Order in the Bedroom

Making the bed

My mom knows how to make a bed. She pulls back her covers every morning to let the bed breathe, straightens the bottom sheet, pulls up and straightens the top sheet, does the same for the blanket and then the quilt, folds the top 6-8 inches of the top sheet over the quilt, and finally plumps the pillows and lays them flat beside the headboard.

Mom knows about hospital corners, changing sheets weekly (on Thursdays) and alternating sets. She actually folds that pesky fitted sheet and stacks the just-washed sets in her linen closet for the week. For most of her life, she dried the sheets on the clothesline – we’re talking beds for 7 people – to capture the smell of the outdoors.

Mom even knows proper bed terminology. Thanks to the sisters at St. Joseph Academy in Cleveland, she learned that, rather than make our beds – the manufacturer made the bed – we dress it each day. She took such good care with the dressing that she passed on two sets of sheets from my teen years for my own girls’ beds. I really dug seeing those groovy orange poppies again.

I used to make my bed – when I lived at home, when as an adult my bedroom could be seen by people walking to the bathroom, when I was training my own kids. But over the years, rather than my kids adopting my good habit, I adopted their bad one. When they stopped making their beds, I stopped making mine.

Craig has my equally relaxed approach. He’s not a morning person, so an unmade bed doesn’t even register with him until he’s walked past it a dozen times. That might happen on a Saturday or Sunday, in which case he’ll pull up the covers and toss the pillows toward the headboard. It’s more lumps than plumps, but it works for us.

Until now.

When I make the bed, I think of Mom. She made our quilt for our 20th wedding anniversary.

When I make the bed, I think of Mom. She made our quilt for our 20th wedding anniversary.

While millions of people are resolving this year – or at least the first few weeks of this year – to cut out carbs or blog daily, I’m resolved to make my bed every day, preferably not just before I get back into it each night (although my son-in-law pointed out that, unless it were past midnight, making the bed at bedtime would still qualify as keeping my resolution – I do like that guy).

Why start now? I think it’s a case of the teacher appearing when the student is finally ready. The teacher showed up for me on the pages of Kathleen Norris’ book Acedia & Me, which I began rereading after Christmas. Fittingly, the teacher is her mom. Norris writes:

“I was a bratty kid who didn’t want to make her bed. … To me, the act was stupid repetition; to my mother it was a meaningful expression of hospitality to oneself, and a humble acknowledgement of our creaturely need to make and remake our daily environments. ‘You will feel better,’ she said, ‘if you come home to an orderly room.’”

Her mother was right. My mother was right. It does feel good. And maybe this one orderly act will lead to others. Like putting away my dirty clothes littering the bench at the foot of the bed. I think there’s a little room on the closet floor.


To read more about my mom, click here and here.

To read more stories about mothers and what they teach and give us, click the following icon, which will link you to Emily Wierenga’s blog and her Imperfect Prose on Thursdays (she doesn’t like capital letters, but I do):

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.

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.

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.

Thanksgivings Past and Present

The Thanksgiving table was ready, each place at the polished oak table sparkling with new stemware and china. So what if the official holiday was five months away? Ann Thomas’* gratitude couldn’t wait.

On this hot June day of 2007, in her village of Phoenix, La., 30 miles south of New Orleans, Ann walked me through her newly built home, fresh with the smell of paint and new furniture. This home replaced the one swept away when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in September 2005. After nearly two years of living with relatives and then in a FEMA trailer, Ann and her husband, Dymond, were finally home.

I was just one of the many volunteers from Covenant World Relief who had spent the past year helping the Thomases and other Phoenix residents rebuild. In the coming months, more houses were finished and more families left their cramped trailers to return home. By Thanksgiving, they were ready to serve up their gratitude and sweet potato pie to the volunteers fortunate to be there for the weekend. I was one of them.

The church-hopping that started the day – we worshipped at St. Joseph’s and then Zion Travelers – moved into table-hopping, a festive parade from house to house where each hostess served us a traditional Cajun feast. I vowed to approach this day as a progressive dinner – appetizers at the first house, salads at the second, entrees next, etc. – but my Midwest resolve disappeared when I walked into Ann’s kitchen and saw the counter laden with a Cajun-spiced turkey, dirty rice, gumbo, shrimp-stuffed peppers, and sweet potato pie. I tasted it all, and did the same at the next three houses. By 7:00, I reached my fifth house with a greatly diminished group and appetite. Two of us shared pie and stories with our 80-year-old friend Ellen.

At each stop throughout the day, the stories and laughter fed us as much as the oyster dressing and baked spaghetti. We learned how faith always trumped despair, how a devastated community remained hopeful and thankful.

It’s a lesson I’m carrying today as I head to the nursing home with Craig and my daughter Anna to pick up my dad and take him to my brother’s house, where 15 of us will be nourished by my sister-in-law’s turkey and stuffing as well as everyone’s stories and laughter. Our faith and gratitude this year are coupled with suffering and sadness. A year ago Dad was carving the turkey and telling the stories. He suffered two strokes this past year and is now weakened and unable to say what’s on his mind. Today he will listen and tire early. We’ll drive him home and laugh some more, letting him know how thankful we are for the rich way he continues to fill our lives.


