Wednesday, May 20, 2015

My renewed determination to fight for Light

The Christophers, a group that encourages people to use their God-given talents to make a difference, has a saying: It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.

I spend far too much time cursing the darkness. And feeling guilty that I have lived so simple and secure a life, full of love. I oscillate between thinking I should completely avoid the news and live in ignorance of evil - so that I can stop sinning in my anger against and my opinions of human beings - and believing that such ignorance would itself be a crime.

Yesterday I finally decided to read a section of the Sunday newspaper that covered women's and children's rights in Guatemala. Moving from one article to the next, my anger increased, for I was reading yet again an old story, only about a different country, of women and children being maltreated by men in the twisted confines of an utterly male-dominated society: denied education, essentially sold into marriages by poverty-stricken parents, abused both physically and sexually by boyfriends, husbands and fathers, dependent on their abusers because of their lack of means, frightened or wary to approach authorities that statistically do little or nothing to prosecute the males in their lives, betrayed by destitute mothers who are themselves so dependent on these "men" that they do not protect their children or report the crimes for fear of inevitable starvation.

In Guatemala girls marry and get pregnant young; thirteen is not uncommon. Education is seen as an unnecessary investment of their time when they are simply to be married off to often strange men who desire them for their physical selves - not their whole person. How there can be any hope for love or respect in such an arrangement of ignorance....well, I do not think there can be, which is perhaps why these girls often end up in misery, repeating the patterns of their mothers and grandmothers. Boys and girls are raised witnessing the poison of such a culture, and they would be fortunate indeed not to imbibe it, but how can they avoid it?

How many times have I read similar articles about other cultures all over the world, in Asia, Africa, the Middle East?

Every time I read such stories I struggle with my view on men in general. I struggle badly. But how it is that at this point in history there are still cultures and governments on this planet that do not protect women and children's rights with the full force of law confounds and angers me. Are the challenges of acquiring food in these countries so desperate that people's sexual, emotional and mental health, including education, are ignored? It must contribute. One Arizona university psychologist, interviewed for the stories, said it was not enough to blame the stereotypical Latin "machismo", either, for Guatemala suffered terribly for ten years with a civil war where men were acclimated to extreme violence and women were viewed as war prizes or as the objects of terror tactics.

Still I do not think that should fully explain the depravity. If mankind is essentially good, would he not crawl out of a hell hole, if slowly? Can the most basic unmet needs for food, water and shelter kill his soul?

But can I truly say anything when I live in a country where poor is not poor compared to the poverty that is suffered in third world countries, where laws exist - and more are introduced every year - that protect each individual's rights? Can I judge anything when my life has been so sheltered in the United States of America?

If more people like me worked more diligently to feed the poor in this world, I firmly believe the poor would have more time to worry about their emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs.

Here comes my struggle with guilt. I take my son to a pizza, games and bowling venue and think of all the children in the world who do not even have a full meal that day, let alone fun. I wish sometimes for a bigger house but then imagine all the families in India, Central America and Africa living in shanty towns or measly huts with no running water or electricity. I think of my desire for a few new summer clothes and then feel selfish in wanting pretty outfits when others have next to nothing to wear and no shoes for their feet. I just feel guilty period that others live in misery every day of their lives.

I am unbalanced, because I curse the darkness regularly, ruminating on its influence, but spend far too little time lighting candles.

There is always hope, and I did read of the women in Guatemala working to change the culture for themselves and others, pushing for education, freedom and for better laws and enforcement. Some of those women worked for government agencies, tracking statistics so that they can engender change, or heading schools, enticing families to keep their kids in for the free meals they give each day. Right now I have no doubt there are too few of those women, but there will not always be.

There will not always be.

Personally, as a woman I must stop feeling guilty and start acting, using my God-given abilities to bring about change in my small or not so small way. In speaking with my husband yesterday evening, he told me I should stop talking and find a charity that acts for women's and children's rights, and then I need to support their efforts. He is absolutely right, for if I continue to sit around just reading newspapers and feeling furious with my fellow human beings, I am only adding to the darkness and the despair.

I'd rather light some candles.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Simple Woman

I took my Ella to a birthday party, and, though the house was in an older neighborhood built in the 1980s, I could tell right away that its interior had been artfully redesigned.

