Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Years Eve Watchnight

This morning I read through my Facebook feed, noting Happy New Year wishes and the sharing of plans for the evening. There seemed to be a 50/50 split between staying at home and going out to party. I freely admit the very idea of partying at midnight gives me the shudders.

I've been looking back, way back to the time when I was a youngster. I don't remember any particular celebrations for New Years until I was in my teens. There might have been some, but they weren't very important to me. Our family was what was known as a 'religious' family so drinking and dancing weren't our way, anyway.

I do remember the Watchnights of my mid-teens, though. As I've mentioned before, it was a very turbulent time. The body count from the Vietnam War was posted every night in the upper left hand corner of the TV screen during the news. The numbers were a constant reminder of our soldiers at war. The civil rights wars at home were no less disturbing. Riots, assassinations, burning cities, murders all led to instability and insecurity. Young people held demonstrations against all sorts of things. Woodstock shook up the establishment.

The young of today think they are living in uncertain times. Every generation believes that. Every generation has their own demons, their own problems to face.

But I was talking about my times...

New Years parties were mostly for the wealthy and celebrities. Every day folks might have a small dinner or something like that, but 'good' people didn't go to bars or clubs. They celebrated with family and friends.

Our family attended a church that held a Watchnight service every New Years Eve. We arrived at church around 8 PM for a pot-luck dinner. I always loved pot-luck dinners at church because all the women brought their best dishes. It was a feast. After dinner, some folks visited while others play board games. And then around 11:30 everyone went upstairs to the sanctuary for the Watchnight service. We sang hymns. Several people read passages from the Bible that they found relevant to hope for the New Year. And at midnight we prayed for peace and compassion. After a last hymn, everyone went home.

I can't say if our celebration was better or worse than any others. But when we woke up on New Years morning, we faced that day with renewed hope. Perhaps, that's all we can really do. Face each new day with hope.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Bigger Baskets

As the end of the year approaches, some folks--all right most folks--resolve to lose weight in the new year. And probably 99.99% of them don't succeed. There are a lot of reasons for that. But I imagine the number one reason is lack of commitment. Standing in front of a mirror, assessing the form and figure does not make a commitment. Huffing and puffing as you climb a flight of stairs doesn't either. The truth is... long term commitment to changes of lifestyle usually only happen after a catastrophic event. Heart attack. Stroke. Diabetes.

Some people refuse to buy bigger clothing when their old things no longer fit properly. They believe the discomfort of ill fitting clothes will serve as an incentive to lose weight. And they're mostly wrong. All that happens in the end is you look like you're bursting out of your clothing. If you never leave the house, sloppy sweats and tee-shirts are one solution, but if you work out of the home, tightly fitting clothing with gaping button holes and stretched zippers...well, it's not attractive.

At that point, I support bigger baskets.

No, it's not giving up, giving in, or any of that other nonsense. It's maintaining a positive outlook while you get your act together. Dieting and exercise take a long time to show results--unless you're only working on about ten pounds. For those of us who are looking at a lot more than that, the commitment might take as long as a year or two. In the meantime, there's absolutely no reason to be uncomfortable or unattractive while we're working on our resolution. In fact, there's every reason to do everything we can to heighten our positive outlook on life.

So. Bigger baskets. Attractive baskets with fancy weaving and sturdy underpinning. Uncomfortable people are unhappy people. Get some brightly colored baskets. Colors enhance the spirit. And search out the occasional unusual basket. Something unique that makes you feel special.

There's no reason to choose A or B. Do both. Use that Christmas money to get some fabulous baskets.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Price of Expectation

Christmas 2015. This is the year of unmet expectations. It's the year of discontent, the year of greed, the year of I-want-more. The difficulty with expectations is this: they can never be satisfactorily met. Never.

I believe this is true because so often we hitch our expectations to a price point. One anniversary the hunk brought me a Hersey bar (regular size). A neighbor happened to be present when he handed me the plastic bag from the grocery store and she expressed strong disapproval because it wasn't a BOX of chocolate. She saw his gift as cheap. I saw the wonder of him actually remembering it was our anniversary!

When the Thanksgiving/Christmas/pick your holiday season rolls around, folks lose their common sense. They rush out to the stores, spending money they don't have, to meet expectations that are greedy and foolish. Why do we foster such expectations?

There are soooo many ways to celebrate the holidays. Yet we teach our children the fine art of demanding more, more, more and struggle to meet their demands. Then, the time rolls around when we can't possibly meet their expectations. What do we do then? You see, there is a PRICE for unrealistic expectation.

The meanings of holiday celebrations are lost in our rush to provide more, more, more. It doesn't matter whether it's a foolish embarrassment of food (when folks around us are going hungry) or a gaudy display of decorations or so many presents we don't have room to put them under the tree. What is that all about?

