Tag Archives: Pacific Northwest

Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The Passing of the Cup

Morning Light by A Leon Miler © 2012

When I was in high school, my family lived in Hillsboro, which is part of what is known as the Silicon Forest for its concentration of tech jobs. The largest Intel plant is, in fact, located in Hillsboro. That being true, it’s no leap of faith to believe my dad would, at some point, work his way to a career in electrical engineering. In his own words, he’s comfortable with crunching numbers, while many people aren’t. And why shouldn’t he be? Some people innately understand relationships and are comfortable coping with a diverse group of acquaintances in the same way he’s comfortable with numbers. Bully for them, but numbers are a hell of a lot easier to understand than people.

Why do I trust numbers after years of intensely fearing math? For the record, I’ve spent the same years also intensely disliking most people. These fears and dislikes used to be parallel paths for me, yet they’ve diverged along the way. I have no idea how, except to say that people have squirmed out from under my little pins, while numbers have stayed put. As I’ve indicated in other posts, I’m studying math on my own time at home. After completing my latest lesson via pencil scratchings on paper, I loathed having to click over to my blog and type sentences for people to read. This math-over-writing is such a complete reversal for me that I’m left swooning from the roller coaster, switchback effect. But legacies arrive when they will, and there may be no way to predict the hairpin turns brought on by them.

Despite Hillsboro’s glowing prominence in the techie forest (dripping with rain and silicon), my dad worked for a company in Beaverton, which is a suburb that much closer than Hillsboro to the tunnel shooting into the greater tech forests of Portland. Because of that, he usually dropped me, on his way to work, at the Beaverton bus depot to cut out fifteen minutes or so from my long commute to Portland Christian High School. My commute, however, still involved changing over to the train in downtown, and then one last changeover to a bus that dropped me near the school drive–still tiresome, in other words.

I spent a lot of my commute thinking, but I’ve already discussed this in a previous memoir. With my briefcase in hand, and my raggedy school clothes, I juxtaposed myself over an urban, workaday world, insulated coffee mug in hand, and I scrutinized all these places I didn’t belong. But, again, I’m passing myself by, as it were–passing by the scenes I mean to focus on. The briefcase was one my dad no longer used, and the coffee mug was an old AM/PM travel cup with a faded logo. My dad gave me the mug, too, and that’s the image I’m trying to capture. I still remember the morning he handed me the coffee-filled cup with cap, understanding that I was seventeen–practically an adult–and that I would be trapped out in the frosty morning waiting for buses, and I would need a hot beverage to sustain me. It was one of those passing-of-the-torch moments that adults have with their almost-grown children.

My dad and I have never fit in anywhere. Would I sound childish if I claimed nobody understands us? It’s true. During our commute together, we discussed thought processes and poetry, and we listened to current music, such as U2’s Joshua Tree or Rattle and Hum. My dad talked about the connections his mind makes from one matter to another, and he sometimes spontaneously composed poetry. And then he would ask: does your mind work this way? And I would murmur a consent, even though I quailed inside and wondered if I would ever reach–do–write–understand as much as I needed to. Because of that, those pale morning hang in my head with crazy images of clouds that appear as shattered glass, of starkly bitter trees hanging over fields of orange. The dawn darkness always gave way to light, but I had yet to experience it. I sensed its presence in the distance and couldn’t quite touch it.

My dad is a kaleidoscope. He has a center, and from that, radiates images. He’s a poet, a gardener, and engineer. Most of all, he’s an artist, and if you have time, you should check out his online galleries here and here. In my opinion, he’s an artist whose work will find its way out of obscurity, so I highly suggest you invest in some originals.