"I really like your home," I said to the mother of Ella's friend, fishing for secrets. "Is this the way it was when you moved in?"

"Oh, no, no," she said with a laugh. Then she proceeded to tell me about the dividing walls and tiny halls that her husband had knocked down to open up the space and the special touches she had added to the decor. "Of course, this island wasn't here, and the kitchen ceiling was lower," she added. "We raised all the ceilings."

"Raised the ceilings!" I cried. "Did you do all that yourself?"

"Oh, it was easy," she assured me. "My husband watches videos on YouTube."

The world has left me behind! I'm a simple woman in an era populated by new Renaissance Men and Women created by YouTube, Pinterest, and Facebook. Everywhere around me ordinary individuals are raising ceilings, making cakes that look like hedgehogs, dancing the tango with steps they learned online, orchestrating elaborate games and decorations for their kid's birthday party based on others' pictures, constructing headboards from old barn doors and busts of Elvis from Styrofoam, and plaiting their daughters' hair into hairstyles so fantastic that it makes Marie Antoinette look like a street rat who never heard of Pin boards.

As for me, I never even properly learned how to paint a room or frost a cake. My daughters fix their own hair in simple braids, buns and ponytails, following the instructions of our oral tradition. My husband has to teach me dance steps he learned in college. I am scrimping and saving in hopes of hiring someone to scrape off our popcorn ceilings. My kids' birthday decorations consist of one handmade sign on plain paper done with crayon - marker if we're feeling inspired. I can only raise the ceiling while dancing, and not well.

Ah, I feel my cave woman ways! As I wait for my kids to get out of school, I spread a newspaper across the steering wheel in car line and look through grocery ads I received in the mail. Other parents are uploading digital coupons on their smarty-pants phones, checking email, reading about Bruce Jenner and researching how to apply crown molding and install outdoor showers for the pool. I still have to log on to a computer to access my email, for goodness' sake, and half the time I don't know where my flip phone is, because I forgot to turn the volume up after church! I don't even know how to show my emotions on social media with pictures of bunnies and monsters.

Whenever I drive I am truly a lone ranger. If I get lost I am forced to roam around looking for a landmark, cursing my fate as I strain to read street signs with my astigmatic eyes. If I get too far off course, I simply pull over at a gas station and cry. Meanwhile, other drivers listen to a tiny know-it-all lady in their phones as she guides them to their destination in soothing tones.

Regardless, I'm afraid to go somewhere exciting, monumental or "hip" for fear of being clotheslined by selfie sticks in the hands of individuals under forty. As for me, I usually forget my camera, an object apart from my phone, so even if I ran into the Queen of England, I would have to ask her to hang around for a bit so I could make a quick sketch to remember the moment.

Honestly, I can't make it in this brave, ultra-connected world. Yes, there is probably an app for that, but I'm still not entirely certain what an app is, though I firmly believe it's something invented by the government to spy on us. At any rate I just can't keep up, so I have started going backwards. For Mother's Day my husband bought me several vinyl records, and I couldn't have been more thrilled as I listened to CCR's "Born on the Bayou". Dang, I wish I were on the Bayou with my old hound dog - uh, make that Yorkie - right now, or at least in the woods or mountains somewhere. I think I'll start stocking up on candles and kerosene lanterns and wait for a horse and buggy to go on sale. Maybe I can convince my city man to change careers and become a cowboy. I'll take my guitar with me to our humble, non-DIYed home with low ceilings and cramped halls, sit beneath the stars in a rocking chair on the broken-down porch, and play Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" all night long.

We'll be simple folk lost in nature, and we'll never watch a single video on YouTube.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Short, mostly unedited: The Nap

Just a little while ago, my Danny boy was saying things like, "I hate this game," and, "I don't want to put that up. It's boring," and, "I am not tired!"

But he was tired. I was tired. And I told him point blank, "I'm going to set the timer, and you're going to rest with me for 30 minutes in Papa's chair."

I got him a cup of Cheerios. I read him Sleepy Time, Olie by William Joyce. Then I snuggled that big five-year-old boy, playing possum until he put his head on my chest and grabbed a fistful of my hair. I realized just how much my boy had grown as he rested on me, how tall since early December, the last time he took a nap. Only after I started to doze did I realize that he had indeed fallen asleep, and all was quiet except the stupid timer going off.

