Friday, December 19, 2014

Let There Be Peace on Earth


The first time I heard this song was at my oldest daughter's Christmas pageant the year she was in fourth grade. The elementary school had no place big enough to hold the pageant so it was held in the high school auditorium. The program was creative and joyous and enjoyed by all the parents and families.

Near the end of the evening, teachers dressed as reindeer took the stage with a rolicking skit and song. As I was enjoying it, awareness of a shuffle and hiss crept in and I realized that the children were silently lining the walls around the auditorium.

The lights went out. A deep silence filled the huge room.

And then one young voice soared in the darkness. "Let there be peace on earth..." A tiny light flicked on lighting her face.

A few more voices joined in...just a few from points all around us. "And let it begin with me."

More lights. More voices until we were ringed in light and earnest small voices singing about peace on earth. I think about that song often. I think about how we still don't understand the underlying truth of the words..."let it begin with me" for peace does not begin with warriors. Peace is protected by warriors when all else has failed. Peace begins with each of us.

Most people believe that peace is an absence of war. That isn't true. Peace is an absence of conflict. And true peace will not arrive until we as humans refuse to countenance abuse, intolerance, genocide, greed, and famine. As long as we turn away from the less fortunate ignoring the needs of the many in favor of the wants of the few, there will be no peace on earth.

"Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me..."

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas at Dawn

Christmas 1959. I was ten years old. Our family lived in Globe, Arizona, but we had traveled by automobile to Gary, Indiana. It was before the days of interstate highways and my parents drove many hours, late into the nights, to arrive by Christmas. My younger brothers and I occupied ourselves by discussing and boasting about the snowmen we were going to build when we arrived “up North.”
 
We arrived safely (our first miracle) in the cold pre-dawn hours. It was a cold, damp, windy morning with nary a snowflake in sight. Dad stopped at a gas station so that we could freshen up. The restrooms were unheated, providing us with an excellent reason to speed through our clean-up. With our faces washed and our hair combed, so that we were presentable, we piled back into the car and traveled the few blocks to my Aunt Betty and Uncle John’s house.
 
There, as we shivered under a barely lightened sky, my Dad was struck by an inspiration. He gathered us in a tight group on the small front stoop—and at 6:00 AM—we began bellowing out the strains of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
 
Now it stand to reason that SOMEBODY would want to shut us up, but nobody came. Dad led us into a second verse, urging us to sing louder.
 
Still no reaction.
 
The wind whipped up, cutting through our light coats. Lips turned blue and strands of hair blew across our eyes as he led us through a third teeth-chattering verse.
 
Nobody came. Mom rang the doorbell as he launched into the first verse again. Uncle John flung the door open and demanded, “Who is it!” before he recognized us and invited us in.
 
Later there were a few chuckles when he described his mad dash from room to room searching for the radio that someone had left on. During our visit, my brothers and I waited in vain for snow, knowing we only had a few days to spend there. At last, our hopes for snow dashed, we headed home. Oh, we had a great time milling around with our cousins, roaming in small packs from room to room, but in some small secret place within, a little snow would have been perfect.
 
After a long boring trip, suffering from holiday letdown, we arrived home safely (another miracle). Dad parked in front of our small house. We sat in the car staring out the foggy windows in amazement at our snow-covered yard. The cactus plants in the corners had spiky snow beards. There wasn’t enough snow to build a snowman, but we had a great snowball fight before we unpacked the car.
 
A miracle.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Chicken in Every Pot

First stated by Henry IV of France as, "I want there to be no peasant in my realm so poor that he will not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday," and later in the United States during the Hoover campaign for presidency as part of an advertisement.~~Wikidictionary

For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land. ~~Deuteronomy 15:11 KJV





I remember when a chicken dinner on Sunday was a marvelous treat. For much of my life, we were down on the poverty level. I think the difference between then and now was folks knew how to garden, how to shop so their dollars stretched until they snapped, and how to cook in order to make the most of what they had. In my childhood, eating in a restaurant was so rare I could count those times with the fingers on one hand: once when I was eight and my father and three brothers were in the hospital my mother and I had burritos at a tiny roadside cafe on the way to visit them (an hour long drive); once the day before my mother's funeral my aunt and uncle took me for a hamburger, thinking I might be more inclined to eat away from the chaos at my grandparents home; once when I was staying with a cousin in a hotel in Chicago; and once when my parents took us all to a Chinese restaurant after we shoveled our car out from a twenty-six inch snowfall. 