Although my dad didn’t pass on his cup of artistry to me in the same way he casually handed me an AM/PM cup one morning years ago, he passed on a legacy of poetry. I wouldn’t presume to call myself a poet, and still I can’t leave poetry behind because poetry is where words and numbers and cadence meet. I’ve always loved counting the world. I’ve always loved counting words. And someday, maybe I will call myself an engineer and I’ll write about it by word count, while simultaneously loathing and loving every minute of it. Oh, did I mention I applied for an engineering program? The silicon forest where I grew up has caught up to me, its dense growth rooted deeply inside my head.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The Fluidity of Dreams

Sallie: the Original Coffee Girl

This is the profile of two coffee girls, an original named Sallie–and me. Sallie, according to her own bio, has worked at “nearly every cafe in nearly every town [she’s] ever lived in.” By contrast, I spent a few years of my early adulthood working in espresso shops and have spent the last seventeen on the customer side of the counter. At heart, I was a drop-in, a drive-by, an observer of the culture and a confidante to those involved in it–a Nick Carraway, although, admittedly, coffee brewers haven’t yet gone underground. Those selling it aren’t yet gaining the world through riches and, consequently, falling into deep depravity. My friends from Oregon, however, still call me and feed my soul with shocking stories before asking me what’s happening with my life. The ensuing silence over the waves speaks for itself. Nothing is happening with my life because I block out drama by living a small, hermit-like existence in the desert.

When Sallie calls, the conversation differs from the preceding model because Sallie is different to the rest. She embodies the mirror aspect of my soul. She shakes with vibrancy, creativity, exuberance. She loves deeply and enthusiastically. She dances tango and appreciates fine foodstuffs arranged artfully on plates. By contrast, as an observer, I’m impatient by any part of life that jerks me from my sideline stance and throws me into an actual, living scene. Here’s an example of what I mean: One night, after I had worked the closing shift at the Medford Coffee Company, Sallie and I and a few others jetted to a midnight party at a house belonging to strangers. Sallie was house-sitting, and so we dropped into an atmosphere of hominess that didn’t belong to any of us. We were aliens in a foreign land of refrigerator magnets and all the sights and smells of young children and pets. For Sallie, this meant space to create a feast. For me, at that late hour, this meant intense irritation. I hated the hominess. I was hungry. It was late. I wanted to eat, watch a movie, go home and fall into bed. But to Sallie, food could never be simply food, especially when its creation brought her closer to her friends. We argued about whether we should bother chopping fresh garlic and onions for whatever pasta dish we were making. I didn’t want to bother with gourmet; she refused to compromise on quality. She won. She made the food from fresh, whole ingredients and it took longer to cook and, somehow, I survived by watching her from the sidelines. More important, I lived to tell of it and was, undoubtedly, nurtured by her food.

When Sallie calls, we discuss our late-in-life plunges into academia. Ten years ago, I took the plunge to finish my college degree. I finished what I’d started–an education in English/Creative Writing and Spanish. More recently, Sallie has done the same. She’s currently in a creative writing program at the University of Oregon and, from what I understand, she’s also taking business classes. Her status updates on Facebook also tell me she’s studying Italian. Sallie knows what she wants. She may have subverted it for a number of years while she gave birth to her children, but she’s allowed herself to resurface. Through it all, she works at one cafe or another–and some of these places are tired, soulless delivery centers for caffeine. And others are the real deal, the beating hearts of coffee-land–the kind of place Sallie will own for herself one day.

When Sallie calls, we both speak, heart-to-heart, about the soul aspect of the universe. Words take a cosmic turn when the conversation is between the two of us, no one else around to turn it into banality. Sallie possesses what I lack, and, I suspect, the vice versa is true as well. She emotes outwardly–I shrink inwardly. She captures a full spectrum of emotions, while I know only of the domino effect caused by my inability to cope with frustration–>irritation–>anger. Over the phone, both of us with our coffee, but hundreds of miles distant, we fill each other’s cups. In Sallie’s eyes, I’m the opposite of myself, the impossible ideal–an artist and poet. In my eyes, Sallie is not just an artist, but a business woman who is creative enough to bring all her ideas to fruition.

Despite my forays in the academic world, and despite my too infrequent conversations with Sallie, I have a decided lack of knowing what I want. This is, ultimately, the biggest contrast between me and Sallie. After having children, the essence of who I was remained hidden, buried under fears. I was a fiction writer! That was who I was. I could shout it from the Cascades, hear my own voice delivering the dictate, and I couldn’t make it true. Anybody might have confused my intensity of focus on one object–fiction–as an instance of she doth declare herself with too much force. And anybody might have concluded that I spoke lies from the deepest, most sincere part of my being. But nobody did until recently. And, now, when I think about Sallie, as she struggles forward through the river–nay, ocean–of fiction writing, I envision her success. I consider the turning of my own dreams and how close I am to the age of forty, and I understand this to be part of the portrait of coffee girls. We grow up, we have children, and, yet, we never stop thriving. We have coffee to brace our backbones, to keep us young and fit and full of dreams.

