Thursday, December 7, 2017

Hushing the noise

Melissa brought up the carol, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" yesterday. "Everyone knows the first verse, which is pretty serene, but there are a lot more verses to it," she said.

She's right. I know the carol well and I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the three verses between the first and last. The carol was written by a minister who had suffered breakdown and wrote what he was witnessing. A weary world, full of sin and strife. Suffering. Forms bending low under life-crushing loads. In spite of that, he encourages the hopeful notion of stopping to listen for the angels:

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The bless├Ęd angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

While the verses may not be familiar, the sentiment is.

The holiday season can be rough for many, but this year seems to be bringing a lot of emotions to the surface for some of the most stoic among us. I met with someone yesterday who admitted he has been losing sleep over any number of things, but mainly the political climate and some of the potential ramifications of decisions being made at all levels of government.

I couldn't offer him any guarantees or assurances, but I offered him some advice related to trying to hush some of the noise that was getting the best of him:

Limit the noise.
A self-preservation rule I have recently implemented is checking news sites once in the morning over coffee and once in the evening - before dinner and never right before I go to bed. I have turned off all news alerts on my devices. I have missed nothing of importance.

I'm well schooled in media and messaging and I can tell you this: The "fake news" argument is manufactured, but pervasive media influence is very real. Take some time to understand the game being played around you. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that every second, news outlets are fighting for your time, attention and energy; and headlines, leads, questions and sidebars are written to achieve just that.

Limit your exposure. Be intentional about checking social media. Don't read the comments section. Just don't.

It's also helpful to stay focused on established news sources that aren't as big with the slant. The news sites I tend to stick with are Reuters, PBS, BBC, NPR, The Economist and the Wall Street Journal.

Check yourself.
Jennie has this hanging in her kitchen:

T - is it true?
H - is it helpful?
I - is it important?
N - is it necessary?
K - is it kind?

She put it up years ago when her four kids kept lipping off to each other, but I think it's a good set of questions to have in mind before you go commenting, Tweeting, creating a meme or posting on social media. If you had a lot to say about stuff like the First Lady's White House Christmas decorations or Prince Harry choosing an American actress as a bride being the beginning of the end of the English aristocracy, I'm talking to you. Just don't. It's mean, it's not important, and it just adds to the hateful churn.

Change the message.
There's a lot of talk about watching Hallmark Christmas movies this time of year, which is a strategy I highly recommend. I also make it a point to read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol each December. It's a short read and it centers me on what's important. You don't have to be fully engaged with the world around you 24/7. Give your brain some recess.

Look for the helpers.
Mr. Rogers was right when he advised to look for the helpers when scary stuff was going on in the news. I think that's absolutely true. When political news is getting scary, I tend to look for perspectives from people on both sides of the aisle whom I trust and who view what's going on through a pretty thoughtful and measured lens. They're almost always successful in talking me off the ledge.

Wait well.
I bundled up against the 18-degree temperature this morning and took a walk as the sun was coming up. In our part of the world we have been treated to some absolutely breathtaking sunsets in recent weeks. But sunrise in December is in a class by itself. The sky transforms into layers of blue and white before the sun starts peeking up from the horizon, adding bands or purple and orange. The world takes on a different perspective when we take time to witness something like that.

Look, I'm not telling you that watching a few sunrises is going to completely turn things around for you. But I'm also not willing to concede that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Not just yet, anyway.

Human strife and chaos have existed since the dawn of time. Far from the tranquil scene frequently painted, Jesus came into the world amid a hotbed of ruthless power struggles, bloodshed and political unrest.

This isn't anything new to humanity, and oddly, I think we can find some comfort in that. In spite of what continues to happen, the sun still rises and sets. Light keeps finding a way to shine through. We move through and we move on.

For my faith tradition, this time of year challenges us with the discipline of wait. Wait can be exciting and it can be excruciating. For the times it's the latter, I try to remember that as I'm waiting for the joy of Christmas, I'm not just waiting for Jesus. I'm waiting with Jesus. When I remember that, it's easier for me to practice empathy, love, kindness, patience and hope - and these are much better uses of my energy.

