Tuesday, December 30, 2014

We're Doing Something Right

One of the most annoying things about parenting is how little confidence you can have, at any given moment, that your parenting choices are right. Too often, George and I look at each other and ask, "How do we respond to this situation?" We're working blind, here, folks, feeling our way forward with what we hope is enough love to repair any damage we unintentionally inflict.

And we still might not know for years if what we're doing today will work or will backfire spectacularly.

Take the subject of reading, for instance. George and I are, to state it mildly, bibliomaniacs. We always have been. Neither of us can imagine life without books. We don't just read. We devour. And yet from very young ages, our two sons said things like "I hate reading" or "Do we have to go to Barnes & Noble? Again!?!?" When Jack was little, he would get off my lap and walk away if I started reading to him. Nick had a little more tact, but not much patience.

Who are these kids? Where did they come from? Not our loins, surely. Our loins are far too well-read to produce book-hating rug rats.

In the book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner analyze the numbers and argue that readers are not made by spending hours on parents' laps being read to, but rather by being exposed to books at home and in libraries. Simply having access to books--not actually reading them--made the difference. I rejoiced at this freaky statistical finding. It gave me hope.

For years now, George and I have dragged the boys to Barnes & Noble and made them do their 20-minutes-a-night reading and taken them to libraries. We have read in front of them daily and left books lying all over the house. We have filled shelves in their rooms with age-appropriate books. We saturated their lives with the written word, despite their apparent allergy to it.

Results to date are somewhat mixed.

This Christmas, I gave Jack, our 12-year-old, two Magic Treehouse books and a timer/bookmark. On Christmas Day, we had the following conversation:

Jack: Mom, why did you buy me books for Christmas?

Me: Because your teacher told me you liked the Magic Treehouse books, and since you have to read chapter books every night, I thought you'd appreciate them.

Jack: Hm. Really?

Me: Say, "Thank you, mommy, for the books."

Jack: Thank you, mommy, for the books.

Me: You're welcome. I hope you enjoy them.

Jack: Hm.

Me: [sigh]

Nick, who is now 15, claimed to hate reading for years, but then discovered comic books. As much as I don't understand the appeal, comic books are, at least technically, books, so we've tried to encourage his passion, but have you seen comic books lately? Heaven above, they are violent, sexualized, and dark! What happened to The Archies? Our parents never had to worry about screening comic books...but that's just what George and I do.

Recently, however, we've seen signs of hope that our firstborn might actually become a serious reader. Last year, he started reading the Harry Potter series (still not finished). Then The Hunger Games series (almost finished). Then The Hobbit (finished last week).

He's far quicker to put a book down than George and I are, but at least he's reading. He even wants to start The Lord of the Rings soon. Dare I hope that at least one of our children will follow in our bibliophilic footsteps?

I don't want to celebrate prematurely and scare the kid off, but he certainly made me proud at Christmas dinner. Each of us shared what we are grateful for, and Nick said, "I'm grateful for stories. I'm grateful for the brilliant minds that write stories to inspire us and shape us and teach us."

Excellent!

Maybe, just maybe, loving Stan Lee will lead him to love Shakespeare or Joyce or Austen. But for now, I'm more than happy to settle for J.R.R. Tolkien. After all, The Lord of the Rings is one of the ten books I'd want if stranded on a deserted island.

Because, you know, it is an amazing story.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Gratitude Journal #259

Today, I am grateful for tissues. Boxes and boxes of tissues. And for over-the-counter cold medicine. And that George, Nick, and I only have colds, and not the flu or some other nastiness. I am grateful for Jack's killer immune system that has kept him well through all the coughing.

Today, I am grateful for George and Nick and their search for the perfect Christmas gifts for me. They went with the theme relaxation, and gave me a Keurig, a shoulder massage machine, and an iPod shuffle to be loaded with classical and jazz music. Thanks, guys!

Today, I am grateful for tasty cow.

Today, I am grateful for a peaceful, relaxing Christmas. I am grateful for the peaceful, relaxing Christmas Eve candlelight service and the wonderful message given by Pastor Suzanne. I am grateful for the many blessings of this year that ended in the peaceful celebration of Jesus. May this coming year be as blessed!

"I got movies and a light saber and two cans of Pringles
sour cream and onion chips and cold, hard, cash. Yay!"

"Can't talk. Chewing."

"May I have some of your Pringles?"

"I got an iPad. Best. Christmas. Ever."

"I got an iPad and am now baking scones at oh-dark-thirty
in the morning."


What are you grateful for today?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gratitude Journal #258

Today, I am grateful for Ann Voskamp's book The Greatest Gift: Unwrapping the Full Love Story of Christmas. It's kept me thinking all during Advent about the Gift we won't find under the tree or at an after-Christmas sale as we spend our gift cards. "Advent never stops coming for you." That's a comforting thought, especially at a time of year when we can feel overwhelmed with pressure, feel like a failure because we didn't do more, compare ourselves and our decorations to the more magnificent displays of others and find ourselves always lacking.

"Advent never stops coming for you." God never stops wanting us, never stops wanting to pour His grace on us. "All of conquering heaven and grateful earth echo and throb tonight with the heart cry of the God-Child: I did it for love."

Today, I'm grateful for that.

What are you grateful for today?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Looking for Guidance this Christmas and Beyond

At times like this, when anger seethes over into riot, I pray for peace, for justice, for God to take evil and turn it to His ultimate good, for God to use me as an instrument of His peace, His love.

It is hard, however, to know how to react, what to say, what to do. Because where, indeed, is the evil?

