Thoughts on Double-Timing It

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Two days before Christmas, I did this to my car. It was completely my fault, and adding insult to injury (actually, my injury was only a bruised leg and a stiff shoulder), I was ticketed for not yielding right of way. And we had to pay for the damage repair. And we lost our good driver “bonus” that came each January. I beat myself up for days.

And yet, it would have been far worse if I hadn’t seen the car coming and slammed on my brakes. But it was not enough and I can still hear the doomsday sound of screeching tires and the crunch of two automobiles colliding. Like an idiot, I tried to tell the officer that the car’s driver must have been speeding because the two lanes I was crossing during rush hour were completely clear. He begged to differ. It was my bad, and I made Christmas not so merry for a few people.

For the two weeks of Christmas holiday, I drove a loaner that made me feel like I was doing laps in a go-kart. I swear my back end had to be four inches from the ground, but it was actually a nice compact car that was easy to park and opened a wide swath of space in our garage. I was practicing gratefulness, but I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to the rental when the body repair shop called to tell me my Kia Sorento was ready.

“You’ll never know you had an accident,” they said with great confidence, which is exactly what I wanted to hear. Let’s wipe this from our memory, shall we? The car looked just as I had remembered, and I felt a little emotional as I climbed behind the wheel. At this point, I should tell you that I’m not a car person. I don’t get new car fever, and I don’t trade in my car on any regular basis. This was my first new car in almost a decade and I aim to keep this one until the wheels fall off. I’m actually envious of the people who call Car Talk and when asked how many miles are on the car answer well above the hundred thousand mark.

I drove my car out of the parking lot of the repair shop and onto the main street, where I eased into the left turn lane and clicked on my signal. And at that moment, I knew that my Sorento and I – however long we will be together – were probably never going to wipe the accident from our memory. The clicking of my turn signal was in double time, like a nervous woman incessantly tapping her long fingernails. I turned it off and then on again, and still, she tapped in fast motion. I checked the right turn signal, and the slow, rhythmic sound was a soothing contrast to the impatient clicking of the leftie.

I could have turned the car around and demanded they fix the hyperactive turn signal, but I didn’t. I realized the irony and the lesson immediately. Nope, the Sorento and I were going to endure her flaw because I need to be reminded of something every time I turn left: there exists in me a problem with speed. I thrive on going fast -everything from walking to talking. In Ghana, as I spoke to groups of our families in the Rising Village program, Isaac, our Ghana director, was constantly giving me a signal to slow down my rapid speech – palms down, pressing lower and lower. “Slow down, please Lisa,” he would say with that ever-present smile.

Yes, Lisa, please slow down. I avoid the grocery store during the mornings because that’s when all the slow people shop, and there is nothing that makes me lose my religion like getting behind someone who shuffles through the aisles as if they have never stepped foot inside that store. Here’s another sad fact: sometimes I count down how long it takes me to get dressed in the morning and I’m not making that up. If I can get dressed in 40 seconds I’m doing good. My goal is 30. It’s a game, really, because nothing in my life demands that level of speed. I can’t really explain it, and I should probably seek therapy for it, but the turn signal is cheaper. It’s double-time click has been a reminder that I shot out into the lane to make that left turn because, once again, I was in a big, fat hurry. Every time I turn left, it’s like a chant: Too fast, too fast, too fast, too fast. 

I drive like a granny now, and it’s not because I made some resolution to “slow down in 2015.” It’s because I want to keep that Sorento and call in a radio car show and boast that my Kia has 145,000 miles on it, and here’s this little noise it’s been making…” And also, because I can look back and list quite a few other mishaps that occurred because I was too impatient to slow down, or just wait patiently. I still find myself tempted to play “beat the clock” while getting dressed or doing a dozen other daily tasks, but now I’m paying attention to my need for speed and intentionally slowing things down. And if I need a poignant reminder, I can always slowly walk to my car, get in, drive the speed limit, and make a bunch of left turns.

 

I Know That Lady!

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After dropping Alison at the bus stop, I was sitting at the red light on 71st street waiting to go straight across into my neighborhood. It’s a tricky light, because you can’t always see the cars coming across if you’re turning left. A mom (important part to note) in a hefty SUV didn’t see me and proceeded to sail through her left turn while I inched to a stop in the middle of the intersection. They she shot me her middle finger, raised high and mighty with her child in the front seat and two children in the back seat. She kept it up all the way through her turn and still hadn’t put it down after she was on 71st street. I was sitting in the intersection gawking before I slowly moved on through. I had the right-of-way, but realized that when you are in a hurry to get your kid to school, those pesky little rules of the road often get lost in the tense moments.

“Really lovely,” I muttered to no one. “And with her kids in the car.”

And then I realized: I know that lady. I know her well.

She is me.

Okay, I do not flash my middle finger while driving, or at any other time. Every time I see someone do this, I picture them as an eight-year-old kid on the playground trying to get attention, or as a beer-bellied sports fan of the other team yelling obscenities to refs on the field who are far out of earshot. I’m not making a moral judgement on the woman and her naughty finger. I’m looking deeper than her gesture and seeing something in her that I can relate to: a tenseness that can string us so tightly that when we snap we look a little crazy.