Now I miss him in this unusual stillness. Such is the paradox of a mother's life! We pray that our babies will go to sleep, grow up or become more independent and then are a bit sad when they do.

When Daniel was a toddler, nap time was an ordeal more often than not. I tried to put him down for naps in his bed, reading books and putting on soothing music, sitting on the floor with my back toward him to make sure he didn't try to get up as he often did when I left the room. I would try to be serene, impassive, keeping my voice soft and my reminders gentle, but the longer it took him to fall asleep and the more he tried to play, pull on my hair or get out of that bed, the more I could feel my insides knotting up in frustration. It was not a calming routine for either of us, as I sometimes ended up yelling at him or dropping him back into his bed none too gently. Then if he - at long last! - fell asleep, the stress would ebb but the guilt over our battles would come, and I would bend over to stroke his blond head and kiss his cheek softly, wishing I could pick him up and hold him and that we could always be in harmony with one another.

For all the articles I had read about children's need for sleep, it was only logical to assume they would want to sleep. But it wasn't so, it seemed. I spent months being frustrated every afternoon, praying my son would not give up afternoon sleep at two-and-a-half as his big sister Ella had done. At that period of our lives, it seemed like the whole mood of our day turned upon whether or not the boy took a nap or not. If he didn't, the early evening saw a tantrum apocalypse. I was stressed, because as any mother can tell you, we need nap time, too. If we go without that recharge break for a few days running, we become desperate and throw our own fits.

Of course, when my husband took over naps on the weekend, my little guy went down like magic. I often wondered what I was doing wrong. I would plague my husband with questions about just exactly what were his methods. But when I tried his strategies, I encountered the same frustrations as always. "It's because I'm not Mama," Matthew told me. "He doesn't play with my hair or try to climb on me. It's just Papa." That made me feel even more hopeless about fixing our nap time issues.

Until I finally went back to an old strategy of mine. It was the one I used for Berto and Ana, so close in age that they napped together on either side of me, sometimes kicking each other for invasion of space or giggling together from across the mama divide as I struggled to keep my eyes open reading a book. It was the one I used for Ella until she decided one summer that she couldn't stand to be left out of whatever her siblings were doing. My rediscovered strategy was to take Daniel out of his bedroom and to the rocking chair. I surrendered and ignored the people and books that told me my child shouldn't fall asleep in my arms, because he would become too dependent. Every afternoon I rocked and read to my youngest and then let him hold my hair as I tilted the chair back, and we both closed our eyes. Though he often squirmed for the first twenty minutes, the routine was much more soothing and loving for both of us, and my Danny fell asleep much easier and quicker. Sometimes I dozed off with him, for he was still waking us up a few times a night then. Once I revived, I slid gently out from beneath him to work on household projects, write or read a book.

That is how nap time was for Danny and I until he gave it up at the beginning of December. Today I remembered the old feeling of badly wanting him to sleep, holding him in my arms until he drifted off and then suddenly missing him in the strange quiet as I stroked his hair. I took a picture of my big boy sleeping on that trusty old rocking recliner, the one with the splitting upholstery that has helped all my babies sail to afternoon dreamland in my arms. I wanted to capture the moment, for Daniel goes to kindergarten next year. It may be the last nap he takes until college.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

England Anthology: High Tea at The Wolseley...and then the royal residence

Have you even been someplace so beautiful that you couldn't quite believe your luck and joy in being there? For me such a place would likely be in the shadow of an enormous tree in the middle of a great forest or verdant field or by a bubbling creek. It's not going to be in the midst of a huge, noisy city.

Unless that city is London.

No, I don't speak of Buckingham Palace or even Westminster Abbey. I speak of The Wolseley on Piccadilly at which I took high tea with my sister-in-law, Natalie, and my good friend, Holly.

I have been fascinated with the idea of "high tea" since I was a little girl. Reading of its delights in many novels and having a passion for pastries, I have yearned to taste the assorted pretty little cakes and to hold the delicate cups and saucers just so. When the Hobbits mourned their loss of afternoon tea while on the journey with Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring, I sympathized. It has always sounded like such an indulgent, perfectly English tradition.

