Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Think Potential, Not Penitence

"We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives...not looking for flaws, but for potential." - Ellen Goodman

New Year's resolutions remind me of things my friends would give up for Lent. We could resist chocolate for 40 days, but could hardly wait for the chocolate bunny in the basket. About New Year's, Mark Twain said, "Now is the time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week, you can begin paving hell with them as usual."

My resolutions this year are to be more present and to appreciate more of the simple joys that I experience every day. I will continue my resolution to be better to myself than I have been, caring for my inner child as if she were my own daughter. I also resolve to let people that I love and care about know that I care about them, regularly, frequently, hourly if needed.

Here's a toast to the journey with all its twists and turns. The challenges and the pain and the joy that surprises us when we least expect it. From the bittersweet moments of watching children grow up before our eyes, and seeing our older loved ones changing, those of us in the middle of our journey seem to be pulling more of our load these days than we did 20 years ago. If for those reasons alone, we should resolve to be our own best friends and stop being so hard on ourselves. Let's resolve to set down the baggage we've been carrying around and unload the 800-pound gorilla from our back and continue on without them. I wish you the peace that will certainly come from leaving all that behind.

Lots of people make predictions for the year to come. I don't know what's ahead and wouldn't dare to venture a guess. What I know for sure is that it will be different than it is today and I'm staying open to what comes next. I wish for you all the promise that a New Year can bring, with no regrets.

"Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each New Year find you a better man." - Benjamin Franklin

Monday, December 29, 2008

Hospital Hospitality


Not hard to see why these words are spelled similarly when you read this. I'm proud to be an employee of Grinnell Regional Medical Center.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Children of the Heavenly Father

The power of music is potent, particularly in a worship setting,
particularly on Christmas Eve. There are few who don't get through a
Christmas Eve service without a catch in their throat as the
congregation sings "Silent Night," especially in a sanctuary with only
the glow of candlelight. I'm certainly one of those people and I try
to harmonize in an effort to keep from getting too blubbery and
embarassing myself.

This year, there was a new song in the Christmas Eve line-up. It's
not a carol, but a Swedish cradle song that is nearly guaranteed to
bring any grown man raised in a Swedish community to tears.

"Children of the Heavenly Father" is a sweet and lovely lullaby that is
traditionally heard at Swedish funerals in these parts. When the
small family group rose to sing this song as the service started,
I knew I was in trouble. I held my own with only my chin
trembling, until they sang the last verse... in Swedish. That was it.
The tears flowed and it was so beautiful. The family who sang are
people my family has known for generations.

The song speaks to the children of God who are lovingly cared for as a
father loves his children. It is a beautiful song that is comforting
to those who mourn and hearing it at Christmas was a way to hear the
words in a new context. The realiziation that we are children of God,
just as Jesus is a child of God.

For a short time, I worked for a Lutheran nonprofit organization,
Bethphage Mission. The original mission was started by Lutheran women
in Axtell, Nebraska, who dedicated their lives to ministry in a way
similar to Catholic nuns. They provided a home for children and
adults with developmental disabilities. I remember a story told to me
by the chaplain there, who being new to the community, found a new
hymn to sing during a chapel service. He was surprised when most of
the residents and the sisters wept openly through the hymn. The
pastor, of German American heritage, was distressed as well and asked
one of the sisters what had happened after the service was over. She
lovingly explained to him that the only time many of the residents had
ever heard "Children of the Heavenly Father" was when someone had

My uncle Riley, grew up in the Augustana Lutheran Church and joined
the Episcopal Church as an adult. When he died in his late 60's, the
priest of the Anglo-Catholic parish he was a member of, presided over
a dramatic requiem mass that Riley would have loved. For us, it was
foreign territory and as family, it felt a little like the rest of the
congregation was having the healing experience we were looking for.
That is, until the organist began to play, "Children of the Heavenly
Father." That's when our catharsis began. Many Swedish Americans
will half jokingly tell you that it isn't a funeral until they play
that song.

