Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Last Day of 2015: Assessment and Goals

In an hour, I will walk to the beach.  As the sun rises over the ocean, I'll spend some time letting go of 2015.  I'll think about the aspects of the year that I'd like to wash away from me.  And throughout today and tomorrow, I'll spend time thinking about what I'd like to see more of in 2016.

Let me just capture some thoughts here.  I've already written a post about my spiritual aspirations (preview: encouraging light over dark and building community) at my theology blog this morning.  Tomorrow on this blog, I'll spend time thinking about my creative accomplishments and goals.

So, onward:

My biggest achievement, perhaps:

This was the year of motorcycles, which presented me many opportunities for facing fear and moving through it.  I was terrified to ride on the bike behind my spouse and terrified to learn to operate a bike.  I was terrified when we rode by ourselves and terrified to ride in a group.

This process made me realize how rarely I move outside of my comfort zone.  When I try something new--whether it be food, exercise, a creative activity, a spiritual experience--it's usually not very far away from what's familiar.

I saw one of those pithy Facebook posts that encourages us to do something that terrifies us once a day. 

Really?  Am I the only one who has to work 45-55 hours a week?  That doesn't leave a lot of time to be terrified.

But I should make time to move outside of my comfort zone more often.  And once in awhile, I should move way far outside of my comfort zone.


I have done a decent job of keeping up with basic eating and exercise goals.  Most weeks, I do a vigorous work out (think spin class) 4-6 days a week.  I almost always have 3 vigorous work outs a week.  In between, I also walk and swim.  I usually eat a diet full of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, and most of what I eat is made at home.  I floss every day.

Where I could improve:  My dental hygienist was blunt--I need to brush my teeth more often.  So my goal will be to brush my teeth when I come home from work or when I take my contact lenses out.  If I wait for the traditional time of before bed, I might miss that tooth brushing, since I tend to nod off while watching TV at night. 

I used to think I nodded off because TV is so boring, and that's partly true.  I also need to be more intentional about my wine consumption.  The first glass is fine--but I need to drink the second glass, if there is one, closer to the time I intend to fall asleep, so that I'm not fighting the urge to sleep much too early.

I'd like to do more in the evenings than watch TV.  This goal ties in to my goal of being present.

I would also like to eat more fruits and veggies, and to drink V8 that has extra antioxidants.  That's my ongoing goal.

I should do more strength training.  When I arrive early at spin class, I'd like to go ahead and pick up the weights that are in the spin room now.  If I could do that 2-3 days a week, that would be enough for this year.  Likewise with stretching--I'd like to do some simple stretching throughout the day.  I don't have time to go to yoga classes or to add time-consuming strength routines to my week.  But I can do a smidge more each day.

I plan to spend more time in the pool.  I will swim a bit, stretch a bit, work against the resistance of the water.  I want to do this every day, but if I do this 4-5 days a week, I'll be happy.


I continue to wish that I had time to read more--but I spend a lot of time online, and some of that is reading time, but a lot of that time could be better spent reading books.

This year, I'm going to make a list of every book I read.  If I read 2 books a month, that's 24 books by the end of the year.  I used to read 24 books a month.  But let me not get lost in what used to be.  I will read 2 books a month, plus one volume of poetry each month.  That's at least 3 books a month.  That's my goal.

Being Present:

I've gotten better at looking away from the computer screen when someone sits down in front of me in the office.  Now I need to work on being present to others outside of my office.

I've done a good job of adding breaks into my work day to actually talk to people, usually over meals or tea.  Now I need to do that outside of work.

I want to continue meeting with my quilting group of friends I've had for a long time--we've done a fairly good job through 2015 meeting every 4-6 weeks.  I want to continue.

I want to do more with friends from church.  I'm not sure what I want that to look like at this point, but I've enjoyed having groups over periodically.  Perhaps I don't want to do more, so much as I want to keep making that effort.  It would be good to see church friends socially (by which I mean outside of Sunday morning) at least once a month.

And I have similar goals for my other friends.  I am slowly making peace with the fact that my friendships won't be the intense, daily friendships of my college and grad school years.  But I'd like to see people who make me happy at least once a month.

I've spent parts of this past year feeling disconnected:  from people, from activities that once brought me joy, from essential parts of myself.  Part of my disconnection was job-related:  we've had new bosses and new expectations, and it's been a difficult year when it comes to work.  Part of my disconnection is in my head:  I start to believe that no one would notice if I didn't exist, and thus, I start to feel a bit more like I don't exist.

I want 2016 to be the year of reconnecting.  I began to feel a bit more reconnected as this year came to an end, and I want to build on that.

My overall goal:

To remember all the ways my life is important--I am living a life in sync with my values--at least most days I am, and to take another Christmas lesson forward, from It's a Wonderful Life, other people's lives are diminished when one of us is gone.  I may wish I could do more to make this world a place of peace and justice--but in my small ways, in my immediate periphery, I am doing just this.

I want to be more committed to peace than justice.  Justice-minded Kristin can be a bit harsh and legalistic.  We have quite enough of that quality in the world. 

I want to be one of the light-bringers, the light protectors.  I want to be part of the tribe of encouragement.

I want to keep the Christmas message in my head all year.  I want to remember that although we live in a land of deep darkness, the darkness will not overcome the light.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Angels and Epiphanies

Yesterday morning, I had another successful motorcycle session.  My spouse followed behind me on the bigger motorcycle, just in case I got in any trouble that I couldn't get myself out of.

Our neighborhood is on a grid, so I went in a loop across the less-travelled part of the streets--it was about a mile to cover the whole loop.  I only stalled the bike twice--as with manual transmissions in cars, when I'm in first gear, I want to release the clutch too quickly--or I forget to release it at all (that might be a secret to success, now that I think of it).

I confess to not stopping at stop signs--not even a rolling stop.  I slowed down to see if there was oncoming traffic; when there was a car, I came to a complete stop.  No traffic?  I rolled right through.  I need to stop doing that.  I'm on city streets, after all, not a practice course.  If I get a ticket, I'll be annoyed with myself.

We thought we might ride again in the afternoon, but it was not to be.  We had an extensive conversation with a representative from a solar company--we have decided to put solar panels on our roof.  In a way, it's not cost-effective--we won't start recouping our investment until 8-10 years from now.  But we get more attic insulation as part of the deal and a tankless water heater.  We were going to need to replace our water heater in the not-too-distant future.  There's a tax credit for doing all of this, and I won't be surprised if 2016 is the last year for this credit.

I tend to think of us as people who move frequently, but we haven't been those people in many years.  We stayed in our last house for over 10 years.  We know that we want to stay in this house until we're old, and we hope that rising sea levels won't outpace us.

Between our motorcycle riding and our solar consultation, we lounged by the pool and in the pool--yes, in the pool on December 29!  It was chilly at first, but I got used to it.  I want 2016 to be the year of more swimming/exercising in the pool.

I told my spouse about my dream where the Angel Gabriel appeared and sang, "My Dog Has Fleas"--that classic used to tune the ukulele.  I said, "There can be no doubt in my mind--I am supposed to buy a ukulele and learn to play.  I am sure that the Angel Gabriel meant to tell me that there are songs that only I can sing, that the world waits in eager anticipation for my compositions." 

My spouse said, "How can there be any doubt?"

I love my spouse.  I love that I can say such things, and that he's not appalled by my irreverent humor.  I love the fact that although we both laugh, we're both a bit serious too.

I plan to turn it all into a poem.  At some point in the future, some industrious grad student will look at my papers and wonder why I return to angels again and again.  It's partly the time of year, of course.  I'm part of a liturgical church, and the texts return us to angels periodically.  I'm also part of a society that embraces angels and uses them to their own purposes.

This morning I was going back through blog posts to determine how I spent the last days of the last several years.  I came across this blog post which had strong elements that could be combined into a poem. I pulled out my trusty purple legal pad, and then I thought, why am I doing it this way?

The answer:  because that's what I always do.  This morning, I decided to skip a few steps.  I created a Word document and posted the chunk of blog post into it.  Then I played:  I made sentences into lines, and I added bits and pieces.  It's a poem that thinks about the angels that appear throughout the Christmas stories with important messages.  I began by pasting together all the angel messages and had a rhyme that I didn't anticipate:

"Go to Bethlehem and see,
Don’t go back to Herod, Flee."

You may or may not recognize the message to the shepherds, the message to the Wise Men, and the message to Mary and Joseph about the murderous Herod.  I may take those 2 lines and see what else I could do with a more formalist approach.  I envision a different poem altogether, not a reworking of what I created this morning.

The poem considers the distant wise men, studying the stars and thus present for the epiphany.  It ends this way:

"The stars sing a softer song
than those angel choirs,
a song that most of us will never hear."