Sometimes that tension emanates from stress, fear, and – in my own life lately – busyness. These days I’m wearing too many hats and juggling too many balls, but feel unable to take them off or lay them down. It’s the season of my life and while I accept it and realize it’s temporary, I find myself irritable, impatient, and too-vocal about things that get under my skin. I’ve not had the desire to shoot my finger up, but I have grumbled under my breath at people who walk slowly in the grocery store. I’ve given the dogs lectures about their co-dependence (aren’t the pets always an easy target?), and I’ve declared to my husband and children that if they didn’t hear me the first time, I will not be repeating previous statements or questions: “I’m too tired to replay what you should have heard if you had been listening.”

Ouch. Yeah, a little crazy.

So while I can sit comfortably high in moral superiority to the mom in the SUV, I kind of empathize with her. We’re too tense. Too easily ticked off and offended. Wound too tightly Our hurried days cause us to ignore the many rules of the road that surround us when it comes to our relationships. We’re trying to get somewhere, make something happen, please a lot of people, fix a bunch broken things, shout above the crowd to be heard. Many people are holding on by a fraying thread. And when a little vehicle threatens to get in the way of that frenetic pace, it can all come spilling out in an ugly gesture, an insensitive word, or worse, a blindness to the needs of those around us.

I’ve spent the morning thinking about that lady and feeling sorry that her day began with a spurt of rage. I thought about my own crazy pace and wondered how I can possibly get everything done and not feel like I’m the one careening through the intersection snarling at everyone to get out of my way. And then I remember that Jesus said he’d take that yoke (that’s the burden of crazy lives we carry on our shoulders). He offered to trade it for lightness because he doesn’t demand all that we demand of ourselves. And he certainly doesn’t demand what the world demands of us.

Sitting in my office chair, I could almost hear his voice saying, “Just take it easy. Go about your business, but know that I’ve lightened the load.” I used to wonder what that really meant. Is he going to fix things? Make me more productive? Move the annoying people out of my life?

No. He’s just going to remind me that whatever happens, I’m good. The world isn’t depending on my heroic efforts, my perfection, or my achievements. I don’t have to keep getting better at something or prove how indispensable I am or fix anyone. God isn’t depending on these things. “You’re good,” he says in Matthew 11:29-30. “Stop being so wound up about it.” (Major paraphrase) I think that’s all any of us really want to know: that we’re loved and accepted and wrapped up in arms that tell us to just take it easy.

I’m sure the lady in the SUV has settled into her day. I said a little prayer for her, and for me – that we would calm down, take a deep breath, and lean on the One who is gentle and humble so that we can find rest for our weary souls.

Hi. Remember Me?

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I haven’t blogged in three months.

I’m not proud of this.

The last time you heard from me I had sore legs from hiking and was reading really good books in the mountains of Colorado. That was one wonderfully restorative vacation and I needed every second of it. I read the last post I wrote on August 1st, and thought about how much has happened in the past three months. It was a good thing I took advantage of the hikes, the books, the family time, the quiet, because I came home and the whirlwind began. I decided to stop talking, step back, and listen. You can learn a lot in the silence, and in many ways listening was also restorative. It brought me to a place of realizing that I know very little, and control even less.

I don’t really know the best way to condense the last three months, but here’s at least what I think I’ve learned:

1) If your 17 year-old cat has become skin and bones and is limping around the house howling, she is trying to tell you that her time on earth is done and she would like for you to help her cross over to the other side. Our old cat Mattie died about six weeks after we returned from Colorado. Honestly, we’re not cat people and she’s the only one we’ll probably every own (please, Lord), but we had grown fond of her presence, if for no other reason that she stubbornly maintained her place as the senior pet and she didn’t take any crap from the dogs. I liked her grit and tenacity. When it was time to go, she let us know, but we were dense and mostly irritated with her crankiness so we didn’t take the hint. I won’t go into the details, but things got messy with her bowel functions, which was the catalyst for realizing that her nine lives were up. So Kyle and Colin loaded her up and took her to the cat doc and they did that thing they do. I still miss her.

2) When the college graduate comes home to live because he doesn’t have a job, it’s not the end of the world. I always pictured this as a kind of depressing scenario, filled with tension and someone feeling a sense of failure. But now I know better. He’s been under our roof for a reason, and the truth is I don’t know how we would have made it through the last three months without him living in our house. And while we’ll all be thrilled when he is able to get the job and the funds to be on his own, this will happen when it is supposed to happen, and I don’t wring my hands over it or wonder what people are thinking. He does his own laundry, likes leftovers (we eat a lot of these), plans movie nights, and helps in the family business. More about that later.

3) Change happens just when you least expect it, but always when God plans it. Kyle and I have had big job changes. We both find ourselves leading nonprofits – mine small and new, his large and established. We didn’t expect to be in these roles, but here we are. And I could give you a separate list of what we are learning in the midst of this journey, but the biggest lesson comes in the form of a boat, and a thread. Here it is: When the storm is raging and we’re not sure how things are going to turn out, we keep reminding ourselves that God is in the boat. And even if we know this in our heads, our hearts sometimes are just hanging on by a thread of faith. But that gets us to the next day where we just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I love journey stories, which is why I seem to write so often about loss, lessons, and God. That seems to be the recurring cycle for me on this journey. I experience loss, learn the lessons, and find God again in the midst of it.

So, I guess I’m done being silent. Thanks for hanging in there with me. It’s good to be back.

