Tuesday, February 13, 2018

What the world needs now

Wednesday, Feb. 14 is Ash Wednesday. It's also Valentine's Day, but more on that in a minute.
Rev. Douglas Sparks in 2016 - downloaded from the Rochester Post-Bulletin.

Several years ago, my perspective on Ash Wednesday changed. Dana, one of my colleagues who is a dear friend, is married to an Episcopal minister. The early morning of that particular Ash Wednesday, I was rushing to my office in sub-zero temperatures when I saw a crowd on a street corner. In the middle was Rev. Doug, imposing ashes on the people hustling to their destinations. I watched as he, bundled in a thick jacket, boots, hat and scarf, lovingly formed the sign of the cross on foreheads, and the cold turned his breath to frost as he mouthed "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."

I stepped forward to receive the ashes and tears sprang as I considered how Christ-like his gesture was. "Bless you," he said, patting my arm as he turned to the next person.

There have been a few moments in my life where the world came to a screeching halt and I came to the realization that much of what I stress out about on a daily basis just isn't important. Rev. Doug's Ash Wednesday gesture was one of those moments.

To hear the news headlines tell it, the juxtaposition of Ash Wednesday falling on Valentine's Day is one of the more significant conflicts facing our world this week. And in a way, I get it - the mother of all Hallmark holidays tends to be more about romance and chocolate than mortality and ashes. You don't have to be a marketing genius to know that  "Roses are red, violets are blue, I am from dust, and you surely are, too" doesn't play well amid roses, cupids and red heats.

But the more I think about it, the Ash Wednesday/Valentine's Day combo seems to be a perfect metaphor for what the world seems to need more of right now - a little more humility and a little more love. We only need to visit our news feeds to be reminded of the conflict, turf wars, violence, poverty, discrimination and any number of horrible things turning the world to ashes around us on a daily basis.

But ashes are a great equalizer. No matter who we are, no matter how blessed, no matter what we think we have achieved in this lifetime, we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

What we need to contemplate is how to sift through the ashes and find purpose.

This Wednesday, I'll receive ashes. I'll also throw my arms open to those people and things in my life that have fallen to ashes and need some love and attention. I'll look for purpose in the grieving, the sick, the marginalized, the depressed and the downtrodden. I'll reach out to those who feel unworthy, unwanted or unloved. I'll try to find patience, tenderness and grace where it's needed. I'll try to make some gestures that are charitable and kind.

And I'll probably eat some chocolate. I'm no saint.

What the world needs now is love. What will you seek amid the hearts and the ashes?

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The immigrant in all of us

This is one of those posts that I wrestle with. Immigration is complicated. It has layers of complexity. It is usually argued emotionally, and understandably so. So let's start with emotion.

One of my son's close friends came to the United States when he was a young child with his parents, who were fleeing Russia.

To say his parents gave up everything to seek a better life in this country is an understatement. They still have family in Russia. They both had professional jobs. When they arrived here, they had nothing, and started over again working long and hard laborious hours, including late and overnight shifts, while they worked to make sure their son was never on his own. 

They persevered. They now are contributing members of our community. Their son is a good student, a talented athlete and an exceptionally driven person. A senior in college, he is driven to a career path that can help him support his parents as they grow older, much in the way they supported him.

Another of my son's close friends came to the United States when he was a young child with his parents, who were fleeing El Salvador. His parents obtained Temporary Protect Status, which allowed them to stay in this country, to work, to have a drivers license and to live as Americans. He thrived as a student, student athlete and community leader, and is now an award-winning teacher in Minnesota. His siblings were born here. 

Another family we know relocated from Poland after the father was invited to leave. His alternative was to face jail and even death. A follower of Lech Walesa's solidarity movement, he was put on a list  after fighting for a cause he believed in. They raised their children in our small town, most of whom went to college and are now raising families of their own.

These families I speak of aren't just contributing members of our community. They are our neighbors. They are loved. They are part of us. And I think of the lives they may have been stuck with, or the lives they might have even lost, if they didn't have the option of seeking something better in America.

But immigrants are stealing our jobs. They're terrorizing our country. They're costing us money. They don't pay taxes and they're stressing programs like Social Security and Medicaid.

That argument also is emotional. It's also inaccurate.

There are hundreds of ways to justify the right-wing agenda to curb illegal immigration. We need jobs. We feel unsafe. We're scared. We don't understand. We need to get a handle on things. We need to protect ourselves. America first.

All of those things may or may not be true, but I do know that these actions, along with the anger and fear from many (not all) who support no-holds-barred immigration policy represent a horribly naive view of how to prevent terrorism in this country. An audit of acts of terrorism in the United States since 1800 shows that many terrorists perpetrating crimes within this country are born and raised right here in the U.S.

Repealing DACA and laws that will repeal programs like Temporary Protect Status are in the works. This provides a very real problem to these friends and neighbors who live among us.

Deporting immigrants who have become members of our community to countries they have no knowledge of accomplishes nothing. Preventing desperate refugees from entering America after an extensive vetting and sponsorship process does not prevent acts of terror on our shores. What it does do is help fear fuel our intolerance just a little bit more, eating away at the empathy we have for those who are suffering in plain sight. That simply is not a Christian value, and I'll argue with anyone who tries to say it is.

