Saturday, December 17, 2011

Called to the Torah

We were all very Jewish last weekend.

Invited to attend the bar mitzvah of one of our son’s best friends, we got to witness this boy become a “son of the commandments” and take his place in the Jewish community as a man, we experienced the beauty and majesty of ancient traditions.

Not that this was my first time in a synagogue. I’ve been to Shabbat services and bar and bat mitzvahs. But each time I enter a sanctuary, it’s like I’m there for the first time again – speechless, enthralled, absorbed in the pathos of Jewish history. And the music, the chants, the reverence for the Torah scrolls, and the God who holds a special place in His heart for His people. I (who almost never cry) am reduced to tears nearly every time.





We entered the service with quiet timidity, the boys in their yarmulkes, and found our seats in the pew with about 20 other students and parents from our son’s school. Most all of us from the school community are not Jewish and this was an education for many. Despite the very long service, many of the students followed along in the worship manual and the Bibles as the scriptures were read, in both Hebrew and English.

As his friend read and chanted his Torah and Haftarah portions surrounded by supportive clergy and family and enshrouded in his tallit prayer shawl, we marveled at his proficiency in Hebrew and the inflection of the chant melodies.

I’m always amazed at the multigenerational the family involvement; everyone plays a part. Lifting out the Torah scrolls from the ark, carrying the scrolls, holding them open for reading, leading a hymn singing praises, or offering prayers.

The Cantor’s rich baritone carried out into the space guiding our voices in worship. The beautiful melodies and liturgy illustrates the drama through time and how God has done mighty things.

Sometimes it’s hard to get my mind around the history with all its suffering, persevering, and flourishing, and then suffering, persevering and flourishing again. From subtle discriminatory comments to global massacres, our Jewish brothers and sisters have put one foot in front of the other through the Diaspora, the Middle Ages, pogroms in Russia, the Holocaust, even the Protestant South (oops, did I write that or did I just think it?) To know they have practiced many of these faith traditions, whether freely or in secret under cover, for over 4,000 years, boggles my mind.

Exploring the Jewish roots of my faith always expands my worldview. It reminds me that God is moving through time and space, and in this Advent season we are all awaiting a universal Shalom from One who can heal this broken world.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Advent-ure

Pardon the goofy title. Advent is an adventure though -- it is so counter-culture. It’s all about pushing back the tidal wave of societal pressure to rush, to do, to buy… and instead carve out a way to just BE. It doesn’t fit with our lifestyle here in the West. Advent is about waiting, being quiet, longing for the Light.

Even without the frenzied “Twenty-one shopping days left until Christmas!” headlines on the evening news, throughout the rest of the year we still live by “to-do” lists half a mile long, multi-tasking, and crazy busyness. And before the last Thanksgiving dinner dish is washed and dried, the Christmas decorations are coming out. This year, in some neighborhoods near my home where apparently there is a contest to see whose house will win the most bedecked award, there appeared gargantuan inflatables and enough string lights to gratify the power company – and they were up around November 22nd. I had to look away when I drove by. Did Jesus really want this when He came down to earth as a babe of humble beginnings?

History and ritual play a part in our family’s celebrations of the seasons of the Christian year, or “sacred time” as a friend of mine has coined it. As believers have done since the sixth century, we try to lie low during at least the first part of December (despite having two birthdays occurring during the holidays – great family planning, huh?) and focus on the quiet preparatory aspects of the season. The liturgical year begins with Advent, and as we move through each of the year’s spiritual seasons, we participate in the drama that illustrates the story of our faith.

Many nights at dinner time, one of the children lights an Advent candle and says “Come Lord Jesus into our midst”. Much like the Jewish lighting of Shabbos candles to usher in the Sabbath each week, we invite God’s spirit to join us (and help keep peace with three boys) for our evening meal.

Also, among the many Christmas stories we read this month, we also revisit the Advent portion of a children’s book on keeping the seasons of the church year – mainly with my youngest son as the others feel too old. It’s a delightful, well-illustrated book called Come Worship with Me: A Journey through the Church Year.

It’s a story of a little mouse who narrates for the reader telling about his sacramental experiences at his church and what it means for his faith.

Finally, a new tradition we’re beginning this year is the daily lighting of the Cradle to Cross wreath created by Ann Voskamp’s son Caleb. We’re moving the figurine of Mary on the donkey forward a step each day and light candles in the holder that correspond with the days.

I listen to Early Music (meaning music from early times up to the Renaissance – 16th century) in the car and often in the evenings by the fire. It takes me out of his century, this decade, this culture just for a bit and reminds me to see the world in the larger scope of history. I feel like I connect with people of ages past who lived in harsher circumstances yet struggled to find ways to live with meaning. Then I can return to the present with a greater sense of His presence.

All of these rituals allow us to use our senses to experience our faith and see God's promises through time season in and season out, walking through the cycles. These little things help us keep the pace of Advent, which is far slower than the secular Christmas holiday. We women especially fall in to a mad rat race, becoming burdened with the myriad tasks of baking, shopping, cleaning, shuttling, dressing, partying, decorating, entertaining, more shopping, volunteering in the classroom or church or the community, giving and more giving... It’s a production we mount for an entire month. Too much for a lot of us.  
  
Let’s slow down and listen and be, so we can rediscover the light in the darkness.