As you work to hush the noise and manage your wait, I pray that your heart is filled with these virtues.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The party's over, but the journey continues

With a feeling I can only describe as surreal, Pat and I celebrate our 25th anniversary today.

It just doesn't seem like it was that long ago. It was a gorgeous fall day during Thanksgiving weekend. Our nearest and dearest gathered for a ceremony and party that had been over a year in the making. Prayers were said and glasses were raised. "Celebration", "Beer Barrel Polka" (I'm from Wisconsin), and "Chicken Dance" ensued. The next day, we loaded the 1989 Buick I had inherited from my parents with our wedding gifts and headed back to Iowa to start our lives together. 

That's when things got harder. 

People describe the "let-down" that happens after a big event you have been planning for and looking forward to. The week after our wedding can only be described as such - and I don't feel bad about admitting it, because Pat will tell you the same thing. The fact of the matter is, once the toasts are made, the flowers fade and the veil is put away, at the end of the day, you've committed to making a life together - for better or for worse.

Oddly, it's the "for worse" occasions that I've been thinking about as I consider our 25th year. Not because life hasn't been rich and blessed and wonderful being married to Pat. It has. We are both pretty independent people, but I don't think either of us could imagine life without the other, and I think that's one of the things that makes us great together. We complement each other in the important ways: Stuff like our personalities, our faith, the way we parent, and what we like to order for take-out.

But it's the times that we haven't complemented each other that I've learned the most about myself and what it takes to keep a relationship going - even when things are pretty crappy and you just want to chuck the whole thing. 

The "for worse" part of "for better or for worse" doesn't get nearly enough play.

We have wallpapered together. We have been through 28 football seasons. We have been through the "Why can't you ever remember it's garbage day?" and the "Why do you need another purse?" arguments. We have grilled using charcoal. We have assembled IKEA furniture. We have untangled miles of Christmas lights.

We have weathered job changes, debt and income stressors. We have fought through our son having childhood cancer. We have both been through crippling bouts of depression and anxiety. We have been through the aftermath of a friend taking his own life and other friends and family ending, or coming close to ending, their marriages. We have worked to support family and friends through illness, both seen and unseen. We have fought about family issues. We have negotiated family and parent responsibilities and struggled (mainly me) to relinquish control. We have lost grandparents and Pat's dad. We have changed, grown and shaped how we view things.

We have grown apart as a couple many times and have somehow managed to find our way back to one another. 

After 25 years, second only to our kids, these journeys back to each other are what make me the most proud.

Marriage isn't a party. It's a journey that brings both rock-filled valleys and amazing vistas. It's a willlingness to wake up every day and say, "I'm going to keep going" - even on those days when everything in your being is telling you that you're going in the wrong direction and you will never get there no matter how hard you try.

I have had conversations with friends who are horrified to find themselves wandering in the "for worse" part. And they have been reassured when I tell them it's common, it's normal and it's not that surprising. No one has a perfect marriage. Trying to negotiate any kind of space between two people is far more difficult than managing space on your own.

But the times you succeed - the times when it hits you that you've learned something about yourself and this person you've tethered yourself to, and that you're both better people because of it - those are the times that make it worth the effort.

The party's over, but the journey continues. It's a wonderful life, and I'm grateful.

Thank you, Love. Happy Anniversary.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Just try

It's only occasionally that the pants get political, and I usually deliberate it about it for quite a while before posting. My motivation in eventually posting something that can be controversial is based on two questions: 1) Will this inspire conversation? and 2) Will this stir hearts to action?

I can't think of two more important questions in the wake of 59 people being murdered and hundreds more injured this week in Las Vegas.

Look, I didn't grow up in a gun culture. My grandfather was a veteran, but to my knowledge, he didn't pick up a gun after returning to the U.S. after being injured in the Battle of the Bulge. My mom's favorite weapon is guilt. The most threatening thing my father has wielded is a water pic.

I did grow up in a family that believed strongly in the freedoms protected by the Constitution. No one I grew up with is going to begrudge someone the right to arm themselves. But as conservative as many people in my family are, I don't think anyone will argue that everyone has the right to arm themselves with weapons capable of killing and wounding many with one trigger pull.

