Friday, December 19, 2014

A visit from The Ghost of Christmas Perfect

My house is in its typical state of controlled chaos, a jumble of shoes and bags at the front door, shreds of wrapping paper here and there, a Christmas tree in the front window and Thanksgiving colors still on the kitchen table. We've not sat there much at all as a family over the past three weeks. It's been nonstop since the pumpkin pie was finished.

Due to circumstances, my age, or whatever, I have stopped worrying about Christmas. If I were to re-tell Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" today, I'd add a new ghost to the line-up of past and future. I'd write in The Ghost of Christmas Perfect. In the same way our mind becomes accustomed to airbrushed and photoshopped models in advertising, we also learn to see the elusive, perfect Christmas and strive mightily toward that perfection thinking it will make everything just right.

What would The Ghost of Christmas Perfect show you?

Would your home be ready for its magazine feature? Would you host lavish parties? Would you have just the right gift for everyone on your list AND have a basket of perfectly wrapped gifts at the front door, just in case you need one? Would your tree be the envy of the neighborhood? Your outdoor lighting display, breathtaking?

Dickens scared the daylights out of Scrooge, so in keeping with the tone of the novel, The Ghost of Christmas Perfect might walk through our dreams laden with extremely heavy wrapped packages, sunken eyes from lack of sleep, a neverending list of things-to-do, a shrinking pot of money, an enormous credit card bill, and a loudly ticking clock. The Ghost of Christmas Perfect shows us that perfection is something we may strive for, but it isn't really perfection we want. Everything may be picture-perfect, but is it real?

I suggest that it isn't a perfect Christmas we're longing for. We very well may pull off what we think is the perfect Christmas, but we are left unsatisfied and disappointed. I think what we are longing for is something like fulfillment, being content. It's warmth and kindnesses. It's a feeling of peace, within us and around us. It's feeling like we are enough at this present moment and it is good. None of that can be bought, planned, wrapped, or sprinkled with colored sugar. It's about being open to all that the world offers in all your vulnerability, to let love in, to really realize that your life is precious and brief, and to not waste a moment in fear, anger, or hate.

What does your Ghost of Christmas Perfect show you?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Within the past 24 hours, it hit me.

The list of things 'to-do' became more challenging than usual. Work projects, deadlines, and situations coming to a head, started dancing like sugar plum fairies in my mind. Add to the mix all the holiday preparations to those deadlines, and the sugar plum fairies begin to lose their cuteness. They are not lithe little ballerinas any longer but Sumo wrestlers all jockeying for my attention and taking up far too much room.

Can I get an amen?

My beloved says to me, "You don't have any time to rest." And I'm caught off-guard. 
What? Where is that on the list? There are projects and grants and meetings and cookies and gifts and stuff falling off the plate that I hope isn't too important. Everyone has lists like this, right? Especially in December?

As those Sugar Plum Sumos bounced and jostled through their dance this morning at 4 a.m., I decided not to fight them for a few more moments of sleep, but to start the day and the coffee pot.

It's funny how those Sumos got smaller in the darkness of the morning. When I realized that this was a list of things I get to do, I appreciated them more. They returned to being little girls following the dainty choreography of the dance. 

This little cosmic reminder that came to me this morning reminded me of what I knew all along. It will get done as it needs to. 

Take time to pause, to be thoughtful, to rest as you move through The List of Things to Do. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Giving up on balance

A couple of weeks ago, my son asked me why I bring my geraniums inside and not just let them go with the other annuals.

Because there are mornings like this when winter arrives like an unexpected guest and the coral blossoms warm up the room.

The first snowfall of the season and my neighbor men have been dutifully out blowing away the good two inches of snow since 7:30 a.m. Yes, it's just two inches and I get that they enjoy using their toys.

I have read a couple of articles this week with similar threads. Our Mommy Problem from the NY Times, November 9, 2014 and this in the Huffington Post, The Word Elizabeth Gilbert Says Women Use as a Weapon Against Themselves.

To me, both speak volumes about the truly unrealistic expectations we can place on ourselves as women, regardless of whether or not we have children. It can be hard to say no when we are asked to do something we think is important or something that we would just have fun doing, but simply do not know how to wedge it into our already overscheduled lives.