For many Swedish families, Christmas Eve service at midnight is the
pinnacle of the holiday. It was the night my family spent with my
Swedish grandparents having meatballs, herring, and a Swedish custardy
cheesecake known as ostkaka. Those spirits of Christmases past seem
to hover closely on Christmas Eve. Their presence is as strong as our
melancholy can be. Hearing this beloved cradle song at church that night brought them to
the place where we were on the most holy night of all.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hijacked by God

I've been contemplating getting into formal ministry since I was 15. Something else always came up and I told myself that God needed good lay people as much as clergy.

Since October, I've been the interim Christian Education coordinator at our church. For years, I have done pulpit supply, written and edited the monthly newsletter, served on every board, lead as moderator - even through a successful open & affirming process, and lovingly dubbed as "the pope." But this is only the second time I've ever been paid by the church to do a job. The first time was as the nursery attendant when I was in the fifth grade.

I took on this CE role in the hopes that some wonderful person would emerge from the search process and feel called to be the permenant director. With two children in the program, I have a vested interest. I offered to do it for three months since we had planned on having a new person in the job in January.

My full-time job even cooperated to allow me to work 36 hours a week for the time being so that I could spend an afternoon at the church. But without a real Sabbath day, I was getting burned out. Last Sunday, I had my speech ready to tell the pastor and the CE board chair that I was tired and would not be able to continue into January.

And then, I was hijacked. God used people in my job to find a way so that I had no choice but to apply for the 20 hour job and go part time in my "real" job. If you were in church this past week or following along at home, you may recall Isaiah admonishing us that we do not know the time, or the place, but we must be ready. God has opened the door of the airplane at 10,000 feet and has shoved me out with the parachute and has said, "Finally! I've been trying to get you to fly since you were 15!"

The first 24 hours were terrifying. But I am constantly reminded of the times that I have taken a small step from my comfort zone, God has provided for me. Another step, God is there. It's still scary, but it is starting to feel pretty good. Advent is about waiting, about preparing, about hope and about what is to come. Advent just got very interesting.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Micky's, Burgers, and Hawkeye Basketball

I had a date last night with my favorite Hawk fan, my 10-year-old son, John. It was the home-opener for the Iowa men's basketball team and I decided we should go.

He's pretty proud of the fact that every Iowa game he's attended, football or basketball, the team has won. He considers it his personal responsibility to provide his good luck and charm to the game. And, he is pretty charming.

As important as the game, is the pre-game tradition of going to Micky's Irish Pub in Iowa City. I'm old enough now that my college hang-out has a children's menu. Maybe they always did and I was just never there early enough for kids? It is a little surreal to be having burgers with my ten-year-old son in a place with entirely different memories. I do like it though.

We carry on the tradition set out by Grandpa Phil, putting a hex on the other team's players as they stand at the free-throw line. I can hear him cackling when the ball chunks off the rim and doesn't make it. I can hear him sing along to "On Iowa" and announcing on fall Saturday mornings that it's "GAME DAY!" He and Johnny would have a lot of fun together. And somewhere in whatever his heaven may be, he is enjoying this next generation of Hawk fan.

Friday, November 14, 2008

"Two are better than one...for if they fall, one will lift up the other." - Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

This past week, I have been privileged to be a part of a series of events honoring and remembering our nation's veterans, particularly our veterans of World War II.

Over the year, I have been a part of Grinnell's Community Education Council that took on the idea of commemorating our WWII veterans this year. I was not a part of the task force that did the heavy lifting for the planning of this week of activities, but attended the activities as I could.

It was a humbling and emotional experience.

On Tuesday, another woman on the council who is a contemporary of mine and I pinned small red, white, and blue ribbons on any veteran who came to the community's annual Veteran's Day Ceremony. A small group of the high school band played patriotic music and marches as people filed in. Neither of us were prepared for the rush of emotions we felt simply asking men and women if they were veterans. To be honest, it was all I could do to choke out the question. And they were so proud of this small little token that they thanked me. They thanked me, when the whole purpose was to thank them.

