Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Call

As a stay-at-home mom, when I hear the word “call,” I immediately think, “telemarketer.”

My husband recently subscribed us to a service which compares every phone number that calls our house to a list of known scammers, telemarketers, and con artists. If the number matches one on their list, the service automatically answers the phone and then hangs up, which means that I hear the phone ring just once, then disconnect. So I never even think about answering a call until the second ring.

This service has been remarkably successful in getting rid of people who are concerned that my computer has a virus, people who want to let me know that I’ve won a free vacation, people who are excited that a relative has left me a large amount of money, my dead grandmother who is stranded in Mexico, and the occasional Nigerian prince. It is somewhat less successful in screening out chimney cleaning services, ninety million well-intentioned but annoying charities, and paid fundraisers.

Of course, in this day and age of caller ID and call screening, even after that second ring I take a look at the phone screen and decide whether I want to take the call or not. I receive several mail-order prescriptions from the world’s most annoying pharmaceutical company (motto: “We’ll Call You As Many Times As It Takes For You To Say, ‘Fine! Just Send Me the Damn Meds!’.”), which means that every month, like clockwork, they call me seventeen times in a row to remind me that I might need to refill one of my prescriptions, although they’re never able to tell me which one. Silly me, I thought that when I declined their automatic refill service, it meant that they would let me decide when I needed more medications, but apparently it actually means that they will call and hound me several times a day over the course of several weeks until I call them back and refill my prescription, whether I need to or not.

But I digress.

What I am trying to say is that receiving a call is not the exciting feeling of personal worth and achievement that it used to be many years ago. I no longer feel wanted or special just because my phone rings. A call is no longer a flattering request for personal contact, it is not the longing of a loved one to hear my voice; it is more likely a stranger out to pick my pocket. And that is sad.

Thanks to modern technology, “personal” contact is more likely to come in the form of an email or a text message. Which is convenient, in a way, because I can finish what I’m doing before I read an email or a text, instead of having to interrupt making dinner or brushing my teeth or trying to put a child down for a nap to answer the immediacy of a ringing phone. But at the same time, it lacks the personal connection of hearing a familiar voice. An emoticon is no substitute for laughter, or a catch in the throat. There’s just something special about getting a call.


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Monday, March 30, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Live

There are a lot of different ways of understanding the word “live.” In its most basic sense, it’s purely a state of existing: if you’re breathing, if your heart is beating, you’re living. But in another sense, living requires more than merely existing. If all you’re doing is breathing, that’s not living. Living requires experiences. It requires doing things. It involves thinking about things and affecting the world around you and making choices. You can choose to just be, or you can choose to really live.

And in between those two extremes, there’s a whole spectrum of “living.” Toward one end, there’s spending a lot of time alone, and toward the other, there’s constantly being around and involved with other people. One end is mostly observing the world around you, the other is actively working to change the world around you. One end is passive, the other is active. And each of us needs to decide where on the spectrum we want to be.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be at one end or the other. Both have advantages and disadvantages. One end takes more risks and is therefore more dangerous, but with a greater chance of a big payoff. The other end is safer and more peaceful, but lacks the adrenaline surge of the first. Who is to say that one of those options is intrinsically better than the other? For one person, the fear of the danger is more painful than the reward of the possible payoff. For another, the excitement of the possible reward more than offsets the security of not risking the odds. Where on the spectrum you choose to live should be determined by your own unique set of scales.

And yet, it’s healthy for all of us to explore other parts of the spectrum. The more cautious among us can benefit from taking the occasional risk, and the daredevils among us can benefit from trying out a more passive role now and then. The cautious livers may be missing out on some excitement, and the risky livers may be missing out on some serenity. Until you bring yourself to actually try another role, how do you really know it’s not for you?

So try moving around on the “living spectrum.” It doesn’t have to be a huge jump, just a little nudge to one direction or the other. Try something new, whether “new” means more risky or less. Break out of your usual box. Push that envelope.


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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Celebrate

Today is Palm Sunday, part of the Christian celebration of Easter. On Palm Sunday, Jesus Christ was welcomed into Jerusalem, riding on the back of a humble donkey, cheered by thousands of people who covered the dusty road in palm branches and waved palm leaves in celebration. Today, Christians around the world will reenact this celebration by singing “Hosanna!” and waving palm branches.

To me, one of the most moving parts of any celebration, particularly any religious celebration, is a sense of unity. Even if you are alone, you are not alone in your celebration. Every celebration is, in some way, a celebration of community. Whether you are at home with your own family lighting Shabbat candles, or sitting in a steadily darkening Tenebrae service with a dozen other congregants, or in a temple full of hundreds of other worshippers raising your voices in a unison chant, there is an entire community celebrating with you. Somewhere in the world, there are other families lighting Shabbat candles, other congregations dimming the lights to celebrate Tenebrae, and other believers chanting the same ancient prayers. Even when you celebrate alone, you never celebrate alone.


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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: See

“Oh be careful, little eyes, what you see…” When I was a little girl, this was one of the songs we often sang in Sunday school and vacation Bible school. The verses included, “be careful, little ears, what you hear,” “be careful, little feet, where you go,” “be careful, little hands, what you do,” and “be careful, little mouth, what you say.” Whether or not you believe the rest of each verse (“There’s a Father up above, and He’s looking down with love”), this is wise advice for any child – and for any adult.