* Thanks to Marianne, my traveling and feasting partner that Thanksgiving Day, for correcting my spelling of Ann’s last name. I’ve updated it from the first version.

Staring down the Blank Page

Nothing scares me more than a blank Word document. I stare at it and await the perfect opening sentence, an idea visualized in metaphor and punctated with a singing verb. I start typing, only to end with my favorite key – the Backspace button. I hold it down until I’m back where I began, staring at empty space.

Craig, on the other hand, feverishly fills the screen with the images playing in his head. His words carry me along effortlessly long before I realize I have no idea what he’s talking about. But who cares? He writes the right way, like all the books preach. He gets it down. He keeps his pen (or fingers) moving. He turns off the critic and writes from the other side of his brain. He imagines a scene small enough to fit into a one-inch picture frame.

Me? I do it all wrong. I can’t move on to the second sentence until I have some degree of satisfaction with the first. At writing workshops, when everyone’s pens move and pages turn, I’m paralyzed by my few flat sentences.

I spent years wondering what was wrong with me. Until I read Harold Fickett’s essay “Gushers and Bleeders: On Getting Started” in A Syllable of Water: 20 Writers of Faith Reflect on their Art. It turns out Craig’s a gusher and I’m a bleeder. Gushers produce prose “like a Mississippi River without banks.” They have an easy time on the front end creating their art but a difficult time on the back end editing it. We bleeders, on the other hand, “are painfully slow at composition … rather like trying to force kielbasa through cheesecloth.” But once we get things down, we’re eager to clean them up … and maybe the first draft is already somewhat coherent.

I feel validated that my condition has a name. Even better, I’m in very good company. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth is a bleeder, or at least his character in Ghost Writer is. I have the following quote from the novel hanging in my office, tucked in my purse and stored in two places on both my home and work computers. It gives me that much comfort.

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and I write another sentence. Then I have tea and I turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”

I had hoped to post this piece on Tuesday. Then I kept turning the sentences around (I also worked late all week and read a mediocre novel for my book group). This time, however, I’m hitting Publish. Then I think I’ll need to lie down.

Wave of Optimism

I walked to the polls today just before sunrise. Along the way I passed:

  • A hawk perched on a high branch in the undeveloped field along the highway
  • Flocks of birds swooping over the field and calling louder than the traffic driving by
  • The American flag flying at the Post Office
  • An ode to American consumerism: a Public Storage facility
  • The recently dedicated memorial to 9/11 – a beam pulled from the wreckage of the Twin Towers – outside my destination, the Overland Park Fire Training Center

I was reminded of the suffering caused by the terrorists 11 years ago as well as the storm last week, and I carried the pain with me into the building. I also carried other markers I’d collected on my walk: the wonder of the hawk, the honor of the flag and a confidence in the resiliency of our nation and its people. I was ready to vote.

I still had my optimism when I emerged 30 minutes later, the sun now up. I walked under a canopy of maple trees, the fiery red leaves still clinging to their branches. I stopped at a yard strewn with golden redbud leaves and stopped to pick up one of the heart-shaped leaves. Four flags along my street waved me home.

As I left for work a little later, I got a text from my youngest daughter, Jessie, that simply said: “I voted!!” It was her first time. I texted back my congratulations and remembered my first vote for a U.S. president: Jimmy Carter in 1976. Today’s presidential selection is my 10th. I’ve chosen more losers than winners (5-4) and tonight will learn if I’m hitting .500. I’ll be sad if my candidate loses, but not devastated. The flags will still be flying when I make the walk four years from now.

Don’t Should on Yourself

You know you should:

  • Eat your veggies.
  • Exercise.
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle.
  • Compost.
  • Carpool.
  • Buy fair trade products.
  • Buy American.
  • Buy local.
  • Buy less and simplify your life.
  • Buy more and stimulate the economy.
  • Eat organic.
  • Call your mother.
  • Write your thank-you notes.
  • Stay off Facebook at work.
  • Feed the hungry.
  • Help the needy.
  • Floss.
  • Invite a hurting friend over for coffee.
  • Let go of your kids.
  • Stay connected with your kids.
  • Love your neighbor, or at least take time to know them.
  • Work hard.
  • Relax more.

I could keep going, but won’t. The point is: Being a good – never mind perfect – wife, mother, daughter, woman, neighbor, friend, worker, citizen and Christian can overwhelm me. I fall short on every bullet point and can easily let guilt shoot me down. Even though I know I shouldn’t. So Craig and I have borrowed a line from writer Brennan Manning, who borrowed it from a nun he knows: “Don’t should on yourself.” We want to stop making excuses and beating ourselves up for every oversight or misstep.

But what should replace the shoulds? I don’t want to give up on living better, more justly and more lovingly. I just want to lift the burden that weighs me down and builds resentment. I need a new perspective, one that forgets about being dutiful, one that embraces gratitude. I don’t have to eat healthy food; I get to. I don’t have to help others; I get to. I don’t have to work; I get to. Not everybody has these riches I take for granted.

I am a middle-class American. I get to live in freedom. I get to choose. Tomorrow I get to vote. You get to as well, and I hope you will.

The choice is yours.