One veteran in particular looked to be fifty-something. He wasn't expecting me to ask him if he was a veteran and I offered to pin the ribbon on his sweatshirt that read, "United States Marine Corps." He smiled broadly, and said he was. There was a sense that he might not have felt that kind of gratitude for what he had done before.

After the ceremony was over, and I was one of the last few out the door, the veteran was standing outside the building in the rain. And he made a point of thanking me again for what I had done for him. I said, "No, thank you for what you have done for me."

Sunday, November 2, 2008

On Friendship

"In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the human spirit." - Albert Schweitzer

I am so fortunate to have people like this in my life. They may or may not be the people I encounter in my daily life. They may or may not be people I know. I've been inspired by the stories of those who meet incredible challenges and help me to put my own into perspective. Or they are those individuals that beat the odds to achieve a dream.

There are those people who know me well, who sing my song to me when I have forgotten the tune. I sing with a women's a capella quartet. We get our starting note from a pitch pipe and then our leader hums our note for us up the chord. Each of us has to know our note, to sing our own part of the song for the harmony to happen. If one of us is slightly off, sharp or flat, the harmony isn't there and its not quite right. The feeling of disharmony is uncomfortable.

In order for harmony to work, we must sing different notes and sing them out to support the others. If we all sang the same tune, its a nice unison, but it isn't quite as beautiful and doesn't have the depth of each of us singing our own part of the harmony.

Isn't that interesting? In order for this incredible human sound to occur, we have to be strong in our individuality, to sing our own song.

There are many I have encountered in my life that rekindle that human spirit in me. Some are no more than passing strangers. Others are tightly woven in the daily threads of my life. And there are others who dwell in my spirit. There are those who have enriched me beyond explanation and words. Today we celebrated All Saint's Day, giving thanks and memory to those who have gone before us. I have many saints in my life and I am so very grateful for every one of them.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Oh to be in England, now that October is here

The phrase is actually, "Oh to be in England, now that spring is here..."

I've had the pleasure of being in England in late October a few times and look back on those days very fondly. I am one of those people who look forward to fall and to the return of sweaters, a warm fireplace, and a hot cup of tea. Add a good book, knitting, or even better, great company, and I am in heaven.

This works for me anywhere, but, especially in England.

Our family members there include my lovely niece, my sister and her intended, my first brother-in-law and his family. Over the past 16 years, we've visited them when we can in southeast England, Suffolk. October is my favorite month of the year, and one of my favorite months to visit England.

On a cold, rainy, dark day like today, my imagination takes me on a mental vacation to England. A couple of locations come quickly to mind. Cambridge and the growing twilight surrounding King's College Chapel. Sitting in the chapel and listening to Evensong. An afternoon of antique shopping in Clare and taking tea near the oak-timbered fireplace of The Bell. The early evening bustle of London at Trafalgar Square and a wonderful meal before taking in a play.

Transforming Iowa into Ipswich, Norfolk, Cambridge, or London, isn't easy to do, but anything is possible in our imaginations. My corner of England is off-the-beaten path, not a heavy tourist location, and that's just fine with me. People ask you to repeat yourself because Americans just aren't that common in this corner of England. I rather like that.

When your autumn day is grey, overcast, and otherwise feeling nasty, take a mental vacation to England and find yourself with a warm fire, a spot of sherry, and a cup of tea. Don't forget to bring along your favorite person and enjoy the time away from the everyday. Let's go now.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Still Crazy After All These Years

This esteemed group of 40-somethings, minus the boy in front, all met as teenagers through youth events, camps, and retreats, of the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ.

After all this time, we came together for the celebration of the 20th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Arlene Nehring's ordination in Reinbeck, Iowa. Arlene is in the front, blue shirt standing next to me.

Next to me is Kim with my son John. And that's Jim on the far right. Mark and Sally are in the back on each side with Ar's twin, Mar, in between. (Was I always this short?)