As the parent of two small children, I’ve become more aware of the things around me that aren’t really appropriate for children, and it makes me aware of just how inured to certain things I’ve become. For example, I might be reading in the living room and have a movie on the TV that I’m not particularly watching, but when my kids walk into the room I suddenly realize that there’s graphic violence and blood that they definitely don’t need to see – and really, neither do I. And if I’m working at my computer and have a website up that uses some profanity, if my 5-year-old-who-reads-everything-out-loud peeks over my shoulder, I don’t want him exposed to that – and frankly, I don’t particularly want myself exposed to it, either.

Please don’t misunderstand me: there’s nothing wrong with a certain amount of TV and movie violence and blood and guts, and if other adults want to drop f-bombs into every sentence, that’s their prerogative. My problem with it is that it’s not something I want for myself – and yet, I let myself be surrounded by it. And it takes my children being exposed to it that remind me that I don’t really want to be exposed to it myself. Or at least, if I’m being exposed to it, I want to be conscious of it, instead of just having it around as a presence I’ve gotten so used to that I no longer see it.

My children help me to see the world around me more clearly. Their presence forces me to re-evaluate the way I live my life. Because they see me, and they copy me. And if they see me allowing things I don’t want in my life into my life, they see them as being perfectly normal and acceptable. I want them to see me consciously choosing what I surround myself with based on my own moral code. When they are adults, maybe they’ll have a different moral code than I do, but I want them to be aware of their own moral code, and to consciously live their life by it. I want them to think, and I want them to see.

Be careful, little eyes, what you see.


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Friday, March 27, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Meditate

I’ve never been one for meditation, at least not in the sense that most people imagine it. I don’t take a specific, regular time every day to find a quiet place and consciously clear or focus my thoughts. I don’t practice yoga that teaches me to relax my body and calm my mind. Even when I go to bed at night, my brain is usually spinning with thoughts until I fall asleep. The rare quiet time I do find is filled with prayer, which is a form of meditation, but it’s not exactly clearing my mind of thought.

But every now and then, I do escape from the busyness of my external and internal worlds. Sometimes it’s snuggling in my bed, listening to the rain on the roof. Sometimes it’s soaking in a hot bathtub full of bubbles. Sometimes it’s in front of a crackling fireplace. Sometimes it’s sitting on the porch, watching the sun rise or set. Sometimes it’s relaxing next to (or in) the pool. But wherever and whenever it is, it is my chance to relax my body, and then to relax my mind. And I think that perhaps I benefit from it all the more because it is rare, and therefore treasured. 

In our busy worlds, I think that too few of us (myself included) don’t take the time to meditate. We don’t give our minds a chance to rest, a chance to escape from our own hectic thoughts. We rarely focus our thoughts on only one thing, and most of our thoughts are focused on externals – things that we need to get done, problems that we need to fix, issues that we are charged with solving. We rarely give ourselves a mental breather. But our minds need a break, too.

So for the remainder of Lent, I am going to try to find at least a few minutes every day to close myself away from the external, to clear my thoughts, to give my mind a rest, to relax and to focus. To meditate.


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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Seek

“Seek” is not a word that most of us use in our everyday vocabulary. “Hide and Seek,” maybe, or the Biblical quote, “Seek and ye shall find,” are two of the very few times we might use it, or we might occasionally describe something as being “highly sought after.” But most of the time, we don’t “seek” things. We just search for them. So what’s the difference?

The dictionary actually defines the word “seek” in terms of the word “search”: Seek means “to go in search or quest of.” The word “quest” is also defined in terms of “search”: Quest means “a search or pursuit in order to find or obtain something.” And one last definition: Pursuit means “an effort to secure or obtain.” So seeking is a search involving effort, for something specific that you are trying to obtain. The implication is that the object you are seeking has significant value. You search for your lost car keys; you seek a lost treasure.

So what is it that most of us are seeking in this life? What is it that holds significant value for us? What do we put effort into obtaining? 

If we measure effort by the time we spend doing something, most of us must be seeking something to do with our occupations – after all, we spend 8 hours a day, 5 days a week (and usually more) at our jobs. So is it a paycheck that we value? A professional reputation? Personal satisfaction in a job well done? Some combination of those things?

Maybe we should measure our effort not by time, but by passion. What is it that we are passionate about? What do we do that revives us, that excites us, that moves us to action? Is it a hobby? Charitable or philanthropic work? Are we seeking to challenge ourselves physically or mentally? To help our fellow man? To make the world a better place?

Or perhaps effort should be measured by our mental investment in the outcome of our seeking. How important is our quest? How concerned are we about finding or achieving it? How much does the success of our seeking matter to us? What will happen if we never find what we seek?

However it is you choose to define what you’re seeking, we’re all seeking something. Wealth, wisdom, fulfillment, a happy family, a better world, God. We all seek, and we all find, although we don’t always find what we were seeking. But sometimes, it’s just the act of seeking that’s important.


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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Truth

I read an article the other day in which the author declared, “I’m not a liar. But Facebook is.” She went on to say that the image of her life, as created by her Facebook comments and photos, was much rosier than her actual life. In a way, she was creating a lie about herself.

This is probably true of most of us. We use social media mostly to share happy moments, to revel in our small (and large) successes, to announce good news. We occasionally gripe or vent or complain, but despite that, most of us unintentionally post an incomplete picture of our lives, and one that paints us as happier, more successful, and more fulfilled than we actually are.

So today, I am going to admit some truths that aren’t always seen on my Facebook or my blog pages.

