Lemons to Lemonade

This past week someone commented on my ability to turn a negative into a positive.  I guess I haven’t thought about this for awhile, but in contemplating it after the conversation ended, I realized that it is a learned behavior that through time and practice has become hard wired.

I come from a long line of positive thinkers.  My mother, who was by no means saccharine, could add a teaspoon of sugar to any sour situation, making the medicine go down as well as Mary Poppins herself.  When disaster prevailed, her solution was to have a good cry, preferably wrapped in her arms and held close to her heart, followed by, “That’s enough now.  Dry your tears, buck up, and let’s get to work to fix this.”

My grandmother, Helen Dow, was a bit more stoic, but infinitely kind and gentle.  She had eyes that danced with laughter, and she approached life much like making cookies.  If you spill in too much salt, just increase the flour, sugar, butter and vanilla until you double the batch.  You’ll end up with twice the fun.

I adored these two women and learned much from their grace under pressure.  If plans fell to pieces, serendipity abounded.  It’s all in how you define success.  I guess I picked it up by osmosis, or at least by careful observance and modeling.  However, in thinking more carefully, there are steps to follow.  Here are 10 basic beliefs to get you started.  (And yes, there are more of food metaphors.)

  1.  Remember you have options.  If you are handed a bowl full of lemons, you can lemonslet them sit on the table, just as they are.  They won’t be anything but lemons.  They’ll look like lemons, smell like lemons, and taste like lemons as long as they are left untouched.  Or until they rot. Then, they’ll turn brown, smell awful, seep into the bowl, grow mold, and lose their shape.  You can enjoy- even relish fresh lemons, just as you can bask in the sadness of life’s disappointments.  But only for a season.  It’s up to you to determine how long that season is.  Just know that the longer the season, the less fresh the fruit.
  2. It’s okay to cry over spilled milk.  Positive thinking is not ignoring the reality of a tough situation, or pretending that we aren’t daunted by disaster.  When faced with sadness or disappointment, it’s important to recognize and validate those feelings.  After all, the elephant is never going to leave the room until you acknowledge him, name him, and even nurture him for awhile.   Have a good cry.  Emotional tears release endorphins. They release stress.  They clear your sinuses.  And a good cry makes you look as miserable as you feel, so you are no longer bound to hide behind a false smile.
  3. Share the wealth.  Admittedly, this is something that I preach much better than I practice.   I have a tendency to “forget” to mention if something is amiss in my life, so when life events- like my divorce, or a major surgery- arose, people were stunned.  I heard a lot of “Why-didn’t-you-tell me?” and “I-had-no-idea!”  Loved ones were actually hurt that I had not kept them in the loop.  So although I still prefer to silently shed my tears in the shower, I try to be a little more open about my personal challenges.  I’m not saying that we need to post every little issue on Facebook, but sharing disappointments, fears, and challenges with a trusted family member or friend can garner support, encouragement and a fresh perspective.
  4. Don’t give up.  I am a practical Yankee at heart, who believes in mending, gluing and repairing as much as possible before calling it quits.  When my children struggled to find a solution to a problem, their father often urged them to “Find another way.”  These were wise words.  Most torn relationships can be sewn back together.  They may bear the scars of the stitches, but given the correct attention, scars become badges of honor.  And some things just take perseverance. When I trained to be a smoking cessation coach, I learned that most people make several quit attempts before they succeed.  We learn a little every time we fail, so the next attempt may just be the winner.
  5. When all else fails, let it go.  One evening when I was around twelve years old, I new-year-broken-dishesbegan to set the table for dinner.  The plates were stacked on a shelf that was just above my shoulders, and in my attempt to juggle enough for our family of ten, the stack began to slip from my grasp.  One by one, the plates fell to the floor, smashing to ceramic shards, until there was one lone plate in my hand.  I turned to my horror-stricken mother.  Her eyes were wide and her mouth open, but no sound escaped.  I knew the next moments were not going to be pretty.  I looked at the lone plate in my arms and without a word, let it fall too.  Some things are not salvagable. When you meet the end of the road, call it quits and find another route.
  6. Look for the silver lining.  This may be the most important step, as it’s the key to turning a negative to a positive.  I’m not Pollyanna-ish, but really, some of the best things in life result from trials.   As a child, my daughter Elizabeth was often in the hospital.  I often wondered if all the tests, prodding,  IVs and blood draws would make her feel as if she lost part of her youth.  Now an adult, she assures me that her life was in many ways richer.  She met incredible doctors and nurses.  She learned a lot about her body.  And what touched me most is she says that the time she and I spent in hospital rooms together strengthened our relationship.  Even though she often felt sick and scared, she believed that she and I were an invincible team, and she never doubted that together we could overcome any obstacle.
  7. Separate needs from wants, and appreciate what you have.  When disaster strikes, assess the situation.  Are your loved ones still alive?  Are your relationships intact?  Remind yourself that “stuff” can be replaced, and evaluate whether it is something you really needed anyway.  Chances are, losing “things” will matter less to you once you categorize according to needs and wants.  And when the worst happens and you lose someone you love, bask in the memories of the time you did have.   Recall a conversation.  Tell the story of a particularly memorable occasion.  Let your mind wander back to a time when you were both happy, and allow yourself to bask in that sunlight for a bit.  Then, take a look at the people who are still with you.  These are your treasures.  Cherish today with them.
  8. Prepare by making every little moment as special as possible.  When my kids were growing up, we often did things together, but I also tried to spend one-on-one time with each of them every week.  My son tells me that his self esteem soared after taking a long walk on the beach together, or going out for pizza.  As parents we often think that the best times of our kids’ lives will be the trips to Disney or the huge birthday parties.  But now I know that the most precious moments were those laughing over silly illustrations in a book, or listening to a mix tape together.  It is these moments that build the armor to withstand the winds of disaster.
  9. The cookie will crumble, but know that this too shall pass.  No poor situation lasts for ever.  Sometimes you just have to get through it.
  10. Look up.  I would be a liar if I pretended that my faith has nothing to do with mysky-22116_960_720 ability to turn negatives to positives.  We don’t always understand why, and it’s not that trials won’t come.  But we are never alone.  And in the end, it all comes out in the wash.
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The Quilt