It's been a great morning already.  Now it's off to spin class, and to see what else the day brings.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Vacation Report: Back on the Motorcycle

What a treat it is to have these days of mostly unstructured time!  I often end the year with some extra vacation days, and that's fine with me.  Through the year, I don't want to use them recklessly, in case I get sick or a relative gets sick or I have some other unexpected reason to need them.  Thus, the extra time at the end of the year.

I went into this week with several goals in mind.  They were goals for last week too, but last week turned a bit hectic, with a friend in the hospital and the Christmas Eve festivities.  So, yesterday, I was determined to make a bit of progress.

I wrote four more sentences on the short story that I want to finish by Thursday.  Sigh.  I remember when I could blaze through the day and finish writing a short story in a day. 

I did get to a great spin class.  This week needs to be one of more exercising and less eating.

My spouse and I took several hours and by lots and lots of trial and error, we finally got the pool pump operating again.  I spent almost 20 minutes in the pool.  Once I got used to it, it wasn't bad, with the sun shining on me, the 84 degree air, and the water temp around 70.  Yes, December 28, and still in the pool--ahhhhh.

I took the turkey carcass and made stock--and from that stock, a delicious pot of turkey and dumplings.

The most exciting piece of news:  I got back on the smaller of our 2 large motorcycles, and I remembered how to operate it.  I haven't been on a bike to be in charge of it since July.  Back then, the bike seemed so very heavy, especially after the lighter bikes I'd trained on. 

But yesterday, I picked it back up again quickly.  I was able to go rather quickly into first gear, which means I picked my feet up and zoomed down the street.  Before I'd been scared to take my feet off the pavement--yesterday, no problem.  I got into 3rd gear, which I hadn't done before.

What was the difference?  Yesterday, I practiced on my nice, wide, deserted street.  In July, I tried to learn to ride our bike on a boat parking lot--not much room to go straight before I was trying to curve around.

But I think the main difference was having some time and distance from the July events (I wrote several blog posts in July; this one probably explains it all best).   I had spent the training on a very small course, two days of my training in intensively hot weather, and one day of people with me having spectacular crashes.  I got increasingly frustrated and spooked.

From there, I transitioned to our larger bike, which in July felt impossibly large and heavy.  And it was July, so it was still hot, both from the sun beaming on my head and the heat shimmering up from the pavement.

Yesterday was warm, but I didn't break into an instant sweat--so much easier to control the bike with my hands when they're not slick with sweat.  There was a strange instance where several cops zoomed down the street, stopped for a minute, and then zoomed back up the street.  I reminded myself that I have a license and that I own the bike and that I wasn't doing anything illegal.

I spent half an hour practicing, and that was enough--another secret to my success--not wiping myself out to the point where I make stupid mistakes.

Today, I will have a similar day.  I will sit by the pool and read.  I've already written a draft of a poem and another few sentences of my short story.  I'll practice the motorcycle some more.

And the best part--I still have some days off!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Helping Refugees as We Remember All Our Innocents Slaughtered

Today we remember the slaughter of the innocent boys of Bethlehem, killed by Herod as he tries to get rid of any possible competition, even if that competition is newly born and not likely to challenge him for decades.

The wise men arrive at Herod's palace asking where they might find this new king; they assume that the old ruler would be the logical place to start.  Herod asks them to report back to him, so that he might pay tribute too.  But he actually means to kill the new king.

An angel warns the wise men not to go back to Herod, and so they don't.  But Herod knows they were headed to Bethlehem, and so he issues orders that all the male children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem be killed.  Today is the day that we honor the lost lives of those innocent children.

We might shake our heads at this juxtaposition of martyrdom and Christmas.  Like Reza Aslan in Zealot, we might discount this story since we don't read about it in historical records, as we surely would if such a mass slaughter had really happened.  But historians of all sorts would remind us that such slaughters were common during Roman times.

Let us take a minute to think about the modern Herods in our world.  We see no shortage of evil dictators who slaughter whole swaths of the population for a variety of reasons.

Let us take a minute to think about the Holy Family, transformed into refugees, fleeing for their lives with just the clothes on their backs.  Here in our modern world, we see no shortage of people transformed from regular citizens to refugees in just a matter of hours.
In a dream, Joseph and Mary are warned by an angel to flee.  Off they go to Egypt, according to one Gospel, off they go to become refugees.  At the end of this year which has seen more mass migrations/exiles/refugees than any since the end of World War II, my thoughts return to the flight to Egypt often.

Maybe we don't want to think on a huge, global scale.  The human brain was not meant for such horror.  Some of us become immobilized.  But we could help refugees on a smaller scale.

There's always money that we could donate, but maybe we want a more hands-on project.  We could make school kits or personal care kits for groups like Lutheran World Relief.  Many of those kits will go to refugees.  For more, go to this part of the LWR website.

It's also a good day to consider the ways we are Herod.  How do we lash out to protect ourselves?  We may not literally slaughter a whole town of babies, but most of us could do better at nourishing the next generations:  the kids in our churches, the students in our schools, the younger folks in the work force.

Today on this feast day where we remember the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, let us recommit ourselves to love.   We can also resolve to help those who are harmed by the Herods of our world.  We can resolve to let love rule our actions, not fear.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sunday Snapshots from a Holiday Week

Today I have that tired feeling, that achy, let me just sit here and stare at my computer, gosh I'm tired feeling.

I also have that oh dear goodness, the first week of Christmas vacation has zoomed right by.  If I'm not careful, I won't get everything done that I had planned to do.

In writing terms, here's what I want to accomplish this week:

--I want to finish the story I started in early November.
--I want to get back to an earlier goal of writing two poems a week.
--I want to make some plans for 2016.

I should be able to do that, right?

In around the house terms, I want to get a bookcase sorted.  I'm almost done.  We need to figure out what's going on with the pool pump.  We need to sort through the Christmas leftovers--we are not going to be able to eat all this food before it goes bad.  I have some seeds to plant.

Let me also this morning capture some of the events of past days, so that I don't lose them:

--My spouse took out the garbage yesterday.  He said, "It's going to be some smelly garbage this week, with all the wrappers from the meats and the rotting pumpkins from the front yard."  The interesting juxtapositions of holidays continue!

--Because the pumpkins rotted in the front yard, we have some pumpkin seeds that have sprouted.  Will they be able to survive and give us pumpkins?  Stay tuned.

--We have a tomato plant flourishing in our front window box.  Will it give us tomatoes?  Stay tuned.

--Because we are lazy gardeners, our plants in the back have a second chance at giving us veggies.  A few months ago, worms and ants stripped the plants (peppers and tomatoes) of all their leaves, leaving desolate stalks.  But now, they've regenerated, and we have some teeny tomatoes and peppers.

--Yesterday, I had a craving for cheese straws.  I vaguely remember my grandmother making these at Christmas, although it doesn't seem like something she'd make.  Still, it's a tradition from the U.S. south, and we had a late afternoon invitation, so they seemed like the perfect take-along.  I made this recipe from the Smitten Kitchen site.  I was a bit disappointed, but we ate them all, and my spouse woke up craving them.

--The Smitten Kitchen site kept launching a Home Depot ad--what makes Home Depot think that a person on a quest for interesting recipes would be a do-it-yourselfer when it comes to home repair?

--When we left the mosque on Christmas Day, a member pressed some presents into our hands.  One of them was a magazine/ad collection publication.  The front proclaims an ad for a company that is "The leader in Sharia-compliant home financing."  We get all sorts of advertising in our various mailboxes, but we've never gotten that one.  Clearly some companies understand their demographics.

I sense an interesting poem brewing.  Epiphany approaches--always a time of interesting juxtapositions!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Delights of Christmas 2015

After our disaster with the turkey liquid slopping across the kitchen (for more, see this blog post), we had a delightful Christmas.  Of course, for me, most Christmas days are delightful--it's the time afterwards, as the season slips away, that can depress me.

Yesterday, I wrote this as a Facebook post:  "We've had a great Christmas, a wonderful Advent season, and an amazing Thanksgiving. I find myself wishing that it was the Monday before Thanksgiving so that I could experience it all again."

It's true:  our Thanksgiving was unusually satisfying, and I managed to attain balance during most days of Advent.  I loved Christmas Eve, and Christmas day was delightful too.  There are some Christmases that I am haunted by past Christmases and by how I wanted it to be but it wasn't--happily, this Christmas was calm, in terms of emotions.

