If Only…We’d Have Peace

Every family has at least one thorn in its side. Mine is no exception. For years we have silently thought that if certain things happened, we would all have peace. Well, those things did finally fall into place. But we were so wrong. We didn’t get peace, we got worse! Just this afternoon I was trying to shut my mind to the turmoil, and found myself thinking, could we please just have peace, even for a while?

And then it dawned on me – peace isn’t an external condition. Peace, real peace, is internal. There will always be external conflict and strife. That’s just a given in life, right along with death and taxes. We can work toward alleviating external tension, but we won’t ever completely resolve it.

What we can do, though, is to practice personal peace. This is so hard, especially for those of us who are worry-warts and control freaks. We try to talk people into doing things that bring peace. We try to help them. We try to manipulate situations in order to achieve peace. But in the end, we usually live with more disappointment and ulcers than peace.

If we want peace, we have to make room for it in our lives. We have to let go of the grudges, the fears, the disappointment, anger, sense of betrayal, feelings of rejection, and hate. Real peace is what the ancient Hebrew word shalom is about. It is a centering, a letting go of the external things we can’t control, and just being.

Through being at peace, our priorities are reordered. Our heart rate, blood pressure, and sleep patterns become more normal. Our physical bodies begin to relax, and we find we enjoy life more. Smiling is once again spontaneous. But we have to practice, practice, practice being at peace, because old habits die hard!

I’m not a meditator – I can’t sit still that long! I’m not an exercise freak that works out all my worries. But I am a thinker, a wonderer, and a dreamer. I know that I cannot create personal peace for anyone else in my family, but I am going to try to be personally peaceful for them, so that through me they can sense peace and rest, quiet and calm when the going gets rough.

It Is What You Make It

I love to study, to think, to learn. I tend to be passionate about what I’m studying, and sometimes that makes me a bit of a snob, (or maybe a lot).

Our church promotes the idea of small groups as a way to grow and connect, and I totally agree with this. I wasn’t able to participate much in small groups while I was teaching, because music teaching involves so many evenings and weekends that I could never commit on a regular basis. So, when I retired from teaching last spring, I decided to join a six-week Bible study.

At the first meeting, I seriously considered dropping out. The hot topic of conversation that evening was why it is a bad idea to allow people to bring coffee and hot chocolate into the sanctuary during worship services. I kept thinking to myself that these were some very small-minded people. But the video that went along with our study was rather good, so I did the required reading at home – and then I read the entire story straight from the Bible for added background and context.

At the next meeting, conversation was a bit more topic-related, but I was still miles ahead of the rest of the participants. You see, I have a fairly good Bible background. My dad was a pastor, and while he didn’t ever pontificate at home, I was always in church and actually listened to his sermons. I have done my own Bible reading for years, and have enjoyed reading the writing of major theologians from time to time. So, yes, I was on a completely different level from the rest of the class. But, I was learning so much about Moses from the required reading and the videos, that I committed to read the entire books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy because those were the story of Moses in the Christian Bible. I confess that I thoroughly enjoyed this!

Lo and behold, the same thing began happening in our Sunday school class. I felt so frustrated! I wished there was somewhere else I could serve on Sundays, instead of suffering through Sunday school. But I have learned that it is best not to take matters into my own hands, at least not right away; give things time to play out. So, I’m still in Sunday school class.

I have, however, discovered that I don’t have to think and work at the same level as others in my class. I can do outside reading (and thinking). Yes, sometimes I have to bite my tongue and just be silent in class, but other times I can offer significant comments that enhance the discussion. Even though I am not getting much out of the actual class, I am there in support of the other class members. And, I am learning so much outside of class, that I am able to put my Bible learning into much better context. That makes me happy.

Continual learning and small group participation are important to me, so this is my way of coping with these situations that frustrate me. So often, life is what we make it. This is just one way I am choosing to make mine tolerable and rewarding at the same time.

(Please understand that I am NOT trying to proselyte.)

Helping Others Cope With Stress

Stress, like death and taxes, is a guaranteed part of life. Coping with stress is an art; it doesn’t come naturally to most of us. We get used to dealing with our own stress – we have our favorite pastimes, foods, and diversions that help us relieve some of the effects of stress, though they do nothing to confront the actual problems. (You can see some of mine here.)