A few years ago, my parents were with my dad's siblings for Christmas. They made a pact that they wouldn't spend more than $2 per person for their gifts to each other...including the wrapping. Then they struck out to see how far their ingenuity would take them. My dad is eighty-five years old. He grew up in an era when ONE present was a big deal. His mother told us the story of the year when she and her sisters received one doll to share. They thought it was miracle.

When we allow our expectations to get out of hand, we pay a terrible price. We lose our appreciation of the simple pleasure of receiving a gift. When was the last time you really took pleasure in something someone gave you? How long ago was that? Too long, I bet.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Home for Christmas

Home. What is the definition of home? It isn't just shelter. Some folks who have shelter don't really have a home. Because...home is permanent. It's a place not only to live, but to feel settled. In our country there are a lot of homeless folks. Some of them are sheltering with friends or family, but where they're living isn't home.

I suspect we've lost sight of that fact--lost sight of the meaning of home. It's not just a place to sleep and eat. It's a place you feel secure, and if you're staying with someone in their home, you're a guest (welcome or not), but you're not home.

I know of a couple authors who are completely homeless due to circumstances they can't control. It doesn't take much. Catastrophic illness. Loss of a job. Loss of income. And with shocking suddenness you're living in your car, trying to stay warm as you huddle beneath a pile of blankets.

We hear a lot about homeless folks across the planet, but very little about the homeless in our country, except for the marginalized due to drugs or mental issues. No one talks about the tent cities of homeless families on the outskirts of our cities. No one considers the families who've moved back home with grandparents or other family members out of desperation, often living in crowded (possibly illegal) circumstances so they're not out in the cold. They keep their living conditions secret so they don't lose their children to the foster system.

When we visualize the homeless, we think of drunks or addicts sleeping on the sidewalk, but that's just a tiny tip of the iceberg. This Christmas, there will be incredible numbers of children who won't wake up to heat or food or running water. A Christmas tree with presents beneath it is just a fantasy they might hear about in school. For them, being warm with food to eat would be a miracle. Having a home is an untouchable dream.

When we sit down to eat our Christmas dinner, maybe just this once we should acknowledge that this isn't the norm. It's a privilege...because we are home for Christmas.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

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..."

Monday, December 7, 2015

Christmas Gifts

Christmas 2012. Over the last few days I've read several social media posts and statuses where adults are mourning their lack of Christmas (gifts, lights, tree, decorations, etc.) They're not mentioning the lack for their children's sake. No...they're speaking up for their own lack.

Since this is something I can speak about from vast experience, I had to have my say. For the last innumerable Christmases (not to mention birthdays, Mother's Day, etc., etc.) I could count all my gifts on one hand. Some years I didn't need even a finger to count. And yet, I feel blessed.

I have four reasonably healthy children with their attachments, one healthy husband, two still independent parents, and three healthy siblings with all the attachments--spouses, children, grandchildren. Speaking of grandchildren, I also have four brilliant, healthy ones of my own. Plus a new one this year!

None of them live anywhere near us. But I love them and I am blessed by their very existence.

I have shelter. I have food. I have everything I need to be comfortable, plus some to spare. It was not always so. There were years when I wondered how we would feed our children, but that is not the case this year. And so I am blessed.

I have a closet full of decorations for the holidays. This year I chose not to haul them out. But even if that closet was empty, it wouldn't leave me less blessed. Christmas isn't about decorations or carols or gifts. It's about love.

For those of you feeling loneliness or depression, my heart goes out to you because you are devoid of the greatest of gifts--love. Love for yourself. Love for another. Love for your neighbor. If you have any of those, you are blessed.

Light a candle and give thanks.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Joyful Noise

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.

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 stands 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.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Christmas Assignment