There were the usual delights, the great food for example:

We ate inside; last year we balanced plates on our laps outside.  This year, I wanted to enjoy the trees and the Christmas music--and to avoid the heat and drenching humidity:

Our Christmas day took an unusual turn when we left at 1:10 to go to our church to be part of a group that took a peace lily and a card to the mosque that's down the street from our Lutheran church.  On the fourth Sunday in Advent, church members had an opportunity to write good wishes on the card:

It was an amazing experience, and for more on that, see this in-depth post on my theology blog.

It took longer than I anticipated, but if anyone dropped by while we were gone, we didn't find out about it.  We had invited lots of people, but in a casual way, over for the noon meal or for brisket later or for drinks or other treats.  But it was a low-key end to the day, which was fine.

We did go out for a brief drive to see a house in Dania Beach with an amazing light show.  The lights were synced to music. 

Photo by Pam Ward

On the way home, my spouse said, "Look at that moon."

Photo by Pam Ward

I need more of these reminders to look up, to appreciate the natural world and celestial light shows that rival our earthly creations.

This morning, as I was downloading photos from yesterday, I came across this one from our church's butterfly garden.  My spouse took it yesterday as we waited for the group to gather to go to the mosque.

Photo by Carl Berkey-Abbott

It's another good reminder of the beauty that surrounds me every day, the beauty that I often forget to notice.

butterfly garden flower that looks like a sea creature
Photo by Carl Berkey-Abbott

Friday, December 25, 2015

Beating Back the Dark

We have had the first disaster of Christmas morning.  As he got ready to grill the turkey, my spouse opened the turkey packaging on the counter, not in the sink--turkey liquid everywhere!  This event led to the annual Christmas decontaminating of surfaces, and my sinking suspicion that we may have missed some germs.

Next year we will cook the turkey in the oven, as God intended.  Or maybe we will do something simpler--like have hamburgers.

Every year, as Christmas approaches, I watch cooking shows and see recipes I want to try.  Instead of choosing one festive meat, we often choose several, thus leading to the annual discussion of what we can reasonably eat and what should go in the freezer.

In the Advent days of planning, I forget how sleep deprived we will be on Christmas morning; last night we stayed after the 11 p.m. service to count money and make the bank deposit.  We didn't get to bed until after 2 a.m.

I forget how appealing a simpler approach will seem on Christmas morning, especially as I'm cleaning turkey slop from every surface.

But let me not focus on this disaster--which, as disasters go, is not horrible.  After all, we could have discovered this morning, instead of Wednesday morning, that we were out of propane gas.  But since we found out on Wednesday, we have plenty of gas for grilling.  Because I waited so long to buy a turkey, I bought it fresh, not frozen, so the bird was ready to cook  this morning.  The weather is beautiful.  My spouse and I did not let the day/week get derailed in arguments and blame and bad feelings.

Let me remember some joys of yesterday:

--My friend who has spent over a week in the hospital was finally released.

--Because she was so late in getting to leave the hospital, I got to be part of a team that helped her wrap her Christmas presents.

--I made chicken stock for today's recipes, which left us with lots of cooked chicken meat.  We made a wonderful chicken pot pie.

--Our 5 p.m. ukele-led Christmas Eve service was beautiful and festive.  The sing-along before was wonderful.

--I got to watch the children of the church rehearse their songs for the 7:30 service.

--Our hand chime presentation was wonderful.  I loved playing "Carol of the Bells."

--The counting of the money was simpler this year.  In part, that's because we had fewer people at the 11 p.m. service; we get the money from earlier services counted between services.  The deposit was easy too.  No threatening types trying to rob church folks making deposits after Christmas Eve services.

--As we drove back and forth in the dark, we saw lovely lights.  Does this mean that the economy is back on track?

Let me also remember less-festive parts:

--Between services as we drove back to the house for a quick bite to eat, I saw a woman and two young children walking along the sidewalk.  I assumed they were headed to the bus stop.  I felt a pang as I saw that the children were carrying stuffed animals.

--As we drove to make the bank deposit, I saw the 2 homeless people getting settled for the night in the doorway of our church.  You might wonder why we don't let them stay inside or find them housing.  After all, we let them use our bathroom when the church is open.  We bring them food.  But even these simple gestures are sometimes rejected.  Our church's two homeless people have some psychological disorders and are not easy to help.

--Always in the telling of the Christmas texts of light coming into the darkness and the darkness not overcoming it--there is that knowledge of the extent of the darkness.

But let me not focus on the darkness.

Let me remember the Christmas message.  The people who have dwelled in deep darkness have seen a great light.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Can the Force Be With Us?

I have seen the new Star Wars movie, and I will write a post that contains no spoilers.  I will also assume that we're familiar with the older movies, and that I'm not spoiling anything if I say that the new movie carries on with the familiar themes of light and dark, of duty, of right and wrong.

I knew I wouldn't see the movie on the opening week-end, and I thought it might be weeks before I actually saw it.  But I read this article by Linda Holmes that made me want to see it sooner rather than later.

Then a friend who had already seen it wrote to me asking to come along if I went to see it as she thought I had planned to do.  In fact, I thought about seeing Sisters instead, and those were the possible plans she remembered.  But her enthusiasm and my shifting schedule--and her willingness to be flexible in the face of my shifting schedule--helped me find a hole into which we inserted a Star Wars opening.

I wondered if we should buy our tickets in advance, but because of my shifting schedule, I didn't want to do that.  I worried that we might get to the theatre to find long lines and a sold out show.  Happily, we walked right up and got right in.

The theatre was full, which could have been a problem, but everyone behaved (I worried about lots of ambient light from cell phones).  We did have one strange incident.  I heard a strange sound, a moaning grunt, followed by a thump-thump-thump.  Someone had fallen down the stairs in the stadium theatre seating set up.

I was impressed by how quickly everyone came to the person's assistance and seemed to know basic first aid and the questions to ask.  I heard someone say, "He's breathing," and since 8 people were assisting, I stayed seated.  Several big guys helped the frail looking man to his feet, and one helped him make his way out of the theatre.

So, I missed part of a big scene--I didn't totally miss it, but should I get a chance to see the movie again, I'll be interested to see what happened during that time when the man fell down the stairs at the showing I attended.

I rarely see movies these days, and often I see more movies at Christmas, when I have more downtime, more away from school time.  I thought about how this new Star Wars movie is in many ways a typical holiday movie in terms of its splashyness.

It's also an interesting movie to be seeing as Christmas approaches, with Advent texts ringing in my head.  The movie does interesting things with light and dark--nothing unexpected for me, nothing that surprised me--but it did delight me.

Because I am an English major and an amateur theologian, I found all the symbolic stuff irresistible.  As I always do, I think about the larger message.  Is it a movie about God?  Do we see a Christ figure?  I love the intersections of pop culture and religion.

If you do too, don't miss this series at the Sojourners site.  And I wrote about the theology of Star Wars, avoiding spoilers, in this blog post on my theology blog.

I also spent some time thinking about how long it's been since I first saw the first Star Wars, by which I mean the one that came out in 1977, not the chronological first.  It was the first PG movie that I ever saw.  I thought about the life spans of characters, the timelessness of certain plots, and my wish to be part of a graduate class where we could spend several sessions analyzing it all.

I did some of that analyzing with my friend on our way home--but she remembers far more of the earlier 6 movies than I do, and she's seen TV shows and read books.  Clearly I have not kept up, and until I have a long stretch of retirement/unemployment will not be catching up.

Yesterday was an up and down day--there was the happiness of seeing the movie, followed by the irritation of traffic.  There were several trips to see my friend in the hospital; she's doing better, but her recovery is slower than any of us would like.  I went to the insanity that is the grocery store these days--they had what I wanted, so at least the trip wasn't in vain.

I always have this vision of the winter time between school terms as a broad vista of time off--and then I'm shocked at how many chores seem to rush in to fill the space.  Didn't I just put herbicide on the weeds poking through the paver bricks?  Why are we preparing all this food?  If I'm going to be overscheduled, how can I add more fun stuff?

Clearly these aren't quite the right questions.  Clearly I have some work to do in mastering the forces that swirl around my universe.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Holiday Week Snapshots

Yesterday was one of those days that become typical this time of year--and yet, so not typical.  Some snapshots:

--My friend is still in the hospital.  I went to see her twice yesterday, in between lots of other errands.

--My spouse taught his last class yesterday morning--strange to have him at a school system that has him teaching so late, so close to Christmas.

--Because I knew he'd be teaching, I scheduled a lunch outing with a friend who said she'd found a place that reminded her of me and that place in North Carolina where I said I'd like to live.  Which place would that be?  Asheville? Some place at the coast?  Nope--Chapel Hill. 

--Indeed, it did seem very Chapel Hill.  My friend said it reminds her son of Gainesville.  Heck, it's like the artsy district that comes with most college towns.  You can almost imagine recent grads saying, "Hey, let's rent a small place and move in mismatched tables and chairs.  You can hang those recycled chandeliers from the trees outside.  We'll freeze coffee in cubes so it doesn't water down the iced coffee."

