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.


Sunday, July 2, 2017

Over 40s: You're not done dreaming yet

I don't remember when I decided I was done dreaming.

Maybe it was when I turned 40. For some reason, I recall 40 being the magic age when dreams of being on Broadway and writing a novel should be shelved. They would take the role of good, yet passive memories. Rather than burning like passion within, they'd be looked at fondly, nostalgically - much like paging through a yearbook or a photo album.

Forty indicated it was time to be more serious about the whole adult thing. Time to focus time and attention on things that contribute financially. The things that stirred and inspired me were now being lived out in my kids, and it was now their time.

I didn't resent letting my dreams go to focus on my family, but I did miss them. There were times when I wanted to say, "I was good at this once. People thought I could do something really special." But I found contentment in encouraging others to follow the path where their gifts led them, and I decided that was enough. Except it wasn't.

When Tom came to me two years ago and asked me to choreograph our high school's production of "The Sound of Music," I laughed. Dancing was something I "used to do." There would be nothing for me to offer at this stage of the game.

I'm lucky Tom can be persistent. I joined the production team, and it's among the best experiences I ever had. Still, I kept waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, "Sorry - we were wrong. You really can't do this anymore. Thanks for your enthusiasm, but we found someone else to take over. Can you make bars for intermission?"

I don't remember when I decided I wasn't fearless anymore, but I miss that, too.

Anyway, Tom, Kristen and I produced the local community theatre production of "Spamalot" this summer. During the eight-week rehearsal cycle, I caught myself worrying about whether I had the chops to actually get what I needed to do done. My inner voice kept saying, "I haven't danced in years. That extra weight has settled around my middle and I don't look like a dancer. I couldn't do a high kick if you held a gun to my head. I can't keep all the steps straight - how am I ever going to teach this?" But with a talented cast and Tom and Kristen's skill, it all came together. The production was fantastic, and it's among the best experiences I ever had.

During dress rehearsals, I confessed to Kristen my fears of being inadequate - of not "having it" anymore. You have to know that Kristen is beautiful and bright - with her carriage and confidence, I always have regarded her as being larger than life. She's an actor - a brilliant one. Like so many people skilled in their craft, she is a passionate teacher. So I was surprised to learn that she wrestles with inadequacy, too.

When in the hell did we decide we weren't good enough? Is it age? Is it appearance? Is it prioritizing time and attention on other things? Is it settling?

I read a story once about a mangy dog that hung around a playground. It was friendly, but it suffered from neglect and was understandably smelly. From time to time, the kids on the playground would find a stick to scratch it behind its ears, and the dog would sit, content to have some attention for even a short while.

Life can sneak up on us that way. We keep giving of ourselves, settling for and asking for less and less, until one day, we realize that we're making due with being scratched with a stick.

It's high time we settled for more. If you're not going to be the lead in your own life, who is?

Coincidentally, Jeni recently posted this on social media: "I used to think that if music wasn't a full-time career option, then it wasn't something I could pursue at all. I used to think that, because I didn't have 'the look,' then I certainly couldn't be a full-time musician. I used to think that the older I got, the less likely anyone would even want to hear me, even if I did try. And Yet, here I am, 43 years old, looking older and thicker than ever, and getting set to play my first ever blues festival this weekend. Take that 20 year-old thinking! Turns out some pretty kick ass thing can happen after 40."

Amen, sister. I saw the videos from the blues festival, and you slayed it.

Take heart, over 40s. We're not done yet. Get out of your own way. Show those feelings of "can't", "won't" and "shouldn't" the door. Drag out the dance shoes, the ball glove, the notebook, the football cleats, the saxophone, the dissertation draft, the guitar, the invention, the idea, the course catalog, the paddle board.

I don't remember when I decided I was done dreaming, but I know exactly when I decided to pull my dreams off the shelf and allowed them to stir me back to life.

I hope today is your day.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Relish in building the new

I'm listening to the March winds doing battle with my house right now. Despite the shining sun, the winds are racing. The winds' moans sound ominous, and in spite of strong roof, walls and windows, I feel vulnerable and anxious - and I'm longing for the wind to transition to the gentle breezes that will carry the first real warmth of spring.

My anxiousness isn't the wind's fault, but it's a metaphor for a place I'm at right now. News and social media feeds give me a daily dose of local, national and world angst. Professional transitions are keeping me hopping, and even the stuff that brings me joy to work on is feeling like a chore. I often feel like I'm standing outside and standing directly in the face the wind that's blowing so relentlessly - exhausting me as I try to stand up to it and keep it from tearing me to shreds.

I'm reading a book by Shauna Niequist where she describes catching herself praying much in the way you order breakfast: this is what I want. I'm not interested in being shaped in significant ways, I want things to be easier. I want the waiting to be over. I want the angst to end. She says - and this is so great and so true: "I couldn't make peace with uncertainty - but there's nothing in the biblical narrative that tells us certainty is part of the deal."

We're early enough in the season of Lent in the Christian calendar to know that the journey to the promise Easter brings is pretty long. We're plodding along in our individual wildernesses where we are exhausted standing against raging winds and long for remembered days of certainty and clear direction.

But I stopped fighting long enough to pay attention this week.

Tom's dad died eight years ago. His dad fervently loved his wife and his family and his life and he was taken from all of them far too early. Tom misses his dad every day, but honors his memory by living the values that he was so intentionally taught.

The anniversary of his dad's death is hard for him and his family, but this year, the tone was different. Tom posted on Facebook Friday morning that though his world changed when his father is no longer in it, he is making peace with the change. "The secret to change is not spending all your time and energy into fighting the old, but instead, relish in building the new ... I surely have moments where I am mad, I am sad, and I just want to fight change and go back to the way it was. But I will not let it define me. Both of my parents taught me better than that." He went on to say that instead of longing for the days when his dad was with him that he would continue to celebrate his dad in the way he lives his life each day forward.

Everyone needs a Tom in their life, and I'm so fortunate to have one in mine.

I realized this week that I have been expecting change in my life to be guided by some sort of cosmic Siri - one that will notify me when a turn is coming up and recalibrate if I miss something. What I realized by reading what Tom had to say is that sometimes, life serves up wrong turns because that's where the really interesting stuff tends to happen - even if we don't know about it at the time.

I'm realizing change needs to start with me and what I'm willing to experience in order to recalibrate my journey in a way that's useful.

I'm taking a page from Tom's book and thinking about rather than turning into the relentless wind, maybe it's time to turn my back to it. I can still feel it and it's still shaping me, but rather than blowing me over, it's moving me forward. It's giving me energy so I can see the happy, see the hope, see the opportunity that always springs forth from the stuff I think is icky - if I'm willing to look hard enough.

If you're anxious, if you are weary, if you are exhausted, or if any of this is resonating, think about turning your back to the wind. It's a brave thing to do. You may not know where it's carrying you, but that's where it's doing the stuff that's really interesting. Let it do its work.