Coffee is the fluid of dreams, just as dreams are as fluid as night. And do you want to know what I dream of these days? I dream of being a science writer, or of not being a writer at all, but a person who researches for a living, or a person who creates tangible things. I don’t know how any of these dreams will come to pass, and still I imagine them, and I imagine taking a break from life at Sallie’s future coffeehouse and reading her published novels that I’ve just bought at the imaginary bookshop next door.

I raise my mug to her: Here’s to life not imagined, but lived!

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Counting Crows and Raindrops

image by A Leon Miler © 2012

I’ve never counted crows, at least not that I can remember, not even as a youth when everything counted. A while back, I wrote this memoir called Change, in which I admitted to obsessively counting things. I also claimed to have changed over the years, to have eradicated the counting habit from my mind. But the posting of that piece woke me to reality: I never stopped. All these years, I’ve unconsciously counted. And now that I’ve risen from my dream without numbers, I count things consciously again. Because of the background activity in the unconscious mind, I’m not certain if I’ve counted crows or not. However, the file in my mind marked crows is of the cryptic variety, and bears little importance to my life, unless, of course, I begin dreaming of crows. At that point, I might have to reckon with the numbers. Meanwhile, reaching back to my nineties world, Counting Crows simply refers to a melancholic Berkeley band.

Rain is gloomy. Perhaps rain is the cause of, or is at least correlated with, counting things. Adam Duritz of Counting Crows understands the gloomy nature of rain, and uses it to his advantage on the quintessential nineties album, August and Everything After. His songs literally drip with rain. I might assume, from my own experiences, that Duritz counts crows in the rain–hence the band name–but I don’t think this is true. According to a quick search on the ever useful Wikipedia, the members derived their name from a divination rhyme, in which the number of crows answers man’s uneasy questions about the future. I’m not sure I would want my future foretold by the number of crows roosting in winter trees–or wherever they happen to be–but that may be owing to my unacknowledged crow file.

On the other hand, I know what it’s like to count rain in days, nights, and hours. I know this because my childhood world dripped with rain. Even now in my desert world, I can’t separate myself from the form of it. Rain changes people at a core level, in the genetic landscape of their souls, and this information is then passed down from generation to generation. Growing up in Portland, I lived with a constant drizzle for nine months of the year. To be exact, the average yearly rain count in Portland is thirty-eight inches. How many barrels would thirty-eight inches fill? That depends on the size of the barrels. All barrels being equal, other cities in the U.S. would fill more. New York City, for example, has a higher average rainfall. Nonetheless, Portland’s rain overshadows the citizens because of the lingering crust of gray clouds, and its capacity to drip like a leaky faucet for months on end.

August and Everything After, Counting Crow’s rainiest album, released soon after my husband and I married in 1993, and just after we fled from Portland’s rain to Southern Oregon, where the rainfall average is cut in half (38 to 18–yes, I know, this isn’t exactly half, but even less!). Ironically, Adam Duritz hails from a place with a similar low level of precipitation (San Francisco); however, he was born in Baltimore, Maryland, which explains his wet head. His early life in a rainy place changed the genetic landscape of his poetry, such that rain and melancholy ooze from his lyrics in the way that damp oozes from the walls of old dwellings near the water.

Rain is like a drug to those who have soaked it up in their youth. It’s bad for us–we sense this deeply, but we can’t stop wanting it. When my world snapped from the dryness of the scrubby Southern Oregon hills, with the deep skies of summer and the white air of winter, I heard ghost rain in rattling pot lids and steam vents. I watched for the white air to pour forth, and my brain cracked from the melancholy that no longer had a cushion of rain to fall back on. From the Medford Coffee Company, where I served up life-giving trays of coffee, I stared out into a blank parking lot, swept by scattered leaves and traffic. At night, I studied the dry, black window glass that barricaded me against the traffic. Those in the espresso shop were on an island. In a mall parking lot, we provided a refuge amid the paved, dry seas.

