December 18, 2014

The meaning of Christmas

To me, Christmas is a year round celebration, not the weeks leading into nowadays Halloween and Thanksgiving. I get frustrated by the retail push to encourage us to spend money on kitschy junk as a way to "celebrate". Then there is the stress to get it all done, adding tasks to an already full plate. The past few years, I've given myself permission to skip one of the must-do tasks as a way of offering a reprieve. One year, I didn't bake cookies. Another year I didn't mail out cards. Another year I didn't write a Christmas letter, etc. But even by allowing myself a breather, I still feel overwhelmed and out of breath. I can completely understand the sentiment behind John Grisham's book Skipping Christmas, which was adapted into the film Christmas with the Kranks.

This year, for a number of personal reasons, I am not feeling any of it. My heart isn't in the mad retail or decorating melee. I've written Christmas letters, but not copied them and gotten cards, but still not mailed them. I decorated the tree but decided we didn't need to do outdoor lights, only to have to undo them in a few weeks. I'm just not in the mood for any of it. I don't want to bake, I don't want to decorate, I don't want to put on a fake smile. I just want peace. And quiet.

But, then once I get that peace and quiet, I remember why we even have the season. Over two thousand years ago, a baby was born into a humble life. There are a lot of stories about the hows and whys and the expectations of this young baby. When we stop thinking about another blow up Santa yard ornament or reindeer antlers for our car or ugly Christmas sweaters, we may remember the words that young baby grew up to share. We may remember His parables and stories, reminding us that Christmas is anything but all the stuff we force ourselves to do to celebrate. The things that ultimately leave us wanting. You see, Christmas has nothing to do with any of the things I am stressed about or not feeling.

Christmas is about the words of Jesus. Whatever you do or don't believe about religion, if you recognize Christmas as any sort of holiday, you must recognize the words of the namesake. Words like:
Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.
He opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”

These are the words that remind me what Christmas is about. The words Christ spoke, repeatedly.

Here in my town, I've been given a reminder. A man in my community is reaching out to the people that often are overlooked. Those who hide beneath our bridges and huddle in vacant buildings. People who haven't seen a shower or had a hot meal in days. People who need medical help. People who most of us turn away like we never saw them. He is finding them and going to where they are camping in a Tent City along our river. A loosely organized group has been doing daily outreach. They are going to where the houseless live, in makeshift shelters, up and down the banks of the river. Building trust with people the world has ignored and shunned. The group is helping keep our brothers and sisters warm, fed, and restoring dignity. They are no longer faceless ghosts we try to ignore. They are men like Will, who wants to find work in a restaurant, or Freddie who can work as a janitor. Or Jen who has worked as an office manager and billing clerk. The group is collecting bus passes and survival gear. Planting fruit trees so the camp will one day bear edible fruit for anyone who needs it. But more than anything, they are planting hope.

Jesus didn't charge us to hang wreaths from our eaves or put large plastic light-up figurines of His birth on our town square. He didn't ask us to yell at clerks who don't say Merry Christmas or write companies expressing outrage at a policy that won't allow it. He didn't ask us to exchange useless white elephant gifts and laugh about sticking someone with something nobody needs. He didn't ask us to bake piles of food and eat like gluttons while Lazarus sat the the gate waiting for even our scraps. Those aren't the messages we're supposed to hear about Christmas.

Thank you to a humble local shepherd, for reminding so many of us what we should be hearing.

If you're interested in learning more about Tent City and how you can help, please visit Go Fund Me. 

Let's all remember the Reason for the Season.


November 10, 2014

She probably didn't think I noticed

Last week, I had an opportunity to spend time with a faraway friend.

We originally met online several years ago as we both were looking for freelancers to collaborate with. The writer and the graphic artist met and became friends, then colleagues. We worked on a few projects together and then due to the nature of our work, life got in the way of our collaborations. We still were working, but coordinating that work in the same place and time became cumbersome and our careers moved forward, albeit separately, not as a team. 

We still would touch base from time to time, seeing how the other was doing, but our contact was superficial and tangential. Then this past June, I sent her a note. I mentioned how much I missed our conversations. 