But when a friend is under stress, what is the first (and worst) thing we do? Offer advice! Unless someone specifically asks for advice, they don’t want it, and it probably won’t help anyway. (But we keep giving it. Is that because giving advice makes us feel wise, or less threatened?)

I’m not good at this, but I have lately discovered that the best gift I can give to people under stress is simply to be there. Not to be there for them, but to be present with them. To listen (and keep my mouth shut!). To do things with them. To talk with them, but not to council them or ask questions regarding the stressful issues. (Most people are pretty smart. They each have their ways of coping and figuring things out. They just need affirmation that they still matter, as a person. That’s where my presence comes in.)

To value people outside of their ability or inability to cope with life is a rare gift, but one worth cultivating, I think. To say, “You matter to me, regardless of your state of mind,” with your personal attention, is, in my mind, one of the highest compliments a person can bestow on another. Like I said, I’m not good at this, but I’m making it one of my highest priorities, starting now. While there is nothing I can do, I hope that my commitment to those under stress will be an island of peace and assurance in the sea of life.

Who Is the Story For?

In my August 9th post, Living the Lie, I wrote about people chasing after things that aren’t real – even though they know this. Those scenarios I described are real-life events, not just things I’ve heard about. One of them is tearing a family apart, and I’m caught in the middle of it. Everyone else has been giving advice, losing sleep, and judging. I have offered my opinion a few times, though not to the main person, but mostly I’ve just prayed for a way to heal the hurt. But because of a short piece I wrote recently, (that isn’t on my website – yet), I have come to a difficult decision.

Those of you who make a habit of waiting in prayer about situations know that sometimes our answers seem very odd. Such is my case. A few weeks ago, a friend related a story that played in the back of my mind for several days. One morning as I was reading my Bible, my mind skipped back to the experience my friend had described, and all of a sudden a new story was born. A couple of days later I wrote it down, and was surprised at some of the twists and turns that sort of wrote themselves into the manuscript. I shared my writing with the friend who first told the story, and he recommended I share it with some other friends. My writing group was kind enough to listen to it, too.

Normally, when I write a short story like that, it is finished and then I move on to other things. Not so this time. That story has played and replayed in my mind ever since I wrote it down. I have wondered numerous times if I wrote the story for others or for myself. The answer seems to be that I am the one who needed to hear the message, specifically for the event that prompted me to post ‘Living the Lie’ on August 9th.

In my story, a man learns to love people who are radically different from him, and in doing so, learns to love himself – just as he is. Because he can finally accept himself, he receives the biggest challenge of all, to love absolutely unconditionally. My character has to choose whether or not he will accept the challenge, and the stakes are unbelievably high.

This is all playing in the background of my conscious mind as this real-life family is struggling. Today it became crystal clear that my role in all of this is to love, simply love. Not offer any more opinions or advice, not to judge, but just love, and accept. And to love not just the main character, but all the players. This is so hard! I’m not wired that way, and neither are most people. But there it is – I’ve been challenged to do possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, to love, unconditionally.

Decisions or Not

Last week I posted on Facebook that I didn’t write a blog last week because I had nothing to say. The truth is that I couldn’t put my feelings into words just yet. This week I’ll give it a try.

Hate crimes, groups promoting ethnic supremacy, racial violence – these are nothing new, in any part of the world. We hear all the gory details from many angles almost immediately, courtesy of 21st century technology. Copycat actions often pop up among people wanting attention.

In my little town that certainly isn’t on global maps, tensions run high right now. I am not privy to the whole story, but here’s what I know: Our city manager and our police chief got into an argument in the parking lot following a city council meeting. At the next council meeting, the city manager requested that the police chief be suspended pending an investigation into the police chief’s handling of his official duties. The city council concurred and suspended the chief. Several people around town began marshaling support for the police chief. Bright blue wooden signs popped up everywhere, asking God to bless the chief, saying this particular homeowner stands with the chief, etc., etc. The local newspaper is still doing its part to sell news by printing editorials from all kinds of writers, covering impromptu meetings almost verbatim, and fanning the flames of emotional involvement.

