Thursday, December 1, 2016

Wish LIst

When I was a child, I asked God to send us Santa. I figured He was the boss, after all.

If Santa happens to see my grownup Christmas list this year, I think he'd better pass it straight on to Jesus.

The things I'm asking for are not things, but my wishes feel a bit selfish, asking for deliverance. Nevertheless, here are the big three, St. Nicholas:

Peace on Christmas

If peace begins in the home, all I'm really asking for then is peace in my house.

Last Christmas we traveled, and we had good conversation, funny and bonding moments with family, but our oldest daughter was miserably sick the whole vacation. I truly made things much worse, because I was highly emotional, fully at odds with my own person, wasn't sleeping well and was therefore exhausted. Also, I was losing faith in a few important things, first and foremost myself.

Santa, every special day this year - Easter, Mother's Day, our wedding anniversary, Halloween - has been met with sick children and/or an emotional/ill mother; I just had a huge come apart the day before Thanksgiving, for crying out loud! So please, sir, if we could all just feel happy, well and peaceful at Christmas...if I could be taught anew to be a peacemaker in spite my internal would indeed be a merry, blessed time of year.

"Make your family something beautiful for God in love, peace, unity and joy. Even if you pray ten minutes together, it is worthwhile. It is worthwhile. Get together, always together, always together, even when you have misunderstandings, get together. Forgive and forget and you will be really filled with God's love, really have the peace of God in your heart. This is very, very important.

- Mother Teresa talking to volunteers in Calcutta, December 21st, 1995


Dear St. Nick, I could use some serious help here. I have fallen into a bad habit of judging someone very harshly based on how they look and how successful they are. 

That someone I'm judging so mercilessly is me.

My husband keeps saying he doesn't understand why I'm being so hard on myself. I am failing to see much of what God or any kind, loving person sees in me. I know many others struggle in this way, and I, too, am weary of it. I criticize even my hands - hands with which I do yard work and dishes and roll eucalyptus wreaths - for being too rough and scarred instead of being grateful as I should for the tasks I accomplish with them. I rail against my inability to keep my home clean though I work hard at it continually. I agonize over the fact that I sin to some degree every single day. I compare my hair and even my make-up and clothes to others' and to my own ideas of perfection. And I beat myself up regularly for not figuring out how to be successful as a writer, for not convincing people to like my words and stories.

Please leave the secret recipe for acceptance in my stocking this Christmas or, better yet, tomorrow in my shoe.

An expert is someone who has made all the mistakes, and if you haven't, then you're a work in progress, like most people. Accept the child within you who is innocent and sometimes also ignorant. Be kind to yourself; that's where compassion starts.

- Amit Sood, M.D., M.Sc. in The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living

The Old Familiar Places (or feelings)

When my children were wee, little ones, I greeted my husband at the door in the evening sometimes with combed hair and make-up on my face, sometimes still in pajamas with a toilet scrubber in my hand. But I was almost always eager to kiss him and ready to smile before detailing the chaos of the day.

For years he has called at lunch every day when he can. Our conversations weren't always the most peaceful or stimulating, but they were natural and easy and often full of laughter, even if the kids were making constant noise in the background.

I badly want to feel like that young wife again.

Now, when my husband calls at lunch, there are no sounds of rowdy children in the background, but our conversations aren't as easy or free as they once were. I often become irritable, because I am or have been ruminating on unimportant but nettling things, growing anxious.

When he arrives home at the end of the day, I rarely don't have makeup on and hair combed, but my attitude is not as joyful or expectant as when I used to run out to hug him in the driveway before all the neighbors, before his days were so long and work came home and there were evening activities for the kids every night of the week.

I am keeping the faith, Santa, that I can return to that carefree attitude with a little help from the Spirit of Christmas this December and then hopefully not lose it again.

I have been, am and always will be in love with my Matthew; I just feel like I've personally lost my moorings.

The great secret of a successful marriage is to treat all disasters as incidents and none of the incidents as disasters.

-Sir Harold George Nicolson

Love doesn't just sit there like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.

- Ursula K Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

There is no remedy for love but to love more.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Be grateful? Let me find the many ways...

An offering of Thanksgiving flowers from Matthew, my husband

Thanksgiving is truly a great holiday; the feasting, the family, the friends, the counting of blessings and the sharing of goods and talents, not just in preparing food but in spreading joy to those less fortunate, all make it a day we Americans should cherish and celebrate.

Of course we should reflect on our big blessings that day as we (if we are lucky) sip Beaujolais Nouveau and gaze on a perfectly roasted bird, but we all know that building an attitude of every day gratitude that lasts through good times and bad is really where it's at if we want to be amicable and generous the whole year.