We haven't touched base in a while, but I thought it would be nice to catch up. You're on my mind from time to time and I wonder how life is going. I cannot believe our emails go back 5 years, it seems like yesterday we took that spring break trip to visit you. I hope you're well.
June 18
6/18, 3:03pm
Well at the moment not so great... dealing with possibly having breast cancer. Should have a better idea in the next few days just what is ahead... surgery... or surgery and chemo. So that's my deal for right now.
Distract me dear friend with what has been going on with you?

That conversation quickly became a diagnosis. She has Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer that has spread. She may only have a year of life. Or 13 (the years of the person she met who has survived the longest). Or more. But the diagnosis is clear. It's an ugly cancer and it's tough to beat.

But what do strong women do when they hear that? They plan a trip with friends. Or at least that is what my friend did. She asked me if I wanted to go see Wicked. So completely on impulse, the two of us combing the internet for discounts, she got us a fantastic room overlooking Times Square with a Priceline bid and I was able to find fabulous discounts on theater tickets. The rest of it was left to chance and energy. We knew better than to plan a million things, taking fatigue into account.

I drove in and my friend took the train. We arrived within an hour of each other and commenced on our merry-making. We did all the things that friends do when they have a limited amount of time together and that time is in NYC.

We went for cocktails at The View, a rotating restaurant 48 floors up from the city. It was so elegant and touristy. I loved our ever-changing view of the city.

There is lot of things that happened between the start of our time away and the end. But I want to highlight something I don't think my friend knew I saw.

We had tickets to see Wicked. The energy and enthusiasm surrounding our evening was evident. We were looking forward to the night and all it would bring. I never realized it would bring a moment of honest clarity such as this.

We were in the restroom and as is typical of NYC, the restrooms have attendants. As my friend was leaving, she slipped the attendant a $20 bill. It was subtle. I barely noticed but I do admit to looking and catching that moment.

She didn't say a word. That wasn't what it was about. In fact, it isn't why I'm writing this post, to be honest. I wanted to point out to anyone who reads this... no matter WHAT your situation is, it improves exponentially when you consider another person. We had a great visit. We didn't focus on the unpredictable, but instead focused on our friendship and time together.

When she didn't think I noticed, I remembered all the reasons I love my friend. She is generous and loving. She thinks of others. She had a moment to do something random and kind for someone else and grabbed it. She wasn't about glory or recognition. As I said, she probably didn't even see that I saw.

She just knows that when you can do something that makes another person's life better you should take that opportunity.

Thank you for being my friend, Holli.

I love you and I love our friendship. You're a special person and I am so grateful you're in my life.

October 20, 2014

On our anniversary

Today, Mr. Fresh Daily Bread and I celebrate 24 years of marriage.

Don't run, this isn't going to be your typical sappy lovey-dovey post. I promise. In our years of marriage, my husband and I have tempered each other's natural personality. There was a day I would have been sprinkling my post with rose petals, unicorn farts, and rainbows. That isn't today. Instead, I smashed a fruit fly in my computer screen and quickly disposed of his carcass.

I want to discuss what 24 years of life with the same person can bring. The good, the bad, and the honest.

I've never found a person more annoying in my life. Nor have I ever appreciated the ability to know what's coming. Those quirks, those compulsions, those rules. I tend to be the sort of person who flies by the seat of my pants. I deal with things as they approach me, head on. I'd totally lose in a disaster preparedness competition. Maybe. I am a planner, but not a predictor. I am the sort of person who decides what the weather will be by stepping outside, not watching radar or Weather Channel. That attitude has burned me as often as it has served me. I know that Weather Channel watchers can testify much the same. Weather, much like life, is not predictable.

We have two children. I often tell them, "this is a life lesson", when they have to deal with difficult circumstances, whether it be a group project, an aggravating teacher or a difficult friendship. You figure it out, and life doesn't stop because things aren't perfect.

Little did I realize that marriage with a complete opposite would be an ongoing life lesson. Upon reflection, we've oft commented that the first year we were together, if we were not married, we may not be together. But we'd made that commitment and dangit, if our stubborn arrogant selves weren't going to admit it, we were going to get through it. It was tough. Nobody tells you that, but I will. It was tough that first year of marriage.