book_When my children were little, one of their favorite books was “The Quilt Story.” Written by Tony Johnson and illustrated by Tomie dePaola, this delightful story tells the tale of a quilt hand-sewn by a mother for her little girl, Abigail.   By wrapping the quilt around her, Abigail is enveloped in the warmth and shelter of her mother’s love, easing the difficult transition of a move across the country in a covered wagon. Generations later, the quilt is resurrected from an attic and repaired-just in time to wrap another little girl when she moves to a new house.  The quilt represents continuity, security, and the enduring love of a mother’s arms.  Wrapped in the warmth of its folds, the child feels this love, and the strange house becomes home.

abby2

Abby at 1 year old. She’s sitting on the little green quilt.

When my Abigail was born, the wife of my closest college friend made her a crib-sized quilt.  She snipped and pinned and matched, and finally she stitched it together.  It was beautiful- light green cotton dotted with tiny flowers on one side, patches of brightly colored hexagons on the other.  I wrapped my little pink bundle in the quilt when I took her to church, and tucked it around her to shield her from the chill when I took her for walks in her stroller.  Later, she used the quilt to wrap her dolls, and spread it on the floor for tea parties with her stuffed animals.

Two years and two weeks later, I brought Gabriel home from the hospital.  Gabriel was quite jaundiced, and his pediatrician suggested that I put him in a sunny window for small frequent intervals.  I spread the quilt in the bottom of a pram, and laid my little son on top, so he might soak up the warm, healing rays.  Later, the quilt became his superhero cape, and a tent for camping in the living room.

Elizabeth joined the family on a frigid December morning, and the quilt shielded her from the wind when I hurried her from the car to our apartment.  Unlike her siblings, Elizabeth never did outgrow the quilt, and dragged it with her wherever she went.  As long as she could snuggle her quilt, she was safe and warm.  She fell asleep in the car, napped at church services, and snoozed in a carriage while her brother and sister played, all wrapped in the little green quilt.

As Elizabeth grew, she became sicker and sicker. She was hospitalized many times- sometimes for routine tests, sometimes for acute illnesses.  Each time she went to the hospital, the quilt, now faded and slightly torn, went with her. We wrapped her pillow in the quilt, and she would immediately feel at ease, much like Abigail in “The Quilt Story.”  Many nights I climbed into my sleeping child’s hospital bed, cuddling her bony little body close to mine, while silent tears slipped down my cheeks and sank into the folds of the little green quilt.  Somehow, I too, would feel comforted.

abby john and judah with tomie dePaola 4.18.15_n

Abby, John and Judah with Tomie dePaola 4.18.15

Perhaps it was the warmth beneath its layers, or the security that every child feels while cuddled under a hand stitched quilt, but Elizabeth grew strong and capable.  To this day, she keeps the quilt nearby; its faded green tatters a reminder that the warmth of love shines a beacon to make even the loneliest places home.

judah with new quilt 10.12.15

Judah at 1 year old wrapped in a quilt from his GiGi.

