Some Reassembly Required

“How are you caring for yourself?” The question came from a friend, one of two I meet with most Thursday afternoons for encouragement and accountability. I had just finished talking about my uncertainties in dealing with a struggling loved one – a struggle these caring women know firsthand. Together we are learning that we can’t change other people; we can only change ourselves and how we respond to them. Rather than letting their trials consume our thoughts, worries, energy and money, we are trying to take care of ourselves.

How was I doing that? The answer came without thinking: “I’m walking every day and watching what I eat.”

After they left, I considered my response. Yes, I was caring for myself by eating less and moving more, but why did I go immediately to diet and exercise? Why not the other healthy practices I began or continued over the past year?

  • I meet weekly with these women, who listen and understand and gently encourage me to love better.
  • I’ve filled the house with Christmas carols, ornamented the tree with memories and invited family and friends over.
  • Craig and I share this blog and are challenged to post every week on it.
  • I’ve established a morning routine of walking, reading, praying, writing on some days and tackling the New York Times crossword puzzle.
  • I’m cooking more locally raised and seasonal foods.
  • I worship on Sunday mornings with a community of friends who affirm and challenge me.
  • I practice yoga.
  • I spend time with a granddaughter who delights to be with me.

My physical body is only one part of me. I am also a mental, emotional, relational and spiritual being. To be healthy, I must recognize the importance of caring for all these parts. At times it seems daunting, just more to-dos that leave me feeling guilty when I don’t do them. But now that we’re empty nesters and others’ schedules (and food preferences) aren’t dictating ours, Craig and I are feeling a freedom to develop a new life rhythm, one that pulses with our heart’s desires rather than the lock step of duty.

It’s a rhythm that needs movement and stillness, solitude and community, inward reflection and outward service, truth and grace. Comfortably moving through my days with this dynamic tension is a lifelong mission. It keeps me dependent on God and grateful for the loving people in my life.

As I look over my list of healthy habits, I don’t see much in the area of service. I’ve had seasons of intense service but right now am more focused on time for writing and time with Craig, our family and friends. But seasons change, and as the new year begins, I’ll be watching for my next movement. Maybe a nudge will come during a cold morning walk.

Morning Walk

Winter Warmth

From Our Home to Yours

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.”

– Edith Sitwell

Merry Christmas from our home to yours.
We appreciate all your thoughts and encouragement. We appreciate you.

Living the American (Girl) Dream

Remember that great scene in When Harry Met Sally? No, not that scene. The one where Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are discussing high-maintenance and low-maintenance women. She asks him which she is, and he replies, “You’re the worst kind; you’re high maintenance, but you think you’re low maintenance.”

In this season of giving, I’m compelled to draw a parallel between that conversation and my parenting skills, not concerning how much maintenance I require but how indulgent I am. If I’m being honest, I’d have to admit that I’m the worst kind; I’m high indulgent, but I have always thought I was low indulgent.

My indulgence stares me in the face every Christmas. I don’t mean the stacks of presents under the tree, although there is that. I mean the 14 eyes watching me every time I walk through the foyer. There, lined  up the staircase, are the dolls. The magical dolls. All seven of them. Felicity, Josefina, Addy, Samantha, Kit, Tammy and Lindsay. Our American Girls, five historical and two modern, sparkling in their Christmas dresses, their hair combed and clipped, welcoming everyone who knocks on the front door.

They’re not always so sedentary. Some years they wear their parkas and skating outfits and play in a winter wonderland of pillow-fluff snow and a cookie-sheet skating rink. Other years they gather round their present-laden Christmas tree in their pajamas. Or they meet in their parlor for a Christmas tea and recital.

Technically, only one of the dolls is mine – my three daughters own two apiece – but my girls have abandoned theirs. They seem to think that women in their 20s are too old to play dolls. Thankfully, this woman in her 50s still lights up around them.

I blame my (tiny) obsession on Angie Provaznik. Until I was 8, I lived across the street from her. She was a year or two older but occasionally played Barbies with my sister Linda and me. Back then, girls had only one Barbie, one Skipper, one Ken and, if you were lucky, one Midge (Angie had one; Linda and I didn’t). The dolls fit snugly in a case we could carry to our friends’ houses. Linda and I also shared a Barbie house outfitted with boxy cardboard furniture. When Angie came to play, she brought her doll, her house and her wicker furniture. A real woven white wicker Barbie-sized sofa and two chairs. My Barbie longed to sit on those exquisite chairs, to lounge on the padded sofa, but Angie never shared them. Sadly, when we moved away, my Barbie was forced to covet the good life from a folded rectangle that posed as her bed.

My longing for luxurious doll living was reignited when my 1-year-old firstborn daughter began receiving the American Girl catalog. I had never seen such beautiful dolls, each from a different period in American history with outfits and accessories authentic to her time. Although new to parenting, I quickly picked up one of its main tenets: Our kids are here to live out their parents’ unfulfilled dreams.