You'd think it got easier as we went along. After year one, things sailed smoothly. We both worked, continued our educations, and built our savings accounts. We took great vacations and though our time together was limited, we made the most of it.

Then we decided to start a family. We had very carefully discussed it ahead of time. My career wasn't moving forward quickly and his was. We knew it was time to figure out what was next. We had our firstborn and with his success and our years of saving, I quit my job and took on a new one. Raising our daughter.

On a personal level, it was a huge adjustment for me. I had been very devoted to my job and my fellow co-workers. I loved what I did, but knew it was time to head in a different direction. I had to figure out who I was again. I can remember spending time with a former co-worker, a few years later, sharing some of the projects I had undertaken (including a stained glass window I made) and the co-worker telling me I really needed to get a life.

I didn't say anything at the time but I was stunned.

I wanted to say, "Why is my devotion to my family and finding side hobbies any less indicative of having a life?" But it gnawed at me. I knew that my brain was restless. As much as our family meant to me, I realized a little piece of myself was dying daily.

I decided to make my dream come true. As a child, I dreamed of writing. Of arranging words on paper in a way that people wanted to read them. My decision to pursue freelance writing as a career was not a "mommy-blogger" motivation. It was an angle that fit an audience I knew intimately.

You may be wondering why I'm still not discussing my marriage or anniversary, since that was the headline. The fact is, I am, but just not in a way that is expected. I am married and in many ways, yes the two became one, but in many others it's been a journey of being myself, losing myself and finding myself. All in the midst of being a partner.

Time moved forward. That baby is an adult and has an almost adult sister. And our marriage has been up as often as it's been down. We fight. We disagree. And in the end we concur, there is no better way to walk through this world than together. We balance each other. Two opposites. A save the world hippie and a process minded efficient engineer. We came together and somehow have made it work. There isn't a day that goes by that he doesn't tell me a better way I could do something and there isn't a day that goes by that I dismiss his fears and compulsions. We look at the weather differently. There are days he studies his radar and carries coats and umbrellas, unnecessarily, and days I step outside and do the same.

But in this journey, after one half of my life, I don't know how we'd have done it without each other. I cannot imagine a day I don't wake up with my husband and I don't want to. Our life has worked. It isn't always pretty and it isn't always precise, but it's ours. I'm not a romantic, I'm a realist. And our life together is much better than it would have been apart. I'm grateful for our journey.

Happy Anniversary to my partner, my bud, and my sweetie.
It's our day.

October 1, 2014

Is this for a grade?

When I'm not pounding like a maniac on the keyboard writing or trying to find someone who will pay me to write, I substitute teach. In my state, I can teach any grade short term, which is defined as less than 5 consecutive days.

I teach in two local districts and due to my daily schedule, usually stick to middle school and younger. I've discovered that with high school classes, I'm more or less a test or study hall monitor. I don't really get to learn or teach a thing. 

This week, I was substitute teaching middle school Social Studies. The classes were American History and World Civilization. I enjoy the refresher course in things learned in ages past. I remembered things I knew about Ancient Greece and Sacagawea. In some ways, it reminded me of the scene in the movie Big, when Tom Hanks played a 12 year old who became "big" overnight. He was at a dinner party and the host's son had a question about the three ships that Christopher Columbus sailed (Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria), and an adult pipes in about seeing the same documentary. 

As we reviewed a video and I passed out review sheets to compliment the video, several students piped up and asked "is this for a grade?" I paused. I honestly didn't know if it was for a grade or not. But in shock. I said, Does it matter? Would that change your quality of work? Would you not look for the right answers if it was?

I was not as stunned when the next class had the same question, and I quickly answered that I wasn't sure, but that at some point, it would be, so why not get a jump on what you need to know now?

The overriding concern with grades and scores reminded me of the changes in education. To be fair, grades have always mattered, it is how we could tell how much we had learned. It is a way for the teacher to know what they still need to teach. But the underlying tone that if the lesson wasn't for a grade, it wasn't important really struck me. Shouldn't all our work, whether we are in first grade, high school, college or life be done as if it mattered? As if we are being graded? As if we could assess what we knew and didn't know? 