--We went to The Alchemist in Wilton Manors.  It was wonderful!  Veggie sandwiches on thick slabs of bread--yum.

--I went to Doris Italian Market to stock up on meat.  We've seen more than one cooking show this week that featured brisket on the grill, so my spouse wanted me to see if they had some.  He warned me that it would be expensive, but when the woman at the meat counter told me it was "Two ninety nine," my first thought was--wow, three hundred dollars is expensive, even for Christmas.  Then I realized my mistake--it was on sale for $2.99 a pound.

--We may cook the brisket today or tomorrow.  My spouse and I both want to be part of our church's team that takes the peace lily and the card with good wishes to the storefront Muslim mosque that's down the street.  What better way to celebrate the Christmas wish of peace on earth?

--We lit the Advent wreath, but had to blow out the candle that we lit on the first Sunday in Advent.  It's burned so low that it's a fire hazard.

--I read an interesting Advent meditation.  I read a piece by Philip Yancey that comes from The Jesus I Never Knew.  This bit leapt out at me:  "Although secular history does not refer to the atrocity, no on acquainted with the life of Herod doubts him capable [of the massacre of the innocents].   . . .  Scarcely a day passed, in fact, without an execution under Herod's regime.  The political climate at the time of Jesus' birth resembled that of Russia in the 1930's under Stalin."

--That put me in mind of Reza Aslan's Zealot, so I read a bit of that book too.

--Nothing says Christmas week like Herod!

--In fact, I'm quite serious.  Many Christians have sanitized the story of Christmas and all that comes afterwards.  We neglect to celebrate the martyrs' feast days that come in the days after Christmas.  We overlook the flight of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Egypt, the family turned into refugees.  We forget the harshness of life under Roman rule.

--We forget these things at our peril.  Many people reading my blog are lucky--we live in places where we won't be persecuted for our beliefs.  We can celebrate as we wish.  But those ancient texts give us caution, a prophetic note not to grow too complacent.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Holidays and Hospitals and the Stretches in Between

This morning, my friend with a collapsed lung was posting on Facebook from her hospital bed.  I sent her a FB message asking if she wanted me to bring her a chai tea.  She said sure, since she needed to walk some.

Happily, the local Starbucks opens at 6, so I could get her tea and get to the hospital.  We sat in the family lounge until exhaustion overtook her.  I helped the nurse get her back to bed, and I drove home.

I reflected on how many Christmas holidays I've had that have seen me going back and forth to the hospital--or in the case of my grandmother's Dec. 2011 illness, getting reports from family members.

On this day in 2004, I'd have been getting back from spending part of the night in the hospital with my mother-in-law who had fallen and broken her hip.  She would not recover, and some part of me had a glimmering of that.  But the doctor wanted to do a hip replacement, as did she, and so on Christmas Eve, they did the operation.  She picked up an infection somewhere along the line and never recovered, although she would not actually die until April of 2005.

It's sobering to realize how many deaths begin in a fall and a hip break.  One of my mother-in-law's doctors said, "We come into the world through the birth canal, and we often leave it through the femoral neck."  It's those hips that hold us when we're in the womb, but it's those same hips that leave us vulnerable as older people.  Half the people who have a hip break will be dead a year later--and those who survive don't face good odds for survival in the next 5 years.

In mid-December of 2001, my mother-in-law fell and broke her shoulder.  She made a mostly full recovery, but we spent those holidays trying to help.  As I've said before, she was never an easy patient.  I was at her condo building trying to help her into the car to go to the doctor.  One of her friends scolded me for letting her go out in "cold" weather in her shorts.  I said that it was 70 degrees which was summer weather in most places.  What I didn't want to talk about:  the struggle to help her into any kind of clothes, and so shorts were easier than long pants.

It was this experience trying to help her and realizing how weak she really was that inspires me to work out, even when I don't want to.  Here, as in most areas of my life, I am out of balance.  I do a lot of cardio, but not as much strength training, and I only stretch after spin class.  I joke that I'll be a little old lady with a very strong heart who can't bend over to put away her groceries.

Sadly, that joke has more than a ring of truth. 

Luckily, I still have time to make some changes.  I can practice integrating more stretching into my daily life.  It's pretty obvious that I'm not going to adopt a regular yoga practice any time soon, at least not with my current obligations.  But I can remember to stretch throughout the day.

I used to set Outlook appointments to remember to pray the liturgy of the hours.  I'd still like to get back to that.  But if I could stretch for a few minutes every few hours and offer prayers of gratitude as well as prayers for whomever has crossed my consciousness as being in need of prayer--that would be great too.

I think I may have just found my New Year's resolution/health goal!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Days of Dark and Eliot

--I have an urge to read all of T.S. Eliot, much the way that some have read Moby Dick in recent years.  Eliot would be much harder.

--I am listening to this episode of On Being, which explores Eliot.  Perhaps that explains my sudden turning towards Eliot.  I'm amazed by how many lines I can quote.

--Perhaps instead of all of Eliot, I'll simply read the Ariel poems, that series that has Christmas themes.  When I'm at work today for the last time until Jan. 4, let me remember to get the Collected Eliot off the shelf--let me hope I still have it.

--Who would have thought I would ever write that line?  I used to call myself the only English major who didn't care for Eliot.

--Today we celebrate the life of Saint Thomas, that famous doubter. It's also the Winter Solstice. It's the time of year for doubting, for feeling that the dark will never recede--at least in this hemisphere, that's the feeling.

--Yesterday in my church, we signed a huge card made of posterboard for the mosque down the street from us.  What would Eliot make of that?

--I'm not sure that our Muslim neighbors are feeling under threat or siege, but we will take them a peace lily and the card on Christmas day, which is the Friday day of prayer for them.  We will pray for peace all week, as some of us usually do, and we'll offer special prayers for them during this Christmas week.

--How I would like to spend today writing an Eliotesque poem that weaves these threads together.  Instead, I will be manually entering Math grades for students who took 2 quarters to complete the course.  It's like falling through a hole in time, using this DOS based grades system and having to enter the grades in an even more old-fashioned way.

--Maybe those threads, too, will weave their way through my Eliotesque poem--along with a trip to the hospital to see my friend whose lung collapsed 6 days ago.

--Is there also room for sparkly lights, for candles?

--And where does the elf on a shelf make an appearance?

--Stay tuned!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Medieval Christmas Pageants

I am guessing that in churches across the nation, Christmas pageants will be taking place--the third and fourth Sundays in Advent are classic times to have them.  Little children will take part in dramas that depict that classic scene around the manger.  Maybe there will be elaborate costumes.  Maybe there will be songs.  Will children wear animal costumes?

Will there be enough children to mount a pageant at all?

These musings take me back to a poem, "Medieval Christmas Pageants," that I wrote long ago, but it still holds up well.  In December of 2001, I got the happy news that The South Carolina Review would publish my poem, "Medieval Christmas Pageants."  It was a spot of good news in a gloomy Christmas season.  My mother-in-law fell and broke her shoulder two weeks before Christmas.  She lived down here, about a half mile from us.  I was taking her back and forth to doctors and playing nurse.  She was not an easy patient.

I remember getting the mail at my house, after slipping away to do errands.  I opened the envelope and read the good acceptance news.  I felt euphoria for a brief moment, and then it was back to drudgery. 

That poem became part of my first chapbook Whistling Past the Graveyard, which would arrive on my doorstep during the Christmas season of 2003.  I was so thrilled with that chapbook, and I think it still holds up well.

I dug out my contributor copy of The South Carolina Review a few years ago.  My contributor note says, "Kristin Berkey-Abbott has a doctorate in English literature and has been published in over thirty journals and reviews."

Let me take a moment to reflect on how much has changed.  When I submitted the poem, I was working a variety of adjunct jobs, and I'd had no book-length publication.  When I got the acceptance letter, I was about to start my job at the school where I still work; I wouldn't have dreamed that that teaching job would lead to my current administration job.  That administration job has led to many writing projects, blogging chief among them, and my memoir-to-be.  I could even make the argument that many of the poems in my 2nd chapbook, "I Stand Here Shredding Documents," wouldn't have been written if I hadn't been working as an administrator.

And now, I will have a third chapbook in 2016.

Christmas 2015 approaches, and I suspect that even the least spiritual amongst us may find themselves attending pageants so that they can support the efforts of the children in their lives.  This poem reflects my own experience.  I wonder if it still rings true to a twenty-first modern generation?

