One A Day

My life seems to be a mess lately. There are so many things that claim my time – accompanying for music programs and festivals, gardening, church doings, my job driving foster children all over the state, my dirty house, laundry and ironing, (yes, I still iron!), writing, keeping food on the table (I can’t claim this as cooking all the time). And there are forces at work that will change my life very soon, but I can’t talk about them yet, so sometimes I feel as if I’m on a merry-go-round that accelerates with each rotation.

Sanity solution: Find One Blessing A Day

Yesterday was a long day of rehearsals for a music concert followed by an evening concert. I was really tired by the end of it. But it was a short night, and I was really feeling my sleep deprivation as I hit the road at 4 AM today to pick up a foster child.  When I got home at 10 AM, it was hot enough that I knew my tender garden plants would suffer if I didn’t water before I logged in a few more hours of sleep. So I drug the garden hose around our yard. The last place I water each day is the sweet potato bed that sits in front of the clematis by my front steps. I was barely going through the motions when I noticed that the clematis had bloomed for the first time this year. I love these deep purple flowers, and take great joy in seeing them open each spring. This was my special blessing today. (There were others, too, but this was extra special.)

In the beginning, it was sometimes hard to spot these blessings. But the more I worked at it, the easier it got, and soon I found there are usually more than just one each day. What will tomorrow’s blessing be? I have no idea. But I’ll carry its energy, its beauty, and its love with me all day, and that blessing will help balance my crazy, upside down life.

What is your blessing today? OR are you the blessing for someone else’s day today?

Your Turf, No Strings

I have always secretly envied those mothers and daughters who claim to be best friends. My daughters and I never had that relationship; I was always the mom who seemed to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and they were always the daughters, living in a world into which I did not feel invited.

Yesterday we were all gathered under one roof to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday. My daughters had all contributed to the meal, venue, and all the other niceties that are part of a family celebration. As we were fixing the food the girls chatted about their lives, and I was included! I was part of the girl talk, the laughter, the sharing. We had so much fun!

I am accustomed to letting thoughts have free reign and ramble around in my head, so on the three-hour drive home, I pondered all these things in my heart. What had made the difference, and why now? Perhaps some of it was due to the fact that all my daughters have careers of their own and two of them have children. Maturity might have been a factor. But probably it was because I did not present myself as a mother, but rather as just another person enjoying their company. I didn’t do this on purpose, mind you, it just happened. But what a lovely coincidence!

After some more cogitating, I began to understand that as a mom, I have always sort of believed my girls should rise to my expectations. Today, I had met my girls on their own turf without qualifications. I had accepted them for who they each are and aren’t, just like they are, no strings attached.

It’s rather curious that I have set a personal goal for myself: to learn to love my God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength. I really have no idea how to go about this, but I’m trying. Is it possible that, in working on my own goal, I am finally learning to love others unconditionally?

*My granddaughters wrote and drew birthday cards for their great-grandmother. My 17-month-old grandson isn’t into writing yet, so he gave his great-grandmother his first attempt at solo finger painting. He shows promise, don’t you think?

3 = Success

  1. They want me to do WHAT?? I can’t do all that stuff in 45 days, there’s no way! I don’t even know how to start the paperwork!
  2. It’s not my fault! I don’t know how to fix this situation. I’ll just wait for someone to tell me what to do, or better yet, fix it for me. In the meantime, I’m going to watch a movie, eat what I like, call all my friends to set them straight on this matter, and maybe I’ll punch someone, just to prove I’m not the wimp here.
  3. EVERYTHING’S messed up! The system is screwed and everyone is against me. No point in trying anymore.

Does any of this sound familiar? I see it all the time in people who lack 3 things: The willingness to take responsibility for their actions and their consequences; the ability to see setbacks as opportunities to try a different way; and personal organization.

PERSONAL ORGANIZATION begins about the time a child begins to walk. People who never learn these skills have trouble their entire lives. Putting away and organizing toys and books, following directions correctly, choosing clothes to wear, helping fold and put away laundry, and feeding pets are the beginnings of personal organization. Later it includes doing homework, turning homework in on time, being on time to school and completing chores.

TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR ACTIONS AND THEIR CONSEQUENCES is tied to personal responsibility, but it goes farther. To see beyond the act, before it is committed, and not only understand but willingly assume the consequences for the act (good or bad), is a mark of maturity. People who cannot or will not accept responsibility for their actions have a rough life, and never understand that most of it is their fault. Responsibility for actions begins, again, in very early childhood. But punishment for not being responsible does not seem to work. Instead, modeling positive behavior, doing tasks with, and not for, a child, and modeling how to handle consequences seem to work best.

SEEING SETBACKS AS OPPORTUNITIES is very powerful. I think I probably stole this idea from a Khan Academy teacher, but all year this teacher drilled the students on failures being opportunities, and by the end of the year, no student was at all upset by getting a wrong answer on a math problem. The student simply understood that a different approach was needed to find the correct answer and worked at, sometimes with guidance from another student or a teacher, until he understood how to find the correct answer. No student gave up, and no one seemed to gloat over being quicker at getting right answers. It was amazing to watch.

So, what if we taught our children this way? What if we lived our own lives this way? Would the result be more personal peace? More family peace? Better problem solving skills? Less tension in the workplace? Better communication? Or even fewer people with addiction problems? So many addictions are the result of people giving in to immediate removal from situations they don’t know how to handle. They need a way out – right now – and drugs, alcohol, sex, and violence can offer that, even though the consequences don’t justify the escape.

So what if? Consider how many times you assign blame in order to feel better about yourself. Consider how many times you just give up, rather than working out a relationship obstacle. Consider how often it is your personal clutter, inside your head as well as in the space where you live, that overwhelms you, preventing you from feeling efficient and cheerful about your life. This is one of those cases where we must take care of the logs in our own eyes before we can help with the splinters in other people’s lives. But if we can manage to clean up our personal organization, take responsibility for our actions and their consequences, and use setbacks as opportunities to begin again in a different way, other people are going to be asking how we did it, because the change is us will be extremely noticeable!

Khan Academy math

Detailing the Whole Story

I write children’s stories with complex characters, but I don’t write in a lot of descriptive details. I like to keep it simple: here’s what happened, here’s why, and leave the imagery up to my reader’s imagination. (That’s why I really don’t like to watch movies based on books – it’s never like I imagined the story, Harry Potter movies excepted!)

I am also a musician, pianist mostly, but here I use details to make the music come alive. Just the right weight and separation on jazz tenutos, staccatos in classical style or modern, sustained or flutter pedaling, using rubato or just dynamics to shape a phrase – these details can make or break a performance. In what is fast becoming my third life, I am also turning into a student of the Bible, a book notorious for offering details so subtle that you miss them completely, but the understanding of those details makes all the difference.

So why do I hate writing details in my stories? Perhaps because for me, written words have always been only half the story. I filled in the missing details in my imagination. My personality, my experiences, my hopes and dreams became part of the story, even though someone else had written the words on the page. When I write, I have relationships in mind – character with character, author with reader, reader with character(s). Each reader brings different personalities, needs, and experiences to the relationship, therefore the book is different for each reader.

The same is true for relationships. Understanding what you bring to a relationship, (and what you don’t), can help determine whether you feel the relationship is good or bad, healthy or struggling, exciting or boring. Appreciating what details are important to you and which are important to others helps you see the whole story, rather than just your side. The details in relationships are tremendously important; the hard part is that they aren’t written out, and most often not articulated, either. Productive relationships require creativity and imagination, reading between the lines, and a willingness to be changed by what we read. If you want more from your relationships, search for the subtle, hidden details you’ve missed and let them help you understand the other person(s) in new ways. You might even find you’ve overlooked important details about yourself that can bring a fresh perspective!