It struck me as odd that students would gauge how hard they worked on whether that work would be measured. And if it wasn't going to be measured, it wasn't worth the work? Something got skewed in our educational system where we only teach what will be measured and we only work if we are going to measure it. 

To sit in a classroom with the opportunity to learn something new for free, what a gift! 
Or we could just hope that  someone who did learn about it makes a documentary.

September 30, 2014

You're not invisible

I live in a depressed area of the midwest. In 2011, our city had the highest concentrated poverty rate among core cities in the United States’ 100 largest metropolitan areas. Driving through the town, it's not uncommon to see dilapidated houses, homeless people, and abandoned cars. Where I live is outside the core city, but often have to drive through the city.

Yesterday, it was a lovely 75 degree fall afternoon and I was on my way to a meeting. My sunroof was open and the radio was tuned to my favorite station. I mentally cursed as I saw the light I was approaching turn red, slowing my journey. I grumbled even more when I spotted the far-too-familiar person on the corner with a cardboard sign asking for money.

My mental inventory was rattling off a course of action, while I rolled up the window on that side of my car as I came to a stop. I kept telling myself not to make eye contact, "don't encourage him", the typical narrative we tell ourselves when we see someone who makes us uncomfortable.

In the periphery, I saw him standing still on the corner, not approaching any of the cars, just hopefully holding his sign, willing someone to open their window, or maybe their heart.

I had just stopped at the ATM, put some cash in my wallet, and it was tucked into my purse, laying on the passenger seat. Something hit me in that moment. All I needed to do to get money was drive through a magic window, punch a few buttons and it popped out of a little slot. I never would know what the indignity of standing on a street corner in an economically decimated town with a makeshift cardboard sign, hoping for the kindness of a stranger. I knew I could do better than avert my eyes. I could do something.

In that split second I reached into my wallet and grabbed one of the crisp bills I had just gotten from the ATM. I rolled down my window and motioned for him to come over. It was broad daylight, so I wasn't worried for my safety, in fact if anything, I wanted him to know that I didn't meet the stereotype anymore than maybe he did. I didn't want either of us to be invisible to each other.

He was polite and graciously appreciative and told me not to be scared, he'd never hurt a woman. The light was about to change and so there wasn't a lot of time for chit-chat. I don't know a thing about why he was begging or homeless. It didn't matter. He didn't know a thing about why I had a luxury car or a crisp $20. We saw past the stories we tell ourselves about others and only saw two people helping each other. Yes, he helped me. He helped me soften my heart. I wished him luck and told him to have a nice day.

My friend with the cardboard sign smiled broadly and he must have said "thank you" 10 times. The light changed as I drove off and he waved and then resumed his quietly dignified stance, as dignified as I imagine a person who is begging for money could be. But he was smiling. Someone saw him and someone cared.

Now I'm not suggesting we throw money at every person who asks for it, without wondering why they need it. Or maybe I am. Maybe it doesn't matter why they are asking. Really, think about it. That bill I handed him meant so much more to him than it would to me. In fact, I've even gone into a forgotten pair of pants or done laundry and found a $20. I'm pretty sure that's never happened to someone like him. I had it to share, so I did.

Maybe I am suggesting we take off the blinders and remind those in need that they are not invisible. They exist and they need to be seen. We exist and we need to be seen. We share this planet. Let's see each other as neighbors.

September 17, 2014

Trouble Maker

Last year, after my firstborn child started college, and my second born was old enough to drive, I realized my nest was half full. For years, I've felt that I was meant to be a teacher. I mean this with no immodesty; I am really good with kids. I like them and I convey that. Because they know I like them, they respond.

I learned that I am not meant to be a full time teacher because I don't like planning or paperwork or tests. I like getting in and getting my hands dirty. I'm grateful for the carefully arranged lessons and statistical measures that each teacher must do. Me? I get to come in for a day and be a rock star. I read the lessons, ask questions and watch young eyes and minds come to life.

Sometimes. Sometimes, I see a child who is either struggling or beaten down.

Yesterday, I became reacquainted with some of my students from last year. My heart tugged as I saw a young man I met last year. He had been identified as a trouble maker last year and actually accused of crimes that were later proven he didn't commit. He seems to have found a comfortable place as the trouble maker and that saddened me. I don't have the arrogance to suppose that he isn’t as bad as he seems, but boy, I sure hope that I can give him a glimpse of someone believing in him.