We have all sought refuge for something better at some point in our lives. And, many of us know the taste of desperation. It's bitter with fear and it aches with hopelessness. I'm not willing to yank hope out from under someone's feet because I'm afraid.

I have no quarrel with those who want to reform immigration. But it is incumbent on us as patriots to lobby for immigration reform that is strategic, evidence-based and works to solve the problem, which is getting a handle on who is in this country illegally. That step isn't enough. We also need immigration reform that makes sense and has heart. Not a policy that sends a young man who has committed his life to educating our kids back to a country he has never known. Or his parents, leaving their U.S.-born children behind. That's just madness.

Here's what we need to do:

- Start conversations. Not just with the people who agree with you. Reach out and be willing to have tough discussions with people on both sides of the aisle. Tell them the stories of the immigrants you know. This is the single most powerful step to change we can take.

- Call your Representatives and Senators. Better yet, find out who is on their list of major campaign donors and call them.

- Learn the immigrations stories within your community, your local businesses and your schools. Lend your voice to those who are at risk. Their need is urgent and the time is now.

- Use your voice. It's easy to do nothing when you worry that speaking up will risk your job, your business, your friends, your relationships.

Nothing worthwhile was ever easy.

It's Epiphany. Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated the birth of a child of desperate immigrants who were fleeing terror and oppression. He went on to save humankind as we know it.

This is our Bethlehem, friends. Let's get after it.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Maybe it's time for a different bike

I belong to a yoga and cycling studio in our community. Even if you have only read a few of my posts, you understand that fitness perfection isn't the goal here. As Heidi so aptly puts it, "It takes a lot of work to keep a body looking this mediocre." The classes are varied and they keep me on a schedule. I also love the community there - people like Gretchen, Sarah, Charis, Rhonda and Rachael are ass-kickers, but they keep it real. They nod empathetically when I tell them, for example, that I don't know how the class is going to go because I'm suffering from a food hangover from eating half a chicken-bacon-ranch pizza the night before. Or a sleep hangover because the dog wanted to go outside at 3:30 a.m. And again at 4:30 a.m.

My intentions are always good, but the execution is frequently imperfect. This morning was one of those times. Class starts at 5:45 a.m. I am usually up by that hour, but not anywhere near full strength. The temperature read -18 on the dash as I made my way to the studio, and I was the last one to show up for class.

I usually try to get to class in time to get on "my" bike. It's the middle bike in the second row. If "my" bike is taken, I'll find another in the second row. If I absolutely have to, I'll get in the front row, but only in the middle area (under the fans). But this morning, since I was the last one at class, I actually needed to use the instructor bike, which Sweet Girl (the instructor - I won't name her because she's my son's age and I don't want to embarrass her) wheeled into the far left position in the front row.

We started class, and it was immediately clear to me that I had gotten used to the tension on the bikes I'm used to riding. If you've never ridden a stationary bike, you adjust the tension with a lever that simulates riding on a flat road vs. a small hill or what they call a "sticky" hill (I call it a "crying" hill, but anyway.) I set my lever on my normal flat road setting and went from 0 to Crying Hill in two seconds.

I ended up doing the flat roads on a setting that usually makes my legs fly out of control and the hills - well, let's just say I felt like crying a lot. Near the end of class, Sweet Girl said, "We have time for one more sequence, so now instead of one more, you have two more!" If I hadn't been gripping my handlebars so hard I would have given her the finger.

During the class, I had been looking at my bike's monitor, which keeps track of the amount of miles I've logged and the estimated number of calories I've burned. Both were low numbers relative to the amount of sweat rolling off my body. I got off the bike somewhat dejected - I had shown up and gotten through the class, but that's about all I could say about it.

Until I looked at my fitness watch. Turns out, I burned 100 more calories than I usually do during a class. I went from 0 to euphoric in 2 seconds.

I had to drive out of town for a meeting today and I thought about how this morning's workout is so representative of the ruts I get myself into from time to time. What today showed me so clearly is that a lot of the time, I feel like I'm working hard, but not getting any results. Steve told me one time that work is a lot like running training - some days, the running is great and others, it goes terribly. What matters is that you keep getting up every day to go running, and it eventually averages out. Steve is very wise. This morning, it didn't matter that the workout went well, but what mattered is I got up and did it. The fact that it worked for me is just a bonus.

Other times, I feel like I'm working from the minute my feel hit the floor to when my head hits the pillow and I still don't feel like I'm getting any results. Getting out of that rut requires some introspection. What are some of the things that are taking time and energy, but just aren't serving me well or serving me at all anymore?

The beginning of the year is perfect to take time to take stock of some of these things. What is necessarily hard? What should we re-commit to that might be a little harder at the beginning? What is hard, but doesn't need to be? What do we need to let go? What do we need to do to get to the next level, if that's important to us? What do we need to look at differently?

Life has challenges and layers and pulls us in different directions and it's super easy to get off course or stuck in a rut with any number of things that rob us of focus and intention. Food, alcohol, persistent "busyness", Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, excessive exercising, self-doubt, self-obsession - it's all stuff that can take up so much space, we get up one morning and realize that we're stuck in a rut.

It's ok. It happens. Being aware of it is a first step.

The second step? Get on a different bike. We got this.

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?