We had a “scandal” last year that was labeled in the press as a sex scandal. In reality it was little more than harassment, but not many people know that. They know what they saw online, in print, and heard from their neighbors. This latest issue is turning out the same way. No one is quite sure exactly what the charges are or who is investigating. What we do know is that the city manager received so many threats, phone calls, and bad press that he resigned his position effective immediately, just seven months before he was due to retire. A city council member also resigned. According to the newspaper, a man, whom I personally have heard expounding his opinions at length while at work, opened an emotionally charged meeting of “concerned citizens” by saying that he wasn’t wearing his boots (meaning that the muck was pretty deep from the just-concluded city council meeting).

Of all the creatures on this planet, humans have the greatest ability to think, to make choices, to alter situations, to use tools, and to love. Why, why why don’t we do any of these? Why do we follow blindly behind others, mimicking their rhetoric, using our emotions instead of our brains when we make decisions? Why do we choose to act like everyone else instead of thinking and acting for ourselves? We humans have the capacity to sort out truth from falsehood, good from evil, justice from injustice, oppression from kindness. Why don’t we do that? We have systems in place for hearing all sides of an issue. Why don’t we use them? (Some people will argue that these systems don’t work. Usually they do, IF they are used properly. Too often, people get impatient or want their particular view to be the only view, and then the systems do break down.)

Occasionally I will lend my influence to a cause, but I won’t do it blindly. A long time ago I took a vow to renounce the forces of wickedness and evil. I accepted the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they presented themselves for people of all ages, races, and nations. I intend to stand by that vow, perhaps now more than ever. Here in Great Bend, KS, we are not dealing with Neo-Nazis, we are not driving cars into crowds of people, we are not gunning down passers-by…or are we? We are labeling people, we are ruining reputations, we are making it next-to-impossible for justice to be served, all because some people’s friend got his feelings hurt. (Maybe that’s putting it a little simply, but that’s about what it boils down to in the end.)

What should I do about this? I have lots of choices, the first being to do nothing. Or I could listen to people discuss the situation. Would I learn the real facts there? Probably not. I could find the police chief and ask him for his story. I could also try to find the former city manager and interview him. I could go see the mayor. I actually know him. Perhaps he could give me a truer picture of the facts. Perhaps not, though, since much of what he knows probably came out in a closed executive session and is not for publication at this point. On the other hand, how important is it for me, personally, to know the truth? After all, the city council will do what it decides to do with or without my permission or knowledge. Do I have a civic responsibility here, or am I just being nosy? These are the questions I wrestle with as I still don’t know what to “do” about all this. I have become very good at procrastinating lately. Is that a good idea here? How will I make a decision – or will I decide to not decide? I wish I knew.

How many of you are just like me, struggling with indecision? How many of you will actually take the time to find out the truth and then take a stand based upon truth rather than hearsay? What difference will it make?

Living the Lie

So many people do it, one way or another. They listen to the music their friends like so they blend in. They shop according to what will garner status points among their peers. They post pictures and comment on posts, all in keeping with their digital “persona.” They trash talk public figures without much thought for the accuracy or merit of their words. Yet, in all these they lose a bit of their individual identities as they mesh with the crowd.

Then there are those who are convinced that whatever they hear on TV, whatever they read in print, and whatever they can discover online is all true. You laugh? Don’t. These people really exist, and they aren’t all 85 years old! (And then there are those who are convinced that news must be fake if it contradicts what they want to hear, but that’s another story all together).

Some people so desperately want something to be true that they ignore all the logical and empirical evidence to the contrary, and live as if it really is true. School teachers witness the side effects of this when those passionate teenage romances go terribly wrong. Online scammers reap windfall rewards as they convince people to part with their money, in exchange for emails and phone calls gushing with words these lonely souls desire to hear.

Obviously, if I’m writing about this, I think there is a problem. But what to do about it might be a bigger problem. One thing I’ve learned: Confronting the person with evidence, advice, or threats is not the way to help.  I know I’m going to sound like a broken record, (if you are one of my frequent readers), but I have a feeling that the best way to help others not live the lie, is to not live lies ourselves. People who live lies are lost, lonely, and insecure. Our unjudging, positive, personal presence in their lives just might be the best reality check we can offer. It takes time, patience, perseverance, and commitment – all the requirements of real relationships. Don’t start if you won’t finish, don’t bother if you don’t really care. But if you do, be genuinely who you really are. The good things in life can rub off, too.