Racism is evil, and I know it's alive and well in America. Being white, in a largely white community, means I'm not exactly qualified to speak about it though. I've experienced mild forms of prejudice because I'm a woman...but nothing that I couldn't handle, nothing that made me so angry I wanted to lash out, and nothing that significantly limited my life or opportunities.

I can't know what racism is like, but I do know that I don't want to live in a country plagued by it.

At the same time, I also know that any particular situation is far more complicated than we, the general public, can know. The facts are twisted and warped and selectively edited for mass consumption by unknown individuals with agendas who care not a wit for truth. I've watched major news stories play out in the media...news stories for which I was a privileged insider...news stories that held absolutely no resemblance to what I knew to be the truth.

This makes me question everything I "learn" from the media and has taught me to be hyper-aware of my ignorance and the ease with which my feelings and thoughts and responses might be manipulated. I sit back and watch the media play on fears, provoke reactions, and angle for viewers. I sit back and read public tweets and blog posts and Facebook posts and comments on news stories. I sit back and stare in horror at video footage.

I sit back and wonder. Where is the truth? What is the context for that video clip? What happened before and after that will change the meaning of that heavily-edited 30 seconds?

I don't know.

I am aware of my ignorance largely because I know how to manipulate words myself. Language isn't some sort of objective thing that means what it says and says what it means...ever. It's sneaky, it's multi-layered, it's manipulative; it's the only way we can know anything, and its revelations are not nearly as clear as we want them to be.

Rhetorical devices can be powerful tools. I know how to take someone from the guffaws of helpless laughter to the tears of helpless tragedy in five words or less. I recognize the signs of manipulation and know that sometimes, manipulation is for our own good, to guide us to truth, and sometimes, it's evil and intended to make us stumble. Finding the truth in particular situations takes more hard work than most of us are willing to exert.

LOTS of people, however, think they know the truth. They take what they hear (or want to hear) in the media as absolute gospel, jump to conclusions based on incomplete evidence, and react...often over-react. But they don't know. Not really. And their reactions--on whatever side of an issue--end up making things worse.

And therein lies the problem. What should I do--what should any of us do--in such uncertain situations if we seek to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly? How can we know the truth?

As I contemplated this dilemma, Martin Luther King, Jr., came to mind. He was a man of words and faith and action, a man of God. He felt racism in ways I never will. And he skillfully used words to manipulate others toward peace and harmony, love and goodwill, hope and faith...the things we should value not just this Christmas season but all year, every year.

What did King say that might help guide us in these circumstances? He saw far more clearly than I the real truth of racism. He suffered the ugliness of it in Montgomery, in Birmingham, in Atlanta, and finally in Memphis on the day he was killed. I invite you to think about what he said and consider how it applies to your reactions to the media, to your personal philosophy, and to your actions toward others. How can you--no matter your race, religion, sex, profession, income, location--be part of the destruction of racism and the strengthening of justice and mercy in America and throughout the world?

"History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."

"Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness."

"The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility."

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
 
"In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system."

"Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude."  

"An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."  

"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'"

What am I doing for others?

Well, I can't be silent, even in my ignorance of the particulars of Ferguson or Cleveland or Beavercreek, but I also can't take a side that may or may not be just. I can't over-react for my "side" (whatever that might be) because that makes things worse. I need to step out in love. And thank God, I am not alone. Plenty of people are out here with me, stepping out in love, reaching out with love, working for the cause of love, speaking words of love and mercy and forgiveness and compassion.

This season, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, the Prince of Peace. Jesus was born into a world riddled with injustice, hate, violence, anger, fear, and oppression. Love came down at Christmas.

Jesus' message to the world, His final commandment to us, given shortly before His death, resonates for us still today, just as it did for Dr. King:

"A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another."

Love one another like God loves us. If we work toward that, we will all end up on the same side. 

Peace be with us all, and a joyous Christmas.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Gratitude Journal #257

Today, I am grateful for sixth-grade band concerts. Jack's band teacher is doing an amazing job with about 200 students, who played Jingle Bells quite nicely after only 4 months of lessons. I wouldn't have his job for the world, but I'm so very glad he does!

Today, I am grateful for my Stephen Ministry friends and the fun we had at our Christmas party last night.

Today, I am grateful for Christmas decorations. It's been such a joy to transform our house into a holiday haven!

Today, I am grateful for George and my boys and their enthusiasm for Christmas, to George for his delicious cooking, and to Daisy for being happy all the time!

Today, I am grateful to my sister-in-law for her delicious buck-eyes and to my mother-in-law for her gingerbread cookies, scotcheroos, and Susan Food (a.k.a. Chex party mix). Yum!

Today, I am grateful for my family member's health. I've heard of so many people diagnosed with cancer in the past few weeks.

Today, I am most grateful to my sister, who has managed and taken on full responsibility for our mother's care through her knee surgery and rehab. Thanks, Lisa.

What are you grateful for today?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mindfulness, Perfectionism, and General Weirdness

As part of my ongoing effort to reduce stress, I've been studying mindfulness.

I know this post just got started, but let's take a break and explore this opening sentence, shall we?

As part of my ongoing effort to reduce stress, I've been studying mindfulness.

If I'd typed this sentence 15 or 20 years ago, here's what it would have looked like. I would have realized that my permanently tense shoulder muscles and frequent headaches were not normal and set about looking for solutions to the problem. After talking to the doctor and friends, and reading around at the bookstore or library, I would have uncovered about fifty different solutions to muscle tension, each of which would have required thorough research into the evidence.