Medieval Christmas Pageants

The Sunday School pageant director embraced
the medieval ideals. Mary would have dark
hair and a pure soul. Joseph, a mousy
man who knew how to fade into the background.
Every angel must be haloed with golden
hair, and I, the greatest girl, the head
angel, standing shoulders above the others.

It could have been worse. Ugly and unruly
children had to slide into the heads and tails
of other creatures, subdued by the weight
of their costumes, while I got to lead
the processional. But I, unworldly foolish,
longed to be Mary. I cursed
my blond hair, my Slavic looks which damned
me to the realm of the angels.

I didn’t see Mary’s role for what it was: bit
player, vessel for the holy, keeper of the cosmic.
I didn’t understand the power of my position.
I could have led an angel uprising, although the history
of angel uprisings suggests that though whole new
worlds emerge, so do new tortures with the triumph.
I could have imparted messages of God’s plan,
spoiled all the surprises. I could just appear,
scaring mere mortals into submission.

Instead, I smoldered, smarting
at the indignities of mother-made wings
and long robes to ruin my long legged run.
I internalized the message of the culture
which didn’t offer starring roles for girls,
no head angel power for us.
Instead, the slender, the meek, the submissive
girl got the prize, the spotlight focused
on her kneeling knees, her bowed head.
I tried not to sing too loudly, to shrink
my Teutonic bones into the Mary model.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Twas the Saturday before Christmas

Perhaps I am one of the few people in the U.S. who LOVED the first 3 Star Wars movies (by which I mean the trilogy that began in 1977, not the chronological first 3) who is not going to see the new movie this week-end.  Will I go see it?  Maybe.  But it won't be this first week-end.  I would rather see it later, when the theatre won't be quite so crowded.

There are very few things I want to experience enough to wait in a line.  Maybe nothing, in fact.

I have hopes that the week-end will include many elements, but a return to a galaxy far, far away is not one of them:

--My friend with the collapsed lung undergoes surgery this morning.  It will be minimally invasive--the wonders of modern surgery!  I have hopes that her health will be quickly restored after this surgery, but in the meantime, I will visit her in the hospital.

--I will do the final cleaning up after our relatives who came for the second week of Advent.  We still have sheets that need to be washed.

--There's other straightening/cleaning to be done.  I feel like a tribe of 3-5 year olds has been loose in the house, getting stickiness on all the surfaces.  The house was very clean less than 2 weeks ago, and we've been living a hectic life, out of the house more than home.  How has the house gotten so dirty again?  A tribe of sticky children is the only explanation that makes sense.

--There's yard work that can be done--I still need to move the autumn pumpkins out of the front yard.

--I will go to spin class this morning.  I have extra calories in need of burning--I made Christmas cookies yesterday to take to my friend in the hospital, and thus, I ate a lot of Christmas cookies yesterday.

--Tonight my church has a contemplative service for people who are not experiencing the joy of the season:  people who mourn or who have bad memories around the season.  I went to this service two years ago and found it meaningful.

--On the way home, I'll enjoy the Christmas lights.

--Tomorrow, in addition to church services, I will practice hand chimes.

--I need to turn in one last set of grades.

In short, in many ways, it's not that different from any other week-end.  In some ways, I feel lucky.  I know that others are having a very different last week-end before Christmas. 

And yet, I also want it to be more than just another week-end.  I want to remember to enjoy the lights that will be gone all too season.  I want to enjoy some treats before January brings us a return to regular life.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Time of Tears, Time of Joy

It is that time of year, both the time of festivities--Christmas, graduation!--and also the time of tears.  I've spent hours and hours this week trying to sort out the issues of students with complaints.  And then there was the issue of the student who thought she was on target to graduate, only to find out the day before graduation that she had failed 2 remaining classes, both of them in my department.

Many failures led up to that moment.  The largest one was her failure to turn in required work.  She also failed to keep tabs on her class.  But she showed up for graduation clearance, and no one told her that she was off the grad list, as she could have reasonably expected. 

I wrestled with the best approach.  My inner judge wanted to punish her.  I heard that voice inside me saying, "Well, maybe you'll learn to check your e-mails if we make you repeat these classes.  Maybe you'll learn to get your work done if we punish you."

It would have been punishment--her family had already arrived for graduation, and she had already spent a lot of money on her portfolio for portfolio review, our event where our students hope to meet future employers.

My sense of compassion almost always weighs in.  It's hard to listen to a student in hysterics and not want to find a way to fix it all.
My inner efficiency expert wanted to pressure the teachers to change the grade--my inner efficiency expert just wants problems to go away.  Luckily, I am skilled at resisting this urge when it comes to teachers.  I don't want a grade change if there's no way to justify it to any auditors who might come along later.  And more than that--I want to live an ethical life, and I want to support the faculty.

One teacher allowed the student to turn in the missing papers.  One teacher wasn't sure she wanted to do that.

Yesterday, in an early morning meeting with the dean, the teacher, me, and the other department head, I asked the teacher, "What would you have done had the student found out on Monday that she had failed?"  The teacher would have created an additional assignment for the student.

 But since it was Thursday morning and not Monday, we were running out of time, so we crafted a compromise.  The student could go to the morning portfolio review--but then she had to do the extra credit assignment before the late afternoon graduation ceremony.  Happily, she did.

In our solution, the student still had some work to do.  But she wasn't kept out of the important gatherings of the day.
Before the morning of meetings, my dean and I had a conversation about my conflicting responses to the student.  He said that in his early days of being a dean, he'd have been the law and order guy--clear consequences, swiftly enacted.  In his later years, he's tried slowing down and listening and trying to discern the best approach that serves the students and the school in the best ways.

I liked watching us all work together.  By working as a team, we--me, the dean, the teacher, the other department chair--came up with a solution I hadn't though of on my own.  It's what should happen, but doesn't happen as often as I'd like.

And while it was exhausting on one level, on another it was energizing.  I think of the words of the Psalmist who talks about righteousness and peace kissing each other, mercy and truth meeting together.  The Psalmist had a different scenario in mind, but it fits my workplace too. 

And for that, I am glad.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Surreal Season of Cookies for Dinner

My Christmas season has become a bit surreal, as it often does.  Yesterday at work, there was holiday merriment with sweaters that played music and sweaters that were ugly and lots of food from Panera for a morning meeting and the promise of more with an Admissions department party.

Instead, I slipped away to see a friend in the hospital.  She's my age, and when I heard the news late Tuesday that she had suffered a collapsed lung, it sounded catastrophic to me. 

While it's not a great situation, it's not life threatening.  But she's in the hospital, and she's one of those high energy people who don't sit still for long.  Now she's forced to sit still.  I sat still with her for a bit.  I hope that she can go home soon.

I came back and had a cup of restorative tea.  Someone had brought a huge container of cookies that they'd gotten at a cookie swap.  I grabbed a few, and after tea, life got hectic, and I never actually had dinner.

It's the most wonderful time of the year . . . when we eat cookies for dinner!

I had a bit of cheese and wine as I watched the ABC comedies when I got home.  But that's not really dinner--more of a snack.

I know that I'm lucky.  I'm a woman in good health, so I can have the kind of day I had yesterday without doing damage.  I have reserves.

I may need those reserves today.  I start my work day with a student who has failed classes and thus will not graduate.  She claims she turned things in and will bring them this morning.  The teacher says that they were never in the drop box.  I have already had hours of hysterical crying from the student.  I understand why the dean is having her come in to meet with us, with work she claims she's done.  But part of me has lost all patience with these kinds of claims, especially when I have e-mails from the teachers that show that the student simply didn't do the work.

I am not sure how it will all turn out, and I've stayed up part of the night fretting about it.  I'm tired before the day begins.

Then it's on to my last class session, which should be easy with final presentations, and we finish the day with graduation.  This time, we must drive to the War Memorial Auditorium, which will add at least an hour to my day in terms of commuting.

Maybe I will grab another moment today to have restorative tea and cookies.  I am also bringing more substantial food with me.  I'm running on fumes, and it's time to think about some self-care.

Today will be the last of these kinds of exhausting days.  That idea, too, is restorative.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Jane Austen's Lessons for Modern Women/Workers

Today is the birthday of both Jane Austen and Arthur C. Clarke.  I wonder if the books of Clarke may one day seem as quaint as Jane Austen's works.  I spent much time in adolescence reading Clarke's work, but I don't remember much about them, except that they seemed more realistic, more rooted in science than many of the other sci-fi works I was reading.

Will they seem that way to readers 200 years from now?

Does the life and work of Jane Austen seem as quaint to others as they do to me?  It's only in my later years that Austen's work has begun to seem more relevant to my modern life.  I used to think that the time that Austen describes was firmly behind us, at least for those of us living in the first world.  I thought that women could control their financial destinies in ways that Austen characters could not.  I rejoiced in the fact that we modern women didn't have to rely on males for our livelihood.