Linking up with Charity Singleton at Wide Open Spaces for the Advent writing project she’s hosting at The High Calling and with Laura Bogess at The Wellspring.
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Monday, November 28, 2011

‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple, ‘tis the Gift to be Free”

I’m not a big fan of the Shaker lifestyle. Enforced celibacy, communal living, gender segregation, and plain, stripped-down houses and clothes aren’t exactly my idea of fun, but I appreciate the Shakers’ efforts to live more simply as stated in the Shaker hymn in the title. That part is inspiring. However, I don’t apologize for being in to fashion, and holiday decorating is practically a sacrament for me.

 

Thanksgiving was simpler this year -- just the five of us in our humble home. Tim and I cooked our buns off and involved the boys in preparing each of the side dishes.

 

For an assignment in his culinary arts class, Matthew was tasked with making one dish and bringing in the recipe, so I put him to work making mashed potatoes.

Nicholas, my foodie who truly loves cooking, helped prepare the cranberry apple relish.

 

Wesley put all the ingredients in the bread maker for fresh wheat bread.


 

Tim roasted a beef brisket! As all of us were a bit "turkey'd out", we decided it was a good year for eating outside the box.
















I did a little of this, a little of that, making sure it all came together.

 

As the weather was unseasonably warm, we ate out on the deck in the sun.

So much to be thankful for.

Matthew read the first proclamation of the pilgrims written in 1676 -- one big, long run-on sentence in old English.

Had not those people braved the elements and suffered sickness and hunger (and probably some despair), we mightn't be here today. They knew sorrows as well as joys. I know them too and can't always reconcile the two. One day at a time.

 

One day at a time. "Now thank we all our God...with hearts and hands and voices..."

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gratitude List

Expressing gratitude has the power lift us out of anger, fear, anxiety, self pity and a host of other maladies. 
Yes, it’s that time of year – the proverbial retelling of our American story. Some families do the round-the-table recitations. Many of us show our gratitude by stuffing our faces with food and then zoning out in a carb coma in front of football. From turkey skin to pig skin. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, in a “Saturday Night Live” skit called it a “Baroque festival of overconsumption”. The great American tradition.

I’m trying to go deeper. Each Thanksgiving week, I read the story to at least one of the children and to myself and talk about how it really was for the Pilgrims. I never tire of rereading the accounts, and never cease to be amazed and overwhelmed at how raw and arduous life was on a daily basis. I wonder how many of them silently wondered, never to speak aloud: “Was it worth this?” as they shivered in the cold, got sick on the wobbly ship before the houses were built, or watched another member die of sickness that first winter:

When I see suffering or experience it myself, either presently or learn of it in the past, I am starting to make gratitude lists to remind me of the goodness that still exists to keep me from sinking into melancholy that takes too long to emerge from. When I write them out to share in a blog, they sound so trite. They’re different each time and don’t all encompass everything I’m grateful for.

But here’s my humble, short list, for today:

  1. For the wondrous changing of leaves in autumn. To me, it means relief.
  2. For music that can stir a heart that has stiffened in trying to protect itself from pain.
  3. For weather cold enough to make me need socks and sweaters.
  4. For the familiar warmth of a fire in the fireplace.
  5. For a society free enough to express praise, criticism, new ideas.
  6. For the way caring people send food – always food, our sustenance – to those who are suffering.
  7. For the simple lessons of Charlie Brown.
  8. For the unconditional love of dogs.
  9. For “The Splendid Table” on NPR radio on Saturday mornings.
  10. For my three children, who remind me of what it’s like to be a child: the joys, the wounds, the freshness of living.
  11. For tufts of hair sticking out from under the ruffled covers.
  12. Yes, for mismatched socks lying around on the floor. There was a time when I would have paid big money just to have little bodies in the house to cause extra laundry.
  13. For servicemen and women who put their lives on the line daily to keep us free.
  14. For “Saturday Night Live” which makes fun of everything.
  15. That God can be found in the midst of chaos.

What does your gratitude list look like?

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Friday, November 11, 2011

First Fire


A few days ago my seven year old Wesley said to me, “Mommy, I think we need a tradition just for our family. It can be called ‘First Fire’ -- when we light a fire in the fireplace for the first time.” I thought it was brilliant. We waited until it got really cold and windy outside (and it just so happened that the moon was full, making it feel even more “official”).

Rituals are very important  – we all have them -- even for people who think they don’t like ritualistic or liturgical worship or events. Even for people who have no identified faith traditions. We all participate in certain rituals in our lives even if we make them up.

To see me in fall you’d think I was a pagan who worshipped pumpkins and fall decorations. No, I don’t dance crazily around a blazing fire. But I do celebrate seasonal changes with the bounty from that harvest, be it colorful leaves, pumpkins, gourds and nut-filled glass vases in autumn (yes I go to the trouble to collect them) or bittersweet berry branches, Nandina, cypress greens and waxed magnolias in winter. Or forsythia (that I force into bloom), daffodils and cherry blossoms in spring. Summer’s easy with so much in bloom; I have to say gardenias and hydrangeas are my favorite. And then there’s food. Who couldn’t love the Macintosh apples and Scuppernong grapes that hit the grocery stores in September, or the pumpkin and potato soups and meat stews to be made and savored in winter? Or fruit smoothies, fruit pies and endless fresh produce in spring and summer? These are just celebrations of nature’s cycles.