To research mindfulness specifically, I would have purchased five or six books on mindfulness because the interwebs were barely invented for common use and I hated technology back in the early to middle 1990s. I then would have read the books cover to cover with highlighter in hand and taken notes on index cards. These index cards would have been arranged and rearranged and rearranged again on my large breakfast table into categories and sub-categories and sub-sub-categories...until I knew everything those five or six books could tell me about mindfulness.

And within six months I would have forgotten most of what I'd learned about mindfulness (it's all safely preserved on note cards, right?) and wouldn't be practicing it at all because I'd still be researching the 49 other solutions for stress and seriously, how much information can one brain hold without going completely cuckoo?

"She's cuckoo. Bat-crap cuckoo."

I hear you. Oh, yes, I hear you.

These days, I'm much less obsessive, which just goes to show you can teach an older dog new tricks. I blame motherhood and maturity for my kinder, gentler approach to problem-solving. After all, who has time for index cards and sub-sub-categories when you have to keep track of your son's minutes of trumpet practice and nightly reading, create lesson plans for small-group studies you've agreed to teach, read books for book clubs you've joined, and write riveting articles for your church's monthly newsletter every single month? Laundry, anyone? Grocery shopping? Dishes? Cooking meals to take to people going through chemo? Making cards for the troops? Perfectly wrapping each and every perfectly chosen Christmas present? Writing and addressing Christmas cards? Decorating not one but three Christmas trees because ohmygosh one just isn't enough?!?!?!

Index cards have fallen through the cracks of my busy life.

Good riddance.

Mindfulness, however, should have grabbed my attention long before now; though if I'd heard about it back then, I'd probably have dismissed it as granola-munching nonsense. "Where's the evidence?" I would have asked.

Guess what? There's actually a LOT of evidence that mindfulness is really, really good for you and even helps people reduce muscle tension and stress. From news stories on NPR and interviews by Diane Rehm, to extensive and frequent articles in Scientific American and Discover magazines to book displays at Barnes & Noble, mindfulness pops up all over the place these days. So now I'm paying attention, but in ways I never would have paid before.

First of all, there are no note cards.

Second, there's just one book, and I'm not devouring it in a frantic, manic rush to transform my life and relax my shoulder muscles permanently in three easy steps. My life doesn't need transforming (it's pretty awesome, all things considered), and getting rid of 48 years of tight shoulders won't happen quickly or easily.

What does need to transform are some bad lifestyle habits I've picked up (little exercise, fatty diet, negative attitudes, absentmindedness), and mindfulness can help me change those. And let's face it, when we try to change, we need all the help we can get.

For now, I'm just trying to notice my muscles. How often do you think about, let's say, your hip muscles? Pay attention to them right now. Are they tight? Mine are. Think about relaxing them. Stand up from your computer and stretch them out while thinking about relaxing them. If you need ideas, check out this website. A little mindful attention paid to one muscle group makes a difference.

Mindfulness, at least as I understand it and am trying to practice it, is about noticing the Now. The Now? I'm not familiar with this territory, despite knowing all the words to Jimmy Buffett's song on the subject. My brain likes to travel all over, into ADD rabbit holes full of twists and turns and ups and downs and creativity and problem-solving and the past and the future. I'm a reader, people! I go places in my head, places authors invite me to go. I'm really good at it, too.

And it's fun. FUN! I love those rabbit holes so very much!

But too much time in them makes my shoulders tense and my hips tight. Balance. That's what I'm seeking in mindfulness. I'm not looking for gurus or easy fixes or fads or perfection. I'm looking for ways to slow down, savor, and notice, to stop being so absent in my own mind. I'm never going to be one of those calm, always-present-in-the-Now people, but paying attention to what my brain and body are doing, being more conscious of the Now...well, it sure can't hurt.

If you've stuck with me this far, you're probably nodding in understanding and appreciate how hard it is to change the mental and physical habits of a lifetime. But change is coming. It's a process, slow and uneven, full of setbacks and progress. I started with paying more attention to people when I'm out and about running errands. I used to insulate myself in my own little world, where ideas and thought experiments and creative flights of fancy swirled around me like Pigpen's cloud of dust and dirt, keeping people away and making it hard for me to see them anyway.

Now, I strike up conversations...quick little ones, designed to elicit smiles or laughter...with baristas or check-out clerks or librarians. I know which clerks at Kroger are chatty and which need just a sincere smile. It seems such a small thing, to pay attention and be grateful for the people who make my life easier by their service. Those small moments of attention have added up to my being more mindful.

And that attentiveness has helped me to be of service. I've helped people lift watermelons into their baskets and returned their carts because I'm paying attention to what's going on around me. I've smiled at moms whose kids were melting down at the library and who were pumping gas into their minivans at Speedway because I've noticed them. I've caught myself singing songs while ironing George's shirts or humming while scrubbing a toilet...instead of thinking of all the other things I'd rather be doing with that time. My prayer time is richer and more focused, too.

I feel a little more connected to the people around me, more a part of a community, more invested in this place and this time, more invested in my own life. This small improvement in mindfulness shows me just how very far I have to go to achieve balance, but the process feels good spiritually and emotionally.

If you're feeling disconnected and distracted, tense and stressed out, I recommend sticking your big toe into mindfulness. Take your time getting used to it. But don't bother with the index cards. You really don't need them.



Source

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Little Cloud of Joy

Today's weather has been gray and misty, and occasionally downright wet. I had to gas up my car, and as I stood outside watching the numbers go up on the pump, my breath turned to little white clouds.