I do not count the three or four Christmases my step-uncle took my brothers and I to a famous smorgasbord and puppet show in Chicago. That was a Christmas gift.



TV dinners, prepackaged goods, microwave dinners didn't exist. Vegetable came fresh or canned. Meat usually was purchased at the butcher (fresh ground hamburger while you wait--thirty cents a pound). All our bread was bought at the day old bakery around the corner. Every night dinner consisted of a meat, a starch, and two vegetables. We never went hungry.

Now candy, cake, and other sweets--that was an entirely different matter. Cake was something that appeared on birthdays or other special occasions. We got a few pieces of candy at Christmas. And soda...I don't remember ever having soda. Until I left home on my eighteenth birthday we had milk every night with dinner. Not whole milk. Mom mixed dry milk with whole milk, half each. I never actually had whole milk until I was living on my own. Except back when my dad was working as a milkman. 

The point is, we were never hungry and ate well because my parents gardened, shopped carefully, and prepared the food in a way that gave them the most for their money. Occasionally, someone in our church would 'donate' the extras from their garden. Whatever it was, we ate it. There wasn't any such thing as not eating something because you didn't like it. If you weren't allergic, then you ate it.

I have a notion a lot of folks wouldn't survive now. The other day I read a blog about what to donate to a food pantry and while I agree with some of it (if you wouldn't eat it or feed to your family, then don't donate it), I was also a little put out by the volunteers who reported some people wanted more cookies or sweets or refused fresh veggies. I've had time to think about it since then.

We've reared a generation completely unfamiliar with 'real' food. There are children who don't know where French fries, ketchup, and other foods come from. They've never eaten a banana or orange or carrot or apple. They don't know that milk and meat come from animals. I'm not talking about some third world country here. Those children live so close to the earth they know exactly where food comes from. I talking about American children--children growing up in one of the richest countries on earth.

A chicken in every pot? We'll have to teach folks how to cook them first.


 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Grinch's Heart

Today is my daughter and son-in-law's first anniversary--the second time around. It's also my son-in-law's birthday. So in their honor, because they didn't give up, I'm posting this Christmas story about the beginning. Oh, yeah. The 'baby' in this story turned seventeen this year.

Christmas 1997. Well, there we were. Life, as usual, had twisted us in knots. We were short on money, long on bills, and the holiday was around the corner, nipping at our wallets. That year we had a new miracle in our family. Her name was T* M* and she wasn't old enough to know that she was a miracle.

I watched her being born back in September. My younger daughter and her husband were having tough times so they were living with us… which meant that I got to see T* every day. She was nearly three months old and changing almost by the hour.

Back in my more arrogant days, among the many silly things I said, was one particular gem—that none of my children would be allowed to move back in with me once they were on their own. I’ve been forced to eat my words several times. That Christmas both of my daughters were living with us! In any case, I have found that God generally gets what he wills, one way or the other. That June, in a matter of twenty minutes, he simply removed all other options. God was determined to give me a blessing I didn’t want.

Tough times can shrivel the soul. On the outside, I carried on, but on the inside, like the Grinch, my heart was several sizes too small. And then, God sent T* into my life. Life was still tough. There was little income and large out-go. But when I came home from work and held my granddaughter, things were okay. I had forgotten how precious the little children are. I harbored resentments and bitterness because of my own failures with my children. With this tiny baby, I was able at last to forgive myself for my failures and simply allow myself to love her without expectations or conditions. When I watched her young parent's faces when they held her and cared for her, then I knew that I did something right. A miracle. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Expectations

This is the time of year when we talk about what we're gonna do. Bake. Cook. Buy presents. Decorate the house. Travel or invite company over. Shop like mad and spend money we don't have. It's all about expectations--ours and others.

Over the years I did the entire baking/shopping/buying/traveling/decorating gamut--mostly because I strived to meet someone else's expectations. We do everything we can to make sure our children, our parents and families, our friends are not disappointed. Somewhere along the line we give up thinking about what we want.

This year the hunk and I are staying home. We don't exchange gifts as there isn't anything we want or need. We'll cook what we want--I confess it will mostly be distressingly healthy. On Christmas Eve we'll have our traditional tacos, of course.

Christmas morning, long after most folks have tumbled out of bed and ripped the wrappings off presents, we'll have a leisurely breakfast, listen to Christmas carols, and putz around. Later in the day we'll cook dinner. Maybe we'll watch something on Netflix.