It would be a number of years before we could afford American Girls, but we gradually collected an extensive array of dolls, outfits, furniture and accessories. Kristen loved horses, so her Tammy got the riding outfit. Later on we acquired the horse. Anna played soccer, so her Lindsay got the soccer uniform, complete with ball, cleats, shin guards and bag. Jessie wanted to be a writer, so her 1930s-era Kit got the typewriter. It came with the wheeled eraser once needed to make corrections. The dolls became a way for me to mark each girl’s interests and for them to live their American Girl dream.

Or was it really just me living mine? Kristen and Anna dressed their dolls and arranged their furniture, but only my youngest daughter, Jessie, ever really played dolls. Then she outgrew them, and if not for me at Christmas, the joy they radiate would be smothered year-round in plastic bins. And nobody would see their real woven white wicker sofa and chairs.

Now I have a granddaughter who can pick up the slack left by her aunts. Signs so far indicate Hazel will like balls more than dolls and my son and daughter-in-law have asked Craig and me not to indulge her with presents, but I can work with that. If I happen to get her a doll, I’ll just keep it at my house where Hazel and I can play with it. Any time she wants. Even the wicker furniture.

Half-Staff, Full Sorrow

Framed by a 14-foot beam recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center, the flag outside the Overland Park Fire Training Center flies at half-staff.

This morning I retraced the walk I chronicled in my Election Day blog, past the field and hawks, past the maple and redbud trees, past the Post Office, to the firefighters’ training center where I voted. The bare trees and busy Post Office on today’s journey reflected a typical December day one week before Christmas. Only one thing told me this day was anything but typical.

All the flags were flying at half-staff.

The red, white and blue that six weeks ago fanned my optimism today embodies my sorrow for the 27 women and children massacred last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut.

I need these visual reminders. Half a continent away, busy with my own Christmas preparations, I’m not living the horror of Newtown. Quite the opposite. Craig and I had three parties over the weekend, two of them in our home. We laughed with friends and family around the candlelight at our dining room table rather than cry amid the candlelight of a prayer vigil.

Today I light a candle of remembrance, a candle that causes me to pause each time I see it or catch its scent. A candle that reminds me to stop analyzing (and listening to analysts) and to start praying. A candle that calls me to mourn with those who mourn. And most importantly during this Advent season, a candle that compels me not to comfort myself by self-righteously placing blame on other people or institutions or ideologies but to reflect on my own sinfulness, my own biases, my own failure to love.

In the wake of last week’s shootings, lawmakers are promising action to make our communities safer. Yes, we need a civilized discussion on gun control, violent games and healthcare for the mentally ill, but I’m not holding out hope for positive change to come from Washington.

It must come from us. It must come from me. It must start with my admission that I have the same capacity for hatred and evil as a mass murderer, that I stand in constant need of repentance and forgiveness. My sins might not be as obvious, but they are just as real and, sadly, pretty much the same ones I’ve been battling my entire adult life.

Advent is the perfect time for such an admission because it is also the time we mark the coming of the One who is always there to forgive. In the Advent devotional God with Us, Scott Cairns quotes the wisdom of his priest, Father George Paulsen: “Most of us find that the sins of our days are the sins of our lives. And the worst thing we can do is let our shame or our pride keep us from asking forgiveness every time we must. The fact that Jesus will always forgive you finally becomes the prod. One day, you realize that you are tired of this confession, tired of this sin; on that day, you’ll decide you truly want it gone.”

Lord, have mercy. May it be so. Truly.

Winterberries

I look forward to the change of season, especially the relaxed colors of winter and the exposed structure of all things normally hidden in foliage. Some plants, though, take advantage of winter to show off, like these fiery red winterberries, a type of holly. I paint these guys every year. Plus Lee cuts sprigs from our shrubs and places them in small vases around the house to brighten our spirits throughout the holidays. Their vivid display amid winter’s starkness is a reminder of God’s invitation to experience his grace during dark times in our lives.

Dressing Down for the Holidays

Nature, by its very nature, undresses every winter and exposes itself to the wind and cold and people passing by. Stripped to its bones, it reveals the beautiful skeleton that’s masked in other seasons.

As I walked the other day, I saw birds’ nests in dozens of trees, where they’d been hidden for months in the crook of leafy branches. I noticed bark shredding off the river birch, moss covering the rutted wood of the ash, roots snaking just under the dormant grass, young switches of dogwood beaming red, the even-brighter red winterberries of a holly hedge.

I wish I were as comfortable revealing my core being this time of year. But my very nature is more apt to cover up. Even when I resolve to be mindful of the foundation of Christmas – Christ – and to expose myself to reflection and wonder, I drape myself in a flowing to-do list and layer on festivities. I humble-brag through a Christmas letter rather than admit struggles in personal notes. I plan a large party where short conversations skim the surface. I shop for things nobody needs.