Reclaiming Your Soil

I’ve worked hard in my yard the past two days, reclaiming garden space from weeds, roots, and grasses. The last few years I have been lax in preparing and taking care of the soil, just putting in seed and hoping for a harvest. The results have been just OK. This year I promised myself I’d do better. Hand spading out the weeds and grasses, adding last year’s half-rotted grass clippings, compost, and pine needles from under my neighbor’s trees has been an arduous task. My muscles complained but at the same time it felt good to do physical, manual labor.

During the hours I spent in the sun and wind, my mind was not idle. I began to think about how I’d been neglecting my emotional, physical, and spiritual soil. Judgmental attitudes and long-held grudges, willingness to sink into depression rather than face and deal with problems, and, of course, assigning blame elsewhere rather than admit I am the problem – all these things rattled around in my head as I worked the garden soil. I realized that I needed to reclaim my own soil just as much as I needed to reclaim the garden soil.

The garden soil is in pretty good shape – now. But if I’m not diligent, especially since this is forecast to be a hot, dry summer, that good soil will deteriorate rapidly. My mental soil is much the same. I can tackle attitudes and sort out problems now, but if I don’t keep at it, I’ll be right back where I started with the roots of depression feeding the weeds of jealousy, blame, and arrogance.

My garden needs faithful weeding, mulching, and watering. So do I. I need weeding, making sure my motives are honest. I need to mulch my life with healthy food, healthy conversation, healthy pastimes, and healthy work. And I need water, water to cleanse, water to replenish, and water to add beauty to my life. Sometimes my water is other people. Things I read or experience can also water me. But I’m finding that my best source of water is just being quiet and letting go of everything. No, I’m not into meditation, but I have learned there is a lot of value in being still and just being. Somehow I am renewed, re-energized, refocused. And I’m more peaceful.

I’d like to be able to say that once I’ve mastered the reclamation act, the rest is easy. Sadly, no. Reclaiming my own soil is not easy at all, and it is never a once reclaimed always reclaimed situation. But when I am able accomplish it, I feel so much more me, so much more whole and complete.

I am glad for the non-thinking gardening tasks I have so that my mind is free to think in the background. I am grateful for the time to be able to work on changes in my life. I want to be free of bad attitudes and motives, but life so often crowds all my space and I seem to get lost between the cracks. This is where the quiet time for just being is becoming so important. The trick is making myself make the time to let it happen… Probably more on this another time.

Not Exactly Genealogy…

The first year our parents were in assisted living, my sister took charge of decorating the shelves outside their doors. This second year, however, she decided I should be the decorator. I am the current keeper of much of my parents’ memorabilia, and she thought I could come up with things they would enjoy seeing again.

I decided that since my dad was a pastor, I would use the opening verse of Hebrews chapter 12, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses..” to celebrate memories of people they have enjoyed over their long lives. I began putting together a list of people I knew had loved and supported our family during their many pastorates. As I invited my siblings to join in the remembering, we all came up with people we remembered, but their names did not surface.

Some of my memories are about 60 years old, and my siblings were too young at the time to be helpful. I did a web search for a church my dad served in rural South Dakota, found a phone number, and called. The pastor answered. He has been there only seven months and is from another state. He did not know any of the people about whom I was asking, but a very old lady in his present congregation has the same surname as a man I asked about. The pastor said he was going to see this lady the next day and would ask her about her father, grandfather, or whoever had the name I was searching for. I thanked the pastor and hung up.

A few hours later the pastor called back, saying he had found an old scrapbook containing some birthdays and other records from the years I had mentioned. He found the first name of one man I had asked about, but his wife was listed only as ‘Mrs.’ He found my name in the birthday lists, and two of my siblings, too. We chatted about the history of that church and things that I remember from living in that town so long ago.

I am still getting emails from my siblings listing more names they have thought of. While I hope my parents enjoy remembering the people whose names I’ll attach to the “cloud” by their door, I think this remembering has been enormously healthy and satisfying for my siblings and me. We are all busy people and don’t spend a lot of time reminiscing, especially since none of us live anywhere near the places these memories take us.