I love my kids, but some days they drive me crazy. Like, crying in the bathroom crazy. Like, sending them to their room so I can calm down crazy. Like, meeting my husband at the door with my car keys in my hand at the end of the day crazy. 

It took me years – literally years to potty train my kids. I fake my way through a lot of parenting. I act like I know what I’m doing, but I’m totally flying by the seat of my pants. I let my kids watch TV and play with their Kindles a lot more hours of the day than I should. Sometimes I don’t take them outside to play because I don’t feel like going outside. I don’t offer them vegetables as often as I should.

I love my husband – a LOT – but there are times when I really, really want to punch him in the nose. Or at least Gibbs-slap him for being clueless. Sometimes we yell at each other, usually about stupid stuff. When I get mad at him, I do stupid, childish, passive-aggressive things like making him get his own dinner plate, even though I bring everyone else’s to them. Or I bring everyone’s clean laundry upstairs and leave his in the laundry room or on the stairs. (I strongly suspect he has never noticed either of these things, but it makes me feel better, in a petty, vindictive kind of way.)

I am terrified of home schooling. Even though part of me knows I am perfectly qualified to do it, at least for a few years, another part of me is sure that I’ll leave him unprepared for life and he’ll end up in some boring, dead-end job because I didn’t teach him to use a ten frame properly.

I make it a joke on Facebook, but I really do let my kids run around without pants on a lot of the time. And there are still a lot of days when we don’t change out of our pajamas until after lunch. Sometimes we don’t brush our hair or teeth till then either. And sometimes not even then.

I let them do stuff they probably shouldn’t, like climbing up the stairs on the other side of the bannister, or sliding down the bannister, or going outside with bare feet or no coat when it’s only 45 degrees out, or riding their bikes in the driveway without a helmet.

So my life’s not quite as perfect as it probably seems on Facebook. But it’s still pretty good. And that’s the truth.


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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Mercy

Yesterday’s Photo a Day subject was forgive; today’s is mercy. So what is the difference between forgiving and showing mercy? The dictionary defines forgive as “to grant pardon for or remission of; absolve. To give up all claim on account of; remit. To grant pardon to. To cease to feel resentment against.” It defines mercy as “compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence.”

It’s a pretty fine distinction. I’m not even sure I understand the subtleties completely based on these definitions. But to me, the difference is that mercy is given to an offender who is under your power. Mercy is undeserved forgiveness. Mercy is the byproduct of love and compassion. Forgiveness can be given grudgingly. Mercy cannot.

Some of the most beautiful words ever written about mercy are spoken by Portia in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”:

"The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."

Here are a few other wise words about mercy, spoken by the famous and not-so-famous:

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” – Abraham Lincoln

“For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.” – G.K. Chesterton

“The Lord’s mercy often rides to the door of our heart upon the black horse of affliction.” – Charles H. Spurgeon

“Mercy is the stuff you give to people who don’t deserve it.” – Joyce Meyer

“Because it strikes me there is something greater than judgment. I think it is called mercy.” – Sebastian Barry

Mercy is given when judgment and justice are deserved. Mercy is a blessing both to the one who offers it and the one who accepts it. Mercy is a washing away of an offense, as if it had never happened. Mercy is starting fresh. Mercy is cleansing. Mercy is purifying. 


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Monday, March 23, 2015

Truly Beautiful People

For some reason, I’ve stumbled across at least three different online articles in the past week or so which all list a number of “Ugly Celebrities.” What a horrible thing to list! Simply because these people don’t conform to classic standards of beauty, some anonymous online list-makers felt the need to hold them up to public scrutiny and mock their physical appearance. Actors and other celebrities certainly open themselves up to some degree of public scrutiny by the nature of their business. But to make a list of ugly celebrities is cruel and unnecessary.

So I’ve decided that it’s time to make a list of celebrities who may not conform to Hollywood’s image of ideal physical beauty, but who are truly beautiful because of their actions. 

Rupert Grint’s childhood ambition was to drive an ice cream truck. So one of the first things he bought with his earnings from the Harry Potter movies was an ice cream truck. Once he realized that children were always chasing him down wanting ice cream, he decided he’d better keep it stocked with ice cream at all times. But since he doesn’t have a vendor license, he can’t sell his ice cream. So instead, he gives it away. He drives around local villages looking for kids who look like they could use some ice cream, parks, and hands it out. He also personally supports multiple charitable organizations. That’s beautiful.

In 1992, Chuck Norris launched an organization in his home state of Texas called KickStart Kids, which uses the study of martial arts to give middle school students the tools and skills to resolve conflicts, avoid gang membership, stay away from drugs, handle peer pressure, and finish school. That’s beautiful.

Elton John hosts an annual fundraising ball in his own home to benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which he established in 1992. He also hosts post-Grammy and post-Oscar parties to raise funds for his charity. In addition, he gives generously to many other charitable organizations, including such varied causes as supporting equal rights, diabetes and breast cancer research, food banks and homeless shelters, rainforests, the arts, anti-bullying, and many children’s causes. That’s beautiful.

Gary Sinese is a familiar face in the world of supporting veterans’ causes. The Gary Sinese Foundation, which he began in 2011, supports multiple programs to assist wounded veterans regain their physical independence (including building custom wheelchair-accessible homes and providing specialty vehicles accommodating multiple physical limitations); to assist veterans and their families in dealing with the emotional trauma of returning from combat; to provide scholarships, training, and outreach to first responders and their families; to provide hearty, healthy meals to veterans and current military members; and to establish arts and entertainment outreach programs throughout the country. That’s beautiful.