I don't know if we'll decorate or not. It all depends on whether we're ambitious enough to haul out the tree and ornaments. We may only set up the Nativity we've had for the last thirty years. And some candles.

Now I understand this would not be an ideal Christmas for most folks. And in the past, I might have been disappointed to bypass the company, the decorating, the baking. But the truth is I'm ready for a peaceful, non-demanding holiday with my spouse. I suspect our expectations change as we age and move on to a new stage in life. Maybe, just maybe, we don't pause to reflect and consider how our expectations might have changed over the transitions.

Some folks confess they don't have the 'holiday spirit'. I don't think that's the problem, but rather I believe those folks might be hankering for a different style celebration. The trappings don't make the holiday. The heart does. This year...follow your heart.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Santa's Helper

For those who follow my blog, you know I post several Christmas Vignettes from my past throughout the month of December. Mostly, I do it to remind myself of all the blessings I've been given through the years. Since today is my son's birthday, I post this story in his honor.

Christmas 1979. That was the year we stretched the budget to get the kids’ bicycles. At our house, Santa always brings a stuffed animal. It was my feeling that Santa bringing tons of presents sets up kids for unrealistic expectations. No matter how the year goes, a stuffed animal is always doable. And after that, whatever Mom and Dad can come up with is great.

My kids had a realistic idea of our money situation from the time we sat them down and let them pay the bills with real money. My house hunk had his check cashed at the bank in $1 bills. Then we sat down with the kids and let them count out the money for each bill. We did that for six weeks. If there was any money left over after the bills we let them do the grocery shopping with a calculator and count out the money for the food.

After that when we said there was no money, they understood that reality. To this day, they’re all very good managers. This particular Christmas was important to us as a family as the previous Christmas had been very, very bad. We didn’t have a lot of money, but there was a bit more than usual so we decided that we could afford to buy bicycles.

Of course when your kids are pre-teen age, hiding bicycles is a pretty tricky proposition. Finally, we simply made the garage off-limits. Late Christmas Eve the house hunk and I were out there trying to assemble three bicycles. The store would have assembled them, but that cost money that we couldn’t afford. One needed training wheels. Things did not go well.

Around 2 AM, the door opened and my second son trotted out there with his hands in his pockets. First of all, I was startled that he was still dressed. And then of course I demanded to know why he was awake.

“Well,” he said, “I thought I would see how long it took you to put them together. But it’s late. I’m tired. And I would like to ride my bike tomorrow. So I gave up. Do you want me to put them together?”

His father handed him the wrenches. “If you think you can do better than we are, go for it.” Thirty minutes later all three bikes were assembled and parked by the tree.

My son was nine years old that Christmas. Until he left for the Navy, it was always his responsibility to assemble all the gifts marked “Some Assembly Required.”

That year Santa brought the kids stuffed Safari animals—lions, tigers, and such. Up until a few years ago, they still had them. And then they decided to donate them to a kid’s program. As I recall, that was the sum total of Christmas gifts that year, except for the perennial favorite… new underwear. To this day, that’s a family in-joke.


Blessings and Happy Birthday, Tony!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Great Christmas/Holiday Debate

Every year...EVERY YEAR...a huge debate rages over whether to say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. So-called Christians loudly defend their right to say Merry Christmas. Everyone else says, "Who cares?" A holiday is a holiday is a holiday.

First of all, I've heard of NO ONE arrested for saying Merry Christmas. I wish all these folks that share this nonsense on social media in a knee-jerk reaction would grow up. Seriously. No one cares what words you use. No one.

Secondly, I was raised in a strict Southern Baptist home. My dad's a minister. And if, I say IF anyone out there truly wants to celebrate Christmas the Christian way, then...no tree, no presents, no Santa, no holiday decorations, no feast. All of those are pagan rituals adopted by the church to make Christianity more attractive to converts. So every time you say Merry Christmas, you're continuing an old pagan tradition.

After much research, I can't find any evidence for Christians to celebrate Christmas. None. I searched high and low for any Biblical reason. There is none. The entire holiday is a sham invented by corrupt priests to snooker the local pagans. The truth is Christmas and all its trappings is 99% pagan from the 'Christmas' colors (red and green) to the candles to the tree tradition to the pine bough decorations. Presents are a fairly recent tradition (in the last couple centuries). And the date was picked to coincide with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia and the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice. Christmas Eve Mass and other services are no more Christian than any other part of the celebration.