The simple things in life are the backbone of joy.

Fruit is one of those simple things for which I have no trouble being grateful. Our family usually has plenty in the house, including berries. My children love their fruit, and I am glad to know they are consuming it, because I believe they will be much healthier.

I am truly thankful for fruit.

My gratitude in having a nice, warm bed also increases as I get older.

Likewise, I am grateful for big trees and birdsong, sunsets, my little home, vehicles that run, water in the desert and always and especially for my large family, my healthy children.

I feel blessed that I know peace to a far greater degree in this country than I would know in many other places of the world.

Okay, I guess I mentioned some pretty big things there.

But there are things and circumstances that I have a much more difficult time bringing in line with everyday gratitude: housework, our family's busy schedule, my husband's blasted smartphone.

Though I despise the tendency I have to complain, I nevertheless cave more often than I wish. So I try diligently to turn my own rotten attitude on its head.

For instance, if I am balking at the never ending housework, then I try to say (out loud, mind you, for my kids to hear), "But thank God I have the health to do it!"

I know how it feels to be temporarily unable to perform the simplest tasks, so overall health is indeed something to treasure and extol while we have it.

As for the fact that every evening of the week after school and work and volunteer hours, our family is running to this or that practice or class, splitting up to go separate ways when I just wish we could be together calmly, it's hard for me to be grateful for that time apart. My childhood was nothing like that. But, after all, what is that time for? It's for the development of our four children. We don't believe at all in over scheduling them, but the one activity (or two) that each is in contributes to running around.

Yet, I am glad we have the money to put them in those activities. I am grateful that they are getting abundant exercise in sports practices instead of sitting at home in front of screens. I am happy to see my children outside for a good part of Saturday at their own or their siblings' games. I am privileged to see them pursuing their interests.

As for my man's phone, I grit my teeth and I try to bear its presence, because what does it represent despite the fact that its steals my husband's gaze and attention? It represents a good job with benefits that provides very well for this family, and he rightly needs it because he has a team that looks to him for guidance while working different hours and days. He's a busy, important guy who mentors and guides.

So thanks for the smartphone, business world!

I guess...humbug...grrrrrrrr....

I'm still not inviting it to Thanksgiving dinner.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Moon River, dream maker

I do love my dreams. Sometimes I'm thoroughly entertained by the subject matter, the landscape or the amazing detail and vivid color conjured up while I sleep. There are rare times when I truly appreciate how cohesive is the story told by my unconscious mind. I'm impressed!

I typically fall into dreams very quickly, even when I nap. I remember quite a few of them when I awake in the morning. If he's very lucky, my husband will escape a retelling.

This morning I couldn't resist.

Last night I found myself in the large room of a university or public building that was erected in dreamland. The rich blue of its walls was such that I remember thinking I would love to see it in my dining room. On those deeply-hued walls were sophisticated paintings in ornate frames. I had just been listening to a lecture on art or historical artifacts (a little vague, I know, but isn't the memory of all lectures so?) given by a lean older gentleman in dress shirt, tie and slacks. Getting up from a long, heavy table lined with wooden chairs, a group of us approached the doors to leave. It was then that I heard the music for "Moon River" playing over the speaker system. As I often do with beloved Christmas carols, I began to boldly sing the lyrics aloud to match the melody.

It wasn't but a line or two before I heard a man's voice harmonizing with my own, and I turned and saw the gentleman lecturer behind his desk at the end of the room, singing and staring back at me behind wire-rimmed spectacles. He came around his desk and held out his arms in such a way, one extended high with flat palm and one making a lower curve, that I understood an invitation to dance with him. In a serendipitous move worthy of the silver screen, we met in the middle of the room and sang our duet as we danced to the haunting music. Smiling, he guided me around the large space.

Abruptly, as we glided about, his teeth began to fall out, and he quickly pushed them back in. At first I was startled, but I decided I didn't mind the awkwardness, not really; he was such a smooth dancer and so debonair, even gray-haired and careful in his movements as he was.


I think my mind was making a connection of a strange sort in that charming little dream.

A couple days ago, on Veteran's Day, I read a story of mine to my kids based on something that happened to my family one childhood Christmas. It's a work my dad has encouraged me to look at again for years, but I've long been afraid to reexamine it, convinced it needed to be thoroughly retold, become more sophisticated than the simple tale it was.

The manuscript I read with my kids was one of my earliest ones, written before my marriage more than fifteen years ago. It was missing 50 pages, including the conclusion, but it surprised me. I had been a more capable writer than I remembered. I joked with my kids that I was a better writer then than I am now! How does that happen?