Kelly Clarkson founded the Fruition Fund, part of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, to direct funds to existing organizations in support of medical research, children’s charities, and food assistance. She recruited more than a dozen fellow celebrities to perform in the Fund’s inaugural fundraising concert in December 2014. In addition, she personally supports dozens of educational, medical, children’s, and veterans’ charities. That’s beautiful.

None of these celebrities regularly hits the "Most Beautiful People" list in any magazine. None of them quite conforms to Hollywood's standards of classic beauty and pristine perfection. And yet, they are among the most truly beautiful celebrities alive today, at least in one sense of the word "beautiful." The most important sense, I'd say. 

So tell me: which list would you rather be on, the “Most Beautiful People” list or the “Most Truly Beautiful People” list?

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Lent Photo a Day: Forgive

Of all the people in my life who need my forgiveness on a regular basis, the ones who are at the top of the list most often have got to be my kids. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. My kids are generally good, well-behaved, thoughtful, lovable kids. But they are kids, which means they screw up and lie and disobey and get into trouble on a regular basis. Most of the time they’re so genuinely penitent and sweet that they’re easy to forgive. But then there are the days when they’re crazy and whiny and wired and tired and naughty and loud and frustrating all day long. There are days when I go to bed exhausted with the playroom still looking like this because I don’t have the energy either to make them clean it up or to clean it up myself.

When I look at this mess, I don’t find it easy to forgive them. They know that the rule is that you put away one toy before playing with another. They know that the rule is to pick up all their toys before bedtime. They are perfectly capable of putting things away neatly. But sometimes they just don’t do it. And they force me to be the bad guy who orders them to clean up, who stands over them like a prison guard, scowling and scolding, while they whine and plead. And sometimes I resent them for it. Why can’t they just clean it up quickly and be done with it in five easy minutes instead of drawing it out into half an hour of agony on both sides? Why can’t they understand that if they just obey, everyone wins?!??? WHY CAN’T THEY JUST CLEAN UP THEIR BLOODY TOYS?!!!!????

And the answer to that is, because they’re kids. And that’s what kids do. They test their limits. They try to get people to do stuff for them. They shirk responsibility. They whine and they complain. And they need forgiveness for their attitude. But you know what else? So do I. I need their forgiveness for my attitude. I need them to forgive me for my short temper, for my impatience, for my anger. I need them to forgive me for letting them get away with stuff sometimes, which just makes it harder when I do enforce the rules. I need them to forgive me for letting my bad day become their bad day.

And that’s a lesson they can teach me, even as I’m teaching them the same lesson: How to forgive.


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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Celebrate

For today’s “Celebrate” photo, I thought that I might be able to find a green sprout peeking out of my garden somewhere. I went outside and peered between the front bushes where the hostas often sprout early in the spring. I looked around the side of the house where ferns sometimes spring up. The area in front of the driveway where the bulbs are is still buried underneath several feet of crusty, sooty ice and snow. The few places where there was visible soil, there were no sprouts of green grass, no leaves getting ready to unfurl, no snowdrops about to burst into bloom. There was muddy dirt, and there was muddy snow. The only glimpse of green I could find was a manky old green sweatsock that had appeared in a melting snowbank a day or so ago, source unknown.

It was ugly against ugly, the filthy green against the filthy white. It certainly didn’t put me in the mind to celebrate. But as I glared at it in disgust, I realized that despite its ugliness, there was plenty of beauty around me. It was warm enough that I had come outside wearing a short-sleeved shirt and no coat. The rays of the sun had a golden quality that tinged the snowbanks with their glow and cast artistic shadows all over the yard. Dozens of different kinds of birds were singing happily in the trees. Overhead, a lazy jet made soft whooshing noises in the sky. Down the street, I could faintly hear the happy voices of boys playing street hockey. A neighbor walked by with his dog, softly whistling to her.

It’s not yet time to celebrate the re-awakening of the earth, the growth of the tiny green things, the rebirth of lawns and gardens. But it is time to celebrate the coming of spring: looking forward to those awakenings, to that growth, to the rebirth. There may not be baby birds, but there are eggs. There may not be sprouts, but there are seeds. There may not be spring, but there is anticipation. We can anticipate. We can hope. We can celebrate.


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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Still

As the mother of two small children, one of whom is an early riser (which, since they share a room, means that the other is – albeit involuntarily - also an early riser), it is somewhat rare that I ever have a morning that could be considered “still.” I usually hit the ground running, sometimes more literally than others, depending on whether the sounds coming from the bedroom down the hall are merely the usual sibling squabbles or whether there are clunks and thuds indicative of dangerous furniture climbing or heavy projectile throwing. But every now and then, my husband and I manage to exhaust them both enough that they sleep later than we do, and we have a morning – or at least, part of a morning – which is, in fact, still. This morning was one of those mornings.

It was an interesting morning to be still, since it’s quietly snowing, adding yet another layer of stillness to the stillness inside our house. And since it’s the first full day of spring, the stillness also includes a bit of a lull in the birdsong that has been growing in both volume and variety over the past few weeks. The snow creates its own stillness over the usual morning noises of neighbors getting up and heading out for the day, or traffic passing on the nearby road, of the routine noises of everyday life as it goes on all around us.