Don’t Squash the Creativity

I know in the “real” world we are supposed to teach skills in steps and make sure processes follow in logical sequence. But I’m becoming more convinced that we do our children a disservice by planning things too well. I think in some cases it is a good thing to give a few guidelines and then turn kids loose to follow their own creative bent. Here’s how that worked on Monday:

I picked up my granddaughters at 8 AM. About an hour down the road, I gave them each a section of foam board, a box of mismatched crayons, and a basket of small stuffed animals that belonged to their maternal great grandmother (my mom). I asked them to choose two animals and then create a crayon habitat for their chosen animals. These would become hallway displays at my parents’ assisted living quarters. Forty miles later, the foam boards were covered with houses, trees, and grass. After sharing lunch with my parents, we spread out in the large hallway at my parents’ apartment. I gave my granddaughters buttons, ribbon trims, and a hot glue gun and told them to add creative touches as they chose. As one granddaughter worked, I tacked the chosen animals to the other’s foam board with quilting thread. Meanwhile, my parents and I visited, and the granddaughter who was not using the glue gun turned cartwheels, etc. in the hallway. (Those two girls seem to be Energizer Bunnies who never run down!)

The takeaway was 1- extremely unique hallway decorations; 2- repurposed possessions (stuffed animals) that my mother had cherished until she couldn’t take everything with her to assisted living; 3- creative outlets for two wonderful kids; 4 – renewed relationships between very young and very old people that let them enjoy each other’s company without having to sit still and talk about the weather (or something equally unimportant).

You know me, it’s relationships that are important. The artwork left by the young girls will serve as a conversation piece among the residents, strengthening relationships there. The memory of the event will help my granddaughters remember their great grandparents, building a sense of belonging and family. The whole trip is part of my relationship with my granddaughters, including my allowing the 5-year-old to use a glue gun by herself without me standing over her. Our relationship is often one of discovering what we are able to do on our own, learning from our mistakes (they watch me do this frequently!), and celebrating our abilities.

I hope you regularly look for ways to reach beyond your box and strengthen your relationships in creative and unusual ways.

Assumptions & Attitudes

For many years I have assumed I knew what people were thinking when they reacted certain ways (or didn’t) to things I said or did. Funny case in point: I once tried a new recipe, and my husband said absolutely nothing about it. Consequently, I figured he did not like it and threw out the leftovers. He went looking for them a day later and was horrified when I told him what had happened and why. This is just one of many assumptions I’ve made, and based on these assumptions, I have formed attitudes and opinions based on my reaction to whatever I have assumed someone else meant by their actions, inaction, comments, or silence.

For a while now I’ve been struggling with negative attitudes that surface at the oddest times. I try to be positive, cheerful, loving, and kind – and here come all these dark thoughts crowding out happiness. I’ve taken a hard look at these hurtful feelings and decided my pride, self-sufficiency, and judgmental attitudes are at the root of the problem. I have discovered that most of my attitudes and opinions are wrong, and the fault is mine. Mine for not communicating. I could have asked for verbal confirmation to check my assumptions, but I didn’t. Instead, I savored my injured pride in silence – all these years. And now all this prideful silence is coming back to haunt me.

I don’t know just how I’m going to fix this problem, but I know I need to find a solution. Probably it will take me the rest of my life, but I think it is worth the effort. After all, it’s relationships that make life worth living.

Open Spaces

I love ceilings – as seen from lying on the floor. Their clean lines and absence of clutter openly invite thinking. When I was teaching, I was the lesson plan queen, staying late on Friday nights into the wee hours, planning every detail for the next week’s lessons. Since I was usually the only one in the building, I had no problem getting out of my desk chair and stretching out on the classroom floor to gaze at the ceiling as I pondered and cogitated the most efficient ways to present the lessons. I really enjoyed those nights; instead of feeling tired, I was energized, happy, and very creative.