Wesley was not living in a modern microcosm of smart phones, social media or “to do” lists; he was feeling close to the earth and wanting something to celebrate. Who can blame him? We all need things we can rejoice over – as Julia Roberts’ character said in the film “Eat Pray Love”: “I just want to go some place where I can marvel at something”. Don’t we adults lose that fervor for life somewhere along the path? Especially those of us are task-oriented and who seem to get a lot accomplished? Experiencing life in all its color, both light and dark, doesn’t happen when you live in the future (i.e. constantly on the go, planning, planning, planning, shuttling, shopping online, micromanaging logistics for Christmas…). Not that any of those things are inherently bad – it’s just when we don’t carve out a “pause” for BEING. Who is as much to blame for this as anyone? Moi. It’s so hard with so many distractions and demands pulling you in all directions.


 As the passion of young flames calms down as the wood burns, the fire becomes hotter and more mesmorizing. It's the kind of dark, quiet one can get lost in. Settled but fluid, constantly moving. Our Labrador Chelsea (may she rest in peace) used to sit and stare into it for long periods of time. I often wondered what was going through her head.

Wesley’s simple suggestion was a great reminder to me to slow down. We lit the fire last night, amidst lots of silly, grandeur from the mom like, “And now we draw from the ancient and noble traditions of our ancestors and pass the gift of fire lighting down to the youngest of the tribe, who will honor his forbears to carry to torch to future generations…” as I gave him the gas flame torch to click on the logs. And speaking of enrichment, the hot chocolate that ensued was enriched with all kinds of unnecessary but highly celebratory additions like sugar, cream, caramel sauce, and marshmallows ….to make it really worth it.
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Friday, November 4, 2011

“Another Halloween Come and Gone”

 …said my seven-year old, quoting “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”. He finished trick-or-treating a bit earlier than his older brothers, ready to call it an evening and come inside to count his candy stash and watch Charles Schultz’s classic round-headed crew on dvd. He still has the childlike excitement, running in his boxy robot costume (minus the head) to the next house to see who's there and what they'll offer, then the next house with a neighbor friend dressed as Mario...Reminds me of a "Seinfeld" episode in which Jerry waxes about how men don't just like to see what's on t.v. but continually change the channel to see "what else is on t.v.".

This was his first time trick-or-treating beyond our street, going to the road around the corner -- the place for older, more ambitious trick-or-treaters. Residents close off each end of the road and come dusk, the place transforms into a gleefully ghostly place where kids and adults alike can be mischievous. I just love seeing grown men in costume. You kind of expect the women to adorn themselves because women love to dress up anyway, but men who are willing to make themselves look silly and wander up and down the street feeling just fine in a preposterous-looking wig and costume somehow tickle me pink. Last night I saw a few ghouls, a snowman, Gumby, the (typical) sports buff complete large beer cup in hand, and an Arab sheikh. Of course, Halloween is an excellent excuse for adults to imbibe as they escort their children around the neighborhood. This ancient, pagan holiday is really a reclaiming of the village festival in which small communities come together to celebrate, ale and all. In a city of nearly six million people who are always on the go, it’s nice to occasionally share the experience of the small-town feeling.
There are only a few crickets left now, barely scraping out a tune and sounding and like old men croaking around a fire. Hay bales, pumpkins, and other harvest decorations are out, recalling a long since past agricultural society. People in my generation don't have a clue what it's like to live close to the earth, season by season, as farmers.

Nights are cool and crisp now. Atlantans complain about the very cool, almost cold weather; I absolutely love it. Must be my New England blood; I'm always ready for the dry chill of autumn, the great relief from oppressive Southern summers. Unfortunately for me, this craving for cool starts in August and I often have to wait until nearly Halloween to get it.
Anyway, our family used humor this year in their choices of costumes. The kids pretty much made their own(the Dad helped our littlest one) which included a home-made robot costume constructed of spray-painted, cardboard boxes; a sheet ghost with a ghoul mask; and a tacky rocker-wannabe complete with afro wig, muscle shirt, blow-up guitar balloon and grimace.
I threw mine together at the last minute and it took great effort to conjure enough brain cells to come up with a clear identity. I never succeeded. I bought a platinum blond wig that reached my thighs, super glitzy (read: tacky) silver glasses and an orange feather boa.  I began imagining myself as a Wall Street hippie occupier, then morphed into a tacky person from the 1970’s era (I write as if I didn’t live through it), and then thought I looked like a drag queen. Not quite the family friendly image I wanted to project. My youngest son asked me if I was Rapunzel. One neighbor said I looked like one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta. I certainly never intended to make the costume so complicated. My husband dressed as an aging hippie, has-been, stoned-out rocker loser -- the father of the younger tacky one – wearing an insanely stretched-out afro wig and darkened face to appear worn by the sun and hard-living. The best part was the vacuous, dim-witted look on his face in the photo.  

For this year's Feast of All Hallows Eve, I thought the costumes were fun, creative, blessedly inexpensive and low labor – my dream for Halloween, one of the most irritatingly consumer holidays, second only to Christmas. It wasn’t until I pulled up the photos on my laptop that I started laughing uncontrollably until I cried at how ridiculous we looked.
Oh well -- hopefully we all sufficiently stimulated the economy. And God knows we need an injection – of humor too.
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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Embracing the Mundane as Sacred

I hear the sounds of yelling, uproarious laughter and thudding upstairs as the boys are wrestling...again. There will very likely be an injury; such an event is nearly a daily occurrence. Such is the life with boys. And such joy and abandon these kids still have that we adults have lost. I’m trying to learn to see the sacred in the mundane and be mindful in the midst of parenting chaos. Being “present” sounds so monastic, whether Buddhist or Christian or Hindu, but I aspire to progressing in that mental discipline. A very counterculture concept; there don’t seem to be many constructs in our western society that support and encourage this discipline.