Even after the kids woke up and we began our morning, there was a wonderful subdued stillness around us. I often spend breakfast reminding the kids to sit back down and eat, answering their endless questions about whatever pops into their heads, catching up on urgent emails, and planning out the business of my day. But today, the kids were content to sit quietly and eat their breakfasts (and in one case, half of my breakfast as well), and I gave myself permission to delay the day’s work and sit at the kitchen table, watching the birds and enjoying the stillness.

Our usual avian visitors include large flocks of house sparrows, a pair of mourning doves, a trio of blue jays, a pair of cardinals, and a handful of junkos. The sparrows, jays, and cardinals are all quite shy and nervous, but the cheery junkos and gentle doves allow me to approach them very closely. They have a stillness of their own. The junkos and sparrows often eat at the same time, and when a movement inside the house startles the sparrows to flee in a frantic whoosh of wingbeats, the junkos merely glance around, often looking right at me and cocking their heads as if to say, “Do YOU know what their problem is?” There is a calmness and a stillness to their behavior that makes me feel calm and still as well. They are fearless and trusting, not assuming that any movement means danger, not wasting energy on fleeing unnecessarily.

I could learn a lesson from their stillness: Don’t borrow trouble. Don’t assume the worst. Deal with problems as they come but don’t waste energy on something that isn’t actually a problem. Look around and question the behavior of others before you consider imitating it. Enjoy what’s in front of you. Be still


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Friday, March 20, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Place

I’ve never been a big fan of the musical Pippin, but I do love one of the most well-known songs from it, “Corner of the Sky,” which is sung by the title character when he first appears in the show. Pippin is a young prince, destined to become king, who is struggling to find his place in the world. Not only does the song have a lovely, memorable melody, it also has beautiful, haunting, and somewhat sad lyrics: “Everything has its season, everything has its time. Show me a reason and I’ll soon show you a rhyme. Cats fit on the windowsill, children fit in the snow – why do I feel I don’t fit in anywhere I go?” Another verse includes the poignant line, “And don’t you see I want my life to be something more than long?” The final line of the refrain, repeated multiple times throughout the song, and the line with which the song ends, pleads, “I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free – got to find my corner of the sky.” Pippin spends the rest of the show searching for his place in the world, his “corner of the sky.”

Part of being human, I believe, is a longing to fit in, a deep-seated desire to find a “place” of one’s own. This place is not necessarily a physical location, but it is rather a role within society, within a family, within a group of peers. It may simply be a sense of contributing to the general good of humanity or the welfare of society. The need to find a place may be satisfied by holding a respected job, by having a happy marriage and raising children, by charitable or philanthropic work, or by any of a multitude of factors that can make us feel like we’ve found our place.

And of course, our “place” may change over the course of time. As youngsters, making the varsity track team or being part of the drama club may fulfill the need for a place, working for a high-tech company or a well-known law firm may be our place later in life, leading a child’s scout troop or tutoring in the local school system may become our place once we’re more established as adults, and during our retirement years, our place may be found by volunteer work. No-one has just one single “place” throughout their lives.

So what is my place, right now? I have a place as a wife, a mother, a writer, a singer, an actor. I fit in at church, in my various theatrical groups, on the boards of several organizations which I serve, in my neighborhood, in my circle of friends. I am blessed to have more than one “place” that I can call my own. I guess you could say that my sky has lots of corners, and in every one of them, I have a place.


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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Light

At this time of year, when winter is finally transforming into spring, when the days have grown longer, when we have moved our clocks ahead an hour, I am more aware of the effect of light than any other time. The disheartening feeling of getting up in the dark and having dinner in the dark is over and done with. No more creeping out of bed before the sun. No more watching car headlights pass by while I’m making supper. Instead, I wake to the sight of cheerful sunbeams dancing on the ceiling. I watch the glory of the sunset when dinner is long over. The sun itself is stronger: instead of thin, weak, ineffective rays, the gold streaks are warm and life-giving. Not only is there more light, but the quality of the light has changed.

Our entire existence is dependent on light. Without light, plants could not grow and provide us with food. Without the warmth of sunlight, our world would be covered with ice. Without light, we could not see to function. Without light, life is not possible. So it is no surprise that many ancient cultures created legends about light. Apollo, the god of light who pulls the chariot of the sun across the sky, often attributed with the power to heal and to defeat evil. Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister, a goddess of light who protected gentle animals and other innocents. Persephone, wife of Hades, the god of the dark underworld, who returns to earth each spring, bringing with her warmth and light, often pictured holding a flaming torch. The gods had the power to grant or to withhold light from mankind. The power of light, and therefore life itself, was in their hands.

Modern people understand that the changing of the light is a pattern on which we can rely. We have no fear that days will keep becoming shorter until the light is gone. We know there will not come a day when the sun simply does not rise. We are confident that spring will always come. We trust in the light. We are grateful for the light. Especially now, when we have missed the light for a long time, we are thankful that the light always returns.


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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Believe

The word “believe” is used in many different contexts: “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth,” “I believe I’ll have another piece of pie,” “I believe in global warming,” “I believe that children are our future.” It is applied to religion, to personal opinion, to politics, to science. It means accepting something as true, whether it is provable or not. You can’t prove that God exists, you simply believe it – or not. In the fact of conflicting scientific information, you choose which evidence you believe. In the case of pure opinion, you analyze the evidence on your own and believe what you feel is right.

Sometimes, a belief is held so strongly that it holds firm even in the face of direct evidence to the contrary: “I don’t/won’t/can’t believe it!” There is no proof when it comes to beliefs; believing is simply what your mind – and your heart – has determined to be true. It’s difficult to fight your own deep-seated beliefs.