And now we have Judah- Abigail’s son.  My grandson.  He calls me GiGi, and although he loves me, his favorite place in the world is wrapped in his mother’s arms.  Judah met Tomie dePaola last spring, and although he is too young for “The Quilt Story,” I decided he needed a quilt of his own.

So I snipped and pinned and matched and finally stitched it together.   A quilt of the softest flannel, with robots on one side, and prints in gray, yellow, white and aqua on the other.  It is a quilt to keep him warm when the New Hampshire winds form icicles above his bedroom window.  It will become a superhero’s cape, be used as a magic carpet, and to hide under when things go bump in the night.  The quilt will represent continuity, security, and the enduring love of his mother’s arms.  Wrapped in the warmth of its folds, he will feel loved, and everywhere will be home.

Payback’s a …

Last weekend, my daughter Elizabeth was in town to do some Christmas errands.  When she was finished, she returned to my apartment to relax and have dinner.  She burst through the door and as she hung up her coat, she exclaimed, “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me!”

I was washing dishes at the kitchen sink.  Stealing a quick glance at her, I noticed she wasn’t smiling.  “What?” I said aloud, although I was thinking, “Oh no…now what?”

“Well, I was on South Willow Street and decided to stop at Starbucks…”
mochaI smiled, remembering how she recently introduced me to the evils of Iced Peppermint Mocha.  Such a delightfully decadent drink!

“And I went to take a left hand turn into the drive up.  A woman zoomed up on my right hand side and tried to cut me off.  I could see her yelling at me through the windshield.”

Holiday traffic on South Willow Street is a nightmare.  I’ve been on that road theroadrage2 weekends preceding Christmas when it’s taken thirty minutes to travel a quarter mile.  Like any city driving, there are times when you have to be fairly assertive, if not aggressive, least you become caught in the middle of a catastrophe.  However, I’ve always encouraged my children to be polite drivers and not allow themselves to be dragged into a situation where hot tempers and poor judgment prevail.

Elizabeth went on. “She didn’t succeed in cutting me off, but she ended up in back of me in the Starbucks queue.  I was furious.”

I nodded understandingly.

“But I got her back.”

I surveyed my youngest child’s face. She is strikingly beautiful; tall and willowy with huge eyes fringed by thick lashes.  Elizabeth is a free spirit- artistic, brilliant… and a bit impulsive.  She is usually soft-hearted and thoughtful.  I have often thought that she couldn’t be intentionally mean if she wanted to.  Still, the holidays can bring out the best, and the worst in all of us.

“Lizza!  What did you do?” I asked, fearful of the answer.

A smile played at her lips.  In an instant, memories of my child flashed through my mind.  Elizabeth elbowing an opponent twice her size during a basketball game.  Elizabeth throwing a rubber spider at a nurse in the Pediatric ICU and making her scream.  Elizabeth and her brother stuffing seaweed into Abby’s back pack before leaving the beach.

I have to admit that although my daughter looks angelic, she does not always make heavenly choices.

She hesitated a moment.  My stomach began to tighten.lizza beach_n

She broke out in a full faced grin.

My stomach tightened more, anticipating the worst.

“I paid for her drink.”

Merry Christmas to all.

Footprints

christmas_tree_decorations_200943It is December and Christmas magic is rolling in like fog across the ocean.  Secrets are whispered behind loved ones’ backs, bells and ribbons are pulled from the attic, and the aroma of pine and cinnamon send shivers down the spine.  The brown soil that November left behind is covered with fresh snow.  It is a time of peace, good tidings and joy.  Everyone is happy.  

Almost.

I came across my nephew’s post on Facebook tonight;

“The world has grown cold now that you’ve gone away, Constance Madison.”

It was followed by comments from my niece, my sister, and my daughter.  They shared the same sentiments.  As I read, the lump that I keep stuffed deep in my throat reminded me that it still lives.  My eyes threatened to spill the hot tears that I blink back whenever my heart longs for my mother, and I thought, “It has been almost four years.”  

It has only been four years.

Almost immediately, I thought of a Christmas carol I learned long ago.