We developed a bond, a friendship beyond friendship, into love and chosen family. For Ar, Kim, and I, it's about being sisters. We've been there for every major life event no matter where we were. That is until last week. Arlene and her partner of 16 years, Stephanie, were married at Eden UCC in Hayward, CA, where Ar is the senior pastor. Both Kim and I had to make the difficult decision to not attend. Family and work schedules and finances kept us from being witness to Arlene and Stephanie's wedding. It felt weird as Ar said, that we weren't together for this major occasion.

Arlene and Stephanie met through church, just like the rest of us. What an amazing Spirit that has brought us into each other's lives and what an amazing experience we've shared over the past 30 plus years. Biology can physically create a family, but its love makes us a family.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Road Not Taken

"Turning 40 was a peak: I could look forward and I could look back, and I had to start thinking about the things I wanted to do."

Thanks to the insightful person who wrote that. I wish I knew.

Standing in the "middle years" of one's life affords us a long view of where we've been, decisions made, adventures taken, accomplishments that fulfill dreams. It's a time to re-evaluate, to determine "what's next." When we get to this place in our lives, our experience teaches us that some opportunities only come by once. Bonnie Raitt said it well, "life gets mighty precious when there's less of it to waste."

As a younger adult, the world lay before me and all I had was time. The choices I made didn't seem as consequential as they do today. We spend time as youth figuring how who we are and what we want to do with our lives and who we will share it with.

I've been challenged to write about pretty ponies on rainbows - chasing unicorns and life being all sunshine and lollipops. However, I like the image of the ruby slippers and how Dorothy spends 90-minutes on a journey through Oz desperately looking for a way home, a place she really didn't want to be until she couldn't figure out how to get back there. It isn't until the very end of her journey that she is told that she always had the power to go home, to control her own destiny. How often we wish things were different in our lives, our careers, our relationships and come to the realization that we always had the power to make the changes. Life can have more sunshine and ponies on rainbows if we make it so by clicking our heels together and believing it to be true.

October continues to be a melancholy time, a time for reflection and looking ahead, revisiting those moments that have been mountaintop experiences. I've come to a place where I realize that some of my dreams aren't going to come true and that's okay. It's now about finding new dreams for what comes next and I realize there are more options for me today than there were before. I'm learning from life-changing missed opportunities and finding my voice to share myself more, to feel more empowered and confident about what the future holds for me. Those feelings of sadness and regret will still be there and I'll nurse those carefully for now. There's much more yet to do and I'm eager to collect those opportunities that are beginning to rise for me. Its a wild ride and I am excited about what lies ahead.

And When October Goes

I love October - it is my favorite month and always has been. The colors, the early evenings, the turning of the leaves... it's wonderful. I find I am rather sentimental about October. It evokes a time of reflection as the calendar year winds down and another school year begins.

There were a few times I walked back to my apartment on Lincoln Avenue from the music building in Iowa City around sunset in the fall. I purposely walked through the residential neighborhood not only because it was shorter in distance, but fed my desire for "home" and the warm glow of windows at dusk. I sang a song to myself as I walked, this lovely song that Barry Manilow put music to and Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics for. It fits the melancholy mood of October so very well. And, it seems very appropriate today.

"When October Goes"
And when October goes
the snow begins to fly
above the smoky roofs
I watch the planes go by.
The children running home
beneath a twilight sky.
Oh, for the fun of them
when I was one of them.
And when October goes
the same old dream appears
and you are in my arms
to share the happy years
I turn my head away to hide
the helpless tears
Oh how I hate to see October go
I should be over it now, I know
It doesn't matter much
how old I grow
I hate to see October go.

I Spent a Week There One Day...

Last week, my family and I traveled from Omaha to Salt Lake City on Amtrak. It was quite an adventure. I highly recommend it on a few conditions. You must be very flexible with your travel schedule because delays, significant delays, are common. You must be patient. (see previous.) If you are traveling through amazing scenery, it negates the other two.