The shack was the smallest home on the short gravel road.  At first glance its origins as a storage shed were obvious.  A quick second look revealed the crooked mismatched windows and a shadowy doorway with the torn screen door that flapped idly in the cold fitful wind.
            Inside it was dark and cold, so cold the water dregs in a dirty cup on a crate next to the sagging bed had a thin skin of ice.  The man stretched out in the bed struggled to breathe, wheezing and groaning with each breath.  He shivered as he huddled beneath ragged blankets and two old, dirty coats piled on him for warmth.  Snow flakes whirled through the broken window pane above the bed, settling in the worn fabric folds covering him.
            In the tiny bathroom, a desperate conference occupied the old man’s companions.  Harold the rat moderated, earnestly leading the discussion about what to do for Otto, their human sleeping in the next room.
            "He needs a doctor," Harold growled.  "We need to call 911."
            "No one will come because none of us can tell them what's wrong."  Sally Squirrel sighed, close to losing her patience.  Harold just wouldn't listen.  "In the TV shows, the operator always asks what the emergency is.  We can't tell them."
            Mick, the chipmunk tentatively cleared his throat.  "Siggy could bark."
            Harold's whiskers bristled and he snorted in disgust.  "And what good will that do?"  One ear, ragged and torn, twitched in agitation.
            "It always worked for Lassie," Mick's wife, Daffy retorted while pulling her scrap of blanket closer to her thin chest.  "It worked for Benjy, too."
            "Those are TV dogs.  Of course it worked.  TV isn't real, you know," Siggy woofed softly.  "I don't mind barking, mind you, but I doubt that it would do much good.  Besides, even if the emergency people came, that wouldn't solve our problem.  How are we going to let them know who he is?  How are they going to know he's the Christmas Angel?  If they just think he's a bum, nobody will ever know how generous and unselfish he is.  And his family might not find him."
            Gloom settled over the small group.  Then Daffy hesitantly offered, "If we could get his treasure box open, we could place one of the money bundles on the bed with his red coat and hat.  There can't be that many red cowboy hats or red and green coats made from a Navaho blanket in Cleveland and they'll take a closer look because of the money."
            "How do we get the box open?"  Sally's reasonable question was unanswerable.  They had no idea where Otto had hidden the key.
            Siggy sighed gustily and softly padded from the dank bathroom out into the main room.  The others could hear faint clicks and scratches.  Then Siggy reappeared with a battered basket stuffed with odds and ends clutched precariously in his mouth.  He dumped it on the floor in the center of their little circle and tipped it over.
            Pitty Paw, a mottled gray cat, who remained silent until then, patted through the rag-tag collection until she spied a broken nail file.  "Aha!  Isn't this what that silly woman on CSI used last week?"
            The whole group studied the broken file dubiously.  Finally, Sally slowly nodded.  "It might work.  The rest of you keep looking through this junk while Pitty Paw and I go try to open the lock."
            Sally and Pitty Paw went out into the main room and trotted briskly over to the bed.  Wiggling through the small space between the boxes stuffed under the bed, they wove through Otto's jumbled belongings until they reached the treasure box against the back wall.  Sally brandished the rough little file and then poked it in the keyhole.  Immediately, it jammed tight and they couldn't get it unstuck.  After several more futile attempts to free it, Pitty Paw silently went to fetch help.
            In a few minutes, she returned with Jacko, Harold's right paw rat.  Jacko silently studied the problem before worming around in the dust bunnies until he was flat on his back with his powerful hind legs pressing against the file.  "You two brace me so I don't slide all over," he directed a bit breathlessly.  "I'll push on three.  One…two…three!"  Jacko lashed out with both hind paws.  There was a faint ping before the file when flying off into the darkness.
            Sally sighed.  "Bother.  Thank you, Jacko.  I'll just go see if I can locate the stupid thing so I can try again.  Next time, I'll try not to get it jammed."
            "Hold up there," Harold whispered loudly behind them.  "We found a key."  He dragged it up to the treasure box and dropped it with a faint clank.  "Try this, Sally."
            She clutched the key in her tiny paws and carefully inserted it into the keyhole.  "It fits."  Jacko helped her maneuver the key back and forth until they heard a tiny click and the lock sprang free.  The lid tilted up revealing a narrow gap. 
            Harold tilted his head and peered into the box.  "I see the money bundles.  Let's drag one out so we can get this done."  They huffed and puffed and tugged and pushed and pulled and it was all in vain.  The box lid, jammed against the bottom of the bed, wouldn't open any further.  There just wasn't enough clearance to extract one of the thick bundles of money.
            Pitty Paw crouched down with her head on her paws and thought.  "Do we need the entire bundle?" she asked.
            They all stared at each other for a few moments before Harold shrugged.  "I don't think so.  What's your idea?"
            Pitty Paw crept forward, grasped the tattered green pile of bills poking out through the opening with her sharp teeth, and yanked.  There was an ominous ripping noise, and abruptly, she crouched in front of them with a mouthful of money, sticking out in all directions like so much lettuce.  She spat it out with a grimace and poked it in Harold's direction with her nose.  "There is the money.  Now what do we do?"
            Sally and Jacko gathered up the money while Harold scampered back to the bathroom to work out the next steps.  By the time they crawled out from under the bed, Siggy was trotting across the room with Otto's red and green coat clutched in his mouth.  He dumped it on the bed across Otto's feet and went back for Otto's hat.  When she saw that Siggy couldn't shake the hat loose from the hook where it hung, Sally skittered up the coat tree, pushed the hat until it teetered on the very edge and then flicked it once with her fluffy tail.
            Seconds later, they all stood around trying to stifle their laughter because the hat landed squarely on Siggy's head, slumping down over his ears and one black eye.  His damp black nose poked out from under the brim.  He sniffed and tossed his head, dislodging the hat.
            In a very few minutes they had everything arranged so that they were ready to make the important call to 911.  Sally tipped the phone off the hook and methodically poked at the numbers with her tiny fisted paw.  Shortly, the operator answered and Siggy began to bark…