This is where it gets complicated. The proverbial "slippery slope." If we don't let the "good" people arm themselves, only the "bad" people will be armed. It's unconstitutional. Who gets decide who "good" people are and "bad" people are? Does restricting access leave us vulnerable to a "tyrannical" government?

I don't understand many of the gun lobby's arguments, but I do understand the power of well-funded and well-orchestrated messaging. We're being manipulated, and whether you lean to the left or the right, we're all victims of it.

We need to quit waiting for Congress and the NRA to figure this out. It will not happen.

We can argue that people can wield terror with elements other than guns. That's true.

We can argue on both sides that trying to regulate anything is complicated, concerning and ambiguous. It is.

We can condescendingly dismiss arguments of gun owners, writing them off as unfeeling, uneducated rednecks, but we know that isn't true.

We can allow arguments to veer into the ridiculous and say, "What's next? Do we regulate Twinkies because people are fat?" - because that's not the same thing, and we know it.

We can wring hands and pray and create memes on social media and post articles about heroes who rescued the injured for months. It may make us feel better - until something happens again. It will happen again.

We can do nothing because of all of that.

Or maybe we could just try to have a conversation. That conversation may lead to some interesting solutions. Those interesting solutions could lead to common-sense grassroots movements that elected officials and powerful lobbyists may eventually need to pay attention to.

That perspective may be Pollyanna. But after seeing the footage and photos of panic and carnage; after watching interviews with grieving and distraught family members and victims; after hearing "it's just the way it is" time and again; after thinking, "I'm not a gun person, so I don't really have any skin in this game," but then considering that it may be my child or family member or friend who is killed or injured the next time this happens ...

I'm willing to just try. Are you?

Monday, August 28, 2017

Season of the Tomato Sammie

August is in full swing at my house. I've been married to a teacher (now guidance counselor) and football coach for 25 years (in November), so August means a lot of things. Despite my tenure in dealing with back-to-school, back-to-football season, it takes me a few weeks to adjust to the routine. The routine is, after two weeks of trying, giving up on planning anything. Are we free? Maybe, but probably not. Planning meals is a fool's errand - with one kid out of the nest and one in a bunch of activities, dinner consists mostly of what can be heated from the refrigerator or freezer.

The one exception to that is the tomato sandwich. Pat grew up on a farm and he loves puttering around in the garden early in June when the sun is high and the soil is practically begging to be planted. He's an adventurous (read: somewhat impractical) gardener. This year, he grew kale, a successful vine of Marquette grapes (not sure what we're going to do with them), as well as two red peppers (nothing like buying $8 worth of plants to yield two peppers, but it's all in good fun.)

Just in time for "no-one-is-here-for-dinner" season, we almost always achieve a bumper crop of tomatoes. We are not canners, so we got smart a few years ago and limited our varieties to cherry tomatoes for salads and beefsteak tomatoes for tomato sandwiches. Tonight, I had my first tomato sammie - eaten just the way it's supposed to be eaten, which is standing up, over the sink.

I wasn't always a tomato sandwich enthusiast. I turned my nose up at tomatoes when I was younger. I have an acquantance who told me the reason why was my system wasn't mature enough and the acidity of tomatoes was not compatible with it. I have a closer friend who had another explanation, which was, loosely interpreted: Kids can be assholes and wouldn't know good food if they were hit in the head with it.

At any rate, my system learned to love tomatoes and the simplicity of a tomato sandwich is just what I need when life gets complicated.

To make one, all you need is good bread (I recommend Waving Grains Rustic Cracked Whole Wheat, available from the Oneota Food Co-op. Jo Iverson knows her way around a loaf of bread, to say nothing of being a fantastic human being), Hellman's Real Mayonnaise (please spare me the "I like Miracle Whip" discussion. I will not engage), and some salt and pepper. Slice your tomato the same thickness of the bread, load up both sides with Hellman's, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and eat it standing over the sink or while you're walking around the perimeter of your house, watering the plants. It doesn't get any simpler than that.

Ina or Martha will want to teach you how to use foccacia or make basil infused aioli to put on your tomato sammie. Don't you do it. If you feel the need to bring it up a notch, add a slice of crisply cooked bacon. But the uncomplicated taste of a freshly-picked tomato, warmed by the sun, really is a number worthy of an encore all by itself.