Do you remember when those little clouds brought you joy? Do you remember standing at the bus stop, early in the morning, pretending to smoke, striking a pose, and dissolving in laughter with your friends? Do you remember breathing extra hard to make the biggest cloud you could, just because you could see your own amazing breath?

Breathing deep for joy....

We should do that more often, don't you think?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Gratitude Journal #257

Today, I am grateful for a delicious, relaxing Thanksgiving.

Today, I am grateful for the support, love, and encouragement of my church family...especially the Stephen Ministers and Pastor Suzanne.

Today, I am grateful for weather and the fact we have it.

Today, I am grateful for space heaters.

Today, I am grateful for Christmas lights, garland, and stockings.

What are you grateful for today?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Gratitude Journal #256

Today, I am grateful that I was born 48 years ago. I'm grateful to be back in an even year...although 47 was a pretty good year considering it's odd and even a prime number! (I'm also grateful that I don't take this number stuff seriously.)

Today, I am grateful for my birthday buddy: Aunt Linda. She's my mom's sister, and I've always appreciated that she calls me the best birthday present my mom ever gave her! She taught me how to drive a manual shift car, and she has amazing talents in most everything she turns her attention to...woodworking, decorating, horseback riding, cooking, quilting, you name it. Love you, Linda!

Today, I am grateful for tasty rib eye steak and the man who grilled mine to perfection. Thanks, George!

Today, I am grateful for greeting cards. My birthday cards from friends and family continue to give me joy.

Today, I am grateful for Thanksgiving week, for Junior High show choir Christmas performances, for lights going up all over town, for good smells and happy faces!

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Looking Sideways at Thanksgiving



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We all know the clich├ęs of Thanksgiving: "Thank you, God, for my family and friends, my great country, my health, this delicious turkey, yadda, yadda...."

No doubt we are thankful for these things, unless of course your family has taken the fun out of dysfunctional or the turkey is dry. Then, you're thankful for the moisture cranberry sauce adds to the turkey or for the fact that your family is complaining about dry turkey in another state.

Let's shake things up this Thanksgiving by looking under the surface of our gratitude and examining those under-appreciated things that make life pleasant--or perhaps even possible--moment to moment. Let's look closely at our lives and figure out what we're neglecting that really deserves our gratitude.

For example, I'm grateful for the little white cardboard box that Jack used to bury his dead betta early this week. I'd purchased the box for pennies years ago with vague crafty plans for it but never got around to using it. Jack absolutely didn't want to flush his fish down the toilet, the box was just the right size and easily buried. Jack's visiting the grave each day after he comes home from school. Putting the fish in the box gave some closure to Jack as he learns how to mourn. That cheap little box has value I'm so grateful for.

I'm also grateful for the many customer service people I've encountered lately. No one has been rude or short with me in a very long time, and now that I think about it, I've noticed more smiles lately. The pharmacy tech I saw Tuesday gave me a smile that positively blew me away. I've been blithely taking their good service and attitude for granted. Shame on me! I've got to smile more myself and show more of a positive attitude, to pay the blessing forward.

This morning on the ride to school, we were stuck behind a bus so the car filled with diesel exhaust. Nick said, "Whatever that is we're breathing in, it can't be good for us." Probably not, but it made me think how much we take breathing fresh air for granted. If you live in Beijing, however, you probably don't take fresh air for granted at all...you likely want to bottle that gaseous ambrosia and sniff it hourly in a formal worship service.

Which brings up a good point. One person's taken-for-granted blessing is another's precious desire. Don't worry if your sideways look at Thanksgiving yields up results that might seem silly to someone else. Look for things that bless you in unexpected ways or strange places, and then let gratitude fill you up. Your gratitude might even move you to act in some unusual ways, but so be it. Go with the flow.

That's why I'm going to buy a bunch of sanitary napkins to donate to our local food pantry.

Are you up for this Thanksgiving challenge? Will you spend these days leading up to Thanksgiving searching your life for those things you're taking for granted?

Actively looking for things to be grateful for...let's give it a try!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Gratitude Journal #255

Today, I am grateful that fifteen years ago, Nick was born. He weighed 6 pounds, 15 ounces and measured 21 inches long.



Now he's taller than I am.


Oh, how I love this young man!

What are you grateful for today?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Gratitude Journal #254

Today, I am grateful for all our veterans and for their service to country and to freedom in both peacetime and war.

George in the backseat of a B-1.
Jet noise...the sound of freedom!

Today, I am grateful for George and his post-military career, for his hard work and support of our family.

Today, I am grateful for prayer.

Today, I am grateful for school teachers who differentiate instruction for students who need it. Doing this takes work and skill, and Jack's teachers are doing an amazing job of it!

Today, I am grateful that Nick is truly beginning to love learning and to recognize its power in his life.

Today, I am grateful for friends who encourage and affirm me in my activities, both at church and online. I love you all for that. You keep me going.

What are you grateful for today?

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Month of Thanksgivings: Darkness and Light


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With the change from daylight savings time to standard time comes a renewed awareness of light and dark. Such an artificial rearrangement of daylight hours means eating dinner in the dark and taking children to school as the sun rises, a disconcerting and unbalancing shift from dinner as the sun sets and watching the children move through pools of electric light and utter dark toward the school doors.

This morning, I forgot my sunglasses and was grateful for the wispy clouds that blocked just enough of the sunrise as I headed east away from the schools, toward home. I've not needed my sunglasses for our early morning commute since late September, and just one month is enough to build a habit of leaving them at home.

Darkness or light that appears when it shouldn't unsettles us in some primordial way, tapping into those primitive circadian rhythms that chart their way best through slow, gradual changes, barely noticeable from day to day as the earth wobbles gently and regularly on its axis. If it weren't for clocks, would we even notice the change?

Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but in this seasonal dance, she seems rather gentle and kind.

What happens when unnatural darkness enters our lives uninvited and violent? Several friends have been dealing with darkness forced on them by others for the past month, and that got me thinking. My own unpleasant history with the darkness has been dredged up from the depths and swirled around in my mind. It's not depressing, exactly, just sort of a sobering reminder that there's still work to do.

Mary Oliver's verse hits home. It takes years, perhaps a lifetime, to adjust one's thinking after being given a box full of darkness. It also takes effort, and not everyone puts in the hard work of distilling gratitude out of demons.

I've worked long and hard at the distillation process, pouring my bitterness and anger and hurt into the still, and most days I'm able to drink deeply and maintain a buzz of optimistic gratitude. Occasionally, however, the still produces barely a trickle. Strange things--an old song or random phrase or smell or memory--will reveal some bit of darkness hiding in my soul that needs rooting out, pouring out.

And the process of letting go of the demons starts over again.

It gets easier with practice. I've grown confident over the years in this process and learned that holding on hurts me far more than it hurts the demons.

That's one reason why Thanksgiving is such a vital and important holiday for me. It's my annual reminder that we get out of life the effort we put into it. Of all the things I've worked for in life, my attitude of gratitude has borne the most fruit. It's the thing I most want to share with other people, to encourage them in the belief that the surest path of healing is to accept the darkness and turn it into a gift in their own lives. The resulting gratitude fills us up so much that we just have to share it with others.

You can't rush that transformation, though. It takes time and patience and perseverance to see the demons as a gift. That level of gratitude requires commitment for the long haul of life and trust in the process. But it is worth it.

No matter what the clock says, days lengthen and shorten in a dependable, wobbly process of planetary scale. We might get thrown off balance in our perception of it, but we adjust, remember our sunglasses, and drive home heading east into sunrise.

And that's a comforting thought.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

November Blahs

Have you ever noticed that most picture calendars save the ugliest picture for November? I have, and the tendency has always baffled me. I love November for so very many reasons, but its reputation as a depressing, bleak month has been around for a long time.

In Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books, October is the glorious month of autumn, and in each year of Anne's life, a glorious October is followed by a gloomy November. Perhaps on Prince Edward Island that is the case, but in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I grew up, the climate allows for a milder November, a month of thanksgivings and birthdays and crystal blue skies and steadiness before the crush of activity that December brings.

I was a girl raised in the South so January was my bleak month of gray, wet skies, coming as it did after the excitement of Christmas, which my family did up in fine fashion, and the anti-climax of New Year's Eve, which my family generally slept through. In fact, I was rather surprised to grow up and discover that Dick Clark's New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square wasn't the only party in the world, and that it is possible to have a great time celebrating the transition from one year to the next.

But still, I generally sleep through it.

Having now lived all over the United States, I've learned that the particular climate any time of year is what it is, and it's best to make the best of it as you are able. In some places, like Columbus, Georgia, summer is unbearably hot and humid, so people adapt by moving from one air-conditioned locale to another. Winter, however, barely happens by more northerly standards. In other places, like Rapid City, South Dakota, summer isn't so bad, but winter is rather long and wet and snowy, and frigid or mildly cold as the mood hits it. One Halloween, it was two degrees and snowed.

In Boise, Idaho, long summer days can be wicked hot and dry, but by 5:00 PM, as the sun moves behind the foothills of the Rockies, temperatures drop, and most restaurants in town serve dinner on outdoor patios. Such a delight! Winter is also dry, with cold and fog and ice and occasional snow, but it never seems to last very long, probably because the sun shines most days. With ski resorts close by, one may stretch winter if one wants to, but Boise's climate is pretty moderate, as far as the high desert plains are concerned.

Ohio weather is grayer than most places we've lived, and more variable. We've had winters that were so deeply frigid that many feet of snow went unblemished by boots...it was just too cold to play, and the snow was so powdery and dry that making a snowman simply wasn't an option. We've had other winters when it barely snowed despite weeks of gray skies and humid cold. Summers are equally variable. One year, we had no autumn to speak of, moving directly from hot summer to cold winter. Another year, the transition from spring to summer was just as abrupt.

This autumn has been glorious. October showed its colors gloriously, and some fine color continues to linger on trees and bushes as we move into November. But this, the first day of November, is rainy and cold, with snow flurries...an appropriate mood-setting atmosphere for All Saints' Day, I suppose.

Our doorbell rang four times last night, for a total of ten or so costumed trick-or-treaters. I drove an enthusiastic Nick around the neighborhood as he dashed up long driveways in the rain to lit front doors opened by people who dumped handfuls of candy into his bag.

The whole neighborhood over-bought candy this year.

Last night, however, no weather would dampen Nick's greedy Halloween spirit. He dressed as a knight and played the part, telling homeowners that their castles were grand and occasionally offering up a hope that the plague wouldn't be bad this year. At one point, he said to me, "Tomorrow starts the Christmas season. I can't wait!" While I resent that Christmas has taken over November and thus taken attention away from Thanksgiving, I appreciated Nick's positive attitude on a night most considered a dud.

After our first few winters in Ohio, I recognized a tendency to harp on the gray gloom, and so I decided to spend a winter intentionally smiling at the cloudy skies and saying out loud for anyone to hear, "What a beautiful day!"

Mind over matter, you understand.

It worked. There is some magical connection between what we say and what we think. If we repeat a mantra often enough, we start to believe it. That winter, I got strange looks from people under their umbrellas, but I never felt better myself. The trick to mustering a happy November or December or January or whatever month gets you down is to choose to look on the bright side.