But now I begin to think of those men running the corporations that control our lives as the men in Austen novels:  some of them are honorable, but most of them are feckless idiots whom you wouldn't trust to remember to feed the baby, much less make decisions that will impact millions.

And just as in the time of Austen, it can be very hard to tell which ones are honorable and which ones are morons. To whom should we commit?  And alas, now as in the time of Austen, once we've committed it can be very hard to untangle our destinies.

Meanwhile, here on the ground, in the halls of hospitals and in the nation's classrooms and in the small shops and the daycare centers, we try to smooth over the consequences of those actions of feckless men that do so much damage.

In my younger years, I thought of writers like Austen and the Brontes and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti as fearless creators of lives that had meaning.  From my current midlife vantage point, I realize that they probably weren't as fearless as I've always assumed.  I imagine that Jane Austen might have liked to have been married.  I see the yearnings in Jane Eyre and assume that I'm getting insight into Charlotte Bronte.

I'm also more aware than I once was that my favorite 19th century British female writers weren't trying to undermine the patriarchy--they were carving out these lives little bit by little bit.  It's quite possible that they had no conception of the enormity of their accomplishments.  I know that many of my favorite writers also had other responsibilities, and they wrote their best works in the margins of their days, in scraps of time that they could salvage. 

In these days where my scraps of time for writing seem so tiny compared to the vast bolts of time's fabric I once had, let me take courage.  And let me plan wisely for the time that will be here in just a few days.  Let me resolve to get some writing done during these upcoming holidays when oddly, I will have some free time.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christmas Shopping Carbon Footprints in a Time of Climate Change

Traditionally today, December 15, has been the last day to get packages and cards in the mail so that they would arrive in time for Christmas.  I wonder if that's still true.

Do you think of your carbon footprint when you order gifts to come to you, when you send gifts to far-flung friends and relatives?  I used to order presents from craftswomen in developing nations.

Now I wonder how much my buying of these presents contributed to the warming of the planet.  I think about those islands that will be the first to go under water.

A few years ago, we ordered Christmas treats by mail, and the following poem came to me.  It's part of my forthcoming chapbook, and I thought it had images that could make good cover art.  Ultimately, those pictures didn't make the cut, but they continue to intrigue me.

Sustainable Habitat

Since she has stuck to her diet for several days, she rewards
herself with extra cashews
for her meal of yogurt and raspberries.
She prepares a new pot
of shade-grown, fair trade coffee.
She thinks about the miles travelled
to bring her breakfast to her.

She sorts through a pile of manuscripts,
children’s stories, one of the few types of books
her publishing company will still print on paper.
She notices how many of them
are based on stories from vanished
cultures. She makes notes about illustrators
and thinks of her own paints
now gathering dust.

Later, she orders Christmas presents
for the children: plush
toys that turn rapacious predators
into cuddly comfort. Her purchase
supports a fund to sustain habitat.

She orders a holiday treat for herself:
a sparkly jewelry set crafted
by a woman several continents
away. It will perfectly complement
her holiday outfit that was constructed
in a factory on an island that will sink
under the rising seas by the end of the century.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Whirlwind Week-end

Yesterday we went caroling.  Today I scrolled through old blog posts as I tried to remember why we didn't go caroling last year--I think we had visiting family to get to the port.

Yesterday as we caroled, I remembered why I don't always go caroling.  It's not like the caroling of my youth, where our Girl Scout troop would go to a nursing home and sing in the main room or go from room to room.  We go to houses of shut ins and yesterday, we made a stop at the ICU too.

In short, we spend more time in the car than we do singing.  I want to believe it brings joy to those we visit.  I  do know that the carolers are having a good time.

During our caroling, there's often one visit that makes me wonder about the wisdom of our approach.  Yesterday, it was in the ICU.  We sang, which seemed to agitate the church member who was there.  I wondered if he recognized us and felt bad that he lay there in his hospital gown, that he couldn't speak or behave the way we've been socialized to behave when visitors come.  Or maybe we chose the wrong carols.

I thought of a caroling outing at a different church.  The elderly woman who couldn't leave her house opened the door and said, "Well, I must be in really bad shape if you people are here."

In a way, she's right.  We don't go caroling at the houses of people in vibrant good health.  During the month of December, those people probably wouldn't be home.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted.  My day started early, as I led the 9:45 service and spoke at the 11:00 service.  Then we practiced hand chimes and headed out caroling.  We stopped at an Italian market on the way home, which meant we weren't home until close to 5:00.

My spouse talked about not being able to grill because of rain.  Then he said, "I've been assuming that it was about to rain, but maybe it's just getting dark."  Yes, it was.

It was a good week-end, but I'm glad that I don't have any more week-ends that are so tightly scheduled.  In one week-end, I've gone to a cookie swap, I've done some grocery shopping, I've been out 9 hours on a motorcycle excursion, I've gone to the Broward Symphony, I've led/gone to two church services, I've practiced hand chimes, I've caroled . . . I'm tired just reading the list!

But it's a good kind of tired.  It's the kind of tired that tells me I'm living a connected life.  It's also the kind of tired that tells me to proceed carefully, so that I don't crash.

I will pay attention.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Days of Whirlwind

I spent much of yesterday feeling terrified.  There were very few reasons to feel terrified, but my emotional terrain doesn't usually make rational sense.

My spouse really wanted to do the POAT (Police Officers Assistance Trust) ride, and I said yes.  It would be our first ride in a really big group, and it made me feel a bit tense from the beginning.  But yesterday was a gorgeous day, after weeks of rain, and I stilled my anxieties.

We were going to meet my brother-in-law and his wife at a Chevron station near the police station where the riders would assemble.  My spouse wrote down the directions--but somehow, he put in an extra expressway.

Words cannot express how much I hate being lost in Miami, where highway signs have numbers but no names, and everyone is just expected to remember which expressway is named after which tropical animal or tree.  Various people speak various languages, and no one knows directions. 

Happily, we were able to call my spouse's brother, who got us back to where we needed to be.  We joined up with other riders, and once I realized that the ride started at 10:30 not 9:30, I felt better.  We were early, not late!

The ride itself was equally wonderful and annoying.  It was wonderful to have a police escort and to have the roads closed.  We didn't need to fear an 18 wheeler truck merging into our lane while we were still in it.  It was wonderful being part of such a huge group.  It was neat to see such a variety of bikes and riders.

It was annoying that there were still times that we came to sudden slow downs.  Luckily, my brother-in-law warned us that it would happen.

We got to a resort-like place in Islamorado, where we parked the bikes, walked around, and sat by the unlit firepit.

We decided not to eat at the resort, because the lines were so long since 800 bikers had descended on the place.  We rode back to Key Largo and stopped, rode back to my brother-in-law's house and stopped, and finally made our way home.

The wind had picked up and the ride back was scary at times as the wind buffeted us.   I spent time thinking about the presentation I'll make at church today and thinking about the essay for Living Lutheran which is due tomorrow.  In this way, I beat back my fear.

What made me feel such fear throughout the day?  Fear of the unknown, fear of the inherent danger in riding a motorcycle and in South Florida traffic in general, fear of the mechanical things that can go wrong (the bike had sputtered a bit with some attempts to start it during the day).  On the back of a motorcycle, there is no illusion of being in control--and there's the realization that throughout most of our lives, we really not are in control.  One 18 wheeler making an error in merging can wipe out the heaviest of cars.

The fear wasn't enough to keep me from doing it again.  And as time goes on, I'll probably forget how afraid I was all day.  I did wonder why we exhort people to feel the fear and do it anyway.  There are events that will indeed help me grow and become a stronger/better person.  I'm not sure that my various levels of anxiety yesterday will enrich me that way.  I thought about categorizing the fears that are worth it and the fears that are not--but I decided it all probably depended on the individual involved.

We got things put away and took showers and then it was off to a wonderful concert put on by the Broward Symphony.  They ended with a rousing rendition of "Sleigh Ride."  We slept well.

Today will be another whirlwind of sorts.  I'm leading the 9:45 service, speaking about Mary the mother of our Lord and me at the 11:00 service, followed by caroling to shut ins.  And then we will come home and collapse in a heap.  But it will be the good kind of collapsing.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Setting Off Alarms

Yesterday was one of those days that can become typical for December--indeed, for any month--if I'm not careful.  I spent the day dancing on the edge of trying to do too much, trying to be too many places at the same time, getting ready for the next event while not done with the current event.

I was aware of what was going on, and thus, I was able to steer my brain back and to stay more present.

It began in the morning.  I had decided to get to the office very early, after dropping my relatives off at the airport for their flight home.  The airport is halfway between my house and school--I would drop them off and just keep going.