So, we feel guilty. We feel guilty and we feel like our lives are not enough or way too much as we currently live them. We seek to find "balance" because we are told to take care of ourselves. And our children. And our relationships. And our family. And our jobs. And our homes. And our churches, faith communities, PTAs, civic groups.  Work-life balance. Mind-body-spirit balance. The yin and yang of marriage to see one's partner as more than a roommate and someone who shares the housework and bills.

The thing is, it is all a construct of our own making, and that of popular American culture. You do have a choice. You've been choosing this life you have all along. And if you find that this one you are living is more about what you think you should be doing (should is another word to get rid of, imho) because it's what others expect, then by all means ask yourself what is important to you. Not what is important to what others expect of you. Only you know who those people are in your life who matter most. They love you enough to be true to yourself.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

I touched it

In June of 1982, I touched it.

Today, 25 years later, we remember when it fell in 1989.

As a 17 year old girl, freshly graduated from Red Oak Community High School, I went on a trip with other Iowa teenagers from United Church of Christ congregations. We were learning about the heritage of our denomination by going to the source.

I remember the train ride leaving a modern and somewhat familiar West German countryside and entering East Germany. Armed soldiers boarded the train to check our passports and it was an experience unlike any other we tender and sheltered rural Iowans had ever known before.

West Berlin was an island of western culture and freedom, until you reached the edges of the city. Until you saw the white crosses of remembrance with dates past and very recent along the fence that lined the river Spree.

Until you saw the imposing concrete slab of division.

Until you saw the concertina wire.

Until you saw the strip known as No Man's Land where any intruder would be immediately shot.

No, we knew none of this in anything we had ever experienced before.

We traveled into East Berlin and were required to exchange our West German pfennig coins with heft and weight in the palm of our hands for East German coins made of aluminum or tin. Their value equally light. We were required to spend the entire sum, which was a little hard to as I recall. I bought a small calendar and some postcards to carry with me back to Iowa.

East Berlin was exquisite in its beauty. The Soviets wanted the stunning architecture that survived the wars for themselves. Whereas West Berlin had been rebuilt from the devastation of bombs, the Wall carefully claimed the amazing churches and cathedrals that withstood the war.

Until you saw the piles of rubble around the corner that had not been moved in 40 years.

I remember that morning in 1989, waking up to see revelers standing on the wall, standing within the Brandenburg Gate. I remembered how only seven years before, the wall was as permanent as the mountains. I remember crying in my shock and surprise.

I am so grateful for that time in Berlin at an age where extraordinary experiences have lifelong implications. And grateful that it was as close as I have ever been to war.

Monday, November 3, 2014

And there was a little girl with blonde curls

Few things will sober a parent more than a morning spent in a pediatric specialty clinic at a major university hospital. I am most grateful that we were there for allergy testing, nothing serious at all. Many other children and their families were there for more involved and serious medical issues.

And there was a little girl, with blonde curls, maybe three years old. She appeared in the doorway of the lab where my son was having blood drawn. She wore a pair of black tights and nothing else save the two cotton balls taped to the inside of each elbow. Alone, she quietly scootched her way past the door, her parents a few slow steps behind her. 

I thought of them and felt guilty for my gratitude, hoping that perhaps her visit was not for something serious. A few minutes later, we moved on to another exam room, and down the hall, I saw her scootch by again, alone. And then later her parents. She seemed more at home in the clinic than I wanted her to be, this girl with a head full of blonde curls. 

Monday, May 26, 2014


Thousands of service flags are carefully stored by a wonderful group of volunteers in Red Oak, Iowa and flown on Memorial Day. It is a true labor of love and deep respect. Red Oak lost a highly disproportionate share of soldiers in both the Civil War and World War II. These photos really do not do justice to the sheer number of flags that do not fail to tighten the throat or bring a tear to the eye.

Made up of young men from southwest Iowa, Company M was in north Africa, Tunisia, fighting the Nazis when they were ambushed in a place known as Kasserine Pass. Life Magazine ran an article on this event with a stunning photo of our town with the locations of the family homes that received telegrams in early March 1943 that their soldier was missing. The headline, "War Hits Red Oak:  A small prairie town gets word that 23 of its boys are missing in action after a battle in North Africa."

Red Oak lost more than 50 men in World War II, many of them in this battle. 