When I was a child, my mother had a beautiful book of Christmas sheet music.  Each carol was meticulously illustrated with angelic children with blushing cheeks and curls gilded with glittering gold.  The pages were as much a delight to peruse as the strains of the noels it contained.

It was from this book that I learned all the traditional carols, from “Silent Night” to “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella.”  My mother pounded the keys of our old upright piano, while we children clustered around her, eagerly chorusing for yet another favorite.   Some of the keys stuck. Some didn’t play at all, but to us it was music of the gods.

One of Mom’s favorite carols was “Good King Wenceslas.”  It’s not one of the more commonly sung carols, and I’ve never understood why, but I know why Mom loved it so.  

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither. “
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

I remember my mother wearing the same old coat every winter.  She lived in a house with threadbare rugs and holes in the plaster walls.  But she never hesitated to give a portion of what she had to someone who was in need.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

I remember putting my small feet into my mother’s slippers when I was a child.  They were big and flopped from my feet.

“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

“In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.

The slippers still held the heat from my mother, and warmed my icy toes.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”

I think it is time to walk where my mother stepped.  To take up where she left off- to christmasmirror her love, and kindness. To give a little more and hold on to a little less. 

I close my eyes, and remember her smile, and the world is a bit warmer once again.

Beating the Sloppy, Soggy, Cranky Morning Blues

I woke up this morning feeling incredibly grumpy.  The central air conditioner in my apartment broke for the second time this season, and besides being against the rules, it’s impossible to fit a fan in the windows.  Because of the tropical temperatures and 100% humidity, I had to sleep with the blinds open, which meant the lights for the parking lot flooded maskmy bedroom.  I tried wearing a sleep mask, but it must have been too hot, because it was under the bed this morning.  I woke several times during the night and by the time my alarm went off, I was more exhausted than when I went to sleep.  I looked out the window at the dripping sky, and hearing a noise, looked to find its source.  Just under my window was a skunk, foraging for its breakfast.  I quickly cranked the window closed and immediately my room became hotter and stuffier.

Getting ready for work brought no improvement.  My hair frizzed and my makeup smeared.  My back ached and my head pounded.  I muttered under my breath at the unsigned lease sitting on my desk, wondering if I could scrape the bottom of my bank account for the deposit on a new apartment.   I pulled on a pair of khakis and a cotton top, packed my lunch and grabbed ticketan umbrella.  As I turned the corner to drive into my workplace parking lot, I almost ran into a police car, lights flashing, stopped on the hill so the office could dole out a speeding ticket.

“Serves you right,” I growled.  “People drive up this hill much too fast.”

I slogged up the stairs, opened my office and turned on my computer.  My email was already clogged with requests.

Five minutes later, there was an announcement of a “Code Red” on the overhead intercom.  Code Red means fire.  The location was the parking lot.  I ran down three flights of stairs to locate the source and assess its severity, only to find that the “smoke” seen by the person calling the alarm was steam from an overheating truck.  I trudged back up the three flights of stairs and plopped into my chair to attack the emails.

Giving an audible sigh, I opened the first one and found this.

And suddenly, the sun is shining.  Judah 7.14.14

The Great Mandella

Peter Paul and Mary 01In late August of 1969, I went to see Peter, Paul and Mary at an outdoor concert in Washington D.C.   It was at the height of the Viet Nam War and outside of the concert area, people handed out fliers that protested the imprisonment of Father Daniel Berrigan, and linked him with the song “The Great Mandella.”

It was an amazing concert. Peter, Paul and Mary were masterful in their ability to lift a crowd to a new social consciousness in a way that was positive, uplifting and inspiring. I clapped to “If I Had a Hammer” and sang along to “Day is Done.”   And when they sang “The Great Mandella” I could not hold back tears.

So I told him that he’d better shut his mouth and do his job like a man.

And he answered, “Listen, father, I will never kill another.”

He thinks he’s better than his brother that died. What the hell does he think he’s doing

To his father who brought him up right? 

 

Take your place on the Great Mandella as it moves through this brief moment of time.

Win or lose now, you must choose now.

And if you lose you’re only losing your life.

 

Tell the jailor not to bother with his meal of bread and water today.

He is fasting till the killing’s over.

He’s a martyr.  He thinks he’s a prophet.  But he’s a coward.  He’s just playing a game.

He can’t do it- he can’t change it.  It’s been going on for ten thousand years.

 

Take your place on the Great Mandella as it moves through this brief moment of time.

Win or lose now, you must choose now.

And if you lose you’re only losing your life.