Years and Cheers: Hold Your Head High, 48

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Yesterday was my birthday and I spent an hour of it in the dentist’s chair. By choice. I’m not proud of myself for scheduling a dentist appointment on my birthday and so I’m overanalyzing why I would do this. It helped that my friend in Ghana, Isaac, sent me a  message yesterday morning with birthday greetings and a request to let him know all about my celebrations. I told him I was going to the dentist. He seemed disappointed. “But please get time to celebrate,” he said, and then informed me he would be waiting for celebration updates and pictures. The pressure was on.

So I had to ask myself, why would I so diminish the significance of the day I was born by agreeing to lay in the dentist’s chair and have my teeth cleaned? And to make it worse, I had nothing else planned for the day except work and then a dinner out (and although I appreciate dinner out, we do this at the end of the day). After all, it’s a birthDAY. I’m sorry to report that I did keep my dentist appointment because I wasn’t willing to pay the $50 charge for canceling in less than 24 hours, but I decided to take my friend’s advice and celebrate. In Ghana, birthdays are a reason to set aside the mundane and acknowledge that life is fragile, and that every day is a blessing. By God’s grace. I heard this response multiple times a day in Ghana. Often it was said in the context of a greeting:

“How are you today?”

“I am fine, by God’s grace.”

Another year has passed and I have much to be grateful for, by God’s grace. 

I promised my friend Isaac I would celebrate and take photos, so after my teeth were cleaned and polished I slid out of that dentist’s chair and proceeded to acknowledge that every day is a blessing, especially a birthday. I am 48 years old, which is a number that makes me cringe just a bit and might explain the ease with which I basically disregarded the day. I know very few people over the age of 21 who count down their birthday with exuberance. We might enjoy the dinner out, the gifts, and the cake someone brings to the office on our birthday, but other than that we don’t skip around shouting to everyone “Hey! I can’t wait for Tuesday because I’ll finally be 48!” But my friend’s words the morning of my birthday made me realize that scheduling a dentist appointment and not altering my work schedule did little to acknowledge the blessing of another year and the grace that has been shown me within that year. With polished teeth and a report of no cavities (pretty good for 48, right?), I grabbed the two people who were in closest proximity and told them we were celebrating. And we did. Lunch, a stroll through the Woody Guthrie Center, a walk around Guthrie Green, and I didn’t even check email on my phone. At this point, you’re probably making the spot-on observation that this is hardly kicking up my heels and really celebrating, but it was spontaneous and something that absolutely did not fit into my busy schedule. Which made it wonderfully celebratory.

I’m learning that with each passing year, I fit more comfortably into who I really am. I’ve stopped trying to please everyone or try on personas that make me more agreeable and tolerable. I’m trying to listen to the deepest places inside my soul where God whispers, “Come to me and find rest.” I’m learning to be comfortable with drifting just a bit, despite high expectations, my need for speed, and the feeling that I must fix the world. I haven’t conquered anything completely, but I agree with Anna Quindlen who says, “Control is a nice concept, little more.” Perhaps these are the things that should make each birthday a cause for celebration. I’m not getting better, just better at being okay with my limitations and imperfections. By God’s grace. 

So thank you Isaac, for causing me to slow down and think just a bit about all the blessings of a birthday, even one that marks 48 years on earth. I did take photos. And I did acknowledge the blessings of June 25, 2013. My birthday. Cheers!

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Life Goes Off-Script

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I was in a play in sixth grade, The Nuremburg Stove. The story is about a poverty-stricken father and his four daughters who have only one proud possession – a beautiful antique stove. The self-appointed guardian of the stove is Tina, who feeds it, hugs it, and gives it a name: Hirschvogel. Then, in desperation, the father sells the stove, which is where the real story begins as Tina refuses to stand by and watch the family’s treasure disappear. I played one of the sisters and delivered my lines flawlessly, not because I was a talented actor, but because I was deathly afraid of messing up the whole production for myself and everyone else. I still have this problem in real life, but that’s another story. Somewhere about halfway through the play, a girl who played one of the other sisters went off-script. She forgot her lines and started going in all directions. I thought it was my job to bring her back to the script, and so I fed her lines, prompted her, and even stepped in and delivered her lines a few times. It never really worked and I was relieved when the play was over.

I don’t like improv.

I like scripts.

In fact, scripts make me feel comfortable and secure and so I have one for my life. Here’s the cast: happy marriage, obedient kids, financial security, healthy body, uncomplicated relationships, and a good reputation. And the cast has a script, and I don’t like it when the players go rogue and start doing improv. That happened two weeks ago. The financial security cast member went off-script. Here’s the story: Several years ago we ended up owning two houses (which really should not have been in the script either). One of those houses we live in, and one of them is in Shawnee, Okla., where we do not live. So we tried to sell the Shawnee house. It a great house, but there are three little issues: it needs a little cosmetic lift on the inside, it’s in a small town, and it was built in the 1920’s. There is a certain kind of person who would love this historic old home. We’re people like that, but apparently other people like us were in short supply when we put the For Sale sign in the yard, so it sat for a while as we bled cash. And then someone came along who fell in love with the house, and he asked if he could rent it until he had the cash on hand to buy it. “Yes! yes!” we shouted, because we thought this fit well into the script. As it turns out, he paid the rent and utilities for a year – which stopped the cash hemorrhaging – but then he ran into money trouble and had to move out. So now the sign is back in the yard and we’re back to square one.