Lots of beliefs are controversial. Not everyone believes that God exists, or that vaccines are safe, or that abortion should be legal, or that Chris Rock is funny, or that Leonardo DiCaprio deserves an Oscar, or that Democrats are better than Republicans. Holding some of those beliefs – and expressing them publicly – can lead to arguments, hurt feelings, even bloodshed. But there are a lot of beliefs that would make the world a better place if more of us held them. What would the world be like if we could all believe the following?

I believe that everyone has a right to his or her opinion.

I believe that the world is a wonderful place.

I believe that we need to take care of each other and the world we live in.

I believe that children should be loved and nurtured.

I believe that art of every kind should be encouraged.

I believe that everyone has something to contribute.

I believe that life is a gift.


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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Endure

It was more than seven years ago that my now-husband first put this diamond ring on my finger, and nearly seven since he added the wedding band. In those past seven years, we’ve been through a lot.

We’ve lost pregnancies, parents, siblings, friends, jobs, our tempers, our health, and occasionally our minds. We nearly lost one of our own children once. We’ve survived one child in college and two in diapers. We’ve made it through the terrible twos (twice). We’ve redecorated two different rooms and lived to tell the tale. We planned a major home renovation without killing each other. If it’s true that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” then we’ve become pretty strong. We have learned to endure.

The word “endure” implies some kind of solid foundation. If something endures, it has a root, a base, an underpinning, something that allows it to weather a storm without breaking, if not without bending. Bending, in fact, is often crucial to enduring. A building designed to endure an earthquake cannot be rigid; it must be able to flex and bend and accommodate shifting ground. But it must have a deep, sturdy base to adhere to. If it is rigid, it will snap when outside forces buffet it. It must be able to give way a little. And if it is not firmly fixed to its base, it will be swept away. Without a base, it cannot endure.

My marriage has endured for these seven sometimes tumultuous years because of its base: our mutual faith in God and our mutual respect for each other. The former gives us our strong, sturdy, unshakeable base. And the latter allows us to give in a bit, to bend and flex and make allowances. The first holds us firm; the last gives us freedom. Together, they have allowed us to endure.


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Monday, March 16, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Wilderness

Wilderness can come in many forms. Wilderness is a place that is untamed by mankind, but it can be either barren or overgrown. We think of early American settlers as crossing the wilderness: cutting paths through forests, clearing bushes to build their homes, leveling the overgrown plants to plant their own cultivated crops. We also think of Moses and the Hebrew people being lost in the wilderness as they fled Egyptian slavery. Their wilderness was sand and rock and sun and drought. It needed to be tamed, not by cutting back the overgrown plants, but by coaxing plants to grow by digging wells and adding nutrients to the soil and providing shade. Both forms of wilderness needing to be tamed, and yet very different from each other.

This morning, my front yard looks like still another kind of wilderness. This wilderness is cold and white and barren and ice-covered. There is no warmth for plants to grow, the soil is buried under both fresh and packed-down snow and ice, the plants have not yet attempted to peek out their green shoots from the hard soil.

But even in the wilderness, there is life. I expected last night’s snowfall to have left a clean, even, unbroken coating over the lawn. But by the time the sun rose, there was already evidence of small explorers, travelers through the white wilderness. Long before dawn, our local rabbit had left a trail of little bunny prints poking around the yard.

He peeped under the bushes to find a bit of tender green, to test the soil for softness, to hunt for fresh growth to nibble on. Even in the wilderness, he knew there was sustenance, if only he could find it.

And even as I watched, other creatures followed the trail he had blazed: birds hopped around looking for seeds and bugs; squirrels chased each other, digging at the roots of the trees for last year’s acorns. They were not afraid of the apparent barrenness of the wilderness, for they know that it is not truly barren. It is simply waiting for the warmth of spring to release its treasures of blooms and bugs, of color and energy, of growth and beauty. The wilderness is waiting to be tamed, and to share its sustaining reward.


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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Celebrate

Particularly when our children are very young, there are plenty of exciting milestones for parents to celebrate. We celebrate the first smile, the first step, the first word. When they’re a little older, we celebrate when they learn to read, when they learn to ride a bike, when they learn to drive a car. When they become young adults, we celebrate when they graduate from high school and from college, when they get married, when they have children of their own. Each milestone is satisfying and exciting. But there is perhaps no developmental milestone quite so satisfying, quite so exciting, quite so freeing, quite so worthy of celebration, as potty training.

For the past five years, diapers, pull-ups, diaper pails, and the wiping of small bottoms have been an integral part of my life. I had to deal with other people’s bodily fluids multiple times a day, every day. I was at the biological beck and call, so to speak, of my children. But this week, I am able to officially declare that our family is a complete family of underpants-wearers!

I do not declare this fact lightly. I took on the task of intense potty-training my youngest child about a month ago, during her February break from preschool. She spent the entire week running around free of diapers, pull-ups, and underpants, happily “bare-bummed.” Every hour, I would call her to come sit on the potty. Each time, we would slowly count to ten as she did a “try.” Sometimes we’d reach ten without any action. But other times, we’d both open our eyes wide as we heard the unmistakable sound of peeing. And then her face would blossom into a wide grin of excitement, pride, and wonder, and she would giggle with delight. And so would I. We’d high-five each other, sing Daniel Tiger’s song reminding her to “flush and wash and be on your way,” and then I’d reward her with a piece of candy.