I often get bored when poetry or special day celebrations list accomplishments or histories. Maybe that’s because these litanies don’t really apply to me; these events are not my history. But as I’ve put together the lists for my parents, I begin to see that it is important to remember, mostly because we are who we are today because of the influences of all these people who have touched our lives, however briefly. So, while it is not genealogy, exactly, it is part of how we came to be who we are and why.

So, the next time someone starts telling me about someone I don’t know, but whom seems important to her, I’m going to try to really listen. Not for my sake, perhaps, but because remembering is an important part of all relationships, and relationships are what make life worth living.


Artistic Prophecy

When our children were small, it was difficult for them to sit quietly through a church service. All three girls resorted to drawing on the bulletins and anything else that had white space. Our oldest, who was quite a story author by then, liked to draw rather accurate representations of people and animals. Her younger sister liked to decorate things with butterflies. The smallest, who was just mastering her numbers, practiced the number 2, and then turned each 2 into a bird; we called them church birds.

That Christmas, I embroidered copies of their creations onto a tea cozy for my mom. Little did I realize that someday I would get that tea cozy back! This morning I brewed a pot of tea to enjoy on my day off. I popped that same tea cozy on the pot to keep it warm all morning and began my day. About my third cup, I realized that the art work prophesied the personalities the girls would each grow into. The tiger was drawn by the girl who now fights for equality, rights, and social justice. The butterflies foretold that daughter #2 would work very hard to please people and bring beauty to life. Our church bird creator now takes what life gives her and uses her special creativity to turn things on hand into things that bring pleasure to others, be it art, food, or whimsical surprises. All the girls are so much alike, and yet, so very different; each a talented individual in her own right, and yet so much part of the sisterhood.

I had no idea, when they were growing up, that the innocent church bulletin art work would someday be so precious and so powerful. I’m so glad my mom needed a tea cozy!

Vicarious Living

Disclaimer: I am not one of these, but I am concerned by how many are! News that expounds all the gory details of a tragedy spreads like wildfire. People stay glued to their media sources, eager for the latest developments, whether they are natural disasters, political mayhem, or the most recent act of violence.

Not long ago, our local newspaper tried, unsuccessfully, to publish a weekly edition highlighting all the good things happening in our community. I loved it! But evidently the advertisers felt they were not getting enough publicity for their money, because publication ceased after two months. Why?

This is my personal opinion here, if there is research to support it I am unaware, but I think people get a huge ego boost by listening to the unfortunate stories of other people. I think listeners and viewers relish all the sordid details so they can pat themselves on the back and claim to be ‘not like those people in the news.’ I think this obsession with evil and calamity is no different from fan worship of celebrities – it is all in the name of feeling better about myself. If people can find fault with others, then they can feel good about themselves.

Shame on us! What has happened to sharing good and happiness? Where has loving your neighbor as yourself gone? What’s with this culture of fear we have created? (Yes, WE have created it – we participate in it by our silence.) Why do we insist on passing laws against everything, but we do nothing to reach out to those who have fallen between the cracks in society and see violence as their only means of attaining self-respect? Why do we criticize everything and everyone from politicians to immigrants who have no rights? Why are we so quick to point a vocal finger at everyone else? Why do we try to shut out and ignore the people who hurt all around us?

I ask you to join me in helping heal our families, or churches and schools, our communities, our nation, and our world with kind words, kind deeds that seek no recognition, smiles, and love. Leave the negativity and anger to others; our job is to heal others through our generosity, kindness, love, and our participation in their lives. As a billboard proclaims along I-135 near Wichita, KS: Fear is Contagious. So is Hope.

I’m Through Apologizing

I’m all about relationships, right? Well, I have often felt guilty for not enjoying people more than I do, for not being all-the-time in love with parenting, and for wishing for somewhere to hide when I am in large groups. But I’m through with all that; I’m just fine the way I am. You see, I went to school this past weekend and learned something: Being around people energizes extroverts; other people drain the energy from introverts.