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This was not in the script.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve thought about these scripts that we write for our lives. We all do it, but some are better than others when life does not follow the script. People like me get nervous and think that it’s our job to prompt, hint, feed lines, and try desperately to take control of the production. But I think God is more into improv than scripts. And I’m sure this has everything to do with walking by faith and opening our hands to give back to Him everything that we think we own and control. I’m doing neither of these things well these days, and I don’t particularly like the way this production seems to be headed. Or maybe what bothers me most is that I don’t know which way it’s headed.

Admittedly, I’m a person who likes to take control, so I must be careful not to try to predict how things will end. Sometimes it’s best just to let life go off-script and trust that it’s going to be a really good ending. But I am caught between action and waiting. I have a hard time knowing when the time is right to get busy doing, and when it’s better to sit back and just trust. So here is one thing I’m doing, for better or worse.

Here’s a link to our really awesome house in Shawnee. You just might know someone who wants to buy such a house. Or maybe you’re just curious to look since I’ve hyped it up a bit.

Now, I’m just going to take a deep breath. I’m trusting that God will help me learn how to go off-script and wait for the unpredictable ending – the one that He has already written.

Elves, Shelves, and Bearded Old Men

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Santa has disappeared from our house. By that, I mean that we no longer have children who believe that Santa climbs down the chimney, delivers the gifts, and eats the cookies.

Here’s a secret: I’m a little bit happy about that.

Once the older two kids finally swallowed hard and accepted reality, it was hard to keep playing up Santa for the youngest. We were sloppy about it and slipped up so many times that I’m sure Alison’s been playing along since she was about five. When she was nine, about a month before Christmas, she sat with me in front of the fire and said, “Oh, just so you know, I don’t believe in Santa anymore. You don’t have to keep talking about him.” She never liked Santa. She was terrified of him that very first Christmas after we brought her home, and she has never warmed up to him. Not only did she adamantly refuse to sit in his lap, but she gave him the cold shoulder at parties. She was not interested in his candy, nor his invitations to “tell me what you want.” And then, there he was at the holiday parade the other night, the grand finale, waving to the adoring crowds. “I never cared much for him,” Alison stated. She should have gone ahead and finished her statement with, “I’m glad he’s out of my life.”

I miss the days of sneaking the gifts out and eating the cookies. Kyle always wrote a letter (as Santa). It was tradition.

So I’ve been mildly interested in the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon and wondered if we would have incorporated that tradition into our Santa ruse. It’s been around a few years, I know, but I’m a little slow on the uptake. So I went to the official website to learn about these watchful elves:

The tradition begins when Santa sends his scout elves out to Elf Adoption Centers. Waiting for their families to bring them home, these patient elves hibernate until their family reads The Elf on the Shelf, gives their elf a very special name, and registers their adoption online. Once named, each scout elf will receive its Christmas magic and become a part of the family’s Christmas each and every year.  

Basically, these little adopted elves don’t stay on the shelf. They move around the house, making sure the kiddies are nice, not naughty. They record good deeds and tattle to Santa about the bad deeds…every night. Apparently, when you’re in your home, there is no escaping these elves. And I’m guessing they take their jobs quite seriously. So does Carol Aebersold and her daughters, the co-authors and CFO of the Elf on the Shelf corporation. The women have taken Christmas magic to new heights. “We’re ambassadors for Santa,” daughter Chanda says.

Now, I hesitate to go much further with this because I know many families who have little elves sliding around their house watching the kids and making reports. I haven’t talked with all of these children, but I suspect that this little game is enjoyable or else the Elf on the Shelf corporation would not be doing such a profitable business. (By the way, the Clause Couture Collection 2012 Elf Scout Skirt is sold out, in case you were wondering.) And I’m confident that at some point in our Santa tradition we would have given the elf a whirl at our house. In fact, we could have probably used something like this with unnamed eldest son. What better way to take the pressure off the all-consuming parental responsibility of making sure a child behaves than to shovel some of that off onto an innocent elf? I certainly got tired of being Santa’s eyes and ears. Children are forever asking, “How does Santa know if I’m being good?” And of course we had no other brilliant answer than, “Oh, he knows.” The elf, however, does the dirty work and makes sure that The Big Man knows.

But would the elf have worked with Alison? Not a chance. For a kid who had already written Santa off, an elf on the shelf would have been yet another reason to reject the jolly old man. Not only was Santa creepy, but now he had a mole.

Well, we’ll never be certain if the elf would have been welcomed into our home. Santa has left this building. But if things get ugly around here, I’m dusting a place off the mantle just in case we need to bring in back-up. You never know.

Thoughts on a Hurricane

On our return trip from Ghana Sunday afternoon, I barely escaped New York’s JFK airport ahead of Sandy. Having just flown in from the other side of the world, I didn’t know there was a hurricane brewing. We heard about Sandy as soon as we hit the ground in NYC and we tried to process the possibility of such devastation: the crush of water leveling homes; the dangerous winds that could blow automobiles off the road; the hundreds of thousands who were going to be without power (it’s still 5 million without power as of today); the lives that might be lost. I arrived home on Sunday evening just in time to see the coverage on Sandy begin. While Alison and Kyle combed the neighborhood for candy last night, I sat in front of CNN and watched with disbelief. The terror of a natural disaster doesn’t respect the state, country, or continental lines that have been drawn by mere mortals. I witnessed people in distress and struggling to survive in Ghana, then came home to see it in my own country. I have taken note of the difference in reaction, however, between those who suffer disaster in places where disaster is prevalent, and those who suffer where comfort is the expectation and demand. The interviews with people who were walking in Manhattan – forced out of their cars and mass transit by a shutdown of roadway access – ring in my ears. “I’ve walked two hours,” said a UPS employee. “It’s been a marathon.” And while our President and his administration are being held in high regard for their quick response to the suffering, experts are speculating that if the power doesn’t come back on in short order, those affected might take their frustrations to the ballot box.