But rain cut in half is still rain. The hollow where the city of Medford rests isn’t a desert. Eighteen inches of rain, on average, must fill its barrels for the sake of maintenance because averages are guiding strictures in a world where true understanding is unknowable. So when the rain began to fall, I counted it. I counted drop after drop until I lost count altogether and lost myself in the sound of it, in the resting place of my childhood pensiveness. Somehow, deep thoughts require at least a modicum of rain to work themselves out. This kind of brilliancy, requiring a lack of light along with barrels of rainwater, is one of the grand contradictions of a mysterious universe.

Since moving to New Mexico, my rain has halved itself yet again, leaving me with that much less of a cushion for my thoughts. The span of the desert breaks me. The span of time without rain doesn’t empty out my thought channels, but rather, it dries them as it dries the arroyos in my backyard that snake from West to East and fill with dead mesquite branches and decaying cholla arms. In the same way, my thoughts back up and cover themselves over with dust.

And the only way out is, oddly, the same out I had for the inevitable depression caused by growing up in a rain-soggy world: coffee and espresso made strong and black, short or tall. In addition, to make a pun of it, I count things. I count my coffee, my ounces, and the raindrops that fall during the monsoon season. I count how many days pass without rain. Back in Oregon, caffeine was a corrective drug to counteract the rain drug. Here, in the desert, it’s a replacement. And I never count crows because when crows flock together in the desert, they are too many to take into the hidden parts of my mind.

20,18,38,64,9 (a list of cryptic numbers indicating the rounded rainfall averages, in inches, of various places I’ve lived, except the 20, which represents San Francisco).

The image is actually of a blackbird, not specifically crow. See A Leon Miler’s website. A Leon Miler is my dad, and he also spent far too many years in a rainy climate.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Good coffee, Bitter Patriarchy Part II

Oregon is a libertarian state. As such, conservatives and liberals alike tend either toward a live and let live mentality or, conversely, an allow me to live as I see fit world view. Although both of these perspectives stem from the enlightenment ideal of individual freedom, they don’t mesh, and it doesn’t take a genius to parse one from the other. One is generous, while the other is self-protective. One is settled in itself, the other reactionary. And, for the record, neither is a perfect philosophy, for the good reason that certain situations call for reactionary positions and others call for hunkering down and living at peace with ones’ neighbors.

As for my libertarian ways, I’m a distant observer of the world and hold to both positions simultaneously [which is probably just a description of passive aggression]. Instead of finding myself persuaded by others’ convictions, I’m almost impervious to outside instruction. I believe nothing and everything at the same time. I’m a collector of information. I collate it, I keep it, and I’m hesitant to extrapolate answers from the information stored inside my databases. I thank God for the faith he planted in my heart because if it weren’t for the gospel of Jesus Christ, which came to me outside the information channels, I’d be a skeptic who believes in nothing. And I’m thankful, as well, for the tipping point, that crucial moment when the information overloads me and I must shut down or declare a theoretical premise.

Recently, I’ve reached that tipping point regarding biblical patriarchy. But I need to reach into the past, where the concept first confronted me. The Southern Oregon Libertarian thinkers who held to biblical patriarchy tended toward the allow me to live as I see fit philosophy due to their ideas not fitting with societal ones. Because of the egalitarian nature of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the racism and patriarchy of the founding fathers became untenable in our society. The civil rights movement lifted its hidden wings, ready to take flight, the air of our country tense with waiting. Women and black people fought for the right to vote and won. They fought for entrance into white male institutions and won.

Don’t spout the obvious and tell me equality is a lie. Of course it’s a lie. People aren’t equal–some are born short, some tall; some are born with great intellect, while others are not–but under the eyes of the law, equality is essential. And God, the author of our differences, agrees: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). I doubt anyone holding to biblical patriarchy would disagree that both men and women should have equal access to justice under the law, and equal access to salvation through Jesus. However, my first flavor of it, in the Medford Coffee Company, served up some unhealthy doses of misogyny and racism as payment for progressive espressos and dark-roasted brews [disclaimer: the cafe owners didn’t hold such beliefs! Some of their customers did].