I’ve known for many years that I am a true introvert. I love ideas, things, projects, and goals. I am much, much happier when I’m working on my own; show me how to do something and let me do it – alone. My best creativity shows up when I’m by myself. But I’ve always felt I should be ashamed of this, that I wasn’t really a good person because I don’t like being around other people much. Yes, I’ve been a teacher for about 40 years, and most of the time I was a good teacher. My classes were almost always large, because that’s the way music classes tend to be, and I enjoyed teaching. But I got to send those kids out the door after class was over, and at the end of the day I had an empty room all to myself. It was such a wonderful feeling!

This week I played Grandma to my two very active, highly creative granddaughters. In the past, this has been highly stressful for me!! But this time, because of what I’d learned in school, I found ways to retreat into some personal quiet space, even in the midst of all our activities, and was delighted to find that I enjoyed grandparenting so much more.

I think it is important for my grandchildren to get to know their great-   grandparents, so I each time I have had our granddaughters, I have arranged to take afternoon tea to their great-grandparents. This involves a lot of driving with the granddaughters, since most of the greats live about 2 hours in different directions from my home. This time, though, I tried to relax and let them figure out how to solve minor differences on their own while I just enjoyed the drive. I sat back, savoring my tea, and let the girls enjoy sharing with their great-grandmothers the gingerbread cookie angels they had made and iced. It was fun to watch them remind each other to crook their little fingers as they sipped cinnamon tea from the china cups we packed for each visit.

There are times I wish I lived way out in the mountains of Wyoming, at least an hour from any town. But I don’t and probably never will. However, now that I am learning how, I can mentally retreat a few paces and recharge my batteries in peace before I have to re-enter the throng of life. I sure wish I’d known this 50 years ago!

Keeping Promises

Thanks for bearing with me these last few silent weeks. I’ve been keeping promises.

I am a woman of many talents, and too often I agree to do things that end up being way more work than I anticipated. Such has been my story lately as I lead a six-week Bible study at church; accept a position on the steering committee for our local Circles, USA chapter which helps people work their way out of poverty, and then begin an 18-month relationship commitment to one of the participants; agree to accompany all the solos, ensembles, and choirs for a local high school who has no competent pianist; make parson’s chair slip covers for my sister; and get ready to care for my granddaughters who will be on spring break next week but whose parents still have to work. On top of that, my second book is having a hard time finding an agent who believes in it, so it’s back to the drawing board…again.

Promises. Commitments. Duties. They pile up to the point where I want to yell, “Stop the world, I want to get off!”* But I have made promises, and I intend to keep them. That’s the kind of person I am.

Staying sane through all this is another matter – but I’ve discovered a secret. I have learned to take joy in whatever I am doing, to be very present in the moment as I do whatever it is the very best I possibly can. That means that I practice (and practice and practice and practice!) those very difficult accompaniments as musically as I can. I try to play them as I would a solo piece for a concert. That gives me real joy. As I prepare for Bible study, I look for new ways to understand scripture. I get excited as I share my insights with others who have also studied for each lesson. As I sew slip covers, I am thankful for the sewing and designing experiences I have had over the years and work to make every seam as perfect as possible, knowing my sister will enjoy hosting dinner guests as they sit on my handiwork. I love learning about almost anything. Through my work with Circles, USA, I am learning how my middle class attitudes actually hurt people who have grown up in poverty, often through no fault of their own, and I am working hard to correct those attitudes.

In short, I guess how I react to all the promises I made – promises that have overloaded me almost to the breaking point in some cases – makes all the difference. Attitude is everything. My survival skills include finding joy in all things, doing everything to the very best of my ability, being constantly grateful for the experiences that have given me my skills, and appreciating the fact that I am useful and needed. Yes, I keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, checking my calendar to see when this will all be over, and (in the back of my mind) thinking about what I can change in my book to make an agent fall in love with my characters. But in the words of the American poet Robert Frost, “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”** When that rest finally comes, I will sleep peacefully, knowing that I have enjoyed doing my very best and that other people have been blessed by my efforts.

*Stop the World I Want to Get Off, musical by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newly, 1961  **Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening, Robert Frost, 1922