At this point, I could make an expected comparison between the resilience of those in developing countries where conditions force them to endure with little complaining, and the reaction of Americans to a hurricane disaster that affects them in such direct and painful ways. But that would be wrong. Those of us who live in relative comfort are blessed beyond what we can comprehend, and when disaster comes, we are rightfully shocked and talk openly about the pain of what we are experiencing. We make note of the fact that we are used to having access to basics like mass transit and electricity, and we watch in awe as rugged homes are washed away or reduced to rubble. I don’t blame the UPS employee for complaining about a two hour walk across the city. We are rightfully vocal about this hurricane and what it has done to our cities and communities.

But we also endure.

In the midst of all the coverage, what has drawn me in is not the ugliness of Sandy, but the beauty of people who may weep over what they have lost, yet also throw back their shoulders and vow to stay and rebuild. Neighbors and strangers cared for one another in selfless ways when they thought no one was watching. But those of us in the rest of the United States and around the world are watching. And what I see causes me to feel an even deeper sense of gratitude for this country I live in. Maybe it’s a result of being away from it – and all of its comforts and attributes – for ten days. If so, all the better. Sometimes we don’t realize the wonder of our blessings until we are absent from them for a time. I pray that each person who is suffering in the path of Sandy will have everything restored to them – from electricity to a roof over their head. Those who have lost loved ones will have the lingering question of “why?”, but I pray they will rebuild their lives and move forward with an even greater sense of how lovely and fleeting life is. These are easy prayers to pray from my home in the middle of the country where hurricanes don’t devastate. But I pray these prayers because I believe we are also a people of resilience and endurance, despite our First World comforts. We have learned to enjoy them, but we’re still strong when they have been ripped from our fingers.

So I return from Ghana and find myself on my knees for the people in my own country. Will you join me?

Is Anyone Out There Listening?

When Kyle and I started dating in college, I would often ask him this question during a long stretch of silence: “So…hey, what are you thinking about?”

His answer: “Nothing.”

“Come on, you were thinking about something. Do you just not want to share it?”

“I wasn’t thinking about anything.”

My thought: He’s lying.

For several years, I continued to ask this ridiculous question until I finally realized two things: 1) It was none of my business what he was thinking, and 2) he wasn’t lying.

In case you haven’t heard, men and women come from two different planets. I never can remember who is from Mars and who is from Venus, but I get the point. Our brains are wired differently, which is supposed to be why we love and fight with ferocity. So I finally stopped asking Kyle the question, “What are you thinking?” and simply marveled at the fact that there could be prolonged periods of time when there was literally nothing going through his mind. This has been confirmed for me many times over the years as I have remained married to this same man and then birthed and raised his son. Yes, men actually enjoy moments where there is a deep, long silence in the brain. No thoughts. No plans being made. No list-making. No playbacks of conversations. No strategizing, worrying, anticipating, grumbling, rehearsing. As Jerry Seinfeld says, “Men aren’t thinking about anything. We’re just walking around and looking at stuff.” That’s it. They’re not even thinking about what they are looking at. Blessed silence. Of course I know it isn’t always this way. Kyle has many things running through his mind, but at least he takes some breaks. I’m jealous.

The risk in writing honestly is that you might be assuming everyone knows what you’re talking about when the truth is you are the only one who has the problem. So if I’m the only female who seems to never have silence in her head, then the next time you see me you can smile kindly and hand me the contact number of a good therapist. But I don’t think I’m the only one. Women talk to one another, and my female friends and family members have confirmed that they simply can’t imagine having the luxury of inner silence. “It must be nice,” a friend said, “to be able to turn off the brain chatter.”

So this morning, when there were far too many problems I was trying to solve and endless ideas running through my head, I decided to stop, clear them out, and listen. It would have been nice if I had been standing in a field of songbirds or near a mountain stream, but I was in my bathroom putting on mascara. I heard the clock hands ticking, the water faucet outside running (Why is the water running outside? No, don’t think about that right now), the dog snoring, and my own breathing. When is the last time I listened to my own breathing? People who meditate talk about how important it is to focus on breathing, but I only do this when I am at the end of my morning run and trying to bring of a kind of rhythm to my gasps for air. Otherwise I take for granted that the breaths are coming in and going out. But this morning in my bathroom there were several minutes when I had absolutely not one thought. It was wonderful. And if someone had walked up to me and said, “Penny for your thoughts,” I would have replied, “Keep your penny.” Throughout the day, I tried to turn off the chatter so that I could listen to what was going on around me. Really listen. I didn’t hear anything dramatic, revolutionary, or life-changing, but maybe my overworked brain appreciated some moments of peace and quiet. I’m sure my soul needed the rest.

