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."


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.


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?