 

Tell the people they are safe now.  Hunger stopped him.  He lies still in his cell.

Death has gagged his accusations.

We are free now.

We can kill now.

We can hate now.

Now we can end the world.

We’re not guilty.

He was crazy.

And it’s been going on for ten thousand years.

 

Take your place on the Great Mandella as it moves through your brief moment of time.

Win or lose now, you must choose now.

And if you lose you’ve only wasted your life.

~Peter Yarrow

 

The lyrics and melody haunted me, disturbing my soul. It was clearly an anti-war anthem that spoke to my heart and helped determine my life path and personal convictions. And that is all I thought the song would teach me. That is, until this morning.

As I often do, today I listened to my Ipod while putting on my makeup.  The playlist included “The Great Mandella,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpIh68Kh_-sand as I listened, I thought of my daughter Elizabeth’s tattoo.

I like tattoos. On other people’s children.

It’s the mother in me who gave birth to beautiful babies with smooth, perfectly unmarred skin who objects to permanent markings. I cried when Abby pierced her ears, and choked when she pierced her belly button. And when Elizabeth show me her first tattoo, I thought she was joking with me and had applied a decal to her wrist.

Then, a few years later Elizabeth came home and showed me a new tattoo on her hand. I gasped. On anyone else it would be beautiful- a mandella- as beautifully intricate as black lace. mandella image

But it wasn’t on anyone else. It was on my daughter. My beautiful daughter who has huge eyes like bottomless pools of water.  My beautiful daughter who fills the room with her laughter when her brother teases her.  My beautiful daughter who used to clasp her little hand over mine on the gear shift while I drove her to kindergarten.  A hand that was smooth and clear and milky in color. I could barely answer her when she asked how I liked it.

“It’s…um…quite the work of art.”

Her face fell, and I knew I had answered poorly.  “No-really.  It is beautiful.  It’s just… so… permanent.

She shook her head and walked away, and my heart sank a little.

Over time, I stopped catching my breath every time I see her hand, and have even enjoyed watching her converse with a stranger who admires it.  But this morning I had a completely different thought.

Take your place on the Great Mandella as it moves through your brief moment of time.

Like the young man in the song, Elizabeth is declaring who she is. And although her tattoo is not protesting a war, it is a statement- her way of marking her life in the continuum of time.  She is not a pink baby with skin as soft as down. She is not my little girl with skinny legs and braids that fly out from under her bike helmet.  She is an adult.  A grown woman.  An individual soul who must be who God made her to be.

It is not up to me to decide.  Or judge.  Or opine.  She is who she is supposed to be.

elizI suppose Peter Yarrow might have been only protesting the Viet Nam War when he wrote “The Great Mandella.”  Or maybe, he knew something that has taken me forty-five years to understand.  Generations will have their differences.   We sing different songs, speak different languages, dance to different drumbeats.  But our children are not our children, and we must… we have to… allow them act according to their souls’ direction.

Take your place on the Great Mandella as it moves through your brief moment of time…

Try a Little Tenderness

It’s not just sentimental

She has her grief and care

But the soft words, they are spoken so gentle

It makes it easier to bear…

~”Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding

bracesWhen I was a little girl, I went to school in an old building with polished hardwood floors and desks that bolted to the floor.  There was a child in the class who had contracted Polio as a baby. One of her legs, weakened and deformed by the disease, was in a heavy metal brace.  One day, as she rushed to get to her seat, she slipped on the waxed floor and fell hard, bumping her head on the metal desk leg.  As she lay crying, the teacher said something I will never forget.

“That’s what you get for running.”

I was six years old and it was the first time I remember hearing an adult say something pointedly unkind.  It puzzled and upset me, and to this day, when I remember the incident, something in my stomach turns and I feel cold and uneasy.  In the shadows of my memory, I still see that little girl crumpled in a heap on the unforgiving floor, tears rolling down her cheeks.  I want to cry with her.

I was reminded of that story when saying my morning prayers this week.  Of all the Christ-like qualities that I wish to grow in my daily walk, kindness is number one.

I’m not sure when we turned the corner, but it seems that our culture has decided that our freedom of speech supersedes kindness.  Facebook is full of insulting and demeaning posts.  Everyone is free game, from political and church leaders, to athletes and pundits.  Cyber bullying has become our youth’s great American pastime.  Parents scream at coaches and teachers.  Members of Westboro Baptist Church hurl horridly hurtful insults during funerals.  Teenagers play “Knockout”- targeting an unsuspecting stranger, sneaking up on them and punching them so hard they crumple into an unconscious heap.  The media displays stories of celebrities’ struggles with abuse and mental illnesses as if they are Academy awards.  And the stars of “reality” television programs resemble coiled cobras, wildly spitting venomous insults at one another in an attempt to rise to the top of the writhing heap.