So often I hear arguing and squabbling amongst my children, and what parent is motivated day after day to be “present” for that…again? I’d just as soon escape in some fashion. Live through enough of those repeated experiences and the escapism fantasy begins to kick in. I want to shut my bedroom door and lock it. I get on the computer and surf the web. I delve into a book or magazines. Or just lie down and close my eyes. Typical introvert. Worse still, I dive into the argument and try to “fix” it; that strategy doesn’t always end well as I’ve gone into battle already charged, hardly neutral.

Pausing to breathe through each event helps me stop short of reacting.

Rainy days – rain has become sacred in Atlanta. I can see rain as a beautiful gift from God now. The larger challenge is to be thankful in (notice I said “in”, not “for”) muggy, humid heat that I’m so totally over.


It’s tempting to just get “stuff done” when the children are occupied, but I wanted to capture the little person lost in the world of the game. More often it’s the world of Calvin and Hobbs.


Speaking of which, in this solitary game of Bananagrams my little guy was playing to keep himself occupied while everyone else in the house was busy with “older people work”, he spelled out ridiculously long words he’d read in his Calvin and Hobbs collection. Doesn’t even know what half of them mean.
The “transmogrifier” – a Calvin classic creation. Good for hiding, morphing, planning, eating breakfast, or becoming “a 500-story Gastropod – a slug the size of the Chrysler Building”.


Simple natural foods. A holy experience. I forgot the bowl of chocolate.


And on the subject of food, our middle guy is our chef, a true foodie. Baking with his apprentice.

Laundry and dishes? Harder to reconcile this work as sacred…but can I be mindful while doing it? I am reminded of how thankful I am to at least have my own washer, dryer and dishwasher. Recalling trips to the Laundromat in my singlehood brings gratefulness to my heart. Touching the children’s towels and clothes helps prompts me to smile at simple things like my youngest boy’s squishy little body, how my oldest is growing so tall. The slow, multi-step and sometimes plodding nature of this mundane domestic duty, when done mindfully, helps me slow down.


My teenager. ‘Nuff said. Gotta love him.

.

Gardening – whether pruning, planting or watering – can never be done in a rush. It’s just not possible, neither is it healthy. It does however connect me with the earth. A great reminder of God’s creation.

Photographing these events, cataloguing their history. Do I want to be so “productive” with my tasks and achievements that I miss these sacred moments?

Many have gone before me who have learned to slow down, be intentional and celebrate the simple. Thankful to God for the gift of serenity.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Skip Forward to Fall

I suppose I’m restless enough at the close of any season to happily anticipate the next one with all it can bring. Having grown up in New England though means that by mid-August, I’m totally over summer. I have an unconscious, internal itching to dig up my wool sweaters and jeans, always forgetting that those clothes will feel torturous until late September or early October, and then only in the mornings and evenings.

Up north back in the late 1960’s, we didn’t ride our bikes off to the first day of school until after Labor Day, and I remember wearing a sweater as mornings were quite chilly. Here in Atlanta, kids could ride the bus home naked and not be cool enough. I wait with cups of ice water to greet red cheeks and sweaty bodies from a long, sweltering bus ride. I walk to the mailbox and returning dripping as though I’ve stepped into an oven. Autumn can’t come soon enough for me.

Honestly, I’m always more excited about fall fashions than spring ones. My boots are waiting to be worn and fun layers and textures are calling. I mean, a good turtleneck, a chunky knit sweater, a smokin’ pair of jeans, some Frye boots – what could be better?  I want to build fires in the fireplace and make hearty stews. And who doesn’t relish stepping outside with a steaming cup of coffee to the gentle bite of dry, cool air that doesn’t hang in walls of humidity but blows lightly through one’s hair?

From the start of school, I’m sniffing about like a rabbit for the smell of fall. At the first cool breeze and scent of leaves in metamorphosis, their true colors emerging, and that je ne sais quoi, this girl is getting’ happy.
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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Saying Goodbye to the Garden

Look at this humongo zucchini! Eighteen inches of pure summer squash, baby. Size is everything, right?
Just kidding. Did you know that botanically, the zucchini is an immature fruit, being the swollen ovary of the female zucchini flower? That’s a bit gross and clinical-sounding …and I digress. 

Now that I’ve got zucchinizilla and more to harvest from my plot in the organic community garden in which I’ve been a member for three years, I’m bowing out and no more will have summer harvest to proudly bring home. Due to the increasing scheduling complications of having three kids in three different schools this year and moving toward reentry into the workforce, I need to cut extra outside activities and memberships to create more margin in my life.

