown and curly, his eyes dark and skin olive. We think his swarthy looks come from my side of the family, though his heritage stems from Northern European immigrants (Norwegian, Swede, Scottish, German, and Czech, Bohemian to be exact, according to my mother). I am extremely biased in everyway but Aidan was a beautiful baby, perfect in all the classical ways strangers measure children – cherubic facial structure with big brown eyes like a koala bear. Even now as a skulky 6’1” teenager, he inadvertently maintains a baby face (said his mother).
Six thousand miles to the east, another boy similar in features and name, Aylan, washed up dead on a Turkish beach. At three years old, he drowned with his mother and brother in a desperate attempt to flee by water his war torn homeland Syria. The image of the lifeless child lying in the surf went viral on the Internet and I, like many others, was seared by it. I think it was the boy’s posture that got to me. Aylan’s pre-school body settled in the sand in the same position my son, Aidan, used to sleep, coiled up on his belly, knees bent, posterior up, arms straight to the side, face turned, mouth open.
To see my son’s peaceful child’s pose replicated in another boy’s death scene, a sleeping baby washed up on a beach like a dead fish, was horrifying. 
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” wrote Somali poet Warsan Shire in her piece entitled Home. Along with Aylan’s image, this poem also made the internet rounds last week. It is perhaps the most succinct explanation why people migrate. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR)[i] the number of people forced to flee their homes across the world has exceeded 50 million for the first time since WWII. Half the world's refugees are children, many travelling alone or in groups, and often falling prey to human traffickers.[ii]
More than 50 million can feel too abstract, if not for the picture of a single drowned child and Shire’s poem to explain: "no one would leave home/unless home chased you to the shore," that "no one puts their children in a boat/unless the water is safer than the land," that all of this happens when "home is the barrel of the gun."
What are the rest of us do?
Yesterday in church the New Testament lesson came from James 2: “If someone is naked and lacks daily food, you say, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (Paraphrased.) I do not believe in cherry-picking favorite Bible verses but fortunately, our pastor helped us to put the reading in context.
In her sermon she reminded us that Jesus tells us time and again do not be afraid, though we live in a society chronically fearful of scarcity.
Our pastor reminded us that when we help people in need we help Jesus, though other voices warn us there is not enough for all.
Our pastor reminded us that a Christian is obliged to assist the vulnerable (in gratitude only, not to earn favor with God), though some say if someone is needy, it’s their own fault.
Our pastor reminded us that even in this modern day we can “perform miracles” when we work together. As one who has seen the work of our faith-based nonprofit organizations up close, I believe her. Our Lutheran forebears have built robust and reliable infrastructures such as the ELCA World Hunger Appeal, Lutheran Social Services, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, and my former employer of 17 years, Lutheran World Relief. We have the means to assist people across the street and around the world; all we need is the will.
My son Aidan comes from a long line and many strands of migrants – people who packed up and moved for a better life, for more food, for sustainable work. He is the living outcome of his ancestor’s hopes and dreams. The future is his to choose.
Another son, Aylan, who looked and sounded like my Aidan, died a migrant at age three wearing sneakers and shorts. We can be fearful of others like him or we can extend the miracle of Christian hospitality. With upwards of 60 million people in search of home, the future ours to choose.

[i] (source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,
[ii] (source: The Guardian