As the days wore on, we’d venture a bit further into the world of “big girl underpants.” Santa had put a few pairs of Disney princess underpants in her stocking (he was apparently as eager to get the pull-ups out of our house as I was), but we obviously needed a few more pairs, so we went to the store and she got to pick out some new underpants, opting for the “My Little Pony” collection. Then we were ready for our maiden underpants outing. We went to the grocery store, doing a “try” right before and checking several times during the trip to see if she needed to go again. We made it home with dry pants. She had an accident less than an hour later, but we made it through our outing accident-free. Celebrate!

After a few more days of practicing wearing underpants without pants around the house and then underpants with pants, we were ready to try a day at school. I warned her teachers and asked them to encourage her to go during the day. I packed extra pants just in case, but she made it through without an accident. Again, she had one after we got home, but it was a minor setback. Celebrate! Later that week, she went to her gymnastics class wearing underpants under her leotard. I was a bit nervous when a try at home and one at the gym right before class produced nothing, but she made it through class dry and clean – and then made it through the rest of the day at home with no accidents. Celebrate!

But the real trial came this past weekend when my husband and I attended a two-day conference spanning Friday evening and Saturday all day, and the kids had a sleepover with friends. Luckily, one of their kids is at about the same stage of potty-training as my daughter, so the parents were unfazed at the thought of possible accidents and were more than willing to risk an accident or two. I wasn’t sure how her training would be affected by a different, although familiar, house, and an unfamiliar potty. I needn’t have worried: my daughter was fascinated by the thought of using a different potty and not only did she not have any accidents, she hardly needed to be reminded to use the potty, but ran in herself whenever she needed to go. Celebrate!

And so, I am boldly declaring that my house is now a diaper-free zone (at least during the day). And I am ready to celebrate!


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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Search

As the parent of two small children, I spend an awful lot of my time searching for things. Searching for a single sneaker, searching for a doll we can’t possibly go to the grocery store without, searching for that sippy cup of milk that I know is somewhere in the house, searching for my car keys, searching for a beloved toy that was just here a minute ago I swear.

The thing about searching for these kinds of items is that they’re never in a logical place. If I’m looking for one of the kids’ shoes, I don’t even bother looking in the shoe basket in their room or next to the front door. I know it's not there, because that would be the logical place for it to be. It's never in a logical place. I’ve found shoes between the couch cushions, behind the fridge, under the dining room table, at the bottom of the toy box. My lost car keys are never in my purse or my coat pocket or still stuck in the doorknob or in the drawer in the front hall. They’ve appeared in the refrigerator (no, seriously, I found them there once), inside one of my shoes, in the laundry basket, and on the piano bench. The missing toys and dolls are never merely misplaced among the rest of the toys and dolls in the toy box or in the kids’ bedroom. Oh, no. They’re sitting in my best saucepan in the kitchen cabinet, wedged inside the picnic basket on a high shelf in the laundry room, or tucked into a Rubbermaid tub full of Christmas decorations in the spare bedroom. I’m pretty sure there’s still a sippy cup of milk somewhere in the house that I haven’t found, and probably won’t until it explodes like the biological timebomb it is.

So I’ve learned to get creative with my searches. I no longer think of where something might have been dropped in the normal course of its use; I don’t even bother to retrace the steps of the user. That would make too much sense. Wherever the missing item is, it’s somewhere that makes absolutely no sense for it to be. Therefore, I always begin my search in the least likely places. I shed all pretenses of logic and try to think of places that the missing item has absolutely no reason whatsoever to be, and that's where I look first.

The weird thing is that when I ignore logic and just search, I find stuff. Sometimes I even find the stuff I’m looking for. But more often than not, before I find what’s missing, I find some other stuff that I didn’t even know was missing. Or I find stuff that wasn’t missing, but that was still worth finding. While I’ve been searching in random places, I’ve found all kinds of delightful tidbits left by my children. I’ve discovered creative Lego aliens. I’ve stumbled across dolls dressed up in human clothing, and - best of all - I’ve found lovely bits of artwork that I never would have noticed if I only looked in logical places. All because I was searching, even though what I found wasn’t what I was searching for.


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Friday, March 13, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Practice

We’ve all heard the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

Practice is often associated with discipline. When I think of the word “practice,” I immediately think of two things: musical instruments and sports. I spent countless hours practicing my flute and my French horn during my childhood. Every practice session began with boring warmup exercises, like long tones and scales and intervals. Only after going through a series of dull drills was I supposed to continue on with working on the pretty melodies and interesting pieces that I enjoyed playing. As I improved and matured, I understood how the boring parts of practicing served to make me a better player, and how they contributed greatly to my ability to play the “fun stuff,” and to play it well. But at the time, practice was a hated but necessary evil. Similarly, my friends who played sports began their practices with boring stretching exercises and repetitive and uninteresting skills drills. The boring parts of practice felt like the price we had to pay to get to do the fun stuff, and even when we understood that there was a valid reason why we did it, we never really liked it.

“Practice” is a word we use in our home quite a bit these days. We don’t do formal music lessons or sports yet, but my 5-year-old son has reached the age where he recognizes what he doesn’t know, and he’s frustrated by skills he hasn’t yet mastered. And every time he struggles with a new skill, I remind him that new things take practice.