            By the time the first police car responded, Siggy was nearly hoarse.  The officer quickly called in a request for an ambulance.  While it was enroute, he noticed the animals, all sitting in a composed little group next to the bed.  Keeping his eyes on them, he called out to his partner, "Joe?  Come in here for a second."
            Joe poked his head inside and demanded, "What?  I'm trying to talk to the guy that lives across the road."
            "Look at the animals, Joe.  When have you ever seen a bunch like this all together?  A dog, a cat, two rats, four squirrels and three chipmunks--all together in a little group.  They aren't acting like they're afraid of us, either."
            While the two officers watched, Sally climbed up on the foot of the bed and sat next to the bright red cowboy hat.  Tilting her head to one side as though to say, "Well?", she waited for them to make a move.
            Cautiously, Officer Joe slowly approached and lifted the hat.  He turned it in his hands, noting the name printed in the hat band.  "Mike, I think this guy is that Christmas Angel that hands out money every Christmas.  You know the one that gives away fifty dollar bills down in the projects?"
            "This guy?"  Mike scoffed at the very idea.  "He's just some bum."
            "I don't think so.  The name in this hat is Otto McKenzie."
            "Otto McKenzie?  What would a millionaire be doing in a dump like this?"  Mike held out his hand for the hat so he could see for himself.
            Joe handed over the hat and pushed back his own hat, scratching his ear in thought.  "I seem to remember reading that McKenzie walked out of his headquarters one day and just disappeared.  There was something about him resigning because of unethical business practices by his board of directors.  He turned them into the SEC and most of them went to jail."
            "Well, if he's really McKenzie and also the Christmas Angel, I guess we know where the money came from.  Wasn't there a special program on TV not too long ago about him?  I think his children have been searching for him.  I'll bet this will make for a real happy Christmas for them."  Mike heard the sirens approaching and went to direct the EMTs.  In the hustle and bustle of getting Otto ready for the ambulance, the officers lost track of the animals.  When they finally had a few minutes to close up the little house, the animals were no where to be found. 
            Both officers looked very carefully before conceding that the animals were gone, but when they had locked up and returned to their patrol car, they both agreed that there was something very odd about the little group.  They acted like Otto McKenzie's guardian angels.

            From their observation point, deep in a bush at the corner of the little house, the animals watched the patrol car slowly move down the gravel road.
            "Otto will be alright, now," Harold declared with satisfaction.  "We did a good job.  His family will appreciate him now and be glad to have him home."
            "Well," Pitty Paw observed thoughtfully.  "I hope on the next assignment God gives us, we get to have hands." 
            "And can speak to humans," Siggy growled hoarsely.  

Then with a flash and twinkle, they were gone.

The Christmas Assignment by Anny Cook, copyright 2006

Friday, December 4, 2015

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.

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.”

Friday, November 27, 2015

One is the Loneliest Number

More than any other season, the end of the year orgy of togetherness is most difficult for those who are not 'blessed' with friends and family. At least that is the conventional wisdom. I'm not so sure about the statistics. I believe it's all about expectations and needs.

For some, a nice quiet day alone, doing what the heart desires with minimum effort, can be a great gift. I have several friends across the globe who are 'onlies', some by choice, others through circumstance. I have observed that those who truly don't want to be alone on holidays make an effort to be with other folks. One person I know spends holidays feeding the homeless. Another prepares a feast and invites other onlies to share it.

Over the years I've been blessed with holidays I spent with a multitude of relatives and I've also had others alone. One is not better than the other. One Christmas seventy of my nearest and dearest sat down to dinner. It was a spectacular experience. But dare I admit I've reached a place in my life when three or four friends sharing a quiet dinner is more my style?

I think we've let that Norman Rockwell painting influence our expectations to the point of silliness. Do we really need to cook enough food for an army so we can spend time with people we don't even like? Are we so determined to deny the truth--the painful truth--that many of us dread spending time with extended family?

I once had a conversation with my father about how things were with our ancestors. They didn't travel long distances to share a meal on a specific day. Heck, often, families were so far flung they might not see each other for years. Holidays (if celebrated) included everyone on the homestead, related or not. And if family came to visit...say in August or March, well then there was a dinner and conversation.