So, when the chance presented itself, I took tea at a few cafes here in the States, quaint little places where tea cozies were often used, the Union Jack was ubiquitous and hand-painted roses abounded.

To take tea in an ornate London café parallel to the Ritz was something else entirely.

Getting to the Wolseley was an adventure. Holly and I left the Underground, and immediately took a wrong turn, continuing our error for quite a distance before my good friend and traveling partner had the chance to observe my obnoxious habit of asking random people for directions in order to avoid figuring things out for myself. A kind motorcyclist directed us to a line of cabbies waiting between hotels, saying "they know everything", and I hurried to them and frantically waved at one gentleman's window. My pronunciation of "Wolseley" threw him for a minute, but then he asked, "To take afternoon tea?", and I nodded urgently, for now time was running out to make our reservation. He then pointed in the other direction, very courteously explaining that the café was back the way we had come, right next to the Ritz - in fact across from the entrance to the Underground! (I wish I had taken a picture of this cheerful cabbie; he was quite unusual. Little did I know that he was the friendliest, most helpful stranger we would ever meet in London.)
I had no time for more than a quick thank you as he indicated other cabs with noses pointing in the right direction. Anxious, I could have run full out down Piccadilly in my most lady-like dress, jostling frowning Londoners out of my way, but I had to endure twitching in my seat as our cab crawled. At last we hopped out and jogged to the beautiful façade, not looking one bit like prim, proper, tea-sipping patrons.
As soon as we walked in the door, we saw Natalie, whom we were to meet, and were greeted in turns by a maître d and servers so suavely attentive and apologetic for any delay that I, a middle-class American so frugal that I avoid any pampering that exceeds chocolate candy bars on sale, could feel myself blushing.
But I got used to it the minute I set my purse by our table. I was in love, not with our courtly server but with the architecture influenced, so it would seem, by Venice and Florence and the Far East.

Surroundings this sumptuous were bound to thrill a lady so unused to extravagance. I had never eaten in such a gilded, beautiful place!
And Holly didn't seem immune to The Wolseley's charms, either.
As I sampled the sweets, exotic sandwiches and Darjeeling, I stared at the gleaming walls, windows, bar, and chandeliers in the unabashed and silly way of a male admiring a red Ferrari or a voluptuous woman. I reveled in its ambience and felt that my presence there in the company of a dear friend and a sister that I seldom see was the pinnacle of my first London day.
Natalie and me -photo by Holly

Later we did pass by that other gilded place, Buckingham Palace, when we took a stroll through lovely St James's Park post-tea.

But here the simple nature girl within me was resurrected, for I far preferred the vibrant tulips to the edifice.
Photo by Holly
Perhaps I just have no love for royals unless I'm being made to feel like one.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

England Anthology: London, the Tower and Ravens

I went to England this month, and now I am back. I didn't tell you about it beforehand, my readers, because I didn't trust you not to blab it to the world! No, no...that's just my little joke. Most of you are family and friends. It's the five or six of you whom I don't know personally who worry me!

My luck in finally seeing a country whose literary masters I have read all of my life is still something I can't quite believe. I am so very grateful to my husband for agreeing to the expense of such a trip and for taking time off work to mind our babies. When I recall the hospitality and generosity of my brother Nate and his wife Natalie, who live just outside London, I am amazed, appreciative and a bit convicted when I compare my own hosting skills or lack thereof. And I am very glad that Holly, my good and artistic friend, journeyed with me - having the same appreciation for Austen, the Brontes, Gaskill, and Dickens - and that she compelled me to see more than I would have done without her.

Still, the day I arrived in England, I missed my family terribly. The miles between us were multiplied by my anxiety in not being able to contact them via phone at all. I had the ungrateful thought that such a trip, such a distance away from my husband and kids, was not worth it, could not compensate for the fear of such a wide separation.

And now? Now I miss England. I miss my brother and sister-in-law and their vivacious little girl, Nina, who will so quickly forget me and who has yet to meet my own children. Though I don't wish to be apart from my family again, my head is also full of enticing memories of London, Bath, Dover and a little town called Devizes (the latter of which I mispronounced the whole time I was there). It was natural that last Friday, on my first day home in sunny Arizona, it uncharacteristically rained in spurts and was overcast, and I and the weather shared the same mood as I imagined that I had brought a bit of jolly old England with me on grey skies.