These customers ripped scriptures from their biblical contexts and used them to create vast doctrines supporting the superiority of white men. Men were created in the image of God–not women. Blacks were relegated to an even further degradation as beasts in the field, not of the same species as whites. If you think I’m making this up–if you believe I’m simply forwarding a negative stereotype of white men, I’ll offer no defense. The evidence is out there. Study the Christian Identity movement, which was a predominant affiliation among these people. And, frankly, many Southern Oregonians in those days stereotyped themselves–no need for me to do that for them. Amid the pine forests and on property along the winding Applegate River, they stored guns, ammo, and foodstuffs in barrels for the coming apocalypse. Before rambling into Medford for their daily coffee, they made deals at surplus stores and shopped for good prices on bags of beans and rice–not for their wives to cook up for them that day, but for their wives to cook up over an open fire once the beast system took over.

The biblical patriarchy movement doesn’t follow one denomination, which means, of course, not all of them cling to Christian Identity. During the years I smelled its bitter odor, I ran across a variety of Christian belief structures. When home-educators traded the Pearls’ books and newsletters around as though they were holy tracts, I found an entirely new doctrine, one that doesn’t espouse original sin. When Douglas Wilson’s and Vision Forum books wormed their way into my life, I discovered a Reformed doctrine that unsettled me with its weird dichotomies of either/or. Either you buy their beliefs, or you’re a raging-feminist-liberal in rebellion against God’s divine order.

As I already stated, all of this stored information has reached its tipping point. In the nineties coffee house, when a burly biker declared that blacks were animals without souls–in front of a black customer–I desired to fade into the muddied linoleum below my feet. After all, I was a young female, and who would listen to my protestations? But I’m ready, after all these years, after the subject of biblical patriarchy perpetually pops up as though it were a hydra with heads in multiple denominations, to declare myself done with it. I never believed in it, due to my impenetrable nature, but I’m ready to be done with it psychologically and intellectually. No longer will I hold onto the reams of information I’ve stored about it. I’m letting it all slip away.

You see, these people have stunted their growth. They desire for men and women alike to remain in an immature state, in which women must be perpetually erotic to men, as well as dependent on them. The men don’t grow because they feed off the service of women. The women don’t grow because they’re dependent on men. And this fixation continues until death do them part, or until the families split apart, or until the men and women come to their senses and confront their distorted biblical doctrines.

What are these people afraid of? Are they afraid of growth? I’m not. I have been in the past, hence the stockpiling of information. But right now, I’m not. However, I’m still stuck with a simultaneous desire to react and hunker down and let the world be. I’m not afraid of growth. I just don’t know how to make it happen.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Good Coffee, Bitter Patriarchy

For my lifestyle as a stay-at-home mom of four, I’m a frequent resident in hotels. Sometimes, these stays belong to me—they exist as my personal getaways. And occasionally, they belong to the family as vacations. But most of the time, they’re my husband’s, and I’m simply along for the ride. This following after a man and his career has never appealed to me. So instead of viewing these trips as such, I see them as blessings from God or husband or both, spun along the circuitous gift route, for the production of my own work.

I fall into slumps when I’m not actively producing something of worldly value, and by this, I mean my own academic work that extends beyond the family unit. I don’t define “something of worldly value” as the motherly goods I produce, which include meals and what might spring from my garden by accident because I’ve committed acts of mass herbicide through negligence. Neither do I mean stacks of clean, folded laundry, a tidy house smelling of pine oil, or well-educated children.

On the contrary, all of these parental activities bear intrinsic value and give their own rewards in a karmic give-and-receive effect. Because I believe in a Christian version of karma, I’ll relabel it the golden-rule effect. I’m generous to you, and you’re generous to me. I cook for you; you wash the car for me. I wash the dishes for you; you weed the garden for me. And, in fact, this division of labor among a family unit has a circular shape to it, hence my use of eastern terminologies to describe it. Westerners have their Venn diagrams, but I’m not certain a Venn diagram would fully represent the concept. Perhaps a figure eight, or the symbol of eternity would depict this ideal in a better way. Or maybe a series of connected loops in a circular form would do it justice.