I wonder how it would be if we went back to small congenial gatherings, or even better, just stayed at home with our loved ones, spending time together? What if we banned electronics for that day? What if we planned for surplus spending on food to go to a food bank or homeless shelter? What if we invited that neighbor who lives alone to join us for dinner? Often, folks who spend holidays alone are that way exactly because no one invited them to join them. After all, most of us don't just show up on our own. So are we observant enough, compassionate enough to share our bounty and good fortune with others?

Instead of packing up a food basket for a disadvantaged family, why not invite them to join in with our celebrations? Then send them home with the leftovers so they have not one meal, but several?

Technology hasn't brought us closer. It's provided the means and opportunity to foster great loneliness and alienation. Ultimately, our unrealistic expectations leave us with dissatisfaction and sadness at the end of the day. We wearily return to our homes, put the too generous leftovers away, do the mountain of dishes, and wonder why we don't feel any joy. Maybe...maybe, one isn't the loneliest number.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Speak to Me

From the time I was very young, stones--whether in place naturally or arranged by man--have spoken to me, deep in the heart. My early years were spent in northeastern Arizona, land of sacred mountains. Then we moved to Indiana, Illinois, Texas, always living in urban environments. Often I mentioned to my husband how much I wished we lived closer to the mountains.

Then we were transferred to the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. On the drive up there, he said, "Well, you're going to finally live in the mountains!"

I believe everyone is drawn to someplace in particular, irrespective of familial ties or significant personal history. Folks might not even know what they're seeking until they stumble across 'their' place and everything shifts within them, telling them they are home. It would be nice if we could all live in the places that speak to our hearts, but that is seldom possible.

I know people who long for the ocean and beaches. Frankly, if I never visit a beach again, it will still be too soon for me. I've never wanted to go on a cruise. Though the ocean is a fearsome and beautiful place, it is not my place. I have friends who thrive in urban environments, reveling in the rush of the city. That's not my place either for the noise and hustle-bustle drown out the spirit of contemplation.

No. My heart yearns for the places of stone. A deep longing fills me when I see pictures like the one above or scenes from the lonely places like Cathedral Rock in Arizona or Shiprock in New Mexico. Perhaps that's why I climbed my local mountain, Schunemunk Mountain, New York, every weekend when I was in my forties. That was home. For my college graduation, the hunk gifted me with a painting of the mountain in all it's fall splendor, that hangs on the wall over our bed.

I wonder how it would be if everyone knew what their 'place' would be? Do you suppose people would be more content if they could visit the home of their heart every once in a while and just chill out while they relaxed and let it speak to them? Something to think about on this eve of the day we're supposed to give thanks. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sometimes the Curtains are Blue

There's a story about a professor who insisted there were all sorts of hidden meanings and significance in the sentence, "The curtain was blue." Another individual pointed out it just might be a simple statement of fact, "The curtain was blue."

Writing is a lot like this. Some writers spend time planning story arcs and deep meanings and character development and black moments and...

The rest of us just write. We work more along the line of first this happened and then...

I have great respect for those writers with their color charts and their outlines and their character sheets and all that other paraphernalia. But some of us find that intimidating and off-putting. For some of us, it's all we can do to sit at the computer and type coherent sentences. Sometimes the curtains are just blue.

November is the month writers set aside to write 50K in thirty days. And as is typical of writers, some have planned their fifty thousand words meticulously, with outline cards (color coded) and character growth charts and incredibly terrifying black moments, while the rest of us are fortunate to remember our hero's name and what color his hair is. Whatever your style, it's okay. Writing is not a team sport or a competition. It's a deeply personal, private adventure.

I'm a rebel so my curtains are purple, 'cause that's how I roll.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

One Size Fits All

In my younger years, there was a song about 'ticky-tacky boxes' that referred to all the subdivisions springing up with identical rows of houses and folks with no individuality. Back then, in sixties/early seventies, young people in particular were striving to be different, to be a new generation. I find it ironic that the very folks striving for that individuality are the same ones who crave and demand the one size fits all mentality now.

I posted a link to an article that had personal meaning--that spoke to my frustrations, especially with my non-writing. Evidently, it struck a chord with quite a few other writers because they shared it, too. But I noticed a couple writers that pooh-poohed the idea of the post, more or less saying it was a cop-out.

That's pretty much the attitude of people all over the world when exposed to an idea that doesn't fit in with their world view. Buck up people. If you just believe/live/eat/exercise/drink/whatever I do, life will be bright and happy and...blah, blah, blah. Rather than celebrating our individuality, we're inundated with demands to be just like everyone else. And woe to those who don't fit in.