I’ve had mixed feelings about this garden plot. I sat on the waiting list for at least a year before the plot became available and I couldn’t wait to get started. Vegetable gardening efforts in my back yard had been fruitless (pardon the pun) and discouraging due to the wildlife that consider any of my gardening experiments to be their personal tasting privilege. The yard descends in a 1/3 acre woodland area to a small creek, home to wildlife that eventually find their way up to my deck to partake of the goodies growing in my containers. Consisting of mainly squirrels and chipmunks (and I’m sure the occasional nocturnal rat or possum), veggies are not safe even with chicken wire around them. Somehow the varmints found their way in. Or the soil wasn’t right, or something... because my harvest at each season’s end was pathetic. Yet the small deck area on the south side was the only place that receives full sun for growing edible plants.

But in this wonderful community garden of 32 plots surrounded by a split rail wood fence in the middle of a field on a nature preserve – yes here in a city of nearly 6 million -- there was ample sunlight, open space, and excellent soil. Plus I had the benefit of fellow gardeners whose experience and wisdom I could learn from and with whom I could commune. I got great ideas from just walking around and observing their garden layouts and plant choices. Often, I’d go to water and check on the progress of my plants and someone would be there tending their plants. We’d confer on how to treat certain problems or discuss our current crop. In the back there was a special garden called the “Garden for the Hungry” dedicated to serving a downtown homeless shelter so the participants could have some healthy fresh produce in their minimal diets. I wrote an piece about it in a local newspaper (see "My Articles").

I’ve enjoyed my time in this group working out in the open air with wild birds flying around, a nearby gazebo, an apiary site, home to several hives of honeybees, and the rest of the preserve behind. Gardening so doesn’t fit our contemporary cultural penchant for utilizing technology, speed-based services (like FedEx, ATMs, and instant messaging) and of course -- multitasking. Such business and lifestyle methods of being and working disconnect with the earth and don’t usually require a more unhurried, measured mindfulness, yet they produce instant results that only perpetuate our need for instant gratification.

Gardening slows everything down. It requires a methodical approach and lots of patience. Sometimes, the work can feel very plodding and tedious, but there’s nothing as wonderful as arriving at one’s garden to see colors and shapes emerging out of the ground like a baby pushing out a budding belly -- expectant life growing and ripening each day. It's almost miraculous. And of course, biting into that succulent cherry tomato or tasting the rich flavors of that grilled summer squash -- knowing exactly from whence it came -- brings a simple, organic satisfaction that can’t compare with drawing up the Quicken report or sending the email proposal.

Life choices are a series of trade offs. A sad goodbye to the garden but hello to a little more time.



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Friday, July 22, 2011

Good Honest "Boy Fun"

Testosterone on vacation isn’t really any different than at home, just a bit more amped up.

The conversation, whether in the car or in the family room, goes something like this: “Hey, you’re navel cheese!” “Be quiet, Earwax!” “Your Mom!”… (“Is someone using my name in vain?” I respond). Being the Queen – the only family member without an extra appendage – I listen to and endure the endless boy humor and interaction. On a daily basis, there must be at least one wrestling engagement, usually on one of the beds in the beach condo and then one out in the water. What is it with the male need to have a regular bodily struggle 99% of the time? It’s all in fun though a good percentage of that ends up in an injury of varying levels. We women don’t understand or relate to this at all.

Contrary to reports, the weather has turned out to be just wonderful – hot and sunny during the day, cool breezes in the evening. Parasailors periodically fly by my window, the white sand is warm and soft under my feet, the ocean water feels like a bath. Seems rather ethereal and serene doesn’t it? Three boys keep it real. Seldom are there under-the-breath snide remarks or gossip behind backs (the female’s tactic); it’s all out there. God probably knew what He was doing by giving me all boys. If there’s disagreement, you know about it…and the neighbors likely do too.

After one of those loud spats this afternoon, I overheard Matthew (14) say to Wesley (7), “Hey, even if we argue, I still love you”. I gave him a knuckle bump for that one. A rare but appreciated effort to keep the connection lines open.

It's raining again but all the males are out in the water, both surf and pool. Why not? Wesley made a hat out of sand for his hair. Why not?

Soon, my junior barbarians will be tromping in from the beach, wet and sandy, weather-worn but happy. And hungry. Do they ever run out of energy? I’m usually out at the beach or pool but this time I’m the chef, enjoying the quiet with my glass of red wine preparing food and tapping out thoughts on the keyboard.

Counting my blessings.
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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rainy Beach Vacation?

It rained on and off during the entire drive down to Florida making my seven-year old concerned that the weather would impede at best, ruin at worst, his plans for fun in the waves. It sort of began to dawn on all three boys that we might not have the proverbial hot, dry, sunny beach vacation we’ve had all their lives. They did end up going in the water in the drizzle and had a blast. The rain fell even harder today and they went in again… and had even more fun, pretending they were on the planet Kamino (the perpetually watery world in “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones”). Fortunately there was no lightening so it was much safer than at home in Atlanta where it seems that when there is rain, there’s nearly always lightening. Followed by inconvenient power outages in our neighborhood…(but I digress).

            The older man bagging groceries at the local supermarket here told me the weather forecast shows a 60% chance of rain each day for the next 10 days. I think I’ll not share that bit of information with the children as that might crush their expectations, though I think they might learn a different perspective as their two experiences thus far with choppy waves from rainy weather are ideal for body surfing. I, for one, have already accepted that we could be spending a large portion of this vacation indoors.