After a ton of people boarded the train last Sunday at Glenwood Springs, Colorado - a picturesque mountain resort if there ever was one - we started on the trek to Denver with the plan to arrive by 8:30 a.m. Unfortunately, just past Winter Park, a freight train in front of our train broke down. It's a single rail up there and we had to pull off until the freight train could be moved. We rolled into Denver at 2 a.m. Those passengers who had not planned on spending the night on the train were in the middle of a bad dream. And that's unfortunate because they won't be riding the train again any time soon. Improving Amtrak is a chicken and egg kind of thing. More people need to ride to garner the funds to improve but more people won't ride if trains end up delayed so significantly. The orginal timetable brought us back to Omaha at 6:15 a.m. on Monday morning. We didn't arrive until 4 p.m.

I'll ride again though. It was relaxing and so very different from airline travel these days. No one assumed I was a terrorist because I had shampoo in my carry on bag. No one interrogated me about my plans and I was allowed to walk around the train from car to car. No seat belts, no getting show-horned into my seat and out. It was actually a very pleasant adventure.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


Wednesday morning, my 7 year old daughter walked nonchalantly into my bedroom. When I saw that her bangs had been cut to about one-half inch, my response was anything but. however, I managed to stay cool, knowing that getting angry wasn't going to grow those bangs out in time for the big family wedding we're going to next week... a few deep breaths and go to neutral.

Emily is strong-willed, independent, and its really pretty much all about her, like a lot of 7 year old girls. Those traits will serve her well, I remind myself, when she's an adult. With a healthy dose of maturity and experience in her court, that tenacity and spirit will pay off in spades for her when she can temper it and use it to her advantage. Girls are so quickly shushed and their free spirits become inhibited in our culture.

But for now, she's having an effect on my hair too. I think every gray hair on my head has her name on it. Another great girl to raise to be a great woman. Thank you God for the responsibility you have placed in my hands.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

525,600 minutes

I attended Larry's memorial service last week. Only one of two I've attended that have been truly spiritual experiences. Larry and my late best friend Ron would have had a lot to talk about. Their love of theater as their calling in life.

The opening music at Larry's memorial was a beautiful, legato rendition of "Comedy Tonight." Yes, the same one you've heard Zero Mostel bellowing in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." This was poigant and very touching. "Tragedy tomorrow, a comedy tonight." And it was. Theater people who can pull off comedy are a special breed. It was "Larry's Open Mic Night" and for 90 minutes, we heard some of the most amazing stories that made us all laugh and touched us to tears.

It's not that I knew Larry well. But I felt like I did. He reminded me of many of my friends from college and my early adulthood. It brought back memories of my college days, and I got melancholy thinking of people who were so important to me at a critical time in my life who are on the periphery of my life today or only in my memory.

Ron died at age 35 of cancer. I'd been with him for it all. When he discovered the first lump and was too scared to tell his parents because his sister had only died two years before from cancer. I was there when he was "cured" and then when he found another lump, and then the last that eight years after the initial diagnosis would take his life.

Ron knew he was dying so his funeral could be the theatrical masterpiece of his career. And it was. It was like every heart-wrenching, half-a-box of Kleenex movies, you've ever seen. It was "Terms of Endearment" and "Field of Dreams" and any other movie that stays with you for years. Those who spoke, the entire wall of floral tributes, the poster-sized professional portrait taken when he was healthy and well seemed to be something so well orchestrated that there was nothing but joy left by the time we had cried out every ounce of pain.

He asked us to play, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" at his graveside, because "nothing will keep me, keep me from you."

But the song that changed my future outlook was "Seasons of Love" from the Broadway musical, "Rent."
"How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets,
in midnights, in cups of coffee.
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?
In five-hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes?
How do you measure, a year in the life?"

Ron lived the belief that life was precious. His younger sister died at 19 from cancer and since that time, he lived every day as fully as he possibly could. His message was to live as if every day were your last and live with no regrets.