What gratified me the most, however, was how raptly my children, two of them already gifted writers, listened to this little book I began writing at 17 years of age. My oldest son hushed his little brother repeatedly so that he could hear and gave feedback periodically, and my older daughter went and retrieved a favorite pillow to hug as she snuggled with me and the tale progressed.

I had to contend with a few tears - my own. Reading details based on the struggles my family experienced during our lives in Tennessee overwhelmed me, more so because I had not really thought about those hardships in years and the great love and faith that carried us through them.


What was the connection to my little dream? Who was the old gentleman with whom I danced?

He represents my story, the one my husband read before we were even engaged, the ending of which he loved and perhaps made him more willing to fall for me.

It has come around to waltz with me after these many years, pulling me into the romance of following a dream whose strength and charm I had forgotten. It's got some loose teeth, yes, but I believe once more that wherever this story is going, I'm going its way.

It's where my heart has always has been.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Comfort and Joy

This is the time of year when individuals in the arts and crafts community step forward with alacrity to sell their wares to those who are seeking unique gifts for dear ones and wanting to support something bigger than big business.

Today I took my daughters to the annual craft fair at our church, one we patronize every November, but before we entered the community hall with its Christmas carols and abundant tables laden with diverse offerings from knitters, wood workers, potters, tailors, and bakers, there was something I had to do.

I got in line for confession.

It went better than I had hoped. Afterwards I felt as if I received maybe too much mercy.

But Jesus met me in the confessional. What else did I expect?

Truly, my step was lighter when we walked across the courtyard to meet friends at the craft fair. Shortly after we entered that cheerful, open space with so much red and green, so many sparkles and lights, we were given free sugar cookies. I then chatted with my friend Kathy whom I had not see in far too long while my girls walked around with her daughter Ariel.

One of our priests works in wood, making bowls, crosses, lazy susans, and pens. I bought a multi-hued bowl to complement the one we got from him a year or two ago. And from an older gentleman who has been a fixture at the craft fair for years (supplying simple but sleek wooden toys that have a distinct Santa quality to them) I finally purchased a toy that my kids have long been fascinated with playing.

Arriving home, I had to kiss my husband goodbye. We've gone in different directions all day, but he needed to take my son to a late soccer game on the far side of town. My oldest daughter decided to go with and grab the now rare opportunity to watch her big brother play.

Almost as soon as they left, I made a big batch of brownies that I have been contemplating for weeks, inspired by all the seasonal goodies at church, Meanwhile Danny and Ella, my youngest two, had a grand time playing with the new toy from the fair that involved a sturdy wood frame, plastic spoon, tiny ball, net and some careful aim. Later, they watched Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer; it was just that kind of cozy, looking-forward-to-Christmas day.

Because of my wonderful mood, of such a kind that I have not enjoyed in some time, I made popcorn for my little ones without hesitation when they asked. My absolute childhood favorite, Frosty the Snowman, was then on pause.

Really, the day couldn't have gotten much better.

But it did.

I asked my kids if they wanted me to play "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" on the guitar for them, and they responded with enthusiasm. To my surprise, my instrument was actually in tune. I warmed up with "Angels We Have Heard on High", and then I played some of their favorites and my own personal favorite that my dad played often, "Joy to the World". Because they asked sweetly, I even let them strum my lovely guitar.

But first I admired its shiny, wine-colored surface, pretty details, and, yes, even the smell of its strings. I remembered the day my husband surprised me with the beautiful instrument, and my cup, already full of whispers and hints of the most wonderful and generous time of year, overflowed with joy and thanksgiving.

The weather has finally cooled. God is merciful. I have a guitar.

And Christmas, my friends, is just around the corner.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Joy, plans gone awry, contentment lost, and hope regained

Three weeks ago when my family returned from Idaho I was very content. I was feeling very homey, too. Inspired my Aunt Cheryl's welcoming and cozy home, and my Aunt Stephanie's beautiful framed prints - all garage and estate sale finds - I had plans to improve this little house for my family by bending my mind to something that doesn't come naturally: decorating.

The main way I planned to make our house more a home was by putting up pictures of grandparents. We have none on these walls. I arrived home, and I couldn't believe that I have neglected to put up photos of my beloved Grandmama, of Matthew's grandparents who have all passed on now, and of all our grandparents and parents. This is a serious lack. Matthew and I have never been great about taking or displaying pictures, but there is no excuse. I thank my Aunt Cheryl again for inspiration, for she took me around her home and showed me the history of our family in many photos set in myriad frames.