It’s funny though, the minute I finished my bathroom moment of silence I had to hurry and find out why that darn water was running. The 11 year-old was bored and watering dead plants, so I made a mental list of last-week-before-school-starts activities she can do and had a little guilt moment for not sending her to camp this week. Then I began to ponder why we don’t go to the library more often. And on it went. That’s a woman for you.

Time Flies When You’re in a Rut

Summer is coming, and if it’s like every other summer of my adulthood it will last about three minutes. It seems like I’m buying beach towels one week and school uniforms the next. What has happened to the endless summer? These years, every season seems to be over before I’ve unloaded all my clothes and shoes from the under-the-bed storage. My cousin and I saw each other at a play last week and both realized the last real conversation we had was at Christmas. “That long?” we both said, since neither of us have any earthly idea where the past three months have gone.

I used to think that life moved so swiftly because I am such a busy person, so I chided myself internally for not taking life slower. Thankfully, busyness is not the culprit. Scientists have actually studied why, as people get older, they have a sense that time is actually moving faster than it is. One theory?

Ruts.

Surely you know what those are. I do, because I’m knee-deep in them. I head into my office every morning at 7:40 a.m. with my second cup of coffee in hand. I return emails first, do postings next, eat a banana about an hour later, exercise during the lunch hour ( I walk and run the exact same route every day), return more emails after lunch, take a break at 3 p.m. when my daughter comes in from school…I won’t go on. This is the story most days, with a few variations here and there. I love my job, my hobbies, and my life, but all of it tends to waltz along with a familiar 1-2-3 step. It’s a pleasant rhythm, but at the end of the day, the repetition makes the dance a bit of a blur.

So, based on this theory, what do scientists offer as a way to slow down the days, months, years? I love the answer: Experience more “firsts.”

As children, we were constantly experiencing new things for the first time. The younger we were, the more “firsts” we had.

First day of school. First bicycle. First big snow. First time off the high dive. First double-digit birthday. First pet. First time to walk to school alone. First kiss.

When we experience things for the first time, there are so many details to remember that the list of encoded memories is dense, and reading them back gives us a feeling that those experiences must have taken forever. I remember that first time off the high dive with slow-motion precision: the long walk around the pool deck to the diving board; looking up at the stairs with my hands gripping the rails; the feel of the ridges in the aluminum ladder as I climbed endlessly up; crouching for a moment at the top (I hate heights); the rough board under my feet as I walked to the edge; focusing my eyes on the water below and ignoring the people waiting their turn at the bottom of the stairs; turning around and walking back toward the ladder (I hate heights, did I mention?); turning away from the ladder and walking back to the edge of the board (because I hate being fearful worse than I hate heights); sticking one foot out and bouncing off the board and into the air; falling, splashing, and then sputtering up for air because I had plunged so deeply into the cold, chlorinated water. Yeah, and I can remember about five things from the last two months.

I’m not old, but I’m also not ready for my list of encoded memories to fade away into shallow nothingness. Time is relative, I know, but I’d like to savor my memories…if I can call them to mind at all. So what’s a girl like me doing in a rut like this? And what, if anything, should I do about it?

Scientists say that even small changes in the routine can help time move at a slower pace. Suggestions? Drive a new route to work. This won’t happen for me since I work from home, but the next time I drive to the office where I volunteer, I’m going a totally different way. Will this make all the difference for my encoded memories? I have no idea, but for goodness sakes, there isn’t anything wrong with shaking up the routine. And I’m ready for some significant “firsts” again. Just a few. But unlike in childhood, adulthood “firsts” don’t come without some effort. Most of us who waltz in endless routine circles must be intentional about experiencing new things. We prefer our tried and true experiences because they are predictable and don’t require a lot of effort or thought. It crossed my mind to take a different route on my walk/run yesterday, but it was easier to stick with the old route. See? Even when I’m exerting energy I’m finding ways to exert less energy.

Another suggestion for slowing life down: Go to a place you’ve never been. So, in the spirit of experiencing a “first,” I’m traveling to Ghana on May 13. It’s my first time to that country. My first time to Africa. My first time to travel across the ocean without a group (it’s just Erin and me). So there you go. I’m shaking up the routine in a big way and hoping to make a list of dense encoded memories – just to slow things down a bit. Of course, time is relative and it will fly by in Ghana just as quickly as it does when I’m living in the midst of my ruts, but I’m hoping this “first” will allow the memories to play back in slow motion and with great detail. But just in case…I’m taking two cameras.

What People Think About My Daughter

I suppose that those of us who have children of different ethnic backgrounds are paying close attention to the Trayvon Martin story that broke a few weeks ago. If we aren’t, we should be.

There are hundreds of thoughts that are swirling around my head about this issue, but I’m going to condense them into only a few that hopefully string together to make some kind of sense. It seems as though little makes sense to me these days. I’ve listened to the reports, the interviews, the speculation, the facts, and the opinions of far too many people. I’ve watched vigils and seen people pontificate with intellectual prowess while wearing hoodies. And I’ve heard the recorded cell phone calls (and yes, I think I did hear what I thought I heard, but I’m not sure).

I wouldn’t have the audacity to think I could possibly know how Trayvon’s mother might feel. I do not have an African-American son. But I have an Asian-American child, and I can tell you what I know people think about her:

She is good at math

She is submissive

She is shy

She excels at either the violin or piano

Not one of these things is true about my daughter. That’s not the amazing thing, however. What shocks me is that people will assume these things about my daughter simply because of the way she looks. Before they have met her, or talked to me about her, or talked to her about what she loves and doesn’t love, they will make determinations about who she is and how she will act based upon her almond shaped eyes and straight black hair. She is Asian, therefore, she fits all of the stereotypes that we have come to believe about people who do not look like us.