It seems to me that we are so determined to stake our claim in life that we often neglect to remember that with each step we affect other people.  Every rung in the proverbial ladder of life gives us the opportunity to change the day of another person, simply by the way we treat him.  And it is not always what we say, but how we say it that makes the difference.

Here’s an example.  The week before Christmas, I ran to the local Target store to buyflat-tire wrapping paper and ribbon.  I was still recovering from back surgery, and walking was painful and slow, but I managed to make my purchase and return to my car.  When I started the engine, I realized there was a long queue of cars snaked across the parking lot, slowly making their way along the path to the only exit.  I maneuvered my car into line with the rest and hummed along to Christmas carols on the radio while inching my car forward with the rest of the exiting shoppers.  I was stopped in front of the store when a woman who was crossing in front of me scowled and thrusting a finger toward my front tire, yelled, “You’d better get some air in there!”

The car queue was too long.  I couldn’t stop to investigate so I gingerly drove home, praying that the tire would carry me to my parking lot. But long after I returned to my warm apartment, my stomach was still in a knot. I knew the woman at Target was doing me a favor by letting me know there was a problem with my tire, but I felt accosted by the aggressiveness of her communication.  Her message, though an act of responsibility, was totally devoid of one precious ingredient.  Kindness.

Lest I appear to be above all this, let me be the first to point out that kindness does not always come easily to me.  I can be a master of maliciousness.  A sultan of sarcasm. The baroness of bluntness. The czarina of… you get the point.  But here’s the thing; the more I pray about this, the more aware I become.  And the more I stop before I speak, think about the other person, and amend my delivery.  And funny thing- my relationships are better.  People around me smile more.  I feel much more at peace.  I sleep more soundly.kindness

So the moral of the story is, if we want our world- the world we will give over to our children and our grandchildren- to be a better place, perhaps we need to try a little tenderness.  Can’t hurt.

‘Tis the Season

carly xmas card0001

Photo by Sarah Swan Photography, courtesy of my friends, Carly and Jeff Gartside, whose two little boys are more often full of smiles than this image suggests.

I love Christmas.  I love the surprises, the planning, the decorations, the food and the time spent with family and friends under the glow of twinkling lights.

But not every Christmas is a Hallmark moment, especially when kids are little. White Christmases, filled with late night television specials, trips to the mall and holiday concerts often produce sniffling noses and melt-downs in the line to see Santa.

We experienced one of those years when my children were little.  Abby was to sing in her first Christmas cantata at our church.  I had sewn a cheerful red plaid dress with a white collar and bought her black patent leather shoes for the event.  For weeks she rehearsed with the other children from our church, until she knew every word and every note.  Her father and I were excited to experience our first-born’s debut as a choral singer, and looked forward to the performance the day before Christmas.

The morning of the cantata was bitterly cold, but it was warm in our apartment as I brushed Abby’s long blond hair and helped her dress. She looked a little pale and tired.  “Perhaps she had been up a little too late the night before,” I mused. “I’ll get her to bed early tonight.” Usually she was ferociously hungry for breakfast, but today she refused the eggs I had cooked.  “You have to eat something,” I coaxed.  “How about a little yogurt?”

Abby shook her head, but I insisted.  “You cannot go to church without eating breakfast!”  Reluctantly, she spooned some yogurt into her mouth, and I turned my attention to Elizabeth, who had her own new plaid dress, and Gabriel, who needed help with his white shirt and tie.  Finally they were dressed and as I sat back to admire all three in their Christmas finery, their dad arrived from gassing up the car.

“Time to go!” he called as I buttoned Elizabeth’s coat.  I hustled the children to the front door of the apartment building, shivering in the icy wind.  Gabriel stood by his daddy as he buckled Elizabeth into her car seat, and I turned to Abby, still standing on the front stairs.

Her big eyes met mine, and she blanched a deathly white, saying, “I can’t do this!” With that she promptly vomited her breakfast, which immediately froze on the brick steps.

In that  instant, our holiday plans changed.  It was not long before Gabriel joined Abby on the couch, barf bowl by his side.  The cantata took place without us.  We bowed out of the family Christmas celebration.  Fancy dresses and ties were hung in the closet, exchanged for flannel pajamas.  And instead of the turkey dinner I had planned, we ate broth and toast.