I had such plans a few weeks ago for being a "homemaker" in the best sense by lovingly improving my family's comfort, peace, joy and sense of connection to one another through simple but thoughtful means. I was going to labor in the yard, too, planting a lush winter lawn.

And I was going to write about the joy of our Idaho visit. Of how my children were amazed by how many relatives they have on their Paca's and their Grandmama's side. How Berto said the parade of relatives was like an "endless pit" (he meant it in the best way); how my kids asked from time to time in awe, "Mama, how many relatives do you have? They just keep coming!"; how I felt immense pride that I could claim all these great and interesting people as part of my extended family.

I was going to make you hungry by recounting the wonderful meals prepared for us by Uncle Kip and Aunt Cheryl on one side and my Uncle Bryan on the other and even confess how we went to a wonky Asian-Western inspired and golf-themed restaurant called Little Orphan Annie's with my cousins and aunt.

I was going to share that my kids rode four-wheelers for the first time with my cool uncles and talked about nearly nothing else the day after, so thrilled were they by that grand small-town experience.

And there were tremendous surprises during our trip. We missed our flight going to Idaho. That was nerve-wracking, but when we got there my kids saw Paca and Grandmama (my parents) at their great-grandparents place (on my dad's side), a big surprise for them that I almost ruined at least a dozen times. When we went to my Grandpa's the next day, my Uncle Jim was there and I had no clue he would be in town! He tried to teach me to play pinochle once when I was in high school. I reminded him of my inability to learn and my parents frustration and how all the while he was patient. We were blessed to visit with every one of my mama's surviving siblings that Sunday. On the next day I saw my Uncle Ruben whom I have not seen since my wedding 15 years ago when he filmed the ceremony. He used to drive to Tennessee often to visit our family when I was a kid, and he would let my siblings and I raid his cooler full of drinks and snacks and bring his video camera so we could make goofy movies. One even had a Star Trek theme, and Uncle Ruben was Spock!

It was such an amazing trip, the best we have had yet. It was overflowing with family and adventure, better than the excursions we used to make to San Diego to visit the beach.

Then my joy was suddenly stolen because I woke up Tuesday morning of last week with vertigo. It hasn't plagued me in years, but it was just as bad as I remembered.

All my plans as a wife, mother and writer for that week were utterly destroyed. I won't bore you. Instead "let me sum up". I barely touched my husband for several days. I couldn't work or accomplish my simple goals. I was prey to my own caprices.

And I lost my gratitude. I knew I should thank God for my overall health, that it was just a bad case of persisting dizziness. I knew I should remember, "this, too shall pass". Instead I became very depressed, felt disconnected from my spouse and children, and by the end of the week began to have some very unsettling thoughts as I battled depression.

Shudder. I don't really want to dwell on it more. Until yesterday morning I was still battling the after-effects, being blown about by my own mood.

But today? Today I saw a rainbow. Today I caught up on a good amount of work and even sorted my email and hopped on Facebook. Today I am writing.

My thoughts are tame and friendly once more. Thank, thank God.

And I am remembering that trip to Idaho and all the faces of my loved ones.

And feeling grateful and content.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Post in Pictures: the cliffs of Britain and a river in Idaho

When I traveled to England with my friend Holly in April 2015, one of the last excursions we took was to the White Cliffs of Dover. There we hiked from a near sea level visitor's center and gift shop up the cliff trail past many sheep to a bright little tea room in a charming old lighthouse. On the way to and from that lighthouse my knee-high boots picked up a thick layer of the white dust from the cliffs and rested in it for some time, too, as we chatted with friendly Britons and watched some wild ponies in a hollow. Months after we returned home, I pulled out those boots to wear again as the fall weather grew cooler in Arizona and, lo and behold, the dust of Britain was still on them.

My shoes knew where I had been, and they carried crystalline memories. I almost didn't brush off those boots, but I figured I'd just be tracking Dover everywhere.

Recently, new suede Puma tennis shoes of mine picked up memories as my family and I hiked and climbed a little way along the Payette River in Idaho.

We went to Idaho to see family and saw more family in that state than my children even knew we had - the appearance of some of those dear relatives completely unexpected. 

Then, on a day when we didn't have much planned and I was begging my husband to be serendipitous, we drove up past Black Canyon Dam, searching for a place to experience some Idaho country. We pulled off the road at a spot where we practically slid down a slope of dry pine needles to river rocks, and there my kids and I scrambled all over the place, watching the intermittent white water and listening to its rhythm. On a huge sloped boulder, I laid down on my belly in the sunshine, slowly sliding down toward the white sand at its base, that same light sand that is now embedded in my shoes.