Ironic then that we had not one bit of rain on our trip in the UK. Holly and I joked we took Arizona with us, for the skies were blue and mostly clear instead of the rain and persistent clouds we had expected.

And so it was warm on our second day in the UK, the day Holly and I went into London and discovered that what my brother said was undeniably true: you cannot visit London and not see the Tower of London. It is obligatory. If you skip it, well, then off with your foolish head. The atmosphere of that place, the weight of its history (almost too much to bear for us young Americans), and the macabre details of its public executions is well worth your time. The Yeoman Warders, or beefeaters, who give the tours are knowledgeable fellows and much more than charming, witty Englishmen stuffed into old-fashioned garb. They actually live at the tower and serve the government as well as tourists; in fact, they can only get the job at the Tower after honorably serving 22 years in Her Majesty's army. Plus, they will cordially let you take a picture with them, even if you look ridiiculous wearing your backpack purse in front of you to fend off the dreaded pickpockets you read about in Oliver Twist.

It was our humorous Beefeater/guide who told us of the ravens at the tower and the legend pertaining to them that says six ravens must always be present there and that if the ravens were ever to abandon the tower, England will fall. How very Edgar Allen Poe of them! The Yeoman Warder then asked us tourists, "Do you think we believe in such superstition?" Being a good American, I shook my head. But that was the wrong answer, for the Warder quipped that the tower doesn't just keep six ravens, but seven for good measure.

I do wish they had asked for popular opinion on the subject or at least my opinion, for I could have easily told them, based on my observations after just a few hours in London, what was the real threat to the future of England: skinny jeans.

Yes, skinny jeans and skinny trousers, for that matter - in particular those worn by younger-than-thirty, "fashionable" London men - seem to me a real threat to population growth. They are worn so close to the skin all the way down to the ankles that circulation must be badly constricted to the lower half of their bodies. The only thing that could possibly save their nether regions might be the atrocious fact that they are also worn so low on the hip that underwear inevitably peeks through, and their waists are free from the maniacal cinching influence. Perhaps these skinny, self-torturing garments are meant to make the men look metrosexual. Well, I suppose we should cut these modern Londoners some slack, for stylish men used to regularly wear wigs, high heels and stockings just a few hundred years ago.

But enough about frightening apparel. London itself more than made up for the fashion of some of its male denizens. How could one look at the Tower Bridge and not be ebullient?

Ah, the whole city was beautiful! Perhaps I had long ago been charmed by its descriptions in all the English novels I had read and was primed to drink in its ambience, but I liked it better than any city I have known thus far. Though its buildings tread upon each other in seemingly endless rows on many narrow, winding streets, I was so enamored by their architecture and the sense of history that wafted from them that I never minded their shadowed influence.

But I will continue my love letter to London another day. That second day was full of experiences, and while I reveled in all the adventure, I had no time to reflect on the distance between my family and I, no time for anxious thoughts. I was an urban explorer at last!

Traitor's Gate at the Tower....does that include Americans?
History lies down these halls.
A beautiful Norman window

These guys really do not budge or blink - not even at annoying, camera-wielding tourists.
Please don't ask. This picture went wrong somewhere...

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Wonder (of so many) Years - guest post by Daniel Hylton

I promised Hillary I would write a guest post for her when she went to England to visit her brother and his family.  But, with seemingly everyone I love either ill or in the hospital, I have been sorely distracted.  And with serious situations ongoing, this will likely not be my best effort.
Sorry, Hoodoo.

I recently turned sixty-one years of age......

.....became a great-grandfather.....

.....and learned the truth of that which someone, somewhere, so wisely wrote:

                      When I was a child, time crawled.
                      When I was a youth, time walked.
                      When I was an adult, time ran.
                       Now I am old, and time flies.

So many years have passed, and been filled with memories, and yet, to me, it seems like just days have gone by, rather than so many years filled with so many days.

It seems but a month - or perhaps six weeks - ago that I stood beneath the spreading lilacs in front of Gene Asher's home and courted his daughter.