            And quite frankly, I’m just fine with that. Being enough if an introvert, a tired mom in need of relaxation, and a lover solitude and quiet time – even quiet time with the kids playing board games or watching movie dvd’s – eating good food... I could see myself having a simply fabulous time on this vacation, despite rainy, “gloomy” weather every single day. Even as I write, the sliding window in our condo’s master bedroom is open enough to let in the ocean sounds with the misty spray blowing in; and out on the water there is so much grey fog that the horizon is obscured, disappearing into the blur like a film special effect. The rain drops are gently splashing against the window panes and dripping down like great tear drops and there is no hint of blue sky anywhere. I’m absolutely delighted. I’ve got my books, my journal, and my girlie fashion and design magazines. Just found a program on tv (cable of course -- which we don't have at home) about the royal weddings and another on the magical special effects of the Harry Potter films. What could be better?
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Monday, July 11, 2011

Reality Show Burnout

Are we becoming ancient Rome? Or as one writer put it, is the “law of the jungle" taking over?

We, the formerly intelligent viewing public are morphing into “the great unwashed”, as we dumb ourselves down while voyeuristically watching intimate, private conversations, outright fights, awkward situations, and people generally making asses of themselves on reality tv. Okay, I said it. "Unscripted documentation of human events in which ordinary people instead of actors are taped on film" – is a hilariously dignifying description for the trash that now dominates the television airwaves. My kids even love it.

Not that it’s all trash – there’s a place for unscripted documentation of ordinary people -- but the trend to frame situations to incite conflict and up the ante of sensationalism is definitely the mode du jour... but is it healthy?? Do we need that much escape from our boring lives? A few shows are simply good entertainment (“America’s Funniest Home Videos”) and don’t pretend to be anything more. Some aim to be heartwarming acts of community and corporate giving (“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and “The Secret Millionaire”) – and generally they are, though one sometimes wonders if things need to be so totally over the top when so many in the world are starving and homeless. A few shows actually bring out the best in people. But so many more reveal less-than-virtuous human qualities. Audiences seem to be okay, if not totally thrilled, with watching others feel unsure of themselves, scared, exhausted, embarrassed, humiliated, infuriated, deceived, and deeply disappointed, while either doing the best they can (“The Greatest Loser”) or downright drunk and tacky (“Jersey Shore”).  Do we just want to feel normal compared with the freaks on the screen? And then there’s the issue of participants who magically turn into celebrities despite having no talent whatsoever, i.e. Jessica Simpson “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica”, Paris Hilton “The Simple Life”, and Kim Kardashian (“Keeping Up with the Kardashians”) among many, many others.

We grew up on sitcoms (“The Brady Bunch), evening dramas (Hawaii Five-O”) and some games shows (“The Dating Game”) – lame though they were by today’s standards. But at least the first two had real storylines with a plot, blessedly uninterrupted by participant interviews. I was interested to learn that “Candid Camera” actually began as early as 1948, which means we’ve had lots of time to develop this genre into what it has become today. Japanese variety shows and European dancing contests have influenced our tv culture too, leading to shows like “Wipout” and “Dancing with the Stars”. There’s certainly a buzz in being the fly on the wall as events unfold, either unbeknownst to the one experiencing it or actually enhanced by the knowledge that a huge viewing audience is right there. The voyeuristic desire and sense of justice is fulfilled with surveillance-type programs like “COPS”. Are we glad someone else got the ticket? “Survivor” – the runaway success story that kicked off the reality programming trend – gave us the excitement of the proverbial desert island experience (a primal scenario?) Using sensation to generate profit is the name of the game, and sadly, it works. But, true to Hollywood’s exploitative mantra: just make money, damn it, it’s not all just spontaneous life happening. The networks put forth the directive to create entertaining stories, then the producers and editors go to work shaping storylines, picking a “cast” who will create drama, even coaching them behind the scenes. The creators are professionals even if the participants are not. It’s the propensity to appeal to the lowest common denominator of viewing interests –escapism, morbid curiosity, excitement, entertainment and peeping. We’ve descended into celebutante cheese (“Real Housewives” faux socialites), fantasy renovation cheese (“Pimp My Ride”  -- take a look at the fabulous and hilarious spoof “Mom My Ride”), romance-related cheese (“Bachelor/Bachelorette”), seriously weird cheese (“Hoarding: Buried Alive”) and job angst cheese (“Shark Tank”). Perhaps the latter takes the edge of the stress off our current market woes and worries?

What’s next – a virtual reality show in which we experience what the participants do via headsets and simulators? Oy, I’m just glad we don’t have cable.
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Friday, July 1, 2011

The Myth of Relaxing Summers

‘Scuse me but what happened to the proverbial “lazy days of summer”? When I was growing up (late 1960’s/early ‘70’s), summers were spent playing outside, engaging in play dates with friends, trips to a neighborhood pool, some time at the beach, and the annual trek down South and Southwest (we lived in New England) to visit relatives. Occasionally my siblings and I would participate in a week-long day camp. As a teenager, I journeyed up to Martha’s Vineyard Island for a week or two of the absolute best Christian camp ever (haven’t found one like it since), first as a camper and later as a counselor. Picnics could be enjoyed as cold air was gone for a few precious months, and our crabapple tree moved on from fragrant blossoms to crabby little fruits that fell and rotted in our yard. I loved finding and tasting them though. Perhaps our parents found summers tiring; I don’t know.