In the human history, it's always been a case of 'you are your place in society'. Once a peasant, always a peasant. Once a king (unless you really pissed off the peasants) always a king. When I was a kid, there was nothing as deadly as a woman who showed up in church without a hat. Or didn't wear a dress. If you were too poor to own 'go to church' clothing, then you'd better sit on the back row to hide your shame. Charity apparently did NOT begin at church.

I could type the same paragraph above, change a few words and make it relevant to color, ethnicity, gender, or just about any other way we humans use to separate and classify ourselves. While we demand uniformity, we seize on our differences to show our superiority. Why?

We are not all one size. What I might find relevant or encouraging, another might disagree with or reject. So what? If the shoe fits me, why are you insisting it's all negative because it doesn't fit you? We are all sizes, ages, colors, and have different life circumstances. What I might be struggling with, another may have no knowledge or experience with. That doesn't mean my struggle isn't real.

One of the writing skills I absolutely cannot wrap my head around is POV. I cannot get it. LOTS of well-meaning editors, fellow writers, teachers have all tried to pound it into my head to no avail. I imagine there are other skills just as elusive to other folks. That's because we're all different.

Some of us embrace our individuality with obvious flare. Others are quietly different. That's as it should be. I once had a conversation with a neighbor who came over to my house. She was...OCD about her home. It looked like a model house. I had four kids, plus all the neighbor kids running in and out of my house. At this particular time, it was summer. We didn't have AC so all the windows were open. Construction trucks were hauling 'fill' dirt down our street at the rate of four trucks an hour.

So, my neighbor ran a finger through the deep dust on one of my book shelves. "Don't you ever dust?"

I just stared her for a moment, then soberly replied, "Don't mess with my dust. When it gets deep enough I'm going to plant marigolds..."

I don't think she ever got over that. But really, it's all a matter of perspective, isn't it?

Monday, November 9, 2015

Christmas Rumors

It's started. The annual bombardment of false rumor mongering about some nebulous group of individuals who object to how some other nebulous group celebrates Christmas/Yule/Kwanzaa/Hanukkah/whatever.

Stop it. Stop posting idiotic crap on your social media pages. NO ONE cares how you greet folks, whether you call it a Christmas Tree or a Holiday Tree, what songs you sing, or any of that other bullfeathers. No one really cares what kind of cups some coffee place serves their product in. If folks quit spreading this garbage around the internet, it would go away. Think about it--you're helping spread dissension and hate.

If you want a tree, get one. Decorate it however you wish. Say 'Merry Christmas' or 'Happy Holidays'. About ninety percent of the population won't even hear you because they're busy trying to survive. When you're worried about having food next week or wondering where you're going to sleep, you just don't have the energy to worry about what color a coffee cup is.

Pressing 'share' on some dubious article, written by some group no one knows is an act of laziness. I repeat. No one cares. If you're worried about keeping Christ in Christmas, then I'll tell you the true way.

Feed the hungry. Don't just empty all the cans of no-name veggies and expired food from your pantry for the food drive. Kick in some money. Food banks desperately need real dollars instead of stuff they can't use. Consider. If you don't want to eat it, why would anyone else?

Care for the destitute. Do you know how many people in our country are homeless, living in tents, sleeping in cars, surviving on the street? Do you know what the homeless need? Basic necessities. Socks. Soap. Tooth brush and tooth paste. Toilet paper. Comb. Razors. Shampoo. Warm coat, hat, gloves. Oh, yeah. Food.

Protect the elderly. Check up on them. Make sure they have enough to eat. Offer to take them to their appointments. Spend time visiting. Value them for their contributions.

If you profess to be a Christian, then you'll be following Jesus' commandment to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. In other words--be selfless, loving, giving. All the rest of it is just useless distraction. I'm pretty sure Christ didn't have Christmas trees, decorations, present orgies, or gluttonous feasts. Didn't he command us to go out into the byways and invite the homeless in to eat? Can you imagine what kind of world it would be if no one was in need?

Instead of worrying about unimportant things, why not start posting about food pantries and homeless shelters that need help? This Christmas, why not talk to your family about giving up their gifts for someone who has nothing? Do it up right. Pick a family to sponsor. Buy the gifts. Wrap them. And don't forget a box of groceries. I can absolutely guarantee they will never forget it for the rest of their lives. I know my brothers and I will never forget the Christmas we were on the receiving end of such a gift. It's a life changing event.

That's the meaning of Christmas.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Year I Stopped Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner

For most of our married life--soon to be 48 years--we have lived many miles away from the rest of our extended family. When our children started moving out on their own, they didn't have the space or utensils to cook a big dinner. So it fell to me to produce a holiday meal.