I may not brush off these shoes. Sometimes you have to go home again to realize it's home. I lived in Idaho for most of my teenage years - camping, fishing, spending holidays and ordinary days with relatives - but I don't believe I really appreciated it til I brought my own little family back with me.

With these dusty sneakers, I can carry home with me wherever I go.

And I believe my tall brown boots still have a bit of Dover on them, too.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Reel Big Fun

I think I've pulled my man into my mid-thirties crisis. We've been out dancing past our bedtime several times in the past couple years; I'm starting to layer silver chains around my neck for special occasions; and just this past Saturday we went to a concert that had a mosh pit. If my guy starts painting his face with black make-up and wearing high-heeled boots like his once-favorite band Kiss, then I'll know we've gone too far.

Speaking of that Saturday concert, it was totally worth it until Matthew and I had to wake up early the next morning for church with bags under our eyes and slush in our veins. It occurred to us then that instead of going to a concert that started at 9:30 at night, we should have gone to one that ended by eight. We would have been home in time to watch our Brit-coms on PBS!

But we just couldn't miss this band. During his college days Matthew was big into Ska music, and the first concert he ever went to was Reel Big Fish, a Ska band. He still has the T-shirt, in fact.

Our cool friends, Holly and her husband Chip, who started dating in high school and attended two proms together (how many married couples can say that?), once upon a time followed Reel Big Fish (RBF) around the East Coast from one venue to another. Holly heard that RBF was playing Octoberfest in town and invited us to come along for a night filled with dark beer and deafening music.

Like a bunch of college kids, we waited in long, packed lines for beer from plastic cups and messy food served on floppy plates, and I really began to regret my wardrobe choice of skinny jeans, cowboy boots and a jacket on a very warm first night of October crowded with festival-goers.

Somewhere around nine, we found seats not far from the stage. In the spirit of Octoberfest, we procured more beer and ate warm, sticky fry bread with powdered sugar as we chatted and waited for the band to take the stage.

Being the only one in the group unfamiliar with the band, I listened as Holly and Chip recounted the concerts they had attended, then told of a handwritten note in Sharpie from the band's Hawaii-shirt-and-checkered-sunglasses-wearing lead singer and of how Chip checker boarded the hood of his car in high school with permanent marker to show his devotion to the band.

Then Holly told us about a recent Madonna spectacle; Matthew and Chip mildly debated the merits of Def Leopard as live performers; and I said we should all go to a Tom Petty concert if we ever got the chance.

At last, with instruments held high, RBF jogged out to cheers and applause from an exuberant crowd. Ska music, combining elements of reggae and rhythm and blues, is nothing if not good for dancing, so everyone began to move as soon as the trumpet player blew that first note, and the mosh pit quickly developed into a cyclone of jumping, jostling young men - one with green and purple spiked hair at least a foot high. Soon everyone was flattening folding chairs and pushing them into piles like unruly fire wood. I shoved my suffocating jacket off one shoulder, swinging my hips. Matthew, Holly and Chip sang catchy lyrics, flashing broad smiles of nostalgia at one another, and I joined the rambunctious choruses.

Of course, as Holly promised, the members of the band were also great showmen. Several times they started to play huge radio hits from the 1990s, putting their own punk style into the arrangements, and then stopped and announced, "Oh, that wasn't us! That was so and so," purposefully naming the wrong famous group, causing the crowd to laugh and whistle. The lead singer also teased his bandmate about how many trumpet solos he was racking up.

Matthew had kept his hair natural and free for the occasion - no spray gel! - so he kept pushing his left hand through his thick mop to keep it off his forehead as he danced. I found it sexy and adorable; it made him look like that college boy I never actually got to spend time with. From my man I turned often to look at Holly and Chip jumping up and down to the beat like a couple of teenagers and dancing together virtually nonstop, obviously reliving high school days. Chip even braved the mosh pit, though Matthew warned that he wouldn't rescue him, but soon returned with this critique: "It smells in there!"

Though I thoroughly enjoyed the music, if not always the rambunctious crowd and warm weather, my favorite part of the night was watching how much fun Matthew, Holly and Chip were having together at the concert of a favorite band.

Observing my enthusiasm as I danced and sang along, especially when they covered Morrison's "Brown-eyed Girl", Matthew asked me if I still wanted him to get rid of his RBF T-shirt from college, full of holes and faded from years of faithful wearing.

I quickly shook my head and grinned.

"No," I assured him.