From her book, "The Home Fronts of Iowa 1939-1945," Lisa K. Ossian writes,

"In 1946 the nation noted its military losses as the Saturday Evening Post remembered Red Oak's:
     'If New York City had lost as many sons as this Iowa town, the dead would have numbered 70,000.'

     The article continued: 'Red Oak, Iowa looks like the home town we dreamed of overseas; rich and contented, with chicken and blueberry pie on Sundays, for whose sake some said we were fighting the war. It is the kind of town we wanted to be the same when we came home, at the same time it would somehow know what the war was about.'

Without a doubt, this is true 70 years later. Growing up in this town, in the early 1970s, this amazing story was never told. I did not learn of any of this until I was in college. Thirty years was still too close, too painful for many. 

There is also the sense of getting on with life. No one was doing this for fame, fortune, or glory. They did what they were asked to do. It was their duty and they threw themselves into it. When they returned, if they returned, the counted themselves as blessed because they had seen and experienced things no one should. Their next duty was to go back to their lives and make things right again. And they did. Quietly, they put these days behind them and honored them silently through their everyday lives. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

From where I stand

From where I stand, my forties are nearly past. Like in about eight weeks. 

I admit. I was sort of blase about turning 50. I've never really gotten my knickers in a knot about "big" birthdays. I tend to welcome birthdays because I do recognize that "it is a privilege denied to many." We have a list of those friends and family who left us too soon, don't we? However, the past few months have been a bit of a wake up call.

This spring, I've spent some considerable time with family. We traveled to visit our 80 and 90-something family members in Florida. As our trip got underway, my mother had emergency bypass surgery. Less than a month later, we celebrated the life of my stepmother and did our best to hold it together. We had several conversations about what my family members think about living in their 70's, 80's, and 90's, and how they want to live their lives from here on. We also talked about what many families avoid like root canals, a tax audit, and Miley Cyrus.

We had conversations about last days and how they hoped it would go at the end. Wishes and thoughts and memories from moments throughout their lives, long before I ever knew them. 

And now my dad is making plans to move out of the house he and my stepmother lived in for twentysome years and downsizing into something much smaller. More transition.

From where I stand, I realize that in a little more than 20 years, I'll be my parents' age. And that's when my knickers got in a knot. What do I need to do in the next 20 years to be ready?

In the midst of my slight panic came crazy things in the mail, like the AARP stuff. The universe and one's internet browser does conspire to provide some interesting ads in the sidebar. Like this, from our old pal from "Dinner and a Movie," Annabelle Gurwitch.

Yes. I'm heading to my local bookstore to order this. 

And I'm going to open this up and read it. I was honored to receive a copy as a gift and true to life, it's been a little too close to home to actually read it. Past that now! In her book, "How We Die Now," Karla Erickson says that we can expect to live 30 years longer than our recent ancestors. We are living longer lives than our grandparents and great-grandparents. Does anyone else remember how "old" their grandparents looked when they were in their 60s? Just looking back at photos of my grandparents compared to my dad and his siblings at the same age, there is little comparison. 

For those of us who graduated from high school in 1982, this means that living until we are 100 is going to be a little more common than it is now. 

Just take a moment and consider that. Maybe fifty MORE years? Really? When you think back on the past years of your life and then are told that you could live just as many again, that's a little staggering. The good news is that we can anticipate this and envision what it will look like. The other side of the coin is that life in our 80s will be a lot different than life in our 40s. Living longer often means needing more care and assistance in our later years.

Our trailblazers, the elder Baby Boomers, are already redefining retirement and senior living. And they are doing the same for elder caregiving and for what they want for their parents and themselves. 

Believe me, I'm not rushing this. But I am not standing here alone, am I? I'm raising teenagers and looking at college brochures at the same time I'm helping my dad downsize into a condo and facing the fact that I probably have 20 years left in a full time working world. 

I have some dreaming to do. Plans to put in place. Life to live. It is a little terrifying and a whole lot of exciting at the same time.

Almost thirty years ago, this little movie was in the theater and is one of those that most adults my age remember very fondly. Ferris is now 52. Look at that fresh face of our younger days. These words are still important, maybe more so now that we're halfway, right?

"Ferris Buller's Day Off" 1986