August can be exhausting. Summer has made its graduated crescendo through July and into the beginning of the month, leading to the next measure of school and the start of regimented routines. Soon, the Halloween and Christmas crap will be rearing its ugly head at the local big box store and before too long, we'll be hitting the final chord of the year.

We owe ourselves the simplicity of tomato sandwiches. What are you waiting for?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Mother of the groom

Heidi's son got married this past weekend. It was an unsurprisingly beautiful and meaningful event, as one involving two wonderful, hope-filled and faithful people making promises to each other should be. My contemplative thoughts weren't, however, on the bride or groom, but on the mother of the groom. (Which is Heidi if you missed that.)

There is an episode of the first season of "The West Wing" when President Bartlet greets the secretary of agriculture (I think) who is selected to sit in the Oval Office during the State of the Union because of the line of succession thing (grab your social studies textbook if you're not following me.) Anyway, the secretary of agriculture is understandably nervous sitting amid the grandeur of the Oval Office, what with his office digs likely having lots of gray walls and seed corn caps and soil samples and hair nets and other things you would expect to be at the Department of Agriculture - to say nothing of inheriting the whole leader of the free world job if something happened up the street during the State of the Union. So the president advises as his first step, "You have a best friend? Is he smarter than you? He's your chief of staff."

Heidi is my chief of staff. Mainly because she's smarter than me and tells me things that I sometimes don't want to hear, but she is usually right about, and everyone needs a friend like that.

It got me thinking about how important mothers of the groom and chiefs of staff are, and we never really get to see all the stuff that goes into those job descriptions. Both keep things running in the left lane while staying in the right lane with an eye on the shoulder and the exits. Both provide advice and counsel only when asked for, but find elegant ways to provide it when it's not asked for and it's clear that it's needed. Both understand the "contributing to something bigger" part of their more understated, support staff role.

Where would we be without people like that?

Heidi has always amazed me, and she's dismissive when I tell her this, but like many spouses and moms who don't "work outside the home" (I hate that term - work is work, no matter what your backdrop looks like), I don't think she fully understands how many things would completely go off the rails if she woke up one day and decided not to do what she does.

It's a role that is frequently overlooked and underappreciated. When I think about the amount of stuff that I jump into at a breakneck pace while blindfolded, wearing heels, drinking a cup of coffee and eating hot soup, I'm grateful I have Heidi to grab my by the scruff of the neck when it's needed. It's frequently needed. And I'm by no means the only person in her life she supports this way.

The couple who got married are two of them. Her other kid standing beside them is another. The guy she sat next to during the ceremony - raise your hand, brother. There were a lot of us in the room.

She's the glue that holds it together, she's the safety net that catches what falls, she's the voice that says "get on it", "you can do this" or "I love you" when that's what needs to be heard. And she'll say, "shut up!" when she reads this and change the subject to something that's not about her.

That's what mothers of the groom do, but I know better. Thanks, Heids.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

He is not here

I graduated from Luther College, which is a private, liberal arts school nestled in the rolling hills of Northeast Iowa, and happens to be the community in which I now live. Due to its size and nature, Luther is a family. Our family has been rocked this summer by the loss of two of our classmates - one from a tragic car accident; the other after a brave battle with cancer and complications from a bone marrow transplant.

I wasn't closely in touch with either of them, but social media and other circumstances kept us loosely connected. And while I couldn't tell you lots of details about their lives 25 years after graduating from college, memories of who they were and the contributions they made are something I carry with me. Krista was a nonconformist who was beautiful, sensitive and brilliant. She met and married her soulmate during college and his poignant posts on Facebook talking about their family and the amazing things she did both personally and professionally are both gratifying and heartbreaking. Andrew was larger than life - he had charisma for miles and a heart as big as his smile. He did so many things for others and it's hard to come to terms with the idea that love, prayers and hope couldn't heal him and return him to his family to live to see old age. He was the unofficial mayor of every community he ever joined.

There was a big annual festival in town this past weekend, so I had the chance to run into many of our classmates. We shared stronger hugs and sad, knowing smiles. We said, "I love you." We were grateful for beautiful weather and a sense of community. We celebrated life, acknowledging how precious it is.