My summers seem quite a bit busier than those of my childhood. Is it simply because I’m a parent and have traded school-related responsibilities for summer-related ones? Or is our generation decidedly busier than that of generations past? My three kids are doing several weeks of camps (two different ones which means driving in different directions), the older two are counselors. There was the youth group “away camp”, play dates with friends (who I must help transport), swim team – ah, there’s one huge difference. Neither my siblings nor I made that big of a commitment, and if we had, would meets have lasted 6 hours long? Surely not. Then there are the grown up activities for we parents. I’m certainly busier with writing deadlines, blogging, and other things.

Just seems so much busier. I do love sleeping in later than on school mornings but at day’s end, there still seems like an endless list of unfinished items that spill over to the next day, then the next, then the next…

Does anyone relate to this?

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Extraordinary, Ordinary People


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    I recently read Condoleeza Rice’s biography/autobiography entitled Extraordinary, Ordinary People. I was intrigued to learn that she grew up in segregated Alabama. Her family endured the white revolt against integration in the tumultuous Civil Rights movement with the bombings and other terrifying and violent events of the 1960’s. Somehow I never learned of her background during her tenure as Secretary of State while in George W. Bush’s administration. Somehow I thought she came from less humble means and was sort of a blue-blood African American. While she does have an impressive pedigree, her parents were just teachers from the southeast, her dad also a Presbyterian minister. Hard-working, tough people who persevered and made the best of a lousy situation. “Whites and blacks lived parallel worlds, their paths crossing uneasily in only a few public places,” she says. They kept to their neighborhoods, their churches, their jobs, their part of town and played it safe in the larger community where majority whites made the rules.

    Having been a small child in the middle of Civil Rights and living up north where there was far less tension, I was sheltered from this insanity. Not that New Englanders aren’t ever prejudiced – I guess most everyone is to an extent – but I missed the drama that played out in the Southern states during that era. (I well remember the hippies though).

    Having grown up above the Mason-Dixon line, I always thought of myself as unbiased, not stupid enough to lower myself to prejudice, but in truth I was plain ignorant. Out in the Boston suburbs I just hadn’t been exposed to many minorities other than Irish Catholics (and in city, there were plenty of them) or the occasional Jewish person. The general sentiment seemed to be liberal open-mindedness toward minorities and blacks…or maybe I just didn’t hear lots of demeaning talk reflecting superior, racist attitudes. That certainly didn’t pervade the culture in New England the way it did in the deep South.

    At my high school in the Philadelphia suburbs, we Christians were actually in the minority in a large Jewish community. I found that a fabulous cultural eye-opener and I learned many new traditions. Today, I very much enjoy my Jewish friends and truly love going to synagogue, and Jewish music, worship and food. Still, this mixing of cultures didn’t have the nasty, "better-than", contentious tone that the white-black dynamic had.

    It wasn’t until I went to college in South Carolina (in the ‘80’s) where and when I began to see how very different those cultures really were. Even nearly 20 years out from integration, there still existed attitudes among girls on my hall who said they “couldn’t room with a black girl”. This absolutely stunned me. I know they looked at me funny when I sang as the only white girl in the Gospel choir. I’m sure I looked very weird.

    The fact that Condoleeza Rice’s parents were able to live in such a hypocritical and unfair society and not be resentful toward white people, is amazing to me. They had their high standards and integrity for their own lives and that of their daughter, and they didn’t capitulate to a victim perspective. Ms. Rice says they aimed to work harder to be better at anything because of their social disadvantage. That she (Condoleeza) pushed herself to achieve stellar personal goals and ultimately break through several political and academic glass ceilings (first black Provost at Stanford University as well as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State), is a testament to her tenacity and honorable parenting of her mother and father. They clearly instilled in her a sense of pride and self worth.

    I hope many people, of all colors, are inspired by her story.

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    Sunday, June 12, 2011

    The Misguided and Foolish Ethics of Powerful People

    We’ve all had fun with the Anthony Weiner story, at his namesake’s expense but the jokes are starting to get very old and tired. The news that his wife is pregnant and claims she’ll stay with him makes it even less humorous. The contact with the seventeen year old is just another piece of tiresome news. Enough already!

    Beneath all this is a sad pattern that seems to proliferate among powerful people, particularly men. Human Behavior and Relationship Expert and Aussie Patrick Wanis says in his blog last month that men in power can be sensation-seekers who thrive on taking risks, and it’s all the more easy for them because they have greater access and opportunities to cheat than the average man does. “Powerful men face greater temptation because they have power, control and command over other people. Power leads to cheating because it can lead to delusions of invincibility, entitlement and the male ego-drive to win, conquer and dominate.” Isn’t it interesting how people lose their perspective and good judgment when they acquire influence, money and control? Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods, Mark Sanford, Bernie Madoff, Mel Gibson…Whether it’s affairs, inappropriate behavior, unethical or illegal business decisions, drunken temper tantrums, racist rants… it usually comes back to bite the offender.

    This isn’t totally limited to men: look at Martha Stewart. How stupid was it to listen to a broker who foolishly ignored insider trading laws to give her news under the table so she could sell her stock before the big announcement? Did she think she was special? But men seem to be the main ones who get caught in this web of ethical blindness. Consistently, these powerful men, especially politicians, seem to forget the golden rule, as mentioned in a New York Daily News article, “Would it be okay if one of my constituents saw this or my wife saw this?”  Duh. Seems obvious to the rest of us but I guess in the heat of the moment, it’s not on the radar.