Until last Saturday, I didn’t know that there is actually scientific evidence that people will think more creatively and expansively in rooms with high ceilings or in wide open spaces. I happened to catch an interview with Robert Cialdini on a radio broadcast called Tech Nation. Cialdini has written a new book called Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. One of the things he talked about in the interview was how to come up with creative and new approaches to problems you face. He said you should go to a room with a high ceiling, because people are more creative in big, expansive places. The room’s openness and expansiveness help people to think in big, expansive ways. Moira Gunn, the interviewer (who is from San Francisco) said, “Go to the library.” She must have access to an old, high-ceilinged library with lots of space. Cialdini agreed and said, “Or, go outside.” Perhaps this is why so many authors and composers take long walks out of doors; it helps them think more creatively.

This leads me to wonder: So often when we encounter problems with people, we sit down at a table to discuss the issues. Sometimes we pick public places, like a restaurant, so all parties will be less likely to lose control and cause a scene. Or we choose a small intimate space in an effort to stay focused on our mission.

I wonder if perhaps we set ourselves up for failure, or at least less than optimal results in these small spaces. What if we met in a park, or bounced our feelings off each other over a game of tennis? What if we gave ourselves enough room that none of us felt as if the weight of the problems were pressing in on us? Some people, especially those suffering from PTSD, need a solid wall behind them and open space in front of them, with more than one way to escape from their position. I think of the classic school principal or counselor/student conference – a small private room, often filled with the principal or counselor’s memorabilia, and the student sitting across the desk from the adult. How intimidating! (Yes, it used to be the norm to try to intimidate students into submission, but not anymore, thankfully.) What if we gave our students space so they didn’t feel trapped, space where they could run away if they chose, space where they could think their own thoughts without being afraid? And parents – what if we didn’t get in our kids’ faces? What if we got out of the house or car or shopping mall, found a wide open space that had nothing to do with the problem, and dialogued together to create a workable solution?

I wish I’d known this stuff when I got married, when my kids were small, and when I was a teacher. Now that I’m a writer, I think I’m going to work out my writing problems from the perspective of floor to ceiling space.

A Taste of Heaven

Gamers have a special relationship. So do sports aficionados. Foodies are no different. Sure, there are snobs in all categories, and ego, pride, and prejudice rear their ugly heads from time to time, but generally there is plenty of room for the thrill of discovery and shared enjoyment.

I happened to see the movie Ratatouille when it first came out. It is the story of the love child of a famous chef who inherits his father’s 5-star restaurant, but the kid has absolutely no cooking finesse. However, a rat, yes, a rat!, who longed for life beyond the garbage bins, started watching the famous chef on TV, the same chef who died and left his restaurant to his secret son. The rat learns how to communicate with the non-cooking boy, and together they turn out amazing food. The worst food critic comes to dine at the restaurant and the rat insists that he must eat ratatouille, which is not on the menu. You’ll have to watch the movie for the rest of the story. Sorry.

I had never heard of ratatouille before I saw the movie, but ever since, I’ve been looking for the perfect recipe. I’ve scoured cookbooks and ordered it in restaurants, but never been satisfied.

I’m sorry if you’re tired of hearing about my anniversary trip, but I promise this is the last post concerning it. For dinner that night, I ordered trout with ratatouille – and went to heaven. It tasted the way ratatouille is supposed to taste. I came home and renewed my quest for the perfect recipe because eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash are in season now. No luck.

In desperation, I went to the restaurant’s webpage and clicked ‘contact us.’ I sent a polite note saying that I had enjoyed their ratatouille and was sure they do not share their recipes, but could they possibly point me to a recipe that might be similar?

I was totally amazed when I got an email back from their executive chef saying that they do things a bit differently from what you can find online…and here’s how.

So tonight I feasted on ratatouille at home. No, it’s not exactly the same, but close enough. The reason I write this is that positive relationships are important to me. I encourage you to let people know when they please you. Show your gratitude. And when the food warrants it, don’t be shy about asking for the recipe if you like to cook. Even if the answer is ‘no,’ the fact that you asked is pretty high flattery and will usually be appreciated.

If you’re ever in Kansas City, Missouri, I recommend the Brown and Loe restaurant in the River Market area. Reservations are advised, but the food and the staff are wonderful!