Assuming you can choose. For people suffering from seasonal affective disorder, or really from any form of depression, choosing your mood isn't as simple as repeating a mantra or making your face smile on a gloomy day. Professional help is needed. But for most of us who just find ourselves whiny about winter weather, positive self-talk can turn us around.

One of the best pick-me-ups from seasonal blahs, however, has to do with November thankfulness. Expressing gratitude for what you have by sharing with others--in words or deeds or donations--redirects our attention from our own petty complaints and calls us to purposefully help those whose complaints are anything but petty: children who have no shoes or coats or hats or gloves, families living in a car or a friend's unfinished basement or garage, homeless folks who suffer from mental illness, your next-door neighbor who's going through a nasty divorce...you don't have to look far to find people whose lives you can improve with a simple, small act of kindness.

November is also the time for the Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child. By packing a shoe box for a child in another country, you spread love and good will around the globe. If you register your box with Samaritan's Purse online, you can track the box and know what country it goes to. Last year, Nick's box went somewhere in Africa and Jack's went somewhere in South America. (My memory fails...perhaps Nigeria and Nicaragua?) By watching the video online for that country, both boys learned about conditions in those places of need.

It's harder to whine that your iPod is the wrong color when you see children who are genuinely grateful for pencils and matchbox cars.

Today, the first day of November, with temperatures in the 30's and high, gray clouds blanketing the cold and blocking the sun, I'm taking my boys shopping for their shoe boxes. The boxes must be turned in early to make their destinations by Christmas.

So Nick is right. For us, the Christmas shopping season starts today, November 1. I can't wait to see where our boxes end up.

That will erase the January blahs for sure. Nothing like planning ahead for reasons to smile.


Do you do anything special to overcome seasonal blahs? For those in the southern hemisphere, of course, you're entering summer and leaving the blahs behind. I wonder how it is for those living near the equator, where winter blahs aren't even a thing. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Gratitude Journal #253

Today, I am grateful for our golden retriever, who spends a great deal of time lying around.

"Mommy is working. She won't play. I has a sad."

"See my sad?"

"Gloom, despair, and agony on me."

George isn't really this red.
Nor is Daisy nearly as unhappy as she looks. She's
just tired, and momma's making her pose
for a bad iPhone picture.


Today, I am grateful for blue and gold autumn days, for hikes in state parks, and for George's mad photography skillz.


Nick stands tall.

But the trees are much taller.

Such gorgeous layers of color!

Even the ground is pretty.

Blue sky, yellow leaves. I almost tripped from looking up while I walked.

Yep.

More yep.

I love this picture, but all I can see is how long Daisy's tongue is. Wow.

Leaf. Moss. Log.

Walking with Jack.

What a smile!

What are you grateful for today?



Monday, October 20, 2014

On Road Kill and Rescue

I am pleased to report that no animals were killed during my drive home from a meeting Tuesday night. This is an enormous relief. Have you ever heard the adage that bad things happen in threes? Well, apparently, I accidentally kill animals with my vehicle in threes, and hitting that raccoon on the Sunday night of our plumbing debacle in September starts a new round in the match-up between my car and Mother Nature's adorable furry things.

Back in the late 90s, I hit Bambi on I-85 near Atlanta. Bambi and his mom decided that dusk was the perfect time to cross four lanes of west-bound interstate. Bambi fell to the front bumper of my sporty red Acura Integra, was pulled into the wheel well, and did not suffer.

I pulled off the interstate at the next exit and called George from a payphone. Remember those? Anyway, he couldn't grasp why I was upset about KILLING BAMBI!!! when clearly the car needed work and oh the expense. I hung up on him and called my mother, who completely understood why I was falling apart at a service station parking lot pay phone. She talked me down from the ledge so I could continue my drive home to Columbus, Georgia.

My husband lovingly and comfortingly called me B.K. (Bambi Killer) for the following year or so.

Men.

Within two months, I'd also hit a sparrow in broad daylight with multiple witnesses in the car, and shortly thereafter I ran over a cat late one night.

I can still hear the sound. It was horrible.

Until the recent raccoon incident, I hadn't killed anything but bugs with my car since that cat. I'd successfully avoided hitting several deer when we lived in Rapid City, but otherwise, wildlife and household pets had stayed away from me and my vehicle.

Now that I've sent a poor raccoon to heaven, what's next? I'm paranoid about it. Will it be a skunk?An opossum? A ground hog? A squirrel? A turtle?

Turtles aren't furry but they can be kind of cute. I'd feel bad hitting one.

Recently, NPR reported that State Farm predicts Ohioans have a 1-in-127 chance of hitting a deer in the next year. Last year, it was a 1-in-135 chance. I'm not liking my odds. At least I don't live in West Virginia, where the chances of hitting a deer are 1 in 39. Oy vey!

The truly sad thing about this subject is its ubiquity. As you've read my stories of vehicular animal slaughter, you've probably remembered your own guilt in hitting adorable furry things. They will insist on darting across roads right in front of us.

Sometimes, good can come out of these encounters, though. Such was the case when George rescued a barred owl that had been hit and lay dazed and confused on the side of the road. You can read about the rescue HERE and about Caesar's release back to the wild HERE.

We've also saved a dove, because, you know, they are endangered and everything. And Nick and I saved a snapping turtle that we urged across the road but didn't touch as, you know, they snap.

And, it turns out, they hiss menacingly, too.

These more positive encounters with nature surely give us some good karma to balance the bad. Just how responsible are we when animals dash in front of our cars or fly into our grills?