Early in November on the particular year in question, I was chatting with my neighbor, Marie in our joint back yard when she asked, "What are you having for Thanksgiving dinner?" I know I shocked her when I shamelessly admitted I had no idea and furthermore I didn't plan to worry about it.

"But, but, but--" she stuttered.

"If the family wants a big dinner, they'll cook it. I'm done."

Now it wasn't nearly the arbitrary decision you might think. Most years my birthday falls either right before or right after Thanksgiving. The previous year was one of the years it was actually on Thanksgiving Day. I was up early roasting and baking and so forth while the kids and the hunk were off doing 'something' important. At dinner time, they all showed up, devoured dinner like a plague of locusts, and... left. Total elapsed time: 35 minutes.

As I cleaned and scrubbed and struggled with leftovers the rest of the afternoon (by myself), (with nary a simple 'Happy Birthday'), it occurred to me I was completely at fault. If you will allow yourself to be a doormat, well why get upset when folks walk all over you and wipe their feet on you? I resolved to stop being a doormat.

The next year, when the troops started discussing Thanksgiving dinner, I firmly announced I was going to order dinner from Boston Market and pick up a couple pies from the grocery bakery. My goodness what a fuss! That would never do. But I stood firm. I pointed out it was MY birthday and in all the years our family have lived miles and miles from the rest of our family, I had NEVER had a birthday cake--unless I baked it myself. That was understandable when the kids were small, but now, well now they were all adults. It was time for someone else to take over. AND clean up.

From that time on, until we moved out of state away from our children, I never cooked Thanksgiving Dinner again. And I never was reduced to ordering it from Boston Market. And I always had a birthday cake, one that I didn't bake.

When folks on social media moan and groan about how much cooking and shopping and baking they have to do, I struggle to keep my mouth shut, because I want to ask how it can be a family dinner when no other part of the family is participating in the preparation? Sometimes, you just have to speak up and let your family know you're not the holiday chef.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

An Encouraging Word

Folks that don't write professionally may not understand the debilitating consequences of discouragement. It's easier to embrace failure than to continue on in the face of slow sales, bad reviews, and rejections. In the past, I've more or less ignored NaNoWriMo as a gimmick I didn't really have time for. But I haven't written anything of note for about two and a half years. That's thirty months. 30.

This year, I didn't sign up for it either, but I'm striving to 'write along' with those who did. In the first two days I discovered something valuable. Never underestimate the importance of an encouraging word.

At the end of each day, I post my word count, meager though it might be. It's still more words than I've written in a long time. Once I've posted my word count for the day, friends stop by with an encouraging word. Those words are priceless.

Writing is lonely. It's all in the author's head. Until the words are down on paper, we really have no way to share our vision, our story. And there's likely nothing more boring than a writer trying to share that vision before it's been written. It's kind of like telling another person about this fabulous movie or television show you've watched. Trust me. It never works.

So. If you're a reader who values my work, stop by and let me know. No one will appreciate your encouraging words more than I will. And if I'm not the writer that floats your boat, then go encourage the writer that does. We all need a cheering section. All of us.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Break Time

When I was younger, there was a concept called 'break time'. Most paying jobs included time for lunch and one or two breaks. If you worked long enough at the same job, you earned vacation time. I used to write during my lunch and break time. Then something happened.

Job pressures made me feel guilty about taking my allotted time. Phones were ringing. Long lines were forming because there weren't enough workers to handle the customers. Oh, noes! They needed me!

Right about the time I left my last job, cellphones really caught on. Now, it's possible for your boss to reach you at anytime, day or night. You're never really off the clock.

Somehow, our culture has allowed computers and other electronic gizmos to monopolize our time--and our lives. We feel naked without our phones and other electronic umbilicals. How did that happen?

We allowed it to happen. We live in a noisy, busy world. What if we turned it all off?

Quiet. We would have blessed quiet to contemplate life. I don't think it's truly possible to appreciate the bounty we've been given when there isn't quiet to enjoy it. Our lives are so filled with the hurry-scurry of daily busyness, we don't have time or peace to ponder on the important things.

We need to start taking our breaks...set aside a specific time with no distraction, no music, no computer, no TV, nothing to interrupt our time. Start with fifteen minutes a day. See what happens. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Alternative Protection

For all those folks discussing the pros and cons of gun control. Consider the lowly axe. It's a perfect weapon for defense.

The long handle creates an advantage when dealing with an assailant who is wielding a knife.

The blade is guaranteed to get the job done, even if it isn't razor sharp. All you have to do is connect with the target.

As the caption says, it's been the weapon of choice for thousands of years--because it's reliable.