A day later we married.

And in that first week, she bore four children.

In the third week of our life together, our oldest daughter married, our second daughter went off to the Air Force, and our son and his younger sister approached the end of High School.

During the fourth week, we saw another child, our son, enter the U.S. military, our other daughters were married, and we became grandparents.

Over the last two weeks, we gained eleven grandchildren, two adopted grandchildren, and our very first great-grandchild.  And two more grandchildren are on the way this very day - year.

So, a mere forty-two days after I met the love of my life, the cup of my life, indeed, is filled to overflowing.

Yes, I know they are years and not days, but how can that be?  When I was young, I often tired of watching my elders shake their heads and ask the same question of no one in particular, as if they simply could not believe that life had passed by so quickly.  Now I know precisely how they felt.

As I watch my parents approach the end of their time on earth, and witness the advent of new generations, I know that I am blessed with the years I have been given.

Were my life to end this very day, how could it be made more full?

I am reminded of the words to a song I wrote years ago - when I was young.

                     When we all get together, talking over the old times.
                      Mama and Daddy remember us as children,
                      laughing, playing, singing nursery rhymes.
                      But things are changing, we're all getting older.
                      And we've brought children of our own into the world.
                      And it's so strange to look around me
                       at all of us wrinkled, graying boys and girls.

                      Now the sun comes up and the sun goes down
                       and time flows like a river.
                      The young folks come and the old folks go;
                       that's the way it's been forever.

                       And by the time next winter comes, some gray heads may be gone;
                        but Spring will bring a new child, and the family line goes on.....

                        It's a family get-together, talking over all the old times.
                        And now the family is bigger than ever;
                        With all the husbands, and the children, and the wives.

When I wrote that, I could not imagine being a grandfather, let alone a great-grandfather.  Now I am both those things.....

.....and as I watch these days of my life come up in the east and go down into the west, I know the unmitigated delight of having lived for so many days - years - that have been filled with such.....



Wednesday, April 8, 2015


I dropped my cellphone. It slipped from my too-full hands and crashed at the Wal-Mart checkout. It was the second time it happened that day. Poor little, underappreciated device, I casually picked it up and shoved its battery back in, replacing its rear end to restore its dignity.

The young male cashier commented, "I love how you just pick it up, like 'no big deal'. If that was a smartphone I would have been freaking out, like 'Everybody remain calm!'."

I laughed. "I don't have a smartphone, but my son really wants one."

"My little brother is only maybe a little bigger than him," he said, indicating my five-year-old Danny I supposed. "And he has a smartphone, an I Pad, two tablets."

"I was talking about my twelve-year-old," I responded.

"Oh," the genial young man replied, confused. "Well, uh...have a nice day."

What was left for him to say at that impasse of philosophies? That conversation illustrates my idea of a healthy world and the current, mad trend. Does anybody left in this technological age believe in choices? In consumer wisdom and conservation of resources? Or the idea to earn through effort and sacrifice what you desire?

Hmmm. We give I Pads and tablets to toddlers. We plant phones in the hands of often foolish adolescents who do not understand privacy and courtesy as it was understood just within the last century and who do not appreciate what is simply handed to them. We listen to acquaintances complain about the cost of gas in shepherding their children to activities, or credit card debt, or mortgages, meanwhile holding in their hands an "indispensable" and very pricey smartphone or tablet.

Yes, my Berto, at the ripe old age of twelve, wants a cellphone. No, excuse me, a smartphone. He moans when we announce he can have a flip phone like mine when activities get too great, and he must go many places without us. He wants a smartphone. Anything less would be embarrassing.
He asked if he could have one if he helped pay for it, but his dad pointed out that it is not just about the sticker price of such an expensive gadget, it is the money we will pay monthly for data, talk, and texting service. But every last one of his friends has a smartphone! I believe him, though it makes me shake my head and moan in turn.

I understand peer pressure. I understand that phones are the new status symbol. So why will we not get him a cellphone? Well, my philosophy on life does not allow for status symbols, first of all. But it is also for the same reason that I tell my preschooler no, we can't get a balloon or toy at the grocery store, because balloons and toys are for special occasions. It is for the same reason that I tell my younger children that, no, we can't eat out at a fast food restaurant today, because we just got take-out as a family last week, and to eat out every week or every few days would be financially foolish. It is for the same reason that my children keep their school backpacks for at least a couple years or until they wear out.