I got to work at 6:30, quite unusual for me.  The building is supposed to be open at 6:30, but it looked dark and closed up.  I decided that my ID wouldn't open the door if I wasn't supposed to go in.  I swiped, the door opened--and I heard the alarm telling me to disarm it.

Well, I don't know how to do that.  The alarm got increasingly louder while I thought about what to do.  I decided that if ever there was a time to call the president on her cell phone, it's when the alarm is going off and presumably the police are on their way.

I called her, and she was gracious.  I called the guy in charge of building maintenance, who was less gracious and told me to go to the front door to wait for the police.  By then, the security guard was at the desk, and she was even less gracious as she told me how I was supposed to wait for the guard to let me in.

Finally, thirty minutes later, I got to my work to catch up on all the stuff that had been waiting through the week.  Sigh.

I can see all sorts of metaphors and symbolism in this incident.  But some days, an alarm is just an alarm.

Along the way of my day, there was a going away party for a long-time worker.  There was a very late lunch out with friends.  There was a cookie exchange, with more friends and so many people that it was hard to hear at times.

There was also the notice of the publication schedule for my chapbook.  The pre-order period is scheduled for Feb. 23-April 15, with a hoped-for publication date of June 17.  My spouse said, "If you want help promoting this one, I'd be glad to help."

He always makes that offer, and it always stings a bit.  What I hear him saying is that I've blown it somehow in the past.   He may not mean that.  And there may have been more that I could do in terms of promotion.

Today will be book-ended by a motorcycle ride this morning and a Broward Symphony concert tonight.  There will be time to think about promotion of this chapbook.  Last night, my spouse suggested a stocking stuffer offer for a treat that will come later in the year.

I do some of my best thinking on the back of the motorcycle.  I'm also hoping for some ideas for new poems.  This morning, in my effort to do an arts project for each week of Advent, I wrote a poem that talks about the events of the week and John the Baptist and the other prophets.  And then, just for good measure, I created a blog post for my theology blog that covers similar themes with photos.

In these ways, I hope to still the alarms that always are in the background of my brain, those alarms that say, "Write more!  Time is running out!"  Those alarms are correct, of course.  But when they bray too incessantly, it's not necessarily helpful.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Dreaming of a Normal Christmas

This story has a happy ending, but I am all too aware that it could have ended differently.

Yesterday afternoon, the last with our out-of-town relatives--was lovely.  My brother-in-law and his wife came up on their motorcycle.  We loaded his wife, my sister-in-law, and her grown daughter in the car, and we followed the motorcycles to Key Largo.

We had a meal at a spot that overlooked water.  We watched the boats go by and imagined what it would be like to own a small yacht.  The clouds threatened rain but did not deliver.  It was a strange time of the afternoon to be at the bar in the Keys, so it was quiet--I love being at bars and restaurants at off hours.

We rode back to my brother-in-law's house and had a brief visit with his grown sons.  My spouse headed back to our house on his motorcycle; he had a 15-20 minute head start, since we lingered to finish coffee.

I was surprised when we got back to the house before my spouse.  Happily, I hadn't noticed any emergency vehicles on our way back, so I had hopes that there hadn't been an accident.  As the minutes ticked by, I wondered if he could have had some sort of vehicle trouble--had he been on the side of the road as we zoomed past?

He had a cell phone, but no calls came.  He had the key to the house, so we sat on the porch and listened and hoped.

Finally, after 30-40 minutes, we heard the rumble of the motorcycle.  Hurrah!  He was safe and sound.  This trip was his first with his new eye protection, and he had trouble reading the signs with the glare protecting lenses.  He got headed in the wrong direction, and it took time to work his way back.

In the minutes of our waiting, I thought it had probably happened that way, but I was aware that those moments could be my last of my normal, before-the-event life.  What if something had happened, and the reason we saw no emergency vehicles was that no one had yet seen his crumpled body and bike off the side of the road?

I thought I would post some of the beautiful pictures I captured before our slight scare, but the camera isn't working this morning.  My superstitious mind says, "We traded the soul of the camera to keep my spouse alive."  My writer brain wonders how this detail could be woven into a story.

I am happy that this Christmas will not be my first Christmas as a widow.  That sounds melodramatic, but some day, it will not be this way.  Some day, I will face a holiday when everything has changed radically, and there will be no way back to the old life. 

I am happy that barring any unexpected events in the next 2 weeks, I will not be facing that kind of Christmas.  This Christmas will be normal.  Yearning for a normal Christmas, a mundane holiday, is not the subject of most holiday music--but it could be a great subject for all sorts of writing.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Taking Stock to Find Grace

It is the kind of morning where I'm feeling frustrated--and tired--and probably the bulk of my frustration comes from being tired.

I would like a morning to linger at home, but of all the mornings of the week, Thursday morning is not the morning when I can do this--I must be at school to teach my 9:00 class this morning.

Earlier in the term, I could have lingered longer, but it's been taking me longer and longer to get to work.  I know that the tourist season has started, but do they really have to be up and about when the rest of us are trying to go to work?

My relatives are still in town, but since we're at the end of the term, I can't cancel/shorten class.  This afternoon, we may make a motorcycle trek to Key Largo, but so much depends on the weather, which has been very iffy.  I prefer to have solid plans, but that is not the case today.  Sigh.

I also feel that fretfulness that comes from not writing as much as I would like.  But let me take a moment to remember what I have written since Dec. 1: 

--I wrote a vignette to go with my friend's vignette--over 900 words.  She had written her view of dying and being in purgatory.  I wrote a short story from the viewpoint of God, who knows that my friend has a warped view of the afterlife, but also can't explain what's actually going on in language my friend can understand.  It works best when read with her piece, but it also works alone.

--I wrote a glowing letter of recommendation.

--I wrote comment after comment on final essays.

--I wrote more e-mails than I like to count.

--I wrote a poem.

--I've continued to blog.

And in other creativity, I finished one prayer shawl and will probably finish crocheting another.  I made several batches of cookies.  I created a fabric art piece.

O.K. I haven't been a slug.  In a comment on another post, Wendy says, ". . . I keep thinking about how much harder we can be on ourselves than others. I think they are doing the best they can with the tools they have, and, much of the time, I think I can do better. Can I find the same grace for myself that I have for others? (Not that I always have grace for others, but generally speaking.)"

I wrote back:  "I am the exact same way--finding grace for me--that's the next piece I need to practice!"

And now, let me throw on some clothes and head out into the traffic--a school for grace if ever there was one!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Make Your Own Fruitcake!

Yesterday we stopped by the grocery store as we ran our errands.  I picked up a package of mint chocolate chips because they reminded me of my grandmother who loved them so much and a package of Andes peppermint chips.

Back at the house, as my sister-in-law, her grown daughter, and my spouse looked at family pictures and documents, I made cookies.  It felt very cozy.

I gave some of them to a friend who said that the cookies are so delicious that I should write about food.  But I simply followed the recipe on the back of the package.  Because I'm lazy, I made bar cookies instead of the round kind.

I wonder how often our cooking/baking experiences is a matter of simply following the recipe.  I thought about my experience of making fruitcake before Christmas. 

I had bought a variety of dried fruit when I thought I would make bread for All Saints Day.  I know that dried fruit will keep for a long time, but I also don't have much storage space.

My spouse loves fruitcake, and for years I've wanted to try making one in our kitchen.  In The Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts, I found a recipe that I thought would work.  I wanted a cake that we could eat right away.  I didn't want to keep it in a cask for months while I watered it with brandy.  I don't have that kind of time.

Readers, it was delicious.  I would make it again.  I like to think it's slightly healthier than many desserts, with its fruit and lower fat (only three tablespoons of butter or oil in a dessert!).  And it's fragrant--the house smells like Christmas the next morning.  And it stayed good for the following week when we kept the slices in a zip-lock bag.


Italian Fruitcake (which tastes like U.S. fruitcake)

3 C. dried fruit (I used a combination of ginger, mango, cranberries, dates, and pineapple)
3/4 red wine (apple cider for those avoiding alcohol)
3T. butter or olive oil
1/2 C. honey
grated orange or lemon peel would be nice too, but I didn't feel like grating

Combine the above ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Simmer for 3-4 minutes and then set aside, off the heat.

Preheat oven to 350.  As the oven preheats, toast the nuts (see below) and 2 slices of bread for breadcrumbs.

Combine the following in a big bowl:

1/2 C. almonds, toasted and chopped
1/2 C. walnuts, toasted and chopped
2 C. flour
1 C. toasted bread crumbs
1 C. brown sugar
the recipe calls for 1/2 C. chocolate chips, which I didn't use
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
2 tsp. baking soda (I am just realizing that I used baking powder--it worked fine)
2 eggs

Add the fruit mixture and combine until all of the dry ingredients are moistened.  I had to add a bit of water.