I'm reminded of a story from my teaching days at Wichita State University. One of my fellow graduate teaching assistants walked in to his freshman composition class on the first day of the semester. In the front row, he saw a visually-impaired student with a guide dog next to a student wearing a turban. During the class, a cockroach scurried in front of the class, and a student yelled for the teacher to kill it. The turbaned student argued, "Don't kill it! It's a living thing!" While the teacher hesitated, wondering what the politically correct thing to do might be in such a bizarre situation, the guide dog snapped up the roach and ate it.

The moral of the story: dogs are gross.

And maybe sometimes things just happen.

But please, Lord, let them not happen in threes.

Gratitude Journal #252

Today, I am grateful for my Stephen Minister friends, who are an amazing group of people.

Today, I am grateful for sleep. After a lifetime of insomnia, I'm sleeping better than ever. It's a revelation!

Today, I am grateful for my pastor Suzanne.

Today, I am grateful for the opportunity to teach a class on prayer. There's no better way to learn more about a topic than to teach it to others.

Today, I am grateful for hope.

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Gratitude Journal #251

Today, I am grateful for all the company we've had in the past month...Jen Fullmer, Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Herb, my in-laws Barb and Roger. I've spent so much time enjoying their company that blogging and stamping have fallen temporarily to the bottom of my list of priorities, but in the next week or so, I will be getting back to them.

Today, I am grateful for your patience.

What are you grateful for today?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Gratitude Journal #250

Today, I'm grateful for 250 weeks of gratitude!

Today, I am grateful our friend Jen was able to visit for a few days. It's been nearly 15 years since I saw her, although George ran the Marine Corps Marathon with her in 2011. She returned from a year-long deployment earlier this year, and her new assignment will bring her to our local Air Force base occasionally. Yay! It's always cool to pick up with good friends exactly where you left off...as if no time had passed.

Rockin' out to Sister Golden Hair Surprise.

Today, I'm grateful it's now my favorite season of the year. I know some people find fall a difficult time, but the crisp air and gorgeous colors and blue skies and apple fritters of fall make me feel so happy!

Source


Today, I'm grateful that my aunt and uncle will be visiting later this week. We haven't seen them in too, too long!

What are you grateful for today?


Thursday, September 18, 2014

What Are You Most Proud of?

CBS News recently reported that Malcolm Mitchell, a star football player for the University of Georgia Bulldogs, has joined a book club of middle-age women. It all started when one of the women chatted him up at a Barnes & Noble. She told him about the club she'd just joined, and he asked if he could join, too. And he did.
I love this.

When the reporter asked what accomplishment Mitchell was most proud of, he answered that it was reading the entire Hunger Games series in two days. The reporter pointed out his amazing skill on the gridiron, and Mitchell's reply made me tear up.

"That came natural. That's a gift. I had to work to read."

Mitchell started college at a junior-high reading level and was determined to change that. So he did. Through hard work and determination, and being called a nerd, he improved his reading. Now, he always has a book with him. He hangs out at Barnes & Noble. He reads books he wouldn't pick for himself and plants himself in a group of older women to talk about those books. His mind is wide open and willing. He is courageous.

I learned to read very young and very easily. I never thought reading was hard. It was like breathing or swallowing or scratching an itch. It came to me naturally. It was a gift. I'm grateful for it but not particularly proud of being able to read. It's a means to an end...it's how I get at stories and entertain myself and learn lots of other things. Like Mitchell with his gift for football, I honed and refined my gift through years of college and graduate school. But the gift of being able to read--of making sense of squiggly lines on pages of books--I take for granted every single day.

When I was growing up, many things that came easily weren't particularly interesting to me. I could do them and was happy when I succeeded at them, but my biggest sources of pride were the things I had to work at, the things I struggled for.

During my senior year in high school, I found myself drowning in academic overload. I'd signed up for too many AP classes and felt crushed by the homework and pressure to keep my grades up for college. Midway through the year, my advisor suggested I drop one class. I chose to drop physics because that was my easiest class...the only one that wasn't Advanced Placement. It was boring, and so I didn't care about it. The physics teacher told me it didn't make sense to drop my easiest A, and perhaps for him, it didn't. But for me it was the only option.

We value most what we work hardest for. Perhaps that's the reason I am so very proud of my crafty accomplishments. I've worked hard to teach myself design principles and made a lot of garbage in the process. I'm proud that my craft area feels like home now...it was a huge struggle for me to gain confidence in myself as a creator of paper art, to let go of my fear of failure.

I'm also proud of my writing. But in very real and weird ways, writing presents an even bigger challenge. I've not achieved that same confidence in it that I've achieved in crafting. It's scary to put words out there, to plan a book and follow through with it, to be vulnerable and honest and open and overcome the barriers I've erected in my self-identity as a writer. It's much safer to write advertising copy or sales articles about memory chips or an analysis of Chaucer's proto-feminism or blog posts about bad mommy karma or why I don't own fine china.

Writing actual books? Those things I've carried around with me my entire life like security blankets or pacifiers or oxygen tanks? Can I create one of those precious objects?

Sure I can. The fear, however, comes from wondering how good it will be, wondering how it will be received, wondering if anyone will read it, worrying that someone might not like it, worrying that I might not like it. The fear comes from putting a big project out there, exposing it to public opinion. The fear of failure looms larger at my computer than it does at my craft table.

When a card doesn't work, I toss it in the trash and move on. How will I feel if I spend months or even years writing something that has to be tossed in the trash?

THAT takes courage.