No, that reason is not that I am a meanie head. It is that I dislike consumerism, and I dislike a throw-away mentality (and, yes, that includes exchanging an electronic gadget for a new one simply because a more advanced version has come out, or trashing a backpack merely because it is so "last year"), and I dislike going into debt by nickeling and diming myself to death over things that do not matter.

I believe in choices. If we buy that bigger house, we cannot take a fancy family vacation months later. If I got Starbucks last week, I will not get it this week. We do not need more toys - ever! - because most toys do not help a child grow their imagination, only serving to clutter our lives and our home with useless junk. No, we will not have a TV in every room, and definitely not in the bedrooms. We only need one computer in this family. My kids cannot have a huge birthday party with their friends and a ton of presents from us and go out to dinner. If they have the party or take two or three friends on a fun outing, they receive only birthday books from Mama and Papa.

But it's about so much more. It is about being aware of the world around us. I am convinced that if we all read the news, the real news, every day, we would not feel the urge to get that bigger house, sleeker car, brand new gadget, or even that junk food that we crave. For in reading about an African slum quarantined because of Ebola in which the thousands of residents only have three restrooms between them, we become aware of our foolish claims. In reading the words of a young boy in a refugee camp as he cries that he has no parents, no education, and no hope, we become more aware of our self-absorption. In seeing the pictures of minorities driven out of their homes by extremists, we become aware of what truly matters, and we recollect the words of a wise man who said, "Live simply, so that others may simply live."

The conversation with my children about these vital matters are frequent, and I confess I am perhaps too heavy-handed. Yet, in speaking to them about how we, here in America, run to the grocery store on a whim, because we are "out of ice cream" or "we need that Irish soda bread with the raisins" for our St. Patrick's day dinner, juxtaposing that with families living in Haiti who are eating dirt biscuits for their dinner and kids in Africa who are getting worms from poor drinking water and AIDS orphans living several to a mud hut, they can see, I fervently hope, just how spoiled we are and how we should really try not to be. We can then choose together not to make that trip to the store for things that are so obviously superfluous to our health and happiness.

You have heard about this "entitlement generation". Perhaps we have all become part of it. But what if we could save ourselves? What if we could change our kids' perspectives by teaching them that life is about choices? What if we instilled in their minds that status symbols passed out like stickers are worthless, but effort, solidarity and integrity are everything? What if we could all sacrifice pleasures and wants now and then in order to afford a greater charitable offering? We might then be able to fight the plague of consumerism, clutter and unreasonable expectations that are attacking the sense of what is truly necessary and enriching and destroying the spirit of hard work and sacrifice that our grandparents and parents exemplified.

Yes, I am crazy, and, yes, I have my own consumer weaknesses. I wish I could get a Starbucks every day! I balk at cooking dinner most nights. If chocolate is on sale, I'll grab it. And I have at times desired that bigger, nicer home. No one has yet or ever will walk into my home, and declare it to be gorgeous, beautifully decorated and exquisitely furnished. Our house is small; most of our furniture is second-hand and repurposed; and nearly everything on my walls or shelves that could be termed "décor" was given to me by family members or friends - therefore not complementary but full of sentimental significance. And that is suitable. Alas, I'm too frugal to buckle under pressure for appearances. The antidote is in acknowledging the poverty in the world around me. And so every day I thank God for our health, our home, our food, our safety, our overwhelming blessings that may seem so plain and unadorned to the world's eyes.

And what of my beautiful, intelligent oldest son? Well, we didn't refuse him a smartphone, because we don't love him. We didn't get him one yet, because we do love him. You can spoil kids with things, but you can never spoil them with love or attention. (Hold that baby as long as you like!) I have assured him that by not caving to the world's superficial expectations of him, by not burying his mind in myriad electronic distractions, he will someday grow to be a successful leader and team player, able to look into others' eyes while communicating effectively (for which characteristic other parents have already praised him), full of the solid values and soft skills with which every human being should be armed against vanity, dissipation and selfishness.

What is important, after all? It's all about choices.