It made me think of the resurrection story from Matthew, and the message from the angel to the women at the tomb when they found Jesus' body missing. "He is not here; he has risen, just as he said."

I love that story for lots of different reasons, not the least of which that the men were all hiding from the authorities while the women had the chutzpah to venture out and treat the body at the gravesite. But I also love that the message, "He is not here" isn't meant to inspire sadness. It's an announcement of victory - that life now has power over the finality of death.

Mourning is a funny thing. It's a lot like laughing through tears. Our hearts grieve for what is lost, but they smile when we reflect upon and remember the significance those who have left us have left us with. We still ache, but memories, like a balm, ease the sting.

I thought of Krista and Andrew as I watched people last weekend sing, dance and play during the beautiful summer days and the clear summer nights. They would have loved the celebration of community. They are not in dark places filled with suffering and grief. They were here. And they will continue visiting anywhere they left their imprints of life and love.

My prayer is that we continue to keep our eyes and hearts open to remember to look for them.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

No one conquered the world wearing natty underpants and other truths

I'm experiencing a run of being a little more conscious of self-care lately. Like a lot of people who score off the charts on the personality tests that classify one as "nurturing" (whatever the hell that means), this is uncharacteristic for me. I would stay up all night, hike 30 miles uphill through the rain (well, maybe) or learn a new language if it meant that people would think I was neat. It's exhausting. Last week, I had time away from work and family and found myself relaxing into that warm, fluid  and delicious feeling of not needing to be responsible for anyone but myself. I had some time to think about things that I needed to do for me.

Pat gave me a loving talking-to when I got home. "Are you ok? You were stressed and obsessed with a bunch of stuff before you left, and now you're not."

I guess I forgot about what I was stressed and obsessed with. It was really, really nice. And I found myself with a bunch of energy that was more fun channeling into creative and energy-producing activities.

I can't explain why self-care is difficult for me, but I know I'm not alone. Maybe we feel selfish putting our needs before others. Maybe that nagging, annoying, continual need for approval focuses our attention outward. Maybe self-care feels too self-indulgent. Maybe we're gluttons for self-punishment. But I'm smart enough to know that the notion of filling your own tank before you can drive the carpool has a lot of truth to it.

Not long ago, I was cleaning out my underwear drawer. Underwear drawers hold a universe of secrets. And while I was weeding through the pairs that were worn out, the pairs that creep up, the pairs that look good but don't fit very well, the pairs that look horrible but fit great - it occurred to me that my underwear drawer was a good metaphor for my self-care model.

Too often, we make due with what is almost right, but not quite. We'll put up with the shot elastic in the waistband because we just don't want to take time to throw that pair out and grab another. That hole just isn't big enough to throw them out and reach for something different. That bra doesn't really fit, but who is going to see?

The problem is, we know. We forget about it for a while when focusing on other things, but when you get up and your underwear has ventured into spaces where it doesn't belong, it's an instant reminder that we need to attend to some things. Our drawer is so full of stuff that doesn't work that it's hard to find the good stuff.

A friend of mine (nameless, but she knows who she is) told me once that she feels guilty buying new underwear because she has so many other things she needs to spend money on.

Friends, I'm all for fiscal responsibility, but the moment we set ourselves aside so much that we're finding financial reasons not to replace our granny panties, we need some self-examination.

Here's my self-care start-up plan:

- I'm working on clearing my drawer of things that don't or no longer serve me. This is specifically in the area of volunteering. If it's something that I'm excited about, instills passion or am convinced that this will make so much of a difference that I'm willing to invest my time in it, it's a yes. Anything else (such as this person will be so disappointed if I quit or decline), it's a thanks so much for asking me, but no.

- My drawer will be cleared of time-sucking activities that are not productive. I'm scheduling email, text and social media time. No more casually wandering because I'm bored and unfocused. If I don't respond to you right away, that's why.

- I'm more intentional about what I'm putting in my drawer, including the things I read, the time I spend and the activities I pursue. I have some stuff I want to accomplish before I turn 50, and my creativity and mental energy need to be directed there. That's ok.

My intent in writing this in part is to inspire. Another big part is accountability. Thanks for indulging me.

No one conquered the world wearing natty underpants. Let's get after it.