So. If you want to truly celebrate the birth of Jesus, then follow his example. Feed the poor. House the homeless. Heal the sick. That's the way to celebrate Christmas.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Craft

A craftsman (craftswoman) is an individual who creates--with their hands, their minds, their voices--and yes, in this day and age, with a computer. They produce something by their personal efforts. In the past, not so long ago, craftsmanship was respected and honored. Folks were willing to pay dearly for a one-of-a-kind piece of furniture or knitted sweater or painting. They revered those who produced music with an instrument or their voice. Books were treasured and passed from one generation to the next.

And then we entered the Wal-Mart era. Oh, it's not only their fault. All stores seemed to embrace the throw-away philosophy. Folks no longer re-read books, mining them for new insights. Now the cry is, "I have nothing to read!" Every season we have to have a new coat or new boots or new furniture or pots and pans or towels or something--even if we don't need it, whatever it is.

Because we are completely aware of the ephemeral aspect of all our worldly goods, they really have no value for us. And therefore, nothing has value. When we look at a house or car, we're not calculating how many years we will have them. We're not thinking about passing that beloved book or table or vase on to our children. We're not planning to use Grandma's turkey platter for our dinners...because we can buy our own new improved turkey platter--every year if necessary. Our landfills and dumps are overflowing with our discards.

I made the pocket rocks in the photo above as free giveaways for a writer's conference. FREE. I couldn't give them away. At the end of the conference, a reviewer offered to take the leftovers to add to prize packages. I let her have them. I probably spent two or three hundred hours making them. But all the folks at the conference saw were cheap rocks.

I may spend six months writing a book. Readers complain when I ask them to pay three dollars for the privilege of reading it. They only look at the external aspects of production--cover art, editing, marketing--which require special skills that are all expensive on their own, and decide the actual act of writing is worthless. Books have been so devalued in our time, many authors are moving on to some other job so they and their families can eat.

I once spent considerable time and effort producing calligraphy art. For one piece (8"X12"), the average time required for design and lettering was seventy hours. That did not take into account supplies (ink, pens, brushes, special paper, matting and framing). I charged fifty dollars for heirloom quality art. I sold two pieces. Both buyers took pains to point out they could have printed something out from the computer for a lot less money.

Craftsmanship is fading in a slow, painful death. Everything we cherish is mass produced in a factory by underpaid workers. Quality is a thing of the past. In the next twenty-four days, people in this country will race from one store to the next, snatching cheap, mass-produced goods, spending billions of dollars for crap that will be discarded by July. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sixty-Five Years

Today I'm sixty-five years old. It is cause for reflection. Who am I? How did I get here? I look back at the past--my past--and see many times I took the road less traveled. Were those times the best decisions? Even now, I don't know.

Most children have no concept of 'old'. They can't envision a time when they won't be able to run like the wind or do somersaults or race off on their bikes. For them, climbing a tree is as exciting as taking a spaceship to the moon. When they sprawl in the grass, they don't worry about bugs or ticks. Freedom and curiosity are just abstract concepts.

Then they reach their teens. Life abruptly takes on a baffling confusion of conflicting expectations and desires. Their bodies change in weird, terrifying ways. They long to be grown up while clinging to the security of parental care.

Abruptly, they're flung into adulthood where things really get scary. Responsibility isn't just a vague concept anymore. Sex and relationships and marriage fling them into changes they're not prepared for. Suddenly, on that day they hear themselves tell their children 'Because I said so,' they realize they're becoming their parents.

And still--getting old is something that will happen way off in the distant future.

Mine is a long-lived family. My parents are in their eighties. I don't anticipate death anytime soon. And yet I'm slowing down. Crawling out of bed in the morning is accompanied by a few more groans and pains than I would like to admit. I have to swallow far more pills than I'm happy about. But life, so far, goes on.

Do I have regrets? Not many. That's a pretty good place to be at sixty-five. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Can You Hear Me Now?

I've been quite remiss in my blogging lately. It's that time of year when it seems I'm always busy, always have SOMETHING to do, SOMEWHERE to go. I could say that's the reason and almost everyone would accept it. But the simple truth is I've had very little to say.

I am not sure why that is. Perhaps my life is just that boring. Perhaps I'm in a quiet eddy of life and should enjoy the peace while I have it. I don't know.

The other day, I was cleaning out my e-mails, sorting through some files, and it occurred to me we don't communicate anymore. Folks that have cell phones text. Most of the rest use social media via their computers. No one e-mails. No one actually WRITES. Fewer and fewer people TALK on the phone. My phone calls are 90% bill collectors for people who don't live here. My e-mails are mostly ads from companies I was insane enough to order products from. The last time I received an e-mail from a real live person was about two weeks ago. She was a reader asking about one of my books. I was thrilled!