At the moment, I’m considering these shapes and ideas in a Starbucks, which happened to be the first cafe I ran across while wandering away from my latest hotel stay. Coffee is an integral part of my creative life, and, although Starbucks would have been verboten in the decade of the Nineties Coffee Girl, I’ll drink any coffee here in New Mexico as long as it’s strong and black. Currently, the Starbucks’ radio channel is directing my mood by playing Janis Joplin’s Me and Bobby Magee. As you may know, at the apex of this song, Joplin sings, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Nothing—and that’s all that Bobby left me.” As you probably don’t know, I used to sing these lyrics all the time. Some ballads connect to my soul in indescribable ways. This is the purpose of poetry, after all—describing the indescribable.

Freedom is an elusive concept. As a housewife, as a Christian woman, as a homeschool mom, and as a longtime citizen of Oregon, I’ve experienced a counterculture you may not have had to confront in your own path to self-development. It’s called Biblical Patriarchy. Although many Christian leaders support this movement, their views on female roles may differ in application. For the sake of this writing, I’ll give you the basic tenets: females aren’t exactly subhuman, but they weren’t created in the image of God as men were. Rather, God created woman to be man’s helpmeet, period. Therefore, she must always be under male authority—either her father’s or her husband’s. Her vision must reflect her male authority’s vision because having her own is selfishness.

By extension of these beliefs, women in the movement are discouraged from voting because their sphere is in the home and not in the world, and voting could also permit women to hold their own opinions apart from their fathers/husbands. Women aren’t worthy of opinions due to being weaker vessels, which isn’t simply interpreted as of smaller stature, but extends to the belief that women have weaker intellects. University is—no surprises here—frowned upon for women. Careers outside the home are strictly forbidden. Many other rules apply: women aren’t allowed to speak in gatherings where men are present; women must be happy child-bearers and forgo birth control. I would add direct quotes from the horses’ mouths and, trust me, I’ve run across some excruciating ones. But I squirm at using others’ words in order to generate controversy (click the links and judge for yourself: Douglas Wilson, Doug Phillips, the Pearls, or the Botkins).*

Here I sit, defying patriarchy, pursuing my own career, while my husband pursues his. As I drink from a liberal coffeepot, I remember serving trays of espresso at Medford Coffee Company–a decidedly more conservative place–and listening to the conversations of the Biblical Patriarchalists who patronized the shop. I don’t wish to dredge up these peoples’ pain, and I won’t do that, except to say that their philosophy didn’t work out for them. The ironies of each particular family has worked its way into the light.

As I see it, the problem with westerners taking on a philosophy of absolute male authority and female subservience is one of using a faulty, non-circular model. In a western patriarchal vision, a pastor might draw a line between the man and his relationship to the world and a line between a woman and her relationship to man. The western model also frequently uses a pyramidal structure to denote levels of leadership, with one authority on top of another, until you drop to the rabble at the base. These models limit truth and create oppression. Leadership and helpfulness should be circular. One begets the other in a cyclical fashion defined by do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you’re a man in authority over a woman, this means you must consider whether you would desire to have your own authority figure–your employer, perhaps–remove your personhood from you. When you’re done with work for the day, would you desire that your boss insist you continue to view the world through his vision, his needs, his desires?

As for gender roles, you won’t find much information on those in the Bible, only cultural models that don’t rise to the level of commandment. That’s a blessing because rigid gender roles aren’t practical in an imperfect world. And so, I continue to produce my own work. I direct them outside myself and sometimes, due to my western mindset, I wonder if my arrows are hitting the mark. Then I remind myself: this isn’t about finding a target. It’s about the circularity of creating ideas, sending them forth, and being ironically refilled and fulfilled through this giving.

At its heart, the pairing of lines from Bobby Magee captures my fears of being a Christian wife and mother. I’m afraid my freedom will involve having nothing more to lose because I’ve already lost myself. I fear a man’s work will render me empty. I fear this, even though my husband doesn’t oppress me or expect me to give up my dreams. I fear this, even though I know God desires me to continue with my career as academic and writer.

*Doug Phillips founded Vision Forum, a ministry that publishes books from a patriarchal perspective. Although I’ve read books by Vision Forum authors, I haven’t read any of his.

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