He’s a bright young man. I read his work and it’s as good if not better than anything his peers produce. But he’s labeled. Last year, he was accused of stealing, and even under intense scrutiny, he denied the theft, explaining that he was allergic to peanuts, and that there was no way he would steal a Reese’s. The aide at the time nodded to me knowingly, explaining, he may not eat it, but he could probably sell it.

I actually understand why such a young man would fall under scrutiny. He is a behavior problem. The part where my heart breaks is that our egos don't give us the chance to let go when that scrutiny fails. We continue to accuse and suspect, even when we don't have a rational reason.

He was allergic to peanuts. He did NOT steal the Reese’s peanut butter cup, and in fact, a teacher came into the room later that morning and asked, did you find the money I left last night when I was here for conferences? The case of the missing candy bar was solved, but the cloud of suspicion hung over that young man.

The story stuck with me from my day as a sub. As someone who comes in and out one day at a time, I don't purport to know more than those who are there daily. But I see things differently. Yesterday, I saw my young friend again. We smiled knowingly at each other.

The work was assigned and he balked. He found one excuse after another to avoid doing it. The aide again told me, “All he does is get into trouble”. I remarked that sometimes things like that are self-fulfilling prophecies. He gets in trouble because that is what expected of him. I went over to him and said, “You need to stop stalling and do this or you will have to stay in for recess and work on it”. He began, albeit 20 minutes later, and wrote what I consider a very age appropriate and persuasive essay. I do not get to grade the essays, and honestly, I'm probably not even supposed to read them, but my personal fascination with this young student got the better of me. I had to see if he wrote anything of substance. He did.

My anecdotal evidence is simple. He is smart. But he is labeled. I don't see him daily so I can ignore the label.

But I also see the writing on the wall. This smart young student will not surpass his label. He will not be encouraged to reach further than his life. My heart cries for him. My heart cries for the thousands who are in cities around the nation, who are labeled and not listened to. A trouble maker he was labeled and that is who he will become.

Doesn’t seem right, does it?

July 15, 2014

Shhhh... I'm letting you in on a light bladder leakage tip!

Many thanks to Poise for sponsoring today's story, and keeping me confident!

When I gave birth to my first child, she was five weeks early and I went into labor shortly after my water broke in the store parking lot. During our childbirth instruction, we were warned that we should drop a jar of pickles if our water broke so nobody would think we pee'd our pants. Nearly 20 years later, the fear of light bladder incontinence continues to plague women everywhere. Age really has nothing to do with it. When women give birth, a lot of things never completely go back to normal. Let's face it, you don't even have to give birth to experience moments of light incontinence.

Who can forget the line from the movie Pretty Woman, where Edward quickly covers up for Vivian's comment?
Old Lady at Opera: “Did you like the opera, dear?”Vivian: “It was so good, I almost pee'd my pants!”Edward: “She said she liked it better than Pirates of Penzance.”
We all know what it's like, if we're being honest. We know that there are certain times we will be together with good friends and get to laughing so hard we pee our pants a little. Instead of BYOB for such get togethers, I think we should think about BYOP. P for Poise. Protection. Personal Dignity. Privacy.

When I first thought about doing this campaign, my initial reaction was befuddlement... what could I possibly know about incontinence? Turns out quite a bit. I'm in my late forties, and while I may not be thinking about bladder control, but I wasn't thinking about weight loss, grey hairs, or bifocals, either.

I'm not going to deny it, there are times a sneeze or fit of laughter causes me to lose my control a little. Let's be realistic. Nobody wants to sit around soggy or stay home from events when there is a perfectly Poise'd solution. And with a personal introduction to SAM, their Super Absorbent Material, we have the confidence and comfort in social situations without worrying about laughter, sneezing, or not knowing where the nearest bathroom is.

You just never know when the years are going to attempt to steal the things you think you can control, but don't let age rob your future. Hang out with SAM and Poise and you'll be ready for anything.

If you are interested in meeting SAM for free, and learning what it's like to have Poise, simply follow the links in this story. 


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