Our experience was not unique.   Most families will have some holiday horror stories to report.  Every year I hear blurry-eyed mothers remark that they can’t wait for the holidays to be over.  Parents are so stressed from trying to fit in all the parties, plays and concerts that they spend most of their time wishing for some quiet time.  We listen to our children sing constant choruses of “I want, I want, I want!” so we stretch our budgets too far. We buy and buy, and then we are overwhelmed at all the wrapping to complete before the children rise on Christmas morning.  We chastise our little ones, warning them that Santa may not stop at our house, or the Elf on the Shelf is watching, or “If-you-do-not-stop-teasing-your-sister-this-very-minute-I-will-return-everything-I-bought-to-the-store!”

The Christmas of the stomach flu taught me a few things.  First, it taught me if your child looks pale and doesn’t want to eat, chances are she shouldn’t.  But more importantly, I learned that as much as the Jinglebells of Christmas- the lights and sparkles, noise, parties, commotion and concerts- are fun, a Silent Night is sometimes the better choice.

It’s not by accident the birth of Jesus was in the quiet of a stable.  Yes, there were angel choruses.  And no, I don’t think that all the commotion that we associate with the holidays is bad.  I just think that sometimes we need to take a step back.  Breathe.  Turn off the television specials and say no to some of the activities. Limit our rich foods and our running around and our spending.  Cuddle the ones we love and tell them that we will love them forever, even when they are sick or cranky, or tone deaf, or disobedient. birth

Because really, all this craziness-all the singing and the parties and the gifts, wrapping and decorating- all this celebration is because a small child was born in a desolate location, heralded by a single, noiseless star.

Sleep in heavenly peace.

I Choose Peace

dogI’m not usually afraid of anything.  Really.  There are things I don’t like- the dentist’s drill, high places, the idea that there might be a shark swimming around me when I’m in the ocean- but generally, I don’t get scared.

I’m not sure when this happened, because as a child there were things that made me shake in my boots.  I hated scary movies and was fearful of snarling dogs (but that’s a story that involves a trained police dog and a scar to be told at another time.)  Sister Lucien’s death grip on my arm made me wish I had never been born.  My mother’s steely glare when I talked back froze me in my steps. And I was afraid of Donald Routhier, a bully who was four years older and at least four feet taller than I and would block my path with his bicycle.  My older sister gave him a bloody nose once and that was the last I heard of him. For all I know, he may have turned out to be the kindest man around, but when I was eight years old, he turned my blood to ice.

When I went to college, I became an RA, and with my position came a new-found bravado.  I was a skinny twenty-year-old with no training in self-defense, but I had confidence, and was fearless when it came to breaking up drunken brawls and kicking misbehaving townies out of the dorms.

Once I had children, I realized that fear is not a word for mothers.  A mother cannot be afraid of thunderstorms, or bad dreams, or monsters under the bed.  She has to be confident during the administration of flu shots, casts and sutures.  She cannot show fear when putting her first grader on the bus, or watching her daughter aim for the final free shot before the buzzer, or listen to her seventh grader strain to hit the first note of his solo in the Christmas concert.  And although the tears are hot against her eyes, she cannot let worry show as she waves goodbye to a child on a plane to faraway places.

I’ve had lots of practice being fearless.  I’m not afraid to walk alone at night, or stay by myself, or drive across the country.  I’m the person at work who confronts angry customers.  I even went into a smoke house at the Massachusetts Fire Academy when IPicture 031 was older than most of the instructors. Well, okay, it was very controlled danger, but still, there was fire and smoke and high places, so it counts.

Tomorrow is different.  I’ve had a nervous knot in my stomach for days.  It’s not that I’ve never had surgery before.  Indeed I’ve had several.  But this time it’s a little more invasive, with a lot longer recovery time.  Maybe it’s because the surgeon is young enough to be my son. Or that I’m old enough to be his mother.  I’ve planned this well.  My apartment is spotless. My job is covered.  I have books to read and food in the freezer.  Friends and relatives have wished me well.  I should be all set.