Is this what happened on the evening of February 26, 2012? Because a young man was black, wearing a hoodie, and walking, he was assumed to be 1) a threat to the community, 2) armed, 3) dangerous, 4) gangster, 5) up to no good. So therefore, it was justifiable to shoot him. I’m only asking. I wasn’t there.

But I have been there when people have made inaccurate assumptions about my child, and it’s maddening. Sometimes, when people do this I want to scream, “She has an inside, you know!” She isn’t aware of those assumptions yet, but sadly, she will be at some point and I want to shield her from them. I want to tell her that she simply must ignore the people who only look at her ethnicity and make judgments based on that. Don’t just ignore those people, I want to warn her, but stay far away from them. Maybe this is what Trayvon’s mother told him also, but the sad reality is that it’s impossible. We live in a world of people who are racist and don’t even realize it. Why? Because we live in a country that practices systematic racism without blinking an eye. You might disagree because we have an African-American president, but please look at all the skepticism, fear, judgement, and inaccurate assumptions that have surrounded him since he became president.

In case you were wondering if this post was all about prideful, righteous indignation, you should know that I do not take myself out of the equation when it comes to racism. I’ve crossed to the other side of the street plenty of times. I’ve caught myself making judgements about people based on the placement and quantity of tattoos. And I’ve dismissed people because of their color, dialect, and, yes, size. Haven’t you? And really, isn’t that the problem? We would all like to say that we’re not prone to judge people based on their outward appearance, but we do it all the time. And taken to the extreme, this kind of action is deadly to the soul, and to the body.

I weep for Trayvon Martin’s mother because she has lost a son. However it happened, it was unjustifiable. Life is precious, and if we truly believe that, we would not settle for a law that allows one person to kill another and never have to answer questions about how it happened. I don’t want that for my child, for your child, or for anyone’s child. We can do better than this. Our children deserve it.

The Gift Bins

Three friends had birthdays last month and I pulled down the gifts bins because I hate to shop. In case you don’t have gift bins, let me explain exactly what they are. Two plastic Sterilite boxes reside side-by-side on a shelf in our coat closet. One is labeled “Adult Gifts,” the other, “Kid Gifts.” They contain items that I collect throughout the year – mostly items that were on sale and purchased in bulk. I don’t regift – at least not that I would admit in a blog post. If I do regift, here is my criteria: tags on and something that would not qualify as a white elephant gift. Yes, the second part of the criteria is broad and subjective, so if you ever receive a gift from me that you don’t like you have my permission to regift it.

When I began my gift bins about a decade ago, I believed that I had stumbled upon such a practical idea. The bins would be in easy reach and I would keep them filled and at the ready for any gift-giving occasion. I don’t typically dip into them for wedding and baby showers because of that registry thing. My mother taught me that if you are invited to a baby or wedding shower, do NOT try to be clever, original, or unique with your gift. Just buy it off the registry, which is what the bride or mother-to-be wants anyway. She doesn’t want you to be clever, original, or unique. That’s why she registered. So my bins contain a variety of birthday, new home, or simply “thinking about you” gifts. I add to them throughout the year and I keep them organized. The bins are just the right size so I can open the lid and see everything in them immediately (for those times when I am in a very big hurry). On the surface, my practical idea seems to be so…practical. But there is a problem, evidenced by the fact that I purchased three birthday gifts last month. Here’s the problem: The gift bins contain crappy gifts.

I realized this the other night as a friend and I talked about our bins. She has them too. And hers have crappy gifts too. We laughed about it as I ticked off my list of gift bin items. But the further I got down my list, the more I became aware that I might just be looking the fool, especially when I revealed that in the “Kid Gift” bin there is a VHS (VHS!) tape of one of the Bibleman movies. If you don’t know what those are, Google “Bibleman” so that you, too, can have a good belly laugh about it.

The thought that perhaps my bins contain crappy gifts had been edging around my mind over the past several months, especially when I was out shopping for those three birthday presents. So after our conversation about the bins, I went home and took an inventory. Since I was not in panic mode scrambling for a gift, it was a good time to honestly evaluate the contents of the gift bins. Here is what I found:

Adult Bin:

a book light (free gift with purchase!)

reusable shopping bags

coasters 

notepad with the words, “I try to live simply, but DRAMA just keeps following me around…”

a beaded bracelet with the paint chipping off the beads

a copy of Velvet Elvis (While I do not for one minute think this is a crappy gift, I honestly don’t know anyone left who hasn’t read it. So if you haven’t, let me know and I’ll wrap it up and put your name on it.)

a tablerunner

That’s my list of adult gifts. Please be honest. Would you want to pull any one of these items from a cute gift bag as you are celebrating the day of your birth? But it gets better.

Here’s what I found in the Kid Bin:

boys boxers, size medium, covered with frogs wearing crowns and holding giant hearts

a shower puff

two pez dispensers, Buzz and Woody (okay, these aren’t so bad)

strawberry shortcake stickers 

a Veggie Tales watch (free gift with purchase!)

mini holiday activity book and crayons packaged together

sports theme Christmas tree ornaments (because we know how much kids love to get Christmas tree ornaments)

a microfiber hair towel (another kid favorite)

a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle of a black lab puppy surrounded by American flags

I’ve pondered my gift bin items for two days. I’ve wondered what possessed me to include these items in something called a gift bin. I’m rethinking the purpose of having a gift bin. I’m worried about my relationship with the people who, in the past, have received items from my gift bins.