    Then they appear before the media and the viewing television audience at the press conference, tearfully apologizing. I love the half apologies that sound like this: “I regret that others were hurt by my actions and my work has been compromised” – basically communicating: I’m sorry I got caught.

    Dr. Wanis quotes Britain’s Lord Acton in his classic quip from 1887, ‘All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.’”


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    Sunday, June 5, 2011

    Not Enough Time



    Will there ever be enough time to do all the things I need to do? Forget all the things I want to do. I’ve given up on that until the kids are out of the nest -- or at least the first two are gone. Maybe in retirement? Maybe when I’m in “the home”? If only I didn’t need rest! If I could stay up into the wee hours like Martha Stewart reportedly does, only sleeping a few hours, I’d have that additional discretionary block of time. I keep thinking (silly me!) that I can work once the kids are in bed…I’m clearly stuck in the past when they were small. Now that time is 10:00 pm, at least for my oldest. Hello, I’m catatonic by then -- no brain cells left! Or if I could get up at 4 am and work in the quiet of the early morning. I just don’t have the energy. Sometimes family life sucks all the oxygen out of my day and it feels very unproductive.

    Then perhaps I’m too much of a perfectionist and feel that it’s not okay to not accomplish something, or many things, in one day. Perhaps there’s wee a bit of compulsiveness in that as well? The need to achieve, complete, check items off the list. Yeah, just a bit compulsive. Underlying these two negative labels is, I think, the real issue: control. Didn’t I write a blog on having an “off year”? How about an off day? I’m the first one to disparage the American tendency to overwork, stemming from our hardworking frontier spirit.  It fit frontier life; it doesn’t fit our cushy 21st century/Information Age life, yet I’m the last one to practice what I preach. What a hypocrite. I still want to be in control.

    My seven-year old is crashed out on the club chair in the next room, worn out from fatigue of a sleepover with a friend. Yet he seems even farther away. I question whether I’ve been too busy for him lately. I think that gut instinct is usually correct. My tendency is to beat myself up and feel overwhelmed with questions of how to change. I know intellectually that a more effective means to better the situation is o examine little ways – do-able steps -- to change so he can have the time from me that he needs…and I still can have time for myself and my work.

    I truly wish parenting and housekeeping had a formula that could be followed so that we could function on autopilot, not having to reevaluate situations on a daily basis. All rules and responses could fit for every situation and every child. Would that be so much simpler? At least for me. Of course, that would make everyone else’s life a living hell…and it really wouldn’t work for me either because of the lovely theory of chaos. This was prevalent all through Michael Crighton’s fabulous novel Jurassic Park (the book was infinitely better than the film) and highlighted how chaos theory actually pervades our existence. Nothing is totally predictable, not the least of which is the weather. Any variable can jump in and upset the balance. Of course, the mathematics behind it has a complex and supposedly explainable pattern but I’ll never understand it and I’m guessing neither will most of us. Things will still feel chaotic and disconcertingly unpredictable.

    I can’t totally wrap my mind around that theory and accept it in practical reality when I live in a culture that places so much emphasis on getting what you want when you want it. What a clash of philosophies: the reality of not being able to control everything and practicing acceptance and living in a world of repeated attempts to “control your destiny”.

    Time to take a look at step one again.
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    Friday, May 13, 2011

    GRATITUDE LISTS

    This is free therapy.

    I recently read on a website that writing a gratitude list is a great way to help push through writer’s block. If nothing else, such a list provides a wealth of material on which to write. More importantly, engaging in this discipline can help move a person through various negative states of mind such as anxiety, complacence, ungratefulness, despair, anger, and at minimum, helps to right-size exaggerated emotions and perspectives when they get out of balance. I’ve found this to be true when I write out a gratitude list.

    I’ll often start planning to write 20 things I’m grateful for and usually I just keep writing and writing – it just flows out of me. I’m always amazed at how many good things – blessings – I have in my life for which to be grateful. Doesn’t mean I don’t have problems, sorrows, or unresolved issues…but it does help me not allow those negative circumstances to take over my consciousness. I encourage you to do the same. Here’s an example of mine today (in no particular order of importance) – a jumping off point for you.

    1. I have people around me who love me
    2. My family members and I are healthy
    3. We have gainful employment
    4. We own a home that we love
    5. We like our neighborhood and surrounding community
    6. Summer vacation is coming soon
    7. My children’s schools are excellent
    8. My children are all thriving in school
    9. My family is continuing to learn better forms of communication and problem-solving
    10. Our city is out of drought status
    11. I’ve found writing to be such a wonderful, creative outlet
    12. God’s mercy and blessings in our lives
    13. My personal strengths which I often minimize and take for granted
    14. The wonder and beauty of nature
    15. Delicious food
    16. Chocolate
    17. A free and democratic country to live in
    18. Advanced medicine
    19. A society in which women have more rights and freedoms than in centuries past
    20. Access to medical care
    21. My oldest son’s entry into manhood
    22. The hilarious and unique sense of humor of my middle son
    23. My youngest son’s “little boy” cuteness
    24. A hot cup of coffee with cream in the mornings
    25. My comfortable bed
    26. Fifteen years with our wonderful dog Chelsea – may she rest in peace
    27. Warm baths in the winter
    28. Great fiction books to read
    29. The soothing, comforting quality of chicken broth
    30. Two functioning cars



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