AND when you aren't using your axe for self-protection, you can use it as a door stop or to chop wood. Don't delay! Get your axe now before Congress enacts Axe Control Laws.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Letting Go

For most of my adult life, I've been in control. I'm one of those individuals that follow people around redoing a job after they've done it because it wasn't done my way. You know. I'm the one that rearranges the dishwasher after it's loaded. And refolds the towels because they're not folded like I want. I'm your basic control freak. My way or the highway, as they say.

Then, a couple months ago, I woke up in blinding pain. Over a period of two weeks, my condition had deteriorated to the point I couldn't get out of bed by myself. If the hunk didn't perform the chores, they didn't get done.

That's when I started learning the art of 'letting go'.

A control freak tends to flatten the confidence of the folks around them like a steam roller. In their quest for control, they send out a strong, clear message, "You're so incompetent, I don't trust you with this task."

Many of the control freaks tell themselves, they're not really seeking control so much as performing the task correctly on the first pass, thus saving time and energy. They're the ones who make their children's beds and do their laundry--even when they're adults...because, hey! Obviously, their son or daughter wouldn't perform to their high standards. In this way, they foster dependence. And of course, that just proves the control freak is desperately needed.

Think about that for a moment. I'll wait.

There is nothing wrong with having standards. But sometimes we set the bar so high, no one can ever meet it. They all back off and quit trying. It's our own fault when we end up having to do everything on our own.

So back to my personal epiphany. I discovered the world didn't stop if I wasn't there to take care of things. Dishes still got washed. Food was prepared. Underwear works the same whether it's folded or not. Mostly, it doesn't really matter which pair of shoes I wear. Life went on without me being the boss.

I LIKE it this way.

Much of the pain is under control now. And if I move slowly, I can get around on my own with the help of my walker. But I'm not too worried about 'doing'. I no longer itch to redo chores someone else has done. I've found freedom in letting go.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Today the hunk is going to make bread. I'll sit on a chair in the dining room and offer advice. Three weeks ago, I would have made the bread myself while he played computer games, but life is all about change.

During the last three weeks, I've learned a lot about change. Then I could walk around our parking lot. Using a cane. Now, there are days I can barely make it from my office to the bathroom. What changed? A pinched nerve in my back. Something small that affects every hour of my life.

Thousands of people live with debilitating pain every day. Maybe even millions. In the past when I've gone to various doctors for various issues, I've filled out questionnaires about how my particular complaint of the day is affecting my life. For instance, when I go to the pulmonologist, I fill out a paper asking how my breathing issues affect what I can do each day. Are these effects every day? Every week? All the time?

Up to now, regardless of the issue, I've been pretty smug in stating there were negligible effects. But that was then and this is now. Now...well, things are different. Today I have to work up the courage to stand up because I know halfway up there will be fierce shooting pain until I'm completely upright. And then, every step will be uncertain until I reach my goal. At the other end (chair, toilet, bed) it all works in reverse. What fun.

I've learned a few things about living (as opposed to life) in the last few weeks. Living takes effort. Living is moving, even when it hurts. Living is doing everything possible. And living is accepting help.

I'm not much on asking for assistance. I was the original I-can-do-it-myself! individual, but now I can't. So the hunk does it and I watch. Ohhhhh, that burns, doesn't it? Well, I've discovered the world didn't stop turning. His bread tastes as good as mine. Nothing bad happens if he slices the bread thicker than I do. And when he rubs BenGay on the sore bits, it feels wonderful.

I do what I can, which I admit isn't much. And what I can't do, I'm thankful to say the hunk does. I am blessed. Every day. And I live, one day at a time.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Article Two

The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.
 * * * * *
The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; he may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, and he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.

He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.

The President shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.

Article Two defines the responsibilities and powers of the President of the United States. In that space indicated by the five stars is a lengthy explanation of how the President is to be elected, what his qualifications must be, and how long he can hold the office

Notice that the President does not have the power to pass laws, declare war, or borrow money for the country. That is the purview of the Congress: Article One, Section Eight
The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
To borrow money on the credit of the United States;
To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes;
To establish a uniform rule of naturalization, and uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies throughout the United States;
To coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures;
To provide for the punishment of counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States;
To establish post offices and post roads;
To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;
To constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court;
To define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations;
To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;
To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;
To provide and maintain a navy;
To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;
To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States, and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the state in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, and other needful buildings;--And
To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.

On any given day, you cannot turn on the television without hearing about another individual who has decided to run for President in 2016. Pay close attention to the rhetoric. What are they promising? Do they have the power to deliver? Or is it all smoke and mirrors? Who really should be held accountable? When we go to the polls next, should we be paying more attention to our Senators and Representatives? Are they really delivering what they promised?