In his preschool class, every morning begins with writing practice: the children carefully practice writing their full names on a chart. By the end of the week (or the month), you can see how much their practice has improved their letters: the first line is often wobbly, with letters of all different sizes, some facing backwards, some floating far above the line, some drooping below, a mix of lowercase and capital letters. But by the last line, the letters are neater and more uniform, showing more confidence and mastery. The charts are visible proof that practice makes, if not perfect, at least marked improvement.

Even as adults, we sometimes need to practice new skills. If we are laid off after a decade at the same job, we may need to practice our resume-writing skills, or our interview skills. If we learn a new skill, like knitting or skiing or digital photo editing, the only way to become proficient is to practice. Practice is, even in adulthood, a necessary evil. But it is also the only road to mastery. 

After all, the only way to get to Carnegie Hall, whether you’re 7 or 77, is practice, practice, practice.


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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Stop

Most of us probably spend a lot of our time doing (or trying to do) multiple things at once. I catch up on e-mails while making supper, I watch TV while chatting with my husband, I even write blog entries in my head while driving around running errands. Even when I’m not actually doing two things at once, I’m usually doing one thing while thinking about another.

So it’s not at all uncommon for me to suddenly forget what I’m doing, even when I’m smack in the middle of doing it. Admit it: it happens to you, too. Which of us has never walked into a room and immediately wondered, “Why did I come in here?” At least once a day I go upstairs with some purpose in mind, see something else that needs doing, do it while I’m thinking of it, and then realize I haven’t the faintest idea what I originally came upstairs to do.

Sometimes when I forget what I’m doing, I keep doing things and just hope that whatever it was will come to me. (It rarely does.) Sometimes I tell myself that if it’s important, I’ll remember later. (I rarely do.) But the best solution, if I really want to remember what it is I’ve forgotten, is to just STOP.

Stop my actions. Stop my spinning brain. Stop in the middle of the room and take a break for a few seconds. Stop trying to do six things at once and let myself think about just one. Even better, don’t even think about one. Stop and clear my brain completely for a moment.

It’s like hitting a mental reset button. It’s clearing the cache of the computer that is my brain. Deleting all those extraneous cookies that are clamoring for my attention. It’s giving my brain a chance to clear off its desk and start fresh.

It’s something I need to do more often. I need to stop before I forget what I’m doing. I need to stop for no particular reason at all other than to give myself a mental rest. I need to stop doing the extra, unnecessary things so I have enough mental energy for the crucial, necessary things. I need to stop.


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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Wise

There are certain traits, certain skills, certain aspects of who each of us is, which are innate at birth. Some people are born musical: they can carry a tune, pick out a harmony, and match a rhythm without conscious thought. Some people are born athletic: they are naturally coordinated, aware of their own body’s abilities, graceful. Some people are born smart: they have the ability to learn quickly with very little assistance, they are able to make connections between seemingly unrelated facts or ideas, they can take a concept and visualize it in a different context.

But there are other traits that must be either earned or learned. No-one is born with the ability to play an instrument; it takes at least trial and error and experimentation, if not lessons from an experienced teacher or an explanation from a book or manual. No-one is born knowing how to play a sport; there are skills to be mastered, rules to be learned, strategies to be studied. No-one is born with wisdom; it is the product of experience, of analyzing how life works, of observing and thinking about and understanding the world.

Most of these learned traits build on a natural skill: a musical person can more easily learn to play an instrument, an athlete can more quickly master the physical skills required for a certain sport. But being smart does not necessarily make it easier to become wise, and being simple does not necessarily make it more difficult. In fact, the opposite is often true.

Yesterday, I wrote about knowledge, and how it is a tool that must be used, and used with skill, in order to matter and to be practical. Wisdom is the acquired skill that is needed to use knowledge to its fullest potential. Most of the time, wisdom comes through years of experience, through watching the results of one’s own decisions and the decisions of those around. But sometimes wisdom can be clouded by our experience, instead of being clarified by it. Sometimes wisdom comes through the simplest observations of a child. Sometimes, the wisdom of an inexperienced child is the simplest and yet the most profound wisdom of all.

I wanted to include a famous quote about wisdom or being wise, and when I looked up some possibilities, there were many familiar choices: Benjamin Franklin’s “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” or Voltaire’s “Is there anyone so wise as to learn by the experience of others?” or “Shakespeare’s “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” But in the end, I realized that the most appropriate choice was both the simplest and perhaps the most profound, and certainly the most appropriate when speaking of the wisdom of children: “Be happy. It’s one way of being wise.”


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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lent Photo a Day: Knowledge

When I was younger, I thirsted after knowledge. I loved to study, to read, to research, to take classes, to absorb information. I wanted to know facts and figures. I wanted to learn things that no-one could argue with. I wanted hard, cold, incontrovertible truths. I wanted to know stuff.

But as I grew older, I discovered that knowledge isn’t all that useful in and of itself. It has to be applied before it can be of any use. Knowledge is merely a tool. And like any tool, it serves no purpose unless it is used, and used properly. A hammer lying in a tool box is not useful. It needs to be wielded by a trained hand before it can serve its purpose. Until it is actively pounding in a nail, until it is actually doing something, it is totally useless.

Knowing how to bake a pie serves no useful purpose unless and until you use that knowledge to actually bake a pie. Knowing how many people in the world are going to bed hungry tonight is pointless unless you use that knowledge to help feed some of those people. Knowing that another person is hurting doesn’t matter unless that knowledge drives you to provide some comfort. Cold, hard facts are exactly that: cold and hard. And empty. But using those facts for the greater good is what gives knowledge its value.


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