Malcolm Mitchell has that kind of courage. He saw a lack in his education, one most people around him likely didn't care about at all as long as he was performing well on the football field. After all, the average American reads at a junior-high level. It's not like he was functionally illiterate. Still, he decided to overcome his deficit and he did, and whole worlds have opened up for him...even the world of the middle-age women's book club.

Thank you, Malcolm Mitchell, for inspiring me. I love your courage, your refusal to settle for average, your willingness to connect with others and put yourself out there in life.

It's time to write.

------

What are you most proud of? Where in your life have you chosen to limit yourself, play it safe? Do you find courage in Mitchell's story, or is there some other story that hit you over the head with inspiration? A book, perhaps?   

Monday, September 15, 2014

Gratitude Journal #249

What a weekend.

Today, I am grateful to Dr. Bean and staff at MedVets in Dayton for treating Daisy for "garbage gut" on Saturday. Poor thing is sick, and there's no way to tell what caused it.

Today, I am grateful for learning about subcutaneous fluids and knowing that even though my dog looked deformed and sloshy about the shoulders, she had plenty of water slowly absorbing to help her get well quicker. She slept a lot this weekend.



Today, I am grateful that she happily ate boiled chicken for breakfast.

Today, I am grateful Jack got to ride Thomas the Tank Engine on Saturday with George and his brother while I was at the vet.

Today, I am grateful for emergency plumbers who come on Sunday night and figure out that our pipes are clogged. I'm grateful for people who do this dirty job...no, a better adjective would be "NASTY" job. Thank you ever so much.

Today, I am grateful that the raw sewage that spewed from our pipes didn't ruin anything important and that it's all contained in an unfinished area of the basement.

Today, I am grateful that our local Hampton Inn had vacancies and that they allow dogs so we could decamp to a place with a fully functional water system and breakfast served early enough for my kids to eat before heading to school.

All tucked in at the inn


Today, I am grateful that it was a raccoon and NOT a skunk or deer that ran in front of my car on the way to the Hampton Inn last night because my house stinks enough already and my car just got fixed and anything worse than a suicidal raccoon would have made me completely lose my sense of humor.

Today, I feel really sorry about the raccoon.

Today, I am grateful we can pay for all this chaos when so many people struggle with these sorts of emergency issues.

Today, I am grateful no one (other than the raccoon, of course) was hurt, maimed, killed, or otherwise tragically affected by events this weekend.

What are YOU grateful for today?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

IM Moo: What a Weekend!

The weekend flew by. We are home now and trying to get back into the normal routine.

*snort*

I just used the word "normal" to describe our lives. Seriously?

Anyway, the 2014 Ironman Wisconsin is best recapped in pictures. So let's take a look.


View of Lake Monona from our hotel room.

View of Starbucks. Well, it's hidden behind trees but yum.

Speaking of Starbucks...it's where we went first
after checking into the hotel. We had some
rain on Thursday, but not much.
And that's a pumpkin spice latte.
Yum.
 
Angela, Mike, and George, looking cute.

George trying out the swim course on Thursday.
He did this again on Friday.

Mike and Angela on Saturday in front of the Wisconsin
State Capitol Building. It was a gorgeous day!

Mike and Kenny hit it off. Kenny is the son of David and Debbie.

Here's David (Ang and I are in the background). 
Debbie is standing just off camera.


Saturday Lunch at the Old Fashioned: George, Mike, Angela, David,
Debbie, and Kenny.

Nicole and I met years ago via the wonderful
world wide web. It's become a tradition at IM Moo to meet her
in person for coffee and conversation. This year, we spent over three
hours Saturday afternoon chatting. Love her!!!

Angela and I outside Tutto Pasta. George is very superstitious
about eating only at this restaurant the night before the race.
After dinner, we went to the roof of Monona Terrace
to check out the swim course. The moon was
almost full, and I was amazed my little iPhone 4
got such a great shot.

George and I take a selfie.
It's about 5:30 AM on race day. We're not this yellow in real life.

I took this shot as we walked down the helix to the swim start.
Ang and Mike looked so cute walking side by side!

David, George, and Mike are suited up and ready to swim.

Sunrise over Lake Monona. Conditions were perfect.

The swim start. Only a wide-angle camera would capture the true scope and
insanity of nearly 3,000 people starting to swim all at once.

Another angle of the start. There are boats, paddle boards, and kayaks
to spot trouble and keep racers on the course.

I don't have any pictures of the bike, but George and David both did well. Mike, however, had multiple flat tire issues, and ran out of CO2 cartridges and inner tubes, so his race ended early. He and George are already registered for next year's IM Mont Tremblant in Canada, so he's looking forward to a better race in 2015!

I caught some video with my phone of George starting the marathon.

video





David near the start of the marathon,
stopping on the run to give is number-one fan a hug.

This is how I do an Ironman...drinking a delightful zinfandel at
Brocach Irish Pub. I trained for months to look this relaxed.

David, halfway through the marathon.

George, halfway through the marathon, about to give me five.
He was seriously hurting at this point, and had almost given up
between miles 3 and 4, but he ate a bunch of potato chips
and recovered. Who knew chips could save a race? 
Here's some video, this time of the encounter halfway through the marathon.


video



David and George at the finish.

David and George, you are Ironmen!




P.S. Many thanks to the following for adding weight I didn't want: Brocach Irish Pub, the Great Dane, the Tipsy Cow, Cooper's Tavern, the Old Fashioned, Tutto Pasta, and Starbucks. Special thanks to Starbucks for opening at 3:30 AM on race day. We ate our way through the weekend, and it was all delicious.