Put the batter into a greased springform pan or a bundt pan.

Bake for 60 to 70 minutes.  Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes and then remove from bundt pan or release the side of the springform pan.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Rising Strong, Staying Open-Hearted

Hard to believe that two weeks ago we'd have already been on the road towards a great Thanksgiving.  I took with me some craft projects which I didn't complete.  As we've been cleaning/sorting/organizing, I came across some prayer shawls that were unfinished.  I thought I might finish them during our time away, but I didn't.  That's O.K.  I didn't finish them because I was having too much fun--plus I finished one of them last night.

During the very early morning hours of Thanksgiving week, I read Brene Brown's Rising Strong.  Until recently, I had never heard of this woman.  Then, about 2 months ago, people referenced this book again and again.  I'd read a blog post and see mention of this book.  I'd see a Facebook mention.  I'd hear someone talk about it.  Finally I decided to see if the library had it, and happily, I got it before Thanksgiving.

I really liked the book.  Much of it covers material I already knew, but it's good to have a reminder.  If you've spent any time around Recovery people, self-help people/books, and/or Oprah, you, too, likely already know this stuff.  But Brown's way of telling the material is powerful.  The woman knows how to tell a story!

I loved the story of an early morning swim on vacation with her husband--how she was thinking about how glorious it was, while he was still mired in a nightmare he'd had about his inability to save the children from drowning.  They have the kind of encounter that in early days might have led to a fight and days/months of bad feelings.  But in a process that Brown calls "The story I'm telling myself," they're able to talk about their emotional landscape and to deepen their bond.

I, too, have found it easier to talk earlier about what's going on with my emotional life.  I haven't gotten good enough yet to avoid the negative feelings completely, but at least I can say, "You might be perceiving this, but it's about this and not about you."  I've gotten much better at saying, "I'm feeling this way--is it legit or am I misreading something?"

My favorite part of the book was when she talks about the world being divided into 2 types of people:  those who believe that people are doing the best that they can, and those who believe that people could do so much better if they would just do so--in other words, the judgmental types.  And of course, some of us are both, depending on how tired we are, how unappreciated we feel, how much we feel like we have to do it all.

I find this an interesting question, and I've asked others if they agree with her division.  I've also started to ask people if they believe that we're all doing the best we can.  I may stop asking that question because the answers are starting to depress me.

Actually, I already knew that many of us don't believe that people are doing the best that they can do.  I have often said things like "I know that __________ didn't go to grad school hoping that they could shut down a department/school/church/institution"  or "I know that _____ is trying to solve this."  And usually, people say, "Yeah but, if they would just do ___________, then the problem would disappear."

This part of the book reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from theologian Marcus Borg, a thinker who generated many of my favorite quotes.  In The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, he says,  "When I stand in a supermarket checkout line and all the people I see look kind of ugly, I know that my heart is closed" (page 154).

Brown shares her husband's insight:  "All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best.  It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be" (p. 113).  I agree with him.

Brown explains why this might be true:  "Most of us buy into the myth that it's a long fall from 'I'm better than you' to 'I'm not good enough'--but the truth is that these are two sides of the same coin.  . . .  Self-righteousness is just the armor of self-loathing" (p. 119).

That last sentence alone would make the book worth reading--and much of the rest of the book is just as good.  I love a book that calls me to be my best self and does it by compelling story telling and great use of language.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Days of Infamy, Week-ends of Restoration

My house is cleaner than it has been since--oh, since the last time we had people coming to stay with us.

My sister-in-law and her grown daughter arrive today.  And then we have no more holiday guests from out of town or holiday travel.  It's unusual for us.

I have papers that need to be graded, but there will be time for that.  I had hoped to get them done this week-end.

Here are some of the things I did instead:

--On Saturday, I met with my quilting group.  I have a vision of making a different fabric art piece for each week of Advent.  Here's what I made on Saturday:

--On Saturday evening, I took my spouse to Broward College for his early rehearsal for the evening's concert.  Then I met friends at the Flashback Diner for an early dinner before the concert.

--The concert was wonderful!  A mix of sacred and secular music, with a great selection of Christmas music.

--Yesterday, I had a great writing morning.  A friend had written her view of dying and being in purgatory.  She's an atheist, so part of her outrage comes from not simply dying and ceasing to exist.  We talked about her story and other views of the afterlife at our quilting group.  And yesterday, I wrote a short story from the viewpoint of God.  I managed to stay faithful to modern Physics and the ancient concept of grace and my own views of the universe.  And my friend liked the story.  It was a fun exercise, and I felt spiritually renewed too.

--Yesterday was one of my favorite yearly events at church:  the annual decorating of the gingerbread people, followed by the eating of the gingerbread people.

--After an afternoon of cleaning and organizing, we took a drive around the neighborhood to see the Christmas lights.

Today I have the anniversary of Pearl Harbor on my mind.  When I was younger, I knew more people who could still remember where they were when the attack happened.  Now, most of those people have died.  This event has receded into history, one of those events that seem like the far-distant past.
Today is also the anniversary of my very first day of working for corporate America. Yes, back on this day in 1982, I started my job as salad bar girl at Wendy's. It was the first time I had done work other than babysitting and yard mowing.

I was desperate to get a job in high school. I was convinced that if I didn't have a job in high school, I'd never be hired anywhere--yes, go ahead and laugh, but I really thought I'd get real world job skills with a high school job.

Then we were in a bone-crunching recession. I was lucky to get that Wendy's job. I had applied at almost every other fast food place, including where my friends worked, and even a personal connection didn't even help.

I've come a long way, and you wouldn't have thought I would, if you could travel back in time and watch me on the clock at Wendy's.   I wasn't a fast sandwich maker, and I couldn't remember the proper order that Corporate had declared we put the condiments on the bun and the burger. I couldn't be promoted to cash register operator without being a sandwich maker--there were strict corporate rules.
It looked like I would always be the salad bar girl--luckily, I made other plans.  I'm not sure they were these plans, but I'm happy so far.

Speaking of which, it's time to get on the road to my current job--with a stop for spin class.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Taking Time to Pause on the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas

One of my friends posted this photo to her Facebook page:

I love the ecumenical nature of this picture of Santa:  Santa statues coexisting peacefully with Buddha statues.  And then I thought, how perfect for the Feast Day of St. Nicholas!

I don't have as many Santa images in my Christmas decorations.  Here's my favorite Santa ornament:

I picked it up in May of 1994 or so.  I was visiting my parents, and I went with them on a trip to Pennsylvania where my dad was attending a conference.  I picked this ornament up in a gift shop that had baskets of ornaments on sale.  I love that it uses twine as joints to hold Santa together.

It's always a bit of a surprise to realize that Saint Nicholas was a real person. But indeed he was. In the fourth century, he lived in Myra, then part of Greece, now part of Turkey; eventually, he became Bishop of Myra. He became known for his habit of gift giving and miracle working, although it's hard to know what really happened and what's become folklore. Some of his gift giving is minor, like leaving coins in shoes that were left out for him. Some were more major, like resurrecting three boys killed by a butcher.

My favorite story is the one of the poor man with three children who had no dowry for them.  No dowry meant no marriage, and so, they were going to have to become prostitutes. In the dead of night, Nicholas threw a bag of gold into the house. Some legends have that he left a bag of gold for each daughter that night, while some say that he gave the gold on successive nights, while some say that he gave the gold as each girl came to marrying age.

Saint Nicholas is probably most famous for his associations with Christmas.

One year, my step-mom in law and my father in law gave me these as Christmas presents:

They're actually cookie presses, and the Santa figures are the handles of the press.  I've never used them as a cookie press, but I love them as decorations that are faithful to the European country of origin.

Today, all over Europe, the gift-giving season begins. I had a friend in grad school who celebrated Saint Nicholas Day by having each family member open one present on the night of Dec. 6. It was the first I had heard of the feast day, but I was enchanted.

I like these days that give us an opportunity to pause.  Like many of us this time of year, I'm feeling a bit pressed for time this week, between the end of Thanksgiving travels, relatives arriving tomorrow, and coming into the home stretch of several academic terms.  Your stresses may be different from mine, but I'm betting that you have some that are unique to December.

Today on the feast day of St. Nicholas, let us to stop and think about the Christmas season which is upon us.  I need to start slowing down or the season will have zoomed on by before I have a chance to catch my breath.
May we be led by the spirit of generosity that marks this day.  Let's especially be generous to ourselves as we race from event to event.  May we all find some time to slow down and savor the delights that are unique to this season.