I’ve admitted in a previous post that I’m an overthinker, so I’ve decided not to spend too much time on this gift bin issue. I’ve put the items back in the Sterilite boxes, but I did tear the “gift bin” sticker off each box. These items are destined for somewhere other than a gift bag for a friend or family member. I suppose there is some merit to a gift bin, but there is also value in taking the time to plan ahead and think carefully about the person and what might be a meaningful gift. The painful truth is that most people know the difference between a gift that is carefully chosen and one that is snatched at the last moment. If I’m too busy to give something from the heart, then I’m probably too busy.

So, goodbye gift bins. No more excuses about being cheap and hating to shop. I will reject the mentality of keeping the good stuff for me and giving away the leftovers, or worse, the rejects. Giving generously, thoughtfully, and cheerfully (which means no almost-forgot, last-minute giving) feels better anyway.

Velvet Elvis, anyone?

You Get What You Have

Days pass. Seasons change. The wardrobe must be updated.

This has been my quiet and private mantra for years. The coming of fall (or spring) calls for a freshening up of the wardrobe, or at least of a few new items. Absolutely nothing wrong with this, except that the few become the many. I start with a commitment: only one bottom, one top, and one pair of shoes. Ha. It never turns out that way. The problem with shopping at a place like Target, Kohl’s, or TJMaxx is the quantity of great bargains that are in close proximity to the one item I have come to purchase. If the sweater is a great buy, then so is the blouse, the leggings, the jeans, and the (surprise!) bag. It would be silly, the self whispers seductively, to pass up these items that are such good quality and priced so reasonably. And…I LIKE them. Really. A lot. So I leave with my allotment of new wardrobe items plus enough for three years to come. It happens this way every year, so I’m stocked on clothing for the next decade. However,  I have an arguably good reason for my excessive wardrobe updating (self whispers again).

I’m hard to fit.

Seriously. When I find a pair of pants that flatter both my hips and my short stature, or a top that doesn’t make me look frumpy, or a pair of shoes that lift me to exactly the right height (5 feet 4 inches), I grab them because I’m afraid I  may not find something so very cute that fits so exactly right. The problem is, I find lots of pants and tops that fit just fine, and many shoes that fit my height requirements. So I buy them, which probably blows my carefully crafted justification right out of the water.

Several things have converged over the past few months which have forced me to come to terms with my shopping habits:

1) A house that we own in another town is still on the market, and the reserve fund that we pay the mortgage from is dwindling.

2) I made some new friends and they live out of their car and in homeless shelters.

3) I hear stories from another new friend of mothers in Ghana who have had to relinquish their children to an orphanage because they cannot feed them.

4) I read  Radicala book that evoked alternate desires in me to either throw it across the room or give a copy to everyone I have ever met. Still deciding.

Perhaps, I thought several weeks ago, I should shop from my own closet this season. In other words, what I get is what I already have. I’m coming to terms with the reality that I have enough. Scratch that. It’s quite possible that I have more than enough.

Last night was a test. I did some birthday shopping for my daughter and walked into Kohl’s. It doesn’t matter which door you enter, you are immediately hit with incredibly appealing clothing from the junior department. This is an intentional ambush. I am years beyond wearing anything from the junior department, but some of these items still cause me to stop suddenly upon entering the store. Sometimes, I try them on. And sometimes, against my better judgement, I buy them even if I don’t need them.

But there was this dress thing. So cute. It could have been worn with leggings and boots, or tights and shoes with a certain heel height (which of course I own). The print was a blend of funky and ethnic, but also understated. This was a piece of clothing that could have been worn any number of places (versatile), it was on sale (justifiable), exactly the right length (rare), and it was right in front of me (nail in the coffin). I stopped. The whispers began: 40 percent off. Stylish but not flashy. We found a renter for the house that is sucking our reserve fund. I can grab it quickly and continue the birthday shopping. It’s a little something for me.

I walked over to the rack and pulled the plastic hanger toward me. I checked the back of the dress thing to make sure there weren’t any surprises. I held it up to my body to confirm that it was, indeed, an absolutely perfect length. I was about to walk over to the mirror to get a better look, but I stopped. With the hanger still in front of my face so that the shoulders of the dress were lined up with my own shoulders (thus confirming that perfect length), I remembered.

I did this last year. And the year before. And the year before that.

There will always be another perfect dress thing. And I will always be able to come up with justifications for buying it. It’s not just dress things; it’s shoes, bags, home decor,  kitchen gadgets, Apple products. I will have to make this decision every day, every week, every month. We live in a culture where the whispers for just a few more things are actually shouts that resound in a thousand different ways. I’m constantly being told what I need. And I will be forced to continually decide whether or not I will listen.

I lowered the hanger and slid it back on the metal rod. I left the store without the perfect dress thing that was the exact right length, just my style, and 40 percent off. I drove home to my comfortable, well-furnished house that is complete with a stocked kitchen, clean running water, central heat and air, and a closet stuffed with clothes.

I have enough.

I have more than enough.