More and more we rely on social media for that pale, shallow thing we call communication. We post pictures of cute kitties or puppies, post links to interesting or controversial articles, post prayer requests for unspecified catastrophes in our families, or post pics about the bad weather. Very little of substance is exchanged. Social media allows us to fake real communication.

I tried to figure out why we've stumbled down this trail to oblivion. I suspect it's pure laziness. Writing--or talking--takes energy and time we just don't want to spend. Where we used to have long conversations on the phone, we now have a quick 'message' exchange. Typing is too much work so the exchange is generally very short. And e-mails...well, I remember when they started replacing actual letters. Now, no one bothers.

When is the last time you wrote an actual letter? You know, the kind that requires a stamp and envelope? Birthday and Christmas cards don't count. Uh-huh. I'm the same. The US Post Office mostly deals with  junk mail, packages, and bills. I love receiving letters. Can't remember when that last happened.

Instead of increasing communication, all the technology at our fingertips has actually isolated us even more. In the past, letters to loved ones in the military were treasured, carefully preserved, and taken out often for re-reading. I wonder how many soldiers receive letters now?

Families were separated by long distances. Letters and telephone calls kept the members up to date. Now, we're too busy to even e-mail. How is that better? Yes, a picture posted on Facebook is nice... I suppose I shouldn't complain, eh?

Perhaps, blogging is the last bastion of communication. Who would have thought?

Drop me line. annycook67@yahoo.com


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Bad News, Bad Weather, and Media

I don't normally listen to the 'news' on the networks. Actually...I rarely switch on the news from any source. That doesn't mean I'm uninformed. I do my own research about the topics that interest me. Otherwise, I get on with life.

Frankly, I just can't stand the gushing excitement displayed by the news guys and gals as they report new examples of humanity's capacity for violence and increasing lack of compassion. The weather guys are just as bad.

Ebola! Murder! Bombing! Rain! Wind!

After a while, it takes more, MORE to get the public's attention. Have you noticed?

It used to be we were horrified if someone was murdered. But with the spread of more and more information bites, we found that unexciting. Ho-hum. So what? Really, how many murders can you report before folks tune 'em out? Crazy people who were looking for attention discovered they were going to have to up the game if they wanted national coverage. It wasn't enough to shoot/stab/poison a couple people. Nope. Multiple victims were required. Lots of bodies.

We're fickle. Pretty soon even mass murders couldn't keep our attention. The crazies had to find some new, more horrifying way to attract our attention. Slowly, but surely, they graduated to executions, beheadings, and who know what will be next. I sincerely believe the escalation in violence is directly related to HOW such things are reported--and the duration of the coverage.

The weather folks have learned this lesson, much to their cost. Every little rain storm, every high, every low was so over-reported, the public just turned it off. The inflated excitement was akin to the boy crying 'Wolf!' After a while, people yawned and found something else to watch.

If the news media reported murders in a matter-of-fact fashion that listed the bare facts and moved on, I believe the shock value would drop like a stone. No extra coverage. No forty-seven reporters standing in front of schools, factories, court houses, scenes of devastation, repeating the same three or four facts over and over and over. No cameras flashing from scene to scene as cops try to track down bombers.

Surely there are positive events to report. If not, then why turn on the news at all? It strikes me as sad when the news can only scrape up one positive story a week. Are we really that lost?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fear

Every person on earth, whether they are willing to admit it or not, has experienced fear. Some face their fears, owning them, analyzing them, and finally banishing them. Others run, hide, deny or blame their fear on someone else.

Every time I think of fear, I remember a scene in an old movie, Remo Williams. Remo is standing on the precipice of a tall building, frozen by his fear of heights. His mentor points out that fear is just a feeling. "We feel cold, we feel hot, we feel happy, we feel fear. Fear cannot kill you."

What we do with that fear, that adrenaline CAN affect us. Fear is an atavistic signal that something is wrong, something is not quite right. Fear protects us if we remember it is a feeling and take the necessary moments to assess the source, then decide how to deal with that source. Perhaps the best step is to run! On the other hand, me just might need to squish it!

If we allow fear to paralyze us, we give it power over us. How can we make a decision or solve the problem if we let it have that power? Acknowledge it. Look at it head-on. Decide how to deal with the source. Set it aside.