When we remember those who die before their time, it is hard to consider that maybe they lived the life they were meant to live. How do you measure a year in the life? Could it be about how much you have loved others and told them so? Ron's message and the lesson from Larry's sudden passing is to not take anyone you love for granted. Tell those people who are important to you that they matter and that your life has been richer for them. And then live that way. It's the very best tribute you can give.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

When it really matters

Living in a small town means that it is nearly impossible to go to the Fareway grocery store without running into at least one person you could have a conversation with. Even if it is a total stranger. Small-town folks are like that.

One of the downsides is that it is nearly impossible to go to the grocery store and not see someone you know. There's no anonymity in a small-town. If you get picked up for running a red light, your name will be published in the police blotter in the newspaper. People know your business in ways that it isn't true in larger communities. To those who aren't used to that, it's like living in a fishbowl.

This is exactly the kind of thing that makes small towns like a soap opera. Everyone knows everyone else's details of their lives. But when a tragedy happens, that's when our fishbowl-life is a good life to have.

This week, members of the community have rallied around the family that reports, edits, and publishes our town's twice-weekly newspaper. It is an independent, family-run business and Mom and Dad in their mid-to-upper 80's are at work everyday. Two of their adult children manage the day-to-day business operation of this twice-weekly paper.

Late Wednesday afternoon, everyone was working toward the Thursday 9 a.m. deadline for the paper when Larry fell to the floor in the grip of a seizure. The ambulance was called and from our hospital, he was taken by air ambulance to a Des Moines hospital. He was gone within four hours of that initial 911 call at the age of 50.

When the news of Larry's death began making its way from one stunned friend to another the next morning, many realized that it was now Thursday and what did his family want to do about the paper? The family did what they do every Thursday morning, get the paper ready to go out that afternoon.

Friends of the family from across the community jumped in to help. One friend had worked for a daily newspaper in her career and she stepped in to edit and another other covered a community event. Larry covered the local sports beat and another friend drove more than 100 miles to follow the high school football team, just as Larry would have been doing on a Friday night.

I've lived in communities where I knew no one every time I went to the grocery store and I did not know the names of the people who lived around me. They didn't care if I lived there or not. And I guess I didn't either or I may have reached out to know them. You build your network and "neighborhood" in those communities, even if your "neighbors" live a mile away.

In a small-town, there's just too much we share in common to be anonymous.
And sometimes that's a curse, and sometimes, that's a blessing.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Just put your lips together and blow

Our son and I just came home from a band meeting. We signed our life away for the chance to play the french horn. He's excited. And I guess I am too. The horn is like the Pips for Gladys, the rich alto/tenor of the mid register. The best-supporting actor in a musical. Not everyone can play the sax, trumpet, or drums. It's a good lesson. We all have to do our part and do it well for the group to be successful. We all have different ways of getting the end result. We all have to realize that we have been given unique gifts and whether we are the trumpet or the tuba, we all play a role in our community to give it our best for the greater good.

And he thinks he's just learning to play the horn....

Saturday, August 30, 2008

How Do I Schedule a Play Date with Michelle Obama?

I mentioned to our 7-year-old daughter last week that the Obama's have two kids the same ages as our son and daughter.

"Malia and Sasha are 10 and 7 just like you and your brother," I said.
After a short pause, our daughter says, "Can we play with them some time? Where do they live?"

"Chicago," I said.

"Okay, we can stay in a hotel there and then go play."

"I'll see what I can do about setting that up," I said without having much idea how I would do that.

Any ideas?

witnessing history

My dad tells the story of the night when the lunar module landed on the moon. He got me out of bed to watch Neil Armstrong take that first step. Just weeks from my fifth birthday, I don't remember that night. But I was a witness to history, nonetheless.

Thursday night, we allowed our 10-year-old son to stay up late on a school night to watch Sen. Barack Obama accept the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. He's old enough to remember this when he's an adult. But he's not old enough to grasp the enormity of the moment. He's not old enough to realize that the Civil Rights Act is only as old as I am.

And, maybe that too is a sign of progress.