But I’m filled with fear.  I’m afraid of post-operative pain and sharing a hospital room and of something going wrong.  Panic rises in my throat and I want to run away.  I want to be home in the house at 30 Green Street where everything is made all better by the sound of laughter at the dinner table.  I want to feel my mother’s cool hand on my forehead and I want to hear the jingle of the change in my father’s pocket.  I want to have Greta nuzzle her collie shepherd nose under my arm so I can get her a treat.  I want to be snuggled in an easy chair, nursing one of my newborn children.  I want to be young and strong and fearless again.  I want to be calm.  I want to have peace.

I’ve wrestled with this for a few days and then this afternoon it dawned on me.  Fear and peace do not come from people and situations.  The scenarios that scared me as a child still exist.  There are still bullies and snarling dogs and angry people.  The reality of tomorrow is that I will be put to sleep and surgery will be performed.  But the fear that I feel is not from the surgery itself.  It comes from within me.  The surgery is not within my control.  My fear is.

And peace?  It comes from within as well.  Peace did not come from the house at 30 Green Street.  It did not come from my parents or a sleeping baby.  The peace I seek is dove from God himself.  Inside me.  It was granted to me long ago, and it too is in my control.  I can either let it flow, or I can squelch it with the “what ifs.”

So today, I choose to count on the God who has always been there to lead me.  If I’m right, the kid surgeon who looks like he should still be in high school will clean up my spine enough so I can walk the beach next summer.  If not, then God will lead me through the next adventure.  In any case, I choose peace.

Storms of Summer

godspellWhen I was in college, I made a trip home to help my parents celebrate their wedding anniversary.  To mark the occasion, the whole family had tickets to see “Godspell” at a local dinner theater.  As the ten of us gathered around a large table, a stranger who was seated nearby struck up a conversation with my father, and noted the unusually large size of our group.  My father explained that all eight of the kids were his children, and that he and my mother were celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary. The man stood, raised his glass and roared, “Twenty-five years and eight kids!  God bless ya!”

It was one of those unforgettable evenings when everything was right in our little world.  My parents were beaming, the food was delicious and the performance was magnificent.  Even my youngest siblings behaved.

I thought about that evening this morning as I readied myself for the day.  I often listen to my IPod while I put on my makeup. The IPod was my mother’s and although it’s been months since she died, I haven’t gotten around to updating the music.  Today, I put in the earbuds and scrolled through music library, stopping at “Godspell.”  It had been years since I’ve listened to the songs from the musical, but hearing the melody was like running into a familiar old friend.

We plow the fields and scatter the good seed o’er the land

But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.

He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain

The seed time and the harvest, and soft refreshing rain.

All Good gifts around us are sent from Heaven above

So thank the Lord, yes, thank the Lord for all His love…”

“Thank the Lord for all His love.”  I guess I hadn’t done that in a while.  So often my prayers are full of requests- wisdom, guidance, solutions to problems.  I forget sometimes that a large part of prayer is thanking.

It’s been a rough summer, fraught with numberous challenges- physical, financial and emotional.  As I’ve done for the past thirty-five years, I’ve prayed my way through the storms, asking God for solutions.  And as always, we’ve come through the other side intact, but I feel battered and bruised.  Tears lurk just behind my eyes, and although I stay busy and engaged, my heart yearns to run to a place where I can find solace.  And summer-my time for regeneration, for laughter in the sun, for dancing in the waves and celebrating life- has let me down.

I spent this week on vacation, and as I often do, spent time on the beach.  From my beach3faded canvas chair, I sat alone and  watched the waves swell and crash, turning from gray to green to frothy white.  The seascape never remains the same. The barren landscape, carved by the relentless sea, never remains the same.  I watched as an abandoned sandcastle crumble when hit by the pounding surf, and a lump caught in my throat.  My sandcastle.  Gone in an instant because of some unexpected wave.

“Why can’t life just stay still?  Why do moments of joy so quickly dissolve into faded photographs and hazy memories?”   My cries were drowned by the calling of a gull and the crashing of the sea, and I wondered if my questions would forever go unanswered.

But, as always, the answers came.  Life must change.  I know what would happen if the sea suddenly ceased to rise and fall.  Stagnant waters would become diseased. Plants and animals would become sick and die.  The movement of the seas, the changing of the landscape, and the tides of our lives must continue.

Slowly, I have come bsuitedto realize that summer did not let me down. Summer changed me.  Those sand castles I had built were not ever meant to stay.  And the storms of this summer?  Like the movement of the sea, they were to cleanse me, to move me, to keep me alive.

So today, a crisp September morning, I can say again that all gifts from God are good gifts, and the storms of summer are no exception.

“So thank the Lord, yes, thank the Lord…for all His love.”

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