Thursday night I hauled out decorations with only a few hours available over the next two days to put them up. I wanted the house merry for the brunch I was hosting Saturday. Thanks to visions from catalogs hip-hopping in my mind, I lost my usual nostalgia as I unpacked the boxes. I suddenly hated our mismatched Christmas stockings – some striped red and white, some blue and white, a furry one appliqued with a bear even though its owner is almost 21 years old, the toe of one forever stained and hardened with wax from the candle that melted as it hung above the fireplace years before. Did we really need to relive that Christmas memory one more time?

I was inexplicably seized by the need to get new stockings. Before Saturday’s brunch. The playful, pointy Whoville stockings I’d seen at a store across town. Never mind that it was too late on a Thursday night and that all of Friday was filled. I’d find a way to get them.

On our way to a fundraising auction Friday after work, I tried to talk Craig into detouring through the city to the shop, but his glare halted my obsession, or at least halted my talking about it.

I was still scheming as we arrived at the auction. This was not a black-tie high-society affair. It was a ’50s night of poufed hair and poodle skirts in the gym behind a red-brick community center in a low-income Kansas City neighborhood. Most of the crowd lived or owned businesses in the neighborhood. We were there, far from our suburban home blighted by tacky Christmas stockings, because our daughter Anna directs the center’s preschool program.

Craig and I met Anna’s co-workers and ate barbecue. We watched children play among the tables and parents bid hundreds of dollars for tickets to a Royals’ game, a DVD package and bicycles that would likely be donated back to the center. This center was theirs, and they wanted to make sure it had funds to operate throughout the coming year – money to continue the daycare program and ESL classes, to pay utilities, to grow the food for the lunch program.

Craig and I eventually shed our cloak of outside observers and wrapped ourselves in the spirit of the night. We entered the bidding and now have a play tunnel and floor puzzle to give our granddaughter for Christmas (the center didn’t need them), a new quilt on the guest-room bed and our old stockings dressing up the mantel.

Three Stops to Becoming Wonder Woman

I watched as morning sparkled both the Chicago River eight floors below me and Navy Pier stretching over Lake Michigan several blocks to the east. Sadly, glass and concrete jailed me from the streams of shoppers and sightseers being welcomed into Chicago’s holiday hospitality.

I was in the city all last week for one of the world’s largest trade shows. My Magnificent Mile(s?) was inside Chicago’s McCormick Place, where I listened to radiologists address the blizzard of changes in today’s healthcare climate and where I took my station in Exhibit Hall B, Booth 9141, for seven hours each day to engage passers-by and show them the medical search engine I am charged with marketing. At nightfall, I ate dinner with colleagues and returned to the hotel to respond to the day’s emails.

My task each day was clear: Stand tall, listen well, speak coherently, stay positive and learn more about the way radiologists work. Unfortunately, I’m not that talented, even when wearing my cushioned leather flats and following my remember-you’re-in-your-50s resolve to decline all post-dinner party invitations. (As I fell into bed that first night, I had already given up any hope of posting a blog during the week.)

Once home, rather than embrace the rest my body needed, I heeded my spirit. The blast of city life beyond my reach all week kept pulling me. Chicago’s lakefront and stinging winds were 500 miles away, but the sun and warmth in Kansas City led me to several of my treasured spaces.

The Kauffman Memorial Garden was vibrating with light and color. Leafless branches exposed clusters of cherry-red winterberries and lavender beautyberries. Bare limbs imprinted the garden wall with tentacles of shadow. Even the girls sculpted of bronze and rising from the fountain seemed to enjoy having unobstructed room to dance.

I walked north through the Sculpture Park at the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum and rested on a bench overlooking the expanse of lawn. With only one person within speaking distance of me, we were both surprised to find we knew each other. This artist and pastor friend joined me on the bench, and our serendipitous catch-up built more connection than I had experienced during all the long days of conversation the week before.

My third and last stop was to see my daughter-in-law and 1-year-old granddaughter. While Jessi ran to the post office, I walked Hazel to the neighborhood playground – four swings, two of them baby buckets, and a structure connecting three slides. Her eyes and smile, her whole world, opened up. She rode and twisted down the slides and, enthroned in a bucket, delighted in the running, climbing, sliding and pumping of the three older kids (a 2-, 3- and 5-year-old) also at the playground.

Hazel’s joy was contagious, freeing me to see how wonderful – truly, wonder full – my day had been.

Museum and Shuttlecocks, a Progression

The South Lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City features two of the museum’s four Shuttlecocks, designed by Claes Oldenburg and Coojse van Bruggen. The playful sculptures envision the museum as a net and the lawn to its north and south the badminton court.